The Lord of the Sabbath
Happy New Year! After taking a break during the month of December, we’re back today in the gospel of Luke, which we’ve been in since the fall. So far in this book we’ve seen Jesus’s birth, his dedication at the temple; John the Baptist came preparing the way for him; Jesus grew up and began his ministry, he began to make disciples and perform miracles and proclaim the kingdom of God.
And in today’s text, we have a wonderful glimpse into the heart of Jesus’s ministry—so if you’ve missed the series so far, you can always go back to our website and listen to those sermons again, but you’re in luck today: this is a good place to jump in again.
Now, to understand what we’ll see today we need to do a little homework. In the Old Testament (roughly the first two-thirds of the Bible) we see God giving the Law to his people through Moses in the wilderness. The Law contained regulations for regulating the whole life of the people of Israel—their day-to-day practical life, their social and civil life, and their religious life. These rules were very exhaustive and very strict.
The people of Israel always had a kind of love/hate relationship with the Law: this Law was supposed to rule their lives, and yet they were consistently unable to follow it. And even when they did manage to observe the Law in all its particulars, they often missed the point of the Law entirely. This is why many Old Testament prophets rebuke the people—most of the time they fail to keep the Law, and when they do observe the Law, they ignore the heart of the Law.
We see this probably most clearly in Hosea 6.6, where God says,
I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
The Law was a reflection of God’s character, of his heart. And it was meant to rub off on his people—as they observe the Law, they were meant to be more and more like God. But that didn’t happen. They observed the letter of the Law, but they missed the point. All of the sacrifices and rituals and offerings that the Law required of the people meant absolutely nothing if they didn’t produce in the people the love that God felt toward the human beings he had created. Mercy cannot be separated from real faith.
That truth is what we see at work in our text today. We have Jesus in action, doing things that seem to break the Law, but which in fact accomplish the heart of the Law.
So let’s begin reading in Luke 6, starting at verse 1.
Grain on the Sabbath (v. 1-5)
1 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands.
Now, we need to clear something up real quickly: Jesus and his disciples weren’t stealing from whoever owned this field. The Jewish Law contained a provision for the poor, which allowed them to go into any field and pick fruit or grain to eat—it was a way of legally providing for the poor, so they wouldn’t go hungry. The problem was that they were doing this on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was the day of the week which was to be a day of rest for the people—they were required to do absolutely no work. And after the Law was given, the Jews took this particular law very seriously: you couldn’t pick anything up, you couldn’t prepare food, you couldn’t till or grind any grain (which was, essentially, what the disciples were doing here with their hands). So according to the way the Jewish people interpreted the law of the Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples were breaking the law.
So some Pharisees were there, and they saw this. The Pharisees were a group of hyper-religious men who observed the Law to the letter. They knew it all by heart, and they took great care to observe every law in great detail. Jesus had already proven a threat to them (as we’ve seen before), so they’re constantly following Jesus around and trying to catch him in some sin or another so that they could reveal him to be the imposter they thought he was. So that’s what happens here (v. 2):
2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”
They’ve caught him red-handed. Jesus is right there with his disciples, and he sees them picking this grain and eating it, and he does nothing. So this is great news for the Pharisees, and they jump on him.
And this is probably just my movie-lover brain kicking in, but I imagine them behind Jesus, and they say this—“Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”—and I picture Jesus slowly turning his head, like he’s just now noticing they’re there, and he’s got a grin on his face, like, “You really want to go toe-to-toe with me?” He probably didn’t do that, but that’s how I picture it. Here’s what he says (v. 3):
3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?”
What’s he talking about?
The “bread of the Presence” was bread that was kept in the temple and not eaten—every Sabbath they would take out the bread from last week and replace it with new bread. This bread was meant to symbolize that the presence of God, who dwelt in the temple, was the source of Israel’s strength and nourishment in everything. It would only be eaten once it was replaced with new bread, and even then it was only eaten by the priests.
The incident that Jesus is referring to is found in 1 Samuel 21. David is fleeing from King Saul; his men are starving. It’s a Sabbath, so David goes to the priest Ahimelech and asks him for bread for him and his men. Ahimelech tells them that the only bread he has is the consecrated bread of the Presence which had just been replaced by new bread. After making sure that David and his men are ceremonially clean, he gives them the bread, and he and his men can eat.
So the priest here is doing what the prophets say is right—he is doing something which the letter of the Law says he shouldn’t do, but which the heart of the Law requires him to do—he’s showing compassion on these hungry men. God’s people don’t exist for the Law, to serve the Law; rather, the Law exists to serve God’s people.
And that is precisely what’s going on in Jesus’s mind when he’s doing this. When Matthew tells this same story of the disciples picking the grain, he includes something else that Jesus says. Matthew 12.7:
And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
You see—he’s quoting the verse from Hosea we read earlier. Here’s Jesus’s point to the Pharisees. “By getting upset that we have picked grains on the Sabbath, you are proving that you don’t understand the Law. I am showing mercy on my men by allowing them to pick grain and eat it. And that is the point of the Law.”
And then he goes one step further, and says something absolutely incredible. V. 5:
5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
“The Son of Man” is one of Jesus’s favorite titles for himself—what he is essentially saying to the Pharisees is, “Your rules have no authority over the Sabbath; your interpretation of what is work and what isn’t has no authority over the Sabbath; you, as self-proclaimed arbiters of the Law, have no authority over the Sabbath—I have authority over the Sabbath.”
Now what makes this incredible, besides the fact that it’s more than slightly offensive to the Pharisees, is that the Sabbath was a divine institution. God himself gave the law of the Sabbath on Mount Sinai to Moses. Only God has authority over the laws he himself instituted. So when Jesus says that he is “lord of the Sabbath,” he is saying that he is God.
And that changes everything.
Much has been made of Jesus’s teachings. Even atheists agree that Jesus’s teachings are incredibly compelling and useful to create a homogenous and understanding society.
But for all they may get right about Jesus, there’s a massive piece that they miss nearly every time. By doing what he does here, Jesus isn’t just exemplifying the Law for all to see. Jesus isn’t just showing what right observance of the Law looks like; he’s showing what God looks like.
Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. He doesn’t just fulfill the Law; he has authority over that Law. Jesus doesn’t just set himself up as the ultimate example of godly character; he presents himself as God himself.
Jesus is not just some teacher coming on the scene, interpreting the Sabbath in a new way and trying to convince people his interpretation makes sense—Jesus made the Sabbath! He created it! It was his idea! And he knows why he set the Sabbath up!
So the crux of the matter here is not, “Jesus is a man whose teaching emphasizes mercy.” It is rather, “Jesus is God, and his character is merciful.”
And so without telling us how the Pharisees respond to Jesus’s extremely hard-to-swallow affirmation, he goes directly to another, similar story, which also displays Jesus’s authority over the Sabbath.
Healing on the Sabbath (v. 6-11)
6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.
So you have Jesus in the synagogue—where the Jews met for worship. He is teaching, and there is in the crowd a man “whose right hand was withered.” We don’t know what happened to make it like that—whether he was born that way or whether he was injured—but his hand was useless and shriveled. If he put it next to his healthy hand it would be like looking at a grape next to a raisin.
So the scribes and Pharisees are there—perhaps the same ones who accused Jesus in the previous verses—and they’re watching. They know Jesus’s propensity for healing people, but now, once again, they’ve got him cornered, because it’s the Sabbath. For Jesus to heal this guy, he will have to break the Sabbath law, because to heal him, he’ll have to do something—he’ll have to work.
8 But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there.
So they don’t even have to say anything; Jesus knows what they’re thinking. So rather than just healing the man straight away, he has him come and stand in the middle of the room, where everyone can see him. Jesus is making a pre-emptive strike: before the scribes and Pharisees can accuse him of anything, he makes them look at this man.
Now, I’m not 100% sure about this, but here’s what I think he’s doing. The Pharisees aren’t the only people in the room that day; there are plenty of ordinary men sitting and listening to him. And I think Jesus wants them to consider this man who, in their society, was no longer good for much of anything, because he can’t work with his hands anymore. A normal person would pity such a man, the way you feel when you see a man in the métro begging with a club foot. I think Jesus is trying to draw that pity out of the crowd (and I think Luke is trying to draw that same pity out of us, his readers), so that we will approve what’s about to happen, and disapprove the way the Pharisees will react.
So after a moment, he continues (v. 9):
9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”
You can see that the question is a catch-22: on the Sabbath, you’re not supposed to do anything. But if you’re faced with such a problem, when you’re able to help, you’re able to do good for this man, and you don’t do anything…well then you’re doing harm, aren’t you?
As James says in James 4.17,
whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
So we assume that Jesus is going to heal the guy—and he does. But he doesn’t do anything. V. 10:
10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored.
Do you see the brilliance in the way Jesus does this? He doesn’t reach out and touch the man; he doesn’t rub a salve on his hand or clean it in water, or do anything that could be construed as “work.” He just stands there and tells the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man’s hand goes back to normal, like a new balloon which is inflating.
