On a Sabbath

Sermon preached on Luke 6:1-11 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 09/19/2021 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Today, we get to think about Jesus and the Sabbath. In the Bible, a sabbath is a holy day of rest, most routinely one day in seven. As a holy day, it is a day not just for physical rest from our labors, but especially a day to set aside to spiritually rest in God, through worship, and especially in assembling together for worship as God’s people. This was an institution God established from the very beginning of creation as we find in Genesis 1-2. God made the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, therefore God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. So then, we see in the Bible that God’s people observed a weekly sabbath even before God delivered it as the 4th Commandment to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The prophets taught regularly about the value of the Sabbath and, when needed, corrected the people when they were not observing it properly. After Jesus rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath, on the first day of the week, we see the church begin to keep that day, Sunday, as their Christian weekly Sabbath. So then, Jesus here, joins in that revelation about how to properly observe the Sabbath, giving some needed corrections. But what Jesus contributed to this is not just as another prophet adding a further word about the Sabbath, but he speaks as the very Lord of the Sabbath.

That is where I’d like to begin in our first point. I’d like to speak for a moment about this statement in verse 5 where Jesus declares, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”. That assertion is the basis for what Jesus says and does in this passage. Let’s begin with the language of the “Son of Man”. Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man” here. In fact, this is Jesus’ common way throughout his teaching ministry to refer to himself. So far, this is the second time he’s done that in Luke’s gospel account. The first time was last chapter, in 5:24. That’s when he spoke of himself as the Son of Man having authority to forgive sins. It’s interesting that statement was also a question of authority as we see here in today’s verse when he refers to himself as the Son of Man.

So, what is the significance and meaning of this title of “Son of Man”? Some have proposed that it is Jesus’ way of humbly emphasizing his humanity. While we know that Jesus is also the exalted Son of God, he doesn’t go around referring to himself as such, but in seemingly comparative humility, he refers to himself as the Son of Man. While I do think that is true to a degree, I think Jesus’ usage of it is more than that. Because in statements like right here and the one I just mentioned in last chapter, they speak of someone with great authority. Interestingly, if we look to the Old Testament usage of this term, we see a similar ambiguity. For example, in the book of Ezekiel, God repeatedly refers to the prophet Ezekiel as “son of man”, but it doesn’t seem to be used in any special way other than God speaking to a human prophet. Yet, in the Daniel 7, we see that the “son of man” language gets used in a quite an exalted way where it describes one like a son of man coming before God who is then given an everlasting and universal kingdom. So, even the Old Testament precedence on how this title is used is marked with some ambiguity.

Yet, I suspect that’s the whole point by Jesus using it. As we’ve seen and will see, at this point he’s rather guarded with how he reveals his identity as the Christ. So, he instead picks a more mysterious term that could be used for the Christ, but also could just be used for a prophet, and he lets his ministry and teaching reveal over time the significance of that title. For indeed, Jesus is that son of man in Daniel who is the Christ and King of an everlasting kingdom whose authority and dominion is over all. Jesus is not just another prophet, not just another son of man, he is the Son of Man who comes with all divine authority on earth.

So then, Jesus reveals a little more of that authority in this passage. So far, think of what Luke has shown us about the authority of Jesus. In chapter 4, we saw that Jesus has authority and power of the demons and also over illness, commanding both demons and sickness to leave people. Last chapter, we saw he had authority to even forgive people of their sins. Now, in this chapter he says he has authority over the Sabbath. That’s what this means when he says that he is the “Lord of the Sabbath”. That is the meaning here. For Jesus to be Lord of the Sabbath is to say he is the authority over the Sabbath. He’s exercising his dominion here in this regard when it comes to the Sabbath. A lord or king of something gets to magisterially make laws and decrees. A lord or king is also the ultimate judge of whether someone has violated those decrees.

Compare this status of Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath with his critics in these two episodes. His critics have presumed an authority on the Sabbath that is not theirs to have, but Jesus does have that authority. You see, at best, a human religious leader among Israel would have only limited authority over the Sabbath. We would speak of the authority of human leaders in the church as ministerial and declarative. They are ministers or servants of God and his laws, not the one who decrees the laws or gets to make their own laws. They are but servants of the law. So then, their authority is in declaring the law of God because it is the law that inherently has the authority. If they deviate from that role of declaring God’s word, then they no longer speak in authority. Human religious leaders have only this ministerial and declarative authority. Jesus, on the other hand, to call himself Lord of the Sabbath declares himself to be the magisterial authority. So then, when the Pharisees bring their oral traditions to try to require Sabbath observance more than what the Bible required, the Pharisees have no authority to do that. But Jesus, here, when he speaks to add additional light and nuance to how to observe the Sabbath, he is in his authority as Lord of the Sabbath to do so.

