The Law and the Kingdom
We all know someone who is able to take something fun and turn it into work. This is the person who, during recess, would try to micromanage the football game by applying professional rules and stats and penalties rather than just letting you throw the ball around. This is the person who would take a board game so seriously, it was like their entire future depended on the outcome.
Some people just can’t help but take something meant for good, and make it poisonous.
This is what we constantly see the religious leaders doing with the Sabbath in the New Testament.
Obviously, the Sabbath wasn’t inconsequential (like a game): it was a very important commandment for the people of Israel. One day out of every week, the people were required to do no work: they were to rest.
But over the centuries, the religious leaders had spent vast amounts of time interpreting what qualified as “work.” Their list of tasks that were forbidden on the Sabbath became very, very long.
And one bone of contention they had with Jesus was the way he treated the Sabbath. In chapter 6, we saw Jesus allowing his disciples to pluck heads of grain for their food, which the Pharisees said was illegal, because it was the Sabbath.
What was Jesus’s justification for allowing them to do this even though it was the Sabbath? Luke 6.5:
The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.
The Son of Man—Jesus—has the authority to say what is and is not allowed on the Sabbath, because the Sabbath was his doing.
Something similar will happen in today’s text. We see Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath, and we see the religious leaders upset about it. Jesus gives another reason why what he’s doing is perfectly legitimate: and his reason is a good deal wider in scope than what he said in chapter 6.
the Heart of the law (v. 10-17)
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.
So this woman is there at the synagogue; whether she has come because she heard Jesus would be there, or because this was simply her habit, we’re not told. But she has an afflicting spirit that has left her hunched over for eighteen years—she can’t stand up straight, and hasn’t been able to for a very long time.
This is the kind of person most people would pass on the streets and barely notice, much less stop and care for. We’ve all seen people in the métro with missing limbs, or with deformities, asking for money. We’ve all seen people simply pass them by with barely a look. That’s the sort of person this woman was, and she has been suffering for a very long time.
I try to imagine what this must have been like for her, and I can’t. I’ve had chronic tinnitus in both ears for about ten years now. I’ve gotten used to the ringing in my ears by now; the worst that happens is I have a hard time hearing people when they talk to me. And sometimes it still drives me nuts. I can’t even imagine having to walk around hunched over, permanently forced into a position of humility, having to crane my neck to look up at people, for eighteen years. The pain and humiliation must have been incredible.
And yet, Jesus does not pass her by. He sees her and he calls her over, and when he speaks to her, with no preamble or hesitation, he says the most surprising thing. V. 12:
12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.
He heals her. Permanently. (When he says “you are freed,” he uses the perfect tense in Greek—nothing will ever come hunch her over again.) Imagine being this woman, and having been bent over for so long, then in one instant, after this man’s hands are laid on her, to stand up straight again. Her reaction is exactly right, and perfectly normal: she glorified God.
Can we all agree that this is a good thing that’s just happened here? Who could possibly find a reason to complain about this?
The leader of the synagogue, that’s who. And he’s angry, not just because Jesus showed once again the power he had (though that may have had something to do with it); he was angry because Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath. He did work. On the Sabbath. Clearly this Jesus must be an illegitimate Messiah, because the real Messiah would never break the Sabbath law.
And he shows his contempt for Jesus in that he doesn’t even address him directly: he addresses the sick people in the crowd.
14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
Remember I mentioned before how the religious authorities had come up with all kinds of rules about what exactly constituted “work” on the Sabbath? They also had all kinds of exceptions to those rules—mostly exceptions to make sure their work would be able to continue the following day. There was a good amount of leeway concerning the care for animals on the Sabbath. People could lead their animals out, and feed them and give them water.
Which of course is wildly ironic: their regulations allowed them to show kindness to their animals, but would refuse kindness to their fellow human beings.
To be honest, the leader of the synagogue should have seen it coming. Jesus could be an absolutely brilliant debater, but he didn’t have to be one in this case. He uses a form of logic common to the Jews at the time (they even had a name for it: qal wā hōmer), which, simply put, argued from the light to the heavy. If God would allow the care of animals on the Sabbath, would he not all the more welcome the care of this woman, created in his image?
The religious leader, of course, had nothing to say—but the people did. V. 17:
17 As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.
The Law Before Christ
The difficult question in a text like this is, what exactly is going on behind the scenes, and what does it have to do with us today? And our answer to that question depends largely on how we view the law.