Again—adherence to the Law is nothing if it doesn’t produce the godly character the Law was meant to produce. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
And what is unbelievably ironic is that the Pharisees—these men who knew the law so well and who were undeniably devoted to keeping the Law pure—are furious. V. 11:
11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
The way this is translated (“they were filled with fury”) doesn’t do justice to the Greek. Literally, the word describes something more like madness—it’s to be so insane with rage that you can’t think straight. Jesus has so blindsided them by the reasonableness of what he says and does, something that any sane person would approve of, that the only thing they can think of is how to get rid of him.
They were so determined to catch Jesus in the act of breaking the Sabbath that they didn’t even realize that they had reduced this suffering man to a bargaining chip. And they can’t see that their lack of compassion on this man, the fact that they’re angry at Jesus for performing this miracle, even if it’s on a Sabbath, actually proves that although they follow the letter of the Law, they know nothing of the heart of the Law.
You see, the heart of the matter in today’s text is that true faith will show itself to be true: knowing God rightly will produce character and attitudes and thoughts which are in line with God’s character and attitudes and thoughts. The Pharisees are self-proclaimed lovers of the Law; but they show by their lack of compassion for the man with the withered hand that they don’t actually know God at all, because while they abound in sacrifice, they show no mercy.
Now, if you believe the public discourse about Christianity, you’d be quick to believe the opposite. If you were to ask many people on the street what characterizes Christianity, many people would say intolerance—intolerance of anyone who disagrees with us, intolerance of anyone who doesn’t live like we do; intolerance of members of other religions, of single parents, of addicts, of homosexuals—take your pick. Now, some of that so-called intolerance is a simple misunderstanding of what the Bible says: what the Bible calls sin, we have to call sin, but the Bible never calls us to reject the people themselves, for we’re sinners just as they are.
But what we see consistently throughout history is that those who take their faith in Christ seriously are always moved to mercy. Now of course, Christians aren’t the only ones who know how to be merciful—unbelievers can be moved to incredible compassion towards others, and thank God for that. Showing mercy doesn’t make you a Christian. But true faith in Christ will always produce mercy and compassion in us. Always.
Now, this is really convicting for me. I’m very often guilty of a kind of heartless pragmatism that will have me trying to find a way around the kind of compassion I’m called to show. Reading this text, if I’m honest, if I were Jesus I’d have done things differently. When I saw the Pharisees watching my disciples as they picked and ate the grain, I’d have said, “Stop, guys—let’s wait until we get to town and we’ll see if someone can give us something to eat.” Or when I saw the man with the withered hand, I’d have come to him after the synagogue let out and said, “Come find me tomorrow and we’ll fix your hand.” There were ways around this, to get the job done and still not offend the Pharisees.
But you see, that was the point. The point wasn’t that he could technically do his job while keeping the Pharisees happy, but that the Pharisees were profoundly sinful for being unhappy in the first place. If they had understood the Law they claimed to defend, they would have immediately seen legitimate need before their eyes, and would have felt compelled to meet that need. They wouldn’t have wanted to condemn Jesus for healing the man with the withered hand; they would have applauded him, because they would have seen that in healing, Jesus was perfectly accomplishing the heart of the Law, the heart which says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
What Do We Do With This?
Now, I know what some people here will say. They’ll hear what I’ve said so far, and what they see Jesus do in this passage, and they’ll say, “OK, so it’s not the commandments of the Bible that are important, but rather the heart behind the commandments.” So they won’t worry too much about not doing what Jesus says, as long as they keep in mind why he said it. They’ll treat his commandments like principles instead of commandments.
Please hear me: that’s not what he says! When he condemns the Pharisees for observing the Law but forgetting its heart, he’s not saying the Pharisees shouldn’t obey the Law. He’s saying they shouldn’t obey the Law like that—they shouldn’t obey coldly, dispassionately, without being transformed by the Law they’re obeying.
We need to know that each commandment in the Bible is in line with the way he created us to live. If I invent a machine, I’ll know better than anyone how that machine is meant to operate.
God is our Creator, and so he knows how he created us; he knows what we must do to “work” the way he created us to work. His commandments aren’t restrictions to limit us, but protections to allow us to flourish in him, to be more like him.
Or, to say it another way, God gives us commandments so that through obeying them, the heart behind those commandments might become our heart.
So that means two things for us.
Firstly—knowing God means submitting to God.
