Now would you take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to Mark’s gospel, chapter 2. If you are using one of our church Bibles, you will find that on page 838; 838. We are dealing this morning with the last two in a series of five stories that Mark has gathered together to account for the growing tension and conflict that is taking place between Jesus and the religious establishment, the Pharisees, as Jesus began His ministry. You will remember how we saw, three, four weeks ago, the Pharisees were offended when Jesus pronounced forgiveness of a man who had been paralyzed. “No one forgives sin but God,” they reasoned, “therefore, He must be blaspheming,” never for a moment considering Jesus might be the God who forgives sin. They were offended. They were offended again when Levi, the tax collector come disciple, has a great party to celebrate his conversion to Christ and brings all his tax collector and sinner friends and Jesus is right there in the thick of things celebrating with him. They were offended. And they were offended when they realized that they were fasting, like any good Pharisee should, that the disciples of John the Baptist were even fasting, but Jesus and His disciples didn’t fast. They were offended.
And now in chapter 2, beginning in verse 23 running all the way through verse 6 of chapter 3, Mark brings to stories together, both of which take place on two Sabbath days. And guess what? They are offended. The Pharisees are offended at Jesus’ teaching and conduct on the Sabbath day. You may remember, we noticed in passing last time that Jesus was well aware of the collision course that His ministry had placed Him on with the Pharisees and the religious establishment. And if you look at verse 6 of chapter 3, the last verse in these two stories, you’ll get a sense of just how quickly momentum has built and the Pharisees now plot together with the Herodians, who would have been their political opponents otherwise, now they’re making common cause plotting how they may destroy Jesus. There’s an irony in that, as we’re going to see later, when Jesus asks the question, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or do to harm? To save life or to kill?” And Jesus heals a man and restores him and makes his life whole, and on that very same Sabbath the Pharisees go out and plot how to kill Jesus. There’s a terrible irony in all of that. Although I also have to tell you that as a preacher I couldn’t help but feel verse 6 sounds something of a warning, at least for preachers if not also for hearers. It says something like, “Be warned, Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath makes people mad.” You know, after all, they wanted to kill Jesus when He taught on the Sabbath! So let me just ask you now to go easy on me!
But be that as it may, this is the text before us. This is where we’ve come to as we’ve worked through Mark together. So let me give you three things to look for in these two passages. Think of it almost like three layers of teaching, each one going a little deeper, penetrating into the inner meaning of these two stories. First of all, we’re simply going to think about the dispute that has erupted over the Sabbath. The attitude of the Pharisees, in particular, is exposed for us to see, so that in the mirror of holy Scripture we might begin to find out any lurking, remaining inner-pharisaism still festering in our own hearts also. So the dispute. Then, we’ll think secondly about the directions that Jesus gives. He gives us some constructive teaching on how to keep the Sabbath well. And then thirdly, I want you to think with me about the discovery that Jesus provides of the inner meaning and significance of the Sabbath – where true Sabbath blessing can be found. Okay? So there’s the outline – the dispute, the directions, and the discovery. And we’re going to consider each of those in turn. Before we do that, we’re going to read the passage. And before we do that, we do need to pray and ask for God to help us. So would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?
Lord Jesus, You spoke the Word of God to the Pharisees on those two Sabbaths that we are reading about this morning, and now we pray that You would do the same again in the power of the Holy Spirit on this Sabbath day among Your people. For we ask it in Your precious name, amen.
Mark chapter 2 at the twenty-third verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 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?’ And 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.’
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 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. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
Amen, and we thank God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.
It is the year 1660 in the important little port of Dysart in the part of southeastern Scotland known as the Kingdom of Fife. On this occasion, the town is very quiet indeed; there’s no one on the streets, almost no one around because today is the Sabbath day and nearly everyone in the town of Dysart is in church. But suppose on this particular Sunday you were late for church or maybe even resolved to play hooky that day. Well, then you would quickly discover the need for a great deal of caution. Because like many parishes in those days, the records of the acts of the session, the elder body for the parish church, indicate that they had appointed two elders to prowl the streets of Dysart during the worship service in order to catch anyone who failed to attend. In those days, actually, the elders were given some delegated civil power to enforce local law. And so if you were found breaking the Sabbath, you could be fined; they could even inflict corporal punishment. They would put you in the stocks in the town square. Those were the days!
