In this series of messages we are considering questions Jesus asked in a variety of settings. These questions always prove to be more provocative and important when the context in which they occur is carefully examined.
The question before us now comes from Mark 3. Jesus was addressing Pharisees who were looking for an excuse to oppose him. They were poised to pounce as soon as he did something that contradicted their traditions.
The law, of course, was an expression of God’s heart. So Jesus’ question was, “What would please God on the Sabbath day, to do good or to do evil, to give life or to kill?” This should not be a difficult question. The answer is so obvious that we would easily trust them to correctly answer this question.
However, Jesus’ antagonists refused to answer the question. Eventually they would indicate an answer that defied the heart of God. By the end of this passage we’ll find that they were choosing both evil and death. They were determined to kill Jesus.
Taking a step back
In Mark 2:23-3:6 there are two Sabbath stories back-to-back. For most of us Sabbath activities are not an ethical problem. But we have similar habits and behaviors. Something you’re doing to please God will look foolish or hurtful, if you take a step back and examine it. We are capable of doing the ungodly things in God’s name. Sometimes we need to be asked the sort of simple question Jesus asked: “Why are you doing this? Is this what God really wants human beings to live like? Is this healthy and honoring and sane and wise? Is it right in God’s name to do good or evil? Is it right to kill or make alive?”
Let’s read the first of the two Sabbath stories in 2:23-28:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?
In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
On a certain sabbath day, Christ and his disciples were passing through a grain field. The disciples, being hungry (Mt. 12:1), began to pluck ears of grain and to husk them with their hands (Lk. 6:1).
First, Christ himself was not directly accused of breaking the law on this occasion. Only the disciples were charged with the violation. But the Pharisees were hoping to hold Christ accountable for the conduct of his students. How many teachers today would be persuaded by such an argument?
Second, the truth is, however, not even the disciples actually violated the sabbath law of the Mosaic system. Hebrew law made provision for those in need to eat when they passed through a field of grain (Dt. 23:25; cf. Ruth 2:2-3). So it was not “stealing” that was the focus of the Pharisaic criticism. Rather, this was the crux of the matter.
Over the years, Rabbinic tradition had evolved a host of infractions (some 39) that, allegedly, violated the law’s prohibition of work on the sabbath. (This matter has been discussed in detail in Emil Schurer’s, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1891, II, pp. 96-105.)
One of these forbidden acts was “grinding,” which, by a nit-picking Pharisaical stretch, the disciples actions would be perceived to be doing. The activity, however, was hardly that of commercial grinding, as contemplated in the law.
Third, Jesus, in commenting upon the disciples’ conduct, plainly said they were “guiltless” (Mt. 12:7). The Greek term describes one who is not liable to blame in the matter of a crime (see W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary, Iowa Falls: World, 1991, p. 367). The disciples broke no law.
This was not a tense exchange. Jesus’ questioners were clearly disapproving, but this text doesn’t describe them as being angry or antagonistic to the Lord. They asked a real question, and he gave them a very thoughtful, challenging answer. Jesus made powerful claims about the nature of the Sabbath and about himself, drawing on the Scriptures.
The second story, in contrast, is filled with confrontation. Let’s read Mark 3:1-6 (ESV)
1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand.
2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.
3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.”
4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.
5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Here, Jesus was in the presence of enemies. His actions were a clear challenge (“Stand up in front of everyone.”) Jesus was both angry and sorrowful at the hard hearts of traditionalists in this synagogue. Now, to make sense of these stories, we need to ask, What is the point of the Sabbath? Why is the Sabbath a reason for the difficulties that are in this passage?
SABBATH LESSONS. The Sabbath is an important theme in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The fourth commandment concerns the seventh day, and there were other laws about the seventh and 49th year. There is a simple core to the idea of Sabbath. The word shabbâth, transliterated into English as Sabbath, is the word for rest in Hebrew. It means at its heart to relax, to cease from activities.
YOU CAN REST
There are two different reasons given for the fourth commandment, in which the children of Israel were told to keep the Sabbath holy and do no work. The ten commandments are listed twice, in Exodus and Deuteronomy. First, Exodus 20:11: For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The reason to keep the Sabbath in this case is that God rested, having completed everything that needed to be done. How many of us live with a desperate sense that no matter how much we do, it’s never enough? But, tasks can be finished. Work doesn’t have to go on forever. We aren’t required to carry every burden. Some of us fear that a moment’s relaxing of vigilance will lead to the unraveling of everything. Who knows what horrible things will happen if we relax? But God’s Sabbath calls for us to rest in Him.
