We are making our way through the Gospel of Luke, the third Gospel, and we come to chapter 6 and the first two paragraphs of that chapter both of which deal with the Sabbath day.
v.1 This practice of travelers helping themselves to a few handfuls of grain was actually provided for in the Law of Moses (Deut. 23:25), so the problem was not that they stole someone’s grain but that they helped themselves to a few handfuls on the Sabbath Day. It was effectively reaping and threshing, no matter the small quantities, no matter that it was done in the hand without the use of tools. This was work by the rabbi’s definition and one was not supposed to work on the Sabbath. All four Gospels make it clear that a chief point of contention between the Lord Jesus and the religious authorities was the right way to observe the Sabbath Day. Judaism in that day made a great deal of the Sabbath – an entire tractate of the Mishnah is devoted to Sabbath regulations – and Sabbath observance was one of the defining features of Jewish piety and of the Jewish self-image. They thought of themselves as different from others in the world because they kept the Sabbath day holy.
v.4 The law forbad the eating of the bread that was placed each day on the table in the Holy Place by anyone but a priest. But, the Lord says, the law was never intended to require men to starve in the sight of food. It misunderstands the law root and branch to think so.
v.5 This, of course, was a staggering claim, as the Sabbath was a divine institution. He might just as well have said that he himself ordained the Sabbath in Eden which, of course, he had.
v.7 The rabbis did not forbid healing on the Sabbath if one’s life were in danger (Yoma 8:6), but if it were not a case of life or death they were adamant. The healing could wait until the Sabbath was over. [Morris, 143] By the way, have you noticed that virtually all of the Lord’s miracles of healing cured visible, objectively identifiable physical maladies: a withered hand that everyone could see was withered, a leper whose skin everyone could see was diseased, a blind man everyone knew could not see, even a dead man everyone knew was dead. Nothing here of what we hear so much of today: someone whose one leg is said to be slightly longer than another, or someone who claims to have back problems, and so on.
In any case, typical of a doctor and his concern for specificity, only Luke mentions that it was the man’s right hand that was withered.
v.10 In other words, the Lord drew attention to what he was doing and by his question forced everyone to consider the issue. He didn’t leave the field to the rabbis. And the form of the question is absolute: what the rabbis were defending was doing evil, doing harm and destroying life, no matter their sanctimony.
v.11 They were furious because Jesus had publicly defied them and because of the astonishing miracle there was nothing they could do about it. They had been made to look foolish. How like human beings: they couldn’t rejoice in the man’s healing because it had made them look bad.
Let me read to you a very famous passage from a very important book. Some of you will recognize it immediately, others I’m sure will not have read it before.
“I was not sensible of the danger of evil and sin; I was kept from considering that sin would damn me, [whatever religion] I followed, unless I was found in Christ.
“But one day, among all the sermons our [pastor] made, his subject was, to treat of the Sabbath-day, and of the evil of breaking it… Now I was, notwithstanding my religion, one that took much delight in all manner of vice, and especially that was the day that I did [comfort] myself therewith [i.e. Sunday was his day for play!], wherefore I fell in my conscience under his sermon, thinking that [the pastor] made that sermon on purpose to show me my evil doing; and at that time I felt what guilt was… and so went home when the sermon was ended with a great burden upon my spirit.
“[But], when I had satisfied nature with my food, I shook the sermon out of my mind, and to my old custom of sports and gaming I returned with great delight.
“But the same day, as I was in the midst of a game [of] cat, [“cat” was a game in which a shaped piece of wood called the cat was struck on the ground and then, when it rose in the air, was struck again], and having struck it one blow from the hole, just as I was about to strike it the second time, a voice did suddenly dart from heaven into my soul, which said, ‘[Will you] leave your sins and go to heaven, or have your sins and go to hell?’ …wherefore, leaving my cat upon the ground, I looked up to heaven, and was, as if I had, with the eyes of my understanding, seen the Lord Jesus looking down on me, as being very hotly displeased with me, and as if he did severely threaten me with some grievous punishment for these and other [of] my ungodly practices. [Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, paragraphs 20-22]
That is a passage from John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners describing a turning point in Bunyan’s life, the beginning of the process by which he became a follower of Jesus Christ. His coming to Christ was born in the conviction that he was a sinner needing salvation and that conviction began with a sermon on the necessity of keeping the Lord’s Day holy which Bunyan, like most English men and women of his day, did not do. He had, of course, heard many sermons on sin and salvation before, but it was this one on Sabbath-keeping that came home to his conscience and changed his life, just as it had been the 10th commandment, not the fourth, that had brought the Apostle Paul to a sense of his need for a redeemer. [Rom. 7:7-10] Humanly speaking, were it not for that sermon and for Bunyan’s strong reaction to it, the world might never have seen John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the classics of world literature and a book that has perhaps done as much true good to human beings as any book ever written apart from the Bible itself.
