Summary: In this message I consider what Sabbath meant to First Century Jews, how the first followers of Christ regarded Sabbath, and the implications for today’s Church.


How do you spend your Sundays? Oh, I know that you usually come to church in the morning – that’s not in question. But what else do you do on Sundays, on the Sabbath? Perhaps, you go out for a family walk; or, wash the car; or, go shopping; or, maybe even go out to work? However we may spend our Sundays, this morning I intend to take a closer look at how JESUS approached the Sabbath and consider the implications for us 21st century Christians. So, let’s initially consider …


First of all, it’s worth remembering that the Jewish Sabbath is not the same as the Christian Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, was – and still is – the seventh day of the week, Saturday; and, as such, it marks the seventh day of creation that’s described in Genesis, chapter 2, verses 2 and 3:

By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work that He had done.

Over the course of many, many centuries, the Jewish people have observed the Sabbath in three very significant ways:

• as a celebration of the very special relationship existing between Israel and God;

• as an imitation of God’s own resting after the work of creation; and

• as a remembrance of the relief that God gave them, when He rescued them from slavery in Egypt.

For Jewish people, the observance of the Sabbath has always been an integral part of their identity and is enshrined in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. So, in the Book of Exodus, we find that the fourth of the Ten Commandments says:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…

On the Sabbath, Jews not only refrained from work, but also gathered together in synagogues for worship – they would pray, listen to Scripture and hear a sermon, so the Sabbath was not only a day of rest, but also a day of worship.

For the first followers of Christ, the Jewish Sabbath was equally important – because they were, of course, Jews themselves! So, we read in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul regularly went to the synagogues on the Sabbath to share the gospel with worshippers – for instance, in Acts 13, we read that Paul and Barnabas went to a synagogue and were invited to bring a word of encouragement, whereupon Paul preached the Good News about Jesus Christ to them. However, it seems that the early Church themselves started gathering for worship each Sunday – the day of Christ’s resurrection and the first day of the week of creation (the day upon which God had said, “Let there be light). So, it seems likely that, for a period of time, Christians observed the Sabbath on Saturday and gathered for worship on Sunday – it was many years later that the Christian Sabbath came to be observed on Sunday, probably in order that Christians might dissociate themselves from Jews.

It’s clear, then, that the Sabbath that Jesus celebrated was the Jewish Shabbat – Saturday – and yet, as you may have gathered from our reading, His approach to it differed from some other pious Jews. Let’s take a look at that episode now and see how Jesus declares Himself …


The gist of the first part of the story is this: one Sabbath day, Jesus and His disciples are walking through some cornfields, and His disciples pick a few ears of corn to eat as they are going along; some Pharisees challenge them, accusing them of breaking the Sabbath by doing this; and Jesus robustly defends them.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. Note, first of all, that at no time is Jesus Himself accused of breaking the Sabbath rules – it is His disciples whose behaviour is questioned. But, of course, their behaviour does reflect back upon Him, their rabbi – He, as their teacher, was held responsible for them. So, then, if He Himself didn’t break Sabbath rules, did He teach His disciples to do just that?

According to the Torah - the Jewish law - picking and eating grain from fields was permissible …

Deuteronomy 23:25 says:

If you enter your neighbour’s cornfield, you may pick the ears with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing corn.

It seems like it was all a matter of quantity: picking and eating a few grains of corn to satisfy your hunger was okay, but taking large amounts of your neighbour’s crop certainly was not. But the challenge of the Pharisees centred not upon the legitimacy of picking grain in itself, but, rather, upon doing it on the Sabbath – it was their contention that this picking of grain constituted work and that this, therefore, contravened the Sabbath. We need to understand that, while Scripture said that work should not be done on the Sabbath, there obviously must be some definition of what ‘work’ entailed and it seems that different groups of Jews had different interpretations – what it boils down to is that the Pharisees challenged Jesus because they considered picking grain to be work and, as such, it was prohibited in their eyes. But, although the Pharisees objected to it, other Jewish authorities considered this picking of grain to be perfectly permissible on the Sabbath, and so it wasn’t a clear cut matter.

I don’t know about you, but I find it quite comforting, really, to know that, even in Jesus’ day, there were different interpretations of the scriptures – that there was a need for debate and discussion about the meaning of various passages. Today, people will tell us that what the Bible says about this issue, or that issue, is completely black-and-white, that it is unmistakable, and yet what they are giving us is actually only their own interpretation. The truth is that we – God’s people - discover what He is saying to us in and through the Bible, only as the Holy Spirit guides us as we debate and discuss its meaning together.

