The Sabbath was meant to be God’s gift to mankind, but the Pharisees turned it into a burden by their rules and regulations. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul examines what Jesus’ response teaches us about the identity and authority of Christ.
We continue now with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark, and this morning I will read from Mark 2:23–3:6. That means, dear friends, that right now you are about to experience the best part of our worship service, when we get to hear a word from God Himself. So, I ask you to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?”
And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.
This is the Word of God that you have just heard for your edification. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Father, how we thank You for this glimpse into the holy and majestic person of Your beloved Son, to whom You have given all authority on heaven and earth, that we may see Him healing, ministering, and responding to those who would kill Him. Help us understand these things in a new way, so that our affection and devotion to Him may be increased. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Antagonism of the Pharisees
It was almost this same time last year that I mentioned I had gone to New York City to hear Max McLean give a one-man performance just off Broadway in which he delivered the entire gospel of Mark in one sitting, verbatim, by memory. It was a remarkable experience to hear the whole gospel in such a short period of time. Now, we have the opportunity to look at it verse by verse.
The text begins in verse 23: “Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, ‘Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’”
Do you see what was happening in this text? In the past couple of weeks, we have noticed a rising crescendo of conflict taking place between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day. It was still early in the public ministry of Christ, yet already those against Him intensified their hatred and antagonism toward Him.
Mark tells us of this occasion when Jesus’ disciples walked through the grainfields and plucked grain from their stalks. Immediately the Pharisees and scribes raised the question about Jesus and His disciples violating Sabbath law. In the record we are reading, there is surely one violation of the rabbinic tradition, and in all probability, two.
Rabbinic Prohibitions on the Sabbath
In addition to the laws governing behavior on the Sabbath day that God gave to the Jewish people at Sinai in the Decalogue and the holiness code, further on in Jewish history, the rabbis devoted themselves to finetuning the law and coming up with specific prohibitions to carefully guard the observation of the Sabbath day. They included many details found nowhere in sacred Scripture, but their tradition became as binding on the people’s consciences as Scripture itself.
Two of those prohibitions had to do with the Sabbath-day’s journey. Jewish people were not allowed to travel more than what was called a “Sabbath-day’s journey” on the Sabbath, and the rabbis defined the Sabbath day’s journey as 1,999 paces, or roughly eight hundred meters. If you stepped along 1,999 paces, you were okay. If you took one more step, you were a Sabbath-breaker, and you had desecrated that holy day. Presumably, that rabbinic prohibition was in view here because when the disciples walked through the grainfields searching for something to eat, they likely went over the limit of 1,999 steps.
The other prohibition the rabbis had added was that since the Sabbath day prohibited any unnecessary labor—and certainly spoke against any commerce beyond the six days allowable—that would also be a violation of the law of God. One of those prohibitions was against harvesting crops on the Sabbath day. Reaping of crops was forbidden.
The Pharisees were saying that when the disciples went down the rows of grain and plucked the heads from those stalks of grain, they were guilty of harvesting on the Sabbath day. This was, according to the rabbis, a terrible infraction against the law of God.
David and the Showbread
Notice how Jesus responded to the Pharisees. The first thing He did was direct the attention of the religious leaders to the Bible itself. Like a good attorney would, Jesus cited precedents in order to justify the behavior of His clients, the disciples. He said, “Have you never read . . .” What an insulting statement. Jesus was saying, “Have you all never read the Bible?” They were supposed to be the experts.
Jesus said: “Did you forget what it says in Scripture? Have you never read what David did when he and those with him were in need and hungry: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and he ate the showbread? Do you remember that?”
When David was a fugitive from Saul, David gathered his band of brothers who went with him throughout the land. They were without shelter or food, and David was concerned about their health and well-being. There was no food available anywhere, so David thought: “There is food within reach in the tabernacle at the table of showbread. There are loaves of bread there, enough that I can give the necessary nourishment to my men who are about to faint.” So, David went into the sanctuary, took the showbread, and administered it to his men.
