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Sovereign Over The Sabbath

Category Articles
Date March 18, 2004

Gospel Reading: Mark 2:23 – 3:6

I read this past week about an interesting decision of an Appeals Court in Mississippi. A man, his girlfriend, and family members were having a barbeque at a cabin in the woods. All were drinking alcoholic beverages. The man’s girlfriend became violently ill. They called 911, but after waiting for an ambulance, the man decided he had to seek immediate help, so he put his girlfriend in his car and started driving to the hospital in the city of McComb.

However, a state trooper observed him speeding and crossing the centerline, and stopped him. The man refused to take a field sobriety test on the ground of the emergency. The trooper called an ambulance but would not allow the man to continue his trip to the hospital. The man was placed under arrest and charged with driving under the influence on the basis of his failure to take the test.

When the case went to trial, the trial judge did not allow the man’s defense of necessity. The man was convicted, sentenced to 48 hours in jail, and fined $1000. The judge suspended the sentence but the conviction stood.

However, when the Court of Appeals heard the case, they, by a vote of 9-1, overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge who wrote the opinion said that a legitimate argument of necessity would excuse conduct otherwise criminal and noted that the judge who convicted the man had not said what alternatives the man had in the circumstances.

This case raises the question of the law, its proper interpretation and application. Similar questions are raised by the accounts of two conflicts Jesus had over Sabbath law.

I. Violation

On a Sabbath Jesus and His disciples were walking through a field. Farmers left untilled and unplanted pathways through their fields to form roads for the passage of travelers. It was probably late Spring when the Winter crops would be harvested. As they walked, Jesus’ disciples picked heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands to separate the grain from the stalk, and ate the grain. We might wonder why they thought it was all right to take grain from someone else’s field. They were acting according to a provision of the Old Testament law that allowed individuals to take produce from any field so long as they used only their hands and not a sickle (Deuteronomy 23:25). It was a provision that helped those who became hungry but had no access to food – travelers and the poor for instance.

The problem the Pharisee’s had was that this occurred on the Sabbath. The fourth of the Ten Commandments instructed, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It went on to forbid work on this day, not only for the Jewish people, but also for their servants, their guests, and their animals. We have noted several times that the Pharisees put hedges around the Law to guard against law-breaking. In interpreting and applying the Sabbath command, they had come up with a list of 39 forms of work that were forbidden. But even the 39 types of work had to be worked out for various circumstance and situations. As the Pharisees saw it, what the disciples did was reaping – clearly a form of work that was not allowed. Now Moses’ Law did teach farmers to rest by not plowing or reaping, even in the farming season, when as we know, “you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.” The question was whether the kind picking the disciples did was reaping. Perhaps this might help us to understand the command. I do not work in my yard on Sunday. So I don’t get out the lawn tractor or the yard tools. But, am I violating my own rule, if I bend over and pull up a stray weed? The Pharisees tried to answer such questions. In answering the question of whether picking a little grain was work the Pharisees answered, “Yes, no matter how small the amount, any picking of grain is reaping and so work.”

So they went to Jesus, who as a teacher was held responsible for the actions of his disciples, and asked, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

II. Vindication

Jesus might have replied to the Pharisees by pointing out their pettiness, and defending His disciples’ action. Rather, He chose to vindicate them and Himself by an appeal to an incident from David’s life recorded in 1 Samuel 21 (1-6). “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those 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 is not lawful for any but the priest to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

David, who had already been anointed king, was on the run from Saul, Israel’s first king who had gone bad. He came to the town of Nob where the tabernacle was set up. He asked the priest for some bread for him and his men, but the priest replied he had no ordinary bread. The only bread available was consecrated bread used in the tabernacle. Newly baked bread was placed on a special table in the Holy Place each Sabbath, and only the priests were allowed to eat the loaves that were taken out when fresh bread was brought in. It appears that the priest was willing to have David use this bread so long as he and his men had not recently had sexual relations and were, therefore, in a condition of ceremonial holiness. David assured him this was the case and so was given the bread.

The point that Jesus makes of this story does not so much have to do with comparing the two actions, though we do know that David was hungry when He took the bread, and that Jesus’ disciples, according to Matthew, were hungry. But the important thing is that David did this, and the LORD did not strike him down. To these Jews David was the greatest king in Israel’s history and the standard by whom all others were measured. He was the beginning of the line to whom God promised an everlasting throne. When the prophets spoke of the time when the LORD would renew His grace, put things right, and fulfill the promises, they sometimes spoke of the LORD raising up a new David. This One, who would be the new and greater David, was the Messiah.

