Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lord of the Sabbath

I think I had a revelation last night. This was not one of those "I was thinking about this for hours and came to this conclusion" revelations...but more like a "out of nowhere, I cannot even tell you what I was doing or thinking and BAM it hit me" revelations.

In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus says that "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." [Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, and Luke 6:5]

What does He mean?

As far as I know, commentators always claim that Jesus is referring to His power being above the limitations of the Sabbath, that He is saying that He has the prerogative to determine the bounds of the Sabbath as part of His Lordship.

But that makes no sense.

Throughout the gospels we see nary a trace of Jesus breaking Torah in any form. He does things that go against the interpretations of the scribes or the "traditions" of the elders (Matthew15:2-6, Mark 7:3-13], but every indication is that Jesus keeps all aspects of the Torah, just as Paul, Peter, and every other Jew (Christian or otherwise) were to do. (Note Acts 21:20-28)

The action that Jesus is doing (or, rather, that His disciples were doing) was picking grains of wheat from off the ground (and perhaps rubbing them in their hands to free the kernels to eat). This was considered "work" by the Pharisees who accosted Him, but there is certainly nothing in the Torah proscribing this activity.

In other words, Jesus was not doing anything that would have required an alteration of the Torah, nor would doing so have matched every other indication we have about His following the written Torah throughout His life.

In the other examples where He is accused of breaking Torah (e.g. Luke 13:14-16, Luke 14:5) , Jesus does not excuse His actions by claiming executive privilege. He simply shows using logic that the Pharisee's interpretations are wrong. Such disagreements about interpretation were common among Jews of the day.

Finally, Jesus asked His followers to imitate Him. He was as far away from being a "do as I say, not as I do" type teacher as you could find. So, suggesting that He had some mandate to live above the Law or modify the Law as He saw fit makes no sense (and would manifestly go against Matthew 5:17-18). In any event, it is His disciples who are breaking the Pharisee's expectations of Sabbath observance, and we nowhere else see them claim any rights over Sabbath observations.

Let's stop and look at that passage I mentioned in passing: Matthew 5:17-18. Note the odd wording: Jesus came to "fulfill" the Law, which will remain in whole until "all things are accomplished."

That "fulfill" word actually has four different meanings:
i) It was a Jewish idiom for "interpret correctly" [which Jesus was about to do in His sermon.]
ii) It could also refer to "building up" or "tightening" the Law, which He was also about to do...but I'm not sure that was its intended meaning here in any event.
iii) It can refer to Jesus own keeping of the Torah (but that is also not too significant since most Jews saw themselves as keeping the Torah, note Luke 1:6 and Philippians 3:6)
iv) It can (finally) refer to Jesus fulfilling the Torah as an unrealized, deep collection of shrouded prophecies meant to show the Jewish people who the Christ was. This is what Paul means in Galatians 3:24 when speaking of the Law as a tutor. Most Christians (and even some Bibles) hopelessly gentilize this passage. Paul is clearly speaking of the Mosaic Law here (See Galatians 3:17)

It is this final meaning that no one picked up on until Jesus clarified it [Luke 24:27, Luke 24:44-45], and I think Christ's reference to the Son of Man being "Lord of the Sabbath" is a similar such allusion where an aspect of the Law is a prophecy to something greater concerning the Christ.

I think the same could be said of Jesus use of David as an example. In every case [Matthew 12:5-8, Mark 2:25-28, and Luke 6:2-5], Jesus refers to how David and his companions ate the consecrated bread "that only the priests could eat," a story that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Sabbath.

He didn't say this to mean that David had rights to break the Torah because he was David. If that were the case, he would have had no guilt for murdering Uriah. No, the point is not that David had special rights, nor even is it that special circumstances can allow someone to abandon Torah (note the other example given in Luke 6:2). Indeed, if Jews could abandon Torah whenever they were in danger of death, there would have been no need for them to be persecuted for their faith! Note also that such a claim would make Matthew 24:20 ludicrous, and in any event the disciples who were picking up grain were not famished or near death, so one could hardly say such "circumstantial" reasoning was the point of Christ's allusion to David or to the story in general.

