When Jesus said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17), what did he mean? Specifically, what did he have in mind with respect to the Sabbath? Is the Fourth Commandment (Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy”) an enduring command mutatis mutandis? That is, once we make the necessary changes to the day, the place of our worship, and the full revelation of God in Christ, do we keep this day? Or do we not?
This question has generated entire books and led to more than a few fissures in the Church? And one of many arguments for Sabbatarianism (i.e., the ongoing practice of the Fourth Commandment) is that the New Testament does not need to reissue a command for the Sabbath, if it is laid out plainly in the Old Testament. But what if the New Testament actually issues a command that stands against the Fourth Commandment? Is it possible that the New Testament doesn’t reissue a command for the Sabbath, because there are places where it abrogates the old covenant system of Sabbath?
In answer to that question, one may think of Colossians 2:16–17 or Romans 14:5, or even Matthew 5:17. If Jesus fulfills the Sabbath in himself (see Matthew 11:28), then does that bring the old covenant practice to an end? This is where my reading of Scripture, informed by the likes of Steve Wellum and Thomas Schreiner leads, but recently I have found another passage that confirms this reading—one that I have not seen elsewhere. And so, I offer this reflection on John 5:1–18 and its copious use of Jeremiah 17:1–29, a passage that bears directly on the Sabbath.
Jeremiah 17 in Context
Jeremiah 17 is the last chapter of seven chapters where the weeping prophet condemns Judah for their covenant-breaking. As Andrew Shead outlines Jeremiah, he identifies covenant-breaking as the chief concern in chapters 11–17. And strikingly, Jeremiah 17 begins with language that anticipates, albeit in reverse, the new covenant. Namely, Judah’s sin is engraved on their hearts (v. 1; cp. Jer. 31:31–34), meaning, their sin goes deeper than their actions. As Jeremiah 17:9 famously declares, their whole heart is desperately sick. Thus, Jeremiah 17 is going to detail this heart condition, especially in relationship to the Sabbath (vv. 19–27).
In order, Jeremiah 17 can be broken into three parts (prose, poetry, prose).
- Prose: The Location of Judah’s Sin (vv. 1–4)
- Poetry: The LORD’s Diagnosis of Judah’s Heart (vv. 5–18)
- Prose: The Promise of the Sabbath (vv. 19–29)
In this outline, we can see the problem and the solution. Israel’s hardness of heart is the cause of their covenant-breaking, which includes Sabbath-breaking. To this rebellious condition, Jeremiah prays for healing and the LORD promises restoration if the people keep the Sabbath again. Yet, if they do not listen to God and keep breaking Sabbath, they will invite the judgment of God.
This chapter raises a question: How will the people keep the Sabbath, if their hearts are engraved with sin? In Jeremiah, the answer is not found in chapter 17, but in Jeremiah 31. As the whole book centers on the promise of a new covenant, we can see that the only hope of keeping Sabbath comes when God forgives their sin and grants new hearts. This is what the LORD promises as he declares the end of the old covenant and the beginning of a new covenant.
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31–34)
At the center of this passage, we find the solution to the problem of sick hearts. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is the solution—the creation of a new people, with new hearts, who have a new covenant with God. And wonderfully, this new covenant promise is what Jesus came to inaugurate by his death, resurrection, and the outpouring of his Spirit. By means of his finished work, Jesus will remove the burden of sin and grant Sabbath to those who trust in him.
The question becomes: What does it mean for new covenant believers to keep the Sabbath? Hebrews 3–4 is a great place to answer that question. And that is a passage I hope to revisit soon. Here’s a preview: The Sabbath has more to do with a place (i.e., the temple and God’s presence in the land) than a time. Think on that.
For now, let’s look at John 5, another New Testament passage that teaches us about the Sabbath.
