Traditions of the Elders

The detailed and strict traditions of the elders were developed as a hedge against sin, but Christ described them as “precepts of men” that invalidated the word of God.  These traditions eventually served to separate the man from his God, became the basis for self-righteousness, destroyed love for God and for fellow men and represented God as a tyrant.

SUMMARY

The Jews developed many rules as a wall of protection to prevent noncompliance with the Law of Moses.  These rules were therefore not merely interpretations of the law, but additions to the law, making the law more severe.  For example, the Law forbids using the name of God in vain.  Therefore the Jews made the rule that one should not use the name of God at all.  They referred to God as “the name”.

These rules were known as the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:2; cf. Mark 7:3-5).  The traditions were very important in the Jewish society; regarded as equally important to the Law of Moses.  But Christ described the traditions as “precepts of men” (Mat. 15:7-9; see also Mark 7:7) that invalidated the word of God (Matthew 12; See also Mark 7:3-9).

To understand why Jesus said this, one firstly needs to appreciate how extremely complex and detailed the traditions were.  For instance, with respect to the Sabbath, the Jews added thousands of rules to define “work” at an amazing level of detail.  This includes, for instance, lists of the types of knots one is allowed to tie and untie on a Sabbath.

One secondly needs to appreciate that these rules were very strict.  With respect to the Sabbath, anything that even remotely looked like work, was classified as work, and therefore disallowed.  A Jew was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.

These help us to understand the consequences of the traditions.  These rules were developed as a hedge against con-compliance with the Law of Moses, but eventually served to separate the Jews from God:

The traditions replaced the Holy Spirit, Who must guide each person individually, with rules.

The traditions became the basis for self-righteousness.  The traditions consisted of rules with respect to outward behavior.  This serves to shift the focus away from God and to self, entrenching the belief that one is justified by one’s works, leading to self-righteousness.

By focusing on man’s works the traditions destroyed love for God and for fellow men.

This multitude of very strict rules reflected the character of selfish and dominating man and represented God as a tyrant.

By disallowing even pleasurable activities, combined with harsh policing, the traditions turned the best day of the week into the worst day.

Since the church at first consisted only of Jews, the traditions spilled over into the early church.  To combat the traditions, which were understood to provide justification by the “works of the Law”, Paul shifted the focus to man’s mind by teaching that man is justified by “faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16).

DISCUSSION

The Jews developed many rules as a wall of protection to prevent noncompliance with the Law of Moses.  These rules were therefore not merely interpretations of the law, but additions to the law, making the law more severe.  For example, the Law forbids using the name of God in vain.  Therefore the Jews made the rule that one should not use the name of God at all.  They referred to God as “the name”.

These rules were known as the traditions of the elders.

…the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders … and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots. “ (Mark 7:3-4)

“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2; cf. Mark 7:5)

The traditions were very important in the Jewish society; regarded as equally important to the Law of Moses.  Paul, for example, progressed rapidly through the ranks of the Jewish religious authorities due to his zeal for the traditions:

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1:14).

But Christ described the traditions as “precepts of men” that invalidated the word of God:

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me, but in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Mat. 15:7-9; see also Mark 7:7)

3 “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? … 6 … by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. … 9  … in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 12; See also Mark 7:3-7)

You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9).

To understand why Jesus said this, one firstly needs to appreciate how extremely complex and detailed the traditions were.  For instance, with respect to the Sabbath, the Jews added thousands of rules to define “work” at an amazing level of detail.  This includes, for instance, lists of the types of knots one is allowed to tie and untie on a Sabbath; the knot of the camel-drivers, the knot of the seamen, knots that can be untied with one hand, a woman may tie the slit of her chemise, the bands of her hood, the bands of her girdle, the straps of her shoes and sandals; also the bands of leather flasks (filled) with wine or oil, and of a pot of meat.  One may tie a rope in front of cattle, in order that they may not escape. One may tie a bucket (over the well) with his girdle, but not with a rope.  Click here to see more of these rules.

One secondly needs to appreciate that these rules were also very strict.  With respect to the Sabbath, anything that even remotely looked like work was classified as work, and therefore disallowed.  A Jew was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.  One can also illustrate the Pharisees’ extremely strict application of the Sabbath with the incident where Christ’s disciples picked and ate grain while walking through grain fields on the Sabbath:

On a certain Sabbath day His disciples became hungry.  While walking through a grain-field, they were “picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating” (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5).  Some Pharisees saw this and immediately complained to Jesus: “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.”

For us today it is difficult to understand how the Jews could consider the mere picking and eating of grains, while one is walking through a grain field, to be “work”, but this teaches us how harshly the Jews applied the Sabbath law.

These help us to understand the consequences of the traditions.  These rules were developed as a hedge against con-compliance with the Law of Moses, but eventually served to separate the Jews from God:

The traditions replaced the Holy Spirit with rules.  The requirements of the Law of Moses for the Sabbath is simple, namely no work.  The Holy Spirit must guide each person individually to understand what work is and what to do when exceptional circumstances require work on the Sabbath.  This spiritual connection has been replaced with “precepts of men”.

