Confused About the Sabbath

Luke 6:1-11

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 "(Ex. 35:1-3).

'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' "(Lk. 6:1-5).

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 human need.

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 did.

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 "(v.6-10).

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 day.

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.