LORD OF THE SABBATH
The US federal government has been caught up in financial debates for many months now. You are probably sick of turning on the television or radio and hearing about proposed budget cuts and tax increases and sequestration. The duration of this argument can be seen in the fact that an annual congressional budget has not been passed by both houses since April 29, 2009.
This past week Barack Obama was asked what he thought about the idea of using Secret Service agents to keep lawmakers from leaving until there was an agreed budget. His response was, “I am not a dictator. I’m the president.” Whether or not you agree with many things the president does, he has clearly given a good answer in this situation. Why? Because it recognizes that the president of the United States has been assigned a certain realm of authority, and for him to do what was suggested would be a gross overstepping of his authority. If he were to do something like that, it would very quickly prove that he is not the right man to be in office. Today we are looking at a passage about authority—namely, Jesus’ authority as it relates to the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6).
Why is the Sabbath so important?
What we have in this passage is a situation of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Really, it is two situations of conflict, but we are going to look at them together because that is the way Mark gives them to us. They both have to do with Jesus and the Sabbath.
It is good for us to get a little background to see why this is a major conflict. You will recall that the nation of Israel is the people God called to be his special people in the Old Testament. He redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, gave them his law through Moses, and led them into the Promised Land.
There were two major identification markers God gave the Israelites that set them apart from the other nations as his covenant people. The first was circumcision. All male children born to the Israelites were to be circumcised on the eighth day (Gen. 17:9-14; Lev. 12:3).
The other major identification marker was the Sabbath. The fourth (and longest) of the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai was:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8–11)
Keeping the Sabbath was so important that the penalty for Sabbath-breaking was death. We hear this later in Exodus, in chapter 31, verses 12-17, we read:
And the LORD said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’ ”
Numbers 15 records an instance where a man is found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. He is brought before Moses and Aaron, who inquire of the LORD what to do with him. The LORD instructs Moses to bring him outside the camp and have the whole congregation stone him to death, and that is what they did.
So we can understand from the Old Testament that the Sabbath was no small matter. But if Sabbath-keeping was so important, the question naturally arose: What constitutes work on the Sabbath? To answer that question, by the time of Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had come up with 39 different categories of “work” that were prohibited on the Sabbath. These were not biblical categories, but they were enforced upon the people. So in our passage today, when Jesus and his disciples are walking through the grainfields, probably of wheat or barley, the Pharisees are watching. Jesus’ disciples apparently are hungry, and as they walk through, they began to pluck heads of grain with their hands.
These presumably weren’t fields owned by any of the disciples, but stealing is not an issue here because Deuteronomy 23:25 explicitly says, “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” So there is no problem with them plucking the grain, but the problem comes with the fact that they were doing it on the Sabbath. In the minds of these Pharisees, they were reaping—which was work. And though it does not say that Jesus was doing the same, he was their leader and he was allowing them to do this, so he was responsible.
The moment the Pharisees decide to confront Jesus, there is a conflict. We can learn a lot from Jesus’ responses to conflict. And I want to draw three truths from the way Jesus responds to the Pharisees, both in the grainfields and in the synagogue.
Three Truths from Jesus’ Response to the Pharisees
By this point in the Gospel, the Pharisees have no problem looking for faults in Jesus. He already has claimed to have authority on earth to forgive sins in 2:10, and ate with tax collectors and sinners in 2:15, and proclaimed himself to be the bridegroom of God’s people in 2:19. So when they see what his disciples are doing they quickly say to him, “Look, Jesus! Why are your disciples doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”
We will come back to this story about David, but for now I want to look at verse 27. Here we find our first truth.
1. The Sabbath was designed to be a blessing for mankind, not a harsh taskmaster
God is the one who gave the Sabbath to his people, and Jesus understands it rightly. It was given as a day of rest, holy to the LORD. We have already read that when God instituted the Sabbath he blessed it. His people, who were marked out by their keeping of the Sabbath, would experience God’s blessing as they observed it.
The Pharisees had taken this Sabbath command, and had made a day of solemn rest into work. By adding all of their little rules and regulations, they had made it into a burden for the people of God. You see, the Pharisees capitalized on observing only the external parts of religion while neglecting God’s intent.
