What the Pharisees did was to change the Sabbath from a picture of God’s holiness into a series of steps you could follow. It was no longer a challenge that made you turn to God in desperation. It wasn’t even any more an invitation to rest in God’s grace and trust Him to take care of you. Instead, it was a series of boxes that you checked off in order to feel good about yourself
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Matthew #38 . Matthew 12:1-13
I think that one of the most frequently misunderstood things in the gospels is Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees. Many people think that Jesus had a particular problem with them because they were religious and traditional. In a way, that is true, but it’s not quite as simple as most people make it. Also, far too many people go on to take that as a blank check to reject anything they want to call “religion” including things like being a part of a church, or worshipping regularly with other believers.
The truth is, what Jesus rejected was a particular kind of religiousness, and a particular way of using traditions. It is good for us to follow in his example, to understand and avoid those same types of dangers; however it is also good not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Let me back up and set the stage for the religious behavior of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. In the middle part of the history of the people of Israel, the time of the judges and kings, a majority of Israelites did not live according to the covenant that God had made with them. During the time of the judges, they continually turned away from God, and God continually got their attention by allowing the nations around them to oppress them. Then, for a few generations under Samuel, David and Solomon, the nation of Israel lived generally true to their faith, and they flourished. After Solomon, however, they turned to the worship of idols. There were good kings who led them back to worshipping God, but the overall trend was for them to get further and further away from living like the people of God. Finally, God allowed Assyria and Babylon to totally conquer the people of Israel, and a huge proportion of them were taken away in exile.
When the Lord engineered the return from exile, it seemed like the remaining Israelites had learned their lesson. The Jews became much more strict in their observance of the Law of Moses. At some level, they understood the consequences of turning away from God, and they wanted to avoid repeating history. There were some Jews, however, who were much more secular, and whom embraced the ways of the conquering Greeks. (the Greeks controlled the region for a while after the return of the exiles). After a struggle, a group of observant Jews succeeded cleansing the temple, and then in taking control from both the secular Jews and the Greeks (they were led by Judas Maccabaeus). Jewish independence under the Maccabeans only lasted a few generations, but the lesson seemed clear to many: the way to freedom as a nation was to strictly follow the Laws of Moses.
Another thing began to happen during the two centuries right before Jesus. The Jewish people concerned about following the law began to ask questions about how to do it. Moses had said:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
That was all well and good, said the Jews, but what does it mean, practically speaking? What, really is work? What makes a day holy? What constitutes rest? The Jews began to make up rules that explained in excruciating detail what it meant to properly observe the Sabbath. They came up with a certain number of steps that you were allowed to walk. They decided that lighting a lamp or candle was “work” and so the mother of the house would light these things on Friday night, and let them burn until Saturday night, so that she wouldn’t “work” by messing with lamps on the Sabbath. They basically created a new set of rules that you were supposed to follow, and if you just followed them, then you had done your duty to God.
The Jews did this with almost every command given by Moses. So you see, observing the Law no longer meant living in faith by trying to follow the commands in relationship with God; instead it meant following the rules made up by Rabbis. In general, those rules might have been irritating or inconvenient, but anyone could do them.
There are two major problems with this. The first is that the commands of the moral law given through Moses were meant to show us God’s holiness, and, in comparison, our sin. The law was supposed to show us how Holy God is, and how far short we fall. It was meant to show us our true and desperate need for God, and to make us seek a Savior. But what the Jews did was to turn this picture of God’s holiness into a series of steps you could follow. The Sabbath was no longer a picture of God’s holiness. It was no longer a challenge that made you turn to God in desperation. It wasn’t even any more an invitation to rest in God’s grace. Instead, it was a series of boxes that you checked off in order to feel good about yourself. Every law became similarly debased by man-made steps. Every law became just a manageable checklist. If you checked most of the boxes, and went to the temple and made sacrifices for the ones you missed, you could call yourself holy. Now there was no need for savior – if you just followed the rules of the Rabbis, (which were easier than the actual law) you were righteous.
The second thing that this rule-making did was to make following God about performance, rather than heartfelt repentance, worship and relationship. All you had to do was follow the steps. Your heart could be filled with murder, lust, greed and bitterness, but if you just did the steps, everyone would consider you to be holy. You could even hate God, but if you followed the steps laid out by the Rabbis, you were holy. What all this meant, is that God wasn’t even really in the picture any more. You could do the entire Jewish religion without God.