The Law of Moses was the authority over the life of the people of Israel—it ruled everything that they did from the time they woke up in the morning to the time they went to sleep at night. And Jesus is Lord over that same Law: he is lord of the Sabbath. And although Jesus fulfilled the Law, so we no longer have to obey these rules and regulations, he did not stop being Lord.
So if we claim to know Jesus at all, we cannot know him as a mere teacher or as a good example. If we claim to know Jesus, we must know him as Lord. As C. S. Lewis said, if we look at what Jesus says of himself in the gospels, then either he is completely insane, or he is really who he says he is: the Son of God, Christ, the Lord. So if we claim to know Jesus, we must submit to him as Lord.
And it’s hard.
Perhaps the hardest thing for modern Christians to accept is that Jesus has the right to tell them what to do. That famous line from William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” rings so true to us:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Secularism has beat this idea into our heads so strongly that there is not a soul in our society who doesn’t hear those words and instinctively approve of them. But it’s not just the fault of secularism—those words ring true to us because we are sinful human beings. The essence of temptation is to imagine that in any given moment, we are the ones who decide for ourselves; we are subject to no one.
The very first temptation saw Satan tempting the man and woman in the garden with the possibility of being like God (Genesis 3.5)—of throwing off the shackles put on them by this tyrannical God and being free of him. But they found that when they gave in to this temptation, they became slaves of a new master, sin—they exchanged the gracious rule of a good and loving God for the rule of a cruel slavemaster.
And all of us have been slaves of sin ever since.
So it is no accident that when Jesus says, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” that phrase comes smack in between these two stories. These stories aren’t just there to illustrate something nice Jesus did once upon a time; what Luke is getting at here is, This is the compassion Christ has shown YOU.
You see, this text is not telling us, "Jesus showed compassion, so follow his example and imitate his compassion." That's not wrong, but it's not the main point. Before we get to "Show compassion to others," we need to sit a while under Christ's compassion to us; the compassion we are called to show others is the result, the fruit, of his compassion toward us.
If you are hungry, it matters to him that you are hungry. If you are weak, it matters to him that you are weak.
If you are slaves to sin, it matters to him that you are slaves to sin.
Jesus came, and lived a perfect life, and took our sins on himself, and suffered our punishment in our place on the cross, and he didn’t do it coldly, simply in order to fulfill some larger plan. He did it because he loves us.
That’s why this text is so important.
Our struggle is that we’re still tempted to imagine God’s rule as tyrannical and cruel. But when we know the character of Christ, when we know what he is like, we know that God never commands anything of us except those things which will be merciful to us, which will be for our good, for our joy.
Knowing God means knowing him as Lord, and submitting to him as Lord, and believing that if he ever commands us to do something, or not do something, it is because he loves and us and wants to show us mercy.
So we need to realize, firstly, that knowing God means submitting to God, and secondly, submitting to God means being like him. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for strictly adhering to their interpretation of the Law while completely ignoring the heart of the Law. They try to emulate God’s power and authority while displaying none of his kindness or compassion—and it doesn’t work.
If we are truly submitting to God, then we won’t just do the things he says; we will love the things he loves. We will feel the things he feels. Which means if we truly understand the compassion and the grace he has shown us in Christ, then inevitably, without even trying, we will feel compassion for others, and will desire to show them the same compassion he has shown us.
So if you struggle to feel compassion towards others, like I do, then pray to understand the gospel well. Pray to know God rightly. Study the gospel with all your might, and pray that the Holy Spirit will enable you to not just understand how it works, but to feel the weight of the grace he has shown you. Confess your sin regularly, and pray to feel the joy of knowing you are forgiven for that sin, and reconciled to God, and adopted by him. Pray that this gospel will sink deep roots into your heart.
And as you grow to know God better, submit to God in everything. Make the most of every opportunity to obey him, to show compassion and mercy. Even if you don’t entirely feel it. There’s something about doing good for others that makes you want to do good for others. Compassion is contagious. So if you have the opportunity to show compassion on someone in need, or to forgive someone who has wronged you, then jump on that opportunity, and do it. And realize that what you were able to do there is just a pale reflection of the grace God has shown you. You’ll find that as you make the most of these opportunities, you’ll see them everywhere, and you’ll find yourself wanting to make the most of them.
And if you are here for the first time today, if you don’t know Christ, then I hope you can see in today’s passage, and in those we’ll see in the weeks to come, how good he is. I hope you’ll want to draw near to him—not as a teacher who can be useful to you, but as a good and gracious Lord who has done everything for you to be free from sin and be reconciled to God. Come to him and faith, and accept his mercy to you.