The Bridegroom (5:33-39)
In the last lesson we noticed the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law complaining that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Luke records another complaint about Jesus and his disciples. The complaint is that John’s disciples fast often and the disciples of the Pharisees also fast. So why aren’t Jesus’ disciples fasting? Jesus’ response offers another image concerning who Jesus is. Jesus calls himself the bridegroom. “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”
The wedding feast and bridegroom imagery were messianic images used to refer to the time of the Messiah’s coming. This is an image that Jesus applies to himself. Jesus describes himself as the bridegroom and his disciples as the wedding guests. Why would the wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is here? The guests only fast when waiting for the bridegroom. Jesus explains that the John’s disciples fasted in hope and anticipation of the messianic age. His disciples do not fast because the messianic age has arrived. There is nothing to fast in hope toward. Jesus has added another layer to his description. We have seen him described as the Holy One of God, the Son of God, and the Son of Man. Now we see Jesus teaching that he is the one who is ushering in the messianic age where God’s rule would be established through his kingdom (Daniel 2) and the salvation of Israel would come (cf. Isaiah 25:6-8; 55:1-13; 65:13-14).
But notice something very interesting. Jesus does not say that the bridegroom is going to stay with his wedding guests in perpetuity. In verse 35 Jesus says the bridegroom is taken away from them. Consider that Jesus does not say that the bridegroom leaves. Rather, he is taken away, which indicates a violent removal (Ryken, 237). Geldenhuys points out that this means “a violent removal by death” (NICNT, 196). However, the BDAG Greek lexicon states, “Yet there is no need to assume the necessity of force.” We know the way Jesus was “taken away” from the guests was through the crucifixion. Jesus is making the point that he will not be staying but will be leaving. When that happens, only then will it be appropriate for his disciples to fast. This is the key point being made: Jesus is the bridegroom and it is not appropriate for his disciples to fast while he is here. When Jesus is taken away, then his disciples will fast.
Jesus tells a parable to further illustrate his point. Most commentators see Jesus contrasting the old covenant and the new covenant in these parables. I disagree with their assessment for a couple of reasons. First, I believe it is too early in Jesus’ ministry to be teaching the end of the Law of Moses. Early in the life of Jesus we read of Jesus teaching about the fulfillment of the Law, not the ending of it (cf. Matthew 5:17). To preach the end of the Law this early in his ministry would close off all Jewish ears to his teaching. Second, these parables do not read right if Jesus is discussing the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new covenant. In verse 36 I do not believe Jesus is saying that no one takes a piece of the new covenant and patches it to the old covenant. I do not believe any one would have understood Jesus if this is what he meant. There is not a new covenant in effect yet. How could they be trying to take parts of the new covenant and patch it over the old covenant? It does not make any sense. Again, verses 37-38 reveal the same difficulties. Verse 39 is the point that blows up the idea that Jesus is contrasting the covenants. “No one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.'” Underline the words, “No one.” No one, after participating in the old covenant, desires the new covenant because the old covenant is good? If Jesus is contrasting the covenant, he should have said the reverse, that is, that no one will desire the old once they drink the new. The standard interpretation is that the Jews would reject the new covenant to keep the old covenant. But I respond that they did not know they were rejecting the new covenant. Further, I think it is too much to say that, “no one” after drinking the old wine desires the new. We cannot suggest that there were no faithful Jews. We have already read about Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Anna, Simeon, Peter, James, John, and Levi who are faithful Jews that are accepting Jesus.
So what is Jesus teaching in the parables? Remember that the parable must explain the teaching point about his disciples not fasting. A contrast of the covenant does not explain why Jesus’ disciples do not fast. Rather, Jesus is merely illustrating why the disciples do not fast. It is inappropriate. It is inappropriate for his disciples to fast, just as it is inappropriate to cut a piece off of new clothes to patch old clothes. Just as it is inappropriate to put new wine in old wineskins. Just as it is inappropriate to offer new wine after people have drunk the old wine because it will not be desired. Jesus is not talking about a change of the law. Rather, Jesus is illustrating that he is the bridegroom and his disciples do not fast because it would be completely inappropriate. The one Israel has been waiting for has arrived. There is no need to fast for his coming now that he has come.
The Lord of Sabbath (6:1-11)
Luke records another event that causes controversy among the Pharisees. Jesus and his disciples are walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath. As they are walking through, they are plucking some of the heads of grain and eating it, after rubbing the heads of grain in their hands. Gleaning by hand was permitted under the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 23:25). But the eating of the grain was not the problem for the Pharisees. Their problems was that it was on a Sabbath. According to their laws, not the law of Moses, to rub the heads of grain was considering threshing and the Mishnah forbid threshing on the Sabbath (Shabbath 7.2). Jesus and his disciples are not breaking the Law of Moses. They are breaking the laws and traditions of the scribes and Pharisees.
