18. The Great Sabbath Controversy (Luke 6:1-11)
My friend Al, who works at the auto parts house I frequent, pointed me to his new “jokes” posted on the front of the counter. I could not help but laugh at the way in which the four types of government were compared, using two cows. SOCIALISM would have you give one of your cows to your neighbor and keep the other. COMMUNISM would insist that you give both cows to the state, and occasionally you might be fortunate enough to get a little milk or butter. NAZISM would shoot you and take both of your cows. In a DEMOCRACY you would sell one cow and buy a bull. To this I would add one more category—LEGALISM. Legalism would lay down so many rules and regulations concerning the keeping of cows that nobody would want them anyway!
Legalism is a deadly system, one which characterized the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, and which was evident in their attitudes and actions as we see Luke describing them in our text. Specifically, the legalism of the Pharisees was dramatically evident in their rules pertaining to the keeping of the Sabbath. Concerning the legalism of the Pharisees with regard to the Sabbath, Shepard writes:
“The Mishna says: ‘He that reapeth corn on the Sabbath to the quantity of a fig is guilty; and plucking corn is reaping.’ Rubbing the grain out was threshing. Even to walk on the grass on the Sabbath was forbidden because it was a species of threshing. Another Talmudic passage says: ‘In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered sifting; if she rubs the head of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing’ [Jer. Shabt, page 10a]. The scrupulosity of these Jews about Sabbath was ridiculously extreme. A Jewish sailor caught in a storm after sunset on Friday refused to touch the helm though threatened with death. Thousands had suffered themselves to be butchered in the streets of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes rather than lift a weapon in self-defense on the Sabbath! To these purists, the act of the disciples was a gross desecration of the Sabbath law. The worst of all was that Jesus permitted and approved it.”118
Shepard is referring to the Sabbath laws of Jesus’ day, but it would be incorrect to suppose that things have improved with time. A friend loaned me a book by Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth entitled, Shemirath Shabbath: A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath.119 This volume (my friend reminds me that it is the first volume) goes into great detail concerning the interpretation and application of the Sabbath for contemporary Judaism. In the preface to this work the author writes,
“The Mishna (Chagiga: Chapter 1, Mishna 8) likens the laws of Shabbath to ‘mountains hanging by a hair,’ in that a multitude of precepts and rules, entailing the most severe penalties for their breach, depend on the slightest of indications given by a biblical verse.”120
He also reminds us of the importance which Judaism has and continues to place on the keeping of the Sabbath:
“May we be privileged, by virtue of the proper observance of the Shabbath, to see the final redemption of Israel. ‘Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, ‘“Were Israel properly to observe two Shabbathoth, they would immediately be redeemed’”(Shabbath 118b). Until such time, God’s only dwelling-place on this earth is within the four walls of the Halacha (Berachoth 8a).”121
The book contains much instruction about the keeping of the Sabbath, but I will mention only a few. As I do this, I confess that it is somewhat “tongue in cheek,” but I would hasten to point out that the legalism which is apparent here is frequently found within evangelical Christianity as well. If we would smile at the “straining of gnats here” let us laugh at our own “strainings” as well.
Cooking in most all forms (boiling, roasting, baking, frying, etc.) is forbidden on the Sabbath, in particular when the temperature is raised above 45 degrees centigrade (113 Farenheit).122 If the hot water tap is accidentally left on, it cannot be turned off on the Sabbath.123 Escaping gas can be turned off, but not in the normal way. One must turn off the tap of a gas burner with the back of the hand or the elbow.124 The preparation of food is greatly affected by the Sabbath. One cannot squeeze a lemon into a glass of ice tea, but one can squeeze lemon on a piece of fish.125 That one cannot light a fire on the Sabbath is taught in the Old Testament law (cf. Exod. 35:3). Strict Judaism views this to prohibit turn electric lights on or off on the Sabbath. The problem can be solved, however, but using a timer, which automatically handles this task.126 So, too, an air conditioner cannot be turned on by a Jew on the Sabbath, although a Gentile might be persuaded to do so.127 One cannot bathe with a bar of soap on the Sabbath, but liquid detergent is acceptable.128
I found the section dealing with “discovered articles” (pp. 233-235) most interesting. One is prohibited from transporting goods on the Sabbath. This would prevent merchants conducting business on the Sabbath. It has been so highly refined (defined?) that now one cannot carry something which he unknowingly took with him. If one is walking along on the Sabbath and discovers that he is carrying something in his pocket, he has several courses of action so as not to violate the Sabbath. He may, for example, drop the item out of his pocket, but not in the normal or usual fashion (by grasping it, removing it from the pocket, and dropping it on the floor). He can, however, reverse his pocket, expelling the object unnaturally, and thus legitimately. If the item is valuable, and he does not wish to leave it on the ground, he can ask a Gentile to watch the item for him. Otherwise, the item could be carried, but not in the usual way. He can carry it for a prescribed distance (just under four amoth), put it down, then take it up, and so on. Or, the man could relay it between himself and a fellow-Israelite, each one carrying the object for no more than the prescribed distance. If this is not advisable, the object can be carried in an unusual way, such as placing it in the shoe, tying it to his leg, or managing to suspend it between his clothing and his body.
The keeping of the Sabbath is, to some, not only a matter which is taken seriously, but which is taken to almost humorous extremes. One can well imagine, then, that the Pharisees would be zealous in seeing what our Lord did with respect to their Sabbath regulations. While we may not struggle with the keeping of the Sabbath, we should struggle with the problem of legalism, as it raises its ugly head in the keeping of our Lord’s commandments to His followers. Let us listen well to learn how we may be as legalistic as the Pharisees, and not even know it.
The Structure and
Context of our Passage
Verses 1-11 of the sixth chapter of Luke’s gospel deal with the subject of the keeping of the Sabbath, according to the Pharisaical interpretation of the law. This passage has two major divisions. Verses 1-5 give an account of the protest of the Pharisees and the response of our Lord, stemming from the “harvesting” of food on the Sabbath by Jesus’ disciples. Verses 6-11 deal with Jesus’ healing of the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.
In chapter 6 (actually a larger portion of the text) Luke is not concerned with providing us with a precise chronology. This can be seen by the vague time references (“on a certain Sabbath,” 6:1; “on another Sabbath,” 6:6). It is also hinted at by the fact that the arrangement of Luke (followed here by Mark as well) does not match that of Matthew. While Mark and Luke go immediately from the account of the call of Levi, the banquet which he gave, and the resulting barrage of questions, to the Sabbath controversy. Matthew, however, records the call of Levi in chapter 9 and does not deal with the Sabbath controversy until chapter 12.
Luke’s purpose is to prepare his reader for the rejection, arrest, conviction, and execution of Jesus by his opponents by laying the groundwork early in the book, which clarifies the issues which made enemies of the Pharisees (in particular) and the other Jewish leaders, as well as with the masses (hinted at in the Nazareth incident in Luke 4:16-30). The masses rejected Jesus because He would bring blessings on the Gentiles (Luke 4:16-30). The Pharisees rejected Jesus because He claimed to be God (5:17-26), because He associated with sinners (5:27-39), and now, because He did not keep the Sabbath as they interpreted it (6:1-6). These issues will dominate the relationship between the Pharisees and Jesus, culminating in His crucifixion. The section which we are studying provides us with the “continental divide” of the gospels.
While in chapter 5 the Pharisees (first mentioned by Luke in conjunction with the pronouncement to the paralytic that his sins were forgiven) object to Jesus’ authority to forgive sins, they do not seem to have come to a resolved opposition against Him. When we come to verses 6-11 in chapter 6, they have their minds made up. They are no longer looking for evidence as a basis for making a decision about Jesus, they are looking for proof the validate their rejection of Him. What began with curiosity, and led to concern, has, by the time we have reached our text, become condemnation and criticism.
The Approach of the Message
In this message we will begin by considering the objection of the Pharisees to the trivial act of the disciples of our Lord of eating of the grain from the fields, through which they were passing. We will then explore some of the responses which our Lord could have made, but did not. Then we will consider the response which He did make, along with its implications. Next, we will look at the Lord’s healing of the man with the withered hand, seeking to learn the critical differences between our Lord’s understanding of the Sabbath, and that of the Pharisees. Finally, we will attempt to discover how the error of the Pharisees has its counterparts in our day and time, and even in our church! We will conclude by pointing out some of the crucial principles which our text can teach us about God’s commandments.
