Should the Sabbath rule in the Old Testament be strictly observed today?
“The rules are the rules,” I’ve often heard it said. “No exceptions.” That seems to be the absolute statement that our world lives by. Whether in the church, seminary and Bible college, home, or job, we’re all about the rules. We make rules that we feel everyone should follow. It’s part of what we think it means to be fair. Whenever someone attempts to make themselves an exception, we immediately go out of our way to show them that they will be treated no better than anyone else. We think that “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” and we rise to the occasion to defend the rules when someone attempts to skirt them.
At school, for example, the teacher will count a student late and tardy – even if that student is late to school because of factors beyond his or her control (traffic, car trouble, early morning sickness, and so on).
Unfortunately, though, we seek to defend the rules because we realize that the world, in practice, does not live by absolutes only. As I was told growing up, life in this world isn’t always black and white; there are some shades of gray. There are some questions on which we have to take the middle ground, moral issues even, upon which we can’t give a definitive answer and feel good about it. What does a child do if he or she has come to the knowledge of Christ while in college but lives with parents who are unbelievers?
Does the child honor his or her parents who are unbelievers? If he or she is to honor their parents, what does that look like in practice? Should the child honor his or her parents by selling drugs on their behalf if they’re running a drug business? Buy the parent alcoholic beverages for a Friday night party? Give their parents the keys to the car when they know the parent(s) is drunk and could kill the child and friends on the vehicle all at the same time? The TV show “Law and Order: SVU” showed a family that continued to grow because of a daughter whose body was being used to reproduce. The girl’s father was setting her up to have sex with men while he watched, and he continued to indoctrinate her by telling her that what she was doing was “best for the family.” What should a girl in that situation do?
What about a doctor who has a young man in his office that he recognizes from TV? The young man is a notorious killer who has bodies on his record. He’s never had one body tied to his hands, though he’s been known to hire hitmen to do away with those that pose problems to him. And yet, this doctor knows that when he stitches up the young man’s gun wound and releases him from the hospital in a few days, this young man will return to the streets…and it won’t be long before another person will mysteriously turn up dead and be tied to this same individual.
Does he heal the young man, knowing that he is going to go back to the streets and plot more murders? The doctor is torn between his profession (which says that he is to heal everyone and discriminate against no one; even criminals deserve a chance at life, even if all they get is life in prison without the possibility of parole) and his guilt that he feels is there because, should he help the individual, he’ll be, in a way, “aiding and abetting” the murders of more individuals. The choice may seem easy for us, and we may know what to do, but we’re not him; we don’t have to make the same decision. It’s a theoretical mental practice for us, but real life for him.
These are pretty tragic situations for many of us, but less tragic situations that we see around us every day deserve just as much investigation. What about a music minister who’s been faithful to her church for 11 or 12 years but has spent the last 7 years working every Sunday due to her mother’s death and is unable to continue her church ministry duties? Does she choose to work and make a living because she’s on her own and has no one to aid her financially, or does she devote her time to church responsibilities and become a financial liability for the church because she decides to ask the church to pay her bills instead of working so that she can take care of her own responsibilities?
What would you do in her situation? Again, you can say what you would do, but she doesn’t have time to say because the bills keep coming in her name. She has to keep the bills paid to maintain her place in society, so that, when she preaches to others that “the Lord provides,” she can bless them – and without working and keeping food in her mouth, she can’t be a living testimony of God’s goodness and grace to others.
Here’s yet another example to make us ponder life in this world. What about the political figure who’s a practicing Christian, believing in his heart that Scripture dictates God’s lifestyle commands but yet, has a constituency that elected him that doesn’t care for God or the Bible and just wants to be free to live their lives? Should the political figure pass laws to discriminate against a certain subset of the population because his religious beliefs dictate that he condemn certain lifestyles, or does he pass laws to protect this discriminated class because of his political commitment to 1) those who voted for him, 2) his political party, and 3) the political principle of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (all found in the country’s Declaration of Independence)? Should he discriminate against this subset in order to appease his religious constituents, or pass laws protecting this subset and giving them liberty while upsetting his fellow religious constituents?
If the political figure passes laws to protect the discriminated class, his religious constituents will want to roast him. If he passes laws that discriminate against this class, though, he will face trouble personally and politically: not only could his life be at risk and he lose the love and respect of the country, but he could ruin any future successes for his political party. Some people in this political situation would say, “a great leader acts by his own convictions,” but he’s in a political position that impacts not just himself and his family but also his political party and the country as a whole. If he agrees to discriminate against this subset of people, who’s to say the country won’t face further discriminations down the line because other political candidates “act on their own convictions”?
There are some of us who’d say, “I know what I’d do if I were in these situations,” but we say this because many of us can’t fathom being in a situation that poses a moral dilemma. We grow up in school with rules, and we still have that “school” approach to the world: “The world has rules, and we have to follow those rules. No exceptions.” For many of us, this is how we cope with life: we never see a situation in life that has exceptions – except situations where someone is trying to take advantage or exploit someone to his or her advantage (and in these cases, we use these specifics to argue that exceptions are a bad thing). For some individuals in life, there’s no such thing as “valid exceptions.” There are only rules, or so we believe; to us, there are no exceptions.
And yet, there are some of us who read these situations and think, “Man, I can’t fathom being in these predicaments, where I’d have to make a bad choice, either way.” If you’re one of these individuals, congratulations; you’re identifying with those who have tougher choices to make on a daily basis than you, whose lives are not as neatly arranged as yours, and who can’t make clean choices because their lives are not quite so “clean” as yours. In other words, you understand that life, not just in legal matters but in all others, consists of moral dilemmas and decisions in which someone will win and someone will lose – that you won’t make decisions in which “everyone wins” all the time. You understand that there are exceptions to the rules and that the exceptions are there to highlight the rules (thus, upholding them in the process, rather than eradicating them).
Life is not perfect, and, in a perfect world, there’d be no need for exceptions. If we all agree that we live in an imperfect world, then we all live in a world where the “rules” aren’t as rigid as we make them out to be and that there are valid exceptions. And if there are legitimate exceptions or valid exceptions, then we have to learn how to live with those exceptions and be more understanding of others, rather than condemn those who have valid situations that qualify for the label (“exception”).
Today’s text is all about rules and exceptions. It involves Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who is walking through the corn fields with his 12 disciples (whom He chose) on the Sabbath, what would have been Saturday for the Jews (Sabbath would have started for the Jews on Friday evening at sundown and remained through Saturday morning). Remember Moses’ words in Genesis that “the evening and the morning was the first day,” when describing the days of creation (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31)? “Evening and morning” tells us that the evening, what we view as the end of the day, started a new day for the Jews, and that the “morning” constituted the end of that day. When Jesus was crucified on that Friday afternoon, His body was taken down before Friday at sundown because that started Sabbath Saturday for the Jews (John 19:31).
With the Sabbath having come upon the Jews, you’d think that everyone was aware of the rules. Of course, Jesus, being the Lord, and stating that He came to earth not to do away with the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) would clearly know the Law of Moses and follow it perfectly, right? Well, Jesus’ disciples, being good Jews, would’ve been all too familiar with the law as well, but their actions are somewhat jarring to the religious elite (Pharisees) of their day. Let’s jump into the plot.
Note: All Scripture quoted here will come from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) unless otherwise stated.
Religious Rules Meet An Exception (Matthew 12:1-8)
Jesus and His disciples go through the grain, and pluck and eat corn (Matthew 12:1), which was not uncommon in their day. This practice has Its roots in the Old Testament, where the Jews were told to do this to be a good neighbor. Apart from that, the disciples were hungry, for no one eats for the sake of eating; hunger pains move all of us to find food for ourselves, whether we cook it or grab a snack. The disciples were not condemned for eating, since everyone ate on the Sabbath (as well as every other day in the week), and they weren’t even to be condemned for picking heads of grain in corn fields that didn’t belong to them for Deuteronomy 23:25 says, “When you enter into your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.” The disciples could eat from the corn fields because of the law of neighborly love that mandated the Jews open up their corn fields to their neighbor in order that they “love their neighbor as themselves.” If you get hungry, then you can imagine that your neighbor would be hungry and would need something like the heads of corn to eat (hence the reason why the Jews were to allow passers-by to eat from their corn fields).
The problem for the Pharisees was that the disciples “pick the heads of grain,” a practice that was frowned upon on the Sabbath as it constituted “labor” in the Pharisaical tradition. It was the equivalent to them of doing labor on the Sabbath (see Exodus 16). In Exodus 16, the Lord told the Jews that they would receive manna from heaven, and that they would have six days to go out and gather it, receiving more on the sixth day than they’d received all week to make room for eating on the Sabbath (they would be able to eat without having to work the seventh day, though). So, in the context of Exodus 16, to work on the Sabbath day would involve going out and gathering manna; in the context of Matthew 12, the disciples were gathering grain by plucking the heads of corn. In the Pharisees’ minds, they were laboring, working, violating the Sabbath, which is what they tell Jesus: “But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, ‘Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath'” (Matthew 12:2).
The Sabbath Lawmaker and Sabbath Breakers
At this point, Jesus has to respond to the Pharisees claim because they’ve now accused the disciples of doing what is “unlawful,” a label that reflects the wrong nature of their actions. And respond Jesus does: He gives them 1) an example from Scripture that matches the disciples’ current condition and 2) an example from the Temple that matches statements from the Torah, which even the Pharisees could’ve acknowledged as true – both in the written word and in established tradition. In other words, Jesus’s response comes to the Pharisees from the very Law of Moses they believed they knew better than anyone – but Jesus’ reason for using these examples from the Torah was to show the Pharisees that, whatever they knew about the Law, they didn’t know the Law of Moses as well as they thought they knew it.
So, Jesus responds with the first example in the Law, that of David and his companions from 1 Samuel 21:1-6. The context of that passage is that David, on an errand for the king, comes to visit Ahimelech the priest, and he and his men are hungry. David asks the priest for “five loaves of bread, or whatever can be found” (1 Samuel 21:3), and Ahimelech responds that there is no bread available for the ordinary people; there’s only consecrated bread which, according to the law, was available for only the priests; no one was to partake of the consecrated bread but priests only: “6 So the priest gave him consecrated bread; for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence which was removed from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place when it was taken away” (1 Sam. 21:6). Even the Old Testament has to explain away the fact that David gets consecrated bread because the priest giving David the consecrated bread “violated the Law” against it, according to the Law of Moses:
“Then you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it; two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. 6 You shall set them in two rows, six to a row, on the pure gold table before the Lord. 7 You shall put pure frankincense on each row that it may be a memorial portion for the bread, even an offering by fire to the Lord. 8 Every sabbath day he shall set it in order before the Lord continually; it is an everlasting covenant for the sons of Israel. 9 It shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the Lord’s offerings by fire, his portion forever” (Leviticus 24:5-9).
In other words, the Law that mandated it only for the priest had an exception clause in that David was hungry. David’s hunger was a condition that mandated him eating the consecrated bread despite the fact that it was “unlawful” for him to eat it. In other words, the necessity of feeding his hungry stomach took precedence or priority over the Law on the books, which would have starved David and his men if the priest had refused them bread. Jesus says as much in Mark’s account of this same event: “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26)
Mark’s account shows not only that David and his men ate the consecrated bread, but that they did so because, as Mark recounts Jesus, “he [David] was in need and he and his companions became hungry.” There was a physical necessity that mandated the “unlawful” act of eating the consecrated bread that was reserved for the priests. David and his men should have eaten ordinary bread, but there was none available. It wasn’t a choice made in a pool of options, but a necessary choice because no other options existed: either feed David and his men or let them go hungry. So, despite not being sinless here, David and his men were guiltless, blameless, as was Ahimelech the priest who fed them (because he gave the consecrated bread to help those who were hungry; in this case, David and his men).
The priest did not deviate from the Law with an evil purpose; no, he made an exception to the rule because of the need to feed mankind. In other words, the Lord has designed the Law to help mankind, not to hurt him, and any interpretation to that end that does not see to the love, respect, and care of mankind is one that should be revised or trashed altogether. Here, there was a need to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” that overrode the interpretation in the Law that said, “under no exceptions can an ordinary person eat the consecrated bread.”
Jesus seems to have done the same thing in another situation, particularly when the masses came from far and wide to hear Him preach. The disciples wanted Jesus to send them home to get their own food, but the Lord decided to feed them at the location. We can only presume that the disciples weren’t necessarily wrong for their view, but they were thinking along the lines of practicality instead of loving their neighbor (such as the masses who had traveled from all over). It just doesn’t seem to be the right thing to do to send them back home when they could eat on the spot and Jesus and the disciples could show them some hospitality.
The David example was intended to prove that the Law did contain exceptions, but perhaps Jesus used it to portray another pertinent point: since He and the disciples were “on mission for God,” hence, their King, they were like David and his men: traveling all day on a long journey and needed some food. This was the closest thing to a food source that they had available. If the Lord allowed passers-by to glean the heads of grain as an act of neighborly love from the growers, then why wouldn’t the Lord and the Law respect one who had to pluck the heads of corn in order to enjoy the corn? Does it make sense for the Law to require owners to leave their corn fields for gleaning but then declare it unlawful for the recipients to glean the same corn that was left for them?
The example with David and his men and the consecrated bread is excellent enough, but Jesus has another example to prove his point in verse 5: this example concerns the priests in the temple on the Sabbath.
