Life of Christ 52
Just about a year ago Jesus of Nazareth threw off the anonymity that had cloaked Him for the entirety of His earthly career and embraced a public life of ministry. The bulk of the time thus far has been spent in His home province of Galilee preaching from town to town. Our two stories today find Him back in Jerusalem for what is probably the second Passover observance of His ministry.
In the first story (John 5.1-16) Jesus interacts with an infirm man and heals him. This interaction happened to take place upon a Sabbath. He was so thoroughly healed that even though he had lain in the same place for 38 years he had the vigor to carry his bed away with him.
In the second story (Matthew 12.1-8) Jesus and His disciples are walking through a field, and they plucked some grains of wheat with their fingers and chewed them as they walked. This was a perfectly acceptable behavior on the part of these men other than the fact that it, like the first story, took place upon a Sabbath day.
In both cases the Pharisees respond by attacking Jesus for doing these things on the Sabbath day. 'The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed' (John 5.10), and, 'But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day' (Matthew 12.2). In picking this particular battle with Jesus, not only did they pick a battle with the wrong Man, but from my perspective they could not have chosen a better issue with which to reveal their own theological and practical error. In other words, this is the ground of their own choosing, and I think it, more than almost anything else they did, illustrates the complete spiritual bankruptcy that was the hallmark of their movement.
Let me first say that it is certainly true that the Torah forbids working on the Sabbath. 'Remember the sabbath day; to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:' (Exodus 20.8-10). But the Pharisees had taken this relatively straightforward commandment and so fenced it in with numerous regulations so as to make it absolutely ridiculous.
J. W. Shepard, a 20th century Southern Baptist missionary and professor said it this way in his book on the life of Christ:
There was no institution among the Jews regarded with more veneration and scrupulosity than that of the Sabbath. It was a divinely ordained and beneficent part of the Mosaic economy, designed for the rest of man and for his worship and service to God…Beginning with sunset on Friday, announced by three trumpet blasts from the Temple and synagogue, it ended at sunset on Saturday. All food must be prepared, all vessels washed, all lights kindled, and all tools laid aside. There were restrictions laid down in the Mosaic law; but the Rabbis had elaborated from these a vast array of injunctions and prohibitions, making of the Sabbath law a veritable bondage. Moses said: “Thou shalt not do any work.” The Rabbis made out a system of thirty-nine works, which done rendered the offender subject to death by stoning. Derived from these “father-works” were numerous “descendant-works.” One of the “father-works” was ploughing: a son of this was “digging.” Wearing false teeth was a “descendant” of “carrying a burden.” Among the descendants of “reaping” were the “plucking of a head of wheat” or the “pulling out of a grey hair” from one’s head. Lengthy rules were formulated about what kind of knots one might tie on the Sabbath. The camel-driver’s and sailor’s knots might not be tied or unloosed. Two letters of the alphabet might not be written together. To kindle or extinguish a fire was a great desecration, not being justified even in case of the emergency of sickness. The Sabbath had become a grievous burden by the thousands of restrictions and rules too numerous to mention.
For example, it was forbidden to draw a chair along the ground lest it should make a rut; and although it was permissible to spit on a pavement and rub the expectoration with the foot, it was debated whether it were permissible to perform the operation on the earth, inasmuch as the foot would scratch the surface…To walk on a crutch or a wooden leg was permissible; but to go on stilts was forbidden, since it was not the stilts that carried the man but the man that carried the stilts…A tailor must not go abroad with his needle nor a scribe with his pen toward sunset on Friday, lest the Sabbath should begin ere his return and find him abroad with his burden…An ordinary Sabbath day’s journey extended 2000 cubits beyond one’s dwelling. But if at the boundary of that ‘journey’ a man deposited on the Friday food for two meals, he thereby constituted it his dwelling, and hence might go for another 2000 cubits…Supposing a traveler to arrive in a place just as the Sabbath commenced, he must only take from his beast of burden such objects as are allowed to be handled on the Sabbath. As for the rest, he may loosen the ropes and let them fall down of themselves.
