by David Legge
We're going to turn on our Bibles to Matthew chapter 12, beginning to read at verse 1, and we're reading down to verse 14. I'm reading from the New King James Version: "At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, 'Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!'. But He said to 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 ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice', you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath'. Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'; that they might accuse Him. Then He said to them, 'What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath'. Then He said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand'. And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him".
Let's pray together, and as we pray, as I always do, I'm going to invite you to pray for yourself - that God might speak to you this morning. Would you do that? Please do. Maybe you've been here a previous week, or this could be your first time here. We want to make you welcome, we hope and trust that you've felt that already, but we're not just going through ritual or motions here, we want to meet with God and we want you to have an encounter with the Almighty as well. We believe that that is what He wants, and we believe it is inevitable if your heart is open here this morning. So why not come and get in that disposition, and just say: 'Lord, would You speak to me now. If You have something to say to me, would You come very close to me and speak to me now'. OK, let's pray, pray for me, pray for one another, but pray for yourself that God will speak to you now.
Father, we just come and praise You for Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We thank You for this story that we have read of His encounter with the Pharisees on this Sabbath. Lord, we pray that You will bring this story alive to us in such a way that the personal relevancy will not be missed by people gathered here. Lord, would You lift it off the page and beyond our minds to become something that grips and arrests our hearts, and that the truth of the New Covenant, the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ, will explode within lives in this place this morning. Lord, we need You, we can't do this, clever words or nice thoughts are not going to work. We need Divine revelation, we need the unction and the quickening of the Holy Spirit. So we pray, Lord, come please, by the power of Your Spirit, and minister in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we pray, here right now. Open blind eyes, unplug deaf ears, soften hardened hearts, Lord, enable intransigent, stubborn wills to move toward You right now. Come by Your power and presence in this place, we ask it in Jesus' mighty name, Amen.
I've entitled this section that we're looking at today, 'Laws or Lives?'. Now, before we delve into the passage I think there's an interesting point I would like to make anyway: Jesus was the miracle man, we all agree on that, don't we? The things that He did are unsurpassed and ever will be. Yet I think it's important to notice that He didn't do miracles at the flick of a switch. I'm not going to go into this in too much detail, but He certainly didn't do miracles to serve selfish purposes. Everything Jesus did was at the behest of the will of His Father, but also to the glory of His Father. It's interesting to me that Jesus was able to take five loaves and two fish and feed 5000 people, besides women and children - yet when His own disciples were hungry, He didn't just miraculously rustle up a five course meal. Have you ever considered that? The miraculous and the supernatural always, always must be in the will of God. They are gifts of God, and even Jesus, as He walked among men as God manifest in flesh, He submitted Himself - thought it not something to be grasped at, equality with God, but as a man submitted Himself to the will of the Father. I personally believe that everything the Lord Jesus did was through the Father.
But anyway, the rabbi was held responsible for what his disciples did - that's the way it was. It's just as well it's not like that today - not that I'm a rabbi, but that teachers aren't held responsible! We do have a great weight on our shoulders, which we know from the Epistle of James - what we teach we will be judged for - but if a disciple went off track in Judaism, it was blamed on their rabbi. Yet there is nothing wrong - and you've got to understand this - with what Jesus' disciples did as they went through this grain field on the Sabbath, (which is not Sunday by the way, it's Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath). What they did was fine, their gleaning did not constitute stealing. In fact, what they did was in keeping with the law of God in Deuteronomy 23:25, which permitted travellers to glean enough grain for a small meal as they moved through a farmer's field. In fact, a farmer was instructed at harvest not to harvest all of the grain, but to leave some of it for those who might bypass and be travelling through. So the problem was not what they did, the problem was the day on which they did it, the Sabbath. The issue was not so much violating God's laws, as I pointed out to you from Deuteronomy, but the laws of the rabbi.
