The Rebel Jesus and the Sabbath

(Spectrumbot) #1

Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, May 2, 2015

The two passages in Luke 6 that the Adult Bible Study Guide focused on this week are extremely familiar to Seventh-day Adventists. We are such a strongly Sabbath-keeping movement, and so focused on the seventh-day Sabbath, that inevitably we are drawn to all those passages in scripture that deal with how God’s people of ancient times kept the Sabbath. Yet I wonder whether familiarity has not blinded us to just how radical are the teachings of Jesus in the two stories Luke tells.[1]

In my experience, contemporary SDAs are quite happy with Jesus’s teaching in these two passages. Maybe that’s because the divine license “to do good on the Sabbath day” (6:9)[2] is essential for the industrial-scale operations of some of our big hospitals. If anyone questions whether there is any meaningful difference between the hospital on a Friday, Sabbath and Sunday we will always be told: “Well, what do you want us to do, let people suffer?” But actually surely plans could be made to really restrict work on the seventh day. (In the same way whenever anyone questions just why so many ostensibly Adventist hospitals in the US have so few Adventist staff, the answer is always: “What do you want us to do?” How about making a long-range plan to increase the percentage of church members? Then the institutions might be Adventist in more than name.) The second story, in particular, is convenient for us. The first story, about the disciples picking heads of grain, is less obviously relevant to the way we “do” Sabbath today, in practice, but cynically I feel inclined to wonder whether we don’t like to cite this passage to show how unlegalist we are.

Did our pioneers, I wonder, back in the day, when Ellen White herself said that “we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain,” view these two stories quite as positively?[3] Mightn’t they have found Christ’s cavalier disregard for God’s Law on the Sabbath rather troubling? I’d love to read something on this part of our history, and haven’t found anything yet on how early Adventists read Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath in the New Testament. But I kind of guess that if there weren’t a mandate in the teachings of Jesus for the positions He adopted, described in Luke 6:1-11, those positions, with their evident disdain for the jot and tittle of the precepts found in the Old Testament, would I suspect have been condemned by “good Adventists.”

What a blessing it is, then, that we are in no doubt about how Jesus understood the teachings of the Law about the Sabbath. In consequence of His words and actions as recorded by Luke, we necessarily accept firstly that: “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath”; and secondly that it is “lawful on the Sabbath to do good”—it is right “to save life,” and on the seventh day followers of the Law (and of Christ, the embodiment of the Law) should not “do evil [or] destroy” (vv. 5 and 9).

* * *

Even apart from whether Adventists historically have always been as accepting of this teaching as we seem to be today, there is the question of whether we truly understand why the Pharisees “were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (v. 11). Note that the Pharisees were incensed and began to scout options for ways to harm Jesus—just because he had healed! It seems an over reaction, to put it mildly. I want to suggest that we have, through familiarity, lost sight of how radical Jesus is being in the twin stories of Luke chapter 6, how his Sabbath-breaking (which is how zealous Jews must have seen it) violated the conventions of early first-century Jewish religion, and how shocking his theory and praxis would have seemed.

In the first story, Christ’s “disciples plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing themintheir hands” on the Sabbath (v. 1). It is easy to forget that Law doesn’t just prohibit work in general; it also explicitly forbids harvesting. This does not occur in the first iteration of the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 20, but is specified in one of several re-iterations: “You shall work six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest.” (Exod. 34:21 NASB)

Yet what were Jesus’ disciples doing? Harvesting! This story achieved a certain new notoriety in Adventist circles late last year, because of the way it featured in the so-called Position Three (or the “accord” position, as opposed to pro and con positions) on women’s ordination.[4] At least one “con” (and conservative) preacher has tried to reduce the significance of Christ’s endorsement of his disciples’ actions by reference to David and the showbread. According to this ingenious reading, the disciples hadn’t really broken the law because they had only pinched off the heads of the grains and then rubbed them between their hands. This wasn’t “harvesting.”[5] But this only works if we apply an incredibly narrow—pharisaical, indeed—frame to the fourth commandment, especially the Exodus 34 amplification of the original statement in Exodus 20.