The traditions became the basis for self-righteousness.  The idea that man must earn redemption always leads men to develop rules to force themselves to obey; at least outwardly.  The traditions consisted of rules with respect to outward behavior.  This serves to shift the focus away from God and to self, entrenching the belief that one is justified by one’s works, leading to self-righteousness. Like the Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers … I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all things–as many as I possess”.  This Pharisee went away without being “declared righteous” (Luke 18:11-14).

The traditions destroyed love.  The focus on man’s works destroys love for God, and when love for God is destroyed, love for fellow men also disappears, leading men to be critical of one another.

The traditions represented God as a tyrant.  This multitude of very strict rules allowed very little space for compassion.  Thus the traditions eventually reflected the character of selfish and dominating man, rather than the character of the loving and caring God.

The traditions turned the best day of the week into the worst day.  God prohibited work on the Sabbath to make it a joyous day; the best day of the week, providing rest from the toil of human existence.  But by disallowing anything that even remotely looks like work, even pleasurable activities such as picking and eating grain, the Jews made it into a boring day of complete inactivity.  This, combined with harsh policing by the proud and fearsome religious rulers, made it the worst day of the week.  The life-giving power of rest was corrupted into a life-destroying burden; an intolerable burden to which the people were slaves.  It was because the traditions turned people into slaves of the Sabbath that Jesus objected by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Since the church at first consisted only of Jews, the traditions spilled over into the early church.  For instance, Paul instructed Titus not to pay attention to “Jewish myths and commandments of men” (Titus 1:14).  To combat the traditions, that focused on external deeds, and the Jewish emphasis on justification by the “works of the Law”, Paul shifted the focus to man’s mind by teaching that man is justified by “faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16).  “Faith” knows that we are unable to meet God’s infinite standards, and throws itself at His feet, trusting in His mercy, like the tax collector in Christ’s story, who “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13).  “This man went to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).

The traditions were not developed by evil people with ill intent.  But it is not human nature to go to one’s knees and ask for the Lord’s guidance.  Human nature always asks for rules.  Leaders responded to the demand for rules and initially developed simple definitions of work, but over the many centuries the definitions were extended into more and more detail.  This is what humans always do when they are subject to rules from higher authorities; they add more detail, but always make the laws more severe.

Many people still today keep the Sabbath; either on Saturday or on Sunday, but make the same mistake.  In their eagerness to ensure that they comply with the law they disallow even pleasurable activities, such as swimming or hiking.  The poor children suffer the most.  The purpose of the Jewish Sabbath was to be a day of joy.  There were some animal sacrifices prescribed for the Sabbath, but it was not prescribed as a day for religious activities.  It was a day to cease the hard work of the other days and to rest and enjoy.  If it is you view that you must keep the Sabbath, please ensure that you make keep it as the best day of the week for yourself and for your family.

TO: Sabbath Table of Contents

Next: Law of Christ

TO: General Table of Contents

The Sabbath was made for man

The traditions of the elders were very strict and were applied by the Pharisees without compassion.  Thus the Sabbath, which was intended to be the best day of the week, was converted into the worst day of the week.

The Sabbath was made for man.  The real needs of people are therefore always more important than the Sabbath.

While the disciples were with Jesus, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and thus allowed to do work required for that purpose.

By debating with the Pharisees what is allowed on that day, and by saying that “the Sabbath was made for man”, Jesus confirmed the Sabbath as a binding obligation. 

Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5

Overview

One Sabbath Jesus and His disciples walked through a grain-field.  His disciples, because they were hungry, started to pick the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating.  Some Pharisees saw this and immediately complained to Jesus, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath”.

This is one of five conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, with respect to the Sabbath, that are recorded in the Bible, and the only one not caused by a healing miracle.

It is difficult to imagine how the Jews could consider the mere picking and eating of grain, while one is walking through a grain field, to be “work,” but this indicates how strict the traditions of the elders were.  The purpose of the Sabbath was to provide reprieve from the every-day toil to enjoy a day of rest.  But by disallowing anything that even remotely looks like work; even pleasurable activities such as picking and eating grain, the Sabbath became the opposite of what it was supposed to be.  No longer was it the best day of the week, but it became the worst day of the week.

In defense of His disciples Jesus firstly used the example of David and his men who, when they were hungry, ate the temple bread which only the priests were permitted to eat.  By means of this analogy Christ indicated that the real needs of people are always more important than the Sabbath.

To defend His disciples Christ secondly referred to the priests who break the Sabbath” by working in the temple, but remain without guilt because they did this work in God’s service.  Christ then applied this principle to His disciples by saying, “something greater than the temple is here”.  He was referring to Himself as “greater than the temple”.  By comparing Himself to the temple He was, by implication, saying that the disciples were equivalent to priests serving in the temple.  While they were with Him, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and people are allowed to work on the Sabbath if that work is necessitated by being in God’s service.

Christ thirdly accused the Pharisees of judging without compassion.  The first two arguments are two different reasons why His disciples are “innocent” (Mat. 12:7), but with this argument He attacks the Pharisees.  Because the Sabbath is intended to allow rest from the hard work, compassion is particularly applicable to the Sabbath, but the hunger which plagued His disciples did not kindle any feeling of tenderness or eagerness to help within the hearts of the Pharisees.

