Conflict and Clarity
Passage: Luke 5:33–6:11
Conflict and Clarity
As you heard in our reading, the passage before us is composed of three stories, and those stories are tied together by a common thread – conflict. Three times, Jesus runs into question, typically from the religious leaders, and each time, there is trouble, even opposition. The religious leaders especially want to undermine Jesus, and as the passage progresses, it becomes clear that they are increasingly hostile to Jesus. Did you notice that as we read? With each scene, the conflict gets worse. The religious leaders get more hostile. First, there is a question about fasting, which seems simple enough. Next, the religious leaders come with an objection about the Sabbath, which is part of the Ten Commandments. The stakes are getting higher. Then comes another Sabbath complaint, but this time, the encounter ends plotting what they must do to Jesus. You don’t have to read far between the lines to sense their hostility, do you? By the end of the passage, the religious leaders will do anything in their power to stop this man. It’s only chapter 6, but already, the cross is firmly in view. Jesus’ mission will lead him to lay down his life, and shockingly, it will be the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people who lead the cries for his death.
Now, as readers, the question we face today is this – Why does Luke include these conflict stories together in his Gospel account? What purpose does this opposition serve? Think about what conflict does. Conflict is hard to endure, but it can also be clarifying. It can sharpen or define what’s true. And that is the case here in Luke’s Gospel. These conflicts clarify the truth about Jesus. With each moment of opposition, the picture of Jesus’ identity becomes sharper. The edges stand out in greater relief, and the truth comes into clearer focus. And that’s the point of this passage. Luke groups these conflicts together in order to give us a clearer picture of Jesus’ identity, as well as what he came to do.
That’s how we need to proceed today. Remember that every sermon is our humble attempt to take God’s Word on its own terms. We don’t get to decide what truth we hear or even how we hear it. Preaching is taking God’s Word on God’s terms in order to give God’s truth to God’s people. The shape of the passage provides the shape of the message. And here in Luke’s Gospel, the three conflicts mean there are three pictures of Jesus’ identity that deserve our attention. Each picture adds something different, but taken together, they provide greater definition of the truth. Let’s consider each picture together.
Jesus is the Bridegroom of Joy
The first picture comes in vv33-39 of chapter 5 – Jesus is the Bridegroom of Joy. Sometime after Jesus attended Levi’s party, a group approaches Jesus with a question about fasting. Now, technically, the religious leaders are not named in v33, but the context would indicate they are involved, perhaps instigating in the background. Notice again v33 – “And they said to him, ‘The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.’” Fasting, you know, is purposefully abstaining from something, most often food, in order to focus your heart and mind on something greater. And even for Christians today, fasting remains a legitimate expression of religious devotion.
But in Jesus’ day, fasting was not simply a religious expression. Fasting was very much at the core of Jewish religious life. It was an expression of anticipation. It could be anticipation of God renewing his people, or it could be anticipation of your own personal renewal before God. Whatever the specifics, fasting revealed your longing for something greater. And that longing added a somber note to fasting. Something is missing, something is off, and almost like mourners, we are waiting for that something to come.
This question in v33 is not a small thing. Compared to the other religious groups of the day, Jesus’ disciples, who eat and drink, seem less than devout, which is of course really an accusation against Jesus. If Jesus’ disciples are less than serious, what does that say about their Teacher? That’s the suggestion in v33.
But Jesus’ response in v34 makes clear that the question misunderstands both the times and Jesus’ identity. Notice what Jesus says, v34 – “And Jesus said to them, ‘Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?’” Now, most of us have been to a wedding reception, right? Would you ever sit somberly in the corner of a wedding reception, not eating the cake, not participating in the toast? Of course not! A wedding reception is a time to celebrate. The bride and groom are there, enjoying their newly formed life together, the guests are rejoicing with them – it would be completely out of place to fast. And that is Jesus’ point. When you’re with the bridegroom, you rejoice. His joy is your joy. At least on the surface, it’s a simple analogy from Jesus. “You’ve misunderstood the times,” Jesus says. “You’re acting like it’s a funeral when it really a wedding reception.”
But at the same time this simple analogy is also making a significant claim. Jesus doesn’t get this analogy out of thin air. He actually takes it from Scripture, from the OT. And when you look at how the OT uses this image of a bridegroom, it becomes clear Jesus is talking about more than fasting. Listen to these examples, and as I read these passages, notice who the bridegroom is:
Isaiah 54.5, the prophet says to Israel – “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” Or Isaiah 62.5 – “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Or Hosea 2.16, God says to Israel – “in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband.’” You can hear the connection, can’t you? In the OT, this image of a bridegroom was often used to describe God’s connection with Israel. In fact, in Ezekiel 16, the image is used very powerfully to picture what will happen when God acts to restore his wayward people. And that’s the key.. To speak of the bridegroom in Jesus’ day was to anticipate the coming of the Messiah, the time when God himself would act to restore his people.