Now the Pharisees were not about to condemn David, especially when the LORD did not rebuke him. David was unique. He was the LORD’s anointed one who ruled for the LORD, and if David, as it were, commandeered the holy bread and disregarded the rule that only the priests could eat it, then He was acting in his unique role as the anointed king of Israel. He was acting within his authority.

Now Jesus is setting the groundwork for what He will say next. He is now putting Himself in the place of David. He is claiming that He possessed all the authority and prerogatives of the LORD’s anointed king. Indeed He is great David’s greater Son – the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel. If David’s authority covers David’s men, then Jesus’ authority covers Jesus’ disciples.

III. Clarifications

When Jesus had vindicated His approval of His disciples’ picking the grain by appeal to the precedent of David’s action, He issued two clarifications.

The first clarification explains man’s relationship to the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Now it is important to note that Jesus is not doing away with the Sabbath. He is going back to the reason God ordained a Sabbath in the first place. God made man, and He gave the Sabbath as a blessing to man. He did not make the Sabbath and then make man to serve the interests of the Sabbath. The same is true of marriage. He did not establish an institution and then two human beings to conform to the institution. He made man and woman, and knowing how He had made them, God established marriage for their holiness and happiness.

When it comes to the Sabbath, God made man in his image. When God had completed the work of creation, God rested. God’s rest was not the rest of weariness, but the rest of satisfaction and delight in the completion of His work. Man, being created in God’s image, was given the same pattern – six days of labor and one day of rest. God does not want man to be defined entirely by his work. God knows that man needs rest, time to reflect on his place in creation, and time to worship God and to renew His relationship with God. If man needed the Sabbath before sin came into the world, how much more does he need it now. Now man can become enslaved to his work, by his own will or the will of others. Now man’s work brings frustration and weariness. Now so many things can make us forget God and our relationship to Him. So the Sabbath was consecrated that it might be a different day from all the others. The reason for the prohibition of work was so that man could be renewed and refreshed by having one whole day that work could not claim. And now man had space in His life to worship God. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that, by all their rules and additions to the Law, they had made the Sabbath, intended to be a blessing, a burden. They made people serve the rules. But Jesus brings us back to the intention of the Sabbath command. The Sabbath is meant as a blessing. You are free from work to renew your strength and to worship God.

The second clarification explains Jesus’ relation to the Sabbath: “The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Now Jesus claims that He has authority over the Sabbath. Remember that the Sabbath was God’s institution, established at creation, and God’s law given by Moses. But Jesus asserts His sovereignty over even the Sabbath. He is at the same time rejecting the authority of the scribes and Pharisees to interpret the Law, pronounce its applications to various situations, and to put their hedges around it. He, not they, is lord of he Sabbath. But He is also asserting that He has as the Son has the authority to establish the true purpose and requirements of the law. He does not abolish the day, but He does take away the right of the Pharisees to be the stewards of God’s Law, and He does assert His own right to be the final word about the Sabbath.

One commentator (Sinclair Ferguson) compares the Pharisees to the managers of a golf course. The golf course is beautiful, frustrating as it is to us who play. But suppose the managers established a rule that, in order to protect the beauty of the golf course, to prevent divots in the lush fairways, all shots had to be played from the rough. That would be a travesty for golf courses are meant to be enjoyed. So the Pharisees, in seeking to protect the holiness of the Sabbath, had surrounded it with rules that had the effect of depriving people of the blessing. Jesus, as lord of the Sabbath, set it free from the complex of regulations, and restored it to its original purpose as a blessing to man.

IV. Observation

The second incident happened, perhaps on the same Sabbath as the first, as Jesus and His disciples attended a synagogue service in Capernaum. On this day, there was present a man with a withered hand. The hand was probably curled up and useless – whether from birth defect, illness, or accident. The scene is set with Jesus and the man present at the same place at the same time.

The Pharisees were observing Jesus. They were anxious to see what He would do. Would He heal the man? It’s interesting that they have no doubts about His power. He certainly can do it. But will He?

