Jesus has just said that those who follow him will find his yoke easy and his burden light, especially in comparison to the wearying rounds of endless duty required in the system of Pharisaic legalism. Now these two different understandings of the law of God and of righteous living are revealed more clearly in their different approaches to the obligation to keep the Sabbath day holy. The Sabbath was one of the most sacred obligations of Jewish piety in those days. The Sabbath had become so sacred, indeed, that in the days of the Maccabees, in the middle of the 2nd century B.C., when the enemy attacked on the Sabbath, they let themselves be slaughtered – men, women, and children – rather than defend themselves and so, it was thought, break the Sabbath (1 Macc. 2:31-38). Fighting was work and work was forbidden on the Sabbath. The Jews saw the Sabbath as their badge or mark as a people set apart to God. It was the only outward symbol that was completely unique to the Jews. Other peoples had temples, practiced sacrifices, and so on. But the Sabbath was unique to Judaism. Partly as a result of the importance attached to the day and its proper observance, a mass of regulations had grown up to govern people’s behavior on the Sabbath day, to define what could and could not be done. Even the Mishnah, which devotes an entire tractate to those regulations, can lament that “the rules about the Sabbath…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for the [teaching of] Scripture [about the Sabbath] is scanty and the rules many” [Hag. 1:8] [In Morris, 299]
v.2 To pluck heads of grain in someone else’s field was not forbidden in the Law of Moses, in fact, it was explicitly permitted (Deut. 23:25); nor was it anywhere forbidden on the Sabbath. But, according to the rabbis of the time, it amounted to reaping, which was one of the 39 areas of work explicitly forbidden on the Sabbath in the rabbinical regulations.
v.4 The argument is of a familiar type. King David violated a liturgical provision of the law to provide food for his men and the Scripture does not condemn him. If the regulations of the temple service itself, of the sanctuary of God, may be ignored in such a case, clearly the law against working on the Sabbath is not absolute either. Now don’t take Jesus to mean that he is trying to justify what his disciples did as an exception. Clearly there was nothing wrong with what they did. They weren’t justified because they were starving to death, for they weren’t. He is only using an argument that may be drawn from Scripture against the wooden and wrong-spirited thinking of the Pharisees. Their approach, their principles, cannot stand up to the data of the Scripture itself. If they were right in their interpretation of the Sabbath law, the David was wrong to take the show bread for his men.
v.5 The point is a simple one. The priests had to work on the Sabbath. They had to work vigorously in fact. How can the Pharisaic ideal of Sabbath keeping be justified in such a case. Yet the Bible itself teaches us that the priests must work on the Sabbath. Once again the Lord is arguing that the Pharisees have not developed a view of the Sabbath that is consistent with the Scripture’s teaching. By the way, this is an important example of the narratives of the Bible being used to teach theology’s ethics. The account of an incident in David’s life teaches us about what it means to keep the 4th commandment. Every part of the Bible is useful for training in righteousness.
v.6 The work of offering sacrifices in the temple does not compare with the work of bringing redemption to the world! Again the argument is from lesser to greater. Christ is greater than David and he is greater than the temple service.
v.7 In this very important statement the Lord plainly says that the Pharisees did not really understand the Law of God, what we call the OT. If they had, they would not have criticized the Lord’s disciples for what they did. This statement certainly means that the Lord is not saying that the Pharisees would have been right in their interpretation of Sabbath observance if only things hadn’t changed; but, having changed, they needed to adjust their understanding accordingly. No, he is saying that they were wrong in their understanding of what the Word of God required; what it had always required. The law of the Sabbath hadn’t changed. It was the same as it had always been. But the Pharisees had misunderstood that law. What Hosea 6:6 indicates, the text Jesus cites, is that the Lord is more interested in mercy than in the punctilious observance of ceremonial regulations and that was always the case and should have been always clear. Those regulations were never meant to put needy people at a disadvantage. God has priorities and we should have his priorities for ourselves. This argument then has the same force as the Lord’s statement on this occasion, recorded in Mark, but not in Matthew, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
v.8 For Jesus to say that he is Lord of the Sabbath is certainly a claim to divine authority on his part. He is saying that he, much more than the rabbis or Pharisees, has the authority to determine the proper observance of the Lord’s Day. His behavior is a better guide than their regulations. This is an important introduction to what comes next.
