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The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Luke 6-10
By John MacArthur
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2011 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1–11)
Now it happened that He was passing through some grainfields on a Sabbath; and His disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain. But some of the Pharisees said, "Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" And Jesus answering them said, "Have you not even 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 consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?" And He was saying to them, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. But He knew what they were thinking, and He said to the man with the withered hand, "Get up and come forward!" And he got up and came forward. And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?" After looking around at them all, He said to him, "Stretch out your hand!" And he did so; and his hand was restored. But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus. (6:1–11)
The initial reaction to the Lord Jesus Christ was generally positive. Speaking of His early ministry in Galilee, Luke noted that when "He began teaching in their synagogues [He] was praised by all" (4:15).The Lord was so popular that when He "left [Capernaum] and went to a secluded place ... the crowds were searching for Him, and came to Him and tried to keep Him from going away from them" (4:42). After Jesus healed a leper, "the news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses" (5:15). In the aftermath of His healing of a paralytic, the people "were all struck with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, 'We have seen remarkable things today'" (5:26). Even the religious leaders were unable to restrain their curiosity at first (5:17).
But curiosity eventually turned to hostility; which by the time the events in the sixth chapter of Luke's gospel occurred was escalating severely. The religious leaders had come to view Jesus as the most dangerous man in Israel, the biggest threat to their religious power and prestige. Their fears were well-founded. Jesus was the most powerful teacher the world had ever seen or ever will see, and He was assaulting their ritualism, legalism, and prideful hypocrisy. Even worse, while attacking them, the Lord was associating with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other riffraff of society. When Jesus showed concern about their sins, since He came "to call ... sinners to repentance" (5:32), some of them responded with repentance and faith. But when He confronted the Pharisees and scribes, because they were the leaders of the religious establishment and the proud, unrepentant purveyors of the damning lie that God was pleased by self-righteousness, legalism, and ritualism, they found the Lord's discrediting of them to be intolerable and infuriating. They also found His choosing of common men instead of members of the religious elite as His apostles insulting.
The Lord did not escalate the conflict by being insensitive or ungracious, but by His uncompromising proclamation of the truth. The truth of God is the most important thing in the world (cf. Prov. 23:23). It is the message of sin, forgiveness, salvation, and the hope of eternal life. All the truth must be proclaimed no matter what the effects are, whether people embrace it, or are offended by it; whether they accept it and are saved, or reject it, and are eternally lost. There is no common ground between the truth and error.
Jesus spoke the truth in every situation, not under compulsion or against His will, but by His deliberate choice. By doing so, He exposed error both to those who taught it, and to anyone else who might have been attracted to it. The Lord never minced words when dealing with either false religion, or the wicked false teachers who purvey it (cf. Matt. 7:15–20; 23:1–36). His bold preaching of the gospel, which was incompatible with the Jewish religion of His day (Luke 5:36–39), forced people to choose between the gospel of grace and the works-righteousness system of contemporary Judaism.
At the heart of Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees and scribes was the Sabbath. Much of their self-righteous attempt to earn salvation by good works focused on keeping the Sabbath regulations. Because its observance was the mainstay or anchor of first-century Judaism, the Sabbath inevitably became a major point of contention between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. In this section of his gospel, Luke records two incidents in which Jesus boldly confronted their false view of the Sabbath, and established Himself as Lord over the Sabbath. The first incident took place in the grainfields; the second in a synagogue.
In The Grainfields
Now it happened that He was passing through some grainfields on a Sabbath; and His disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain. But some of the Pharisees said, "Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" And Jesus answering them said, "Have you not even 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 consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?" And He was saying to them, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." (6:1–5)
The Sabbath was originally given by God in the Mosaic law (not before) to be a day of rest (the Hebrew word translated "Sabbath" comes from a verb that means, "to cease, "to desist," or, "to rest" [cf. Gen. 2:2]), refreshment, and worship for His people (Ex. 20:8–11). But by the first century, it had accumulated an enormous number of extrabiblical restrictions and regulations, so much so that it had become the most oppressive and burdensome day of the week.
