Man-made religion with all its rules, restrictions, and regulations is powerless to save sinners. It cannot provide forgiveness of sin, peace with God, and eternal life. Yet, so many people are enslaved to external religion. External religion strives to achieve spirituality by means of human effort. Whether it is church attendance, good works, disciplines, these are all works performed by human effort. Now those things in and of themselves are not bad – they are good! However, if you are doing them thinking that they save you or somehow contribute to your salvation and spirituality then you are deceived. It is sad to see how such trappings have infiltrated the church since the first century.
Why does the Bible consistency warn against external religion? It is because it does not save. Salvation comes by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8). External religion is weak, helpless, and impotent. If anybody is going to receive forgiveness for their sin, peace with God, and eternal life, they need to trust in Jesus Christ alone. It has often been said, “God helps those who help themselves”. According to Scripture, God helps those who are helpless and put their trust in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:8).
By carefully following rules, restrictions, and regulations, we may be able to restrain our outward sins from the view of other people, but we cannot eliminate hidden sin. External religion becomes a cover up for our filthy condition. Jesus offended the religious leaders because He rejected their superficial practices and spiritual pride. Spiritual pride hates the holiness of Christ and prizes tradition more than truth. Even though spiritual pride will claim their tradition is truth.
In this passage (Luke 6:1-11) Jesus and His disciples are criticized for not following certain religious rules. It is important to note that though this criticism arises from within hearts that are prideful, the controversy occurs as a result of the precise timing of Jesus. The disciples were hungry so they pick grain on a Sabbath and are replenished, and Jesus heals man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and he is restored.
Why was this a controversy? It all has to do with the Sabbath Day. God established the Sabbath Day and back in Genesis 2 we have the record of the completion of God’s creative acts. We are told, “He rested on the seventh day” (2:3). This was not God needing to rest due to tiredness or weariness (cf. Isaiah 40:28). This rest occurred because the work of creation was complete. This rest did not include His ceasing from work (withdrawing of His hand from creation and ceasing to be involved with it). If this happened, everything would no longer exist (cf. Col. 1:17). This was the cessation of His creative work. The Sabbath rest of God provides both a picture and pattern. It is a picture of God’s satisfaction in His creative work and it is a pattern that was later given as a sign between God and the nation of Israel (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:16-17). For the nation of Israel the keeping of the Sabbath Day as holy involved a number of restrictions (cf. Ex. 31:12-17). This seventh day also provides a natural and practical pattern for people as they engage in the balance between work and rest. It does provide a perpetual reminder of God’s complete work of creation, and is an opportunity for us to delight in Him for that.
For the Christian, I believe the Sabbath is now fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 3-4 and Col. 2:16-17). What this means for us is that we do not work for our salvation, but instead we trust and rest in Jesus Christ. We do need to be sensitive concerning the conscience of other believers with regards to days including Sabbath observance (Rom. 14:5-6), but we are to make sure that no one passes judgment on us concerning Sabbath observance (Col. 2:16). The Sabbath Day was a shadow of the substance, and the substance is Christ (Col. 2:17). Nonetheless, we need to be respectful and godly in our attitudes regarding the differing views of Christians with regards to the observance of the Sabbath. The issue of the Lord’s Day and worshipping on the first day of the week in relation to the Sabbath Day is a topic for another time. This is not raised or addressed in this passage.
The main issue in this passage is not whether one still observes the Sabbath. The issue is that the Pharisees missed the Lord of the Sabbath because they were too focussed on the legalism of the Sabbath. We must be careful to not allow tradition to replace truth,, and be robbed of true joy in Jesus.
1. THE SABBATH AND HUNGER (6:1-5)
One on Sabbath Day, Jesus and His disciples where walking through some fields of grain. The disciples were hungry so they picked some grain, rubbed it in their hands to remove the husk, and then ate it (6:1). The picking of grain from another’s field was permitted in the Law (Deut. 23:25). But this did not go down well with the Pharisees. We read, “But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?’” The Pharisees seem to just pop up here. It is evident that they had their eye on Jesus and His disciples and they are on the look out for them to do something wrong.
The problem the Pharisees had with Jesus and His disciples was that this was being done on the Sabbath. In their minds this was problematic because they picked the grain and then rubbed it with their hands. The problem? By picking the grain and rubbing it in their hands, they were working on the Sabbath. Now the law the disciples did not break the Law of God, they law they broke was actually from the Jewish oral traditions (Mishna Shabbat 7.2). Over the centuries 39 specific laws of restriction had been written concerning the Sabbath Day.
Being on the look out for others to do wrong, or being quick to point out that someone has not followed a man-made custom or rule is a characteristic of a legalist. Legalists fill their lives with rules and regulations, but they seem to be more focused on whether others are the following the rules. We need to be careful that this does not become a part of our lives.