v.10 The rabbis permitted healing if life were in danger, but not if it were not. Then it would be work and a violation of the Sabbath law. Obviously, this man had suffered his condition a long time. He could have waited until the next day for Jesus to heal him. So they made him a test case to try the Lord’s fidelity to what they understand to be Sabbath holiness.
v.11 The rabbis actually contemplated such situations. Some would allow you to throw stuff into the pit to enable the animal to get out by itself or to throw food to it until it could be pulled out on a weekday, but not to help the animal directly yourself on the Sabbath. Some Jewish rabbis actually forbade even such help as that to be given to an animal on the Sabbath. But some rabbis and most of the people would have rescued their animals and everyone knew it. Here the Lord is not asserting his own authority or citing the Scripture as before, but exposing the inconsistency between the Pharisees’ teaching and their behavior. They will do something for an animal on the Sabbath that they won’t do for a man.
v.12 Once again an argument from the lesser to the greater, a very common form of argument in first century Judaism. A man is much more important than a sheep. If you can do good to a needy animal, you can certainly do good to a human being.
v.14 Such is the blindness created by a false piety that neither the Lord’s arguments nor his kindness to the poor man nor the supernatural power he wielded over his shriveled hand persuaded them to change their minds. They were made only the more antagonistic to Jesus. Jesus had called into question their entire theological position, their world-view, their sense of themselves, and their leadership, and they would not forgive him for that. But, here is another case that has exposed the gulf that separated the Lord’s radical understanding of salvation and what constitutes a holy life from the rule-bound religion of the establishment. [France, 205] We have here the first mention in the Gospel of Matthew of the intention of his enemies to kill the Lord.
For the Jews, the Sabbath day was a special sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, of their favored status in the world, and a promise of the joys that would be theirs in the world to come. It should have been a blessing, not a burden. No doubt many Jews thought of it as a blessing to some degree. But the rabbinic tendency to see life and holiness in terms of obedience to detailed regulations exposed religious life to the danger that the rules would displace the purpose for which God had given his law in the first place. When applied to the Sabbath commandment, the 4th of the 10 commandments, the proliferation of regulations soon led to the point where it required considerable learning to know what was and was not permitted. Virtually nothing was left to private judgment. The blessing of the Sabbath had instead, for many people in many ways, become a burden to be borne. What is more, certain great objects of the Sabbath, reasons why the Lord had given it to his people, had been almost entirely lost in the concern to determine what was work and thus forbidden on the Sabbath. What couldn’t be done soon became more important, much more, than what ought to have been done.
Now many of you are well aware that there is a considerable number of American evangelical Christians who think that the Sabbath commandment is passé for Christians today. It was part of the Mosaic Law that was done away with in the new dispensation. In a great many evangelical churches there is no teaching whatsoever that the Lord’s Day should be kept holy in some way. In fact, the very idea of the sanctification of the Lord’s Day would be regarded as Pharisaical, legalistic, a failure to appreciate a Christian’s freedom from the law. In fact, they would think it a serious mistake to call Sunday the Sabbath Day. “Sabbath” belonged to the superceded religious world of Moses.
You are also aware that we think that view of things is not only a mistaken interpretation of the Bible but a gigantic error with very serious consequences for the church of God in our day. There are many reasons why we are sure that the 4th commandment is as much a law for us today as it ever was for Israel in the days of Moses or Jesus. Years ago I preached a series on the biblical doctrine of the Sabbath Day. It took me 6 or 8 Sundays. So you will appreciate that this will be only a sketchy summary of the argument.
