What did Jesus teach about the Sabbath? Something shifted tremendously in how people followed God after Jesus walked our planet. Although the roots of the Christian faith are in Judaism, the way that modern Christians keep Sabbath, or don’t, looks quite different from the way ancient Jews did. Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. But really, that fulfillment changed a lot about how people lived out their faith.
Even when Jesus walked the earth, people were aware that he was shaking things up.
The gospel writers often tell us that people marveled at Jesus’ teaching because he spoke with “authority.”
Commenting on the rabbinic tradition and this idea of authority, pastor and author Rob Bell writes, “Different rabbis had different sets of rules, which were really different lists of what they forbade and what they permitted. A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi’s yoke. A rabbi’s followers believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended through the Scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.”
Bell continues, “Most rabbis taught the yoke of a rabbi who had come before them. … Every once in a while, a rabbi would come along who was teaching a new yoke, a new way of interpreting the Torah. This was rare and extraordinary.”
So Jesus offered this new yoke, which he claimed is easy. But in a way, it seems harder. He often began with “you’ve heard it said” and cited the Old Testament law. Then he followed with “but I say to you.” For example, he said, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ But I say, ‘If you look at a woman with lust, you’ve already slept with her’” (Matt. 5:27–28, my paraphrase). And, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Don’t murder.’ But if you call someone a fool or hate them, you’ve killed them” (Matt. 5:21–22).
His teaching encouraged people to hold to a higher standard than mere legalism but also helped them to realize that keeping the law perfectly is an impossible proposition.
Examining ourselves in light of the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, points us to our desperate need for grace. Jesus exhorted his listeners to examine their hearts, their attitudes, as well as their actions. He challenged his listeners to bring outward practice and inner reality into alignment. This again directed his most attentive listeners toward grace, not more careful legalism.
Here’s what I’ve noticed, though. Jesus never used the “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you” formula to discuss Sabbath. He didn’t, for example, say, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Keep the Sabbath holy.’ But I say …” And he definitely never said, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Keep the Sabbath on the seventh day,’ but I tell you, ‘Switch it to the first day.’” Why is that?
Jesus did criticize the Pharisees for piling rules onto the people, burdening them with lists of what they couldn’t do, not just on Sabbath but in regard to all sorts of regulations and man-made traditions. He accused them of valuing their traditions over the law, saying, “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition,” and quoted Isaiah 29:3 to condemn them (see Matt. 15:1–20). He said the Pharisees burdened people with rules (Luke 11:46).
While he didn’t use his “you’ve heard it said, but I say” formula to teach about Sabbath, he did find all sorts of teachable moments to instruct his followers, and his critics, about Sabbath. Usually this happened when he defended his choices to heal people, cast out demons, or engage in other questionable activities on the Sabbath. Not surprisingly, he focused on aligning our hearts with our actions.
He did say, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” And he claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath. But what does that mean? Does it set us free only from the ceremonial aspects of the law, or from the law entirely?
The thing Jesus seemed to get in trouble for most was breaking the Sabbath, at least in the eyes of the legalists of his day. They watched him closely, seemingly in hopes he would slip up and break the rules, although he hardly seemed interested in hiding his actions from them. In fact, he tried over and over to teach them about the heart of Sabbath, asking, “Don’t you on the Sabbath untie your donkey and let him have a drink, or pull your sheep out of a pit?” to point out that compassion is never against God’s rules (see Luke 13:15; Matt. 12:11).
Norman Wirzba writes, “Jesus does not obliterate Sabbath teaching but reframes it so that we can see once again, with renewed emphasis, what creation’s ultimate meaning is.”
Jesus came to die for us, but also to live for us, to show us how to live. He modeled spiritual practices like solitude, prayer, and compassion. If you are someone’s disciple, you try to emulate them, try to live as they would. And Jesus kept Sabbath. Not in the way his culture expected, perhaps. He exercised great freedom. If we are his disciples, we will take on his yoke. We will live in this life-giving rhythm of work and rest. Jesus kept Sabbath in a new way, a way that shook things up. As his disciples, we can keep Sabbath too. And apparently we’re free to shake things up as well.
Keri Wyatt Kent is a speaker and author of seven books, including Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity, from which this column is adapted.