This post will have a lot of “on the one hand,” “on the other hand,” so buckle your seat belts and get ready for a ride!
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says the following:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (NRSV).
The word translated as “rest” in anapausis, which the Septuagint often uses in reference to the Sabbath (Exodus 16:23; 23:12; 31:15; 35:2; Leviticus 23:3). And, incidentally, Matthew has stories about Jesus and the Sabbath right after he presents Jesus offering rest.
What was Jesus’ stance on the Sabbath, according to Matthew? Did he believe that he was replacing it? Jesus does present himself as the source of rest, and he also affirms that the law prophesied until John came (Matthew 11:13). Is Jesus saying that the Old Testament Sabbath pointed to him, making him its ultimate fulfillment (see Matthew 5:17)? And, since we no longer need to offer animal sacrifices now that Jesus has fulfilled them, can we say the same about the seventh-day Sabbath?
On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with the idea that Jesus simply nullified the Sabbath day. Jesus says that it’s lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:2). Why would Jesus stipulate that something accords with Sabbath law, if he is abolishing the Sabbath? Wouldn’t that make his statement pointless?
What is weirder is that Jesus bases his ruling on a Pharisaic regulation, which states that people can remove their ox from a ditch on the Sabbath day. So is Jesus upholding the Pharisees’ oral law? He does tell his disciples that the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, meaning they should obey them (Matthew 23:2-3). Yet, he also criticizes the Pharisees’ traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:2-9).
Back to the topic of Jesus’ “rest” in Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus’ point may be that he is offering a new halakah, one that is easier than that of the Pharisees. He emphasizes that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. In Matthew 23:4, by contrast, he accuses the Pharisees of binding heavy burdens onto the people. And what are some examples of this difference? The Sabbath laws, in which Jesus allows plucking grain and healing on the Sabbath, whereas the Pharisees do not. In this case, Jesus’ yoke is easier.
And, yet, is it? Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). In his Sermon on the Mount, he presents a law that is harder than the traditions that his audience had heard. Jesus prohibits hatred and lust, for instance, not merely murder and adultery.
Another possible argument against Jesus abolishing the Sabbath is what he says in Matthew 12:8: “For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” I like Desmond Ford’s application of Matthew 22:32 to this verse: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Jesus has to be lord of something that exists, right? So how can he be abolishing the Sabbath?
At the same time, Jesus seems to acknowledge that his disciples are breaking the Sabbath. He appeals to David, who unlawfully ate the bread of the presence. He refers to the priests, who continually break the Sabbath in the temple. Jesus is alluding to lawbreakers, implying that his disciples are breaking the Sabbath. So Jesus concedes the Pharisees’ point. For Jesus, the Sabbath represented “sacrifice,” but he wanted to go beyond sacrifice. He desired that the Pharisees cut the disciples some slack (mercy), since they were hungry and presumably had no place to go for a Sabbath meal (maybe because the Pharisees didn’t invite them).
And, yet, Jesus says that the disciples are guiltless according to the law, showing that he accords the Torah some authority. God did not punish the priests for breaking the Sabbath, for their activity was legal. And so Jesus doesn’t necessarily abolish the law in this passage, for he bases some of his argument on Torah.
And, yet, Jesus goes beyond the Torah by bringing up something outside of it (sort of). He says that he is greater than the temple. I said “sort of” because he did believe that the law prophesied his coming, so, in a sense, he saw himself in the Jewish law. Still, he moves beyond that law by applying priestly privileges to himself, something that the law does not explicitly do for non-priests.
I said that Jesus being lord of the Sabbath implies that he did not abolish it. Really? He says that he can allow his disciples to break it anytime he wishes. What’s that do to the Sabbath?
But, then again, the priests broke the Sabbath, and the Sabbath still existed. So perhaps Jesus can make the Sabbath less than absolute without completely nullifying it.
Clear as mud?