- First, Jesus here does not say, he never says, what he otherwise says about features of Israel’s life and worship that are soon to pass away, namely that changes are soon to be made. In Mark 7 he tells his disciples and others that the food laws are soon to be removed. In John 4 he tells the Samaritan woman that the temple in Jerusalem will soon no longer be the central place of believing worship. But all his teaching regarding the Sabbath concerns its proper observance. There isn’t the ghost of an idea, anywhere in the Lord’s remarks about the Sabbath or his own conduct on the Sabbath, that the Sabbath is to pass away. Indeed, here, in Matthew 12, as in Mark 2, he emphasizes that the observance of the Sabbath should be a blessing for men. It would be strange for him to say that and then to take the Sabbath away. No, everywhere the Lord is concerned to correct a false understanding of Sabbath observance not to promise its eventual demise.
- Second, the Sabbath was not an innovation of the Law of Moses, some temporary liturgical regulation to be done away with in the new epoch, but rather a creation ordinance, already established by God for the life of mankind before the entrance of sin into the world. We don’t imagine that work is abolished or marriage or family – the other creation ordinances by which God organized human life before the Fall. Why then the Sabbath? The rhythm of work and rest that God established for the life of mankind continues as it has from the beginning. The fact that God established the Sabbath in Eden before the Fall is a powerful argument that he intended it as a feature of human life everywhere and always. The Sabbath comes in Genesis 2 not Exodus 20.
- Third, the command to keep the Sabbath holy is part of the fundamental summary of biblical ethics given in the 10 commandments. No one has ever come near to providing an argument to explain how and why one and only one of the ten commandments should suddenly disappear. This is all the more true given that, in the 10 commandments, the reasons provided for keeping the Sabbath day holy, God’s creation in Exodus 20 and his redemption of his people in Deuteronomy 5, are timeless, permanent, and as valid today as ever they were before.
- Fourth, the argument of Hebrews 4 confirms that the Sabbath is indeed a sign and symbol of eternal life to come for the people of God, their eternal rest. The Jews were right about that. The Sabbath not only looks backward to creation and redemption, but forward to heaven. Why then should the sign be taken away before we have the thing signified?
- Fifth, the argument that the Sabbath was done away with in the new epoch rests on three passages in Paul’s letters that are far more easily taken to refer to the demand by a Jewish element in the church that the specifically Jewish form of piety be maintained in the Gentile churches. We know not only that this was the great problem of NT Christianity – pressure from the Jewish side on Gentile freedom – not only that Paul was at pains to confront this problem in many of his letters, but that this is, in fact, the subject in each and every one of those texts in which Paul has been taken to mean that the obligation of keeping the Sabbath has been done away with. But in those passages, what did Paul argue? He argued that circumcision did not need to be practiced by Gentile churches that practiced baptism; that the feasts of the Jewish liturgical calendar did not need to be practiced by the Gentile churches that practiced the Lord’s Supper, and that the Saturday Sabbath did not have to be practiced by the Gentile churches that observed the Lord’s Day on Sunday. The outward form of piety had changed, but the substance in each case was the same. Those Pauline texts do not teach that there is no such thing as a Lord’s Day – we have the NT’s own witness that there was a Lord’s Day in apostolic Christianity. They teach only that the Gentile church did not have to continue to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath, that is, a Saturday Lord’s Day.
