Rules and Regulations
Read Luke 1:1-5. A mother told her 7-year old son to get ready for church. The boy said, “But Daddy doesn’t go. Why should I?” Mom quickly replied, “Well, when Daddy was your age, he went every Sunday.” The boy asked his father, “Is that true?” Dad replied, “That’s right, so go get ready.” The boy replied, “Well, all right, but I don’t think it’ll do me any good either.”
So, what does Sunday mean to you? Does it do you any good? To the Pharisees, the Sabbath meant keeping a burdensome set of rules they had made up to prevent the idolatry that had led to the 70-year Babylonian captivity of 606 BC. But in their enthusiasm to please, they made idols out of their own rules and completely missed God’s grace in the true intent of the Sabbath. How can church do us some good?
I. The Questionable Action
V. 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.” Jesus and His disciples are ministering on the Sabbath. In going from one place to another, hunger strikes. The Golden Arches are nowhere to be seen. But they are walking through a field of grain so they improvise. They pick grain, rub it in their hands to release the kernel and they eat. Not great, but adequate for the need.
II. The Accusatory Question
V. 2, “But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” So, what is it that they consider unlawful about the disciples’ actions? Are they stealing? No. Deut 23:25, “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” They’re not stealing.
The issue is not what they were doing but when they were doing it. Had it been Sunday through Friday, no problem. But it’s Saturday – the Sabbath, and therein lies the problem. Why? Did the law prohibit picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath? No. But the traditions of the Pharisees did. The disciples were violating their religion! The Pharisees, (literally “separatists”) were devoted to keeping God’s law to prevent future judgment, like Babylon. Unfortunately, they went to seed in their efforts. By the 1st century BC, they had begun to interpret God’s law by adding to the Commandments, creating a nightmare of rules that gave weight to rules over grace.
For example, they took the instruction of Lev 23:3, “You shall do no work” on the Sabbath and defined work using 39 prohibitions called Abhoth, which means fathers. They were called fathers because each of the 39 abhoth had further restrictions called toldoth, descendants. You can see how complicated this is going to get, right? One abhoth said it would be work to carry a burden on the Sabbath. But what is a burden? They had hundreds of answers – like a burden is any “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for filling a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, water enough to moisten an eye salve, ink enough to write two letters, etc.” Any questions? The laws were endless. God help you if you were a tailor and accidently left a pin in your toga. You’d have violated the Sabbath. You get the picture.
So relative to our passage, one abhoth said that reaping is work; another threshing is work. Not permitted on the Sabbath. Then a toldoth defined reaping as plucking ears of corn; rubbing the hands is threshing; blowing husks away is winnowing, and the whole thing was preparing food. Just like that the disciples were four-time violators, not of God’s law, but of tradition.
So, when the Pharisees say, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” they weren’t talking God’s law. The disciples weren’t breaking God’s law; they were violating the man-made abhoth and toldoth. And the Pharisees were livid. They cared nothing about people; nothing about need; nothing about the spirit of the law. They had defined God out of existence and worshiped their traditions. Their God was not Yahweh, it was abhoth and toldoth! They were still idolatrous, just in a different way!
III. The Illustrated Answer
V. 3, “And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him.” They make a veiled accusation; He comes back with His own. Can’t you feel the air crackling?! “Have you not read?” “So, you boys want to talk about lawful? Okay – ever read about David in I Sam 21?” Of course they had. He’s tweaking them. They knew Scripture. But they missed the meaning! They are prime examples that it is possible to know the Bible inside out, and cover to cover -- yet completely miss the meaning. They did not bring an open mind nor a needy heart. They were interpreting it for God (badly as it turned out), rather than letting Him interpret it for them. Legalism closed their heart to truth. Legalism makes the Bible a closed book. Neediness opens it up.
The story is told of a certain Bishop Butler who was dying with a troubled heart. “Have you forgotten, my lord,” said his chaplain, “that Jesus Christ is a Savior?” The bishop answered, “No. I know He is a Savior. But how can I know He is a Savior for me?” The chaplain answered, “It is written, ‘whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Butler answered, ‘I have read these words a thousand times and I never saw their meaning until now. Now I die in peace.’ A sense of need unlocked the treasure. The Pharisees knew the Word, but missed the message!