The issue in these opening verses is that the Pharisees are getting picky over the disciples picking grain. Jesus responds to this attack by giving them a lesson from Scripture, and then makes a stunning point. Jesus asks,
“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 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?” (6:4-5).
The Pharisees of course were familiar with this story (1 Samuel 21:1-9), as they knew their Scriptures really well. David was fleeing from Saul, and David and his men were hungry. So David approached Ahimelech the priest and asked him for bread. The only bread he had was the holy bread (The Bread of Presence). Each Sabbath twelve loaves of bread was laid on the table in the tabernacle, symbolising God’s provision for the twelve tribes. Only the priest could eat them at the end of the week (Lev. 24:5-9). Though David and his men were not priests, they were allowed to eat it given their situation of being hungry. The point made here is that David, who was considered Israel’s greatest king, ate and gave holy bread to the men with him. Jesus is making the point that they have no right judging the actions of the disciples, when the One who has authority to approve them approves the disciple’s actions. Jesus has an authority greater than Israel’s greatest king (Robert Stein, Mark, p. 150).
After giving this as an illustration, Jesus then said, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (6:5). This is a bold and powerful statement. It is clear in the OT that God is the Lord of the Sabbath. He created it and made it holy (Ex. 20:8-11). Here Jesus is declaring that He regulates and rules over the Sabbath. If David, who was considered great, could do something unlawful, how much more right does Jesus (the “Lord of the Sabbath”) have to allow His disciples to be replenished on the Sabbath, even though they were break the man-made regulations? As the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus has authority to show what the Sabbath actually means.
The lesson from this first controversy is this: The Sabbath Day provided people with a rest that led to replenishment, but it didn’t last. It was necessary to experience it again the following week. However, in Christ there is a rest that provides replenishment for all eternity. So this situation in which the disciples were confronted provided an opportunity for Jesus to reveal that He is Lord of the Sabbath and in Him is this rest (cf. Matt. 11:28-30).
2. THE SABBATH AND HEALING (6:6-11)
We now come to another Sabbath day and we see another controversy. Jesus was in the synagogue teaching. Among those attending was a man that had a withered hand. This was an impairing condition, but it certainly wasn’t a life threatening condition. Yet Jesus chooses to heal him then and there. The controversy over this kind and gracious healing was that Jesus did it on the Sabbath day. Why did Jesus choose to do this miracle on the Sabbath? Surely He could have done it any other day of the week. After all, the man didn’t even ask for it. Jesus chose to do this miracle on the Sabbath so as to expose the uselessness of man-made religion and to demonstrate that He is Lord.
While Jesus was in the synagogue, the religious leaders knew there was a man there with a withered hand. So they were watching “to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him” (6:7). Jesus knew what they were thinking and plotting, so He called the man with the withered hand to come to Him and he did (6:8). Jesus then asked the people “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” (6:9). The point Jesus is making here is not that this man needs this to happen right then and there, but instead Jesus is showing them His Lordship and a glimpse into what the life will be like in His coming kingdom. Looking at the silent crowd, Jesus then said, “Stretch out your hand” (6:10) and the man’s hand was restored and renewed. Jesus or the man with the withered hand did nothing that would have been considered work. Jesus spoke and the man was healed.
Rather than acknowledging the Divine power of Jesus and affirming His Lordship, “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (6:11). The plans and plotting to eliminate Jesus from the scene begin. Jesus is clearly a threat to their system of man-made rules and regulations.
This Divine miracle performed on the Sabbath day is a picture of what Christ alone can do. The Sabbath provided people a rest that led to renewal, but it didn’t last. But in Christ there is a rest that brings about an eternal renewal. In the coming Kingdom there will be no more pain or sorrow, all things will be made new.
Here are some lessons to take away from these Sabbath controversies.
Jesus Christ rejects superficial practices and spiritual pride. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day attached to their lives outward acts of obedience. They also embraced rules and regulations that were designed to make them look godly. These rules may be helpful, but the problem was, tradition became more important than truth and it blinded them. So much so, that they got caught up in the shadow and missed the substance (cf. Col. 2:16-17). The Lord Jesus Christ rejects this type of behaviour.
Jesus Christ alone provides eternal refreshment and renewal. This is what the Sabbath Day pointed to. The Old Testament is filled with practices that were designed to benefit the people, but had their main purpose in pointing to Christ. Jesus Christ alone is the One that can provide us with refreshment and renewal that will last for all eternity. The Sabbath was a true blessing to the disciples of Jesus because they enjoyed the Lord of the Sabbath, not the legalism of the Sabbath. Our good works will not get us to Heaven. Only His works get us there. Jesus gave the invitation,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30)