Lord of the Sabbath

1 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. Luke 6:1-11 ESV

Repressive and restrictive rules and regulations had become the mainstay of the prevailing religious system of the Jews, and its gatekeepers were the scribes and Pharisees who were closely evaluating the actions of Jesus. To these men, Jesus was a loose cannon, a renegade Rabbi from the small town of Nazareth who was teaching heresy and guilty of blasphemy. They couldn’t deny the fact that Jesus was a miracle worker but they were slowly gathering evidence that would prove His blatant disregard for their laws and His unacceptable association with moral reprobates and social outcasts. In their minds, Jesus was a troublemaker who refused to follow the rules and was leading the common people astray with His blasphemous offers of forgiveness for sins and the tantalizing promise of a coming kingdom.

The religious leaders had already confronted Jesus about His choice of dinner companions.

“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” – Luke 5:30 ESV

They deemed Jesus as a poor judge of character. He willingly associated with the dregs of society, the very sinners who the religious leaders believed were preventing Israel from experiencing the full blessings of God. And His disciples were no better. These men were, for the most part, nothing but uneducated Galilean fishermen who were gluttonous and ignorant of the laws concerning prayer and fasting. And they had been more than willing to point out this apparent flaw in Jesus’ followers.

“The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” – Luke 5:33 ESV

But what these men failed to realize was that Jesus, as the Son of God, was not subject to their manmade laws and decrees. As the Creator-God, He had authority over all things. The apostle John described the basis for Jesus’ exemption from the Pharisees’ repressive rules.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. – John 1:1-3 ESV

And the apostle Paul would go on to explain the overarching nature of Jesus’ divine authority over everyone and everything.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:15-17 ESV

But as Jesus walked the earth, He appeared to these religious leaders as nothing more than a man who was violating their precious precepts and encouraging the uneducated peasants to do the same. He was threatening their way of life by diminishing their control over the people. Without rules, society would devolve into anarchy and chaos. These men had made a god out of the Mosaic Law. The righteous rules and regulations prescribed by God and handed down by Moses had become more important than the Law-Giver. Their strict adherence to the law had replaced their affection for God. And Jesus would later declare these very same men to be nothing more than pious-looking pretenders whose religious zeal was misplaced and whose love for God had been replaced by their lust for power and control.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

At the heart of their monolithic legal system was the Sabbath and the seemingly endless list of rules they had developed to regulate its observance. So, it was not long before Jesus found Himself at odds with the religious leaders over His lack of protocol concerning this holy day. Luke records that Jesus and His disciples were making their way through a field of grain on the Sabbath. As they did so, “his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands” (Luke 6:1 ESV). According to Deuteronomy 23:25, the Mosaic Law provided a waiver that allowed anyone to pluck grain by hand.

If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand… – Deuteronomy 23:25 ESV

But as Luke reveals, the disciples were being watched by the Pharisees, who immediately deemed their actions as a violation of their laws concerning the Sabbath. According to their strict interpretation of the Mosaic Law, the disciples were guilty of harvesting, reaping, and meal preparation, which were all prohibited on the Sabbath. With legalistic zeal, they immediately confronted Jesus and His disciples, pointing out their seeming disregard for the Law.

“Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” – Luke 6:3 ESV

Rather than explain the actions of His disciples, Jesus took these men to the Scriptures. He reminded them of a story involving the great king, David. The book of 1st Samuel records an incident in which David ate bread that had been dedicated to the Lord. David was the anointed king of Israel, but he and his men were on the run from the current occupant of the throne: King Saul. When they arrived at Nob, David convinced the priest to give his men the bread of the Presence, holy bread that was unlawful for them to eat. In doing so, David violated the ceremonial law but because he was the Lord’s anointed, his actions did not violate God’s moral law. Human need took precedence over the ceremonial law. Jesus would later use this same logic to justify His healing of a man on the Sabbath. He would ask the Pharisees, “Which of you doesn’t work on the Sabbath? If your son or your cow falls into a pit, don’t you rush to get him out?” (Luke 14:5 NLT).

The Pharisees refused to answer Jesus’ question because to do so would have shot a hole in the logic behind their entire legal system. They cared more for their rules than they did for the people for whom they were responsible to God. And Jesus was not about to follow their lead.

According to Jesus, what David did was acceptable to God and, therefore, the behavior of His disciples was as well. Then He added a statement that must have left the Pharisees apoplectic with rage.

“The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” – Luke 6:5 ESV

Jesus was clearly stating His divinity and authority. He was declaring His divine right to authorize the behavior of His disciples –even if it violated the Sabbath law – which it did not. As God, Jesus was the author of the Law, and He had not come to abolish or violate the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).

Luke follows up this story with a second occasion in which the Pharisees confront Jesus for His violation of Sabbath law. This time it involves Jesus’ decision to heal on the Sabbath, thereby doing “work” and willingly breaking the law. Luke makes it clear that this event took place on the Sabbath and in the local synagogue. And Jesus was fully aware that the entire scene was a setup, knowing that the Pharisees were waiting “to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him” (Luke 6:7 ESV). And He did not disappoint them. Jesus purposefully called forward a man who had a withered hand and had him stand in front of the congregation gathered in the synagogue. In a sense, this man became a prop in Jesus’ lesson on the Sabbath law. With the man standing in front of Him, Jesus directed a question at the Pharisees and scribes:

“I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” – Luke 6:9 ESV

There was no response. The religious leaders knew that they were caught between a rock and a hard place. If they said it was unlawful to do good on the Sabbath, they would come across as uncaring and unloving. If they answered in the affirmative, they would be validating the behavior of Jesus. So, they remained silent.

Luke records that Jesus looked at each of them, waiting for a response. This delay must have felt like an eternity to these men, as all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on them. But Jesus finally broke the silence by turning His attention to the man with the withered hand and stating, “Stretch out your hand” (Luke 6:10 ESV). And as soon as the man complied, his hand was immediately and miraculously restored.

But rather than responding with awe and amazement at Jesus’ supernatural display of power, the religious leaders became incensed. Luke reports that they “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11 ESV). They had just witnessed living proof that Jesus was indeed Lord of the Sabbath, but they were furious because Jesus had made them look like fools. He had made a mockery of their ceremonial laws and further enhanced His reputation among the people – and all at their expense.

Jesus had displayed His power and authority over disease, demons, and even the Sabbath. But the religious leaders were convinced that He was a menace to society who showed them no respect and had no regard for their sacred traditions. By the time they made their way back to Jerusalem with the latest reports of Jesus’ exploits, their superiors would have already made their decision to eliminate this growing threat to the nation.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson