Lord of the Sabbath (On the Way to the Cross - Part 4)

September 8, 2013 Preacher: Micah Mercer Series: On the Way to the Cross

Scripture: Luke 6:1–11

Synopsis: The Pharisees in Jesus' time were obsessed with rules to the point that they had lost the heart of God's law. Jesus' teaching and healing on the Sabbath served as an indictment against their legalism. Beyond that though, Jesus demonstrated that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. That is, he has ultimate authority to interpret and apply the law of God.


In my hometown of Tucson, AZ, there is an area of town known as Oro Valley. The speed limit in Oro Valley when I was young was a painfully slow 40kph. To make matters worse, the police in Oro Valley were famous for closely following drivers, waiting for them to make the mistake of driving 41kph. At which point their lights would come on and they would use their megaphone to say “Pull over!” Needless to say, driving through Oro Valley was to be avoided if possible because the enforcement of the law there was so burdensome.

The major event that defined Jesus' life and ministry was his death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day. This was no accident. Jesus knew the suffering that awaited him, yet resolutely moved forward to endure the cross for the joy set before him. For the last month, we have been following Jesus' ministry through the Gospel of Luke in the context of his journey toward that defining event.

In the first week, we learned that Jesus is the new head of a new humanity who has overcome the temptations of Satan for us. In the second week, we saw that Jesus must be received by faith while the Lord's favor lasts. Last week we saw Jesus demonstrate that he is the source of cleansing and has authority to forgive sin.

This week, we find that opposition against Jesus has begun to increase. In the previous chapters, Pharisees came to hear what Jesus was saying, to check him out. Beginning in chapter 6 though, they begin to actively oppose him because of the outrageous claims he had been making. Especially last week's claim to have authority to forgive sin. It’s a natural reaction if you think about it. They did not believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be. They thought he was a blasphemer who needed to be exposed.

So we find the Pharisees at this work in Luke 6, following the every move of Jesus and his disciples. The hoped to catch them breaking the law in even the slightest way so that they could accuse and discredit him. The problem, as we will see, is that what they called the law was actually their own legalistic interpretation of it.

Legalism means idolizing rules and regulations. Following rules then becomes more important than actually honoring God and doing good. When that happens, no matter how good we look to other people at church, we are hypocrites lost in sin.

In our passage today, I would like to highlight two major ways that God’s word is distorted by legalism. The first is that Legalism distorts God’s word from a blessing to a burden.

Let's read Luke 6:1-5:

On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?" And Jesus answered them, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?" And he said to them, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

I was discussing this passage with my wife a few days ago and her thought was that the Pharisees had become Jesus’ followers along with the disciples, just for different reasons. The disciples followed Jesus to learn from and emulate him. The Pharisees followed Jesus to catch him in some error they could use to discredit him. In this passage, the specific charge was that Jesus' disciples, and by extension Jesus himself, had violated the law by doing work on the Sabbath. The Pharisees interpreted the actions of plucking and rubbing grain in their hands as harvesting and threshing.

I can't help but be reminded of my time in the Army. Army regulations covered every aspect of life you can think of. Naturally there were regulations for male and female hair styles, length of fingernails, the exact placement of every possible medal or ribbon on the uniform. There were also regulations on the temperature of the thermostat for different seasons which had to be changed at the same time world-wide. There was a regulation for the number of times to knock on the door of a superior, how to enter his/her office, how to exit. As I remember, every company of the army was required by regulation to maintain a library of army regulations.

The result of regulations for every possible situation, life in the Army could sometimes be quite burdensome. For example, I remember that whenever I wanted to go on a vacation I had to fill out a form to request the form to request my vacation. The result of legalism is unnecessary burden added to daily life.

The Pharisees saw themselves as the extra holy Jews who wanted to be righteous enough to commune with God. In that pursuit they had over time developed laws on top of the laws that God gave to Israel in order to make sure that they stayed well away from any impurity. Then they made laws on top of those laws until they had 613 laws beyond those revealed in scripture. In their efforts to achieve supreme purity, the Pharisees had succeeded mainly in making God's law into a burden.

