The Sabbath

On the Scripture Union camps I helped out on, the talk on the first night was on the title 'Christianity is Christ'. Each leader giving a talk got a little brief on roughly what to cover. And the brief for that first talk went like this: 'To show that Christianity is not about rules or rituals but about a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ'. And I always found it a refreshing and disturbing talk to listen to. Because time after time all of us who are believers slip back into the mentality that the Christian life is about keeping the rules and keeping up the routines. And we need to be reminded that it's about a living relationship with the living God. And to be reminded is both refreshing and disturbing. In Matthew 12.1-14, Jesus is speaking to people with the 'rules and routines' mentality, but who clearly (see v14) have no relationship with God. And we'll look at it under three headings: first, WHAT RELIGIOUS PEOPLE WITH GOD'S LAW; secondly, WHAT GOD INTENDED WITH HIS LAW; thirdly, WHAT RELIGIOUS PEOPLE DO WITH JESUS. First, WHAT RELIGIOUS PEOPLE WITH GOD'S LAW (vv 1-2)

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some ears of corn and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, 'Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.' (vv1-2)

These 'Pharisees' (v2) were the religious people of the day. And by 'religious' I mean they were very concerned with the contents of the Bible (the Old Testament (OT) part of it, at that time), but often with no real faith or relationship with God who gave them the Bible. They were very keen to keep the OT laws. So keen that they added lots of their own laws about how to keep the OT law. So for example, they listed 39 activities which counted as breaking the OT Sabbath law. (For the OT Sabbath law, see Exodus 20.8-11, Deuteronomy 5.12-15). So, as they watched Jesus' disciples picking a few bits of corn, rubbing the husks off and eating them, the Pharisees said to themselves, 'That's reaping and milling!' So:

'Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.' (v2)

No wonder that, later in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says this:

'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders.' (Matthew 23.2-4)

And that's what religious people do with God's law. They make it a burden. It's intended to be a blessing - so we can know God's will for human life and so enjoy life as it was made to be. But religious people take the law and make it into a burden. Which is why Jesus said in Matthew 11.28:

'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened'

And, in the context, it's most likely that he meant weary and burdened not by life (by jobs, sleepless babies, pressures, etc) but by religion - which for vast numbers across the world is the greatest burden in their lives. And religious people make God's law a burden in two ways. On the one hand, religious people make God's law a burden by adding to it. The OT Sabbath law was given so that God's people would experience the blessing of rest from regular work for one day in seven. There's no way that what the disciples were doing in v1 could count as 'regular work'. But the law had been added to, until it was a burden rather than a blessing. On the other hand, religious people make God's law a burden by keeping it while completely forgetting (or never grasping) God's purpose behind the law. That purpose was that God's people could know the blessing of living in accordance with God's will for human life. In other words, God gave the law as a means to an end. In his goodness he wanted (and wants) his people to experience the goodness of life as it was made to be lived. But religious people make it an end in itself. Look again at v2:

'Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.' (v2)

Or look at the end of v10. Here is a man with a deformed hand, about to be healed by Jesus, about to experience a complete transformation of life - and all the religious people can say is:

'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'

'Is it lawful?' was their entire mentality. They forgot what the purpose of the law was. For them, the law was there to be kept because it was there to be kept because it was there to be kept. And that was that. Two applications before we move on. One is this. Let's be sure (and I say this to myself first) that we don't add to God's law. Whenever we hear a teacher or read a Christian book that lays on us something that 'ought' to be part of our discipleship, we must ask: Does God's word lay this on me, or is it just a human addition or interpretation?' We must ask the same of the routines of our church, and the popular habits and taboos of Christians by which we're surrounded. The other application is this. Let's be sure to understand the purpose behind what God tells us to do. Seldom in Scripture do you find 'bare' commands. They come surrounded by incentives and explanations as to God's wisdom and goodness which lie behind them. Which brings us to: Secondly, WHAT GOD INTENDED WITH HIS LAW (vv 3-8) Look at v3. Jesus answered these religious people:

'Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread - which it was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven't you read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests desecrate the day and yet are innocent? (vv3-5)

