Early Church History – Theological Implications

Early Church history explains Paul’s letters, the dispute over justification in Galatians, unity of Jew and Gentile, the Law of Moses, and the Sabbath.

SUMMARY

The church started as part of Judaism.  John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles were all Jews.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell only on Jews.  In the first few years of its existence the church functioned as a movement within Judaism, consisting only of Jews and proselytes.  They were all circumcised and they all observed the Law of Moses and the traditions.

Only about ten years after the Cross, through divine intervention, did the church for the first time preach the Jesus-message to Gentiles and were the first Gentiles baptized.  The Gentile Christians in the church caused a dispute over whether they must observe the Law of Moses.  This dispute was settled a further ten years later when the church council meeting, recorded in Acts 15, decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  Jewish Christians, on the other hand, remained zealous for the Law of Moses throughout the period recorded by the Book of Acts.

The history explained in these articles is therefore important context for Paul’s letters, most of which have been written in the decade after the Jerusalem council decision recorded in Acts 15 (see, for instance Bible Hub).  For example:

The dispute raging in the church before the Jerusalem Council decision explains the letter to the Galatians.

The separation made by the Law of Moses between Jewish en Gentile Christians explains the need for Paul’s arguments for unity.

The continued observance of the Law of Moses by Jewish Christians provides background to Paul’s statements that the law was added “until the seed (Jesus) would come” (Gal 3:19), which implies that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant; even for Jewish Christians.

The claim that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1) explains the idea of justification by the works of the Law (Rom. 3:27), which Paul had to contend with in his letters.  Justification by the works of the law is the idea that compliance with the rituals and ceremonies of the Law and the traditions will compensate for one’s sins, in contrast to Paul’s argument that we are “justified as a gift by His grace”.

This history provides important context for Paul’s teaching, or lack of it, with respect to the Seventh Day Sabbath, and for his comments on the observance of “days” (Rom. 14:6; Gal. 4:10).  When he wrote, all Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath while the Gentile Christians probably observed the Sabbath, but the different Sabbath taught by Christ.

OVERVIEW OF THE FIRST 30 YEARS

The church was conceived within its mother religion – Judaism.  John the Baptist was a Jew, calling Israel to repentance.  Jesus was a Jew, and His followers were Jews. He preached in the Jewish countryside, not the Hellenistic cities.  When a Gentile woman once asked for healing for her daughter, Jesus responded (at first)

Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).

The apostles were all Jews.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell only on Jews.  In the first few years of its existence the church functioned as a movement within Judaism, consisting only of Jews and proselytes.  They were all circumcised and they all observed the Law of Moses and the traditions.  In those first years the church grew exponentially, but it was confined to Jerusalem – the capital of Judaism.

In the earliest stage Christianity was made up of all those Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah (Christ). [David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Amsterdam University Press. p. 709. Retrieved 15 February 2014.]

After the first few years the church was dispersed throughout Judea and Samaria by the persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities.  Many Samaritans accepted Christ and were baptized, but the Samaritans also accepted the five books of Moses.  Consequently all Christians still observed the Law of Moses.

Only about ten years after the Cross, through divine intervention, did the church for the first time preach the Jesus-message to Gentiles and were the first Gentiles baptized.

The Gentile Christians in the church caused a dispute over whether they must observe the Law of Moses.  This dispute was settled a further ten years later when the church council meeting, recorded in Acts 15, decided that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses.  This decision created a double separation:

Firstly, the decision was not relevant to Jewish Christians, who were still the majority in the church.  The Jewish Christians, particularly in Judea, continued to be zealous for the Law of Moses, and continued to live like Jews, as evidenced by Acts 21, which is dated to nearly 30 years after the cross.  There arose therefore a separation between Gentile and Jewish Christians; one group observing the Law of Moses, the other not.

Secondly, this decision erected a permanent barrier between Judaism and the Church.  For the Jews it was a great sin to associate with uncircumcised people.  By associating with uncircumcised Christians, the Jewish Christians became unclean in the eyes of their Jewish friends and families (Gal. 6:12), hastening the separation of the church from Judaism.

