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Reigns - Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath (a study of Luke 6:1-11)

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 6:1-11

Jesus brings a simmering conflict to a head: will people care more about their own religious traditions or human need? And our most important human need is to be brought into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ -- a truth brilliantly illustrated in our passage this week.

“I ask you: Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Luke 6:9

It's a Strange Valentine's Day

We tend to think of "2020" as a bad word, but believe it or not, Valentine's Day 2020 was relatively normal for those of us in Thomson. (Knowing where things went, this timeline looks a little different now than when we were going through it: Wuhan was quarantined on January 23; Trump declared a public health emergency on February 3, which became a national emergency on March 23. Ergo, on Valentine's Day 2020, COVID seemed very far away for us.) This year, however, not so much. So, let's see what the internet can do for us.

I'm kind of disappointed. Some of those don't even make any sense. My big winner is this "There's no one else I'd rather be quarantined with" card. Brilliant. And no, I really can't come up with any way to connect this to this week's passage that isn't a huge stretch. It's just a potentially fun topic to share your favorite "Quarantine Valentine" ideas. (Don't forget that it is Valentine's Day, btw.)

Rules That Have Outlived Their Usefulness

Here's your topic to get thinking about this week's passage. We've all complained about laws or rules that we think should no longer be on the books. If you Google "weird laws around the world", you'll find more than you can handle. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Men have to wear speedos to swim in France.

  • Registering as a married couple in NC makes you legally married.

  • You cannot do anything that might annoy someone in Melbourne.

  • In Wyoming, 1% of a public building's value must be in artwork.

  • You cannot build a sandcastle in Spain.

  • In Quitman, GA, you will get fined if your chicken crosses the road.

And there are so many more. In each case, there is a reason behind each strange law (and if you squint, the reasons might even make sense). The question of the day is -- is it time for those laws to change, or are we better off leaving them as is?

(You'll have to read through the lesson to see its connection with my very favorite weird law: it's illegal to reincarnate in China without government permission!!)

You wouldn't want to spend a lot of time on this because it will take you away from Jesus' point, but the next step of this discussion would be, "Are there laws (or even informal rules) today that are more burdensome than helpful?" And of course, everybody would say yes.

I was foolish enough to check out forums with titles like "which laws do you think should change?" and "which laws do more harm than good?". And wow -- people around us feel very strongly about things that are totally mutually exclusive. One person would say "decriminalize drug use and increase gun restrictions" and the next would say "make drug laws tougher but loosen gun restrictions". And it just got more impossible from there. For all of the people who sounded self-righteous in their proposals, the best way I can summarize their ideas is "the government should legalize everything I am for and criminalize everything I am against". Not very helpful. The people who approached the topic graciously (and I always appreciate that approach) simply revealed how intertwined these laws are. Change one and you have to change a bunch. So, again, don't chase this rabbit too long!

The point: Jewish leaders in Jesus' day had taken what was once a good law from God and made it absurdly burdensome. Laws are supposed to be put in place for our protection, our well-being, and our posterity. When they no longer serve that purpose, they need to change. Just remember -- there's a big difference between Jesus' declarations and our opinions. That's why you don't want to push this opening topic too far.


This Week's Big Idea: Jewish Sabbath Laws

The Sabbath is a critical part of God's plan for humanity. As we have said in other contexts, God did not need to rest on the seventh day -- He was modeling for us a cycle of work and rest. In the Ten Commandments, He codified that for the people of Israel (Ex 20:8-11):

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 servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city 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.

This Bible Project video very thoroughly explains the importance of "Sabbath".

So, to be clear, the Sabbath is good. "Sabbath" (shabbat) means to "cease". It is a day for people to rest from their labor and be refreshed by family and worship. Even the animals were to rest! God, who created all things, appreciates our physical limits and graciously built in to the cycle of life this regular rest.

So, what went wrong?

