The Sabbath of the Son of Man

Matthew 12:8 “For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.”

In Daniel’s visions the reader is given a glimpse into the purposes of God for the kingdoms of men in the midst of revelations of his own kingdom glory. Yet what is arguably the seer’s most preeminent vision in chapter 7 is not a great battle, a place of significance to mankind or an important time in history but a person: a king-like figure that is held out in stark contrast to the vanquished beasts who have ruled the affairs of men. For the prophet hears the voice say unto him: “And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion [is] an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom [that] which shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14) Such is Daniel’s glorious description of the Son of Man.

That the Lord Jesus uses such a title to speak of himself should hardly surprise us since the kingdoms of this world are quickly becoming his by virtue of his reign over all things for the sake of his church (Ephesians 1:21ff.). However it is important to note that this attribution has implications for more than just a general reign but that Jesus is even the master lawgiver himself. After all, a dominion implies laws, even as the people are said to serve him. His laws or his rules for obedience are, indeed, the standard by which we conduct ourselves as those who claim to follow him (John 14:15).

We do well to ask then: how do these commandments relate to the law of Moses? To what extent does the Son of Man carry on the legacy of the titular Old Testament lawgiver and to what extent does he make his own? To answer that question I would like to examine one commandment in particular: that of the Sabbath. I have primarily chosen the fourth commandment as my focal point because in our time it is one of the most neglected of the ten that God gave on Mount Sinai and particularly because many Christians today (in contradistinction to times past) think of it as a relic of previous era and having little or no practical importance for the Christian’s obedience to the Lord Jesus. As a matter of fact, Jesus had much to say about this subject, not only with respect to our adherence to it but its connection to his reign and rule as the Church’s only King and Head.

We encounter the title “Son of Man” 30 times in Matthew’s gospel, ranging from statements about Jesus’ purpose and mission in his earthly ministry, particularly those that emphasize his authoritative calling and work as the embodied and sanctioned representative of heaven on earth. For example, when Jesus public forgiveness of the paralytic raises the ire of his opponents, he replies by stating that he will prove that “the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” by healing the man of his infirmity. In such we see the universal authority of Christ to absolve the transgressions of men, even as would be later proclaimed by his authorized messengers who went forth in his name (Luke 24:47 & Acts 13:38). His authority, after all, is not merely limited to Israel, but “the Son of Man hath power on earth…” (emphasis mine). For, as Daniel said, all people, nations and languages will serve him.

Not surprisingly then, Jesus said in Matthew 20 “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death…” (vs. 18) “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (vs. 28) The atoning work of the Son of Man is not limited to the physical descendants of Abraham but for “many” or  all those who call upon the name of the Lord. 

Furthermore, the Lord did not limit this title to application of his priestly work but also that of his kingly office as well. In Matthew 16:27 Jesus predicted that the “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” Even though some have limited the meaning of this passage to the generation that originally heard these words,[1] the application appears to be broader by reference to “every man.” We can confirm this truth by looking at other scriptures where Jesus speaks in a similar fashion regarding the final judgment:

Matthew 24:27 “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be… vs. 30 “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Even “all the tribes” (φυλαί) of the earth will see the glorious appearance of the Son of man who comes, as Jesus says in Matthew 25:31, to separate the sheep and the goats in the eschaton. 

It appears, then, that the name “Son of Man” ought to promote serious reflection amongst believers as we consider that, even now, his authority and reign are not limited by our imagination nor power but that, even as he has promised, “all power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).

So what does this have to do with the fourth commandment? We return to the text under consideration: Matthew 12:8 “For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.” Here we have a universal and a particular. The universal is the Son of Man, even as we have seen that this title is given to Jesus with the implication of total or worldwide dominion. This is supported by the additional title attributed to him: “Lord.”[2] The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, that is he has ownership of it and is the sole governor of that day. It is neither dispensed by him nor neglected by him. It “also,” as everything else, comes under his dominion and within his sphere of influence.

The particular is the Sabbath day. Obviously Jesus had in mind one day, that is the Sabbath of the fourth commandment since that was what we was being accused of violating (vs. 2). Though many would argue in our time that Jesus is Lord of every day or that every day becomes a Sabbath in the new covenant, it is the holy day that His heavenly Father has instituted that our Lord is talking about (Genesis 2:3).  

We should also note that Jesus did not admit to breaking the Sabbath, nor did he excuse his disciples for doing the same. Rather, he argues, in a somewhat rabbinical fashion, that attending to the necessities of life (in the case of David) or service in the temple (in the case of the priests) does not violate the Sabbath that God gave. Furthermore, in the following story, having been presented with a man who needed healing, Jesus protests the narrow view of the day cast by his opponents by stating “it it lawful (έξεστι)  to do well on the Sabbath day.”

But one might say, the Sabbath was only binding for the Old Testament saints. Jesus reinforced Sabbath keeping for his disciples but has now loosed us from all adherence to such laws. 

