Sunday, January 20, 2008

Christ and the Sabbath

(Please note - this is a lengthy post)

In His home base of Capernaum, Jesus has experienced one interesting and groundbreaking interaction after another. While speaking to a group of scribes and Pharisees in Peter’s house the crowd of onlookers and eavesdroppers swelled to such a size that normal entry into the dwelling was impossible. That is why the four friends of the paralytic, displaying their faith in Christ, found an abnormal point of entry. The theological discussion was interrupted by the hole in the roof gang, and by the paralyzed man whom they lowered down before Jesus’ feet. In response to his faith Christ said to the paralytic “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.”

That statement was too much for the Pharisees to digest. “Only God is able to forgive sins” they rightly thought to themselves. “Why does this man blaspheme”, they wrongly concluded in their hearts. Having witnessed not only this miraculous occurrence, but the many wonderful things that Jesus had already been accomplishing and preaching since His public ministry had been launched, these religious elites were high on knowledge but low on wisdom.

Leaving Peter’s packed house, which now needed a patched roof, Jesus and His disciples; followed by a throng of people, particularly the Pharisees, walked along the shores of the Galilean Sea. As with everything that Jesus did, there was a purpose behind this stroll on the beach, and the purpose was not simply leisure. He walked straight to Levi the Publican’s tax table and said, “Follow me.”

All over the sea shore people’s chins were scrapping the beach. Healing a paralyzed young man was one thing, but calling a Publican to be your disciple was another! Levi was a tax collector! He was an extortionist; a traitor; a chief sinner; who, like the rest of his kind, had been cut off from respectable society. Even so, Jesus was willing to forgive the sins of the publican just as he did the sins of the paralytic, but Jesus didn’t stop there. He accepted a dinner invitation to Levi’s house and since Levi had just been saved all the other guests, apart from Christ and His followers were sinners. Sinners like Levi had been; people who had been banned from the synagogue and shunned by society. The Pharisees’ emerging indignation was given voice in their question, not to Jesus directly, but to the disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The answer to that question was provided by Jesus, and it’s a summation of His earthly ministry and the one that His churches have been left here to fulfill: “They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

The Pharisees were undaunted, and their courage, such as it was, was on the rise. Bolstered by some of John the Baptist’s misguided disciples (misguided because they failed to recognize the Messiah for whom John had prepared the way) Jesus is directly approached and asked a question: “Why is your preaching and your practice so different from us?!” That is a paraphrased instead of a precise quote, but it is the heart of the question that they did ask: “Why do the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?”

Jesus answered that during a wedding the coming of the bridegroom was a joyous time, not a time of mourning. The Bridegroom – Jesus – had come, and it would be ridiculous for His followers to mourn – fast. This was a time of rejoicing! His illustration of the old garments not being patched with new cloth or old skins unable to hold new wine demonstrated the exclusivity of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be grafted into any other religious system. It is utterly unique, and it only is efficacious for salvation. The religion of the Pharisees had become a ritual divorced from reality; otherwise they would have recognized Jesus as their Messiah instead of their misery. They would have left all to follow Him as the fishermen and tax collector had done. Instead, they were more interested in a lifeless religion in which they were given gory and honor for their strict but absurd observances and practices. They did not believe that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins even though He clearly had authority to heal the body. They refused to believe that they needed to repent; after all, they were not the publicans and sinners. And they were shocked that this Jesus and His followers did not follow the same hollow, heartless habits that they associated with real religion.

Confronted with their sin these men were unwilling to respond to His message of salvation. They hardened their hearts. They rejected the message and consequently their Messiah, and soon, this would lead to blasphemy and the plotting of His murder. When it comes to Jesus you are either for or against; there is no middle ground (Mark 9:38ff; Luke 9:49-50).

To say the least, the Pharisees are close to the tipping point with Jesus, and after today’s text – Mark 2:23-3:6 – actually is the tipping point. The storm that ultimately breaks over Calvary’s cross is gathering on the horizon. Let’s read the text:

And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.

And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched [it] out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

The Pharisees’ rejection of Christ was consummated here with His rejection of their Sabbath observances. He violated, not the Sabbath but their Sabbath, and for that He was hated and rejected. The Sabbath had become the epitome of their legalistic system. Everything in their legalistic system was ultimately focused on that one day. Failing to observe the ritual Monday and Thursday fasts was bad; failing to observe the Sabbath was unforgivable.

The Incident – v. 23

Why did this incident have the Pharisee inflamed? What was/is the Sabbath? Was Jesus guilty of breaking or bending one of God’s laws?

Let’s begin with the word: the Greek word for Sabbath is ‘sabbaton’, and it means “to cease; a complete cessation of something”. An overview of the Biblical teaching on the Sabbath must begin in Exodus 20:8-11:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day [is] the sabbath of the LORD thy God: [in it] thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that [is] within thy gates: For [in] six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them [is], and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (ff. Gen 2:1-3)

We may infer at least three things about the Sabbath from those verses.

