Lord of the Sabbath

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Mark 2:23-3:6 (Picking Grain and Healing on the Sabbath)

INTRODUCTION: We are continuing our series in the gospel of Mark, and in the last few weeks we have seen a growing opposition to Jesus from the Jewish religious leaders, particularly this group known as the Pharisees. All that comes to a head today, as we look at two more conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, both having to do with the Sabbath day. (Read and pray.)

Life is full of rules and laws. We have tax laws, property laws, traffic laws, laws relating to marriage and family. Schools have their codes of conduct, and every major corporation has pages of policy.

God, when he created us, also gave us laws and commandments that we should learn, follow and obey. But we need to be careful that we don’t twist his laws into something they were never meant to be. And that is where today’s passage in Mark is so helpful

Today’s passage teaches us three important truths we need to know about God’s laws. First of all, God’s laws are made for our benefit. Secondly, it is always lawful to do good. And thirdly, legalism is the enemy of grace.

I. God’s laws are made for our benefit (2:23-28)

So let’s begin with the first truth. God’s laws are made for our benefit.

    A. The Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples (23-24)

Look at Mark 2 verses 23-24:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:23-24)

Now it is important to understand what the Pharisees were upset about here. They were not accusing the disciples of stealing. God had set up the property laws in Israel such that it was okay to eat out of your neighbor’s garden as long as you didn’t put any of it in a basket or put a sickle to the grain. If you were hungry it was okay to grab a few grapes for the road or to eat some kernels of grain along the way. (Deuteronomy 23:24-25) So the disciples were not doing anything wrong simply by picking grain from this person’s field.

What the Pharisees were upset about is that the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath day. Observing the Sabbath was extremely important to the Jews of Jesus’ time, and it was especially important to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on keeping the law right down to the last detail. Now keeping the Sabbath was God’s idea, but the rabbis of Jesus’ time had added all sorts of rules and regulations to those found in the Old Testament. They listed out 39 main types of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath, and they organized those into six sub-categories.

And number three on their master list was reaping: no reaping allowed on the Sabbath. Now they had some biblical basis for this one. Exodus 34:21 said: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” And so, yes, it would have been unlawful for a farmer to go out on the Sabbath day and harvest his crops as if it were any other day of the week. But it was quite a stretch to call what the disciples were doing “reaping” or any other type of work. They were hungry; they were eating. It was that simple.

    B. Jesus’ responds to the Pharisees (25-28)

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t even get into a debate with the Pharisees about whether what the disciples were doing was lawful or not. Instead, he gives them three statements in response.

        1) David and his friends ate the consecrated bread.

First, he gives them an example from the Old Testament of something that clearly was unlawful. Look at verses 25-26:

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” (Mark 2:25-26)

“Have you never read …?” Wow, that must have stung. Jesus takes them right back to the Scriptures that they were supposedly the experts in and gives them the example of David and the consecrated bread.

Here is the background to the story. (1 Samuel 21:1-6) This incident took place before David became king and when he was still on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him. David and his men were hungry, so David went to the tabernacle and requested bread for him and his men. Unfortunately there was no ordinary bread left but only the consecrated bread.

This was known as the bread of the Presence. (Exodus 25:30) Every Sabbath Day the priest baked twelve loaves of bread and laid them out in two rows of six on the table of pure gold before the Lord in the sanctuary. At the end of each week the bread was removed and replaced with twelve new loaves. The loaves that were removed were to be eaten only by the priest and his sons in a holy place. (Leviticus 24:5-9)

So although it was not technically lawful for David and his friends to eat the consecrated bread, because they were hungry and in need, Jesus says it was okay. You see, God’s laws are made for our benefit. God doesn’t give us his laws to make us miserable or to take away our enjoyment of life. On the contrary, God’s laws are designed for our good. So even if what the disciples were doing was breaking the Sabbath, and it wasn’t, Jesus was saying that human need trumps ceremonial law. God’s laws are made for our benefit.