The apostles and the other Christian Jews in Jerusalem therefore remained zealous for the Law of Moses throughout the period recorded by the Book of Acts.  The Jerusalem church also had a strong influence over the wider church, as evidenced by the following:

  • The Samaritans only received the Holy Spirit after Peter and John laid hands on them (8:14-17).
  • The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit through Peter (Acts 10).
  • The dispute whether Gentiles must observe the Law of Moses was referred to Jerusalem for resolution (Acts 15).

The influence of the Jewish Christians on the wider church diminished in later years due to various factors, but this is not discussed in this article because the purpose here is to describe the context within which Paul’s letters have been written, at a time when the influence of Jewish Christianity still was strong.

CONTEXT FOR PAUL’S LETTERS

Christians today find it difficult to appreciate the Jewishness of the early Christian church.  They tend to think that the early church was like the church of today; unaware that the past 2000 years have transformed the church from a movement within Judaism—an exclusively Jewish organization—to an almost exclusively Gentile organization.  The consequence is that Christians today read Paul’s letter into today’s context, and then misinterpret what he wrote with respect to issues such as the Law of Moses, the role of the nation of Israel, justification and the Sabbath.

The history explained in these articles is therefore important context for Paul’s letters.  The dispute raging in the church before the Jerusalem Council decision explains the letter to the Galatians.  Even after that decision Paul’s letters had to frequently explain why it is not necessary to observe the law, namely that man is not saved by the works of the Law, but by grace.

This history makes us aware of the sensitivities which Paul had to avoid.  Paul did his best not to offend the Jewish Christians.  In many towns there were Jews and Jewish Christians, and when Paul arrived in a town, he first preached his message to the Jews.  That normally failed. Then he turned to the Gentiles.  With his letters he addressed both groups simultaneously, and he had to be very careful not to offend unnecessarily.

UNITY OF JEW AND GENTILE

One aspect that is explained by this history is Paul’s arguments for the unity of Jewish en Gentile Christianity.

Even 30 years after Pentecost the mother church of Christianity, namely the church in Jerusalem, made distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  It expected Jewish Christians to adhere to the Law of Moses:

Jewish Christians combined the confession of Jesus as Christ with continued adherence to Jewish traditions such as Sabbath observance, observance of the Jewish calendar, observance of Jewish laws and customs, circumcision, and synagogue attendance. [David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers (2000). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Amsterdam University Press. p. 709. Retrieved 15 February 2014.]

1st century “Jewish Christians” were totally faithful religious Jews. They differed from other contemporary Jews only in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. In effect, the Jewish Christians seemed to regard Christianity as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief — that Jesus was the Messiah. [ McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1-4051-0899-1. Page 174: “

On the other hand, they allowed Gentile Christians freedom from the Law of Moses.  It is not suggested here that Jewish Christians are still subject to the Law of Moses, but rather that this explains the context within which Paul taught that the two groups are made one, such as:

“Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision” (Gal. 6:15).

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).

He (Jesus) Himself is our peace, who made both groups (Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles) into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:11-14).

He described Israel as an olive tree from which some branches have been broken off (unbelieving Jews), while branches from a wild olive (the Gentiles) have been grafted in, sharing in the wealth of the root (the fathers of the Jewish nation and the promises they received) (Romans 11:11-24).

While the Christian Jews in Jerusalem based their separateness on Moses and his law, Paul taught the unity of two groups in Abraham; both groups are children of Abraham and both share in the promises to the fathers of the nation of Israel (Gal. 3:17).

LAW OF MOSES

This evidence that the large number of Jewish Christians observed the Law of Moses during the entire period during which Paul worked and wrote his letters, explains the context for his statements about the law.  Paul was accused by the Christian Jews in Jerusalem “that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21).  Reading his letters, this was true.  Paul wrote of himself that he is not under the law (1 Cor. 9:20) and that the law was added “until the seed (Jesus) would come” (Gal 3:19), which implies the Law is no longer relevant; even for Jews.  See the discussion of Galatians 3:19-25 for more on this subject.

JUSTIFICATION

This context allows one to better understand the idea of justification by the works of the Law (Rom. 3:27), which Paul had to contend with in his letters:

The Jewish Christians maintained “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).  That is justification by the works of the law.  It does not mean that one is justified by not sinning.  Justification by the works of the law is the idea that compliance with the rituals and ceremonies of the Law and the traditions will compensate for one’s sins, and put one in a right relationship with God.  This was not a novel idea that developed after the church was established, but a concept which the church inherited from its mother religion – Judaism.