But it is an unhappy fact of modern life that very few such sermons on the Sabbath day are any longer preached and it must be a very small number indeed of boys and girls, men and women who are being stung in their consciences to hear about the holiness of the Lord’s Day and how often and how willingly they have violated that holiness. The Sabbath used to be – and not so long ago, within the lifetime of some in this congregation this morning – a staple of Christian preaching, but it is a tiny number of Christians in America who hear about it now. And the result is predictable.
The Sabbath day is virtually a dead letter in the Christian church today; it is rapidly becoming a dead letter even in the evangelical Reformed and Presbyterian churches where Sabbath-keeping until very recently was understood to be an important part of the duty that man owed to God, a sacred part of any genuine piety, and an engine of holiness of life that could be sacrificed only with great loss to Christian faith and life.
Now, to be sure, there are plenty of people, including very many Christian ministers, who nowadays argue that the fourth commandment of the ten and its obligation to keep the Sabbath day holy to God is and should be a dead letter; that what was a law in the OT is no longer in the New; that the Apostles freed the church from the obligation to keep one day in seven holy to God. They are unconcerned about the death of the Lord’s Day and would encourage you not to care about it either.
Don’t you believe it! There is nothing in the New Testament about Christians no longer having to keep the 4th commandment. We know, of course, that many Jewish Christians in the apostolic period were very unhappy that Gentile Christians were being allowed to enter the church without being required to observe the cardinal requirements of Jewish piety: circumcision, the laws regarding the distinction between clean and unclean foods, and the Sabbath day, by which I mean the Saturday Sabbath Day. This was the chief contention among Christians in the first generation of the church’s life after Pentecost: would the burgeoning Gentile church respect Jewish spiritual culture?
But it is very clear what the answer to that question is in the New Testament. The particularly Jewish forms of piety would not be required of Gentile Christians. Circumcision was not abandoned, but its form was changed to baptism. Every Christian must now be baptized, but no one was any longer to be required to be circumcised. The Jewish Sabbath was not abolished but its form was changed to the Sunday Lord’s Day. No one was any longer required to observe the Saturday Sabbath, but every Christian was obliged to sanctify the Lord’s Day on Sunday. The “Lord’s Day,” remember, was another OT name for the Sabbath, but now it was attached to the first day of the week, not the last. Jewish Christians might continue to observe circumcision and the Saturday Sabbath – there was no objection to their continuing to do so – but even they were required as well to be baptized and to worship the Lord on the day of resurrection. Every Christian was. There were, to be sure, Jewish Christians who resisted these changes, complained about them, and sought to persuade Gentile believers to observe the old Jewish forms alongside the new Gentile forms, but as much trouble as these people caused in Galatia and Corinth and other places their viewpoint did not prevail. The apostles condemned it as false to the gospel and that was that.
What remarks there are in the New Testament about Christians not observing days are all in the context of this dispute and have to do with the effort on the part of some Jewish Christians – called Judaizers after a single use of a verb that means “to live according to Jewish customs” by the Apostle Paul in Gal. 2:14 – to preserve in the church, increasingly a Gentile church, the observance of a Saturday Lord’s Day. There is nothing in the NT to suggest that there is no longer a Sabbath day, there is in fact an explicit reference to the Lord’s Day in Rev. 1, but, of course, that day was observed on Sunday, not Saturday. So while it is undeniably true that Gentile Christians no longer were obliged to observe the Saturday Sabbath; it goes far beyond anything said in the New Testament to conclude that Christians are not still obliged to keep the fourth commandment. In fact, a careful reader of the Bible will find frankly preposterous the notion that, without a word anywhere in the Bible to this effect, one of the Ten Commandments would have fallen out of the law!
