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Matt. xii. 1–14; Mark ii. 23–28; Mark iii. 1–6; Luke vi. 1–11; xiii. 10-16; xiv. 1–6; John v. 1–18; ix. 13-17.

In no part of their conduct were Jesus and His disciples more frequently found fault with than in respect to their mode of observing the Sabbath. Six distinct instances of offence given or taken on this score are recorded in the Gospel history; in five of which Jesus Himself was the offender, while in the remaining instance His disciples were at least the ostensible objects of censure.

The offences of Jesus were all of one sort; His crime was, that on the Sabbath-day He wrought works of healing on the persons of men afflicted respectively with palsy, a withered hand, blindness, dropsy, and on the body of a poor woman “bowed together” by an infirmity of eighteen years’ standing. The offence of the disciples, on the other hand, was that, while walking along a way which lay through a corn-field, they stepped aside and plucked some ears of grain for the purpose of satisfying their hunger. This was not theft, for it was permitted by the law of Moses;128128Deut. xxiii. 24, 25 but nevertheless it was, in the judgment of the Pharisees, Sabbath-breaking. It was contrary to the command, “Thou shalt not work;.” for to pluck some ears was reaping on a small scale, and to rub them was a species of threshing!

These offences, deemed so grave when committed, seem very small at this distance. All the transgressions of the Sabbath law charged against Jesus were works of mercy; and the one transgression of the disciples was for them a work of necessity, and the toleration of it was for others a duty of mercy, so that in condemning them the Pharisees had forgotten that divine word: “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” It is, indeed, hard for us now to conceive how any one could be serious in regarding such actions as breaches of the Sabbath, especially the harmless act of the twelve. There is a slight show of plausibility in the objection taken by the ruler of the synagogue to miraculous cures wrought on the seventh day: “There are six days on which men ought to work; in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the Sabbath-day.”129129Luke xiii. 14 The remark was specially plausible with reference to the case which had provoked the ire of the dignitary of the synagogue. A woman who had been a sufferer for eighteen years might surely bear her trouble one day more, and come and be healed on the morrow! But on what pretence could the disciples be blamed as Sabbath-breakers for helping themselves to a few ears of corn? To call such an act working was too ridiculous. Men who found a Sabbatic offence here must have been very anxious to catch the disciples of Jesus in a fault.

On the outlook for faults we have no doubt the Pharisees were; and yet we must admit that, in condemning the act referred to, they were acting faithfully in accordance with their theoretical views and habitual tendencies. Their judgment on the conduct of the twelve was in keeping with their traditions concerning washings, and their tithing of mint and other garden herbs, and their straining of gnats out of their wine-cup. Their habit, in all things, was to degrade God’s law by framing innumerable petty rules for its better observance, which, instead of securing that end, only made the law appear base and contemptible. In no case was this miserable micrology carried greater lengths than in connection with the fourth commandment. With a most perverse ingenuity, the most insignificant actions were brought within the scope of the prohibition against labor. Even in the case put by our Lord, that of an animal fallen into a pit, it was deemed lawful to lift it out — so at least those learned in rabbinical lore tell us — only when to leave it there till Sabbath was past would involve risk to life. When delay was not dangerous, the rule was to give the beast food sufficient for the day; and if there was water in the bottom of the pit, to place straw and bolsters below it, that it might not be drowned.130130Buxtorf, De Syn. Jud. pp. 352-356. The same author states that it was a breach of the law to let a cock wear a piece of ribbon round its leg on Sabbath: it was making it bear something. It was also forbidden to walk through a stream on stilts, because, though the stilts appear to bear you, you really carry the stilts. These were probably later refinements.

