Mark 2:23-3:6  Sabbath Law

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

1.  There are two stories recorded in the biblical passage we are given for today.  Both of them have to do with sabbath laws.  The first is a tale of when the disciples did something that one mustn't do on the Sabbath.  The second is a tale of when the Lord Jesus himself performed something that was forbidden on the Sabbath.  The things the Lord did revolving around the sabbath laws and the words the Lord said had come to deepen the animosity of the Pharisees even further.  In this passage the circumstances, in which a discussion was held for the purpose of murdering the Lord Jesus, are made clear.  These events will come to lead Jesus to the cross.

The Law Was Established For Humankind

2.  So then let's read the first story.

"One Sabbath, when Jesus was going through a wheat* field, as the disciples were walking they began to pick the head of the wheat.  The Pharisees said to Jesus, 'Please look.  Why do they do what we must not do on the Sabbath?'  Jesus said, 'have you never once read what David himself and his followers did when there was no food and they were hungry?  When Abiathar was high priest, didn't David enter the house of God, eat the bread of dedication which no one but the priests should eat, and give it to those who were with him as well?'  Then he went on to say, 'The Sabbath was established for man.  Man does not exist for the Sabbath.  Thus, the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath,'" (2:23-28).

3.  It sounds like the disciples were hungry; so, while they were walking they began to pick the head of the wheat.  A person who selfishly eats from somebody else's field is a thief.  Their actions look problematic in our eyes.  But, back then this wasn't all that unusual.  This act was permitted in Mosaic law.  For example, it says the following in Deuteronomy, "When you enter your neighbor's wheat field, you should pick the heads by hand and do not use a sickle in that field," (Deuteronomy 23:25).  It is one of the sentences in the law where a warm consideration for the poor frequently is shown.  Thus, the reason the Pharisees rebuked the disciples was not because they had eaten another person's wheat.  The problem was they did a deed on "the Sabbath day."

4.  The Sabbath day goes from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.  In regard to the command to keep the Sabbath day, it is written as the fourth commandment in the ten commandments of Moses.  "Keep the Sabbath in your heart, make it holy.  Work during six days, do your work whatever it is, but as for the seventh day, since it is your God's, the Lord's Sabbath, you should not do any kind of work," (Exodus 20:8-10).  People strict on the law earnestly tried to keep the law of the Sabbath day.  For that reason they had to clarify what "work" was.  Thus, thirty-nine categories of work came to be forbidden on the Sabbath.  Later, again, it came to be broken down into six different divisions or orders.**

5.  The actions of the disciples did not get snagged in these stipulations.  They picked the heads.  This came under the work of "reaping."  And the heads of the wheat were not eaten just the way they came.  They ground the heads and ate them.  This is "threshing" and "preparation of food."  It is all forbidden work.  It is not a humorous story.  The Pharisees are serious when they rebuked the deeds of the disciples.

6.  Then Jesus responded to them in all seriousness as well by drawing from the scriptures.  It is the story of David which is found in First Samuel chapter twenty-one.  Anyone except the priests were forbidden by law to eat the bread of the dedication, (Leviticus 24:9).  The Lord says, "However, didn't David eat it?  The scriptures did not rebuke him, did it?"  This story is not directly related to the Sabbath, and the Lord speaks on the law itself in a very broad way.  Whereupon, the Lord says, "The Sabbath day was established for man.  Man does not exist for the Sabbath," (verse twenty-seven).

7.  "The Sabbath day was established for man."  As I said before, the Lord was not thinking only of the Sabbath here, but he is speaking from the larger view of the entire body of law.  Therefore, I think we should restate this phrase to "The law was established for man."  Isn't this a shocking phrase?  A person doesn't usually think that way in regard to the law or to the established codes and commands.  Because we don't feel [this] "was established for man," in our innermost thoughts we want to observe it as little as possible.

8.  Thus, in regards to the commandments of God, two reactions take place.  One person thinks, "How far can I go with this?"  They intend to go up to the bare minimum before violating the law.  They would stop just short of a violation.  Thus, they notice what is strictly forbidden.  If a stipulation of prohibition is clearly set, they think if you don't get caught do it anyway though your conscience might bother you a bit.  They make a cliché of self-defense out of saying, "This isn't prohibited by the law, you know!"  The other reaction is the person who begins to credit his or her achievements that they have kept the law.  When you don't understand that it "was made for man," you end up thinking as if keeping it is a commendable act that you accomplished for God.  Then, you start looking down on anyone who doesn't keep it.  You begin to charge others as guilty.  And you begin making deals with God out of your observance of the law.  People try to obtain salvation in accumulating deeds in keeping the law and trading them in.  What we see in this is an attitude rooted in legalism.  And this makes a person a slave to the law.  It ends up making things as if "Man exists for the law."

9.  The Lord clarified that error.  And what the Lord said agrees with what the Old Testament states regarding "The Ten Commandments."  There is a preamble to the ten commandments.  Before the ten commandments the following words are written, "I, the Lord your God, am the God who lead you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery," (Exodus 20:2).  In other words, the forgiveness and salvation of God, the grace of God and the work of his salvation based on that grace came first.  The reason they were saved was not that they had kept the law.  It is because of his grace.  But, those saved by grace were given the law so that they would live as the people of God under the rule of God's grace and so they would live in obedience to God with thanksgiving.  The commands of God were based on grace and given on behalf of humankind.  And the Lord with his own body demonstrated that fact.