I think Jesus' point with David is that He was cluing people into the fact that David was a priest-king (note again the separate example in Luke 6:2) and that was why it was okay for him to eat the bread reserved for priests and to "give it to his companions" [probably an allusion to the Word of God Jesus was giving to His.] Since David was a type of Christ, this really reflects on Jesus as a priest-king [highly relevant to Jews of the day who saw the Messianic Kingdom as coming when both a priest (Elijah) and a (separate) King came forward to rule the realm.

But I digress... getting back to "Lord of the Sabbath"

I think Jesus is making a prophecy (or an outright-yet-veiled claim to Messiahship) regarding the coming Kingdom. The coming coming Kingdom of God is referred to as "God's rest" (in particular, see Hebrews 3-4, but also consider Luke 5:17). I think that Jesus' talk of being Lord of the Sabbath refers to His Kingship over that Kingdom after the Father has given the burden of the crown over to Him.

If we see the Sabbath this way, it becomes an age-old promise of the coming Kingdom, yet another veiled aspect of Torah that is both normative and prophetic.



Dustin said...

In large part, I agree with your assessment, David. I have a teacher who believes Jesus is "Torah personified." He, as well as I, would assert that Jesus did not come to "cancel" or in any way negate the Torah. Rather, this is a later interpolation from when Jewish Christians and traditional Jews began to form separate movements, close to the time after the destruction of the Temple. We see this occurring in John, when the Pharisees take such a prominent role in the narrative, which would be true to a community seeking identity outside the Jewish structure (also, the Pharisees were the dominate group within Judaism after the destruction of the temple).

Also, let us not forget that the gospel accounts also speak to Jesus' own understanding of the true meaning of Sabbath, in that it was made to benefit humanity. This sort of comes out in the passage you referred to regarding Jesus' reference to David eating the consecrated bread. In that particular passage, Jesus adds that David and his companions were "hungry"--thus making Sabbath something which is life-giving rather than something which must rigidly be followed.

However, let us not confuse Jesus' own comments regarding Sabbath as a total refutation of Judaism or Torah. I firmly believe, as do scholars like Krister Stendahl, Stanley Stowers and Paul Gaston (who are dealing primarily with Paul), that Jesus did not come to replace Jewish faith (in this case, God's character would be in question), but rather Jesus came to open a way for Gentiles to share in the blessings already afforded to the Israel of God.

Great thoughts!!

Dustin (from your RT cluster)

David Rudel said...

Thanks, Dustin, for chiming in.

I might take the remark about Sabbath being for humanity in a different direction.

Instead of saying that Christ was indicating flexibility for Sabbath day observance by saying "God made Sabbath for man instead of man for Sabbath," (since David's trek really had nothing to do with the Sabbath), I would suggest the take home may be about God's love in pointing out that the coming Kingdom was meant as a blessing for humanity. If we see "Sabbath" here as referring to he coming Kingdom, we see a proclamation about how God is "pleased to give this Kingdom" to mere humans.

In fact, one could then reason backwards to get to what I think you were saying. Nancy, in her studies of Sabbath, has indicated that it was very much seen as a kind of type of eternal life, a piece of the rest enjoyed in the coming Kingdom of God.

In that case, Jesus could be saying "Look, don't you know that the coming Kingdom, when even God rests, was meant as a blessing for humanity? Why then are you taking joy in burdening people's rest, which is supposed to be a foretaste of that Kingdom?"

Of course, the above has to be balanced with the actual restrictions indicated in the Torah, but I would certainly say that the Jewish leaders were approaching the Sabbath and its restrictions in a way very different from Israel did in the desert, even when Moses was required to put to death those who did real work on the Sabbath. (C.f. Numbers 15:32-36)

Anonymous said...

Sounds coherent to me.

