Jul 22, 2012

Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath

Luke 6:1–5

When Jesus and His disciples picked handfuls of grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees weren’t happy. Today, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Luke’s gospel to consider Jesus’ response, which leaves no room for doubt about His divine authority.


This morning, we continue our study of the Gospel According to St. Luke. We are now beginning chapter 6, and I will be reading Luke 6:1–5.

Now it happened on the second Sabbath after the first that He went through the grainfields. And His disciples plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands. And some of the Pharisees said to them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”

But Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read this, what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God, took and ate the showbread, and also gave some to those with him, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat?” And He said to them, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

This brief passage is pregnant with significance for theology and our understanding of the person of Christ. The record comes to us through the supervision and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. Let us receive it with the full weight of authority that it carries. Let us pray.

O Lord, again we ask for the presence of Your Spirit of truth to illumine these things for our understanding, that as we grow in our understanding of Jesus, we might come to love Him more purely and follow Him more closely. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.

Picking Corn and Picking Nits

Once again, Luke tells us of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees on a Sabbath day. We read the somewhat innocuous report that Jesus was walking through one of the grainfields with His disciples, and they plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands.

What kind of grain was this? Many believe that these were ears of corn and that the disciples plucked a few ears of corn from this cornfield. To get the kernels loose from the ear, they rubbed the corncobs in their hands, freeing the kernels so they could eat them. They didn’t have the opportunity to cook them and smear them with butter and salt the way we do in our culture.

While the disciples were busy picking corn, the Pharisees were busy picking nits, which was their custom. They began to nitpick this action of Jesus and His disciples.

According to the Deuteronomic law of the Old Testament, it was indeed permissible for passersby to go into a cornfield or grainfield and help themselves to the basic necessities available there. Of course, sojourners were not allowed to come in and harvest all the crop and steal it from the farmer, but this was part of the broader principle of gleaning that was set forth in the Old Testament.

By no means were Jesus and His disciples breaking the law of God. The Pharisees, however, were not content for the law of God to stand by itself. They had to add all kinds of details to their interpretation of what was permitted in order to keep the Sabbath. In their extreme casuistry, they added over one thousand specifications to their traditions defining what could or could not be done on the Sabbath day.

According to their traditions, Jesus had violated the Sabbath prohibition against unnecessary labor on the Sabbath day. By picking an ear of corn, Jesus and His disciples were guilty of harvesting, and by rubbing the corn together, they were guilty of threshing on the Sabbath day. So, the Pharisees were once again shaking their fingers in the face of Jesus and saying, “You’re not allowed to do this.”

Jesus Recalls David

It’s a wonder that Jesus, being God incarnate, didn’t have enough of the Pharisees and decide to unleash the full power of His deity on these rascals. Instead, He patiently answered their objection and reminded them of Old Testament history. He called their attention to an account in 1 Samuel of an event in the life of David and his comrades.

When David and those with him were famished and had no food available to them, they went into the tabernacle and the Holy Place where the table of showbread was. This was not in the Holy of Holies, but this showbread was on the altar as part of the ceremonies of Old Testament worship. David, realizing this was the only food nearby that would be available for him and his comrades, went in, took the bread from the altar, and fed himself and his soldiers with it.

Jesus showed His approval for what David and his men had done in the Old Testament because Jesus was enunciating the principle that no ceremony outweighs the fundamental needs of human life. David and his men did not commit vandalism or frivolously help themselves to the food on the altar; they ate because they had genuine hunger. They were enabled to use this food and still work in the honor of God.

Jesus simply rebuked the Pharisees for their failure to understand what David had done in the Old Testament and for their failure to be concerned about the needs of Jesus and His disciples with respect to the elementary matters of food. However, this passage is about so much more than what Jesus and His disciples did and how He answered the criticism of the Pharisees for what they did.

In this narrative, Jesus made a pronouncement that is overwhelmingly important for us and for our understanding of Him. He said to the Pharisees, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

We could spend the next six months exploring the depths and riches of this one statement that Jesus makes on this occasion to the Pharisees. I’m going to divide it into two parts. The first part is where Jesus calls Himself, once again, the Son of Man.

The Son of Man

We’ve heard Jesus call Himself the Son of Man before. When He announced the forgiveness of sins for the paralytic, the Pharisees rebuked Him. Jesus said on that occasion, “I do this so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24).

