The Lord’s Sabbaths

Luke 14:1-6

While you are turning up Luke 14:1-6 I’ll mention that Mr. and Mrs. Bechtel are in Salem, Oregon today to be with Chris and Jackie in expectation of a baby to be born to them relatively soon. As a result we have been listening to the piano rather than the organ. We are favored with a number of ladies who are skilled at that instrument. I might, you might have been skilled at the piano. You might have been able to sit down at the piano and have the freedom to play any piece of beautiful music you wished. But most of you as I have no such freedom. We are in bondage at the piano because we never submitted ourselves to the law of the piano. We didn’t obey that law and learn to obey that law when we were young. And as a result we are now slaves, not freeman, when it comes to playing the piano. This is the lesson of the text we are about to read. One does not increase his liberty, his freedom by breaking the law of God or by ignoring it. One increases his bondage instead.

Text Comment

v.1       The Pharisees were apparently disciples of Sun Tzu, the ancient writer of The Art of War, who is supposed to have been the first to say, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” though that may have been Michael Corleone! The impression of the verse is certainly not that this Pharisee — an important man —  invited Jesus to his home to thank him for some kindness or out of a sense that the presence in his home of such a man would be an honor to his him and his family. They were keeping an eye on him and, no doubt, hoping that he would say something that they could use against him. Imagine being the Lord, knowing that your enemies were hanging on every word, hoping that you would say something, however innocent, that they could use against you. I doubt there was ever a man in the history of the world who chose his words as carefully as did Jesus of Nazareth.

v.3       This man may have been an invited guest or may have been brought there by his family who had heard where Jesus was to be. Dropsy is a condition in which the body swells from the accumulation of fluids. But the verb “responded” or “answered” in v. 3 has led some commentators to suppose that the man had been put there by the Pharisees themselves precisely to see whether Jesus would perform a healing on the Sabbath day. His presence was a set-up. [Bock, ii, 1257] So Jesus “responded” to what he gathered they were doing.

            His question, however, posed a dilemma for them. As so often, they set traps for Jesus but were caught in them themselves! According to rabbinic regulations it was not lawful to heal on the Sabbath unless a person’s life was in danger. This man would not have died if Jesus had waited until the evening to heal him. The meal to which Jesus was invited was after the morning worship in the synagogue had ended, much as our Sunday lunches today. So it would have been but a few more hours until evening and the end of the Sabbath. The man could have been healed then. [Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, ii, 202] On the other hand, when Jesus asked if it were “lawful” to heal on the Sabbath, he may have meant, and they may have taken him to mean, was such healing forbidden in the Law of Moses, which, of course, it was not and they knew it was not.  [Morris, 248] What is more, a refusal to countenance the healing of a man suffering so might well appear to others as harsh and unsympathetic. [Caird, 175] Finally, if they had purposely planted the man there but then they argue that he shouldn’t be healed they would look both devious and mean. [Bock, ii, 1257]

v.4       They remained silent presumably because they didn’t know what to say. They hadn’t anticipated Jesus’ question. This is the last of the Sabbath healings that is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. With what one commentator describes as “delicate courtesy” the Lord sent the man away before resuming his conversation with men who resented the man’s new-found happiness. [Laidlaw, Miracles, 312]

v.6       You’ll notice in your marginal note that some manuscripts read “donkey” instead of “son.” Then Jesus would be speaking of their care of animals, as before in 13:15 and the argument would be a fortiori. If you take care of your animals in need on the Sabbath, how much more is it right to take care of a human being in need. But if the reading is “son or ox” as is perhaps more likely — the more difficult reading is usually the right one and “son and ox” make an incongruous pair — the argument is more blunt. You will do precisely what I have done if the person or animal in need happens to be yours! What could they say? The Lord was left standing in the field having demonstrated that, even on their premises, deeds of mercy are appropriate on the Sabbath day.

            The silence of the Pharisees is here and elsewhere in the Gospel an indictment of them both as men and as leaders of the people. God was at work in Jesus; how else could they possibly explain the miraculous healings that were being performed in such great number and which they themselves had witnessed time and time again. But the Pharisees sat there instead in angry silence, offended rather than sharing the joy of the man who had been healed. They resented rather than welcomed the grace of God! We see here the churlishness of the unbelieving heart, it’s smallness.