David, I would greatly encourage you to read N.T. Wright's "big books":
-The New Testament and the People of God
-Jesus and the Victory of God
-The Resurrection of the Son of God

It's an undertaking, but I know you're used to deep study, and even Wright's "heavy stuff" is eminently readable. You may find, once you have read him, that you don't have to struggle so hard against what you were taught, because he has the theological, historical and linguistic chops to construct a hypothesis about who/what "god" is into which your ideas fit quite neatly. This is a compliment!

"Conservative" American Christians are upset at his views on what Paul says. But the bigger bombshell is his "Christian Origins" series (the big books), which is slipping entirely under their radar. God is even more good and loving, and bigger, than they- or I -could have ever imagined, let alone construct a systematic theology to explain.
Hope you will consider getting to these books soon.

Hope you had a fabulous time in Hungary. What a beautiful land. I saw a bit of it when I was in college, in the Communist days; I'm an old folk dancer and have done a czardas or two in my time :)

Dana Ames

Isabelo S Alcordo said...

Hi, David:

One question. If the observance of the Jewish Sabbath is still valid, then the whole TORAH will have to be valid still. Then when Jesus said, "The truth shall set you free," from what (burden, imprisonment, obligations, etc.) were people of his time set free?

Isabelo S. Alcordo

David Rudel said...

Hey Dana,
Thanks for commenting. Actually, due to your previous suggestion, I ordered the first of those "big books" recently and it came in just yesterday or the day before.

David Rudel said...

Hi Isabelo, welcome to the blog!

The entire Torah is still "valid" (or else Peter, Paul, and James must have been real knuckleheads, for they continued to observe it) today, but what is the Torah? Or, rather, what is the Law of Moses?

The Law of Moses is essentially a lease contract between the sons of Jacob and the Living God. It stipulates a collection of regulations and requirements given to the Jacob's physical sons as physical heirs to Abraham's physical blessings. Reading the "curses" and "blessings" of the covenant illustrates this clearly: As long as Israel follows the regulations, they will be blessed and have a home in the land promised to Abraham.

Thus, the Torah is a blessing given to the sons of Jacob and informs their actions. When faced with the question of whether this law laid any restriction upon Gentiles, the apostles [see Acts 15] determined that only its sexual code and prohibitions against idolatry in eating were relevant.

Note that Paul tells those who became Jews to stay Jews and continue to observe the Torah, just as he had. If Paul, of all people, claimed this, one has to assume it is accurate.

To answer the question you gave, what does Jesus free us from? I would give the answer he gives in John 8:34-36. People have been freed from the spiritual infirmity that left them unable to overcome our selfish inclinations.

This is the slavery that Paul laments in Romans 7:14-25 and the freedom is that which he rejoices in in verses 8:2-13, and the verse that signals the transition is 8:1 "There is now no longer any condemnation/imprisonment for those who are in Christ!"

Romans 6:4-6 also discusses this, as does really the whole of Romans 5-8.

Isabelo S Alcordo said...

You wrote:
This is the slavery that Paul laments in Romans 7:14-25 and the freedom is that which he rejoices in in verses 8:2-13, and the verse that signals the transition is 8:1 "There is now no longer any condemnation/imprisonment for those who are in Christ!"

My question:
But is it not the Law (Torah) that condemns us as sinners? If the Law is still valid, then we remain condemned because no one can fulfill all 613 precepts listed by Jewish scholars demanded by the Law of Moses. Jesus, Paul, and James clearly stated that by "Loving our neighbor as ourselves," we have fulfilled the Law. How then can the Law be valid still if there is even no need to know them?


Anonymous said...

re NTPG: Cool!

re to what are we enslaved, see also Hebrews 2:14-15. We sin because we fear death/non-existence (or whatever feels like that to us at any given moment). Humanity is spiritually infirm apart from God, and seeking to survive, we often do not even want to overcome our selfish inclinations/give ourselves up for the other/love like God loves. One way we are free of condemnation is that there is no one -not even the devil, the Accuser (who/whatever the devil is considered to be) to condemn us, because the devil is defeated in Jesus' defeat of death.


