Thursday, September 13, 2012

What to Do With the Sabbath? - Matthew 12:1-21

Sabbath Case Study 1: Picking Grain

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.

2 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath."

3 But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions,

4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?

5 "Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?

6 "But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.

7 "But if you had known what this means, 'I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRFICE,' you would not have condemned the innocent.

If you've read through the Old Testament, you're familiar with the Sabbath (the word and its plural appear 171 times in the Bible!): it's the seventh day of the week, set aside in the Jewish Law as a mandated day of rest - work was not allowed, and specific religious observances were associated with it. 

But, as time went on, the Jews started adding all sorts of specifics on exactly what you could and could not do on a Sabbath, like how far of a distance you were allowed to walk.  It got to the point of lunacy, and the Sabbath was suddenly a burden to people instead of the day of rest it was intended to be because there was so much to keep track of.  Jesus speaks out against these additions to the Law:

"The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."
Mark 2:27

"The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses ... They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders ..."
- Matthew 23:2,4a (this teaching was on a totally different subject matter than legalistic Sabbath keeping, so if you check out the enitre passage, that's why you will find Him instructing people to follow the Pharisees' teachings)

Bare with me for a brief history lesson on Jewish Scripture before we finally apply this all to today's passage. :-)  Okay, so the Jewish Bible - what we know as the Old Testament - is called the Tanakh.  The Tanakh has three parts: the Torah (the Mosaic Law - Genesis through Deuteronomy), the Neviim (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the "writings" - what we would know as the poetry and wisdom books, like Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Job).  All of that is from God.  But the Jews also have the "Oral Law", often referred to as the Mishna and Talmud or just the Talmud, or, in Jesus's day, the "Traditions of the Elders."  Today, different sects of Judaism believe different things about which parts to accept and reject and all that, but we'll just speak in broad terms for today: The Jews believe that the Oral Law was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai in addition to the written Law (Torah); instead of writing it down, Moses passed it down orally through the priests.  As such, Jews believe that the Oral Law is just as much God-breathed Scripture as the Tanakh (our Old Testament).  The Oral Law is where the additional specifications about the Sabbath that I mentioned above come from.

Jesus did not recognize the Oral Law as Scripture - therefore, it is the religious regulations of men, not from God!  Not only do we see it hinted at in the verses above, but we see Jesus state this quite explicitly in Matthew 15:1-20.

Why does all of this matter?  Because, after looking into it as much as I know how to (admittedly, I'm not nearly as familiar with the Law as I am with other portions of Scripture), I cannot find anywhere in the Torah where the disciples were banned from picking heads of grain to eat - so, unless I am mistaken, the disciples only violated the Oral Law (which is the work of man), and not the Written Law (God's Law).  So, even by the strict judgment of the letter of the Law, the disciples did not sin.  And they especially did not sin since Jesus is all about the spirit of the Law...but I'm getting ahead of myself. :-)  We need to look at the specific examples Jesus cites before we get to that.

First, He points out David (you can read that whole story in 1 Samuel 21).  Now, David actually broke the real Law, the Mosaic Law in doing so, and people get into fights all the time about whether or not that action was truly sin.  But I think the point Jesus is making here is that one of the Jews' most respected nationa heroes broke the Law via eating in a far worse way than the Pharisees were accusing His disciples of doing, yet David was still a highly-respected national hero.  And then there's the bit about the priests - they have to work all day long on the Sabbath, but it's not sinful because they are breaking it specifically to serve God.  Likewise, Jesus's disciples were picking the grain to in order to have enough energy to continue following Jesus that day - they broke the (Oral) Law to follow and serve God!  The priests were justified in breaking the Sabbath to serve God in a temple made by human hands; how much more so His disciples for "breaking" it to serve God manifested Himself!

As we see in verse 7, God always intended for His people to follow the spirit of His Law, not just the letter - they would overlap quite frequently, absolutely, but the spirit always trumps the letter.  And that is why the New Testament epistles emphasize the spirit of the Law so much - things like kindness and love to all people.

Now I'd just like to address a few minor tangents before moving on to the next hunk of Scripture and covering the topic of the Sabbath even more.  First, did you notice in verse 2 that the Pharisees were watching Jesus and His disciples constantly to see if they screwed up?  Jesus's enemies will always be watching us and accusing us, too.  1 Peter 5:8b tells us, "Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" and Revelation 12:10 references what will happen in the future: "Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, 'Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before God day and night.'"  This extends to those of Satan's kingdom living on earth, too.

Second, let's look at a couple of interesting insights into the personality of Jesus we see here that make Him come alive off of the paper.  Did you notice how He asked the Pharisees, the ultimate experts on Jewish Law, "Or have you not read in the Law...?"  Gotta love that spunk!  And then he says, " would not have condemned the innocent."  This demonstrates how deeply He loves His disciples, and how protective He is of them - He is genuinely furious that someone would dare to accuse His beloveds.  Wow.  And then, He calls His disciples (us!) "innocent" - the word there, anaitios, literally means the utter absence of guilt.  If you have accepted Jesus's forgiveness and chosen to follow Him, God views you as completely innocent, too - no matter if you've murdered, raped, whatever.  His love is that amazing.