The Talmud devotes twenty-four chapters to Sabbath regulations, describing in painfully exhaustive detail what was and was not permitted to be done. The result was a ridiculously complex system of external behavior restraints—so much so that one rabbi spent two and a half years studying just one of the twenty-four chapters.
For example, traveling more than 3, 000 feet from home was forbidden. But if one had placed food at the 3, 000 foot point before the Sabbath, that point would then be considered a home, since there was food there, and allow another 3, 000 feet of travel. Similarly, a piece of wood or a rope placed across the end of a narrow street or alley constituted a doorway. That could then be considered the front door of one's house, and permit the 3, 000 feet of travel to begin there.
There were also regulations about carrying items. Something lifted up in a public place could only be set down in a private place, and vice versa. An object tossed into the air could be caught with the same hand, but if it was caught with the other hand, it would be a Sabbath violation. If a person had reached out to pick up food when the Sabbath began, the food had to be dropped; to bring the arm back while holding the food would be to carry a burden on the Sabbath. It was forbidden to carry anything heavier than a dried fig (though something weighing half as much could be carried two times).A tailor could not carry his needle, a scribe his pen, or a student his books. Only enough ink to write two letters (of the alphabet) could be carried. A letter could not be sent, not even with a non-Jew. Clothes could not be examined or shaken out before being put on because an insect might be killed in the process, which would be work. No fire could be lit, or put out. Cold water could be poured into warm water, but not warm into cold. An egg could not be cooked, not even by placing it in hot sand during the summer. Nothing could be sold or bought. Bathing was forbidden, lest water be spilled on the floor and wash it. Moving a chair was not allowed, since it might make a rut in a dirt floor, which was too much like plowing. Women were forbidden to look in a mirror, since if they saw a white hair, they might be tempted to pull it out.
Other forbidden things included sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, grinding, kneading, baking, shearing, washing, beating, dyeing, or spinning wool, tying or untying a knot, catching, killing, or skinning a deer, salting its meat, or preparing its skin. (For a detailed discussion of the rabbinic Sabbath restrictions, see Alfred Edersheim, "The Ordinances and Law of the Sabbath as Laid Down in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud," Appendix XVII in, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974], 2:777–87.)
It was to people crushed by the unbearable burden (Matt. 23:4; Luke 11:46; Acts 15:10) of manmade, legalistic regulations that the Lord Jesus Christ said, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matt. 11:28–30).
This particular Sabbath found the Lord and His disciples passing through some grainfields. Sporimos(grainfields) literally means, "sown fields"; the crop being grown in these particular fields was probably either wheat or barley. Since the grain was ripe enough to eat, it was probably spring or summer. As they walked along the paths between the rows of grain, the disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain. To do so was not wrong in itself; travelers were permitted by the Mosaic law to pick grain from their neighbors' fields to satisfy their hunger (though not, of course, to harvest it):"When you enter 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" (Deut.23:25).
But to do so on the Sabbath was a violation, not of the Mosaic law, but of the rabbinic restrictions described above. Specifically, the disciples were guilty in the eyes of the Pharisees of reaping (picking the grain), threshing (rubbing the husks together to separate them from the grain), and winnowing (throwing the husks away), and thus preparing food. The self-appointed guardians of the Sabbath were quick to pounce on the blatant violation of their silly regulations. "Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" they demanded. Although they addressed their question to the entire group, the Pharisees' rebuke was directed primarily at Jesus, since His disciples were surely following His teaching and example. They viewed the incident as a direct attack on their whole religious system to which, as noted earlier, the Sabbath was central. Obviously, their presence in the grainfields indicates the constant scrutiny to which the religious leaders subjected Jesus, as they dogged His steps looking for an excuse to condemn Him.
Assuming responsibility for His disciples' actions, Jesus responded with a mildly sarcastic rebuke of the Pharisees' ignorance. They of course, knew the history He was about to relate, but had ignored its true significance. As He frequently did (cf. 5:23; 10:26; 20:3–4, 24) Jesus answered their question with one of His own: "Have you not even read (cf. Matt. 19:4; 21:42; 22:31; Mark 12:10) 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 consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?"
