Scripture Readings: Deut. 5:12-15; Ps. 139:1-6, 13-18; 2 Cor. 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Mark 2:23-3:6
Jesus is our Sabbath
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” was the Lord’s command to Israel as part of the covenant he ratified with them through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, Moses repeated this command in Deut. 5:12-15 (our Old Testament reading today), explaining that God’s intent in giving the Sabbath to Israel was to provide rest for everyone, including Israel’s servants and work animals.
Though Gen. 2:2 says God “rested” from creating on the seventh day, it is not until Israel is at Mt. Sinai that the Torah uses the word “Sabbath.” It was in conjunction with the giving of the Law that God commanded Israel to rest on the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week. Apparently, those who lived before that time, including Noah, Abraham and the other patriarchs, did not observe the Sabbath. But why did God rest on the seventh day of creation week? Was he tired? And why did he wait until he made the covenant with Israel to command a weekly day of rest for his people? What did Jesus say about the Sabbath, and what do his words mean for us today? In this sermon, we’ll see.
We begin by noting the Sabbath-related controversies swirling around Jesus in Mark 2 and 3. Early in his ministry, while selecting disciples and preaching in Galilee, often in synagogues, Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders. They questioned Jesus’ way of doing ministry—even accusing him of blasphemy. They questioned the way he hung out with “sinners” (even tax-collectors, no less!). They also questioned why Jesus’ disciples did not fast like the followers of John the Baptist and the Pharisees. Jesus explained that they were failing to understand who he was, and therefore the practices of the disciples who were following him.
The religious leaders were quite dissatisfied with Jesus’ explanations. Being envious of Jesus and the large crowds he was drawing, they began to follow him around, looking for ways to discredit him and his ministry. One thing they looked for was any failure on Jesus’ part to keep the Sabbath in the way specified in the Jewish traditions that added to the Law of Moses.
According to the instructions Moses gave the Israelites at Sinai, they were forbidden to gather manna on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:26). The terms of the covenant given at Sinai then broadened this command to prohibit any sort of work on the Sabbath. By Jesus’ day, Jewish rules and regulations went beyond what the Law of Moses said about the Sabbath, making any sort of “work” on the seventh day illegal. The New Bible Dictionary says this:
During the period between the Testaments… a change gradually crept in with respect to the understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath. In the synagogues, the law was studied on the Sabbath. Gradually oral tradition made its growth among the Jews, and attention was paid to the minutiae of observance.
The minutiae of observance included dozens of Sabbath prohibitions, including restrictions on travel and even restrictions on what could or could not be eaten. For example, eating fruit was permitted, but squeezing juice from the fruit was considered “work” and thus prohibited.
As seen in our reading in Mark today, Jesus did not feel that he or his disciples were obligated to obey these added Sabbath restrictions. On one particular Sabbath, as Jesus and his disciples were walking through the grain fields, they began picking some heads of grain. The Pharisees, observing this, said, “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
The backstory here is that the Law of Moses permitted people to pluck and eat grain in fields they did not own, and it also permitted people to walk on the Sabbath. Thus Jesus and his disciples were not violating any Mosaic laws. However, they were ignoring certain Sabbath laws that the Jews had added to the Sabbath laws set out in the Torah.
Instead of arguing technicalities of Sabbath law, Jesus responded to their accusation by citing a Scriptural example of meeting a human need at the expense of a religious requirement:
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. (Mark 2:25-26)
David understood that the loving and kind God did not expect people to go hungry due to observing technical religious restrictions. The day-old bread consecrated for worship in the Tabernacle, having served its purpose, would have been thrown out. How much better to give it to hungry people?
Jesus’ statement raised the eyebrows of his critics—how dare he compare his actions to those of King David! Even worse, Jesus went on to say this:
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27-28)
Here, Jesus was pointing out two things. First, that the rules concerning Sabbath observance added by the Jews to the Torah had turned God’s gift of Sabbath rest into a heavy burden. Such added rules made conscientious people nervously careful so as not to provoke what they saw as an angry God. How sad, for God’s intent in giving the Sabbath to Israel was that his people would enjoy rest from the rigors of their strenuous daily labor and have free time to reflect on all the good God graciously gave them.
With these words, Jesus was reminding his accusers of what should have been obvious: God created humanity first, and Sabbath rest came afterward. It should have been obvious that the Sabbath command given to Israel was intended for a blessing, not a burden. God knew that the burdens of daily life would distract his people from considering who he is and their purpose in being his people. God gave them the Sabbath to refresh them and to provide for them time to consider their purpose, and thus adjust their priorities.
Second, in speaking these words, Jesus was claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath—a stunning claim that pointed to Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah—their Lord! His accusers rejected this claim—to them, it was blasphemy. Moreover, it threatened their position.
Other New Testament teachings elaborate on what Jesus was claiming. John 1:3 says that Jesus was the incarnate Word of God—the Word who created all things and, having created, rested on the seventh day. Thus Jesus could speak about God’s intent in giving Israel the Sabbath command with great authority. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus had authority to explain the purpose of the Sabbath and the rules of its observance. He did so in these words with brilliant simplicity, unlike the unwieldy complexity of the dozens of Sabbath rules set down by the Jewish religious authorities.
