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The Sabbath Blog

The Spirit and the Letter

The Spirit and the Letter
When Jesus and the disciples passed through a grain field one Sabbath, the disciples paused and rubbed some heads of grain in their hands and ate them. Immediately, the Pharisees accused Christ, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” (Luke 6:2). These religious leaders claimed that Jesus broke the law. But which law do you think He disobeyed?

In an online article titled, “When to Go Rogue: What Jesus Says about Saving Life and Breaking Rules,” Erin Wathen indirectly suggests Christ broke the fourth commandment. She believes He was upholding the “spirit of the law,” which “is not about what day it is, or what counts as work and what doesn’t. … No matter what the law says, the word on the page is never more important than the person in front of you.”

But does Luke 6:2 teach that we must at times set aside the law because it contradicts a higher law of loving others? “Laws have their place in our lives, but ultimately,” Wathen says, “you have to be in the moment, and root your actions in love. You have to ask if keeping the law, in this moment, will give life—or take it away.

This “either-or” approach is a false dilemma. There is another option which more accurately interprets Jesus’ response. Rather than suggest that there are times that we must live outside of God’s law, this story shows that Christ refused to live according to the laws of humans that contradicted the commandments.

It was not the Sabbath command that Jesus ignored, but a law created by the Jewish teachers. Christ always kept God’s law. (See Matthew 5:17.) Properly interpreted (and kept), God’s law is based on love and shows concern for others. (See Matthew 22:37–40.)

This story found in Luke chapter 6 does not present a false dichotomy that we must either keep the letter of the law or the spirit of the law, for Jesus upheld both. The real problem was stated by Christ when He warned the scribes and Pharisees, “Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (Matthew 15:6).

What type of work is allowed on the Sabbath? Get a Bible answer here.