In any case, most importantly, Jesus himself doesn't justify the disciples actions by saying that they hadn’t really done any labor or harvesting, they’d just done some minor plucking and rolling—probably hadn’t even broken a sweat. No, in effect he concedes that they have done work on the Sabbath. In legal terms, he justifies the “crime” (the “sin”, as the Pharisees saw it) rather than denies it. And he does so by citing David’s action at Nob in eating the consecrated bread, an unusual and hard-to-understand story, which could probably be safely ignored, except that Christ himself uses it to establish a crucial principle. Even explicit divine injunctions have to be understood in terms of their purpose: the Sabbath was not instituted to punish men and women but to be a blessing to them. As Jesus put it on another occasion: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

And so, Christ instructs his interlocutors in Luke 6, just as David was justified in eating the showbread, violating an explicit provision of the Mosaic Law, in order to preserve life and health, so his followers may reasonably do low-key labor on the seventh day. Their actions are justified because done “in pursuit of higher principles of the preservation of life, health, or well being of the community [of believers] and its members.”[6]

In the second story, Christ follows this principle but even more so: now he, himself, heals—a far more dramatic act, and probably for that reason one that the Pharisees thought undoubtedly entailed work. This was partly a failure of imagination on their part. Ordinary healing of the day did involve a great deal of labor. Christ himself sometimes, of course, undertook some laborious action as part of his healing—making a paste, for example. But generally he seems to have healed simply by his word, or by power going out of him, as he memorably stated when he (apparently inadvertently) cured the woman with hemorrhagic bleeding. No labor was required! Pharisaical reasoning made no provision for such effortless healing.

Still, what was with the Pharisees? Did they actually want people to suffer, whether it by the pangs of hunger, or destructive illness?

* * *

We need to remind ourselves of why the Pharisees came into existence and what their (admittedly self-appointed) purpose was. Many of the books of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) describe Israelite apostasy, idolatry, and how this led to the destruction first of Samaria, then of Jerusalem, and the loss of the promised land. Many Jews were determined that such disasters should never befall them again. If breaking the Law led to tragedy and ruin, then the Law must be kept perfectly. If the first generation or two of returned exiles was, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah indicate, guilty of some slackness in commandment-keeping, the strong preaching of men like Nehemiah helped put that right. There was a strong tradition in post-exilic Judaism of attempting to keep the perfect law of God, perfectly.

The Seleucid persecution of Jewish religion, imposed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-second century BC, almost resulted in another disaster. Sacrifices were forbidden, as was observing Sabbaths and feasts. Circumcision, the special sign of divine election, was prohibited, on pain of death, and an image of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple. Many Jews, including some priests and Levites, gave way in the face of this pressure, apostatizing. However, the Maccabean resurgence, which was both political and theological, ensured the preservation of the Mosaic Law and of the worship of the one true God. But many of the time blamed those who had apostatized, in some cases before Antiochus instituted harsh laws against Jewish religious practice.[7]

The Pharisees emerged out of this period: for them, only the Maccabean revolt (during which apostates were often killed) had prevented another total disaster. Consequently the Pharisees were committed not only to observing the law perfectly themselves, but also to promoting commandment keeping by all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For if any of them broke the law, it might invoke divine punishment of the people as a whole. And this time there might be no return from exile, no Maccabean deliverer.

And this is why the Pharisees were so outraged by Jesus’s actions. They feared that if a teacher like Jesus set the wrong example—and did so not only in his praxis, but also in theory, in his teachings—then God’s people would soon be accelerating down a slippery slope, with apostasy and catastrophe waiting at the bottom. And the ends (of preserving Israel) justified the means—harsh words and plans for harsher deeds which saw their final fulfillment on Golgotha.

