As the sun sets on Saturday, how do you know you haven’t desecrated the Sabbath? I’ve asked some of my fellow church members this question from time to time and almost without exception, I’ve been given a list of deeds done and a longer list of things not done. I’ve found that bewildering because the same folks have viewed some of the Pharisee’s Sabbath rules with no small amount of amusement. The only reason that seems to plausibly explain this to me is that to most minds, Jesus wasn’t against the Sabbath having rules but was against the Pharisee’s particular set of rules. If that is the case, then we have missed the bus totally.
To top off his tirade against the leaders dismayed by his “Sabbath breaking” disciples, Jesus pointed the Pharisees to the text, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” (Matt 12:7 NIV). In Hosea 6:6, where these words are taken from, the concept is further developed to show that God hungers for acknowledgement rather than burnt offerings. Jesus was revealing to the Pharisees that their failure to appreciate what He and his disciples were doing on the Sabbath was due to their failure to understand what it was that God wanted from them.
While God wanted a relationship, the Pharisees were more interested in a transaction. For them, Salvation was a business deal with God but Jesus came to reveal a God who hungered for a relationship with his people. When God gave the Sabbath rules at Sinai, He was spelling things out to ex-slaves who didn’t know any better. However, the Sabbath did not originate at Sinai, it came at the end of Creation week and the beginning of human existence. The first full day that humanity spent on earth was a celebration of creation. The Sabbath was also the first day of Adam and Eve’s honeymoon. There is no mention of rules on that first Sabbath for a reason – it wasn’t about rules, it was about Adam and Eve accepting God’s invitation to join in His rest, meaning, relationship.
This relationship was broken but Jesus came to repair it. Here, as he quoted Hosea 6:6, he inexorably linked the Sabbath to this ministry of reconciliation and restoration. The disciples were in fellowship with Jesus as they “harvested”, “threshed” and ate wheat. This is the Messiah’s Sabbath. The Sabbath of the new Israel in which there is no longer a need for rules governing observance but an attitude in each heart driving the repentant sinner to the Father’s embrace. Micah 6:6-8 dramatises this attitude with the persona asking himself what he will offer God. After going through various options, he declares,
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NIV)
Jesus reveals this attitude when in Matthew 12:9-14, he figures a man is worth far more than a cow or donkey and heals him while pious Pharisees plot to kill him. What a contrast! On one hand, a seemingly lawless man values life and seeks to improve it because it is right to do good on Sabbath while on the other hand, pious men plot murder. Obviously, they are clueless about the Sabbath.
As the sun sets on Saturday, how do you know you kept it? Did you hunger for relationship and fellowship with God? Did you accept His invitation to enter His rest? Did you creatively find a way to be merciful to God’s creatures? Did you value and celebrate life? Or were you obsessed with rules?