Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 07/03/1994

Luke 6:1-11

Lord of the Sabbath

Luke 6:1 Now it came about that on a certain Sabbath he was passing through some grainfields, and his disciples were picking and eating the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, "Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" 3 And Jesus answering them said, "Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, he and whose who were with him? 4 How he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which it is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions." 5 And he was saying to them, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." 6 And it came about that on another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the Scribes and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he healed on the Sabbath, in order that they might find reason to accuse him. 8 But he knew what they were thinking, and he said to the man with the withered hand, "Rise and come forward!" And he rose and came forward. 9 And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to destroy it?" 10 and after looking around at them all, he said to him, "Stretch out your hand!" And he did so, and the hand was restored. 11 But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.


We've been seeing lately that the Pharisees did not approve of our Lord's style of personal piety, his outward religious expressions. Last week their complaint was about fasting. This week it is the observance of the Sabbath. Naturally we look to a passage like this for teaching on the Sabbath. But it really sheds a powerful light on at least three issues: the Sabbath, the Savior, and the Scriptures.


For the origins of Sabbath observance we must of course look back to the Old Testament. It is part of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11. Six days we are to labor and do all our work, and then the seventh is a "Sabbath" to the Lord our God. In it neither we, our family, our domestic staff, nor our animals are to do any work. Why? Because God himself worked for six days and rested on the seventh, and therefore blessed and hallowed that day. As people who follow him, who live a lifestyle based on his character, we are to follow suit. Then Exodus 31:13-17 defines the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel and reemphasizes that it is to be observed by "complete rest." To ignore this would be to give a sign that one was outside the covenant, and so the penalty was death. Exodus 34:21 stipulates that the Sabbath is to be observed even during plowing time and harvest time. Especially busy periods of the year when there is pressure at work and "life is just a little bit hectic right now" are not to be used as an excuse or a rationalization for skipping the Sabbath observance. In all these earliest references the stress is on rest and refreshment; worship as such is not even mentioned. The primary purpose of the Sabbath then is rest and re-creation. But worship is implied as a secondary purpose in Leviticus 19:30, which parallels keeping the Sabbath with revering the sanctuary. This is confirmed by Leviticus 23:37-38, where the Sabbath is included in a list of days set aside as "holy convocations, to present offerings by fire." In all these passages the emphasis is on setting one day out of seven apart for rest and worship. Little or nothing is said as to the details of how this is to be done.

Of course, the Pharisees could not leave it at that! They felt obligated to work out in exhaustive detail just how one is to keep the Sabbath in their zeal to "put a hedge around the Law." How far could you walk before it became "work"? The "Sabbath Day's Journey" was calculated at 2,000 cubits, or about 1,000 yards--a little over half a mile. Of course, you could extend that limit by a curious legal fiction. If you needed to travel farther than that from home on a Sabbath, you could place an object of your property within 2,000 cubits of your destination in advance. This would extend the boundaries of your "house," so that the official count of cubits would not begin until you passed that point. How much could you carry in your hand without it constituting a "burden" and thus work? An amount equal to the weight of a dried fig. ("If it weighs the same as a. . . . " Never mind.) If a person in one place had his hand stretched forth into another place and filled with fruit, and the Sabbath "overtook" him, he should drop the fruit rather than risk "carrying a burden." Women should not wear ornaments on the Sabbath because they might be tempted to remove them in order to show them off, and thus momentarily "carry a burden." It was wise not to look in a mirror on the Sabbath, because you might be tempted to pull out a gray hair, and that would be work. If you arrive at your place of rest just as the Sabbath begins, you should unpack only what may be handled on the Sabbath. To prevent your beast from working, you may untie the ropes and let the rest fall to the ground by itself. To make sure you avoided work, you must not climb a tree, ride, swim, clap your hands, or dance on the Sabbath. I haven't found it yet, but there must be a prohibition of smiling in the traditions somewhere! And here is a provision quite relevant to the Pharisees' controversies with the Lord: you could wear a bandage or plaster on the Sabbath if and only if the object of it was to prevent further injury, but not if its purpose was to promote healing, for that would be work. The only exception to this would be if there was immediate danger to the person's life. I don't guess the man's withered hand quite made the cut. This legalistic, uncharitable, and wrongheaded approach hardly even needs a critique. Merely to describe it is to see its absurdity as an attempt to practice the Law in the spirit in which it was originally given. To confuse such traditions of men with the Law of God and to impose this confusion on the consciences of others is not only evil in itself, but it does tremendous damage, creates huge stumbling blocks to faith, and brings the name of God into disrepute.

Contemporary Christians are generally too lazy to generate or observe that many rules, but some of them have managed to catch the Pharisaic spirit quite nicely. One thinks of strict Sabbatarians, who insist that only worship or other religious activity may be pursued on the Sabbath. You remember Eric Liddell in "Chariots of Fire" scolding the little boy for playing soccer on Sunday and then refusing to run in an Olympic race scheduled for Sunday. We must truly admire his genuine evangelistic zeal, his belief that he could glorify God by running track, and his willingness to make costly sacrifices rather than violate his conscience. But at the same time we must question the wisdom of his application of Scripture. The original purpose of the Sabbath was rest from our work. Surely for the little boy that would have meant not doing sums or parsing verbs. It is inconceivable that he thought of soccer as "work." Ironically, Liddell was preventing him from fulfilling the true intent of the original ordinance! Equally Pharisaic are those like the Seventh Day Adventists who insist that because God said to worship on the seventh day, we must therefore worship on Saturday rather than Sunday. As if they even knew what the seventh day from Creation was by accurate count! As if Paul had not explicitly forbidden us in Colossians 2:16 from judging one another over such things! The human capacity for ingenuity in using the letter of the Law to overturn its spirit is truly amazing.

