I Will Have Mercy, Not Sacrifice (vv. 1-4; Matt. 12:7)
Four Sabbath Violations (vv. 1-2)
If we abandon the light and simplicity of God’s word, the rules begin multiplying. If we will not be governed by his righteous word, man’s burdensome word will make our lives miserable. God certainly gives us rules. “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instructions are a way of life” (Prov. 6:23). His grace in Christ does not mean the absence of rules but the power and privilege of obeying his word! The issue before us is not whether or not we shall have rules but whose rules we shall have. Shall we take upon ourselves man’s yoke? This slavery is alive and well in the church today. Some follow detailed rules about courtship, finances, childrearing, or any other subject you would wish. They revere the men who came up with the rules, devotedly read their blogs and books, and bristle if you speak against their favorites.
Jesus and his disciples faced the same thing one Sabbath afternoon as they walked through the fields. They were hungry and plucked some of the grain, rubbed it in their hands to remove the husk, and ate the grains. This kind of “hunger gleaning” was not theft but encouraged as a way to take care of travelers, strangers, and the poor (Deut. 23:25). But the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath, the “second first” Sabbath, which is the only time the word is used. It likely refers to the second of the first Sabbaths after Passover. By their actions, Jesus and his disciples violated four of the 39 Sabbath prohibitions found in the Mishnah tractate on the Sabbath: reaping on the Sabbath, then threshing, winnowing, and preparing food. Hungry or not, such actions were unlawful. It is remarkable they were not stoned!
Man’s Need before Ceremonies (vv. 3-4)
There is certainly a place for rules. Fallen human nature would love to live rule-free so that it can be a law unto itself. Many even say that God’s grace means we can now live rule-free – just follow the Holy Spirit, which usually means following your feelings. But this is an impossible way to live. How do I know that my feelings are honoring to God – that I have more feelings? And then more feelings to validate my former feelings? We must have something objective, truth beyond our feelings, experience, and reason. Try to live without rules in a family, church, or society, and chaos will result. No, families, for example, must have rules. Everyone eats dinner together; family worship in the morning or evening; respect for others; cleaning up after yourself. There are ways we organize our lives that require guidelines for time use, proper diet and exercise, and resolving conflicts. Some of our rules can be traced directly to God’s Word; others are “life wisdom” or common sense. The danger of rules, especially in religion and morality, is that God’s word is sufficient in its scope and in its specific details. Once we go beyond what he has said, we may or may not do what men say, depending upon authority structures and obligations, for we are bound only to obey God, not men. This is especially true when it comes to laws that are called positive – meaning that they are enacted not because there is a moral principle directly involved but because God wants us to do this for a particular time and reason. This was true of the old covenant ceremonies. There was no moral principle involved, Jesus said, in setting out the showbread and allowing only the priest to eat it. This was part of the ceremonies that God commanded his people. Those laws set forth the saving work of Jesus Christ, especially his sacrifice and the grace we receive through him.
But, they were positive enactments that set forth Christ the coming Redeemer, the acceptable way to worship God, and the provisions for cleansing and mediation through priest and sacrifice. They were not laws written on man’s conscience by virtue of his creation – like God’s universal justice forbidding theft and murder or requiring that he be worshipped as the only true God and in the way he has revealed in his word. Ceremonial laws could be set aside for higher ends. Therefore, when David and his men were hungry, they could eat the showbread normally reserved for the priest without incurring guilt. Satisfying their hunger came before following a ceremonial law. For the Jewish leaders, the ceremonies could not be violated for any reason. They were worth more than man’s very life. Jesus rejected this view of the ceremonies. They could be violated in some instances; a hierarchy of duties means that the sixth commandment, preserving man’s life, is higher than keeping a positive ceremony. The ceremonies were a gracious gift from the Lord; we must not forget this. They might be set aside if a higher consideration arose, but in that they set forth salvation through Jesus Christ, it was only just that God’s people carefully follow them under that older covenant. No other nation was so blessed as to have the gospel preached before them daily.
Mercy and Not Sacrifice (Matt. 12:7; Mark 2:27)
When it came to the Sabbath, we are never to assume that it is part of the ceremonial law. Some do, but they overturn the whole law of God by their error. The Sabbath is one of the original creation ordinances God gave to us; it is the hinge of the entire law – the day and life order by which we honor God and seek from him the strength to love men. The problem with the Sabbath is that the Jews made up a host of positive and negative sanctions, supposedly to keep men from breaking the Sabbath, but with the actual effect of nullifying the original purpose of the Sabbath. Jesus addressed the Jews’ replacement of God’s law with their own repeatedly in his most famous sermon (Matt. 5-7). He said in another place that the Jews “made the word of God void through your tradition” (Mark 7:13). Matthew and Mark include two other statements Jesus made in response to the Jews who accused him and his disciples of breaking the Sabbath by picking and eating grain. First, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Jews took all the joy and refreshment out of the Sabbath by their multitude of non-commanded regulations. God gave the Sabbath to man for rest and worship, not so that religious tyrants might burden men’s lives with needless laws. Second, in response to their requirement that men must starve so that their silly traditions might be kept, he said: “But if you had known what this meant, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt. 12:27). Jesus cites Hosea 6:6. The Sabbath is a day to rejoice in God’s mercy and therefore to extend mercy. Has God given his law to suffocate men or because he loves us and would lead us in the peaceful paths of righteousness? By elevating God’s ceremonies and their traditions over the more fundamental duty of mercy (Micah 6:8), the Jews obscured the mercy that God extends to his people and that we are to extend to one another.