            Now, in what follows I am going to refer to Sunday as the Sabbath day. I realize, of course, that in the Lord’s day the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, Saturday. And I am very well aware that there are Christians and Christian scholars who claim that there is no Christian Sabbath, that the Sabbath day of the Old Testament was abolished, not simply moved from Saturday to Sunday. I have spoken to you often enough about this in the past.

Those arguments are utterly unconvincing to me, as they were to Christians generally until our very own day. They who deny the Christian Sabbath, misunderstand the few texts in the New Testament that deal with the Sabbath controversially (in Colossians 2 and Romans 14); they make far too little of the fact that the Apostle John refers to Sunday as “the Lord’s Day,” which is simply another OT term for the Sabbath day; they cannot account for the fact that the Christian Sunday comes out of the apostolic era as a fixture of Christian practice and piety; and they fail adequately to reckon with the fact that the Lord Jesus himself said that the Sabbath was made for man, that it was to be a boon and a blessing to man. Strange that he would then withdraw this blessing from us!

The Sabbath is a creation ordinance as we read in Genesis 2, the rhythm of work and rest, of work and feast, of work and celebration, thus became a fixture in the life of all human beings and from the very beginning. To be sure, as we would expect, this pattern has been corrupted by sin but it has never been eradicated. Even Christians who deny that there remains a Sabbath day for them to keep holy still want their day off! To keep the Sabbath holy is also an obligation of the Ten Commandments, as we know. The notion that one of the Ten Commandments would somehow fall out of the Law ought to be utterly preposterous to any thoughtful reader of the Bible, all the more if we must infer that this is what happened because Holy Scripture never actually teaches us that one of the most important of God’s commandments was taken back for some reason! So, I proceed on the assumption that there remains a Sabbath day for us to sanctify and to observe.

The Sabbath was an immensely important feature of Jewish piety and so it should be no surprise that the question of Sabbath observance surfaced repeatedly in the Lord’s contest with the religious leadership. Their understanding of Sabbath observance perfectly revealed the vast gulf that separated their religion from that of Jesus. That they resented his spectacular works of power, even though they delivered people from what was often a lifetime of misery, perfectly revealed the difference in spirit between the Lord and the religious leadership. So important was this question that this is already the fourth instance of a disagreement about Sabbath observance recorded in the Gospel of Luke.

The Sabbath may have been a matter of huge importance both to Jesus and his countrymen, but it is largely a dead letter today. The Christian church has easily adjusted to our culture’s utter disdain for the Sabbath which has come upon us very rapidly. Many of us in this room can well remember when stores were generally closed in the United States of America on Sunday. Oh, to be sure, Sunday remains a day off. But hardly anyone intends to keep the Sabbath holy. As fewer Americans worship on the Lord’s Day, as we now shop on Sunday, watch television sports on Sunday, and mow our lawns on Sunday, even most Bible-believing Christians rarely give Sabbath observance a thought and certainly rarely think that they have an obligation to keep this day holy to the Lord. In fact, more and more churches are offering a Saturday night service so that those who want to get to the golf course early on Sunday or don’t want to miss that early football game on the television can get their worship service taken care of the night before. So, nowadays Christians aren’t always even going to church on the Sabbath day. For most of them it is little more than a traditional day for going to church.

Now, the question is: why? Why do Christians today so blithely ignore the obligation of the Lord’s holy Day? Why do they find it natural to believe that it was a good thing for the Lord to set us free from this obligation to sanctify one day of the week? After all, Christians have no doubt that they are still forbidden to lie, to steal, to commit adultery; that they are still required to worship God alone, to revere his name, to refrain from the worship of idols. Why do they feel free to treat this one commandment among the ten with indifference? The wiser, the better read among them are well aware that the idea of a day off, something we all cherish, is the inheritance of Christian civilization and owes its origin to the Sabbath day. There have been many times and places as there are still today in the world in which a great many people were never granted or are never granted a day of rest. Imagine such a life: every single day the same, week after week, month after month, year after year, hardly ever a day of rest. Imagine your life under those terms. Why do we want to be rid of the Sabbath and all the more when Jesus not only observed the Sabbath himself, as we know from the Gospels, but taught us that not one jot or tittle would fall from the Law until all was fulfilled?

