Lord of the Sabbath
February 17, 2019
Our Scripture this morning is Mark 2:23-3:6.
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ 25 And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’ 27 And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ 4 And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
This is this is the Word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Prayer of Illumination:
Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Make us hungry for this heavenly food, that it may nourish us today in the ways of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, the bread of heaven. Amen.
For the past six weeks, we have been looking at the Gospel of Mark. In the last few weeks, Jesus has been confronted by the Pharisees. He first came into confrontation with the Pharisees when he claimed that he has the authority to forgive sins. Last week we saw that he came into conflict with Pharisees over who he socialized with when he hosted a dinner for Levi and other “sinners”.
In this passage, we’ll see that Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees over traditions and the purpose of the law. As we examine this passage we’ll see two ways of viewing the law. We view the law either as a way to salvation or as a way that leads us to Jesus.
The View that the Law Leads to Salvation
These two incidents both take place on the Sabbath. There are two distinguishing marks of observant Jews, circumcision and the Sabbath. We don’t recognize just how important the Sabbath is for observant Jews, even today. The Sabbath begins Friday at sundown and ends Saturday at sundown. A few years ago there was a popular Hasidic musician. Despite his popularity, he refused to have concerts on Friday evenings.
The Sabbath is grounded in creation. When God created the universe, he worked six days and rested on the seventh. God didn’t rest because he was exhausted like we are after a long day. God rested because he was so thoroughly pleased with his work that it was finished. When he gave the Ten Commandments, the purpose of the Sabbath was so that the weary could be replenished; the broken could be repaired.
The Pharisees in wanting to preserve the Sabbath added 39 different rules and regulations to what Scripture says about the Sabbath. They weren’t comfortable with the broad law, they needed to make it as specific as possible. They said that someone could only walk 800 meters on the Sabbath and any further was considered a journey and therefore a violation of the Sabbath. What Jesus and the disciples are doing, plucking grain and munching on them was considered by Pharisaic interpretation to be reaping and therefore a violation of the Sabbath. Healing was also considered to be work and therefore a violation of the Sabbath.
In Luke 10, Jesus is asked by one of the scribes what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. After Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself”, the scribe asks “who is my neighbor?” The law is too broad, so he wants to narrow it down. Is my neighbor those who live on my road? Is my neighbor those who live in my town?
For the Pharisees, the Sabbath and the other laws of God were viewed as the way to salvation. They thought that if you kept the law, you were saved. We call this legalism. Legalism is the belief that you can earn salvation by what you do. That’s how all religions, other than Christianity, operate.
Really look at Hinduism and Buddhism. Both of those religions say if you keep the law, if you do good things, you will be saved. That’s the whole point behind karma and reincarnation. The better you are, the more you keep the law, the more good things you get in life, the better your life is. That’s how Islam operates.
Even Christians, at times, can fall into a legalist mindset. I really like to play cards. I grew up in a card playing family. Whenever my mom’s side of the family got together, we all played cards. When I went to seminary, my friends and I enjoyed playing a game or two of cards after dinner as a way to relax. I don’t know if you know this about seminarians, but they’re often very driven and it’s easy for them to become consumed by what they’re studying. And so my friends and I would relax by playing a few hands of euchre.
One evening, I had my pack of cards on my dinner tray. And as I was walking to get something to drink, the guy behind me said, “You know you’re sinning right?” I turned around and asked him what he meant. He said, “You have cards; you’re sinning”. I replied that we weren’t gambling, just that we were playing cards. He said it was still sin because playing cards can lead to gambling.
The legalist gets to that position because they view the law as leading to salvation. And anything that might cause us to break the law is sin. That’s why cards are viewed as a sin because they might cause us to gamble. That’s why alcohol is viewed as a sin because it might lead to drunkenness. Legalists take the law, make it as specific as possible, and then say that anything that might lead someone to break the law is itself bad.
And because of those things, the Pharisees are unable to help the man with the shriveled hand on the Sabbath. In fact, they don’t want to help him on the Sabbath. Jesus asks them, “‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent.”
If their ox or donkey fell into a pit, they would get the animal out. They didn’t consider that work. But when it came to helping a person, someone who bears the image of God, they said they couldn’t help that man until the next day.
When Jesus poses the question, they are silent because they know the answer. The answer is it is lawful to do good even on the Sabbath. But their interpretation and the laws that they added prevented them from doing that. In fact, because Jesus wasn’t adhering to their interpretation of the Sabbath and all of the regulations they added, they were beginning to plot his death. Instead of doing good, they’re actively seeking to do evil and kill Jesus.
The Pharisees show that they miss the point of the Sabbath. They think that the point of the Sabbath is not to work or travel on a journey. But as we’ve said the point of the Sabbath is for the weary to be restored; the broken to be repaired. When you view the law as the way to salvation, you don’t see that. The Sabbath and other laws become the mark for knowing whether or not you’re saved. The broad law of resting from work isn’t enough, so they add to it. And when someone doesn’t keep their regulations, they are indignant.
