Lord of the Sabbath

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. 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.' (Mar 2:23–8)

The disciples had been picking and eating corn as they passed through the fields to satisfy their hunger. But that, according to the Pharisees, had put them in breach of God's Law which forbade the people of Israel to work on the Sabbath day.

But could picking a few ears of corn, rubbing them together in their hands and blowing away the chaff, be viewed as work? In the eyes of the Pharisees, yes; but in the eyes of Jesus, no.

Jesus told them that in criticizing his disciples for doing this they were making man a slave to the Sabbath, which was not God's intention for it. God had instituted the Sabbath for two reasons:

A day of rest

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Gen 2:2–3)

On the seventh day God rested (Hebrew sabat, which means to rest, cease, stop) from all the work he'd done, and blessed (looked with favour upon) the seventh day, making it holy (the act of setting aside or devoting something to God).

So from the dawn of creation God declared the seventh day to be a special day, a day when man should rest from his labours and look to God.

The principle was incorporated into the Law, which he gave through Moses, and specific rules and regulations were added to test Israel's obedience. However, it was the Pharisees' interpretation of those rules that led them into confrontation with Jesus.

Jesus told them that God had made the Sabbath for man's benefit. God doesn't need to rest; it's humans and animals that need to rest.

The fact that man has to rest is a constant reminder of his humanity. Even the most powerful people in the world must, from time to time, stop what they are doing, close their eyes and lapse into a state of semi-consciousness where they become vulnerable and defenceless, because they haven't the strength to go on.

But the one who created heaven and earth does not sleep, nor does he need to:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. (Psa 121:1–4)

God didn't have to rest after creating the universe, but he chose to do so to set us an example. The God who created us knows what is best for us, and it's a wise believer who sets aside regular periods of time for rest and spiritual refreshment, because we need them (Mar 6:31).

A picture of Christ

The second reason God instituted the Sabbath day was to illustrate what his Son, Jesus Christ, would do on man's behalf. Col 2:16–7 gives us insight into this truth and shows how Christians should view the Sabbath:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Under the Old Covenant, the religious festivals God required his people to keep were shadows (spiritual pictures) of the things that were to come. The reality of them all—all the spiritual truth they portrayed—is found in Christ.

All the festivals (including the Sabbath day) had spiritual meaning because they pointed to Jesus and the salvation he would provide. We haven't time to look at each in detail, but the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26–32) is a good example because, on the cross, Jesus atoned for the sins of the world (1Jo 2:1–2).

Likewise the Sabbath day also pointed to Jesus: it symbolized the day when man would rest from his labour (his attempt to be accepted by God by living a righteous life, which is impossible for him to do) and receive, by faith, the righteous life that Jesus would live on his behalf (Rom 1:17; Jer 33:14–6).

Keeping the Sabbath day holy is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not part of the New Covenant. Why? Because it was a shadow of what was to come. Instead, under the New Covenant, we are told to enter the spiritual rest it symbolized and is now available to us (Heb 4:1–11). Those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ have entered that rest.

Let no one judge you

Because of this, no Christian should judge another with respect to how they observe the Sabbath day, because its main purpose was to point to Jesus. Rom 14:5 says:

One person considers one day more sacred [holy, dedicated to God] than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.

Once we have entered the spiritual Sabbath rest provided for us, by God, through faith in Jesus Christ, it's entirely up to us how (or if) we observe the physical Sabbath.

Since the church began Christians have met together on the first day of the week, which is Sunday (Act 20:7), rather than on the Jewish Sabbath (the seventh day), which is Saturday; probably because our Lord rose from the dead on the first day.

But it doesn't matter when a church meets. Jesus has promised to meet with us whenever two or three gather together in his name (Mat 18:20). So if the Lord is present at all of our meetings, a Sunday meeting cannot be more sacred than a midweek meeting.

Christian festivals

Having been brought up an Anglican, as soon as I was born again Good Friday and Easter Day took on new significance as the full meaning of what Jesus had done for me on the cross flooded my heart.

But, as I've grown in the Lord, every day has become the same. I walk in the power of my Saviour's death and resurrection every day of my life; so, for me, every day is Good Friday and Easter Day.

I remember a sister walking into our church one Pentecost Sunday and shouting, 'Hallelujah, the Spirit has come!' I reminded her that when you're baptized with the Holy Spirit (as we both were) every day is Pentecost.

Christian festivals are not taught in Scripture. Nowhere in the New Testament are we told to celebrate certain aspects of our faith at particular times of the year (Gal 4:10–1). It was required under the Old Covenant, but it's not under the New.

In 325 AD the church declared that Easter Day (a non-biblical festival) should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (equal day, equal night), which is why the date changes each year. Was that decree from the Lord? I don't think so.

Why, having given us his Spirit to lead us in worship (Joh 4:23–4), should God then decide that the theme of church meetings, on certain days of the year, should be governed by the position of the moon in relation to the earth, and the position of the earth in relation to the sun?

God used the moon to lead his people in worship under the Old Covenant because they didn't have his Spirit (Num 10:10), but he doesn't do that now. However, each of us should make up our own mind about this.

If a Christian regards one day as more sacred (holy) than another (Easter Day, for example) then to them it is more holy—and the Lord will accept that. But to regard each day as the same is equally acceptable to God.

I cannot personally regard one day as more holy than another because, when you walk with the Lord, every day is holy. As far as I'm concerned, if I'm regarding one day as more holy, then my other days aren't holy enough!

In the New Testament, Christians are a holy people (Eph 5:3), filled with the Holy Spirit (Ep 5:18), serving a holy God (Rev 4:8). If that doesn't make every day holy, then nothing will.

But we must be sensitive to each other's beliefs and do nothing that would upset our brethren. If we do that we are not acting in love. That means we should not allow this to become a contentious issue in the church. Rom 14:1–23 tells us how we should deal with such matters.

He is Lord

In the final verse of our text, Jesus told the Pharisees that he was Lord of the Sabbath day. The Greek word translated 'Lord' (kyrios) means someone who has absolute authority over something. Who could have absolute authority over the Sabbath day except the one who brought it into existence—namely God himself?

This was the second claim to deity Jesus made in Mark's Gospel and it served to increase the persecution that led to his death.

Michael Graham
January 2003
Revised April 2019

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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