Breaking the Sabbath?

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Have you ever wondered why Jesus specifically commanded the lame man to “… pick up your mat, and walk!” (John 5:8b)?

Jesus never did anything by accident or because he didn’t know what effect his words or actions would have. He knew this previously lame man carrying his mat on the Sabbath would break the rules that the Pharisees had set up. God’s command was to keep the Sabbath day holy (Exodus 20:8-11). Sabbath in Hebrew means “rest”. So why, knowing that the Pharisees would be in a rage when they saw the man breaking one of their rules by carrying his mat on the Sabbath, would Jesus command him to do so? Who were these Pharisees anyway?

To put it simply, Pharisees were zealous Jews and keepers of the Law. Mostly middle-class businessmen, who, although only holding a minority position in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council), they were popular among the people and thus wielded a tremendous amount of power. They believed the Torah, our Old Testament, was the inerrant Word of God, but they also made additions to the Law. For example, they added chapter upon chapter of rules to what it meant to keep the Sabbath. A few of the “traditions” enforced by the Pharisees are as follows: no climbing trees or smelling flowers, no selecting out bad fruit before eating the good, and no tearing paper or separating glued papers (

Really?  Yes, really.

So in reality, when Jesus told the man in John 5 to pick up his mat and walk, he was not actually telling him to break the Sabbath, at least not God’s Law concerning the Sabbath.  Jesus was demonstrating that God’s Law trumps the laws of men. He did this on more than one occasion, such as the healing of the man with the withered hand (Mark 3) and the allowance of his disciples to pick heads of grain (Matthew 12). Furthermore, Jesus condemns their attempts to treat their traditions as equal in authority to God’s Law.

Mark 7:6-8 (ESV)  
6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

It can be easy to fall into the trap of following our own list of rights and wrongs in an attempt to obey God. Our heart may even be in the right place initially. We have to be so careful not to replace the inward submission of our hearts to God with the outward observance of rituals and traditions. God is interested in a deep, abiding relationship with us. As we pursue him, he will provide the wisdom and strength to deal with everything else.

Have you ever been tempted to try and please God by following human traditions?

Have you ever judged someone else for not following traditions that you deem important?

Next Steps:
Pray and ask God to reveal to you any area where your heart might be far from him. Confess the times when you have held to the traditions of men over the commandments of God.

Lord, thank you for your patience with me. I confess that there have been times when I have developed pride in following man-made traditions when my heart is not where it should be. I want to live in a way that is pleasing to you but help me to want you more than anything else. In Jesus’ name, amen.

This post was written by Martha Preckler and the LIO team. Martha loves Jesus and growing closer to him every day. She loves serving on the Sparkle Team and Greeter Team, as a Landing Leader, GrowthTrack hostess, and fill-in writer for LIO. Martha is the grateful mother of two grown sons and one daughter-in-law. Both sons are good writers, but one is a published urban fantasy writer and self-proclaimed grammar dictator, which he swears he picked up from his mother. She has been a Toledo Business Journal contributor, speech writer, as well as creator of dozens of promotional pieces for seniors’ events and programming offer by the YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo.

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