- Sixth, it is clear from the NT that the early church did practice a Sunday Lord’s Day and did so in recognition of the accomplishment of redemption in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus on a Sunday. The materials of early Christianity further confirm that the church understood that the Lord’s Day had been moved from Saturday to Sunday as a result of the finished work of Christ. That the Sabbath not only looked back to creation – as in Exodus 20’s version of the 4th commandment – but looked forward to redemption – as in Deuteronomy 5’s version of the 4th commandment – explains why the Sabbath should reflect the fact that the long-anticipated redemption, of which the exodus was the great anticipation in the OT, had now been completed. If, according to Deut. 5, the Sabbath looked back to the exodus from Egypt, then how right that the new form of the Sabbath should look back to the redemption of which the exodus was only an anticipation and a foreshadowing. It is, frankly, impossible to believe that an all-Jewish church, as the church after Pentecost surely was, a church with Saturday worship in its bones, would change its day of worship to Sunday apart from the explicit commandment of the Lord and his apostles. It is not an accident that the risen Lord first appeared to his disciples after his resurrection on a Sunday, that he saw them again next on a Sunday, that Pentecost occurred on a Sunday, that Christian worship in the book of Acts took place on Sunday, and that early Christian worship and, subsequently, all Christian worship now took place on Sunday, nor that this Sunday should be called “the Lord’s Day,” which is, after all, just another OT name for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was not done away with. Only its outward form – its being observed on Saturday – was changed to mark the great events that had taken place and the commencement of what Paul would call “the consummation of the ages.”
So, then, we may well ask: why do so many Christians think the Sabbath is done away with and is no longer an obligation for Christians? Why do they think that Christians who observe the Sabbath and take care to keep it holy, to sanctify the day, are legalistic in their outlook? The reason is deeply ironic. They think keeping the Sabbath is legalistic precisely because they really think that the Sabbath was a burden, a wearisome religious obligation, and they cannot imagine that Christ would not have freed us from it. And the reason they think in such a way about the Sabbath is because they imagine that the Pharisees were largely correct in their understanding of what Sabbath observance amounted to. They think that is what the Law of Moses required as well, being miserable one day every week just to prove that you were loyal to God.
These Christians imagine that, if the 4th commandment is still an obligation for us today, Laura Ingalls Wilder really is supposed to have sat in a straight-backed chair all Sunday afternoon, listening to her father read the Bible or reciting her catechism or Scripture memory and she was never to get to go out, run and laugh and enjoy a sunny Sunday afternoon in the nearby fields and woods. Here is the irony: the Pharisees are still determining what the church is to think about the Sabbath day. We are still letting them teach us what it means to keep the Lord’s Day holy: regulations about this and that to be sure that no one does anything that might be construed as work.
But the Lord did not say that the Sabbath was made for the Jew. He said it was made for man, that it was to be man’s blessing. Read the OT law for yourself. It tells us not to work on the Lord’s holy day. That was God’s kindness. Do you want to work every day, seven days a week, with no rest, no holiday? That is most of what the law tells us about keeping the Lord’s Day holy. It is also a day for worship, for the assembly of God’s people in the sanctuary of God. We read that in the OT as well. What believer can think it not a good thing, a very great gift of our heavenly Father, that we should have a day set apart for that worship out of which our lives, our faith, our hope, our love, are refreshed, renewed, and restored. If this is a burden, then the Lord’s burdens are light indeed!
But read the Bible from beginning to end, read the Old Testament from beginning to end, and you will never find any regulations about how many steps you may take on the Sabbath day, or how you have to prepare your food so that the cooking does not amount to work, or whether you can milk your cows or feed your animals. Nothing like that anywhere in the book of God. That is precisely the view of Sabbath keeping that the Lord is attacking here. That is a corruption of the Sabbath, a perversion of it. The Sabbath was made to bless man not to burden him.
And, then, look at the Savior’s own behavior. Look at the conduct of the Lord of the Sabbath on the Sabbath day. What did he do? He enjoyed the fellowship of others, both believers and unbelievers. We see him on the Sabbath day in the homes of other people, enjoying a meal and conversation. What is more, we see him using the day to do good to other people. The Sabbath for the Lord was a day for kindness, mercy, and compassion. Does anyone think that there is so much kindness and compassion in our lives that we have no need for a day set apart for the practice of such things?
This is the Lord’s point. By reducing Sabbath observance to the performance of endless regulations the point of it all was lost. It was a gift God had given mankind and his people especially. It was a holiday. Imagine what would become of Christmas and the Christmas spirit that we love if ten thousand regulations had grown up governing every aspect of the celebration of Christmas: what could and could not be done on the day; how the tree could and could not be decorated; what food could and could not be enjoyed; what presents could and could not be exchanged? That is what happened to the Sabbath. They spoiled it. They sucked the joy right out of it. They made it a burden instead of pleasure; the hardest day of the week instead of the easiest.
