Lord of the Sabbath

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.”

Mark 2:23-28
In the gospel account of Mark, the structure of the book is significant to draw emphasis to certain topics or subjects. Sometimes this is done by repeated themes, sometimes it is done through the use of brackets (called an inclusio), sometimes simply through the use of the word immediately. In the passage from Mark 2 above this is the second of three Sabbath sections (pericopes). The first was Jesus casting out a demon from possessed man in the synagogue on a Sabbath (Mark 1:21-28) and the third was the healing of a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). All three accounts involve the Pharisees as witnesses and all three note a progession of displeasure and ire at the actions of Jesus on the Sabbath.

In the passage above, the middle of the three Sabbath accounts, we find our Lord and His disciples walking through grainfields on the Sabbath. At first glance we might wonder why they were out walking and not in a synagogue as in our other two examples. It’s possible this is an intentional contrast to show a higher principle than synagogue attendance per Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, the primary purpose of this passage is to highlight the relationship of the Lord with the Sabbath and subsequently man’s relationship to the Sabbath.

Keeping in our minds that the first Sabbath pericope drew the attention of the religious leaders because of the authority that Jesus displayed, we ought not be surprised that in our passage the Pharisees were more inclined to look for “violations” of the Sabbath in order to accuse Him. The accusation from the Pharisees was that what Jesus’ disciples, and by extension Jesus Himself, were doing was not lawful on the Sabbath. The issue doesn’t appear to be that they were walking through grainfields on the Sabbath, in contrast to synagogue attendance, rather that Jesus’ disciples pluck the heads off of the grain for food. For context, Old Covenant law specifically required farmers to leave the edges of their field unharvested for the poor and sojourners, i.e. those passing through (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 23:25). As long as one did not take advantage of the farmer by harvesting the edges via sickle, but only took enough for their need when passing by then the practice was perfectly legal.

As to the Sabbath per Old Covenant or Mosaic Law, there was to be a remembrance of the day to keep it holy. No work was to be performed on that day including the gathering of sticks for making fire, food preparation, and more. In fact, the inauguration of the Sabbath command actually begins in Exodus 16, informing the background for the Sinai commandment (Fourth), and was specifically related to the gathering of manna and the preparation of food on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:23-30). This initial command forbade the people from even leaving their homes on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:29) and required them to trust in God’s provision from the previous day to last until the day following the Sabbath. Don’t miss that. The original intent of the Sabbath command was faith in God. As the law was handed down from Sinai, the specific Sabbath commandment forbade work on the Sabbath following the pattern of rest God had provided at creation (Ex. 20:8-11). In the (re)giving of the law prior to entrance of the Promised Land, we find again the prohibition against work, however this time the basis is not creation rather it is the exodus from Egypt, THE redemption event under in the Old Covenant and typical of THE New Covenant redemption event, namely from sin through the shed blood of Christ (Deut. 5:12-15). As the Old Covenant law develops, so too does the Sabbath command from a day, to a year, to a Jubilee, and ultimately a Sabbath principle. This is the reason why God refers to them collectively as Sabbaths (Ex. 31:13, et al.)

As it pertains to our passage in Mark, the Sabbath commandment is in view, but also the Pharisee’s addition to the law called the Mishnah which distinguished 39 categories for work, including the third one prohibiting reaping. The Mishnah is essentially a study guide on the law, similar to more modern confessions of faith (do with that what you will). With this understanding, when we see the Pharisees accusations we must work backward through their lens of the Mishnah in order to get to the commandment in view. Our Lord does just this with His reference to David.

First, Jesus refutes the Pharisees accusation by asking, “have you never read”. This is a familiar rebuttal and calls into question their knowledge of Scripture along with their understanding of Scripture. It is in effect a classic Sola Scriptura reply as it grounds the answer to their question in Scripture alone vs. any man made traditions or confessions. The reference to David comes from 1 Samuel 21:1-9. The context for that passage is David’s flight from the murderous rage of Saul. He had already been anointed as king by Samuel and was waiting on the Lord for his enthronement. In his fleeing, David encounters the priest Ahimelech at Nob and asks him for food. The priest replies that he has nothing common, only the holy bread known as the bread of the Presence or showbread that was placed (and replaced) in the temple holy place every Sabbath. Levitical law allowed only the priests to consume this bread, yet here in the passage from 1 Samuel, David is granted the bread by a priest. The only stipulation was that the men with David had been kept clean from women.

