Teaching series from Luke

Conflict With Religious Leaders

Luke 5:33-6:11

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Last week we saw that even from the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus attracted the scrutiny and criticism of Jewish religious leaders.  This conflict quickly escalated to the point that the religious leaders decided that Jesus had to be eliminated (6:11). 

What was the reason for this implacable disagreement?  On one level, Jesus and the religious leaders had much in common (monotheism; Old Testament as God’s Word; Jewish heritage).  But they were worlds apart on two crucial issues:

Their view of godliness emphasized separation from “sinners”—but Jesus insisted that the heart of godliness focuses on reaching out to such people and inviting them to be forgiven and reconciled to God.  This is what we covered last week.

A separate but related disagreement was Jesus’ non-compliance with their religious regulations, and the authority he claims for his non-compliance.  That’s the focus of this week’s passage.  Let’s look at the three incidents in this conflict, noting how they escalate and Jesus’ authority claims.  Then we’ll distill some lessons...

3 Conflicts

In the first conflict, the religious leaders merely lodge a complaint (read 5:33).  The issue is the role that fasting should play in relating to God.  The Old Testament required only one fast a year, on the Day of Atonement.  It also described fasting as appropriate when God’s people were mourning or praying for deliverance.  By this time John the Baptist had been imprisoned and was facing possible execution, so it makes sense that his disciples were fasting as they mourned his arrest and prayed for his deliverance.  But the Pharisees required fasting twice a week, and saw fasting as a key feature of personal piety.  That’s why they were aghast that Jesus wasn’t emphasizing this with his disciples.  Jesus gives two reasons for this:

Read 5:34,35.  Here is Jesus’ answer to why his disciples don’t fast like John’s disciples.  It is inappropriate for wedding guests to fast at a wedding, because this is an occasion to celebrate.  So also it is inappropriate for Jesus’ disciples to fast in his presence, because his coming should be celebrated.  Jesus’ reference to himself as the bridegroom is a messianic image (Isa.61:10).  But when Jesus “is taken away” (a term that breaks the analogy and implies violence—the first reference to his crucifixion), then it will be appropriate for his disciples to fast and mourn.

Read 5:36-39.  Here is Jesus’ answer to why his disciples don’t fast like the Pharisees, a and this answer takes the discussion to a whole other level.  Both parables emphasize how inappropriate it is to mix the new with the old.  In context, Jesus is claiming that his coming inaugurates a new phase of God’s plan, and this new plan supersedes the old plan.  “I haven’t come as one more rabbi to reform your ritualistic way of relating to God; I have come as the Messiah to inaugurate a whole new way to relate to God.”  The Old Testament called this new plan the New Covenant, and it involved experiencing a life-changing relationship with God by being indwelt by his Spirit and the assurance of complete forgiveness (Jer.34; Ezek.36).

In the second conflict, the Pharisees level a more serious charge.  Read 6:1,2.  To be convicted of teaching people to violate the Sabbath was a potentially capital crime.  The Old Testament law forbade God’s people from working on the Sabbath, so they could rest and as a testimony to the surrounding nations that God provided for his people’s needs.  The same law expressly permitted Israelites to hand-pick and eat grain from their fellow-Israelites’ fields (but not sickle it!) to encourage sharing and care for the poor (Deut.23:25).  But the Pharisees, obsessed with observing the Sabbath “correctly,” declared 39 kinds of activity that were “work” and therefore illegal on the Sabbath.  According to their religious traditions, the disciples were guilty of four different Sabbath violations—reaping, threshing, winnowing and preparing food.1

Jesus’ answer is fascinating.  Read 6:3,4.  He could have just said that the Old Testament law didn’t define “work” as strictly as they did. But instead, he cited an Old Testament event that was parallel to this situation.  When David and his men were fleeing from Saul, David used consecrated bread (to be used by the priests only for the worship of God) to feed his famished men—and this action was not condemned by God.  Jesus’ point was that even in the Old Testament (which mandated many rituals), meeting human need took priority over ritual observance.

This answer also subtly emphasizes Jesus’ authority.  David was Israel’s king, and God promised that he would be the ancestor of Israel’s ultimate King, the Messiah.  Jesus is saying, “If David had the authority to interpret Old Testament law, how much more do I—King Messiah—have this same authority?”  He makes this crystal clear in 6:5 (read).  “The Son of Man” is an Old Testament title for the Messiah (Dan.7:13).  By saying that he is “Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus is claiming deity, since it was God who instituted the Sabbath laws!

In the third conflict, the scribes and Pharisees are looking for the opportunity to indict Jesus.  Read 6:6,7.  The Pharisees insisted that healing non-critical illnesses was “work” and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.  Knowing that Jesus healed people, they may have persuaded this man to come to the synagogue where Jesus was teaching so they could charge him as a false teacher who led God’s people into Sabbath-breaking.  They think they have put Jesus on the spot.

Jesus took up the challenge—read 6:8-10.  His question highlights the intent of the Old Testament Sabbath law.  Does it really forbid doing good to someone on the Sabbath, or is it the Pharisees’ perversion of the Sabbath law that forbids this?  By healing the crippled man, Jesus gives evidence that he is the Messiah (Isa.35:6 says the Messiah would heal the lame) and condemns the Pharisees’ tradition as evil.  All of a sudden, they are on the spot!

Instead of humbly re-evaluating their position, the Pharisees are enraged.  They began at this point to plot how they could liquidate Jesus (cf. Mk.3:6 – conspiring with their political enemies the Herodians to do this).