1. Observing – “Remember the sabbath day” means, “Don't forget to take a day off.” Israel was to observe a day of rest; specifically every seventh day. I find it interesting that the particular day is no were mentioned, but it is understandable why Saturday was the recognized Sabbath.

2. Keeping – it holy means set it aside from all other days as special. Specifically, as verse 10 says, “the sabbath of the Lord," or “to the Lord” or “for the Lord”. In other words, the rest is not to be aimless rest, but God-centered rest. Attention is to be directed to God in a more concentrated way that an ordinary day. Keep the day holy by keeping the focus on the holy God.

3. Resting – The basic point of the commandment is that God rested from His creation on the seventh day, and He blessed and hallowed the day. What does it mean for God to bless a day? I do not think that it means the day itself was elevated above all others, but it means the day was made a time of blessing. When God blesses a man, the man becomes rich with blessings. When he blesses a land, the land becomes rich with blessings. So when he blesses a day, that day becomes rich with blessings. And by hallowing the day God set it aside (hallow = sanctified = set apart) for special focus on what is holy; namely, God and His holy works.

Now consider the two words together. He blessed the day, and He hallowed the day. Meaning, He made it a source of blessing, and He made it to focus on Himself. The hallowing is included in the blessing and the blessing is included in the hallowing. When you hallow God and focus your attention on him, you receive more blessing than if you keep on busying yourself seven days a week with professional affairs or any other concerns.

That God rested means, at the very least, that He was satisfied with His completed creation. He saw that it was “very good”. He stood back as it were in leisure and savored the beauty and completeness of His handiwork. (cf Psalm 19:1) The beautiful thing about the sabbath is that God instituted it as a weekly reminder of two things:

1. All true blessing comes from His grace not our labor.
2. We hallow and honor him, keeping the day holy, seeking the fullness of His blessing by giving our special attention to Him on that day.

By NT times, however, the rabbis had added volumes of details to the sabbath command, transforming it from a wonderful gift of hallowed rest, exalting in the blessings of God’s grace, to a day of religious minutiae and unrealistic expectations. Instead of it being a day of ceasing and a day of rest, it was a day of incredible burden.

Here is a sample of things that were forbidden: sewing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sifting, grinding, kneading, baking; shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dying wool, spinning wool, putting it in the weaver's loom; making two threads, weaving two threads, separating two threads, making a knot or undoing it, sewing two stitches, catching game or killing, skinning, salting it, preparing its skin, scraping off its hair, cutting it up; writing two letters (and I mean actual letters), building, pulling down, extinguishing or lighting fire, beating with a hammer, carrying a possession, and it goes on and on.

Do you know what the Sabbath was? A pain in the neck! It was impossible to rest; you couldn't do anything. No doubt when Christ said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come unto me, all [ye] that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke [is] easy, and my burden is light.” He was referring to this system that had been imposed on them by the legalists, under which the backs of the people were bowed.

This is why the Pharisees made such a fuss about the disciples plucking ears of corn and eating as they traveled. According to their list that was unlawful, even though it was exactly in harmony with God’s provision for those who were traveling within Israel. Deuteronomy 23:25, “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour's standing corn.”

So the disciples are moving along, and they began to be hungry. They pluck the ears of grain to eat; just what Deuteronomy 23:25 said they had a right to do. They were not in violation of the Word of God at all. They had left their livelihood to follow Jesus Christ, and they lived by faith. Jesus didn't restrain them, because they were in line with the Old Testament Scripture.

The Pharisees thought otherwise, and this incident led to their indictment of Jesus.

The Indictment – v. 24

They were dogging Christ’s footsteps; not in order to learn; not in obedience to the Lord, but in a vain attempt to find fault. They were looking for anything with which they might accuse Him of evildoing. Having spotted the disciples “reaping” on the sabbath they believed their moment had arrived. This was what they needed to indict Jesus!


They only succeeded in lobbing a soft-ball sized opportunity for Biblical instruction.

The Instruction – vv. 25-26

“Have ye never read?” I believe that is an example of sarcasm from the lips of our Lord! Of course they had read. All they did was read, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you apply and live what is read. Remember, the learning is for living! These men had rejected the One about whom all their reading was focused.

Didn't you read this? Don't you know what it means? The implication is that they didn't know at all what it means. What was wrong with the Pharisees? Why didn't they understand the Sabbath the way Jesus did; the way it was meant to be understood? Why didn't they see David's eating the showbread as an example of the Sabbath bringing rest instead of hardship? (Literally means ‘the bread of presence,’ or ‘the continual bread,’ and it was the representation of God's perpetual relationship to His people, and it was to be eaten only by the priests. It was sacred, never to touch the lips of a common person, even a person like David, because he wasn't a priest. Cf. Leviticus 24:5-9)

According to Matthew’s account of this confrontation, Jesus said the Pharisees could only condemn the innocent because they had never understood Hosea 6:6, “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice”. Jesus quotes it in Matthew 12:7. God says, In other words the whole law exists for the sake of mercy. All the law is summed up by this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength, and your neighbor as yourself. That is why Paul said in Romans 13:8, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” The Pharisees couldn't see the true meaning of the sabbath because they didn't have hearts of love. They were legalistic and loveless (the two are often linked).

Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath”, Mark 2:27. The sabbath is a gift of love to meet man's need, not an oppressive burden to make him miserable or proud. He didn't come to abolish the sabbath, but to dig it out from under the mountain of legalistic sediment; giving it to us again as a blessing rather than a burden. The sabbath is a day for showing mercy and a day for doing good (3:4). It should not be governed rigidly by narrow definitions of what is work and what is not. As Jesus is the Lord of the sabbath, according to verse 28, it is a day to focus on Jesus, and it is impossible that a day focused on Jesus should be a burden to the believing heart! Remember again Matthew 11 – “Come unto me, all [ye] that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

They had indicted Him, but when He was done with His instruction, they were the ones indicted as hard-hearted, external legalists who were clueless about the God they professed to serve. They were the violators of the Sabbath, because the Sabbath was for meeting needs, serving God, showing mercy, and enjoying God’s rest. Jesus plainly tells them, “You not in charge of the sabbath anyway. I am. The Son of man is Lord of the sabbath.” He would tolerate no Pharisaical perversion of His intended purpose for the Sabbath; it was His. He wrote it, He would interpret it, and He would fulfill it on the cross and in His resurrection.

The Illustration – 3:1-5

Jesus illustrated His field instruction with a synagogue miracle. Evidently, they have entered the synagogue for the Sabbath service, and the Pharisees are closely watching Jesus; again, not to follow His example, but to accuse Him of some wrongdoing. In the service there was a man with a withered hand, and according to Matthew the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?”

They cared nothing about this man. Whether he was healed or not was of little concern to them. In their twisted mind and perverted understanding of the law the answer to their question was a no-brainer. They thought it to be unlawful, but as we’ve already seen, they were clueless as to the heart of God.

The coldness of their hearts is amazing, but more so is their blindness. They knew that Jesus could heal this man; it’s why they asked the question. It was not a question that had ever before been considered because there was no one who could heal! Here they are faced with the very power and presence of God, yet they are more concerned with their ceremonies, rituals, and status quo. Christ answers their question with a question; Mark 3:4, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil; to save life or to kill?”

They sought to entrap Jesus, but they were the ones ensnared. What could they say? If they say it is lawful to do good, then they are stuck. If they say it is not lawful to do good, then what’s the alternative, evil? So they don't even offer an answer.

I imagine that a tense silence hung in the air as Jesus, according to Mark, “looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts”. Finally, in what seemed like forever but was probably only seconds, Jesus answered His own question when He said “it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days” (Matthew 12:12), and then, turning from the Pharisees to the man He said “Stretch forth thine hand” and as the man faithfully obeyed the Lord his hand was healed. Rest was found by tat man on the sabbath by the Lord of the sabbath.

Jesus connected the Sabbath with the heart of God: benevolence, mercy, kindness, goodness. That is the purpose of it all. Jesus came that we might enter into a relationship with God in which He pours out to us grace, goodness, mercy, kindness, peace, benevolence, and tenderness. The Pharisees had completely obliterated that illustration in the Sabbath.

God wants mercy to be shown, not ritual. The only function that ceremony ever has is the illustration of a right attitude. If you corrupt the illustration without having the right attitude, you miss the whole purpose; which is exactly what the Pharisees had done. Luke’s account says that upon healing the man’s withered hand, the Pharisees “were filled with madness” (6:11). They were furious that Christ had shown merciful grace on the sabbath.

How twisted is that? From this point forward the Pharisees plotted Christ’s death. They even solicited the help of the Herodians, a political group whom for whom they had no love, but with whom they shared a hatred of Jesus.

What does this say to an unbeliever? Today, there are people who are caught in systems of religion where they are trying, by their own works, to do what the Pharisees did; namely, earn favor with God by observing ceremonies and rituals; laws and rules. I don't know what system you're in; Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, etc. Are you tired of toiling? Look in repentance and faith to Christ. He will give you rest. All these man-made systems do is bury the heart of God under a pile of legislation. Christ will give you a yoke, but His yoke is easy and His burden is light. The love of God is that we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome. (cf. 1 John 5:3)

Christians, why do you attend church? Why do you worship? What's your purpose? Is it just to maintain appearances? Is it simply "functional Christianity"? Is it because you think it is your duty? Are you just cranking it out? Having begun in the Spirit, are you going to be perfected in the flesh? (cf. Galatians 3:3) Are you defining true spirituality in terms of a bunch of little things you do or don't do? Is your relationship to God only rules and laws? Begin to realize that those things assist us. They do not define us. They can never stand in the way of meeting needs, serving God, and showing mercy, because that would violate their purpose.

Antinomianism – no law and all grace – and legalism – all law and no grace – are heretical twins. You do not want to fall into either trap. Some Christians are so legalistic that they literally alienate other believers. The things they're legalistic about aren't even things God talks about in Scripture. On the other hand, some Christians are so libertine that one cannot distinguish a difference between them and unbelievers.

Where is your heart toward God?

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