The great Israelites of the past followed God in faith. Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness – not because he performed well, but because he trusted wholeheartedly in God’s promises (Genesis 15:6, Galatians 3:6, James 2:23). Moses interacted with God face to face. David worshipped God heart and soul through music and poetry and personal prayer, as did many others (just read the Psalms). Ruth and Naomi trusted in God’s gracious provision. Elijah prayed and trusted God.
But most of the Jews of Jesus’ time had reduced the life of faith to checking off boxes on lists of rules.
Now, we come to Matthew chapter 12. The disciples are walking through the fields on the Sabbath – with Jesus. What could make the Sabbath more truly holy than the presence of God in the flesh? Their day is set apart for spending time with the Lord. The fields were apparently fields of ripe grain which had not yet been harvested. For a snack, the disciples were pulling of heads of wheat as they walked, and munching on the whole wheat berries. It was equivalent to finding crab apples on a hike, and picking one or two, eating them as you walk.
But the Pharisees saw them and said: “Picking heads of wheat is technically harvesting grain, and harvesting grain is working; therefore, you are violating the rules of the Sabbath!”
But Moses never said, “Don’t even grab some wheat berries as you pass through the fields on the Sabbath.” He said, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Don’t do any work on that day.” It was the Pharisees who defined what the disciples were doing as work. It has as little resemblance to work as tossing a football around with the family in a private backyard resembles the practice-work of a professional football athlete. The disciples weren’t toiling at their livelihood; they weren’t threshing or grinding, or even cooking. They were relaxing with Jesus, and snacking from the readily available bounty of His creation. They were in fact, honoring the Sabbath and resting in the Holy Presence of the Creator Himself.
Jesus could have responded to the Pharisees in a number of ways. He chose to direct their attention the scriptures. First, he reminds them that when David had need, he ate the bread that was set aside only for the priests; yet David did no wrong in doing so. He then reminds them that priests work on the Sabbath. Since he says “the priests of the temple,” he is probably referring to the offering of sacrifices on Sabbath days, which was part of the work of a priest. He adds:
But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here! If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:6-8, HCSB)
He is making two points. First, the important thing is not to follow man-made rules about the Sabbath – what God really wants is “mercy, not sacrifice.” In other words, the Lord is after a changed heart, not an external conformity to man-made rules. Second, he says that he (when Jesus says “son of man” he is referring to himself) is Lord of the Sabbath. Once more this is a claim to be Divine. He is saying, “I made the Sabbath, I think I know what is appropriate for it or not.”
Matthew records another confrontation over the Sabbath. This time, the Pharisees are actually using the Sabbath as an excuse to accuse and discredit him, to prove he is a bad Jew. There in the synagogue on the Sabbath was a man with a paralyzed hand. The Pharisees say to Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Once again, what they are doing is insisting on viewing the Sabbath as a checklist of dos and don’ts, instead of an invitation to trust and rest. They are insisting upon their own, man-made version of the Sabbath, instead of taking God’s word through Moses in faith and trust.
Most of the world, at that time, including Galilee, was largely agricultural. Jesus points out that if someone has an animal in trouble on the Sabbath, they help it. How much more worthwhile to heal a human being in need! Again, Jesus’ response is to get to the heart of the Sabbath.
I want to point out something that is often misunderstood: Jesus is not abolishing the Sabbath here. He is not saying, “The Sabbath no longer matters; do what you want every day of the week.” But he is saying this:
“The Sabbath, like all of the Old Testament, is all about me (Jesus). It shows you your need for me, and it is fulfilled by trusting me and living your life in relationship to me. There is still rest that you need to take, and that rest is found in me alone.” He is not against the Sabbath, or any of the Old Testament law, but he is against the man-made rules that the Pharisees have made about it.
I have several pastor friends whom rarely take a day set aside for honoring the Lord by resting. When we talk about it, they sort of take an “aw, shucks,” attitude. Sure, they’d like to rest, but they’re just too busy doing the Lord’s work. In America, we’re inclined to give people like this a pass. How can working hard be a sin? In fact, we are inclined to admire people who work hard and are too busy to take a whole day to rest.