Brother, sister: Is your religion like this to you? Do you see obedience to the commands of God as a path to blessing, or as a burden? Does loving your neighbor, or serving in this church, or sharing the gospel with someone you know who is lost—does thinking about these things weigh you down with all you have to do? Or are you resting in the fact that Christ has earned all your righteousness for you and has made atonement for your sins, so that obedience to God is a delight that both blesses you and glorifies him? Just like the Sabbath, the Christian life as a whole is about the obedience of faith, not about rule-keeping. God’s commands are given for our benefit.
But as much as this passage tells us about the Sabbath, there is something much bigger that we need to understand. Jesus is actually communicating something very important about himself here. And that is our second truth.
2. Jesus as the Messiah stands in authority over the Sabbath
This is where we need to go back to verse 25, where Jesus answers the Pharisees with a question back to them. What he is referring to here is from 1 Samuel 21, where David is on the run from Saul. Saul has already been rejected by the LORD as king, and David has been anointed by Samuel and has defeated Goliath, proving himself more of a king than Saul. Saul, feeling the threat of David, is seeking to kill him. So while David is on the run from Saul, he comes to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. David convinces him to give him the bread of the Presence to meet his need.
God gave command for the bread of the Presence in Exodus 25:30, and in Leviticus 24:5-9 gave instructions on how it was to be handled. Verse 9 of that passage says, “And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.” So just as Jesus said, David “ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat.”
You have to think carefully here to get Jesus’ argument. He is not arguing that “David violated the Sabbath, so it’s okay that my disciples do also.” Nor is he saying, “When you consider how bad David transgressed in this passage, a little grain by the fingers is nothing in comparison.”
Jesus is pointing to the authority of David. If there is any king in the Old Testament who prefigures the Messiah, it is David. David was the anointed of Yahweh, the one to whom he promised in 2 Samuel 7,
12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son…16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.
When David approaches the trembling priest and tells him to give him bread because he is on mission from the king, he is not referring to King Saul. He is saying he is on mission from King Yahweh. The reason David could take this holy bread is not because God’s commands for the house of God didn’t matter, it is because of who David was. David, as the LORD’s anointed, actually had the authority to override the legal prohibition of any but the priests eating the bread.
Jesus’ main argument has nothing to do with whether plucking grain should be classified as “work” or not. Because of what he is saying, that really doesn’t matter. His argument is that “David had authority to override the regulations of the bread of the Presence. I am greater than David. I am the fulfillment of everything that David prefigured. I am the offspring from David’s body whose kingdom was going to be established by Yahweh. I am the one who is building a house for the name of Yahweh, and Yahweh is establishing my throne forever.” David as the Lord’s anointed had authority to eat that bread. Jesus has authority to override the covenant-identifying, cornerstone command for the people of God. The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.
Remember from Mark 2:10 that Jesus is referring to himself as the Messiah when he uses this name, “Son of Man.” This is a loaded phrase originating from Daniel 7. Also, remember that this is no small matter to claim to be lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the command that is grounded explicitly in the work of God. God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and rested on the seventh day, blessing it and making it holy; this is why his people were to observe the Sabbath. In the Old Testament the Sabbath is referred to either as “a Sabbath to the LORD” or by the LORD himself as “my Sabbaths” a total of 37 times. Jesus’ claim to be able to override the Sabbath command is along the same lines of his claim in Mark 2:10 to be able to forgive sins—only God can do that.
So to sum up Jesus’ argument here, he is saying that if they understand that David as the Lord’s anointed had authority that transcends the commands of the bread of the Presence, they will understand that Jesus has a greater authority as the Messiah—authority to transcend the Sabbath command. He is again putting himself in the place of God.
So I ask you, do you really believe that Jesus has the authority of God? How does this affect your prayers? Do you believe that God alone has the authority to forgive sins and authority over the Sabbath–AND do you at the same time believe that Jesus of Nazareth forgives sins and stands in authority over the Sabbath? You must come to terms with the claims Jesus is making for himself in the Gospel of Mark. He does not allow you to relegate him to the position of a good moral teacher or a healer or a charismatic leader or your little friend you pray to in order to make your life more comfortable. You must either reject Jesus altogether or embrace him as God who has come in human flesh, as Savior and Lord and Treasure.