Essentially, the Pharisees. They believed (correctly) that God had punished the Israelites for failing to keep the law, and so they decided to "build a fence" around the law to make sure that Jews didn't break any. Think of it this way: if the speed limit were 55 mph, the Pharisees would paint over the sign with a "50" (or less). (And to be fair, that's not a bad thing! When the Bible says to "flee from temptation", the idea is to go as far away from sin as possible -- not get close to it.)

But here's where things went wonky: what exactly does "Remember the Sabbath day" mean? Speed limits are convenient in that we can measure speed objectively. But how do you measure "work"? The Pharisees wanted an objective way to measure obedience to this commandment. Hence, the Mishnah has more than 20 chapters devoted to explaining Sabbath laws. They give the categories of "work" and explain various examples. For example, "winnowing" is considered unlawful work, but it was extrapolated to mean "separating edible from inedible", and so activities like filtering water became considered unlawful work. "Planting" is unlawful, but this referred to "enabling plant growth" and so watering plans was also unlawful. "Plowing" is unlawful, but because that meant "preparing the ground for agriculture", dragging a chair across soil was also unlawful. Do you see how this is starting to go off the rails?

Rabbis ultimately further decided that anything that resembled unlawful work was unlawful, and anything that might lead to unlawful work was unlawful. (Hence, no tree climbing because you might break a twig.) Rabbis would argue if someone could wring out water from a cloth or have to let it air dry. No spray paint -- that's winnowing (letting moving air do your work, but spray deodorants are okay because they use an artificial propellant). No tea bags -- that's sifting. No makeup -- that's dyeing. No smoking -- that requires kindling a fire. No cooking, but a salad can be prepared because the form of the vegetables does not change. (Note: things like childbirth were allowed, praise the Lord.)

Here's where those regulations came into play in the New Testament. Rubbing heads of grain together to eat them (our passage this week) was threshing. Healing a person was the equivalent of medical work (also this week). Carrying a mat was work. Walking more than a "Sabbath Day's Journey" from your home (a little more than half a mile) was considered work.

Jesus seemed mostly bothered by the hypocrisy. Jews would find loopholes or technicalities to "legally violate" the regulations. For example, if you put your lunch somewhere, you would consider that your "home" and then travel an extra Sabbath's Day Journey. So, it's no longer about God's law at all. It had become a tool to be manipulated.


Where We Are in Luke

In Luke, the section on Jesus' early Galilean ministry (Luke 5-9) is about Jesus establishing a new community. We've learned about the people Jesus wants to be a part of it (people that tend to be overlooked or disregarded). Now, we learn about the kinds of rules that will govern this new community -- God's laws, not manmade interpretations of it. So over the course of this passage, we will get to the heart of what Jesus considered the heart of God's Sabbath law.

Luke basically follows the order of things in Mark. Really, the only exception is that he flips the two events that follow our passage this week. Matthew also joins in the order here:

  • Matthew 12:1-14 // Mark 2:23-3:6 // Luke 6:1-11

We did not cover this passage when we studied either Matthew or Mark, so I'll try to address it all as we go.


Part 1: Work on the Sabbath? (Luke 6:1-2)

On a Sabbath, he passed through the grainfields. His disciples were picking heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

Refer to some examples above to establish that "what is not lawful" comes from the Pharisee's regulations. What I appreciate about Jesus in this situation is He didn't challenge the Pharisees on a technicality; this was a very straightforward clash with a basic Pharisee assumption: the disciples were "working".

We don't know where this took place. But we can assume it was close to where Jesus was staying (likely Capernaum). I say that because Jesus understood and appreciated the spirit of the Sabbath. It was a day of rest. How can you be rested if you have traveled all day? (When you get home from a trip, isn't your first thought "I need a vacation"?)

We don't know how or why Pharisees were watching them. It's most likely that they were all on a major path between fields, and they just happened to cross paths. (While Jesus certainly could have orchestrated the encounter, I don't think He needed to.) Grain fields were rather haphazard because farmers used a broadcast technique for sowing (cf. The Parable of the Four Soils). It was customary to allow travelers and the poor to glean the edges of a field (see Deut 23:25; note that it had to be by hand -- not with a sickle).