David Rudel said...

We have to be careful about what the words we use mean. For example, Paul uses the word "Law" in five different ways in Romans [compared to Galatians, which he uses it in a much more focused way.]

1. The general collection of all requirements any creature of conscience is under.

2. The commands of the Mosaic Covenant.

3. The entirety of the Old Testament Scripture as a collection of narrative norms and prophecy pointing to Christ.

4. The collection of explicitly promulgated ethical requirements formally made known to someone by God.

5. The domination, mastery, control, or jurisdiction one agent has on another.

So, when he says that those who love their neighbor "fulfill the Law," it is important to know which "law" he is talking about.

Furthermore, when he speaks of "Condemnation" [especially in Romans 5:16,18 and 8:1, where he uses a different Greek word than anywhere else in the NT for that term], it is important to think about what he means.

Look at Romans 5:12-18. We see an interesting point: the "condemnation" of people was not do to mere sin against the general law ("Law" used in the sense of number 1 above), but the transgression by Adam against the explicit law ["Law" as number 4 above]. For Paul "Transgression" [or "rebellion"] is not simple sinning, but rather intentionally going against a declared law.

Paul makes the nuanced case that those who suffered "condemnation" between Adam and Moses did so not due to their own sin because they had no law [in the "number 4" sense], so it MUST have been due to Adam.

But what is this "condemnation"? It isn't mere guilt before God, because that is not the condemnation Paul is talking about. The "condemnation" is the spiritual death I refer to above...and I think that is the disconnect between where you are coming from and where I am coming from.

In any event, to answer your question more pointedly: the Law of Moses [Law as in number 2 above] is valid for anyone in the covenant of Moses. That covenant is neither necessary nor sufficient for membership in the coming Kingdom of Christ, but that fact does not invalidate it. Nor are the consequences of failing to keep those commandments eternal condemnation before God. The Mosaic covenant describes the rewards and punishments for keeping or failing to keep its commandments with itself.

So, the question of the Torah being binding on a given individual is completely disconnected from our eternal position before God, but that was not the point of the Torah, so this observation is not an invalidation.

Isabelo S Alcordo said...


If your point is that the whole TORAH is valid only for Jews or Gentile converts to Judaism and not to Christians then we have no disagreement with that, unless I misunderstood your position. If so, please clarify.


David Rudel said...

The Mosaic Covenant is valid for those who join themselves to it. This would include practicing Jews who were born as Jews as well as Gentiles who converted to Judaism.

However, it also includes all Jews who acknowledge Jesus as the risen King, a category including all the original apostles and the vast majority of the earliest Christians. Indeed, Christianity started off as a sect of Judaism that was slowly levered away by the non-believing majority. The earliest Christians continued to attend and teach at the synagogues until they slowly became more and more unwelcome. Paul even brought sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem!

Indeed, it was Paul who brought word to the earliest Gentile Christians that they needed to follow the subset of Torah determined by the council in Acts 15 [note the wording of Acts 16:4 and 16:20-21.]

Anonymous said...

"Torah" just means "teaching". It was the "teaching" of the Jerusalem council that Gentile Christians only had to abstain from blood/eating meat not butchered kosher and from sex outside of marriage. I don't think James or the others in the council thought they were making a subset of some portion of the pentateuch.

As time went by and the Christians were edged out of the synagogue, even in Paul's day, I think the Holy Spirit was developing a different stance for Christians toward the OT. Torah was a good thing that kept some boundaries around Israel until the Messiah could arise. It was valuable as a reminder that moral actions were characteristic of God's people, but it was an external rule, and couldn't engender loving, right living from the inside, because of the material it had to work with...


David Rudel said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you here.

"Torah" has multiple meanings, but I've been using it here to refer to the Mosaic Law, which Paul adhered to as well as other Jewish Christians.

More significantly, I disagree with the claim that the council did not have in mind a compromise whereby part of the Torah regulations were maintained. In particular note the reasoning for why they thought their dictum was tenable for people far and wide: "For Moses has had those ho proclaim him in every town from ancient times, because he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath."