In contrast Peter argued, “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11).  This is the same as saying that we are “justified as a gift by His grace” (Rom. 3:23), which is something which Paul emphasized.  This means that our sins are wiped away by grace (mercy); not by the rituals and ceremonies of the Law.

SEVENTH DAY SABBATH

This history is also important context for Paul’s teaching, or lack of it, with respect to the Seventh Day Sabbath.

For the first years of the church, when it was still confined to Jerusalem and consisted of Jews only, all Christians observed the Law of Moses, and therefore also the Sabbath.  After the church was dispersed by persecution throughout Judea and Samaria, many Samaritans put their faith in Christ, but since they also based their religion on the five books of Moses, all Christians were still circumcised and observed the Sabbath.  Seven to ten years after the Cross the first Gentiles were allowed into the church (Acts 10).  A dispute arose whether they must observe the Law of Moses (15:1).  About twenty years after the Cross a church decision was made that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15).

But the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continued to be “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20).  The Law included the Sabbath.  If the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem observed the Sabbath, then probably all Jewish Christians in Judea and even the Jewish Christians that lived in Gentile nations also observed the Sabbath.

When the first Gentile Christians received the Holy Spirit, about seven to ten years after the cross, the Christian Jews were most surprised.  They thought that the Holy Spirit was for circumcised people only.  What is revealing about the account is that Peter did not convert them to Judaism first through circumcision, and then to Christianity through baptism; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he received them directly into Christianity through baptism. The implication of these events is the then novel idea that Gentile Christians do not ever have to convert to Judaism through circumcision.

The question is what the Gentile Christians were taught about the Sabbath.  The Jerusalem Council decision in Acts 15 mean that Gentiles are not under the Law of Moses.  It is nevertheless proposed here that we should conclude that the first Gentile Christians were probably taught to observe the Sabbath, for the following reasons:

(1) The specialness of the Seventh Day originated at creation.

(2) A seven day cycle was maintained before Moses.

(3) The Acts 15 decision obviously did not free the Gentile Christians from moral laws, and the Sabbath is included in the Ten Commandments with nine other moral principles.

(4) Christ never indicated that the Sabbath was aborted, but argued with the Pharisees what is allowed on the Sabbath.  He said the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27), that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:12) and that the Sabbath is the preferred day for healing (Luke 13:16).  (See the article What did Jesus teach about the Sabbath? for more information.).

(5) Christ in His teachings already replaced the Law of Moses with the “Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21).  For instance, in Matthew 5 Jesus several times quoted from the Law of Moses, and then gave His alternative, which is always at a much higher moral level.  This is not something that happened at the Cross.  Christ’s teaching with respect to the Sabbath was therefore not an interpretation of the Sabbath commandment, but a replacement of it.  (See the article on the Law of Christ for more information.)  Consequently, when the church decided that Gentiles do not have to observe the Law of Moses, it simply applied something which Christ already taught twenty years earlier.

(6) Just before His ascension, Jesus said to His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

(7) All Jewish Christians in the early church, and therefore the majority of all Christians, observed the Sabbath.  The only teachers that the first Gentile Christians had were these Jewish Christians.  The church in Jerusalem had a strong influence in those days.

(8) the Sabbath, by itself, was not a matter of controversy in Paul’s day, as indicated by the fact that he used the word “Sabbath” only once in all of his letters, and then only as part of a technical term to refer to the entire system of special days on the Jewish calendar (Col. 2:16 See the article Feasts … New Moons … Sabbaths for more information).  The fact that there was no controversy in the early church about the Sabbath, combined with the fact that the Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath, implies that all Christians observed the Sabbath.

However, Jesus taught a different Sabbath.  Christ did more than to interpret the Sabbath commandment; He gave a new meaning to it. He converted the seventh day from a day of compulsory idleness to a day that is filled with purpose, activity and work; a day to show kindness and mercy; a day to free people from the physical, psychological and spiritual bonds of Satan, to elevate the entire man to God’s ideal; in particular, a day to heal.  This does not mean that Christ taught that the requirement to rest, as given in the Law of Moses, is no longer binding, but the Law of Moses made rest the goal, while Christ shifted the focus to the purpose of the rest, namely healing.  See the article Jesus taught a different Sabbath for more information.