Jesus answers them from God's law, from the OT. And he gives two examples of where God's OT law was broken, but God did not condemn the people involved. Jesus' first example (in vv3-4) is from 1 Samuel 21.1-6. King David, whom the Bible says was 'a man after God's own heart', needed food for his fighting men. So he went to the Temple and asked for the bread that was used in the ritual there. That was not lawful. But in the circumstances, he did it, and there's no hint in 1 Samuel 21 that God condemned his action. So, that's an example of the Temple law being broken. Jesus' second example (v5 is from Leviticus 24.1-9. The priests were told by God, in the law, to do certain things (ie, work) as part of the Temple ritual on the Sabbath. In other words, God's Temple law told the priests to break God's Sabbath law. And again, there's no hint that God would condemn them in any way. So, that's an example of the Sabbath law being broken. What is Jesus saying? At the least, he's saying that there are different kinds of law in the OT. For instance, you can't imagine God saying to David about his adultery with Bathsheba, 'Well, David, let's just treat it like the time you took the bread from the Temple. Let's say that in that particular instance, adultery wasn't wrong.' No, there's something different about those laws. Some have distinguished them as 'ceremonial' (eg, the Temple, the Sabbath) and 'moral' (eg, adultery). But, as I understand it, what's different about the Temple and Sabbath laws is this: their main function was to point forward to Jesus. In a sense, they were visual aids, pointing forward, during OT times, to the 'real thing', that is to Jesus. I take it that's why Jesus says what he does in v6:

I tell you that one greater than the Temple is here.'

And the 'one 'he's talking about is himself. It's a bit like what he said back in Matthew 11.13:

'For all the Law and the Prophets [ie, the whole OT] prophesied until John [the Baptists].'

The implication is that the prophesying - the pointing forward - has stopped, because the one to whom they point has now come. John the Baptist was the last in the line pointing to Jesus, who has now come. Jesus is the one to whom every OT law, every OT institution, every OT event pointed forward. Take the Temple. The Temple, with its sacrifices, pointed forward to the one sacrifice for sins for all time that Jesus would offer when he died on the cross for us. So, the OT Temple was just a visual aid - of the problem (God's judgement on our sin) and the solution (our need for a substitute to face God's judgement in our place, so that we could be spared it). The intention of the Temple law was to point us to our need of Jesus and his sacrifice. So, we fulfil the Temple law not by jumping on a plane to Jerusalem with a sheep or a goat to sacrifice; but by putting our faith in the once for all time sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. So then, what about Sabbath? Let me say: Christians disagree on this. It always matters that you're weighing what a teacher has to say against the Bible - to see whether he's saying what the Bible says. It matters especially over matters were Christians disagree. So, with the reminder that my words are not God's, but are trying to be as faithful to God's written words as I can, let's press on. My understanding is that Jesus treats Sabbath law similarly to Temple law. Just as we fulfil the intention of Temple law by putting our faith in Jesus' once for all sacrifice on the cross, so we fulfil Sabbath law by coming into a relationship, by faith, with the Lord Jesus The intention of the Sabbath law was to remind us that first and foremost, we were made for relationship with God. Back in Genesis 2, we're told this:

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2.1-3) God's ultimate intention was not just to create for the sake of it. God's creation of the universe was not like our making an airfix model - a rather time consuming exercise at the end of which you sit back and wonder why you bothered. No, God's ultimate intention was to create in order that he could then rest from creating and relate to what he had created - supremely, relate to us humans, who are made in his image. You see that in Genesis 3.8 as God 'walks' in the Garden of Eden, presumably to spend time with the man and the woman he had made. So, God worked, then rested in order to relate to us. And the reason for the OT Sabbath command was so that the Israelites would work, then rest in order to relate to God. The Sabbath was to remind them that they were more than mere 'workers'. A friend (who's not a Christian) said to me the other day, 'I work to live; I don't live to work.' He's saying the same thing. He's saying, 'I'm more than just a worker; there's more to life than just work.' And the Bible would tell him that that 'more' is to have a relationship with God, through Jesus. That's what the Sabbath reminded God's people: it reminded them that their primary relationship was not 'downwards' (to the creation, and the world of work) but upwards (to the Creator). In terms of the Bible's time-line: after creation (Genesis 1-2) comes the 'fall' (Genesis 3) - where mankind rebelled and took itself out of relationship with God. After the fall came the whole OT period, where God was working temporarily through a nation - Israel - to draw people back into relationship with himself. And throughout that period, God was constantly pointing forward to the coming of Jesus - who is the only way in which we sinners can come back into relationship with God. Through Jesus, we can be forgiven now and welcomed into heaven when we die. And in the Bible's eyes, heaven is the ultimate 'rest' - the place where God's intention that we live in relationship with him reaches fulfilment (rather like an engagement reaches fulfilment with marriage). So just as we fulfil the Temple law by trusting the sacrifice Jesus made for us so we could be forgiven, we fulfil the Sabbath law when we enjoy a relationship with God through faith in Jesus. I take it that's why he said in Matthew 11.28:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.'

