We’ve should all cut the Pharisees some slack.
Just yesterday I wrote about two Sabbath controversies in Matthew 12. In both cases, Jesus butts heads with Pharisees who are giving him grief over working and healing on the Sabbath. Most of us have been trained to cast the Pharisees as the Snidely Whiplashes of the Bible. They are Jesus’ one-dimensional foil, perpetrating their legalistic dastardly deeds on damsels and (what’s the masculine equivalent of a damsel?) in distress.
While it’s true that there may have been a few bad apples, the Pharisees’ intent, and the tradition they stood in, was noble and pointed to something beautiful and profoundly hopeful – and it all has to do with the Sabbath.
The Pharisees jealously guarded the Sabbath because it pointed to something precious: the hope of the ultimate seventh-day rest in the kingdom of God. It wasn’t mere rule-keeping, it was keeping the Sabbath in order to nurture in our hearts and minds what we’re ultimately hoping for.
As the folks at The Bible Project explain so well, Sabbath isn’t only about working hard for six days so you could finally rest at the end; it’s about six days of growing anticipation of the day when we – and the whole cosmos – would finally arrive at the fulfilment of all of God’s promises. This is what is referred to (long before the law was given to Moses) when Abraham is told that through his offspring, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
When Jesus preached his first (and last!) sermon in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4), he announced that the promises of Isaiah 61 were being fulfilled in him. The year of the Lord’s favor had arrived. This is exactly what the Pharisees were looking forward to, and the Sabbath was the instrument that kept this hope alive.
The Pharisees were right. (They just missed the critical piece about Jesus.) The Sabbath is still an instrument that points us forward to the ultimate day of fulfilment. (Jesus spoke about this as the “renewal of all things” – Matthew 19:28.) And we need to live today in clear view of that hope!
After all this talk about Sabbath this week, how can the Sabbath function for us in this way? I realize there are faithful, thoughtful people who would disagree with me on some of this. As Jesus showed, following the spirit of Sabbath is better than doing the letter of the law, so let me offer a few encouragements:
1. Sundays aren’t the only day to practice Sabbath (though gathering for worship and fellowship do help).
2. You might need to grow slowly into it, taking small, achievable steps toward a life-giving discipline.
3. Remember some of the main emphases of Sabbath: allowing God to be God in your life, practicing concern for others, and anticipating the great renewal of all things.
4. Finally, you should cut yourself some slack, too. Let your Sabbath time be un-forced. You can’t make yourself feel a certain way, but you can simply ask God to make himself known to you.
In the crazy times we live in, may Sabbath be a blessing to you!
Bob Jacobs is Pastor of Westminster Church, Rapid City. If you're interested in more of Bob's writings, check out his personal blog at www.brittlecrazyglass.wordpress.com.