The Gentile Christians would have been taught the seventh day as taught by Christ.  Just like Christ’s Sabbath practices made the Jews so angry (Luke 6:11) that they wanted to kill Him (Mat. 12:14), the Sabbath practices of the Gentile Christians would not have been acceptable to the strict Jewish Pharisees.

The analysis above of the first years of the church is important context for Paul’s comments on the observance of “days” (Rom. 14:6; Gal. 4:10).

TO: General Table of Contents

TO: Early Church Table of Contents

The Sabbath is not repeated in the New Testament.

Jesus taught more about the Sabbath than all the other nine commandments put together.  Why would He do that if the Sabbath would expire soon?

One hears, from time to time, preachers claim that nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, and that the only commandment that is not repeated, is the Sabbath.  From that they most often conclude that the seventh day is not applicable to the church.  This argument seems to be based on the view, since Christ lived under the Old Covenant, that the gospels effectively are part of the Old Testament, which would make Paul the primary author and teacher of the New Covenant.

However, although Christ lived under the Old Covenant, His teachings are the foundation of the New Covenant.  After His death the church continued to exist for a few year as part of Judaism, consisting of Jews only.  After a number of years God guided the church to take the gospel to the Gentiles as well.  This caused a controversy in the young church over the question whether believing Gentiles must become Jews through circumcision.  This was the main controversy when Paul started to work, which was about ten years after Christ’s death, causing Paul to write the letter to the Galatians.  In that letter Paul wrote that, through the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit, he was informed that Gentiles are saved without becoming Jews through circumcision.  Paul’s main God-given task was to extract the church from Judaism, but Paul did not introduce a new system of ethics.  As far as ethics (moral laws) are concerned, he followed Christ.  Christ was therefore the primary teacher of the new covenant.

Since the ethics of the New Covenant are based on what Christ taught, and since He taught more about the Sabbath than about all the other nine commandments put together, it is not true to say that the Sabbath commandment is not repeated in the New Testament.  Jesus taught a different Sabbath, but His statements, such as that the Sabbath was made for man, and that to do good is allowed on the Sabbath, implies the continued relevance of the special seventh day.

Why would Jesus spend so much time teaching about the Sabbath, and resisting the traditions of the elders, which corrupted the Sabbath, if the Sabbath would come to an end just a few months later; at His death?

TO: Sabbath; Table of Contents

TO: General Table of Contents

Bethesda – John 5

SUMMARY:

John 5 records Christ’s miracle healing of a paralytic man on the Sabbath.  This man had been ill for 38 years.  He was lying with a multitude of the sick, blind, lame, and withered next to the pool known as Bethesda, hoping for a supernatural cure.

The man did not ask to be healed.  He did not even know who Jesus was.  Jesus also did not require this suffering man to exercise faith.  Jesus simply told the man to get up, pick up the mat on which he was lying, and walk.  The man immediately became well, picked up his pallet and began to walk.

But it was the Sabbath and the Jewish religious police was quick to spot him.  They said to him “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet” (v10).  As if to say that a man, that is able to heal so completely, should know what is allowed on the Sabbath, the man responded, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, Pick up your pallet and walk”.

The Jews asked him who the Healer was, but he did not know.  Jesus had slipped away into the crowd.  But later the same day Jesus found him in the temple and spoke to him.  Jesus might have remained anonymous, but He was seeking confrontation with the religious rulers.

The man then told the Pharisees who the Man was who cured him, probably expecting the religious leaders to be overjoyed, just like he himself was, to meet this miracle Worker.  But this news made the religious leaders more committed than ever to persecute Jesus.  Not only did Christ heal the sick; He also told the man to carry his mat.

While the Law of Moses is silent on healing on the Sabbath, simply prohibiting work on the Sabbath, the “traditions of the elders”, which was their interpretation of the Law of Moses, had an extremely strict and detailed definition of work, even prohibiting healing on the Sabbath.  According to these “traditions” Christ clearly contravened the Sabbath commandment.

The traditions were extremely important in Jewish society, but by adding this multitude of very strict rules to the Law of Moses, the Jews allowed very little space for compassion, and consequently perverted the Sabbath.  What was supposed to be a day a rest from the toil of human existence became an intolerable burden to which the people were slaves, falsely representing God as a tyrant.