To be fair to the Pharisees, they probably didn’t want to see anyone suffer. They surely would have rationalized their actions by saying that the disciples would only have gone hungry briefly, until they could eat after sundown. Did a few short-term hunger pangs matter in contrast to a flagrant violation of divine commands about the Sabbath? As for the man “whose right hand was withered” (v. 6), well, probably it had been withered a long time. Did it matter if Jesus cured him after sunset or the next day? The Pharisees probably wondered and muttered, “What’s the big hurry? Which is more important: God’s law or momentary inconvenience?”

* * *

And this is where I find myself speculating, early Adventists might well have had the same view—if, that is, Jesus hadn’t set the record straight. What’s the hurry? Isn’t God’s law the most important thing?

Remarkably, given the tone of much of the Bible, it turns out no, it isn’t. It’s the divine precepts underpinning the written law that are the most important thing.

This message was abhorrent to the first-century Pharisees (and to the twenty-first-century Pharisaical among us). But we know that truth today, thanks be to God, because Jesus went out of his way to make sure we understood the Law. Jesus was a rebel—so much so that the spiritual powers of his day eventually destroyed him. But first he showed us the divine love, all loves excelling, that underlies the law, and should shape how we interpret it today. I don’t think we should be trying to find loopholes in the fourth commandment; maybe we should actually be trying to expand it, so its blessings can be even more widely felt! But the bottom line is that the Sabbath was not intended to effect human suffering. Instead it exists to promote human welfare. We know this because of the rebellious, radical teaching—both in theory and in practice—of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


[1] I am aware that some Seventh-day Adventists today are trendily joining mainline Protestant theologians in casting doubt on the traditional authorship not only, say, of Hebrews and Matthew (where the traditions are late and, in the case of Hebrews, debated from an early time) but also of Luke, not to mention some of the Pauline epistles which are now fashionably dubbed pseudo-Pauline. Having studied Classics, however, in the case of any other paired texts that demonstrably date to the second century CE and both putatively and probably the first century, and that have a very ancient tradition of authorship, which is consistent with what is known about first-person statements within them (see Acts!), they would be accepted as by the alleged author, almost without question, unless either there was some major internal reason not to (which isn’t the case with Luke and Acts). Or unless it is books of the Bible, in which case normal critical rules are suspended so scholars can rush to demonstrate their skeptical bona fides. The truth is, if Luke (and Acts) weren’t in the New Testament, and Luke wasn’t said to be an associate of the Apostle Paul, every classicist would take for granted Luke’s authorship. So rather than applying a double standard to scripture, I go against some current fashions in Biblical scholarship and accept the Lukan authorship of the gospel that bears his name.

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotations are from the New King James Version.

[3] Review and Herald, Mar. 11, 1890, p. 146

[6] This is the neat formulation of “Position Summary 3”, p. 14.

[7] See on the Maccabees and Maccabean Revolt: Thomas Fischer, Seleukiden und Makkabäer. Beiträge zur Seleukidengeschichte und zu den politischen Ereignissen in Judäa während der 1. Hälfte des 2. Jahrhunderts v. Christ(Bochum: Kommission beim Studienverlag N. Brockmeyer, 1980); Dov Gera, Judaea and Mediterranean Politics, 219 to 161 B.C.E., Jewish Studies, 8 (Leiden: Brill, 1998).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

the first question one must ask is Which day is Christ not The Lord of? the second question is just exactly was Paul speaking about in Sabbath days… Why try to restrict his meaning? When did time becomes greater than The Lord of time. Have we not crucified Christ again. Tom Z

(Elaine Nelson) #3

Is the writer a professional medical worker? For those of us who cannot predict the time of medical emergencies, we are very appreciative that all effort is done to provide optimum skill in such situations. How would a choice be made to dispense with all “unnecessary” work and who determines necessity?

Always when Sabbath is the topic the Gospels are chosen to demonstrate how it was practiced and the sayings of Jesus about the Jews most sacred day. Seldom, if ever, are the answers given in the dispute in Jerusalem over the attempt of the Jews to force that new non-Jewish believers to observe the Law; which the uncircumcised could not observe. The answers cannot be disputed.