The Disciples Go Against the Grain of Pharisaism
(The Horrible Harvest)
The Lord Jesus and His disciples were passing through some grain fields on the Sabbath, followed by a delegation of Pharisees. Perhaps a crowd of other followed as well. Why were the Pharisees present? I believe that the Pharisees stuck closely to Jesus just as the press does to some noted dignitary, hoping for something to happen (usually bad). The Pharisees knew that Jesus’ popularity was growing steadily. They also were becoming alarmed at the realization that Jesus was not in their camp, indeed, was often attacking them (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, which comes before this incident in Matthew’s account). They were afraid to leave Jesus to Himself, unwatched, unchallenged. Furthermore, they were eager to catch Jesus in some transgression of their rules, so that they could point their fingers at Him and accuse Him of being wrong.
On this Sabbath day, we might imagine some of the Pharisees badgering Jesus with a constant barrage of questions, hoping to trap Him. Another group may have been counting the steps our Lord was taking, since they would only allow a limited amount of travel on the Sabbath. Much to their delight, some of the disciples (who were seemingly oblivious to the legalism of the Pharisees) began to strip heads of grain from the field, rub them in their hands to separate the grain from the sheaf, and pop it into their mouths. This, to the Pharisee, was harvesting and threshing grain, something which one could do on any other day, but not on the Sabbath. The challenge was made, both to Jesus (Matthew and Mark) and to the disciples (Luke), “How the Sabbath be so blatantly broken by doing this?”
Jesus had several options available to Him in what He could have said in response to this challenge:
(1) “I DIDN’T DO IT!” Jesus is not said to have done as His disciples did in the text, nor is He accused of doing so by the Pharisees. The easiest thing for Jesus to have done was simply to point out that He was not guilty of their charge, that their charge to Him was misdirected. Jesus refused to do this however, taking responsibility for the conduct of His disciples. Jesus argued on the premise that what He could do, His disciples could do. Jesus wanted to argue His point here, and did not miss the opportunity to do so by using a technicality.
(2) “THAT’S JUST YOUR INTERPRETATION OF THE LAW OF THE SABBATH.” The Sabbath commandment is incredibly concise: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
Even the related texts which expand on the application of this law are not lengthy or detailed (cf. eg. Exod. 31:12-17; 35:2-3; Lev. 23). When the actions of our Lord’s disciples are viewed through the lens of the Old Testament law, there was nothing wrong with them. Viewed through the lens of the legalism of the Pharisees, their actions were heinous. Jesus could very easily have pointed out to His critics that there was a world of difference between the Pharisaic interpretation of the law and the actual law itself.
Jesus does not want to argue about different methods of interpretation here. The Sermon on the Mount, as recorded by Matthew, does spell out the differences between the correct interpretation of the law and those of the Pharisees, but this is not His purpose here. As I understand this text, Jesus wants to establish His right to violate the law, even though He has not done so.129 He therefore grants His opponents their argument (that it was unlawful to harvest on the Sabbath, as the disciples had done) and presses on to show that they were wrong in accusing Him, not because of a wrong interpretation of the Sabbath, but because Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, had the right to break the Sabbath.
Our Lord’s argument, as outlined by Luke, is based upon a very simple premise: WHO YOU ARE DETERMINES WHETHER OR NOT YOU ARE FREE TO BREAK THE SABBATH
We could go into very great detail in seeking to see the parallels between Jesus and David, or to justify David’s violation of the sacredness of the bread which he ate, and which he gave to his men (his disciples) as well. Let us not do so, however, for the point is more forceful when we take the Lord’s words on face value.
Jesus responded to the harassing questions of the Pharisees with a stinging introduction: “Have you not even read … ?” (v. 3).
The Pharisees were professional students of the law. This was their high calling in life, their claim to fame. Jesus began by asking these scholars if they had ever even read the text to which He referred. It is His way of saying, “You question is a very elementary one, and one that reveals a very poor grasp of the Scriptures.” These words must have come as a slap in the face to the proud students of the law.
Jesus’ argument was amazingly simple: “David broke the law, and if he could have done so, I all the more.” Technically speaking, David did break the letter of the law when he ate bread that only the priests were allowed to partake of. David also gave this bread to his men, and was not to be condemned for doing so.