How Jesus responds to this charge is fascinating. Jesus could have said that he was not breaking the Law of Moses but just their traditions. Jesus will do that later one when the Pharisees charge them with not washing their hands in accordance to the traditions of the elders. But that is not how Jesus responds here. Jesus wants to go deeper and truly address the heart of the problem. Jesus reminds them of an event in David’s life.
In those days God had rejected Saul and anointed David to serve as king over Israel. But Saul was not dead yet, and because of Saul’s envy, David had to run for his life. David and his men left in such haste that they did not gather much in the way of provisions. So they went to the tabernacle, where Ahimelech was priest and asked for bread. However, there was no common bread available. All that was left was the holy bread that was kept on the table of showbread. This bread was only for the priests to eat and no one else (Leviticus 24). For David and his men to eat the holy bread was a violation of the law of Moses. In fact, even Jesus says that they “took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat.” Jesus says that this act was unlawful.
So what is Jesus’ point? Is it that David broke the law, so I can break the law also? Not at all! Jesus is arguing from a harder case to an easier case. If it was proper for David’s men to eat the holy bread, then it was also proper for Jesus’ disciples to pick grainheads on the Sabbath. This is not the only instance where we read of the breaking of God’s law being approved. Allow me to show you a few other places besides David eating the holy bread.
Exodus 1:15-20 reveals that Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill the baby boys when they were born. The Hebrew midwives disobeyed the command to kill the baby boys and were not honest with the king of Egypt that Hebrew midwives give birth before they get to them. Where can we go in the scriptures to show that the Hebrew midwives were right in what they did since they were commended by God? These midwives were not honest and they were not obedient to the law of the land.
James 2:25 reveals that Rahab was justified when she sent the spies another way and did not hand them over the officials of Jericho. Rahab lies and tells the officials that the spies went another direction when in fact she was hiding them. Where can we go in the scriptures to show that she was right to lie to save the life of the spies?
Leviticus 10:16-20 shows that Eleazer and Ithamar did not eat of the sin offering as commanded. What scripture could we go to show that there was an exception to the law of eating the sin offering? Where can we show that they were correct and it was necessary to disobey an explicit command of God?
John 5:8-10,18 records a paralyzed man being healed. Jesus tells the man to take up his bed and walk on the Sabbath. The Law of Moses forbid this. No one was to carry a burden on the Sabbath. In Jeremiah 17:21-22 we read Jeremiah condemning the people for carrying a burden on the Sabbath. Carrying the bed was a violation of the Sabbath law. There is no wiggle room on this. It is not a violation of the Pharisees’ traditions. It was a violation of the law. What scripture can we use to show that what Jesus did was not a violation of the Sabbath? There are more passages that we could examine, but I hope that this is enough to see the point. There are not any specific statements authorizing the circumstances that would make not eating the sin offering acceptable, lying acceptable, or carrying a burden on the Sabbath acceptable. There are no exceptions when we read the law. But Jesus comes along and says that the exceptions are obvious. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees in Luke 6:3 begins, “Have you not read….” Essentially, Jesus is amazed that the Pharisees cannot understand there are exceptions, even when not explicitly stated.
In the parallel account in Matthew, Jesus verbalizes the exception clause that the Jews were to have understood in their application of God’s law. Notice that Matthew 12:1-8 contains the same story. But there is an important sentence that Matthew records, verbalize this exception. “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7; ESV). This is a quotation from Hosea 6:6. What did God mean through Hosea? The people of Israel were still offering their sacrifices and giving of their worship, but they were neglecting the clear principles of godliness like justice, righteousness, mercy, and love. Later in Luke we will see Jesus condemning the Pharisees for tithing every little thing, but neglecting the weightier matters of law like justice, mercy, faithfulness, and the love of God (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42).
So what is Jesus teaching about David eating the holy bread? What does it mean that God desires mercy and not sacrifice? Unfortunately, many take this to mean that God’s laws are just suggestions. Others go to the other extreme and ignore this very important teaching because we want to have every law in black and white. But I think the principle that Jesus is teaching is clear. Our application of God’s law cannot violate the character of God. God’s laws are firm and steadfast. They are not suggestions or recommendations. God clearly said that if we do these things we will live. But the underlying implication was that we would apply God’s law in such a way to violate God’s character of love, mercy, faithfulness, and justice.