I suppose this could be interpreted in many ways, but I take it as saying that Gentiles already have an idea of what Jews adhere to, so they do not need a long list of what these simple rules mean.

I don't think that the rules simply refer to "food not butchered kosher" or to extra-marital sex. For many people, there would have been no such thing as a kosher butcher in any event (for example, in Rome at the time of the writing, where there were no Jews at all after the deportation of 49 AD.) The wording used comes directly from the Torah and is pretty precise.

With regard to "sexual morality," the Jews had a particular collection of sex laws, while the Greeks in general had wider [but still definite] bounds. Those sexual laws were not simple fidelity. For example, John the Baptist attacked Herod for marrying the woman formerly married to his brother. That is an example of sexual immorality [from a Jewish perspective] that is not simple marriage fidelity. The Jews also had specific laws regarding nudity and other items.

Finally, the wording of 16:20-21 lends a fair amount of support to this notion.

I don't think it is a major stumbling block to say Jewish Christians are still held to the Mosaic Covenant Laws. The issue is "What does this get them?" As long as we keep in mind that the blessings of the Mosaic covenant are not the same as the blessings of the New Covenant, there is no need for the keeping [or unkeeping] of one to affect the other. I believe there is a special place in God's heart for Israel still, and the rather late-written Revelation document appears to agree [for the tribes of Israel are accorded special attention while at the same time it is clear that all nations of the earth can be included in God's Kingdom.]

Finally, the same document shows Christ re-validating the proscription against eating meat sacrificed to idols, one of the requirements of the council. Given the time of that writing and the audience of the letter, this question would have little to do with kosher butchering. (It does not appear that Pergamum ever had any significant Jewish presence, according to a map in "In the Shadow of the Temple" by Skarsaune)

The Mystical Bearmaster said...

Excellent, clear piece. Thank you.

David Rudel said...

Hmm...something strange happened here. My first comment was meant as a reply to Dustin's...which for some reason google/blogger decided should be removed and re-attached at the bottom...sorry for any confusion!

Anonymous said...

Well then, we shall agree to disagree :)


Bev said...

Hi David. I pondered this a bit when I first read it, and now it popped into my head again this morning. I don't think I agree. Jesus said in Matthew 12:4 that it was not lawful for David to eat the consecrated bread; therefore, the fact that David was a priest-king and type of Christ was not a factor here. I think Jesus' teaching here is to show how the Pharisees were too strict to the letter of the Law, overlooking the spirit of the Law. They ate because they were hungry, not to intentionally transgress the commandment. The Pharisees condemned the innocent because they did not have compassion (Matthew 12:7). That's why love is at the forefront of everything Jesus taught.

To save an animal from a pit it had fallen into on the Sabbath would be considered work and therefore unlawful to do on the Sabbath if kept by the strict letter of it. In Matthew 12:11-12, Jesus makes the point that they DO rescue their animals under such circumstances and it is allowed. But when the same compassion is shown to a man, it is claimed as transgression. The Pharisees were two-faced and loveless.

In Mark 2:27-28, Jesus' statement that "the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" is preceded by him saying that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made FOR man and is not something to be master (lord) over him. If man was made for the Sabbath, then man would be trapped by its restrictions, and that's how the Pharisees were treating it. But that's not the way it should be. Man is master over the Sabbath and God's desire for compassion and mercy are a greater law to abide by. You don't sacrifice the well-being of a creature (animal or human) for the sake of keeping the Law.

David Rudel said...

Hi Bev,
You raise some good points.
On the other hand, how does "God made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath" and the other remarks pertain to the story in Numbers 15:32ff ?

Also, I think the "it is not lawful" part might miss something in the translation. After all, Jesus says that the priests are both "innocent" and also "break the law" every sabbath as well...

I would also bring up that in this story [the one in the actual gospels], there is really nothing to suggest the disciples were famished or in particular need of food, so the easements for those in particular need [David's troops and the ox, etc.] are not very well born out here.