Yet with all their strictness in abstaining from every thing bearing the faintest resemblance to work, the Jews were curiously lax in another direction. While scrupulously observing the law which prohibited the cooking of food on Sabbath,131131Ex. xvi. 23. they did not make the holy day by any means a day of fasting. On the contrary, they considered it their duty to make the Sabbath a day of feasting and good cheer.132132They appealed, in justification of this practice, to Neh. viii. 10. In fact, it was at a Sabbath feast, given by a chief man among the Pharisees, that one of the Sabbath miracles was wrought for which Jesus was put upon His defence. At this feast were numerous guests, Jesus Himself being one, — invited, it is to be feared, with no friendly feelings, but rather in the hope of finding something against Him concerning the Sabbatic law. “It came to pass,” we read in Luke, “as He (Jesus) went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on a Sabbath-day, that they were watching Him.133133Luke xiv. 1. They set a trap, and hoped to catch in it Him whom they hated without cause; and they got for their pains such searching, humbling table-talk as they had probably never heard before.134134Luke xiv. 7-24. This habit of feasting had grown to a great abuse in the days of Augustine, as appears from the description he gives of the mode in which contemporary Jews celebrated their weekly holiday. “To-day,” he writes, “is the Sabbath, which the Jews at the present time keep in loose, luxurious ease, for they occupy their leisure in frivolity; and whereas God commanded a Sabbath, they spend it in those things which God forbids. Our rest is from evil works, theirs is from good works; for it is better to plough than to dance. They rest from good work, they rest not from idle work.”135135Enarratio in Psalmum xci. (xcii.) 2. Similar complaints were made by other Fathers, such as Prudentius and Chrysostom. Vide Bingham, B. xx. c. ii.

From the folly and pedantry of scribes and Pharisees we gladly turn to the wisdom of Jesus, as revealed in the animated, deep, and yet sublimely simple replies made by Him to the various charges of Sabbath-breaking brought against Himself and His disciples. Before considering these replies in detail, we premise one general remark concerning them all. In none of these apologies or defences does Jesus call in question the obligation of the Sabbath law. On that point He had no quarrel with His accusers. His argument in this instance is entirely different from the line of defence adopted in reference to fasting and purifications. In regard to fasting, the position He took up was: Fasting is a voluntary matter, and men may fast or not as they are disposed. In regard to purification His position was: Ceremonial ablutions at best are of secondary moment, being mere types of inward purity, and as practised now, lead inevitably to the utter ignoring of spiritual purity, and therefore must be neglected by all who are concerned for the great interests of morality. But in reference to the alleged breaches of the Sabbath, the position Jesus took up was this: These acts which you condemn are not transgressions of the law, rightly apprehended, in its spirit and principle. The importance of the law was conceded, but the pharisaic interpretation of its meaning was rejected. An appeal was made from their pedantic code of regulations about Sabbath observance to the grand design and principle of the law; and the right was asserted to examine all rules in the light of the principle, and to reject or disregard those in which the principle had either been mistakenly applied, or, as was for the most part the case with the Pharisees, lost sight of altogether.

The key to all Christ’s teaching on the Sabbath, therefore, lies in His conception of the original design of that divine institution. This conception we find expressed with epigrammatic point and conciseness, in contrast to the pharisaic idea of the Sabbath, in words uttered by Jesus on the occasion when He was defending His disciples. “The Sabbath,” said He, “was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, His doctrine was this: The Sabbath was meant to be a boon to man, not a burden; it was not a day taken from man by God in an exacting spirit, but a day given by God in mercy to man — God’s holiday to His subjects; all legislation enforcing its observance having for its end to insure that all should really get the benefit of the boon — that no man should rob himself, and still less his fellow-creatures, of the gracious boon.

