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 ears of corn as they passed through the fields to satisfy their hunger (Mat 12:1), and the Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus had allowed them to break God's law which forbade them to work or to harvest grain on the Sabbath (Exo 34:21).

In reply Jesus reminded them that David had broken the Law when he was hungry and in need: he'd eaten the consecrated bread at the tabernacle which only the priests could eat (Lev 24:5–9; 1Sa 21:1–6).

David and his disciples had done what was ceremonially wrong, but not morally wrong. The ceremonial aspects of the Law, which included the Sabbath day, had been given by God to illustrate spiritual truth. They were to be obeyed, but not if a person's well-being would suffer (Luk 14:5).

The gospel in creation

The Bible is God's message to mankind and its main theme is salvation. Salvation is the most important subject in the Bible because it concerns our eternal destiny—whether we'll spend eternity in heaven or in hell—and it's taught from the beginning.

The first verse of Genesis tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. The second verse tells us that darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. So darkness was over the waters, but God was over the darkness. What was the darkness? It was spiritual darkness.

Darkness, in Scripture, is used to represent:

light is used to represent:

And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light (v3). The sun, moon and stars which give light to the earth weren't created until the fourth day (v14–9), so what was that light and where did it come from? It was spiritual light and it came from Jesus Christ who is the light of the world (Joh 8:12).

Why does the Bible tell us about spiritual light before physical light? Because it's more important to us. We are not saved through the sun, but through the Son. We are saved through the light (the righteousness) of God, which is ours by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 1:16–7).

God saw that the light was good (he didn't see that the darkness was good), and he separated the light from the darkness (v4). What fellowship can light have with darkness? What do righteousness and wickedness have in common (2Co 6:14)? And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day (v5).

We tend to think of a day beginning in the morning and ending in the evening, beginning in light and ending in darkness. But that is not God's order. In God's order darkness comes first (the evening), and then the light (the morning). Why? Because it symbolizes salvation: we begin our lives in darkness (wickedness), but end them in light (righteousness – Eph 5:8–9).

The seventh day

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) from all the work he had done, and blessed it (pronounced favour upon it), making it holy (set apart and reserved exclusively for God). So from creation God reserved the seventh day for himself. Why? Because it symbolized the salvation that only he could and would provide (Rev 7:10), and the day he would provide it.

God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), but who did the creating? It was Jesus. Col 1:15–6 tells us that all things were created through the Son and for the Son. God created everything through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus created everything in six days and then he rested from his work, but the number seven signifies completion in the Bible (Lev 8:33; Rev 15:1). Jesus had finished his work of creating, but he hadn't completed his work.

'My food,' said Jesus, 'is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.' (Joh 4:34)

His final work was to provide salvation for us.

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (Joh 19:30)

Jesus had completed his work.

A shadow of Jesus

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. (Col 2:16–7)

Under the Old Covenant, the religious festivals Israel kept were shadows (spiritual pictures) of what was to come. The reality of them all—the truth they portrayed—is found in Jesus. The Day of Atonement is a good example because, on the cross, Jesus atoned for the sins of the world (Lev 23:26–32; 1Jo 2:1–2).

Likewise, the Sabbath was a shadow of Jesus: it symbolized the day when we would rest from our work (our attempt to earn salvation by doing righteous deeds) and receive, by faith, the righteous life that Jesus would live on our behalf (Eph 2:8–9; Jer 23:6).

Keeping the Sabbath day holy is not part of the New Covenant. Why? Because it was a shadow of what was to come through Jesus. Instead, we are told to enter the rest it symbolized and is now available to us (Heb 4:9–11). 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. Rom 14:5 says:

One person considers one day more sacred 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 his Son, it's entirely up to us how (or if) we observe a 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, because our Lord rose from the dead on the first day (Luk 24:1–8).

But it doesn't matter when a church meets. Jesus has promised to be 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

I spent my formative years in the Church of England, and 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 church one Pentecost Sunday and shouting, 'Hallelujah, the Spirit has come!' I reminded her that when you are 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 AD 325, at the Council of Nicaea, the church decided that Easter Day (a non-biblical festival) should be celebrated after the spring equinox (equal day, equal night). The date was later set as the first Sunday following the first full moon after that day, which is why it changes each year. Were those decisions 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?

He used the moon to lead his people in worship under the Old Covenant (Num 10:10) because they didn't have his Spirit, but that is not the case now. And even then those feasts were symbolic: they celebrated the first appearance of the light of the moon in the darkness of the night sky—the light of Christ that would come to shine in their spiritual darkness (Mat 4:16).

However, each of us should be fully convinced in our own mind about these things. 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 (Rom 14:6a). But to regard every day as the same is equally acceptable to God.

I cannot regard one day as more holy than another because, when you walk with the Lord, every day is holy. 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 should respect 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 it 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 said that the Sabbath was made (Greek brought into being) for (lit because for the sake of) man, not man for (because for the sake of) the Sabbath. The Sabbath (which symbolized salvation) was brought into being for man's spiritual sake, not man for the Sabbath's physical sake.

That was why desecrating the Sabbath was such a serious sin under the Old Covenant, punishable by death (Exo 31:14) because, symbolically, the person was desecrating (treating with disrespect) God's salvation.

Israel had to rest on that day, which would have benefited them physically (Deu 5:14), but that was not its purpose (without the Sabbath they would have rested whenever they needed to). Its purpose was to symbolize the salvation God would provide for them through Jesus Christ.

The physical often types the spiritual in the Bible, but the spiritual is more important. Judge for yourself: Did God bring the Sabbath into being because he was concerned that man might overtire himself? Or was he concerned about his salvation? The physical is only temporary and will soon pass away (Mat 24:35), but the spiritual is eternal (2Co 4:18).

Jesus also said that he was Lord of the Sabbath. The Greek word translated 'Lord' means someone who has absolute authority over someone, or something. He had absolute authority over the Sabbath because he had brought it into being. He knew what Israel could, and couldn't, do on that day.

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 August 2021

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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