The disciples would have known that their local leaders would have considered their action unlawful for a Sabbath. Why, then, were they doing it? Two likely reasons:

  1. A lot of common Jews simply ignored the Pharisee regulations, and this seems to be more often the case in Galilee (I've mentioned how people from Jerusalem looked down on people from Galilee as being more troublesome). In this scenario, the real problem the Pharisees would have had was that Jesus hadn't corrected His disciples according to the Pharisee's standards.

  2. Jesus had previously had the discussion with His disciples about certain things that were and were not a part of God's law. In other words, this topic had come up before and Jesus had explicitly told the disciples that such actions were indeed permitted on the Sabbath.

I think the second option is more likely, because . . .

Jesus definitely harped on Sabbath regulations in His conflicts with the Pharisees; this was intentional. We will see in verse 11 that Jesus' opposition to the Pharisees on this issue is what drove them to oppose Him so vehemently. He saw their Sabbath regulations run amok as clear evidence of their heart condition. They were not really trying to relate to God; they had created a religion in their own image, following their own rules. Consequently, Jesus would have brought this topic up with His disciples early and often.

And that should make sense. The Sabbath was (is) a central part of God's revelation to humanity. It happens every seven days. Jesus only had three Passover festivals during His ministry, but He had many Sabbaths. The Sabbath not only points people to the Ten Commandments, but it is rooted in God's act of creation itself. It's written into the fabric of our world. The personal benefits for spending it in the way God prescribed are tangible and immediate. (And everybody knows if you are observing the day or not!) Does that make sense? This is not some tangent, like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This is a central matter involving God, God's creation, God's view of humanity, God's plan to relate to humanity, and God's basic laws. So, a big deal.

Only Luke has the detail about rubbing the grains together to eat them. My guess is that he thought it would clarify the nature of the disagreement with the Pharisees for his non-Jewish audience.

Here is a caustic topic (because people still disagree about it) that may help us relate this topic to today. What rules do we have about Sunday behavior that we don't apply to other days of the week? On the one hand, there were blue laws, which prohibited things like stores being open on Sunday, or stores selling liquor on Sunday, or movie theaters being open on Sunday, and so on. But there were also informal rules in churches -- like no dancing on Sunday, no traveling on Sunday, and so on. Basically, picking up Pharisee regulations for the Sabbath and applying them to Sunday. Many of those rule have gone by the wayside. Do you know of any that linger? What about in your own tendencies?

This topic probably deserves its own article, so I'll work on that in the days to come. But for our part, here is the New Testament's answer: the Lord's day is the first day of the week (Sunday, not Saturday). It is the day the early Christians chose for rest and worship, but it is not more or less holy than any other day of the week. Because we are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, everywhere and everywhen we go is to be thought of the same. If we should not do something on Sunday, we should not do it on Saturday. If we should not say something in the church building, we should not say it anywhere else. Our relationship with God is not a checklist but a relationship, summarized in "love God and love your neighbor". Mark added Jesus' line "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" (2:27), explaining very clearly what God wanted the Sabbath to be about.

That's why I personally disagree with the concept of the blue laws. Those are about regulating behavior that should be left between God and Christian. Chick-fil A is doing it right. They are voluntarily closing on Sunday for a clear purpose and accepting the financial impact of that decision. But if the rest of us choose to go-go-go seven days a week, we are allowed to do so. And we will pay the price, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

So, to close this topic, consider times in your life when you have not taken a break. We have all been there. Working 60 hours a week or more, 7 days a week. Maybe it's not just with your job. Maybe you got involved in other things, and when you weren't working you were fulfilling other obligations. Again, we've all been there. How long did that last? How did God make it clear to you that you had to stop?