So the Pharisees in their strict interpretation of Sabbath law said to Jesus, "Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?" The Pharisees were not fools. They knew that if Jesus broke the laws of God, there would be significant trouble for his claim to be God’s Messiah.

Jesus' response to this in verse 3-4 is that when David and his men were hungry, David went into the temple and took the 'bread of the Presence' which only priests were allowed to eat. At first glance it might seem that Jesus justified breaking the Sabbath law with the example of another breach of the law committed by David. David broke the law when he was hungry so we can too. One commentator I read suggested that in both cases breaking the law was ok because human need trumps God's law.

I think this interpretation falls short because it does not resolve the problem of having a law breaking Messiah. I think there is a better interpretation to be found here if we consider the original intention of these two laws.

The bread of the presence which David ate was part of a complex set of laws that were designed to provide for the Levites. You see, God gave no land or cities to the tribe of Levi because their primary duty was to administer the temple worship. The sacrifices and offerings that all the other tribes of Israel had to make provided food and income to the Levites. The bread of the presence was made from flour and oil that were offered to God by the other tribes. It was a provision for the Levites that the law forbade others from eating it. Could a priest really obey the intent of the law by withholding the bread of the presence from a hungry person?

What about the Sabbath? What was the original purpose of the Sabbath that the Pharisees missed?

The word Sabbath means holiday and is derived from a word which means rest.Law commanded first in Exodus 20:8-11. Key: Blessed, made holy.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The Sabbath was meant to be set apart from other days to honor God by taking a weekly holiday from work. Jesus and his disciples violated the Pharisees interpretation of the Sabbath law, but not the original intent of it. Just as the priest could not really honor the law by withholding bread from hungry people, Jesus' disciples could not really honor God by starving themselves on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had taken the blessing of the Sabbath day law and made it into a burden by outlawing things that were not originally prohibited.

How often are we guilty of the same thing as the Pharisees? Are we guilty of changing God’s word from a blessing to a burden? The general perception of Christians that you find in a lot of places is that Christians always want to place restrictions on everyone else based on their own ideas of what is right and wrong. To be fair, I believe that all born again Christians should and will certainly express their faith in the decisions they make, the way they vote, and the way they answer in public discussion. However, we do need to ask if the impression that we give people looks more like legalism or grace.

Many people, even in the church, think that we are accepted by Jesus when we are good. The problem with this idea is that it adds the burden of keeping the law to people who need grace first. None of us are acceptable to God based on our adherence to the laws of God. In fact, we are all found to be completely un-acceptable by the standard of God’s law. We are accepted into God’s grace on the basis of faith in the righteousness and sacrifice of Christ. Only after receiving grace do we then learn to obey.

We need to be careful in our witness to the world that we do not try to enforce God’s law on unbelievers in a legalistic way, because in doing so we actually accomplish little more that imposing foreign morals on them. Instead, we need to emphasize God’s undeserved favor toward us and towards them if they believe.

In our last meeting, we read that when Jesus claimed to have authority to forgive sin, he backed up his claim by healing the paralyzed man. We see a similar construction between verses 1-5 and 6-11. In the first, Jesus claimed authority over the Sabbath. In the second, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees who bizarrely considered miraculous healing to be unlawful on the Sabbath. They had completely lost touch with the goodness of God in their effort to keep rules. Our second point is that Legalism distorts God’s word by replacing goodness with keeping rules.

On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, "Come and stand here." And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?" And after looking around at them all he said to him, "Stretch out your hand." And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. Exodus 20:6-11 (ESV)

The parallel passage in Mark adds that Jesus looked around at them in anger and grieved at their hardness of heart. Apparently even miraculous signs do not always lead people to a response of faith. The Pharisees were at the top of the game, in terms of Jewish religion at the time. They had dedicated their lives to strict adherence to laws upon laws.