Hearing Jesus’ outrageous claims, these authorities set out to use his Sabbath practices against him:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. (Mark 3:1-2)
This man was not merely sick—his deformity would have limited his ability to earn a living. Thus his healing not only made him whole; it enabled him to support himself and his family. How could anyone reject such a gracious, miraculous gift, focusing instead on the day on which the healing took place? Well, the religious leaders did. They cited a Sabbath ruling later written in the Mishnah, that the only time a healing was permitted on the Sabbath was when it was a matter of life or death. Jesus was not constrained by this restriction:
Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. (Mark 3:3-4)
With this healing and his words, Jesus exposed the religious leaders’ sinful plot. He also gave the onlookers in the synagogue opportunity to view this needy man though God’s compassionate eyes, and in doing so to rethink their wrong-headed, legalistic view of the Sabbath.
Though Jesus understood that what these religious leaders were up to would eventually lead to his death, his desire was to save them, not condemn them, though their stubborn resistance stirred his divine wrath and he was deeply distressed by their stubbornness (Mark 3:5a). But instead of retaliating, Jesus in his beautiful humility and awesome authority turned to the man with the shriveled and said, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and the man’s hand was “completely restored” (Mark 3:5b).
The religious leaders refused to understand what had just happened. Instead of submitting to the Lord of the Sabbath, they “went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (Mark 3:6).
The ultimate Sabbath
Let’s now consider the big lesson of this passage in Mark’s Gospel. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Here Jesus was indicating that who he was and what he did fulfilled what was required of him as an obedient son of Israel in accordance with the Law of Moses (the “Law”). He also was indicating that who he was and what he did fulfilled all that was prophesied of Israel’s Messiah in “the Prophets.” Thus we understand that Jesus fulfills the Law and Prophets—and that includes the instructions (law) and prophecies (teachings) concerning the Sabbath.
Jesus, who is God’s ultimate Sabbath rest for humanity, brings us rest and refreshment from all our toil. Jesus put it this way: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). These words precede the same stories concerning Jesus and the Sabbath we’ve been looking at in Mark 2 and 3. Matthew was wanting his Jewish readers to see Jesus, and salvation in him, as the ultimate Sabbath-rest.
Though as a Jew, it was fitting that Jesus would observe the Law of Moses, he did not expect all his followers down through the centuries to do the same. For example, though Jesus was circumcised, he did not lead his apostles to require Christian males to be circumcised—this is made clear in the account in Acts 15. And though Jesus would have killed a lamb each year as prescribed by the Torah, the apostles understood that they did not have to. The Spirit led the apostles to understand that to be a Christian, one need not be an observant Jew who, like Jesus, adhered to all the stipulations of the Law of Moses.
This understanding did not happen instantaneously. For several years, Jewish Christians in and around Jerusalem continued to follow the customs specified by the Law of Moses, Jesus’ apostles were led by the Spirit to understand that Torah-observance was not required for Christians. They thus did not require Christians to observe the Sabbath.
Though Jesus and his first disciples met in the temple in Jerusalem and in synagogues elsewhere on the Sabbath, we should not conclude that in doing so they were indicating that Sabbath observance is required of Christians. Gentile followers of Jesus did not need to observe the Sabbath because Jesus was their rest. Jewish Christians also were not required to continue customs and practices that Jesus had fulfilled.
Rest in Jesus
But what exactly is the rest that Jesus gives us? First, it is relief, through forgiveness, from the heavy burden of sin. Second, it is hope of a secure and everlasting future. Third, it is a lightening now of the weight of life’s burdens, including the burdens of religious legalism. The rest Jesus is and gives, is way beyond the physical, psychological and spiritual rest of one day out of seven. Thus, in Matt. 11:29, Jesus calls it “rest for your souls.”
This rest is not limited to one day a week—it is permanent and always! Those who find rest for their souls in Jesus are relieved from all burdens, including those of religious requirements intended only for Israel under the old covenant. Those who misunderstand and think they can achieve spiritual rest through observance of days or other Torah practices risk falling short of finding the true rest that is in Jesus alone.
It is not uncommon in our day for some to place their preachers in the role only Jesus can fill. Paul had to remind the Christians in Corinth that humanity’s rest does not come through its religious leaders. As we saw in our reading in 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, ministers are servants of Christ, not replacements for Christ. Jesus, alone, is at the center of everything.
Some Christians mistake the rest they have in Jesus for the entertaining quality of a church that offers a virtual shopping mall of programs, activities and emotional stimulation. But Jesus is not confined to large groups nor small ones. Moreover, Jesus is not confined to a particular culture, nor is he confined to a certain style of music. The rest that we have in Jesus is spiritual—it is a relationship of love, not merely a religious experience. All that is required to experience this rest is to “come to Jesus”—to place your trust in Jesus. If you have never done so, I invite you to do so today—right now.
In resting on the seventh day of creation week, God was not indicating that he was weary. Instead, he was pointing to the ultimate rest that humanity would be given in God’s Living Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament clearly teaches that from the foundation of creation, Christ was destined to be humanity’s salvation—our true, complete and final rest. The Sabbath command God gave Israel through Moses pointed to Jesus, God’s ultimate source of rest. Under the new covenant, the Sabbath is no longer a day of the week; it is a person—Jesus Christ!
Some Christians try to keep the Sabbath in the way God commanded Israel. Despite what might be good intentions, they are unable to find true rest until they turn away from Sabbatarianism to Jesus—trusting in him fully and only to be their rest; looking to nothing else but him for their salvation. My prayer is that any who hold on to the belief that Sabbath-keeping is required for salvation will see the truth about Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. Amen.