The Son of Man Lord of the Sabbath (v. 5)
Jesus’ Authority over the Sabbath
Is it not refreshing to have the true intent of God’s law restored? We can always learn something from what godly men say, and we ought not to despise tradition simply because it is old. Men have been thinking about important truths and duties long before we came on the scene. If we do not listen to them, it is like joining a conversation that began hours earlier or beginning a book in the middle. Jesus said something else that day that infuriated the Pharisees but that thrills the heart of every believer. He proclaimed his lordship over the Sabbath. As the Son of Man, his most often used title for himself, likely drawn from Daniel 7:13, he is the Mediator of the Covenant. He is the Word of God come down to man. He is God’s Son, but he is also Man’s Son – in the fullest sense, as man, he is everything man should have been: obedient, loving, tender, self-denying. The Word was made flesh to redeem fallen man. As such, Jesus Christ has Lordship over the Sabbath. As the Word of God, he is the final interpreter of Scripture. Therefore, he tells the Pharisees, your traditions are null and void. They have no bearing upon true Sabbath keeping. You have made up these regulations and oppress men with them. They are not the mind of God on the subject, and my disciples are forever freed from your tyranny. It is not simply that the Jews’ rules misinterpreted and misapplied Scripture, but they had replaced Scripture. The Sabbath is God’s law. I have come to rescue it from your abuses.
Jesus’ Changes to the Sabbath
Some have concluded from this that Jesus was anticipating the imminent time he would abolish the Sabbath. The context is completely against this idea. It is not God’s Sabbath command that it is oppressive. It is a moral law, wrapped up with the very existence of the world. Would Jesus, as the Word through whom all things were made, abolish the Sabbath that commemorated his creative work? Some affirm this, but I cannot. Our Lord never said anything against the Sabbath command; he said much against the Jews’ traditions that negated the goodness of God’s law by oppressing men’s consciences with a long list of burdensome requirements and prohibitions. At the same time, as the Lord of the Sabbath, he could alter it without abolishing it. From the creation of the world to his coming, Sabbath hearkened back to the creation – it was the last day of the week. Since his resurrection, Sabbath is gloriously exalted to be the Lord’s Day. It is celebrated as first in the week, still one day in seven, as the fourth commandment requires, but the day changed to celebrate world transition from creation rest, which we lost by sin, to redemption rest, which we gained by Jesus Christ. In this sense, I suppose it could be said that by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus abolished the old Sabbath order of looking forward to rest, of working to enter rest. He established a new Sabbath order of entering into his rest first, the rest of redemption, deliverance from sin and death, a reconciled God.
Thus, Jesus’ coming must be seen as doing away with certain old covenant hedges around the Sabbath that God commanded the Jews: no fires lit in their home on the Sabbath, no leaving their dwellings, the death penalty for the slightest Sabbath infraction, etc. These were laws attached to the Sabbath to teach the church in her infancy the importance of obeying God. As Lord of the Sabbath, giver of the Spirit, writer of the law of God upon our hearts, we do not need this hard tutelage associated with the older covenant (Gal. 3:24). Unlike God’s people then, we are now willing to obey God, for this is the day of the power and reign of Jesus Christ (Ps. 110:3). We have the day of resurrection to commemorate Sabbath rest. It is our joy and delight to enter into our Savior’s rest by faith, to keep a holy and joyful, even celebratory rest to him all the day, not because we fear death but because we delight in mercy, in redemption, in our Savior’s sweet communion. I pray we require no one to threaten us with wrath so that we shall wake up to adore the empty tomb by faith, the filled throne at God’s right hand, heaven’s gates wide open, a worshipping company of angels, the saints who have gone before us. If the Lord’s Day is not a delight to us, the problem is not with the Sabbath, but with our sinfulness, especially our lack of appreciation for the new age our Savior has brought into the world by his life, death, and resurrection.
