Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6)
How do you feel? Do you feel tired? Get enough sleep last night? Has this week been a good one, or a difficult one? Isn’t it amazing how rarely we hear about people having a restful week? Work is always overwhelming, the home is always too much to manage, school is always pouring on more than we can handle, and our family and friends never seem to be filling up our tanks the way we would like. Maybe a physical sickness or old age has been slowly wearing you down, or a wayward child or grandchild has kept you from having peace of mind. Perhaps this is the internet’s fault? We compare ourselves with the unrealistic manicured portfolios of friends on social media; we are constantly fed anxiety fueling news stories about problems around the globe and in our nation; and we are mentally trained to flit from one thing to another, preventing us from thinking deeply and meditatively on things. All of that combined together is a powerful recipe for anxiety, sleeplessness, addiction to distraction, and discontentment. What’s going on? Is this just a problem of living in our modern, technological age of over-filled schedules, full inboxes, and demanding careers?
Here is one writer, “The world at present is in a mighty hurry, and being in many places cut off from all foundations of steadfastness, it makes the minds of men giddy with its revolutions, or disorderly in the expectations of them…hence men walk and talk as if the world were all, when comparatively it is nothing.” That is the puritan writer John Owen writing in 1681, not someone writing in the 21st century. Or listen to the Apostle Paul writing sometime in the middle of the first century, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” (Phil 4:6). Restless anxiety, workaholism, is not a by-product of living in the 21st century but is something that has plagued mankind since the exile from the Garden. When Adam is cursed by God he is told, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” (Gen 3:17b-19). Our life is often marked by exhausting, frustrating work—thorns, thistles, and sweaty brows till we collapse under six feet of dirt. This isn’t the byproduct of a particular time or technology, friends—though our times and technology may exasperate some aspects of it. The deep dis-ease that constantly nags at our hearts, the kind of exhaustion that no amount of sleep will fix is a problem that stems from our alienation from God. A bone is out of joint somewhere and it is making this path we are walking on terribly painful. This isn’t the way things should be, we unconsciously whisper to ourselves. So what do we do about it?
In these two stories we see Jesus enter into a dispute with the Pharisees over what is permissible to do on the Sabbath. Jesus’ disciples are plucking heads of grain (2:23-24) and Jesus is performing a healing miracle on the Sabbath (3:1-5). Both of which the Pharisees view as absolutely unlawful activities on the Sabbath.
Why is there this great controversy over working on a Saturday? Well, it is bound up with the Sabbath (Shabat, the Hebrew word for “rest” or “cease”) command: if you were a faithful Jew, on the seventh day you ceased from all your normal work, and spent the day worshipping Yahweh. Why? The Sabbath command was not an end of itself; it was to bring to mind the rest that was found at the beginning of Creation. In Genesis, after God has created a perfectly ordered world, filled it (telling us repeatedly that it all is “good”), He then creates man and woman in His image and gives them dominion over all of creation (Genesis 1:28). Before God stands the idyllic picture of creation: everything is ordered, harmonious, fulfilling its purposes without frustration, and with the crown of God’s creation (man and woman) ruling and reigning, exercising dominion over it all. This is very good.
“Thus,” we are told, “the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 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,” Genesis 2:1-3. Why is God resting? Is He exhausted? Did creating the Heavens and the Earth wear Him out? Of course not. God is not like us, friends; He does not grow tired or weary (Isa 40:28). God is not resting the way you rest after an intense workout; He is resting the way that you rest after a job is complete. The kind of rest you have after you finish putting the Ikea furniture together. What was once a disordered jumble of screws, pressed particle board, and wooden dowels has now (sometimes, miraculously) come together into a functioning bookshelf! Order arises out of chaos. This is God’s rest on the seventh day. Creation is functioning and ordered precisely the way God designed it to be; man and woman are fulfilling their calling, exercising dominion over creation, and God is dwelling with man. But, sadly, it doesn’t last.
Adam and Eve subvert God’s good, ordered plan. Instead of exercising dominion over the beasts of the field, a beast of the field (the serpent, Gen 3:1) exercises dominion over them. Instead of Adam leading his wife as her head, he passively follows his wife into disobedience (Gen 3:6; 3:17). And out of this rebellion the “rest” of God; the peace that flows out of the order of creation is interrupted. Adam and Eve (and all of creation) are cursed and then exiled from Eden, from God’s presence (Gen 3:14-24). But, this doesn’t God abandons His creation. God begins to work to undue the curse. So enters into a covenant with His people that will eventually lead them to put faith in a coming Messiah who would bring about the promises of God and restore the communion between God and His people. One of the commands of that covenant is the command to rest on the Sabbath, the seventh day.
