God instituted the Sabbath when He gave Israel the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment reads as follows: “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 of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:8-11). There are two reasons listed in the Old Testament for the day. The first is stated in the commandment – God created in six days and rested on the seventh, therefore the seventh day is holy and set apart. The second reason is for Israel to reflect on its deliverance out of slavery and in that spirit to give all slaves and servants a day of rest (Deut 5:12-15). Observing the day is not optional – working on the Sabbath is a capital offense (Ex 31:15) – but it’s intended as a gift. Work is restricted to six days so everyone – man, woman, child, servant, hired man, slave, animal – is able to have one day of complete rest and refreshment.
The Mosaic Law is not specific as to what type of work is prohibited. The law simply says no work is to occur. The only specific guidance on what cannot be done is that no fire can be kindled in any dwelling (Ex 35:3).
The day is to be a day of reflection. It reminds people that God is their provider and the work they do is meaningless apart from Him. It also acts as a test of faith. A day of rest means a day of lost planting/seeding/weeding/hunting/etc., so the people must trust that God will provide in spite of the loss. A specific example of this faith is in how manna was gathered in the wilderness when Israel journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. Manna fell every day except for the Sabbath. The people had to trust that there would be enough manna on Friday to last for two days.
Ultimately, the day is to be a positive experience in the lives of the Israelites. It’s a forced day of focus on God and of rest for the weary. It’s another way that God sets His people apart – no other cultures observe a day like this – and cares for their wellbeing. It is not intended to be a burden or a day of rules and regulations. Jesus Himself – while explaining it to the Pharisees – summarizes the purpose of the day: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).
1-5 – Sabbath Dispute #1
Jesus and His disciples walk through a grain field on a certain Sabbath. As they walk, the disciples make a snack out of the heads of grain. They pick the heads, rub them in their hands to get to the grain itself, and eat.
Luke doesn’t give us any background or setting – of course – but at this point in the story some Pharisees enter the scene. How there are Pharisees present on the Sabbath Day in a grain field is anybody’s guess. It seems odd that they’re traveling with the group at all, and since it’s on the Sabbath – meaning they have to be within a Sabbath Day’s journey (roughly 3000 feet) of their homes – it’s even harder to figure out how they could be in a grain field. What could be the case is the Pharisees don’t actually witness what the disciples do as much as hear about it (although who they hear from is also a mystery – assuming any of this conjecture is correct).
Regardless of how they know, the Pharisees condemn what the disciples do. They don’t condemn the actual taking of someone else’s grain since that’s allowable under the law (farmers are to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor and hungry can glean for their own needs), they condemn the work that the disciples do in picking and threshing (rubbing their hands together can be considered threshing). Picking and threshing grain are prohibited on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath prohibitions referred to in this passage bear some explanation. As noted in the introduction, the Law of Moses doesn’t forbid specific activities on the Sabbath. It simply says that no work is to be done. The Jewish religious leaders, however, have formulated a set of rules around the law called the ‘Oral Torah’ (later written down and called ‘The Mishnah’). This is a set of oral laws handed down over generations that interprets the law and is considered by the Pharisees to be as authoritative as the actual written law (they essentially believe in two Torahs – Written and Oral). In the Oral Torah, there are 39 specific types of work prohibited on the Sabbath. Picking and threshing grain are among these forbidden actions.
Notice how the Pharisees phrase their question to Jesus. “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Technically the disciples aren’t breaking the law; they’re breaking the oral traditions. To the Pharisees, however, there’s no difference.
Jesus gives a curious answer. He reminds them of the story (I Sam 21-22) of when David fled from Saul and came to the house of God and convinced the priest to give him showbread (consecrated bread, bread of the Presence) because he and his men were hungry and had no food. The showbread (or shewbread in the KJV) was only allowed to be eaten by the priests. The priest gave it to David – in violation of the law – based on David’s authority and because there was a group of men who had no other means to find food.
What’s interesting about this story is its full context. David actually lied to the priest and told him that David and his men were on a mission from Saul. This is one of the reasons the priest was comfortable giving him bread. Later, when Saul’s men came to the priest and found out he had helped David, all the priests at that location were executed for treason. It’s actually one of the more tragic events from David’s life. His deceit cost 85 innocent lives.
The tragic nature of the story doesn’t take away from Jesus’ meaning in telling it. What He seems to say is that if David was allowed to circumvent the law based on his authority and based on human need, how much more is Jesus allowed since He’s greater than David (this is understood)? And since the Sabbath is meant for man, then human need trumps any prohibitions regarding work.
Jesus ends His explanation by making the meaning plain. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” “I’m greater than David, I’m greater than the temple (Matt 12:6), and I’m the REASON for the Sabbath.” He tells them straight up that since the Sabbath is FOR HIM, His disciples can’t violate it with what they do while they’re with Him. This is an enormously audacious statement. He doesn’t come right out and say, “I’m God”, but the meaning has to be clear to the Pharisees and has to infuriate them.