So that’s our first point of our sermon today, to understand Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath. Now in our last two points, I’d like to see how he wields his authority in the two Sabbath episodes that we read today. Essentially, he has two questions that come before him as the Lord of the Sabbath. Again, think of one of the roles of a Lord is to serve in a judicial capacity. Each of our two passages brings a question of judgment about the Sabbath before the Lord of the Sabbath, and he will issue a verdict on each.

So then, the first concern is brought to him in verses 1-5. Jesus receives an accusation against his disciples as doing something unlawful on the Sabbath, namely that they were plucking heads of grain and eating them. What is Jesus’ judgment or verdict on this matter? In short, he declares his disciples not guilty. But let’s think through their argument for a moment. Exodus 34:21 reiterates the Sabbath command, and even mentions how it applies even during harvest time. That is surely the concern raised here by these critics. They are accusing the disciples of harvesting on the Sabbath. Now, even from my own judgment, that seems like an incorrect application. The disciples were far from harvesting here. The point about Exodus 34 is that during the harvest season it is a lot of work to get your crop harvested off the tree or vine before it goes bad. You have a narrow window to get a lot of work done, and so Exodus 34 reminds the people that even then, they still need to take the weekly Sabbath off. But that’s not the issue with the disciples. They aren’t laborers trying to harvest their crop, working hard all day every day until its done. They are just out in the fields with their rabbi Jesus learning from him, and while they are there, for some basic sustenance, grabbing a little grain off the field while they are there. In fact, the law in Deuteronomy 23:25 makes this distinction. You were allowed to pluck grain by hand on someone else’s field and eat it, and that’s not considered stealing. But if you use a sickle to start harvesting it from someone else’s field, then that is considered stealing. The disciples were not “harvesting” on the Sabbath. They were just lawfully helping themselves to a snack while they learned from Jesus. Eating is an ordinary work of necessity and Jesus finds no violation of the law for them to do that here in this fashion.

While that’s my assessment, look at how Jesus addresses the concern. He points to what should have seemed like a much more controversial action that David had done in 1 Samuel 12. That is when the priest allowed he and his men to eat of the holy shewbread that the ceremonial law per Leviticus 24:9 said was only for the priests to eat. But the priest allowed David and his men to have that holy bread because of the special circumstances. David had come to the priest saying he was on an urgent secret mission from the king and that his men were in desperate need of food. But the priest knew that the only bread they had was that holy bread. So, after at least making sure the men were ceremonially clean, the priest gave the bread to David and his men. What was ordinarily not proper to be done, was allowed then and there due to the special circumstances. Jesus probably used that example because his critics surely would have agreed that David’s circumstances warranted such. In fact, the whole spirit of that law that gave the shewbread to the priests was part of God’s provision in the law to make sure the priests were provided for in terms of their sustenance. But given the great need to preserve life in David and his men’s special circumstances, the priest rightly applied the spirit of the law to mercifully give the bread to David and his men. The shewbread law was given to bless the priests, not to handcuff the priests from being able to show mercy in an urgent matter. Likewise, the Sabbath was made to bless man with time to rest and worship God, not to so afflict and handcuff someone so that he couldn’t even take a little food for a snack while he was going about observing the Sabbath.

So then, Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath gives his verdict that his disciples were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath. Jesus shows how the law of God must be wisely applied lest you falsely accuse someone. There are in fact, various works of necessity that ought to be done on the Sabbath, otherwise you won’t be able to properly observe the Sabbath.

Let us turn now in our final point to look at the other episode here in verses 6-11. Here we see a concern brought before Jesus whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. As the Lord of the Sabbath, he will again issue a judgment and verdict on this question. In short, he says yes, it is lawful, and even proper, to heal a man on the Sabbath.

Notice the context for this. It’s another Sabbath. Verse 6 says there is a man with a withered hand there in the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. But especially notice verse 7. His opponents, the scribes and the Pharisees, were carefully watching to see if Jesus would heal the man. Why? So, they could accuse Jesus. They were just waiting to see if they could catch Jesus in the act and then declare him a lawbreaker. At this point in the story, we could ask, who is most observing the Sabbath? Jesus, who is there teaching in the synagogue? Or these scribes and Pharisees who are standing by trying to catch Jesus so they can accuse him?

Yet, Jesus perceives what they were trying to do, and uses it as an opportunity to issue this decree concerning the Sabbath that it is indeed lawful to heal someone on it. Jesus knows they are trying to catch him and get him, but he doesn’t try to avoid that. He confronts it head on. And so, before healing the man, he calls the man up in front of everyone. There he is, with his useless hand – notice how Luke the doctor even notes for us that it is right hand, verse 6. And then Jesus asks his opponents this question, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good, or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” He looks at them all to see if any would respond. I might note that the Pharisees generally would have agreed that if someone’s life was immediately in danger, then it would be lawful to try to heal the person in that emergency situation. But Jesus expands the question when he asks what about just doing good? Like in healing this poor brother whose right hand is so injured and thus useless?

