What is the Sabbath? It goes back to Genesis chapter 2, verses 1-3. Page #2 of your pew Bibles, so you know this is going back to the beginning. Well, almost. Actually, we’re going back to the story of creation, and we read it described like a week. God creates the universe on the first six days of the week, and then we read this:
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
See that word “rested” or “ceased”? It is the Hebrew word, “shabbat,” which where we get the English word “sabbath.” Sabbath means “to rest” or “to cease.” The Sabbath day, the day of rest, would get a lot more attention in the Old Testament Law. If you turn to Exodus 20, verses 8-11, we read Ten Commandment number 4,
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
In their covenantal agreement with God, the people of Israel were not to work on the Sabbath, and instead they were to preserve it as a time for personal rest, relational connection, and worship with God. It was an actual 24 hour period, starting on sundown Friday and lasting till sundown Saturday. It was a day off.
But it is more than just a 24 hour day off from work. Notice that there is a principle embedded in the sabbath, that of faith and trust in God. On that seventh day of each week, the people were to take a break, a day off, from their attempts to earn a living, so therefore they would be trusting God to provide for them. That means they are purposefully decreasing their earning potential by 14.29% (one seventh). Think about that. If they just worked on Saturday, they could give themselves a 14% raise. That’s a pretty decent raise.
But God said, “I don’t want you to do that. Instead, I want you to trust in me, showing the world around you that you trust in me, even as the rest of the world goes on working. Furthermore, there is something deeply healthy and flourishing about taking time to rest, to worship and to connect with family and friends. You need the Sabbath. The sabbath is a gift to you.”
And that’s how it started. Fast-forward about 1500 years to the days of Jesus. The Sabbath was still the Sabbath, meaning a time of rest, worship and connecting from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, but it was also something else. The Jewish religious leaders had turned Sabbath, as they had with nearly the entire Law of Moses, into a legalistic nightmare. If the foundational law of God was simply, “Keep the Sabbath holy by not working,” those religious leaders, in what was probably, centuries before, rooted in a healthy desire for holiness, placed laws on top of laws.
They strictly and precisely attempted to define what was constituted work. For example, I’m going to make a rule up, hoping to give you an idea of what it might have been like in Jesus’ day. Say that the religious leaders decided that you could walk 1000 steps on the Sabbath, and that was not work. But if you walked 1001 steps, that 1001st step put you over the limit into breaking the law. They had all sorts of legalistic rules on top of rules like that. If you were a Jew living in Jesus’ day, your life could be dominated by a repressive legalistic system that had very little to do with the heart of God.
That’s why these religious leaders saw the healed man carrying his mat, and they confronted him. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. When you keep skimming through the next few verses in John 5, they find out that it was Jesus who healed the man, on the Sabbath, and then told him to pick up his mat, on the Sabbath, the religious leaders are really upset.
Jesus is clearly ignoring their laws on top of laws, though notice that Jesus is not breaking God’s Law. Healing a man and telling him to pick up his mat and walk is not even close to breaking the description of keeping the Sabbath holy, which we read in the Ten Commandments. Jesus isn’t earning any money through his healing. He’s not working on the Sabbath, and neither was the man. But still, it really angers the religious leaders that Jesus is disregarding their laws, and therefore disrespecting their authority.
So back in John 5, verse 16, we read that the religious leaders are persecuting Jesus. Persecuting? What does that mean? We’ll find out in the next post.