The Day To Recall God's Salvation

10.  So then, let's read the next part.

"Jesus entered the synagogue again.  There was a man with a lame hand.  The people wanting to accuse Jesus were paying attention to whether he would heal the sickness of this man on the Sabbath day.  Jesus said to the man with the lame hand, 'Stand in the center.'  Then he spoke to the people as follows, 'Is it permitted by the law on the Sabbath day to do a good deed or to do a bad deed, to save a life or to kill?'  They were silent.  Then, Jesus was angry and looked around at the people, and as he was sorry for their hardened hearts he said to the man, 'Raise your hand.'  When he raised it, his hand went back the way it was.  The Pharisees left, and immediately they began to confer with the Herodians on how to kill Jesus," (3:1-6).

11.  The setting is worship on the Sabbath.  But, not everyone there was there for the genuine purpose of worshipping God.  Some were there sitting there not filled with praise but hatred.  They were inquiring into the actions of Jesus in order to find excuses by which to accuse the Lord Jesus.  When you look at verse six, we see that these were the Pharisees strict towards the law.  They respected the Sabbath more than anyone else, and they respected worship, but they themselves were not worshipping God.  Their interests lied in whether or not the Lord Jesus would break the Sabbath laws.  A deed pertaining to medical treatment was also included among the works that were forbidden on the Sabbath.  Thus, they were paying attention to whether the Lord would heal the man with the lame hand on the Sabbath.

12.  The Lord must have known their intentions quite well.  For this very reason he dared to make the man with the lame hand stand right in the center.  Then he shot one question right to them.  "Is it permitted by the law on the Sabbath day to do a good deed or to do a bad deed, to save a life or to kill?"

13.  In order to understand the question the Lord directed at them, I would like us to open to a passage in the Old Testament.  Just before, I quoted the law from Exodus, but the truth is it is not just Exodus that has a record of the commandments.  They appear in Deuteronomy, too.  Let's open to a passage on the Sabbath laws which are found there.  It is written in Deuteronomy chapter five and verse twelve and so.  It is verse fifteen in particular that I'd like to pay attention to.  "You used to be a slave in the land of Egypt, so you should recall that your God the Lord lifted his powerful hand and arm and lead you.  For that reason, your God the Lord has commanded that you keep the Sabbath," (Deuteronomy 5:15).

14.  What is being emphasized at this point here is that God's grace was first.  He says that first God took pity on them.  He says that God kept you in his mind, loved you, had compassion on you, and saved you when you were slaves, when you used to groan out in pain and when no one else would look twice at you.  Thus, he says to remember that on the Sabbath.  The first thing a person should remember is not what he or she did for God, but what God did for me.

15.  Also, when we have understood that God's grace comes first, we will first come to understand how we are to live in response to that grace.  That is nothing but to carry the grace of God we have received and bring it to our neighbor.  We share that grace.  It is not someone far away.  It is our closest neighbor.  It says this in the Bible, "It is the same for you, your son, your daughter, your male or female slaves, your ox, or donkey or any of your farm animals, or even the sojourner among your city gates.  In so doing, even your male and female slaves will be able to rest the same as you," (Deuteronomy 5:14).  They made everyone rest.  They even made the ox and the donkey rest.  It was ultimately so that they would let the male and female slaves rest.  In recalling that they had received the mercy of God, they let all their neighbors rest, in this case even going as far as the male and female slaves.  This is the image of the Sabbath which Deuteronomy shows forth.

16.  That's how the Sabbath originally was not a day on which people only thought about "what you mustn't do."  Therefore, the Lord stood the man with the lame hand right in the center and asked them, "Is it permitted by the law on the Sabbath day to do a good deed or to do a bad deed, to save a life or to kill?"  To those who only considered "what you mustn't do," the person they were right then wasn't visible.  Those who have forgotten who they are now by God's mercy have not realized that God had compassion on them and he has cared for them.  Those who forget God's love shown them wind up not seeing their neighbors as human beings who are under the love of God.

17.  The Lord was angry and checked them over.  He was saddened at their hardened hearts.  The Lord was sad to the bottom of his heart.  They were not what you'd call the evil of this world in the slightest.  They weren't loose people.  They were serious people.  They lived in earnest.  But, the Lord Jesus looked at them and was sad at their hardened hearts.  And right before their eyes he let them see the true Sabbath.  The Lord said to the man, "Lift your hand."  Then he was healed.

18.  But, the result of that was that the Pharisees went out and began to discuss with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.  The actions of the Lord, this action based on God's mercy, lead the Lord Jesus one step closer to the cross.  Yes, indeed.  In this way the Lord proceeded in his walk to the cross.  The Lord was going closer step by step to the cross upon which the love of God in its extremest form where he has saving mercy upon sinners is manifested.

End Notes

*The word "corn" could just as easily be used here, but in its British definition.  Corn is defined as any several cereal plants producing edible seed, such as wheat, rye, oats, or barley.  Corn as we Americans know it is a food that is indigenous to America which the Native Americans taught the first settlers here how to grow (and to make pop corn at that).  I hardly think it was that kind of corn that Jesus and the disciples were picking that day, which is why I find it hard to use the word corn and have used the word wheat though it has its own awkwardness, too.

**The divisions are ordered in the Mishnah as follows:

  • First Division, Zeraim: Seeds
  • Second Division, Moed: Set Feasts
  • Third Division, Nashim Women
  • Fourth Division, Nezekin: Damages
  • Fifth Division, Kodashim: Hallowed Things
  • Sixth Division, Tohoroth: Cleannesses

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