My friends are good men. If I told them that I regularly stole money and didn’t feel bad about it, they’d be shocked. If I told them I was committing adultery, they would urge me to repent. Yet the command to keep the Sabbath comes in the ten commandments, just like the commands to avoid stealing and adultery. It is no more holy for them to not take a special day of rest than it is for me to steal.
Let me say it again: Jesus does not abolish this command. He points out the error of how the Pharisees have turned it into a mere man-made checklist. He makes it clear that the true rest is found in trusting in him and being with him. He is clearly against a legalistic set of rules defining how the day must be spent. But he does not say, “forget the Sabbath.”
Returning to my friends who do not set aside a “Sabbath,” a time to rest and honor God, let’s consider a few things. They may feel like they are honoring God by working, however, what I think is really going on is that they are dishonoring God by not trusting him. They don’t trust that everything will be OK if they take time out. They act as if everything depends upon their hard work, as if their churches will fall apart without them. The Sabbath shows us, among other things, that God is in charge, it is up to him, and we can trust him. When we don’t take it, we are missing the chance to strengthen that trust.
Ironically, the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into things that had to be done, rules that had to be followed, so that rest and trust no longer had much to do with it for them either. This is what Jesus criticizes them for. Never taking a Sabbath on the one hand, or insisting upon strict rules for how to implement it on the other, are two sides of the same coin, and that coin reads: “In ourselves we trust.” I want to make sure you understand what I am saying here. In today’s world, a Christian who does not set aside a day to honor and trust
God through rest, is essentially the same as a Pharisee in Jesus’ time who used rules to take the honor and trust and rest out of the Sabbath day. Even though the Pharisees outwardly looked righteous, they had gutted the real substance of the Sabbath. Even though non-resting Christians outwardly don’t look like Pharisees, they too, have gutted the real substance of the Sabbath, which again, is to remember and enter into God’s holiness through trust and rest.
Like so many things in the Christian life, what we need here trust and balance. Jesus clearly shows us that it is wrong to create a Sabbath checklist, a set of rules to show us we’ve righteously observed the Sabbath. On the other hand, the Sabbath, like the other commandments of the moral law, remains important for Christians. Though it may look different for different people, it is important for us to set aside a day that belongs to God, in which we honor and trust him by resting.
Let me use an example that may be helpful: Is it OK to mow the lawn on your “Sabbath?” (by the way, I don’t think the particular day of the week is as important as simply having some day that is set aside for trustful rest in the Lord; again, Jesus shows us not to be legalistic about such details). The answer is, first of all: stop trying to figure out a set of rules for the Sabbath. Trust the Lord. Accept that you need rest, and if you take it, the Lord will take care of what you are not working at. If you need specifics, ask Him first what it should look like for you.
Now, I’m aware that my first answer may not be immediately satisfying. You may genuine want to know, “how do we do this?” So here’s another answer: it depends. For me, mowing the lawn is a chore. It isn’t restful for me, and I usually end up wanting to curse at the lawnmower. So I don’t mow my lawn on my Sabbath (nor do I make my children to do it). But I have a friend who finds mowing the lawn enjoyable and restful to his soul. For my friend, mowing the lawn might be one of the most God-honoring and restful things he could do for a Sabbath; for me it is the opposite. The point is not to have a rule about a specific activity – rather it is whether that activity helps us to rest and to honor and trust God. So my friend sets apart the day as restful and holy by mowing the lawn; I set apart the day as holy and restful by not mowing the lawn.
Here’s another one. I often find writing restful. However, there are times when I find myself getting anxious about my career as an author. The result is that on some Sabbaths I write, and on others, when I’m finding it difficult to trust God with my writing, and it feels like work, or that I would be doing it because I’m worried about it, I avoid it. Do you get the idea here?
What about you? Have you been prone to the error of the Pharisees, making rules to control the Sabbath, or some other part of the moral law, thinking “if I just do a, b and c, I’ll be fine,”? Hear from the Jesus that He is the point of it all. Learn to listen to him and not lose sight of the point.
Perhaps you are on the other end of the spectrum, thinking you can safely ignore God’s invitation to remember his holiness by resting and trusting? Learn from Jesus that these things matter, because they are all about Him.
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.
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