On a weekly basis we sinners confess our transgressions before the God who has forgiven us through Jesus Christ. We live our lives in this age in anticipation of being raised to new life on that still-to-come seventh day. In this life in the meantime, when we gather to worship on each Lord’s day, we reenact liturgically the promise of redemption to which we look forward with hope, confident that healing will come with the sabbath.
The Gospels record seven instances of Jesus healing someone on the sabbath day.
The three Synoptic Gospels tell of his healing a man with a withered hand (Matt 12:9–13; Mark 3:1–6; Luke 6:6–11). All three again relate the very brief story of his healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever (Matt 8:14–15; Mark 1:29–31; Luke 4:38–39). Two Gospels tell of Jesus casting an “unclean spirit,” or demon, out of a man (Mark 1:21–28; Luke 4:31–37). Luke alone relates the stories of Jesus curing a woman with “a spirit of infirmity” (13:10–17) and a man with dropsy (14:1–6). Finally, the Gospel of John relates two occasions when Jesus healed on the sabbath: the sick man at the pool of Bethzatha (5:1–18) and the man who had been born blind (9:1–41).
Each of these occasions saw Jesus incurring the wrath of the Jewish religious leaders because he had apparently violated the Torah’s prohibition against working on the seventh day (Exod 20:8–11; Deut 5:12–15). As the indignant ruler of one of the synagogues put it, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). The story continues with Jesus’ response:
You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day? (13:15–16)
This reply put the people to shame, we are told, yet it only stiffened the resolve of the authorities to put an end to Jesus’ ministry.
How shall we interpret Jesus’ actions? Was he deliberately healing on the sabbath to make a point? And, if so, what was that point? Might Jesus have been underscoring the negative effects of legalism?
There is something to this. After all, Paul wrote, “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5). And, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath” (Col 2:16). In his letters to the believers of Rome and Colossae, Paul appears to relativize the importance of sabbath-keeping, along with other observances to which the ancient Jews were accustomed.
The notion that Jesus was combating legalism is one that we are likely to find deeply attractive, given the dominant metanarrative of expressive individualism to which Charles Taylor and others have called our attention. Enforcing the letter of the law may conflict with the spirit of the law, an insight that we find as early as Plato, who for that reason preferred the rule of the virtuous to the rule of law. We need not go that far, of course, to recognize that the law needs to be tempered by mercy and the good judgement that often comes of long personal experience.
Nevertheless, we ought not to assume that the principle of sabbath rest has been abrogated. Indeed, its importance can scarcely be overemphasized for the larger biblical redemptive story. In Genesis 2:2–3 we read that God rested on the seventh day after he had made heaven and earth, including his human image, the capstone of creation.