Why didn’t the Pharisees condemn David’s actions? This is the question which Jesus seems to be pressing. David’s actions could be justified by several lines of argument. David was hungry, as were his men. He might have died without this bread. The answer which Jesus is seeking is something different, however. Jesus wants His critics to admit that they don’t condemn David’s actions because David did them. David was so revered by the Pharisees that they dared not condemn his actions here, even though a technical violation of the law.
The point of this line of argumentation is now about to be pressed home. If David could break the law (prohibiting any but the priests from eating the sacred bread) because of who he was, Jesus could also break the law, for He is even greater than David. Who you are determines what you can get away with. The central issue, then, was not whether or not Jesus broke the Sabbath, but who Jesus was. Once the Pharisees rejected Jesus as the Son of God, as Israel’s Messiah, then He must be held accountable for keeping all of the law. There was no protest against Jesus’ miracles on the Sabbath (cf. Luke 4:31-37) until after Jesus rejection by the Pharisees.
Jesus’ statement indicated who He was, which entitled Him to break the law: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5).
The term, “the Son of Man” has only once been used previously by Luke, and that at the time of the Pharisees rejection of Jesus’ authority to forgive sins. The Old Testament meaning of this title, found predominantly in Ezekiel, would suggest that Messiah would reveal the sins of the nation Israel, for which He would be rejected and persecuted. Jesus began to use the title for Himself at the first evidences of rejection.
The second expression, “Lord of the Sabbath” is even more significant. I believe that it may have a two-pronged meaning. First, Jesus may be claiming here to be the Sabbath’s Lord in the sense that He is the fulfillment of all that the Sabbath was to foreshadow (cf. Col. 2:16-17). The rest which the old Sabbath promised has come in Christ: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
If Jesus has fulfilled the Sabbath by coming with a greater rest, then the commandment to keep the Sabbath can be set aside. Why work to rest under the law when Christ gives rest from the law?
Furthermore, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath in the sense that He is greater than the Sabbath, and thus able to set it aside. To be Lord of the Sabbath is to be Lord over the Sabbath.130 When Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath, He claimed to be greater than the Sabbath, in authority over the Sabbath, and thus far more qualified than David to break the law pertaining to the Sabbath.131
The Healing of the
Man with the Withered Hand
Luke does not record any response to Jesus’ defense of His disciples’ action. My guess is that the Pharisees went off, stunned, silent, and sullen. Another Sabbath incident is recorded by Luke in verses 6-11 which was, according to the Pharisees, was a transgression of our Lord, who did the “work” of healing on the Sabbath.
There was a man present as Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath, who had a withered hand. The scribes and the Pharisees were well aware of this man’s presence (had he been “planted” by them?), and they were sure that our Lord would heal him. They were waiting for the occasion, so that they could accuse Jesus. They wanted the man healed, but not fore his benefit. Jesus wanted the man healed for the man’s benefit. How right Jesus had been to point out (according to Matthew’s account, Matt. 12:7), that the governing principle in keeping the law, especially the Sabbath law, was not sacrifice or ritual, but mercy and compassion. These Pharisees had no compassion on the man with the withered hand, and yet they were certain that Jesus would have compassion on Him. They, in their lack of compassion, sought to use the compassion of Christ to their advantage. What a contrast in the character of our Lord with that of His enemies.
I do not know whether the man caught Jesus’ eye, or if he plead for mercy and healing, or whether he was pointed out to Jesus by the Pharisees or others. We are told that Jesus was aware of the man, as well as of the scheme to accuse Him (Luke 6:6-8). How easy it would have been for our Lord to avoid this conflict. He could have privately instructed the man to meet Him at another time or at another place, so as to avoid the attack of the Pharisees.
Jesus did not do so however. Jesus wanted to face the issue head-on. He called for the man to come forward, in the sight of all. Jesus wished to make an issue of the healing of this man on the Sabbath. Here was the very heart of the conflict between Jesus and His opponents, the scribes and Pharisees. The issue which Jesus wished to raise was the purpose of the precept. Why was the Sabbath Law given? The Pharisees concentrated on the negatives, on the “Don’ts” of life. Jesus on the affirmatives. The Pharisees thought that the more a man suffered (fasting, tithes), the more spiritual he was. Jesus ate and drank, a matter of discussion in the immediately preceding context.