Jesus is saying, 'I am God; to come into relationship with me is to come into relationship with God; and for a human soul, relationship with God is 'rest'. Again, two applications before we move on. One is this. It's extremely important to understand how the whole Bible, OT and NT, fits together. The OT runs into the NT. Some things in the law continue, some things discontinue, after the coming of Jesus. And it's extremely important to have a good understanding of that, otherwise in our (right) desire to be obedient to the word of God, we'll misapply the OT part of it to ourselves, and lay on ourselves things which are not for new covenant believers. The other application is more specific. In the light of all this, just what do we do about Sabbath? Nothing? Anything? Would you turn to Colossians 2.16-17. Paul is writing to a problem in the church at Colosse. The problem is that some people are insisting that the Colossian Christians must keep certain OT laws, and that if they don't, their whole spiritual standing is in question. In other words, people are being 'judged' as to whether they're 'real believers' on the basis of whether they keep certain OT laws. And Paul writes to the believers in Jesus: Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious, a New Moon celebration festival [the feasts that were associated with the Temple]or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow [a visual aid pointing forward] of the things that were to come. The reality, however, is found in Christ. In other words: the OT food laws, Temple and festival laws and Sabbath law belonged to a temporary period pointing forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus. They are no longer binding on new covenant believers. As I've said, Christians disagree on this. But my understanding is this. Colossians 2.16-17 tells me that I am not bound to keep a Sabbath by law, in the way that old covenant believers clearly were. Then, it was part of required obedience for the people of God. It was a 'marker' of being one of God's people. That is not so now, this side of the coming of Jesus. But Genesis 2.1-3 (echoed in Exodus 20.8-11) tells me that the cycle of work-then-rest, six days then one, is somehow built into the order of creation. It is a creation pattern (like marriage) and is therefore good for human beings. Now, in OT times, God's people had an existence within a nation, Israel. And Israel was a theocracy: God was her King. God's laws were the nation's laws. They could therefore have a national Sabbath. In our times, new covenant times, God's people have their existence within an international body, the church. God's people across the world now live not under theocracy but under everything from democracy to dictatorship. And it therefore may not be possible for some believers always to have one day of rest in seven, because we're governed not by God but by humans. And, even if we can get one day's rest in seven, we may not be able to get the same day as one another. But having said that, Genesis 2.1-3/Exodus 20.8-11 says: it's good to take one day of rest in seven; it's good to argue in society that society should take one day's rest in seven; it's good to argue that that day of rest be the same for all people, because it then becomes a day for relationships and families. And obviously it's good for Christians to use that day to come together - to meet with one another and with God, as we're doing now. (There is a reference to 'the Lord's Day' in Revelation 1.10 which probably refers to Sunday as the day when the first Christians met together. They met on Sunday because it was the day of Jesus' resurrection, not on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath day. Early writings after the NT tell us that they would often meet before going to work, or after the day's work: to begin with, many had no control over whether or not they had to work on Sunday. As time went on, Christians who had established the habit of meeting on Sunday began to argue and work for a day of rest in society on a Sunday, so that the practice of a 'Christian Sunday' emerged.) Back to Matthew 12. Thirdly, WHAT RELIGIOUS PEOPLE DO WITH JESUS (vv 9-14) Going on fro mthat place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus they asked him, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'

He said to them, 'If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.' Then he said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' So he stretched out his hand and it was fully restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. (vv9-14)

Notice v10: these religious people were 'looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.' By v14, they were looking for a way to kill him. And that's what religious people do with Jesus. They hate him. And they want to get rid of him. Because Jesus is such a disturbance to religion. Religion, you see, is about interpreting God's laws and adding to God's laws in such a way that you appears to take God seriously, but you never actually repent - you don't undergo that fundamental change that puts God back at the centre of life. You take on a whole raft of externals, while underneath, in the heart, in the personality, nothing changes. Whereas God want us to change: from pushing him out of our lives, through experiencing his mercy in forgiving us for pushing him out, to being back in relationship with him. And those who've undergone that change are themselves changed into more merciful, loving people. And it's that fundamental change of the whole person that God desires - not merely the sticking of a bit of religiosity on the old person. That's the point of the quotation from the OT in v7:

[Jesus speaking.] 'If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.'

In other words, God is saying: 'I desire that you are changed into merciful people, rather than that you are unchanged people who keep the rituals of my law.' His desire is not that we should be religious (fundamentally unchanged, but overlaid with rituals) but that we should be godly (changed into his likeness). Again, in v12, Jesus says he wants us to be good and to do good. He's not wanting us to be legalists. He wants us to be like himself, like his Father: merciful, and good at heart. Religion may be a burden (see heading 1), but it enables people to appear to be taking God seriously, whereas in fact they're unrepentant, unchanged. Which is why religious people hate Jesus and want to get rid of him. Because he calls all people - including religious people - to repent: to stop pushing God out and to let him be Lord of their whole lives and personalities. 'Christianity is Christ,' said the first talk on those Scripture Union Holidays, which I mentioned at the start. 'Christianity is not about rules and rituals, but about a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.' Do you find that refreshing? Or disturbing? And what does that tell you about whether you're religious, or whether you're truly a Christian?

Back to top