Christ fourthly added the principle that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”.  He said this because the Jews, through their traditions, made man the servant of the Sabbath.  They made Sabbath holiness the goal, and man the means to achieve this.  But the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit.  The Sabbath is the means and man’s welfare and happiness is the goal.  For that reason human needs are always more important than the Sabbath.  To forbid hungry travelers to pick heads of grain is to pervert the Sabbath’s intended purpose.

Christ concluded, “so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”.  The word “so” means that the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath (v. 28) because the Sabbath was made for man (v. 27).  The title “Son of Man” comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where “One like a Son of Man” receives “everlasting dominion” over “all the peoples, nations and men of every language”.  Putting these thoughts together, He is Lord of the Sabbath because He is Lord over man, while the Sabbath is part of man’s existence. 

Some find in Christ’s claim, to be the Lord of the Sabbath, a statement to the effect that He will change or abrogate the Sabbath.  However, by debating with the Pharisees, on the basis of the Old Testament, what is allowed on the Sabbath, He confirmed that it is a binding obligation.  He was here defending His disciples who were accused of breaking the Sabbath.  This would have been an ideal opportunity to say that the Sabbath was or will be abrogated or changed soon.  But He gave no such indication.  To the contrary, His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” implies that the Sabbath will remain for as long as man exists.

In conclusion His arguments can be divided into two principles.  The reference to David and His men, His demand for compassion and His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” can be combined into a single observation, namely that the Sabbath exists for man’s benefit and must serve man’s needs.

This principle applies in all circumstances, but His other principle is specific to the unique circumstances of the incident, namely that the “Lord of the Sabbath”, who is “greater than the temple”, “is here”.  His presence transformed His disciples into the equivalent of “priests in the temple“, who are allowed to work on the Sabbath.  The principle is that work in God’s service, which is work for man’s redemption, is allowed on the Sabbath.

Somebody else’s grain

To walk through somebody else’s grain field and eat the grain was an accepted practice in the Jewish society.  The Law expressly laid it down that the hungry traveller was entitled to do that, on condition that he only uses his hands and not a sickle (Deut. 23:24-25; cf. Lev. 19:9; 23:22; Ruth 2; cf. Mishnah Peah 8, 7).  But to do this on the Sabbath was interpreted by the traditions to be an act of desecration. Not only was picking the heads of grain regarded as reaping, but the rubbing of it in the hands was regarded as threshing.

Christ’s Responses

Jesus responded with four or perhaps five statements.  All four statements are provided by Matthew 12, but only the first and the last by Mark 2 and Luke 6.  However, the fourth statement is given more fully in Mark 2 than in the other two gospels:

Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?

Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.

Harsh Traditions

As stated above, the Sabbath was created to be the best day of the week, but the extremely harsh traditions, combined with the strict policing by the proud and terrifying religious rulers, made it the worst day of the week.

Many people still today keep the Sabbath; either on Saturday or on Sunday, but make the same mistake.  In their eagerness to ensure that they comply with the law they disallow even pleasurable activities, such as swimming or hiking.  The poor children suffer the most.  The purpose of the Jewish Sabbath was to be a day of joy.  There were some animal sacrifices prescribed for the Sabbath, but it was not prescribed as a day for religious activities.  It was a day to cease the hard work of the other days and to rest and enjoy.  If it is you view that you must keep the Sabbath, please ensure that you keep it as a day to enjoy.

To Do Good

In the healing Sabbath controversies Christ argued that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.  “To do good” implies doing something for somebody else.   In the current instance, since the disciples were picking grains for themselves, He did not use this justification.

David and His Men

In response Jesus firstly used the example of David and his men who, when they were hungry, ate the temple bread which only the priests were permitted to eat (Mat. 12:3-4; Mark 2:25-26; Luke 6:3-4).  This example presents us with an order of priority: easing the hunger of David and his men, in their hour of crisis, was more important than the prescripts with respect to the showbread.  By implication Christ was saying that to ease the hunger of the disciples was more important than the Sabbath.  Generally stated, the real needs of people are always more important than the Sabbath.

Priests in the Temple

Christ secondly referred to the priests who “break the Sabbath” by working in the temple, but remain without guilt because they did this work in God’s service.  (Mat. 12:5-6).  For instance, the priests baked bread (Ex. 16:23; 1 Sam. 21:3-6) to replace the week-old bread of the presence (Lev. 24:8; 1 Chr. 9:32) and performed many other tasks related to the maintenance of the temple and sacrificial system. The same labor in a secular context would not be allowed on the Sabbath.  The principle is that work is allowed on the Sabbath if that work is done in God service of redemption; to provide forgiveness and salvation to sinners.

Christ applied this principle to His disciples by saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6).  He was referring to Himself as “greater than the temple” (compare Mat. 12:41, 42).  The temple and its services were mere symbols of Christ and His mission.  By comparing Himself to the temple He was, by implication, saying that the disciples were equivalent to priests serving in the temple.  While they were with Him, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and people are allowed to work on the Sabbath if that work is necessitated by being in God’s service!

This principle must be distinguished from the argument which Jesus used to justify His Sabbath healing miracles in the gospel of John, where He said that, by healing on the Sabbath, He is doing the work of the Father.  Healing is directly doing God’s work to redeem and restore men.  The picking of grain was not directly doing God’s work, but doing other work done while in God’s service.