Jesus therefore posed this question, in essence:
IS THE SABBATH GIVEN TO MAKE MAN MISERABLE, OR AS A SOURCE OF BLESSING? IS THE SABBATH GIVEN FOR MAN’S BLESSING, OR TO BE A BURDEN? IS THE SABBATH THE TIME FOR DOING GOOD OR FOR DOING EVIL?
The Pharisaical view of the Sabbath would reluctantly allow for one to work to render aid to a dying man, to one in such dire straits that he would not live till the Sabbath had ended. But the man with the withered hand did not fit into such a category. He would live. His malady was not life-threatening. The Pharisees therefore believed that Jesus should wait to heal this man. Jesus, by His actions, was raising the question, “Why?”
Jesus looked about, studying His audience, and, according to Mark’s account, angered by the hardness of heart of His accusers (Mark 3:5). He seemed to let the question simmer in their minds. What was the Sabbath for, to make men miserable, or to be a blessing? If the Sabbath was for good, then doing good on the Sabbath could hardly be wrong. If the Sabbath was not given as a blessing for man, then doing good on the Sabbath would be wrong. It was that simple. Why was the Sabbath given, for good or evil?
Jesus answered the question by His deeds. He instructed the man to stretch out his hand (Dr. Luke, incidentally, alone informs us that it was his right hand—what a man of detail!). When he did so, it was healed. I have to smile because Jesus actually did nothing other than to speak. He did not reach out and touch the man. He did not even command him to be whole. He instructed him to hold out his hand, which as he did so, became healed. Technically speaking, the way in which Jesus performed this miracle kept Him from breaking even the strict and legalistic rules of the Pharisees. Tee Hee.
The Pharisees were not giggling, however. They were seething with anger (v. 11). They went off in a huff, to deliberate among themselves (Mark tells us that they included their enemies, the Herodians,132 and that they discussed how to kill Jesus, Mark 3:6) as to how to handle Jesus.
The Pharisees are now the bitter enemies of Jesus. They are not interested in following Him. They are no longer open to the possibility of His being the Messiah. They only wish to be rid of Him, something which they will only later be able, in the providence of God, be able to achieve. The Sabbath controversy was, for them, the last straw. Jesus and they were deadlocked in a conflict which was irreconcilable so long as they stubbornly resisted the Son of God and persisted in their sins (they didn’t repent, they just fasted so as to pretend they were repentant).
Our text does far more than reveal the sinfulness of the Pharisees, and the silliness of their interpretation and application of the Sabbath. We can learn several vitally important principles from this passage. Let me summarize them in conclusion.
(1) There is not a direct cause-effect relationship between legality and morality.
The Pharisees wrongly concluded that by keeping (their interpretation of) the law, they would be righteous. They thought that legality insured morality. This has always been wrong. As a friend of mine has said, there are many crimes that are not sins and there are many sins that are not crimes. Witnessing, spanking disobedient children, and meeting as a church in a home may become illegal, but they will not because of this become immoral acts. So, too, abortion may now be legal, but it is still an immoral act. Legality and morality are not the same. Legalists do not see this, and thus they are always law-minded for the wrong reasons. Law-abiding people are still sinners. Indeed, the purpose of the law was never to make men righteous, but to prove men sinners.
(2) There is not a direct, one-toone relationship between our interpretation of the Law and the Law itself.
The Pharisees had obviously confused or blended their interpretation of the law with the law itself. In other words, their interpretations of the law were the final authority. I believe that our Lord did not argue this point at this time for at least two reasons. First, He wanted to demonstrate His freedom from the law, not just from their interpretation of it. Second, he knew that the were unable and unwilling to distinguish the two from each other (their understand of the law from the law itself). Confusing our interpretation with the inspired Word of God sanctifies our opinions, even our errors, and makes it a mortal sin for men to differ with us. Let us be on guard about equating our perception of the truth with the truth itself. There is often a great deal of difference.
(3) The precepts of the Law must always be applied in the light of the principles of God’s Word.
To the legalist, it is the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law that is supreme. Legalists, like a bureaucratic IRS agent (I do not say all are this way), looks not at the intent of the law, but only at the inscribed law. It is a scary thing to see what legalists can do to any law when they refuse to interpret that law in the light of the spirit in which it was given.