Jesus used this illustration because He knew that, in the minds of the rabbis and Pharisees who were there, the great hero of the golden age of Israel was David. He was their idea of the ideal king. Jesus had come preaching about the breaking through of a new kingdom that fulfilled the kingship of David. As the son of David, He appealed to something David did in the Old Testament recorded in sacred Scripture to shut the mouths of His critics. But that was only one thing He did. It gets even better.
Before I go to the most telling part of Jesus’ response, for the Philadelphia lawyers in the congregation who like to look at the difficult so-called discrepancies we find in Scripture, you may be aware that the Old Testament account of David’s activities tells us that Ahimelech was the high priest at that time. Jesus said, “Haven’t you read that in the days of Abiathar the high priest David did this?” Did our Lord make a mistake citing the historical circumstances of David’s activity? Some critics would say, “Obviously, Jesus didn’t get it straight because He mentioned Abiathar rather than Ahimelech.”
However, if you look in the Old Testament period, there were two Ahimelechs, but Abiathar was the main high priest at the time. That period of Jewish history was marked as the era of Abiathar or the days of Abiathar. Jesus did not say, “When he was actually the high priest,” but it was in that era that this incident took place. So, I think we can exonerate Jesus from the Jesus Seminar and other critics who want to fault Him for this saying.
The real crux of the matter comes in Jesus’ next statement, when He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Let me pause there. It was a remarkable statement because, at this point, Jesus was not criticizing the Old Testament law. Rather, He was leveling severe criticism at the rabbinic tradition that added to the law.
Where God had left people free, the rabbis had put them in chains. The way in which they proliferated prohibitions for the Sabbath is astonishing. For example, in their definition of not going beyond necessary labor, they argued that it would be a sin on the Sabbath day to untie a knot. If you got a knot in your shoelace, you must leave it knotted until the Sabbath is over because it is unnecessary work to do that.
They were liberal to one degree. They said that if you tore a garment and some sewing needed to be done, you were allowed to sew one stitch. This is how legalism works: one stitch, not two. Such absurdity, is it not? You could write letters on the Sabbath day. No, that is not quite accurate: you could write a letter on the Sabbath day—one, not two. One is easy; two is work, I guess.
With respect to medical treatment, you were allowed to give medical assistance or first aid to people injured or ill to the point of being life-threatening. But that only counts for one school of rabbis. Some of the schools of rabbis differed with each other. Some argued that if your livestock were giving birth—a cow having a calf, a goat having a kid, and so on—that if the animal giving birth had some kind of difficulty during the birthing process, you were not allowed to help it. You had to keep your hands off and stay away because that was not legitimate labor.
You could help people if their lives were in danger, but only if their lives were in danger. For example, if somebody dislocated their shoulder, you could not help get it back in place until after the Sabbath was over, because a dislocated shoulder is not life-threatening. At the same time, if somebody broke a wrist, you were not allowed to put a splint on the wrist until after the Sabbath day was finished.
If a building caved in, and people were buried underneath the rubble, you could remove the stones to see if there were any survivors, and if there were any whose lives were threatened, they could be treated with first aid. Others dragged from the building who could wait until the morrow would have to wait. If somebody was already dead, you were not allowed to move the corpse until after the Sabbath day. On and on it went, and each generation of rabbis added more restrictions to the law of God than the previous generation.
The Sabbath Turned into a Burden
We see similar things all the time within the Christian community. All kinds of laws are communicated to Christians that have nothing whatsoever to do with the law of God.
I remember the first time I worked as a professor in a Christian college. One day, I went to a picnic before school started by the campus lake, and there were some students playing cards. I said, “What are you playing?” They said, “Rook.” I said: “Rook? I haven’t played that since I was eight years old.” They said, “Well, don’t you know that’s the Christian card game? We’re not allowed to play any other game of cards except Rook because other cards have the Joker, and that’s the symbol of the devil. So, we’re not allowed to play cards.”