In reply, let us consider the following:

1) According to Jesus own teaching in the parallel text in Mark “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath” Mark 2:27-28 (emphasis mine). Here two streams of thought converge. The first we have already considered: the universal Lordship of the Son of Man and second, the universal application or rule of the sabbath due to it being a creation ordinance. It was not Israel alone who was bound to keep the Sabbath day but all men due to it being instituted at creation.

2) The wording is similar to other statements in Matthew which also admit to universal appplication.[3] Perhaps the most significant for our purposes here is Jesus’ teaching about marriage since it too is rooted in creation (as recounted in Matthew 19:3ff). Although Jesus’ says that the allowance for divorce under the Mosaic economy was a temporary administration for hardened hearts (vs. 7-8), it was not so in the beginning (vs. 4-6, citing Genesis 1:27 & 2:24). Here the Lord strengthens (not undermines) the creation ordinance of marriage by appeal to his own authority to now bind the conscience of his hearers (Matthew 19:9). The Mosaic allowance was a temporary ordinance and thus did not overrule the original intent of God in paradise. Rather, the law of marriage is all the more binding under the reign of Christ.

3) As others have noted, he is (present tense) and thus, as is implied, continues to be the Lord of the Sabbath. Thus as the one by whom all things were made ordained a Sabbath as the capstone of the creation week (John 1:3 cf. Genesis 2:2-3), so also in the sin cursed world has he provided a rest for our souls as the capstone of our redemption.[4] Indeed, this is the day that the head stone has made (Psalm 118:22-24 cf. Acts 2:10-11).

4) The Old Testament prophets assumed that Sabbath keeping would be requisite for Jew and Gentile (Isaiah 56:6; 66:23). Moreover, Jesus expected his disciples to practice Sabbath keeping: Matthew 24:20.[5]

So to summarize: 1) the Son of Man has universal authority and jurisdiction, that is in all times and in all places 2) Jesus as Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath 3) the Son of Man does not dispense with the Sabbath but rather (re)states his allegiance to the Sabbath’s abiding rule in his life as well as that of his disciples 4) Jesus teaches about the Sabbath from the standpoint of creation 5) implying his continued Lordship over the Sabbath until the present time thus 6) the Sabbath is still binding on all believers in all times and every place. It is neither merely Jewish nor temporary but a commandment that continues under the direction of King Jesus, the Son of Man. Indeed, it should be no surprise that, as predicted (Daniel 7:14 cf. Daniel 2:35) the Lord Jesus extends his reign over all kingdoms by imposing his day upon the calendars of men. May all people, everywhere, give him glory on his day! (Psalm 118:24)

1Due to the following verse: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Matthew 16:28
2Cf. Revelation 1:10 “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.”
3. “But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4
“And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:19
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
“Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 10:32
4. Hence one argument for the change of the day unto the first day of the week (see John 20:1,19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2 & Revelation 1:10, as prefigured in the old economy Leviticus 23:36 & Numbers 29:35).
5. Some will find this reference lacking since, as they would contend, Paul clearly puts aside Sabbath observance once and for all (Colossians 2:16-17). A fuller treatment of this text would have to wait for another post but as Mr. Fairbairn has already furnished one I thought it would be best to include it here: “there was nothing in the Sabbath of earlier times properly shadowy, or typical of redemption. It commenced before sin had entered, and while yet there was no need for a Redeemer. Nor was there any thing properly typical in the observance of it imposed in the fourth commandment; for this was a substantial re-enforcement of the primary institution, in its bearing on the general relation of men to God, and of members of society to each other. When associated with the typical services of the old covenant, the same thing virtually happened to it as with circumcision, which was the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant of grace, and had no immediate connection with the law of Moses; while yet it became so identified with that law, that it required to be supplanted by another ordinance of nearly similar import when the seed of blessing arrived, in which the Abrahamic covenant was to find its fulfilment. So great had the necessity become for the abolition of the one ordinance and the introduction of the other, that the apostle virtually declares it to have been indispensable, when he affirms (in his Epistle to the Galatians), of those who would still be circumcised, that they were debtors to do the whole law. At the same time, as regards the original design and spiritual import of circumcision, this he makes coincident with baptism—speaks here (v. 11) of baptized believers as the circumcision of Christ; and so presents the two ordinances as in principle most closely associated with each other, differing in form rather than in substance. We have no reason to suppose his meaning to be different in regard to the Sabbath; it is gone so far as its outward rest on the seventh day formed part of the typical things of Judaism, but no further. Its primeval character and destination remain. As baptism in the Spirit is Christ’s circumcision, so the Lord’s day is His Sabbath; and to be in the Spirit on that day, worshipping and serving Him in the truth of His Gospel, is to carry out the intent of the fourth commandment.” Fairbairn, Patrick. The Revelation of Law in Scripture. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 1996, page 474. In addition, the reader should consult this excellent article from R. Scott Clark:

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