The fourth commandment prohibited any work to be done on the Sabbath in honor of God resting on the seventh day of creation (Ex 20:8-11; cf. Ex 31:13-17). On the Sabbath, not only were Jews not allowed to work, but neither were their servants or their livestock, or even people sojourning through their land (Deut 5:12-15). Why aren’t people allowed to work? The nation is collectively remembering the ordered fullness of the original creation, the communion that was once between God and His people. While “work” is not sinful (Adam was commanded to work prior to the Fall, Gen 2:15), toiling and sweating for your bread to eat is part of the curse (Gen 3:17-19); to rest on the Sabbath, to cease from that toil, and to worship the Lord was to remember what once was, what had been lost, and to look forward to it’s restoration. So, the Sabbath command pointed forward to something else: the renewal of God’s creation, the reconciliation between God and man.
So, Israel was not allowed to work on the Sabbath. While we have a few examples of what constitutes “work” (kindling a fire, picking up sticks, Ex 35:3; cf. Num 15:32-36; plowing and harvesting, Ex 34:21), most of the time we are generically told that all normal “work” must cease. Over time, out of a genuine desire to obey the Lord, Jews began to try and became much more careful about exactly what kind of “work” wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath. So, they created lists that went beyond what the Bible explained that were filled with minute prohibitions: you couldn’t walk more than half a mile on the Sabbath, for example. In time, these lists began to transform from suggestions to commands. In this interaction with the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples are being accused of breaking the Sabbath by plucking heads of grain to eat as they walked through a field (cf. Deut 23:25) and Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath by healing the man with a withered hand. Of course, the Old Testament does not forbid healing on the Sabbath nor does it forbid plucking heads of grain, per se. But these acts violated the Pharisees’ traditions, which to them seemed to be just as binding as the Law itself.
I want to pause for a moment and think about this. This is a helpful cautionary tale for us today, friends. We likewise must be careful about making our personal convictions as authoritative as God’s commands. Certainly, there are convictions that we have that are synonymous with God’s commands: you must believe in Christ for salvation, abortion is sinful, God is sovereign, sex is restricted to one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage, and so on. We cannot act like those issues are unclear when God has made them abundantly clear in His Word, ridiculously acting as if we are somehow more tolerant and loving than God. But when we move beyond the specific commands of Scripture into areas of prudence and principles, we have to be careful not to elevate our convictions to the level of Scripture. Paul understood this when writing to the church in Rome where there was strong disagreement about the kinds of foods that were permissible to eat, or whether or not one should still keep the Sabbath command: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him…One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” (Rom 14:1-3, 5). We must have a category for issues in our Christian faith where we can be strongly convicted that we are right on something, but need not require someone else to do what we do if it violates their conscience. So, what option we choose for our children’s education (public, private, home school), how we should try to end abortion in America (make it illegal, focus on pregnancy clinics, increase government aid to single moms), what political party we should support (democrat, republican, libertarian), and so on. You may have very strong opinions on those issues and many others. But we must be careful about saying, “If you are a Christian, you must agree with my view on these issues.” Before we say something like that, we have to have very clear Biblical warrant. If we don’t, we indirectly begin to act like the Pharisees who so treasured their traditions that they assumed that anyone who disagreed with them was not faithful. Friend, the only way you are going to arrive at this balance is by studying your Bible enough to know what matters are non-negotiable, and by entering into relationships with other brothers and sisters who disagree with you. You will be helped to engage into a relationship with another member in this church who does not share your same political and cultural views, and set aside your preferences for the good of your brothers and sisters. Maybe it would be wise for your family or for your small group to spend some time studying Romans 14 carefully to think about this issue more.
In the first story, Jesus responds to the Pharisees in a most unusual way. Rather than challenging their interpretation of the Sabbath command (They are not, in fact, violating the Sabbath), Jesus brings up a strange story of David. “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 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?” Mark 2:25-26. Why does Jesus bring this up? I think Jesus is trying to knock the Pharisees down a few pegs by presenting a truly difficult Bible story to interpret (which He does elsewhere, Matt 22:41-45; John 10:34-36), but His main emphasis is to show that their understanding of what is permissible and forbidden is misguided: when God’s anointed (David) is in need, God is willing to flex on some of His ceremonial restrictions—note that Jesus says that what David did was “not lawful”. In Matthew’s account of this, Jesus adds that on the Sabbath priests are working in the temple all through the Sabbath, yet that is permissible (Matt 12:5)—something the Pharisees would have readily agreed with. So Jesus is luring the Pharisees into realizing that their iron-clad zeal for snubbing out all violations to the ceremonial law has some holes in it. Is it wrong for priests to work in the temple on the Sabbath? Was David wrong to find help from the priest when his life was in danger? Certainly not. While the Pharisees had been so focused on guarding the Sabbath, they had forgotten what the point of Sabbath was, like a zealous soldier so intent on patrolling the outer perimeter that he has forgotten what it was he was guarding. Jesus simply explains, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” Mark 2:27. Jesus reminds them that the Sabbath is a servant, not a master; it was made to remind man of the rest of Eden, communion with God, and the idyllic state of man’s work before sin had entered the world. The Pharisees had it entirely backwards, acting as if granular obedience to stop all work on the Sabbath command was the end all be all, the point of the command. The command wasn’t simply to cease but also to remember (Ex 20:8).