Back to v34 here in Luke 5. When Jesus says these people misunderstand the times, he’s also saying they misunderstand him! Jesus is the Bridegroom, the Messiah, One who will restore the people of God. And just as you shouldn’t fast at a wedding reception, so also you shouldn’t fast when the Messiah is standing in front of your eyes. Right now is the time for joy because God is acting to keep his promises, and God is acting in Jesus. It is Jesus’ presence that makes all the difference here. Because of Jesus, the times have changed. Because of Jesus, even the age-old practices of Judaism have to be re-examined and understood afresh.
But Jesus is not finished.. To make his point even clearer, Jesus reinforces the centrality of his presence. Look at v35, and catch how Jesus makes all the difference, v35 – “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Now, this is really helpful. Jesus is not opposed to fasting. There is a day coming when he will be taken away, and then his disciples will fast. That’s a reference to the end of Jesus’ ministry, when he returns to the Father. But now is not that time. Right now, the Bridegroom is here, and that means Jesus’ disciples rejoice rather than mourn.
And again, that’s the crux of the matter. The issue here really isn’t about fasting. It’s about recognizing Jesus for who he is. If Jesus is just another teacher like the Pharisees or even like John the Baptist, then sure – his disciples should fast. But the reality is that Jesus is not just another teacher. He’s the Bridegroom, and his presence means now is a time to rejoice.
Now, as you might guess, this changes things, both for Judaism and for the Pharisees. And that’s exactly what Jesus goes on to say in v36. He tells a parable that captures what is at the heart of this opposition. Notice Jesus’ parable, vv36-37 – “He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.” Two parables that make the same point – the old and the new cannot be mixed together. If you put a new patch on an old shirt, you ruin the new, and the old shirt just looks weird. Or, if you put new wine in old, brittle wineskins, you burst the skins and ruin the wine. Again, it doesn’t work. New wine requires new wineskins, as Jesus says in v38.
And that’s why the religious leaders struggle with Jesus. They’re trying to put new wine, Jesus, in old wineskins, Judaism. But they don’t go together. To put it very bluntly, you cannot demand that Jesus fit the practices of Judaism. The old covenant is coming to an end, Jesus is saying, and the new covenant is being inaugurated. And that means you can’t insist on the old covenant and expect to be in on what God is doing in Jesus.
Now, if you know the rest of the story, then you know the Jewish religious leaders don’t like this, as Jesus anticipates in v39. They prefer the old wine, Jesus says, they don’t have a taste for the new. But for us today, Jesus’ point should still get our attention and perhaps remind us of something central. The way to know God is not found in merely external religious practices, like fasting or ritual prayers. Those things may be good, and they even have a purpose at particular times. But those practices, even when rightly followed, cannot bring us to God. Only Jesus can do that, for only Jesus is the Bridegroom.
And I want to press this home a bit, brothers and sisters. It’s easy to shake our heads at the dim-witted Pharisees, but when it comes to religious practices, we can easily make the same mistake. “I’m a Christian because I don’t do this or I always do that.” And while those religious practices may be good, they are no substitute for the atoning blood of Jesus. In fact, if you say you’re a Christian because you don’t do this or you always do that, then Jesus would say you’re missing the point. There is no replacement for faith in the Son of God, who alone opens the way into the Father’s presence. Whether its fasting or prayer or some other act of devotion, we need to be careful to keep such things in their rightful place. That’s the exhortation for us, brothers and sisters. Let’s always be mindful of why we enjoy the blessings of the New Covenant. It’s not because of our piety, but because of Jesus’ identity. He’s the Bridegroom, and we have joy with the Father because of who he is, not what we may or may not do.
Jesus is the Lord Over Tradition
Now, as we continue on in the passage, all of this talk about new wine in new wineskins might leave us scratching our heads for a more tangible example. How exactly does this work out, we might ask Jesus. In God’s kindness, the next conflict adds some clarity. In vv1-5 of chapter 6, we see the second picture of Jesus’ identity – Jesus is the Lord Over Tradition. The scene shifts to a Sabbath day, which you’ll remember was a day of rest according to the Law of Moses. You couldn’t do any work on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees, in particular, had built some pretty extensive rules to define Sabbath work. Their motivation was understandable – if we build a fence around the Sabbath, with clear and detailed regulations, then we can keep people from breaking the actual commandment. That’s the context of this next encounter. It’s the Sabbath day, which was a high concern for the Pharisees.
