In Matthew 12, the hostility of the Jews against Jesus was on display once again. Their anger and resentment continued to grow until that fateful day when they preferred to release a known murderer than the innocent Christ (Matthew 27:21-22).
Of course, Jesus never broke a single commandment. He never violated God’s law. He fulfilled God’s law down to every jot and tittle (Matthew 5:18). So, what was the basis for the Jews’ hatred toward him? In short, it was their own rules and traditions.
There was no set of traditions more important to the Jews than their Sabbath traditions. This is why the gospel accounts of the New Testament deliver story after story of confrontations between Christ and the Jews over Sabbath-related issues.
Why was keeping the Sabbath so important to them?
Perhaps it was because the Sabbath commandment was listed among those most notable moral absolutes we call the ten commandments. In Exodus 20, sandwiched between “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7) and “honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12), we find the commandment to keep the sabbath day holy (Exodus 20:8).
However, the Sabbath commandment was a part of the ceremonial law unlike the other nine. The other commandments were moral laws which remain eternal. They apply to all men throughout all of history–including those of us living under the gospel.
The keeping of the Sabbath, much like circumcision, was given especially to Israel as a part of the covenant between them and God.
What was the purpose of the Sabbath?
The Bible itself is its own best commentary. While the commandment in Exodus 20:8 might appear vague, the very next verses of the chapter help to clarify the purpose of the Sabbath which was intended to be a day of rest (Exodus 20:9-11).
In short, the Sabbath was a day of the week set aside for our benefit (Mark 2:27). The Jews were led to believe we serve God by serving the Sabbath, but in truth, the Sabbath was set aside to serve us and provide much needed rest each week.
Should we still obverse the Sabbath?
Since Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law, there is no need to keep the Sabbath. It is just another day of the week to us under the new covenant (Colossians 2:16-17, Romans 14:5-6). But we should still abide by the principles of the Sabbath.
Following the pattern of God in creation, we should intentionally devote certain days to rest. Following the pattern of early disciples, we commit Sunday to be our day of worship and rest (Acts 20:7).
Is it wrong to worship and/or rest on Saturday or any other day? I do not believe so. Legalism need not apply in this case.
Isn’t it a sin to cut the grass on Sunday?
We are obsessed with finding that line between right and wrong. We want to know precisely what we are allowed to do and what is forbidden. That would make things easier, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, the Bible is not always so specific.
There are clear commandments in the Bible which leave no room for interpretation. There are also many other principles we must filter every situation of our lives through and come to the best conclusion as to what is right or wrong.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul began the chapter by writing, “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me…” In that letter, he answered several questions the Corinthian Christians had for him concerning marriage, eating meat offered to idols, and material support of the ministry. Then, in chapter 11, I believe we learn an important lesson.
There is no way for the Bible to provide an answer to every question we might have or address every particular situation we might face. Instead, we are given certain principles to apply to our circumstances. That is what Paul showed us in 1 Corinthians 11. He started with one of these eternal principles:
The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. (1 Corinthians 11:3)
Throughout the chapter, Paul went on to show how this principle applies to the particular matter of head coverings. When it came to women, the culture of head coverings was in line with the eternal principle. In the case of slave men, the culture of head coverings violated the eternal principle.
This is perhaps one of the hardest lessons for us to learn. It means we must often rely on our conscience. It also means we must be careful to avoid an unbridled tongue which is tempted to hold everyone else to the same standard we’ve created in our minds.
Why were the Jews so strict about the Sabbath?
You can probably imagine an early committee of Jewish rabbis discussing the definition of “rest” and thereby “work”. After all, what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? They only wanted to do God’s will by first understanding what was right and wrong.
So, they began putting together a set of Sabbath rules. As time went on, other situations arose–as you would expect–which they did not previously have rules for. More rules were added and more rules were added and more rules were added.
By the time of Christ, the Jews’ Sabbath rulebook–the Talmud–was thicker than the Bible. Just to give you a sample…
A person was not allowed to travel more than 3,000 feet on the Sabbath. If he had planted food within 3,000 feet of his home earlier in the week, he could travel to that food, which would be considered a part of his home, and he could travel 3,000 feet more.
A person could lift an object in a public place but it had to be put down in a private place (or vice versa). A person could lift it in a wide place and put it in a legally free place (or vice versa). By the way, current rabbis still don’t understand that one.
A person could not carry any “burden” heavier than a dried fig. If someone threw an object in the air, he/she could not catch it with the opposite hand. A fire could not be lit and a candle could not be blown out.
Other common forbidden activities included sewing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sifting, grinding, kneading, baking; shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dying wool, spinning wool, putting it in the weaver’s loom; making two threads, weaving two threads, separating two threads, making a knot or undoing it, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches; catching deer or killing, skinning, salting it, preparing its skin, scraping off its hair, cutting it up; writing two letters, scraping in order to write two letters, building, pulling down, extinguishing or lighting fire, beating with a hammer, carrying a possession, and the list goes on and on and on.
While I do not personally know any Christians who have such a multitude of restrictions, there are plenty of us following the same pattern. If the Bible doesn’t give precise right/wrong instructions, we’re tempted to make them up ourselves and enforce them.
At least three things are more important than our rules.
Legalism is toxic. Confusing our methodology or even personal conscience with theology is dangerous. This can be proven in many places of the Bible, but Jesus taught that even seemingly good rules have obvious exceptions.
He used David as an example of the first exception. Out of necessity, David ate the shewbread reserved only for the priests (Matthew 12:3-4). Second, Jesus showed how some of the rules had to be broken in order to serve God (Matthew 12:5). Last but not least, mercy trumps any rule (Matthew 12:7, 11-12).