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"Lord of the Sabbath"

September 15, 2019 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Mark 2:23–28

This morning we look at the fourth of five advances in kingdom Jesus made in his early ministry in Capernaum.

  1. The first was Jesus’ authority to declare forgiveness of the sins of the paralytic man. The Pharisees were stunned and offended, but then Jesus demonstrated his power to make such a declaration.
  2. The second was when Jesus sought out, called, and went to the home of Levi (or Matthew). He hosted a dinner, eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Again, the Pharisees and scribes were disgusted by Jesus’ investing in – and not separating from – those who would receive him joyfully.
  3. Last week, we looked at the third – the question that came from normal people, “Why do John’s disciples fast and the Pharisees fast – but you and yours do not?” Jesus’ response was that fasting was for the purpose of seeking God’s presence through sorrow and longing; there was no need to fast seeking God’s presence when Jesus was present with them. In him, the kingdom of God was present. Building on that thought, he explained that the kingdom of God was something completely new; a discontinuous change from that which had gone before. The disciples were not fasting because they were experiencing the joy of the kingdom of God being in Jesus’ presence.

So, today is the fourth incident. Our text this morning is an odd little incident. I need to confess up front that this is a tough text; it presents us with a paradox. Webster’s Dictionary defines a paradox as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true; or, something with seemingly contradictory qualities or phases.”

On the one hand, Jesus’ initial response to the Pharisees question seemed to justify the disciples’ conduct plucking the heads of grain in the field through which they are traveling on the sabbath. He did so by making reference to David’s lawbreaking; the inference being that the disciples were fine ignoring the traditional understanding of sabbath.

On the other hand, Jesus affirmed the observance of the sabbath. He said that the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath – indicating support and the authority of the command #3 of the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:8:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

So which is it: observe the sabbath or not? Two hands; seemingly contradictory and yet – because Jesus said it – perhaps true. Those two hands make one paradox.

The temptation is to try to find some sort of middle way to reconcile a paradox. A few years ago I was listing to the radio on my way to work and I heard John McArthur expound on a paradox in a different passage. He said something that I think is helpful for us to remember here this morning. He said, “When you come on a paradox in Scripture, don’t come up with an answer in the middle that kills both ends.” In other words, there are some mysteries in God’s word that need to remain mysteries. His example was in the Lord’s Prayer: why do we pray “Thy will be done” if God is sovereign and His will be done anyway? Well, God is sovereign – and – prayer does work. It is both. He said, “There’s an answer for how to resolve this paradox. I just don’t know what that answer is.”
Sometimes we have to grapple with the mystery of God. That’s where we are this morning. That’s a long introduction but I hope it helps set the stage.

I can hear the question that many of you are asking in your hearts right now, “Does that mean we get to do yard work, shop, go to our kids’ athletic games, or anything else on the sabbath – or not?”

Let me suggest that we NOT start there. Let’s go back and look at what was going on and why Mark included this in the gospel he was writing to believers in the early church.

I. What Was The Big Deal?

The setting for the text was a short walk on the sabbath near Capernaum.  It is an interesting picture, isn’t it? Jesus and the disciples, sharing a nice walk with the Pharisees? What a parade! By starting with “one sabbath,” Mark seems to be presenting this as another in the series of confrontations without necessarily indicating that they were one right after another.

While they were strolling along – apparently a route that was less than the half-mile that the Pharisees allowed for total steps on the sabbath – you can almost see the Pharisees checking their Fitbits, right? – some of the disciples begin picking grain from a field. Now, you might think this was theft, but even the Pharisees did not object to the practice because it was specifically allowed in Deuteronomy 23:25, “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” The Pharisees’ objection issue was whether “plucking” constituted “work” or “labor” on the sabbath.

“The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’” Sabbath law was significant in Judaism. It was a commandment. It also was a visible marker of the reality of God’s covenant. In other words, you knew God was real because people observed the sabbath; they would not do so if God were not real. Some communities of Jews observed the prohibition of work on the sabbath to an extraordinary extent; the Essenes (from whom many believe John the Baptist came) forbade giving help to a birthing animal or someone who had fallen into a pit. Research seems to indicate that the Pharisees were not quite as restrictive in their understanding, but that they were deeply concerned about delineating what could and could not be done.

In fact, in order to protect the sabbath, the tradition developed that there were thirty-nine separate tasks specifically prohibited. Those thirty-nine were organized in six different categories. “Reaping,” which is the accusation the Pharisees were leveling against the disciples, was the third prohibited task. They confronted Jesus because they wanted to hold him accountable for the actions of the disciples.[1] They thought they had him.

