Lord of the Sabbath
This story recounts the first conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over the Sabbath.
Before going ahead with the story, let’s review what the Scripture says about the Sabbath.
Genesis 2:2-3 says :
“And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done and he rested on the seventh day from all his work he had done. So, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all this work that he had done in creation.”
God did not rest because he was tired. Rather, he ceased his work of creation. So, God blessed the 7th day and made it holy. He set it aside for himself. The word “sabbath” is not used here, but any Jew reading it would make the connection. The word “sabbath” is from a Hebrew word meaning “to cease”.
Next we come to God making a covenant with Israel. The basic terms of the covenant are that, if Israel obeyed God and kept the terms of the covenant, they would be his treasured possession among all peoples, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
Then, in Exodus 20, God began to tell Israel the commandments and rules they must obey to keep the covenant. They are summarized in the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment is to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. The Israelites could work for six days of the week, but could not work on the 7th, nor could they make anyone else work. God referred back to his creation and resting.
So, the idea was that God set apart the 7th day as holy and Israel must keep it holy.
Then, in Exodus 31, God explains the Sabbath to Moses in greater detail. Keeping it holy means no one in Israel may work on the Sabbath and doing so is punishable by death.
The Sabbath is also a sign of the covenant between God and Israel, showing that God has sanctified them, or set them apart from all other nations to be his.
God gave signs to help his people remember his covenants. He gave the rainbow as a sign of his covenant with Noah that he would never again destroy the world with a universal flood. (Genesis 9:8-12)
He gave circumcision as a sign of his covenant with Abraham that God would make him the father of a multitude and would bless all nations through him. (Genesis 17:11)
In the same way, God gave the Sabbath as a sign of his covenant with Israel. They would have a day of rest from work. These people who were slaves, who worked every day of the year for someone else, now had a day when they would not work or make their own servants work. The whole nation took the day off from work.
This is a sign of the covenant, because no one else did it. Whenever anyone saw the Jews take the day off of their mostly agrarian duties, they knew they were different. As the Jews worshipped and reflected on God during the Sabbath, they also depended on him to provide for them while they rested from their labors.
This sign was very important and God took it very seriously. He told Moses “above all you shall keep my Sabbaths”. (Exodus 31:12)
But the Israelites did not obey. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all warned of the violation of the Sabbath. In Jeremiah 17:27, God said he would destroy Israel if they kept violating the Sabbath. He did so as 2 Chronicles 36:20 states.
The Pharisees, in particular, wanted to make sure that never happened again. So, they strictly observed the Sabbath. In their zeal, they added many rules, in addition to those in Scripture, to make sure they Sabbath was observed. They turned the Sabbath from a benefit to a burden.
The issue in this passage is Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain as they walked through the fields. They would pull off the head of grain and rub it in their hands until only the seeds were left. Then they ate the seeds. We call the seeds kernels or berries.
There was nothing wrong with plucking the grain. Gleaning was allowed by the Jewish law. (Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 23:25) But the Pharisees believed it was unlawful to do it on the Sabbath because it was harvesting. Harvesting was work. So, they confronted Jesus about it.
Jesus responded with a story and a theological statement. The story is a reference to Scripture, so Jesus is answering as a rabbi would.
The story is from 1 Samuel 21. Even though David was anointed to be the next king of Israel, he had to flee from King Saul, who wanted to kill him. David and his men were hungry. They came to the Tabernacle and asked the priest for bread.
The priest had no bread but what he called the Bread of the Presence (called the shew bread in the King James Version) that was required to be on the gold covered table in the Tabernacle. There were 12 loaves in two stacks. The bread could only be eaten by the priests according to the law. (Leviticus 24:5-9)
But, the priest gave the bread to David at his request. And, David was Israel’s greatest king and the forerunner of the Messiah. (Jeremiah 23:5) So, there was a precedent for need to be more important than the rule.
The point Jesus was making was that the Sabbath law was not meant to harm men or women. The Sabbath was made to be a benefit people, not burden them. All of the rules the Pharisees that exceeded the commands of God were a burden and not a benefit. They violated the spirit of the Sabbath.
In addition, Jesus pointed out his divinity, as the Son of Man, saying he was the lord, or master of the Sabbath, and, therefore, entitled to say what the Sabbath did nor did not require. Jesus, not the Pharisees, had the authority over the Sabbath and its observance.
The second conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about the Sabbath occurs in the synagogue. Jesus was observing the Sabbath by attending the synagogue. The Pharisees set up a conflict, bringing in a man with a withered hand to see if Jesus would heal on the Sabbath.
The rule of the Pharisees was that you could only treat or heal a person on the Sabbath if the ailment or injury was life threatening. Otherwise, the person was to wait until after the Sabbath to be treated.
Jesus did not retreat from the test. He told the man to come to him. Then, with the man standing there, asked the Pharisees if it was lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill. The Pharisees did not answer.
Jesus knew it was right to do good on the Sabbath, whether lawful for the Pharisees or not. Ironically, the Pharisees did not believe that. Yet, the believed it was acceptable for them to plot evil against Jesus on the Sabbath. They thought it acceptable to kill and do harm to Jesus. (4)
Jesus was both angry and grieved at the hardness of their hearts. (5) Their rules were more important to them than the suffering of the man. Ritual had replaced love and mercy.
The stage was now set. They plotted to destroy Jesus.
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