Ambush on the Sabbath
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 6:6–6:11
Ambush on the Sabbath
December 4, 2016
Well, as we turn our attention to God’s Word this morning, you can open your Bibles to Luke Chapter 6, and we’re going to finish this vital section of Luke’s narrative, which demonstrates the Lordship of Christ over this creation ordinance really—what we call the Sabbath. One day in seven there is an observance of rest. Jesus is Lord over that. And over the past few months, we’ve been reading about Jesus—he and his disciples have been shadowed by the Jewish leadership. While he’s demonstrating his power, his strength, his might, his healing, his concern for people, his mercy, Jesus’ ministry has attracted the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The scribes and the Pharisees went out from Jerusalem and Judea to go to Galilee in that more rural area—Galilee of the Gentiles—they went up to observe for themselves this Jesus and his ministry. They didn’t really like what they found. From one perspective, it’s really hard to understand why. Jesus has been healing diseases. He’s been casting out demons. He’s been cleansing lepers. He’s been healing paralytics. And most importantly, he’s been forgiving sinners. What is not to like about that?
What we’re seeing here is the prediction of old Mr. Simeon taking shape. This is the beginning of what Simeon told Mary at the temple when Jesus was just that little child of Bethlehem in her arms. She’s holding baby Jesus in her arms in the temple environment in Luke 2:34, and Simeon tells her, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Well, it’s hard to see at that time. Mary is holding this tender child in her arms, a newborn baby. It’s hard to see how that child could be responsible for all of that—that “the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed.” Whenever Jesus is truly revealed, when the truth about him, his ministry, his true words is made manifest, when his message is clear and unambiguous, Jesus becomes a dividing line. Those who embrace him and his words—they rejoice. They are raised up, they are encouraged in hope. But those who reject him—they resist, they reject, they oppose, they oppress, they pursue. We’re watching that very thing happen. It’s in motion right here in Luke Chapter 6 with these religious leaders. The thoughts from their hearts are being revealed here in our text. As Jesus is executing a divine ministry directed from Heaven itself, religious leaders don’t like it. That is what is revealing—their hearts. They’re being exposed. And from this point forward in Luke’s Gospel, there is no masking their false religion. We know its nature. We know the truth about it. They are hypocrites to the core. Though they parade—worship—religiosity, they are using an external form of religion to hide a murderous heart of selfish ambition and greed.
We’re going to see that here in the text this morning. Look at Luke 6 starting in verse 6. We’ve covered 1 to 5 in a couple of weeks. Now, we’re going to look through Luke 6:6 through 11.
On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
We’re going to jump right into the outline. So the first point this morning printed there in your bulletin—let’s look at the situation. Verse six tells us this happened on another Sabbath that is a different one from the one we went through in verses 1 to 5. We don’t know the time frame exactly between the two Sabbath, how much time separates the Sabbath in verses 1 to 5 and then this one that starts in verse 6. Likely, just a few weeks or so. Jesus and his disciples may have even returned to Capernaum on this occasion from a period of itinerant ministry and the next events that we see coming in Luke 6, the naming of the Twelve, the Sermon on the Mount, all that takes place in or around the Sea of Galilee, are in very close proximity to Capernaum. So the scribes and the Pharisees show up on this occasion because they really knew exactly where to find Jesus. They show up there as a bit of a troop of inquisition and they want to see him for themselves, but they have an evil motive in their heart. Once again, we find Jesus in the synagogue. He’s doing that which defines his ministry, which describes his ministry—he is teaching. Jesus is a consummate teacher. It says, “On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. A, man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him.” They’re sitting there listening to the teaching and they’re watching him “to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so they might find a reason to accuse him.”
We just need to note here that not everyone who comes to church is interested in the teaching, right? Not everybody who comes to church has the same heart that you do. Some come in the church doors with ulterior motives. It was true then; it remains true to this day. Here are the scribes and Pharisees seated in the synagogue, and no doubt they are seated in positions of honor and authority. They are visiting Jewish dignitaries, so they would have been given the best seats. Yet from their honored position, they’re relatively uninterested—we might say remarkably uninterested in what Jesus really has to say. They’re not listening to the truth of his teaching. They’re only listening for an occasion to accuse him. That’s the first of a number of ironies in this story. Here they are sitting in positions of honor. It’s because of their spiritual authority that they’re put in those positions. Their only real interest is in the honor of that position, though, not in the true source of spiritual authority. And the true source of spiritual authority was standing right in front of them.
Not only that, but what he was teaching was the source of authority. They were uninterested in that. They were interested in honor, in title, in power, in influence. What is Jesus teaching? Like we’ve said before, he’s teaching from the Law and the Prophets; he’s expounding the Word of God. The first five verses we went through in this chapter give really a hint of what Jesus’ teaching must have been like. Incredibly insightful. He made profound observations of the text, illuminating what was clearly written on the pages, but what is hidden from us because we are sometimes so dull of seeing and hard of hearing and hard of heart. It’s difficult for us. For him—no sin clouding his judgement, no weakness in his mental faculties—so his observations of the text and his explanations must have been perfect. He exposed the true meaning of the text. He helped people see how the Bible is really meant to be applied to our lives, showed people the true implications of scripture, unleashed its power. That’s what we tried to spend time doing last week. Jesus had merely summarized an account from 1 Samuel 21 there in verses 3 and 4, but then he boldly asserted—going directly from that summary to an implication of that teaching—that the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath.