You may not be aware that the Jewish rabbis of Jesus' day had contrived an excessively long list of rules added on to God's laws, the laws of Moses. Specifically related to the Sabbath day, I think there were 39 rules that the rabbis had - do's and don'ts related to the Sabbath day. So according to their hair-splitting traditions Jesus and His disciples were breaking the law - not the laws of God, but their laws that they had added to God's word. By their plucking, removing the husk and eating the grain, they had broken the Sabbath according to the rabbis by - their interpretation was - reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal - and all they were doing was plucking some grain as they walked through a field!
Can I just make a point here before we go on any further? This is often what happens with the religious traditions of men. We see it all over the world, and we see it in Christendom, and we see it in evangelicalism: that men's tradition becomes elevated to near infallible status. It's the same with non-essential interpretations of Scripture, often the interpretations of Scripture can become equal to the word of God. But I categorically say here this morning, and I think I stand on the authority of God's word, tradition and interpretation is not - I repeat, not - equal to the word of God. I'm not saying all tradition is wrong, it's not. I'm not saying that interpretations of Scripture are not important, they are of great importance. But we must never equate either of those with the authority that there is in Scripture. This is the mistake that the Pharisees made. In short, because of their traditions the Sabbath, this day that was laid aside by God right at the very beginning of creation and then enshrined in Moses' law, it had become a crushing burden upon the Jewish people. It was a symbol of suffocating religious bondage that was now robbing this nation of God's congregation of the very joy of the Lord.
In fact Jesus, in His teaching, says that the Sabbath has become like a funeral, when it should be a feast, a celebration. In fact, it's like the personification of what has happened to Judaism in general, it's like a used, worn garment; or it's like broken, leaking wineskins. So it was to those Jews who were staggering under the heavy religious burden of Judaism that Jesus spoke the words that we preached last week at the end of chapter 11, verses 28 through to 30: 'Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light'. You remember I read it to you from The Message, listen to it again: 'Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly'. That's what Jesus invites you to, not religion, but a relationship with God through Him!
Look at verse 3 for a moment as we look at this specific incident. Jesus answered the Pharisees when they accused Him and His disciples of breaking the Sabbath: 'Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him'. Now this is a great irony, because the Scribes were lawyers, if you like, in the laws of Moses, they were experts, authorities in Scripture. Yet Jesus is asking them: 'Have you not read?'. I mean they spent their day - if you have ever been to Israel and Jerusalem, you will see the Orthodox Jews still poring over Scripture. This is what they did all day every day, they would debate little jots and tittles in the law, and what they meant in interpretation, and consult the rabbis of bygone generations. Yet Jesus says: 'Have you not read?'. These Pharisees knew their Old Testament back to front, and yet they missed the point of them all! In fact, in John 5, Jesus says: 'You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me'. In other words, 'You spend all your day saturated in the Bible, and yet this book is My photograph, and you're missing Me!'. It's very instructive, isn't it? We can be proficient even with Scripture, let alone religion, and yet miss the heart of God, the heart of the Author. When that happens we get the wrong message!
It's true, isn't it, you could easily misunderstand an SMS text from someone or an email, if you didn't know the character. I mean if you logged into my email account and started reading some of my emails, you'd be very confused because you wouldn't understand the character and the personality of some of the people that are writing. If our interpretations and our application robs us, and indeed robs other people, of real joy in Christ, we can be absolutely sure that no matter how convinced we are about our interpretation, it is wrong! In verse 4 He says: 'How David entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?'. Basically Jesus was saying: 'Have you not read about what David did?'. What David did was illegal, according to the law, and yet he was not rebuked by God. Jesus' point is that 'If David had actually broken the law of God by eating showbread in the Temple, yet was not rebuked by God, how much more blameless are My disciples who, under similar circumstances - hunger - have broken nothing but the traditions of the elders?'.
