Luke 6:1-11 “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and his disciples began to pick some ears of corn, rub them in their hands and eat the grain. Some of the Pharisees asked, ‘Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’ On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Get up and stand in front of everyone.’ So he got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’ He looked round at them all, and then said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.”
Let me being with this often ignored fact;
THE SABBATH DAY WAS THE HAPPIEST AND MOST BLESSED DAY OF THE WEEK IN ISRAEL
For six days the people lived under the most demanding circumstances, subsistent farmers, carpenters and fishermen and the poor labourers who worked for them, toiling from sun-up to sun-down merely so that they and their families could keep alive. There were no pensions, no early retirement and no health care programmes. The women laboured too, nursing their children, carrying the water pots from the well, working the fields, cleaning, washing and cooking all day. Childhood quickly disappeared; sons and daughters were soon working alongside their parents and grandparents just that they could survive. Illness was abundant and the average lifespan was less than 40 years of age. The people lived lives of hard, unremitting toil until they died; that was the fruit of the curse, but God had made a gracious provision for Israel, that after six days of labouring there came the Sabbath. Men, women, children and even the animals learned to look forward to such a day. There was no toil in the fields; no work on the land; basic necessities in feeding the animals and milking the cows had to be attended to, but that was kept to the very minimal. It was a day of rest from labouring. “Hooray! It is the Sabbath tomorrow! Our holy day and our holiday from the daily grind!” How the Sabbath was anticipated. One seventh of their entire lives was holy rest. On the Sabbath godly parents in Israel would rehearse the Lord’s dealing with them during their lives, and tell their children the wonderful works of God. There would be family worship and Jehovah’s mighty deeds in their nation’s past would be remembered. There might be a special meal, and sweet physical rest in a prolonged siesta while the glaring sun of the middle east burned down. Blessed be the Sabbath! Blessed be the day of rest.
Keeping the Sabbath day was incorporated into the Ten Commandments so that no unscrupulous and cruel landowner in Israel could force his workmen to labour every single day of the week. In Israel with its law of God the bosses had to give the workingmen a Sabbath day’s rest or they were guilty of law-breaking and the penalty was serious. Of course the Sabbath was always a barometer of the spiritual life of a nation. When the people were awakened, and the Lord became very real to them, then they treasured communion with him. They could cry from their hearts, “How lovely is your dwelling-place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you” (Ps. 84:1-4). To know God’s presence and blessing on their lives was of more value to them than the cattle on the thousand hills. At such periods the Sabbath was a blessed day, but when the people backslid and largely drifted from the Lord and worshipped other gods, then the Sabbath was neglected as we read in the last chapter of the book of Nehemiah. In those decades people stupidly moaned about all the negatives of the Sabbath. It was described in terms of restrictions, what it forbade and it was belittled as a burden. Horrific tales were told about people’s childhoods and how, “We could do nothing on the Sabbath . . . how boring it was . . . we were scolded if we even smiled . . .” It was caricatured as a day of inhumanity and petty rules, and when Jerusalem grew financially and became a centre of trade then the alleged impossibilities of keeping the day special, living in a ‘modern international city’ were confidently emphasized. “All right for them living down in little Bethlehem . . . but for us in Jerusalem keeping a whole day of rest . . . it’s impossible in our age . . . of course. A man’s got to live . . .” That’s what you heard in the barren years.
The Pharisees had become the self-appointed keepers of the Jewish identity for almost two hundred years, and under Roman domination they had increasingly made the Sabbath the distinctive national characteristic. “We have lost our king. We have lost our Hebrew (they were all speaking Aramaic). We have lost our prophets (there hadn’t been a prophet for over 300 years). If we lose the Sabbath then nothing will distinguish us from the Gentile nations that surround us.” So they hedged the seventh day around with forty-nine rules and regulations, measuring, timing, prescribing, forbidding, warning – those were the notes that the Jews of Jesus’ day had come to connect with the Sabbath. “What can’t you do on a Sabbath? What is forbidden? Is this allowed?” The Sabbath was losing its God-centredness and was becoming a mark of national and cultural identity which had to be preserved at all costs. That was the situation that the Lord Jesus Christ inherited. What a calling he had to change people’s thinking about the Sabbath, to explain his Father’s purpose in giving to the nation the fourth commandment, and remind them of all the positive benefits that come from keeping one day special every seven. Jesus came to remind the people of the positive blessings that could only be obtained if you consciously strove to remember the Sabbath Day and deliberately kept it holy.
