Sabbath Sticks, Stones, and Sacraments

The words Sabbath Sticks, Stones, and Sacraments sound strange as a title for an article, but let me explain. The Old Testament contains the disturbing story of a man stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. A millennium and a half later the Lord Jesus addressed the matter of Sabbath Law violations (Matthew 12:1-8). Despite this, many today still read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 as an early church example of a sticks-and-stones judgment. However, this time for violating a sacrament.

In this article, I am attempting to deal with these troublesome passages from a Jesus perspective. Hence the title, Sabbath Sticks, Stones, and Sacraments.

The Jesus Perspective

If you have read my books and articles, you will know that I am a passionate champion of Christocentricity. In essence, this word signifies a focus on the Lord Jesus Christ as the ultimate revelation of the Godhead. What I refer to as the Christocentric Principle is an approach to biblical interpretation that seeks to understand all parts of scripture from a Jesus-perspective.  In other words, it is a way of interpreting scripture primarily from the perspective of what Jesus taught and modelled, and from what He revealed concerning the nature, character, values, principles and priorities of the Godhead.

Raising a red flag

In terms of this principle, when we encounter things in life or in the scriptures that do not seem to conform to what Jesus revealed, then we need to ‘raise a red flag’. By raising a flag, I mean that we should recognise that we need to understand more about the troublesome text or circumstance. What Jesus said, did, and revealed of the Godhead is the standard against which we weigh everything. So, we need to rigorously interrogate anything that appears contrary to this.

If, at this point, you want to understand more fully what I mean by Christocentricity and why I hold this view, then please read my academic article HERE.

The man stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath

I have commented on this incident before in a post titled ‘The Bloodthirsty Warrior God of the Bible’ but here is the gist what I wrote:

Numbers 15:32-36 reads: ‘While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.”  So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses’.

We don’t know why the man was violating the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. Perhaps he needed to make a fire to cook his food, but had been too sick to gather the wood earlier. We just don’t know. However, it seems that Moses enquired of God what to do and believed that God’s answer was that the poor man should be stoned to death! Now, what are we to do with this?

Perhaps God was setting an example of what would happen to defiant Sabbath-breakers? But hang on a moment… didn’t Jesus Christ later say; “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.  For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”? (Matthew 12:7-8) Moreover,He also said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

Jesus teaches on Sabbath violation

Matthew 12:1-8 contains the full account of this event: Jesus and His band of disciples had been travelling through some grainfields on the Sabbath. This in itself was problematic for the religious teachers of the day because their theologians had ruled that walking anything more than a few paces on a Saturday was a violation of the commandment not to work on the Sabbath. Yet Jesus’ disciples went one step further (excuse the feeble pun) by picking heads of grain to eat. Now they were not only travelling on the Sabbath, but they were also harvesting!  The legalistic penalty for this was that ‘whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death’ (Exodus 31:15-16).

When the Pharisees confronted Jesus with His supposed Sabbath violation, He responded with, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

The Red Flag

In light of what Jesus said to the teachers of His day, we must raise a flag when we read the Numbers 15 passage. Jesus was responding to their accusations of His current Sabbath violation, but He quoted Hosea 6:6, which is a prophetic word set in the context of the Numbers 15 era. Something is happening here that we just do not understand. Perhaps the man had been gathering wood to sacrifice to a pagan god. Or perhaps his child was sick and in urgent need of cooked food. Maybe Moses misunderstood what God was saying to him. We just don’t know.

However, what we do know is that in Jesus‘ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). What we do know is that Jesus said to one of His disciples, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). We also know that the Bible is a faithful and trustworthy record of what He said and did. So we accept both the account of the stoning of the man for Sabbath violation and the veracity of Jesus’ response to Philip.

But, and here is the big BUT, we take what Jesus said as the measure and yardstick of how to understand the Numbers 15 incident.

A similar situation in the Corinthian church

Now, I want to pick up on something Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth. The full passage is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, but the troublesome part is in verses 27-32. They read, ‘Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world’.

The traditional interpretation of this is that God inflicts those who profane Holy Communion with sickness and even death. Sticks and stones for violating sacred law all over again!

Once more, the red flag needs to be hoisted high because this understanding doesn’t appear to reflect a Jesus-perspective on the matter at hand. The Corinthians were celebrating the Lords Supper within the context of a full meal. Some of them were discriminating against the poorer members of the church by segregating them and eating all the good food before they could get any. Some were even getting drunk on the table wine! Thus, they were also profaning the work of Christ commemorated by the sacrament. The church is the Body of Christ, redeemed by His atoning sacrifice, and they were not ‘recognising the body of the Lord’. As a result, they were eating and drinking judgment on themselves.

What seems to be going on here is that some folk there were evidencing un-Christ-like and profane attitudes and behaviour. Because of this, they would suffer the consequences. They were in effect eating and drinking their own judgement.

Jesus the dividing line and standard

In stark terms, here are the implications of the Christocentric Principle in interpreting scripture:
  1. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the radiance of His Glory, and the exact representation of His being (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). Therefore, what He said, did, and revealed is definitive and the yardstick against which we measure all things.
  2. Jesus Himself honoured the Scriptures, cited them often, and thus authenticated them.
  3. The Bible testifies to Jesus’ divinity and the fact that all things in heaven and on earth were made by Him, and for Him, and that in Him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:16-17). ‘All things’ most certainly include the Bible. Jesus is, therefore, the ultimate author and interpreter of scripture.
  4. To understand the Bible from a Jesus-perspective is therefore to accept its inspiration and integrity. We can avoid using terms like ‘inerrancy’ and ‘plenary inspiration’ (and we probably should). However, we cannot contend that the Bible is untrustworthy.
  5. THEREFORE, Christocentricity demands that we respect the integrity of all of the Bible. However, it equally demands that the scriptures are to be understood from a Jesus-perspective. What Jesus said, did, and revealed is the overriding interpretive consideration.
  6. All of this means that our default position must be Christocentric. Our secondary posture must be that there are things in life and scripture that we do not fully understand. Yet even then, we seek to achieve a greater understanding by viewing the inconsistencies through the lens of Jesus’ life and teachings.

The dogma of Christocentricity

Peter quoted Isaiah 8:14 when he referred to Jesus as ‘a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall’ (1 Peter 2:8). Unsaved folk stumble over the dogmatism that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. However, believers often stumble over the dogmatism that He is the prime interpreter of scripture. Since the Reformation, many regard the Bible as the source of truth and its own interpreter. However, Jesus is the source of truth and He is the interpreter of the Bible. This is a big mental and faith shift for many to make yet it is a necessary shift if we are to do more than pay lip service to the centrality of Jesus in all things.

A final word

As with all things spiritual, an either/or approach seldom, if ever leads to truth. We must not fall into the trap of choosing between Jesus and the Bible. Jesus is the Living Word, the Bible is the Written Word, and we need both if we are to comprehend truth. However, just as there is divine order between God the Father and God the Son, so there is divine order between God the Son and the Bible.

As the Son reveals the Father, so the Lord Jesus Christ reveals the Bible. The third personage in the divine trinity, the Holy Spirit, both points us to Jesus and illuminates the written word.

PS: I am aware of the different interpretations of the texts I have cited, and of the meanings of various words in the Hebrew and Greek. I also realise that I have run the risk of oversimplifying complex hermeneutical (Interpretive) issues, but I have run this risk for the sake of brevity and of making my central contentions as clear as possible.

 

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