Christians often speak of the Law (the Law of Moses) as a bad thing. God gave the Law to the people of Israel through the intermediary of Moses, while they were in the desert. This Law contained all kinds of rules and rituals that seem arbitrary to us today, mixed in with others that seem right. We always need to remember that the laws given in the Law of Moses were given for a specific reason, in a specific context.
Some rules were ceremonial, to direct worship; some rules were civil, to maintain social order; and some were moral, to show the people God’s character. The religious leaders advocated scrupulous obedience to these laws. Which may have been a good thing, or at least an effort born out of good motivations.
But at this point in time, several centuries after the Law was given, many of them had fallen into a trap concerning the Law: they obeyed the Law scrupulously, but rarely stopped to consider why those laws were given.
Just look at the example in this text: the Sabbath. The commandment to observe the Sabbath was given in Deuteronomy 5, where we find the other ten commandments—those moral rules that most everyone agrees with. God calls the people to observe the Sabbath—to do no work on that day, but to rest—and he tells them why they are to do it.
The goal of this day of rest was that they remember God’s grace to them. We see in Deuteronomy 5.15:
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
So the Sabbath was a day of rest, of reflection, of remembrance and of gratitude toward God. On the Sabbath, the people were intended to remember how God set them free from slavery to Egypt. They were to remember God’s grace to them, as a way of being reminded that their God is a gracious God who is in the business of setting people free!
So the leader of the synagogue should have seen it coming. Jesus sets this woman free from her bondage on the Sabbath… Which is exactly the point of the Sabbath! The Sabbath existed so that the people might remember how God had set them free from bondage.
The religious leaders observed the letter of the Law, but completely ignored the purpose of the Law. If they had remembered the purpose, they would have seen that some concerns superceded the letter of the Law.
Or to put it another way, Jesus set them in front of a moral dilemma: if obeying the letter of the Law caused them to disobey the purpose of the Law, which should they obey? The letter, or the purpose?
And the answer to the dilemma is abundantly clear: some things are more important than your rules. Jesus did not break the Sabbath; he is the Lord of the Sabbath. He broke their interpretation of the Sabbath, and he did it in order to fulfill the heart of the Sabbath: to remind the people that God is a God who sets his people free from bondage. If the way you interpret a commandment causes you to break the heart of that commandment, then you’ve interpreted wrong.
It was as clear as day; everyone could recognize it. The authorities were put to shame, and the people rejoiced.
That’s what’s going on here. But the situation gets trickier when we think about how we are to live these things today.
Because we are coming at this story at a time after Christ fulfilled the Law for us.
The Law after Christ
Jesus came and lived a perfect life; he perfectly obeyed the Law—not just the letter, but the heart of the Law. He was wrongly condemned for his life. On the cross, he took our sin on himself, and gave us his perfect, law-abiding life in exchange. He took our place, and gave us his.
Christ has fulfilled the law for us—we are no longer required to fulfill that law. And that’s why the commandments we find in the New Testament, after the life, death and resurrection of Christ (and there are many commandments in the NT) all have a distinctly different flavor about them.
The New Testament commandments are not ceremonial in nature. There are some commandments given to maintain order inside the church, yes; but for the most part, the commandments we find in the New Testament are about moral commandments. They are commandments concerning what kind of people we are called to be.
And if we pay attention to the commandments Jesus gives in the gospels, we see how brutally those commandments go not just after our behavior, but after our hearts. They are less concerned with holy acts, and more concerned with holy character.
The thing is, as much as the commandments we have in the New Testament go after our hearts—after our loves and our desires and our thoughts—Christians still do today what the religious leaders did back then. They elevate culturally conditioned behaviors over the character God wishes to produce in us through the commandments.
Let me give you an example. We are commanded to come together as a church to worship God (Hebrews 10.25). We come together to celebrate him, to thank him for what he has given us, together. At its heart, it’s a profoundly simple command.
But many of us have made this act of coming together to worship into something it’s not. We imagine that because we come together to encourage one another, to celebrate God and thank him for his goodness, then when we come together we have to appear celebratory. We should be smiling. We should be happy. We should be freed from worry or doubt or guilt.
But is that really how it works? Can all of us really say we’ve never come to church feeling weighed down by grief or worry or guilt? Of course not.