Unfortunately, most contemporary Evangelicals have avoided these errors by flying from them to another just as unbiblical: they treat the Sabbath as nothing special at all. Therefore, all of us need to pay attention once again to the example of Jesus. He had no patience with the Pharisaic hedge, but would walk right through it without blinking an eye. There was no place in Jesus' approach for legalism and judgmentalism on the details. For the Pharisees, the disciples were working by both harvesting the grain (picking it) and processing it (rubbing it between their hands). Jesus' response was, if it is not irreverent to put it this way, "Good grief! Get a life!" This was not just laxity, nor was it mere orneriness, a rebellious desire to get the goat of the religious establishment. It was the consistent living out of a positive principle: to cut away the traditions of men and get back to the simplicity of the Old Testament. In verse 9 Jesus is really asking the Pharisees to remember that the purpose of the Sabbath was positive, not negative. Is it for doing good or not? You tell me. It is very consistent with his words in Mark 2:27--"The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." It was made for man's rest and refreshment; therefore sports and recreation are not only O.K., but they help to fulfill that purpose. It was made for worship; therefore it should be characterized by celebration and joy. And above all, it was not made for judging others who do not keep it in exactly the same way that we do. We should set the Sabbath aside as "holy," i.e., as "special." To neglect this is disobedience. But we should not turn it from a blessing into a burden as we do so. This is a warning I charge you to heed seriously! For the human capacity--and therefore our capacity--for ingenuity in using the letter of the Law to overturn its spirit is truly amazing. May the grace of God and the spirit of Christ enable us to do better.


This is a question whose answer does not need a lot of explanation, but it is as important as anything else in this passage, and we must make sure we do not miss it. Jesus of course claims to be "Lord of the Sabbath." What does this mean? To his Jewish audience, the Sabbath was the memorial of Creation and of God's rest when it was finished. To be Lord of the Sabbath surely means on a practical level that Jesus has the authority to reject the Pharisees' teaching on how to keep it and substitute his own example. But it means much more than that. Who would have that kind of authority? To be Lord of the Sabbath is to be Lord of the completed Creation. It is one more way that Jesus claims to be no one less than God himself. No wonder the Pharisees were looking for opportunities to catch him up, accuse him, and discredit him! Well, if they were wrong about the Sabbath, maybe they were wrong about Jesus too. Do we accept him as Lord of the Sabbath? Then we must follow him, not just in his approach to this issue, but in everything. And that leads us to our final question:


Jesus here is not only teaching us how to keep the Sabbath; in doing so, he is also teaching us how to read the Bible. And the lesson he is giving us here can surely be summarized in this principle: Do not attempt to apply the letter of any passage of Scripture until you have first grasped the spirit of it! The Pharisees are the perfect negative example in their approach to the Sabbath. And Jesus is the positive example not only in his general approach to the Sabbath question but also in his treatment of the biblical texts dealing with the shewbread. How does this work?

Jesus refers his opponents to 1 Samuel 21:1-6, which requires a prior knowledge of Leviticus 24:5-9. When the shewbread was removed from before the altar, it was then given to the priest, who is the only person with a right to eat it. When the priest gave this bread to David in 1 Samuel 21, it had already been set aside for him. He was therefore giving up his own bread for the sake of helping David. (Since it was consecrated bread, he had scruples about the ceremonial purity of David's men--hence the question about whether they had been "kept from women.") It would have been wrong for David to take it for himself, but did Leviticus forbid the priest from giving it to him, from choosing freely to yield his own right to eat the bread for David's sake? Evidently not. Jesus' point is that David's eating is parallel to that of the disciples. That is, both had the potential to offend people with a scrupulous conscience, but neither actually breaks the letter of the Law (that is important). Both acts are right, and the rightness is seen when the spirit of the Law is understood.

From Jesus' example as a Bible reader here we can derive four basic and important rules for dealing with any ethical question. First, we must ascertain what biblical commands or principles apply to the issue. Second, we must ask ourselves, and let the Scriptures answer by context, for what purpose were those commands originally given, or those principles originally laid down? Third, we must safeguard ourselves by remembering that while our proper application of the text to situations that exist today may go beyond the letter, they must never contradict the letter (unless it has been superceded by later revelation, as in the NewTestament's repealing of the Ceremonial Law). And fourth and most importantly, we must remember that the final and ultimate purpose of all Scripture is to glorify God by revealing and pointing us to Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus with his Gospel of Grace is the highest vantage point, the ultimate frame of reference, from which to view all of Scripture, the ultimate criterion by which every interpretation must be judged.


The very fact that we are here on a Sunday instead of a Saturday is eloquent testimony to the greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of Creation, the Lord of Redemption. On a Sunday he entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey and proclaimed himself Lord. On a Sunday he rose from the dead and proved himself to be Lord. And that is why the early Church felt compelled to move the day of rest and worship (still one out of seven) to the first day of the week. In so doing they honored the spirit of the Law (to point to Jesus as the Christ) without violating the letter (to set aside every seventh day). And in so doing they gave us a reminder, every time we meet, of the greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. Let us praise him!

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 11/14/2004 4:55 PM