CALL THE SABBATH A DELIGHT
A Study in Matthew 12 verses 1 to 14
This chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is important because it records, among other things, the final breach between the Pharisees and the Lord Jesus Christ. Here are two disputes regarding Sabbath observance: (i) the eating of corn in the cornfield – w.1-8, and (ii) the healing of the man with the withered hand – w.9-13. The consequences follow in v.l4, and from that point there was a total breach between the Pharisees and the Lord. Since the immediate occasion of that breach was the Sabbath question, we shall consider the Lord’s teaching on the Sabbath day and its observance as here presented to us.
It is clear that our Lord recognised the binding nature of the Fourth Commandment: ‘Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy’ (Ex. 20.8). Before He ever came to this particular occasion Christ had preached the Sermon on the Mount, and had said plainly: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law’ – to abolish, or to deny it – ‘I am not come to destroy but to fulfil’ (Mt. 5.17), that is, to honour, enforce and to keep it. And this is still the same basic Christian principle; anyone who sets God’s Christ in opposition to the Law of God does so in face of Christ’s own statement to the contrary, for He said categorically that not one jot or tittle of the law should pass till all was fulfilled (Mt. 5.18). He said in effect: I am not come to weaken it nor to contradict it, I am come to enforce it.
When the question: How are we to spend the Lord’s day? is raised today, alas there are confused and contradictory points of view among professed Christians, the effect of which is to weaken the entire Christian testimony on the issue.
The teaching of verses one to eight is framed mainly in negative form; it is condemnatory; it is a plain contradiction of a particular attitude to the Sabbath current in our Lord’s day. Christ here stands in open rebuke and plain condemnation of a certain form of teaching. Many people look at this passage and seem to find it easy to believe that what Christ here contradicts is the permanence of the Sabbath Commandment – the fourth great principle of the Law of God. That is not so, though many think so.
Probably the great majority of professing ‘Christians’ today would say that what the Lord was condemning here is ‘sabbatarianism’ – meaning by that, He was condemning those people who still hold that the Sabbath is a matter of God’s will for the Christian church. That is a totally irresponsible assumption, because there are certain facts in this narrative which argue very strongly that what Christ condemns is neither the Sabbath nor the Fourth Commandment. Indeed, it is impossible to believe that what Christ does in this cornfield incident is to abolish that part of the Law concerning the Sabbath, He having Himself already claimed for the whole law the inspiration and authority of God in its every jot and tittle. There is no evidence to warrant such a conclusion.
What kind of defence does the Lord put up for His disciples here? They walk through the cornfield; they pluck ears of corn; they begin to eat; and the Pharisees pounce on them, condemn them, and say:
That is against the law! Jesus stands between the accused (His disciples) and the accusers (the Pharisees); and what does He say by way of defence? He does not say: Ah, that law has been abolished. He does not say: Ah, but the Fourth Commandment is no longer valid, so your objection to what my disciples are doing is overturned. Christ does not use that argument nor make that defence. He does not say: There is now no Sabbath because I have come to abolish or supersede it. He says no such thing, but it would have been the perfect defence for the Lord to offer for His corn-consuming disciples, had that been true! Yet many of today’s ‘Christians’ argue that Christ said just that!
What was our Lord’s defence of His disciples? He reminded both them and the Pharisees that David once went into the temple and ate the shewbread on the Sabbath day (Mt. 12.3-5; 1 Sam. 21.6). What was the shewbread? It was bread reserved for the priests; and it was reserved for the priests because they did work on the Sabbath
day; and God never reproved them for so doing (Ex. 29.32; Lev. 8.31). And Christ tells the Pharisees that it was right for the priests to work and eat; it was right for David to work and eat in the Temple on the Sabbath under the Sabbath law; there was no infringement of the law and they were guiltless. Christ’s argument here is not that the Sabbath law is abolished. His argument is that His disciples’ behaviour in the cornfield, like that of David and the priests in the Temple, is no violation of the Sabbath commandment whatever. That is the defence the Lord offered.
