Lord of the Sabbath
OT Reading: Ex.20:1-21
On Sunday mornings we're working our way slowly through Luke's gospel taking time to see what this part of the Bible has to teach us about Jesus Christ. We've already come across a couple of references to what Jesus did on the Sabbath and now as we enter chapter six the word "sabbath" is used six times in rapid succesion. It is time for us to look more closely at the whole question of the Sabbath.
What is the Sabbath ?
The sabbath day was the last day of the week of creation right back at the beginning of our world. Moses tells us that during six days God made everything that there is and then on the seventh day he rested, ie. he ceased from the work he had been carrying out. This day on which God "rested from all the work that he had done" became the model of the day of rest that God commanded his people to keep when he gave them the 10 Commandments:
Ex.20:8-11 "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, 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."
And what a lovely commandment this was and is! If you try to put yourself in the position of the people to whom this commandment was first given then you'll maybe be able to understand just why.
For 400 years the Israelites had lived in Egypt and for most of that time they lived as slaves and enjoying (if that is the word) the drudgery of being slaves.
But now all that has changed. God had freed his people through the leadership of Moses and now, still through Moses, he was telling them how they were to live as his people. And he wanted them to have a regular break from their daily toil! Not just once a year or once a month but every week!! What a blessing that was! No longer would they be expected to work on and unremittingly on but instead their God authorised them to have a rest, he expected them to take this rest and they needn't feel guilty about it either!
The Sabbath was always meant to be a blessing for the well-being of men and women – a blessing and not a curse or a burden. God wanted people to benefit from this day, to enjoy this day and to that end he sent his prophets to Israel to remind his people of the genuine value of this day. He wanted them, in the words of Is.58:13, to:
"Call his sabbath a delight."
And yet this didn't always happen. God's people lost their way, and failing to hold on to God's purposes for the Sabbath, keeping the sabbath become more and more a burden to them.
The Sabbath was originally celebrated on what we know as Saturday but in the NT era Christians replaced Saturday sabbath observance with the observance of the Lord's Day. It was on Sunday, the first day of new week, that Jesus rose from the dead, the firstfruits of a new creation order.
God's original purposes for the Sabbath are equally applicable to the Lord's Day. And we need to think carefully about just how we are to use our "one special day in seven. There are people who try to suggest that the observance of this special day is burdensome and restrictive: they too have lost their way and have failed to understand what God's purpose and design really is. Just because some folk misunderstand the weekly day of holy rest is no reason for abandoning all respect for the day rather we need to learn to think more accurately. With God's help we will try to do that now.
Changes of Attitude
If God's design in giving his people the command to keep the Sabbath was to be a means of blessing for them how is it that over time so many came to view it as a burden rather than a blessing?
There are two answers I want give:
rabbinic interpretation and tradition
spiritual hardness of heart
But before we can turn to these questions I want us to take a look at what we know about Jesus and his attitude towards the Sabbath.
The original intention of the fourth commandment was never to simply ensure that men stopped working as though that were the goal. No, stopping work was a means to a further higher goal. The aim of the commandment was to enable men and women to set the day apart for the Lord, to worship him, to learn from him and about him, to enjoy fellowship with him and to do all this in the company of spiritually like-minded folk.
And so for many people down through the centuries it did prove to be a real blessing.
Jesus himself was one of those who happily honoured the fourth commandment. From everything we read Jesus kept the Sabbath the only matter to be resolved is over the way in which he kept it. It was for example his custom to attend the synagogue on the sabbath and when he entered into his public ministry we often find references to him being present in a synagogue where he taught those who would listen.
But we don't only read of Jesus going to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Here in Luke 6 we read of him walking in the cornfields with his friends and in Luke 14 we find him dining in the home of a leader of the Pharisees where he is enjoying the hospitality offered to him
Jesus also was prepared to heal the needy on the Sabbath and this brought him into conflict with many of the religious leaders who followed rabbinic tradition in thinking that this amounted to Sabbath-breaking. Jesus would not however back down and he was ready to counter his critics whenever the opportunity presented itself. Jesus believed that he was keeping the Sabbath in exactly the way it was meant to be kept. The religious leaders didn't agree. So who was right?
Just because people talk about the things of God doesn't necessarily mean that they are right in what they say. The Scribes and Pharisees had the reputation of being religious experts but Jesus had plenty of run-ins with them.
In many instances the way they interpretated of the Bible was quite simply wrong. If we thought just about the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had to correct their understanding in the following matters:
love or hatred of one's enemies
He also had to take them to task over the way they practised:
No the Pharisees and Scribes, following rabbinic tradition that had built up over the years were not safe guides to follow. Their understanding of the Sabbath was one more example where they could not be followed. Jesus didn't deal with this matter in the Sermon on the Mount but, in various different contexts, he had to combat their unhelpful thinking.
So just what was the error that had crept into their thinking about the Sabbath?