I thought: “What am I going to do? I’m the new Bible teacher, and my wife and I play in duplicate bridge tournaments. I’m in big trouble.” I was in an environment of no lipstick, no dancing—all that sort of thing. I thought, “How in the world do these rules and regulations come to be tests of Christianity when they’re nowhere in the Word of God?”
Like the Pharisees, we often create rules that we can keep instead of obeying the ones that God gives us, which are much harder to keep. Anybody can go without wearing lipstick. That is no big deal. But not to slander—that is difficult to obey. This is what was going on then, and it goes on in every generation.
The religious leaders were creating a law that had nothing to do with the things of God, and Jesus said: “You have forgotten the whole purpose of the Sabbath day in the first place. Don’t you understand that the Sabbath day is a gift that God has given to His people, a gift to keep them from wearing out their bodies, animals, servants, and fields? That one day in seven, every single week, you, your animals, and your servants are not supposed to work, and the land is supposed to be given a break. That is for your benefit. But the rabbinic tradition has turned the Sabbath day into a laborious burden rather than a great gift of God. People must watch themselves in every way so they don’t overstep the boundaries of these laws.”
It was in that context that Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man. Man wasn’t made for the Sabbath.” Then the bombshell comes: “Therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath.”
The Lord of the Sabbath
Recently in our series, we looked at Jesus forgiving a crippled man’s sins. Jesus indicated at that point, “I do this that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
How outraged the religious leaders were because they understood that the only One who had the authority to forgive sins was God, and Jesus was arrogating to Himself a divine prerogative when He pronounced the man’s sins forgiven. In this text, He did it again: “I say this that you may know that the Son of Man doesn’t just have the authority to forgive sins, but He’s Lord of the Sabbath.”
One of the ongoing debates in theology with respect to the Sabbath day—and there are many debates with respect to the Sabbath even to this day—is about when the Sabbath was instituted. Some scholars say, “The Sabbath wasn’t instituted until God gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai, so it was delivered by Moses.” But others say: “No, the Sabbath was instituted long before Sinai, long before Moses. It was instituted in creation, where God Himself followed the pattern of working for six days and then rested on the seventh day.” Not only did He rest on the Sabbath day, beloved, but what did He do? He hallowed it. That means He consecrated it. He made it a holy day, a holiday, all the way back at creation. I am with the group that believes the Sabbath was instituted in creation, long before Moses ever trod the earth.
What is the significance of Jesus’ statement? What does it mean for Jesus to be the Lord of the Sabbath? In effect, He was saying: “I made the Sabbath. It’s My gift. I am sovereign over the Sabbath. Because I am the Lord of the Sabbath, I am the Creator Himself.” No wonder they could not wait to get their heads together and figure out a way to kill Jesus. They heard His claim to deity.
Notice that throughout the New Testament, we are told that it is the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity in whom, for whom, and by whom all things were made. We are told that the One we worship here on Sunday morning is the Creator of the universe. In this text, the incarnate Word of God, who made the world, who is the Lord of the Sabbath, was being challenged about His behavior on the Sabbath by these theological and religious people of the first century.
How in the world did Jesus put up with this and not just squish them like bugs right then and there? He may have wanted to say to them: “Who do you think you are, telling Me whether My disciples can take a bit of food for their stomachs? Don’t you know who you’re talking to? What I say you can do on the Sabbath day settles what you can do on the Sabbath day. Forget about your traditions. Forget about your rabbis. The rabbis don’t have the authority to legislate Sabbath behavior. The rabbis are not lords of the Sabbath, but the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath.” Basically, Jesus was saying that He was not going to put up with this nonsense.
Lawful to Do Good
Not only did Jesus say that He was Lord of the Sabbath; He displayed it. We read in chapter 3, verse 1: “And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath.” They basically thought: “Okay men, get out your notebook. Let’s watch what He does. Let’s see if He breaks the law again. We’re going to make a list and check it twice with Jesus.”
Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” A withered hand is not life-threatening. According to the rabbis, Jesus should have said, “If you want me to fix your hand, you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow.”
Jesus enlisted the poor wretch in the synagogue in His own agenda and told the man to step forward. Then He told the man to stretch out his hand. In a sense, Jesus was asking this man to risk his life. The last thing the poor man wanted was to be used as Exhibit A in a courtroom trial against Jesus. He did not want to be the center of all this controversy. If he were like most people, he would have wanted to shrink back into the shadows.
Even though the last thing the man wanted was to be in a courtroom, the first thing he wanted was to get the use of his hand back. So, he stepped forward. When Jesus said, “Stretch out your hand,” he stretched it out, and instantly that hand was as whole as his other hand.
Once again, Jesus put the question to His enemies here: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good?" Jesus was essentially saying: “That is My principle—not, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do what the rabbis permit?’ but, ‘Is it okay to do good?’ This is a good thing, and good things like this may be done not just six days a week, but seven days a week. Is it lawful for a nurse or a doctor to minister to people who are sick on the Sabbath day? Of course it is. Is it lawful to save life rather than to kill it?”
At this point, Jesus was speaking irony. Irony was dripping from His words because He knew what was going on in the minds of the Pharisees. They were ready to bring charges against Him for violating the Sabbath day, for doing good on the Sabbath day, for healing on the Sabbath day. They were interested in a plot to kill Him.
So, Jesus was saying: “What I’m doing is for life. It’s for good. But in your hearts, you’re planning My death, which is a gross violation of the Sabbath day. Plotting to kill the Lord of the Sabbath is the worst form of violating the sanctity of the day God has set apart for our wellbeing.” Finally, we read, “The Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.”
Do Not Harden Your Hearts
There is one sentence in this text that I passed over but do not want to stop without calling to your attention, and that was Jesus’ emotional response to the hypocritical religious authorities. Mark communicates two of Jesus’ emotions here. The first one is anger, and the word used here for anger is not the word for perturbation, righteous indignation, or a simple annoyance. It is the New Testament word for fury. At this point, Jesus—blessed Jesus, meek and mild—was outraged by the religious experts who cared more about their traditions than the welfare of the poor man in need of healing. So, when Jesus spoke to them, He turned and looked at them with fire in His eyes. But that strong emotion of anger was mixed with one of pain.
Mark tells us that Jesus was grieved in His soul at the hardness of their hearts. The Bible warns us about grieving the Holy Spirit. We remember in the early days of Genesis, before the flood, that God looked at the evil in the world and said, “I will not always strive with men.” In effect, Jesus was saying, “There is a point when My compassion ends, where My mercy stops, and My anger erupts.”
Therefore, do not harden your hearts when you hear the Word of God. You see, the Holy Ghost uses the Word of God to quicken our consciences, to make us aware of our rebellion against God. But everybody has some degree of callus on his heart, some degree of stiffness in his neck. That is the way we are, folks—we use the callused, recalcitrant heart as a shield against the Word of God.
This morning, you have heard the Word of God. So what? Did you hear it in your ears and then divert it from your soul? Do you have some kind of shield that you use to keep the truth of God from piercing your life? We all do because we know nothing exposes us like the Word of God. Yet, nothing has the power to bring us to health like the Word of God.
So, let us not hear a story like this, in which we see our Lord angry and grief-stricken by human sin, then be like the Pharisees and say, “Those bad Pharisees.” When we do that, we are just like them. My prayer as a Christian is: “O God, don’t be angry with me. Don’t let me give You cause to be furious with me. Don’t let me grieve You because my heart is hardened.” Rather, when we hear a story like this, we want to say: “Lord, You are the Lord of the Sabbath. What do You want from me? Give me ears to hear and a heart open to embrace everything that You say.”
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.