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The issue of what is permissible on the Sabbath has divided Christians down through the centuries. Some hold a more restrictive position, whilst others take a more permissive approach. Many Christians are confused, with no standard guiding their decisions. Some fundamental principles are set down by the Lord himself. We turn now to consider Luke 6:1-11 Lord of the Sabbath.
1. Confrontation in the fields
The issue of the Sabbath is not a trivial matter. Exodus 20:8 gives the commandment to observe the Sabbath and v11 states ‘the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy’. The Sabbath is a divine institution, included in the 10 Commandments, so we may not treat it as unimportant, as many Christians do today. Some have no concept of the Lord’s Day.
(i). The Pharisees’ question. ‘Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ (v2). The dispute is over ‘pick…rub…eat’ (v1). The law allowed wayfarers to pick corn by hand (Deuteronomy 23:25), but the Pharisees define Jesus’ actions as reaping, threshing and winnowing grain on the Sabbath. They again focus on rules, whichthey regard as a means of securing God’s favour. They are guilty of legalism, thinking rule-keeping is a way of salvation. They were often also hypocrites, for example loving money (Luke 16:14).
(ii). The Lord’s response. Jesus does not provide either more restrictive or more permissive views of the law, but puts the focus on a deeper issue. He cites the incident recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1ff, when David and his men ate the consecrated bread from the sanctuary – relieving human need was a work of necessity. Jesus exercises messianic authority as ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ (v5). He directs how his Sabbath should be kept.
2. Conflict in the synagogue
(i). The Pharisees’ question. The question is unspoken yet real. The man’s disability is serious but not life-threatening – it did not have to be cured on the Sabbath. They are seeking an opportunity to attack Jesus and discredit him as a law-breaker. They have no concern for the man and no response of faith to the miracles. They seek an opportunity to do evil, yet they are supposedly the spiritual leaders of Israel.
(ii). The Lord’s response. Jesus ‘knew what they were thinking’ (v8), again revealing his deity. His response will be as public as possible – ‘stand in front of everyone’ – there will be no doubt about the miracle. Jesus answers the Pharisees’ unspoken question with his own spoken one – ‘which is lawful on the Sabbath…?’ (v9). None dares respond. The answer to the question is clear and indeed made visible – his hand was completely restored’ (v10). With divine power he provides a messianic sign of life restored, a token of the transforming power of God’s grace at work in and through Jesus. The miracle also indicates the proper use of the Sabbath. Note ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 12:7, while in the fields). The Sabbath is a day for works of mercy (as well as necessity) – as stated in Shorter catechism Q60. This reflects the heart of God himself.