3. Jesus came from God to bring life to all who will receive him
Now we move to the next episode beginning with Mark 3:1. Later, apparently on the same day, we find Jesus entering the synagogue. It is still the Sabbath. This may be the same synagogue in Capernaum where he cast an unclean spirit out of a man on a Sabbath in Mark 1:21-28. If it is, they have already seen Jesus’ mighty works done there. And as you can imagine, the Pharisees are by this point pretty heated up about what happened in the grainfields. So they are watching Jesus to see if he would heal on the Sabbath, because healing would be work. Plucking the grain was his disciples, but if they can catch Jesus himself doing work on the Sabbath, then they have grounds to press legal charges against him. This is a setup. There is a man there in the synagogue on the Sabbath with a withered hand, and Jesus is walking in. They want to prove that Jesus is such a violator of the law that he must be put to death.
You might think, “If Jesus can see what they are doing and if he is prudent, he will quietly heal the man after the gathering in a private setting, or tell the man he will heal him after the Sabbath is over so that there is no unnecessary conflict. That way Jesus can avoid the trap but still have mercy on this man and heal him.”
But Jesus will do no such thing. Jesus does not try to avoid conflicts with his enemies. Nor does he enter them with a cavalier attitude. Instead, he approaches conflict head-on with all wisdom and confidence that he is in the right. This is why he is not going to let this one slide by. So he calls the man to himself, “Get up here in the middle where everyone can see you!” And he says to the Pharisees, “Is it permissible on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” Their response is simply silence. This is a self-condemning silence. Silence is not always a good thing. I don’t know if you have ever received this sort of silence from someone before. The Pharisees have nothing to say to Jesus.
And verse 5 gives a little window into Jesus’ heart and the hearts of the Pharisees. It says that Jesus is feeling anger and is grieved over the condition of their hearts, which is the hardness of sinful rebellion against God.
Let me stop here for a moment and remind you that this window into their hearts is a picture or reality, and is a preview of things to come. When it says that Jesus looked at them with “anger,” you could translate that word for anger as “wrath.” He looked around at them with “wrath.” You see, places like Romans 1:18 and John 3:36 tell us that the wrath of God is already upon those who suppress the truth by unrighteousness and do not obey God’s Son Jesus. A hardened heart is a condemned heart. If these Pharisees continue to reject Jesus in their unrepentance—that is, unless God mercifully gives them new hearts that believe in Jesus, then one day they will be hiding “themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”” (Revelation 6:15–17). There is a flood of wrath coming that will make anything we have seen so far seem like drips. Just drips.
Now as we look at the rest of verse 5 and verse 6, realize that Mark is illustrating the contrast of Jesus’ words for us. Jesus asked if it is lawful on the Sabbath to do good or harm, to save life or to kill. Jesus chooses to do good and save life on the Sabbath. He restores the man’s hand, and gives a beautiful display of his work in bringing about the new creation.
And what do the Pharisees decide to do on the Sabbath? They decide only to do evil and kill. They go out immediately and conspire against Jesus with the supporters of Herod, seeking how they might destroy him.
The irony of this is that when this conspiracy, uniting the religious and political powers against Jesus, comes to full fruition in Mark 14 and 15 and Jesus is crucified, his body has to be taken down from the cross because the Sabbath had arrived. You see, the greatest act of evil took place on the day of preparation before the Sabbath, as the Lord of the Sabbath himself is executed on a Roman cross. Yet he was accomplishing the greatest good as he lie in a tomb on that Sabbath, for early the next morning after the Sabbath was over, Jesus rose from the dead, giving eternal life to all who give up their lawbreaking and throw themselves upon him as Lord of the Sabbath and Lord of everything else.
Mark 2:23-3:6 isn’t mainly about the Sabbath. It’s about Jesus. If you harden your heart against him and reject him, you will only know his wrath. But if you stretch out your dry, withered life to him in faith, he will heal you. And he will give you fullness of life and Sabbath rest in him.