Images of the Savior (16 â€“ His Works on the Sabbath)
Of all the blessings that God has given to his people throughout the ages, one of the most precious is their Sabbath rest. How wearisome is the toil and labor through which we must pass on our journey through this sin-cursed world! How impossible that our sin-cursed bodies and souls should keep pressing on, apart from the necessary refreshment of regular rest and frequent meditation on the bounty of the Lord! But far greater even than this pleasant shadow-blessing, which God gave to the children of Israel, is the One from whose generous hand this and all other riches flow down to his people. Far greater than this imperfect reminder of the delightful rest which awaits us when the work has been perfectly accomplished, is the One who is, in himself, the fulfillment of the picture. And we see both of these precious realities in Christ Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, and our true Sabbath rest. As the Lord of the Sabbath, he is the One who perfectly accomplished the work of redemption, and so earned the right to dispense a rest which is the reward and culmination of a perfect work completed. And as the fulfillment of the picture, he himself is that reward, that rest, that joyful celebration of culminating victory which awaits those who finish their course.
How sweet is our Savior to the eyes of faith, and how full of the blessings of true religion! He is the Fountain from which all good comes, as well as the Water of Life which flows from the Fountain. But oh, how deceptive is false religion, which substitutes the outward act for the inward reality, and uses the very words and works of God to deny God himself! Let us be careful never to find our final consolation in any of God's ordinances, but rather in God himself, who is the Author and Goal of every religious observance. For thus the Pharisees turned the precious gift of the Sabbath into a curse and a denial of its Lord, and we will see the outcome to which this led them.
Before we meditate upon what we may learn of Christ from his Sabbath works, we must notice what we can of the Pharisees â€“ for their example is a backdrop against which our Savior's own glory will shine the more clearly. But let us tread fearfully, and not in arrogance; for it is an example which each one of us may see reduplicated in our own natural hearts, unless the Son of Man shine upon us. First, we see that the essence of man-made religion is to profess its outward form, but deny its true power (II Timothy 3:5); so the Pharisees turned the blessing of the Sabbath into a curse and a cruel tyrant. What was given to us as a gift, signifying that we have no work that we must do, in order to enjoy the reward of fellowship with God, they perverted and made into a work itself, and a most heavy work at that! Moreover, the Pharisees turned that which signified the fullness of life, even eternal life in the presence of God, to further corruption of life, even to the prolongation of weakness and hunger, and the proliferation of disease and sickness, those cursed fruits of sin! They took those signs of mercy and forgiveness on the basis of the Messiah's work of self-sacrifice, and used them to deny mercy and refuse forgiveness! How deceptive is Satan, that angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14), and how deceived and deceiving are all those who belong to him.
But oh, how different is Jesus! To him we will now turn our attention, as the Spirit of God enables. In contrast to the Pharisees, who pervert the sacred scriptures against their intended use, Jesus is the Word and Wisdom of God, and he alone teaches men the true meaning of scriptures. And so he does on this occasion, first, demonstrating from the history of David just how foolish their claims were, that his disciples by plucking the grains of wheat were breaking God's sabbath command. For David broke the outward form of the law, by eating the bread of the presence, which the Word of God reserved specifically for the priests in Leviticus 24:5 and Exodus 29:35; and he did so, moreover, on the sabbath, as we may learn from the fact that the bread had only just been removed (I Samuel 21:6), which was an event that occurred every sabbath day (Leviticus 24:8-9). However, David did not incur guilt thereby, for he understood the essential truth to which this bread pointed, how it whispered to the redeemed soul of God's ongoing provision and sustenance of life for his journey onward. And so David used the sign for the nourishment of his body, and the bodies of the men who were with him, so that they might continue along the path the Lord had laid out for them. In this they demonstrated that the essential thing to which the sign pointed is undoubtedly greater than the sign itself.
Moreover, Jesus went on to explain from the scriptures that the sabbath commandment must give way in the presence of a greater reality, because of which strict adherence to the outward form of the command becomes impossible. For in the law, the priests are commanded to perform the daily work of the continual sacrifices, even on the sabbath day of rest (Numbers 28:9-10). But if the sacrifices, which only hold forth in a figure the body of Christ; and the services of the temple, which only signify the presence of God among his people that was actually established in the incarnation of Christ â€“ if these are greater than the sabbath command, then how much more is Jesus himself, who is greater than the temple and all the blood which was shed on its precincts from the day it was first built until now? Thus Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, in rebuke of the Pharisees' hypocrisy. When all the sacrifices pointed to God's free mercy, which would be won on the basis of Christ's self-sacrifice, then how could the people suppose that their sacrifices are pleasing to him, when they reject the very mercy that they looked ahead to? But so the Pharisees did, forsaking mercy, even forbidding food to hungry men, and yet supposing that God was pleased with their ritual sacrifices. Let us here examine ourselves; for foolish as this blindness is, we all tend to suppose that God is pleased with our rituals, even as we use them to deny mercy and truth. But may it not be so with us! Even as we plead this, we give thanks that Jesus, who is greater than the temple â€“ Jesus, in whom is mercy greater than all the sacrifices â€“ this Jesus is also the Lord of scriptures, and reveals the depths of its wisdom to the humble soul.