6-11 – Sabbath Dispute #2
On a different Sabbath, Jesus teaches in a synagogue. In the synagogue, there’s a man with a withered right hand (Matthew and Mark also tell this story but only Luke the physician notes that it’s the man’s right hand that’s withered). His condition is apparently very obvious because scribes and Pharisees in the audience closely watch Jesus to see if He heals the man. [In Matthew’s telling – 12:9-14 – the Pharisees ask Jesus if it’s okay to heal on the Sabbath.] They watch Jesus so they might find reason to accuse Him. [Read that again. They want to use the miraculous healing of a man in great need as an excuse to condemn the Healer. That’s where their hearts are. They don’t see a man in need – they see bait.]
Why do the scribes and Pharisees care if Jesus heals him? Because according to their oral laws, medical care can only be given on the Sabbath in a life-or-death situation. If a person needs medical care but it’s not an emergency, it has to wait until after the Sabbath. It’s worth stopping and letting that sink in. They’ve actually taken the time to define what kind of medical care is okay to administer on the Sabbath without any thought to what might be merciful or expedient for the person suffering.
Jesus knows this and knows they’re watching Him. Far from avoiding a confrontation, He tells the man to stand up and come forward. If the Pharisees want a reason to condemn Him, He’ll give it to them (as we’ve pointed out before and will point out numerous times in this book, Jesus never shies away from confronting the religious leaders). When the man comes forward – and it’s worth noting that the man is essentially a pawn in this whole scene; he never asks for anything and might be surprised to suddenly be the center of attention – Jesus turns to the religious leaders and asks, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good, or to do harm, to save a life, or to destroy it?”
Jesus looks at the religious leaders to see if they will answer. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus looks at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart (Mk 3:5). We can imagine Jesus shaking His head as He waits for them to respond (knowing they won’t because He’s backed them into a corner and they won’t risk humiliation). He has compassion for the man and disgust for the Pharisees. [Don’t ever miss how in the gospels the only thing that causes Jesus to be angry is self-righteousness. He’s consistently compassionate and merciful to sinners, but He HATES the self-righteousness of the Jewish religious leaders. We must keep this in mind as we examine our actions, motives, and attitudes.]
When it’s apparent that no one will answer His question, He turns to the man and tells him to stretch out his hand. When the man does, the hand is healed. Notice that Jesus doesn’t touch him; He speaks, and the hand is restored. There’s no way any of this can be considered work.
How do the Pharisees respond? They become enraged and discuss together what they might do to Jesus. Matthew says they counsel together to figure out a way to destroy him (Matt 12:14). Think about that. They want to kill Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath and made them look bad. They want to KILL Him. They don’t care about the man healed, they don’t care about the miracle that just occurred (how often do you see a miraculous healing??), they only care that they looked bad and someone had the audacity to challenge their Sabbath rules. And because someone challenged them, they want to kill Him.
These stories give an amazing illustration of the blinding effect of self-righteousness and sin. They show what happens when men get so caught up in outward obedience and mechanistic adherence to rules that they lose sight of what the purpose of the rules is supposed to be. The WHOLE POINT of the Sabbath is to bring people closer to God. Ministering to those in need is absolutely part of that, and yet all these men see is a violation of the law and a danger to their standing with the people.
And that’s their issue in a nutshell. It’s all about them. They don’t care about a man getting his hand back or about hungry people because they don’t really care about anyone. In their self-righteousness – their self-absorption – there’s no room for compassion or mercy. One of them will later say that the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength,” and the second greatest is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:25-28). They believe these two commandments summarize the whole law. Yet when it’s time to put them into practice – because the two commandments also summarize the point of the Sabbath – they can’t, because they see no connection. The men entrusted with knowing the scriptures miss the whole point of knowing the scriptures.
So that means there’s a warning here for us. Any religious observance can be skewed into sin when it’s done for reasons other than knowing God, glorifying God, and meeting the needs of others. And knowledge without love simply puffs up and blinds. It’s possible to know the scriptures without knowing the Author of the scriptures, and to be so concerned with externals that we have no awareness of our heart. Self-righteousness caused the men in this story to respond with rage to a compassionate and miraculous healing that enabled a man to get a big part of his life back. A healing done, by the way, by the Messiah they’ve waited their whole lives for. We cannot overestimate the danger of falling into the same blindness. We must pray that we serve our Creator and not our pride.
We cannot see God and we cannot see others when all we see is ourselves.
We cannot see God’s work when all we see is ourselves.
We cannot see others’ needs when all we see is ourselves.
We cannot overlook others’ sin when all we see is ourselves.
We cannot see our own sin when all we see is ourselves.