What then is Christ condemning in this passage (w.1-8)? He sets Himself against the Pharisees and the human tradition which they represent. He registers the fact that men will place their own human teaching, and their own human authority alongside the Word of God, and even over it and above it. Christ here says: There is a great Sabbath principle given by God and which I endorse, and which my disciples are not violating at all. Alas there is also a human, a traditional, a legalistic sabbath, a sabbath of Pharisaic construction, which my disciples are violating, and which I commend them for violating, and which they are entitled to violate because it is no more than tradition that makes ‘the Word of God of none effect’. That is the Lord’s condemnation; it was a condemnation of the Pharisees;
and the Pharisees did not like it.
What kind of sabbath was this pharisaic sabbath? It was a sabbath in which men thought that we may glorify God by observing a long list of negative instructions; such as by walking so far but no further;
or by helping a man in trouble in some circumstances but not in others. It was a legalistic sabbath beyond all reason; where the only question asked concerning a man’s character was: Does he work on the Lord’s day? and that was all. It was a totally negative sabbath, and it was also a totally inhumane sabbath, as the second case demonstrates (w. 10-13), where, in the Pharisee’s judgment, a withered hand did not merit healing on the sabbath but something more serious might! Over-scrupulosity! Rules run riot! That is what Christ is here condemning; a negative sabbath; an inhumane sabbath; a sabbath ridden with negative legalities and altogether devoid of positive and profitable and enjoyable realities in the things of God and of Christ, whether in worship, in fellowship, or in practice.
We have to recognize with all honesty that there have been and still are Christians who are much more zealous for the negative sabbath than they are for the positive; for the legalistic, pharisaic sabbath, than for the holy and glorious things that belong to the Christian Sabbath. There is still a tendency to make this almost the only test of a man’s religion: What is he seen to do on the Lord’s day? And that is the very sabbatarianism that Christ here
condemns, because it does not ask: Does the man fear God? does he love God? does he love his neighbour? and, does he keep the day as becomes a regenerate sinner abiding in a risen Christ? – but only, does he work on the Lord’s day? That is the human, the traditional, the pharisaic sabbath here condemned. When we oppose the argument of liberal ‘Christians’ with their notion that Christ here abrogated the Sabbath, we must recognize with equal candid earnestness that there also comes under God’s, and under Christ’s condemnation any sabbath that is a simple list of human prohibitions, of inhumane and non-compassionate unconcern, a ‘sabbath’ so-called which is a thinly veiled pretext for lack of generosity and mercy and kindness toward our fellow-men. That is what our Lord condemns here; and that is why the Pharisees condemn Him; and that was the instrumental cause of the breach between them (v.l4).
‘Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy’. Christ says: I have not come to abrogate that; I have come to fulfil it; to see that not one jot or tittle of that glorious sabbath of my God and my Father shall perish. But I am not interested in man-made legalities fastened like leeches on to my Father’s command. The priest who works on the sabbath may feed on the sabbath; and David in distress on the sabbath may eat whatever bread he can find. Mercy comes before sacrifice.
This is the positive Christian Sabbath. It is old in that it derives from the Moral Law of almighty God; it is new in that it focuses in the Person of the Son of God risen from the dead. And if the Lord Jesus Christ upholds it, and observes it, so also should His people. Let us learn the lesson and be wise in our practice, and in our upholding of Sabbath observance against those who would degrade it.
How are we to spend the Lord’s day? On the negative side the Lord’s teaching in this passage is condemnatory. But there is a positive side also. What is it? Our Lord brings out the basic and fundamental meaning of the Fourth Commandment, in contrast with the pharisaic misinterpretation. What is the abiding Sabbath which is honouring to God and beneficial to man? There are two outstanding things here.
(1). The Lord proclaims His own authority over the Sabbath. ‘For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day’ (v.8). Over-familiarity tends to dull our grasp of this important statement. Who should be ‘Lord of the sabbath’? – Surely, He who instituted it (Gen. 2.3), and He who issued the Fourth Commandment (Ex. 20.4-11)! God Himself was, and is, and must be ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ because He is Jehovah, because He is the God of creation,
the God of Israel, the God of the covenant, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He, by divine right is ‘Lord of the Sabbath’. Yet here we have Jesus of Nazareth making this most staggering claim: ‘For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day’ (v.8). No-one on earth knew that God Himself is ‘Lord of the sabbath’ better than did ‘the Son of man’; and when ‘the Son of man’ affirms His own Lordship, He is asserting first, that He is God, and second, that God’s Lordship over the Sabbath belonged to Himself also and equally. Far from saying that He had come to abrogate the Sabbath, He claims equality with His Father in Lordship over it. And He is not Lord of something that has been abrogated or cancelled out, or is an antiquarian and obsolete institution. He is Lord of something permanent, abiding and glorious. Well He knew in advance of the event just how His own resurrection would vindicate, in the hearts and minds of His Church and people, His own Lordship over the Sabbath.
