Saturday 17 January 2009

Listen to the Don

Hundreds of Don Carson's sermons and talks are now available freely from the Gospel Coalition website. Biblical reformed preaching of Christ at its best .... with a Canadian accent!

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Win a John Piper Sermon Manuscript Library!

..and tickets to the upcoming Desiring God Pastors conference (I guess this might be all the more attractive if you're in the US).

Thursday 1 January 2009

Lord of the Sabbath: Matthew 12:1-8

1At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath."

3He answered, "Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5Or haven't you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. 8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

Matthew 12:1-8

Jesus' disciples are charged with breaking the Sabbath law of rest. Their Sunday snack involved picking up the corn and this was tantamount to "harvesting", or work. Rather than point out how ridiculous the Pharisees' interpretation of the law of God was, Jesus takes the opportunity to shed light of the purpose of the Sabbath day command.

Here, Jesus lays out three examples from the Old Testament law in their defence. In doing so, he shows Christians today how the same principles from God's revelation to the people of Israel through their national history and the writings of their prophets, are to be applied in the light of the person of Christ.

In each instance, Jesus is comparing the Old Testament law

  1. With reference to man
  2. With reference to God
  3. With reference to himself
1. Man
Jesus quotes an example from the life of David. 1 Samuel 21 has David fleeing from Saul, who was obsessed in jealousy over him, and wanted to kill the the one chosen by God himself to replace him. Up to this point, David has been acting honourably; he flees Saul's court not just to save his life, but avoids any attempt at overthrowing the present King.

Still, desperation and hunger catch up to David at Nob, where he visits the tabernacle of God. He lies to Ahimelech, the priest, in order to obtain the consecrated bread to eat. This was food offered at the altar to the LORD, which was replaced with fresh bread that day. Even so, it would only have been permissible for the priests themselves to eat of this holy offering.

Here, Jesus is implying that David's "hunger" was reason enough for him to be excused. The law is not to be used over against meeting the needs of man. Just a few verses later, Jesus uses the example of the sheep that has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath - the animal would still be rescued, even though it would mean controvening the "no working" rule on the day of rest. "How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." (verse 12)

It is worth noting that it is the situation of hunger that exonerates David. It does not excuse the man of lying through his teeth to the priest (resulting in the massacre of the servants in the temple in 1 Sam 22).

We might also ask, how the disciples are to be compared to the David's situation. They weren't exactly starving at that point - they were just having lunch, or possibly even, tea while strolling in the corn fields.

Jesus will get to the bigger picture soon enough. For now, he simply highlights how the Pharisees' nitpicking display a lack of regard for the needs of the people they lord their rules over. And conversely how the Old Testament itself makes provision within the law for mercy and grace.

2. God

The fact of the matter is, even the priests in the temple break the Sabbath law. What Jesus says is - they have to! There were sacrifices to be carried out, circumcisions to be performed (see John 7). Priests have to work on the Sabbath, thereby desecrating it. Yet, they are innocent.

It is important to see what Jesus is getting at. He isn't trying to expose a loophole in the commands of God. Unlike the Pharisees, he purpose isn't to catch them out - much less to catch God out by pointing out the inconsistencies in his word.

Rather, Jesus is drawing their attention to the heirarchy of laws within the commands of God. A structure and order to the primacy of rules, not based on an arbitrary assessment of their worth, but one that vertically points towards and is in reference to, God.

Notice that Jesus is speaking in verse 5, of the priests of the temple. It is the temple of God, the place of true worship of the LORD, that validates the ministry of the servants within its walls. The temple signified the presence of God. It was the meeting place between man and God. There provision was made for the forgiveness of the sins of the nation, through the offerings of sacrifice.

At one level, this has a similar point to Jesus' first illustration: the law is God's provision to man - not the other way around. The temple was God's presence with his people; the temple worship allowed them to draw close to him; to have access to his provision of grace and mercy. The priests carried out their service before God - and were not to be condemned for doing so.

But the point Jesus is making here is vertical, rather than a horizontal. The temple, and the laws surrounding its function, were over and above the laws of the Sabbath. The Sabbath, while reflecting the revelation of God in creation, was subjugated to the Temple, the revelation of God in his act of redemption and reconciliation. Put it simply, the laws of God were meant to reveal God more fully - and the clearer they did so, the more important they were.

And now, Jesus says in verse 6, one greater than the temple was among them.