And once again, the religious leaders target Jesus’ disciples. V2 – they object to the disciples picking grain as they go from one town to the next. This is breaking the Law in their books – not because the disciples pick someone else’s grain. The Law of Moses allowed for that. The Pharisees are upset because they think the disciples are doing work on the Sabbath. That sounds somewhat nit-picky to us, but that’s the point. The disciples are crossing that fence the Pharisees have built around the Sabbath. “Why are they breaking the Law,” the Pharisees ask.
Jesus’ response, however, raises the stakes beyond what the Pharisees expect. The Pharisees want to argue about the details of the Law, but Jesus is talking about something deeper – authority, specifically who has authority over the life of God’s people. Notice Jesus’ response. Once again, Jesus goes to the OT, this time the life of David, vv3-4 – “Jesus answered them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?’”
Now, Jesus refers here to 1 Samuel 21, when David was on the run from Saul. You may remember the moment. David needs food, but when he comes to the priest for help, the only food is the Bread of the Presence, which was reserved for the priests. But strikingly, the priest in 1 Samuel gives David the holy bread, which David gives to his men. Now, did David go beyond what the Law permitted? Yes, technically, according to the strict regulations. But strikingly, the OT nowhere suggests that David was wrong. That’s key. In 1 Samuel, it’s clear that the priest was right to give David the holy bread. Why? Remember who David is. He is the Lord’s anointed, the King whose position foreshadows the Messiah. It’s not just that David had a great need that allowed for him to take the Bread. There’s some truth to that, but the bigger point has to do with authority. As God’s anointed, David had a unique authority that pointed to something greater, or we could say Someone greater.
Catch what Jesus is doing here. He reminds the religious leaders of what David did, something the Pharisees would not have objected to. The Pharisees had read that passage, and they would never accuse David of breaking the Law. But then Jesus goes further and says, “You need to understand that this moment with David is telling you something about me and my authority.”
And in fact, that is precisely where Jesus goes in v5. Notice how authority is the climax of Jesus’ response, v5 – “And he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.’” I take this to be a high point for understanding who Jesus is. David was great, but Jesus is David’s Lord. Jesus is greater than David, which means Jesus is King. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Ruler of God’s people. And therefore, Jesus has authority, even over the Sabbath. Or, to say it more directly, Jesus is the ultimate point of the Sabbath. The Sabbath finds its meaning in Jesus. Remember, the Sabbath was about rest. God promised his people rest, the Sabbath pointed to that rest, but significantly, it is Jesus who provides that rest.
This is incredibly important. Think about how clearly this moment reveals Jesus’ deity as the Son of God. Who established the Sabbath day? God did, at the beginning of creation, and then God codified the Sabbath in the Fourth Commandment. When Jesus says he is lord of the Sabbath, he is not simply winning an argument with the Pharisees about the Law. No, it’s much more than that. Jesus is asserting, very clearly, his identity as God in the flesh. The Pharisees have it backwards. They demand Jesus submit to the Sabbath, but what they don’t realize is that Jesus, as God in the flesh, is lord of the Sabbath.
Jesus is the Savior of the Needy
Now, at this point, we might be thinking how this connects with us. Yes, we see the christological truth about Jesus, which encourages our worship, but what about all these Sabbath details? What is the connection with us? And full disclosure here – I am not a Sabbatarian. I hold that the Sabbath was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who provides the ultimate rest for the people of God. The Sabbath, then, is not binding on God’s new covenant people. But that raises the question, doesn’t it? How do these conflicts connect with us? I would say the third scene provides an answer. In vv6-11, there is yet another Sabbath conflict, and it helps us get to the heart of the issue. Notice with me the third picture of Jesus’ identity – Jesus is the Savior of the Needy. V6 presents Jesus following the normal pattern of his ministry. He is in the synagogue, teaching from the Scriptures, and there is a man present with a physical need. The man has a withered hand, though Luke doesn’t give us much detail on the condition. It’s a pretty normal ministry setting for Jesus.
But in that normal pattern, there is also the ominous presence of the Jewish religious leaders. Notice v7 – “And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.” Now, everything about that description is sinister. They are watching Jesus the way you might watch a criminal, and they are just waiting to pounce and accuse him of breaking the Law. Again, the issue is whether or not Jesus will adhere to the Pharisees’ rules. According to the Pharisees, only urgent physical needs could be dealt with on the Sabbath. For example, if someone was about to die or if a mother was about to give birth – you could deal with those on the Sabbath. But if it wasn’t urgent, it needed to wait. And clearly, the Pharisees think the man with the injured hand isn’t urgent. He can wait, so they are eyeing Jesus, just waiting for him to slip up.