        2) The Sabbath was made for man.

Next, Jesus goes on to apply this broader principle to the Sabbath day itself. Look at verse 27:

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

We read in Genesis 1 that God created the man and the woman on the sixth day, and then he rested on the seventh day. The important thing to note here is that man came first. God did not make the Sabbath day first and then create man to keep it. No, he created man first, and then he made the Sabbath day for man. This was a day to rest from your work, a day for refreshing and enjoyment, a day to worship your God and Creator who rested from his work on the seventh day. That is why Isaiah said we should “call the Sabbath a delight.” (Isaiah 58:13)

Unfortunately, all the rabbis’ extra rules and regulations had made the Sabbath anything but a delight. It had become tiresome, restrictive, a burden to bear rather than a day of worship and rest. And so it was that the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath just for picking a few grains of wheat in their hands and eating them while they were walking along.

So what does the Sabbath mean for us today? God in his goodness set aside one day a week for you to worship and rest. The Jewish people in the Old Testament observed their Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. The Christian church from its earliest days has always gathered for worship on Sunday, the first day of the week. Sunday is also known as the Lord’s Day, the day Jesus rose from the dead.

But whatever day you may set aside as a Sabbath, realize that God made the Sabbath for you. God doesn’t want you to work non-stop, seven days a week without ever taking a break. And he doesn’t want you to miss out on corporate worship. So he gave you the Sabbath so you could slow down, rest from your work, and gather with God’s people to worship and pray. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

        3) Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.

And then Jesus goes on to his third statement to the Pharisees, which is the most powerful of them all. Look at verse 28:

“So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:28)

The Pharisees were questioning Jesus’ judgment in allowing his disciples to pick and eat grain on the Sabbath. But Jesus is the Son of Man. He is Lord of all. He is the one who gave the Sabbath command to begin with. As with all his laws, God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit. And he has the authority to tell us how to observe it.

II. It is always lawful to do good (3:1-5)

That is the first truth we need to know about God’s laws. God’s laws are made for our benefit. Here is the second. It is always lawful to do good. We see this in the next section in Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees over the man with the shriveled hand.

    A. The Pharisees look for a reason to accuse Jesus (1-2)

Look at verses 1-2:

Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. (Mark 3:1-2)

Mark sets up the scene so well here. It is the Sabbath. Jesus goes into the synagogue. There is a man there with a shriveled hand who needs healing. The Pharisees are all watching, waiting, looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. Jesus had cast out a demon in the synagogue on a Sabbath before. Would he now heal this man? If so, they could accuse him of breaking the Sabbath.

This is just wrong on so many levels. First of all, when you go to synagogue, you are supposed to be worshiping, but the Pharisees are there trying to trap Jesus instead. Secondly, they want Jesus to heal this man, not because they care about the man and want to see him get healed, but because they are looking for another reason to accuse Jesus.

You see, according to their self-made book of rules and regulations, they said you could only help or heal a person on the Sabbath in life-threatening situations. Otherwise, to quote a certain synagogue ruler from the gospel of Luke: “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” (Luke 13:14) Well, this man’s life wasn’t in danger, so they determined it would be unlawful for Jesus to heal him on the Sabbath.

    B. Jesus confronts the Pharisees (3-5)

Jesus sees the man with the shriveled hand who needs healing. And he sees the Pharisees who are watching him closely hoping to trap him in some violation of the law. And so the Lord of the Sabbath confronts the Pharisees with their ungodly attitude. First, he has the man stand up in the midst of the room. Verse 3:

Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” (Mark 3:3)

They didn’t have to watch Jesus closely, because Jesus wasn’t going to do this on the sly or wait until nobody was looking, but he planned to heal this man in front of everyone.