The incident the Lord referred to is recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1–6. Fleeing Saul's relentless pursuit of him, David came to Nob, about a mile north of Jerusalem. David was hungry, as were those who were with him. Seeking food, they entered the house of God (the tabernacle), and asked Ahimelech the priest for five loaves of bread. The tabernacle, of course, was not a bakery, and the only bread available there was the consecrated bread. Also called the "bread of the Presence" (Ex. 25:30), it consisted of twelve loaves, placed each Sabbath on the golden table in the Holy Place. After the bread was replaced with fresh loaves, it could be eaten, but only by the priests (Lev. 24:9). Ahimelech was willing to give some of the consecrated bread to David and his men, on the condition that "the young men [had] kept themselves from women" (1 Sam. 21:4) (i.e., were ceremonially clean). After David assured him that they had done so, Ahimelech gave them the bread and they ate it.
The point of the account, which was lost on the Pharisees, was that mercy, compassion, and human need were more important than rigid adherence to even biblical ritual and ceremony Mark 2:27 records that Jesus also said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," while Matthew records His rebuke, "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent" (12:7). If a human priest could permit David to violate part of God's ceremonial law (perhaps even on a Sabbath, since the old bread being replaced had not yet been eaten by the priests), how much more could the Son of God allow His disciples to violate unbiblical human traditions?
Then Jesus stunned and outraged the Pharisees by declaring, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." As such, He alone had the right to decide what behavior was appropriate on the Sabbath; He is the interpreter of God's will, law, and word. Since the Sabbath was established by God (Ex. 20:8–11), He, the Son of God, had authority over it. Thus, by claiming authority over a divinely instituted ordinance, Jesus was claiming full equality with God. Compare John 5:9–17, where our Lord was again confronted over His Sabbath activity and replied, "My Father is working ... and I Myself am working" (v 17).Here again He clearly declared His equality with God, as evidenced by His sovereignty over the Sabbath.
In a Synagogue
On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. But He knew what they were thinking, and He said to the man with the withered hand, "Get up and come forward!" And he got up and came forward. And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?" After looking around at them all, He said to him, "Stretch out your hand!" And he did so; and his hand was restored. But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus. (6:6–11)
On another Sabbath, Jesus again confronted the Pharisees over the issue of the Sabbath. Luke does not specify when this incident took place, or the location of the synagogue (possibly Capernaum). However Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place it immediately after the incident in the grainfields, which suggests it happened soon afterward, perhaps on the next Sabbath. In keeping with the priority of His ministry, Jesus was teaching (cf.4:14–15, 31, 44; 5:15, 17).The content of His message was not recorded, but He would have been preaching the gospel (3:18; 4:18; 7:22; 20:1; Mark 1:14)—the good news that the poor, prisoners, blind, and oppressed could be freed from their sin and the heavy burden of a false, damning, legalistic religion (4:18–21).
In the synagogue on that particular Sabbath was a man ... whose right hand (only Luke, with his careful attention to medical detail, notes that it was his right hand) was withered; that is, atrophied due to paralysis. This man was the main object of Jesus' attention, and his healing was another assault on the Pharisees' restrictions for the Sabbath.
As always, the scribes and the Pharisees were there, hoping to find something for which they could condemn the Lord. As always, these zealous legalists were watching Jesus closely. Watching closely translates a form of the Greek verb paratereo, which means, "to observe carefully," "to be on the lookout," or "to pay heed to." Often, as it does here, the word takes on a sinister tone, and could be translated, "to lurk," "to watch for an opportunity," or "to lie in wait" (cf. 14:1; 20:20; Mark 3:2).The scribes and Pharisees were by no means neutral observers, but rather spies.
Specifically, they were watching Jesus to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. Ironically, these self-appointed guardians of the Sabbath system did not want to stop Jesus from breaking their Sabbath rules; they actually wanted Him to perform a healing, so they would have cause to indict Him. Christ's performing a healing would thus best suit their heinous hatred. Interestingly, never throughout His entire ministry did they doubt His ability to heal (cf. 5:17–26), which proved His ability to forgive sin (5:24). Yet the convoluted reasoning in their sinful, prideful, obstinate hearts was that if Jesus did heal, the consequence would be that they could charge Him with breaking the Sabbath.
Excerpted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Luke 6-10 by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2011 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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