You've heard of the Pharisees. They were religious leaders who were known for being sticklers about enforcing the technicalities of God's law, and they were so busy condemning Jesus and his disciples for their behavior on the Sabbath day that they missed out on the greater lessons.
Today on Truth for Life Weekend, Alistair Begg confronts the spiritual dangers of legalism then and now. He's teaching from the opening verses of Luke chapter 6. How then can these Pharisees declare what they were doing to be wrong?
Well, the answer is simple. Because the Pharisees weren't content simply to have the law of God. They had a souped-up version of the law of God. They had their own version. And as time passed, they added to it more and more accretions, more and more little bits and pieces that they tagged on to the express plan of God, which had been given for the good of those who would obey him. And they had some thirty-nine principal works.
They had them divided into six subcategories, all of which were forbidden on the Sabbath. You can just imagine them going into their books, you know. They're bringing out a little black book from somewhere and going, yes, violation 1a, 1b, 2c, 2d, and 2f.
Why are you doing this, you bad people? You see, what they had done was this. They said, since you're not allowed to reap, they tightened up the idea of reaping. So they accused the disciples of reaping, because they said picking was the same as reaping. Threshing was a violation.
And what they were doing with their hands was, according to the Pharisees, threshing. So that was violation 2. Winnowing was a violation, whereby you threw the grain up, remember, and the good stuff stayed, and the husks blew away. And so what they were doing in throwing bits and pieces away was actually winnowing, violation 3.
And grinding was what they were doing with their teeth, and that was, of course, violation 4. They were absolutely hamstrung, because the Pharisees had encumbered the law of God with accretions of their own invention. They had encumbered the law of God with accretions of their own invention. That was not unique to the Pharisees. That has gone on all through time and is present today in many circles of Christianity.
And we are not immune from it in this place. And therefore, we must be very, very clear that we do not immediately jump and find ourselves on the side of the liberty, as it were, of the disciples, because frankly, many of us have within us an incipient form of Phariseeism which is tempted to jump out and confront people at every corner along the road. Why are you doing that?
Why are you doing that? Didn't you know it was wrong to do that? You're not allowed to do that, and this and so on and so on, especially as it relates to the Sabbath.
I know a great deal about this. They were perverting God's law. They were impugning God's wisdom. They were usurping God's authority. And any time that you and I are tempted to add our own little shibboleths to the clear directors of the law of God, whatever they might be, whatever they have to do in relationship to our culture or our background or whatever else it is, even for the best of reasons, then we do the same. We pervert his law, we impugn his wisdom, we say we're wiser than God, and we usurp his authority. So they address their question to the disciples, Why are you doing what's unlawful on the Sabbath?
Now, notice Jesus, their leader, steps forward and answers on behalf of his followers. And look at how he answers them in verse 3. Well, he says, let me just ask you, have you been reading your Bibles lately? Or he might have said to them, Trapped in that little box that's on your forehead or wrapped on those little boxes that are around your wrists, where you like everybody to know that you are so into the Bible that you tie them to your head and tie them to your wrists. He said, I wonder if you've been opening those boxes lately.
And I wonder if when you opened them, you actually read them. Because if you read them, you may recall the incident in 1 Samuel 21, where David and his boys went in and ate the concentrated bread that was supposed to only be eaten by the priest. There were twelve loaves, one representing each tribe of Israel.
They were cleared off at the end of the week. The priest then had to go in and eat twelve loaves. No one else could eat them. And then they put twelve new loaves out. David and his friends show up, they're hungry, and they go in and eat them.
He says, I wonder, do you remember that? And he gave some to his companions. And then he says, let me just mention to you that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.