But the letters of Paul to the gentile churches can also not be disputed: He explained that the Law, which always meant the entire body of 613 laws, was only a guide, or guardian until the Christ came. In several other places, he addressed the problem of judging others in regard to eat or drink, a festival, or a new moon, or a Sabbath day, “things which are a mere shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

When was the last time a SS lesson has addressed that the Sabbath was not given to the gentile Christians? As a former Jew steeped in Judaism, Paul had ample time to instruct the new gentiles of its importance and how it should be properly observed. Why is there not a single record of Sabbath being given the same sacred importance as for today’s Adventists?

(Jamie) #4

What point was Jesus trying to make by defending:
…the "harvesting disciples,
…David’s eating of the shewbread
…And healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath?
That man’s need over rules "holiness rules."
Jesus was willing to leave the holiness of heaven to come to this unholy world because sinners needed him.
Man’s need overruled "holiness rules."
What are the needs of those around us?
Are we willing to grasp His lesson this Sabbath, and realize that mans need overrules holiness rules?

(Dudley) #5

Glad to see this powerful comment, reminding us that the Pharisees weren’t just bigots, they were zealots - they were acting from religious zeal for the Lord and His Law, Rather like SDAs! But they fell into error and missed the reason for the laws. Thanks, Norman Loman, for making this point. (And thanks to Jamie for his good comment - good to see someone on topic.)

(Margaret Ernst) #6

The New Testament TransLine (Michael Magill) has a very interesting note on Jesus’ question in Luke 6:9: “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”

Magill notes that “The answer is that the day of the week makes no difference. It is wrong to do harm on all seven days. It is right to do good on all seven days. . . . God made the Sabbath as a day of rest from work, not from doing good” (p. 117, n.28 on Mark 3:4).

“Is it lawful to do good, or to do harm? Is it lawful to save life, or to destroy it?” Jesus turned a very easy question into a trick question by dropping the phrase “on the sabbath” into it. Nice!

(Elaine Nelson) #7

That idea has been asked many times: a good and needful act, work, or anything that is worthy is equally acceptable any day. Anything that is hurtful or damaging is also wrong any day of the week. If one is a Christian, and not an observant Jew, there are no acts that become sinful based on the earth’s rotation around the sun.

All actions should be judged by the benefit or harm that may result and do not change according to the calendar or clock.

(Sirje) #8

Appreciate the article, on a scholarly level - the history behind the action. On a less technical level, what we have here is Jesus defying the Hebrew obsession to keep the commandments, even if that meant someone’s needs went unattended (“Sabbath made for man…”). This point was made with the Hebrew pet commandment, the Sabbath, but it applies across the board to THE LAW en total.

Jesus made that point again in his “Sermon on the Mount”. This time he took the law out of its application by the “letter of the law,” and placed it into the heart. Something not possible to do by sheer willpower or habit.

We have made the same mistake the Hebrews made, by relegating - “and God rested on the seventh day” - to one particular holy day. As has been pointed out already, Christians will “do good” every day. In that sense, Christians “keep all days the same” as Paul described some Christians were doing. “Keeping the Sabbath”, then, becomes a way of life, rather than a day off.

So, are we enhancing our Christian experience by focusing on just one day as “the Sabbath”, watching its edges, as we countdown to sundown - on either end? Are we as bad as the Hebrews, keeping the letter of the law, while ignoring the source of its power? As Hebrews 4 reminds us, “if the fourth commandment was enough, there would have been no need for another rest; therefore, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” - the rest in Christ.

If we are looking to write ourselves into the declaration in Revelation, “These are they that keep the commandments of God…”; we’d better not rely on those countdowns to holiness each week.

(Steve Mga) #9

In the Conservative Jewish Book of Common Prayer — Siddur Sim Shalom — there is a unique statement in the portion used for Friday Evening worship.
It has a short discussion on the mental and emotional response the Sabbath brings and the fellowship with God. AND it goes on to say that we should eventually bring that fellowship, that mental and emotional response to ALL the days of the week.
It leaves with the conclusion that we should bring to every day of the week the same blessings of the Sabbath.
We SDAs do not discuss this portion of the result of the blessings of the Sabbath. Enjoying “Sabbath” with God, with ourselves, with fellow man every day of the week.