3. Christ

Jesus declares himself the "Lord of the Sabbath" in verse 8. More than just making a statement about his authority, the bible invites us to ask how Jesus fulfils the true meaning of the Sabbath command, and hence, stands over it as its true master.

In the few verses preceeding this account, Jesus identifies himself as the source of true of rest.

28"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Matthew 11:28-30

The true Sabbath rest is to be found in the knowledge of who Jesus is. God's rest is in Christ.

Notice what this rest is contrasted with - burden and weariness. The ironic thing about the Pharisees attempts at observing the Sabbath rest, is the burden they lay on themselves and others in doing so. Their actions leads to criticism and condemnation; ultimately even of the One who would offer this this rest.

The key to understanding this is found in another Old Testament passage Jesus refers to, this time taken from the prophet Hosea (6:6)

7If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.

In observing the rules and regulations of the law, whether they be the sacrificial system or the institution of the Sabbath day, what had been lost was the reflection of God's character in mercy and forgiveness in the practitioners. The Pharisees searched the law not for signs of God, but opportunities to condemn Jesus - and they started with his disciples.

Pointing to himself, Jesus is spelling out what it meant to recognise him as the "one greater than the temple" and the true Lord of the Sabbath. It was in terms of, not the magnitude of his majesty, but the mediation of his mercy.

Jesus declares his disciples as innocent. But not because they haven't broken the law. Looking back at his references to the Old Testament, David did do what was unlawful. The priests in the temple did desecrate the Sabbath. Yet, they too, were declared innocent of wrong-doing.

The God who judges, is also the God who desires to forgive. He does not forgo judgement - in the same way his does not forgo his will revealed through the law. The law is still the law.

When God says in Hosea that he desires mercy, not sacrifice - he is not abolishing sacrifice. Rather, the phrase is a semitic expression indicating how much more, how much greater is God's will in the display of his mercy.

In his greatness and wisdom, Jesus would the authenticated as the Lord of the Sabbath, because only he would truly display God's mercy through sacrifice. Through his death on the cross, God's forgiveness would flow to the guilty and condemned under the law.

If the Pharisees understood the writings of the prophet Hosea, they would understand who Jesus was. They would then see why Jesus' disciples were innocent, the same way David and the temple priests were to be considered innocent. 1) The law reflects God's mercy in special circumstances of need, 2) the law makes provision for not just the circumstance, but the true need of man for forgiveness, and 3) God himself would provide that need through the fulfilment of the sacrifice that brings forth forgiveness.

There are then, two important applications to the way the Old Testament law is to be applied to Christians today.

  • Christ must always be seen as the fulfilment of the law.
    He is the Lord of the Sabbath: whatever disagreements we may have over which day the Sabbath takes place (Saturday? Sunday? From 6am?), how we are to properly observe this rest (can we watch a movie?), we must always agree on the foundational understanding of the Sabbath made for Christ.

  • We are to reflect Christ's mercy
    Our natural response is to condemn others through the law. Our outwards attempts to keep the law are driven by the inner reminders that we are condemned by the law. Either we realise can never fulfil it, so our conscience and the Devil accuse us so as to drive us to despair. Our we are so blind as to think we are attaining moral points with God for being able to keep the moral code - and start condemning others, who in our eyes, fall short of not just God's standards, but ours as well.

    Only through a clearer understanding of the mercy of God through Christ, and a greater vision of the glory of God in Jesus do we begin to see the desire of God to forgive those under the blood of Christ. Christ's fulfiment of the law, frees us from the judgement under the law.

    If God no longer condemns those declared innocent through the redemption of Jesus on the cross, we who trust in his forgiveness, should never be too zealous to condemn, but all the more eager to extend the message of his grace.
We need to watch our words and our hearts even when it comes to the small things - the Pharisees were essentially nitpicking at a wild interpretation of what it meant to do work on the rest day. It wasn't adultery, murder, idolatory. You have to wonder what they were doing at the field of corn that afternoon anyways. These guys were just looking out for anything that would give them leverage over Jesus. Are we similarly obsessed with gum-chewing during Sunday services? The font-size on the service sheet?

Jesus exposes their inner rejection of him. Outwardly it would would be directed towards his followers - pointing out their mistakes, keeping score, condemnation. Inwardly, their hearts had already rejected Jesus as Lord. On the Sabbath, the religious law-keepers would privately plot to murder Jesus (12:10).

In the face of our condemnation of him, Jesus declares those who trust in him to be innocent - His mercy triumphs over his judgement. And it should over ours as well.