"Lord of the Sabbath"
(Delivered Sunday, May 28, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We have been studying from a very serious portion of Matthew's Gospel. It's a portion that describes the growing opposition that our Lord received from the religious leaders of the day because of His teaching. And as we begin chapter 12, we see this opposition really take off in earnest.
Early rumblings of opposition began all the way back in chapter 9. He had called a tax-collector—a notorious sinner, by the standards of that time—to become one of His followers. He saved the man and entered into fellowship with him. He even ate dinner at the man's home. And we're told that, when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His other disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Matthew 9:11). They would have had nothing to do with such sinners; and they expected a holy man to be like they were. And yet, here was Jesus—having fellowship with sinners; and even eating with them! How could this be?
Jesus told them,
Clearly, Jesus didn't fit in with their expectations of what a holy man should do. He was merciful to sinners.
Then—observing that Jesus and His disciples were at a banquet—some came and asked Him, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?" They didn't ask Him and His disciples why they only fasted 'rarely'; but rather, they asked why they didn't seem to fast at all! They required fasting of those who would be holy. Why didn't He require fasting of those who followed Him?
Jesus told them,
The time would come when fasting would be appropriate—that is, when He would be taken away from His disciples. But that time had not yet come. He was still there with His disciples; and it was not a time for fasting, but for feasting! Again, Jesus clearly didn't fit with the religious expectations of the Pharisees!
In fact, He didn't comply with any of their outwardly strict religious patterns. He didn't seem to concern Himself with conforming to their external standards of holiness at all. They concluded that, since He didn't do as they did, He must not be a holy man. As you read on in this Gospel, you get the impression that when He acted in compassion and mercy toward needy people, the religious elites judged Him to be an evil worker. And so, when He cast a demon out of a man, the multitudes marveled and said, "It was never seen like this in Israel!"; but the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the ruler of demons" (Matthew 9:33-34). They, in effect, said He operated under the power of the devil.
And in chapter 12, this growing opposition toward Jesus really begins to intensify. It reveals itself in this chapter in three ways, First, the Pharisees oppose Him on the basis of how He kept the Sabbath (vv. 1-21). Then, they opposed Him on the basis of how He worked by the Holy Spirit (vv. 22-37). Finally, they opposed Him on the basis of how He would not satisfy their sinful craving for a miraculous sign (vv. 38-45).
The battle-lines, if I may put it that way, are being drawn in chapter 12; and they will become more defined as we progress through this Gospel. We will see the religious leaders confront our Savior and try to trap Him with questions; but He will make fools out of them every time. They will seek to lay hands on Him; but He will slip from their grasp. When we get to Matthew 23, Jesus really lets them have it! The things He says to them there are truly shocking; and I'm not sure how I'm going to be able to preach about it in a nice, polite church like ours! (And I'll bet everybody will show up then!)
The animosity of the religious leaders to Jesus will eventually lead them to plot together to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him (26:3). And it will, of course, end in the cross. But even then, He will rise in victory.
And the opposition begins to show itself for what it is with this morning's passage—the first eight verses of chapter twelve:
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All of this reminds me of a question I have been asking myself lately. I ask it when I look at other religious groups and consider how they practice their faith. I ask myself, "What is it that I do as a practitioner of my 'religion' in an external sense? I'm a follower of Jesus Christ. I certainly hope I am a 'devoted' follower. But what does that mean in terms of the rites I observe, or the outward religious practices I keep? What would other people from other faiths think of my religious 'devotion'? What outward religious rites, or rituals, or religious performances would they see that would prove I truly was a 'practitioner' of my religious faith?”
I have to say that I can't think of much that I do in a "religious" sense. I am a part of this church; and I gather with my brothers and sisters often throughout the week. I get up in the morning and read my Bible every day; but not as a established "religious" act. I sometimes read my Bible at night in bed; or while waiting in the car for someone; or even at McDonalds with a cup of coffee. I pray with others; but I also pray alone. I have no set times for prayer-I just pray when I need to pray. Sometimes I pray out loud. Sometimes I pray silently. I have been baptized. I observe the Lord's supper once a month-along with everyone else here. I tithe; but not out of compulsion. I do so willingly. But as far as regular outward acts go, that is pretty much it.
