Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath – Mark 2:23-3:6
Good morning! If you can grab a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. We are continuing in our sermon series on Mark, looking at Mark 2:23-3:6, this morning.
I’m just going to read the passage and then we will dive in. Mark 2, beginning in verse 23: “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.’
“1 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.”
In our passage, this morning, Jesus has some conflict with a group of religious leaders called the Pharisees. Now, if you’ve been following along, throughout our sermon series on Mark, you’ve seen Jesus interacting and debating with the religious leaders of His day.
Last week, we looked at fasting and what it looks like to fast for the glory of God. But the whole issue of fasting comes up because some people come up to Jesus and ask Him, “Why don’t your disciples fast?” And this brings up the issue of the religious leaders mixing works-based religion with the gospel, and Jesus calls this out as two things that are completely incompatible. They just don’t mix.
And in our passage, this morning, Jesus once again gets into a debate with the religious leaders, but this time it’s over the Sabbath—over this day of rest.
Now, when I say the words, “day of rest,” there are two reactions that I believe we are prone to have:
1. The first reaction is that I don’t have time to rest.
This week was a very busy week for us. Along with getting things ready for VBS, I was a groomsman at a wedding, yesterday. The wedding was down at Camp Little Red, which is just west of Bowden. And we needed to be there on Friday for the Rehearsal, and then we came home right after the wedding, which started at 6pm, yesterday.
So, it was a busy week for us. And what Helena and I normally do is we take Monday as our day off. Every Monday, we try to do some kind of family fun activity. But as I looked ahead to this past week, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I have time to rest.” I was concerned that if we took Monday as our day to rest, then I wouldn’t be able to get everything done that I needed to get done.
I think about you farmers and all that you need to do in a short amount of time when the weather is good. I sympathize with you as you contemplate whether or not you think you have time to rest. What if we don’t have this good of weather, again? How are we going to get everything done that we need to get done if we don’t do it now?
2. And so, the first reaction to the words, “day of rest,” that I believe we are prone to have is that I don’t have time to rest. But the second reaction that I believe we are prone to have is that one day is not enough.
We live in a society where we are perpetually tired. Like, if you ask someone how they are doing, other than the typical response of, “I’m fine,” I think the response that we tend to hear often is, “I’m exhausted,” or “I’m overwhelmed,” or “I’m tired.”
And what's interesting is that even though we are a society that is prone to being perpetually tired, we live in a world that has access to all of these different kinds of ways to rest.
Next Sunday, after church, our family will be heading to a family farm in Orangeville, Ontario, for two weeks of holidays. And what is crazy is that I can book our entire vacation with my phone. I can look up places to eat and places to stay and places to see on our drive to Ontario and back. I have access to all of these different kinds of ways to rest.
But I can promise you that when we come back from our two weeks of holidays, and you ask us how it was, we will very likely respond with, “It was amazing, but now we need a vacation from our vacation.”
We say this, and I think we do it to be funny, but what this says about our society is that we are always trying to find rest, but we don’t actually know how to rest well. God has given us a day of rest, but because we don’t know how to rest well, one day is often not enough for us.
And so, as Jesus and the religious leaders get into this discussion on the Sabbath, I hope that, regardless of our response to this day of rest, we would see what Scripture says about how important the Sabbath is for us.
But let’s begin by looking at verse 23. “One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.”
Now, we need to have some context on the Sabbath here, because we have the tendency to view the Sabbath as this optional thing or this thing that only Jewish people observe, but it’s actually so much more than that.
In Genesis 2:2-3, it says, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
Here we see God Himself actually modelling the Sabbath for us—this 24-hour period of rest from work—in the Creation narrative.
It’s not because God was tired and needed a break from working, but that God is showing us what He requires of His people. Because then, we read, in Exodus 20, as God is giving the Ten Commandments to His people, that God commands them to do their work for six days, but to not do any work on the seventh day. “The seventh day,” God says, “is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.”
Think about the implications of that: God had just rescued His people out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. That’s day after day after day of work with no rest. All they had known was work. And so, it’s interesting that one of the things that God institutes for His people is a day of rest. This would have been something foreign to them, but it’s actually God calling them back to what He intended for them.
And God simply gives them one restriction on the Sabbath: You shall not do any work on it. It’s what the word Sabbath means. It means to “cease” or “desist.” One restriction: Don’t do any work on it. But all throughout the Old Testament, you see this struggle to rest on the Sabbath day, because God’s people are still stuck in slavery mentality. In a very real sense, they are slaves to their work.
Now, when you get to the time of Jesus, the religious leaders had invented 39 rules and restrictions for the Sabbath that every Jewish person was to follow and is still required to follow today. They made it so that it’s more than just don’t do any work on the Sabbath, but now there were all of these other restrictions.
And so, Jesus and His disciples are walking through these grainfields on the Sabbath, they’re hungry, so they start to pluck the heads of grain. And in verse 24, the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
Now, we know from looking at Scripture that this isn’t true. Jesus’ disciples aren’t doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath. They’re actually doing what was permitted in times of hunger when passing by fields of grain.