The View that the Law Leads to Jesus
In verses 27 and 28 Mark writes, “And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’” What Jesus is saying is that the law is meant for our good and that it ultimately leads to him.
He says that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Jesus affirms the goodness of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man. When God instituted the Sabbath at creation, he did it for our sake. God in his infinite wisdom and love knew that we would need to rest from our work.
We need to rest from our work because it is taxing and draining. Because of the fall, work is laborious; it’s not easy. I know many of you are involved in construction of some sort, from cabinetry to plumbing to masonry. That is physically tiring work. And to do that type of work for seven days straight is not good. If you were to do that every single day, you would burn yourself out. You would constantly be tired.
Work would actually decrease. A friend of mine in college did a study on the amount of hours worked and the end productivity. His study found that peak production is right around 40 hours per week. Somewhere between 38 and 42 hours a week, the average worker is most productive. His study also found that more than 45 hours of work per week actually makes someone less productive. There are more accidents and more mistakes when people work more than 40 hours per week.
The Sabbath is a good thing. It is good for us to take a day, the Lord’s Day, and rest from our work. Those who argue that since Jesus has come, the law has no bearing on Christians are just wrong. They’re the opposite of the Pharisees and legalists; they’re called antinomians. Jesus has affirmed the goodness of the Sabbath; he’s just affirmed the goodness of the law. It is for our sake that the law was given.
In the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms, you’ll find a section on the Ten Commandments. In that section, you’ll see that they still apply to us. We are still to live in obedience to them; letting them guide our lives.
We don’t do what the Pharisees and legalists do and add additional laws and treat the law as if it is the way of salvation. We don’t say, “It’s the Sabbath, I can’t cook so you’ll need to go hungry” or “It’s the Sabbath, the emergency center is closed so you’ll need to wait until tomorrow to get that leg reattached”. That’s not how we view the law.
Are you letting the law guide how you live? Are you honoring the Sabbath and resting from our work?
The law is supposed to guide us in how we live. But the law is also supposed to lead us to Jesus. Jesus says “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath”. What Jesus is saying is that he is lord and that he is lord Sabbath.
When we say that Jesus is lord, we understand it to mean that he is God. That’s right and it is a large part of what it means to say that Jesus is lord. But it also means that Jesus has the right to define a position. He has the right to how we ought to live and what is ultimately best for us.
As lord, Jesus redefines the Sabbath. He doesn’t abolish the Sabbath or any other aspect of the law. He redefines it from the Pharisaic misunderstanding. He redefines the Sabbath as rest from our work but works of necessity and mercy are permitted. So you should be resting on the Sabbath. You shouldn’t be working. But if someone is hurt then it is good and appropriate to take them to the emergency room. If someone is sick on the Sabbath, it is good to care for them.
While Jesus is the lord, he is lord Sabbath. And what I mean by that is the Sabbath is a day for us to rest from our physical work and to be replenished. Jesus is our greater Sabbath. The rest that we so desperately need is the rest from trying to save ourselves.
The reason many people are legalists is that they are trying to save themselves. They’re trying to use the law in such a way that it is doable so that they can say they did and are worthy of salvation. When that is the work underneath your work, you never really rest. You are constantly working trying to make sure you keep the law. That is incredibly tiring and taxing.
The rest that we so desperately need is the rest from that. It is the rest of knowing that in Jesus he has fulfilled the law perfectly for us so that we can rest in his righteousness. In Jesus, you no longer need to prove your worth.
Notice that the Pharisees leave the synagogue and begin plotting to kill Jesus with the Herodians. The Herodians were Jews who had supported the Herods and that dynasty. In other words, the Herodians supported a Greco-Roman view of religion and spirituality; they supported a Greco-Roman view of sex and marriage; they supported Greek and Latin over Hebrew and Aramaic.
If we were to put them into modern, American language the Herodians are secular atheists. They are the ones who are saying that all truth is relative. They are the ones saying sex and sexuality are whatever you want to make of it. They’re the ones saying ethics and morality depend on the situation.
The Pharisees and the Herodians have nothing in common, except that the gospel message offends both of them. Those who view the law as the way to salvation are offended when they see Jesus say the law leads to him and is ultimately fulfilled in him. They’re offended by that. The Herodians are offended that Jesus doesn’t nullify the law. They’re offended that he says, “You still need to honor the Sabbath”.
The gospel of Jesus Christ will offend the legalists because keeping the law won’t save us. But it will also offend the antinomian when we say the law guides how we live. We do that because we know that Jesus is our lord and we want to live in his ways. We can do that in confidence knowing he is the one who has fulfilled the law so that we can find our rest in him.