Thus Christ abolished the entire pharisaic misinterpretation of the Sabbath day. You do not make Sabbath rules, He tells them, / do! Rabbis, scribes, Pharisees, sabbatarians, ultra-orthodox – all are by-passed by the One who says: I am Lord of the Sabbath; I will say what it means; I will show how it is to be observed. So Christ affirms His authority over the Sabbath, not as something out-dated and out-moded but as something abiding and enduring, and personally related to Himself. It is His day. He said so. He named it. And any Christian observance of the day will accord with His connection with it.
(2). The Lord establishes the principle that must direct us in our attitude to the Sabbath or Lord’s day. For this we turn to Mark’s account of this same cornfield incident (Mk. 2.23-28). ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath’ (v.27). The Lord of the Sabbath lays down the rules for Sabbath observance, and His first and determinative rule is this: ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.’ Man was made first, on the sixth day of creation; the Sabbath was made afterwards, on the seventh day. Chronology speaks for itself. Man was not made the servant of the Sabbath; nor was he made to suffer as the result of the Sabbath. The Sabbath, rightly observed, cannot overturn man’s highest interests because ‘the Sabbath was made for man’ – for his good. Since that it so, the Lord is telling us that man needs the Sabbath; God made it for him, and it was and is God’s gracious judgment that man needs it.
Man needs the Sabbath in the physical realm because he lives his life in the light of the curse: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’ (Gen. 3.19). Here is the picture of unremitting toil, of unremitting pressures, of what today is sometimes called the ‘rat race’. The detail may vary from one century to another, or from one
country to another, yet all men live their lives in the context of the curse passed on Adam and his posterity, and in that context man’s well-being requires rest and respite from labour whether manual or mental. Why was the Sabbath ‘made for man’? – Because man needs it in the physical realm.
Man needs the Sabbath also in the spiritual realm because he spends the rest of the week in the company and conversation of the people and things of this transitory world, with its cares, enticements and blandishments. In such an environment man needs one day when he can look up and remember that he is made in God’s image, and remember the God who made him, and listen to the Word of that God and the Gospel of His Son. Man stands in need of this one day in seven when he can unite with his brethren in worship and in fellowship; when he can converse with another world and feed himself not with the bread that perishes, but with the living bread that comes down from Heaven. Any claim that Christ abrogated the Sabbath flies in the face of the fact that Christ said The Sabbath was made for man’. Man needs it physically, and he needs it spiritually.
Man needs the Sabbath also in the civil or economic realm, that is, to save himself from exploitation by his fellows. It should not escape us that in the Fourth Commandment the master was forbidden to require his servant to work on the Sabbath; this was for the protection of servants or employees. ‘Thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger’ (Ex. 20.10). The sabbath was made for man’ because man needed it, and needs it still, to save him from the avarice of his employer, and equally from the greed and the acquisitive tendencies of his own fallen nature.
The Sabbath was made by God. It was made ‘for man’. And it was made ‘for man’ because man needs it. This is Christ’s basic rule for Sabbath observance, a rule proceeding from His Lordship of the day. But it confronts us with a dilemma: What are we to do when man’s need appears to contradict the Sabbath principle of cessation of labour? – when man’s need cannot be met without some form of labour? That conflict is present in the cornfields incident before us [Mt. 12.1-8); and what the Lord says there, is that the good of man always take precedence over the cessation of labour. The Sabbath law might appear to say to the disciples in the cornfield: You must not pluck the ears of corn because it is the Sabbath day (w. 1,2). But the whole point of the reference to David and the shewbread ,’vv.3,4) is to say: When there is a conflict, the negative element of the Fourth Commandment yields to the positive element, which is, The Sabbath was made for man’.
