2 Kings 24, Haggai 1, John 14

Read 2 Kings 24, Haggai 1, and John 14.

This devotional is about Haggai 1.

Most of the prophets we’ve read prophesied that judgment was coming for Israel or Judah or both. Haggai was one of the prophets who spoke the Lord’s word after his people were returned from exile.

Here in chapter 1, the Lord challenged the people through Haggai for returning to the land and building their own houses (v. 4) but doing nothing to rebuild the temple (v. 2, 4). Their reasoning for this was, “’The time has not yet come…’” (v. 2).

Undoubtedly there was still a lot of work to be done in Jerusalem. A city that has been destroyed by the Babylonians would take a long time to rebuild. Their plan to leave the temple until “the time comes,” however, suggested wrong priorities. Instead of understanding that their security and prosperity were consequences of faith in and obedience to God, they believed that taking care of business was most important and then, “we’ll get to the Lord’s work when things are humming along nicely again.”

Verses 5-11 explained the outcome of their misplaced priorities. Though they had worked hard (“planted much”) they were struggling to make ends meet (“harvest little… earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (v. 6)). This was all the Lord’s doing as he explained in verses 9-10: “‘What you brought home, I blew away. Why?’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops.’” Through Haggai, then, the Lord taught his people to change their priorities and see worship as far more important by rebuilding the temple (v. 8).

Unlike the past, God’s people at this time received the message of the Lord’s prophet (v. 12). Their resolve to rebuild the temple and their obedience to that intention (v. 14) was met with the Lord’s favor: “I am with you” (v. 13b).

  • What struggles are you facing now?
  • Work problems or business struggles?
  • Rebellious children?
  • Strained friendships?
  • A too-tight budget at home?

Maybe you are struggling as part of the Lord’s will for you now to teach you patience and strengthen your faith.

But, have you considered that maybe the Lord is holding too low a priority in your life?

You’re working harder than ever but that leaves less time for prayer and Bible reading. You’re trying to spend more time with your kids but that means you’re choosing recreation over church attendance frequently.

Consider the possibility that the frustrations you face in your life might be the Lord’s discipline in your life and that this passage is calling you to reassess your priorities and put more attention into your walk with God.

Then, do what it takes to give the Lord his proper place. It may seem tough to find time to rebuild your walk with God but remember the Lord’s encouraging promise: “‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord.”

2 Kings 23, Zephaniah 3, Psalms 124-126

Read 2 Kings 23, Zephaniah 3, and Psalms 124-126.

This devotional is about Psalm 126.

As with many Psalms, we don’t know who the songwriter was or what the circumstances around its writing were. Because verse 1 says, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion” we know that some kind of calamity had come to Jerusalem and that this Psalm was written after that calamity was reversed. And whatever it was must have been major because even the nations were saying, “The Lord has done great things for them” (v. 2c-d). The Psalmist agreed (v. 3) and God’s kindness to them seemed too good to be true (v. 1b) and caused them to rejoice (v. 2a, 3b).

Still, there must have been more restoration needed because the second half of the Psalm calls for God to “restore our fortunes” (v. 4a) even though verse 1 said that the Lord had “restored the fortunes of Zion.”

Verse 5 continues by saying, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” That indicates that there was still work to be done. Perhaps literal sowing was meant; maybe the farms around the areas had been left uncultivated and much more work than usual would need to be done to make the land productive again. The promise of this Psalm is that sowing may be done in sorrow (v. 4a, 5a) but harvest time will bring joy and songs (v. 5b, 6c-d). Nobody likes to rebuild something that has been wiped out be it your farm, your personal finances, your career, your relationship with your family, or whatever.

Starting over brings sorrow because it reminds you of how much you lost and where you would be if calamity hadn’t struck. But if you allow sorrow to overtake you and you don’t sow, you will never know the joy of reaping.

The point of the Psalm is that you should do the hard work you don’t want to do so that you can reap the benefits that only hard work can bring.