Remember, the obligation to keep one day of the week holy did not originate in the Law of Moses, but in Eden, in the time of man’s innocence, before the Fall of man into sin. It belongs to the other great obligations of human life such as marriage and family that are also found at the headwaters of human life. We were made to work – God was a worker himself, we are made in his image, he put Adam in the garden to work it –but we were also made to rest. The cycle of work and rest, of labor and celebration was built into human life by our creator and so was part of the proper rhythm of human life from the beginning. Even in secular societies, the insistence on a day off in the working week is a feeble echo of this universal human recognition: that we were made both to work and to rest, to weary ourselves with labor and to be renewed in feasting and fellowship. It is no more likely that the day of rest would fall out of God’s plan for human life than that of a life of work, or the institutions of marriage and family would. Animals don’t take time off, but all human beings know they should. This is one of the reasons why I remain so completely unimpressed by the arguments offered for the end of Sabbath observance by so many Christians today. They talk piously of the fact that our rest is now not in a day but in Christ and that we’re resting every day in Christ; but they still want their day off. If they want to take that argument seriously, let them then say that Christians in the new epoch should work seven days a week because they have Christ’s rest in them every day. I haven’t heard that argument!
But it is not a misinterpretation of a few statements in Romans and Colossians regarding the observance of the Jewish Sabbath that really accounts for the Sabbath’s becoming a dead letter in today’s church. Most Christians have very little of an idea, one way or another, of those texts. What is much more significant is a deep-seated prejudice against the Sabbath Day that has been instilled in them by years of sermons and Sunday School teaching. Most Christians today have been taught to think that the Sabbath was drudgery in the days of Moses and of Jesus. They think it was an oppressive duty to keep the Sabbath holy – a matter of endless dos and don’ts – that the Sabbath day would have been the most dull, boring, and interminable day of the week. It was a sort of strait-jacket into which believers had to put themselves once a week to show themselves loyal to God. No wonder then that Jesus would deliver us from this yoke!
Christians today almost universally think of Sabbath holiness in terms of what one is forbidden to do and, through the ages, the list of things forbidden has customarily grown very long. In the days of Jesus the rabbis’ regulations governing Sabbath observance went on for pages and pages and descended to the most trivial things. And in the ages since Christians have often done the same thing, creating ever-growing lists of things people can’t do on the Lord’s Day if they are to keep it holy.
In other words, most Christians today think that the biblical definition of Sabbath-keeping was pretty much the doctrine of the Pharisees. Their practice reflected the Law of Moses and Jesus delivered us from that. I have a Scottish pastor friend who was excommunicated from his church because he rode a bus on Sunday…to get to church! The rabbis would also have forbidden that and the assumption of far too many Christians nowadays is that the Law of Moses did as well. They don’t like the Sabbath and so it seems right to them that they shouldn’t have to keep it any longer.
The problem with this view of things is that Jesus never abolished the fourth commandment or the obligation to keep the Lord’s Day holy. All he ever did was to take issue with the Pharisees definition of Sabbath-keeping. And what he said and then demonstrated, as here in Luke 6, was that the Pharisees had deeply misunderstood the purpose and so the obligation of the 4th commandment. They got it wrong; badly wrong. Jesus certainly never did away with Sabbath-keeping but he most certainly liberated people of his day and ever since from a false view of what Sabbath-keeping is.
When he said, as he did in v. 5, that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath, he was not laying the foundation for abolishing the commandment; he was saying rather that he is the final arbiter of the true meaning of that commandment and what constitutes faithful obedience to it. That is certainly not surprising. We will find Jesus often taking the Pharisees to task for their misunderstanding of God’s law. The entire Sermon on the Mount is devoted to correcting a false view of holiness of life, the view taught by the Pharisees. But a great many American Christians seem to think that the true meaning of the Sabbath commandment was the meaning the Pharisees gave to it. Hardly! They have not listened carefully to Jesus.
Take note, then, of the Lord’s correction of the Pharisees’ view of Sabbath-keeping. He both teaches them and then shows them a different understanding of the Lord’s Day and a careful study of the OT material I am quite sure will demonstrate to you that the Lord’s view was the view long before taught in the Law of Moses itself.
- First the Lord says that the Pharisees had gone beyond the law.