This incident, by the way, came in the life of David when he was rejected as God's anointed king. At that particular time he was fleeing from Saul, and it was far more important to minister to the rejected king and to the needs of his followers than to preserve order of the tabernacle, for, after all, God's heart is: men are more important than even His own ordinances. Look at verse 6: 'Yet I say to you', Jesus says, 'in this place there is One greater than the Temple'. It's interesting that Jesus uses David in His argument, because Jesus, like David, David's greater Son, is the Jewish Messiah, He is the anointed King - and yet He is not reigning. He has come to His own people, and they won't have Him, the Jews rejected Him. The disciples, like the followers of David, are having to get food because things still aren't right in Jerusalem. Jesus should have been enshrined as their King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Pharisees should have been feasting in the presence of their Messiah and providing for Him, and yet what we see is, at the end of this passage in verse 14, they are actually plotting to kill Him - they're thinking about how they might destroy Him.
Look at verse 7: 'But if you had known what this means', this is Jesus' point now to the whole story. He quotes again from the Old Testament, from Hosea: ''I desire mercy and not sacrifice', you would not have condemned the guiltless'. Here's the principle that Jesus is teaching: God is more concerned with meeting people's needs than He is about protecting men's religious traditions. Do I need to repeat that? God shows Himself to be more interested about meeting people's needs than protecting man-made traditions. The Pharisees had got their priorities confused. I want to ask you: have you? Have I?
In Mark's account of this particular incident, he gives us a little bit more of what Jesus said. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. This is a great characteristic of all man-made religious rules and regulations. Some of the rabbis really believed and taught that humans were created in order to keep the Sabbath. So the Lord had to teach them that the Sabbath was instituted by God for man's benefit, and not for his bondage. It was actually a loving provision of God to us for rest and worship - but certainly the Sabbath never was intended to prohibit works necessary in deeds of mercy. If you follow down with me in this portion, look at verses 11 and 12, there is what I call 'The Sabbath Day Setup'. Because of what Jesus did with His disciples in the fields, then they, I believe, were trying to entrap Him in the synagogue by planting a man with a withered hand, and then asking: 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?'. Jesus points out to them: 'What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath'. Mercy! God desires mercy rather than sacrifice! How men can - and they're still doing it - turn the benefits of God into bondage, and it was never meant to be the case.
Now look at verse 8, what a statement! 'For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath'. 'Son of Man' is a title for Jesus, and He is Lord - Jesus claims Himself - of the Sabbath. The word in Greek for 'Lord' there is 'kurios', and it literally means 'things belong', 'the possessor', 'the owner of things'. So what Jesus is saying is: 'The Son of Man, I, am the owner of the Sabbath. I am the possessor and the disposer of this day, I can do with it as I please'. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament - some of you will know it is called the Septuagint - the name for God, 'Lord', the word 'kurios' is used. So the Jews would have completely understood here that Jesus was claiming to be the owner of the Sabbath day, but the Lord of the Sabbath day. In fact the title of God often is 'Jehovah of the Sabbath', the Lord of the Sabbath. This lowly Servant, whose disciples had to pluck grain in a field on a Sabbath because they were hungry, is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but they couldn't see it, and they wouldn't see it. The reason, primarily, that they couldn't and wouldn't, was because of their traditions, their religion got in the way!
I wonder am I speaking to someone here today, and you enjoy coming here to Scrabo Hall and you enjoy everything that you partake of per se - but you're not a born again Christian, you've never been converted, you've never repented of your sins and believed the Gospel and had that wonderful new birth. One of the reasons is that your religion is getting in the way. You were born of a particular persuasion or denomination, and you've got your way, and you do your thing, and you pay in, and you've got all the rites and the rituals, and you will be buried in that church or in that system - and that is your stumbling block. We don't preach ourselves, we don't preach any system, any denomination, we're not preaching religion, we're preaching Jesus Christ the Lord! We're not inviting you to religion, because Jesus didn't. We are inviting you to a relationship with God that you were created for. Forget about what you were born into, or baptised into: you were created in the image of God to give glory to God, and relate to Him as a son or daughter.