This is a good definition of self-discipline which I heard someone else define as “Doing what you don’t want to do so that you can have something (or be someone) that you want.” But note that the Psalm puts this call to hard work and self-discipline in the context of faith in God. The Psalmist has already seen God do great things (vv. 1, 3). Now, by faith, he was calling on God to keep restoring their fortunes (v. 4) while they sowed in tears.

God the creator made the world so that sowing predictably and normally brings reaping. Those who work hard get rewarded. Calamities happen–crop failures, drought, war, etc.–but those are exceptional events. Usually the person who believes that hard work will be rewarded gets the rewards of hard work. That’s because God the creator made the world to respond to the faithful efforts of humanity.

Are you trying to rebuild something that fell apart–your marriage, your career, your retirement, or something else?

Does the sorrow of loss tempt you not to try anymore?

This Psalm calls you to have faith in God and put in the work even when you don’t feel like it.

Even if you’re crying while you do the work (v. 5), the work will matter. The ground doesn’t care if you sow in tears or in joy. It doesn’t respond any better or worse based on your mood; it responds to faithful effort!

So let this song encourage you to keep doing the work despite how you feel and to pray over your efforts by saying, “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev.”

1 Samuel 9, Ezekiel 20, Proverbs 20:1-15

Read 1 Samuel 9, Ezekiel 20, and Proverbs 20:1-15.

This devotional is about Proverbs 20:4: “Sluggards do not plow in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing.”

A sluggard is someone who is sluggish. It is a word that describes a person’s work habits, or, to be precise, his lack of work habits. A sluggard is lazy. He avoids work as much as possible and, when he does work, he moves at the slowest possible pace. When I was in college, I worked landscaping for two summers. We called one of the guys I worked with “two speed.” He never asked why we called him that, but we called him that because he had two speeds–slow and slower. He dragged his feet at everything, so working with him was a drag for the rest of us.

The book of Proverbs contains many sayings about sluggards. This one tells us that sluggards “do not plow in season.” Plowing was hard work. If you didn’t have a donkey to pull the plow, it was really hard work. But it had to be done so that you could plant and, later, reap. This proverb says that sluggards won’t “plow in season.” They avoid doing the hard work of breaking up the ground “in season,” meaning at the time when it should be done. Instead of starting early in the semester on a term paper, the sluggard does nothing. He waits until the night before the paper is due to get started. Or, if he’s in the workforce, the sluggard doesn’t follow up on customer calls or sales leads quickly. He doesn’t get to work when the work shows up. Instead, he shuffles papers, talks to colleagues, gets more coffee, writes another to do list, or does anything he can to appear working without actually doing the productive thing.

What is the consequence of being sluggish about one’s work? The last part of Proverbs 20:4 says, “…so at harvest time they look but find nothing.” For the lazy student, it is failing a class or not getting nearly as good a grade as the student could. For the lazy worker, it means missing promotions and raises or being the first to get laid off when the company needs to cut costs. The point is that the lazy person fails to get results. The lack of results are not because the sluggard lacked ability; instead, it is because he did not work when he could have worked. He avoided the hard work, so the results avoided him.

Are you a sluggard anywhere in your life? Are you dragging your feet, procrastinating on tasks that really need to be started or completed soon? A sluggard must live on the kindness of others, such as a boss who is too compassionate to fire him or a relative who can’t bear to let his family member get evicted, or become homeless, or accumulate debt to have food to eat and clothing to wear.

There is a type of sluggard that we Christians sometimes meet. That sluggard says, “The Lord will provide” or “I’m waiting on God” instead of working or seeking work or just putting basic effort into life. It sounds spiritual, but it is just a covering for laziness. There are times when we do have to wait on God because we’ve done everything we can. But, too often “waiting on God” is justification for doing nothing.

We do need God to provide. The anti-sluggard may plow diligently, plant and cultivate carefully, and still miss the harvest because of drought. Hard work usually pays off, but not always. There are circumstances that only God can control.