Sabbath Case Study 2: Healing on the Sabbath
8 "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
9 Departing from there, He went into their synagogue.
10 And a man was there whose hand was withered.  And they questioned Jesus, asking, "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath" - so that they might accuse Him.
11 And He said to them, "What man is there among you who as a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out?
12 "How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."
13 Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand!"  He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other.
14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
15 But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there.  Many followed Him, and He healed them all,
16 and warned them not to tell who He was.
17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet:
This hunk of Scripture won't take nearly as long as the above one to cover, but there's still some really great stuff in here. :-)
The overall point of the account of His healing the man is what we talked about above - that we are supposed to obey the spirit of God's Law by showing love and compassion.  Think how twisted the Pharisees were that they not only wanted to let this man continue to suffer, but tried to use his embarrassing problem (since Jews of Jesus's day believed if you were sick, it was becasue of sin) for their own gain.  It's a pretty disturbing image - and a reminder that when we are rigidly insisting on religious rules, we should check ourselves to see if it is done out of love (which it certainly can be; but we should always check).
What shocks me is that Jesus demonstrated His authority by healing the man right before their eyes (and a healing even more powerful than, say, helping someone walk - I mean, a withered hand restored right before your eyes can't be faked!), and they still plotted to kill Him!  We'll see how they were able to justify this in our next study (when we cover an issue even tougher than the Sabbath - the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit): They claimed that His power came from Satan.  Their motivation for "justifying" it like this?  It was clearly their pride - Jesus was making them look like fools and usurping their authority in the community.  But at the same time, we see that a lot of people not only followed Him and recognized Him as a propeht, but as the Messiah Himself!
So, He's just claimed to be "Lord of the Sabbath" (saying He has the authority of God), and next people start identifying Him as the Messiah.  This is an enormous claim, which Matthew backs up with a Messainic prophecy from Isaiah 42:1-4.  Remember, the predominant theme of Matthew's Gospel is arguing that Jesus is the Messiah, and we can see his emphasis on that point picking up intensity and passion as the Gospel progresses.
So...What Are We Supposed to Do About the Sabbath?
Today's passage doesn't specifically mention if Christians are supposed to observe the Sabbath, but I figured this would be the perfect place to address it.  It's a matter of some contention in the American Christian community.
I'm *assuming* all of us are Gentiles (not of Jewish heritage), so I'll address this subject from that perspective since it really simplifies matters. :-)
First, let's look at Acts 15.  Verse 5 says, "But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed [in Jesus] stood up, saying, 'It is necessary to circumcise them [the Gentiles] and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses [including the Sabbath]."  A huge debate among the leaders of the early Christian Church ensues, and the conclusion they arrive at is that Gentiles are not under the Law in any way, and except for avoiding four of the most offensive things to Jews - violating the Sabbath not being among them - they wouldn't ask anything of the Gentiles.
In the book of Galatains, the entirety of which is about Christians who, though not under the Law, decided to start following the Law as some sort of (false!) requirement for salvation, specifically addresses the issue of the Sabbath in 4:10: "You observe days and months and seasons and years" (the various set-aside times on the Jewish calendar).
We see throughout Galatians, and in Romans 2:17-29, that starting to follow the Law because we think we have to is wrong, and that doing so because we think it will somehow make us "better" Christians is sin.
Now, I know some Christians who observe the Sabbath legalistically - this is very wrong.  But I also know a couple of Christians who observe it just as a way to honor God by setting aside a specific day each week to devote exclusively to their relationship with Him.  They don't believe it's a requirement.  I believe that definitely honors God!  (And they spend time with Him on other days, too, of course.)
And I also know plenty of Christians, myself included, who do not observe an official Sabbath.  But, we make sure to set aside time each day to rest spiritually and spend time with God (in Bible study, prayer, worship, whatever).
So, to sum up, however you choose to maintain your relationship is fine - the fact that you are "doing life" with God is all that matters.
Tell Me What You Think!
How do you handle the issue of a Sabbath - do you set aside a specific day each week, or each day, or what?
We also have a lot of legalistic church traditions that actually impede true worship today.  What ones have you run across?
(For some interesting information on the source of many of our church traditions, check out the book Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna.  I don't necessarily agree with all of their conclusions, but I still definitely recommend the book!)
Giving Credit Where It's Due
Image Number One: Photograph by Joe D.  Wikimedia Commons.  Used by permission.
Image Number Two: Targum.  Wikimedia Commons.  {{PD-1923}}  Public domain in the United States.  {{PD-old-70}}  Public domain in the European Union.

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