The same thing is set out in v.7: ‘I will have mercy and not
sacrifice’. Acts of mercy are for the good of man, and sacrifice is for the worship of God, and both are inculcated upon Christians. But, says the Lord, when both are required simultaneously, and it is impossible to do both; when the options are mercy or sacrifice, choose mercy, for so says the prophet of God (Hosea 6.6). The disciples were guiltless in their plucking and eating, and the Pharisees were guilty in their wholly unwarranted condemnation of the disciples.
The second Sabbath dispute in this passage (w. 10-13) teaches the same thing. The man with the withered hand had not just discovered it; he had had it a long time, and he was not going to die immediately. The Pharisees, relying on the Talmud and the Mishna, regarded it as non-urgent, and so it was illegal to heal him on the Sabbath. But the ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ knowing well enough that this man could have left his problem to another day, had no such niggardly and grudging disposition toward him. To heal was a work of mercy, of kindness and benevolence. So He delighted in mercy, and showed mercy, and healed the man. We vaguely regard acts of mercy as exceptions to the Fourth Commandment. But they are not exceptions. There is surely no better way to spend the Sabbath than in acts of mercy, and in the relief of human loneliness and misery. That agrees with the ‘Lord of the Sabbath’, who says with a perfect lack of ambiguity, ‘It is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days’ (v.l2).
It will help us to answer the question: How are we to observe the Lord’s day? if we also ask: How did the church of the early centuries observe the Lord’s day? There was a great triple motivation. It conformed to the Law of God; it was the Lord’s own institution; and it was the first day of the week, the day they found the empty tomb and cried: ‘He is not here; he is risen’ (Lk. 24.6). It was the day of triumph, of the resurrection, of the exaltation, of the total vindication before God and man of ‘the Son of man’. Around that they met every Lord’s day. The command of the Father and the Lordship of the Son culminated in the exaltation of the Lord of the Sabbath. From resurrection He proceeded to ascension, and from ascension to session at His Father’s right hand, and ‘from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead’. It was the day when there was inscribed indelibly on the church’s heart, this glorious conviction: ‘The Lord is risen indeed’, and whatever other theme might surface in their Lord’s day gathering this over-riding persuasion coloured and animated all.
Our Sabbath observance should be similarly motivated and dominated. We tend to lose sight of this. Every Lord’s day is resurrection day. Yet we are preoccupied with the negatives and
pride ourselves that we have not done this or that. The crucial question about Sabbath observance is: What part has the risen Christ played in your Sabbath? To what extent is your heart filled with doxology on the Sabbath? To what extent has your Sabbath observance issued in cries of glory to God for a risen Saviour? This is what the day is all about. All its negatives, and all its other positives are meant to serve this end – the praise of the risen Redeemer! In his way the early church understood and observed the Lord’s day. Every time they met in worship and fellowship the occasion was shot through with His own assertion: ‘I am with you always, even unto he end of the world’ (Mt. 28.20).
The greatest tragedy that could befall any company of professing Christians is that they keep punctiliously all the negative implications of the Fourth Commandment, and then rest content with Sabbaths that are Christ-less and empty, legally perfect but spiritually dead, externally correct but inwardly barren because minds are concerned with things other than the Risen Christ.
How should we observe the Sabbath, the Lord’s day? When you come to the Sabbath, how much legality is there in your soul, and how much mercy? How much self-satisfaction with your own compliance with the negatives of the Sabbath Command, and how much sober and spontaneous concern for the glory of the Lord of the Sabbath, thankfulness for His great salvation, and service to God and man in His name and for His glory?
The passage we have considered shows that no single scripture passage relating to the Sabbath is to be taken in isolation from others on this subject. There is a certain tension recorded in Mt. 2.1-14, which the Lord Jesus Christ acknowledged and enforced. His disciples, as befits their name, learned that lesson. The pharisees did not, but ‘went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him’ (v.l4).
A thoughtful and truly spiritual contemplation of how we are to observe the Christian Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, must interweave and inter-relate at least these pronouncements and precepts:
God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it…
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy . . .
The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.
The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.
I will have mercy, and not sacrifice . . .
It is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.
K. W. H. Howard