Today’s passage shows us one of many confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees over the Sabbath. The religious leaders had taken something good and twisted it into something legalistic and unbiblical. Both then and now, the Lord Jesus shows us that the Sabbath was created to help us, not to hurt us.
The Text (Mark 2:23-28)
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. 24 And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
25 But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: 26 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?”
27 And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
God gave the Sabbath to man as blessing. Genesis 1 and 2 tell us that in six days God made all of the creation and formed and filled it. On the seventh day, the Lord rested. He did not rest because He was tired; He stopped because His work was finished. But God gave an example to us that He reminded us of in the 4th Commandment. On the seventh day of each week, God’s people were to rest and spend extra time worshiping and thanking God. They were to stop from their normal work, the normal hustle and bustle of daily life, and give the seventh day to God. So as Jesus reminds His audience and us here, the Sabbath was a good thing. It was made to give God’s people physical and spiritual rest. The Sabbath was supposed to help us grow in our relationship with God. It was not supposed to be a day of burden and bondage.
Unfortunately, by the time of Christ’s earthly ministry in the first century AD, the Jews had added tons of crazy regulations to the original commands about the Sabbath that God had given in Exodus and Leviticus. In this episode from Mark’s gospel, they accuse Jesus’ disciples of working on the Sabbath (which was forbidden in the Old Testament) because they were rubbing grain together in their hands to be able to eat the edible parts (they called this “threshing”, which it definitely was not!). Jesus responds to the critics by reminding them of a time when David and his followers ate the showbread from the tabernacle (something that only priests were allowed to do) because they were on the run from Saul and starving. Jesus’ point is that God would not want His people to starve because of strict adherence to the letter of the law. The religious leaders were missing the good, spiritual purpose of the Sabbath. And in case there was any doubt as to the righteousness of Jesus’s teaching here, He reminds them that He is God (the Son of Man was another one of Jesus’ Messianic titles); Jesus has the right to explain the real purpose of the Sabbath because He created it!
The Sabbath is a challenging subject for Christians today. For most of church history (almost 2000 years), Christians have celebrated the first day of the week, Sunday, as the Sabbath. This is because Jesus rose from the dead the first day of the week, and Jesus’ resurrection is the source of our hope for eternal life with God. The long tradition in the Christianized nations of Europe and the Americas was for Sunday to be treated like a Sabbath. Businesses were closed and people went to church, rested, and spent time with immediate and sometimes also extended families (like Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house). In the past 50 years, that era has ended in Europe and Canada and it is quickly disappearing in the United States, too. In fact, as I write this, the truth is that for all non-Christian and probably now many Christian Americans, the Sabbath concept is already dead. Like with Europe and Canada, Sunday is now joined with Saturday as a two-day period of fun (but not necessarily rest) called the “weekend.” It is just another day when we don’t have to work. Instead, we jam in as many fun activities as we can that may or may not include attending church.
I don’t believe that this was Jesus’ message about the Sabbath. Jesus did not destroy the idea of the Sabbath. He rebuked people for making it a legalistic, man-centered ritual. But He did not say that God’s people no longer needed a day of physical and spiritual rest. During the school year, I see so many students coming into school Monday morning looking totally exhausted from all the fun of the “weekend.” I stopped giving weekend homework this past spring, hoping that would help some. But I don’t think it did much. I still saw the same students coming in Monday deprived of sleep and spiritually apathetic. Many had spent no time with God or God’s people that weekend (our church attendance among students at our Christian school averages around 65% on any given weekend), and they had not gotten any extra sleep or down time. Please hear me correctly. I am not advocating a legalistic Sabbath observance like the Pharisees and some Christians today. But if you were always finding yourself totally dead on Monday mornings throughout the school year, it might be time to consider if you need more Sabbath rest. Creating time for church and rest requires us to make sacrifices, but the spiritual rewards are worth it, both for this life and eternity. I pray for you to find rest in Christ today.