“Now That Day was the Sabbath”

The whole point of John 5 [and especially John 5.1-18] is stated by John in the second half of vs. 9.  Jesus healed a man who had been ill for 38 years on the Sabbath [good thing, right?] and it sets off a controversy that lasts for the rest of the chapter, and really until the crucifixion.

“Now that day was the Sabbath”

This is the first Sabbath controversy that Jesus provokes by his “works.”  What exactly is the Sabbath?

The Sabbath was instituted by God at the giving of the Ten Commandments:

““Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 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. 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.” (Exodus 20:8–11 ESV)

The foundation of the Sabbath is the rest that God took on the seventh day after he had finished creation.  The Sabbath rest was meant as a time when God’s people could delight in God.  Here is how the Anchor Bible Dictionary puts it:  “the sabbath is a day of “delight” ({oneœg) and enjoyment on which humans are set free to experience liberation from everyday pursuits. The sabbath is not a legalistic, ritualistic, and burdensome institution, but one that creates “delight” in all spheres of human existence.”

By Jesus’ time, the Jews had taken something that was supposed to be good and delightful and made it law and drudgery.  This system of observance of the Sabbath and Jewish ritual became known as halakah.  Observant Jews are quite straightforward when it comes to explaining halakah.  Some quotes from the article linked above:

  • Judaism is not just a set of beliefs about G-d, man and the universe. Judaism is a comprehensive way of life, filled with rules and practices that affect every aspect of life: what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and cannot eat, what you can and cannot wear, how to groom yourself, how to conduct business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and Shabbat, and perhaps most important, how to treat G-d, other people, and animals. This set of rules and practices is known as halakhah.
  • At the heart of halakhah is the unchangeable 613 mitzvot (commandments) that G-d gave to the Jewish people in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
  • Gezeirah (in Hebrew)A gezeirah is a law instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah mitzvah
  •  The Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat, but a gezeirah commands us not to even handle an implement that you would use to perform prohibited work (such as a pencil, money, a hammer), because someone holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work.
  •  Rabbinical laws are considered to be as binding as Torah laws

The halakah system has not changed much since the time of Christ, obviously, and it is against this man-made system of rules and regulations to which Christ objected.  “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

Anchor Bible Dictionary: “The sabbath activities of Jesus are neither hurtful provocations nor mere protests against rabbinic legal restrictions, but are part of Jesus’ essential proclamation of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in which man is taught the original meaning of the sabbath as the recurring weekly proleptic “day of the Lord” in which God manifests his healing and saving rulership over man.”

And continuing:

“In short, Jesus declared himself Lord of the sabbath. He consistently rejected man-made sabbath halakhah. He freed the sabbath from human restrictions and encumbrances and restored it by showing its universal import for all men so that every person can be the beneficiary of the divine intentions and true purposes of sabbath rest and joy.”

Of course we are not arguing that we ought to observe Sunday the same way that the Jews observed the Sabbath, but that is for another post.




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