The Sabbath for Doing Good (vv. 6-11)
To Do Good or Evil? (vv. 6-9)
On another Sabbath, Jesus went into the synagogue and taught. He was carefully watched by the Jewish leaders. His boldness must have shaken them; his rejection of their revered traditions made them angry. There was a man in the synagogue with a withered right hand – Luke’s specificity supports his use of eyewitness testimony. Would Jesus heal the man? The man did not ask to be healed, and the Pharisees were watching Jesus carefully. They were looking for a reason to accuse him before the chief priests. He knew what they were thinking; Mark adds that Jesus was angry with them, for their hearts were hardened (Mark 3:5). Hearts that feel no conviction of sin and thus no need of mercy, never seek mercy; never receiving mercy, they are unable to extend mercy. Sin creates this vicious cycle, so that we are blind to the good we have received from God. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” Jesus’ question was pointed – should we do good on the Sabbath, or evil; save life, or destroy it? Sin also blinds, so that basic questions can no longer be answered honestly. Jesus was angry? Yes, with the Jewish leaders – did they not read the Scriptures? Had he not already done so much good, revealed so much power, spoken with such wisdom that the hardest hearts should have been melted to faith, repentance, and love?
But are our hearts? Jesus has likely healed you many times, and you know it. If you have been a Christian for any time at all, you have a long list of answered prayers and forgiven sins. Has God’s goodness led us to repentance (Rom. 2:4)? His goodness actually hardened the Jews’ hearts, and it will do the same to us, so that instead of humbled by God’s goodness, we become presumptuous, almost as if his daily goodness is a divine right. We can avoid such impiety only by honestly sensing our unworthiness of anything good from him, like Jacob (Gen. 32:10), but that instead we deserve a thousand hells for our many transgressions against his holiness. Then, when we see what he has done for us in Jesus Christ, we shall stand truly amazed at his love and mercy, in awe that he would lay our sins upon his beloved Son, crushing him instead of judging us in hell forever. Thus humbled and admiring our Savior, even the smallest goodness will amaze us. Gradually, as we consider the goodness of the Lord, our demanding impatience will give way to godly contentment. Let us learn from the Pharisees the evil and the danger of a hard heart.
Stand Up and Stretch Out Your Hand (v. 10)
Here was yet another instance of our Savior’s goodness and power – can we have too many? In our day, with our particular troubles and struggles, can we see too often that our Lord Jesus loves us, helps us, and possesses all power to guard us? I think not. In fact, all our fears, doubts, anxieties, low and carnal aims, and earthbound vision are the fruit of too little thinking upon the goodness and power of Jesus Christ. See this man stand in the synagogue at Jesus’ direction. We have no reason to believe he asked to be healed, but Jesus noticed him. Stretch out your hand. He looks at the Pharisees – will you resist me, despise my goodness, not believe upon me? Can you straighten the crooked hand? Do you not see in me the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies and the hope of God’s presence with you now? The man’s hand was made whole – Jesus’ power always served to confirm his words. It must do the same in us. Too many of us have seen too little of his power in our lives, and so we give his words half-hearted attention. But then again, perhaps we see so little of his power because we do not abide in his word. You cannot divide Jesus. If you abide in his word (John 8:31-32), he will abide with you and show you his glory (John 14:21-23).
What Are We Going to Do to Jesus? (v. 11)
A hard heart will take you to a very evil place. I would like to think that if we saw a man with a withered hand suddenly healed by the command of Jesus to stretch out his hand, that we would be so amazed that we would fall down and confess, “My Lord and my God.” But understand this about miracles. In the absence of a tender, humble heart, a miracle will do you no good. Again and again, the Jews saw Jesus Christ do amazing works and speak as no else ever did, and they would be unmoved from their sins. The leaders would plot to kill him. Here they ask, “What are we going to do to Jesus?” Do to him? What about repent? What about run to him and hold fast to him and confess every sin to him and seek from him strength and hope and life? But only the poor fools did this – those who were not part of the “in crowd,” social outcasts, sinners, and poor. Those with education and connections usually stood aloof from Jesus, or secretly believed in him for fear of what would happen to them if they openly confessed (John 12:43). He did not come to call those who thought themselves to be righteous. “Not many mighty, not many wise” remains the rule of his kingdom. It is very much the opposite of what we think, for we judge by the eyes. The true Judge sees the heart, and he sees that everyone is dead in sin.
What shall we do to Jesus? This is not the right question. “What shall we ask him to do to us?” is a better one. The best is, “How can we have this Jesus? What must he do to us?” We must have him as our Savior. We must sit at his feet and learn of him. We must wait upon him and ask him to take away our hard hearts and give us a soft and teachable heart. We must ask him to take away our sins, cleanse us by his blood, give us his righteousness, and give us himself. We must have this Savior. He is the Lord of the Sabbath and the only one who gives true rest from sin and true peace with God. He is the only true Wisdom of God who can teach us God’s ways that we might walk in his old paths of truth and righteousness and peace. He is the only Savior from sin. Do not allow so many tokens of his goodness to you dull your heart to the wonders of having him for your God and Savior. He has more to show you of himself, more of his loveliness and power and sweetness, but he is careful and deliberate. A heart cold to him he will find unwelcoming. He is a real person, the true Man, the eternal God, the saving God-Man. He suffered terribly, but he now reigns gloriously. Be careful, very careful that you do not despise his goodness but love him for his grace. Bow before him as your Lord. Worship him as your God and Savior. Be humbled by his goodness and allow his daily kindness to warm your heart and inspire you to adore and obey him.