Now, the inference is clear. If David's boys did not break the spirit of the divine Sabbath, then Jesus' boys were not sinful on account of eating these corn ears, because it was, first of all, allowed in the Old Testament law, and secondly, it was for their physical well-being. Now, notice a principle here that's very, very important. Jesus, in replying in this way, lays down this principle that no ceremonial provision must stand in the way of providing for the essential needs of life. No ceremonial provision must stand in the way of providing for the essential needs of life, whether it is in the eating of the corn or whether it is in the healing of the hand. The Pharisees were guilty of burying the real law of God under a mountain of man-made, foolish traditions. And as Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord Jesus is guarding it against the distortions and perversions with which the Pharisees had surrounded it. I do not subscribe to the view that I hear frequently propounded, that in declaring the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus was essentially saying, and so we can put all this Sabbath business aside. No, Jesus was not dealing with the use of the Sabbath, he was dealing with the abuse of the Sabbath. And he is guarding it from all of the stuff that the Pharisees were doing to it, thereby making it burdensome and making it ugly and grotesque and nothing like what God had planned from all of creation. He never canceled the use of the Sabbath. He corrected the abuse of the Sabbath. Now in verse 6 we come to the second incident, which is not outside, it's inside. Now this is taking place in the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. It's also on another Sabbath day. Luke says there was a man there whose right hand was shriveled. Interesting that the doctor shows such detail again. It wasn't just a hand.
It was his right hand, which in the majority of incidences would be the hand that was most necessary for his well-being. He tells us that the Pharisees, who popped up once again, were motivated by a desire to accuse Jesus. That was their motivation. Verse 7, they were there not to rejoice in the teaching of the Bible. They were there simply looking for a reason to accuse the teacher. People come to worship for all kinds of reasons. I sometimes wonder if some don't come simply in order that they might find something with which to disagree so that they can send a fax or an email first thing on Monday morning. You preach your heart out, and someone comes up to you afterwards and says, I don't really think that what you said about X or Y or Z was really accurate at all, and I think you're full of hot air.
Well, thank you very much for sharing that, and may God bless you too. These Pharisees were not there because they wanted to learn the Bible. They were there because they wanted to accuse the teacher of the Bible of wrongdoing. And if Jesus experienced that, then every Bible class teacher and Sunday school leader and so on has known something of it also, looking for a reason to accuse him.
Verse 8, Jesus knew what they were thinking. Now, those of you who have studied all the way through should hear a bell going off in your head. Are you hearing it? I don't think so.
Well, let me tell you what it was, and you'll go, Aha! Chapter 2, verse 35, the prophecy of Simeon. Part of the prophecy of Simeon—you remember?—this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, which is exactly what is taking place. Verse 35, chapter 2, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
This is what's going to happen, says Simeon. When this child emerges as the teacher of Israel, the thoughts of hearts will be revealed. Jesus now, teaching in the synagogue, confronted by the presence of the Pharisees, knows the thoughts of their hearts. Now let us not miss something here this morning.
As surely as that was true, it is true now. That Christ, who is sovereign and master over all, he made us all, he knows the thoughts of our hearts—both speaker and each of us as we listen. Therefore, it is a dumb idea for us to try and pretend that we are something that we're not or to create on our externals some kind of spirit that would give the lie to those around us that we are particularly devoted or particularly interested or whatever it might be. When we're going to fight, the Lord Jesus looks out on the crowd, and he knows our hearts as he knew their hearts. So he takes this man, he takes the offensive position. He says to the man with the shriveled hand, Get up and stand in front of everyone. I don't think that a man with a shriveled hand would particularly want to be made the center of attention.
In fact, I think that those of us who have known anything of physical impairment either shared ourselves or shared in the lives of our loved ones who have dealt with this know that it is a quite devastating thing to be put center stage when one is aware of these disfigurements or impairments. So what is Jesus doing? And why would the man have such confidence to take his place in the center of the synagogue? Well, simply because Jesus said, Get up, and so he got up and stood there. And with the man standing there, Jesus then says to these accusing Pharisees, Let me ask you a question.
And let me paraphrase it to get to the heart of it. Is it right on the Sabbath to do good and save life as I am about to do? Or is it right on the Sabbath to harm and destroy life as you are so clearly intent on doing? Now, any child in the synagogue would be able to answer that question immediately. They'd be able to say, Well, it's only right to heal and save life, Lord Jesus. It is clearly not right to be involved in those other dreadful things. Now, technically, healing, according to the law, was permitted only if the illness was life-threatening.
And this, you see, was the kind of technicality that these Pharisees loved. Well, is the man going to die? No, he's clearly not going to die.