The next rule with exception: Sabbath priestly ministry in the Temple
Jesus has already dispensed with the idea that gathering or plucking grain is “unlawful on the Sabbath,” with the Lord showing through the example of David that those who stand in need are guiltless. Next, Jesus provides the following example:
“Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?” (Matthew 12:5, NASB)
The priests “break the Sabbath” and “are innocent,” Jesus says, but this should prompt us to ask, “how do they break the Sabbath?” What passage, chapters, or book is Jesus referring to here to make his case?
Though we don’t have an official chapter and verse we can go to, we have a plethora of chapters in the book of Leviticus, for example, that pertain to the priestly work on the Sabbath. For example, in Leviticus 24, the priests are commanded to bake the bread for the consecrated bread that is reserved for the priests. The consecrated bread served as a means by which the priestly line, the “sons of Aaron,” would be nourished and fed. And, guess what? The Levites had to bake their own bread for temple worship! Was not the very idea of cooking “labor on the Sabbath,” particularly since the Law forbid anyone to cook on that day (Exodus 20:8-11). In other words, the Pharisees were taking “thou shalt not do any work” so strictly that to them it even involved not cooking food (despite the fact that the priests had to bake their food in order to eat it and be well, not sick).
Jesus says that even the priests “break the Sabbath” or profane the Sabbath and are innocent. In other words, the Law doesn’t condemn these individuals. So, if the Law doesn’t condemn them, then it means that the Sabbath rule can be broken and does have exceptions, valid exceptions.
With verse 6, Jesus says, “6 But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6), referring to the Pharisees’ desire to uphold the Laws regarding the temple. Notice that Jesus uses the example of the priest who gave David and his men the consecrated bread (which was, in the Law, a violation of the sanctuary bread), and He now turns to the priests who “break the Sabbath” by way of baking the consecrated bread and offering sacrifices in the Temple on the Sabbath.
While the Pharisees respect the Temple and the temple laws, they failed to respect Christ, so He responded by mentioning their goal to preserve and observe the temple laws “but something greater than the temple is here.” Jesus was referring to Himself, He being the only one greater than the temple.
What did Jesus mean by the statement that He is greater than the temple? Well, the temple was the place where sacrifices were made to God by the priests, the place where it was said that God dwells. The temple housed the ark of God, “where God was,” says 1 Samuel 3:3. The temple was the place where God dwelled, where people went to encounter the presence of God. And yet, Jesus didn’t need to go to the temple to encounter God because He is God! He is the very presence of God Himself, embodied in tangible form. As John’s Gospel says, “in Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (John 1). Whereas the temple contained the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest could approach once a year, we no longer need a mercy seat because we can go to God and obtain mercy and grace to help in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16). The temple was built for God (1 Chronicles 29:1).
In other words, the Pharisees chose to honor a temple that was an inanimate object, but did not recognize, respect, and honor the Lord, who was greater than the temple, instead accusing Jesus’ disciples (and thus, the Lord) of profaning the Sabbath. As usual, their backward logic was noticeable.
“7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Jesus tells the Pharisees here that they don’t understand what He requires, what God requires of them. They’re consumed with offering sacrifices and won’t dare condemn the priests of “profaning the Sabbath,” but they’d condemn the disciples because they had a need to stop their hunger. They would condemn the Lord because His disciples were trying to preserve their lives when they wouldn’t say a word against the temple or anything going on in it. They approved of buying and selling in the temple and seemed to have no problem with that – even though the Lord never approved of His house being one of retail and merchandise sales (Matthew 21:12-13).
What does it mean that the Lord requires “compassion and not a sacrifice”? This is a reference to Matthew 9:13, where, in an earlier passage, the Lord told the Pharisees to learn what that same statement meant when they mocked him for eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors (Matt. 9:10-13). Even here, 3 chapters later, the Pharisees still didn’t understand what it means to have compassion on the less fortunate and more dependent. Jesus’ mission was all about bringing sinners to repentance, healing those who had sin-sick souls, not coming for people who already believed they were perfect by trying to keep the Law (such as the Pharisees) themselves and didn’t see any need for salvation or spiritual rescue.
What Jesus meant by the statement “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice” can be tricky or difficult for some to understand. Someone would say, “doesn’t this contradict the Lord’s words in Scripture about the importance of sacrifices?” After all, the Lord does mandate offering sacrifices to Him on the altar in the temple by the priest. Here are some examples of verses that affirm the Jews were to give sacrifices to the Lord: The forefathers offered sacrifices (Genesis 31:54); Israel offered sacrifices, so much so that this was Moses’s plea to Pharaoh when he told him that the Lord wanted the Egyptians to free His people, the Jews (Genesis 46:1; Exodus 3:18; 5:3; 8:8, 25, 27; 10:25; 12:27, among others that are listed below).
Genesis 46:1 — “So Israel set out with all that he had, and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.”
Exodus 3:18 — “They will pay heed to what you say; and you with the elders of Israel will come to the king of Egypt and you will say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So now, please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’”
Exodus 5:3 — “Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, otherwise He will fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.”
Exodus 8:8 — “Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “Entreat the Lord that He remove the frogs from me and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may sacrifice to the Lord.”
Exodus 8:25 — “Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.”
Exodus 8:27 — We must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as He commands us.”
Exodus 8:28 — Pharaoh said, “I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away. Make supplication for me.”
Exodus 10:25 — But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice them to the Lord our God.
Exodus 18:12 — Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
Exodus 20:24 — You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.
Exodus 22:20 — “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the Lord alone, shall be utterly destroyed.
Exodus 23:18 — “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; nor is the fat of My feast to remain overnight until morning.
Exodus 24:5 — He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord.
Exodus 30:20 — when they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, so that they will not die; or when they approach the altar to minister, by offering up in smoke a fire sacrifice to the Lord.
Exodus 34:25 — “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread, nor is the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover to be left over until morning.
Leviticus 3:1 — [ The Law of Peace Offerings ] ‘Now if his offering is a sacrifice of peace offerings, if he is going to offer out of the herd, whether male or female, he shall offer it without defect before the Lord.
Leviticus 3:3 — From the sacrifice of the peace offerings he shall present an offering by fire to the Lord, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails,
Leviticus 7:11 — ‘Now this is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings which shall be presented to the Lord.
Leviticus 7:29 — “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘He who offers the sacrifice of his peace offerings to the Lord shall bring his offering to the Lord from the sacrifice of his peace offerings.
Leviticus 7:37 — This is the law of the burnt offering, the grain offering and the sin offering and the guilt offering and the ordination offering and the sacrifice of peace offerings,
Leviticus 9:4 — and an ox and a ram for peace offerings, to sacrifice before the Lord, and a grain offering mixed with oil; for today the Lord will appear to you.’”
Leviticus 17:5 — The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field, that they may bring them in to the Lord, at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest, and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the Lord.
Leviticus 19:5 — ‘Now when you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted.
Leviticus 22:21 — When a man offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord to fulfill a special vow or for a freewill offering, of the herd or of the flock, it must be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no defect in it.
Leviticus 22:27 — “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be accepted as a sacrifice of an offering by fire to the Lord.
Leviticus 22:29 — When you sacrifice a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord, you shall sacrifice it so that you may be accepted.
Leviticus 23:19 — You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two male lambs one year old for a sacrifice of peace offerings.
Leviticus 23:37 — ‘These are the appointed times of the Lord which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, to present offerings by fire to the Lord—burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each day’s matter on its own day—
Numbers 6:17 — He shall also offer the ram for a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, together with the basket of unleavened cakes; the priest shall likewise offer its grain offering and its drink offering. (others include 7:17, 23, 29, 35, 41, 47, 53, 59, 65, 71, 77, 83, 88).
Numbers 10:10 — Also in the day of your gladness and in your appointed feasts, and on the first days of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be as a reminder of you before your God. I am the Lord your God.”
Numbers 15:3 — then make an offering by fire to the Lord, a burnt offering or a sacrifice to fulfill a special vow, or as a freewill offering or in your appointed times, to make a soothing aroma to the Lord, from the herd or from the flock.
Numbers 15:5 — and you shall prepare wine for the drink offering, one-fourth of a hin, with the burnt offering or for the sacrifice, for each lamb.
Numbers 15:8 — When you prepare a bull as a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a special vow, or for peace offerings to the Lord,
Deuteronomy 12:6 — There you shall bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock.
Deut. 12:11 — then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the Lord.
Deut. 12:27 — And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the Lord your God; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the Lord your God, and you shall eat the flesh.
Deut. 16:6 — but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the Passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt.
Deut. 17:1 — “You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep which has a blemish or any defect, for that is a detestable thing to the Lord your God.
All these verses from the first five books of the Bible, what the Jews called the Torah, indicate that the Lord God explicitly told the Jews to offer sacrifices. So, if they were to sacrifice, what was Jesus hinting at here? What did He mean that “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice”?
First, let’s understand something. “Sacrifice” can be seen as both a noun (the object, say, an animal, or money as in today’s time) and a verb (to offer or to give something). Compassion, on the other hand, isn’t a verb; it’s an internal quality, a decision of the heart, a way to describe someone’s character. When someone says, “Joe has compassion,” for example, he or she is referring to Joe’s character, Joe’s personality, Joe’s attitude toward others. This is what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees: “I want you to have a heart of love, a heart that reaches out to help your fellow man instead of a cold, stony heart that only cares about killing and burning a dead animal on an altar.”
It’s interesting to think that the Pharisees placed animal sacrifices before making human sacrifices (such as showing love to their fellow human beings). Earlier in Matthew 12, we discussed how “neighborly” the Lord commanded the Jews to be, so neighborly that they allowed strangers and random passers-by to glean the corn (not take a sickle to it but to pluck corn and eat it, as Deuteronomy 23:25 says).
Well, in the same vein, Jesus also addressed a Jewish lawyer about loving his neighbor. The “neighbor” was a man who “fell among thieves and was left for dead,” according to the text. He had been robbed and nearly killed, and he was laying on the side of the road. The priest and Levite came by, saw the man injured and without proper care, and simply went on their merry way to the synagogue, not even stopping to wait on him or wait and see if someone would come and take him to an inn to receive the proper medical care he needed (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus asked the lawyer which of the individuals involved (priest, Levite, or unknown kind man) was the one who was right with God. The answer? “The one who showed mercy toward him” (the injured man, Luke 10:37a). Jesus said the lawyer answered correctly.
The Good Samaritan has been viewed throughout church history as “good” because he cared for the helpless man, but that’s only part of the story; you see, that was part of the Law of Ritual: help those in need. In fact, the Law said as much. Where the Good Samaritan is called “good” can be found in the fact that he was moved with compassion regarding this man he didn’t know who had been robbed and beaten by thieves. He helped the man, true, but he did so because he put himself in this man’s position and said, “If I were in this man’s shoes, I’d want someone to come along and help me. Since he’s in this unfortunate position, I’m going to help him.” His identification with the plight of this helpless man is what makes him a “good” Samaritan. He did good when it was in his power to do so, even when he knew nothing about the man except that he was a fellow human being, and Scripture tells us to do the same. Solomon’s words in Proverbs are all about loving our neighbor:
“My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:1-4).
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,’ when you have it with you. Do not devise harm against your neighbor, while he lives securely beside you. Do not contend with a man without cause, if he has done you no harm” (Proverbs 3:27-30).
The Good Samaritan met the need right away, immediately. He didn’t ride off, then turn around and come back, or just keep on his way. No, he helped the man because he was given a moment in time to do so. The Lord is good because he exercises compassion and is moved with compassion for the helpless plight of others:
“30 And two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly told them to be quiet, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 32 And Jesus stopped and called them, and said,“What do you want Me to do for you?” 33 They *said to Him, “Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.” (Matt. 20:30-34)
“And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.” (Mark 1:40-42)
The lawyer didn’t get everything right (he didn’t know that his “neighbor” consisted of Samaritans, those the Jews viewed as racial half-breeds in Jesus’ day); and yet, he did understand that the Law and the Prophet hang on just two commandments: “And he [lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
In that regard, we can take away from this that the Law of Love supercedes the Law of Ritual and that, if we put the Law of Ritual as our top priority but have not love and compassion, then our ritualistic practices are nothing but a mere waste of time, just letting the clock tick.
The same case can be seen with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 who wanted to be saved. Jesus told him to obey the commandments, then lists them: “You shall not commit murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:18-19). Loving your neighbor as yourself involved all the above commandments Jesus listed (to not murder, to not violate the marriage vow with your spouse or cause another brother or sister to violate their marriage vow to your neighbor, to not bear false witness “against your neighbor,” to honor your father and mother, who are also your neighbor), but the rich young ruler believed he’d done all these things. He believed that he had shown love to his neighbor and that the extent of the love he’d shown was good enough.
But then, Jesus decides to command something of him that he was simply unwilling to do. The Lord told him to sell his goods to feed the poor, come follow Jesus, and he’d have treasure in heaven. Apparently, that was too much to ask of him (Matthew 19:22). Why? Because he was willing to love his neighbor if it didn’t involve sacrificing his riches. He, like the Pharisees condemning the disciples for plucking grain in Matthew 12, was more concerned about the law of ritual (“all these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” He asked the Lord, v. 20) than he was the Law of Love. Giving up his money, his true Lord (not Jesus, unfortunately), was a trade that was too much for him. Had he understood that the Law of Love (loving the Lord God with everything) moves you to obey the Law of Ritual (sacrificing time, money, and self), the rich young ruler would’ve gained more than he’d owned in the world to come (Matthew 19:29). Because the rich young ruler loved his riches, he didn’t love his neighbor (the poor) and, as a direct result, he didn’t love God. The apostle John was right on the money when he said:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
“By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).