THE SABBATH DAY WAS THE DAY FOR THE PEOPLE TO COME TOGETHER IN WORSHIP.
Jesus led by example. Have you noticed how often Christ is described as being in a synagogue on the Sabbath? We are told in chapter four and verse sixteen, “He went to Nazareth , where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” Again in that same chapter in verse 31, “Then he went down to Capernaum , a town in Galilee , and on the Sabbath began to teach the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.” Here again in our text in chapter six, “On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching . . .” (v. 6).
Why is that? Why did Jesus always go to the synagogue on the Sabbath? Why was the climax of the Sabbath Christ bringing a message from God to the people? Why did his disciples (as we read of them in the book of Acts) – wherever they were in the Roman Empire – go into the local synagogue on the Sabbath and teach the people just as their Saviour had? Why could you guarantee that Jesus would be in the synagogue every single Sabbath? Was he simply a traditionalist, nostalgic for the old days, a conservative? I think it might be useful for us to turn to the book of Leviticus and the third verse of chapter 23 as we look for an answer to this. In these verses Moses is speaking to the children of Israel and he is proclaiming to them, “The feasts of the Lord”, but before Moses introduces the list of feasts – like the Passover, and Firstfruits, and the Day of Atonement – he reminds them of the fourth commandment: “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD” (Leviticus 23:3).
What is this verse saying about the 4th Commandment? Five things;
i] Of course it begins, predictably, with an exhortation, “There are six days when you may work” and then, on the seventh day you rest from your work. That’s the pattern for all men because all have been created by God in his image. Jehovah himself worked six days in creating the cosmos, and then he rested the seventh day, and all his creatures are to imitate God. That is why we talk of the Sabbath as a ‘creation ordinance.’ Imitate your God in working hard as well as in keeping a day of rest. Men and women, you’d better keep track of time. One life you have and this is to be the pattern for your weeks and your futures. This is how it is going to be. This is how it must be. This is the best life and so the happiest life. Take time and give yourself to fruitful labour, and then stop and rest one day each week.
ii] God calls the seventh day, “a Sabbath of rest.” The word “Sabbath” itself comes from a root meaning to ‘cease’ or ‘rest’, and so what you have in this phrase is the same word twice over, literally a ‘rest of rest’ or a ‘Sabbath of Sabbath’. In other words, this was rest with a purpose; rest with a God-centred intention.
iii] Notice that that fact is underlined by the last phrase in the verse, which is “a Sabbath to the Lord” – it is not a Sabbath to you; it is not a Sabbath to your family; it is a “Sabbath to the Lord.” In other words, the whole movement of the day is God-centred. So this emphasis on resting is not to be understood as being a day to the layabout. The sluggard who does nothing on the Sabbath is not thereby keeping the ‘rest of rest.’ You are not to be idle and lazy on this day. That is not why you’re ceasing from work, rather this day is for you to consider this fascinating subject of the one true and living God, the one we shall soon meet, the one with whom we are going to spend eternity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. So we give more time and care to it than every other day of the week. You have the time to do this on the Sabbath. On other days you squeeze in quiet times between all your chores and you often fail to read the Bible, but you know that soon a day is coming which you must give in its entirety to God, to remembering his works and his splendour, his covenants and promises, his glorious redemption, his gift of the Messiah, and you will worship him and delight in him.
iv] One of the most unexpected parts of the verse I thought was the phrase, “a day of sacred assembly” (Lev. 23:3). In other words on this day the people of God were to gather together for the purpose of worshipping him. The idea that one could honour the Sabbath Day by going off horse riding alone to a quiet place in the wilderness, or just spending it talking and relaxing with the family at home was utterly foreign to Old Testament Israel . It was not an individualistic Sabbath; it was a corporate Sabbath. This is the day the loners and widows gathered with all the people of God. You amplify God’s praise by congregating together, and singing together, and hearing testimony with others of what God has been doing in your midst. The Sabbath was the day for gathering and joining your voices with others. It was a day for corporate worship in a sacred assembly.
I want to point out to you now that this is a testimony frequently found in the psalms. Consider the words of David:
“Oh, magnify the LORD with me, And let us exalt His name together ” (Psalm 34:3).
“He has put a new song in my mouth. Praise to our God; Many will see it and fear, And will trust in the LORD” (Psalm 40:3).
“I have proclaimed the good news of righteousness in the great assembly; Indeed, I do not restrain my lips, O LORD, You Yourself know. I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly” (Psalm 40:9-10).