This was a typical problem for the Pharisees. Their movement had been born in a time of religious revival within Judaism, a movement that took its point of departure from being serious about one’s faith; all of that to the good of course. But that zeal soon led to a fatal misstep as it has over and over again in Christian history ever since. In what was perhaps originally a well-intentioned effort to help people obey the law of God, over the next several hundred years the rabbis developed an elaborate casuistry or case law which specified in great detail what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. It told sailors what knots they could tie on the Sabbath and what knots they could not. It told tailors how late on Friday afternoon they could be out with their needles and thread, precisely how far one could walk on the Sabbath, how much weight could be carried and on and on. If you want to catch a sense of Pharisaism and its view of holiness just read the tractate devoted to the Sabbath in the Mishnah, a compilation of rabbinic regulations from the time of Jesus and shortly thereafter. The detail, the comprehensiveness will amaze you, I suspect, and disgust and repel you. But all of this was taken most seriously by the Pharisees whom Jesus encountered in the synagogue that day. They knew, or thought they knew, precisely what could be done and could not be done on the Sabbath. And any violation of those rules was considered a serious act of disobedience to God.
But Jesus cut through their entire theory by saying, in effect, that the Word of God and the Law of Moses never forbad what the rabbis had declared to be forbidden. It never forbad on the Sabbath Day the picking of some heads of grain, rubbing them between the hands, and eating the kernels. Indeed, the Bible gives examples of men properly eating even bread that was strictly forbidden to be eaten by them in the Law of Moses and even when that eating was only mildly necessary. After all, David’s soldiers were tough; they weren’t going to starve to death by going without food for a few more hours and, for that matter, the Lord’s disciples could have packed some energy bars the night before for Judas to carry in his backpack. The law was made for man’s blessing, not for his misery, and was never to stand in the way of men getting the help they needed. Similarly, the Bible never said that acts of kindness and mercy couldn’t be done on the Sabbath. The fact is, the Pharisees had made all that up. In seeking to be biblical the Pharisees had, in fact, become deeply unbiblical. It is man’s favorite way to maintain his independence from God: take God’s truth, but then give it his own twist so now it’s his own truth and not just God’s. The laws they were demanding to be obeyed were not God’s laws but their own. No doubt that was one reason they took those laws so seriously: they were their own laws and they had a vested interest in them. Search the law of God and see if you can find anywhere where we are told not to help people in distress, not to have a snack, not to take a walk, not to enjoy a meal with friends, not, for that matter, even to play a game of cat with our children in the backyard;that is, if anyone could tell us precisely how to make a cat and how to play the game. The Bible simply never anywhere teaches a view of the Sabbath day such as the Pharisees shared in the time of Jesus.
In Holy Scripture, the Sabbath day is a day of rest from work, a holiday for worship, for fellowship with other believers, and for doing good works. It should be recognizably the Lord’s Day in our practice, different from other days in obvious ways, and especially devoted to him, precisely because it belongs to him in a way different from the rest of the days of the week, but there is precious little about precisely what may or may not be done apart from rest from work, worship with the saints, Christian fellowship, and good works. The Bible never tells us which knots we can tie or what we can talk about with our friends.
The Sabbath is a holiday in the Bible, a day to look forward to, a day to enjoy, a special day, the best day of the week. In Mark, in his account of this same conversation with the Pharisees about Sabbath-keeping the Lord made his famous remark, “The Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.” It was to be a boon for us, not a bane; a happy day, not a bore; a refreshing day, not a wearying one. The last thing the Sabbath is in Holy Scripture is an oppressive day on which nothing fun or interesting or really valuable can be done!
How like human beings to take one of God’s great gifts and to turn it into something no child could love! And how like the Devil to convince us that God’s laws were made to oppress us instead of to set us free. This is what he suggested to Adam in the garden and the idiot believed him. The Devil wants us to feel put upon by the commandments of God and, alas, in our foolishness as sinners, we often have felt just that. Do you know why Thanksgiving and Christmas are such a big deal in our society? It’s because they have only two real holidays. We Christians have one every week. They have only two and have to make the most of them.
- But the Lord didn’t stop there. Not only did the Pharisees go beyond the law in requiring what it did not require, they fell short of it as well.