This difference between Christ’s mode of regarding the Sabbath and the pharisaic involves of necessity a corresponding difference in the spirit and the details of its observance. Take Christ’s view, and your principle becomes: That is the best way of observing the Sabbath which is most conducive to man’s physical and spiritual well-being — in other words, which is best for his body and for his soul; and in the light of this principle, you will keep the holy day in a spirit of intelligent joy and thankfulness to God the Creator for His gracious consideration towards His creatures. Take the pharisaic view, and your principle of observance becomes: He best keeps the Sabbath who goes greatest lengths in mere abstinence from any thing that can be construed into labor, irrespective of the effect of this abstinence either on his own well-being or on that of others. In short, we land in the silly, senseless minuteness of a rabbinical legislation, which sees in such an act as that of the disciples plucking and rubbing the ears of corn, or that of the healed man who carried his bed home on his shoulders,136136John v. 10. or that of one who should walk a greater distance than two thousand cubits, or three-fourths of a mile,137137This was the limit of a Sabbath-day journey according to the scribes. It was fixed by the distance between the wall of a Levitical city and the outside boundary of its suburb. There were casuistical contrivances for lengthening the journey. See Num. xxxv. 5; and Buxtorf, De Syn. Jud. c. xvi. on a Sabbath, a heinous offence against the fourth commandment and its Author.

A Sabbath observance regulated by the principle that the institution was made for man’s good, obviously involves two great general uses — rest for the body, and worship as the solace of the spirit. We should rest from servile labor on the divinely given holiday, and we should lift up our hearts in devout thought to Him who made all things at the first, who “worketh hitherto,” preserving the creation in being and well-being, and whose tender compassion towards sinful men is great, passing knowledge. These things are both necessary to man’s true good, and therefore must enter as essential elements of a worthy Sabbath observance.

But, on the other hand, the Sabbath being made for man, the two general requirements of rest and worship may not be so pressed that they shall become hostile to man’s well-being, and in effect self-destructive, or mutually destructive. The rule, “Thou shalt rest,” must not be so applied as to exclude all action and all work; for absolute inaction is not rest, and entire abstinence from work of every description would often-times be detrimental both to private and to public well-being. Room must be left for acts of “necessity and mercy;.” and too peremptory as well as too minute legislation as to what are and what are not acts of either description must be avoided, as these may vary for different persons, times, and circumstances, and men may honestly differ in opinion in such details who are perfectly loyal to the great broad principles of Sabbath sanctification. In like manner, the rule, “Thou shalt worship,” must not be so enforced as to make religious duties irksome and burdensome — a mere mechanical, legal service; or so as to involve the sacrifice of the other great practical end of the Sabbath, viz., rest to the animal nature of man. Nor may men dictate to each other as to the means of worship any more than as to the amount; for one may find helps to devotion in means which to another would prove a hindrance and a distraction.

It was only in regard to cessation from work that pharisaic legislation and practice anent Sabbath observance were carried to superstitious and vexatious excess. The Sabbatic mania was a monomania, those affected thereby being mad simply on one point, the stringent enforcement of rest. Hence the peculiar character of all the charges brought against Christ and His disciples, and also of His replies. The offences committed were all works deemed unlawful; and the defences all went to show that the works done were not contrary to law when the law was interpreted in the light of the principle that the Sabbath was made for man. They were works of necessity or of mercy, and therefore lawful on the Sabbath-day.

Jesus drew His proofs of this position from three sources: Scripture history, the everyday practice of the Pharisees themselves, and the providence of God. In defence of His disciples, He referred to the case of David eating the shewbread when he fled to the house of God from the court of King Saul,1381381 Sam. xxi. 6. This occurred on Sabbath, for the old shewbread was replaced by new on that day (hot loaves baked on Sabbath). But this is not the point insisted on by Christ. and to the constant practice of the priests in doing work for the service of the temple on Sabbath-days, such as offering double burnt-offerings, and removing the stale shewbread from the holy place, and replacing it by hot loaves. David’s case proved the general principle that necessity has no law, hunger justifying his act, as it should also have justified the act of the disciples even in pharisaic eyes. The practice of the priests showed that work merely as work is not contrary to the law of the Sabbath, some works being not only lawful, but incumbent on that day.