Well, I don’t think that is a terribly difficult question to answer. Christians nowadays think that, of course, Jesus would have rescued us from the Sabbath day because it was such a burden; to observe the Sabbath was such a chore; because the Sabbath day was the worst day of the week, a day no one would have looked forward to and a day everyone would have been glad to see come to its end. They imagine Jewish kids counting the hours until the Sabbath was over and life could begin again.

They think of Sabbath observance as largely a collection of “thou shalt nots.” Thou shalt not do anything except go to church, read your Bible, and sit in your room. Thou shalt not have any fun. Thou shalt not go anywhere or do anything interesting. How they got this idea is a long story, sad and complicated, but that they have such an idea is easy to prove. In other words, they think about the Old Testament Sabbath pretty much as the Pharisees did, in terms of interminable regulations, mostly negative, that governed what one could do and what one was forbidden to do. Read the tractates of the Mishnah — the collection of rabbinic deliverances from the time of the Lord and shortly after — read the ones dedicated to Sabbath observance and you will, I guarantee you, heave a sigh of relief that you don’t have to keep the Sabbath day in that way. The regulations are mind-numbing and, in many cases, simply outrageously silly. Nothing like the simplicity of the Law of Moses.

You cannot read the Law of Moses and imagine a Sabbath elevator, such as they have for observant Jews in Israel today. These are elevators that stop automatically on various floors so that the one riding the elevator does not have to push the button! Pushing the button is work, though putting on your clothes or walking to the elevator isn’t!

But there is a sense in which your average American Christian has an even worse concept of the biblical Sabbath day than the Pharisees had. For the Pharisee the Sabbath was a feast day and one way to observe it was to enjoy the best food and drink and to wear one’s finest clothes. The food would have been prepared before the Sabbath, but it was the finest meal of the week; often a real banquet. [Str.-B, i, 611-615; ii, 202-203] Put your best food and wine before people on the Sabbath day and give people an occasion to dress up and you have a holiday; you have a day to look forward to. Frankly, I doubt many Jews felt nearly as oppressed by the Sabbath day as American Christians imagine they must have been, no matter the long list of ridiculous regulations about how far you could walk, or how much you could lift, or how late on Friday afternoon you could begin your haircut. [Sabbath, 2 (Danby, 100)] For them it still was the best day of the week.

The typical American evangelical assumes, however, that the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy really confined and burdened the people of God and that, therefore, Christ, as the apostle of liberty, naturally delivered us from that bondage. He or she thinks that Sabbath observance really was intended to be obedience to a host of “thou shalt nots” that must have sucked the life out of the day. Strange to say, the common evangelical opinion of the Sabbath Day was that it was intended to be what the Pharisees made of it! Add that prejudice to the general antinomian spirit of American evangelicalism, the sense that God, of course, would never spoil our fun by asking us to do something we didn’t want to do, and you get the virtually universal indifference to and disregard for the Sabbath that is now the rule in American Christianity and so in American culture as a whole.

But all of that is wrong, entirely wrong, wrong in a ghastly way. Jesus himself loved the Sabbath day and observed it faithfully. But he didn’t observe the Pharisees’ Sabbath. He observed instead the Sabbath of the Law of Moses, the Law of his heavenly Father. He observed the Sabbath that God intended to be a boon to us, the best day of the week, a day we would need and a day we would look forward to and a day that we would regret to see come to its end. There should be nothing surprising about that, really. We learn over and over again in the Gospels that this was invariably the Lord’s objection to the Pharisees’ understanding of faith and obedience: they had reduced true religion to the observance of many and often trivial rules. They had made such minutiae the be all and end all of real holiness and so of salvation itself. They had lost sight of the true problem of man in sin, of the love of God, and of the need for a Redeemer who would die for the sin of the world. Salvation for them was not a gift to be received with thanksgiving and joy, but a routine to be observed. Again and again the Lord condemned the Pharisees for going beyond the Law of God, for losing sight of its true meaning, and for turning salvation into the performance of minor acts of trivial obedience instead of the titanic divine achievement it actually is and must be.

