Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Giving the Pharisees Their Due

A major reason the Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus was his refusal to follow their Sabbath rules. Jesus went out of his way to challenge the Pharisees on the Sabbath, choosing this day to perform his miracles.

We obviously want to agree with Jesus and not the Pharisees. However, we need to give the Pharisees their due and not misunderstand the issues at stake. The Pharisees were not wrong to be concerned about keeping the Sabbath day holy. The Pharisees were obligated by the Mosaic Law. One of the Ten Commandments was “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy . . . .” (Exodus 20:8-11)

Under the old covenant, the Sabbath was not primarily a day for worship, although some extra sacrifices were offered. It was a day to rest from regular work. The penalty for individuals who violated this commandment was death. Exodus 31:13-14 declares, “You must observe my Sabbaths. . . . Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people.”

In the wilderness wanderings, a precedent was set to carry this out literally. Numbers 15:32-36 records, “While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. . . . Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.’” So for the Pharisees to seek Jesus’ death for Sabbath breaking was not a result of crankiness, but of trying to follow God’s word.

The consequences for failing to keep the Sabbath were serious for the nation, too. In fact, 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 indicates that the Babylonian captivity was 70 years long because of missed Sabbaths over the years of Israel’s history.

After the exile Nehemiah addressed Sabbath violations on the basis of the danger that they would pose to the nation (Nehemiah 13:17-18), “I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’" As leaders, the Pharisees were responsible to protect Israel from further judgment that would undoubtedly come from God if Sabbath breakers were allowed to continue. They were helping the whole community by calling the people to observe the Sabbath and by persecuting those who refused.

Why, then, did Jesus not follow the Sabbath rules of the Pharisees? Because the Pharisees included human rules in the Sabbath restrictions.

God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai gave principles for what it meant to keep the Sabbath. Over the years, rabbis and scribes had to decide cases in the “gray areas.” Human interpretations were added to the Biblical commands, such as how many steps could be walked and what could be lifted without being considered work.

The Pharisees also added boundaries that were more restrictive. By the time of Jesus the laws enforced by the Pharisees were hardly recognizable as having to do with God’s law. Jesus’ Sabbath “violations” fell in the area of the human traditions, not in the area of God’s covenant.

In Matthew 12:11-12 “He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold if it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’” In their intricate system of do’s and don’ts, they had reversed the priority God intended. Jesus also criticized their Sabbath traditions in Mark 7:6-9 and John 7:23. But he did not criticize them for taking the Sabbath seriously under the Law.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

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