For those who need to know what John is saying, here it is: love is from God, so the Law of Love is the Law of God. Ritual is included in the Law of God (love), because to love God is reflected in doing things for Him. To love Him involves loving our neighbor, so “the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn. 3:10) is not of God, doesn’t love God, and doesn’t know God. So, one can perform the Law of Ritual (included in the Law of God/Love) and still not love God because they hate or don’t care for their neighbor. In a statement, they don’t “love their neighbor as they love themselves.”
Mercy is essential to living with exceptions
The Lord told the Pharisees that He desires mercy and not a sacrifice, but we’ve just started getting at the heart of what this means. There’s much in the Old Testament to commend Jesus’s statement here. In Hosea 6:6, the Lord says, “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Compared to sacrifices and burnt offerings, the Lord desires that His people 1) remain loyal to Him and 2) know Him, have right knowledge of Him, so they can walk right before Him. This is what Jesus meant by desiring compassion and mercy and not sacrifice: He desired that the Pharisees know the truth of His Word and love their neighbor, rather than offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. Again, the knowledge of God mandates the Law of Love (“for love is of God,” John says in 1 John 3), and those who don’t love their neighbor can’t love God: “If someone says ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 Jn. 4:20-21).
Looking back at Matthew 12, Jesus’ words to the Pharisees about compassion and not sacrifice were designed to get them to understand what they were missing in their judgment of the disciples: they were putting the Law of Ritual (to not pluck grain on the Sabbath) above the Law of Love. If the disciples needed to eat (which all men do), and the only food they had available was in the cornfields, then what else could they do but pluck it to have sustenance for their bodies? Had the Pharisees put themselves in the disciples’ shoes and identified with a basic human need, they wouldn’t have made the analysis they did.
The worst part of all of this is that the Pharisees condemned the disciples without offering to give them some of their own food! If these religious leaders felt so strongly about not breaking the Sabbath, but wanted to help their neighbor, then they could’ve said “you shouldn’t pluck grain, but come over to us; we’ve got food for you.” Then, they could’ve helped the disciples avoid an unlawful practice while still feeding them and Jesus.
If the Pharisees understood who God was, the Law of Love, and how ritual should reflect love and “not live by ritual alone,” then they would not have condemned the innocent. By this declaration in Matthew 12:7, Jesus is referring to the disciples, as he did David and his companions, and the priests in the temple, as innocent. In other words, these individuals are not guilty despite the fact that they broke the Sabbath. Why not? Because they had legitimate, God-approved reasons to break the Sabbath: in short, they had valid exceptions to break the rules.
Why can the Sabbath Law be broken? Because the Lord is sovereign
The Lord says in Matthew 12:8 that “8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” This verse says, in effect, that the Son of Man, identified as Jesus Christ in Scripture, is Lord over not only mankind but also the Sabbath day. Jesus refers to Himself as Son of Man:
27 Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” 28 And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:27-28)
5 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He *said to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he got up and went home. 8 But when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:5-6)
26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
28 So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. (John 8:28)
The Son of Man, Jesus’ reference to Himself, is “Lord of the Sabbath,” a reference to the Sabbath that only He, God, could use. Jesus has already told the Pharisees that He was “greater than the temple,” the same temple that they’ve made holy and elevated above everything else (including loving their neighbor). Now, He says that He is Lord of the Sabbath, meaning that He is greater than the Sabbath day, too. Again, the Pharisees have elevated sacrifices and the temple, and, in the situation of Matthew 12, have elevated the Sabbath day to be above the Lord Himself (which is ludicrous). With this declaration, though, Jesus is saying that He is ultimately sovereign over the Sabbath. He can make exceptions on the Sabbath rule because He is the “origin” of the Sabbath and the Sabbath day has its roots in Him:
11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11)
Since the day belongs to Him, and He established the day, He alone can decide whether or not the rule has exceptions. In the case of hungry men plucking grain on the Sabbath, He has decided that His hungry disciples who pluck grain, priests who minister in the temple and offer sacrifices and bake consecrated bread, and David and his men, who ate the consecrated bread that it was unlawful to eat, are all innocent because the Sabbath rule has exceptions when man’s physical and spiritual needs are at stake.
Mankind, as is his Lord, is above the Sabbath day
Mark has similar wording in his account of this event in Mark 2 to Matthew, but he adds one statement that Matthew didn’t add: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” This deserves an entire section to address, but it sums up every statement I’ve made thus far. The Lord is “L” Lord over the Sabbath, but the Lord is not the only one above the Sabbath: man is, too. The Lord made mankind in His image after His likeness, and, since man’s Creator is greater than the temple and the Sabbath day, so is mankind, human beings. Mankind is “son of man,” lowercase “s” and “m,” and thus is “l” lord over the Sabbath. As is the Lord, so is His people.
This statement is not necessarily meant to tell us that we should make the Sabbath whatever we want it to be, but it goes to show that, contrary to the Pharisaical mindset, humans are not subservient to a day; we don’t just exist to honor one day of the week, then no more. The Sabbath day as we know it is not a day where humans cut off living just to honor a set day — even if it means they starve or go without proper rest, nourishment, or work to keep their roof over their head and maintain their financial security. The Sabbath day was intended to help man rest, recover, recoup, and get some refreshment from the usual hustle and bustle of the week:
“13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.” (Deuteronomy 5:13-14)
The Lord intended the Sabbath day to be a day of rest for not only mankind but also the animal kingdom (“your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle” is prohibited from working as well). What we read here is that the day was to be a day of rest, a day of refreshment. In the Old Testament, the Jews were to “remain in their place” on the Sabbath; they couldn’t even leave the house!
The Lord wants us to rest and be refreshed, but one who is hungry (as were the disciples) can’t be refreshed because he or she is hungry. Refreshment comes when a hungry individual receives food (in my church, we call after-service food “refreshments,” and the place where the food is served “the refreshment hall”). Refreshment comes when that individual can rest comfortably in their own home; how can an individual be refreshed in his or her home if he or she is worried about whether or not their home will even remain tomorrow?
We will tackle these examples and others in the next section, but Jesus’ statement about being Lord of the Sabbath means that He knows best how to interpret the Sabbath rule, and if He decides to declare those who labor “innocent,” then how could the Pharisees disagree with Him?
We’ve studied much about Matthew 12:1-8, but we’ve not tackled in any strong detail how to apply what we’ve learned here to everyday life. That’s why this turn in the discussion is reserved for the next section.
II Matthew 12:1-8 and Modern-Day Application
After all that has been said about Jesus, the disciples, the Pharisees, and Jesus’ response to them, the question that lies before us is the following: what are we to do with this passage? How do we take the Pharisees’ incorrect thinking, and Jesus’ teaching, and implement the Lord’s words and actions in our current, modern-day context?
It’s important to think about this because how we answer questions like these will dictate how we live with others in the world, the church, the job, and with the Lord. So, it behooves us to think long and hard about what Matthew 12:1-8 means and what the Lord is trying to tell us. From what I’ve said here, there are a few principles running through it that will prove to be of great benefit to us:
- Eating is a human necessity, and humans must work to live and survive. — As Christians, we are to “bear one another’s burdens,” and this involves understanding that every believer’s life isn’t as comfortable or as idealistic as ours may be.
We can’t assume that our fellow believers have had as much godly influence in their lives as we have, seeing that, as in the Bible days, there are a number of individuals raised without any godly influence. Paul never assumed anything, but always reminded the early churches that, no matter their past, in the present, the Lord had saved them and called them with a holy calling.
If we can’t assume the same godly influence and that every believer went to Sunday School and church service growing up, then we can’t assume that every believer has the same life circumstances that we do. A good case in point with this concerns the fact that when Jesus called the disciples, he called them from various walks of life; Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3), while many others were fishermen (like Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee; see Matthew 4:18-21). Jesus delights in calling us from all walks of life to show us that He has come for all, for every person, for the whole world (John 3:16).
In our time and day, now, we find that believers come from all sorts of professions, backgrounds, and life circumstances. There are those in your own church that seem to “have it made” with their jobs, while others either have 1) part-time work, 2) no work, or 3) some work that just barely pays the bills. Others are established in their careers and have sufficient financial means, while others are so wealthy that they have no financial troubles. With that said, though, some are able to work but have to work long hours — which makes their participation in church less than ideal.
For example, they can’t make “Sabbath” services at church due to long work hours. The person could be a doctor or nurse, or practitioner of some kind; a counselor, who has souls to see after and help heal; a pharmacist, who needs to keep his place open in order to minister to patients who are sick and need medication. You might know a church member or two that has to work as a secretary in a doctor’s office on the Sabbath in order to help the doctor tend to his patients in a more efficient manner.
Medical professions have always been seen as an exception that we’re all too happy to allow, along with law enforcement positions such as police, judge, lawyer, etc. The problem comes in, however, when we consider the plight of fellow believers who don’t have a medical profession or law enforcement profession, believers who work in ordinary fields that mandate Sunday as a day of work. There are those in the IT field who work 7 days a week; what about these individuals? Are they sinning against the Lord because they can’t make Sunday worship?
What about the believer who has been saved at a recent service but is a bartender who’s famous alcoholic, cocktail drinks keep his rent paid and keep him out of the local homeless shelter and off the streets? When he gets saved, or has a real transformational encounter with Christ, what is he to do about his job? He’s serving alcoholic beverages, he’s met Christ who he feels doesn’t want him serving them to his fellow man but doesn’t have any job prospects right now. What does he do? Does he ditch his job (which keeps him employed and mandates Sundays) or continue to work on Sundays while he looks for another job? This is a moral dilemma for most believers, but it’s real life for the person who’s living it. It’s another example of a real life situation where there’s not an unambiguous right or wrong answer.
The disciples were hungry, and the cornfields were all the food they had, so they had to pluck grain to get them. The same goes for those who have jobs that mandate Sunday work: those jobs are the lifeline that keeps the lights on, the water running, the heat and air on, their physical and financial security intact. Without their jobs, they cannot eat, for Paul says that if someone isn’t willing to work, he shouldn’t be allowed to eat: “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
Working, then, is essential to eating, and, as work (plucking grain) was mandatory for the disciples to eat, it is mandatory for some of Christ’s disciples or followers in this current day to work so that they too, can eat.
Paul encouraged the churches to work for their bread and chided or chastised those who chose to be lazy and slothful instead of working:
6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example.10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. 11 For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12)
Notice in the above verses from 2 Thessalonians 3 that Paul chides those who lead an “undisciplined life,” after which he proceeds to say that he and his companion “did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it.” Some in the congregation at Thessalonika are “doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies,” in everyone else’s business but doing nothing productive. Paul admonishes these slothful persons to “work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread,” meaning that they should learn how to tend to their own business and work so that they can eat.
Being nosy and in everyone’s affairs is bad in and of itself, but even worse than this is the fact that these individuals spent all their time nosying around instead of working and putting their energies to any earthly profit or gain. There’s nothing to be gained by being a busybody, and everything to gain by working and sustaining your life so that you can be a blessing to anyone you meet (after all, any man in need is your neighbor, as Jesus demonstrated with the Good Samaritan).
So with that said, some individuals are disciplined but have a job that mandates all 7 days of their time. It’s not the most ideal situation, since Scripture tells believers to assemble together (we’ll get to that later), but, like those who must pluck grain on the prescribed day of rest, these individuals must work so that they can maintain their lives. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” Jesus says according to Mark’s Gospel – indicating that man has to live everyday, not just one specific day of the week (Sunday, or Sabbath). The individuals in question who must work are thinking about their survival for the whole week; they can’t be blindsided by one day at the end of the week, to such an extent that they lose the profit that could come the entire next week.
Now, here’s where some individuals would say that those who have to work should give up their livelihoods for the Lord. “The twelve disciples gave up their jobs for Jesus, so why don’t these individuals just look for a job that doesn’t mandate Sunday labor?” Well, again, the answer is complicated, and there’s no set rule regarding what these individuals should do. Some may be in a position to do that, but not all. For some, they’re in jobs they’ve had for 25 years. Where else will they go, if they leave their job? In their older years, who will hire them? What are their chances of securing a new career when it’s time for them to “retire”? Age is often used against applicants when it comes to job hires, so those individuals may put themselves out of work permanently should they leave their jobs. In that position, then, what would an individual in their 40s or 50s do? There is no clear-cut answer.
Alongside of working to eat, Scripture also tells us to honor and obey our “masters”:
13 Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest
Is a faithful messenger to those who send him,
For he refreshes the soul of his masters. (Proverbs 25:13)
Notice here in Proverbs 25:13 that he refreshes “the soul of his masters,” referring to multiple employers and not just one. In other words, some “messengers” or workers have multiple jobs. Those who work as freelancers are in this situation: they have multiple jobs, as many as 5 or 6 in some cases. I once had 7 jobs that all ran throughout the week, most of them being part-time jobs that only mandate 2 or 3 days at a time. And some individuals in the body of Christ have the same job setup currently: they have multiple “masters” or employers. And yet, even in the midst of those multiple masters, the worker who is faithful, committed to his job, and does it well “refreshes the soul of his masters,” is a great comfort and joy to his or her employer.