Well the rabbis had taken, their eye completely off the purpose of the Sabbath and directed (or rather, midirected) all their efforts into its mechanics. They did not realise that God commanded the interruption of regular work so that men might be refreshed in body and in particular that they might have the necessary time to enjoy a genuine spiritual encounter with him. Instead they ended up making abstinence from work something that they considered to be valuable in itself.
In effect these religious men turned this abstinence from work into a performance. And as they tried to improve their performance they added long and detailed lists full of rules and regulations. It all became so meaningless and burdensome. How debilitating it all was! The joy of fellowship with God was lost under the constant worry – am I doing right? All the rabbis could come up with to help was a list of some 39 areas of work that had to be avoided at all costs.
Even today some Orthodox Jewish communities follow these same rules and have extrapolated them further to try to make them relevant to the modern world. So, in some communities to turn on the light is considered a work that mustn't be done on the Sabbath. But at the same times devices such as time switches allow the lights to be controlled in advance. Or if you don't have those switches you could always pay a Gentile servant do it for you.
You see what has happened: men have taken their eyes off God and focused on themselves – the very antithesis of what the Sabbath is for. They laid heavy burdens on others making it ever more difficult to do what is right without offering any help in the achievement of the task. Yes, a religious zeal – no doubt about it but a zeal without knowledge and a zeal without understanding.
Along with such an approach went a critical spirit – how easy it was to look to see how others were coming up short of the required standard!
This is just what we find in this brief episode. Jesus is walking through the cornfields with his disciples. His followers are hungry and reach out to meet their hunger – how simple it all was! And the next moment, popping up out of nowhere are some nosy critical Pharisees ready and it seems eager to condemn. Where did they suddenly come from? It seems they were just itching to find some fault to condemn.
It wasn't the fact of eating food from someone else's field that was the problem – the law authorized and regulated that – no, it was the fact that they did this on a Sabbath. And according to their rabbinical tradition Jesus' disciples were guilty of multiple effractions of their Sabbath Keepers rule book. These were the weighty crimes committed by Jesus' disciples as they picked a few grains to eat:
This whole approach took not the slightest interest in the needs of men and women – and Jesus' disciples were hungry. The ritual obedience to the law was paramount for them.
But Jesus was having none of it and jumped to the defence of his disciples. He reminded their critics about an incident in David's life when he had done something that if the strict letter of the ritual law was applied he would have to be condemned. But of course no-one did that even though it would seem that David did this on a Sabbath day. Why? Because it was clear that ritual law did not possess some absolute quality that trumped everything else – no, ritual law had to give way in the face of serious need. It was right to do good on the Sabbath.
Sadly the rabbis had failed to see this and only succeeded in turning the good law of God into a burden that was oh so heavy to bear.
The Hard Human Heart
If rabbinic tradition made the law of God seem harsh and negative leading men to react against it then it found a ready ally in the hardness of the natural man's heart which is utterly unspiritual.
If you find the law of God irksome and long to be free of any and all restrictions then it may be because your heart too is hard and unspiritual. And with regard to the Lord's day? After all what unspiritual man wants to be reminded on a weekly basis that there is a God and a God who holds him responsible for how he lives?
While the natural man will be very happy with the idea of regular breaks from work he will always be far more interested in holidays rather than holy-days.
Here you'll find a tool which you can use to assess how things are between you and the Lord. What is your attitude to the Lord's Day like? Do you readily recognise the blessings of having a weekly reminder of the blessings which are yours in Jesus Christ? Do you value the opportunities that this weekly special day affords you to grow in grace and to enjoy fellowship with your Creator and Saviour? Does the prospect of the day fill you with delight or is a a bit burdensome, one service to be gotten out of the way so you can get on with what you want to do for the rest of the day?
Are you spiritual or worldly in the depths of your being?
A Great Sabbath!
That day really was a great day for Jesus' disciples – have you seen that? Let me in closing show you just what I mean. If you are a Christian, a real Christian, then you'll appreciate what I'm going to highlight but if you're not a Christian then it'll probably leave you a bit cold.
The disciple were with Jesus – that is the way to have the best of Sabbaths, the best of Sundays, to spend it with Jesus.
The disciples were defended by Jesus when others criticised and demeaned them, accusing them wrongly of wrong-doing – our spiritual enemy Satan is also known as 'the accuser of the brethren' but the brethren have nothing to fear when the Master stands up for them.
The disciples being with Jesus benefit from learning from him as he teaches more truth – this time about the true attitude towards the Lord's Day.
The disciples learn about a new title that their Master claims for himself – he, the Son of Man, is also Lord of the Sabbath. And what a remarkable title this is! By it Jesus claims authority over a divine institution, the Sabbath. What does it mean? It means that their friend and Master is more much more than that he is God incarnate! Jesus is Lord.
May you know the joy of the Lord's Day and may you all have many great "sabbaths" like that one!