The “Life-Giving” Purpose of the Sabbath

By Mark D. Roberts

August 29, 2016

Then Jesus asked [his critics], “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

Mark 3:4


A lifeboat on a beautiful beachIt happened sometime in the fifteen years. All of a sudden I started hearing the phrase “life-giving.” “Being with my friends is life-giving for me.” “This part of my work is life-giving, but this part isn’t.” And so forth and so on. Part of me is tired of this phrase because of its overuse. But there is also something in me that is drawn to it. I do want to fill my life – including my work – with activities that are life-giving rather than life-draining. I expect you do too.

According to Jesus, the Sabbath is life-giving.

Last week, we considered a passage from Mark 2 in which Jesus explained that, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath” (2:27, CEB). He also claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath, the one who has authority to determine its purpose and how best to keep it (2:28).

One purpose of the Sabbath, according to Jesus, is to save life, to infuse our lives with new, godly vigor.


Mark 3 begins with another story related to the Sabbath. Jesus went into a synagogue on the Sabbath, where he encountered a “man with a shriveled hand” (3:1). Jesus’ critics, the Pharisees, watched closely to see if he would heal this man on the Sabbath, an action that would count as work, according to their rules, and would therefore be unlawful on the Sabbath. Knowing what they were thinking, Jesus asked, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (3:4). When he critics didn’t answer, Jesus was angry and distressed. Nevertheless, he told the man to stretch out his hand, and it was “completely restored” (3:5).

The Pharisees could have answered Jesus’ questions in a way that expressed their convictions: “The law does permit good deeds on the Sabbath,” they might have said, “but only certain kinds. We’re not permitted to do good deeds if they are work. We can save a life on the Sabbath, even if this requires work. Of course we’re not supposed to kill.” The Pharisees might have continued, “Jesus, this man is not in a life or death situation. You can wait until tomorrow to do the work of healing.” Yet Jesus would not have agreed because he saw the purpose of the Sabbath more broadly. It was a day not just for saving life in the most literal sense, but also for doing that which enriched and enhanced life. It was a day for wholeness, a life-giving day.

The question and the action of Jesus make it clear that the Sabbath is a day for saving life, not just in the particular sense of rescuing someone from a life-threatening situation, but also in the larger sense of being life-giving. However we understand Sabbath keeping, surely we would all do well to set aside a regular time each week for doing that which helps us and others to be more alive, to have more energy, to live with more joy. Yes, yes, we should be doing this sort of thing all week. But the demands of work, broadly defined, sometimes keep us from doing that which is life-giving for ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our friends, our churches, and our communities. One purpose of the Sabbath, according to Jesus, is to save life, to infuse our lives with new, godly vigor. I need this. I expect you do too.


What is life-giving for you?

Do you set aside regular time each week for doing things that are life-giving to you? Why or why not?

How might you do this in your life?

What would help you to fulfill this purpose of the Sabbath?


Gracious Lord, thank you for being a God who values life, who saves life, who gives life. Thank you for all you have done to help me to be more fully alive. Thank you for doing this same work in countless millions of people, from those in my family to those across the world.

You have set apart a day each week for doing that which “saves life.” Help me to know what this means for me and my life. Give me the courage, Lord, to look at my life from your perspective. Teach me how I should think about the Sabbath as a day for saving life. Help me to know how I might faithfully honor this purpose of the Sabbath, without falling into legalism that extinguishes the very life of the Sabbath.

Finally, dear Lord, may I be someone who “saves life,” not just in special times, but in all times. Help me to be a channel of your healing power in every aspect of my life. To you be the glory. Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: The Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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