The problem was that their legalism had so distorted their knowledge of God that they were unable to answer the simplest question about God’s character as expressed in his word. “..is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm.” Imagine how Jesus must have felt when dealing with the Pharisees. They had the revelations of God in their scriptures. All they needed to know who God is was available to them, all they needed to recognize the truth of Jesus’ claims was there.

Yet, they were completely lost. Their theology had become a tangled, complicated Godless mess. They had come to value their rules more than their God. They could not understand that when Jesus healed the man on a Sabbath day he was not violating the law, but revealing the heart of God. He honored the Father by doing what was good on the Sabbath. The Pharisees on the other hand were dishonoring God by plotting to harm Jesus on that Sabbath. They could not see their own hypocricy.

Sometimes we get so caught up in following rules that even powerful examples of God’s goodness in and around don’t shake us from the obsession. Like the Pharisees who witnessed a miraculous healing and instead of being awed, were angered that Jesus didn’t follow their rule. We forget that God’s word is not just a long list of rules to follow. God’s word was given so that we would know God.

God has revealed His greatness in scripture. His faithfulness to bless and to curse, his mercy and justice in the law, his love of humanity and hate for sinners in his acts, his wisdom for living, his promises to hope in, and especially his Son through whom we receive the grace that saves us.

The Pharisees did not believe that Jesus was who he said. That made Jesus’ claim to be Lord of the Sabbath that much more offensive to them. How could he claim to have authority over law that was specifically given by God?

I think it would be appropriate for us to make the connection that Jesus is God and God gave the law to Moses, therefore Jesus is the Lord of all the law including the Sabbath. Whether or not the Pharisees understood that to be his meaning, it was clear that Jesus claimed that he had authority far beyond the Pharisees to interpret and apply the law. It is this authority of that makes Jesus central to our faith. He is the only one who is able to extend forgiveness to us and make us right with the Father. The truth is that legalism is a trap because no amount of strict adherence to laws will ever save us. We need Jesus. We need the Lord of the Sabbath.

At the same time we need to be cautious not to swing to the other side of the pendulum by doing away with rules altogether. Rules can be good. For example, there are laws concerning speed limits and red traffic lights when driving. These laws protect us by establishing order on the road. In the same way, we have rules of doctrine in our churches that are able to help us understand our faith and keep order in the church. These can be abused when we begin to love our church governments and denomination specific doctrines more than we love Jesus and more than we love each other.

Here in Abu Dhabi we have the unique experience as Christians of having to work together across denominational and cultural lines. I think it’s good. We can all find things we disagree on, but because of limited space, we must cooperate. In the midst of all that could cause divisions between us, we must make Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath in all of our churches. Then we can recognize that we all serve one Lord and find our unity in him. We must cast off our legalism and join in unity under the one Lord of the Sabbath.

When it comes to the bible, we need to recognize the character of God in His laws to see that his word is a blessing. His grace gives us freedom from sin and his laws help us live righteously and well. As we strive to do what’s right and to witness our faith to others we need to be sure that we are not adding any unnecessary burden to the word of God. We also need to learn to that God’s word is a vehicle for doing good, not harm.

Let's step back now and look at Jesus claim to be the Lord of the Sabbath in the context of his journey toward the cross. The Sabbath day was instituted by God at creation and given as law by God to the Israelites through Moses. If Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, then once again he has claimed the same authority of God, this time over the law. That means, Jesus is the ultimate judge of what is or isn’t lawful.

John 5:21-23a (ESV) says:

For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father.

The father has given all judgment to the Son so that all may honor him. Jesus has authority over the law, and authority to judge what it means to keep the law. He alone had authority to make his own death on the cross sufficient to meet the requirements of the law on behalf of all who respond in faith to him. He alone has authority to proclaim that all who receive him by faith are righteous. When we receive Jesus by faith, by his power and authority, he proclaims us forgiven, he makes us clean, and we become part of a new humanity under Jesus our head. Jesus was on the way to the cross to exercise his authority as Lord of the Sabbath.