Compassion

Christ thirdly said:

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Mat. 12:7)

Christ here quotes from the prophet Hosea, who rebukes his people for “seeking the Lord . . . with their flocks and herds” (5:6) as if God could be appeased by the many and costly sacrifices (cf. 1 Sam. 15:22), stating that compassion is more important than sacrifices.

With this quote Christ accused the Pharisees of judging without compassion.  The first two arguments are two different reasons why His disciples are “innocent” (Mat. 12:7), but with this argument He attacked the Pharisees.

Compassion can be defined as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others; a feeling of sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Because the Sabbath is intended to allow rest from the hard work, compassion is particularly applicable to the Sabbath, but the hunger which plagued His disciples did not kindle any feeling of tenderness or eagerness to help within the hearts of the Pharisees.  Instead they were quick to condemn the disciples.  As Jesus said at another time:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

To pretend to speak for God and then to judge people harshly is a horrible sin, because it misrepresents God as cruel and harsh, and what sin could be worse?  It drives people away from God and away from the Truth.  Let us rather mimic the One that said to the woman caught in adultery:

“I do not condemn you, either” (John 8:11).

Let us also judge people with compassion.  Christ also said: “in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Mat 7:2).  Do you want to be judged the way that you judge other people?

The Sabbath was made for Man

Christ fourthly added this principle:

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

Christ here referred to the creation account, where it is stated that the Sabbath was created to be a blessing (Gen 2:3); in other words, for man’s benefit.  “The Sabbath was made” by God by resting on the seventh day and then by blessing and sanctifying the day.  God was not tired after six days of work.  He did not have to rest.  He rested to set an example to man.  The Sabbath is not merely a reminder that God rested on the seventh day; God rested to create the seventh day.

The Jewish traditions made man the servant of the Sabbath.  It made Sabbath holiness the goal, and man had to ensure this.  But the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit; for his welfare and happiness.  Therefore human needs are more important than the Sabbath.  Wearisome rules with respect to how the Sabbath is to be observed, defeats it purpose.

Compassion is a fundamental principle of God’s kingdom, but the principle that “the Sabbath was made for man” provides particular support for Christ’s demand for compassion for the sufferings or misfortunes of others when judging people with respect to what they do in the Sabbath.

Lord of the Sabbath

Christ concluded:

So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28; Mat. 12:8; Luke 6:5).

Why did Christ find it necessary to say that He is “Lord even of the Sabbath”?

Some propose that He said it to indicate that He will change or abrogate the Sabbath, but there is no indication of this in the text.  To the contrary, His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” implies that the Sabbath will remain for as long as man exists.

It is proposed here that He did not say that He is “Lord even of the Sabbath” to say something about the Sabbath, but to say something about Himself.  In the same context He also said that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). that “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father” (Mat 11:27) and that He is “greater than the temple”, “greater than Jonah” and  “greater than Solomon” (Mat. 12:6, 41, 42).  And frequently He identified Himself as the “Son of man”.  This identifies Him as the “One like a Son of Man” who will receive “everlasting dominion” over “all the peoples, nations and men of every language” (Daniel 7:13-14).

Conclusion

In conclusion His arguments can be divided into two principles.  The reference to David and His men, His demand for compassion and His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” can be combined into a single principle, namely that the Sabbath exists for man’s benefit and must serve man’s needs.

This principle applies in all circumstances, but His other argument is specific to the unique circumstances of the incident, namely that the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:8; Luke 6:5), who is “greater than the temple”, “is here” (Mat. 12:6).  His presence transformed His disciples into the equivalent of “priests in the temple“, who are allowed to work on the Sabbath (Mat. 12:5).  The principle is that work while in God’s service, for man’s redemption, is allowed on the Sabbath.

TO:  Sabbath Table of Contents

NEXT: Bethesda – John 5

TO: General Table of Contents

Bethesda – John 5

The traditions were very important to the Jews, but the strict rules allowed little space for the principles of the Kingdom of God, such as compassion and mercy.  The Sabbath was made to be a day a rest, but became an intolerable burden, falsely depicting God as a tyrant.

One Sabbath day Jesus deliberately and publicly broke the Jewish traditions by healing one of the many desperately sick people around the pool of Bethesda, and by telling the man to pick up his pallet and go home.  Jesus was seeking confrontation to condemn the traditions.  Therefore, since man did not know who Jesus was, Jesus later introduced Himself to him.

But Jesus did more than condemn the traditions; He gave a new meaning to the fourth commandment.  The fourth commandment forbids work and demands rest, but Jesus taught that the seventh day is the preferred day to focus our thoughts and energy on bringing joy to people by physical, psychological and spiritual healing, while we rest from ordinary work.

Summary

John 5 records Christ’s miracle healing of a paralytic man on the Sabbath.  This man had been ill for 38 years.  He was lying with a multitude of the sick, blind, lame, and withered next to the pool known as Bethesda, hoping for a supernatural cure.

The man did not ask to be healed.  He did not even know who Jesus was.  Jesus also did not require this suffering man to exercise faith.  Jesus simply told the man to get up, pick up the mat on which he was lying, and walk.  The man immediately became well, picked up his pallet and began to walk.

But it was the Sabbath and the Jewish religious police was quick to spot him.  They said to him “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet” (v10).  As if to say that a man, that is able to heal so completely, should know what is allowed on the Sabbath, the man responded, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, Pick up your pallet and walk”.

