By J.R. Miller
One of the most important questions which Christian people have to consider in these days--is that of the proper use of the Lord's Day. What is its purpose? What place should it occupy among the days? What should it mean to us? How should it be observed? It would be a great calamity to us--if we were to lose our Sabbath altogether. We would then have no churches, no religious services, no Christian institutions, no Sunday schools, and no Christian fellowship; for it is the Sabbath that is the inspirer and helper of all these institutions and blessings. Jesus loved the Sabbath. He took from it certain things which had grown up about it and spoiled its beauty; but He did not abolish it. He sanctified it, and then gave it back to us an institution of good and of blessing.
One Sabbath Jesus and His disciples were going through the grain fields. We may infer that they were on their way to the morning synagogue service--were going to church, as we would say. There are many evidences that Jesus was always regular in His attendance upon church ordinances. We would think that He did not require the spiritual help which comes from public worship; yet He seems always to have sought it. If Jesus kept up church-going habits, then surely we should not think that we can get along without them. We would do well to emphasize this particular part of Sabbath duty. Young people should feel the obligation and realize their own need of what the church can give them. We ought to come together to worship God, to recognize Him before men as our God, and to render due homage and praise to Him from whom all our blessings come.
Then we need the help that the Lord sends from the sanctuary. We need the instruction, counsel, warning, encouragement, and comfort--which come from the faithful preaching of the Word. We need the fellowship of Christians, the strength that comes from human sympathy. In our thought about how to observe the Sabbath, let us not forget to get into it a healthful measure of church-going. We may be sure that Jesus and His disciples were not merely taking a walk for pleasure that morning, and that they were not merely traveling somewhere. We need to be careful how we seek our own pleasure, on the Lord's Day. We ought to make the Sabbath different from other days--restful, quiet, a day for receiving the divine blessings of health and renewal, as well as spiritual good and enriching.
The Pharisees were exceedingly punctilious in the observance of the letter of the law, and besides this, of the rabbinic rules which had been added form time to time to the law. They also regarded it as their duty to keep a close watch on others and to note any failure in them to follow the rules. They were especially keen in watching Jesus and His disciples. Their motive was not sincere interest in the teaching and example of Jesus--but to criticize Him, that they might accuse Him. They went along with Him, not because they loved to be with Him--but as spies upon His conduct, looking for some fault in Him!
We get two lessons. One is that the conduct of Christians is always watched by unfriendly eyes--eyes keen to detect the slightest apparent fault. We should live at all times most carefully, so as to give no occasion for just censure. Yet the example of our Lord's disciples here, shows us that we are not to be slaves to traditional opinions which have no foundation in the Word of God.
The other lesson is that we can find better business than playing the spy on the life and conduct of our fellow men. The unfriendly espionage of these sanctimonious religionists on the actions of our Lord and His disciples, appears in our eyes very base and contemptible. Let us remember that it is no less base and contemptible for us--to watch our fellow Christians, in order to discover flaws. Suppose they do not live quite as they should live; are we their judges? Then perhaps our sin of uncharitableness in watching them--may be as great as theirs of some other inconsistency.
The scribes were always referring people, to what was written. With a keen irony Jesus remind them of an incident in their Scripture which had a bearing on the matter which was troubling them (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6). David was a favorite Jewish hero, and what he did ought to be taken at least as a precedent. The teaching is for us, too, and its meaning is that "works of necessity" may be done on the Sabbath. It was in the literal sense, a breach of the ceremonial law for the priest to give David the showbread; but it was not a breach of the spirit of the law, for the necessity of hunger overruled the ceremonial regulation. The work of the priests in the temple, was also in a literal way a continual profanation of the Sabbath; yet they were "blameless" because their work was necessary for the maintenance of the ordained worship of God. In like manner, our Lord taught that the act of His disciples in plucking and rubbing out the heads of grain to get food to satisfy their immediate hunger--was a work of necessity, and therefore was not a sin. Though the letter of the law may have been violated, there was no violation of its spirit.
So we get the principle, that "works of necessity" are excepted in the law of the Sabbath, which requires the cessation of secular labor. What these works of necessity are, cannot be established by minute rules and regulations. This would be to repeat the error of the Jewish teachers, who added to the plain and simple law of God--so many of their own traditions as to obscure and bury away the law itself--and make their religion burdensome and oppressive. What these works of necessity are--can be left to the enlightened conscience of the faithful followers of Christ.