The argument drawn by Jesus from common practice was well fitted to silence captious critics, and to suggest the principle by which His own conduct could be defended. It was to this effect: “You would lift an ox or an ass out of a pit on Sabbath, would you not? Why? To save life? Why then should not I heal a sick person for the same reason? Or is a beast’s life of more importance than that of a human being? Or again: Would you scruple to loose you ox or your ass from the stall on the day of rest, and lead him away to watering?139139Luke xiii. 14, 15. If not, why object to me when on the Sabbath-day I release a poor human victim from a bondage of eighteen years’ duration, that she may draw water out of the wells of salvation?” The argument is irresistible, the conclusion inevitable; that it is lawful, dutiful, most seasonable, to do well on the Sabbath-day. How blind they must have been to whom so obvious a proposition needed to be proved! how oblivious of the fact that love is the foundation and fulfilment of all law, and that therefore no particular precept could ever be meant to suspend the operation of that divine principle!

The argument from providence used by Jesus on another occasion140140John v. 17. was designed to serve the same purpose with the others, viz., to show the lawfulness of certain kinds of work on the day of rest. “My Father worketh even until now,” said He to His accusers, “and I work.” The Son claimed the right to work because and as the Father worked on all days of the week. The Father worked incessantly for beneficent, conservative ends, most holily, wisely, and powerfully preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions, keeping the planets in their orbits, causing the sun to rise and shine, and the winds to circulate in their courses, and the tides to ebb and flow on the seventh day as on all the other six. So Jesus Christ, the son of God, claimed the right to work, and did work — saving, restoring, healing; as far as might be bringing fallen nature back to its pristine state, when God the Creator pronounced all things good, and rested,, satisfied with the world He had brought into being. Such works of beneficence, by the doctrine of Christ, may always be done on the Sabbath-day: works of humanity, like those of the physician, or of the teacher of neglected children, or of the philanthropist going his rounds among the poor and needy, or of the Christian minister preaching the gospel of peace, and many others, of which men filled with love will readily bethink themselves, but whereof too many, in the coldness of their heart, do not so much as dream. Against such works there is no law save that of churlish, ungenial, pharisaic custom.

One other saying our Lord uttered on the present subject, which carries great weight for Christians, though it can have had no apologetic value in the opinion of the Pharisees, but must rather have appeared an aggravation of the offence it was meant to excuse. We refer to the word, “The Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath-day,” uttered by Jesus on the occasion when He defended His disciples against the charge of Sabbath-breaking. This statement, remarkable, like the claim made at the same time to be greater than the temple, as an assertion of superhuman dignity on the part of the meek and lowly One, was not meant as a pretension to the right to break the law of rest without cause, or to abrogate it altogether. This is evident from Mark’s account,141141Mark ii. 27, 28. where the words come in as an inference from the proposition that the Sabbath was made for man, which could not logically be made the foundation for a repeal of the statute, seeing it is the most powerful argument for the perpetuity of the weekly rest. Had the Sabbath been a mere burdensome restriction imposed on men, we should have expected its abrogation from Him who came to redeem men from all sorts of bondage. But was the Sabbath made for man — for man’s good? Then should we expect Christ’s function to be not that of a repealer, but that of a universal philanthropic legislator, making what had previously been the peculiar privilege of Israel a common blessing to all mankind. For the Father sent His Son into the world to deliver men indeed from the yoke of ordinances, but not to cancel any of His gifts, which are all “without repentance,” and, once given, can never be withdrawn.