Healing was an integral part of His ministry, but to heal on the Sabbath was so important to Jesus that He was willing to risk His life and mission for it.

One reason for His Sabbath healings was to condemn the Jewish traditions and the entire Jewish system that rested upon those traditions.  But the more important reason for Christ’s deliberate contraventions of the traditions was to give a new meaning to the Sabbath.  Similar to the way in which He replaced the commandment against adultery with a commandment against looking at a woman with lust in the heart, and similar to the way in which He replaced the commandment against murder with a commandment against anger, He gave a much higher / deeper meaning to the Sabbath.

The fourth commandment forbids work and demands rest.  Jesus accepted the principle that the seventh day is set aside for special use (sanctified – Gen 2:3), but He not only declared that it is allowed to do good to people and animals in need on the Sabbath; He also declared that the Sabbath is the preferred day for doing good to others, which includes to restore people to health.  In this way He have a new meaning to the Sabbath.  He shifted the focus:

From the fourth commandment to the original purpose of the seventh day, namely to be a blessing to mankind (Gen 2:3).

From rest to the purpose of the rest, namely to restore man to health.

From the negative prohibition against any form of work to the work that is required on the seventh day, namely works to restore people to holistic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health.

Since this shifts the focus away from the rest required by the fourth commandment, we should accept Christ’s Sabbath deeds and statements as new truth for the Christian; as a founding statement for Christianity.  Thus the Sabbath also becomes a work day, but a different type of work.  The Sabbath becomes a day on which we focus our thoughts and energy on bringing joy to people by healing; not only by physical healing, but also by psychological and spiritual healing, while we rest from the work that is required on the other days of the week.

THE STORY:

John 5 records Christ’s miracle healing of a paralytic man (v7) on the Sabbath (v9).  The story is as follows (with comments in brackets):

Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.

In Jerusalem there was a pool called Bethesda, with five porches.  In these porches lay a multitude of the sick, blind, lame, and withered, waiting for the moving of the waters.  (They had the superstitious belief that the person, who gets into the pool first, after it was “supernaturally” stirred, will be healed.)

One of the men there was ill for 38 years (v5).  When Jesus saw him, He knew that this man had been in that condition for a long time.  Jesus said to him:

Do you wish to get well?” (v6)

The man answered that he has nobody to put him into the pool when the water is stirred.  Jesus then said to him:

Get up, pick up your pallet and walk” (v8).

(The man did not ask to be healed.  He did not even know who Jesus was.  Jesus also did not require this suffering man to exercise faith in Him.  He simply told him to get up, pick up his pallet—his sleeping mat—and walk.)

The man became well immediately, picked up his pallet and began to walk.  (But it was the Sabbath and the Jewish religious police was quick to spot him carrying his mat.)  When the Jews saw this man carrying his pallet, they said to him:

It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet” (v10).

But he answered them,

“He who made me well was the one who said to me, Pick up your pallet and walk”.

(As if to say, a man that is able to heal me so completely, after lying on my mat for 38 year, should know what is allowed and what is not allowed on the Sabbath.  If he tells me to carry my mat, then I will do it.)

The Jews asked him who this man was, but he did not know.  Jesus had slipped away into the crowd (v13).  (After his healing the man probably was bewildered, not believing what his body is doing; too excited to pay attention even to his Healer.)

Later the same day Jesus found him in the temple and said to him,

Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (v14)

The man then told the Pharisees who the Man was who cured him (v15). (The healed man was naturally overjoyed by his deliverance.  Probably ignorant of the enmity toward Jesus, he assumed that everybody, particularly the religious leaders, will want to meet this miracle Worker.)

For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v16).

(Note the plural “doing these things” (v16).  The Jews could identify two contraventions of the Sabbath Law in this incident.  Firstly the man carried his sleeping mat (5:10) and secondly Jesus healed the sick (compare Luke 13:14).  Jesus was ‘guilty’ of both, because He told the man to carry his mat.)

(The Jews apparently then questioned Jesus, because, according to the next verse,) He answered them,

“My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (v17).

DISCUSSION:

Jesus did not contravene the Law of Moses; He contravened the Traditions.