This is why Jesus challenges the Pharisees when he heals the man in the synagogue, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” Mark 3:4. Jesus is showing us what the Sabbath is for: doing good, saving life. If the Sabbath was meant to look back to the Eden ideal of wholeness and peace, what could be more appropriate than this man with a withered hand being restored to physical wholeness? So, what is the point of the Sabbath command? It is not merely a ceasing of all activity, but is a remembrance of the peace and rest of Eden, where wholeness and union with God was found. But Jesus isn’t just correcting a faulty view of the overzealous Pharisees—He is making a claim that will bring about a massive shift in all of redemptive history.
Jesus makes this powerful declaration, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath,” Mark 2:28. Jesus is making a provocative, lightning-charged statement of who He is and what authority He bears. In Matthew’s account, after explaining that the priests work in the temple during the Sabbath, Jesus says, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here,” Matt 12:6. Wow! More important than the temple?! The temple was where heaven and earth met, the one place where man could commune with God; it was the last portal back to Eden and the rest that came with it that remained on earth. And this guy is claiming to be more important than that? Who does this guys think He is?? Well, its very simple: He is the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of Rest. The “Lord” is the divine name used for God in the Old Testament, but it is also a title of authority. Jesus has authority over the Sabbath. But what does that mean? It means that He is the One who to whom the Sabbath command points to. The Sabbath was a command that called to mind the peace and communion between God and man in Eden. Jesus is the One who has come to restore that union, reconciling man with God (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10). Listen to what Paul tells us in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The Sabbath command was a shadow of Christ, cast backwards onto the pages of the Old Testament. If you are a perceptive reader of the gospel of Matthew, you might have noticed that right before these two Sabbath confrontations with the Pharisees, Jesus famously teaches, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” Matthew 11:28-30. What is Matthew trying to show us by placing these stories right after this statement? The rest that was lost at Eden, that the Sabbath command pointed towards, has now come and is given by you coming to Christ.
So how do we apply this to our lives today? Let’s return to the question I began the sermon with: are you tired? What exhausts you right now? Maybe you’re thinking, Okay, I get what you’re saying, but I am a Christian, and I still feel tired. I don’t feel like I am relaxing in the garden of Eden right now. A couple of points to remember:
The book of Hebrews, talking about this rest, explains, “For we who have believed enter that [Sabbath] rest,” Hebrews 4:3. Jesus teaches that anyone who comes to Him will find rest (Matt 11:28-30). If you believe in Jesus, you have been reconciled to God, your sins have been forgiven and you have peace with God (Rom 5:1-2). The rest that comes from communion with God is now yours. And if that is true, that means that your biggest problem has been solved because you have been made right with God. Why is the businessman killing himself at his job? Maybe he is afraid; there is a normal fear of not being able to provide for your family of course. But there is a deeper, more crippling fear that says, If I lose this job, if I don’t perform, then my life is over, I don’t know who I am anymore. So underneath his normal work, there is a deeper work of self-justification, self-salvation. But the gospel comes in and says, “You are not saved by your work of any kind, you are only saved by Jesus’ work on your behalf.” When that is believed and embraced wholly, then my job, my relationships, my hobbies, my body image, my intelligence no longer bear the weight of my salvation, and thus I am not so frantic about getting everything perfect. My biggest problem is not my job performance—my biggest problem was the wrath of God for my sins, and that has been taken away. Now all of my other problems, in light of that, seem like fleabites in comparison. There is a rest available to us now through Christ.
But there is also a rest that awaits us. The book of Hebrews, just a few verses later 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. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience,” Hebrews 4:9-11. We have not yet rested from all of our works the way God rested from His. That will not happen till we die or the Lord returns. This is why we must “strive to enter that rest.” The full experience of this rest will not come till the New Heavens and the New Earth arrive. This world is still marred by the curse, and thus work will never be fully rid of toil and frustration. This is why we are exhorted, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” Galatians 6:9-10. A life devoted to doing good, loving others, especially loving other members in our church, is hard. And that shouldn’t surprise us. I wonder if half of your frustration and exhaustion with life would disappear if you kept reminding yourself: of course this is hard; life was never meant to be easy. How much of your discouragement comes from you saying, It shouldn’t be this hard. Why? What makes you think that? The world, your flesh, and the devil have all arrayed themselves against you, the curse has insured that life will be filled with frustrations, and the Lord has given you a humanly impossible task of loving others like He has loved you. Of course life is hard! God never promised life would be easy, but He promised it would be meaningful, and He promised that He would supply the strength and energy we would need to follow Him.
Are you tired? Have you met the Lord of Rest yet? Do you functionally look to your job, your marriage, your body for your salvation? Are you tired? Have you bought into the lie of our age that the “good life” is found in comfort and ease? Following Jesus involves taking on a burden, shouldering a yoke—but this burden, this yoke from Jesus is light and easy.