Anyway, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ criticism with a question – He asks them: “Have you never read what David did that time when he needed something to eat?” And, in case they haven’t, He tells them exactly what David did:

“He and his men were hungry, so he went into the house of God and ate the bread offered to God. … According to our Law only the priests may eat this bread – but David ate it and even gave it to his men.”

At first, it seems strange that Jesus should bring up this episode, as if it constituted some kind of precedent – after all, there is no suggestion in the Old Testament that David and his men took the bread on the Sabbath, and, really, eating already-made bread isn’t the same as picking and eating grain from a field. But let me share a couple of other things with you before I explain …

For instance, in Matthew’s account of this clash between the Pharisees and Jesus, the Lord also asks them this:

“Or have you not read in the Law of Moses that every Sabbath the priests in the Temple actually break the Sabbath law, yet they are not guilty?”

And, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the Jewish authorities:

“Moses ordered you to circumcise your sons … and so you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. If a boy is circumcised on the Sabbath … Moses’ Law is not broken …”

It was always recognised amongst the Jewish scholars and authorities that the written Torah was sometimes difficult to follow, that on it’s own it didn’t have all the answers. But, alongside it, was used the Oral Torah – teachings and instructions believed to have been given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai to help the Israelites keep the written Torah.

The Oral Torah makes it clear that the sanctity of life takes precedence over other commandments. In the first example that Jesus uses, David and his men were on the run from Saul’s forces, they were extremely hungry and, if they didn’t eat, it’s likely they would have been killed; so it was permissible for them to break the law which stated that only priests could eat that bread.

In a similar way, the Oral Torah allowed priests to work on the Sabbath, because leading the worship of God takes precedence over the “no work” rule.

A Jewish boy was to be circumcised on the eighth day following his birth, which meant that sometimes the eighth day was a Sabbath. Now, cutting of any kind was prohibited on the Sabbath and, of course, circumcision involves cutting, so what were the parents supposed to do? Keep the Sabbath and have the boy circumcised on the seventh or the ninth day? Or, break the Sabbath? The Oral Torah says that the law concerning circumcision takes precedence over the law of the Sabbath.

By reminding His critics of what David and his men did, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that there are exceptions to the rule, that there may be a justification for breaking it. And then He gives it to them: “The Sabbath was made for the good of man; man was not made for the Sabbath.” It seems to me that, by saying this, Jesus is not advocating that human beings have complete licence to do whatever they want to do on the Sabbath, but is establishing an essential, overriding principle: namely, that human need takes precedence over ritual law.

This is the point behind the healing of the man with the withered hand at the synagogue. The Pharisees were watching to see if He would dare to heal someone on the Sabbath: they were more interested in the keeping of the law than in the well-being of a fellow human being. Jesus went ahead and healed the man precisely because human need must take precedence over ritual law. But His action caused the Pharisees to start planning His death.


So what then should our attitude be towards our Sabbath celebration, each Sunday? Can we freely do anything we want to? Or, should we look at Sundays differently?

Well, first of all, it’s clear that Jesus didn’t abolish the Sabbath. He Himself observed the Sabbath and so did His disciples, both before and after His death. I believe from this passage that Jesus would have us observe the Sabbath in whatever appropriate ways we can, certainly by attending church and worshipping God and by having a restful day, wherever possible, doing whatever we do to the glory of God. Doing good, helping people, caring for the sick, etc., are all encouraged, but doing harm, hurting people, thinking only of self and ignoring others are not appropriate. I’m not going to come up with a list of dos and don’ts or I’ll sound like a Pharisee myself, but let us all consider how we spend our Sundays and ask ourselves whether what we do is for the glory of God, as well as for our own benefit. Of course, for some, Sunday is a day on which you earn your living, in which case, consider how you can make another day of the week your Sabbath.

I also think that this passage emphasises the need for us to use all the tools that are available to help us to understand the Bible more fully. Jesus used the Oral Torah, the unwritten instructions of God to Moses, in order to show the Pharisees the underlying meaning of what Scripture said about the Sabbath. So, let’s read the Bible regularly and do so with a good Bible commentary to hand, which will open up to us the nuances of the text; and let’s not be afraid to use daily Bible notes to guide our reading. God wants us to understand His word and has provided these resources for us through His people.

This passage is, I think, a very difficult one to understand, particularly if we don’t know the Jewish context, but I hope that we leave this morning with a renewed determination to take the Sabbath seriously, just as Jesus and His disciples did, and just as the Church has for much of the last 2,000 years.