The Jews asked him who the Healer was, but he did not know.  Jesus had slipped away into the crowd.  But later the same day Jesus found him in the temple and spoke to him.  Jesus might have remained anonymous, but He was seeking confrontation with the religious rulers.

The man then told the Pharisees who the Man was who cured him, probably expecting the religious leaders to be overjoyed, just like he himself was, to meet this miracle Worker.  But this news made the religious leaders more committed than ever to persecute Jesus.  Not only did Christ heal the sick on the Sabbath; He also told the man to carry his mat.

While the Law of Moses is silent on healing on the Sabbath, simply prohibiting work on the Sabbath, the “traditions of the elders”, which was their fence around the Law of Moses, had an extremely strict and detailed definition of work, even prohibiting non-emergency healing on the Sabbath.  According to these “traditions” Christ clearly contravened the Sabbath commandment.

The traditions were extremely important in Jewish society, but by adding this multitude of very strict rules to the Law of Moses, the Jews allowed very little room for compassion, and consequently perverted the Sabbath.  What was supposed to be a day a rest from the toil of human existence, became an intolerable burden to which the people were slaves, falsely representing God as a tyrant.

Healing was an integral part of His ministry, but to heal on the Sabbath was so important to Jesus that He was willing to risk His life and mission for it.

One reason for His Sabbath healing miracles was to condemn the Jewish traditions and the entire Jewish system that rested upon those traditions.  But the more important reason for Christ’s deliberate contraventions of the traditions was to give a new meaning to the Sabbath.  Similar to the way in which He replaced the commandment against adultery with a commandment against looking at a woman with lust in the heart, and similar to the way in which He replaced the commandment against murder with a commandment against anger, He gave a much higher / deeper meaning to the Sabbath.

The fourth commandment forbids work and demands rest.  Jesus accepted the principle that the seventh day is set aside for special use (sanctified – Gen 2:3), but He not only declared that it is allowed to do good to people and animals in need on the Sabbath; He also declared that the Sabbath is the preferred day for doing good to others, which includes to restore people to health.  In this way He have a new meaning to the Sabbath.  He shifted the focus:

From the fourth commandment to the original purpose of the seventh day, namely to be a blessing to mankind (Gen 2:3).

From rest to the purpose of the rest, namely to restore man to health.

From the negative prohibition against any form of work to the work that is required on the seventh day, namely works to restore people to holistic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health.

Since this shifts the focus away from the rest required by the fourth commandment, we should accept Christ’s Sabbath deeds and statements as new truth for the Christian; as a founding statement for Christianity.  Thus the Sabbath also becomes a work day, but a different type of work.  The Sabbath becomes a day on which we focus our thoughts and energy on bringing joy to people by healing; not only by physical healing, but also by psychological and spiritual healing, while we rest from the work that is required on the other days of the week.

The Story

John 5 records Christ’s miracle healing of a paralytic man (v7) on the Sabbath (v9).  The story is as follows (with comments in brackets):

Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.

In Jerusalem there was a pool called Bethesda, with five porches.  In these porches lay a multitude of the sick, blind, lame, and withered, waiting for the moving of the waters.  (They had the superstitious belief that the person, who gets into the pool first, after it was “supernaturally” stirred, will be healed.)

One of the men there was ill for 38 years (v5).  When Jesus saw him, He knew that this man had been in that condition for a long time.  Jesus said to him:

Do you wish to get well?” (v6)

The man answered that he has nobody to put him into the pool when the water is stirred.  Jesus then said to him:

Get up, pick up your pallet and walk” (v8).

(The man did not ask to be healed.  He did not even know who Jesus was.  Jesus also did not require this suffering man to exercise faith in Him.  He simply told him to get up, pick up his pallet—his sleeping mat—and walk.)

The man became well immediately, picked up his pallet and began to walk.  (But it was the Sabbath and the Jewish religious police was quick to spot him carrying his mat.)  When the Jews saw this man carrying his pallet, they said to him:

It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet” (v10).

But he answered them,

“He who made me well was the one who said to me, Pick up your pallet and walk”.

(As if to say, a man that is able to heal me so completely, after lying on my mat for 38 year, should know what is allowed and what is not allowed on the Sabbath.  If he tells me to carry my mat, then I will do it.)

The Jews asked him who this man was, but he did not know.  Jesus had slipped away into the crowd (v13).  (After his healing the man probably was bewildered, not believing what his body is doing; too excited to pay attention even to his Healer.)

Later the same day Jesus found him in the temple and said to him,

Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (v14)

The man then told the Pharisees who the Man was who cured him (v15). (The healed man was naturally overjoyed by his deliverance.  Probably ignorant of the enmity toward Jesus, he assumed that everybody, particularly the religious leaders, will want to meet this miracle Worker.)

For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v16).

(Note the plural “doing these things” (v16).  The Jews could identify two contraventions of the Sabbath Law in this incident.  Firstly the man carried his sleeping mat (5:10) and secondly Jesus healed the sick (compare Luke 13:14).  Jesus was ‘guilty’ of both, because He told the man to carry his mat.)

(The Jews apparently then questioned Jesus, because, according to the next verse,) He answered them,

“My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (v17).

Discussion

Jesus did not contravene the Law of Moses; He contravened the Traditions.

