The “Our Heritage” article for this issue and the next, God willing, will be taken from the pen of our beloved Brother John Carter. He wrote a pamphlet entitled “Saturday or Sunday?” in which he reviewed the Bible’s teaching on this subject from the time when the Law of Moses was given until the apostolic era and our day and age. Of particular interest is his exposition of how the lessons of the Sabbath found full meaning in Jesus “himself and in the blessings he brings now and in the future”. Readers are encouraged to carefully read these words with Bible and marking pen in hand. There will be much profit (Ed).

Jesus performed many miracles, but the gospels appear to attach a particular importance to those which he did on the sabbath day. Attention is drawn to the fact that the day of the miracle was the sabbath, and also that this use of the sabbath led to much controversy and bitterness. So strong was the resentment at his violation, as they thought, of the sabbath that immediately after the first sabbath miracle the Pharisees took counsel against Jesus seeking how they might destroy him. Yet Jesus repeated the offence many times. In this persistent choice of the sabbath as the day on which to perform a miracle we have something that calls for enquiry. We must also ask, whether Jesus merely opposed the narrow traditionalism which made the day a burden, or whether his act struck at something deeper. Was he, in fact, by his action annulling the law of sabbath observance? If such was his intention then the fact is of vital importance and the reason for it must be sought.

Before looking briefly at the five occasions of sabbath healing, we must first notice the context in Mark’s gospel. Mark and Matthew both record the plucking of corn by the disciples in connection with the healing of the man with a withered hand. But Mark in addition associates with it an answer on fasting and the parables of the patched cloth and the new wine (Mark 2:16–28). Jesus put aside the idea of fasting as inappropriate, so long as he was with his disciples—the presence of a bridegroom was an occasion for joy. They would fast after his departure, but it would be because he was away, and not as a religious exercise. He enforced his setting aside of fasting as a duty by the story of the patched cloth. As it was impossible to repair an old garment by a new piece, so he could not attach his teaching to the practices of Judaism. He therefore was instructing chosen men to preach his doctrines, for new wine could not be put in old bottles and the teachers of the Jewish way of life could not be expected to proclaim his word. His teaching was incompatible with Judaism, and so could not repair it; it was like new wine which needed new teachers to set it forth. This leads on to the cornfield incident, which with the healing incident form a connected group.

The Cornfield Discussion

The account of the healing occupies Matthew12:10–13, but it was the climax of the discussion which had immediately preceded it. On the sabbath Jesus and his disciples went through a cornfield. The law of Moses permitted men to pluck and eat ears of corn under such circumstances (Deut 23:25); but the tradition of the elders had forbidden it on the sabbath, since plucking the corn and rubbing it in the hands to remove the husk was regarded as reaping and winnowing, acts which were forbidden on a sabbath. The Pharisees drew the attention of Jesus to the action of his disciples; they were doing that which it was not lawful to do on the sabbath day. In answer Jesus cited two precedents from the divine record. David had eaten the shewbread, and those with him had shared; yet the law reserved the shewbread for the priests alone. Even the priests themselves on every sabbath performed the temple services, working on the sabbath, and yet were blameless. They found no fault with David, and they would quickly have justified the action of the priests. Here, then, were two illustrations where some higher consideration took precedence over the sabbath law. David was the Lord’s anointed and his companions shared in his priority over the shewbread law: and the priests’ activities showed that the temple ordinances had precedence over the sabbath restrictions. How did these considerations bear upon his exoneration of his disciples from blame? Must it not be that both shewbread and sabbath were part of a ritual system that was typical only and which must give place to the realities they foreshadowed? The temple was God’s dwelling place in their midst, but only as an instrument designed for the worship of God. It was needful there should be regulations to fit it for such a purpose, but what mattered more was that the worshippers should be fit abodes of God. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had spoken of his body as the temple of the living God. He was the real counterpart of the temple. Jesus points to this fact in his answer in which he draws the lesson he would have them learn from the two exceptions he had cited: “But I say unto you that in this place is one greater than the temple”. His position and work therefore superseded the sabbath. Let us trace out his thought more fully.

The temple itself was a part of the instruction that the Law imparted to Israel: it was part of “the shadow of good things to come”. While God’s dwelling for the time being, it yet could not be final. In the emphatic words of Stephen, citing Isaiah in his support: “The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me ? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest ?” (Acts 7:48,49). The same prophet has also this word: “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isa 57:15). The letter to the Hebrews traces out the typical significance of the tabernacle and declares Jesus to be “the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched”. Preeminently, Jesus was one in whom the Father revealed Himself; and therefore John can say, “The Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us”. The figure is extended to all believers in a number of passages of which Ephesians 2 and 1 Peter 2 are examples, from which we learn that the true dwelling-place of God is in the hearts of men and women of faith and Godlike disposition. With these ideas in mind we can understand the words of Jesus as explained by John. When he cleansed the temple and was challenged concerning his authority, he said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days”. They thought he referred to the temple which he had just cleansed, but John adds: “He spake of the temple of his body”. Jesus, then, was the temple of God—one in whom the Father dwelt and in whom He revealed Himself.

This illustrates the language of Jesus in his answer to the Pharisees in which he draws out the significance of the priests’ exemption from the Sabbath code by reason of an overruling duty. The lesson he would have them learn concerned his higher standing even than the temple. “I say unto you that in this place there is one greater than the temple.” As the temple service sanctioned the supercession of the sabbath law for those engaged in its duties, so he, greater than the temple, in fact the very reality the temple foreshadowed, had a higher authority than the temple. His position and work, therefore, superseded the sabbath day. His comments on the sabbath therefore point the same lesson as the parables which Mark groups with the cornfield incident and the sabbath healing. A new dispensation was dawning and the old had run its course. The Law had “waxed old and was ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13).

Jesus, in fact, asserted this by adding: “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day”. The prophet’s words cited by Jesus were meant to point to the greater importance of mercy compared with sacrifice. God had indeed commanded the latter, but only that they might learn His ways and how He wished them to live. Sacrifice was typical; mercy was fundamental. So also the sabbath was only a means of teaching a lesson—a lesson which found its full meaning in Jesus himself. Hence he was Lord of the Sabbath.

Since the phrase Son of Man was a Messianic title he is also affirming that it is as Messiah he is the Lord of the sabbath. In other words, when he discharges his office as the Messiah at his second advent, when he comes to be Israel’s king and the world’s ruler, he will then inaugurate that rest for the world which the sabbath was designed to represent. In this we have the teaching of Jesus concerning the sabbath: it was but a type—he is the real sabbath, both in himself and in the blessings he brings now and in the future. Well might he speak of those “that were with” David as sharers in his precedence: for the companions of Jesus share in him and his gifts. If this interpretation is correct we shall have the key by which we can unlock the meaning of the miracles he did on the sabbaths.