But we say, “That’s incredible! How did he get from 1 Samuel 21 to his Lordship over the Sabbath? How did those two things connect?” And we had to sort of “reverse engineer” what he said, taking his summary and conclusion back into 1 Samuel 21, and understand how he got from there to here. Incredible power of insight into the Word of God that he had! Think about it—to sit in his very presence, to listen to him actually teach with your own ears would be nothing short of mind-blowing. We find evidence of that kind of reaction all through the gospels. Matthew concluded the Sermon on the Mount with this summary. He recorded the reaction of the audience. He said:
When Jesus finished these sayings [the Sermon on the Mount, by the way, and we’re going to get to Luke’s version in just a little while] the crowds were astonished at his teaching for he was teaching them as one who had authority and not as their scribes.
So, you can imagine the Pharisees who listened to Jesus on this occasion—and particularly for the scribes—the profundity of Jesus’ insight had to grate on their every last nerve of pride. There they were sitting in seats of honor, listening to Jesus teach and, by the way, he’s just a young man at this point—in his early thirties. But his expositions of Scripture sure were clear, unencumbered with all the rabbinical citation, expert opinion, all these traditions, just bold and plain elucidation of the text. They had spent their lives studying the Word of God and come to the conclusions he had. They hadn’t been able to make the observations he had. But rather than bow humbly before the authority of this unparalleled teacher, or at the very least to acknowledge that what he taught was true and bow humbly before the Word itself, their hearts were bent in a more sinister directions. There is incredible hardness of heart here. They have no interest in hearing Jesus, no interest in hearing even the Scripture he was teaching, which they said that they honored. That is the way with religions hypocrites. They only love the honor. They only love positions of influence. They love what religion gives them, but they have no interest in submitting themselves to the standard of authority that is above them.
Luke wants us to see that right off the bat. He doesn’t waste any time, but he exposes us to the heart of Jesus’ opponents because he wants us to see something else. He doesn’t want us just to see their heart, he wants us to see how Jesus handles what is really a set up here. Here, it’s as if they’re trying to ambush Jesus. We’re going to see how Jesus handles himself in this bit of conflict, how he really turns this ambush on its head, turns the table on his opponents.
So here he is, Jesus in a crowded synagogue—he’s engaged, as he always is, in teaching the Word of God. He’s being watched like a hawk by his opponents. Luke presents the situation in some pretty mild, non-emotive terms here. He says: “A man was there whose right hand was withered.” That’s it. The term “withered” in the ESV literally means dry, as if without fluid. It’s like it’s shrunken. You might consider a grape and then a raisin. You know—it’s shrunken, it’s shriveled, it’s deformed, and it’s lying useless on the end of his arm, paralyzed. As far as we can tell here, there is no indication that it is a life-threatening deformity. He is there, after all, listening, but Luke does give us a detail that should elicit just a little bit of our sympathy. It was his right hand that was deformed. None of the other gospel writers points that out, but remember Luke is a physician. It’s a profession in which it’s very important to tell right from left especially when it comes to surgery or amputation. The right side, though, is a favored side in those days.
Right-side-dominance, it’s pretty predominant among human beings—right-hand dominant, right-eye dominant. It’s an important factor when you’re organizing, say, a fighting force. You want to put all of your right-handed people, right-eye-dominant people in one part, and you want to put your left-handed people in another platoon. When you’re organizing a work crew or any other situation in a pre-technological world, right-hand, left-hand division is important. And the right side was favored in the society. It symbolized a position of honor. To sit at the right hand of someone in authority meant you were sitting in an honored place. And you’ll note that is where we always find Jesus—sitting right now at the right hand of the Father. It symbolizes for us that Jesus is the strength of the Father. He is on the Father’s dominant side. He is what you might call the business end of the Father’s will.
So to be without strength on the right side, this man was significantly hindered in his ability to work, to earn a living, and very likely his wage-earning ability. So to restore his right hand very likely meant restoring the man to gainful employment. So, not only would healing his hand remove a social stigma he felt every time people saw that hand, but in a very practical way it could mean restoring his opportunity to provide for his family. It was sad to have a paralyzed hand, but as we said, it was by no means a life-threatening disability. At least as far as we know, right? He could use his left hand to beg for food, or so the Pharisees thought.
And that’s the very point on which Jesus here is tested. Would he heal a non-life-threatening condition on the Sabbath?—ngaging in medical work like straightening out deformed limbs and such was universally recognized in that day as a clear violation of the principle of the Sabbath. It was a non-life-threatening issue. So his healing could wait. Honor the Sabbath. Don’t heal that guy. Wait. But he’s begging with his left hand. It’s okay. God’s day is more important. Honor the Sabbath—that’s the accepted view. Rabbinical tradition had been reinforcing this attitude for a long, long time. One commentator notes Sabbath regulations could be overwritten only in cases of endangerment to life. Otherwise, the very schools of Judaism were agreed that the Sabbath must be fully upheld. First aid was deemed permissible to prevent an injury from worsening, but efforts toward a cure were regarded as work. It must await the passing of Sabbath. The withered hand was non-life-threatening and, thus, did not quality as an exception to Sabbath rules. Rabbinic tradition, in fact, forbade “straightening a deformed body or setting a broken limb on the Sabbath.” Interesting.
“The scribes and the Pharisees watched him,” verse 7, to see whether he was going to perform this healing, which is unlawful work on the Sabbath. “Watched him,” is a mild expression there. It’s a mild way, really, of translating that verb paratereo, which actually is stronger than just “watched him.” They watched him very closely. They watched him intently. They observed him very carefully, but at the same time this hints at an insidiousness here. It’s a malicious observation, a watching out of the corner of the eye. It’s not staring him down. It’s watching surreptitiously pretend like you’re looking in one direction, but saying, “Is he going to do it?” These scribes and Phariseesreligious leaders hereare literally lying in wait for him. It’s as if they’re waiting for an unsuspecting victim to walk into their trap, as we read earlier that David was facing in Psalm 57. They want him to walk into an ambush that they’ve constructed here, which is inescapable, and they’re acting with stealth and craftiness; they’re hidden behind rocks, and they’re looking up, “Is he going to do it? Can he do him harm?”
Sometimes small military units have to patrol in some pretty nasty territory. They can sometimes find themselves ambushed by the enemy. They’re cut off in a good ambush. They’re cut off from going right or left. They’re cut off even from returning the way they came. And sometimes the only way out of an ambush is to go through the ambush. So the squad stands up in bravery, stands up in a line;they present a unified front, they point their weapons at the ambushing enemy, and they start firing their weapons at their enemy as they walk toward the enemy. For them, it is kill or be killed.
Jesus is facing such a situation here. Penned in by the enemy. “What’s he going to do?” Some commentators have even suggested that this ambush the scribes and Pharisees planted here—they think the man was planted—that this man with the withered hand is a plant in the synagogue because they know that Jesus is going to do what he always does. He’s going to have that dreadful compassion that violates Sabbath’s lawfulness. They know he’s not going to hesitate to heal a withered hand. They’ve got him. I’m not sure if that’s provable one way or another. It’s an interesting thought, though. If it’s true, it ratchets their deviousness up another notch, doesn’t it? But it’s enough to know here that Jesus is walking into a situation that has been set up, and whether we consider this as set up by human design or not, we do know that God set this up, didn’t he? He providentially brought this man with a deformed hand into the synagogue that day because God had a point to make about the Sabbath. It is God’s will here for Jesus to show everyone what true Sabbath observation looks like—that it is a day for rest and a day for performing acts of mercy. And in an ironic reversal here, God intended to turn this ambush around and to expose these hypocrites for who they really are—everyone can see their hearts on display.
For his part, Jesus simply saw a need. He’s compelled here by a compassion to heal. He knows their hearts and goes forward anyway. Before healing the man, Jesus went on the offensive. He spotted that ambush. He saw it. And he rose up and took aim at his opponents. And that takes us to our second point, which we will call the interrogation. Verse 8, “But he knew their thoughts.” They didn’t count on that.
But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there.
First, notice the difference between Jesus’ way of operating and their way of operating. Notice the difference between true leaders and false leaders. Jesus is bold. He’s confident. He’s outspoken. He’s upfront. The religious leaders here are devious, they’re hidden. They keep everything bottled up. They don’t tell you what they really think. They’ll talk about it in dark corners—oh, but not in your presence. Look at the word “thoughts.” It’s the word dialogismos. It’s talking about their internal reasoning. It’s talking about hidden thoughts. These men are sneaky, and their motives are hidden. Their conversations are held in secret, private meetings far from the public eye. Their actions in public—they look pious, right? They look gentle, peaceful, mild—but they’re furtive and stealthy. Jesus, by what he does here, totally blows the lid off of their stealth when he tells the man, “Stand up.” Literally, Jesus said to the man, “Come and stand here.” He’s right in the middle, right in the midst of the people. It says literally, “Come and stand in the midst, right in the middle.” And the scribes and the Pharisees don’t know it yet, but their little ambush has not only failed, but they’re about to be the victims of another ambush coming right at them. They’re about to receive two well-placed, well-targeted rounds fired at them. Jesus is now ambushing them, and he’s going to use compassion. He’s going to use the healing of deformity, which in God’s army is called overwhelming the enemy with superior fire power. They have no idea what’s about to hit them.
Some commentators have suggested this man’s involved in a plot to trap Jesus here—I don’t believe that. I believe this poor man has come to hear Jesus. I believe he has come to receive healing. If he were part of the plot, when he’s exposed, he would have probably just run out of the synagogue. I think he came that day hoping to find mercy. There’s actually a very early tradition that tells us the man was a stonemason, and he had been reduced to begging for want of the use of his right hand. It’s probably impossible to confirm the legitimacy of that story, but it does show a prevalent and a very early view that this man was in no way conspiring with the Pharisees here; instead, he’s there in good faith. I think the text bears that out. There was never a lack of people who sought healing from Jesus. The Pharisees knew that. So they spotted a needy soul, followed him into the synagogue, took their seats and watched. They sat back patiently. They watched. They waited, ready to pounce at the first hint of Jesus’ unrestrained compassion and mercy to break out and heal—ah, but on the Sabbath.
Could Jesus have catered to their Sabbath traditions here? Could he have just restrained his compassion just for a few hours? Maybe do it later? He didn’t need to perform a Sabbath healing, did he? Couldn’t he have just healed a little bit later? Nothing obligated him to heal this man right there and then. Was he truly trapped in an ambush that he couldn’t get out of except by healing the man? Well, what do you think? I’ve set it up in a way that you know the answer. Okay. Look at verse 9 again. Jesus stops teaching. He knows the thoughts of the scribes and the Pharisees, and he takes note of this pitiable condition of this man—his withered right hand. And instead of waiting until the lesson is over, he stops, he calls the man to stand up, come forward, and stand in the middle of the synagogue. Every eye is on him. People know something is about to happen, so they’re watching intently, looking at Jesus, looking at this man. They’re waiting. What’s going to happen? You can cut the tension here with a knife. And Jesus said to them—notice he says to them, plural, all of them, “I ask you [plural], is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Is it lawful?
Jesus is not talking about the Scripture. He’s not asking, “Is it biblical? Is it according to the Law of Moses or the teachings of the prophets?” He’s asking if their laws, if their oral tradition, those human additions, those so-called elucidations to the Scripture—are they going to make room for the true intent of the Sabbath, or not? Will their definition of lawfulness allow them to use the Sabbath for the good of mankind, to provide for physical rest and spiritual refreshment? Will their lawfulness allow them to save a life? What’s more in keeping with true lawfulness—to heal this man, or let him wait until tomorrow? By asking the question that way, he’s just cornered his critics. It’s a brilliant question, polarizing contrasts—is it good or is it evil? Is it lawful to save or to destroy? He doesn’t leave them any wiggle room here whatsoever, no shades of grey, stark black and white. You think, “Well, waiting a few hours to heal the guy—is that really harm? Is it really evil? Is it really destroying his life?” It’s call antithetical thinking here. It’s looking at the world through a lens of contrast, through a lens of thesis and antithesis. Notice how often the Bible calls us to think that way. We’re to separate between the clean and the unclean, between the righteous and unrighteous, between the holy and the profane, between truth and error, between light and darkness. We’re called to put all of humanity in one box or another, aren’t we? Categories of redeemed or unredeemed, saved or lost, children of God or children of wrath, saints or sinners. The more we grow in Christ, the more we see the world in those stark terms. And that’s exactly the way our Lord thought of the world and thought of people.
As we see throughout his life and ministry and by this very question, he thinks of the world in terms of contrast. Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm? To save life or to destroy it? And he’s asking at the very least, “Why delay healing this man if I can do good right now?” Even more than that, the nature of his penetrating question consists, as one commentator put it, “in representing good omitted as evil committed.” That’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it? A good omitted is really an evil committed. Is there biblical justification for that? Yes, there is. To heal on the spot is to do good. To delay healing him at this particular moment is to do harm, or to do evil. There is no guarantee about tomorrow. You don’t presume he’s going to be around tomorrow. Heal him now. Frederic Godet poses the question, and it comes immediately to our minds: “Could he not have put off the cure until the next day?” Could he not have done that? To this question, he would have given the same answer to any one of us: “Tomorrow belongs only God; only today belongs to me.” Do you think like that? I know sometimes I don’t. I asked whether there is biblical justification for this? For thinking like this? Whether if you’re able to show mercy now, you should show mercy now? Jesus looked back to a principle of Solomon in Proverbs 3:28, “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go and come again and tomorrow I will give it,’ when you have it with you.” Jesus had it with him. He had what none of us had. He had the supernatural power to heal his neighbor. So not only was it appropriate, but it was right? Notice the difference. It’s not just acceptable, it’s righteous for him to do that act right then and there.
The epistle of James says it this way in James 4:17, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” So we ask, is Jesus truly boxed in in this situation? Absolutely he was. For him, he’s committed to righteousness. For him, he’s not going to sin. So it’s not enough to simply go around and try to avoid doing harm. It’s not okay to postpone showing mercy. The spirit of the law, the heart of God himself is this: God wants his people to actively seek to do good, to be aggressive in showing mercy and compassion for others in need. Beloved, I wish that our church would be known for being a church that’s aggressive in showing mercy. I mean, "If you’ve got a need, you can’t hide it from that church, I mean they are after you!” Wouldn’t that be awesome? That’s what God would have. That’s what Jesus is after here. It’s what he illustrated next as he takes action.
We’ve seen the situation, we’ve seen the interrogation. The third point:the action. Jesus fired two bullets from his rifle asking two well-laid, deeply penetrating questions. What was the response there? Do you see it written? I don’t either. They didn’t respond. They were silent. Neither the religious leaders nor anyone else in the synagogue that day dared to respond to Jesus’ questions of interrogation. So in verse 10, Jesus spoke to the man, but only after looking around at them all. Jesus gave the entire room, and particularly those religious leaders, plenty of time to respond. He gave them plenty of time by looking all around the room. He gave them plenty of time to give a rebuttal, to explain the lawfulness of delaying compassion. We understand here why the crowd didn’t respond. After all, they feel like they’re sitting on the sidelines. “It’s okay, I’m just watching this little debate take place. It’s awesome. I like to have a sideline seat because I can judge without actually getting involved.” No, they’re accountable for what they are seeing. They’re accountable for what they’re hearing, for what they’re about to witness. Though they don’t know it exactly, they’re in the game. Everybody who observes Jesus and hears his teaching is accountable for what he says, what he does, who he is.
But the religious leaders, though—the fact they didn’t answer—unforgiveable. It’s a clear mark of their utter condemnation that they kept their mouths shut. This is nothing less than self-incrimination on their part. They are the ones, after all, who are accusing Jesus in their minds, even in their speech. Another gospel shows they verbally asked the question. They’re the ones accusing him of unlawfulness on the Sabbath. So if they have anything to say, this is the time to say it. No, they prefer to keep their criticisms quiet for the time being. At their hearts, they’re cowards. They didn’t dare expose their thoughts, their hidden reasoning to public scrutiny because if they did, their sinful thinking would be revealed, and their cold and unloving and unmerciful hearts—all of that would be exposed if they truly dared to answer and get into this debate with Jesus. As Edwards rightly says, “The religious authorities are not only willing to tolerate the lamentable condition of another human being, but to use it as leverage against Jesus.” Can you imagine? Pretty ugly, isn’t it? That level of hardness of heart is really hard to imagine, especially if you lived in that day, especially if you knew these guys personally. I’m sure all of these men were good, moral, upstanding, family-oriented guys. They’re grandfathers. They’ve got grandchildren running around their legs and they’re picking them up and hugging them and kissing them. They’re generous. They give to their community. They’re strong financial backers of the synagogue. They’re contributors to the good of community and society. They’re guys you’d like to live next door. They’d be men you look up to and respect in the community.
But hidden beyond all of that is something only Jesus can see. Down in the depths of their hearts lurked a monstrous pride. It seeped out here in this utter lack of concern to see this poor man whole again, to actually use him as bait to entrap Jesus. It’s unbelievable. They want to prey upon the sorrow of this man, use him as bait to trap him rather than begging Jesus, “Heal him!” Utterly shocking that these men—seeming pillars of the Jewish community—could have hearts that can be rightly identified as loveless, merciless and cruel. But that’s exactly what it is.
When Luke describes Jesus looking around here, it’s rather tame in comparison to what Mark tells us. Mark tells us in Mark 3:5 that “Jesus looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” Well, you can see why. He’s seeing the pillars of the community, the respected members whom everybody looks to and everybody follows, and everybody says, “Oh yeah, those are the guys to follow. That’s the way you live your life. That’s what you do”—and he’s just grieved at that. “Why are you following them?” No matter how pleasant and kind false religion appears on the surface, God knows the heart. What he sees is not pleasant at all; it’s grievous, insidious, malicious, and cruel, and that is not an overstatement. Their murderous intent is going to become even more apparent in a moment, but for now, let’s just turn the page just a little bit and look at this from a different angle because what we really want to rejoice in as believers is the part of the story that shows this compassionate, righteous course of action that Jesus takes on this particular Sabbath. Jesus, as Ryken says, does not use people for ulterior purposes. He saw this man as a man. He saw this man as a man in need. He cared. He had compassion.
Look at verse 10 again, “And after looking around the room at them all [he’s got that dealt with], he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he did so, and his hand was restored.” It’s brief, but this interplay between Jesus and this unnamed man with a withered hand is absolutely beautiful. This guy has come to Jesus. He believes Jesus has the power, the will to heal him. Do you know how hard it is for someone with a deformity to stand up in public, to be made the center of attention, expressly for the purpose of not hiding the deformity, but of revealing it in a crowded synagogue in the presence of all of these visiting dignitaries, people of honor, the presence of this famous teacher and healer? This man’s tendency would have been to retract his withered hand, to hide it in the folds of his robe. He didn’t want people looking at it. Many Jews at this time would have considered this guy’s condition to be the judgment of God. A withered right hand must mean that—I mean God could have withered his left hand, right? But it’s his right hand, so it must have been of some serious, hidden sin, and God is exposing it by judging him with this malady. The sin is bad enough that God wants him kept from working effectively, humbled down to begging. It must be something really, really bad. It’s how they thought. But this man—verse 8 when Jesus said, “Come stand here”—pushed past that stigma. He pushed past the sense of public embarrassment and shame to obey the voice the Jesus Christ.
Beloved, that’s what we all have to do, isn’t it? We have to despise the shame and come humbly before the Cross. And Jesus commands obedience; we don’t care what people think. This guy is in the middle of a crowded synagogue, and he does not care because there is One commanding his conscience. The man obeyed again in verse 10 when Jesus said, “Stretch out your hand.” The tense of the command directed him to stretch it out all the way, full length. It’s been a long time since he’d done that—perhaps his whole lifetime since he stretched out that shriveled hand. He had been accustomed, as I said, to keeping it hidden within the folds of his garment. So to take it out, to reveal that hand and to stretch it out is an act of faith. He trusted Jesus here, and in faith he obeyed. And in one of the Bible’s many understatements it says, “He did so and his hand was restored.” Wouldn’t you like a little bit more detail? Some kind of like CGI effect that we could see as this thing comes to life again. It would be really cool, but it doesn’t tell us that. Because we’re not supposed to focus on that—the complete and total restoration of his hand to the normal condition, normal function, normal use. We’re not just supposed to focus on the miracle itself, but what the miracle meant. And I love it that even though this man is called up to the front, he’s placed in the middle. Hhe isn’t standing there exposed and alone, is he? Jesus stood there. He’s not alone. And he’s not exposed either in his shame. Jesus covered his former shame with healing grace. That’s the way it is for us.
When Jesus asked those two questions, verse 9, he not only put the scribes and the Pharisees in a corner, but he cornered himself as well. Jesus had only one way to go in this situation, in this ambush—and it was forward. By healing this man on the Sabbath right under the noses of the Jewish leadership, Jesus knew it would lead to his own demise physically. These guys are not going to be happy—and Jesus knows that. He knows what’s going to happen, that this does not bode well for his physical safety later on. We know from verse 11 they’re completely resolved to destroy him, but Jesus does not hesitate. Jesus does not equivocate. He doesn’t pull back. He doesn’t hedge his bet. He doesn’t attempt to find some kind of acceptable compromise here. He’s bold. He’s fearless. He’s courageous. Not for his own sake, but for our sake.
As one commentator put it, Jesus tied his fate to that of the man with the shriveled hand. The Lord of the Sabbath gave a command, a man responded in obedient faith, and that meant that Jesus and this man—you know what? They’re linked together now. They are inseparable. They’re united. They are of one mind here as faith in the one who provides. They’re together right here in the company of this hostile crowd. Even under the malicious scrutiny of the religious hypocrites, this man is not afraid; he’s in the company of Jesus. That’s what Psalm 23:5 means when David says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Who sits down in the middle of danger, surrounded by the Taliban, and has a little bit of a banquet? Nobody. You want to take care of the threat first, and then you eat. So confident was David in Psalm 23 that the Lord was his Shepherd; and so confident is this man in the presence of his great Shepherd—no wounded sheep has need to fear.
Look, we need to stop and reflect on that. It’s a very important devotional point for us to ponder. When we go back to what Jesus told his hometown crowd in the synagogue in Nazareth, remember what he said on that day was fulfilled in their hearing? It was the text from Isaiah 61:1 and 2.
[God] has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Remember after he read that] he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. […] And he began to say to them, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
He came to proclaim liberty, but also to set at liberty the captives, the blind and oppressed. In this text here, we find out more fully what that meant for him. Jesus’ commitment to heal them—captives, the blind, the oppressed—meant it would cost him his very life. Jesus is in very real, very literal danger for healing this man. He knew that even when he did it. And we can see here still very early in his earthly ministry the foreshadowing of Jesus’ ultimate demise by linking himself to this man and get this: By linking himself to us, he’s entered into our suffering. He has fulfilled the punishment due for our sins by dying on the Cross. That’s how he came to proclaim and perform healing—to heal his people from their sins.
Beloved, because he tied his fate to ours, he’s absorbed the very wrath of God himself. He has taken the punishment that we deserve. We are forgiven because he is committed to this union. Not only that, but because he tied himself to us, we are eternally privileged to be united with him forever. We will receive the just reward that he earned, not that we earned, but that he earned because of his faithful, total obedience to the Father. Isn’t that fantastic? That is the very definition of grace.
Well, Jesus’ interrogation exposed something very ugly in the Pharisees. It was that the religion in their hearts was devoid of love. They’re the chief watchdogs and guard dogs of this false religion that has paraded itself and presented itself as true religion—and it’s not true. Jesus blows the lid off of that. Notice how they react. Fourth point—the reaction. Verse 11—sad and perplexing words here. “They were filled with fury. They discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” Look back at the first question that Jesus asked them in verse 9. He asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm?” That question is directed really, you might say to the whole synagogue, but it’s talking about the deformed man. He’s at the center of that question. But the second question, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to save life or to destroy it?” That question is more properly aimed directly at the murderous hearts of the scribes and the Pharisees. That’s another irony, isn’t it? It’s ironic that here they are, and they’ve predetermined to condemn Jesus for violating the Sabbath day by working. It’s hard to identify at what point Jesus actually exerted himself in work commanding the man to stretch forth his arm, but nonetheless, he is the one who did the work, right? He stretched his hand. Jesus is going to be condemned for working, okay?
They want to condemn him, though, so they can do away with him. So they do that. And while he shows his hand, he has desired to save a life on the Sabbath. Right here their hearts are revealed as well. They are ready to destroy a life—his life. And they’re doing it on the Sabbath. Just a little bit ironic, isn’t it? And more to the point, it is the very essence of religious hypocrisy—to condemn others for doing what they themselves do. Here they are with murderous intent, and they’re determined to find evidence to destroy his life, and they’re doing so on the Sabbath, the Holy Day. Ironic, hypocritical, but that is the blindness of false religions and all of their chief exponents. Notice it says there, “They were filled with fury.” “Filled” is a word referring to being gripped by. They’re under the influence of, totally given over to the control of their fury. The word translated “fury” is the word anoia. I know it sounds like annoyed, but I don’t think the etymology is actually connected. It could be, but anoia is the word for “mind,” which is nous, and then an alpha privative that is prefixed to the front of it, literally “not nous.” They are out of their mind, basically. It’s a word that is translated usually as “foolishness.” Here in this context, it is showing that these guys are foolish, not just being fools and frivolous, but fools with anger. They’re seething with rage, and perhaps a better term would be “madness.” Because in this context, it really gets to the point. They’ve departed from their senses here. They’re swept up in irrational anger.
Why is that? Because of the evidence they’re compiling to condemn Jesus and his ministry. I’m going to just briefly summarize the evidence against Jesus they had in their minds. Number one, he ignored studied rabbis to violate oral tradition that he might do good on the Sabbath. Evidence number one: guilty. Number two, he touched lepers and he communed with tax collectors and sinners. Okay, number two: he’s guilty of that, too, isn’t he? Number three, he had the audacity to exercise a divine prerogative by forgiving sins. Guilty as charged on all three counts. On the evidence they had seen here they want to kill him. They don’t want to understand him. They don’t want to figure it out. They don’t want to say, “Hey, where have I gone wrong in my thinking?” They want to kill him. And everything they had come to believe about him was sealed in their very presence when Jesus healed this man with a withered hand. They found all of this sufficient—not to worship him as they should, but to justify their own wicked intent to destroy him—and the plot is hatched on the Sabbath. It’s an irony of grave proportions. It’s proof the religious authorities were truly anoia—out of their minds.
So in the situation—the interrogation, the action and reaction we see of Jesus, the Son of Man—is that he is exercising his prerogatives on the Sabbath day as Lord of the Sabbath. That is what we see. We see that Jesus is a dividing line. He’s received one way by those who are humble of heart, who recognize their own sin and grieve over their sin. And they come to Jesus in this condition and say, “I want to identify with you. And I will stand in public, exposed to the mocking world. I’ll stand with you because being with you, I am never alone. And being with you, I am never ashamed. And being with you, I am never exposed, but I’m covered.” That’s the heart of every believer. But he’s a dividing line because the very same Jesus that melts the wax hardens the clay, doesn’t it? So this very same Jesus that melts the believing heart also hardens the heart of the outwardly pious, but the truly impious. He hardens the Pharisees’ heart, the wicked heart, the religious heart that takes pride in position and honor and respect and title.
As we bring this little series—this section of Scripture—to a close, I just want to take a few minutes to consider the implications for us today. On this issue of the Sabbath, we’ve been talking about the fact that Jesus did not abrogate the Sabbath. He is Lord over it. He cares very deeply about the Sabbath; otherwise, he wouldn’t take the position and honored title of “Lord of the Sabbath.” So the fifth and final point in your outline—it’s important how we think about how the Lord of the Sabbath would command our behavior on this day—his day—which we now rightly call the Lord’s Day. Number five in your outline: the implications. What are the implications for us Christians living 2,000 years after these events, half of a world away, no longer under the Law of Moses, but under the law of Christ. First, I think we need to honor the Sabbath principle by honoring the Lord’s Day. At the most obvious, most basic level, it means we need to prioritize church attendance by attending church regularly. Why is that important? Because our Savior has been given the honor of being called Lord of the Sabbath. And it’s our joy to honor him by honoring his Sabbath Day principle on the Lord’s Day. Sabbath, as we said, goes all the way back to creation week. It finishes off the six days of creation work with a day of rest. God set that day apart, not because he needed a break, but because he knew we did. He wants it to be for our good, for our rest—that we should treat this day as holy. He commanded Israel about the Sabbath day, for them to observe it.
So, we look back to Israel and we see the pattern there, and we say, “Hey, it was very important for Israel.” In fact God told the prophet Ezekiel, “Keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign [that is the Sabbath may be a sign] between me and you, that you may know that I the Lord am your God” (Ezekiel 20:20). God wants us to know him by observing this principle. And so by regularly attending worship, we learn. That is what this is about. We learn about our God. We learn about who he is. We learn what he is like. We study him and we rejoice and we worship. So that means you just need to order your week in such a way that you are ready for Sunday. Don’t be out too late on Saturday nights—get good sleep. Make sure your family is ready. You moms maybe even make sure the kids’ clothes are all set out for the next day, or teach them to do that. Order your life in such a way that you’re not packing everything into the weekend, busying yourself with so many things that you neglect the Sabbath day or the Sabbath principle. Manage your work, your responsibilities, in such a way that Sundays are priority. Clear the deck for the Lord’s Day. Hebrews 10:25 says we are “Not to neglect meeting together as is the habit of some, but [we are to be] encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
And you all say to me, “Hey, Travis, we’re here. So why are you preaching to the choir here?” I get it. Okay, so here is your charge: If you know someone who is not attending church regularly, go out and get them. Get them in here. I see a few empty seats left and we can put out more chairs. Get them here. They need to hear this teaching from the Word of God every single week because they need to worship God. They need to know the Lord. So encourage them back into regular church attendance. Talk to them about why it is so important that they get back into church: so they can know the Lord, so they can learn the Word of God with the saints of God, so they can serve the body of Christ. So that’s one implication—observe the Sabbath day, keep it holy—the Lord’s Day, Sunday.
Here’s another implication. Second, know the priority of the Sabbath day. It is important. It is to be kept as holy, but it is not an inviable moral law that can never, ever be set aside. That is to say, if you don’t attend church on one Sunday because of whatever reason, you’re not in violation. We’re not going to come after you with a troop of elders and temple guards breaking down your door, grabbing you out of bed where you were slumbering peacefully because you’re sick and rip you out of your rest. We’re not going to do that. It’s not an inviolable moral law. And that is what Jesus meant when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not the man for the Sabbath.” It is to be honored as a holy day, but there are times when we can’t absolutely be at rest on the Lord’s Day. After all, God continues to work on the Sabbath day as well, and Jesus pointed to his Father’s continuing activity on that Sabbath day as justification for his healing on the Sabbath day, even in a more dubious situation that Jesus brought up about David with Ahimelech the priest. Jesus recognized an exception that was made for David, and yet David remained guiltless. Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 12:5, in Matthew’s version of this account, “Have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?”