Psalm 127:1-2 makes a wonderful point about vigilance:
“Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat- for he grants sleep to [or while they sleep he provides for] those he loves.”
It’s foolishness to imagine we are indispensable. God makes the watchman successful and the builder successful, and he gives to his beloved their sleep. God’s work is done, and he invites us to enjoy a sense of completion with him, not to be distracted and pressed always to do more and more.
The second reason for the Sabbath is that slavery is ended. Deuteronomy 5:15:
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
The Sabbath is a marvelous gift, an incredible blessing. But it is a gift that every generation resists. Sabbath rest is physically refreshing, it encourages community, it makes worship a priority, it teaches us the deep lessons of dependence on God.
The freedom to let go, to relax and enjoy the world God has made, the privilege of setting ourselves aside and gazing at him, the marvel of enjoying each other, of not having to pay attention and keep records and account for everything-it’s an incredible gift. And we resist it. Why is grace so hard to receive?
The law of the Sabbath was undermined quickly in Israel’s history. The questions became, If God says to do no work on the Sabbath day and keep it holy, what is work?
In order for us to do no work, we need some accurate sense of measurement as to who’s working and who isn’t. And since this is a test, not only do I want to get it right, but I want to do better than everybody else. And so the ancient teachers wrote lengthy commentaries, trying to decide what was work and what wasn’t… they came up with endless definitions.
Dragging a stick on the ground was forbidden on the Sabbath as a form of plowing. It was permitted to spit on a rock but not on the ground. If you spit on a rock, the spit would eventually evaporate, but if you spit in the dirt, it might actually make the dirt come together and form some sort of clay, which could conceivably be made into a brick.
Tying a knot was work, so a woman could not tie a knot in her girdle…but if you joined a bucket with a knot in order to draw water from a well…that was OK. (Do you get the idea?)
I have long told my children of a particular issue that arises in our congregations: we have congregations and individuals who are quick to “draw lines” that God did not draw. They seek to ‘legislate’ where they have no authority. This is wrong! We should not “add to” “or take away” from God’s Word. God knows how to instruct His people and God knows what we need. Let’s leave it to Him!
We must also admit that there is also an element in our brotherhood that seeks to “erase lines” that God has drawn. This is also wrong!
We need to avoid the Pharisaical attitudes which Jesus condemned in Matthew 23! We must not “bind loads on people” and do it with no willingness to “lift a finger” on their behalf.
The very commandment that called for joyful rest became an incredible burden. You have to work very hard to keep the Sabbath, as it turns out. You have to plan ahead and do many things on the sixth day, getting everything prepared, in order to be ready for the seventh. So the sixth day becomes especially burdensome. Further, you spend all of the seventh day wary of inadvertent failure: “What if I look the wrong direction? What if I say the wrong thing?”
FREEDOM AND CONFRONTATION
Regarding the picking of heads of grain on the Sabbath, Jesus was asked, “Why are your disciples doing what is unlawful?”
In reply he asked them an important question: “Haven’t you ever read the Bible? God often appoints his servants to break conventions.”
God is interested in love and righteousness. People who hear the message of the Bible will find themselves unable to settle for rigidity and narrowness and negativity. They won’t assume that it’s a good thing to do evil on the Sabbath, to kill rather than to make alive on the Sabbath, because the Bible is not like that.
Finally, note that Jesus said that he is Lord of the Sabbath. Do you think of him with that name very often? He is in charge of dispensing freedom and rest, taking off burdens. We’re not supposed to be driven and desperate and confused.
He intends for us to experience rest and contentment and joy that come from the Spirit. The work has been accomplished, the slaves are free, life is a gift. He is the Lord of the Sabbath, and if he is your Lord, that is his intention for you.
Did Jesus Violate the Sabbath?
First, if Christ “violated” the law of God, then he sinned. Transgression of the law is sin (1 Jn. 3:4). If the Lord sinned, the biblical affirmations regarding his perfection are false (see Jn. 8:29; Heb. 4:15;1 Pet. 2:22).
Second, if Jesus broke the law of God, he would have been unable to function as the spotless sacrifice for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). Consequently, we would remain unredeemed, and of all men, be most pitiable.
And so, to contend that the Son of God “violated” the sabbath law is a concept that has dreadful consequences. The fact is, such a claim reveals a profound misunderstanding of the circumstances connected with Mark 2:23ff. Let us survey the details of that narrative.
Christ did not intend to let these arrogant, law-making Pharisees usurp the place of God in binding unauthorized burdens upon his men. With brilliant logic he demolished the charges of the opposition.