Lord of the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1-8


Audio Version

“Come to me, and I will give you rest.” So says Jesus. The burden of Jesus is light, and His yoke is easy, He says. And yet, sometimes we feel as if the burden should be heavier. There are some Christians who would prefer a life of self-accusation, self-burdening, self-atoning, self-salvation. Such people are likely to add to the law of God. The Pharisees were like that. Jesus will accuse them of placing impossibly heavy burdens on the people without lifting a single finger to help. One of those heavy burdens is the case-law that built up around the Sabbath. Against all the laws that the Pharisees and rabbis made so that the Sabbath would not be violated, Jesus tells us that He is Lord of the Sabbath, and that the purpose of Sabbath is not to impinge on human needs, as if people could not satisfy their hunger on the Sabbath. Rather, the purpose of the Sabbath is to worship God. Let me repeat that: the purpose of the Sabbath is to worship God. However, the worship of God does not mean that we starve ourselves, nor does it mean that we exercise no mercy towards people in distress. Let’s look at what the Sabbath means, and then look at how the Pharisees were adding to the Sabbath law, and lastly, how Jesus frees the Sabbath from all the extra commands of the Pharisees.

The Sabbath was instituted at creation. On the seventh day of creation, the Lord rested, or ceased from His work. Therefore, the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, like marriage and like work. Those are the three creation ordinances: Sabbath, marriage, and work. The Sabbath did not come into existence on Mount Sinai. Of course, the Ten Commandments are still a guide for the Christian life. But in no sense can we say that the Sabbath is only for Old Testament Israel. The Sabbath is for all humanity. In the Old Testament, there are two reasons given for why Israel was to observe the Sabbath day. The first reason is creation, as we have already seen. As God rested on the seventh day, so also the Israelites were rest on the seventh day. In Exodus, that is the reason given in the Ten Commandments themselves. In Deuteronomy, the reason is a different, but related reason. In Deuteronomy 5, the second telling of the law, the reason for keeping the Sabbath is that they were redeemed from the land of Egypt. They were slaves under the Egyptians, and had no time to rest, and no time to worship God. God redeemed them from the land of Egypt precisely so that they could rest from work on the seventh day and worship God. These are the two reasons for keeping the Sabbath: creation and redemption. As we saw in our call to worship from Isaiah 53, the Sabbath is for worship, and it is not for us to do any old thing we want to do. Some people might say, “well, the Sabbath is Old Testament, and we are in the New Testament, so the Sabbath law does not apply.” If that is true, then it is the only one of the Ten Commandments that does not apply any more. Is that really a reasonable conclusion to draw? Where does Jesus say that the Sabbath no longer applies? Jesus spends 14 entire verses talking about the Sabbath right in this very chapter. Would He have done that for a law that was about to become obsolete? Indeed, Jesus speaks of the Sabbath commandment just as much, if not more, than any of the other commandments. But there are further reasons for believing that the Sabbath is still in effect for Christians. We said that the two reasons for keeping Sabbath are creation and redemption. Well, the Bible speaks of the work of Christ as being a new creation, and a new redemption. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says that if any man is in Christ, there is a new creation. And, of course, Christ’s work is obviously that of a Redeemer. Just as God freed Israel from the land of Egypt, so that the Israelites would not have to work so hard, so also did God free us from our Egypt of sin and death, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin. So Jesus fulfills the creation and redemption reason for keeping the Sabbath. That does not mean that the Sabbath is ended. It means that the day has changed from Saturday to Sunday.

In the Old Testament, there was a telescoping Sabbath pattern that points to the eternal Sabbath rest. There is the weekly Sabbath. Then, every 7 years, there was a Sabbath rest for the land, and then every 7 times 7 years (49 years), there was a Jubilee of freedom from servitude. These Sabbaths telescoped into each other, and opened out into the eternal Sabbath rest that Paul speaks of in Hebrews 4. There still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, says Paul in Hebrews. Ultimately, what the Sabbath means is eternal rest from our labors. Every time we celebrate the Sabbath Day, we are now looking forward to the eternal rest that comes when we get to heaven. Sunday Sabbath, then, is supposed to be a bit of heaven experienced beforehand. It is the sacred brought into the realm of time. However, there are lots of things that get in the way of our enjoying this day, just as there were lots of things that the Pharisees put in the way to keep that day from being a foretaste of heaven.