I'm not under any requirement to observe any special holy days or feasts. I don't have to wear special garments or robes, or light any candles, or assume a meditative position. I don't have to offer any sacrifices or burn any incense. I do not have to recite any formalistic words, or chants, or set prayers. I don't have to make any pilgrimages to any sacred places; or bow in any specific direction. I don't have to have a certain number of children. I can eat anything I want, whenever I want it; or if I choose, I can eat nothing at all.
My "religious practice”—if I may put it that way—is not in some separate, distinct part of life. I have grown to understand it to be a matter of simply walking in continual, daily fellowship with Jesus throughout the whole of everyday life. It isn't so much a matter of what religious "things" I do at set times, but of being in relationship with Christ all the time.
Now, I hasten to add; it's not that I do "nothing". It's not that I live without regard to God's holy law. That would be something called 'antinomianism'—and it's a terrible error. I hope that, by God's enabling, I am growing daily to live a holy life in His sight and to live in accordance with His Ten Commandments. Jesus Himself even said, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). Jesus was always faithful to His Father's law; and so must I be.
But as I read the Bible, I find that I'm not to seek to live that holy life by checking items off a list of religious 'do's and 'don't's. Rather, I am to fulfill God's law through walking in daily fellowship with Jesus. He leads me through the Holy Spirit; and the Spirit never leads me contrary to the Father's law. As the Bible says, "Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). As I keep in fellowship with Jesus, I am to follow the biblical principle: "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). I remember that My Lord said that the Father wants me to worship Him, not with outward things, but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
In a sense, my "religious practice" is to be summed up in three words: "all of life". And to me, this is a remarkably freeing thing! In the passage that precedes the one we're looking at today, Jesus said,
And His yoke truly is easy; and His burden truly is light! What liberty I enjoy in following Jesus Christ! How wonderful it is not to have a bunch of man-made religious rules to keep! What a burden that would be! As Paul the apostle said, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1).
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Well; as I really started to think about all of this, it amazed me how little I am required to do when compared to others who are very careful, very strict practitioners of man-made religious systems. I realize that, when I am compared with those who concentrate on what they religiously "do", it must look like I don't do much of anything. When they look at me, I'm sure I must drive them crazy! I'm sure that I'm like a heathen in their eyes.
But the fact that the Scriptures seems to confirm to me more and more is that the closer someone draws to Jesus Christ in a personal and loving way, and the deeper their fellowship with Him truly becomes, the less they will find themselves enamored with religious "rules and regulations" as a means of making themselves "righteous" before God.
I remember Dr. Billy Graham making an observation about all the countries he has visited. He observed that the smaller and weaker and more insignificant the nation, the more decorated and elaborate the uniforms will be that their ambassadors will parade around in. It's as if they're trying to make up for something! I think that there's a spiritual parallel. I think that the further one is from a genuine, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the more they'll feel the need to parade around in outwardly religious trappings. The Bible teaches us that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4). The closer-drawn we are in genuine love to our precious Savior, the more glorious freedom we will enjoy! And by the same token, the further we are from that relationship, and the shallower our connection to Him becomes, the more "legalistic" we will be. We will try to make up for the lack of true relationship with rules, and rituals, and regulations.
I believe that's one of the strongest lessons we draw from this morning's passage. In it, Jesus reveals Himself to be the gracious giver of true rest—true freedom and liberty—to those who follow Him.
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But not everyone is going to accept that. Clearly, the Pharisees didn't. Look, first of all, at . . .
1. THE COMPLAINT BROUGHT TO JESUS (vv. 1-2).
Matthew says that the incident described in this passage happened "at that time". These words hearken back to the first verse of 11:1; where we read that Jesus' disciples had been sent by Him to teach and preach in the cities of the Jewish people.
He had presented Himself to them as their long-awaited King, and offered the kingdom to them. But they did not accept His offer. He began to rebuke the cities that heard His teaching, and saw His miracles; but who did not repent and accept His kingdom offer. And it was then that He made the offer to give rest instead to all who labor and are heavy laden. He said, "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (11:28-30). It's important to notice that. The story that follows is one that shows the difference between the harsh, burdensome yoke that the religious leaders placed on people, and the wonderfully light yoke that Jesus places on those who follow Him.