But from the very sixth day of creation, when God created man, his will was for humanity to work. God provides for us most often by us putting effort into our work. So, don’t procrastinate today. Don’t make excuses or avoid doing hard things.

In fact, if there is something you’ve been avoiding–a phone call you need to make, a problem you need to address, a client who has been waiting too long–do that first today and stick with it until it is done. That’s the way to become an anti-sluggard, a believer who lives a work-life that is pleasing to God.

Judges 1, Jeremiah 48, Romans 10

Read Judges 1, Jeremiah 47, and Romans 9.

This devotional is about Judges 1.

A repeated theme of Joshua and Judges is Israel taking the land of promise, but not completely. Their territory was larger sometimes and smaller at other times but Israel never occupied everything God promised them.

Why not?

Unbelief which led to inaction.

Here in Judges 1, Joshua was dead (v. 1a) and Israel was still procrastinating when it comes to taking their land. Judah followed God’s word in verses 1-21 and won some significant territory. But notice that they took Jerusalem at one point (v. 8) but then apparently lost it again (v. 21) and did not have it again until David took it many years later. Notice also the intriguing words of verse 19: “The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.” The Lord was with them… but they couldn’t dislodge the guys with iron chariots. Why not? Because God is no match for iron chariots? No; because Judah did not believe God would give them victory over people with iron chariots. The Lord was with them, but they were not courageous enough to believe that and follow through with obedience.

God’s people were willing to follow God to a point, but when it came to confronting their fear and moving out of their comfort zones, they stopped obeying God’s word, claiming God’s promises, and decided to be happy with less than all the land God had promised them.

This is already starting to feel like a “name it and claim it” devotional. I definitely disagree with that theology and don’t want to bend the principles in this passage too far.

But, think about what’s going on in this passage. God makes promises. God’s people believe and act on those promises and succeed until the challenge looks hard. Then they quit and settle for less than what God promised.

Do we ever do that? Hasn’t God promised to be with us to the end of the age as we go and make disciples (Matt 28:19-20)? Yes, he has. But how much effort do we put into making disciples?

Hasn’t God said that we are his “handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10)? Yes he has. But how much effort do we put into growing in grace, pushing out into new areas of ministry that might be uncomfortable for us?

What about in your work? Doesn’t God’s word say that, “All hard work brings a profit” (v. 23a)? Doesn’t it tell us to diversify what we do and try different things in order to find what will succeed (Ecc 11:6)? But are you stuck in a job that isn’t providing enough for your family because you feel comfortable and safe there?

How about when it comes to giving? Doesn’t the New Testament encourage generous giving to see God provide: 2 Corinthians 9:6-8: “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” God’s word does encourage generous giving so that you can see God provide. But are you giving to his work sparingly or not at all?

Again, the New Testament doesn’t teach us that God wants us all to be rich or that we can have whatever we want in Jesus’s name if we just name it and claim it. But it does tell us that God will be with us and will bless things that we do for his glory. It may not be easy–iron chariots are nothing to sneeze at–but are we settling for less than God would give us if we stepped out of our comfort zone in faith and tried some things for his glory?

Joshua 5:1-6:5, Jeremiah 30-31, 2 Corinthians 12

Read Joshua 5:1-6:5, Jeremiah 30-31, and 2 Corinthians 12.

This devotional is about Joshua 5:1-6:5.

For decades God had provided manna for his people to eat in the desert. For most of the people in that generation, God’s provision was all they knew. Six days a week manna was waiting for them in the morning; on the sixth day, they gathered enough to feed them for the Sabbath as well. I wonder if it ever occurred to the younger adults in Israel that the manna would stop some day? Or, if they did ever think about that, if they thought it would continue until they had conquered some territory and were settled?

Regardless of what they expected, the manna stopped when they entered the promised land. They ate a Passover meal and the manna was no more (v. 12).

Yet God was not done caring for his people. The crazy instructions that the Lord gave to Joshua about how to conquer Jericho is proof of that. Instead of laying siege to this fortified city or doing a frontal assault, God just told them to march around it.