Then he asked them a series of questions. Verse 4:

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. (Mark 3:4)

Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater here. The Pharisees already knew that it was lawful to save life on the Sabbath. And of course no one would say you could kill on the Sabbath, or any other day for that matter. Why? Because it is good to save life, and it is evil to take life. The Pharisees were hoping to trap Jesus, but Jesus with his question really trapped the Pharisees. They can’t say it is lawful to do evil on the Sabbath; everyone knows that is wrong. And if they agree that it is lawful to do good, then they can’t accuse Jesus if he heals the man.

So what do they say? Nothing. There is nothing they can say to justify their position. They know they are wrong, but instead of humbling themselves and confessing their sin, they harden their hearts and say nothing at all.

Look at verse 5:

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mark 3:5)

Jesus was angry with the Pharisees. Did you know that Jesus got angry from time to time? This was not a sinful anger, but rather a righteous anger directed towards sin. Jesus was grieved by the stubbornness of the Pharisees’ hearts. He was angry that they would consider their man-made rules and regulations to be more important than this man’s healing. And so Jesus chooses to do good on the Sabbath. He says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.

You see, it is always lawful to do good. Romans 13 says this:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

In other words, the law is a means to an end. The law is meant to give you guidance and to show you concrete ways that you can love our neighbor. But it is not meant to create technicalities and roadblocks that prevent you from loving your neighbor. So when you have the opportunity to do good for someone, you don’t have to stop and ask yourself, “Hmmm, is this lawful? Is this allowed?” All the commandments are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And so it is always lawful to do good.

III. Legalism is the enemy of grace (6)

And then finally we come to the third important truth about God’s laws in this passage: legalism is the enemy of grace. Look at verse 6:

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:6)

We have seen the hostility towards Jesus building up over the last two chapters, and now it finally comes to a head. The Pharisees are ready to kill Jesus because of his actions and his teachings.

    A. The Pharisees team up with the Herodians.

It is interesting, verse 6 says they teamed up with the Herodians to do this. We don’t know a whole lot about the Herodians. They only show up a couple times in the New Testament and only a few times in the literature outside the New Testament. They were probably not a full-blown political party, but rather an informal group of supporters of King Herod.

But that’s the catch. The Pharisees hated King Herod and all that he stood for. Herod was a traitor who served the Roman Empire. Under normal circumstances they would want nothing to do with the Herodians. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the Herodians would have had some inside influence with the politics of Rome, and so they chose to team up with this group whom they normally would have despised.

    B. Together they plot to kill Jesus.

And together the Pharisees and the Herodians begin to plot how they might kill Jesus. Jesus was teaching in their synagogues with authority, he was claiming the authority to forgive sins, he was eating with tax collectors and sinners, his disciples did not fast, and now he was healing on the Sabbath. Jesus came from the Father full of grace and truth, and the Pharisees hated him for it.

You see legalism is the enemy of grace. Legalism wants to dictate and control. God is not like that. God offers you freedom and grace. God offers you forgiveness for your sins through his Son, Jesus. And he offers you the freedom to live a life of loving God and loving your neighbor through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As a church we must always reject legalism and choose grace. You can’t have both. One is the enemy of the other. When you separate love from the law, you get legalism. That’s what the Pharisees did, and Jesus was angry with them for it.

CONCLUSION: In conclusion let me leave you with three thoughts this morning.

1) First of all, think good thoughts of God. So often people think that God made up all these laws and commandments just to weigh us down and make our lives miserable. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s laws are made for your benefit. When you follow in God’s way, your life will be sweeter, not worse.

2) Secondly, receive the Sabbath as a gift from God. The Sabbath is an opportunity to rest from your work and to join with others to worship God. We shouldn’t think of the Sabbath as a burden, or an imposition, or some type of interruption to our week, but rather we should look forward to this day that has been set apart for us by God. We should call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable. (Isaiah 58:13)

3) And then thirdly, be a people of grace. Love God; love your family; love your neighbor. “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:14) God is a God of grace. Let us be a people of grace.

© Ray Fowler

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