Jesus and His disciples were traveling along; and they happened to pass through a grainfield. And since His disciples were hungry, they began to pluck the heads of grain, rub them in their hands (as Luke tells us in Luke 6:1), and munch on the grain. This was something that was perfectly permissible to do. It was written in the law: "When you come into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor's standing grain" (Deuteronomy 23:25).
And by the way; I can't help but make notice of this. Isn't it wonderful that they felt free to do so when they were with Jesus? If they were with the Pharisees, they might not have felt the freedom to do much of anything. They'd always have to be looking over their shoulder for 'permission'—always wondering, “Is this okay to do?” But the more you're around Jesus, the more you feel the liberating freedom of grace!
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Well; speaking of the Pharisees—they just seem to pop up from out of the gopher-holes. When they saw what His disciples were doing, they said to Jesus, "Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!" (Don't you just love people who come along and help you out like that?) The problem that the Pharisees had with the disciples, of course, was not the fact that they were plucking and eating grain. They couldn't have a problem with that; because it was permitted in the Scriptures. Rather, they had a problem with when they were doing it. They were doing it on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees were strict protectors of the Sabbath. The fourth commandment says;
Now; that is God's law. It was applicable to the disciples of Jesus; and Jesus never leads His followers in contradiction to His Father's will. But the Pharisees, in their zeal for God's law, actually applied it beyond God's true intention. The commandment forbid anyone from doing "work" on the Sabbath; but they had expanded the meaning of what constituted “work” to a ridiculous extent. They considered that picking heads of grain with one's hand was the work of "harvesting"; and that rubbing the kernels of grain in the hand was the work of "grinding"; and that blowing the chaff away from the hand was the work of "threshing"; and all together, it was all the work of "preparing a meal".
And it didn't matter that the disciples were hungry! It was "work" on the Sabbath—as they defined it; and that's all that mattered. And if they were so concerned about keeping the disciples from doing any work on the Sabbath, isn't it interesting that they didn't just offer them food instead? Why didn't they say to the disciples; "Here, here, fellas! Don't work on the Sabbath. Look; we have brought our lunch! It's all prepared! We'll share." That's in the Bible too, you know; for in the context of fasting and keeping the Sabbath, God spoke to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, and said,
You have to say that, in the end, what they were doing was placing the letter of the law above the spirit of the law. It certainly wasn't God's intention, in giving the Sabbath law, that people suffer hunger. It was meant to be a day of mercy. It was meant to be a day of turning away from the regular work-a-day chores of life, and taking delight in a day of rest. God, speaking through Isaiah, goes on to say;
Clearly, the spirit of this commandment was not broken by the disciples when they plucked grain with their hands. We are to seek the spirit of the law—that which God truly meant—and not just the letter of the law. This was what Jesus taught us in His Sermon on The Mount; when He said repeatedly, "You have heard that it was said to those of old . . . but I say to you . . ." (Matthew 5:21-48).
By the way; what is your emphasis? Is it the spirit of the law? Or is it the letter of the law? I suggest that the closer you draw to Jesus, the more you will keep the good law of His Father. But your focus will not be on the mere "letter" of the law—for the public display of your own obedience, or to the hurt of others. Rather, your focus will be on the "spirit" of the law—for display of God's own mercy, and to the good of others.
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This leads us, then, to . . .
2. THE RESPONSE OF JESUS (vv. 3-7).
The Pharisees were, as I'm sure you know, very careful teachers of the Scriptures. And yet, it is to these very Scriptures that Jesus points in order to correct them. Can you imagine how it must have angered and offended them to hear Him say things like, "Have you not read . . .?" or, "But if you had known what this means . . ." I'm sure they thought, "How dare He presume to teach us the Scriptures! Who does He think He is?" (Well, of course, 'who He is' is the very one about whom the Scriptures testify!—John 5:39.)
And if you pay attention, you can see that Jesus touches on all the major classifications of the Scripture in order to answer their accusation. First, he touches on the portion of Scripture that deals with history. He points to the story of King David that was recorded in 1 Samuel 21.
David was on the run. Saul—the king of the people of Israel—was seeking to kill him; because God had made it clear to sinful old Saul that He was going to remove him from the throne and place righteous David on it in his place. David hurriedly ran for his life to Nob, where the tabernacle of the Lord was; but he ran in such great haste that he didn't have time to take food for himself or for the men who were with him. So, he went to the priest Ahimelech and asked what was available.
