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shall have kept his mind unprejudiced and open to the truth, will find, with me, that of all the observances delivered to the Israelites, the sabbath, and, perhaps, the sabbath alone, was purely spiritual ; and, perhaps, in this review of the particular instances recorded by the evangelists, we shall find some few more little arguments, to prove that the law of the sabbath was to continue under the Christian dispensation and religion.
Of all the accounts given by the evangelists of such miracles as gave rise to discussions on the sabbath, perhaps the most important is the healing of the man at the Pool of Bethesda. It not only gave rise to a controversy between our Lord and the Jews at the time, but seemed to make a very strong impression upon the Jews, and to continue fresh in their memories until the following feast, which must have been at least four months after.
In the discussion on this miracle, he gives us a key formed by the hand of a master, by means of which we may arrive at a just conclusion in the consideration of this question. In a few words, he shows the faulty manner in which the Jews considered it, as well as the true mode in which it ought to be considered. In immediate connexion with the subject of the sabbath--the cause of the conversation-he says, (verse 24,) “ Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” The word here translated “ appearance,” (otev,) signifies the outward appearance or surface of any material body, as it presents itself to the eye; and, when applied in a figurative sense to a law, expresses the literal meaning of the law, as it first strikes the ear.
Our Saviour here cautions against this mode of interpretation, and forbids its use, and directs us to judge according to the spirit of the law, and, after accurately weighing the different parts of each particular case, and comparing one with the other, to give the preponderance to that which agrees with the spirit, over that which agrees with the letter and not with the spirit. This true mode of interpretation is given in the remainder of the verse. The word translated “ Judge,” (spevare,) is the word used for a judge, sitting in judgment and diligently investigating both sides of a question: the word translated “righteous,” (dikalos) is here taken in a legal rather than a religious sense, and means “just," as the same word is translated in a preceding chapter, v. 30; and in the septuagint translation of the Bible is used for a Hebrew word which primarily denotes the equipoise of a balance, or the equality of weights and measures. And this may show the true meaning of the word here as applied to a judge, forming his opinion from a diligent and discriminating review of both evidence and law, weighing evidence against evidence, or where one law clashes with another, or one part of a law with the other, considering the spirit of the laws and the intention of the legislator, and making his decision as agreeable to both as possible.
This first mode of judging according to the outside appearance or superficial view of the fourth commandment, was the error of the Jews. They supposed that the sabbath was to be hallowed for its own sake ;—that it was the matter of paramount consideration in the law ;-that man was an object of inferior and secondary consideration; and that his good, or his comfort, or even his safety, must give way to the superstitious, and almost idolatrous veneration which they paid to the sabbath. But our Lord, on the contrary, proceeds by the second mode of judging, by considering the spirit and intention of the law, and whenever its strict, literal interpretation may be irreconcilable with the spirit, or may clash with another law, by giving precedence to the more weighty and important. He shows that man is the paramount object, and the sabbath only secondary, “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath," and therefore whenever their interests clash, those of the sabbath, as being inferior, must give way to those of man as superior. The sabbath was instituted for the good of man. Its primary object was to keep up in the mind of man a knowledge of his Creator, a knowledge of true religion, and consequent practice of true holiness :--and the only way in which it was ever sanctified or hallowed, was by a command to man to keep it holy, by devoting it to the worship and praise of the great Creator, and to the acquirement and preservation of holiness. This was the primary object, and in paradise the sole object, for the spontaneous productions of willing nature left man sufficient time without a day of rest; the “rest” of the sabbath was of later appointment, when man, doomed to labour for his daily bread, required a provision to give him ample time and leisure for the primary object, and also required to have the day more particularly marked and separated, as a further security for the promotion of the primary objects of religion, worship, and holiness.
This was the view which our Saviour took, and which he wishes us and all Christians to take of it, and which he takes so many occasions of telling the Jews was the true and genuine spirit of their own laws. Wherever the primary object of religious worship was incompatible with rest, the latter, which was only the mean, was to give place to the former, which was the object and end. Thus as rest was commanded, to give leisure for a due observance of the sabbath, if at any time labour became a necessary mean, it became a duty, and suspended the rest, which not only ceased to be the mean, but counteracted the end. In proof of this, our Lord appealed to their own law, (Matt. xii. 5,) “ Have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath-days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless ?” By the law, a greater number of sacrifices were offered on the sabbath than on any other day, which being necessary for their worship, superseded the rest, and obliged the priest to labour twice as much on the sabbath as on other days. Hence, they might have learned the spirit of their law, and distinguished between the end or object, and the necessary means, and when both were incompatible, ought to have preferred the end. - Under the Levitical law, works were not only allowed, but ordered, on sabbaths. Lev. xxiii. 39–43, which prescribes and regulates the feast of tabernacles, says, “On the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day a sabbath; and ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and the boughs of thick trees and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” But this was for a religious purpose, and to keep up the knowledge of God and the remembrance of his mercies, and therefore not only allowable, but necessary; the object being thus stated, ver. 43: “ That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” And in Nehem. viii. 14--18, after reading the law, in obedience to this command, on the 15th day of the month the first day of the feast of tabernacles, which was a sabbath, the Jews were busily employed in building booths as prescribed above: and yet on this very day, Num. xxiv. 12, &c., they were forbidden to do any servile work.
And again, in Nehem. viii. 9-12, on the celebration of the first day of the seventh month, which was 'a sabbath, and on which no work was to be done, Ezra and Nehemiah issue these orders to the Jews, “ Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom
nothing is prepared. And all the people went their way, to eat and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.” If his Grace had lived then, what would he have thought of the great labour of building the booths for the whole nation to dwell in, when he considers the carrying of a bed by one man to his house, as abolishing the sabbath? What would he have thought of their sending portions of meat and drink everywhere through the city, when he looks upon the pulling of ears of corn and rubbing them in their hands by the disciples, also as an abolition of the fourth commandment? · Our Lord also instructs us, that the sabbath being made for the good of man, it is lawful to do good to man on that day, and consequently to do such works as may be necessary for that end, and even to supersede the prescribed rest Thus, he worked several miracles on that day for the very purpose of correcting their false notions, and he showed from their own laws and their own practice, that he acted according to the spirit and intention of the law. Thus it was lawful by their law to circumcise a child on the sabbath if it should happen to be the eighth day, because that was a religious ceremony, and necessary for the introduction of the child into covenant with God, and consequently productive of much good to the child. And our Lord argues, that if the law of Moses ordered a work on the sabbath which put an infant to severe pain, how could it be considered unlawful for him to remove pain and make a man altogether whole and healthy on that sacred day?
He also quotes their own allowed practice; if an ox or an ass should fall into a pit, they would not forbear the very great labour necessary for pulling it out. They would also loose their cattle and lead them out to water; and be it remembered, that in that country they would very often