One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
The consecrated bread consisted of 12 loaves placed on the golden table outside the most holy place in the tent of meeting. It was a special offering to God, and was set out fresh every Sabbath. It was to be eaten only by the high priest and his sons (Leviticus 24:5-9).
Nevertheless, in the absence of any other food, David and his men ate it (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Jesus cited this incident as an example of how rules, even God-given ones, are not intended to take precedence over human need. In this way, Jesus tells us something important about divine rules: God made them, and he made them to serve humans, not to rule humans.
In Jesus, God shows us that the core of authentic human life is love. The person who loves, Paul wrote, fulfills the law. We could say that the only reason the law of God exists is to point us toward the life of love. To love is to enter into the divine fellowship of the Holy Spirit, to dwell in the eternal love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father.
People are more important than systems and programs. People are more important than rituals and religion. John wrote that if a person loves God, then that person will love his brother (1 John 4:20). William Barclay wrote: “The best way to worship God is to help men” (Gospel of Mark, Revised Edition, Saint Andrew Press, 1991, p. 64). It might be easy to think that loving God and loving one’s neighbor are two different things. They are not. Our love for God is expressed precisely in how we treat others. If we are mean, hateful, cruel and inconsiderate of others, that is a demonstration of how devoted (or not devoted) we are to God.
God loves all people, even the ones we have no use for, the ones we treat as though they don’t matter. When we behave poorly toward the people God loves, then we are behaving the same way toward God. God is interested in people, not in rituals for rituals’ sake.
When it comes to the Sabbath, an idea has gotten around that the Sabbath is greater than God. Let me explain. It is as though God is the guardian or protector of the Sabbath, making sure that people keep the Sabbath holy, and finally awarding salvation only to those who are faithful Sabbathkeepers. In other words, in this kind of thinking, the main thing is the Sabbath; God is the enforcer of the Sabbath. God made the Sabbath, then made himself subject to it, then made people subject to it.
Jesus cleared all such convoluted recipes off the dinner table. He made things plain: people were not made to be servants of the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made to be a servant of people. Furthermore, Jesus was not talking to or about all people. He was talking to first-century Jewish teachers of the law. And he was talking about Israel, the specific humans to whom God gave the Sabbath.
For Christians to assume that the Sabbath commandment is for Christians is to misunderstand the covenant between God and Israel. And for Christians to hold out the Sabbath as a criterion of the truly faithful believers is to misunderstand the new covenant written on the hearts of all God’s people, Jew and gentile alike.
The gospel declares God’s love. It’s interesting how carefully calculated step-by-step programs for evangelism seem to come and go, much like the latest fads in business and management.
The main reason most people come to church and keep coming to church and become believers is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago – they meet people who like them and accept them and become their friends.
Maybe one reason is that programs, by nature, are contrivances. They might work well for business endeavors, where advertising and manipulation of emotions is crucial to selling a product. But the gospel is not a product; it is a declaration of God’s love.
Love doesn’t come by programs. It comes in its own way in its own time. It is strengthened and proven in the crucible of self-sacrifice, patience and forbearance. It cannot be explained; it can only be lived. It’s something you live out, not something you evaluate on a scale of measurable outcomes. It’s messy, not predictable. Some times it hurts, sometimes it thrills. It’s never static. It doesn’t play by the rules; the rules can’t keep up.
The main reason most people come to church and keep coming to church and be come believers is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago — they meet people who like them and accept them and become their friends. Programs don’t do it — love does it.
Jesus gave a new command to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
That’s a novel thought in our highly organized, programmatic society. Suppose Christians were well known for being the kind of people anybody would enjoy having for a friend. Suppose they weren’t known for being pushy and judgmental. Suppose they weren’t known for well-rehearsed emotional spiels designed to press people into a so-called “decision for Christ.”
Suppose they were genuine, caring and harmless people, who in the love of Christ loved others for who they are. Suppose they didn’t make friends with people as part of some new evangelism program, but simply be cause faithful friendship is what Jesus Christ is all about.
Peter said we should always be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us (see 1 Peter 1:15). Paul said we should let our conversation always be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how to answer everyone (see Colossians 4:6). Neither Peter nor Paul said we should press people to ask. Instead, we are told to live the life of love. We are to make no secret of our faith. But neither are we asked to push it on others.
The Holy Spirit moves people to ask. And the Holy Spirit works in us to give an answer that is “seasoned with salt” and full of “grace.”
Some people call this kind of living “whole-life evangelism” or “relational evangelism” or “life-style evangelism,” etc. But by giving it a name, we run the risk of turning it into a just another program.
Imagine a young man walking up to a young woman outside Lakeside Ice Cream Parlour and saying: “Excuse me. Do you know me? Well, I know you and I know you’re miserable and pathetic and need a great husband. I can fix all that. If you’ll just repeat after me these words, “I will marry you, and we’ll live happily ever after.” She’d slap his face, of course, or call 911, or jab him someplace with her keys.
That’s not how good relationships start. Yet, something akin to that is how some Christians have been taught that a good relationship with Jesus Christ should begin. Thank God, he can and does clean up our messes and turn lemons into lemonade, but what makes us think that is how Jesus wants us to help people learn who he is for them?
Another word for what Jesus was confronting in this story is legalism. Legalism is incompatible with the gospel. Jesus Christ is who he is for us before we ever do anything. The gospel is the truth about the reconciliation God has already brought about in Jesus Christ (Colossians 1: 19-20). Jesus’ work of reconciliation doesn’t depend on us. If it did, we’d never be reconciled, for our faith and our behavior are always substandard at best. God did what he did in Christ because he loved us, not because we loved him first (1 John 4:19).
That’s why we can trust him for our salvation fully, from beginning to end. That is why we do not have to carry a burden of fear that our ever-present weakness in faith or behavior is the crack in the hull that will sink our salvation.
Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath. We rest in him, not in our own works. His love binds us to himself, and he loves us for no other reason than that he wants to! He makes us new in himself, only because he loves us and has chosen freely not to be without us. Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
That’s good news. God has made people — including you and me — his priority. He loves us, and we can’t make him stop loving us. In that place of refuge, in the security of God’s endless love for us, we are free to make him our priority. Therein lie the unshakable peace, joy, and fullness of life we so crave. Therein lies our true rest.
Author: J. Michael Feazell, 2004, 2012