Deuteronomy 23:25 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.”
But one of the restrictions that the religious leaders had placed on the Jewish people was that you couldn’t pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. According to the Pharisees, what Jesus’ disciples were doing was forbidden.
But all this does is it simply shows the Pharisees’ ignorance of the Scriptures. They don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Their question isn’t even a question at all; it’s an indictment against Jesus and His disciples, who are living in open defiance to their religious system. They don’t want an answer from Jesus; they want Jesus to know that He and His disciples are opposing God.
So, what does Jesus do? He takes them to the Scriptures. He takes them back to what God said. Look at verse 25. Jesus says 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?”
Now, we don’t have time to get into all the details of this story, which is found in 1 Samuel 21, if you want to check it out later. But the gist of the story is that David is fleeing from King Saul and he comes to a place called Nob.
There David meets a priest named Ahimelech, and David asks him for food, because David and his men had no food and they were hungry. And Ahimelech the priest says that there is no common bread, but there is holy bread—the bread of the Presence, that is, the bread of God.
Now, what that meant is that, every Sabbath, twelve loaves of hot bread, signifying the twelve tribes of Israel, were brought inside the Tabernacle and put onto this golden table to signify Israel’s fellowship with God. And it would sit there for a week, before being removed and another twelve loaves of hot bread being put in its place. But here’s the thing: Not just anyone could eat this holy bread. Only the priest could eat it.
But what Ahimelech the priest does is he gives the holy bread to David. David and his companions eat some bread that they weren’t supposed to eat, but God doesn’t punish them, because ritual never stands in the way of human need.
And here’s the point that Jesus is making: If David could be allowed by a priest to violate a divine symbol, then the disciples could be allowed by the Son of God to violate an unbiblical regulation on a Sabbath.
Jesus is confronting the Pharisees’ ignorance of the Scriptures, and that it doesn’t matter what their traditions say about the Sabbath, what matters is what God said about it.
But then, Jesus goes on to point out the Pharisees’ ignorance of the Sabbath. Look at verse 27. Jesus says 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.”
The Pharisees had lost sight of the purpose of the Sabbath. Instead of the Sabbath being made for man, the Pharisees had flipped that and tried to make man for the Sabbath by their rules and restrictions.
The Sabbath was never intended to be a burden; it was intended to be a blessing. The Sabbath was never supposed to be a detriment; it was designed for our good and for the flourishing of mankind on the earth. It’s why God institutes it back in the Garden of Eden. It’s a good gift for us to enjoy.
But the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into a burden. When I look at all the things that they refrained from doing, it makes the Sabbath seem so cumbersome and miserable.
Nothing could bought or sold. Nothing could be washed. No fire could be lit or put out. No cooking or baking could be done. No writing could be done. You couldn’t carry anything heavier than a dried fig. You couldn’t tie or untie a knot. You couldn’t sew more than two stitches. You could only walk a certain distance.
On and on and on. In Matthew 11:28, when Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” you have to think that He has this oppressive and unbiblical system in His mind.
It’s like the Pharisees are trying to go back to slavery in Egypt, except that their master has now become the rules and restrictions that they have placed on themselves. The Pharisees are the ones who should have understood the purpose of the Sabbath, and they missed it. They were ignorant of the Sabbath.
But before we point our fingers at them, we need to look at the ways that we are ignorant of the Sabbath. I think that many of us try to observe Sabbath the way that God originally intended, but I think we often have the wrong idea about what rest really looks like.
What I mean by that is that I think that we often view the Sabbath as just a day of inactivity. We think that the Sabbath is about not doing anything for a day. And that’s partially what Sabbath is about, but it’s not fully what Sabbath is about. Sabbath is not sleeping in and wearing your comfy pants all day while watching TV. That’s not the ultimate purpose of the Sabbath.
There have been many a day off when our family has watched movies and TV all day, and by the end of the day, I’m exhausted. I’m not refreshed. I’m potentially even more tired than when I woke up that morning. And it’s because I haven’t replaced my inactivity with Jesus.
Jesus says, “The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” And what Jesus is saying here is that the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Him. Ultimately, Jesus is where true rest is found. We can try and refrain from all activity on our day of rest, like the Pharisees, but if we are not replacing that inactivity with Jesus, then we are also missing out on the purpose of the Sabbath. We are also in danger of being ignorant of the Sabbath.
It’s why we gather together on a Sunday morning to worship God and to hear from His Word. The Sabbath was created for us to be able to interact with, and rest in, Jesus.
And all of this comes to a head in Mark 3 with the healing of a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. We’ve seen ignorance of the Scriptures and ignorance of the Sabbath, but in these next few verses, we are going to see ignorance of Jesus.
Look at Mark 3:1. Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was His custom, and there’s a man there with a withered hand. He’s worshipping in the synagogue. And the Pharisees are there and they’re watching in the background to see if Jesus will heal this man on the Sabbath.