Can I ask you: do you see who He is? Do you understand that He is the Son of God? Do you understand that every claim that He made about life, the universe, and everything is absolutely true, tried and tested by His own life, His death for our sins, His resurrection which is God's period, full-stop, on everything of Jesus' life? So that means that when He says you're a sinner, you're a sinner! That means that when He says you've fallen short of God's glory, and you're in big trouble with the rest of humanity, that it's true. That means you need a Rescuer, you need Someone who will come to your aid. It's not about you pulling yourself up by your own bootlaces, you cannot do that! That's why the law is useless, the law is only showing you your need of a Saviour, and Jesus comes into this world to be your Saviour. He bleeds, He dies, He suffers, He takes the wrath of God for all that you've ever done in truly breaking God's laws, the Ten Commandments. He pays the penalty for it all, and then He rises again so that you might have life - that's what it's all about! It's not about dotting the i's, it's not about crossing the t's, it's not about the name on the building that you go into, or what boxes you tick on some basis of belief - it's not about that! It's not about how you 'do church' - and I don't like that expression, but a lot of people talk about how we 'do church'. We are the church if we are born again, and that's the great issue: do you recognise Him as Lord of the Sabbath, Lord of everything, Lord of your life? For if you will confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus Christ, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. What rest comes when you enter into this!
What is Jesus saying? I know that you may have been lost in some of the details of what we've been sharing here this morning, but basically what He said is: lives are more important to God than laws, even His own laws! Now I know for some of you that's going to be a hard one - I'm glad you'll be worrying about it over dinner and not me. This is what grace is, and it's one of the biggest stumbling blocks even for religious Christians. It's not as some people portray - and I'll talk about this a little bit later tonight - that you can just do what you like. That's not grace. Grace is realising that you can't earn your salvation and being right with God, because you're so broken and you're so sinful - and you stop trying to earn it, and you take the gift that God gives of the finished work of Jesus, and you accept it by simple faith, taking God at His word. Then there is a change takes place in your life, so that the power of the Holy Spirit comes, and the more you give way to the Holy Spirit the more you will live a life that is pleasing to God - but not out of effort and strain and stress and law, but out of life! Some Christians are living out of law because they don't honestly have life, or at least it's so buried down deep in their spirit that it can't get out.
It's grace, by grace you are saved through faith - not of yourselves, not of works, lest anyone should boast. There will be nobody walking around heaven like a peacock, strutting: 'Oh, look at me, here I am, and I got myself here'. No. That's why everybody in heaven is prostrate before the throne on which sits the Lamb of God, slain before the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ who died for our sins; and will be saying: 'Worthy, worthy is the Lamb that was slain'. Worthy, He is worthy, I'm not worthy, He is worthy. You're not worthy - I'm sorry if that offends you, but tough, because that's the truth. You're not worthy, I'm not worthy, none of us is worthy. If you were worthy you wouldn't need a Saviour, Jesus Christ wouldn't have needed to come as a babe at Bethlehem, and die as the Saviour at Calvary, and rise again at the great victory. That's why you need Him today.
Someone put it like this: 'To Jesus, the most important thing in the world was not the correct performance of a ritual but the spontaneous answer to the cry of human need'. Isn't that wonderful? That man with a withered hand - I don't even know if he wanted to be there. He was probably, I don't know, paid a couple of bob to be in the synagogue for this stunt, this booby-trap for Jesus. Jesus speaks the word, and he just reaches out his hand - I love this - Jesus doesn't touch him, Jesus doesn't anoint him with oil. I'm not saying those things are wrong, I think they're right, but Jesus just speaks the word 'Put out your hand', and when he put out his hand it was made whole. I don't know why you're here, out of obligation - 'These people in Scrabo, they're nice enough people, they're not weird crackpots the way I thought some of these evangelicals can be. So it's OK, I can come along all right, but I'm not going to become one of them'. We're not asking you to become one of them, but I'm challenging you here to reach out your hand to the Lord, and have Him touch and transform your life. He transformed the Sabbath, He transformed Judaism - although they wouldn't let Him - and He will transform your life and your heart if you reach out to Him this morning.