But once again, Luke shows us that Jesus is far too wise to fall for this trap. Jesus knows what they’re thinking, v8, and he asks a question in v9 that brings the issue into the light. Notice Jesus’ question, v9 – “And Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’” Now, if that sounds like an easy question, that’s because it is! In other Gospel accounts, we hear Jesus add that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Of course you should do good on the Sabbath – that’s what the Sabbath is for! God instituted the Sabbath to bless his people, not burden them. Therefore, the most Sabbath-honoring thing to do would be to heal this man. And anyone who has read the OT should know that.
But notice what happens in v10. Or perhaps, I should say notice what does and doesn’t happen. The religious leaders don’t answer, v10 – “And after looking around at them all he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he did so, and his hand was restored.” The religious leaders stubbornly don’t answer. Jesus has turned the trap back on them. Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? If they say yes, then they agree with Jesus, which they certainly can’t do. But if they say no, then it demonstrates how badly they misunderstand the Law of Moses, the very thing they expertly claim to understand! It’s brilliant on Jesus’ part. He’s caught them in their own trap.
Even so, the Lord Jesus is not interested in simply playing games with the religious leaders. He goes further. To demonstrate his own authority, Jesus heals the man, and he does so with only his word. “No work required,” Jesus says. “I’ll simply speak, and this man will be made whole, even on the Sabbath.” The healing is God’s stamp of approval. Only God could heal this man, so when Jesus performs the healing, it is visible and undeniable proof that Jesus speaks with divine authority. To put it plainly, if you want to understand both the Sabbath and Scripture, you should listen to Jesus, not the Pharisees.
Now, you might think this would end all debate between Jesus and the religious leaders. I mean, how can you argue with the man now healed? You might think this would be enough. But you would be wrong. Notice how the religious leaders respond in v11 – “But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to him.” When confronted with visible, undeniable truth, what do the religious leaders do? They suppress that truth, and they begin plotting how to get rid of Jesus. Understand this, Luke’s language here is very strong. The religious leaders are blinded by their rage. They are so angry they cannot think straight. Like fools running headlong down a dead-end street, the Pharisees only go deeper in their opposition.
This is one of the clearer instances in Scripture that humanity’s problem is not a lack of evidence, but rather hardness of heart. The religious leaders have all the evidence they need to believe Jesus, and still, they do not believe. Why? Because their hearts are hard, and their eyes are blind to the truth.
And this is where the Sabbath controversies connect with us. What we have here is really two contrasting ways of seeking to know God. One is pictured in the religious leaders, who believe that external regulations are enough to bring them to God. And they believed this genuinely, it seems. They were very devout, very pious in their religious efforts. But at the end of the day, they remained focused on the external.
But the other way is pictured in Jesus, who keeps pressing home that our need is so great, only God can meet it. Like the man with injured hand, humanity cannot heal itself. External prescriptions can only go so far. We need God to do what only he can. And the good news of the gospel is that God has graciously provided what we need, and he has provided it in Jesus Christ. Listen, it is very striking that this passage ends with a clear anticipation of the cross. That’s where v11 will lead – it will lead Jesus to the cross, where he will lay down his life for the salvation of his people.
And if you think about it, brothers and sisters, the cross is the final, definitive proof that external practices cannot save us. The cross destroys the delusion that we can save ourselves. The cross thunders that no amount of fasting or law-keeping could ever bring us to God. The Pharisees can build all the fences they want, but no fence can get to the heart of the problem. Only the cross of Christ can get us to the heart. Only the Son of God shedding his blood can cleanse sinners like us. Only the death and resurrection of Jesus can give us the rest the Sabbath anticipated.
And so, it is not an overstatement to say that the final word of these conflicts has to do with the gospel. Why do the religious leaders reject Jesus? Because, in pride, they refuse to see that they cannot save themselves. And why does Jesus continue to endure these foolish conflicts? Because, in humility, he is focused on the cross, where he will provide the remedy no law could ever provide – the remedy of his blood shed for the salvation of his people.
And so, we close, brothers and sisters, with a call to renew our confidence in the work of Jesus Christ. If you are not a Christian today, your only hope is found in a Savior who laid down his life for sinners like us. Won’t you turn from sin and trust him today? If you are believer this morning, I pray you are encouraged by this reminder that though we cannot provide the rest we need, the Lord Jesus has provided our rest, and he has done so by laying down his life. May our faith in him be strengthened, and may our hearts be continually humbled as we hold fast to the gospel. Amen.