The Pharisees not only added prohibitions that the Bible does not, they failed to grasp the true obedience of the day, the real burden of the fourth commandment and of the Lord’s Day. The Law of Moses made explicit provision for the care and treatment of animals on the Sabbath Day. The Lord did not want animals to be neglected because of the Sabbath. How much more then did he not want human beings to be neglected because of his children’s Sabbath-keeping? The Lord’s healing of this man with a withered hand was not an acceptable violation of the Sabbath commandment. It was a perfect example of keeping the Sabbath commandment as David’s eating the bread of the presence was an illustration of the keeping of the rule regarding the bread of presence. After he and his men had their fill they were never to eat the bread of the Presence again, because the law reserved that bread to the priests. But the bread was there for genuinely hungry men. Nothing was more appropriate on the Sabbath than doing good for a fellow who needed help! Nothing so fulfilled the spirit and purpose of the law. The Pharisees should have urged Jesus to heal the man’s hand at once, because it was the Sabbath, the best day of the week for such a good work. The Sabbath is a day for loving our neighbor and especially our Christian brothers and sisters. There is no more perfect keeping of the Sabbath Day than to doing some kindness to someone else. I’ll leave that point there; it is enough merely to say it.
I thank God that I was raised in a Sabbath-keeping home. Sunday was a grand day in our house: the table full of guests, great food, fascinating conversation, beautiful music. The best meal of the week was always on the Lord’s Day. There were things we didn’t do – as a boy I never saw the popular Walt Disney hour on TV because it was at the same time as evening church – and, sinner that I am I resented that from time to time, but I didn’t usually resent it and wouldn’t change those Sabbath days for anything. How sad, so many Americans and even American Christians who don’t have a real Sabbath day, never get the real holiday every week their Maker appointed for them.
Are we better off for neglecting the Lord’s Day? Even Voltaire – that outspoken enemy of our faith – had the sense to know that, as he once put it, “If you wish to destroy the Christian religion [and he did] you must first destroy the Christian Sunday.” It is being destroyed before our eyes in our time. Do we really believe that the Devil has had nothing to do with transforming the Lord’s Day in our culture into the chief day for professional sports on television? Is it an accident that our pagan temples – we call them stadiums or arenas – are filled to the brim on the very day that will provide direct competition to the temple of God?
I am a great admirer of John Murray, the late professor of theology first at Princeton, then at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Murray came from the Highlands of Scotland and was by birth and conviction a strict Sabbatarian. J. Gresham Machen and O.T. Allis, two other great theological minds and Presbyterian churchmen and Murray’s colleagues were at table one Sabbath afternoon at the Allis home and were talking baseball, a favorite subject of both Machen and Allis. When Prof. Murray was asked his opinion regarding some baseball matter, he tartly replied, “I never discuss baseball on the Sabbath.” Talk about a conversation stopper! Where do you go from there? “I love these mashed potatoes, Mrs. Allis.” As I said, I have great admiration for John Murray as a theologian, but I think it very difficult to prove that the Bible anywhere prohibits talking about baseball on the Sabbath Day. There may be many good reasons for talking about other, higher matters instead, but to forbid talk of baseball, or any other subject, is a fateful first step to a deep misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of God’s law.
Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s be sure we understand how enlightened, how generous, how high-spirited, how possessed of an appreciation for child-like fun, how generous and full of fatherly love the Lord was when he gave us the gift of the Sabbath Day, as well as how concerned he was that we have plenty of time for the most necessary things that would make the greatest difference to our lives: for faith and godliness: public worship, the fellowship of the saints, and the practice of good works. Parents: here is a simple rule: make sure Sunday is the best day of the week for your children and the best day for the best reasons.
Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher, tells of visiting a friend who lived in Newcastle, in the north of England. His friend was giving him a tour of his home and at one point said, “There is a fine view from the top window…we can see Durham Cathedral from here on a Sunday!”
“On a Sunday?” Spurgeon replied, “how is that?” “Well, you see all that smoke down there, all those factories, and so on; they are all shut on Sunday and then, when the air is clear, we can see Durham Cathedral.”
Well that is what a faithful Sunday does for the people of God: clears the air, gives them the sight, the sound, and the taste of things too little seen, too little heard and too little tasted the other days of the week. It refreshes them and renews them and makes them ready for a godly life through the following week. It lets them see the gates of the Holy City in the distance and gives them opportunity to help others to see them as well. And brothers and sisters that is a good day!