What Does Mercy Have to Do With the Sabbath?

Jesus always healed on the Sabbath. He argued that the Sabbath was a time for such work, though the Old Testament says it’s exclusively a time not to work. Why? Here’s one instance.

“Why are you picking grain on the Sabbath?” the Pharisees snarl at Jesus’ crew. “Have you actually read your Bible?” He pauses as their faces scrunch in contempt.

“God Himself told the priests to work on the Sabbath. What do you make of that? But if you understood what God said, ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices,’ you wouldn’t have condemned My innocent disciples, because the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath,” (Matthew 12:1-8, a paraphrase).

Then He immediately healed a man to show what He meant.

What do mercy and healing have to do with the Sabbath? If it’s just about resting our bodies, or doing our religious duty, or trusting God with our income, it doesn’t make sense to focus on mercy. Unless it’s about something greater. These are all true principles of the Sabbath that are near the target, but the bullseye is something else entirely.

Last time we saw how the Sabbath was an ancient metaphor for the rule of Yahweh (see the first part of this topic here). What does life look like when God rules and all things are according to His will? People are flawlessly blessed: no death, distress, or despair; only happiness, health, and wholeness. That’s why God made us (Genesis 1:28). He’s the original Philanthropist.

So every Sabbath, the Israelites would reenact what it looks like when God reigns by enjoying the gifts of His creation, observing His rule. It pointed to when God’s Kingdom was absolute – and absolutely perfect – before there was sin and death; before they had to work for their food (Genesis 2:16). It reminded them that Yahweh is the only true King, and that He is a kind King. That’s what the Sabbath was about – celebrating that when God is King, we are blessed.

What Constitutes Work?

I live in Seattle so I know a lot of people who like the Seahawks, while my wife roots for their rival team, the San Francisco 49ers. I often hear arguments about whether the Seahawks or the 49ers are better. But when they ask me what I think, I laugh and say something like, “I don’t care because I don’t like football.” This is how Jesus talked with the Pharisees about what qualifies as work on the Sabbath. Here’s what I mean.

The Jews argued about Sabbath work and often tightened the Sabbath restrictions to keep people from breaking it. There was even a rule against healing on the Sabbath. Wouldn’t it make sense for Jesus to address these man-made mandates? But no, He doesn’t even engage them on it. Instead, He talks about mercy then He heals. Why? Because the Sabbath wasn’t really about not working. It was a living metaphor for something better.

Jesus went on to tell His irritated opponents how valuable human life is (Mathew 12:9-13), concluding that there is, in fact, work to be done on the Sabbath: “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”. He insists that the Sabbath isn’t about avoiding work; it’s about showing people mercy! That’s why He healed a man’s crippled hand – as a live demonstration. Do you see what mercy has to do with the Sabbath?

If the Sabbath is about remembering that when God rules people are alive and blessed, then of course Jesus would preach mercy and heal on the Sabbath. As Lord of the Sabbath, it makes sense that Jesus would use the Sabbath to echo the philanthropic theme of blessing people: “I’m King now, so be healed, and heal others!” That’s what the Sabbath is about.

Jesus’ Campaign Slogan

When politicians run for office, they show off their brightest colors with a campaign slogan to summarize their favorite points. Jesus had a campaign slogan too. He walked into a town, found the most hurt, needy bunch, and said, “Be healed,” “Rise up,” “Be forgiven,” and “Be free.” Then yelled, “The Kingdom of God is near!” (Matthew 4:23). His slogan was, “This is what it looks like when I am King.” There are wild implications for what this means today for His followers.

Under the New Covenant, food restrictions, festivals, Levitical instructions, and temple protocols are nullified – including the Sabbath: “Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16). These were “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Hebrews 10:1).

We don’t practice the symbols anymore; we practice the realities. Just as we don’t sprinkle animal blood in each other’s faces to cover sin, so also, we don’t practice the Sabbath by taking a day off. We live out the 3-dimensional phenomenon of which the Sabbath was a sketch.

George Mueller built an empire of orphanages that provided for tens of thousands of parentless children. He raised several million dollars to do this without ever asking anyone but God in prayer, in private. He exhausted his energy caring for the needy by trusting solely in Jesus to take care of him. And in so doing, he waved the banner of Jesus’ campaign slogan for his generation to taste.

This is what it means to practice the Sabbath today.

Look For Crippled Hands

The Sabbath is about advertising for Jesus’ campaign, so anything that reveals His kind Kingship is living out the Sabbath. When we bow our lives to the King’s instructions to love one another, we are living out the Sabbath. When we pursue “the weightier things of the Law: [social] justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23), we are living out the Sabbath. When people of all races and backgrounds can unite in His name, we are living out the Sabbath. When we follow Jesus’ example and welcome, feed, and heal the needy, we are broadcasting that Jesus is a good King, and living out the Sabbath. We live out the Sabbath by tangibly caring for people.

Jesus will return to complete His Kingdom, then He will welcome all who labored for the Kingdom – by living out a Sabbath lifestyle – while exiling all who were preoccupied with their own agendas. He won’t judge us based on whether we follow traditions like taking Sunday off from work or going to a religious building for an hour a week – or any number of things that we get preoccupied with.

No, He decides if a person is Kingdom material by whether they fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, took care of the sick – whether they helped the needy in His name (Mathew 25:21-40). Those who live out the Kingdom code of love are children of the King, and heirs of the coming Kingdom.

Do you want to practice the Sabbath? Do what Jesus did: look for crippled hands and feet and bodies and minds. Look for the marginalized, the isolated, the rejected, the dejected. Then show off how beautiful Jesus’ rule is by living out Jesus’ kindness. Bring healing to the hurting. Be philanthropists. Promote Jesus’ coming Kingdom with a life of Jesus’ love. Fight for the cause of the helpless – this is what Christianity is about (James 1:27). And this is what the Sabbath is about.

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