It is interesting that Jesus does not enter into an argument about what really constitutes work. He goes right to the heart of the matter -- the big picture – the meaning of the Sabbath. Jesus’ answer comes in two parts: “It’s not about rules; it’s about relationship.” The Pharisees didn’t get that at all.
A. It’s Not About Rules
Vv. 3-4, “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?” Jesus’ reference is from I Samuel 21. Background: David has served Saul faithfully, but out of jealousy, Saul is out to kill him. David flees, but he arrives famished at Nob, the home of the priest Ahimelech. He asks for food, but none is available except the Bread of the Presence used in temple worship.
This bread was 12 loaves of bread (symbolizing the 12 tribes) which were placed in two rows on a gold covered table 3 feet long x 18 inches wide. The table was located in the Holy Place, in the presence of God. The loaves were changed each Sabbath day; only priests were allowed to eat it. This bread symbolized the constant fellowship of the people with their God. It emphasizes God’s provision. The Israelites were, so to speak, guests at His table, and grateful to Him. This ceremonial regulation reminded them of their privileged position with a living God. The value was in the relationship, not in the ceremony.
So, when David, in service to God, arrives with a band of starving men, Ahimelech is quick to act in I Sam 21:6, “So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence.” Ceremony gives way to human necessity. Ahimelech no doubt asked himself, “What best represents our covenant relationship with God – to allow these men in His service to starve, or to feed them the ceremonial bread that speaks of God’s provision?” Considered that way, it wasn’t a hard question to answer. The letter of the law was violated to uphold the spirit of the law. It was the right thing to do, and had the Pharisees been intent on knowing God rather than just keeping the rules, they’d have known that! Legalism blinded them.
There is a play on words that further illuminates Jesus’ answer. In v. 2 the Pharisees accuse His disciples of “doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” As we’ve seen, the disciples were not in violation of God’s law, but only the Pharisees man-made laws. But rather than argue that point, Jesus points in v. 4 to a time when David did that “which is not lawful.” Jesus is saying in essence, “Okay guys, let’s talk about unlawful. Even if the disciples had done “unlawful”, I’m surprised you don’t know David did the same thing?” Lawful isn’t about rules; it is about the intent behind the rules. The Pharisees were clueless about that because they didn’t know God. It’s not about rules; it’s about the spirit of the rules. When it comes to the Sabbath, the intent of restful devotion to God was thoroughly met by the disciples, even as they ate corn to sustain them. Jesus makes the point in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” The intent of the Sabbath was to provide opportunity for ministry, for special time for God, for rest from ordinary labor to allow a time for special devotion to God and refreshment from the ordinary cares of life. Jesus and His disciples were meeting that intent. It’s not about rules.
B. It’s About Relationship
V. 5, “And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” The Pharisees wouldn’t have cared much for His illustration because it showed them up for the legalistic undiscerning students of Scripture that they were. But Jesus’ next statement would have put them in orbit. Nine words in English – 8 in Greek -- one of the most radical statements of His ministry.
Word order is important here. In Greek it reads, “Lord is, of the Sabbath, the Son of Man.” Lord is emphatic. Jesus is no ordinary adherent to the Law. He is the One who made it in the first place. Staggering! The written law of the Sabbath came thundering down from Mt. Sinai where Moses received it from God written in tablets of stone. But the principle derives from the very beginning – from Creation. Exod 20:8-11: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” It was the Lord who blessed the Sabbath and made it holy. And now Jesus claims to be that Lord who established the principle at Creation and delivered it in writing at Mt. Sinai. This Galilean carpenter invented Sabbath. Imagine how that fell on the Pharisees! Wow! It’s another mind-boggling claim. And since He created it, He alone has the right to interpret it. In one fell swoop, He swept away all their rules and regulations in a claim to be God.