God set aside one day of the week for our good -- for our benefit and well-being. If we choose not to do so, that's on us. What the disciples were doing was in no way taking them away from God's purpose for the day, and so they should be allowed to do so. Goodness, they were with Jesus! And that leads us to the next section:


Part 2: Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:3-5)

3 Jesus answered them, “Haven’t you read what David and those who were with him did when he was hungry— 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? He even gave some to those who were with him.” 5 Then he told them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

This is actually a shocking response. Jesus went straight to an extreme example -- one that could not be refuted, but also one that raised many questions.

Jesus refers to an event in 1 Samuel 21. David and his companions were on the run from Saul. Jonathan had just helped him escape, and the group was in a hurry. They went to Nob, about a mile north of Jerusalem, where the tabernacle was at the time (but the ark was still in Kiriath Jearim; 1 Sam 7:2). The priest in charge, Ahimelech, is generally considered a "high priest". David fibbed to him about his situation and asked for food. The priest had just changed out the Bread of the Presence (more about this below) (incidentally, that had led many rabbis to conclude that this event took place on a Sabbath). David took the consecrated bread and gave it to his men. Jesus implies that David went through a barrier in the tabernacle (something not mentioned in 1 Sam 21, though it makes a lot of sense for that author to omit that detail).

David -- doing something he should not do, going somewhere he should not go, all possibly on a Sabbath -- was not condemned for his actions. (Further, Ahimelech, the priest who enabled all of this, was not condemned for his actions.) The Pharisees did not rebut Jesus in this assertion.


Aside: The Bread of the Presence

You'll notice that I've been saying that the tabernacle was in Nob, and that's where David went. Not everyone believes that! Some believe that it was simply a worship center. I believe that Jesus' reference to "the house of God" and "the bread of the Presence" clarifies that David went to the tabernacle, and that the priests of Nob were living right next to the tabernacle. Consequently, "the bread of the Presence" is the same described in Exodus 25.

In Exodus 25:30, God commanded Moses to make sure that a table in the Holy Place always had bread on it. The Hebrew word meant "bread of the face", which is why it was sometimes translated as "showbread" (shewbread). The interesting thing (to me) is that there is absolutely no description in the Bible of what it was or why God wanted it there, as if it were so commonly known that God did not have to give any instructions about it. So, we guess it was multiple loaves (12?) of plain unleavened bread.

Why would God want a table of unleavened bread in His tabernacle? Probably because of its connection with the Passover (see Exodus 12-13) and its subsequent importance to all Jewish calendar feasts. Unleavened bread was a central part of Jewish worship rituals. And of course, that's why Jesus chose to use it as a central part of His new "feast" -- the Lord's Supper.


The Power of This Illustration

Jesus always had layers of meaning in His words, and this particular reference is particularly brilliant. On the surface, it's very simple: even in the Old Testament, it was made clear that doing good superseded following rituals. (Some have tried to summarize it that moral laws were more important than ceremonial laws. I think there's more to it than that.) Both the priest and David broke the code in order to meet a human need, and Jesus says they were justified before God in doing so.

But let's go further. The illustration Jesus chose uniquely combines David, the great king, Ahimelech, the high priest-martyr, and the bread of the Presence. Jesus is standing in judgment over a king and a high priest (in an affirming way) with respect to their actions concerning the unleavened bread. That's audacious! And the nod to the bread simply foreshadows what is to come for Him while pointing to the heart of the Jewish identity.

As I said earlier, Mark includes the line "the Sabbath was made for man", but Luke goes straight for "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath". Now there can be no doubt that Jesus uses "Son of Man" as a reference to the messianic figure in Daniel 7, for a normal man would not have this kind of authority. God created the Sabbath for the good of people, not to burden them. And, Jesus has the authority to remind the people what God intended.


Part 3: Do Good on the Sabbath? (Luke 6:6-11)

6 On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. A man was there whose right hand was shriveled. 7 The scribes and Pharisees were watching him closely, to see if he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they could find a charge against him. 8 But he knew their thoughts and told the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand here.” So he got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you: Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at them all, he told him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did, and his hand was restored. 11 They, however, were filled with rage and started discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus.

