October 17, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV)
[Jesus] left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
In several places in the biblical Gospels Jesus healed on the sabbath. This got him in trouble with the Pharisees, who believed that healing was work and therefore unlawful on the sabbath. Jesus did not deny that healing was work, but he insisted that it was right to do good on the sabbath, including healing bodies and souls. In our times of rest we should be open to the healing God wants to do in us and through us.
Series: Unwrapping God’s Gift of Rest
In the centuries after the biblical Gospels were written, some Christians – usually with unorthodox theologies – wrote other “gospels” to supply further details about Jesus’ life and teaching. Occasionally these non-canonical gospels contain historically reliable information about Jesus. But, for the most part, they are fictional elaborations based on the biblical accounts.
For example, in an ancient document known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, we find fascinating but fictional stories relating to the birth and early life of Jesus. For example, in Chapter 18 of this “gospel,” the boy Jesus, his mother Mary, and his father Joseph were on their way to Egypt. Because they were tired, they rested in a cave. But, to their horror, “suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons.” But little Jesus, hopping down from his mother’s arms, “stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired” (Translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, 1886).
Another ancient “gospel” known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas contains a story that elaborates creatively based on the biblical record. In one episode in this “gospel,” the five-year-old Jesus was playing with some soft clay, from which he formed twelve sparrows. He did this on the sabbath, which angered his Jewish neighbors since they considered Jesus to have worked. One man reported to Joseph what Jesus had done. Angrily, Joseph cried out to Jesus, “Wherefore doest thou these things on the Sabbath, which it is not lawful to do?” Jesus did not answer his father. Rather, as he clapped his hands, the clay birds became real and flew away, which amazed his onlookers. (II:1-5; Translation from The Apocryphal New Testament, M.R. James-Translation and Notes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).
Though we have no reason to believe the details of this story from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, it does contain a kernel of truth. The historical Jesus actually did get in trouble for doing on the sabbath what his contemporaries regarded as work. He didn’t give life to clay birds, but he did heal people of various ailments such as a withered hand (Matthew 12:9-14). Healing of this sort was considered to be work by the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders, who criticized Jesus for breaking the sabbath law.
Interestingly enough, Jesus did not deny their factual claim. He did not argue that healing was not some kind of work. Rather, he pointed out that the Pharisees themselves permitted certain sorts of work on the sabbath, like rescuing a sheep who had fallen into a pit (Matthew 12:11). Jesus argued that healing a human being, who has “more value” than a sheep, is also work that deserves to be done on the sabbath. He concluded by saying, “So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (12:12).
Healing is central to the good work Jesus did on the sabbath. The biblical Gospels offer several different stories of healings on the sabbath (Mark 1:21-28; 29-31; 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-18; 9:1-16). When a Jewish leader argued that healing, as work, should be done only on the other six days of the week, Jesus disagreed (Luke 13:14-16). The sabbath was a perfect day to set someone free from spiritual bondage and the disease it caused.
Today the work of healing on the sabbath continues. Doctors and other medical caregivers often work on what would otherwise be their day of rest. Christians who gather for worship pray for the sick, sometimes experiencing the miraculous healing power of a God who heals on the sabbath.
For those of us driven to overwork, the sabbath offers yet a different kind of healing. When we stop work in order to rest, our minds, hearts, and bodies are refreshed. We are “healed” of the mistaken notion that we have to work nonstop or else life will fall apart. We’re reminded of our dependence on our gracious, all-powerful God, who is always at work and who offers us the gift of rest.
In next Monday’s devotion, I’d like to reflect a bit more on what it means for us to “do good” in our times of regular rest. For now, I’d invite you to reflect on the following questions.
As you think about setting apart times in your life for regular rest, what kinds of work might be appropriate in times like these?
Do you ever find it difficult to stop working in order to rest? If so, when? And why?
What helps you to choose to stop working and rest?
In what ways have you witnessed or experienced God’s healing power on the sabbath or Lord’s Day?
Talk with a wise friend or your small group about doing good on the sabbath and how this might be worked out in your life.
Lord Jesus, thank you for your compassion and wisdom. Thank you for showing us that healing belongs on the sabbath. Thank you for setting us free from legalism that can keep us from doing the good you want to do in us and through us.
Teach me, I pray, how best to build times of sabbath into my life. Help me to know when and how to stop working. As I rest in you, I ask that you heal me in body, mind, soul, and heart. May I be available, Lord, as an instrument of your healing in the lives of others. Amen.
Banner image by Arthur Mazi on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: How Rest is Restored – Sabbath & Jesus’ Redemption in the New Testament.
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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, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.