Look now at Jesus’ paradoxical responses; and I know it is somewhat confusing to follow. First, Jesus referred back to Scripture – the Old Testament Scripture we read this morning. Then, either as the conclusion of the answer to the Pharisees or as Mark’s summary conclusion of a longer discourse regarding the sabbath, Jesus made this statement, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so that the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

We are going to take these one at a time.

First, in response to the accusation of lawbreaking, Jesus asked the Pharisees if they had read the example of David breaking the law by eating the bread of the Presence, “which was not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”

On the face of it, this does not seem to respond to the accusation of the Pharisees. David was on the run. He was hiding from King Saul. David made up a story to tell Ahimelech – he lied (bore false witness) – in order to get food. He ended up with the bread of the Presence, which by law only priests were allowed to eat. David lied and violated the law; yet he was not condemned for it – how was that? How do we make sense of that? Even if we think that Jesus was making an exception because David was in distress; how would that apply here? The disciples were not in any distress.

Further, some of you may have noted that Mark quoted Jesus as saying, “when Abiathar” was high priest.  The 1 Samuel text says, “Ahimelech.” Some manuscripts (the earliest copies of the gospel we have) indicate that Jesus said, “when Ahimelech was high priest,” apparently in an effort to correlate to what we read earlier. However, the majority of early manuscripts have what we see here in Mark, “Abiathar.” Some of the other details are different, too. Did Mark misquote Jesus or did Jesus deliberately get the story wrong?

This is a head-scratcher. It is a mystery.

After wrestling with it for a long time, I wonder if Jesus’ point in asking, “Have you never read…” was to rebuke the Pharisees for thinking too highly of themselves. The Pharisees could not explain why David was not condemned for lying and violating the law. Nor, apparently, did they know Scripture well enough to correct Jesus about who was high priest. In other words, Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, “You don’t know everything. Stop acting like a judge and jury as if you do know everything.” The rather loose reference to David’s behavior seems to be saying to the Pharisees, “If you can’t explain why it was ok for David to break the law there, do not sit in judgment here.”

It is this kind of passage that is a flashing yellow light to me each week. The folks who knew scripture best did not recognize Jesus; the folks who were salt of the earth and just going about their business were drawn to Jesus and responded with joy. The Pharisees knew that scripture revealed God; they just did not anticipate that God would actually show up in real life.

Do we? Do we anticipate that God will actually show up in real life here?

Stepping into the pulpit each Sunday to proclaim, “Thus sayeth the LORD,” is a constant reminder of my unworthiness and shortcomings to be God’s spokesman. It is not confidence in myself, but confidence and hope in God that gives me strength to preach to you. I stand in the hope that the Holy Spirit is moving in ways I cannot understand and cannot control – touching lives and convicting hearts – that fills me with joy at the blessing of being called to proclaim the gospel to you.  

I am always aware of the mystery of God. God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We need to realize that our best efforts to understand God are never going to fully comprehend him; that we see now in a mirror dimly, then face to face. We tread on very thin ice when we try to sit in God’s place and judge others.

II. The Lord of the Sabbath

Then, Jesus’ second response gave the statement about the purpose of the sabbath and that the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath.  This makes more sense.

Jesus was pointing out that the Law was not designed to punish mankind. It was given as part of the covenant with a loving God, a God who had called the people out of bondage in Egypt, the people whom he had carried and sustained to Sinai, the people he had gathered for the purpose of worshiping him. The covenant was about God’s love; it included the Law.

The sabbath was a command to rest; a blessing God gave us so that we would conform to how we were created. The sabbath was an opportunity to tithe our time in worship to God. It was a chance to re-set and to be renewed. It was not a punishment or a burden, it was a blessing.

As a brief digression, let me point out that we ignore sabbath to our own detriment. We often use this passage to dismiss the relevance of the sabbath, not remembering that the sabbath was given for humankind’s benefit. When we are too busy to tithe our time to the LORD, we damage ourselves by exhausting ourselves and by distancing ourselves from God. I am not saying we ought to legalistically observe sabbath; I am saying we would be blessed to heed God’s call to rest in him.

So, again, as we have seen in each of these accounts of the confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus rebuked them for missing the main blessing! As they did with Jesus commanding the unclean spirit out of the man, the forgiveness of the paralytic, the eating with tax collectors and sinners – they missed the blessing because they were trying to protect the Law.

What does it mean to try to “protect the Law?” It means feeling like we need to defend God; as if we need to protect God from those who do not see things the way we do. It means using the law as a wedge. It means revering form over substance.