The Pharisees had 39 activities that were forbidden to do on the Lord’s Day. You could not carry something on the Sabbath Day, unless you were wearing it. You could not travel for very long. You could not reap, winnow, or cook on the Sabbath. And that, of course, is the source of their objections to what the disciples were doing on the Sabbath. The Pharisees did not have a problem with the disciples picking heads of grain from a field that did not belong to them. This was already allowed under Old Testament law. The problem was that they were doing these things on the Sabbath. The disciples were harvesting grain, and they were getting rid of the husks, and they were making a meal out of this grain. That was against their man-made laws.

Notice that Jesus never says that the disciples were actually breaking the Sabbath. Instead, Jesus argues that hunger is a legitimate reason to “break” the Sabbath. Hunger is not a sin. Hunger is something that makes eating a necessity. Jesus uses the example of David and the showbread. That showbread was only for the priests to eat. No one else was allowed to eat it. However, since David and his men were going about the Lord’s work, and they were fainting from hunger, the priest gave them the showbread, or consecrated bread. Necessity and the preservation of human life “trumps” other laws.

However, a word is necessary here about “necessity.” All too often, we make up things that are “necessary” so that we can break the Sabbath. We just “have” to go to the Hague Cafe, because we are tired. What did your fathers and grandfathers do when the Hague Cafe wasn’t open? What did they do when there was no cafe open for them to force other people to work on the Sabbath? They planned ahead. With a little planning, you can make Sunday very easy. Make a double batch on Saturday night of whatever you are making for supper. That way, Sunday is easy. You just have leftovers. Keep the meal simple otherwise. These are suggestions, of course. No one is going to make a rule about that. But that Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest from our normal labors, and is for worship. Now, some people might think that it is hypocritical of me to say that going to the Hague Cafe makes people work on Sabbath, and so breaks it, but then have potlucks on Sunday that make our people work. However, there are two differences between the two situations. The first is that the Hague Cafe involves people working for money, doing business as usual, whereas a potluck does not involve that. Secondly, a potluck is doing the Lord’s work of fostering fellowship among believers. Plus, when many people work together, is it really that much more work than eating a dinner at home? Therefore, I do not believe that they are the same kind of thing.

The next example Jesus gives to the Pharisees is that of the temple priests themselves. They work on the Sabbath, because they are doing the work of God, and they are doing the work of worship. They “work” on the Sabbath, and yet do not break the Sabbath. So, even if the disciples were “breaking” the Sabbath, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that it is fine for the disciples to do so, since He Himself is greater than the Sabbath, and is indeed Lord of the Sabbath. Incidentally, this proves that a minister is not breaking the Sabbath when he preaches on Sunday. He is leading the people in worship, just as the Old Testament priests did. Now, I make every effort to have all the reading and writing done before Sunday, so that all that is left is to preach and lead worship. But occasionally, necessity, in the form of many interruptions during the week, will force me to finish the work on Sunday. That is no breaking of the Lord’s Sabbath, since it is the Lord’s work.

The last piece of evidence that Jesus gives is the purpose of the law, which is mercy, not sacrifice. The Pharisees were not being merciful to the disciples, and not allowing them to eat these picked heads of grain (which, when you think about it, is such a small thing!). They were more interested in the letter of the law, than in the heart of the law, which was mercy. Jesus will go on to heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath as an act of mercy.

To sum up what we have been saying then: the Sabbath is for worship. On this day, we cease what we usually do during the week in order to worship God. That is the purpose. Everything we do on Sunday should be conducive to worship. Sometimes that means taking a nap, so that you can be awake for the evening worship service. Sometimes it means activities for children, so that they can sit quietly and reverently in the worship service. It means fellowship with believers, talking about the sermon and how it can apply to our lives. There are two categories of works that are lawful on the Sabbath: one category is the works of necessity, and again, that does not mean those things which we think are necessary, but really are not. It means those things which are truly necessary, like feeding hungry mouths, as Jesus here proves. And secondly, as we will see next time, acts or works of mercy, like healing, or visiting the sick and shut-ins. This is calling the Sabbath a delight.