Here, Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath gives the definitive answer. Yes, you can do good by healing this man on the Sabbath. Jesus teaches something about the purpose of the Sabbath, that it is also a day to show mercy to others. Showing mercy to others is a fitting thing to do on the Sabbath. I would clarify, that this doesn’t mean that you should spend every moment on the Sabbath exclusively on mercy ministries. Positive duties can be inordinately practiced in a way that neglects other positive duties. But Jesus decrees here that it is lawful and even good to do good to others on the Sabbath. I would also clarify, that this doesn’t mean that if you are a doctor that you should go home and change your schedule to provide services 7 days a week. Surely, we need emergency rooms and urgent care options to be available on Sunday, and if you are a doctor you might take some shifts periodically for such. But Jesus’ teaching here isn’t calling for regular doctor visits to be done on Sunday, just like Jesus’ healing of the man wasn’t because Jesus was giving him medical treatment. That would be to misapply Jesus’ point. Rather, Jesus confronts the narrow perspective of how the Pharisees were trying to observe the Sabbath. He makes it clear that works of mercy are quite appropriate to have a part of all that we do in observing the weekly Sabbath.

Notice that Jesus’ question on verse 9 also simultaneously rebukes his opponents. Which is fitting to do on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy? Note how he asks that question. He doesn’t say, “to save life, or let it die”? That is how they would have asked the question: they would have said if someone was dying and you could treat them and save their life, then you should do that on the Sabbath. But Jesus doesn’t ask about letting someone die. He asks about seeking to destroy someone. And that is a fitting question, because that is exactly what the Pharisees were doing in their minds. On that Sabbath they had been just sitting there watching and waiting to try to catch Jesus so they could destroy him. And that attitude is only heightened after all this. Look at verse 11, they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. We know where those discussions will end up among his enemies. Their conspiring against Jesus will ultimately end up in their seeing Jesus’ life destroyed on the cross. Here, Jesus subtly rebukes their destructive hearts. They were the real ones profaning the Sabbath that day. They are really seen as hypocrites here.

I think we should then appreciate what all Jesus was accomplishing there on that Sabbath. He uses this opportunity for multiple purposes. First, Jesus taught a little about the purpose of the Sabbath day, and how it includes being a day of showing good to others, and certainly not to harm them. Second, Jesus showed mercy to this man with the withered hand by then healing him. Third, we’ve said how Jesus subtly condemned the scribes and Pharisees for their seeking to destroy him. But fourth, what happened that day served to advance the bigger plan of God that will result in these religious leaders among Israel rejecting Jesus and putting him to death. We see elsewhere that Jesus knew this was God’s plan. Jesus surely knew this would infuriate them, which it did. But Jesus didn’t hide his healings on the Sabbath from them to keep them from becoming more angry. Rather, he did it openly and in confronting them. And this was part of how things unfolded so they would ultimately show their hypocrisy in the full when they would have Jesus arrested and killed.

But do you see how in Jesus executing the bigger plan here, on that Sabbath, it was again an act of mercy. He moved forward that Sabbath in a way that ratcheted up the conflict between him and the religious leaders. Jesus was righteous in how he did that, but it nonetheless riled them up all the more, verse 11, and surely Jesus knew that would be the case. But Jesus did that on that Sabbath as an act of mercy. It was an act of mercy for you, and me, and all the elect. For it was putting things into place where he would die on the cross as a ransom for the elect. That he could show us mercy for our sin, and secure the justice in his authority to righteously forgive the sins of his elect.

We are then called to believe and receive this mercy Jesus offers to us through faith in his name. Believe in Jesus and find not just the strength and usefulness of your soul restored, but find your life restored. If you are not in Christ, you will find eternal destruction at God’s hand. But in Christ, we have eternal life. This he was working towards securing even on this Sabbath in our passage.

In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I thought I would step back and address a common misapplication of this passage. Sometimes when Christians are looking to observe the Sabbath in honor to God they are declared as being Pharisees or legalistic simply because they are trying to determine what is or is not appropriate on the Sabbath. Realize, Jesus didn’t say that was a wrong question. Jesus didn’t say not to observe the weekly Sabbath. Nor did he fault people for asking what is lawful or not to do on the Sabbath. What he spoke against is when people asked those questions but then came up with the wrong answers. He spoke against the wrong answers, not against the honest questioning. We should, in good conscience, seek to honor God on the Sabbath by considering and then implementing what we believe God would have us to do in keeping the day as a day of holy rest unto the Lord.

That certainly will ordinarily involve worship, both public and private. But we’ve seen here today, that works of necessity and mercy are also fitting and good on the weekly Sabbath. This was true under the old covenant, but know that Jesus who was then Lord of the Sabbath, still today is Lord of the Sabbath. Let us all the more rejoice to honor the Lord of the Sabbath on the Christian Sabbath, as we gather each week on the Lord’s Day to proclaim Christ and rest in his finished work on the cross.


Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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