“I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You” (Psalm 22:22).
“Praise the LORD! I will praise the LORD with my whole heart, In the assembly of the upright and in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1).
We could refer to many other verses illustrating this point (Psalm 35:17-18, 27-28; 107:31-32; 149:1-2; etc.). I am stressing this fact, that from its very beginning the Sabbath was a day to join in and share in the lives of one another “to the Lord.” If Old Testament believers needed this surely we who are strangers and pilgrims need to do that today. What encouragement and strength to live for God are we going to get in our office, or in the changing room, or in the playground? You see in that verse in Leviticus the Sabbath is to be a whole day which is focused on the Lord. It is a Sabbath of Jehovah. It is not a day we may call our own, not a day we should treat according to our personalities and felt needs. We don’t mold the day; it molds us. We cannot fill it with our own agendas. The day is his, and he’s given it to his people as a stewardship and a ministry in which we all share and all exert an influence over one another, and that is for our good and for his glory
v] The verse in Leviticus 23 approaches its close with the phrase “wherever you live,” that is, in your homes. This was to be observed wherever God’s people lived, in every household. The people were to remember the Lord and focus on him, their Creator, their Provider, their Redeemer, their Judge. Let the surrounding nations look at Israel in wonder as they said to one another, “Do you know that those people give a whole day each seven days to their God? They must love him to do that. Why? Who is he? Why do they love him so? Why do they honour him with their time in that way?” And as you think of those questions and begin to answer them you start to speak about . . . the coming Messiah! The Sabbath Day is all about Christ. So when the Messiah came he made sure that he kept the Sabbath Day by meeting with other believers, testifying to them, and worshipping the Lord with them. So the Sabbath was and is the day for people to come together around Christ.
THE SABBATH DAY WAS FULFILLED IN JESUS CHRIST.
We know that Christ perfectly obeyed the Sabbath Commandment. Of course, Jesus was perfect in the way he kept all the law, the moral law, the ceremonial law and the civil law. Christ did what we have all failed to do, and he did it down to every jot and tittle, in all the minute details. He was under the scrutiny of God yet he never failed to do his Father’s will, and so it was regarding the Sabbath. In Christ we have set before us the archetypal keeper of the Sabbath such as the world had never seen before! He called the Sabbath his delight – every single Sabbath.
Yet there were constant controversies over the way Jesus behaved on the seventh day of the week. What do we say about that? Do we say with weasel words, “Well, some people are rather strict about how they keep the Sabbath . . . while other people are not strict enough . . . so everybody has to be free to keep the Sabbath in his own way?” No. What we ask is this, “How did Jesus, the proper man, keep the Sabbath? He alone is our example. He alone got it right.” We examine his obedience to the law of God and we walk in his steps.
The Sabbath controversies in the gospels were never Jesus versus the Old Testament, but always our Lord contending with the Pharisees and their human regulations. How did Jesus answer these Pharisees when they criticized him, for example, for healing people on the Sabbath? How did he shut their mouths? In three ways;
i] By doing good and saving life on the Sabbath . Such actions are unanswerable. You see this in our text. It is a Sabbath; Jesus is in the synagogue teaching. He displays extraordinary authority as he opens up the Bible to them; he tells them what it means and what they are to believe. Then God confirms what Jesus is saying is perfectly true by a miracle. There was a man in the synagogue listening to Christ whose right hand was shriveled (v.6), and he was noticed by Jesus. The man was saying and doing nothing, while Jesus knew that he was under Pharisaic scrutiny. So Christ took the initiative and rose to the challenge very openly. Our Saviour wouldn’t do anything in a corner, or behind the synagogue building when it is dark. He wouldn’t give people an opportunity to raise an eyebrow, and shrug, and suggest his healings were trickery. When he stopped preached he looked at the man with a shriveled hand sitting in the congregation and he summoned the man to come to the front of the synagogue, “Get up, and stand in front of everyone” (v.8). Then, when the pitiful figure was standing there with everyone looking at him, to make the issue perfectly clear Jesus asked the Pharisees publicly, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it” (v.9). There was a silence of embarrassment and frustration from the Pharisees because there was just one answer to that question. Then, with a hundred pairs of eyes on the man, Jesus said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He could not do it could he? That was the impossible thing he was exhorted to God to do, but he did it, and in obeying God deliverance was given him. So it always is. We are told, “He did so, and his hand was completely restored” (v.10).
