Is it Ever Permissible to Break the Law?

Title: Is it Ever Permissible to Break the Law?

Text: Matthew 12:1-14

Date: September 3rd, 2009


Of all the laws among the ancient Jews there were probably no greater number of laws than those surrounding the Sabbath. If you were to accuse the Jews of legalistic religion you could point to no greater example than the Sabbath laws. According to some sources there were at least 39 separate categories of activities forbidden on the Sabbath. Starting from the simple command of God, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy,” found in the Ten Commandments, the Jews had multiplied law after law in order to cover nearly every conceivable activity. The Old Testament actually gives only a few instructions on how to keep this law, however that didn’t stop Jewish scribes from working out a whole system of Sabbath law-keeping that defined what this command meant down to the smallest detail. So when Jesus and his disciples thought they were entering a simple grain field looking for something to eat – which was permissible in those days, to eat from someone’s field only enough for oneself – they actually walked into a minefield, because the Jews were ready to fire at them with legalistic laws. The topic for today, then is, is it ever right to break the law? What is the difference between the law of God and the law of man? Is all law strictly absolute or are there exceptions? We need to answer these questions today because as Christians we are confronted with many laws found in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. How are we to follow all of these laws? Do any of these laws sometimes conflict with one another? If and when they do conflict, which of them are we to obey? Now before I go any further, let me answer a question that some Christians raise in respect to God’s law. “Aren’t we free from the law of God since we are saved by grace alone through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross?” In other words, the question is, “Aren’t we now free from God’s law, aren’t we free from the obligation to obey it?” Well, the answer to that question is yes and no. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith and not by observing the law of God; but no, we are not free from our obligation to live by God’s will or law. It doesn’t save us, our obedience to the law, but it’s our instruction from God how to live, so we must follow it. But the deeper question is, how do we follow all of God’s will, because after all it’s not just a simple thing of following a list of rules. God’s complete law sometimes seems to conflict in life. For example, how do I as a parent balance God’s will for disciplining a child with God’s will to love that child? How strict should a parent be with his or her child? Does every act of disobedience demand punishment or are there exceptions? These are all important questions that Matthew 12:1-14 (read) touches on. The question is not, should we follow God’s law, but the question is, how shall we follow God’s law. Jesus teaches us some very important things to consider. Let’s consider them.


First, there is the law. Matthew 12:1-2, “At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’” Exodus 20:8-10 says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work. . . .” That was the basic law of God concerning the Sabbath. But by the time of Christ the Jews had defined every possible activity that was and wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath, and what Jesus and his disciples were doing – rubbing grain together in their hands and eating it – that was considered “harvesting grain” by the rabbis and thus considered work, a violation of the Sabbath. Now it’s important to note that the Bible doesn’t say that what they were doing was work and thus a violation of the Sabbath, but the way the command had come to be interpreted and defined made what they were doing a violation. So they were violating the traditions of the Jews rather than actually violating God’s law. But no matter, to a pious Jew it was all the same, law and tradition had become so intertwined that they saw them as one and the same. This should cause us to pause and ask ourselves in our own day, “How much of what I consider God’s law is really tradition rather than command?” There’s nothing wrong with tradition per se, because after all, there is the practical need to define and apply the Bible to our lives, but we just have to be careful that we don’t make our own man-made applications of God’s Word into God’s Word. We need to be able to distinguish what is actually the Word of God or God’s will as stated in the Bible from our own application or interpretation of God’s Word and will for our lives. If we aren’t careful, we too can become like the Pharisees and their hundreds of extra laws that were added to help define and apply God’s law. The truth is, we can be mistaken in our application or we can get carried away in our definitions if we get too detailed in our legal pronouncements. If you want to see a real life example of this, consult “canon law” in the archives of the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not picking on the Catholic Church because every church has it’s own official or unofficial “canon law” by which it makes decisions. But I can think of no greater example today that comes close to the legalism of the ancient Jews. In Rome, in the official archives of Roman Catholic canon law, one can find God’s law defined and applied to the minutest detail, very similar to what the Jews were doing at the time of Christ. We have to come back to what God actually says in his Word and then compare what we’ve made it into over the years and make sure we aren’t confusing the two. The Pharisees did confuse the two; they accused Christ and his disciples of breaking the law, period.


Two, there are the exceptions to the law. Matthew 12:3-7, “He answered, ‘Haven’t you read what David did then he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 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.’” Jesus responds to the charges of the Pharisees by giving them examples of exceptions to the law found in the Old Testament. Now it wasn’t the intent of Jesus and his disciples neither to uproot the Old Testament law nor to do away with all the traditional definitions and applications of the law formulated by the Jews. But it was his intention to teach a perspective on the law that allowed for the fulfillment of the entire law properly. He wanted to teach the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law. He points out that David violated the strict letter of the law by eating from the consecrated loaves. He also called their attention to the priests in the temple who “worked” on the Sabbath in performing their religious duties. So what Jesus was doing was pointing out that there are exceptions to the rules, there were special circumstances in which the normal and regular law could be violated without penalty. Now the strict Pharisees didn’t want to admit this because they felt that if there were any exceptions to the law than that would undermine the whole law. They were strict legalists, although they did have to grudgingly admit that the examples Jesus cited were valid, that there sometimes were special circumstances where the law could be broken without penalty. Now how does this apply to us today? It goes to show us that we too must be careful to not judge someone by the normal law unless we see under what circumstances someone else is operating. We can admit a violation of man-made law may sometimes be permissible, but what about a violation of God’s law? Is it ever ok to violate a clear law of God under some special circumstance? Here’s an example that I first heard about at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where I got my ministry training – if you were a friendly German Christian who was hiding Jews in your house and the Nazis knocked on your door and asked, “Are there any Jews here?” how would you answer? A strict legalistic answer would be to tell the Nazis Jews were in your house, since to lie would be a sin. But most Christians feel that a lie would be permissible under the circumstances and would say, “No, there are no Jews here.” Now that might be the right answer, but why is it so. Let’s find out.


Third, when two laws conflict we should obey the higher law. Matthew 12:9-14, “Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” Jesus is trying to teach a proper perspective on obedience to the law. Under special circumstances, when two laws are in conflict, we are supposed to obey the higher or priority law over the lower priority law. Jesus gives the example of a sheep stuck in a pit on the Sabbath – is it more important to save the animal or keep the Sabbath law against doing any heavy lifting or work? Clearly, it’s permissible to save the animal. Well, what about healing a man? Is it more important to follow the Sabbath law and not “work” a healing, or is it higher priority to heal? Jesus teaches that it’s more important to do the higher good by healing the man even if it violates the Sabbath. The Pharisees had forgotten about some of the higher laws of God, such as love, mercy, kindness, for example. By focusing on the letter of the law and making that absolute, they were in fact violating the higher laws. This is the point Jesus is making when he says, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.’” The law of love expressed by mercy is of higher priority than simply applying the Sabbath law in a strict, legalistic way. So then how does this apply to our lives today as Christians? We need to remember commands such as “Love they neighbor as you love yourself,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We need to remember the whole will of God, not just the strict letter of the law. Now, back to the Nazi illustration. I’ve actually heard a well-known radio pastor say that he’d tell the Nazis the truth — that he was hiding Jews, so as not to sin by lying. But almost every Christian I know would probably lie to the Nazi in order to save the Jews. By saving the Jews by lying we would actually be fulfilling the law of love, which is a higher law than strict truth telling. Now remember, this is a special circumstance. You can’t use this principle to break God’s law whenever and wherever you’d like. But what Jesus is teaching us is that whenever there is a higher law, we need to obey that law rather than strictly fulfill the lesser law. David feeds his soldiers with unlawful bread because the higher law is to feed the hungry. The priests in the temple “work” on the Sabbath because the higher law is to serve God’s people when they come for worship. Jesus “works” a healing on the Sabbath because it’s more important to fulfill the law of love than obey the lesser law of abstaining from work.


What this means for us today is that we need to keep the whole law of God, that is, we need to pay attention to the complete will of God, not just focus only on the details of the laws that are spelled out in black and white. Now Jesus is not giving us an excuse to sin or disobey God’s law, but rather he’s showing us that we need to think in terms of the whole of God’s law, not just certain ones. He’s also showing us that there is a priority to God’s will, that not all of the law of God is of equal importance, and that we need to make sure we aren’t violating a higher priority law when we obey a lesser law. The Jews and all legalists are confused on this point. They think that a law is a law and that all laws are of equal value and priority. That is false. There are higher laws and there are lesser laws. We are supposed to obey all the laws of God – even the lesser laws – unless there is a higher law of God that requires our obedience first. If we’re required to obey all the laws of God at all times we couldn’t do it because sometimes these laws conflict, like I’ve demonstrated from the illustrations. But we aren’t required to obey all of God’s laws all the time if there is a conflict; we are required to obey the higher laws first and then if we can obey the lesser laws, but if we have to choose between the two, we should obey what is most important or is of higher priority. I’ll give you a modern day example of how it was proper and right to tell a lie in order to do right. There were two young women camping in the woods and one night they heard someone outside their camper. They went to the door and opened it slightly and saw two rough looking men who looked suspicious. Their story was that they needed the help of the women to drive them into town because their own car had broken down on the road. The women didn’t believe the men and so they told them they couldn’t help them right then because they and their husbands were tired after hiking all day, it was late and they were almost asleep. After the men left, the women quickly packed up the camper and drove out of there. They heard on the news the next day that there were two men wanted for assault in that same area. Now those two women lied to those two men, but it was justified because of the circumstances. Is a Christian obligated to tell the truth to a criminal intent on hurting them? No. But a Christian is obligated to think of the safety of someone with them and even their own safety. Now a legalist would no doubt have to reveal the fact that it was just two women alone in the woods camping, because of the command “Do not bear false witness,” or in other words, always tell the truth, don’t lie. But a Christian who takes into consideration the whole law or the will of God would protect the person they are with and even him or herself by not telling the truth in this circumstance. But again, this principle can’t be used to sin or disobey God’s law whenever or in whatever circumstances. No. It is only when a higher law must be obeyed that we should disobey a lesser law. This is what Jesus is trying to teach in this passage.


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