You see, what the Pharisees know about Jesus is that Jesus does not turn down the opportunity to heal. We see Jesus announce that the kingdom of God is here, back in Mark 1, and since then we’ve seen these glimpses of the power of God in the world, as people are healed and as demons are cast out of people.
And so, what the Pharisees know about Jesus is that He is going to take every opportunity to usher in the kingdom of God. And they’re ready to pounce on Him when it infringes on their tradition.
So, Jesus calls the man over. And in verse 4, Jesus begins to speak to the Pharisees. He says to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
Jesus says to the Pharisees, in front of everyone, “What should I do? You’re the teachers of the Law, tell us, should I heal this man or not? What is the right thing to do in this situation?” And it says that they were silent.
The Pharisees are experts in the Law. They have all of these interpretations and opinions from Rabbis over the years. They’re thinking. Their heads are spinning. Is this a trick question? Is there a right answer? But they don’t say anything.
They’re silent. And Jesus, it says, has the weird mix of anger and grief towards them. He’s angry at their hardness of heart and He’s grieved because of how hard their hearts had become. They don’t care about Jesus, but they also don’t care about this man and his withered hand. They only care about themselves and their purposes. And all of it angers and grieves Jesus.
So, Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And it says that the man stretched it out and his hand was restored. Healed. No more withered hand. No more disability. In a second, completely restored.
And verse 6 says that “the Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
The Pharisees were ignorant about Jesus. They didn’t want anything to do with Jesus. They wanted to get rid of Him, because they didn’t believe that Jesus was who He said He was. If He were who He said He was, then He would’ve been more like what they wanted Him to be than who He actually was.
What Jesus is implying by healing this man on the Sabbath is that this is what the Sabbath is about. The Sabbath is about healing and restoration for God’s people. It’s about meeting Jesus and resting in Him. And unless we see Jesus for who He is, then we won't see the Sabbath as something we need, but just something that’s optional. And it shows our ignorance of Jesus.
We might not outright say that we reject Jesus, but how many of us reject the idea of the Sabbath, because Jesus doesn’t know how busy we are? I’ve been here. When I was in my first and second years of Bible College, I never took a day off. I didn’t think that I had the time to take a day of rest, so I would always be doing schoolwork.
But when I went back to Bible College as a married student, Helena had me take Sundays off. Everything in me wanted to work on Sundays, but I didn’t. And do you know what happened? I was able to get everything done that I needed to get done. It was so liberating, because what I learned is that we all have time, but the question is: How are we spending the time that’s been given to us?
Time is like currency, where we have only been given so much. When we get to the end of our lives, it’s not like we can put some coins in the meter and go on for a little bit longer. When our time is up, it’s up. And the question that we need to wrestle with, is: What have we done with the time that we were given?
Maybe we reject the Sabbath because we think we don’t have enough time, but maybe we reject the Sabbath because we think that one day is not enough. How many of us are going around perpetually tired, searching for all of these different ways to rest, but never truly resting, because we don’t know what it means to rest? How many of us find it hard to rest when we are asked to rest?
Hebrews 4:9-10 says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”
Here’s the reality: We will strive and search for true rest on this side of heaven, but we will never fully achieve it. We will go around perpetually tired, and it’s because we were created for a true Sabbath rest with God in heaven.
In the meantime, God has given us the Sabbath, where our hearts and our minds can be reoriented, as we spend our day of relative inactivity, interacting with Jesus. It’s a good gift that God has given to His people, now, as we await our true Sabbath rest to come.
And here is ultimately why we keep the Sabbath: We keep the Sabbath, because by doing so, we display the gospel. When you and I keep the Sabbath, when we take a day to rest, we are pointing to the finished work of Jesus. The Sabbath is about Jesus and how, in and through Jesus, we get to rest from Someone else’s work, because Jesus already worked on our behalf.
The gospel says that you and I don’t need to do anything to earn God’s approval, nor can we do anything to earn God’s approval, but that the work has been done our behalf, and that we simply need to accept it by faith in Jesus, and that if we don’t, our entire lives will be spent working for something we could never earn.
One day a week of rest is a picture of the rest that we have in Jesus. We don’t have to work for the favour of God, because of Jesus. It’s a glimpse of the Sabbath rest to come for those who have trusted in Jesus.
And what that means is that when we don’t take a day to rest, we are saying that we don’t trust Jesus. When we don’t take a day to rest, when we feel the need to keep working, we are not preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Church, what we say to our families, what we say to our community, what we say to each other, is that by taking a day to rest, we trust that Jesus is King, that He is in control and that He is good, and that we can take a day to rest in Jesus.
When we practice the Sabbath, we are embracing the gospel. It’s not simply that God commanded us to and that He created it for our good, although that is part of it, but that by honouring the Sabbath we are embracing a gospel that says we are accepted by God on the basis of Someone else’s work—the work of Jesus. And when we get that, it will change the way we view a day of rest. Let’s pray…