Let's pray. Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled the laws of God, perfectly, He never broke them, He fulfilled them. He paid the penalty for your broken law, how you have broken the laws of God, when He suffered on the cross. Now He sets us free from the law, and enables us to live lives pleasing to God through His life in us. That's the answer for you: Christ, Christ alone, not Christ and your denomination, or Christ and your baptism, or Christ and your religious affiliation of any kind. It's not Christ and Protestant, it's not Christ and Catholic - never was, never will be - it's Christ alone. Who here today will have Christ as their Saviour and their Lord? Is there anyone seated here now and you want to believe in Him, you want to make Him yours, you want to know your sins are forgiven? Maybe you have been striving, and I'm not against any church - that's not what I'm about here now - I'm just saying that they are not the way, none of them. This church isn't the way, Jesus is the way. Maybe some of them have lost their way, and maybe you have, you've taken your eyes off Christ - or maybe they were never on Him - but your eyes are fixed on a system, or on your own good works, or trying your best. That's commendable, but it's not enough, it must be Christ.
If that's you, and you know that's your state, and you know that if you died today you just don't know where you would be. Death concerns you greatly, as you move on into older age it's becoming a real problem that you don't have a peace, and you don't have an assurance of where you will be when you die. Christ alone is your answer. You say: 'David, what do I do?'. Right, well do this, as long as this is coming from a heart of faith, believing that Jesus is true to His word, just say this with me in your heart to God - repeat these words, but mean them: 'Oh God, I come to you in the name of Your Son the Lord Jesus Christ. I confess I am a sinner who has broken Your laws, and I repent of my sins, I turn from them and turn to You. I believe that Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sin. I ask You now to save me because of Him. I make Jesus Christ Lord of my life now. I renounce Satan and all his works. I ask You to fit me for heaven, and fill me with the Holy Spirit that I might live this life to please You for Your honour'.
Maybe you're a Christian here today, and you need to talk to the Lord for a moment. You know, the evangelical church is jam-packed full of people who are just obsessed with their interpretation of Scripture. I have mine, by the way, I'm not against them, we need them - but it's not my idol, and it's not my God either. If Jesus Christ, the Lord, should put His finger on one of them and say: 'You've got it wrong', I'll repent and it will be in the dustbin - because He is Lord, He is Lord. Do you need to repent? Do you need to turn and confess something to Jesus? Do we put barriers, obstacles - and I know Scrabo is a church that reaches out, I know that Scrabo is a church that makes efforts not to put obstacles in an unbeliever's way - but we still need to consider God's word: are there still ways where laws can become more important than lives? We need to analyse: are these laws God's, or are they ours? Who made them up? Do we have Scripture for it? Is it a convoluted, contrived twisting of Scripture? There were some unscriptural traditions that were good traditions because they served a purpose at some time, but some of those traditions have lost their purpose because times have changed. Do we need to ask God for light on this?
Father, we thank You for being with us. We thank You for the candour and the directness of our Lord Jesus. Lord, that's why we feel - all of us, myself included - the blow of the hammer of Scripture on our spirits. Yet we thank You for His gentleness, and His tenderness - to see a man or a woman in a ditch. Jeff spoke earlier of the miry clay, that we have fallen into the pit of sin and selfishness. There is none of us, hardly any of us, would see our pet dog or cat, or one of our farm livestock, fall into a pit - no matter what day of the week, even it was our birthday or our wedding day, we would go to its aid. Lord, You're here, and You see the folk that have fallen deep here today, who are in a dark depth of sin and despair that they just don't know how to get out of. I can see now Lord, Your hand, Your nail-pierced hand O Lord Jesus, reaching down to lift them out - if they would just, like the man in the synagogue, reach out their hand. Lord, would You help them take that step today if they haven't already. We give You glory, Lord Jesus Christ, that we are not a people of a funeral - hallelujah - but it's the wedding celebration of Messiah that we have joined. So, help us to look like it, Lord, help us to sound like it, help us to show others the joy of the Lord which is our strength, that others may see it and fear and might trust in the Lord. In Jesus' mighty name we pray, Amen.
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This sermon was delivered at Scrabo Hall in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording, titled "Laws Or Lives?" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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