There is a story of a Presbyterian congregation in the Old South. This is the kind of congregation where the ushers’ coats have long tails and collars are starched stiff, hymns are sung on a precise meter, and that there are no cushions on the pews. You get the picture. Well, one Sunday, the congregation was full when in came a young man in tattered clothes and very dirty. His hair is unkempt and his eyes look very tired. He walked up the main aisle looking for an open seat; there were none because it was so full, so he sat down in the aisle by the first pew. The head usher – an old and stern looking man who had obviously been doing the job for years – began walking down the main aisle. He walked slowly, because of his age and because of his difficulty in walking. Slowly he made his way forward. You can almost feel the tension in the congregation rising as he passed each pew and they saw him making his way forward. Finally, just as the preacher was getting into the pulpit, the old usher reached where the boy was sitting. He paused for just a moment, and then, with great difficulty, sat down next to him. The preacher, a wise man, said to the congregation, “Nothing I can say to you this morning will proclaim the gospel better than what we have just seen.” 

As we consider the kingdom of God Jesus was proclaiming, let’s remember the blessing he was revealing.

III. Why Would Mark’s Readers Care?

It is not difficult to figure out why Mark included this confrontation in the gospel. If Mark’s first readers were a combination of Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome, it is reasonable to think they were like other early congregations which were being told to submit to orthodox Judaism; that is, they were being told that in order to be good Christians they had to subject themselves to the Pharisaical law and traditions.

Instead of being cast as second-class Christians or unrighteous believers, Mark was exhorting believers in Rome to keep the main thing the main thing. Keep your eyes on Jesus. The outward form is not nearly as important as the inward relationship. That inward relationship with Jesus forms the foundation for how we treat one another. Mark urged believers to worry less about how others are following the rules and regulations and focus more on how to encourage one another to follow Jesus.

This is an important word for us.

We live in a world similar to ancient Rome in the sense that there is a spiritual chaos and anarchy around us. There are all sorts of competing claims. How are we doing in the mix? Well, polling has revealed that a majority of Americans – particularly young Americans – have a negative opinion of Christians and the church. They equate Christianity with intolerant, hypocritical, status-quo supporting self-righteousness. The impression is that Christians live only to condemn everyone who does not believe like them. It is easy to illustrate the litmus tests used to show the judgmentalism of the church: sexuality, pluralism, race relations. Christians are phobic, intolerant, and oppressors/micro-aggressors. We do not drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do.

In other words, we have been cast in a negative light because we are most known for the things we disapprove. Although we want to believe that is an inaccurate picture, we have to consider why it is people have this perception.

That perception exists in part because of the way we treat one another in the Christian world. We compete with one another and try to establish ourselves as better Christians than others. Listen, I will be the first to confess to you that I pinch the bridge of my nose, sigh, and think judgmentally when I read what is happening in the PC(USA). Now, let me be clear: I think they are headed in a bad direction and are in error, but – even if I am correct – that does not make me more righteous.

The tragedy in this story is this: the Pharisees were walking with Jesus. They actually were walking with Jesus. However, instead of enjoying the blessing of being in his presence, they were focused on judging others.

We need to keep our eyes on Jesus. The outward form of obedience is not nearly as important as the inward relationship with our savior. That inward relationship with Jesus is where our righteousness is established; it forms the foundation for how we treat one another. We do not get to pick whom Jesus loves. We need to worry less about evaluating how others are following the rules and regulations and focus more on sharing and encouraging one another to follow Jesus.

IV: Conclusion

Now, as we conclude this morning, perhaps some of you may still be wondering, “Well…is it ok for us to do yard work, shop, go to our kids’ athletic games, or anything else on the sabbath – or not?” If we were to ask Jesus, we should be prepared to hear the response, “How is your walk with me?” I know that does not necessarily answer the question in the way we would like, but it is the only important issue.

You see, following Jesus – having a closer walk with him – will lead to obedience in mysterious and wonderful ways. Following sabbath rules – or any other rules —without following Jesus is meaningless. It is to follow form without substance. It is to be lost.

Is the sabbath important? Yes. Was it ok for the disciples to be plucking grain on the sabbath? Yes. It is a paradox and a mystery. Yet what is the point? The point is that we are to walk with Jesus: the Son of Man who is revealing the presence and advancing kingdom of God, the Son of Man who is even lord of the sabbath.

In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.



AFFIRMATION OF FAITH: Heidelberg Catechism, Question 52


Q: What comfort does the return of Christ “to judge the living and the dead” give you?

A: That in all affliction and persecution I may await with head held high the very Judge from heaven who has already submitted himself to the judgment of God for me and has removed all the curse from me; that he will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but he shall take me, together with all his elect, to himself into heavenly joy and glory.


[1] Robert A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 34A, Mark, p. 121.