Why do we make so many Amazon purchases? Why do we use DoorDash to get food without leaving the house? Why do we binge-watch Netflix for hours on end without even pressing a button? Why do we buy roombas? Keurigs? Microwavable waffles and pizza rolls? Because we like when things are easy. We want to get from point A to point B as fast as we can. It might not build much character, but it sure gets things done more quickly!
When it comes to taking the long way to do things, Israel takes the cake. As a whole, most countries do not have strict laws for how to complete daily tasks. On any given day, if we want to tie our shoes, we tie our shoes. If we want to turn on the light, we turn on the light. If we want to go somewhere, we get in our cars and drive. Israelis don’t do these things on the Sabbath, or Shabbat in Hebrew. From Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, they play by a different set of rules—not by choice, for many of them.
The Laws of Division
Israelis in large part follow Jewish law, halacha. As established in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the Law requires Israelis to set apart Shabbat as a day of rest. While most Israelis observe Shabbat in some way, how much they do so depends on which of three groups they fall under:
• Orthodox: strict obedience to biblical and rabbinic Shabbat laws
• Traditional: keep Shabbat laws but are more agreeable to breaking some for convenience
• Secular: do not go out of their way to follow Shabbat laws
Israel has traditionally followed the preferences of the first two groups for Shabbat legislation. As most businesses are expected to keep Shabbat, those that don’t, mainly those in the secular city of Tel Aviv, are subject to fines under a Supreme Court ruling. This creates tension between secular and non-secular Israelis.
To ensure they are strictly obedient to God’s Law, the Orthodox have created regulations that God did not order, placing a burden on themselves and those under their jurisdiction.
These laws extend to the smaller details of daily activities. Notably, they forbid the use of electrical items on this day of rest. This causes issues for people in many regards. For example, Israelis who live on the upper levels of high-rise buildings can’t use the elevator on Shabbat. Pressing the button for their floor would violate halacha because of the use of electricity. To work around this issue, custom-built Shabbat elevators were created to stop on each floor, allowing people to eventually reach their floor. But even this innovation sparked sharp debate when one of Israel’s leading rabbis ruled that they cannot be used, as simply having people stand in the elevator would cause more electricity to be used to power its movement.
Ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset, Israel’s governing body, have used their considerable influence to make laws like these. To ensure they are strictly obedient to God’s Law, the Orthodox have created regulations that God did not order, placing a burden on themselves and those under their jurisdiction. In their positions of power, they cause everyone, both religious and secular, to follow their interpretation of Jewish law. This stirs up further resentment between Orthodox Jewish Israelis and secular Israelis.
Lord of the Sabbath
Unfortunately, the way this plays out reminds us of a parallel from God’s Word. As the Orthodox do now, the Pharisees believed their strict obedience to their own man-made laws (though they originally stemmed from God’s Law) would save them. So they imposed their beliefs and way of life on the people of Israel in Jesus’ time, too. But Jesus’ words and works undid this. He showed Israel salvation didn’t come by following the laws of the Pharisees; it came through faith in Him alone.
Jesus showed Israel salvation didn’t come by following the laws of the Pharisees; it came through faith in Him alone.
To illustrate this truth, Scripture records seven miracles Jesus performed on the Sabbath, much to the Pharisees’ disgust.
1. Jesus healed a man with a wicked spirit (Mark 1:21–28).
Immediately after calling Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow Him as His disciples, Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath. A man with an unclean spirit cried out against Him, but Jesus rebuked him and called the spirit out of the man.
2. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29–31).
After leaving the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus went to Simon and Andrew’s house. When they told him Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a fever, He wasted no time making her well. When He took her by the hand, she was healed.
3. Jesus healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1–6).
Jesus addressed the Pharisees who were hoping to catch Him breaking the Law by healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Jesus changed their focus by asking them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” His question silenced them, and He healed the man in their presence, causing them to plot to kill Him.
4. Jesus healed a lame man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–18).
When Jesus saw this man who had struggled with his infirmity for 38 years, He healed him by His Word alone, saying, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” The Jewish people rebuked the man, focusing more on his carrying his bed on the Sabbath than on his miraculous healing. When the man told the people what Jesus had done, they wanted to kill Jesus both for healing on the Sabbath and for claiming equality with God.
5. Jesus healed a crippled woman (Luke 13:10–17).
In a similar situation, Jesus encountered and healed a woman who suffered with an infirmity for 18 years. When He was publicly rebuked this time, Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the ruler of the synagogue and his followers. This time, His critics had no response. They were merely put to shame.
6. Jesus healed a man with dropsy (Luke 14:1–6).
In this instance, it seems the Pharisees had learned their lesson. Before healing a man, Jesus again asked if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. They didn’t answer. He healed the man, drove His point about their hypocrisy home by questioning their own behavior, and received no answer again.
7. Jesus healed a blind man (John 9).
The Pharisees were baffled by Jesus’ work in this instance. The man was blind from birth, and after Jesus told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam, he could see. They looked for every excuse they could think of to explain the miracle. Finally, they said Jesus could not be from God because He healed on the Sabbath. But the formerly blind man’s words in verse 25 say it best: “One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.”
Not Destroyed, Not Able to Save, But Fulfilled
It is important to note that Jesus was not trying to insult or kill off the Law itself. After all, God the Father created the Law for His people out of love; and Jesus, being God, would not contradict Himself. Instead Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). He neither obeyed the Pharisees’ burdensome laws nor demolished the Law of God. Instead, He was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s commandments, the only sinless person who could fully obey God and bring His Law to perfect completion.
Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s commandments, the only sinless person who could fully obey God and bring His Law to perfect completion.
Jesus taught these Pharisees several overarching themes—among them, that He was the Son of God and Lord of the Sabbath. But the lesson we must understand, which would also help the Orthodox in Israel today, is that the Law cannot save us. It’s not our own works that redeem us. No matter how hard we try, we will always fall short of God’s Law. The Orthodox cannot attain the righteousness they seek by their own works. When they impose rigid laws on the people because they hope to perfectly follow the Law on their own, they’re not encouraging secular Israelis to draw closer to God. Their actions probably turn away more people than they attract.
But God has given us a greater gift! He revealed the righteousness of God apart from the Law, which we find through faith in Jesus the Messiah (Romans 3:21–22). Truly, it is by grace we have been saved through faith, not of ourselves; it is the gift of God, not of our own works (Ephesians 2:8–9).
The grace and salvation that Jesus Christ provides is a freedom that cannot be taken away. We are not bound by the law of sin; instead we walk by the law of grace. Paul taught that “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin” (Romans 8:2–3). Because Jesus fulfilled the Law and did away with the law of sin, we can walk in newness of life (6:4).
Praise God for this unsurpassable joy, and pray for the day that all of Israel will be saved (11:26).