This is the background to which Jesus refers when He questions the Pharisees about whether they had ever read this Davidic episode. Jesus then offers commentary on this passage beginning with the fact that David and his men were in need and hungry. This statement establishes the higher principle, namely human need. The question at hand, however, is Jesus establishing this principle above law, even the Sabbath commandment? As He continues His exposition of the passage, Jesus provides some context for His opponents by stating the circumstances surrounding David’s need. First we read that he enters the house of God, then a reference to Abiathar, which isn’t wrong, though Ahimelech was the priest that was present. Abiathar was his son and is the more familiar priest associated with David’s reign. Next, our Lord explains that indeed the bread that David ate was the bread of the Presence and provides the prohibition of anyone eating it except the priests, as we have seen. David, and Ahimelech for his complicity, violate the commandment that restricted the eating of the showbread to the priests because of a higher principle, namely human need which in this case was hunger. How does this apply to the situation with Jesus and His disciples, especially since they did not violate the same command?

By citing David, Jesus cuts through the Pharisaical traditions that had been added through their interpretation of the law. If David had a human need and was cleared of guilt for violating the Levitical law, then certainly the Levitical law as instituted by God had a higher authority than the Pharisees Mishnah. But Jesus presses further. In His final response Jesus asserts His sovereignty and Lordship over the Sabbath. In doing so, He takes His argument from the lesser to the greater. David’s need allows him provision to break the Levitical law of the showbread; Christ as the greater David establishes an even higher principle in Himself that He is actually Lord over the Sabbath. As He has told us elsewhere, He didn’t come to abolish the law, rather to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-20). In His fulfillment, He is established as the law-giver and Lord of the law.

But there’s more here.

Following the clear statement of His Lordship over the Sabbath, we might expect the Lord to cite the Fourth Commandment, only He doesn’t. Instead, He cites the original intent for the Sabbath, namely that it was made for man, not man for it. In other words, from Creation man was not made to be slavishly subservient to the Sabbath, rather the Sabbath was to serve man. It was to be for man’s good, a delight, not a burden, rest and reflection, not restriction. How does one make the Sabbath a delight? Not by doing or not doing, rather by making the Lord of the Sabbath your delight. As a reminder, the original Sabbath ordinance at Creation did not have worship do’s or don’ts in view. For that matter neither did the Sinai command, only to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy along with remembrance and rest.

It has long been claimed by some that Jesus only repeats nine of the ten commandments, therefore only the nine are still applicable. Others say that Jesus’ repeating of the commandments is not necessary for applicability as the 10 commandments (moral law) are eternal and unchanging. The problem with both views is the neglect to see that the law should be viewed through Christ and in this case Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath is more in-depth than on any of the other commandments. Similarly, just as Jesus expanded our understanding of commandments such as adultery and murder in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), so too does He apply the same paradigm – the spirit behind the letter, here with the Sabbath. The law was added to expose sin and be a tutor leading to Christ (Gal. 3:24). It was never meant to be about black and white list keeping (Mark 10:17-27), rather it was to expose the inability of the heart to keep the commandments and reveal our need for a Savior. Whereas adultery wasn’t confined to physical contact, rather lust in the heart, and murder wasn’t confined to the physical act of taking a life, rather anger and hatred in the heart, so too now with the Sabbath, which isn’t confined to doing or not doing rather is an expression of faith, joy, and delight in the Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus’ clarification of the Sabbath grounds it in Creation where God rested on the seventh day. It remains a mystery to me how the Sabbath which God ordained on the seventh day from Creation itself has somehow been undone, transformed to the first day/eighth day and subsequently slavishly applied with do’s and don’ts. Unless Creation itself has been undone, then the Sabbath remains the Sabbath. This isn’t a defense for Judaism, nor Seventh Day Adventists, nor even Seventh Day Baptists, but it is a call to recognize that Creation – the created order, has not changed. The Lord’s Day, as it’s commonly called, is the day on which He rose from the grave – the first day/eighth day. It inaugurated a New Creation, but it did not undo the first creation. He remains Lord of the Sabbath to this day. There is both the Sabbath – founded at Creation and the Lord’s Day – founded at the New Creation of Christ’s resurrection and neither are confined to slavish do’s and don’ts. As believer’s we live in the in-between of a Creation that culminated in the Sabbath on the seventh day and the New Creation in Christ and the Sabbath-rest in Him that we enter into by faith (Hebrews 4:10-11).


For more on the Sabbath, see the Theology of Rest under the Doctrinal Index

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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