Jesus went further and made a general statement concerning the purpose of the Sabbath which is very important and which we should always remember in thinking of the observance of the day. "He said unto them, The Sabbath was made for man--and not man for the Sabbath." The Sabbath is part of God's plan of love for man. It was not made for him merely as an arbitrary law, without a reason. It is as much a law of his nature, or in harmony with his nature--as is the night, which bids him cease from toil and seek rest and sleep. It was made for his physical nature. Then it was made also for his spiritual good--to give him opportunity, not for physical rest alone--but for communion with God when the noise of business and of toil has ceased. It was made for man, to promote his highest welfare in every regard.
Jesus clearly showed, both by His own example and by His teaching that the Sabbath is never meant to be a burden or to work oppressively. Though work is forbidden on the Sabbath, it is not a violation to prepare food sufficient to meet the hunger of our bodies, to lift a beast out of a pit, or to heal a sick man. Not many people are now disposed, however, to make the Sabbath a heavy burden or a cruel yoke. The tendency is the other way. At the same time it is well to understand just what our Lord taught on this subject. Works of necessity are allowed, even though they may seem to violate the letter of the law. So also are works of mercy, works of benevolence. It will be hard, however, to get out of this great saying of our Lord's--any excuse for the hundredth part of the secular activities, which men want to bring in under the shield of Christ's teaching.
Jesus went still further, and asserted His own authority over the day. "The Son of man is lord also of the Sabbath." Therefore He had a right to interpret the laws for its observance. He does not intimate any intention of abolishing the Sabbath. He had just said, "The Sabbath was made for man--and not man for the Sabbath." Because the Sabbath was made for man--it came under the Lordship of the Son of man. As Mediator, He had all the interest of humanity committed to His hands. The Sabbath was not to be abolished, for it was part of the very divine constitution which the loving God had ordained for His children. Christ came not to destroy--but to fulfill. He took the Sabbath, therefore, and stripped off the temporary ceremonial regulations, and set aside all the burdensome traditional rules--and then put into it its true spiritual meaning, just as He did to the other commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. Under His touch the Sabbath was made 'new' in a sense. The bondage of the letter--gave way to the liberty of the Spirit. He liberated His Church from the oppressive burdens of a rabbinic Sabbath, and made the day one of joy and gladness, a type and foretaste of heaven.
"He said unto them: is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day--or to do evil? To save life--or to kill?" In the account of this incident in Matthew's Gospel (12:11, 12), we learn that Jesus gave an illustration. "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." He appealed to simple common sense. The Jews could not but admit that a man should lift his sheep out of the pit on the Sabbath. Whatever their traditions said about such a case, the practice of the people would be on the merciful line. Now Jesus asked: "Is not a man better than a sheep? If it is right to help a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath--then it surely is right to relieve a human sufferer from his malady on that day."
So we get the lesson that it is right to do good on the Sabbath. It is right for physicians to attend to their patients on that day. It is right for those whose duty it naturally is, to nurse the sick and care for them on the Sabbath. It is right to visit the sick--when we can carry blessing or cheer to them; to visit the afflicted--when we can carry comfort to them; to visit the poor--when we can minister to their needs or relieve their distress; to go out among the unsaved--when we can do anything to bring them to Christ and save their souls; to gather neglected children from the streets and from Christian homes--and bring them to the Sunday school and the Church. Jesus here gives us warrant for many works of mercy on His own Holy Day.
When Jesus entered the synagogue, there was a man there with a withered hand. The scribes watched very intently to see whether Jesus would heal this man on the Sabbath. He asked the man to stand forth, as if He would cure him; but first asked the scribes whether it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. They were not willing to commit themselves in answering His question, and after a little while Jesus proceeded to heal the man. "He said unto the man: 'Stretch forth your hand.' And he stretched it forth--and his hand was restored." Jesus would not let the man suffer because of the criticism of the Jews.
We get a lesson here. We must not be hindered in doing good--by the opposition and the fault-finding of those about us. We must do our good deeds fearlessly, serving Christ regardless of the world's sneers and hindering.