I believe that the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew’s account, is our Lord’s interpretation of the Old Testament law, based not upon the letter of the law, but upon its spirit. In this, Jesus set Him interpretation of the law in opposition to that of the Pharisees. In this, Jesus sought to demonstrate that His handling of the Old Testament law was consistent with the original intent of God when it was given. The law is thus to be interpreted in terms of its original intent, rather than upon a rigid legalism.
In the United States, we have an illustration of how devastating legalism can be. The Supreme Court was created to be the final interpretive authority, the final judge, as to the meaning of the law. This court was to interpret the law in the light of the purpose for which that law was originally written. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has now become a kind of second legislative body, no longer judging the laws in terms of the intent of the framers of the constitution, but by the standards and purposes they wish to achieve. How tragic! How like the legalism of the Pharisees, who sought to impose their own agenda on God’s laws.
(4) The precepts of the Law are to be understood and applied in the light of the person who gave them.
From what we know about the Pharisees, they must have had a very distorted view of God. If they thought they were godly they must also have thought they were God-like. Thus, they very likely viewed God as a person who found little to enjoy, and much to agonize over. Holiness consisted not so much in positive, affirmative actions as in what one didn’t do.
One’s view of God would greatly shape the way in which one interprets and applies God’s commandments. Thus, having a very negative God-image (may I alter the over-worked self-image term?), one would view the commandments in their most negative light. Think about it for a moment. Suppose that you worked for a company which had a set of policies for all its employees. If you had a very strict and harsh manager, you would interpret the rules very conservatively. If, on the other hand, you had a very kind, understanding and tolerant manager, you would tend to interpret the company rules more liberally. You would not always assume the worst.
Jesus claimed to be God, as the Pharisees well knew, but He did not conform to their conception of God. Jesus was, as Jonah similarly protested, a gracious and compassionate God, a God who delighted in the salvation of men. Jonah and the Pharisees were not compassionate, as Jesus pointed out (Matt. 9:13; 12:7; Hos. 6:6). Note that in both instances of our Lord’s reference to Hosea 6:6 in Matthew, it is addressed to the Pharisees. Jesus was too kind, too caring, too forgiving, too intimate with sinners. A harsh conception of God led the Pharisees to a harsh interpretation of the law. Knowing the Rule-Maker is one of the greatest keys to understanding the rules which He has made.
(5) The Law must always be interpreted and applied in the light of the covenant of which it is a part.
Think about it for a moment. Why do we not live under the laws of the 3rd Reich, or of Contemporary Russia, for example? The reason is simple: Laws are but a definition of the kind of conduct which a given government requires. The nature of the government determines the nature of the laws. An atheistic government may have laws prohibiting religious meetings, worship, or propagation. A truly communistic government will likely have laws which prohibit free enterprise. Laws are a reflection of a given government, a clarification and definition of how life is to be lived under this kind of government. Even a change of administration in the United States (say from a very liberal one to a conservative one) can great affect what new laws are passed and how existing laws are interpreted and enforced.
We must remember that the Sabbath laws, as all the Ten Commandments, were a part of the old covenant, the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus has already explained to the Pharisees that you cannot blend the old and the new. The reason why our Lord retained and defended His right to set the law aside was because it was a part of the old covenant, which was to be done away with, set aside, replaced by the new and better commandments of the new covenant. The Pharisees were either unable to understand, or at least to accept, the fact that the old order (along with the old laws) was passing away.
I do not mean to suggest that the Ten Commandment and the requirement of the Mosaic Covenant have no relevance to the 20th century Christian. I do mean to say that we must today interpret and apply the Old Testament law in the light of the fact that Christ has set aside the old order and established the new.
(6) Who you are determines whether or not you are subject to the Law.
David, our Lord reminded His critics, was able to violate the law which prohibited the eating of the sacred bread to anyone but the priests. The priests, because of who they were, could eat the sacred bread, and they could violate the Sabbath by offering sacrifices in the temple. Jesus, God incarnate, was free from the law, so to speak because He was the author of the law. You and I cannot take a book that has been written, copywritten, and published, and change its words, but its author can, because it is his work. So, too, as God Jesus was not subject to the law, and thus not bound to keep the Sabbath. Christ voluntarily place Himself under the law, in the sinner’s place, so that He could bear the penalty of the law, and redeem men from the power of death through the law.