This miracle of Christ is not like the so-called miracles of lengthening legs so that they are both claimed to be the same length. I remember hearing Professor Verna Wright saying that it was very hard to measure a leg. This was not like claiming to have cured a person of deafness, or having enabled a man in a wheelchair or on crutches to take some steps. Those alleged miracles are not difficult for charlatans and cheats to duplicate. You can tell a person that their cancer has gone and there is no outward proof of any change, but here was a man with one perfectly normal hand, while the other was horribly twisted and contorted. He was probably known to the members of the congregation. They had seen this hand many times. Now they saw it changed, straightened, become flexible and useful, quite indistinguishable from the other. By all standards this was an extraordinary miracle. There is nothing normal about a man who was able to do something miraculous like that. If it had been just that one miracle that Christ had done then we are facing a person of extraordinary supernatural power, but “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:30&31). “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them was written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (Jn. 21:25). This power from heaven that healed the man’s shriveled hand was a divine confirmation that this is the way God wants his Sabbaths to be observed, and this man’s preaching is what must be heard and believed on the Sabbath day. God’s blessing rests on Jesus the Messiah. So the Sabbath is to be used to do good and save life. Jesus also answered the Pharisees’ criticisms,
ii] By doing the same mighty works his Father continued to do on the Sabbath . Jesus went far beyond a humanitarian defence of ‘doing good and saving life’ on the Sabbath. He took the argument to a more sublime level. Jesus saw it like this, that this was God’s day, and Christ was simply doing what God did on his day because he was God the Son. For example, there was a Sabbath when Jesus had gone to the Pool of Bethesda (the incident is recorded in John chapter five), and there he came across a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. Jesus healed him, and the Jews immediately accused him of breaking the Sabbath, but these are the words by which Jesus defended his actions, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (v.17). God resting on the Sabbath doesn’t mean he stops working to bless us with temporal mercies on the Sabbath. He gives us on every Sabbath life and strength and healing doesn’t he? One seventh of all the babies that are born in this world are born on the Sabbath, and they and their mothers mostly survive. People turn the corner in an illness on the Sabbath; they make a marked recovery on a Sabbath. God heals the sick on the Sabbath, and sometimes in remarkable ways, and so did Jesus too; ‘My father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” He was quite blatantly making himself equal with God. You see it as he added these words, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (v.19). What the Father does the Lord Jesus also does! Think of such a claim! Again it is a claim to deity and those are words of a mad man or they are the words of God. The Father and the Son are equal in ability and accomplishment and glory; and they are in perfect harmony. There is not a leaf of Indian paper you can put between the actions of the Father and the Son. The Son knows everything about his Father and all that his Father is doing, all the blessings he is giving to men and women on this Sabbath, all the people who are delivered and healed and Jesus says, “whatever the Father does the Son also does.” He has charged them with opposing David if they opposed his men eating grains of wheat on a Sabbath, and now he charges these Pharisees with opposing God if they opposed the Son of God. The Father and Son work works of grace and mercy on the Sabbath day. That is what characterizes this great day as year succeeds year. Again Jesus shut the mouths of the Pharisees,
iii] By announcing himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath . The Pharisees might be self-appointed guardians of their idea of the Sabbath, but they were not lords of the Sabbath. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v.5). Notice the background out of which this claim was made. At the beginning of Luke chapter six we are told that Jesus and his disciples were walking through cornfields on the Sabbath. Automatically and unthinkingly the disciples as they talked together began plucking heads of corn, rubbing them between the palms of their hands and eating them. The Pharisees complained to Jesus, pointing to the men and crying, “Why?” “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (v.2)
What is the reply of the Lord Jesus? It is quite curious. Christ referred them to an incident in the life of David when he and his men were being hunted all over the land by King Saul and his men. There was much sympathy among the people for their hero David, and so one day in his wanderings when a famished David came to the tabernacle, we are told “He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions” (v.4). Remember, Jesus is quoting this incident to rationalize what his hungry disciples have done. What is the connection between these two different incidents? The answer is probably this, that David was the rightful king of Israel . Samuel had anointed him when he was only a lad, and the prophet had proclaimed him to be future king. David was a man after God’s own heart who did God’s will. He was in need and food was there in the tabernacle to meet that need. The problem David was facing was that King Saul on the throne, jealous and angry with David for his popularity, was searching for him to take his life away. David was surviving by the food he was given by his supporters some of whom were the priests working in the tabernacle. The food that was rightly theirs alone they passed on and gave to David and his men who ate the showbread (which the law said was only for the priests).
So what does that have to do with the disciples going through the cornfields and taking ears of corn and rubbing them between the palms of their hands and eating them? When Jesus was born the magi brought him gold and bowed before this one Isaiah called ‘the Prince of Peace,’ the one born a king. Luke has even printed out Jesus’ genealogy for Theophilus in chapter three showing him that Jesus is the legal son of David. After his baptism Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit to be Israel ’s Prophet, Priest and King. He is just like David, waiting for the time when his kingship would be apparent to everyone. Jesus at this time had nowhere to lay his head, and he was being hounded by the Pharisees everywhere he went. Those men with their accusations wanted to see him dead like Saul wanted to see David dead. So King Jesus and his men were making the same point as King David and his men, that the law supports the righteous; it serves the law giver especially when that law-giver is the perfect law-keeper. If it were right in order for King David to survive to take the bread from the tabernacle given him by the priests and give it to his men, how much more could David’s greater Son and his men take from his own creation and eat it on the Sabbath day? Here were men who had given up their businesses and homes and said good-bye to the wives and were following a wandering preacher. None of them knew where their next meal was coming from. They had forsaken all to follow him. God did not scowl from heaven and thunder down at King David, or at Peter and John and Andrew and James and the others crying, “What do you think you are doing? Taking some ears of corn and eating them on the Sabbath?” Is that what God is like? If he prevents David collapsing with weakness by showing him this way, “Eat the showbread, man,” how much more does the Lord keep his disciples active and serving him on the Sabbath day? It is then that you appreciate the words of Jesus, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good, or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (v.9).
HOW WE RESPOND TO THE SABBATH TODAY.
i] All of us have to live in a structure of six days of labour and one day of rest. That is how God made the world and ourselves. How sad to go through life trying to resist and ignore that, clamping down on the knowledge of God that he has put within us all. The clock that God made and placed within every man ticks away like this; “One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six days of labour, and now day Seven for God.” Please don’t lose track of time. We are to number our days and apply our hearts to wisdom. Our lives are not to be one continuous pursuit of our business, or one continuous pursuit of our thrills and pleasures. God has made us to work and then to grate to a halt, and refocus, and refresh, and remember. Work for six days and give one day to the God of eternity each week. The Sabbath day requires time, and planning, and purpose. It is a day for worship; it is a day for doing good and saving life. Works of necessity and mercy must be done, and so we honour God with our time.
ii] The Sabbath rest for the people of God remains like that today, says the writer to the Hebrews, in chapter four and verse nine. He is writing to those converted Hebrews and they have suffered so much since they became Christians. They have been persecuted, and excommunicated from their families. They are missing so many of the traditions and patterns of life they used to enjoy, the feasts in Jerusalem each year, and the familiar seat in the synagogue. “Listen,” he says to them, “all has not been destroyed, though, through Christ, everything has changed. There still remains a Sabbath-keeping for God’s people under the New Covenant. The day has changed from the seventh to the day of Christ’s resurrection. It is now the Lord’s Day, because all of history was and still is pointing to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. History revolves around him, B.C. and A.D. Our very weeks revolve around him because he conquered death on this first day of the week. What can you do adequately to honour someone who has abolished the reign of death? You don’t name one day in a year after him – “The Jesus Christ Day.” His triumph is such that you stop everything for one day every single week and you rest in Jesus Christ.
iii] We need the day to get refocused. We are fighting a battle with the world and the flesh and the devil, so that the good we would do we often do not do. We get forgetful. We are fragmented. Then along comes the Sabbath and it is a uniting grace. We no longer rely on bumping into fellow believers in a supermarket, or making elaborate arrangements to have them come to your house one evening. It says to us, “Rest from your works. They can’t save you. We can’t be good enough for God in ourselves. Only Christ and his perfect righteousness will save us. Feast on Christ on his day!”
iv] We need the day to prepare ourselves for heaven. Your husband or wife is important to you. Your grandparents and grandchildren are important to you, but in heaven there’s going to be no weddings and marriages and aunties and uncles. Your skill as a plumber or car-mechanic or computer-operator or salesman or secretary is admired by us all now, but in heaven there will be no engine-drivers and prison warders and journalists and disc-jockeys and soccer-players. There will be one figure of unutterable glory and majesty, God the Son, Jesus Christ, and all our activities are going to flow from him. Heaven is being with him, and so we prepare for that now by meeting with him in the company of his people every Sabbath and enjoy his presence and blessing.
4th May 2008 GEOFFREY THOMAS