It's all very murky, I agree...and that is one reason I think there might be something much deeper and symbolic meant to be conveyed here.

Bev said...


Since the story in Numbers 15 follows immediately on the heels of instruction regarding those who sin unintentionally vs. those who are defiant (Numbers 15:22-31), I would have to assume that this man gathering wood was doing so defiantly. He likely claimed that he had forgotten the commandment, but God knows otherwise. Then it is right after this, in Numbers 15:37-41, that God commands they put tassels on their garments to remind them of His commandments. A visible reminder that is always with you would preclude someone claiming that they forgot.

Regarding Matthew 12:5 and the priests in the temple breaking the Sabbath and are innocent, I don't think that is referring to eating the bread, but rather the fact that the priests continue their temple work on the Sabbath (making burnt offerings, Numbers 28:9-10). This shows that there are exceptions to a strict keeping of the Sabbath. Some commands are higher than others.

The implication in Matthew 12:6 is that the priests were innocent because they were doing the work of the temple, which was of greater importance (at the time) than adhering to the Sabbath. But now Jesus says that something greater than the temple is here. What is greater than the temple sacrifices? Compassion, maybe?

(Matthew 12:7 NASB) "But if you had known what this means, 'I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,' you would not have condemned the innocent.

You are right, the story does not say the disciples were famished, but it does say they were hungry. And if you look up the meaning of the word in Strongs or Thayer, Strong actually uses the word "famish" to define it, and Thayer says "to suffer want" or "to be needy." So maybe they actually were famished, but the translation makes it sound less urgent than perhaps it was.

Thanks for the incentive to look at this closer than I had before!

David Rudel said...

I had forgotten that Matthew describes the disciples as "hungry." I didn't remember any such indication, but you are correct.

Still, though, it would seem very strange for the guy gathering wood on the Sabbath to claim he just didn't know the law...isn't that the exact opposite of "defiant."

The idea that the sabbath is not binding on man seems flatly opposed to Exodus 31:15. Indeed, doesn't reading Numbers 15:34 in light of Exodus 31:15 more or less require us to see the question being "what counts as work?"

Numbers 15:34ff indicates Moses' counsel had to be asked "because there was no clear indication as to what should be done to him." Well, obviously 31:15ff is about as clear an indication as you could ask for once you have already determined that someone has done work on the Sabbath.

Yet, Moses himself had to go to God, which indicates that the question was not whether the law was binding, nor was it about the punishment, but rather whether the person in question had actually broken the law or not. In other words, was the gathering of wood considered "work."

Now, I don't disagree that there was likely a notion of compassion as well in the sense that Israel was expected to act wisely when two laws conflicted. However, as long as the Sabbath day observance is a real law (which everything in the OT suggests it is), then we are back where we started with the "lord of the sabbath" phrase.

Bev said...

David, you wrote:
Still, though, it would seem very strange for the guy gathering wood on the Sabbath to claim he just didn't know the law...isn't that the exact opposite of "defiant."

I was thinking more along the lines of deception being involved. "If I get caught, I'll just tell them that I forgot." But this, admittedly, is speculation, so not worth too much of our time.

Exodus 35:3 - "You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day."

Maybe the question as to what should be done with him involved his intent. What is the purpose of gathering wood except to kindle a fire? He was not caught in the act of kindling a fire, but that was likely his intent.

This brings to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:28, "but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The intent was in his heart before the act was carried out.

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...


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David Rudel said...

Anonymous, not that I know of.

David Rudel said...

Daniel, of course you can quote material here and link back to it. :)

Mike Gant said...

I like your post. It makes me think of Isaiah 58:13 where the holy day of the Lord is prophesied. That is, Jesus is reigning as King, and this is the day of the Lord. We are therefore to turn our feet from walking after our own desires so that we might walk after His.

As He walked in a perpetual sabbath before His Father, so we walk in a perpetual sabbath before Him.

This is the day the Lord has made!