Watch how this works in the biblical examples we have examined in this lesson. David and his men are running for their lives from Saul who is trying to kill them. They are hungry and need to keep moving. Should the priest have told David that they must all die of hunger? Of course not. The priest did the right thing to do because preserving life is greater than the law concerning the holy bread. Does this mean that David could have woken up and decided on any given day to go each the holy bread? Of course not. To do so would have been rebellion and he probably would have been struck dead by God for doing so. But if the priest had not given David the holy bread in this circumstance would have violated the other principles and laws of God concerning mercy and life.
Look at the example of Rahab, who is consider an example of faith. Rahab knew that these spies were sent by God and she wanted to be spared of the coming judgment against Jericho. She lies about the spies to keep them alive. That was the right thing to do in the circumstance because to hand the spies over to the authorities of Jericho would have violated God’s law of mercy and life. Does this mean that it was okay for Rahab to lie about anything? Of course not! To do such would be rebellion. That is why we do not read of any exceptions against the law of lying. But we cannot apply the law in such a way that God violate God’s character and God’s laws. The same is true of the Hebrew midwives. Keeping the baby boys alive was the right thing to do. God did not want them killing the babies.
Illustration: Here is a real life example, not a hypothetical. A man I know had a knock at the door at his home. He opens the door to find a gun pointed to his face. The man asks for his car keys and for his wife. He gives him his wallet and keys but says that his wife is not home. Was he wrong for lying? Should he have said that she was down the hall? Of course not! To tell the robber where she was would have violated the laws of God for life, mercy, and justice. It does not making lying right. But it was the right thing to do in that circumstance because God’s law and God’s character superseded the law to be truthful and honest.
Consider another real life example. After Hurricane Andrew, churches sent all sorts of supplies to the Christians who were suffering from the devastation. Were these Christians not supposed to share their supplies with others who were in need? Were they to say that church benevolence is only for needy saints, so we cannot give you a bottle of water? Of course not! To do so would violate God’s laws of mercy and life. Does this mean that churches can use their money to support food banks and soup kitchens? Of course not! To do so would violate God’s commands. But we are realizing that there are rare exceptions when the application of God’s law would cause us to violate God’s law, God’s character, and God’s nature. This is what Jesus is teaching. We cannot apply God’s law in such a way to violate God’s character. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13; ESV).
This is what Jesus is teaching in Luke 6. Life, justice, and mercy cannot be violated in order to keep the Sabbath. We pointed out that this is an argument from the greater to the lesser. If David was right to eat the holy bread even though eating was unlawful, then Jesus and his disciples are right to glean on the Sabbath and do such was not unlawful. Jesus seems to be saying that even if you wanted to call what the disciples were doing as work, it was not unlawful because they are hungry. The Sabbath was not to make people starve to death.
Withered Hand (6:6-11)
In our final moments, I want us to look at Luke 6:6-11 and notice that this is exactly what Jesus teaches a second time. According to the Pharisees’ rules, healing and medical work was not to be done on the Sabbath, unless a life was in danger, a baby was being born, or a circumcision needed to be performed. As an aside, consider that the Jews were already applying this principle to a degree. It was commanded a child be circumcised on the eighth day. So even though it would be work to perform the circumcision, it was allowed because not doing so would violate another of God’s laws. You see that we understand this. We simply are not very consistent in our application. This is what Jesus is condemning.
The Pharisees are watching to see if Jesus is going to heal on the Sabbath. Knowing this, Jesus intentionally acts. He does not avoid the controversy. He knows that the Pharisees are misapplying God’s law and that they have evil motives. Look at Jesus’ words: “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” God’s law was not to prevent us from doing what is good and right. God’s law was not to be an excuse for not doing what is good and right. Why is it okay to help someone in a terrible car on the way to worship service and “forsake the assembling of the saints?” It is okay because we cannot apply God’s law in such a way to violate God’s law of life, love, and righteousness. So Jesus heals the man with a withered hand.
- Do not keep our traditions over God’s law. The Pharisees did this repeatedly.
- Do not apply God’s law in such a way as to violate God’s law of justice, righteousness, faithfulness, mercy, and love. The Pharisees did this with the Corban. They would not take care of their parents because they were giving to the temple. Why was that wrong? Because we cannot apply God’s law in such a way to violate God’s law of justice, righteousness, faithfulness, mercy, and love.
- Be consistent in how we understand God’s law. Jesus points out that if David was okay in what he did, then Jesus’ disciples were okay in what they did. Be consistent. Apply God’s law appropriately and consistently.
- Exceptions do not make new laws. Just because David ate the holy bread once did not mean it was lawful to eat the holy bread. Just because Rahab lied did not mean it was okay to lie. Just because a healed man carrying his bed broke the Sabbath did not mean it was okay to break the Sabbath. God’s laws are strong and firm and must be obeyed at all times. That is the rule. Just understand that we cannot apply God’s law in such a way to break God’s law of mercy, justice, and righteousness.