What, then, does the lordship of Christ over the Sabbath signify? Simply this: that an institution which is of the nature of a boon to man properly falls under the control of Him who is the King of grace and the administrator of divine mercy. He is the best judge how such an institution should be observed; and He has a right to see that it shall not be perverted from a boon into a burden, and so put in antagonism to the royal imperial law of love. The Son of man hath authority to cancel all regulations tending in this direction emanating from men, and even all by-laws of the Mosaic code savoring of legal rigor, and tending to veil the beneficent design of the fourth commandment of the decalogue.142142The position of the Sabbath in the decalogue (where nothing is placed which was of merely Jewish concern, and which was not of fundamental importance) is a presumption of perpetuity for every candid mind. The much disputed question of the ethical nature of the Sabbath law is not of so great moment as has been imagined. Moral or not, the weekly rest is to all men, and at all times, of vital importance; therefore practically, if not philosophically, of ethical value. The fourth commandment certainly differs from the others in this respect, that it is not written on the natural conscience. The utmost length reason could go would be to determine that rest is needful. Whether rest should be periodical or at irregular intervals, on the seventh day or on the tenth, as in revolutionary France, with its mania for the decimal system, the light of nature could not teach. But the decalogue settles that point, and settles it forever, for all who believe in the divine origin of the Mosaic legislation. The fourth commandment is a revelation for all time of God’s mind on the universally important question of the proper relation between labor and rest. He may, in the exercise of His mediatorial prerogative, give the old institution a new name, alter the day of its celebration, so as to invest it with distinctively Christian associations congenial to the hearts of believers, and make it in all the details of its observance subservient to the great ends of His incarnation.

To such effect did the Son of man claim to be Lord of the Sabbath-day; and His claim, so understood, was acknowledged by the church, when, following the traces of the apostolic usage, she changed the weekly rest from the seventh day to the first,143143How this change was brought about we do not well know. Probably it was accomplished by degrees, and without full consciousness of the transition which was being made, or of its import. From the beginning believers seem to have met for worship on the first day of the week; but there is no evidence that they rested entirely from work on that day. In many cases they could not have done so if they wished, e.g. in the case of slaves of heathen masters. Hence, probably, we account for the church in Troas meeting in the evening, and worshipping till midnight. The likelihood is that the first Christians rested on the seventh day as the Jews, and as Christians worshipped on the morning or evening of the first day, before or after their daily toil. In course of time, as Jewish believers became more weaned from Judaism, the Gentile worshippers multiplied, so as to have a preponderating influence on the customs of the church, the seventh-day rest would disappear, and the first-day rest, the Lord’s day, would take its place. To prevent misapprehension, it is necessary to explain that the seventh day continued to be observed as a fast-day or a festival, with religious services, long after it had ceased to be regarded as a day on which men ought entirely to rest from labor. Vide on this, Bingham, Origines Ecclesiasticæ, B. xx. c. iii. that it might commemorate the joyful event of the resurrection of the Saviour, which lay nearer the heart of a believer than the old event of the creation, and called the first day by His name, the Lord’s day.144144In Greek κυριακὴ ἡμέρα, or simply ἡ κυριακή: in Latin Dies Dominicus. Thus in Tertullian, De Corona, iii., “Die Dominico jejunium nefas ducimus.” That claim all Christians acknowledge who, looking at the day in the light of God’s original design, and of Christ’s teaching, example and work, so observe it as to keep the golden mean between the two extremes of pharisaic rigor and of Sadducaic laxity: recognizing on the one hand the beneficent ends served by the institution, and doing their utmost to secure that these ends shall be fully realized, and, on the other hand, avoiding the petty scrupulosity of a cheerless legalism, which causes many, especially among the young, to stumble at the law as a statute of unreasonable arbitrary restriction; avoiding also the bad pharisaic habit of indulging in over-confident judgments on difficult points of detail, and on the conduct of those who in such points do not think and act as they do themselves.

We may not close this chapter, in which we have been studying the lessons in free yet holy living given by our Lord to His disciples, without adding a reflection applicable to all the three. By these lessons the twelve were taught a virtue very necessary for the apostles of a religion in many respects new — the power to bear isolation and its consequences. When Peter and John appeared before the Sanhedrim, the rulers marvelled at their boldness, till they recognized in them companions of Jesus the Nazarene. They seem to have imagined that His followers were fit for any thing requiring audacity. They were right. The apostles had strong nerves, and were not easily daunted; and the lessons which we have been considering help us to understand whence they got their rare moral courage. They had been accustomed for years to stand alone, and to disregard the fashion of the world, till at length they could do what was right, heedless of human criticism, without effort, almost without thought.

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