The Life of Jesus Christ: Jesus and the Sabbath

August 2, 2020 :: John 5

As we continue our series through the life of Jesus Christ, we are well into His three or four years of public ministry. At this point, I have a thought question for you. What was the main controversy of Jesus’ earthly ministry? What specific idea got Him into the most trouble?

In the Gospel of Matthew, the first controversy Jesus sees is the Jewish leaders arguing about His authority to forgive sins, which He claimed to do for a paralyzed man lowered through a roof. Afterward Jesus heals the man’s paralysis as a sign confirming His ability to forgive sins. Of course this smacks of equality with God, because “who can forgive sins but God alone.”

This same event is the first spark of controversy in the Gospel of Mark. Again, the same event serves as, this time, the second spark of contention in Luke’s Gospel, second only to an event of Jesus’ preaching in Luke 4 where he referenced the faith and blessing of several Gentiles in the Old Testament narrative. This created outrage to the Jewish audience that day at the synagogue.

For Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath - as well as those of His disciples - were perhaps the central and most repeated cause of controversy. We see it again in John 5 and John 9, where in the fourth Gospel, the question of keeping or breaking the Sabbath is the first spark of controversy in the book.

For a little context, the Sabbath was a special designation of the seventh day of the week, primarily referring to its “holiness” or “sanctification” and blessing by God after the six days of creation. This blessing is recorded at the beginning of Genesis 2. The word “sabbath” does not appear until the second book of the Old Testament, Exodus, where is becomes a commanded holy day to be specially kept throughout all of the generations of Israel. It appears in the Ten Words or commandments from God to Moses on Mount Sinai and is detailed in the fullest expression of the code of the Mosaic Law, where breaking it is a capital offense! The word “sabbath” seems to have a complex and controversial history as a word, perhaps borrowed from another ancient-near eastern language; its basic meaning is “cease from labor.”

Today we look at the incredible account of Jesus and a lame man in John 5, essentially one complete story in a full chapter. Notice how important this event and subject are in the life and ministry of Jesus to warrant an entire chapter of a gospel. This is not insignificant.

Working through the narrative, we see Jesus interact with a needy person much like He does elsewhere. Except, upon healing him and asking him to talk up his mat and walk on, John informs us that is “was the Sabbath on that day.” This is of course a huge part of the point of the story and its central conflict. The Sabbath required no work. Carrying anything from one point to another was considered work.

Jesus’ interaction with the Jews who question the man lead up to His brazenly unexpected statement in 5:17. It’s hard to underestimate the shock and confusion this statement would have created. “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He was not only breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”

This leads Jesus to directly address these very points. First, he discusses His unity and equality with the Father. This would have not helped the situation, as these statements are even more shocking than Jesus’ first. Next, Jesus explains His ability to give life and even resurrection, as also the Father is able. Lastly, by way of legal confirmation, Jesus identifies five individual “witnesses” or “testimonies” to His identity, authority and power. The Mosaic Law only required two witnesses in a legal matter. Jesus more than doubles the requirement.

His witnesses are John the Baptist, the witness of His own works and miraculous deeds, the testimony of the Father Himself, the witness of Scripture, and lastly, the witness of Moses Himself, the hero of the Jewish Pharisees and author of the first five books of the Old Testament containing the Mosaic Law and all the roots of the Sabbath.

All of this together illustrates an incredible truth about God’s often shocking reversal and restoration of human misunderstandings. Our Heavenly Father always translates the wilds of His grace to the human heart in the same way: personally and surprisingly.

It is clear that the Pharisees were too consumed with religious legalism, an arrogant theology of earning and a complete misappropriation of God’s gift of the Sabbath. Jesus intentionally and knowingly engages the heart of their issue by healing a man on the Sabbath, thereby pinpointing a place that He wants to reveal the startling beauty of unearned grace through faith in His character and promise.

Tucked right in the middle of Jesus’ words is a powerful gospel invitation: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”

This is the shocking wonder and glory of God’s free gift of eternal life. Jesus chose to display it in the midst of a bitter controversy. Perhaps He is interested in the stark contrast of angry legalism and free, healing grace.

Family Discussion Questions:
  1. Can you recall exactly what God created on what day in the very beginning? Discuss and then check your answers in Genesis 1.
  2. Why do you think God rested on the seventh day? Why do you think He called the seventh day “holy”? He didn’t do that for the others.
  3. Have you ever seen someone use a good thing for a bad reason or a bad purpose? Share a short story.
  4. The religious leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day took the Sabbath (Saturday for them) very seriously. No “good Jew” was allowed to do anything that even closely resembled work on that day. To “break” this rule could get you in a ton of trouble, and even get you kicked out of their worship services. How do you think this understanding might have gotten “off” from what God originally intended?
  5. How does Jesus get in trouble on the Sabbath?
  6. Read Mark 2:27. These are Jesus’ words. What do you think He means?
  7. What was the real problem with Jesus healing the lame man in John 5? (HINT: see 5:9)
  8. Read Jesus’ words in John 5:17. What do you think He meant by them?
  9. Discuss some practical ways that you can truly “rest” and unplug without misunderstanding the Sabbath like these men in Jesus’ day did.

Small Group Discussion Questions:
  1. When and why did the “Sabbath” begin?
  2. What can we learn from Genesis 2:1-3?
  3. What does the Mosaic Law add to the concept of Sabbath? See Exodus 20; 31 and Deuteronomy 5.
  4. Jesus’ ministry incites controversy around the Sabbath in all four gospel narratives. In fact, two of the same stories are shared in the first three gospels. Why do you think the Sabbath was such a big element in Jesus’ ministry?
  5. Read Mark 2:27. What do you think Jesus is saying here?
  6. Why do you think the Pharisees majored on the Sabbath? (HINT: John 5:45-47 is a big clue)
  7. How does Jesus challenge their thinking with His words in John 5:17? Then again with the words of 5:19-23? Discuss with your group.
  8. In John 5, what do you find most interesting about the movement of the story and Jesus’ words/argument? Share with your group.
  9. How do Paul’s words in Colossians 2:16-17 guide us toward a Christian engagement of the Sabbath?
  10. Discuss with your group how this interaction over the Sabbath illustrates God’s free gift of grace, acceptance, invitation and security?
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