The Content of John 5:1–18
In John 5 Jesus enters the temple courts to find a man crippled for 38 years. While others go into the pool for healing, when the waters a stirred up (a superstitious belief?), this man remains on the side (see v. 4 which was added later to explain v. 7). In this setting, Jesus confronts this man and tells him to “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (v. 8). Miraculously, this triple command results in the man’s healing and obedience (v. 9). Yet, the more important point in John is what comes next. For the rest of this section (John 5:8–18), John shines a spotlight on the bed and the Sabbath. In five verses (vv. 8–12), he mentions the bed five times.
|John 5:8||8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.”|
|John 5:9||9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.|
|John 5:10||10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.”|
|John 5:11||11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’ ”|
|John 5:12||12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”|
Clearly, John wants his readers to fix their attention to the bed, or the mat, on which this man lay. But why? The only clue is found in verse 10, where the Jewish leaders say, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” In their statement, we find the problem—carrying a bed violates the Sabbath. But how?
One way to answer this question is to look at the culture background. As many commentators note, the Jewish leaders concocted a list of thirty-nine activities which violated the Sabbath. Here’s the list.
The main classes of work are forty save one : sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing or beating or dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], loosening [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, hunting a gazelle, slaughtering or flaying or salting it or curing its skin, scraping it or cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters, building, pulling down, putting out a fire, lighting a fire, striking with a hammer and taking out aught from one domain to another. These are the main classes of work: forty save one. (m. Sabb. 7.2, cited in Kruse, John, 168–69)
These expansions on the Fourth Commandment may be part of the equation, but there is something we find in Scripture itself. In Jeremiah 17:21–22, we find a verse that says carrying a burden in the city of Jerusalem violates the Sabbath.
21 Thus says the Lord: Take care for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. 22 And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers.
Could it be that John points to the bed five times in five verses, because he wants us to see Jeremiah 17? Clearly, Exodus 20:8–11 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15 do not talk about beds and burdens. But Jeremiah 17 does—as it applies the Sabbath to life in the city. And as we will see, this bridge of beds connects John 5 to Jeremiah 17, but so do more than a dozen other points of contact. Let’s consider those and then return to make some conclusions about the Sabbath based on John’s use of Jeremiah 17.
Comparing John 5 and Jeremiah 17
When we read John 5 with Jeremiah 17, we find at least 15 connections. These are outlined below. The italicized are other connections which relate John 5 to other themes in Jeremiah.
|John 5||Jeremiah 17|
|The context is the Sabbath (v. 9b, 10, 16, 18)||Keep the Sabbath and you will be blessed with fruitfulness (vv. 19–27)|
|Jesus goes to Jerusalem (v. 1)||Jerusalem is the focus of Jeremiah’s judgment (v. 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27)|
|Jesus enters the Sheep Gate (v. 2)||Kings enter by the People’s Gate (v. 19). This is where Jeremiah is told to stand.
** Sheep are often equated with the people of Israel, especially in the context of God’s judgment and salvation (see Ezek. 34:31; John 10:11)
|Jesus finds a “multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed (lit. dry / withered)” (v. 2)||The people of Israel are accursed by disease and filled with invalids. Jeremiah 17:5 says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come.”|
|Thirty-eight years (v. 5)||This is the same number of years described in Deuteronomy 2:14, where Moses recalls the deaths of the first generation of Israel in the wilderness.
The wilderness is also seen in Jeremiah 17:6, where he describes the people as a wilderness.
|Jesus saw the “invalid” (astheneia) (v. 6)||In Jeremiah 6:21 God curses Israel with weakness (asthenia LXX). Cf. 18:23.
|Jesus asks him “Do you want to be healed?” (v. 6)
** Jesus question addresses the heart of the man and shows how Jesus is doing the work of the Lord—he is searching the heart!
|The heart of the people is engraved with sin (v. 1), turned away from the Lord (v. 5), and is deceitful and desperately sick (v. 9).