No wonder then that he would repudiate root and branch the Pharisees’ idea of the Sabbath and their concept of Sabbath observance. The Law of Moses never laid down the sort of regulations that the Pharisees did. It never required the food to be cooked on Friday rather than on the Sabbath itself. Some people assume that it did because of the punishment of the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath day. If a man were put to death for merely picking up some wood, then obviously one couldn’t safely do anything on the Sabbath day, certainly not make a fire or cook a meal. But that is terribly to misunderstand that short paragraph in Numbers15 and particularly in its context. That man wasn’t collecting wood to build a fire to keep his family warm. The idea that God intended his people to shiver through the Sabbath day is genuinely bizarre. The man wasn’t collecting wood to cook a meal for his family either. The man’s collecting wood, in the context, is an example of a defiant, a high-handed sin. It wasn’t because he had gone out from his tent too great a distance that he was condemned. The men who found him had walked as far and they weren’t punished! This man cared nothing for the Law of God. He was working on the Sabbath day because he had no taste for the Sabbath and no spirit of obedience to God. He was defying the commandment. He was in his day, his judgment in his day, was what Ananias and Sapphira and their judgment was in their day: an example of flagrant, defiant disobedience to God’s law. They are the proof in the negative that God’s grace and salvation tends to make us law keepers, not law breakers. His punishment, as theirs, was an important demonstration that God’s grace must lead us to a life of obedience.

In fact, the Sabbath law required attendance at worship, it required a cessation of work — though not to the detriment of men or animals — and it required that the day should be the Lord’s in a definite way. That is about all that we are told about the Sabbath in the Law of God. There are scarcely any regulations about what may or may not be done. There is no law against cooking and serving food on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees invented the requirement that food to be eaten on the Sabbath be cooked on Friday. There is no law that forbids a walk on the Sabbath day or playing with one’s children, or sharing a meal with friends or strangers. Jesus did that much repeatedly. It is the Lord’s Day in the Law of Moses because it is a day in which the Lord grants special blessings to his people! What is worrying about the distaste of so many Christians for the Sabbath day nowadays is that it may indicate that they really have no taste for the Lord’s blessings, the blessings he has set apart a day to provide them.

There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that the Lord himself thought of the Sabbath as a burden. He often enjoyed a great meal with his friends on the Sabbath day and for a man whose life was not his own most of the time that must have been a great refreshment of his spirit. The Lord Jesus never said about the Sabbath day what he said about the laws distinguishing between clean and unclean foods. In Mark 7:19 he declared that all foods were now to be clean for the people of God, as that ceremonial regulation was no longer to be observed as the church made its way outward into the Gentile world and the distinction between Jew and Gentile was to lose its importance. He never said about the Sabbath what he said in John 4:21-24 about the worship of the temple in Jerusalem that it was soon to disappear. Those laws which had served a particularly Jewish form of faith and piety were to come to an end or at least were being profoundly recast.

But what he said to the Pharisees about the Sabbath day was something very different. He never said it would end. He never said that it had served its purpose and was no longer needed. What he said to them, and very clearly, was that what they condemned as violations of the Sabbath day (such as the Lord healing on the Sabbath day, or his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath day) were not, in fact, violations at all. The problem wasn’t that they continued to observe the Sabbath day. The problem was that they observed it badly. The Sabbath itself was holy, just, and good. But the Pharisaic practice of the Sabbath was a corruption, like so much else of their religious practice. That is what Jesus rejected: not the Sabbath itself but the Pharisees’ corruption of it, as he rejected their corruption of so many of the laws of Moses. We have an account of other such corruptions of OT laws, as you remember, in his Sermon on the Mount.

The Law of God, when rightly understood and faithfully observed, is always the path of true love, true freedom, and true happiness. The Law of God always elevates human life, never takes it down. The Law of God, when obeyed always enriches and blesses a person’s life; it never diminishes it. Is this not what John taught us in his first letter: the laws of God are never a burden; they are always a boon? If they seem a burden to you, then you must do two things:

  1. First you must be sure that you understand the law correctly; and
  2. You must search you conscience to be sure that you want for yourself what God wants for you; that your desires are not worldly and foolish.

 

The Sabbath was meant for you and what Christian can possibly think it a burden to have a holiday every week, to be refreshed in faith, hope, and love, to re-center himself or herself in the salvation of God and the expectation of eternal life, and to enjoy the fellowship of the saints, good food, restful hours, and the worship of the church in the Lord’s house morning and evening?

The sad fact is, the Sabbath is one of the Lord’s greatest gifts to the world and especially to his people, and in our day his own people don’t seem to appreciate the gift or to be grateful to have been given it. I think most of them think they owe their days off to their company or to the government rather than to God. How sad. How wrong!