In previous years, we’ve looked at the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. This designation for Jesus, Son of Man, is not strange or unusual if you’ve been here for any length of time. At the risk of boring you, I’d like to go back and rehearse some of the significance of this title for Jesus.

In this last week, I have had two occasions to think about Jesus’ designation of Himself as the Son of Man. On one occasion, I received a lengthy letter from a man severely chastising me for teaching people the “terrible heresy” of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. He said that the Bible doesn’t teach the deity of Christ and that nowhere does the New Testament affirm the deity of Christ, and he went through all of his arguments for Unitarianism. I responded once, and when he came back, I let it go the second time, which I usually do. The second occasion was at a weekly Bible study with some men, and this question of the significance of this title Son of Man arose.

The Three Most Frequent Titles of Jesus

If we count the times in which Jesus is described in the New Testament by this title or that title, we see that far and away the number one title ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament is Christ or Christos. It’s used so often that we sometimes think that Christ is Jesus’ last name, Jesus Christ. No, Jesus is His name and Christ is His title. Christ is the New Testament equivalent to the Old Testament word for “Messiah.” So, when the New Testament talks about Jesus Christ, it means Jesus Messiah, Jesus the Anointed One. That is the number one title the New Testament ascribes to Jesus.

The second most frequent title given to Jesus in the New Testament is Lord. This is significant because the way it is expressed in the New Testament by the term kyrios corresponds to the Old Testament title Adonai, which was given exclusively to God as His supreme title. When the Psalm 8:9 says, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth,” what the Hebrew is saying is, “O Yahweh,” that’s His name, “our Adonai,” that’s His supreme title, “how majestic is Your name,” so that the highest title given to God in the Old Testament, in terms of the Greek translation of the Hebrew, is the title Lord.

You might recall Paul’s writing in Philippians 2, where he says, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, took His equality with God not as something to be tenaciously grasped or held on to, but He emptied Himself, entered into His humiliation, took upon Himself the form of a servant, became obedient even unto death,” and Paul goes on to say, “wherefore hath God highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name.”

The Father gives the Son the highest name that can be given to anyone. Then Paul says, “So at the name of Jesus, every knee would bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” The name that is above every name is not the name “Jesus.” Rather, it’s the title Lord, Adonai, kyrios. That is the title given to Jesus, and it the second most frequent title ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament.

In third place, in terms of numerical frequency, is the title Son of Man. What’s strange or extraordinary about this is that the title Son of Man occurs in the New Testament for Jesus nearly ninety times. That only gets it to the third place in terms of frequency. What is extraordinary is that of those references, nearly eighty of them are from the lips of Jesus Himself. What does that tell you? In terms of numerical frequency for what Jesus calls Himself, “Son of Man” is number one. What does that mean?

Son of God and Son of Man

We know that the Bible calls Jesus “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” We know that the church’s confession is such that we believe that Christ is truly man and truly God, that He has a divine nature and has a human nature. So, we are tempted to look at these titles and think: “Son of God must refer to His deity and Son of Man must refer to His humanity.” That’s a vast oversimplification, because although the title Son of God does have some reference to Jesus’ deity being the only begotten of the Father, nevertheless the title also refers to His human work of obedience. To be called a “son of God” biblically is to be one who is obedient to God. Jesus said that you are the son of whom you obey.

The Son of God title, then, doesn’t refer exclusively to deity. It also incorporates an element of Jesus’ humanity. In the same manner, though the title Son of Man has an element of reference to His humanity, the dominant reference of that title is to Jesus’ deity. Let’s take a moment to go back to the Old Testament, to Daniel 7, where we read Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days. Beginning in verse 9 and down to verse 10, he writes:

I watched until thrones were put in place,
And the Ancient of Days [the title for God the Father] was seated;
His garment was white as snow,
And the hair of His head was like pure wool.
His throne was a fiery flame,
Its wheels a burning fire;
A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened.

He goes on to say in verses 13 and 14:

I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed.

The Identity of the Son of Man

Many people think the reference to the Son of Man in Daniel 7 points to Jesus at His second coming at the end of the age. I don’t think that is the case. If we look at the book of Revelation, we see that the Son of Man there appears in heaven, as He ascends into heaven on the shekinah cloud of glory. When He returns to heaven, from which He came originally, the chorus in heaven begins to sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive honor and glory and dominion and power” (Rev. 5:12).