But did Jesus contravene the fourth commandment?  The Law of Moses is silent on healing on the Sabbath, simply prohibiting work on the Sabbath.  But still the Jewish authorities had no doubt that healing is not allowed on the Sabbath (Luke 4:40; 13:14; Mark 3:2).  It is therefore concluded that it was the regulations, known as the “the traditions of the elders”, that prohibited healing on the Sabbath.

The Traditions were a fence around the law.

Because it was intended as a fence around the law, the “traditions of the elders” had an extremely strict definition of work.  For example, if the Law of Moses determines that the Sabbath starts at sunset, the traditions might require Jews to stop their work an hour before sunset.  And anything that even remotely looked like work was defined as work; a Jew was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.  In this way they hoped to protect themselves from breaking the law.  They knew that a contravention of the traditions is not necessarily a contravention of the Law of Moses, but the traditions were nevertheless applied as law.

The Traditions were extremely important in Jewish society.

We generally have very little appreciation of how detailed and complex the traditions of the elders” were, or how important it was in the Jewish society.  Paul, describing his previous life, wrote “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1:14).

The Traditions perverted the Sabbath.

But by adding this multitude of very strict rules to the Law of Moses, the Jews allowed very little space for compassion, and consequently perverted the Sabbath.  What was supposed to be a day a rest from the toil of human existence became an intolerable burden to which the people were slaves.  This falsely represented God as a tyrant.  Because the traditions made people to serve the Sabbath, Jesus objected by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Jesus was seeking confrontation with the religious rulers.

We see this in the following:

Jesus could have healed the sick man on any other day of the week, but He healed him deliberately on the Sabbath.

After He cured him Jesus might have warned the man not to carry his bed, but Jesus deliberately told him to carry away his bed.

The man did not know who healed him, because “Jesus had slipped away” (5:13).  Jesus might have remained anonymous, but instead Jesus afterwards “found him in the temple” (5:14) and spoke with him, apparently with the purpose that the man may inform the Pharisees “that it was Jesus who had made him well” (5:15).

Jesus did not explain in John 5 why healing is allowed on the Sabbath, except to say it is the Father’s will.

Healing was an integral part of His ministry, but why was it so important to heal on the Sabbath that He was willing to risk His life and mission for it?  He did not do it simply out of compassion, for there were many other sick people at Bethesda whom He did not heal.  The people whom He healed also were not medical emergencies; they were all sick for many years.  Why did He not delay healing to another day?

In healing the man’s withered hand, He said “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:12).  In healing the crippled woman, He said “this woman … whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16)  But we find no such explanation in John 5.

John 5, after the healing, does include a long debate between Christ and the Pharisees (5:17-47), but does not explain why He healed.  It seems as if one reason for performing this miracle, deliberately acting contrary to the traditions of the elders, was to create the opportunity to explain to them some higher order principles, such as resurrection from death, judgment, eternal life and honoring the Son “even as they honor the Father” (5:21-30).  He later says, “I say these things so that you may be saved” (5:34).

His justification of the healing is limited to saying:

My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (5:17)

the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (5:19)

Notice that the words “working”, “do”, “doing” and “does” link these statements to the work of healing which He performed on the Sabbath.  These statements seem to simply say that these Sabbath healings are the right and proper things to do, according to the Father’s will, without explaining why.

He later added:

If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath?” (2:23).

This seems to say that circumcision is a form of healing, and that healing is allowed on the Sabbath, but still does not explain why healing is allowed on the Sabbath.

By healing on the Sabbath, and by His Sabbath declarations, Jesus gave a new meaning to the Sabbath.

Healing was an integral part of His ministry, but to heal on the Sabbath was so important to Jesus that He was willing to risk His life and mission for it.  One reason for His Sabbath healings was to condemn the Jewish traditions and the entire Jewish system that rested upon those traditions.  But perhaps the most important reason for His Sabbath healing miracles was to give a new meaning to the Sabbath:

The Sabbath commandment simply forbids work and requires rest.  The religious leaders applied this literally, and we probably would have done the same, because that is the emphasis in the commandment.  It would be difficult to justify non-emergency work on the basis of the Law of Moses alone.  Even Christian Sabbath-keepers today would find in difficult to justify work related to non-emergency healing on the Sabbath.

But Jesus came and taught that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:12).  He went further and said the Sabbath is the most appropriate day for releasing people from the bonds of Satan—which includes physical illnesses (Luke 13:16).  He declared this as the Father’s will (John 5:17, 19).