The background of this event is the same. This is just Jesus coming in over the top, giving the Pharisees an easy, obvious opportunity to admit that they're wrong, but they dig in their heels, plainly demonstrating the hardness of their hearts.

As I said before, I greatly appreciate that Jesus is not pulling at technicalities. He is going straight to the heart of each matter, making it plain for everyone who would hear. It is His opponents who search for fine print and loopholes in order to trap Jesus (which they always fail to do).

We do not know exactly when or where this happened, but for Luke those details would only be a distraction. On an occasion when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, a man in physical need was present. (The wording is such that the Pharisees might have planted him there to test Jesus. Jesus doesn't play that game.)

So, here's the scenario. Did Jesus have to heal the man on the Sabbath? Couldn't the man have come back the next day? Why is that even a consideration? Because the Pharisees had created a rule. Stop and think about that -- "Your miraculous healing (which we have no choice but to acknowledge that miracles come from God) cannot take place on God's day because we say so." [Here's my connection with that wacky law that Communist China has to give permission for Buddhist monks to reincarnate. Not that I believe in reincarnation, but follow that logic. What authority does China have to regulate that? At that point, wouldn't those monks simply all reincarnate as children of the law enforcers? It's all so wonderfully silly.]

It's very clear and obvious to all present that the Pharisees do not care about that man at all. They care about their authority and perception. Jesus' wording is powerful: "If you have the power to do good for this man today, putting it off until tomorrow is evil -- regardless of the urgency." The Pharisees are doing evil. Catch these teachings:

  • Human need is more important than religious tradition.

  • God's truth is more important than our interpretations of it.

  • Not doing good when you can is like doing evil.

  • Having a relationship with God is more important than following rituals.

So, I have questions. By establishing that our two options are to "do good" or "do evil", that leaves no middle ground. Further, we are not given the indication that this man was in a life-threatening condition. He had a need, yes, but it was the sort of need that only a miracle could address. How does this apply to me and, say, all of the people I pass by who have needs?

Consider this:

  • Jesus did not heal every person in Israel.

  • We have no record of Jesus giving money to beggars.

  • A lot of Jesus' encounters were one-time things -- those people would have had needs again, and Jesus would not have been there to take care of them.

So, this is not about placing the burden on us to take care of every person's every need. Not even Jesus tried to do that.

In fact, a lot of churches who have attempted to do so have actually drifted further away from Jesus! How? By getting caught up in people's perception of their own needs. In the first place, many people think that their need is for money. But let me ask you to consider this statement: throwing money at a need is not the same as doing good.

And let's go further -- our understanding of our own needs is often at odds with what God says our needs are. And so a church, in the name of meeting needs, can enable and encourage sinful lifestyles, distort God's truth, and fail to share the gospel. This actually leaves the person worse off than before! (Which is the same result of the Pharisees making the Jewish life a burden.)

People need to repent of their sin, turn to Jesus, and live as a disciple of Christ.

So let me apply this to a scenario that regularly bothers me as an individual. People show up at our church on Sunday asking for money. Almost always, I tell them to come back on Monday, when our office is open, and go through our standard benevolence process. Because that's our rule. What would Jesus say to me about that? Well, after a lot of thought, I've arrived here: our church put those rules into place for our protection. Sadly, a lot of people come to us with lies and bad intent. Our process is designed to separate those in need from those not in need. In Jesus' case, there was no doubt that this man had a physical need. Further, I can think of many times when we did in fact help people on a Sunday when we believed that the situation warranted it. In other words, we are not controlled by our rules.

But this passage has reminded me that I need to be taking stock of the needs around me that I see. When I have the power to meet one but don't, I need to ask myself why. There are valid reasons -- "doing good" is not always about meeting a perceived need. But if my reasons are "I'm being self-centered" or "I'm being lazy" or "I just don't feel like it", well, that's a problem. I encourage you to join me in that kind of self-evaluation. Ask God to show you ways of doing good in our community this week.

And yes, many of you already are. And I thank God for you!


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