The Dawn of the New Creation: Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Creative Work of God

Moving on from there, He entered their synagogue. There He saw a man who had a paralyzed hand. And in order to accuse Him they asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” …

Then He told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out, and it was restored, as good as the other.

But the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him. (Matthew 12:9-10, 13-14)

In the Matthew 12 narrative about Jesus, the Sabbath, and the law, there’s something bigger and deeper in Jesus’s words and actions that I don’t want us to miss — a metanarrative that puts his actions into a breathtakingly bigger context.

Yes, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and he argued strongly for the lawfulness of that action even though many of the scholars of his day thought he was breaking the law of God.

And when we read the stories and see Jesus moved with compassion for crippled, broken, diseased, and hurting people, we can see how — impulsively, in the moment — he was moved to help them. He lived out the mercy of God concretely, putting empathy and compassion into action. As always, his actions were a window into the heart of the Father.

But if we’re paying attention, we might also notice the way the story repeats itself, in spite of growing controversy. All together, the four gospels speak of not one but seven healing miracles done on Sabbath days. One might almost think Jesus was going out of his way to heal on the Sabbath.

Why? Was he just trying to make a point about his authority, or about the relationship of justice (aka righteousness) and mercy?

It’s John, not Matthew, who makes the point most explicit. Once again, the context is a healing on the Sabbath day: in John 5, we read the story of the beggar at the pool of Bethesda, to whom Jesus restored strength after 38 years of infirmity.

In a familiar twist, the action brought opposition from the Pharisees and religious authorities in Jerusalem. But this time, when they challenged him on his actions, Jesus gave a strange response:

But Jesus responded to them, “My Father is still working, and I am working also.” (John 5:17)

What makes this statement so unexpected? It’s the phrase “My Father is working” — applied to the Sabbath.

Recall the origins of the Sabbath day, all the way back in Genesis 2:

So the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed. By the seventh day God completed His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from His work of creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)

In Exodus, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel, He again highlighted this reason for the Sabbath:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God … For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and called it holy. (Exodus 20:8-10a, 11)

Here it is, then, the holy hush, the startling announcement — the Lord God, who rested from all his works on the Sabbath day and consecrated it as a day of rest; the Creator, who completed all His work of creation by the seventh day,, is working again.

Working on the Sabbath.

What does this mean?

It means God is creating again.

And what does it look like, this work?

Restoring a man’s withered, paralyzed hand.

Restoring another man’s strength after 38 years.

Setting captives free, as he did in the exodus from Egypt.

(“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy … remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day,” Deuteronomy 5:12*)

In Jesus, God is doing something new. The old is passing away, as Paul would later tell us — and “Behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV).

This is what the day of visitation is ultimately all about. The Lord has come not merely to save us out of the world but to remake it — to create again, to bring a new creation out of the ruins of the old one.

The new creation is rooted in justice — the kind of restorative justice that brings healing and wholeness. It brings liberation, as the exodus did. It comes in creative power, spun into being by Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, just as the original creation was spoken into existence.

And much as the paralytic’s hand was “restored, as good as the other,” so the materials of new creation are, on the main, the healed and restored materials of the old. Paul, again, tells us that our bodies are not going to vanish away in eternal decay, but rather will be transformed as a seed is transformed into a tree. The old body and the new one won’t be the same by any measure, but they will be connected — there is continuity from one to the other (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

In other words, the new creation is not an abandonment of the old. God is not scrapping what he did before and starting over. And this is a great grace, because it means we will not be left behind.

“If your sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath day,” Jesus asked the Pharisees, “wouldn’t you reach in and pull it out? A man is worth more than a sheep, so it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath day.”

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, here simply tells us what how he sees things. His sheep have fallen into a pit. The original creation, the one finished in seven days, has fallen into darkness and corruption. We human beings are trapped in a pit of sin and broken relationships, of pain and unpayable debt, of infirmity and illness and aging and death.

Jesus looks at men and women and children and sees them as valuable. In his estimation, we are worth rescuing, even if it means “breaking all the rules.”

And so God has stirred himself out of his rest. He is creating again — in and through Jesus, for our sake.

*Thanks to Mark Buchanan for pointing out that creation and exodus are the two sabbath anchors given in the Old Testament. Mark’s book The Rest of God is a worthwhile read to form and enrich a Christian practice of Sabbath.


This is Part 209 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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