(Steve Mga) #10

In the same Siddur Sim Shalom there is this short discussion on the W-O-R-D-S of the Bible.
"The full meaning of the Biblical Words was not disclosed once and for all. The Word was given once. The Effort to Understand must go on forever.
“We must look for ways of translating biblical commandments into programs required by out own conditions.”

I take this that one can NOT read Scripture, can NOT take Scripture literally all the time. We Cannot be a “God said it, God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it for me” person or people or denomination. We have to find the meaning of what the Bible says.

(Dudley) #11

I sure agree that we should do good every day - but God says there is a special blessing on the Sabbath. Why fight it? It’s emphasized in the NT and OT, that keeping God’s Sabbaths is important. So for the author to stress this is not the mistake Sirje seems to think it is. Nor does it get in the way of us doing good on all days. Why make it either/or when it can be both/and?

(Elaine Nelson) #12

Yes, we should do good each and every day. But why are the “good” acts we do on every other day of the week, not “good” on the seventh?

Where does the NT emphasize or instruct the new Christian converts of the importance of Sabbath? Jesus was addressing the Jews when asked about Sabbath; The apostles addressed the new Christians who had never previously observed as sacred the seventh day but failed to instruct them on the essential requirement of the Sabbath? Were they negligent; or was it never part of the Christians’ duties?

(Steve Mga) #13

Perhaps we need to ask this question about the Sabbath.
What did the million Jews in the desert week after week do on the Sabbath in their Tents? According to the commandment it was to be a household celebration, so no activity that would consume precious time of the day time [approx 12 hours at that latitude], and no activity that would take one family member or servant [slave] away from the group.
As they moved into permanent dwellings after the 40 years, what did the households do on Sabbath? With the same restrictions.
In our culture we have prescribed church services to attend. Do we actually do less on our Sabbath celebration than they did back then? Did they have MORE FUN?

(Sirje) #14

It can’t be both because, either salvation is by grace and not works (Sabbath keeping included); or by grace plus works; in which case the grace becomes meaningless.

Hebrews explains, TO THE JEWS, that Christ embodies all the Jewish holiness symbolized by their religious traditions. He is the superior priest, above the Aaronic priesthood; he is the superior prophet who supersedes all the others (“in times past God spoke through prophets; but in these last days, he speaks through Christ”); he is the better sacrifice; and he is the better REST, above the and beyond the Sabbath rest. By holding on to both, minimizes grace - the lynchpin of the gospel.

(Elaine Nelson) #15

By the attempt to translate the Sabbath activities and prohibitions of a desert tribe 3,000 years ago to a modern economy and systems of today has become a monstrous burden; a burden that the NT writers condemned the Jews for adding to the new Christians. Why should such an extra burden and hardship be necessarily a part of salvation when Christ told us to “Come unto me and have rest.” Adventists have added burdens that the Jews could not bear and has proved to be a hindrance to spreading the Gospel which removed all those burdens which had weighed down the Jews.

(Sirje) #16

We’ve said this this before, almost verbatim; but it bears repeating.

I’m not sure what the writer meant by “loopholes in the Sabbath”, or “we should try to expand it” - keep the Sabbath even more stringently - with more meaning - what? Keeping the Sabbath has always been about being a distinct people, keeping the law. That’s all there is to it - it can’t be expanded out of that necessity until the meaning of the Sabbath is seen to be something other than a sign of distinction.

The Jews prided themselves for having a special connection to God (favorite people); and ours is the same, at its core; however, we don’t want to leave behind the Christian perspective, so we continually try to meld the two together. It can’t be done. If we keep the law (even the fourth) out of gratitude for “saved by grace”, then salvation is already ours, despite the law. As Paul says “there’s now, no condemnation…” (Romans 8). So we go back and focus on the law with gratitude - to the point, where it makes us that distinct people? The law doesn’t make us distinct Christians, to where other Christians will lose their salvation if they don’t “keep it” (the Sabbath). Christ makes us distinct. Keeping the law out of gratitude is a reaction to the “saved by grace”. So which should we be concentrating on - making sure our relationship to the gospel is pure and sincere; or expanding the keeping of the Sabbath to gain more blessings from God? None of this makers sense - from a Christian perspective.