And yet, because we feel like in church we are supposed to be happy, and celebrating, when we come together we try to hide our grief; we try to hide our guilt; we try to hide our worry. And without even meaning to, we turn our worship into a lie. We never let ourselves be truly vulnerable when we’re around other Christians, so we end up putting up a barrier between ourselves and others, never really knowing anyone or being known by them.
We elevate ourselves, and how other people see us, over our Savior, who came to save us in our grief and worry and guilt. And we forget the reason why the commandment to come together is given in the first place: not so that we might appear happy and holy, but that we might help those who aren’t holy and happy. Hebrews 10.24-25:
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Or think of the commandment to love others. Jesus obeys this commandment perfectly in our text. We are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Romans 13.9), to love even our enemies (Matthew 5.44), to forgive one another as the Lord has forgiven us (Ephesians 4.32).
The problem is that some people have hurt us so grievously that we feel genuine animosity and bitterness toward them. But because we know the commandment, when we see these people, we put on a smile, and we grit our teeth, and we pretend to love them. (We may even do some loving things for them to make the act more convincing.)
But we never actually do the hard work of forgiving them. We never deal with our own sin, the sin of holding against them what Christ didn’t hold against us. We never consider that the foundation of our forgiveness is not pretending that it’s not a big deal, that “it’s okay,” but rather remembering that God in Christ forgave us.
We want to obey the letter of the commandment, and we know what that looks like, at least on the outside. So we obey the letter, and totally ignore the heart: the heart of actual forgiveness, because we know the forgiveness we have received from him.
Brothers and sisters, if we are devoted to changing our behavior rather than becoming like Christ, if we are devoted to acting holy rather than actually being holy, the end result is and will always be hypocrisy. We will put on a good face, and everyone may assume that we are good Christians; but inside, our hearts will shrivel and die on us.
The reason behind every commandment is to show God’s character, and to help produce that character in us. Jesus came and fulfilled the Law in order to free us to not just obey, but to obey from the heart. To be like him.
That may require us to do things that our culturally conditioned instincts will buck against. It will require us to talk about money, when money is taboo. It will require us to speak to people most Christians wouldn’t go near. It will require us to get close to unbelievers, to engage with the needy, to love the transgender, to serve the drug addict, to help the sex worker. It will require us to go to places we wouldn’t have dreamed of going otherwise.
But if we pursue this, if we persevere in this, then it will be obvious that the kingdom of God is at work here. Just like when Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath, and said why he did it, the people rejoiced.
And that is why Jesus says what he says next (v. 18).
The Kingdom Is More than Behavior (v. 18-21)
18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”
Both parables speak about the same thing. A mustard seed is just a bit bigger than a grain of sand, and would have been the smallest known seed to people at that time. And yet when it is planted, it grows into a full tree. Three measures of flour would be enough to feed over 100 people; and yet a bit of leaven mixed in with the flour would be enough to infiltrate all the dough, and make it rise.
The point is simple: the kingdom of God comes unnoticed. It comes in a way that seems small. It comes in a way that seems insignificant.
And yet, the seemingly inauspicious beginnings of this “kingdom” Jesus came to establish was going to lead to something much bigger, and much more visible. A day would come when the goodness and truth of God’s kingdom would be evident to all.
Now, the question is, why does Jesus say this here, after this story of him healing a woman on the Sabbath because healing her manifests the love of God? It’s not a coincidence (cf. “therefore,” v. 18).
Jesus’s miracle, though it seemed to the leader of the synagogue to break the Sabbath, actually accomplished the heart of the Sabbath by manifesting God’s character, his willingness to free those in bondage.
But that may not have been that obvious to everyone. Character is harder to quantify than behavior. Remember when Jesus summarized the law in Matthew 22.37-40? A lawyer asks him which is the greatest commandment in the Law, and Jesus answers,
37 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
So the whole of the Law could be summed up in this: love God, and love others. That’s where all of these laws are driving us.
But love isn’t as easy to see as behavior. Which is easier to prove? That you love someone? or that you washed your hands before dinner? It’s not easy to prove that you love someone, because it’s at least partially subjective: it will work itself out in behavior, of course; but even that behavior can be faked, at least for a short while.