But before we press on, let us give more thought to this phrase, â€œThe Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbathâ€ (Matthew 12:8). Who is ultimately lord over anything, but the one who created, accomplished, formed, and directs it? And who so worked that the sabbath might come into existence, through whom was it accomplished and through whom ordained? It is only Jesus, the Word of God, through whom all the world was created (Colossians 1:16; John 1:1-13); and only then, at his own will, did he rest from his completed labors (Genesis 2:1-3). What can this mean, but that Jesus, who did the work necessary to rest in its triumphant and perfect completion, can determine when and how this rest ought to be finally accomplished? And just as it was with creation, so is it also with the greater work of redemption. After God created the worlds in perfection, he rested in triumph; and likewise, after he redeems and recreates the new world in perfection, he will also rest in triumph. But until that divine work of redemption is done, it is not his time to rest. This is what Jesus was teaching the Pharisees when he told them, â€œMy Father works until now and I also workâ€ (John 5:17). He was telling them that, even as God did the work of creation to completion, before he rested from the work, so he would do the work of redemption to completion before he rested from that work. So if Jesus is the One by whom the work is done, the completion of which the sabbath rest awaits, then he is not bound by any command not to work. He is accomplishing the work of redemption upon which the eternal sabbath hangs; and he cannot cease, until it is done. He is Lord, that is Creator and Provider, of the sabbath rest, and he works ceaselessly with the Father until it be accomplished. Well might the Jews seek to kill him, holding him to be a mere man â€“ for with this doctrine he did indeed made himself equal to God (John 5:17-18).
And so we see that the Son of Man, Jesus our Savior, is Lord of the Sabbath indeed; for he is the One who did the work upon which the sabbath-delight rests, and he is the One who can say when it is ready to be observed, and under what circumstances. But even beyond this, Jesus is greater than the Sabbath as the essence is greater than its picture. The rest which the children of Israel sought under Joshua was not their true rest â€“ or else, after they had entered that rest, David would not have spoken of another (Hebrews 4:4-8). But what is this rest that remains? Well, the author of Hebrews tells us, the Israelites under Moses could not enter their rest because of unbelief â€“ and then, in direct comparison with that rest of which he had just spoken, he tells us that, if we do not disbelieve, we will become partakers of Christ (Hebrews 3:7-14). What could this indicate, but that Jesus is the fulfillment of the old sabbath rest, and that we who hold fast our confidence, will be granted our eternal rest, which is to say, we will be given Christ? How then is Christ our sabbath rest? First, because he has done all the work of redemption upon which our joyful rest depends, he is our sabbath, allowing us to rest in his completed work, with no need to add our own labors to the price of salvation (Hebrews 4:10). And second, he himself is the reward and resting place that awaits us at the end of our journey, if we hold fast. He is our heaven, where the toil born of sin is forever done away (Hebrews 4:11). Truly, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath! He performed the work that enabled the rest, and he became the reward toward which we run. But for now, let us return to Jesus' works on that sabbath day long ago.
Immediately after his disciples plucked the wheat, Jesus came with them to the synagogue, where they found a man having a withered hand. The sabbath rest that Jesus was working to accomplish would be the end of all sickness and disease, the end of all labor and curse â€“ this is what all true believers were awaiting and expecting every time they observed a sabbath rest. But would these Pharisees allow Jesus to replace the sign with the substance, and so give healing to a wretched man? Not at all, for their hearts were blinded by the deceitfulness of man-made religion, that sort of religion which rests in one's own works, rather than the works of Jesus, done for the helpless and diseased. But Jesus, rebuking them at their hypocrisy, which makes more of a sheep than a man for whom the sabbath of God's merciful rest was made, healed this man, and displayed to all who were there the true meaning of the sabbath; for there, he did all the work so that the helpless man, doing nothing on his own, might receive the reward of restoration. This, above all, is what the sabbath rest teaches us: that we are helpless to enter God's presence by our works, but must rest on his own works in our behalf. This doctrine is humbling to the pride of men who want to work â€“ who would even make a religious observance which teaches of the need not to work into a work done for acceptance with God â€“ and so it was rejected by those who took pride in their religion, even as it was received by a humble and helpless wretch. Whatever else we may miss, let us not forget this truth! Let us hold it fast, for it is all our hope and comfort: Jesus worked so that we might rest! He gave himself to lead us to God, in whose presence is eternal rest and fullness of joy; if we seek our rest by any other way, we will find the full curse of the offended God, upon whose Son we trampled in our pride, coming down upon our heads in inexhaustible and eternal fury!
Spirit of God, open our hearts as we look to this history! Show us Jesus, who is Lord of scriptures, and wise to reveal the true religion; Lord of the Sabbath, and powerful to accomplish all the work necessary for our redemption; and our true sabbath rest, the final end and goal and resting place which crowns the end of the race.