He's had a shriveled hand for some time. Then if he's not going to die, it violates the letter of the law, because it is only if the illness is life-threatening that healing may take place. And Jesus says, Away with all that kind of legalistic nonsense! Here this man has the opportunity to be healed. It would be sinful to leave him in his pitiable condition. But you want to use the synagogue, and you want to use the law, as a means of putting a barrier between those who are in great need and the liberation that they may discover. Isn't that a dreadful thing? When people will seek to employ the Word of God and the worship of God's people and use it as the very antithesis to what God intends for to be done with it. And it happens all the time. The spirit of Phariseeism alive and well in contemporary evangelicalism, seizing the law of God to add to it our own accretions, to build into it our own shibboleths, and to use it then as a means of saying, Well, you can stay hungry, and you can stay shriveled.
And the reason that you can is because of this. And Jesus says, No, that may be your kind of Sabbath, where people remain hungry and their hands remain shriveled, but my kind of Sabbath is where they enjoy the corn and where their hands are made to work again. And they hated him for it. Pharisees of every hue and in every generation have a great problem with liberty. And so, having addressed the question to them, verse 10a says that he looked round at them all and then said to the man… In other words, as he turns and looks at these people, he's given them the opportunity in that moment to respond, to look at one another, to look down at the ground and to admit to his authority, to acknowledge that what he's saying is right and true. But instead, they remain absolutely silent. They make it clear that they set a higher value on their harsh, hair-splitting rules than on God's law of love. Isn't that what's happening?
You're sensible people. You must read the Bible for yourselves and think. So Jesus turns and addresses the man. He's given them the opportunity to respond.
They do not respond. And he then turns to the man, and he says to him, What from the lips of any other individual would have been the most cruel of jokes? Stretch out your hand. Now, have you ever done that, as you're a boy, in your perversity? Perhaps not.
But you had the fun of asking somebody to do something which it was fatally impossible for them to do, and it was a means of sick humor. Anybody else walking by see the man with his hand all shriveled up that says, Hey, buddy, why don't you wave? The man would have said to himself, If only I might, if only I could. Jesus has now brought him into the very center of the synagogue, and the gentleman who had been standing there, presumably with sinews and nerve endings and everything, completely atrophied and useless. My grandfather's hand was like this from one of the major battles of the First World War.
He always shook hands with his left hand. He took him center stage. He said, Do I want you to stretch out your hand? And what he was clearly unable to do, he did.
If you can't sleep tonight, lie awake thinking about that. That Jesus asked him to do what he was clearly unable to do, and he did it. In the same way that he asked sinners to repent of their sins, to believe in him, something they are clearly unable to do, and they do it. It wasn't that he was able to do it, and so Jesus just said, Do what you can do.
He clearly couldn't do it. So that the word of Jesus was not only a life-changing word, but it was a life-giving word, as it is to us this morning. Because the shriveled hand is only an indication of the shriveled hearts of men and women. And he comes to us, and he says, Now stretch out and lay hold. And we say, But I can't. But his word is life-giving. Now, that is essentially it. There are two ways that we can go at this point.
The first is this way. To say, once again, the words and works of Jesus demand a response, and neutrality is not an option. Confronted this morning by the works and the wonders and the words of the Lord Jesus, he comes to people and he addresses us with such clarity, and we cannot remain neutral. Saul of Tarsus, who was embedded in this kind of Phariseeism, emerges from an experience of an encounter with the Lord Jesus to be able to say, as we thought of the funeral service this Thursday evening, To me to live is Christ and to die is gain. This was the radical change that had been brought about in his life. Up until that point, to him to live was regulation, to him to live was formalism, to him to live was Judaism, it was Phariseeism, it was all of these things.
What was it brought about the change? Well, he met Christ, he heard his voice, he bowed before him, and his life was radically changed. And this, of course, you see, is the great impact of what Luke is saying. Therefore, some of us this morning need to think in those terms. The second route down which these verses take us is the route of asking the larger question concerning the observance of the Sabbath principle by each of us today—in other words, forces us to ask the question, Is there any abiding significance to the fourth commandment? The Pharisees clearly had added to the law of God their own extensive list of accretions. And there were many of these. If you read old books, you can find—for example, a Pharisee laid down that you could walk five steps on the Sabbath, but you had to have a rest before you took the sixth step.