Work, then, becomes a way in which we “serve others,” a form of ministry, a form of service…and when we do it unto Christ, as we’ll see in these next few verses, and do it with joy, then we can be convinced in our own hearts and minds that we’re doing the right thing and that our employer(s) and the Lord are pleased – even if everyone at the church has a problem with our Sunday labor. When we approach work in this vein, then, work and church don’t seem so opposed to one another, do they? If work is a form of ministry, and it really is for those who work as nurses, caretakers, and medical personnel, then are we not glorifying the Lord Jesus by working to sustain not only ourselves, but other human life as well?
Proverbs 13:17 is written in the same spirit:
A wicked messenger falls into adversity,
But a faithful envoy brings healing.
The evil messenger or ruthless messenger falls into trouble, only reaps trouble, but the faithful worker brings healing. Again, the idea is one of refreshment, one that is able to help heal wounds of all kinds and be a joy for his or her employer. The wicked messenger, the one who doesn’t perform his job faithfully and does his own thing, is the one who experiences adversity, hardship, struggle, and trouble. The faithful messenger brings healing to his sender; the committed and dedicated employee can also bring healing to his or her employer(s).
5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.
9 And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
Ephesians 6:5-8 describes family relationships, but it’s interesting that Paul says that the Lord will repay everyone for what they do, “whether slave or free.” Of course, it’s likely the case that Paul had in mind that the people were slaves and the masters were free, but in our day and time, slavery has been abolished; there are no longer slaves as there were in the days prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln’s declaration that the Union, the North, had freed the slaves. Now, we are servants with masters, employers who have hired us to do a job for them, by which we are able to feed ourselves, our families, and those we meet who, like the man fallen among thieves, aren’t related or associated with us and need our help.
Slaves should obey their masters “with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as unto Christ,” Paul says. The phrase “fear and trembling” is the same one used in reference to “work out your soul salvation” in Philippians 2:12. “Fear and trembling” is a phrase used to describe those who were afraid or had seen the Lord or an angel, for example. This phrase tells us that we should work for our employers as though the Lord is appearing to us, as though by refusing to work for them, the divine could appear and punish us. By working for them, we work as though the Lord Himself is directly in front of us at the job, there with us from the moment we walk into work until the moment we clock out of work. We should work unto the Lord as if, should He decide to descend and visit our workplace (even working from home), that He would find us faithful.
One should work with reverence for the Lord, which is why it also says “sincerity of your heart, as unto Christ.” In other words, work for your employer(s) and work for them to the best of your ability, giving your all to the work because you reverence the Lord.
You shouldn’t work for your bosses just to do “eyeservice,” just because you have to, but because, by working on the Sabbath, you are working unto the Lord who will repay you for what you’ve done. You are a “slave of Christ,” and you are “doing the will of God” with joy. Interesting, isn’t it, that “the will of God” involves submitting to your employer(s), who may demand that you work on the Sabbath day? When we consider that the Lord demands we work with joy for our bosses, no matter the circumstance, we can see that even working or laboring on the Sabbath can be glorifying and pleasing to the Lord. In other words, contrary to what the Pharisees believed, work was not contrary to the Sabbath Law but in line with it.
The Lord will repay us for what we do, whether we’re an employer or an employee, whether bond or free, so our actions will either bless us or curse us in the end. Not only are workers to remember that, but employers and “masters” as well. Because of that, masters shouldn’t threaten their employees to force them to work: “And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9). This verse seems to imply that masters are saved, but we live in a world where not every boss or employer is a believer.
Colossians 3:22-25 also speaks to slaves on how to treat their masters:
22 Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. 25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.
Colossians 3:22 matches what Paul also wrote in Ephesians 6:5-6, with his admonition that slaves should serve their masters “with sincerity of heart,” and “fear of the Lord” is represented by “fear and trembling” in Ephesians 6:5-6. Paul tells them to do their work as unto the Lord and do it with joy (“heartily”), or, as he’s said before, “sincerity of heart.” They are not to be men-pleasers and do it just to please men, but they’re to also remember that by so doing, the Lord is pleased. Their work, then, is not just secular labor to make a living: it’s also a ministry, a task that, by doing, works the will of God in the process. Work has a secular component, but also a spiritual one, for the Lord ordained that man should work and that, by so doing, he’d have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-30).
For those who do wrong, laborers and workers who don’t do their job or trouble their masters, they’ll stand before God and be forced to suffer the consequences for wrongdoing.
1 Timothy 6:1-2 continue what we’ve studied here about masters and slaves, but this passage goes further: Paul exhorts Timothy to teach submission to masters so that the doctrine of the Christian faith wouldn’t be opposed, to give Christianity a good name in the world:
6 All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. 2 Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles. (1 Timothy 6:1-2)
Slaves are to treat their masters with the utmost respect and give them as much honor as they can “so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against.” Paul was concerned that the Christian faith spread and grow and reach far and wide, and Christians insulting their masters and frustrating their plans would serve to halt the spread of the faith rather than encourage it.
There were some in the congregation at Ephesus that had Christian masters, and Paul told Timothy to teach and preach that these masters were to be obeyed and honored “all the more” than secular masters because of the faith (the fact that the master and the worker were both saved and in the family of God meant that slaves were to honor them beyond the slave-master relationship). While they were slave and master, in the kingdom of God, they were “brothers” in the faith and children of God – which is an even better relationship than the social slave-master one.
Timothy was to teach and preach this. Why? Because it is right. It shows us that loving the Lord our God involves working to have discipline (discipline is a godly thing), and when we have discipline and work and honor and respect our masters, we’re not only serving our neighbor (by honoring our masters and other patients or people we meet), we’re also honoring and serving the Lord. We’re serving “unto Christ,” or “as unto the Lord,” not unto men. There’s a higher, spiritual purpose to work, one that transcends far above working to look good in the eyes of our neighbors, family, and friends. We’re not just working hard and honoring our bosses to look like a community icon or an upright example to follow. We’re working hard because working with masters over us is “the will of God,” as Paul has said. Working to fulfill the will of God means that, when we 1) don’t work and serve as a busybody or 2) fight against our masters (bosses), we’re fighting against the will of God. As children of God, we’re to stay in the will of God and “understand what the will of the Lord is” as Paul says in Romans 12.
In additional evidence, here are the words of Titus 2:9-10:
“9 Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.
The word for “masters” here is the Greek word “despotes,” meaning “despots” or “rulers.” The word could also mean “lord,” with the word for “bondslaves” here, doulos, also refers to servants or bondservants. As for “well-pleasing,” this means that servants should do whatever they can to make their bosses or masters happy. Remember what I said earlier in Proverbs about the faithful messenger and how he is like cold snow – refreshing to the one who sends him? Additionally, servants are not to dispute or argue against their masters (the word “pilfering” refers to this). You are not to go to work and dispute your boss everyday just because he or she has demanded you work Sundays and you don’t want to work because of your church commitments. If your boss mandates Sunday work, then you should work it – even if it means sacrificing your place in the church choir or in children’s church, even if you can’t do women’s ministry, men’s ministry, or travel with your Pastor to hear him or her preach.
Yes, being active in church is never a bad thing, but to disagree with your work schedule and to continue to badger your master (boss or employer) because he or she mandates Sunday labor is to fight against the will of God — and no believer should fight the will of God because the Lord orders the steps of the righteous (Psalms 23:8;). Only an unrighteous heathen would oppose the steps of the Lord. A righteous believer who’s adhering to the Word of the Lord should respond with surrender to God’s Word and do what He commands.
Last but not least, the Lord tells us to honor and obey our Masters, even if the master is ungodly and hard to work for:
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. (1 Peter 2:18-20)
Here in 1 Peter 2:18-20, Peter uses wording that sounds familiar from Paul: he says that servants are to submit to their masters, “also to those who are unreasonable.” Notice that the word “unreasonable” is placed in opposition to “good and gentle,” meaning that these masters are mean and cruel, and yet, Peter says to submit to them. The word for “unreasonable” in the Greek is skoliois, which means anything from “crooked,” “unscrupulous,” “perverse,” to “wicked” and “unfair.” So, submission to masters isn’t just for “the Christian bosses,” as we say; it’s also for the ungodly and heathen bosses, the ones that make you work the third Sunday in a row while your fellow coworker is experiencing his or her third Sunday off work. Even in such an atmosphere where you’re made to come in to work and labor beyond normal hours, you’re to do it because the work is your Christian ministry, being done to not only make a living but to please the Lord and accept His will.
Why should you honor a dishonorable Master or boss? You should honor him or her because to do so shows the Lord that you are suffering unjustly. The Lord approves of those who are suffering for His name’s sake, rather than suffering for their own wrong. When you work as a child of God and are persecuted because your wicked boss knows that you are a Christian and intends to make life hard for you, you’re suffering for the name of Christ and the Lord is pleased and will bless you. You’ll find favor with God because you’re suffering for the wrong inflicted on you by your evil boss – not because you’ve been disagreeable with him, or fighting against your mandated Sunday work schedule because you believe you should be sitting in church service on the Sabbath.
The Scriptures are clear about the importance of man working so that he can eat; that working shows discipline and that the undisciplined life consists of one who spends his or her time in everyone else’s business rather than see after his or her own affairs; and that, to have a successful work life, one must submit to his or her bosses – even the ungodly, unChristian, and irreligious. Submission to your boss is not optional, it’s mandatory. God has prescribed that you submit to your boss, and there are few exceptions to this rule (but if your life is in danger, then you should seek the help of law enforcement and family and friends who can help protect you).
Leaders in the church, in particular, are expected to have excellent work relationships with their coworkers and employers because these relationships will determine whether or not they are qualified to serve in the church:
4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity 5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), 6 and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. 7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:4-7)
- The Sabbath Law is a biblical rule, and, as with every rule, there are violations
The Sabbath is a special day that the Lord told His people to observe; those who rebel and dishonor the day were stoned or put to death in the Old Testament. Take Leviticus 26:2, for example:
You shall keep My sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary; I am the Lord.
The Lord says here, in no uncertain terms, that the Jews were to “Keep My Sabbaths,” letting them know that the Sabbath day was from Him and that they were to honor it and the sanctuary on those observance days. Let’s look at another.
‘Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. (Deuteronomy 5:12)
Simply put, the Jews were to honor the Sabbath because “the Lord…commanded you.” The Lord commanded it, and the Jews, His people, were to follow it.
“So You made known to them Your holy sabbath, And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, Through Your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 9:14)
The Sabbath day was a Law given to the people “through Your servant Moses.” Moses, then, was a servant of God who gave God’s law to the people. There is no shortage of Sabbath references in Exodus because it is in Exodus that the Lord, having rescued His people from 430 years of Egyptian bondage, gave His Law to Moses (this includes what we call The Ten Commandments, Exodus 20) on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18-22).
31 As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego the crops the seventh year and the exaction of every debt. (Nehemiah 10:31)
Nehemiah 10:31 is part of the covenant oath that Nehemiah and the people made to honor the Law of God. In it, they discussed living in the land with other people from other nations and they agreed to remain dedicated to God’s law, even if others weren’t dedicated. The Law forbid the Jews to buy and sell on the Sabbath, and Nehemiah and the people commit to that here. Their commitment to it shows just how sacred it was before God.
This example comes from Nehemiah as well and pertains to Jewish interaction with the Gentiles who were buying and selling on the Sabbath day, a sacred day in which the Jews were to neither buy nor sell:
15 In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished them on the day they sold food. 16 Also men of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the sabbath, even in Jerusalem. 17 Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? 18 Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.”
19 It came about that just as it grew dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and that they should not open them until after the sabbath. Then I stationed some of my servants at the gates so that no load would enter on the sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the traders and merchants of every kind of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 Then I warned them and said to them, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will use force against you.” From that time on they did not come on the sabbath. 22 And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come as gatekeepers to sanctify the sabbath day. For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness. (Nehemiah 3:15-22)
Nehemiah saw the Gentiles selling food on the Sabbath, as well as importing it for sale, and he admonished not the Gentiles but the Jews buying the food. He uses the phrase “profaning the sabbath” (Nehemiah 13:17-18) to refer to their violation of the Law of God concerning the day of rest.
Another sabbath was soon to arrive and Nehemiah decided to take some preemptive initiative by preventing buyers from even entering Jerusalem’s gates in order to tempt the Jews into violating the Sabbath law. Things got so bad that he had to threaten to use force against the sellers, but his plan worked: they stopped gathering outside the gate and eventually left the Jews alone. Nehemiah’s actions show that the Sabbath was a law to be followed, that the Jews were charged to observe it. Of course, nothing happened to the Jews here; they weren’t stoned to death, or struck to death, or “cut off” from God’s people. We don’t get anything here except an admonition from Nehemiah. Of course, the people promised not to buy and sell in the contract they agreed to in Nehemiah 10, so Nehemiah was providing the accountability they needed to fulfill their vow.
Thus says the Lord,
“Preserve justice and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come
And My righteousness to be revealed.
2 “How blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who takes hold of it;
Who keeps from profaning the sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 56:1-2)
The Lord says here that the one who will be saved is the one who “keeps from profaning the sabbath.” The word “profaning” here is “bebelow,” meaning “to desecrate, profane, or defile ritually.” The Lord says here that the man who is blessed is one who does not defile the sabbath.