So Jesus is explaining himself: he’s saying, “I’m doing things that seem wrong to some people. I’m rejecting cultural and religious conventions. But I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do: it’s what God’s character drives me to do. Not everyone’s going to believe that, because they’re so used to thinking that holiness is about behavior. And it’s okay if they don’t see it at first: that’s how the kingdom of God begins. It starts small, like a mustard seed, like a bit of leaven in a bag of flour—but over time, it will be even more visible than all the behavior modification in the world.”
Let me give you an example. Think of the fruit of the Spirit we see in Galatians 5.22-23: Paul says,
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control...
Someone could see those things and say, “Okay, so I need to do loving things. I need to keep the peace. I need to do kind things. I need to show patience. I need to control myself.” So they try. And they may fool everyone for a while. But eventually, the cracks will start to show. They try to act joyful, and they’ll smile all the time, but that smile will never quite reach their eyes. They try to show patience, but you can see them gritting their teeth the whole time. They try to keep the peace, but instead avoid all conflict, even at the cost of what’s right.
Now, think of someone who actually does have the Spirit, and whom the Spirit is changing to grow into the likeness of Christ. This person won’t just act loving, or joyful, or patient, or self-controlled, etc.; he will be all of those things. That may be harder to see in the short term, because sometimes being loving means saying the hard thing; sometimes being faithful requires perseverance over years. Sometimes being a peacemaker means reaching out to someone most Christians wouldn’t go near.
Here’s what it comes down to: simple behavior—observance of rules and regulations—is easily visible, but it can be wrongly motivated, and subject to change. True godly character grows over time, and may go against conventions, but it will be clear to anyone who cares to look.
And that’s exactly what happens here. Jesus rejects the religious convention of what it looks like to observe the Sabbath rightly, but he does so because that’s what the heart of the Law would drive him to do: to love God and to love others.
You see, it’s not just about the miracle. It’s about Christ’s love for this woman, his willingness to heal despite opposition. It was Jesus’s character that put the religious leaders to shame here; and it is in Jesus’s love that the people rejoice. They can see, at least at this moment, the innate goodness in who he is, through the love he manifests.
And that is how the kingdom of God will be seen for what it is: through people, declared righteous through faith in Christ, transformed by the Holy Spirit, reflecting Christ’s own character back to the world.
This is a lot to take in, I know. So let’s distill it a little bit—given what Jesus does and why, and what he says about the kingdom, this text calls us to two particular responses.
Firstly, if you are feeling weighed down by the particular commandments of God that we have in the Bible, while you persist in obedience to these commandments, remember why he commands them. Nothing God commands you to do is an end in itself—it has a greater goal: the goal of not just acting like Christ, but becoming like Christ. The goal of training your hearts to love and desire what is worthy of that love and desire.
Think of a football player who has trained for years to be the best he can be, but who doesn’t enjoy football. He may get all the right technique down…but no amount of training will ever make him love the game. On the other hand, if he loves the game, his training will mean something, will drive him to train better and harder than ever, and will produce the right results.
Don’t pursue simple obedience to a simple commandment: aim higher than that. Thirst after Christlikeness, not just the ability to not do bad things. Be like Christ, and you will act like Christ.
And when you screw up, remember that none of your efforts make you any better before God—it is only Jesus’s righteousness, given to you. Run to Christ, and find your rest in him.
Secondly, pursue holiness in the small things.
A Puritan once said (I’m paraphrasing) that the more holy you become, the more you realize how unholy you actually are. People don’t realize that as you become more and more like Christ, rather than feeling better about yourself, you often feel worse, because you see just how far you still need to go. You look at the mountain of Christ’s holiness, and it seems absolutely insurmountable.
So take a step back. Don’t look at the mountain; look at the step in front of you. Don’t worry about how far you still have to go. See where he’s put you today, and pursue holiness in the small things, because it is in those small expressions of obedience, that no one would ever find remarkable, that the kingdom of God begins to grow.
If you have the opportunity to obey him, even in the smallest of circumstances, then take it—and take it with the knowledge that God is using those tiny moments to teach you to love what he loves, to feel what he feels, to enjoy what he enjoys. Even if no one sees it but you, even if no one would consider that act as particularly remarkable. God sees it, and sees your heart, and sees your need. And he will do what he promised: he will make you like Christ.
God’s commandments are a wonderful gift to us, and he knows why he gave them. So let’s always consider why those commandments are there, and obey them to the best of our abilities, and become more and more like Christ, and rejoice in the small beginnings of the kingdom of God in us.