Jesus’ actions and words in our text are most significant, for they teach in principle in a minute scale what He will accomplish on a broad scale. Jesus was not merely claiming authority to set aside the Sabbath, He was claiming the right to set aside the whole law. By meeting the demands of the law without any sin, and by dying to the law in the sinner’s place, Jesus has set the law aside. Having died to the law, the resurrected Christ was no longer under the law, to which He had subjected Himself. Our Lord’s Sabbath actions were but a prototype of His work on the cross.
Pressing this principle beyond its immediate application to our Lord, we can also say that the disciples of Jesus were given the same rights and freedoms as their Lord claimed. Not only was David allowed to break the law and to eat the holy bread, so were his disciples. Not only was Jesus free from the law, so were His disciples. Our bondage or freedom is the by-product of our relationship to Christ, or our lack of it. Those who are “in Christ” are privileged to share in all the He accomplished for them.
(7) The principle of perversion: The good things which God gives can quickly and easily be corrupted and perverted by sinful men.
Satan has, from the very beginning, sought to pervert the blessings of God, making them into a curse. God’s command that Adam and Eve could eat of every tree but one was for their blessing. Satan quickly entered to make God’s restriction look evil. In Romans chapter 7 Paul teaches us that the law is good, but that sin perverts it, so that the law actually is used to entice men to sin. So, too, the Sabbath law, given for man’s good, was perverted by the Pharisees.
(8) One’s perception of the purpose of the Law has everything to do with one’s motivation for obeying it.
If I view God as harsh and unloving, and His law as restrictive and burdensome, then I will do everything I can to avoid its instructions. I will distinguish between my joy, my best interest, and the commands of God. This is exactly what the Pharisees did. For all their talk about keeping the law, the Pharisees had become experts at avoiding its commands. The very things which God required most (mercy and compassion), the Pharisees were able to escape, and even to feel righteous for so doing.
When I once come to the liberating conclusion that the psalmists had long ago reached—that the law was good, wholesome, and a delight to obey—then I will strive to learn it, to understand it, and to apply it:
How blessed are those whose way is blameless, Who walk in the law of the Lord.…. Blessed art Thou, O LORD; Teach me Thy statutes. With my lips I have told of All the ordinances of Thy mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, As much as in all riches. I will meditate on Thy precepts, And regard Thy ways. I shall delight in Thy statutes; I shall not forget Thy word.… O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day (Ps. 119:1, 12-16, 97).
God’s commandments, Old Testament or New, were to be viewed as blessed, a joy to carry out, and a joy when carried out. That is much needed perspective today. That is not the spirit of legalism.
129 I must differ with Shepard, who feels that Jesus here affirms the law, rather than insisting on His right to violate it: “In His defense, Jesus had not abrogated the law but established it. He did not throw open the door to Sabbath desecration but stripped the Sabbath of its shackles and freed the disciples for greater activity in true worship and service on the Lord’s day. This work of Jesus would lead later to the further separation from the bondage of Jewish traditions, when the day should be exchanged in honor of the resurrection of the Lord of the Sabbath.” Shepard, p. 163. The reasons for my view will be seen as the sermon develops.
130 I pursed the expression “Lord of… ” (e.g. “Lord of the harvest,” “Lord of heaven and earth,” “Lord of lords”) in the Bible, I found that “Lord of… ” connotes the lordship and authority of the one before the “of” (God) over the one following the “of” (“harvest,” “heaven and earth,” “lords,” “Sabbath”).
131 The Gospel of Matthew cites another instance of “Sabbath violation” which is not a violation because of the persons who do so. Jesus referred to the priests who work on the Sabbath, in conducting sacrifices (Matt. 12:5). Because of who they are, they are not condemned for breaking the Sabbath. Jesus then went on to say that One greater than the temple was present. Since Jesus was greater than the temple, and greater than David, He could, with impunity, break the Sabbath law.
132 “Hitherto they had been enemies of the Herodians, considering them half-apostate Jews. The Herodians were supporters of the Roman domination, followed the heathen customs, and had held that Herod the Great was the Messiah. But they could be used as tools to destroy Jesus and so the Pharisees secretly establish a combination with them and against Him, plotting together with them as to what would be the best method to kill Him.” Shepard, p. 166.