Sabbath Day Controversies

Sabbath Day Controversies copy

We have seen in the Gospel of John that Jesus and the Pharisees were continually in conflict over the question of the Sabbath.

1. Sabbath Day Controversies

1.1.     Jesus Heals the Lame at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5)

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In John 5, for example, Jesus found a man at the pool of Bethesda who had been paralyzed for 38 years. “Get up, take up your mat, and walk,” Jesus told the man. And that’s what the man did. He got up, took up his mat, and walked for the first time in 38 years.

Now that should have been tremendous news. That should have made people rejoice and glorify God. But there was just one problem. It was the Sabbath. The Pharisees were upset! They were upset first because they saw the man carrying his mat on the Sabbath:

They said to the man who was cured, “You can’t work on the Sabbath! The law doesn’t allow you to carry that sleeping mat!” (Joh 5:10 NLT)

But Jesus had told him to do it! And the healed man told the Pharisees that he was only doing what he had been told:

John 5:11 NLT … “The man who healed me told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.'”

Ah, so it’s not only that this man was carrying his mat, but that Jesus had healed him on the Sabbath.

Here’s the issue: the Pharisees had one interpretation of the Sabbath and Jesus had another. The Pharisees thought that the man was sinning by carrying his mat on the Sabbath. But Jesus had told him to do just that. The Pharisees thought that Jesus was guilty of sin for healing a man—doing a work— on the Sabbath. You have the Pharisees on one side of the issue and Jesus on the other.

Jesus himself talks about this conflict in John 7:

John 7:21-24 ESV Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. 22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? 24 Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

Notice what Jesus says. The Pharisees were angry with him because on the Sabbath he had healed a man. Then he tells them, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

Jesus is telling them that their emphasis on the Sabbath is an emphasis on appearances. They have missed the point. They have misunderstood the Sabbath. They are judging Jesus for having healed the man on the Sabbath, but their judgment is false. They are in error.

1.2.     Jesus Heals the Man Blind from Birth (John 9)

Next we come to John 9 where Jesus heals the man who was blind from birth. Once again, Jesus is doing his work on the Sabbath.

John 9:16 NLT Some of the Pharisees said, “This man Jesus is not from God, for he is working on the Sabbath.”…

A few verses later (v. 24) the Pharisees declare that Jesus is a sinner, but the man born blind has come to see that Jesus has come from God and is doing the will of God (v. 31-33) even though he has done this work on the Sabbath.

1.3.     Jesus’ Disciples Pick Grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12)

We find this same conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities in the other Gospels. In Matthew 12,

Matthew 12:1-2 NLT … Jesus was walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they began breaking off some heads of grain and eating them. 2 But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, “Look, your disciples are breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.”

Do you notice that it is the judgmental Pharisees who are in conflict with Jesus and his disciples over the Sabbath? They are on one side of the question and Jesus and his disciples are on the other side of it. The disciples were breaking off some heads of grain and eating them. “You can’t do that!” the Pharisee protested. “It’s the Sabbath!”

Jesus told him to cool it.

Matthew 12:3-7 NLT … “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. 5 And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? 6 I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! 7 But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’

Jesus says that their legalistic approach is wrong. God calls us to show mercy: “You would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’”

These legalists, the Pharisees, had not understood the Scriptures. They were insisting on the letter of the Law. They were insisting on outward conformity. They were insisting on appearances. But they had failed to understand the intention of the Scriptures. Mark tells us,

Mark 2:27 NLT Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.

Then Jesus declared that he was the Lord of the Sabbath:

Matthew 12:8 NLT For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

Jesus as Lord has the right to tell us the meaning of the Sabbath.

1.4.     Jesus Heals the Man with a Deformed Hand (Matthew 12:10-14)

In the next verses of Matthew 12, Jesus goes to the synagogue where he notices a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees were watching Jesus to see if he would heal the man on the sabbath.

Matthew 12:10 NLT … The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)

Do you see their attitude? These Sabbatarian legalists were looking for something in order to accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath.

Matthew 12:11-14 NLT And he answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. 12 And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one! 14 Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus.

These legalists—these Pharisees—fail to understand the meaning of the Sabbath. They are concerned only about appearances. They show no mercy to the person who needs help on the Sabbath. And because Jesus does not conform to their interpretation of the Sabbath, they plot to kill him!