The Lord searches the heart (v. 10)
|The sick man has “no one . . .” (v. 7)
** This is an indictment upon the Jewish leaders who are (1) unwilling and/or (2) unable to bring this man to living water. Cf. John 4.
|Jeremiah indicts Judah for not possessing true shepherds who care for hurting sheep (see chs. 3, 22–24)
|Jesus heals the man (vv. 8–9)||Jeremiah prays for healing, which is a prayer for salvation (17:14).|
|Under the old covenant, Jesus command violates the Law of Moses (v. 8)
** Jesus command to carry his mat, may also highlight the fact that Jesus has lifted his greater burden—the burden of sin. In this way , the command fulfills the law more than it “violates” it.
|Jeremiah condemns carrying a burden in Jerusalem on the Sabbath (17:21–22)|
|Under the new covenant, which Jesus brings, his command promises a new way of life, and a new Sabbath (v. 8)||Jeremiah promises restoration of the people, when
1. The people listen (17:24)
2. The Davidic king enters by the gate (17:25)
|The Jewish Leaders invoke the Mosaic Law about the Sabbath (v. 10)||The Jewish leaders have broken the Sabbath (v. 23)|
|The man does not know who healed him (v. 11, 13) and the Jews want to know who he is (v. 12)
** John’s focus is on the person of Christ. While Jews are consumed with a Sabbath day, John emphasizes the person who gives healing, salvation, and rest.
|In Jeremiah 17, the promise of restoration comes from God.
** Under the old covenant, the works of the week were done and then rest could be enjoyed.
** Under the new covenant, the work of Christ comes first, then the rest of the Sabbath.
|After he is healed, the man draws near to God by entering the temple (v. 14)||Jeremiah promises that when the Sabbath is kept, people will draw near to God (17:25–26)|
|Jesus “finds” the man in the temple and calls him to sin no more (v. 15).
** If the man is representative of the Jews, as John often uses individuals to represent groups (think Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman), then the sin is very possibly related to their Sabbath-breaking.
|In all of Jeremiah 17, the sin of the people is in view. In particular, the sin of Sabbath-breaking is in view.|
|The Jewish leaders persecute Jesus because of the Sabbath (vv. 16, 18)||Jeremiah condemns those who persecute him because of the word (v. 18).
“Let those be put to shame who persecute me, but let me not be put to shame; let them be dismayed, but let me not be dismayed; bring upon them the day of disaster; destroy them with double destruction!”
|Jesus comes to do the work of the Father (v. 17), which includes searching hearts, healing, bringing the kingdom, and securing the Sabbath.||Jeremiah 17 shows why the old covenant could never bring Sabbath rest (cf. Heb. 3–4), even as it promises Sabbath rest under a new covenant.
In Jeremiah, this promise of Sabbath rest is contingent upon God’s restoration of Israel (Jer. 16), a new king (Jer. 23), and new covenant (Jer. 31).
The End of the Sabbath: Five Christ-Centered Reflections
From this parallel reading of John and Jeremiah, let me offer five concluding reflections.
First, the context of the Sabbath is crucial for understanding John 5.
While some commentators divide John 5:1–8 from John 5:9–18, it is clear that the question of Sabbath stands at the center of John’s testimony. John is not only showing that Jesus has power to heal, but that he has authority to work on the Sabbath. This indicates that Jesus is no mere man; he is God Incarnate, just as John has been declaring since his prologue (1:1–18).
Moreover, the Sabbath context, plus the repetition of “take up your bed and walk” is what drives us to look deeper into the Sabbath. This deeper look leads us to see that John is not simply making a connection between Jesus and the Law of Moses. Rather, he is letting Jeremiah 17 be the place that shows the weakness of the old covenant and the promise of the new. Put differently, this means that John is reading the Sabbath command through the lens of the new covenant which Christ fulfilled.
Second, Jesus’s action on the Sabbath reveals his authority to change the Law.
Not only is Jesus persecuted for his actions on the Sabbath, but in identifying himself with God, he is taking the blasphemous position of having authority to change the Law. Of course, it is not blasphemous if Jesus is God, but to those who rejected his true identity, his words “take up your bed,” were a direct violation of the fourth commandment. And of course, this is true. Jesus did command something the law forbid. But this is only a problem if the law of God is timeless and biblical covenants are all the same.
