This bread is to be set out before the LORD regularly, Sabbath after Sabbath, on behalf of the Israelites, as a lasting covenant. It belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in a holy place, because it is a most holy part of their regular share of the offerings made to the LORD by fire. (Leviticus 24:8-9)
So there was this special bread called “the Bread of the Presence.” It was set out every Sabbath in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and the written Torah specified that it was only to be eaten by the priests serving in the temple. However, in 1 Samuel 21 we find David and his men entering into the temple and eating this very bread, a clear violation of the written Torah.
“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.” (Matthew 12:4)
This quote is from Jesus, responding to His accusers in Matthew chapter 12 when He allowed His men (the disciples) to pick heads of grain on the sabbath, a violation of the oral Torah. In defending His actions, Jesus holds up David’s violation of the written Torah concerning the Sabbath, clearly indicating that both He and David had done no wrong.
But how can this be? How can Jesus, Himself the Word made flesh, commend David for disobeying God’s written Word?
“Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?” (Matthew 12:5)
Continuing His defense, Jesus points out that the priests violate the Sabbath laws every Sabbath, yet they are innocent and NOT lawbreakers. Why? Because there is something of even greater importance to God. Specifically, making the required daily sacrifices (which is itself part of the written Torah) is more important than obeying the Sabbath laws. Therefore, the priests “work” and offer sacrifices…even on the Sabbath.
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)
Jesus continues by quoting Hosea 6:6 and by doing so gives us something that is of even greater importance to God than making the daily sacrifices: mercy. Now, I learned in math class that if (A) is greater than (B) and (B) is greater than (C), then (A) is greater than (C). So, here is what Jesus said: although David violated God’s written Word concerning the Sabbath (C), he is not condemned as a lawbreaker because he was doing something that was of even greater concern to God than obeying the Sabbath. He was extending mercy to his hungry men (A).
The principle is clear and it is religion-shattering huge! Not only the man made traditional rules, but even the written word of God itself, is flexible when mercy is in play. And there is even more….
“For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8)
Now we have three things that are greater than the Sabbath laws…the laws governing the sacrifices, mercy, and the Son of Man. If you are with me so far then buckle in because this is where things get really interesting. By saying “Son of Man,” Jesus could be saying that He Himself is Lord of the Sabbath, or, He could be saying that mankind is Lord of the Sabbath. So which is it?
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
What? Could it really be that the Sabbath, and by extension the rest of the Ten Commandments (and in fact all of the Bible’s commandments) were made for man; that is, could it be that we were meant to govern over the rules? Could it be that we have the authority to determine under what circumstances the rules are to be enforced and when they are to be relaxed? Could it be that we have the authority to determine when to allow the written Word of God to be broken?
If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:22)
That is a pretty clear rule. And one would assume its application to be pretty clear as well…then we get to John chapter eight and read about the woman caught in adultery. In this case, instead of Deuteronomy 22:22 having final authority, Jesus functioning in His capacity as a Rabbi has final authority. We see Rabbi Jesus determining that, in this particular situation with this particular woman, there is something else that is of greater concern than the punishment prescribed by the law. So Jesus allows the written law as recorded in Deuteronomy to be broken.
To speculate about the particulars here is to miss the point. Whatever the particulars may have been concerning this woman, the important thing to grasp is that even the written rules contained in the Word of God are subject to man’s authority to properly apply them under a given set of circumstances. Go back and do the math again; Jesus commends David for breaking the written Law given the situation that was at hand, Jesus Himself breaks the written Law given His specific situation, Jesus says that it is God’s desire for mercy that made both His and David’s law breaking acceptable, and Jesus says that the Law was made for man and not the other way around. Taken together, Jesus says that man has authority over the Law; the oral and the written Law.
As shocking as this may seem you already know this intuitively. Remember the no “R” rated movie law from part one of this series? We agreed that this was a good law generally speaking, until the Passion of the Christ is released with an “R” rating. Wouldn’t it be foolish for a person not to see a biblically accurate portrayal of Jesus’ final week and crucifixion simply because the MPAA (whoever they are) gave the movie an “R” rating? Yes, it would certainly be foolish. So, we would expect the “R” rated movie law to yield to the circumstances at hand. Ok…same with David and his hungry men. Same with Jesus and His hungry men. Same with the woman caught in adultery. The Law…ALL of it…can be made to yield to what is merciful and compassionate and good in a given situation. And what is merciful and compassionate and good has to be decided by a person, and it has to be decided one situation at a time.
Now, let me be certain to make myself clear…I am NOT saying that it would have been okay for any group of men at any time to eat the consecrated bread. I am NOT saying that it would have been okay for any group of men at any time to pick heads of grain on the sabbath. I am NOT saying that it is okay for any person at any time to watch any “R” rated movie they would like to watch. And I am certainly not saying that it is okay for any person at any time to commit adultery without consequence.
So then, what am I saying?
“Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (John 7:24)
I am saying the same thing Jesus said when He was, once again, defending one of His decisions to heal on the Sabbath. We need to stop making judgements about right and wrong that are based only on the appearance of the Law. The appearance of the Law is how it reads…it is the literal, letter of the Law. Anyone can make that kind of a judgement about a matter. But unless we want our judgements to be “but rules taught by men,” we need to stop judging by only appearances and make a right judgement. And according to Jesus, making a right judgment requires two things: the knowledge of God’s heart concerning the situation at hand, and a willingness to break the rules…even the written ones…when goodness, mercy and compassion dictate that we do so.
Finally, let me be clear one more time and say again what I am not saying: I am not saying that Christians can do whatever they want, that Jesus has given us a license to sin or any other similar garbage. If you want to have a discussion concerning any possible liberties you may have in applying the rules to your OWN life then we will need to spend some time in Caesarea Philippi with Jesus and the disciples, and perhaps we will do this sometime soon. Until then, and for the purpose of this series, we are instead investigating how to rightly apply the rules to OTHERS.
My fear is that, in the name of doctrinal purity and orthodoxy, we have made a lot of wrong judgements and condemned a lot of innocent people.