1.5.     Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-18)

We read in Luke 13:10-16 (NLT),

One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, 11 he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!” 13 Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God! 14 But the leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.” 15 But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? 16 This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?”

1.6.     Jesus Heals a Man of Dropsy (Luke 14:1-6)

On another occasion, a Sabbath day, Jesus was having dinner in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Everyone was watching Jesus closely because there was a man there whose arms and legs were swollen by a disease called dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in religious law, “Is it permitted in the law to heal people on the Sabbath day, or not?” but they refused to answer him. So Jesus touched the sick man and healed him and sent him on his way.

Luke 14:5-6 NLT Then he turned to them and said, “Which of you doesn’t work on the Sabbath? If your son or your cow falls into a pit, don’t you rush to get him out?” 6 Again they could not answer.

“Jesus consciously chose the Sabbath day to perform some of His most extraordinary miracles”[1] for three reasons:

  1. To show that He is Lord of the Sabbath.

Mark 2:28 ESV So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

  1. To expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

Mark 7:6-7 ESV And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

  1. To show the real reason for the Sabbath.

Mark 2:27 ESV And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

So we see that Jesus was constantly in conflict with the Pharisees over the question of the Sabbath. They insisted on a strict observance of the Sabbath according to their interpretation. Jesus insisted that their interpretation was wrong.


 2. Different Interpretations Cannot All Be Right

Jesus was in conflict with the religious authorities not only about the Sabbath, but also about the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus shows that the Pharisees had repeatedly misunderstood the meaning of the Old Testament Law. The Pharisees focussed on appearances. They stressed outward conformity to the Law but had missed the intention of the Law. The Pharisees were careful to tithe on everything they received. They fasted twice a week. They were diligent to observe the Sabbath and had added 39 Sabbath rules to the Law to make sure that no one broke it, but they had miserably failed to understand the purpose of the Law. The Pharisees believed that they were righteous, but Jesus said that their righteousness was not enough:

Matthew 5:20 ESV For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Then Jesus gives six examples of how they had misinterpreted the Scriptures.

2.1.     Murder

Matthew 5:21-22 NLT “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.

Because the Pharisees had not murdered anyone—though they were plotting to kill Jesus!—they thought they were righteous. Jesus said that we must not have murder in our hearts: we must not be angry with someone, insult them, or curse them. We must not murder with our words or our looks.

2.2.     Adultery

Matthew 5:27-28 NLT “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It is not enough to avoid the act; you must avoid the desire. Thank God for the anti-pornography laws in this country, but with the Internet, pornography is a click away. You must flee from it. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

2.3.     Divorce

Matthew 5:31 NLT “You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’

How considerate! Give her a certificate of divorce so she’ll be free to remarry. No, Jesus says. You are causing her to commit adultery by remarrying, and whoever marries her commits adultery. Jesus takes us back to the beginning when God created male and female and says, “What God has put together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6).

2.4.     Vows

Matthew 5:33 NLT “You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the LORD.’

Jesus tells us that we should not make vows; we should simply always tell the truth. We must be people of our word.

2.5.     Justice

Matthew 5:38 ESV “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

Jesus tells them that they have missed the point. This is not about vengeance or getting even. This Old Testament word is not addressed to individuals but to the system of justice. Punishment should be meted out according to the crime. But as for us as individuals, we are not to seek revenge.

2.6.     How to Treat Your Enemies

Matthew 5:43-44 ESV “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

The Law never said to hate your enemy, but that is how the Pharisees had misinterpreted it.

2.7.     The Pharisees had the Law, but they had misinterpreted it.

  • No murder, but it’s okay to hate, insult, and curse someone.
  • No adultery, but it doesn’t hurt to look.
  • Tired of your wife? Give her a piece of paper so you can marry the woman you want.
  • If you made a vow, you’ll have to honor it. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what you said.
  • Someone hurt you? Hurt them back.
  • Got an enemy? It’s okay to hate. Just love those who love you.

That’s how the Pharisees had interpreted the Law. They had missed it completely.