They were watching so that they could make accusations against Him, if He did heal the man. Remember they made an effort to show how the Sabbath law applied to every conceivable situation. We might do the same thing. We know that still this Law calls us to rest from work and to worship God. So I am driving to church one Lord’s Day, and I get a flat tire. Now what am I to do about the “on it you shall not do any work” part of the law? Suppose the elders of our church had tried in advance to try to cover every situation. You can imagine several ways they might go. They might say, “Since you are on your way to worship, you may change the tire, but you may not call a service to change it for you.” Or, they might say, “You may pull to the side and call the church for help. They may pick you up and take you to the service, but you must not do anything about the tire till Monday.” You get the idea of how it might go.

Well, the Pharisees had tried to say what could be done on the Sabbath for those who were sick or injured. One law said that, if a building collapsed on the Sabbath, the rubble could be cleared enough to see if anyone were inside. The injured could be removed, but the dead would wait till the Sabbath ended. When it came to treatment, they said that, if a life were at stake, treatment could be given. But, if the person did not have a life threatening condition, nothing could be done till the next day.

So they were watching to see what Jesus would do. Since the man had a long-established, non-life threatening problem, to heal him would mean doing a kind of work not allowed. They were watching to see what Jesus would do, because they wanted to accuse Him, if He healed the man.

V. Provocation

Jesus responded not by avoiding the conflict but by provoking it. He called the man to come to Him. Then, with the man standing there, Jesus challenged the Pharisees with a question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” Jesus put the Pharisees in a difficult position. Is the Sabbath a day to do good or to do evil? A day to save a life or to kill? He was challenging their whole approach to the Sabbath. They focused on the command to do no work and proceeded to list all the types of labor forbidden and to anticipate all the difficult cases that might arise. But, Jesus, in effect, said, “Wait a minute. What was the reason the Sabbath was established? If it is supposed to be a blessing to man, then would it not be, not only allowed, but a right use of the day to heal a man – to do good, to restore him to wholeness of body.

But Jesus knew that the Pharisees did not at all agree with Him. He saw how they held onto to all the legalistic rules they insisted were necessary for proper Sabbath keeping. He knew their misinterpretation and the misuse of this law. They had made the law a burden rather than a blessing. They were more concerned about their additions to the law than about showing mercy to the man. He saw their hardness of heart – their closed minds, their blind eyes that would not see, their willful ignorance, their stubborn refusal to accept the truth He revealed. Jesus response was holy anger and deep grief.

Then He commanded the man to stretch out his hand. The man did, and his hand was restored completely. Jesus acted in public for all to see. He was as confrontational as He could be. You may have known some folks who are immature, or pugnacious, or like attention, who will do a thing that is controversial but right and do it in a situation in which their action is likely to provoke the strongest reaction by those who do not approve. Maybe someone, who has just learned about Christian liberty, invites the most conservative members of the church over to his house, and pours the wine and after dinner smokes a cigar. Is Jesus acting in that way? No, Jesus is asserting His own authority over the Sabbath and is restoring God’s law to the purpose for which it was intended.

VI. Condemnation

The result of Jesus’ action was condemnation by the Pharisees. Not at all did they reconsider their position or rejoice in the restoration of the man’s health. Rather they began to talk with the Herodians. The Pharisees were a religious group; the Herodians were a political group, who were loyal to the continued rule of the Herods. These two groups had little in common. The Pharisees emphasized the Law, and their rules built up around the Law. The Herodians had no interest in these things. On the other hand the Herodians supported the Herods and the Greek influences the Herods brought into Palestine. The Pharisees were opposed to the Herods and the influences they brought.

But these two very different groups were united by one a common enemy and a common hatred. Both saw Jesus as a threat, and so they consulted about how they might cooperate to destroy Him. This is the first time that Mark begins to prepare us for what is coming. What is coming is that Jesus is going to be destroyed by those who reject Him as the Son and hate Him because His very existence condemns and threatens them.

Jesus came not to destroy the Sabbath but save it and to make it again a blessing to man. In part for this reason His enemies would destroy Him. Jesus did not die to set us free from the Law to but to set the Law free to be a blessing to us. Brothers and sisters, let us neither ignore nor disobey the Sabbath command. Let keep the day holy by putting our work aside, and devoting ourselves to worshiping the Lord and doing good to others. Then we will know the day’s blessing.


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