Jeremiah 17:19-27 points to blessings and curses for those who either keep the Sabbath day or profane it:
19 Thus the Lord said to me, “Go and stand in the public gate, through which the kings of Judah come in and go out, as well as in all the gates of Jerusalem; 20 and say to them, ‘Listen to the word of the Lord, kings of Judah, and all Judah and all inhabitants of Jerusalem who come in through these gates: 21 Thus says the Lord, “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem. 22 You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers. 23 Yet they did not listen or incline their ears, but stiffened their necks in order not to listen or take correction.
24 “But it will come about, if you listen attentively to Me,” declares the Lord, “to bring no load in through the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but to keep the sabbath day holy by doing no work on it, 25 then there will come in through the gates of this city kings and princes sitting on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and this city will be inhabited forever. 26 They will come in from the cities of Judah and from the environs of Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the lowland, from the hill country and from the Negev, bringing burnt offerings, sacrifices, grain offerings and incense, and bringing sacrifices of thanksgiving to the house of the Lord. 27 But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy by not carrying a load and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.”’” (Jeremiah 17:19-27)
The Lord says here that Israel will always have Jerusalem as its inhabited place and that kings will reign upon the throne of Israel as long as they obey His word and honor the Sabbath; if they fail to do so, the Lord will devour them.
12 Also I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes and they rejected My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I resolved to pour out My wrath on them in the wilderness, to annihilate them. 14 But I acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, before whose sight I had brought them out. 15 Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands,16 because they rejected My ordinances, and as for My statutes, they did not walk in them; they even profaned My sabbaths, for their heart continually went after their idols. 17 Yet My eye spared them rather than destroying them, and I did not cause their annihilation in the wilderness.
18 “I said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers or keep their ordinances or defile yourselves with their idols. 19 I am the Lord your God; walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and observe them. 20 Sanctify My sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God.’ 21 But the children rebelled against Me; they did not walk in My statutes, nor were they careful to observe My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; they profaned My sabbaths. So I resolved to pour out My wrath on them, to accomplish My anger against them in the wilderness. 22 But I withdrew My hand and acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. 23 Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them among the lands, 24 because they had not observed My ordinances, but had rejected My statutes and had profaned My sabbaths, and their eyes were on the idols of their fathers. 25 I also gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live; 26 and I pronounced them unclean because of their gifts, in that they caused all their firstborn to pass through the fire so that I might make them desolate, in order that they might know that I am the Lord.”’ (Ezekiel 20:12-26)
The Lord spared the Jews, even though He accuses them here of profaning His sabbaths, or violating His Sabbath Law He made with them. They deserted His Sabbaths because “their eyes were on the idols of their fathers” (Ezek. 20:24), meaning that they didn’t observe the special days that were not only the seventh day of the week but even for the first days of feasts (see for example) because they had fallen prey to the gods of the nations around them.
16 “All the people of the land shall give to this offering for the prince in Israel.17 It shall be the prince’s part to provide the burnt offerings, the grain offerings and the drink offerings, at the feasts, on the new moons and on the sabbaths, at all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel; he shall provide the sin offering, the grain offering, the burnt offering and the peace offerings, to make atonement for the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 45:16-17)
The prince’s offering demanded the contribution of everyone in Israel, and the prince was to provide all the offerings required (with the contribution of the nation), even “on the sabbaths.”
As can be seen from these verses, the Sabbath day was to be observed; it was a rule that was meant to be followed. The Lord gave strict words to those who didn’t, and His servants like Nehemiah strictly admonished those who decided to buy on the Sabbath anyway (buying and selling were forbidden on the Sabbath).
The Pharisees were not wrong to know the Law and point out violations (plucking the corn was a violation), but they were wrong to condemn the disciples for something that was a human necessity. They needed to eat, and they weren’t plucking corn for the sake of doing it. They were plucking corn to fill their stomachs with food, and they were told to pluck with the hand rather than gather with the sickle because a handful was all they needed to survive for the meal.
In modern life, it’s a good thing to know and honor the rules; there’s nothing wrong with rules, but there’s something wrong or sinful within us when we can’t accept exceptions and love individuals who qualify on the basis of valid exceptions. In other words, do not place ritual above righteousness. When an individual needs to eat to live (or work so that he can eat and live), and cannot afford to go to church service on Sunday, we should show love to such an individual by calling and praying for him or her — not by railing on them because they were unable to attend. We’ll get into more on acts of love below.
- The Sabbath Law has exceptions, and Jesus approves of them
Jesus responds to the Pharisee Sabbath violation claim with two examples to show that the Sabbath Law leaves room for exceptions: (1) David and his men who, while on a mission for the king, stop by the temple and eat the consecrated bread to feed their stomachs (they were “in need,” as Jesus says in Mark) and (2) the priests in the temple who work every Sabbath. The example of David is taken from 1 Samuel 21:1-6, while the second example is taken from Exodus, Leviticus, and other OT books.
In today’s world, there are individuals who, like David and his men, must eat and violate laws to do so. David and his men had a need to eat, regardless of what the law said explicitly about the consecrated bread being priest-exclusive. Today, regardless of the Sabbath Law and what it says about observing the Sabbath, some are unable to observe it strictly because of necessity reasons such as the need to work or the need to rest, among others. Like the priest Ahimelech in 1 Samuel, we need to be understanding of the human need and value human need above any given day. Observing the day is worthless if it infringes upon human need or harms human life.
The same can be said for the priests in the temple. They minister so that the people of God can fulfill their vow to assemble together on the Sabbath, and pastors, preachers, teachers, and choir singers do this today. These individuals are “profaning” or “breaking the Sabbath” so that the people of God are ministered to and grow in their faith to the Lord. These individuals, though technically and strictly, are violating the Sabbath, are meeting human need above the Law and are right with the Lord.
Now, most have never thought about the fact that preachers, pastors, teachers, and choir singers today in the church are violating the Sabbath Law along with the priests as it was written in the OT, but they are. Jesus doesn’t use the example of the priests in the temple because the Pharisees were condemning them for the temple work, but because they put so much praise and commendation on the temple work – despite the fact that it was violating the letter of the law regarding Sabbath observance. When the Pharisees realized that even the temple workers whose work they prized in the temple were violating the Sabbath Law, then they’d realize that, in some sense, we’re all guilty of violating the Sabbath Law if the letter of the law is observed.
Since the Pharisees would not condemn the temple and its workers such as the priests, then they should not have condemned the Lord and His disciples because Jesus is greater than the temple.
In other words, by using two examples of exceptions to law violations within the law, Jesus Himself shows that there is at least one exception to the Sabbath rule: if the Sabbath rule clashes with human life, then preserving human life is to be the top priority above whether or not one keeps the Sabbath law or not. In real life cases, this refers to someone who is a medical professional who must go into work or visit a patient instead of going to church on Sunday. For someone else, it may mean checking in on their relative and staying at home while the rest of the family goes to church. It may even involve staying home to go over and fix your neighbor’s roof instead of going to church, or finding their lost animal, or putting out a forest fire for your neighbors some 30 miles away.
The Sabbath may be a day of physical rest for some people who cannot make it to church due to long work hours and the need to rest before returning to work on Monday. After all, the Lord made it a day of rest, so why not rest on that day? For the Pastor who’s worked double shifts back to back and hasn’t had a moment’s rest, why should he be forced to forgo even more rest and put himself in danger – when he could stay home and recover from an exhausting week so that he can return to full form in his ministerial work next week? The day was made so that the pastor could rest. If he needs physical sleep with his sleep undisturbed, then is it not necessary for his recovery and physical health? We’re only at our best when we have food, drink, and rest. In the absence of those things, whatever the reason, we are unable to carry on without them. We are not immortal, you know.
Yes, there are exceptions to the Sabbath Law, and there are valid exceptions. Christians who are unable to attend church due to exigent circumstances are those who, under normal circumstances, would attend church. If these individuals love the Lord, and have shown their desire to attend church but are unable to for some indefinite period of time, then it’s far more likely these individuals have legitimate reasons behind why they’re unable to, reasons that not even the Lord would hold against them. The disciples had to pluck grain to eat, and these individuals have to work to earn their bread. The Lord approves of the exceptions he quotes here in Matthew 12, and, if the Lord Jesus approves of Sabbath exceptions, then so should we.
- The Lord desires mercy and compassion over ritualistic sacrifices
I’ve said it in this study time and time again that the Lord desires that we love our neighbor rather than concern ourselves with following the Law strictly. In the case of the disciples plucking grain, the Pharisees refused to put the love of their fellow man and a human need to eat above their value of the Law. If the Law said that plucking grain was forbidden on the Sabbath, despite the human need for food, the disciples should starve themselves (according to the Pharisees). This is the kind of thinking that places the Law above love of neighbor, and it characterized the Pharisees’ behavior in nearly everything.
The Lord stressed the importance of loving one’s neighbor and doing good above offering ritualistic sacrifices. Here are a few passages to that end:
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
You rulers of Sodom;
Give ear to the instruction of our God,
You people of Gomorrah.
11 “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”
Says the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
12 “When you come to appear before Me,
Who requires of you this trampling of My courts?
13 “Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to Me.
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
14 “I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 “So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
17 Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:10-17)
Here in Isaiah chapter 1, the Lord says that He is fed up with the Israelites’ offering because their deeds are evil (“remove the evil of your deeds from My sight”). They won’t be clean until they “learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” the Lord says. In other words, until they learn how to love their neighbor (the orphan and widow) and remove the evil (“reprove the ruthless”), their sacrifices won’t do them any good. The Lord also calls their offerings “worthless,” says “bring them to me no longer,” the incense is “an abomination to Me,” and “I hate your new moon festivals and feasts,” says the Lord – an indication that their offerings, once acceptable, have become unacceptable because of the condition of the nation’s hearts toward God. Even if your offering is a sweet-smelling savor on its own, without the sacrificial heart to go with it, the Lord won’t accept it.
It’s hard to think that the Lord wouldn’t accept an offering, but He won’t accept these because the condition of the heart is what He wants first above all else.
3 ‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
4 “Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
5 “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?
6 “Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
7 “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 “Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
10 And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday. (Isaiah 58:3-10)
In Isaiah 58:3, the Lord quotes the Jews, who are asking why they fast and humble but yet, the Lord doesn’t notice or see it? The Lord then asks them about their understanding of a fast: He mentions “bowing one’s head like a reed” and “spreading sackcloth and ashes as a bed,” references to the external signs of fasting. And yet, the Lord says that to Him, true fasting is to 1) give bread to the hungry, 2) give the homeless shelter, and 3) cover the naked (Isa. 58:7). To the Lord, the type of fasting He wants is to see them love their neighbor and show that love in tangible deeds, not to see them put on sackcloth and ashes and bow one’s head as though they’re performing nothing more than an outside display of what is lacking within. Jesus taught the same thing to the masses about the Pharisees:
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:23-28)
When it comes to the Pharisees, Jesus says that they tithe always but “neglect the weightier provisions of the law,” which He says concerns justice, mercy, and faithfulness, “without neglecting the others.” In other words, tithing is not bad, but tithing without the heart and without pursuit of righteousness is nothing more than pure ritual. Ritual above righteousness was “the Pharisaic Way,” but Jesus wanted righteousness above ritual. They had it all wrong!
They gave tithes, but had no mercy. They gave tithes, but had no justice, no sense of right or wrong. The Lord refers to them in Matthew 23:27 as “whitewashed tombs” that look clean on the outside but “are full of dead men’s bones” on the inside. In other words, they are righteous only in appearance. In the starting verses of Matthew 23, Jesus says that the masses are to do what the Pharisees say, but to not follow their example: they “do not what they say,” an indication that they “talk the talk” but fail to “walk the walk.”
Prior to Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees, the Lord had already said other things about the Pharisees that show just how much priority they placed in external ritual instead of internal righteousness:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-6)
16 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
Jesus refers to the Pharisees as “hypocrites” in Matthew 23:23, so we know who He’s talking about here though he doesn’t say “Pharisees.” What He says is that they “neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting.” They have to appear as though they’re fasting with a long drawn face and terrible appearance so that everyone can see the look on their face of someone so “devoted to ritual and so fervent in faith” that they become impressed with Pharisaical fasting. And yet Jesus says that this isn’t what God’s children should do, because it’s about the internal nature of the heart, not the external nature of the person.
Luke 18:9-14 is probably one of the most known passages on the Pharisees. It’s the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector), one in which the Pharisee does what Pharisees do: he puffs himself up and exalts himself above the “sinful” tax collector, presuming himself to be spiritually superior to the then-IRS worker:
9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
The Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18 starts out so holy and righteous and humble, does it not? “God, I thank You…” He did good in these first four words, but everything went downhill after that. He pointed out other people in his prayer that he believed were worse than him (swindlers, adulterers, unjust persons), and then singled out the tax collector. Then, he boasted of the so-called righteous deeds of his: “I fast twice a week, I pay tithes of all I get.” Fasting and tithing, to the Pharisee, was what it took to be righteous in God’s eyes — and he had that, in his mind. The problem with his assessment is that he focused so much on his external rituals that he put them above internal righteousness.
The tax collector, with nothing to brag of, begged the Lord to have mercy on him. He didn’t have anything to brag about, but that was the point of the story: humanity has nothing of itself to brag about. All of our good, all of our external rituals that we use to demonstrate piety to God are nothing if our hearts aren’t right with the Lord. The Pharisees were willing to put ritualistic observance of the Sabbath above the disciples’ biological need to eat, simply to observe the day for outward appearance. Again, they just didn’t understand that serving the Lord involves loving the Lord your God “with all your heart,” in addition to the external ritual.