No, said Jesus. That is not the Sabbath. That is not my Father’s gift to you. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. You keep my Sabbath day and it will be for you and your children the best day of the week. You’ll look forward to its coming and regret its passing. Come to worship with the saints in the house of God and have your faith renewed and your love refreshed. Enjoy the fellowship of the saints around your tables. Good food and good conversation in a relaxed and cordial atmosphere. And take time to help others. Not only should the Sabbath day be a day when the world is bathed with the compassion of the church and the help of the saints, but it should be a day when Christians have the satisfaction of those good works they most want to perform and to have performed.
Worry less about what you can’t do and concentrate on what you can do, what the day allows you to do that you find so difficult to do on other days! Do that and you will find the Sabbath a delight and not in any way a burden to be borne. Receive it as God’s gift to you rather than as a test he has set for you. When you know the Lord’s Day as part of Christ’s easy yoke, when you realize what a blessing it is to your life and your heart, then you will know you are keeping the Lord’s Day holy.
Spurgeon tells of an Englishman who lived in one of England’s great industrial cities who was describing to a friend the view from his home. Standing before a large window he said, “On Sunday you can see the Cathedral.” On Sunday, you see, the factories weren’t belching smoke. The air wasn’t opaque. On Sunday it was clear and you could see all the way to the cathedral. Well, that’s the idea. On Sunday we should all feel that we see so much more clearly, can breathe fresh air, can experience the world much more as it ought to be.
The Jews of the first century were right about one thing. The Sabbath should be a badge, an identifying mark. The world should see Christians keeping the Lord’s Day and should be able to gather from what they see that they are a favored people. Their heavenly father has enriched their lives with a holiday every week; has given them a love for one another that makes it a pleasure for them to be together; has given them a great purpose in life that is fulfilled when they show kindness to others, and has lavished so great gifts on them that they find their lives renewed and their joy complete when they go together to worship Him, to thank Him for his love and goodness to them.
That is what the Pharisees should have thought about the Sabbath day and that is how they should have kept it. They turned God’s gift into their work, which is what men always do. You hear your Savior today and renew your commitment to his holy day. And you keep it as he kept it, until it is obvious to you and to your children why the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Listen to the 17th century English Puritan, George Swinnock, on the Sabbath day, the Christian day of rest.
“Hail, thou that art highly favored of God, thou map of heaven, thou golden spot of the week, thou market-day of souls, thou daybreak of eternal brightness, thou queen of days, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among day. All the graces triumph in thee, all the ordinances conspire to enrich thee; the Father ruleth thee, the Son rose upon thee, the Spirit hath overshadowed thee. On thee light was created, the Holy Ghost descended, life hath been restored, Satan subdued, sin mortified, souls sanctified, the grave, death, and hell conquered! Oh, how do men and women flutter up and down on the weekdays, as the dove on the waters, and can find no rest for their souls till they come to thee, their ark, till thou put forth thy hand and take them in. Oh, how they sit under they shadow with great delight, and find thy fruits sweet to their taste! Oh, the mountings of the mind, the ravishing happiness of heart, the source of soul which on thee they enjoy in the blessed Savior.”
I wonder how benighted this world would be without the Lord’s Day. How much blessing God’s people and the world through God’s people would never have received had there been no Sabbath day! Where would you and I be without the blessings of this day? Oh no. This is no burden. This is the furthest thing from a burden. This is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It is our helper to joy and to everything good. Let us be glad for it and take its opportunities to heart and make the most of them for our own sake and for our Savior’s sake. He did not come to free us from this! It was not his work to take away our pleasure in Christian fellowship, our enjoyment of good conversation around a well-stocked table, our refreshment in his worship, our opportunity for good works. This is a foretaste of heaven and we have it every week!