Day after day for one whole week, they played ring-around-the-rosies with Jericho. On day 7, they did that seven times and, boom, the walls of the city sang “we all fall down.” This strategy was designed to show Israel that God was in control of their conquest and that their victories were due to him fighting on their behalf. There would be more traditional battles in the future, ones where God’s people would use conventional weapons and warfare to take cities. But this conquest of Jericho was to show them that it was God’s might, God’s power, God’s promises that would give them the land, not their military prowess.

Isn’t the Christian life just this way? We look for God to provide for us and make it easy. Sometimes he does that to show us that he is with us. But, more often, God calls us to trust his promises and cultivate the land ourselves. God commands us to claim his power but show it by doing battle with our will, our sin nature. We get deeply disappointed with God for not causing holiness to descend into our lives like manna. We are thankful when he gives victory in our lives one day, but then calls us to do battle ourselves in faith that he is fighting with us and for us.

Israel’s failure to get everything God promised them was a failure of faith. Instead of learning the lessons of the manna and Jericho and boldly taking the rest of the land, God’s people became too satisfied too soon.

Don’t allow a complacent attitude to keep you from striving, from growing strong in Christ. Although this passage has to do with miraculous food and miraculous military victory, God works in the same way in all domains in life. Trust that the God who provided for Israel miraculously until they could reap his provision providentially will provide providentially for you, too, if you work at your life in faith. Trust that he’ll be there to provide supernaturally when you need him to, but that he’s already providing what you need through his divine providence. Claim all this by faith and do the hard work of daily Bible study, daily prayer, daily fighting the sinful impulses of the flesh, daily working hard at your profession and your relationships.

Deuteronomy 25, Jeremiah 17, 2 Corinthians 3

Read Deuteronomy 25, Jeremiah 17, 2 Corinthians 3.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 25.

This chapter from God’s law is about justice and injustice. It begins in verses 1-3 by describing how disputes would be handled in Israel. They would be heard by judges would be charged with “acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.” Verses 2-3 describe the punishment that the guilty should receive if the judge feels it is appropriate (v. 2a).

Verse 4 commands the farmer to treat his ox with justice. As the ox works for the farmer, he creates value through his threshing work. It would be unjust to deny him food while he works, so the law prohibits the farmer from muzzling him.

Verses 5-10 are strange to us but we need to remember how important the land was to God’s people. Due to war, farm accidents, and other factors, men tend to die before their wives. If a woman were to continue living, she would need to remarry as she would need a man’s work to provide for her. But if she did remarry, her husband’s family line would not continue and they would lose their family land. Over time, the tribes of Israel would start to look very different. To prevent that, God commanded a man’s brother to marry his widow so that she would be provided for, his land would remain in his family, and his family name would continue (v. 6). But some brothers would not want to fulfill this responsibility to a sister-in-law. If a man refused to obey the commands in this chapter, he was denying justice to his sister-in-law and hurting his own family. This passage specifies embarrassing social consequences to the man who refused to continue his brother’s family (vv. 9-10).

Verses 11-12 were designed to protect a man’s ability to continue his family line. Though you could see how a woman might want to protect her husband from having the tar beat out of him, it was unjust to damage his family so an equally damaging consequence was prescribed for a woman who did this.

Verses 13-16 command God’s people not to be unjust in their commercial dealings with each other. Each person was to pay a fair price for what he bought. The “differing weights” were designed to deceive the buyer and the  Bible her says that “the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly” (v. 16). People who make tax policy in this country should read and consider this passage. It is fundamentally unjust to require one person to pay more than another person does (v. 16).

Finally, God commanded his people to treat the Amalekites with justice for attacking Israel when they were defenseless as they left Egypt (vv. 17-18).

While some of the things specified in this chapter seem arbitrary and petty, they emphasize to God’s people that God is just. It is part of his fundamental nature and, as his people, we it should become important to us to treat others fairly, with justice.

So, how about it? Are there some people in your life who are getting less than what they deserve from you? If you have power over someone’s life in some way, do you treat that person with justice?