- The Lord doesn’t condemn the innocent; neither should we
The Lord has told the Pharisees to discover what it meant that He desired mercy and not sacrifice. Here, they miss the boat once again, putting ritual above righteousness and love of their neighbor’s welfare (in this case, the disciples and their opportunity to be fed). What’s indicting in Matthew 12 is that the fields left for the disciples to pluck grain in were done so because the owner(s) had love for his neighbor, leaving the fields for them to eat from even if he didn’t know their names, backgrounds, or anything about them. How sad is it that the Pharisees, who supposedly knew the Law inside and out, weren’t able to translate that knowledge into love for their neighbor!
The Lord declares David and his companions who ate the priestly bread, the priests who work in the temple on the Sabbath, and His disciples innocent, and He told the Pharisees that, if they knew what His word truly meant, if they knew the Scriptures as well as they believed they did, then they wouldn’t have “condemned the innocent.” The Lord declares the disciples and the biblical persons mentioned in the examples He cites in Matthew 12 as “innocent.” Jesus uses this word twice, once in verse 5 of the passage, the other here in Matthew 12:7. With this emphasis, it appears as though Jesus was making a point about these supposed “lawbreakers,” that they are innocent while the violation-judging Pharisees are guilty.
The word “innocent” in the Greek is anaitios, meaning “blameless” or “guiltless.” A similar word is used in Matthew 27:24 when Pilate says that he is “innocent” of Christ’s blood and imminent crucifixion. In other words, he is blameless and is not responsible. The individuals released by Jesus from any blame for their breaking the Sabbath are blameless and cannot have their Sabbath violation held against them. The Law, while being seen by the Pharisees as promoting ritual, shows that even ritual should work to love your neighbor, not harm him or her.
The Lord is saying that the individuals who’ve had to violate the Sabbath Law for human need are blameless, that the supposed “sin” of commission regarding the Sabbath is not laid to their charge. In other words, when human need clashes with the ritual laws, human need takes precedence over it. Jesus is declaring here that, under some circumstances, there are valid exceptions that don’t bring the consequences of Law violations. In the case of the Sabbath, there are some individuals who must work and can do so with confidence that the Lord doesn’t hold it against them. And, if the Lord doesn’t hold these exceptions against individuals, then we shouldn’t condemn them, either.
When we condemn people in these situations, we are being Pharisaical, putting the day above human life. Jesus also says that “the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” giving the hint that even the Sabbath day is subordinate to man, that man’s needs trump observing one day for the sake of honoring that day. Yes, the Sabbath is to be a day unto the Lord, but a person who spends the day getting rest or helping someone has also done Christian ministry and has worked that day unto the Lord as well.
- Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and, in His sovereignty, has made exceptions for its observance
Jesus has made a declaration, contra Pharisaical judgment, that the ones the Pharisees condemned He declared innocent. Now, Jesus tells why He has declared them innocent: because He is Lord of the Sabbath.
During the entire discussion, the Lord never told the Pharisees that they were wrong about the Sabbath rule, that it didn’t exist, or that they were interpreting it wrong. No, the Sabbath Law exists, as we’ve covered in quite a few verses on the subject. Yet and still, we find that the Lord still declares these persons innocent, even in the midst of a Sabbath violation (including the disciples who plucked grain on the Sabbath) due to the human necessity that mandated breaking the law.
What this goes to show us is that the law and human needs don’t always work well together. Take the example of marriage and divorce: while both are considered to be polar opposites, Jesus does allow divorce under certain circumstances such as adultery (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9). While divorce is forbidden by the Lord in most cases, there are some where it is allowed. These cases are called exceptions, and no man is above the Lord to the point where he can decide the Lord’s exceptions are wrong. “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath,” Jesus says, reminding the Pharisees that, no matter the Law, none of the Law could be placed above Christ. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that Christ and life in Christ Jesus is better than the Law and its consequences:
19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. 20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. 21 Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. 22 But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:23-26)
The Law serves a purpose, to show us our sin and our inability to abide by it, but the Law was meant to lead us to Christ. It was our tutor, until the True Teacher, Christ, came on the scene. Now that Jesus Christ is here, Paul says, we no longer need a tutor (the Law) anymore.
Now, what I think Christians must do is step back and understand the importance of the Law. It isn’t a mistake, it isn’t a “plan” that didn’t work. It was a tutor, meant to teach us what holiness is. Christ is holiness embodied, and when He came to earth, He did His share of teaching in parables about the kingdom of heaven and what it is like, why we shouldn’t worry about our needs, how to pray (The Lord’s Prayer), and so on. Jesus was the Master Teacher who showed us the principle behind the Law that we read in the Old Testament. The Pharisees are an example of those who, though having studied the Law, were still blind as to the heart of the Law itself (which emphasized love of neighbor and love of God from the heart as opposed to ritual), demonstrating the need for the Divine Teacher to come and make things plain.
The Pharisees believed that loving the Lord God involved following the Law, but the problem they had is that they couldn’t understand that loving their neighbor was the second of 2 commands that the Lord said summed up the Law and the Prophets:
34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
The whole of the Law, then, could be summed up with these two commandments: 1) to love the Lord with all your being and 2) to love your neighbor as yourself. The Pharisees believed that ritual and Law were the way to love the Lord, but they had no love for their neighbor. They believed that by keeping the ritual, they were showing their love for God – but it was nothing more than show. Externally, they looked devout and pious but internally, they were corrupt and wicked. They didn’t love the Lord because they couldn’t show love to their fellow man. That’s what they didn’t understand: the Law did not leave room for the Pharisees to love the Lord while failing to love their neighbor as themselves (“if you’ve done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me” Jesus says in Matthew 25:34-40). If they loved their neighbor, the Lord would’ve been pleased with them because the rituals, done from a heart of love for neighbor, will please God. They didn’t love their neighbor, so any external rituals were nothing more than play-acting. Anyone can play-act: that doesn’t make someone saved because they’re good at playing a role and acting on stage. Someone can say they’re in love, but just because they hold hands with someone and kiss them throughout the day doesn’t mean they love them. They could be seducing that person to drain them dry and leave them destroyed – but some people get consumed by appearances and naively presume that, if something looks legitimate or genuine, then it must be (but that’s not always true). The Pharisees didn’t love their neighbor, and thus, everything they did against their neighbor they did against Jesus Christ (see Matthew 25:41-46).
The Lord is above the Sabbath; He set the Sabbath rule (Exodus 20:8-11), and He is sovereign and can establish exceptions if He pleases. He has been pleased to establish exceptions, and quotes exceptions from the OT to show us that even the Law itself wasn’t as strict as the Pharisees were making it out to be. If these exceptions exist in the Old Testament and in the Law, then the Pharisees were wrong to take such a strict view in regards to the disciples who were simply plucking enough grain to eat and have some form of human refreshment to live.
Since He is sovereign, He has granted exceptions to the rule, whether we like it or not. Our understanding of the rules of Scripture is as follows: if the rules have exceptions, then the rules are undermined and the rules are no longer rules. And yet, this type of naïve understanding forgets that exceptions can only be established in the presence of rules. Without rules, there can be no exceptions. And there are no exceptions in the absence of rules. Rules acknowledge that the Lord has set demands for His children, but exceptions to the rules demonstrate God’s love in that certain life circumstances deny believers the ability to do certain things (and that believers in those situations need mercy).
The problem with the Church as a whole is that we’ve come to have the same thinking as the Pharisees: if there are exceptions, then there are no rules. We want to have rules without exceptions because we believe that the rules treat everyone equally. The problem with this, though, is that not everyone’s life circumstances are the same, so how then, can every single person be treated the same in everything? The Lord’s sovereignty is seen in not only the rules, but in grace. He gives grace, but He does not give grace equally to all (as can be seen in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-15, 16-30):
14 “For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. 16 Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. 17 In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more. 18 But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “Now after a long time the master of those slaves *came and *settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
22 “Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
24 “And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. 25 And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’
26 “But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. 27 Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. 28 Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’
29 “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30 Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30)
The Lord didn’t give an equal number of talents to all His servants: He gave one 5, another 2, and the third servant 1. Notice that “5,” “2,” and “1” aren’t the same number, showing that the Lord gave unequal amounts of talent. And yet, the Lord’s justice mandated that each servant use the talents he was given. The wicked and lazy servant wasn’t punished because he didn’t have 5 talents or didn’t make 2 talents; he was punished because he didn’t use the 1 talent he had been given. Those who are unable to attend church like others shouldn’t be responsible for doing that which they cannot do; instead, they should be treated based on their exceptional circumstances. If they can only come 2 Sundays a month, then they should be given the benefit of the doubt with regard to the other 2 Sundays. Someone who can make all 4 or 5 Sundays a month should attend service, but, then and again, the church should have love toward all – even if they can only make 1 Sunday at most. Again, loving our neighbor comes with understanding that there are some individuals who are exceptions to the rules. If our rules are so rigid that it causes us to harm our neighbor instead of love him or her, then our interpretation of the rules must change, not necessarily the rules themselves (although there may be some that do need revision depending upon how impossible to achieve they are).
I can attest to a friend of mine who has been the victim of what happens when the Church approaches its neighbor with such strict severity that leaves no room for exception. I know a friend who loves tech and is passionately committed to the field. He’s been covering mobile tech for 5 years now, chasing the major companies, their phone announcements, as well as the most renown mobile platforms. And in the last 5 years, all his jobs in the tech world have mandated his Sundays so that he hasn’t been able to attend Sunday services as he once did. Prior to his mother’s death, he was a minister of music at his church as well as a teacher and preacher of Scripture. He was active in everything from Bible Study to Homecoming services and then some. His parent died a few years ago while he was at seminary and he’s been fully on his own with no financial support since then. He’s had to work for his bread every day, seven days a week, even as high as 80 hours a week while pursuing a postgraduate degree at seminary. You’d think that in those circumstances, there’d be some compassion from his seminary in regards to Sunday attendance. The seminary always mandated Sunday attendance, and he was a faithful attendee while his provider parent was living. Death forced a change in his circumstances.
Unfortunately, his seminary was anything but understanding. He was told that he had to sit on a church pew nearly every Sunday in the semester or else, he could no longer pursue classes at the institution because they wanted all their students to be active in Christian ministry. Somehow, by working and helping save money to bless his elderly grandparents in lieu of his parent’s absence and blessing friends of his who couldn’t work and depended on him for food wasn’t “ministry” enough for them. And, in the end, when he got so burdened down financially that he could no longer pay his rent, his seminary of 9 years pretty much tossed him high and dry and the Dean of that institution suspended him for a semester – which, according to school rules, constituted a second semester he was unable to take classes (couldn’t afford tuition) and was the seminary’s way of kicking him out of the institution and program.
I know, I know, it’s hard for some folks to believe this happened, but I wouldn’t believe it unless it happened to someone I knew. It did happen. After all the kindness he’d extended at seminary (paying for meals for friends and families that have yet to this day to repay anything, creating a home for friends who had no home, helping all those he could reach out to, all while being a student and doing his best to adhere to seminary rules and regulations), the seminary “rewarded” him by suspending him from the institution and telling him that, even if he had no one to drive him to church, he was still “responsible” for getting there.
Can you believe that? After all the good he’d done for others and the seminary with his financial investment and love of his neighbor, the seminary responded by kicking him when he was down (figuratively speaking), tossing him out of seminary and cancelling his academic program.
It’s a sad story in and of itself, but what’s even more unfortunate is that this was done at a seminary, a place where the Word of God is preached, studied, and discussed, where men and women can go to learn the “deeper things of God,” a place where you’d think, just like you’d think about the Pharisees, that “these people will get interpretation right. Matthew 12:1-8 shows that there are exceptions to the Sabbath rules, and a seminary would get this right. A seminary that upholds the Bible would get this right. A seminary devoted to studying biblical languages and interpretation would get this right.” Unfortunately, the seminary he attended was only teaching and preaching in order to collect tuition and rent money from students; they weren’t serious about the Word of God and applying it because, if they were serious, they would’ve seen that he was an exception. No one in their right mind would tell a student he was responsible for getting to church when he had no transportation, worked from the internet, and couldn’t secure a ride despite asking numerous people. What else could he have done in his situation to make things better? Nothing. And to make matters worse, the seminary is of a certain Protestant denomination, and the student in question wasn’t a member of that denomination (but he was there because it was closest to home so that he could be near his parent who was suffering with breast cancer at the time).
He gets mistreated because of his circumstances, but how was it his fault? How was it his fault that his parent died? How was it his fault that his friends graduated and left school, and he couldn’t secure rides from other students because no one wanted to drive him? And what about the people in charge? He was seeing a seminary counselor whose job it was to help students. Why couldn’t the seminary counselor get out of his comfort zone and give the student a ride to church? Why couldn’t the Dean give the student a ride to church? Why is it that the people up top barking commands couldn’t reach in their pockets and give some cash and/or a ride to regular church services? Why is it the case that the people in charge who were barking orders were the ones that, like the Levites, saw the man along the side of the road but were too busy to help?
In all their reading Scripture, writing books, studying Scripture, and preaching Scripture day in and day out, they didn’t see and understand how to apply Matthew 12:1-8. If they had, a dear friend of mine might still be at seminary and might have graduated this past May with his postgraduate degree. The seminary in question was as guilty as the Pharisees Jesus encountered: they were so busy being strict, trying to craft rules for everyone, that they left no room for exceptions. Exceptions are messy and require some room be made for laws to be broken. Humanity likes to have rules because the rules can be made and applied to everyone; exceptions are a public way of understanding that not everyone can fulfill the laws we set.