But still He’s not done. “Lord is, of the Sabbath, the Son of Man.” He not only claims ownership of the Sabbath, a prerogative that belonged to God. But He further claims the title, Son of Man. Jesus loved this title. Used it more than 80 times in the gospels. It was His favorite title for himself. Many think He was emphasizing His humanity. And, of course, it does connote humanity. But Jesus had far more in mind. He was, in fact, emphasizing His God-given authority and Messiahship. The Jewish listeners knew Daniel 7. God gave Daniel a vision that prophesied various world kingdoms future to him – Persia, Greece and Rome. But human history will give way to another power described in Dan 7: 13) “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days (God Almighty) and was presented before him. 14) And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” Whenever you see Jesus calling Himself the Son of Man, this is the picture that should spring to mind. He is staking a claim to be the one prophesied by Daniel who will one day rule the whole world with an everlasting, never-ending dominion. So in two phrases, Jesus is claiming to equal with God as Lord of the Sabbath and to be God’s anointed (the Messiah) who will rule and reign forever. People who say Jesus never claimed to be God have simply given no serious study to the Bible. He does it at every turn. And by the time the Pharisees heard this, you could have stuck a fork in them. They were done. They were ready to plot how to kill Him.
Jesus’ point is simple. Whatever you may think of the Sabbath, “I initiated it, and I interpret it”. Having initiated it, He was never going to violate it; would always fulfill it. More importantly, even the Sabbath is about a relationship with Him. The Sabbath principle is the principle of rest and devotion to God. What does Jesus say in Matt 11:28, “28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Rest and devotion. Jesus is the ultimate Sabbath – the One who provides rest from the guilt of sin and the struggle to make it on my own. Where the Pharisees had created a crushing system burdensome rules and regulations, Jesus offers a freeing, life-giving relationship with Himself. He is the Lord of Sabbath.
Conc – So, what does this mean to us? We’ve lost the meaning of Sabbath because we do not know the Lord of the Sabbath. We haven’t fallen love with Him. Since the resurrection, the Sabbath of believers has been Sunday, not Saturday, but its meaning has been secularized beyond recognition for most people. Sunday? I love Sunday. It’s my day to sleep in, go to Starbucks, read the paper, catch up on chores, head for the beach in CA or the mountains in CO. It’s football and family and fun. It’s my time. Church? Church is for kids.
Now, Beloved, I think there is opportunity for all of those things in our Sabbath. It’s not about rules, right? But neither it is my time! There is a priority; and the priority is to keep it holy to the Lord who has saved us. Our model for how to celebrate God’s gift of Sunday is Jesus. The Sabbath always found him in the synagogue – in church. Time after time He’s there, and Luke 4:16 says, “And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” I don’t think that means He made it about half the time, do you? To keep the Sabbath holy, He made it a priority to be in God’s house. If He needed it, surely we do, don’t we? Why? Heb 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Being in God’s Word and with God’s people reminds us that holy means love and good works, not selfish pleasures, right?
That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a football game or an occasional weekend away. But to leave God out of it is to miss out. It’s not about rules; it’s about a relationship. Like a guy falling love. He turns heaven and earth to spend time with his girl. Why? Because the rules say, “Gotta spend time with your girlfriend?!” No, because he wants to. And so it ought to be with us.
The service at Gladyss’ church went on forever one Sunday. At the fellowship afterwards, to be social, she went over to a sleepy looking gentleman she didn’t recognize, extended her hand and said, “Hello, I’m Gladys Dunn.” To this the gentleman replied, “You’re not the only one!” Well, that certainly emphasizes that a pastor has an awesome responsibility to be teaching the Word with clarity and interest.
But the audience has responsibility too, doesn’t it? First, to be there. I regret that there was a period in my life when I was not as faithful as I might have been. How about you? What does Sunday mean to you? Are you keeping the Sabbath holy by being in His house, renewing your relationship with Him and fellow-believers, or are your weekends primarily devoted to your own selfish ends of hobbies, time away, whatever? Do you come to church only if there’s not something better to do? Are prepared to hear the Lord, or is it a fight to stay awake after a late night. Preparation begins the day before, Beloved, and not just for the pastor. Is there any thought in your mind about giving, or is it all about getting? Is your Sunday holy to your God – or have other idols crowded Him out? Does it do you any good to be there, or is it just duty? It’s not about rules – but it is about relationship. Is He the Lord of your Sabbath, or is it you? Let’s pray.