But did Jesus contravene the fourth commandment?  The Law of Moses is silent on healing on the Sabbath, simply prohibiting work on the Sabbath.  But still the Jewish authorities had no doubt that healing is not allowed on the Sabbath (Luke 4:40; 13:14; Mark 3:2).  It is therefore concluded that it was the regulations, known as the “the traditions of the elders”, that prohibited healing on the Sabbath.

The Traditions were a fence around the law.

Because it was, according to the voluminous Talmud, intended as a fence around the law, the “traditions of the elders” had an extremely strict definition of work.  For example, if the Law of Moses determines that the Sabbath starts at sunset, the traditions might require Jews to stop their work an hour before sunset.  And anything that even remotely looked like work was defined as work; a Jew was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.  In this way they hoped to protect themselves from breaking the law.  They knew that a contravention of the traditions is not necessarily a contravention of the Law of Moses, but the traditions were nevertheless applied as law.

The Traditions were extremely important in Jewish society.

We generally have very little appreciation of how detailed and complex the traditions of the elders” were, or how important it was in the Jewish society.  Paul, describing his previous life, wrote “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1:14).

The Traditions perverted the Sabbath.

But by adding this multitude of very strict rules to the Law of Moses, the Jews allowed very little space for compassion, and consequently perverted the Sabbath.  What was supposed to be a day a rest from the toil of human existence became an intolerable burden to which the people were slaves.  This falsely represented God as a tyrant.  Because the traditions made people to serve the Sabbath, Jesus objected by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Jesus was seeking confrontation with the religious rulers.

We see this in the following:

Jesus could have healed the sick man on any other day of the week, but He healed him deliberately on the Sabbath.

After He cured him Jesus might have warned the man not to carry his bed, but Jesus deliberately told him to carry away his bed.

The man did not know who healed him, because “Jesus had slipped away” (5:13).  Jesus might have remained anonymous, but instead Jesus afterwards “found him in the temple” (5:14) and spoke with him, apparently with the purpose that the man may inform the Pharisees “that it was Jesus who had made him well” (5:15).

Jesus did not explain in John 5 why healing is allowed on the Sabbath, except to say it is the Father’s will.

Healing was an integral part of His ministry, but why was it so important to heal on the Sabbath that He was willing to risk His life and mission for it?  He did not do it simply out of compassion, for there were many other sick people at Bethesda whom He did not heal.  The people whom He healed also were not medical emergencies; they were all sick for many years.  Why did He not delay healing to another day?

In healing the man’s withered hand, He said “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:12).  In healing the crippled woman, He said “this woman … whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16)  But we find no such explanation in John 5.

John 5, after the healing, does include a long debate between Christ and the Pharisees (5:17-47), but does not explain why He healed.  It seems as if one reason for performing this miracle, deliberately acting contrary to the traditions of the elders, was to create the opportunity to explain to them some higher order principles, such as resurrection from death, judgment, eternal life and honoring the Son “even as they honor the Father” (5:21-30).  He later says, “I say these things so that you may be saved” (5:34).

His justification of the healing is limited to saying:

My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (5:17)

the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (5:19)

Notice that the words “working”, “do”, “doing” and “does” link these statements to the work of healing which He performed on the Sabbath.  These statements seem to simply say that these Sabbath healings are the right and proper things to do, according to the Father’s will, without explaining why.

He later added:

If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath?” (2:23).

This seems to say that circumcision is a form of healing, and that healing is allowed on the Sabbath, but still does not explain why healing is allowed on the Sabbath.

By healing on the Sabbath, and by His Sabbath declarations, Jesus gave a new meaning to the Sabbath.

Healing was an integral part of His ministry, but to heal on the Sabbath was so important to Jesus that He was willing to risk His life and mission for it.  One reason for His Sabbath healing miracles was to condemn the Jewish traditions and the entire Jewish system that rested upon those traditions.  But perhaps the most important reason for His Sabbath healing miracles was to give a new meaning to the Sabbath:

The Sabbath commandment simply forbids work and requires rest.  The religious leaders applied this literally, and we probably would have done the same, because that is the emphasis in the commandment.  It would be difficult to justify non-emergency work on the basis of the Law of Moses alone.  Even Christian Sabbath-keepers today would find in difficult to justify work related to non-emergency healing on the Sabbath.

But Jesus came and taught that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:12).  He went further and said the Sabbath is the most appropriate day for releasing people from the bonds of Satan—which includes physical illnesses (Luke 13:16).  He declared this as the Father’s will (John 5:17, 19).

In the view of the Jewish leaders Christ’s statements contradicted of the Law of Moses, but that was due to their extremely narrow and strict interpretation of the Law.  Christians need to assume that these statements are consistent with the Sabbath Commandment because Jesus never acted contrary to the Law of Moses.

By arguing with the Pharisees what is allowed on the Sabbath, implying that certain things are not allowed on the Sabbath, He confirmed the principle that the seventh day is set aside for special use (sanctified – Gen 2:3).

To be able to adopt the meaning which Christ attached to the Sabbath, we have to interpret the Sabbath not only in terms of the fourth commandment, but also in terms of its original purpose, namely that it was created to be a blessing to mankind (Gen 2:3).  As Jesus confirmed, “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27).

Then the requirement for rest in the fourth commandment is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  Then we interpret the “rest” in the Sabbath Commandment as to cease the work of everyday life, to focus the mind and energy on bringing joy to people by restoring ourselves and other people to holistic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health.

Understood in this way “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” and anything that we can do to restore ourselves and other people to health, holistically defined, is not only allowed, but completely consistent with the purpose of the Sabbath.  In fact, to neglect to do on the Sabbath anything that we can do to restore people to health would be inconsistent with the Sabbath principle.

But the principle in the previous paragraph apply to all days of the week.  We should go beyond this and accept the Sabbath as the preferred day for healing.  Thus the Sabbath also becomes a work day, but a different type of work.  The Sabbath becomes a day on which we work for the mentally, physically and spiritually sick, blind, lame, and withered, to heal them.  Then our lives will become divided into two parts; for six days we work for ourselves, but on the seventh day we work for the physical, psychological and spiritual health of others.

Understood in this way we accept Christ’s statement, that healing on the Sabbath is the Father’s will, as new truth for the Christian; as a founding statement for Christianity.  Jesus gave a new meaning to the Sabbath which cannot be derived simply from the Law of Moses.

What Jesus did to the Sabbath is the same as what He did to the entire Law of Moses; He replaced it with the The Law of Christ.  The Law of Moses was God’s eternal laws for mankind, but adapted to the condition, abilities and situation of the enslaved and corrupt little nation of Israel.  It therefore, for example, prohibited adultery.  But Christ again revealed the eternal principles on which the Law of Moses was based, replacing the law against adultery with the law that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery” (Mat 5:28).  All moral principles of the Law of Moses are retained in the Law of Christ, but the Law of Christ raised the standards to the Father’s perfection.  We should therefore not be surprised to find that Christ replaced the fourth commandment with a much higher law, without lowering the standards.

NEXT: The healing of the blind man in John 9

TO: Sabbath Table of Contents

TO: General Table of Contents

Galatians 1:13-14

1:13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 1:14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.

OVERVIEW

In the New Testament we find many references to the “traditions of the elders“ or “ancestral traditions”. This refers to very extensive and detail laws that were added by the Jewish leaders to the Law of Moses.

One purpose of these traditions was to serve as a wall of protection around the Law of God; to protect against sin. This means that the Jews added stricter laws to force themselves to obey the Law of God. For instance, the Law requires one not to use the name of God in vain, but the traditions stipulate that one should not use the name of God at all.  To refer to God they used terms such as “the name”.

Another purpose was to convert the general principles of the Law of God into very precise rules.  The Sabbath requirements, for instance, were very simply; no work.  But to ensure that they do not work on the Sabbath, the Jews developed a very elaborate and detailed definition of work, consisting of 1521 laws.  These Sabbath laws were so voluminous and complex that only “experts in the law” knew them all.  For instance, any knot which one can untie with one hand is allowed.  A woman may tie up the opening of her blouse, the ribbons of her hair-net and of her girdle, the laces of her shoes or sandals, jugs of wine and oil, and the meat pot.

However, although the traditions were intended to prevent sin, they eventually served to separate man from God:

The traditions did this by putting the focus on outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart. This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self.  This firstly destroys love for God, and with that is destroyed love for fellow men, leading people to judge each other harshly on the basis of the laws which they themselves added.

The focus on outward behavior furthermore leads people to trust in themselves, in contrast to the “faith” which Paul wrote about, which is trust in God.

The many and minute, absurd, vexing and senseless traditions, combined with the merciless policing by the Pharisees, transformed the day of rest, which was supposed to be the best day of the week, into an unbearable burden; a cruel master under which men were groaning; the worst day of the week. These burdensome requirements reflected the character of selfish and arbitrary men, rather than the character of the loving heavenly Father, and represented God as giving laws which were impossible for men to obey. They led the people to look upon God as a tyrant, and to think that the observance of the Sabbath made men hard-hearted and cruel.

TRADITIONS

When people correctly understand that they continually fail to keep the Law of God, but erroneously believe that they must earn redemption by their works, they will always invent a multitude of additional laws to force themselves to obey God’s law. However, these added rules inevitable only govern outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart.  This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self. It destroys love for God, and with that is destroyed love for fellow men, leading people to judge each other harshly on the basis of the laws which they themselves added.

This also happened in Judaism. One of the oldest requirements in the Mishnah is to build a fence around the Law of Moses. This means that the Jews had to develop rules and regulations as a wall of protection against sin (noncompliance with the Law of God).  Over their long history they added thousands of rules, which collectively became known as the “traditions of the elders”.  For instance, the Law requires one not to use the name of God in vain, but the traditions stipulate that one should not use the name of God at all, but rather to use the term “the name” instead.

By the time of the New Testament these traditions were regarded as very important, for instance:

…the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders … and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.“ (Mark 7:3-4)

The Pharisees asked Christ: “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2; cf. Mark 7:5).

Paul described himself, before his conversion, as follows:

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:14).