At the ascension, Jesus is elevated to the right hand of God. He goes to His investiture, He goes to His coronation, and He is seated at the right hand of the Father as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. During His earthly ministry, Jesus observed, “No one ascends into heaven except He who has descended from heaven” (John 3:13). So, when Jesus spoke of ascending into heaven, He was not merely talking about going up to heaven. Enoch went up to heaven, and other people go to heaven when they die. So, what does Jesus mean when He says, “No one ascends into heaven”?

In this text, the word “to ascend” has specific reference to His going up to a particular place for a particular reason. He’s going again to His coronation, and the only one who ascends to be seated at the right hand of God is the One who first came down from the presence of God.

As Jesus prays in His High Priestly Prayer in John 17, “Lord, restore to Me the glory I had with You from the foundation of the world.” So, when Jesus uses the title Son of Man, referring to Himself, He’s saying to the Pharisees, “I’m doing these things so that you may know the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Lord of the Sabbath

The Son of Man is the One who comes from heaven, who carries the full measure of His deity with Him, and with that deity the full authority associated with Him. The second part of the statement is that this heavenly Being, this divine Being, is also the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus never uttered words more startling to the ears of the Pharisees than when He said that to them.

The Creator of the Sabbath Day

We ask ourselves, “When was the Sabbath day established?” We know that it was part of the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Sinai. Some people think that the sanctity of the Sabbath was established with the covenant that God made with His people through Moses as the mediator on Sinai in the Ten Commandments, but this isn’t the case. Though the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments, it was not established or instituted at Sinai. It was instituted at creation.

The Sabbath is a creation ordinance, established by God in His original work, where He worked for six days creating all that there was. On the seventh day He rested, and He hallowed it, He sanctified it. The Sabbath was sanctified in creation, and the only One who had the authority to hallow the Sabbath day in the work of creation was not the birds of the air, or the fish of the sea, or the creatures that God made in His own image. Only the Creator had the authority to institute and consecrate the Sabbath day.

Do you get the inference? Only the Creator can be Lord of the Sabbath day. Here is the Lord of the Sabbath day, the One who made all things, now in His incarnation, being challenged by the Pharisees for His behavior on the Sabbath day.

Jesus was saying to them: “What? You’re telling me what I can do on the Sabbath day. Who do you think made the Sabbath day?” Well, He didn’t say it quite that way—that’s the way I would have said it. While He didn’t say it that way, that is the import of what Jesus said to them. You see now why they couldn’t wait to kill Him as a blasphemer. Jesus was saying, “I decide what is lawful and what is not lawful on the Sabbath day.”

The Resurrection and Sabbath Rest

Another controversy that rages throughout Christendom is the question of which day is proper for Christians to come together to worship. We know that the original Sabbath in Israel was established on the seventh day of the week, and now Christians almost universally worship God in solemn assembly on the first day of the week rather than the seventh day of the week. The Sabbath cycle is still maintained, one in seven, because that’s what Sabbath means, but now it’s the first day rather than the seventh day.

Why do we worship on the first day instead of the seventh? The reason is that the Lord of the Sabbath was resurrected on the first day of the week, and His resurrection proved the ultimate intent and purpose of the original Sabbath day. On the Sabbath, God provides for His people a time of rest, pointing forward to the future time when His people would enter their rest by resurrection.

The Lord of the Sabbath was raised on the first day of the week, and so the early church came together to worship, to celebrate the sacraments, and to hear the Word of God on the Lord’s Day, on the Lord of the Sabbath’s day, which is now the first day of the week.

The Divine Son of Man, Lord of the Sabbath

All we have talked about and so much more are contained in this title Son of Man and our Lord’s claim that He, as the Son of Man, is the Lord of the Sabbath. This is a clear declaration of the deity of Christ. The One who went into the grainfield to feed Himself and His friends is the One who has come down from heaven, the only One who ever ascended to Heaven to be installed at the right hand of the Father as the King of the kings and the Lord of the lords. It is this Son of Man that we serve and worship on His day. Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, we thank You for this marvelous declaration of our Lord. We pray that as we understand it more deeply, our image of Jesus and His importance will be greatly enlarged, and our hearts will be filled with a desire to worship Him and to serve Him as our King, our Redeemer, and our Lord. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.