Exceptions require us to get into people’s lives and treat them differently, and we don’t like exceptions because we’re afraid of how we’ll be perceived if we treat others based on their circumstances. And yet, the love of God is shown when we learn how to give a break to those who need it, and remain disciplined toward those who need it. Jesus excepted the priests, the disciples, and David and his companions from following the strict letter of the Law because of their immediate needs to eat and minister to the people of God (priests). The disciples needed to eat, and the Lord Jesus excepted them from the punishment due to those who violated the Sabbath rule.
If Jesus, one greater than the temple, could make exceptions, why couldn’t the Pharisees? More close to home: if Jesus could grant exceptions and declare those individuals innocent and guiltless, then why couldn’t the seminary declare my friend innocent with regard to Sunday observance? Where was the love of neighbor that the seminary read in the Scriptures? Where was the love of neighbor found in the Word of God that they studied on a regular basis? Unfortunately, the seminary was to him what the Pharisees were to their society: the so-called religious elite who didn’t know the first thing about the Scriptures. Sadly, the so-called “teachers” needed Jesus to teach them what they should’ve known. If they couldn’t understand the basic stuff, what were they teaching the people? And if they were teaching rightly but living wrongly, how much of the right teaching did they actually believe? Very little.
- The Strict Sabbath
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees about breaking the Sabbath and exceptions to the strict Sabbath rule give modern-day Christians food for thought today. The Pharisees themselves weren’t keeping the strict Sabbath they demanded of everyone else, and today’s believers aren’t keeping the Sabbath as strictly as the yoke they set on everyone else, either. Have you met or know someone in your family that holds to Sunday observance strictly, that always reminds you of the need to attend church, and tells you that, should you not go, you’re “forsaking the assembling” of the saints?
Well, I’m about to give you some biblical ammunition to use against these individuals. What you may never have thought about (and what I’m sure these critics have never thought about) is that they don’t keep the Sabbath as strictly as they believe they do. Here are a few reasons behind this.
First, if they’re as strict a Sabbath-keeper as they presume to be, why don’t they attend church service on Saturday, the original Sabbath? After all, Sabbath was the seventh day of the week (which is Saturday), not Sunday, the first day of the week. In Exodus 20:8-11, the Lord says that they are to rest on the seventh day because He rested on the seventh day after creating the world. Also, Sabbath didn’t start on Sunday; it started Friday evening at sundown. This is why Jesus’ body was taken down from the Cross before the Sabbath day (Sabbath is on Saturday; the day before Sabbath is Friday), according to Mark 15:42-47. If Friday is the day before Sabbath, then Sabbath has to be Saturday, not Sunday. Why then, do Christians worship and attend church on Sunday?
Here’s where you’ll hear something along the lines of, “Well, Jesus rose the first day of the week, so Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday.” And yet, how did Christians get this special right to move Sabbath (or Shavat, as the Jews call it in the Hebrew tongue) from Saturday to Sunday? What biblical commandment have Christians received, or what exception does the Law make for the day of Sabbath worship? How did we gain the authority to move Sabbath from its original day (Saturday) to another day that we decided works best for us?
By meeting on a day outside of Saturday, we are breaking the Sabbath and violating the Sabbath law. We’re not remembering the Sabbath day, as the Lord told the Jews, because we work on Saturdays, cook on Saturdays, drive out to town on Saturdays, mow our lawns, fix our cars, go shopping, bake food, and perform other errands on Saturday. Thus, we’re all in violation of the Sabbath rule. This is in addition to the ministers and church staff in our day, who work on Sunday to perform church service and minister to the church congregation. As the priest break the Sabbath, so do pastors, teachers, preachers, elders, deacons, and other church staffpersons like musicians and choir singers. If the Sabbath Law says to remember Saturday and keep it holy, then we’re all violating the Law because we’re not remembering Saturday as the day of worship, but Sunday instead.
The next question becomes for some, “How did we arrive at Sunday as the ideal day for the Sabbath?” Well, there was a need for Christians to meet and worship together, so some day had to be selected. Romans 14 tells us that, while the Jews observed 1 day, the Gentiles viewed all days alike. This was the debate in the early church at Rome, with Jews and Gentiles fighting over not only the day of observance but also whether to eat meat and vegetables or, as the Jews believed, to keep kosher and eat vegetables only:
5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. 7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:5-9)
Notice that Paul mentions the two positions on worship: there are those who regard 1 day above all others, and there are those who regard “every day alike.” To regard every day alike means to treat every day the same, not to exalt one specific day above another. Since the Jews were the ones who kept the Sabbath, as we’ve seen through a plethora of passages in Scripture that testify to it, the Gentiles were those who had never had a specific day to worship. The Gentiles were not God’s chosen people originally, so they did not have a day to worship. Of course, the Lord did mandate that Gentiles who visited Jews observe the Sabbath day as though they were Jews:
14 If an alien sojourns with you, or one who may be among you throughout your generations, and he wishes to make an offering by fire, as a soothing aroma to the Lord, just as you do so he shall do. 15 As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the Lord. 16 There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.’” (Numbers 15:14-16)
This seems to be the principle behind Gentiles who lived as Jewish “proselytes” or converts and were present in the Upper Room in Acts, for example, but on the whole, the Gentiles had no specific day they were commanded to worship — which is what the dispute in Romans 14 was all about. The Gentiles were not allowed to come into the land of the Jews and worship differently, though; they were commanded to worship as the Jews when in the land of the Jews. Paul doesn’t mandate a specific day, but instead tells every believer to “be convinced in his own mind,” to have his own conscience clear about how he worships. The one who observes a particular day does it to the Lord; the one who doesn’t observe a particular day lives every day to the Lord. Believers are not living for themselves, so, a set day or not, they’re still living for the Lord and can rest assured that the Lord accepts their worship regardless of how alike or different it is from someone else’s.
With that said, the question still remains: where did Sunday worship observance come from? It comes from early church history, from the fact that many in the early church worked Saturdays and could not take off Saturday to observe worship. The history of the Sabbath is an interesting one indeed, but for those who want a quick look at the history without diving too deeply, I recommend the following article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord%27s_Day
The article is shorter than the research required to discover all the inns and outs of the Sabbath day. In a brief analysis, Saturday was the Sabbath day of the Jews, but, since Christ fulfilled the Law in its entirety, in the same way that Christians do not keep or observe Jewish feasts, early church believers did not need to observe the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). Since Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Sunday), Christians decided that Sunday would be their day of observance. Even when Constantine declared that Sunday would be the Sabbath for the Roman Empire, he still designated that agriculture workers or farmers, as we know them to be, would have a choice to decide whether or not they could afford to take the day off or be forced to continue working because Sunday was the ideal day to grow crops and sow new ones.
Of course, there is some biblical precedent for the first day of the week as the designated day of Christian worship:
7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. (Acts 20:7-8)
In Acts 20, we see that the early church was gathered together to not only feast on physical food but also the Word (“he prolonged his message until midnight”). So, in this sense, worship services today could be held on Sunday since the early church was observing its gathering on Sunday.
There’s more evidence for Sunday gathering:
16 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. 2 On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. 3 When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem; 4 and if it is fitting for me to go also, they will go with me. (1 Corinthians 16:1-4)
Here again, the saints are to save money “on the first day of the week” for the collection for the saints (to help fellow believers who were in financial need). The reference to Sunday here shows that these believers, as was the case with the Galatian churches (“as I directed the churches of Galatia,” Paul says), are to set aside a freewill offering for the Church’s less fortunate (the “church” referring to believers as a whole, no matter the church; the church universal, we’d say). We could say, based on these passages about Sunday gatherings, that the church had an understanding about Sunday being their Sabbath rather than Saturday.
There seems to be good basis for this, though there is no inherent commandment or mandate to have church service or worship on Sunday. In fact, the same Paul that assembled to preach on Sunday in Acts is the same Paul that wrote in Romans 14 that everyone should worship in the liberty of their conscience. So, there was no prescribed day to gather in the Lord’s name, at least not one that Scripture mandates. With the set day for believers to assemble being fluid, the rest of the New Testament confirms this: that, while believers are to assemble, whatever day they assemble is fine as long as they’re giving a set time unto the Lord each week.
What this goes to show is that 1) there was a strict Sabbath day, Saturday, but that the Gentiles, upon getting saved, decided to designate a new day of worship (for whatever specific reason). 2) the new Sabbath day for Gentile Christians was set for Sunday, not Saturday, and that this became a normal thing because Christ fulfilled the Sabbath Law of the OT. What we also learn is that 3) now, since the Sabbath Law has transferred the day of observance to Sunday for many, the early church and modern-day church has established the Sunday Sabbath as a strict rule that mandates observance. We’ve torn down one day (Saturday) but built up another (Sunday); torn down one rule (Saturday Sabbath) but mandate another (Sunday Sabbath). Are we not Pharisees in our own right, who mandate our new “Sabbath Law” and force people to adhere to it at the expense of their lives, when we forbid them to work for their bread and sustain their livelihood (even through proper bodily rest) on the “Sabbath”? When we make Sabbath observance on Sunday a weekly thing that we mandate believers to keep, are we not going beyond what the Scriptures teach about believers assembling together to worship?
Here’s what Scripture teaches us about worship:
19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25)
Yes, we are to assemble together and encourage each other to love one another and do good deeds. Yes, we need to assemble because we’re all vital to the church and the body of Christ. And yet, where we assemble (whether in a house or sanctuary), what day and time we assemble, and the nature of our worship services are a matter of agreed-upon preference. Since there’s nothing set in stone, we can’t impose this upon everyone. Even in a church where everyone has agreed to Sunday, life circumstances change and situations change. Some members that were once able to attend on Sunday are now having to forgo that due to work and life situations. When life situations change, the church must be willing to change with them.
If the church pastor gets unemployed due to layoffs but then finds a job that mandates his Sundays, then the church has to be flexible and work with the man or woman of God, not against him or her. If the church Pastor needs to move worship observance to Thursdays, for example, then the church should cooperate. The church staff may need to move worship to a day other than Saturday or Sunday so that they can minister to their families and ministry patients. If they need this done, then the church should move the date to accommodate their leaders who serve them in the Word and ministry. This provides some relief for their ministry staff leaders so that they are able to handle their families and ministries while still being faithful to the flock of God.
The Word of God leaves some things up to preference and personal choice; not everything about how, where, and when we worship is explicitly dictated in Scripture. So, the deciding factors related to place, time, and the nature of the worship service will have to be agreed upon with each congregation. In Baptist life, for example, each church is autonomous and can make their own decisions (even those that differ from another Baptist church). Presbyterian life is different, since councils dictate the laws for the churches. Methodists also have councils to answer to that hold them accountable for their actions, so council churches will have different rules that may mandate changing and voting on rules (or having them dictated by a few council members). Baptist churches will probably vote on the change of issues, or amendments to current church laws allowing the specific worship service time, place, and weekday to change as the need arises. A number of rules and regulations exist in Catholic and Protestant denominational life because there are no explicit rules in the text of Scripture.
The same can be said for the Lord’s Supper, what we call Holy Communion: Paul tells us to observe this “as often as” we do it (1 Corinthians 11:26). In other words, there’s no set number of times a week, month, or year we are commanded to observe the Lord’s Supper. If you observe it once a month, four times a month, or 18 times a year, you can observe it as much as or as little as you prefer; as long as you observe it with your heart slanted toward God, the Lord is pleased.
With all the variables that are open-ended, and the fact that the Sabbath itself has been changed for the Christian church and moved beyond its original day, we shouldn’t be surprised that some individuals, living in an unsaved world or a world where business and work are key to livelihood, would have to work on the agreed Sunday Sabbath. The Sabbath is a rule that we should remember in principle, but how we observe it and the exact nature of what that looks like will differ across the board. It turns out that seventh-day Adventists aren’t necessarily wrong (contrary to Baptist belief) because they observe the original Sabbath worship day. Baptists are not wrong either, contra many seventh-day Adventists, because they choose to worship on Sunday. And, contrary to many Christians, those who need to “pluck grain” in their context (work on the Sabbath) are not wrong, because “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” Jesus says. The Sabbath was made to help meet man’s needs, not designed as a day of ritual to harm his livelihood and deprive him of his needs.
III. Is Sabbath worship tied to the church?
This is a question that deserves something of its own separate treatment, but ties into our study here on the Sabbath and worship on the day itself. We’ve talked about how some modern-day Christians are Pharisaical in that they judge those who must “pluck their grain” and cannot honor the Sabbath as they do. In this section, though, we want to explore the Pharisaical idea behind the criticism about strict observance of Sabbath: is Sabbath worship tied to the church or even a building, for that matter?
Jesus tackled something similar to this very discussion in John 4 in His encounter with the Samaritan woman:
19 The woman *said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus *said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:19-24)
The Samaritan woman, in her encounter with Jesus, talks about worshipping on a given mountain. She was a Samaritan, and Samaritans didn’t worship on the same mountain as the Jews because the Jews and Samaritans were at racial odds with each other. Samaritans were considered to be “half breeds” of Jewish and Gentile parents, while Jews were considered to be “pure breeds,” claiming the Law, the Temple, and even salvation as theirs. Jesus Himself claims His Jewish heritage in this very passage in John 4:22).