But Christ condemned the “traditions of the elders” (Mark 7:3) as worthless “precepts of men” (Mark 7:1-13) that conflicted with “the commandment of God”.  To the Jews He said:

Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  … by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:3, 6)

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me, but in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Mat. 15:7-9)

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.  You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. … thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down.” (Mark 7:7-9, 13)

Christ’s point is extremely important. The traditions were intended to prevent sin (to prevent breaking the Law of Moses), but eventually served to separate man from God.   There are a number of reasons for this:

Firstly, as is explained by the first paragraph of this section, these added rules inevitable only govern outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart. This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self.  This destroys love. Outwardly they complied with the law, but “their heart is far away from me” (Mat. 15:7-9).  They could make a list of things that they must do and things they must avoid, and at the end of the day they could say, like the Pharisee, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers … I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all things–as many as I possess”, but this Pharisee was not “declared righteous” (Luke 18:11-14).

Secondly, as evidenced by the prayer of this Pharisee, a consequence of the traditions was that the Jews judged each other harshly. As soon as Adam and Eve sinned, they began to accuse each other. Unless man is controlled by the grace of Christ, this is what human nature inevitably does. Since the Father “has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22), the person that tries to judge the motives of others is trying to do something which only the Son of God should do.

Thirdly, people that are controlled by an accusing spirit are not satisfied with pointing out what they think is a defect in their brother. They would go further and compel their brother by force to comply with their ideas of what is right. This is what the Jews did in the days of Christ. Christ never compelled people; He draws people to Him with His love for them. A person that seeks to compel people by force thereby proves that he or she does not have the power of Christ, which is the power of love.

Fourthly, the Jews developed the traditions because they believed that one must earn your salvation by your own effort. This means that you put you hope and trust in yourself. In contrast Paul argued that man is justified by “faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16).  This is faith and trust in God.   This type of “faith” knows that we are unable to meet God’s infinite standards, and throws itself at His feet, trusting His mercy, like the tax collector in Christ’s story, who “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13).  “This man went to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).

To conclude, some say you will neglect the law if you go with the love stuff, but the truth is that you neglect the law by making it detailed and exacting.

SABBATH TRADITIONS

Amos (c. 750 BC), writing before the Babylonian exile, reported how Jews yearned for the end of the Sabbath so that they can continue to buy and sell. They stood at the gate of the city, waiting for the sun to set, saying:

When will the new moon be over, So that we may sell grain, And the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, And to cheat with dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5).

It was shown above that God used the Sabbath as test of Israel’s obedience.  After their return from exile the Jews realized that they were exiled to Babylon because of their lack of faith, as reflected by their unfaithful Sabbath observance (Jer. 17:21-27; Neh. 13:17-18). The Sabbath requirements were very simply; no work.  But to ensure that they do not work on the Sabbath, the Jews, over centuries, developed a very elaborate and detailed definition of work. Thirty-nine main categories of work consisting of 1521 different laws on Sabbath observance were developed (E. Lohse fn. 5, p. 12; cf. Mishnah, Shabbath 7, 2; Moore, II, p. 28).  These Sabbath laws were so voluminous and complex that only “experts in the law” knew them all.  The Talmud, which is available on internet, makes for interesting reading.  As a tiny example, with respect to knots, it stipulates (simplified):

Tying or untying camel-drivers’ knots and sailors’ knots are not allowed. Any knot which one can untie with one hand is allowed.  A woman may tie up the opening of her blouse, the ribbons of her hair-net and of her girdle, the laces of her shoes or sandals, jugs of wine and oil, and the meat pot. One may tie [a rope] in front of an animal, that it should not go out.  A bucket [over a well] may be tied with a fascia, but not with a cord.

As another example, a man may spit on the ground, but he was not allowed to cover the spit with ground, because that would be plowing. One was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.

Since the Bible does not define work, one author described these extensive Sabbath traditions as a mountain (of laws) hanging on a hair (the prescripts of Scriptures). The purpose was to ensure the faithful observance of the seventh day Sabbath, which was intended to be a day of rest and liberation. But the traditions perverted the Sabbath into a day of strictly prescribed idleness; a long list of things one is not allowed to do.  The many and minute, absurd, vexing and senseless restrictions, combined with the merciless policing by the Pharisees, transformed the day of rest into an unbearable burden; a cruel master under which men were groaning.  The Sabbath was exalted above human needs.  It no longer was a delight or a day to enjoy, but a burden.  Resting became hard work.  The scribes and Pharisees made it an intolerable burden to which the people were made slaves:

… they (the scribes and the Pharisees) bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. (Mat 23:4)

These burdensome requirements reflected the character of selfish and arbitrary men, rather than the character of the loving heavenly Father. The traditions represented God as giving laws which were impossible for men to obey. They led the people to look upon God as a tyrant, and to think that the observance of the Sabbath, as He required it, made men hard-hearted and cruel.  The sin with the most unfortunate results is the cold, critical, unforgiving spirit that characterizes the Pharisees. When a religion is devoid of love, the sunshine of Jesus’ presence is not there. Zeal for God’s kingdom and hard work cannot compensate for such a critical spirit.

TRADITIONS IN THE CHURCH

Since the church at first consisted only of Jews, and existed as a sect of Judaism, these traditions spilled over into the early church.  In the letter to Titus Paul instructed him to “not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men” (1:14).  It is necessary to read the statements in the New Testament, with respect to the law and the Sabbath, against this background.

TO: Galatians Table of Contents            TO: Sabbath Table of Contents

NEXT: Galatians 1:15-24