2.8.     Selective Obedience

  1. T. Kendall points out, “It is interesting to note that the greatest enemies of Jesus were strict Sabbatarians. [Jesus’ greatest enemies were people who insisted on keeping the Sabbath.] The probable reasons for this were because one could keep the Sabbath and feel good about oneself; it did not require any change of heart, and it was also a way of making one feel righteous.”[2]

The Pharisees picked and chose the commandments that they would obey. Sabbath keeping made them feel good about themselves, but they were merely self-righteous.

Jesus confronts them about their selective obedience in Matthew 15:

Matthew 15:1-9 NLT Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” 3 Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? 4 For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ 6 In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, 8 ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.'”


3. Where Did the Sabbath Come From?

3.1.     The Institution of the Sabbath

So let’s look at this question of the Sabbath. Where did the Sabbath come from?

Some people teach that there has always been a Sabbath. But that is not what the Bible reveals. The first time the Sabbath is mentioned in the Bible is in Exodus 16:23, some 2,500 years after the creation of the heavens and the earth. God created everything that exists in six days and rested the seventh day, but He did not give the Sabbath to man until He brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. We read in…

Genesis 2:15 ESV The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

God gave Adam work to do, but there is no mention of resting on the seventh day. When Adam and Eve sinned and were expelled from the Garden of Eden,

Genesis 3:23 ESV … the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

Again, there is no mention of a Sabbath.

Cain is called “a worker of the ground” (Genesis 4:2). There is no mention of a Sabbath for Noah, Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, he worked (Genesis 39:11). The whole nation of Israel became slaves in Egypt:

Exodus 1:13-14 NLT So the Egyptians worked the people of Israel without mercy. 14 They made their lives bitter, forcing them to mix mortar and make bricks and do all the work in the fields. They were ruthless in all their demands.

God raised up Moses and Aaron.

Exodus 5:1 NLT …[They] went and spoke to Pharaoh. They told him, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go so they may hold a festival in my honor in the wilderness.”

Instead, Pharaoh increased the work that the Israelites had to do. They would no longer be supplied with straw but would have to first find it for themselves and then make the same number of bricks. There was no Sabbath. There was no rest.

The word “Sabbath” is not mentioned in Scripture until after God had delivered the Israelites from Egypt. The first time the word “Sabbath” is mentioned in the Bible is when the Israelites are in the wilderness. All they had known for 400 years of slavery in Egypt was work, day after day after day, with no rest, no Sabbath. God had not yet given the Sabbath.

Now the Israelites have been delivered from Egypt by the power of God. They have crossed the Red Sea as on dry ground. They find themselves in the wilderness with nothing to eat. But when they wake up in the morning, the ground is covered with something to eat. “Manna?” they say. Manna means, “What is it?” It was bread from heaven. And with the manna, God gives them the Sabbath. They will gather the manna every day for six days, but the seventh day will be a Sabbath:

Exodus 16:29 ESV See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.”

This is the beginning of the Sabbath for man. The foundation for the Sabbath is found in God’s work in creation: God “worked” for six days and on the seventh day He rested. But the very first mention of the word “Sabbath” is in Exodus 16 when God gives the Sabbath to the Israelites: “See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath…”

3.2.     The Meaning of the Sabbath

What is the meaning of the Sabbath? The first thing that is evident is that the Sabbath has something to do with work. Time and again the Israelites are told that they are to do no work on the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments:

Exodus 20:9-11 ESV Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

No work. We repeatedly find this emphasis on not doing any work on the Sabbath.

But why no work? Why does God establish one day in seven for the Israelites as a day when no work is to be done? What is the meaning of this day when no work is to be done? Exodus 31:13 tells us that the Sabbath is a sign.

Exodus 31:13 NIVO “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.

The Sabbath is a sign. A sign signifies something. God is teaching the Israelites something through the sign of the Sabbath: “This will be a sign… so you may know that I am the LORD who makes you holy.” No work: the LORD makes us holy.

The Sabbath was a weekly sign that salvation is not our work; it is God’s work. It was God that saved the Israelites from Egypt. Standing before the Red Sea,

Exodus 14:13 ESV …Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.

God is our Savior. He does the work. The Sabbath was a weekly sign that salvation is not our work; it is God’s work. He is the one who sanctifies us. We cannot save ourselves.

Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

3.3.     The Perversion of the Sabbath

But what happens if you make the Sabbath a work? What happens if we begin to believe that what God really wants from us is Sabbath day observance? What happens if we begin to think that God’s primary intention is that we be Sabbath keepers?

This is what happens: the message of the Sabbath is perverted. The message of the Sabbath was “no work.” Salvation is not our work; it is God’s work. But we have changed the message. We have made the Sabbath a work to be done when the message of the Sabbath is really “no work.” We have put our trust in our keeping of the Sabbath. We have begun to think that keeping the Sabbath will save us.

If someone tells you that you must keep the Sabbath to be saved, he is preaching a different gospel than the gospel that was preached in the New Testament. If someone tells you that you must worship on Saturday and not Sunday, that person is living under the curse of the Law and not under the freedom of the gospel.

Galatians 3:10-11 NLT But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.” 11 So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”


4. The Sabbath in the New Testament

We have already seen that Jesus and the Pharisees were continuously in conflict over the interpretation of the Sabbath. It is worth noting that in the New Testament, Christians are never told to keep the Sabbath.

Matthew 19:16 NLT Someone came to Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus told him to keep the commandments.

Matthew 19:18-19 NLT “Which ones?” the man asked. And Jesus replied: “‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. 19 Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Jesus did not tell him to keep the Sabbath.

Paul quotes from the Ten Commandments, but does not mention the Sabbath:

Romans 13:9-10 ESV For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

James also quotes from the Ten Commandments:

James 2:8-11 ESV If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

But again, there is no mention of the Sabbath. “What is never once mentioned or even implied: the fourth commandment. Is it not strange that it is not even quoted? Must there not be a reason for this?”[3]

4.1.     The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the beginning of a new creation. It was not on the last day of the week that Christ was raised from the dead, but the first day. All four Gospels point to the fact that Christ was raised the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). He appeared that first Resurrection Day to the disciples who had gathered together in the upper room. He appeared to them again, this time with Thomas, on the next Resurrection Day, eight days later (John 20:26).

The first 12 chapters of Acts concern the growth of the church in Israel, but the Sabbath is not even mentioned. The Sabbath is mentioned in Paul’s missionary journeys because Paul went first to the Jews, and the Jews worshipped on the Sabbath. But the Christians had already begun to worship on the first day of the week.

4.2.     The First Day of the Week

In Acts 20, Paul is in a hurry to get to Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost (20:16). But when he arrives in Troas, he stayed for seven days (20:6). What was he waiting for? He waiting for the first day of the week:

Acts 20:7 ESV On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.

Notice that it was the first day of the week that the church was gathered together to break bread, in other words, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Paul delayed his departure for Jerusalem so that he could meet with the church that gathered together on the first day of the week, not on the Sabbath.

Again, in 1 Corinthians 16, we see that the believers met together to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week.

1 Corinthians 16:2 ESV On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.

Paul is not simply telling the believers to be systematic in their saving up an offering for the saints at Jerusalem, otherwise he could tell them to put something aside each week without telling them what day of the week to put something aside. Paul is telling them to put aside a porting of the money they have earned “on the first day of every week” because that was the day that the church met.

4.3.     The Lord’s Day

In Revelation 1:10, the Apostle John says,

Revelation 1:10 ESV I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…

The first day of the week became known as “the Lord’s Day.” It was the Lord’s Day because it was the day that the Lord was raised from the dead. Worshiping the Lord on the Lord’s Day became the practice of the early church as the writings of the early church fathers clearly demonstrate.


Concluding Remarks

We have run out of time today, but let me conclude in saying first, that the message of the Sabbath is “no work.” Why no work? Because our works will never save us.

Ephesians 2:8-9 NIVO For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

The Sabbath is a sign:

Exodus 31:13 NIVO “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.

If we turn the Sabbath into a work that we must do, we pervert the Sabbath.

Second, the resurrection of Christ began the new creation. The resurrection of Christ changes everything. The early church began celebrating the resurrection of Christ the first day of the week, “the Lord’s Day.”

[1] R. T. Kendall, Grace, p. 115.

[2] R. T. Kendall, Grace, p. 114.

[3] R. T. Kendall, Grace, p. 118.

See also “Seventh Day Adventism“:


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