There were twenty four entire chapters of the Talmud devoted to the specific rules related to what you could and couldn't do on the Sabbath. For instance, you couldn't carry a burden, and a burden was defined as the weight of a fig, but if you divided the fig in half and carried it twice it was legal on the Sabbath. If water fell on a dress you could shake it, but you could not wring it out. Chapter after chapter is dedicated to such nonsensical specificity, and the Talmud itself speaks approvingly of one particular rabbi who spent two and a half years studying just one of these chapters.
If we take the time to look at the specifics involving the accusation against Jesus' disciples regarding grain we will find the following proscriptions in the Talmud: If a woman was handling or cooking grain on the Sabbath, and she rolled it to remove the husk it was considered sifting or working. If she rubbed the head it was considered threshing or working. If she bruised the ear it was considered grinding or working. If she tossed the kernel in her hand it was considered winnowing or working. If she dropped a stalk of grain she wasn't allowed to bend over and pick it up. That was, you guessed it, considered working. However, the learned scribes had determined that if she then dropped a spoon on top of the stalk of grain she had already dropped, since she was allowed to carry a spoon on the Sabbath, she could bend over, pick up the spoon, and pick up the grain with the spoon at the same time. Wasn't it thoughtful of them to provide such a creative outlet for getting around their own draconian rules?
We can see in this just how much rabbinism had produced a system in which an incredible amount of study was done in order to make sure one really obeyed God, and at the same time an incredible amount of ingenuity was done in order to get around all the rules with which they had tied themselves up in knots. 'For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders' (Matthew 23.4).
And they were dead serious about all of this. 'And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day' (John 5.16). Jesus, in an astounding display of God's power and grace, healed a man paralyzed for thirteen thousand eight hundred and seventy days, at least, and their reaction was to want to kill Him.
To me, that is all illustration, and the actual lesson can be boiled down to one basic sentence. Don't let your religion major on the minors. Was it important, in the Torah, to keep the Sabbath holy? Yes. But was it important to turn it into such a system of tyrannically petty instructions? No. Why? Because in so doing they taken the heart out of it.
Several weeks ago I took one of our new converts through the section of our discipleship program that covers tithing. I taught him that what tithing was, from the Bible, and how to do it. In the process of it I told him that he should be careful to make sure he tithed completely, but that if he happened to be wrong by a cent or two on his check God wasn't going to throw a thunderbolt at him. Do I think he should tithe ten percent? Absolutely. Does that include more than just the net on his paycheck? Yes. But I'm not going to spend my ministry emphasis preaching, blogging, and studying out in fanatical detail how to establish dozens of instructions ensuring he does it correctly to the penny. I'm also not going to spend my time inspecting a hundred different church members to make sure they have then done their tithe in painstaking accordance with my exacting instructions. And I'm dead sure not going to try to kill those who don't dot every i and cross ever t according to my satisfaction. I will preach on the subject of tithing occasionally. I will model it in my own life. But I will do it in context, from the heart, and emphasize that heart, or I will not do it at all.
God is after your heart, not necessarily how big of a fig you carry around your house on Saturday. Are you living holy? Are you loving your wife? Are you raising your children to love and serve God? Are you involved in some ministry helping people? Are you telling others about Christ? Are you honoring the Lord with your money? Are you looking for His return? Do you pray? Do you praise Him? Are you pursuing wisdom? Do you soak your mind and life in the Word of God? Is church a priority with you? Are you honest in your business dealings? Do you keep your word? Are you living a life of faith, mercy, and compassion? Is your life marked by worldliness and vanity? Are you covetous or grateful? Are you forgiving or bitter? Are you faithful to Him in the midst of trial and testing? Are you growing in grace, and closer to the Lord this year than last year? Do you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? These are the questions, beloved, that I would have you answer.
It is the Lord that is important, not the hairsplitting of Sabbath keeping. Jesus said to the Pharisees in response, 'But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple' (Matthew 12.6). They had their Messiah, very God in the flesh, standing right in front of them. He had just marvelously demonstrated His authenticity by helping a man afflicted for four decades. …and all they could see was that one of their precious, extra-biblical instructions had been violated.
How is your heart today? How is your relationship with the Lord of the Sabbath? I urge you, let us stop our unseemly focus on the fact that our second cousin, twice removed, on our mother-in-law's side says 'O my gosh' when she shouldn't. It is the Lord that is important, and love and obedience to Him from our heart.
If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you can find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 25, 'Lord Even of the Sabbath Day'.