And yet, regardless of the mountain where one worshipped, whether the location of the Jews or the Samaritans, Jesus wasn’t concerned about a location or place of worship; instead, He wanted to convey that worship should be with one’s whole being and that it should be right worship. There’s a right way to worship God, and, when done in the right way, worship toward God is acceptable to Him, regardless of place or location.
In application, Jesus is saying that whether one worships in a church or outside a church, true worship with a sincere heart toward God is what counts for something. Using this argument, then, we can say that Sabbath worship need not be done in a church building. Yes, the Jews worshipped in the temple or synagogue, but a number of early churches were house churches:
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles; 5 also greet the church that is in their house. Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia. (Romans 16:3-5).
Priscilla and Aquila worked with Paul in ministry and risked their lives for him. They had a house church, and Paul notes this when he says “Greet the church that is in their house.” Priscilla and Aquila didn’t have a church building but instead met at home, and Paul commends their work rather than tear it down.
15 Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. (Colossians 4:15)
Here Paul greets the gathering in Laodicea, and Nympha and her church. While some say that the Nympha here, listed as feminine in the NASB, could really be masculine (this is to be discussed at a later time), we can see that she had a church in her home, and Paul greeted the church. Since she’s greeted first before the house church, we can presume that she headed up the church. She could have very well been an early church Pastor of a home church.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he addresses the church over which Philemon presided:
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, 2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon, vv. 1-3)
Notice that Paul gives the same greeting he gives the other churches (“grace to you and peace…”), an indication that there was nothing inherently wrong with house churches. These believers didn’t meet in a sanctuary, but God’s grace and blessing were still upon them and the congregations that assembled in their homes. They were still worshipping the Lord in spirit and in truth, even in the absence of an elaborate building or sanctuary structure.
At the end of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he greets Aquila and Priscilla, who, apparently, also had a house in Corinth at one point or another:
19 The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. 20 All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (1 Corinthians 16:19-20)
Aquila and “Prisca,” or “Priscilla,” we’ve already met in the church at Rome. Apparently, they also had a church in Corinth, so this couple likely served as early church planters, establishing home churches in the area, then deciding to move around after these fledgling churches began to grow and establish themselves.
We could give more examples of this, but this will suffice. We can see from Paul’s letters that he blessed those who had house churches, not condemned them, and we can be sure that, if a church today meets in a home and not a sanctuary, God is pleased with their worship if it’s done with their whole being and in the right way.
Have you ever met people that’ve told someone they had to join a church before they die? I’ve seen it quite a bit in my life. Whenever fellow believers attempt to win someone to Christ, you’d think that Christ would be the center of the conversation. Unfortunately, the center of the conversation is the church: “you have to join the church,” they say. I always thought it curious that salvation was of the Lord, all about Jesus saving us from our sins, but that people who accepted Christ had to join a church, even if death was knocking on their door. Well, being older now, I’ve come to understand that, in my circles, some individuals are told to join the church in order to have a burial plot on the church grounds to be buried. Those individuals join the church because church law dictates that their families must pay something should the loved one die without being a church member in good standing. So, the individual joins the church so that he or she can be buried there without the family having to pay some crazy amount of money to bury the loved one elsewhere.
And yet, is this not Roman Catholic theology? Is this not what Roman Catholics believe? Roman Catholics taught the same thing: if someone dies and they’re not in good standing with the church, and they don’t have the priest to come over and perform “the last rites,” then that person has died out of the state of grace rather than in it. In fact, believers who faced excommunication in the Roman Catholic church were treated as though they were outside of salvation and the saving grace of God, and they were treated as though they didn’t even belong to God. Martin Luther had to correct this in his day, as he suffered excommunication by the Roman Catholic church. So, the whole “you’ve gotta join a church” adopts the mentality that says, “if you’re not joined to a church, you’re not joined to Christ (John 15:4-5).” The problem with this is that there’s nothing that can separate an individual from the love of God (Romans 8), including a particular church or lack thereof.
What about the thief on the Cross, who didn’t have time to join a church before his death (Luke 23:39-43) ? What about the laborers who entered the vineyard at the last hour? They didn’t miss anything and received all that the all-day laborers received (Matthew 20:1-16). Above joining a church, the individual must be joined to Christ. No matter the condition of that individual physically, if he or she accepts Christ as their personal savior, they are saved – whether or not they ever get to do any work in a church building. For Christ, it’s about being joined to Him and following Him. All the other things are important, but they’re not the most important. More than having your name on a church roll is to have your name found in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 21:27; Revelation 20:15; Philippians 4:3).
The Lord cares more about hearts and acknowledging He is Lord than He cares about tradition and ritual. Tradition and ritual are important, just not as important as the condition of the heart. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth, not “in a certain mountain” or place. True worship is a sweet-smelling savor to the Lord, even if it’s on an airplane or over a Skype conversation on the internet.
IV True worship in the modern-day context
We’ve discussed the importance of true worship, that the Lord favors a sincere here over external rituals performed well, and we know that the Lord condemned the Pharisees because of the state of their hearts. We’ve also talked about John 4 and how, regardless of the mountain, the Lord wanted the Samaritan woman to truly worship Him with all she had, with a most sincere heart. The Lord is seeking these kinds of worshippers, Jesus told her (John 4), leading us to understand that true worship doesn’t put faith in “sacraments,” “relics,” and “location” such as a Temple or a church building.
So, today, what does this look like for some modern-day believers? Well, the best place to start is with common believer statements. At my church, whenever we talk about praying for believers, we refer to them as “the sick and shut-in.” I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase a million times as well, and it’s a familiar one, though I don’t think most churches fully understand what it means.
When we refer to the sick, we’re referring to those who have an ailment or medical condition in body that can’t get to church due to the restraints of their body. We often visit the sick in our churches, and do our best to pray for them and serve them in any way possible. When it comes to “shut-in,” though, we just presume that these individuals are the sick ones, but that’s not true (otherwise, why even refer to the “shut-in”? Calling them “shut-in” is redundant in that line of thought, since they’re already shut-in by virtue of being sick). These shut-in are trapped in their homes or some other location and are away from church for various reasons, but they’re all part of the body of Christ and should be prayed for, even in their absence from the gathering of believers that our churches conduct each week.
One such case pertains to inclement weather. Snow is 6 feet high, my friend in New York has to help her dad dig their vehicles out of the snow, and the snow is starting to topple the front door. Can she make it to church? Probably not. She fits the definition of someone who is shut-in, even if her condition with the snow is temporary. Someone else could be shut-in taking care of their sick children. Such an individual is staying home and ministering to his or her children, which is the mark of a godly parent. Caring for the home is an excellent indication of how a person will serve in the church. A shut-in person could be someone who is too far away from a church and cannot attend any worship service at all.
I once watched a televangelist on TV who had people calling in to ask him questions. One woman came on the air and asked him about help for her situation. She lives 2 hours away from the nearest church, and it would be a full-time job for her to drive 2 hours one way and 2 hours back (4 hours total) on Sunday, on bible study nights during the week, and so on. She has become part of the “media church,” a gathering of believers online and home via television who have no other means of getting to church for worship. It’s hard to believe that in America, some individuals are still geographically shut-in, but it’s true.
Part of the reason behind why I think we’re so sacrament and building-driven is because we don’t seem to have knowledge of how to survive in the modern-day context. What does a person do who is shut-in? Well, let me encourage you if you’re a person who’s shut-in from the church gathering: you may be shut-in, but you’re not shut-out, and the Lord loves you and welcomes your worship, just as you are, just where you are. You don’t need to feel inadequate, as though you’re away from the Lord and separated from His love. Nothing can separate you from His love, not even geographic location and lack of building access. You have other venues that technology has made possible so that you can worship Christ in spirit and in truth. There’s the internet, where you can go on and watch sermons, discuss the Word in forums, and even interact with individuals online. You can even have some Skype bible study sessions with some believers and that counts as sincere worship. I was blessed to have such an experience this past week, where I shared this material I’m giving you with friends of mine who live states and hours away from me. We had a blessed time in the Lord, our hearts were encouraged, and our souls were revived, knowing that wherever we are, the Lord is with us, and remembering His promise: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).
You, too, can rest assured that if you’re a child of God and His Spirit lives within, that He is with you no matter where you are. For the soldier who reads his Bible alone every morning at 3am in his or her war tent and longs for the gathering of the saints, he or she can be assured that the Lord is there, wherever they are. For He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5b). “For I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
For the believers who are unable to get out and about due to their long work hours and crazy schedule, they can engage fellow believers on the internet by scheduling an internet bible study on Skype. There are a number of web applications today that let you group video chat and engage your friends from behind a computer screen, and this is a great way to not only see your friends but to study Scripture as well. Since there’s no formal meeting in a church, there’s no formal, “stuffed shirt” dress attire, no concerns about your hair being out of place (I taught Bible study last Thursday night on Skype and didn’t care that my hair was weird-looking), and no concerns about getting personal about the things that affect you and the things you need prayer for or want prayer about. And, you can have a meal and “break bread” together by eating dinner, breakfast, or lunch at the same time. It’s not quite The Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples, but technology has afforded us an opportunity to share moments with those we love and care for without having to be in the same room.
Computers, tablets, smartphones, and television are just some of the technology resources the Lord has given us that help keep us connected to fellow believers and loved ones. These are tools the Lord has given us, and they come in handy when we can’t be in desired places. So, with that said, if you’re tuning in to Sunday worship by way of a loved one’s computer (you’re at home, watching the service on Skype), then you’re still there in the service. You can still see everyone, talk to them, and feel as though you’re there. Though you’re at home, or stranded at the airport, you can still “be at the service” or the believers’ meeting.
For those who are true worshippers, even using these mediums can provide a true worship experience because, when you put your mind on the Lord and take your mind off ritual, praising the Lord at the airport, on the beach with the sand beneath your feet, or in the car with the church service playing on your iPhone or Android device, you can still worship the Lord as though He’s right there with you – because He is.
We’ve said more than enough here to the point that I don’t need to say any more. God’s Word illuminates the heart and mind and shows us our prejudices, biases, and presuppositions. Believers have become something of modern-day Pharisees with our insistence that one day in particular, whether Saturday or Sunday, is the specific day we are to meet (that is the rule, no exceptions). The problem with this approach is that, like the Pharisees, the criticism against those who are unable to attend service due to health, geographic location, or other reason is one that lacks love for one’s neighbor. Jesus didn’t want the disciples to starve in order to observe the day, and we shouldn’t want fellow believers to forgo eating bread just to observe the day. Even in the fourth century AD, when Constantine declared Sunday as the new Christian Sabbath, agricultural workers still got to work on the day in order to earn their bread from the harvest (Constantine didn’t want the food of the land to be lost just for the sake of one day of the week). Why it is the case today that we want to bash believers who work on Sunday is beyond me.
Next, we are in no place to demand Sunday as the inherent Sabbath day that we must meet without exception because it isn’t the original day the Lord designated as Sabbath in the Old Testament. The original day was Saturday, and, despite some biblical evidence in the New Testament that the early church chose Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection, as its designated day, the Lord hasn’t left one shred of information in His Word to hint that we “must” meet on Saturday or Sunday. In fact, if at a given church the believers are available for Thursday or Friday night service, they can gather in His name and He is in the midst of them.
The Lord did not condemn the disciples nor the priests who minister in the temple, but using the priests as an example was to get the Pharisees to see how hypocritical they were: they could excuse the priests in the temple from Sabbath rest but couldn’t make exception for the disciples, who were plucking grain so as to fill their hungry stomachs. The Lord Jesus quotes exceptions to the Sabbath rule and then gives His approval of them by declaring the named parties “innocent” and “guiltless.” The end result is that the Pharisees lacked compassion and mercy and if they really knew the Law, they would’ve thought about these exceptions before forbidding the disciples to provide themselves with immediate need.
The Lord made the Sabbath day, and, as a result, has sovereignty over it. He made the rule, and He can make exceptions. To many of us, these exceptions seem to undermine the rule, but the Lord doesn’t engage our logic here. Instead, He says that “the Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath.” For those today that want to be hard-hearted and stiff-necked like the Pharisees, without making any exceptions in the Law for breaking the Sabbath, the Lord says the same thing: it doesn’t matter how you feel, because He’s Lord over the Sabbath, and He gives grace in various amounts to those He wills to give it to. You, me, and those we know and love don’t have the same blessings, so this shouldn’t be hard to understand. What the Lord wants us to do above all is to know where we stand with Him and to make sure that He owns our hearts, minds, and bodies first. The rituals are a wonderful aroma to the Lord when we first “present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). When our all is on the altar of our hearts, and the Lord is the one we give it all to, then He’ll accept the rituals and the gifts.
And for those who are sick and shut-in, remember that you’re not shut out. The Son of Man is not only Lord of the Sabbath, He’s also Lord over your life and mine and the true “scorekeeper” of all that man does here on earth. When we stand before God, all that matters is that we worshipped Him in spirit and in truth and that we loved the Lord and our neighbor. If Christians believe that we’re saved by grace and not through our own merit, then pew-sitters have nothing more to brag about than internet church members. Our circumstances, as well as the trials and tribulations we face throughout this life, will all be a testimony to the Lord’s goodness and grace – both now and when we’re finally at home with Jesus in eternity. To God, be the glory!
Author: Deidre Richardson
Deidre is happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to use the comments box below!