Today’s Passage: Matthew 12:1-30
Ah, the weekend. The light at the end of the tunnel. The hiatus we all long for during the five days of psets, midterms, and papers that precede it. There’s nothing like stepping out of your last class on Friday and knowing that for a glorious 48 hours you can do whatever you want.
Well, sort of. Of course, there’s always that problem set due on Monday morning, or that midterm you could get ahead on studying for. With free time comes the burden of having to choose between a million different tasks to catch up on, and other efforts that might make the coming the week easier. The weekend was meant for rest, so why does it sometimes feel like it’s the least restful part of the week?
The Sabbath is often talked about in Christian circles, and yet we often miss the depth of its significance. It is indeed a day of rest and the day when many go to church, but that’s not all. The theology of the Sabbath- God’s design for rest and its role in the metanarrative of Scripture- points directly to the greater truths of the gospel and our purpose as believers.
One of the most known passages regarding the Sabbath is Exodus 20, when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, ESV), is God’s official order to rest. Its position within the commandments is especially important; it occurs between the first three commandments, which focus on our “vertical relationship” with God, and the last six, which focus on our “horizontal” relationship with others. Basically, the commandment to observe the Sabbath connects our deeply personal relationship with Christ to our external relationships with those around us.
How exactly does the Sabbath form this connection? In Matthew 12, Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for picking grain on the Sabbath. In the discussion that ensues, Jesus says to his critics, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt 12:6, ESV). Here, Jesus is relating the Sabbath to the core of the Gospel: the rest we experience on the Sabbath is a mere taste of the rest we have through Christ, our relief from constantly striving towards Salvation. The Sabbath has greater significance than the ceremonial traditions of the temple and the laws of Israel. When we worship, take communion, and relax on Sunday, we should be reminded of and revel in the ultimate rest in Christ, in the fundamentals of the gospel, and the glory of our personal relationship with Jesus.
It is this gospel, this enduring rest from spiritual striving, that compels us to live rightly with others by loving and serving those in need. The gift of Salvation carries rich implications regarding our God-given value as humans made in the image of God, the Holy Spirit’s work to make us like Christ, and our assurance of the restoration of creation. These truths are too good to be kept inside; they are meant to be shared. As Christ demonstrates in Matthew 12, the main way we can share the gospel is by living it out, by loving and serving others as God has loved us. When Jesus heals a man with a crippled hand, he is again criticized by the Pharisees for “working” on the Sabbath, but Jesus reprimands them for their legalism and tells them that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 23:11-12, ESV). The Sabbath is a time to live out the truths of the gospel in love and service, to share through action the eternal rest that we receive from Christ’s death and resurrection.
Therefore, the Sabbath connects our relationship with God to our relationships with others by reminding us of the ultimate rest found in Jesus, and providing time to act on such Good News. It is a day to be established and grounded vertically in order that we might live to love horizontally. It is a time to remember our identity as a people redeemed by Christ and our purpose as bearers of His gospel truth.
The Sabbath has served this purpose since the dawn of time. God Himself was the first to rest after the work of creating the universe, and in doing so He made it a part of His created order. The reason the Sabbath shows up in the Ten Commandments is because the fall of creation (when sin entered the world) made it impossible for us to live perfectly in that created order. Instead of gladly observing the Sabbath, we are tempted to use it to get more done and to work towards worldly success. God established the Sabbath in His law so that we would not forget it. Thus, we have a moral obligation to understand and observe it. In keeping the Sabbath as it was intended– by using it as a time to remember and live out the gospel– the church is strengthened, the needs of the world are addressed, and God is glorified. In sum, the Sabbath plays a crucial role in God’s restorative work.
The Sabbath is therefore a permanent fixture in the “metanarrative” of God’s plan– the overarching story of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration of the world. It is critical to God’s design for our lives and for the entire universe.
It is likely because of this importance that the Sabbath became a cause for legalism in the lives of the Pharisees in Matthew 12. In their efforts to observe a commandment of such significance, the religious leaders of Jesus’ time went overboard, shaming those who did not follow the commandment literally. Their legalism changed the Sabbath into a time of judgment and self-righteousness rather than a time of rest in God’s grace.
How, then, should we modern day believers observe the Sabbath? Clearly, the fourth commandment is not one to be taken lightly, nor treated legalistically. Both extremes– apathy and legalism– are not what God intended. In my time as a freshman at Harvard, this question has nagged me every weekend. And while I am still figuring out how it will look in my weekly life, I believe that God wants me to embrace the spirit of the law, or His wider purpose and motivation for creating the Sabbath in the first place. It is a law that was created for our good and His glory, and so it will look different depending on the individual. Observance doesn’t have to be on Sunday, nor does it mean we can’t do any work at all. It simply means that we do exactly what Jesus demonstrates in Matthew 12:1-30– that we relax with the purpose of remembering the eternal rest we have in Christ and that we set apart time to love and do good. This Lent, let us seek to better understand and observe the Sabbath. For while the week’s looming deadlines may seem more pressing than an old commandment written in stone, true Sabbath rest leads to rewards that are invaluable, even eternal.
Ana Yee ’21 is a freshman in Hollis Hall.