Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
October 9, 2022
“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”, Jesus asks. What kind of a question is this? Why wouldn’t it be lawful to heal on the Sabbath? The question lies in the Third Commandment. God gave Moses the Third Commandment, which is written in Exodus chapter 20:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (vss. 8-11)
So, there lies the question. God forbad work on the Sabbath Day, which is the seventh day of the week, Saturday. The word Sabbath means rest. The Pharisees considered healing to be a work. Jesus knew this, so he asked them if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath, the day on which God forbid all work. Yet, why did God forbid working on the seventh day? God gave this command for the sake of the body and the soul. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
First, God forbid working on the Sabbath for the sake of the body. It is not good for a person or animal to work every day of the week without a break. The Sabbath law was not only a ceremonial law for the Jews, but it was a civil law for the nation of Israel. It was illegal for an employer to make his employees work on the Sabbath. A man couldn’t even make his slave or animal work on the Sabbath. Thousands of years before any trade union, God took care of the bodies of workers.
The greater purpose for this commandment was for the sake of the soul. Why did God give everyone in Israel a day off every week? Yes, to rest the body, but is that it? Of course not. Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy. The Sabbath day is supposed to be holy, that is, set a part for God’s use. The children of Israel were supposed to put aside the work they did, so that God could work in them. By not working, they showed that they trusted in God to provide for them, not in their own work. By not working, they demonstrated to the nations, who did not observe the Sabbath rest that the LORD was their God. By not working, they were able to take time as a congregation to hear the Word of God preached and taught to them, to pray, praise, and give thanks.
So, the greater emphasis was not simply avoiding outward work. The greater emphasis for the Sabbath day was to sanctify it, that is, to make the day holy. And the day is made holy by the Word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:5).
So, back to the question. Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Why wouldn’t it be lawful? Is healing work? Okay, perhaps. But healing is loving. The purpose of this command is to make those who observe it holy. We are made holy when we are joined to God, who is holy. Well, God is love. In fact, Scripture plainly tells us that love is the fulfilling of the Law! (Romans 13:10) You cannot fulfill the Law simply by observing outwards actions, do not touch, do not eat, do this then, don’t do that then. The fulfillment of the law is love. The purpose of the law is love. If you are not loving, then you are breaking the law. If you love, then you are keeping the law.
This man was suffering from dropsy. We don’t use that term much anymore. It means that his body was retaining fluids. This is a terrible condition, which can cause a lot of pain, can damage major organs of the body, including the heart, and even cause death. And the condition is obvious. Someone suffering from dropsy is swollen, so that he looks fat. This man was suffering. Jesus saw that he was suffering. The Pharisees were trying to test Jesus, watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. Jesus threw the test back in their face by asking them the question. He silenced them by speaking out loud the evil they were questioning in their heart. Of course, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the fulfilling of the Law.
Jesus shows us that we cannot keep the Law simply by our outward actions, but we keep the Law by first loving in our hearts. This is good and true, but it’s not the Gospel yet. It’s not good news, because it still condemns you. The reason Pharisees want to focus on outward actions instead of the heart, is because it is much easier to control your outward actions than to change your heart. But no one loves as he ought to. No one loves his neighbor as his own flesh at all times. And no one at all times loves God with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. Even if you go to church every Sunday and read your Bible every day, your heart is not always in it. So, the commandment still condemns you.
The book of Hebrews points this out. The author writes of the people of Israel failing to obtain God’s rest through the Sabbath, saying, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:8-9)
Here, Scripture shows us that we cannot enter God’s rest by works of the law, but only through faith in Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus has become our Sabbath rest, because he himself has fulfilled all the requirements of the Law and was punished for us in our place. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 11, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
In fact, it is so necessary that you consider Christ Jesus your rest, that St. Paul explains that the command to refrain from working on the Sabbath no longer applies to us. He writes in Colossians chapter 2, “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. These are shadows of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” So, just as we are not required to celebrate the Passover anymore or to have our sons circumcised on the eighth day or to refrain from eating pork, shellfish, and rabbits, so also are we no longer forbidden to work on Saturday. These were all ceremonial laws meant to point to Christ. They were shadows. But Christ is the substance. Now that the substance has appeared, we may take our eyes off the shadow and focus them on Christ!
It is essential that you recognize this, because if you don’t you will lose sight that Christ Jesus alone is your Sabbath rest. You cannot find rest in your own outward observances. You can only find rest in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
However, this is not to say that we should not gather every week to worship God and hear his word. The outward observance of the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, but the spirit of the Law continues. We cannot continue in sin, because Christ has fulfilled the Law. Martin Luther explains the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it Holy.”, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” It is foolish even today to work seven days every week without taking a day off to rest. It is wise to have a designated day in the week to rest the body and gather together to focus on God’s Word, which is why the ancients observed Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection. It is necessary to take time to hear and learn God’s Word, to grow in faith, and to worship God with his people.
It is impossible to fulfill the Law without love. And it impossible to love unless you first receive God’s love. We love, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). And indeed, God did first love us. Jesus came in humility to bear our iniquities and take away our diseases. To love is to be humble, because to love means that you put the needs of others before your own. This is what Christ did for us.
And to have faith is to be humble. If you are to receive Christ’s love, you must be humble. You must recognize that you are utterly unworthy of anything from God, to recognize that you are a sinner who has failed to fulfill the law both outwardly and inwardly. If you exalt yourself, claiming to be without sin or to not need God’s forgiveness, then you are exalting yourself above God’s grace. Scripture says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5) This means that it is impossible to be proud in heart and be a Christian. To be a Christian, you must be lowly and contrite in heart. To be filled with God’s grace, you must first be empty. As water gathers only in low places, so grace dwells only with those who are meek and lowly in heart. In order to meet Christ with his grace, you must meet him in humility.
This humility is a characteristic of the faith which receives God’s grace. This humility is also a characteristic of the love, which is produced by the faithful. As Christ in love humbles himself in order to save us, so we in humility meet Christ in faith. And likewise, we in humility love one another. St. Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Our common faith in our common Lord and Savior draws us to live selflessly among each other. Our goal is not to have a congregation of like-minded individuals, but a congregation who sets their own selfish minds aside in order to share the mind of Christ, who humbled himself for our sake (Philippians 2:5ff). Finding our Sabbath rest in Christ Jesus, we seek to love one another. We maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace by repenting of our own pride and insisting on Christ’s way, the way of patience and forgiveness. In this way, we do not only sanctify one of the seven days of the week, but we sanctify our entire lives. And the Sabbath rest extends far beyond a single day of the week, but Christ’s forgiveness gives our consciences rest every day of the week as we share it with one another.
It is indeed lawful to heal on the Sabbath. It is lawful to love. And it is meet, right, and salutary that we humbly trust in Christ and love our neighbor at all times and in all places, so that the Sabbath may be sanctified in us. Amen.