All that was available was the "showbread"—the bread that was set out fresh each week in as a part of the worship in the temple, in accordance with God's command through Moses (Leviticus 24:5-9). It was commanded in the Scriptures that only the priests of the temple may eat it (Exodus 29:32-33; Leviticus 22:10-16). But when Ahimelech saw that David and his men were truly hungry; and that they were holy men, and not ceremonially unclean; and that fresh bread was about to take its place—mercy took precedence over the letter of the law, and he gave the bread to David and his men (1 Samuel 21:16).
Jesus pointed to this story and said to the Pharisees, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?" (vv. 3-4).
Jesus' point was that it is always lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4). And what's more, if this was permitted in the case of David, how much more appropriate it is when someone is present who was greater than David!
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Second, Jesus points to the portion of Scripture that deals with the precepts of the law. He says, "Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?"
Here, He was pointing to the fact that, in the temple, priests were required to violate the Sabbath every week as they prepared and offered the burnt offering. Numbers 28:9-10 says,
Can you imagine how much work that took? And yet, it was required of the priests that they do so every Sabbath. What's more, Jesus may also be pointing back to the fact that the priest had to prepare the very showbread He just mentioned every Sabbath. Leviticus 24:8 says,
The priests of the Old Testament, in their work of temple service, "profaned" the Sabbath; and yet, they were "blameless". And Jesus makes a remarkable statement in application of this fact: "Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple" (v. 6). He speaks of Himself. Jesus here claims superiority over both the temple and the Sabbath law. If the Sabbath law can be "broken" without guilt in order to fulfill the needs of the temple, then it follows that it can be "broken" without sin to meet the needs of "One greater than the temple".
Isn't it interesting how challenging Jesus only leads to greater truth about Jesus being revealed?
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Finally, Jesus points to that portion of the Scripture that dealt with the prophets. He says, "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless" (v. 7).
Here, He's quoting from the Old Testament prophet Hosea; in Hosea 6:6, where God says to Israel, "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." God is not interested in "sacrifices" just for sacrifices' sake. A sacrifice offered will not satisfy God when the heart that gives it is wrong. In 1 Samuel 15:22, He says,
In Micah 6:6-8, it says,
Clearly, God is looking for mercy on His Sabbath—and not that a rigid, strict, inhumane "burden" be placed on people's backs. You might remember that Jesus had taught them this before. He had mentioned this same passage from Hosea back in Matthew 9:31. He told them then to "go and learn what this means . . ."; but clearly they hadn't. If they had, they would not have condemned the innocent.
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This leads us, at last, to . . .
3. THE CONCLUSION ABOUT JESUS (v. 8).
And that, by the way, is the answer to all of this—who Jesus is! Jesus was free to do what He did on the Sabbath because of who He is. He tells them, "For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (v. 8).
To call Himself "the Son of Man" was the same as to call Himself the Messiah—and you can be sure that the Pharisees knew this! They would have recognized this as a reference to the Messiah as He is described in Daniel 7:13-14;
Jesus is making a very bold assertion here. He is saying that He has a right to dictate what happens on the Sabbath, because He is the Lord of the Sabbath. Those who follow Him follow the One concerning whom the Sabbath of the Old Testament was simply a type. He is the One in whom true rest is to be found. He is the One to whom the commanded rest of the Sabbath law pointed. "For we who have believed do enter that rest . . ." (Hebrews 4:3).
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The apostle Paul gave us a wonderful word of encouragement concerning all of this. He wrote for his brothers and sisters to rest completely on the sufficiency of Jesus Christ; and told them, "So let no one judge you in food or drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ" (Colossians 2:16). How foolish, then, for the Pharisees to be so focused on insisting that the Old Testament "shadows" be kept so strictly—and to the hurt of the disciples—when they were right then in the very presence of the One who was “substance” of it all!
Dear brothers and sisters; Jesus here reveals Himself to be the giver of true rest—true mercy and freedom and liberty—to those who follow Him. He is Lord over all—even over the Sabbath.
Let's never make outward religious rules a substitute for enjoying a genuine relationship with Him. And let's always make sure we praise Him for the wonderful liberty we enjoy in following Him. Because His yoke truly is easy; and His burden truly is light!
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