The Lord enjoyed his Sabbath days. Surely we ought to as well and for the same reasons. The Sabbath is a day to stop: to stop all the clattering of commerce, all the noise of business and daily work, and to rest in the salvation of God, to rejoice in the fellowship of the saints, to be refreshed and renewed in worship, to reconnect our lives with their fabulously important meaning and purpose and goal. Even the diminished Sabbath day of American evangelicalism is still of great importance. If we lose it altogether we will find out to our chagrin why God’s people have thought through the ages that our Christian lives will be as our Sabbath days.

In our Christian faith, according to the Bible, time is much more important than things. In fact, there really isn’t a word for “thing” in the Bible that corresponds to our English word “thing.” Our word, “reality,” comes from the Latin word res which means “thing.” But it is different in the Bible. In the ancient world the feasts of the annual calendar were related to the harvests of grain and of the vine and tree. Things! But in the Old Testament feasts were all connected to events, to what God had done and would do. So the barley harvest became Passover, the remembrance of Israel’s redemption from Egypt and the autumn feast of the grape and fruit harvest became the Feast of Tabernacles, the remembrance of God’s provision for his people in the wilderness. The weekly Sabbath, which many ancient peoples observed in a corrupted form or at least the better off and more powerful observed in some corrupted form, was for Israel a weekly remembrance both of creation and redemption as we read in the two renditions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

In Scripture reality is not related to things but to history and to events in history. Time is more important than space in the Bible! [Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, 6-7] And in the Bible we are given what has been called an “architecture of time.” Our lives are constructed according to an architecture of time. We know what things mean because of their relation to events in the past and the future. The Sabbath is the most important part of that architecture. The Sabbath was given to us at the beginning of the world as reminder of who made us, to whom our lives belong. It is a weekly remembrance as well of God’s redemption, of who has bought our lives out of slavery and out of death, and as we learn in Hebrews 4 it is an anticipation of the life of heaven granted to us every week. It is time within the times, the Sabbath day. It is a weekly remembrance — it is no accident that the beginning of creation, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and the descent of the Holy Spirit all occurred on the first day of the week! — and a weekly anticipation. It is time within the times and it fixes our lives in that great history of God’s work in the world, creation and redemption and consummation, which it is our privilege to know and to participate in as the children of God. This is why the Sabbath day was made holy, was set apart for a divine use at the creation and why we are to keep it holy. The Sabbath has more to do with reality, much more, than any thing you will possess or any thing you will enjoy.

People of the Sabbath day, therefore, are the people who understand their place in this world, understand the meaning of their lives, and want to experience that meaning to the full: want to revel in where they came from and where they are going, want fully to participate in that history that is carrying them along to the land of Sabbath rest. It is no accident that in Hebrews 4 heaven itself is called a Sabbath. If you don’t like the Sabbath day, it may be because you wouldn’t like heaven either! Show me a man or woman who observes the Sabbath with a right spirit and I’ll show you a happy, well-adjusted man or woman!

Young people: a challenge. It will be very easy for you to make little or nothing of the Sabbath Day as adults, apart from going once to church. In a great many churches no one will ever urge you to keep the Lord’s Day holy, to do different things, to spend your time in ways appropriate to the Lord’s holy day, ways that anticipate the life of heaven – ways you have a great deal of liberty to choose for yourself. You will have to care to keep the Sabbath yourself, it will have to be a matter of your own commitment because so few of your brothers and sisters will encourage you to keep the Lord’s day or set an example for you. But if you love the Lord, here is a very important way to show it. And if you love the life of heaven here is a wonderful way to anticipate it. And how it will enrich your life and the life of your family! Not for you the effete wordliness of so much of American Christianity. For you the law of God embraced and kept with thanksgiving and expectation.

The Lord was a Sabbath keeper. But that never meant that his Sabbaths were dull or  uninteresting. They were full of church and worship as we know; they were full of good food. I imagine the Lord came home that day from his time with the Pharisees, most of his disciples had probably not been invited, so when he got home he told them about his day and he said, “Well, the conversation wasn’t terribly inspiring, but the food was terrific.” His Sabbaths were full of the people he loved – he often kept the Sabbath with Lazarus, Mary and Martha as we know —  and he kept it with people who needed him. No one who spends his or her Sabbath days like that is going to be worse for it; no; better, much better.