But they aren’t the same. Each covenant has its own stipulations and God does not prove himself unfaithful by abrogating some aspects of previous covenants. In fact, God’s wisdom is proven in the way that he administered the covenants of all his covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, Levi, and David. As Peter Gentry and Steve Wellum have outlined (Kingdom through Covenant), these covenants form the backbone to the Bible and each of them is typological of the new covenant. Hence, God is not unreliable, nor confused, to condemn pork at one time and commend it at another. Just the same with other laws regarding circumcision, land promises, or who can approach the throne of grace.
In short, God has authority to initiate laws and abrogate laws. But only God, whose moral character never changes, has that authority. And that’s the point in John 5. Only the Son of God can change the laws of covenant, because he too is God. And so when Jesus steps through the Sheep Gate on a Sabbath, he is going, like William Wallace (well, Mel Gibson as Wallace), to “pick a fight” and put an end to the old covenant. And how will he do that?
He will put an end to the legal code of Sabbath by becoming the Sabbath himself. Or to say it differently, he will grant the invalid what Jeremiah 17 promised, but he will do based upon the new covenant, not the old. And so, in transferring Sabbath rest from a legal command to a personal gift, he is fulfilling the Law, ending the old covenant, and instituting a better one.
Third, Jesus’s command to take up the bed suggests the man’s greater burden has been lifted.
To say it more succinctly, Jesus grants relief from sin in ways the old covenant never could. By healing the man of his withered condition, he set him free from the penalty of sin, which his ailing condition represented. Additionally, because John keeps focusing on the bed, it may be that his carrying of the bed actually indicates that he is not violating the Sabbath at all. Why? Because Jesus, in verse 14, unites the ideas of health (“See, you are well!”) and sin (“sin no more”), which reverses the threat of the old covenant.
Under the old covenant, sin would invite the curses of God—including physical sickness (see Deut. 28–29). But under the new covenant, Jesus gives life and forgiveness, which are represented by the man’s new health. (N.B. This is not a passage that teaches a health and wealth gospel). And in this gift of life, he is cleansed of sin and able to enter the temple (v. 14). And more, his carrying his mat is a testimony to the true removal of his burden—namely, sin.
It is not allegory that would lead us to see Jesus as the true Sabbath giver, but typology. As Colossians 2:16–17 indicate, the Sabbath was intended to point to Christ. Speaking of the Law and all the signs of the old covenant, Paul says, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Now in Christ, the substance of the Sabbath has come, and the rest that Jesus offers is both spiritual and physical.
Fourth, Jesus did what the law of God never could.
The arrival of the Sabbath-giver means a reappraisal of the Law. And this is exactly what happens in John 5.
When the Jewish leaders, the keepers of Torah in Jerusalem, question, oppose, and then persecute Jesus (John 5:11–18), they do so as (unwitting) opponents of the old covenant itself. Consider how this works. Following the letter of the Law, the Jews are correct to see that Jesus’s command to “take up your bed and walk,” is a violation of Jeremiah 17:20–22. By extension, this is also a violation of the Sabbath, which invites God’s judgment.
And irony of ironies, that is what is happening. As the one who will take on the curses of the covenant, Jesus will undergo the judgment of God at the hands of the priests and Roman rulers. But simultaneously, this judgment upon Christ’s flesh will be a judgment upon Israel itself. And what happens in John 5 anticipates this. When Jesus heals the man by superficially “violating” Jeremiah 17:20–22, he is actually granting to the man what Jeremiah 17 promises.
In the context of Israel, the old covenant could never give Sabbath rest. And this is the main point of Jeremiah 17. Because of their stony hearts, God’s people had failed to keep Sabbath. This sin invited God’s judgment. Now that judgment had come, God also brought salvation. Just like God promised, he was bringing Sabbath rest by means of bringing a true law keeper—Jesus Christ.