That was the kind of stuff. Women were not allowed to wear ribbons in their hair on the Sabbath, because that would have been to carry a burden. You could not drag a stick on the ground on the Sabbath, because that would be akin to plowing. You could not pluck out a gray hair on the Sabbath if you saw it in the mirror, because that would be akin to reaping. And some of you have done a little reaping this morning, and some of you wish you could.
So this was what the Pharisee did. I would imagine that very few of us have any appreciation for that kind of mentality. Some of us, by dint of our background, may know something of it.
I certainly do. But I think that this congregation this morning is largely on the other side of the fence. The majority of you this morning have probably given very little thought to the notion of the perpetuity of the Sabbath—in other words, that there is any abiding influence and impact from the fourth commandment in the law of God—and indeed, so much so that we may be inclined to regard any attempts at maintaining the sanctity of the Sabbath, of keeping it holy as nothing more than a form of the contemporary Phariseeism which Jesus here was setting aside.
And that's what people say. If anybody says, Well, you know, we have to wrestle with this issue of remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy, some say, But that is just Phariseeism. Don't you realize that in the Gospels, Jesus dealt with that? He said the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, and they interpret that as meaning you can do what you like. And thirdly, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, and he decided that he would just blow it apart, and that's why he dealt with the Pharisees as he did. So clearly, we're not reading our Bibles because he was dealing with the abuse that was the additions and accretions of the Pharisees. He was not dealing with the use of that which God had formed and established from the very beginning of creation. Thinking and acting like a Pharisee isn't something that ended back in the first century. It's still alive in Christian circles today, and each of us is prone to lean in that direction, to stray toward that error. That's why it's so important that we focus on the life-changing, life-giving words of Jesus. You're listening to Truth for Life Weekend.
Alistair Begg will be back in just a moment to close today's program. Sometimes we have doubts about our faith. The author of the book Seven Reasons to Reconsider Christianity understands that feeling very well. After he received the life-changing news of a cancer diagnosis, he began to reassess his faith.
He confronted his own doubts head on. Did Jesus really say and do everything the Bible claims? Can we really trust the truth of God's word? In this book, you'll learn how the claims of Christianity hold up under scrutiny and how you can become even more certain about what you believe. This book will help you or someone you know who is skeptical by addressing seven statements about Christianity that are worth investigating, worth considering and believing. The book makes a clear case for how faith in Jesus really does provide the best answers. Visit our website today to find out more about the book Seven Reasons to Reconsider Christianity.
The website is truthforlife.org. We know not everyone likes to read, so if you'd like another quick and easy way to share the gospel with unbelieving friends, we want to recommend a couple of short videos. One is a brief talk by Alistair where he explains the gospel. The other is an animated short film titled What is the Story of the Bible? You'll find both videos at truthforlife.org slash the story. You'll also find several suggestions for additional teaching from Alistair about Jesus, about the Bible, about the church, and the basics of Christianity.
All are available to listen to or watch or download for free as often as you wish. Now here's Alistair with a closing thought. Now the foundational question with which we need to wrestle—and I give it to you as part of your homework assignment—is this question. Is then the fourth commandment a divine ordinance in the same way that the other nine commandments are divine ordinances? Now, some argue that it isn't, and they want me to argue in defense that it is. But the onus is on those who argue that it isn't to prove why it isn't, because I can show you why so clearly it is. It's simply in between number three and number five, and no one took it out.
So if you want to explain that it's out, then come and explain to me why it's out. But it is so clearly there. And if it is there, then adherence to it is not legalism. Because if adherence to the fourth commandment is legalism, then adherence to the fifth commandment is legalism. Indeed, any adherence to the commands is ipso facto legalism, which it clearly isn't. Is fidelity, marital fidelity, legalism? No. Is total honesty, legalism? No. Is the honoring of my father and mother legalism?
No. Then is the keeping of the Sabbath legalism. The kind of change that we want to create here—and I find it in my heart as well—is born of the charge that any attempt to deal with the Sabbath in this way is a form of legalism, and the reason that you and I are tempted to regard it as legalism is because our consciences, in large measure, have become totally insensitive to the very sanctity for which the commandment calls.
I'm Bob Lapine. When Jesus responded to the Pharisees about the Sabbath, did he dismiss the fourth commandment? Are we being legalistic when we set aside the Sabbath as a holy day? Join us next weekend as we'll hear the conclusion of today's message titled, Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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