The history of our world has known many great moral and religious leaders. Confucius, the Dalai Lama, Krishna, Muhammad, Moses, and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). All were individuals who had powerful influences upon humanity. Even so, Jesus of Nazareth—the founder of the Christian faith—stands apart in a league of His own.
Jesus claimed to be God but often lived like a commoner. And during His three years of active ministry, Jesus performed a wide away of eye-opening miracles. These unexplainable feats culminated with the greatest miracle of all: His resurrection from the dead.
Another unique facet of Jesus’ life involved His religious teachings. Not only did the proclaimed Son of God speak words of wisdom, He frequently challenged conventional thinking.
While He never disregarded the teachings of the Jewish law, Jesus focused primarily on motives, elevating the virtue of love above all others. In doing so, Jesus Christ pushed back against religious requirements, creating a paradigm of freedom virtually unknown to other belief systems.
God Commanded Rest
With its many requirements, the Mosaic law was both burdensome and exhausting. Still, even within the many obligations, we can see that the Lord made provision for rest. In fact, under the law, God commanded rest to an extraordinary degree.
- There were to be 52 Sabbath days each year. (Leviticus. 23:3)
- There were to be 7 total days of rest designated during Jewish festivals. (Leviticus 23:4-44)
- God designated an entire Sabbath year every 7 years. (Leviticus 25:1-7)
- A year of Jubilee was to occur every 50 years. (Leviticus 25:8-22)
Think about the law’s requirements for a minute. Were they restrictive? No doubt. Certain behaviors were restricted during those days and years. At the same time, those restrictions were set in place for the benefit of the people. It would be similar to a modern-day company forcing its employees to take (unplugged) time off, only more so. This doesn’t sound like the work of a cruel despot, as so many make God to be.
Not only did rest begin with God, He also knew how integral rest would be to human well-being. We might compare the scenario to that of a parent making a cranky toddler take an afternoon nap. Taking a rest might be the last thing that child wants, but a wise and loving parent recognizes the need. And so, at times, our wise Creator required His people to cease their labors, and direct their attention to faith and family.
Jewish religious leaders missed the primary point of it all. Rather than recognizing God’s intention to meet very real needs, to them the Sabbath became more about meeting religious requirements.
For His part, and much to the dismay of those religious experts, Jesus flaunted their Sabbath rules. Not only did the Son of God heal people on the Sabbath, he also pushed back against the Jewish traditions that had hopelessly complicated what was supposed to be a day of rest:
On the Sabbath He was going through the grainfields, and His disciples began to make their way picking some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
He said to them, “Have you never read what David and those who were with him did when he was in need and hungry—how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest and ate the sacred bread—which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests—and also gave some to his companions?” Then He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:23-28 (HCSB)
According to Alfred Edershiem, an expert in Jewish customs during the time of Jesus:
On any ordinary day this would have been lawful, but on the Sabbath it involved, according to Rabbinic statutes, at least two sins. For, according to the Talmud, what was really one labour, would, if made up of several acts, each of them forbidden, amount to several acts of labour, each involving sin, punishment, and a sin-offering . . . Now in this case there were at least two such acts involved: that of plucking the ears of corn, ranged under the sin of reaping, and that of rubbing them, which might be ranged under sifting in a sieve, threshing, sifting out fruit, grinding, or fanning.1
This short excerpt provides only a small taste of just how much the Jewish religious leaders had complicated the Sabbath. Instead of viewing the Sabbath as an opportunity, they saw it as a requirement. The primary goal became to avoid doing anything that would violate God’s requirements. Their intentions might have been good, but they missed the essence of what the Lord was trying to accomplish.
God’s Intentions for the Sabbath
How does Jesus differ from all other religious leaders? By the requirements that He did not put on people. So much of our world’s religious observation involves us trying, by our own efforts, to obey rules and meet requirements so that we can find favor with heaven. In our minds, living up to a vast array of standards is what God expects.
Jesus—God in human flesh—had a different plan. He sought to slow humanity down, to take our attention off of worldly things, and to free us from the burden of self-effort. Why? The intent was to create a system of observance so that we might draw near to God, so that He might restore both our bodies and our souls. From even before humanity’s crash in the garden of Eden, restoration and wholeness have been our Lord’s intent.
The Lord’s intention for the Sabbath is clear, but in all of this, we do not want to forget that the physical requirements for rest under the old covenant served as a shadow of the the substance of a greater spiritual rest to be found through the new covenant. The physical requirement of the old covenant sabbath illuminates the greater (and eternal) new covenant reality of our spiritual rest in Christ.
As we slow down and draw near, as we take time to seek His face, and as we surrender ourselves to His good will, through circumstances good and bad, His Spirit works to make us whole. And as that restoration process begins to take root, we find ourselves more at peace. Any requirements our heavenly Father puts upon us will always be for our benefit.
1. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 2 (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), 56.
*Bob Santos has authored several books, and this post is drawn from an upcoming work titled The Search for Rest.