Numbers 32, Isaiah 55, 2 Thessalonians 3

Read Numbers 32, Isaiah 55, and 2 Thessalonians 3.

This devotional is about 2 Thessalonians 3.

When I was growing up my pastor used to frequently say, “Some people are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthy good.” That might be an apt description of the Thessalonians. The things Paul wrote about in 1 & 2 Thessalonians indicate a church that was focused on end time events–the coming of Christ, the arrival of the man of lawlessness, and the final judgement on earth were all topics Paul discussed in these letters.

Here in chapter 3, however, he urged them to pray for the spread of the gospel through his work (vv. 1-2). While it is good to be looking for the Lord’s coming, Christ has charged us with work to do here until he comes–namely reaching people for Christ and discipling them to obey him. Paul was more than willing to teach about the end times, but he wanted the churches to remain faithful in prayer for the gospel to keep growing.

In the meantime, it is possible that some of the believers in Thessalonica had quit working and were living on charitable giving from other members of their church (vv. 11-12). This might be because they were so convinced that Christ would return any moment that they lost motivation to work. Or, perhaps that was unrelated to their interest in eschatology. Regardless of the reason, Paul must have heard that there were loafers in the congregation. He wrote this chapter, therefore, to remind them of his own example and teaching when he was in Thessalonica (vv. 7-10), to instruct the unproductive people to get to work (v. 12), and for the obedient people in the church to be wary of the disobedient and unproductive members (vv. 6, 14-15).

These strong statements remind us that the Christian life is more than words; it is truth lived out in a holy and productive life. God created us to care for and make productive use of the earth. Now that, in Christ, we are seeking to be obedient to the Lord, we must realize that living a productive life is part of God’s will for us. These passages apply to those who are “unwilling to work” (v. 10), not those who are unable to work. Other passages of scripture show us that homemakers are living productively, so this doesn’t mean everyone must be in the secular workforce. Still, there are some believers today who could work or do something productive who instead are “idle” (v. 6) and even “busybodies” (v. 11). This chapter calls all of us to put our faith into practice by providing for ourselves and our families.

I think it goes further, too, and reminds us of our need to be good managers of what God allows us to produce. So many Americans are building mountains of debt and are one financial setback away from dependency.

Are you working productively? Keep it up. Are you living below your means and preparing for the future? That’s what God wants us to do, too.

Exodus 28, Ecclesiastes 4, Psalms 33-35

Read Exodus 28, Ecclesiastes 4, and Psalms 33-35.

This devotional is about Ecclesiastes 4.

This chapter of scripture is not encouraging.

That is an understatement.

This chapter of scripture is bleak. It states in verse 1 that powerful people in this world used their power to oppress the weak and vulnerable. These victims “have no comforter.” Their lives are a miserable stretch of existence. From birth to grave, each day and night, they do what more powerful people want them to do and live in fear. What kind of fear?

  • fear of displeasing those powerful people
  • fear of more invasive abuse from the powerful
  • fear of starving, unable to provide a living for themselves because their abusers take so much from them

Although Solomon did not tell us how many were oppressed and how many were oppressors, the chapter may suggest that the vast majority were oppressed by a small minority. The way the chapter suggests this is in the words of verses 2-3. Those verses rank the happiest people from least happiest to most happy. The categories of people Solomon discussed were broad–the dead, the living, and the unborn. Those three broad groups include a whole lot of people. So who is the happiest?

  • The living are the least happy because they are oppressed (v. 1, 2c-d).
  • The dead are the next most happy because they are no longer oppressed (v. 2 a-b).
  • But the happiest people of all are people who never lived at all (v. 3). Why? Because they have “not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Bleak, right? According to Solomon, you are better off dead. But, you’re best off if you never made it out of the womb alive in the first place because then no one could use and abuse you.

Of course, not everyone is enslaved by others. Some people go out and achieve, making all their dreams come true. They must be happy, right?

