Confused About the Sabbath
Rev. Bryn MacPhail
Choosing a sermon title for today's text was not difficult. There is a great deal
of confusion surrounding the subject of the Sabbath. Not only was there confusion
about the Sabbath in Jesus' day, as we will see in Luke 6, but there is also considerable
confusion about the Sabbath in our own day.
How often do you hear people, these days, talk about "keeping the Sabbath"? Not too
often, I suspect. In the Old Testament, breaking the Sabbath was a capital offense.
That's right, after coming down from Mount Sinai, Moses' instruction to the people
was "you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the Lord; whoever does any
work on it shall be put to death
'But that was the old covenant,' you say, 'we are in the new covenant'. There is a
sense where that is correct, and this is why we do not put to death Sabbath-breakers.
Nor do we put to death thieves, adulterers, or those who dishonour their parents.
But just because we execute and apply the law differently in the new covenant, does not
mean that the principles behind these laws have changed.
It should prove helpful for us to examine what Jesus had to say, and also what He
did not say, about observing the Sabbath. "Now it came about that on a certain Sabbath (Jesus) was passing through some grainfields;
and His disciples were picking and eating the heads of grain, rubbing them in their
hands. But some of the Pharisees said, 'Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?' And Jesus answering them said, 'Have you not even 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 consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the
priests alone, and gave it to his companions?' And (Jesus) was saying to them, 'The Son of
Man is Lord of the Sabbath'
The Pharisees, known for their meticulous observance of the Mosaic law, had witnessed
Jesus' disciples breaking the Sabbath law. Luke makes this point clear when he mentions
that the disciples "were picking
" heads of grain, which was considered 'reaping'. Luke also adds that the disciples
were "rubbing (the grain) in their hands
", which was considered 'threshing'. Luke's point is that the disciples were, in fact,
technically breaking the Sabbath law.
This point is further manifest by the fact that, when accused by the Pharisees, Jesus
does not deny that His disciples broke the Sabbath. Jesus does not respond by telling
the Pharisees that they were incorrect in their accusation, rather, He simply makes reference to when King David and his companions ate consecrated bread on a Sabbath.
Using David as an example, Jesus even concedes that they engaged in an action that
was "not lawful
". At first glance, this response may seem surprising-Jesus' logic appears to be like
that of a child who, once corrected, exclaims 'But I saw him do it first!'.
What point is Jesus trying to make here? Is it that Sabbath observance no longer applies?
But Jesus does not say this. Jesus does not respond to the Pharisees by telling them
that the Sabbath is now abolished. Jesus does not say that the Sabbath is now relaxed. Instead, what Jesus is doing is He is attempting to return Sabbath observance
to its original and proper understanding.
Jesus points to one of the original intentions of the Sabbath in Mark's account when
He says that "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath
"(Mk. 2:27). That is to say that the Sabbath was instituted to benefit us, and not
to burden us. The Pharisees had shackled themselves and others with a strict system
of Sabbath observance that completely blurred the original intentions of the day.
In Matthew's account, we are told that the disciples were "hungry
"(12:1)-they genuinely needed food. Appropriately then, Jesus refers us back to David
and his companions and when they were genuinely hungry on the Sabbath. These 2 exceptions
provide us with a clear principle: Genuine human need takes precedence over legalistic Sabbath observance
. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath
". The Sabbath has not been abolished; it has not become more relaxed; Jesus simply
reminds us that the Sabbath observance should never be at the expense of genuine
Jesus' final statement on this occasion is also has great significance, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath
". When we hear that Sabbath observance should not take precedence over human need,
we might be tempted to think that the Sabbath is all about us. We must be careful,
however, to balance the truth that "The Sabbath was made for man
" with the truth that "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath
". The Sabbath is concerned with humanity's welfare, no doubt, but the Sabbath is
not about us. The Sabbath is about God
.Our allegiance then, is not to a legalistic observance of a particular day; rather,
our allegiance is to the "Lord of the Sabbath
This is what the apostle Paul meant when he described the Sabbath day as "a mere shadow of what is to come
", reminding the Colossians that "the substance (of the day) belongs to Christ
"(Col. 2:16, 17). This does not mean that we set aside Sabbath observance in order
to focus on Christ. More precisely, the goal of Sabbath keeping is to help us focus on Christ
This is where the Pharisees erred-they saw Sabbath observance as an end in itself
rather than a means to an end. Proper Sabbath observance always points to God.
