In this last collision that Jesus has with the religious establishment in Mark 2:23-3:6, we see Jesus get confronted by the Pharisees about breaking the Sabbath. Let’s how Jesus dismantles their twisted thinking this time
Collision # 3: The Sabbath
23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
The Guardians of Public Morality
It may seem that the Pharisees are like the secret police waiting to arrest someone with bad theology and wrong morals. They weren’t the secret police, but they were a self-appointed group of schooled professionals of Israel’s laws and were respected in that regard. Some were wise, devout, holy men. Others though, behaved like nosey journalists in the modern world, setting themselves up as the self-appointed guardians of public morality.
Keeping the sabbath (refraining from work and resting) was one of the “Ten Commandments” (Ex. 20), and it had been reinforced by the prophets and teachers. It was one of the things that was meant to mark out the Jews from their pagan neighbors in the Old Testament days. The sabbath was not meant to be a commandment which people observed to earn favor with God. It was a sign that they belonged to God; it’s all about belonging; to the creator of the world, their adopting Father, who had Himself rested on the 7th day.
The Blow of Jesus’ Response
So Jesus says to them: “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Jesus’ reply is a strong blow. He doesn’t deny that the disciples are out of line with traditional sabbath practices, but He does put Himself on the level of King David at the time when David, already anointed by Samuel and God, but not yet enthroned as King. David was running from the government of the day (King Saul), gathering supporters, waiting for God to vindicate Him. The bread was not meant to punish, but to bless.
This claim of Jesus suggests that Jesus is the “True King”, marked out by God (at His baptism; Mark 1:9-11) but not yet recognized and enthroned. So Jesus reserves the right, when He and His people are hungry, to not observe the normal regulations. Much like not fasting while the bridegroom is here, this is a sign that the King is here, His kingdom is breaking out, and the new is invading the old.
Jesus sums up what He is saying in the “riddle” at the end of His response: 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
This may have confused Jesus’ hearers as much as it does us today, but essentially Jesus is claiming authority over even the sabbath. The sabbath is not the focus, the health of mankind is.
SIDE NOTE: This is the second time we meet ‘the Son of Man’ in Mark. The first occurrence is found in Mark 2:10: But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. Jesus uses this term to establish His authority as the God-man.
In Daniel 7, the messianic figure which first-century Jews were awaiting, whose arrival and kingship signals the beginning of the “new age to come”, God’s kingdom. Jesus doesn’t mean that just any human being is ‘Lord of the sabbath’, but that the Messiah, the “true representative of the human race”, has authority over all establishments, traditions, and institutions that might otherwise restrain or oppress human beings.
In other words, Jesus is saying, “I AM the ‘new age’ that you are waiting for. The sabbath is only a signpost pointing to the true and deep rest you receive in Me when you believe in Me.”
Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in the book of John, while addressing their commitment to the law, but not God:
John 5:39-40: “37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
“I AM the ‘new age’ that you are searching for!”
Jesus makes this even clearer in His next Sabbath encounter, which clearly lets us know that they didn’t have ears to hear Jesus the first time (closed thinking):
3:1 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?”
Much like the generation under Moses in the wilderness, the Pharisees were unable to see and celebrate what God did right in front of their eyes, because they had their own idea of salvation and deliverance. So Jesus frames the question bluntly: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” If the sabbath brings us back to creation (Gen. 1-2) and redemption (Exodus from Egypt), then the answer is obvious… Yes it’s lawful. But the Pharisees remained silent.
Here we see Jesus get angry for the first time in Mark’s account: 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.
What Does This Mean For Us?
As we close up and wrap these three collisions together, it seems clear that these three accounts of Jesus and the Pharisees is a warning to the church, to begin seeing things from God’s point of view, and not the religious establishment’s point of view, or even the status quo’s point of view (pop-culture).
It’s time for patients to make an appointment to go see the Doctor, so He can surgically remove the old wineskins, and implant the new. Then they can begin welcoming those whom Jesus welcomes, holding fast to the traditions that Jesus holds fast to, but reforming that which Jesus would reform.
Everything is different as a result of what Jesus has done. Sadly, this doesn’t stop us many times from trying to add new things to the gospel; Jesus plus this or that. When God does new things, we would do well to join the party, not grumble because the new wine is threatening to burst our poor old bottles. A good portion of day-to-day Christian wisdom consists in sorting out the new from the old, and not adding man-made traditions to what Jesus has already done.
In three these collisions, Jesus claims to be the Great Physician, the Bridegroom, the Son of Man, and the Lord of the Sabbath. These are true, but provocative claims that demand a response from the hearer. Not seeing Jesus as He really is, often results in our religiousizing the truth. He’s the Doctor who makes us well, the Bridegroom who calls us to belong to Him, the Son of Man to confront our vision of the age to come, and the Lord of the Sabbath to invite us into the rest that only He can bring.