No, Solomon argued, because “all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another” (v. 4). Envy is a desire to have what someone else has. That can make you work hard but you won’t enjoy achievements because your envy will move on to someone higher on the achievement ladder. If you could just enjoy the living you make, modest though it is (v. 6a), you’d be better off than a wealthier person who is does nothing but work, driven by envy.

Even a person who had no wife, no siblings, and no children isn’t happy (v. 8). Solomon thought that a single, solitary man should be happy because he only has to provide for himself. He can work hard enough to get what he wants and then spend it all on himself with no guilt. A single man who makes $30,000 per year may be able to buy more pleasure than a man who makes $90,000 but supports a wife, five kids, a dog, and a deadbeat brother.

Seems logical; but it doesn’t work out that way. The single guy with no dependents still works really hard. “There was no end to his toil” (v. 8c) says but “his eyes were not content with his wealth” (v. 8d). He, too, was sucked into envy, unable to enjoy his life because he needed to prove to someone that he matters.

I told you this was bleak.

But all is not lost. The solution to this partnership. Verses 9-12 commends a partnership of two (v. 9) or even three (v. 12c). Partners who work together instead of envying one another can:

  • produce more as a unit and they could on their own (v. 9b)
  • give each other some time off when they are injured or sick or just tired (v. 10)
  • keep each other company (v. 11)
  • protect each other (v. 12).

So the man who makes $90k and has to split it up with others is happier than the single guy who makes $30k and can do whatever he wants with it. In fact, if the single guy made $90k or even $900k, the man with partners is happier because of the benefits that partners bring.

When God created Adam, he made the most capable man who ever lived–apart from Jesus Christ, of course. Adam, while he was still an unfallen person, had a greater mind and better body than any of us because he wasn’t afflicted by the curse of sin.

Yet God said it wasn’t good for him to be alone. He gave him a partner–even knowing that his partner’s (aka, Eve’s) weakness would lead him into sin. Having a life partner in your spouse or a business partner in your vocation can help you escape the hopeless life that the oppressed live. Even if you are oppressed, at least you have someone to keep you warm at night (v. 11).

Solomon was a powerful man who oppressed others. He taxed the nation so thoroughly for his own projects, pleasures, and luxuries that the people begged his son to lay off and then they revolted against him when he wouldn’t.

But Solomon seems to have been a lonely man, despite his wealth and power over others. If you have 1000 women in your life, can any one of them truly be your partner?

People can be the source of your greatest problems in life. They can make promises that they fail to keep or even intentionally break. They can see you as a rival when they should see you as an ally. If you have enough people-problems, you may be tempted to decide that isolation is better.

This chapter advises us to partner up. Share life generously with your partner–your spouse, your children, your business partner(s), your teammates. The benefits of companionship will outweigh the “freedom” that being alone promises. God created us to be teammates and the life he gave us is best enjoyed when it is shared.

If you have a partnership–a marriage and family, a business partnership, a ministry partnership, etc.–are you a good partner? Are you thankful for the benefits that partnership brings you or do you selfishly wish you had all the control and all the benefits to yourself?

If your partnership is broken, the answer isn’t to go off on your own; it is to become and build a true partnership rather than a rivalry based on envy.

Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, Matthew 12

Read Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, and Matthew 12 today. This devotional is about Matthew 12.

God’s intention for the Sabbath was that man would take a day off from the way that he normally makes his living. It was to be a day of rest and a day to reflect on God, our Creator. So farmers would not plant, weed, water, reap, or do any of the normal activities that farmers do Sunday through Friday. The same was commanded for their wives and children and servants; everybody was supposed to get a break from their normal daily schedule.

This law was clear enough that it could be applied easily to most situations. Don’t farm your land, or fix your equipment, or type up those invoices, or make a fancy meal, or clean the house, or do the laundry. It was a day to rest, not to catch up on chores–work or personal. Do what needs to be done but keep it simple so you get a break and feel rested for a change. That’s the idea.