In the view of the Jewish leaders Christ’s statements contradicted of the Law of Moses, but that was due to their extremely narrow and strict interpretation of the Law.  Christians need to assume that these statements are consistent with the Sabbath Commandment because Jesus never acted contrary to the Law of Moses.

By arguing with the Pharisees what is allowed on the Sabbath, implying that certain things are not allowed on the Sabbath, He confirmed the principle that the seventh day is set aside for special use (sanctified – Gen 2:3).

To be able to adopt the meaning which Christ attached to the Sabbath, we have to interpret the Sabbath not only in terms of the fourth commandment, but also in terms of its original purpose, namely that it was created to be a blessing to mankind (Gen 2:3).  As Jesus confirmed, “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27).

Then the requirement for rest in the fourth commandment is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  Then we interpret the “rest” in the Sabbath Commandment as to cease the work of everyday life, to focus the mind and energy on bringing joy to people by restoring ourselves and other people to holistic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health.

Understood in this way “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” and anything that we can do to restore ourselves and other people to health, holistically defined, is not only allowed, but completely consistent with the purpose of the Sabbath.  In fact, to neglect to do on the Sabbath anything that we can do to restore people to health would be inconsistent with the Sabbath principle.

But the principle in the previous paragraph apply to all days of the week.  We should go beyond this and accept the Sabbath as the preferred day for healing.  Thus the Sabbath also becomes a work day, but a different type of work.  The Sabbath becomes a day on which we work for the mentally, physically and spiritually sick, blind, lame, and withered, to heal them.  Then our lives will become divided into two parts; for six days we work for ourselves, but on the seventh day we work for the physical, psychological and spiritual health of others.

Understood in this way we accept Christ’s statement, that healing on the Sabbath is the Father’s will, as new truth for the Christian; as a founding statement for Christianity.  Jesus gave a new meaning to the Sabbath which cannot be derived simply from the Law of Moses.

What Jesus did to the Sabbath is the same as what He did to the entire Law of Moses; He replaced it with the Law of Christ.  The Law of Moses was God’s eternal laws for mankind, but adapted to the condition, abilities and situation of the enslaved and corrupt little nation of Israel.  It therefore, for example, prohibited adultery.  But Christ again revealed the eternal principles on which the Law of Moses was based, replacing the law against adultery with the law that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery” (Mat 5:28).  All moral principles of the Law of Moses are retained in the Law of Christ, but the Law of Christ raised the standards to the Father’s perfection.  We should therefore not be surprised to find that Christ replaced the fourth commandment with a much higher law, without lowering the standards.

Sabbath: Table of Contents

Next: The healing of the blind man in John 9

Christ and the Sabbath – Purpose

Summary: In the Old Testament people that work on the Sabbath were put to death, but Christ deliberately and publicly disobeyed the Sabbath restrictions.  Christ’s defiance of the Sabbath restrictions was one of the main reasons why the Jews crucified Him.  The purpose of this article is to determine what we can learn from Christ’s Sabbath teachings.

Discussion: In the Old Testament people that work on the Sabbath were put to death (Ex. 31:14-15; 35:2).  In spite of this Christ deliberately and publicly acted contrary to the Sabbath restrictions.  He was actually seeking to provoke controversy through what He did on the Sabbath.

In the view of the Pharisees:

He not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18; see also John 9:16; Luke 4:29; 13:14, 31; 14:1-6).

Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And there was a division among them.” (John 9:16)

They sought to kill Him because of what He did on the Sabbath.  Christ’s defiance of the Sabbath restrictions was one of the main reasons why the Jews crucified Him:

Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other.  But the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.” (Mat 12:13-14)

The Sabbath is a huge issue in the Old Testament.  It is also a huge issue in the gospels.  Quite a number of these conflicts between Christ and the Pharisees, with respect to Sabbath observance, are recorded in the Gospels.  The message contained in these conflicts must therefore be important.  The purpose of this article is to determine what we can learn from these Sabbath conflicts.  Why did Jesus act contrary to the Sabbath prescripts?

This article discusses this topic from the perspective of the circumstances and laws in Christ’s days, and ignores the later development after the Church has been established.

 

Back to the Sabbath; Table of Contents

Next: