If there arose a matter too hard for them in judgment, especially a matter creating controversy, then they were to get up to the seat of government and inquire of the priests, Levites, and judges. Their decisions took on all the force of law for those who had so inquired (verse 10), even to the extent of the death penalty (verse 12). These judges could not decide arbitrarily. They were constrained to derive their decisions from the law and to support them by exposition of the law (verse 11). This was, in effect, like a supreme court of the day. This highest court made narrow decisions that applied only to the case in point or they made broad decisions that could find application in many similar cases. Whatever the decision, it became the law of the land.
Sometimes the judgment came from God Himself. Take for example the young man who went out to gather sticks on the seventh day.
"But the person who does anything presumptuously, whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the Lord, and he shall be cut off from among his people" (Numbers 15:30).
In this context, a case study is included of a man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). After his arrest they held him "because it had not been explained what should be done to him." (verse 34). In other words, the law did not specify this particular violation - after all, no law can cover every contingency. God's judgment was that the man die, but in terms of the courts, this was a narrow decision. Not every man who ever gathered sticks on the day would be stoned. This man had not acted out of ignorance, weakness, necessity, or even stupidity. He had acted defiantly, with what the Bible calls "a high hand." His attitude and intent had figured in the decision. Jesus would later make it clear that human and even animal necessity could create exceptions to the law.
How did JESUS interpret God's law?
Jesus' administration of God's commandments and laws was a common sense approach. By the time He came on the scene, the Jews had made the seventh day of rest almost unrecognizable. Following what they thought was the example of Nehemiah, they decided how far a person could walk, how much he could carry, and even whether he could be healed on the day!
Jesus and His disciples, for the most part, ignored Jewish traditions regarding Sabbath observance. On a day when they were passing through grain fields, they were plucking ears of grain as they went (Mark 2:23). To the Pharisees, this was unlawful and they challenged Jesus on the question. They saw no real difference between the act of plucking one head of grain, and harvesting fifty or five thousand. The difference was only a matter of numbers. Now common sense tells you that is not so. Obviously, there is a difference between plucking a few heads of grain to eat right now and harvesting your entire crop. What is the difference? The difference is in your intent. One man might have gone out to collect sticks on the Sabbath to build fire to keep warm after a sudden cold snap - this man might have gone unpunished while another man who performed exactly the same act might have been stoned. One was reluctantly working to meet a human need, and the other was arrogantly flouting God's law. It was purely a matter of intent. Jesus replied to the rigid religious leaders who criticized him:
"But He said to them, 'Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?'" (Mark 2:25-26)
What did this reply have to do with obeying the commandment? It showed that a human need like hunger, on a rare and exception bases, could take precedence over the commandment. Such an occasion in no way invalidates the commandment - it is an exception to the rule. Jesus even acknowledged that there could arise a conflict between two laws.
"Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? " (Matthew 12:5).
We would expect that the greater law would take precedence over the lesser. Who would argue that the sacrificial law is greater than the fourth commandment? God commanded the priests to do the work of sacrificing animals. The commandment forbade work. Which took precedence? The sacrificial law took precedence. God made the Sabbath for man and not the other way around. Man should not worship the day, but use the day to worship God. The offerings were a part of the worship of God. Having made this point, Jesus continued:
"Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless . . ." (Matthew 12:6-7).
The rigid, ritualistic observance of law was not as important as mercy, according to Christ.
How did Jesus expand on the intent of the Sabbath?
Jesus is the final judge of proper conduct on the Biblical day of rest. He defined this day at a level no scribe or Pharisee would ever have seen. They asked Him,
"Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? . . ." (Matthew 12:10)
They were only setting a trap and trying to find some accusation against Him. When they asked this, there was a man standing near who had a withered hand. Jesus said:
"Then He said to them, 'What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? . . . ' " (Matthew 12:11)
Plainly, all of them would have rescued the dumb animal. If not, then His question would have been meaningless. Elsewhere, He asks a similar question regarding an ox in a ditch, plainly expecting that even the strictest Pharisee would save the animal even though it involved backbreaking work. After all, it was an emergency. Jesus taught that work is permissible in an emergency, even to save an animal. Then He hit them with an incredible miracle.
"'Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is LAWFUL to do good on the Sabbath.' Then He said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other." (Matthew 12:12-13).
The first lesson we learn from what happened to the Israelites in Exodus 16, when bread rained down from heaven, is that the proper observance of the Biblical day of rest requires forethought and preparation:
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them (it was a test commandment), whether they will walk in My law or not. And it shall be on the sixth day that they shall prepare what they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.'" (Exodus 16:4-5).
God gave them a very simple procedure. Gather just enough for your family each day and eat it all. If you gather too much and try to hold it over, it will breed worms and stink. It was their daily bread in every sense of the term. On the sixth day, they could take twice as much to prepare extra for the next day. This time it did not breed worms and stink. They were starting to learn how to prepare for rest. The lesson we learn is that God's rest could not be ANY day in seven. It was on a specific day. Some people tried to do otherwise and were left with smelly, worm eaten bread:
"And the Lord said to Moses, 'How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.'" (Exodus 16:28-29).
What we learn from these judgments is that the Sabbath is on a specific day, and that proper observance of it requires preparation. There is nothing in Christ's teaching to change that.
Can we benefit from the work of others?
There are extreme views on just about every teaching or doctrine in the Bible. Extremes regarding keeping the Sabbath are no exception. Some, such as very strict Jews, argue that not only should we abstain from work on the day and also not benefit from the work of others. This means, for example, that electricity should not be used on the rest day since it benefits from the work others do on the day to create and maintain the power plants, power lines, etc. Those who believe this use candles to light their homes - and even light them before sunset Friday - so that the "work" of "kindling a fire" is not done on the seventh day. The home delivery of a newspaper on Saturday is also stopped, since work is required to get the paper to them.
Such practices, however, are going far beyond the requirements of the law and may well defeat the very purpose of the commandment. Notice what the fourth commandment says:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God."In it you shall do no work: you, nor YOUR son, nor YOUR daughter, nor YOUR male servant, nor YOUR female servant, nor YOUR cattle, nor YOUR stranger who is within YOUR gates." (Exodus 20:9-10)
The commandment forbids you to require work of anyone who is under your control. Notice the use of the possessive: YOUR servant, YOUR daughter, even YOUR stranger. The commandment is for you. It is for what you do and require. The person who delivers the paper does not work directly FOR you. They make their own decisions about when to work and when to take off. They would still work on the day even if they did not deliver your paper. The same holds true for those who make possible electricity and the other conveniences of life. The commandment does not call on us to prevent work by others who we do not direct employ and control. It does not prevent those who keep the Sabbath from benefiting from the labors of others who decide to work.
Example of a strict judgment
Some buildings in areas with a large Jewish population use a "Shabbat elevator." Such elevators are able to work in a "Sabbath Mode" that fulfills a Jewish (not Biblical) tradition that requires abstaining from operating electric switches on the seventh day.
Some Jews believe that since pressing a button closes a circuit, it violates the Old Testament's laws on not building (working) on God's rest day!
When an elevator is in this special mode, it stops automatically at each floor, and allows people to step in and out without having to press any buttons.
Control panel to allow elevator
to run in Sabbath mode.
Is it a SIN to use money?
After being freed from Babylonian captivity some leaders of Israel were anxious to restore obedience to God. A governor named Nehemiah rendered some judgments about the day of rest:
"In those days I saw people in Judah treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem . . . And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions. Men of Tyre dwelt there also, who brought in fish and all kinds of goods, and sold them . . .
"Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, 'What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? . . .'
"So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut . . . " (Nehemiah 13:15-19)
During this time some Jews were carrying on all their normal activities on the seventh day including setting up farmers' markets in Jerusalem. By means of a city ordinance, because he was the governor of Jerusalem, Nehemiah forbid the marketing of produce in Jerusalem on the day. Even when they tried to set up markets outside the city he drove them away. Some have taken this as proof that it is wrong to buy, sell, or even for money to change hands on the Sabbath. There are four things to consider about this passage.
There is nothing in the fourth commandment to prohibit money or goods changing hands. The commandment is that you are not to do any work.
- Nehemiah as governor had the task of establishing a commandment-keeping society. Different judgments may be called for in other societies where you have no authority.
This is a judgment of a governor to meet a specific situation. While it is a precedent, it is a narrow precedent.
It goes against how Jesus renders judgments about the day.
Keeping both the day and your job
There is the delicate balance between business and beliefs. Personal experience shows that many in supervisory positions, or who own their own business, are usually reasonable in accommodating others. A hard-working employee who is an asset to the company, who plans skillfully and wants to make up for missed time, can usually keep the Sabbath and his or her job. A good employer knows that a faithful employee increases the company's profit. Five or six days from one hard worker are better than six or seven days from a lazy one. If you let your employer know your religious beliefs in a positive way then there is a good chance they will honor your request for resting on the seventh day.
Did Jesus answer all questions?
Jesus realized that there was no way He could answer all questions for all generations on the Sabbath or any other teaching. There is a continuing need for interpretation. He told all the disciples (not just Peter):
"'And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.'" (Matthew 16:19 see also Matthew 18:18).
This does not include the power to change laws, but simply to pass judgment on doubtful matters. Jesus' statement does include the support of these decisions at the highest level of God's kingdom.
In the end, the Sabbath is God's day. It is a day when we have all the time in the world for keeping it. We have time for reading the Bible, time for prayer, time for fellowship, time for our children, time for thought, time for ourselves, and, above all, time for God.