So in a very short time, Jesus becomes Public Enemy #1 of the religious leaders.  They decided that he was a dangerous false teacher who used demonic powers to lead the people astray from God.  From now on, they work to gather enough evidence to indict him.  Now let’s talk about some of the lessons we can learn from this passage.

3 Lessons

The most obvious lesson is that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah—the One predicted by the Old Testament prophets as God-incarnate, the sole rightful Ruler of all humanity.

He is the Bridegroom (5:34,35; cf. Isa.61:10).  He inaugurates a whole new way of relating to God (5:36-38; cf. Jer. 34; Ezek.36).  He is greater than David, who was a type of King Messiah (6:3,4; cf. 2Sam. 7).  He is Lord of the Sabbath (God gave the Sabbath commandment).  He heals the lame (6:10; cf. Isa.35:6).  Jesus’ consistent response to their criticisms was: “I am not under your authority because I the Messiah—deal with it!”

You may think that the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ claim was irrational—and it was.  But at least they respected Jesus enough to take his claim seriously.  It is even more irrational and disrespectful to say that Jesus never really claimed this.  Yet that is how most people respond to Jesus today.  So-called scholars help people rationalize this response by claiming that the New Testament gospels have created a Jesus that never existed—but this is demonstrably false.  The New Testament gospels are the earliest records of Jesus’ teaching, they were based on eye-witnesses, and these eye-witnesses were persecuted and killed for their insistence that Jesus is Lord.  We can be more sure that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah than we can be of almost any ancient historical event!

What will you do with Jesus’ claim?  He claims to be your rightful leader, deserving of your worship and ultimate obedience.  He claims that if you are not for him (by bowing to him as the Messiah), you are against him.  He claims that your eternal destiny depends on responding positively to his claim.  If you haven’t yet surrendered to Jesus as your Lord, why haven’t you?  People often say they don’t have a enough evidence, but in my experience that’s usually not the real reason.  It is often because of the second and third lessons...

The second lesson is that following Jesus has nothing to do with being an uptight, self-righteous religionist.  Thanks to the American church, this is what most people think following Jesus involves—and that’s why they want nothing to do with it. 

But you can’t read this passage without realizing that Jesus hated this approach to God.  No one has ever criticized uptight, self-righteous religion like Jesus did!  He literally died because of his implacable opposition to this mentality.  As we saw last week, he deplored their smug self-righteousness that wrote off irreligious people.  He loved being around those people and invited them to be his disciples.  In this passage, he insists that real spirituality is not about rituals and picky religious rules—it is all about experiencing God’s life-changing love and forgiveness—and extending God’s love and forgiveness to others.

I may naïve, but I think that lots of people would be into following Jesus if they could only hear about the real Jesus and see him through his followers.  I know that was the case with me.  I had no use for Jesus because I hated the uptight, ritualistic religion that cited him as their Founder.  But when I met people who were filled with life and love, and when I heard them explain that following Jesus was responsible for their life and love—this made a huge difference.  What about you?  Now that you know that Jesus claimed to be your Messiah, and that he wants to lead you into this kind of life, why not give your heart to him?  What would hold you back from doing this?  It may be the third lesson...

The third lesson is that we should beware “comfortable conservatism” (5:39).  By “conservatism,” I’m not referring to a political position.  I’m referring to the desire to resist change and preserve the status quo because it is familiar and comfortable to you.  We often see this with older people concerning foods, activities, etc.—and call it being “set in their ways.”  But Jesus is warning about a far more dangerous kind of conservatism—one that resists personal spiritual change.  This is spiritually fatal if it leads you to decline the opportunity to become part of God’s kingdom by bowing to Jesus as your Messiah.

Why were these religious leaders reacting against Jesus?  It certainly wasn’t because he gave no evidence that he was the Messiah—he fulfilled prophecies they said they believed in, and he backed up his claims with miracles they witnessed.  Nor was it because he was harming people—his miracles were all redemptive.  No, they reacted against him because admitting that he was the Messiah would mean change—changing the way they related to God, and changing what they taught, changing the way others viewed them, etc.  They were familiar and comfortable with their roles and lives; they liked the “old wine.”  Because of their commitment to comfortable conservatism, they viewed Jesus as a threat to be eliminated.  But they couldn’t ultimately destroy Jesus; they only forfeited the opportunity to experience the new spiritual life he offered.

This is why life-long religious people are often the most difficult to bring to Christ.  The more religiously observant people have been, the more threatened they often are by the offer of new life by simply receiving Christ.  They are so familiar with their religious observances, and they have so much invested in them, that it is humbling and threatening to admit that this change is needed. 

But this tendency is not only among the religious.  It is one reason why the older people get, the less likely they are (statistically) to receive Christ.  (The vast majority of people who receive Christ do so by the age of 17; after that the decisions drop off consistently.)  Is this because young people are more naïve—or is it because the older people get, the more comfortably conservative they tend to get?

If you receive Christ, your life will change—but the change will be worth it!  Yes, Jesus is asking you to hand over the control of your life to him—but he knows the way forward and he’ll be with you every step of the way.  Don’t let your desire to resist change cost you the opportunity of your life.  Open your heart up to him, ask him to come live within you and give you this new life.  You will never regret this decision!  Who can share about struggling with “comfortable conservatism,” how you overcame it, and why you’re glad?

1 See Darrel L. Bock, The NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p.171