The only way to “expand” the meaning of the Sabbath REST (emphasis on the rest - Hebrews 4), is to see an expanded meaning of that word, in connection to “Christ, and him crucified”. To keep working on “keeping the Sabbath for more blessings” makes 'saved by grace" lose its meaning. The rest, which the Sabbath foreshadows, is our rest in Christ’s finished work at the cross on our behalf. To keep harping on the Sabbath, as having a part in our salvation, is to minimize the grace.

What does it mean for Jesus to be "the Lord of the Sabbath? Strong’s Concordance -meaning of lord - #2962 = master, also owner. Is it saying Jesus OWNS the Sabbath (rest) - within his body - as he gives it up for us… At the least, Christ defines the Sabbath REST as rest from righteousness through our own efforts at keeping God’s commandments. We are justified by his death; and saved by HIS (perfect) life, (CREDITED TO US).

(Gerhard Dr Svrcek Seiler) #17

Good and needful acts - - - Elaine, I grew up with an endless sum of Donts on Sabbath (Beach vacation, the lodging has its own little lakeshore for the few guests - so no “worldly” crowd, but NO going ito the water, behold swimming ! A walk through Nature - I loved the long talks with my father on this occasion ! - but NO bike riding !) But - also according to the exegesis by Ed Christians (“Sabbath is a Happy Day”( JATS ) or “Sabbath Pleasures” (AR) it IS a blessing to cease “work”, the everydays troubles, the business problems, the waiting at the gas station (I use tol have my tank filled on Frifay), to forget the professional (medical) literature, just have the leisure time God invites you to enter.-

And to have this day separated, specifically : no temptation to say :“Well, I hope, Tuesday it will work.”

But do not have a SDA physician as intern in the hospital department you are responsible for : endless discussions what - odrered ! - he finds necessary and what he refuses to do on Sabbath.

And then we have our senior nursing home, the whole medical staff non - SDAs.They constantly wonder. The residents refuse to have the elasticated stocking put on on Sabbath - unecessary work, to have the blood pressure controlled (as ordered by the local physician) - unnecessary work.And infcetuously contaminated bedsheets - so the SDA administrator - are not to be instantly put into the special laundry machine (Work open door, fill the drum, close door and press the “desinfection” button") but put into plastic bags and stored in warm ( ! ) temperature - for Sunday,.

(Elaine Nelson) #18

“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” Every day of our lives is the day God has given us.

This is repeating what has been previously asked and unanswered, but will someone, even a theologian (?) interpret Paul’s statement?

“The Law was to be our guardian until the Christ came and we could be justified by faith. Now that that time has come we are no longer under that guardian , and you are, all of you, sons of of God through faith in Christ Jesus…and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is the “Declaration of Independence” for Christians: freeing them from slavery to the Law:

“When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free. Stand firm, theerfore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

Anyone? Your interpretation?

(Frankmer7) #19

Craziness! Absolute craziness! We should have Sabbath elevators in our hospitals that stop at floors automatically. Pushing buttons is work. We can hang with the Hasidics.



(Elaine Nelson) #20

I’ve known some SdAs that could equal the Hasidics. What were the pioneers thinking when they plucked out the Fourth Commandment to make it the center of their doctrines and name? The most impractical of all religious beliefs rivaling Judaism in the modernization of the ancient rules that could only have worked on a people living in tents raising sheep and cattle. Unbelievable: no lighting fires, cold food, no walking more than a short distance (where else could the Israelites in the desert walk to?); and for today: no eating out or paying cash for anything!

Sometimes, it seems that those same pioneers even knew there was more than the Gospels. Did they ever turn to Paul’s letters to the churches? Apparently their interest was centered on the prophecies of Daniel and skipped the rest of the NT to have a field day with Revelation.