One thing we would do well to avoid when planning our Sabbath observance is meticulously
legislating what we can and can't do on the Sabbath. This is what the Pharisees did,
and this is a trap that even churches today fall victim to. Many of you remember
a time when you could not kick a soccer ball on the Sabbath; a time when you could
not play cards on the Sabbath; a time when you could not watch TV on the Sabbath.
There was a day when many of our churches treated the Sabbath the way the Pharisees
But now, what has happened? What often is the case is that when the pendulum swings
too far in one direction, it eventually comes back to swing too far in the other
direction. We do not observe the Sabbath like Pharisees, do we? No, most of us treat
the Sabbath the way pagans do-we treat it like any other day. We put in our hour at church,
we run to the IGA and buy things for dinner, we go home and we do what? We run around
trying to get done those things we have put off all week.
I don't think the pulpit should be used for personal confession, yet, I think you
should know that I am not very good at keeping the Sabbath. My reasoning used to
be that Monday was my Sabbath-that is, until I realized how my Sunday habits affected
Allie's ability to keep a Sabbath. Surely, if one member of a household stumbles on the
Sabbath, the entire household is affected.
I refuse to shrug my shoulders and excuse myself by saying that 'times are changing'.
The times may be changing, yes, but God does not change. Jesus did not abolish the
Sabbath. He did not even say that the Sabbath was now relaxed. Jesus simply warned
against legalistically observing the Sabbath, which often led to neglecting to do what
was good and necessary.
The account of Jesus' disciples picking and eating the heads of grain is an example
of human necessity taking precedence over strict Sabbath observance. This second
account, found in verses 6 through 10 demonstrates that doing good must not be neglected
on the Sabbath.
"And it came about on another Sabbath, that (Jesus) entered the synagogue and was teaching;
and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. And the Pharisees were watching
(Jesus) closely, to see if He healed on the Sabbath, in order that they might find reason to accuse Him. But (Jesus) knew what they were thinking, and He said
to the man with the withered hand, 'Rise and come forward!' And he rose and came
forward. And Jesus said to them, 'I ask you, is it lawful to do good, or to do harm,
to save a life, or to destroy it?' And after looking around at them all, (Jesus) said to
him, 'Stretch out your hand!' And he did so; and his hand was restored
The principle taught in this account should be clear: It is appropriate to do good on the Sabbath
. The man with the withered hand was not in any imminent danger. Jesus could have
waited until the next day to heal the man. But by healing the man on the Sabbath,
Jesus demonstrates that it is always appropriate to do good. Healing, deeds of mercy,
are appropriate everyday.
Besides duties of necessity and deeds of mercy, there is one other Sabbath day activity
mentioned in this passage: worship
. Jesus "entered the synagogue and was teaching
". The Scriptures have always been central to the Sabbath day. They were central in
Moses' day, they were central in Jesus' day, and they should be central in our own
It should be clear by now that we don't simply break the Sabbath by engaging in activities that we should avoid,
but we break the Sabbath when we neglect activities that are prescribed
. Worship, duties of necessity, and deeds of mercy must not be neglected on the Sabbath.
And since the Bible does not provide an elaborate list of prohibited activities for
the Sabbath, I will not presume to offer you a prohibited activity list now. This
does not, however, excuse us from keeping the Sabbath.
There is no need to be confused about the Sabbath any longer. The principles for Sabbath
observance are clear and straightforward: Observing the Sabbath means engaging in worship, engaging in duties of necessity,
and engaging in deeds of mercy
I think we would all admit that resting, even worshiping, is not easy when there is
so much to get done. Some might say that they can't afford to rest for a day, yet
the Bible says that you can't afford not to rest for a day.
You have started your Sabbath well by coming here this morning. For God's glory and
for your own benefit, continue to keep the Sabbath-today and every Sunday. Amen.