map-of-palestine

The rise of Sabbath controversies

The Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5)

Palestine is a relatively small parcel of land on the eastern Mediterranean coast. The whole of the region is roughly the size of Rhode Island. The land of Palestine is also in a geo-political vice. Before the jet age, whoever ruled Palestine controlled the trade routes in and out the African continent. Therefore, every major empire of the world has had interest in Palestine – the very land to which God called Abraham, and planted his unique people.

In the 2nd century B.C. the region became particularly unstable and volatile for Hebrew residents, as Syrian rulers to the north and Egyptian rulers to the south (known as Seleucids and Ptolemies, respectively) struggled for control of the region [note: the map above reflects modern day, but the regions have basically remained unchanged].

One Syrian ruler named Antiochus IV was especially dreadful. He sought Jewish conformity to Greek culture (called, “Hellenizing”). The Jewish people nicknamed him, “Epimanes,” the madman. As he fought the Ptolemies in Egypt, some Jews heard a rumor of his death and danced in the streets. They took back their holy city, their culture and their religion.

Not only was Antiochus humiliated by the Jews, his attempt to control Egypt had also been kyboshed by the Romans, who sent him out of Egypt in total disgrace. He returned to Jerusalem and took his anger out on the Jews. He plundered city, tore down her defenses, desecrated the Temple with pig’s blood, set up images of the god Jupiter, and outlawed the Hebrew Scriptures and feasts.

But some Jews had had enough. A legendary revolt – known as the Maccabean revolution, led by a man named Mattathias and his 5 sons – ensued. The insurgency lasted for decades.

Though outnumbered and outmatched militarily, the Jews’ ingenuity and guerilla warfare won them decisive battles, and enlistment in the militia grew. Against all odds, they successfully outwitted and outlasted Syrian forces many times. They eventually recaptured Jerusalem, gained their independence, and re-dedicated the Temple. Jews were still celebrating this Festival during the days of Christ (Feast of Dedication, re: John 10:22), and still celebrate it today: Hanukkah.

However, early in the revolution, the Seleucids realized a weakness: most of the rebels would not fight on the Sabbath, and chose rather to retreat into the Judean desert. The Seleucids exploited this opportunity. They followed the law-keepers into the wilderness on the Sabbath, and slaughtered them.

This was a real turning point in the conflict, but also in the interpretation of Jewish law. The Sabbath slaughter changed the predominant Jewish view of Sabbath-keeping in times of conflict. It was deemed that when provoked, it was better to die preserving the law and nation, than to keep the law strictly and let the nation die.

This proved effective as a military strategy, but it created interpretive conflict that continued to the time of Christ – particularly regarding what may or may not be done on the Sabbath.
Not only that, but the self-appointed guardians of the law – the Pharisees (whose party developed around this same time in response to the influx of Greek culture in Palestine) – added many of their own traditions to Sabbath-keeping. By the time of Christ, 200 years later, the Pharisees expected people to follow their traditions as tenaciously, if not more so, than the law itself. It is no surprise that they followed and questioned Jesus on the Sabbath so often.

When Jesus and his disciples were found to be eating raw grain in a field on a Sabbath day, they were actually obeying the Sabbath. In fact, the very thing they were doing was protected by the law (Deuteronomy 23:25). But the Pharisees called Jesus on the floor for not conforming to their teachings.

The Pharisees’ inconsistency – especially since it led their followers to sometimes to their traditions in higher regard than the actual law of God, and to even violate the law of God – frustrated Jesus. He silenced them by asking:

  1. Why did they not condemn David, who actually violated the law (Luke 6:3-4)?
  2. Or, if they were so concerned about the peculiarities of the Sabbath, why were they not outraged over the Temple priests, who essentially had to set aside the Sabbath’s work limitations every Sabbath day in order to prepare their offerings?

Because they were so in love with their traditions, they ignored these obvious difficulties of interpretations, as well as actual violations, and rather spent their time condemning Jesus and his disciples for doing that which is specifically given exception in the law (Deuteronomy 23:25). In other words, I take Jesus’ response to mean: “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”

What did they have better to do with their time?

I suppose the final statement (recorded in Matthew) gives us the answer. It is the proverbial icing on the cake, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

As a man, and as a matter of law, he and his disciples were was following the law to the letter. But as deity, he had the authority to set it aside if he so chose. It wasn’t written for him. It was written for men.

Find something better to do. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. You are wasting your time trying to find my indiscretions, and in the process, you are blind to your own.”

The lessons, which are many, seem obvious to me.

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A graduate of West Virginia School of Preaching (2004), Rick has been in full-time ministry since then serving the church in Prestonsburg, KY (2004-2014), and Massillon, OH (2014-present). He enjoys spending time with his wife, Samantha, their six children, and enjoys writing, playing and writing music, a good cup of coffee and a hot wood stove. He hates shoveling snow and plans to buy a snow blower soon.

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2 thoughts on “The rise of Sabbath controversies

  1. Just some additional info: He may have had more than one nom de guerre. One reference identified him like this: Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ( Greek: “God Manifest”) also called Antiochus Epimanes (the Mad) (born c. 215 bc—died 164, Tabae, Iran) Seleucid king of the Hellenistic Syrian kingdom who reigned from 175 to 164 bc.

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