So, if the priests of old worked on the Sabbath day and they’re guiltless, I guess you could put pastors today who work on the Lord’s Day, likewise, without guilt, right? I think that would include everyone who does church work on Sunday, whether they’re paid for it or not—Sunday school, people doing worship and all that. Make sense? They are works of necessity that have to do with the ordering of the worship on the Lord’s Day, works of necessity that are permitted. Other work as well permitted on the Sabbath Day—law enforcement falls into that category. That immediately comes to mind. It always comes to mind. Military service—same thing. You might include certain emergency services as well. Romans 13:6 called the civil authorities ministers of God, which acknowledges among other things that these folks can work to keep us safe so we can worship on Sundays. Amen? The confession we’ve posted on our website refers to these folks as civil magistrates. The confession freely admits it’s lawful and good for Christians to accept and execute that office, and they do so for the sake of maintaining justice and peace, which is for our sakes. We can wish criminals didn’t commit crimes on Sunday, thereby violating the Lord’s Day. But Sabbath observance for them—they’ve sadly already transgressed other barriers by becoming criminals. It’s part of the bargain. They said, “Okay, I’m going to be a criminal with my life, so, yeah, I’m going to have to let the Sabbath go.” So they don’t feel bound in their consciences about not doing crimes while we’re in church. Well, we’re going to give thanks to God for providing law enforcement personnel who protect us and keep us while we’re here in church. Why be pious about—“Hey, why don’t you get shifts off on the Sabbath?” Praise God if they can get shifts off on the Sabbath, that’s awesome, but look, don’t condemn.
Third, in addition to prioritizing the Lord’s Day for worship, make sure you are also committed to doing good and exercising mercy. As we said here—as we see Jesus doing—do it aggressively. Find ways to show mercy. Find ways to minister to other people. Do not be self-centered. That is a clear violation of a Sabbath principle. It’s a clear violation of what we see here. Jesus didn’t say here, “You know, it’s a Sabbath day of rest. I don’t want to expend a bunch of power by healing your hand. Can you come back, Monday? Come on!” No. You have football to watch? Just turn off the football game and go help somebody, right? Don’t hide out in a holy enclave avoiding people in need. Look out for those who need help—your help, not somebody else’s help, your help. I like how Philip Ryken said this when he wrote, “Some Christians are like the Pharisees.” I’ve been guilty of that before, haven’t you? Always looking for some religiously justifiable way to avoid getting involved in other people’s problems. They secretly think that people who have a drug addiction, get an abortion, end up in prison, join the gay lifestyle or contract AIDS are getting what they deserve, and therefore, they themselves are off the hook as far as getting personally involved. But Christ calls us to have a heart of compassion, and as the Lord of the Sabbath, he’s given us a day to show mercy, a day for helping people in need.
You see people who are struggling because of their own sins, and you look down your nose and say, “I’m not going to help that. I mean, I’m just enabling. You know, they got themselves into that condition because after all, they’re criminals or whatever.” No, they got themselves into that condition because they are in the same condition that you are in—sinners in need of grace. We need to look for opportunities to serve other people. Proverbs 3:28 says, “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, come again tomorrow; I will give it to you,’ when you have it with you.” Be like Jesus, who because he possessed the power to heal his neighbor, he healed his neighbor. The more we’re like him, the more we’ll be on the lookout for people in need, showing mercy, compassion, taking care of needs, ministering to others, encouraging, showing kindness. Not only are those activities allowed on the Sabbath day or the Lord’s Day, they are the true spirit of Sabbath rest. Treat the Sabbath day as holy. Don’t condemn people who work on the Sabbath out of necessity. Do acts of mercy. That is how we submit to Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath. Amen?
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, thank you for clear teaching from this passage of Scripture about your concern on the Sabbath. We do want to give ourselves heart and soul, mind and body, to following Jesus in this matter. He is remarkable, able to do things none of us can do, but at the same time he lays down an example that we would follow in his steps. We admit—every single of one us here admits freely—that we have not treated your day as holy. We haven’t honored it as we should. We have been taught from a young age that it’s not really that important. We’re no longer under the law, so we don’t take those principles from the law as important. We don’t think about them very carefully. We confess our sin to you, Father, and ask that you would forgive us. We ask also that you would strengthen us and empower us to truly understand and weigh and live according to the principle of Sabbath rest, that we would treat it as holy and attend the services at church and attend to the ministry of the church and give ourselves wholly and completely and cheerfully to it. We ask that you would help us to appreciate and observe all those law enforcement, military, emergency service kinds of people that have to be involved in work on the Lord’s Day, and we ask you help us to pray for them and uphold them in prayer that they would be protected and safe and strengthened and encouraged even though they can’t make it to worship that day. We ask that you help us to pray for them—that they would gain some kind of an opportunity in their schedule to be off on the Lord’s Day. I pray that you would help us to minister to those people because they will need us, just as we need them. We pray also that you would help us to have a great heart of compassion like Jesus has. He had compassion for us, healing our deformities and forgiving all of our sins. We give ourselves freely to him, that he would use us in such a way to reach out to others, to be his hands and his feet, to run aggressively toward those in need. Help us to use the resources we have to do that very thing. In Jesus’ name, Amen.