The problem with broadly-applicable commands is that it is not always clear how they should be applied. Obeying the command, “Do not work on the Sabbath” depends on how you define “work.” Is it work to make your bed? Tie your shoes? If you were a milkman who delivered milk by walking from house to house, that would clearly be forbidden on the Sabbath. But what if the milkman’s wife wanted to go for a long walk for recreation? Is that forbidden? The Pharisees hated ambiguity so they wanted every possible application of every law spelled out clearly. They specified how far someone could walk on the Sabbath to keep the milkman or his wife from doing “work” accidentally. This is one aspect of legalism.

Speaking of legalism, what exactly is it? It is a term that can be applied to at least two kinds of situations: First, anyone who thinks they can do good works to merit favor with God is a legalist. Second, anyone who thinks that his or her application of the Bible has the authority of the Bible itself is a legalist.

The Pharisees were legalists in both senses. They believed that their obedience to the law gave them favor with God. They also believed that they ways in which they applied God’s laws were as authoritative and binding as the law itself. That’s what’s going on here in Matthew 12:1-2. The disciples were not farmers. They were not working to earn a living by reaping. Instead they were getting a snack from someone else’s farmland. Taking small amounts of food from someone’s farm was allowed in God’s Law, so the Pharisees did not accuse the disciples of stealing. Instead, they accused them of working on the Sabbath. Because they applied the Sabbath law to any kind of reaping at all, they concluded that the disciples were doing what was “unlawful on the Sabbath” (v. 2b).

Elsewhere in the gospels we learn that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for distorting God’s intentions. The Sabbath law was supposed to be a blessing from God, not a burden. It was God imposed a day off on everyone so that everyone could enjoy life for at least one day a week. By denying the right to snack on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were making the Sabbath something unpleasant instead of enjoyable. Their legalism was not an obedience that pleased God, it was a burden that robbed people of the joy he wanted them to have.

Here in Matthew 12, however, Matthew records a different emphasis of Jesus regarding Sabbath violations. Jesus pointed out ways in which people broke the law technically but they did so in a way that upheld the law’s intention. The first example Jesus cited was from David (vv. 3-4). He and his warrior-companions ate the temple show bread which was against the law, yet they were not condemned. The reason was that they were servants of God doing God’s work, just like the priests were. So, technically they broke the law but by taking and eating the bread, they were being served by the law’s intention–to provide for God’s servants. Likewise, the priests on the Sabbath were technically in a no-win situation. The temple duties allowed no Sabbath breaks for the priests but the priests made their living being priests. So, they were not allowed to let the temple activities lapse even for a day, but that required them to do the normal work of priests–a technical violation of the law. Yet Jesus said that “they are innocent” (v. 5b). Then Christ took things further; not only were the disciples not guilty of breaking the Sabbath by picking up a snack, Christ himself asserted the right to rule or overrule anything regarding the Sabbath because he was “Lord of the Sabbath.” He then pressed the issue further by healing a man deliberately on the Sabbath day to show his lordship over it (vv. 9-14).

The Pharisees’ zeal about the Sabbath wasn’t really about obedience to God; it was about control. They wanted to define everything so that there was complete uniformity; no ambiguity or exceptions were allowed. They could, then, define who was right with God and who wasn’t based on how well or how poorly everyone kept the rules.

Unfortunately, we sometimes do the same things. The “good guys” never wear denim on Sunday, or use the right translation of the Bible, or only buy American, or never listen to music that has a beat to it. But these (and other) rules are at best only applications of Biblical principles, not Biblical truths themselves. The Bible teaches us to accept each other in areas where there are genuine disagreements about application (Rom 15:7). You should never use someone else’s actions to justify doing something that your conscience bothers you about. And, if you are truly concerned for someone else’s spiritual life, I think it is good to humbly approach them to talk about how they are or are not applying a scriptural command. But let’s be careful not to judge and condemn each other based on our own man-made rules. Instead, each of us should submit ourselves and our actions to the Lord of everything–including the Sabbath–and do what we think is right in his sight based on the clear teachings of scripture.