Hence, when he stepped through the Sheep Gate into a mass of broken humanity, Jesus drew near to a people accursed as Jeremiah 17 describes. And why were the accursed? Because neither they, nor their leaders, had or could keep the Sabbath.
To this terrible situation, Jesus did not make them keep the Law, for he knew the condition of their hearts (Jer. 17: 1, 9, 10). They could not “get up” and keep the Sabbath, because they had no power to do so. The Law never gave life to keep the Law.
Therefore, in his mercy, God granted healing, salvation, and rest to this man through the Word of his Son. And what was the result? This man entered the temple for the first time in 38 years. Which is to say, his exile had ended and now, because of Christ, he had entered into his rest. Just as Joshua led the people into the place of rest, albeit for only a season (see Josh. 21:43–45), Jesus had now brought this man to a true place of rest.
This is the main message of John 5, and with Jeremiah 17, it shows us how Jesus is the bringer of everlasting rest (i.e., eternal life). Because he has come to tear down the temple, the law, the priesthood, and everything else instituted under the old covenant—including the Sabbatical calendar—he does what the Law of Israel never could. And John’s message, like that of Hebrews, is to trust Christ and not go back to the old covenant.
Fifth, John 5 does for the Sabbath what Acts 10 does for the Food Laws.
Finally, because John stresses the command “take up your bed” so much, it is important to return to this point. Namely, that Jesus’s command to “violate” the Sabbath is on par with the Lord’s command to violate the food laws. In Acts 10, Jesus commands Peter to “rise, kill, and eat.” And because this command directly breaks the Law of Moses, he has to say it three times (vv. 13–16). Similarly, the repeated command to get up and carry your burden on the Sabbath is equally destructive to the old covenant law.
For those who are trying to maintain the Sabbath, this violation is egregious. And yet, if Jesus is God and the Sabbath is sign of the old covenant, as Exodus 31:12–18 indicates, then this sign must give way to the substance (cf. Col. 2:16–17). And what is the substance? Christ!
Jesus is the one who gives rest to his people (cf. Hebrews 3–4). And in light of his coming, we can see clearly that the legal command to keep the Sabbath was always pointing to him. Written on tablets of stone, the Decalogue never gave Israel rest, because their hearts were always desperately sick. That’s the point of Jeremiah 17. But now, with the healing offered Christ’s resurrection, there is a promise that Sabbath rest is possible. And more—it is ongoing and ever present.
In other words under the old covenant, the joy of fellowship with God was limited to certain people (the priests and their people), in a certain place (the temple), and certain times of year (the Sabbatical calendar). But now, in Christ, the people of God are all priests, where access to God is never-ending, and when Sabbath rest every day of the year. This is why Christ is better. Or, to say it differently, this is why Jesus had to die under the old covenant, so that in his exaltation he could send the Spirit who would give true and lasting rest. The new covenant is fundamentally different because we have the Spirit, and this truth should inform everything.
Enjoying the Rest of the Lord
For these five reason, therefore, we do not need Israel’s food laws, a temple in Jerusalem, the Levitical priesthood, perpetual animal sacrifices, or an on-going Sabbath. What we need, we have in Christ. And possessing Christ he should inform and reform everything we do (Rom. 12:1–2), from the food we eat (1 Cor. 10:31), to the clothes we wear (1 Tim. 2:8–10), to the things we do—every day of the week (Rom. 14:5).
To that end may we order our lives according to Christ’s finished work. May we rest in him at all times, and may his invitation to find rest be the motivation that brings us to worship him on the Lord’s Day and that keeps us worshiping wherever he takes and and whenever we need him. This ubiquitous access to the Lord is another gift of the new covenant, but one that we will need to consider another day.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 This is the only reference to the people’s gate in all the Old Testament. This suggests that it is not one of the ten gates listed in Nehemiah 3. Rather, the people’s gate has the idea of a gate where many people come and go. As F. B. Huey notes, “Most likely it was a gate of the common people that led to the temple. It was a place where there would have been crowds at any time of the day to hear the prophet’s words” (Jeremiah, Lamentations, p. 178).