Actually, just think about it for a moment. Do you see the absurdity of the situation? Two elders are authorized to skip church in order to find people who are not in church! It’s ridiculous. The hypocrisy of it is plain to see. But as we will recognize and confess immediately if we are properly acquainted with our own hearts, there is something about the spirit of the Pharisee no matter when or in whichever age we encounter it, there is something about the spirit of the Pharisee that makes us blind to our own hypocrisy. Isn’t there?
If you look at the passage before us this morning, you’ll notice in chapter 2 verses 23 and 24, while Jesus and the disciples are walking through the fields on the Sabbath day and the disciples pluck some ears of grain to eat to stave off their hunger, the Pharisees are walking right along with them. You see the vocabulary that Mark uses. “As they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain and the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” So they’re there, and they’re not there because they genuinely want to learn more about Jesus or His message. They are there, like the elders on the streets of Dysart, you know, prowling, watching, looking for an opportunity to accuse Him. They do the same thing, don’t they, in chapter 3 when Jesus sees the man with the withered hand and has him stand in the middle of the congregation. The Pharisees are poised, ready to pounce. They’re looking to see if He will do something out of line that they might accuse Him.
And so I want you to notice here, here’s the first thing – the dispute that erupts between Jesus and the Pharisees over the Sabbath. Notice carefully the accusation. It’s not that they were troubled by the action of plucking some grain from someone else’s field. Actually, the law of Moses allowed you to go into your neighbor's field if you happened to be passing through, so long as you didn't bring a combine harvester with you, you could pluck a few heads of grain along the way. That was entirely allowed in the law of Moses. No, the Pharisees were mad because in their view, plucking ears of grain was a form of reaping, and reaping was a form of work, and work was prohibited on the Sabbath day. “Ah-ha! You see!” It’s a sort of “Gotcha!" moment. "You see what kind of rabbi Jesus really is! Sabbath-breaker!" That's the sense in which these things unfold.
Spirit of Legal Obedience
And just to be fair to the Pharisees, the attitude they’re displaying here makes perfect sense actually, if you think that what gets you to God is the exactitude of your legal obedience. I mean if it were possible for you to win favor with God by scrupulously obeying His law, if that were possible, wouldn’t you be every bit as obsessed as the Pharisees were with every minute behavior? They really thought it was possible. In fact, they thought they had this righteousness thing in the bag; they got it right. They had come to put what they call “the hedge” around the law of Moses. So, they had developed an elaborate system of minute and comprehensive additional regulations designed to speak to every conceivable circumstance or situation in life so that by keeping all of these additional requirements you wouldn’t even come within a hair’s breadth of breaking one of the actual commandments of God.
And so this spirit of legal obedience had begun to really saturate their souls, till what mattered to them most wasn’t the heart but whether or not you kept their rules.
And lest we find ourselves shaking our heads at those poor, benighted Pharisees, as the elders of the parish of Dysart prowling the streets looking for transgressors remind us, this very same attitude has a way of rearing its ugly head in every generation. Doesn’t it? It rears its ugly head in every generation. If you find yourself offended, scandalized by everyone else’s apparent misbehavior, it is probably worth searching your own heart for the Pharisee spirit. It may be like the group who were whining about Jesus and His disciples in the wheat fields that Sabbath day, it may be that you’ve actually begun to trust in your own religious doings more than you have anything else.
Well, before we move on, do notice how Jesus deals with them. How does He settle the dispute? One of the things I think this passage teaches us at its simplest level has to do with settling disputes about doctrine. How do you do that? When someone has a question about some point of truth, look how Jesus responds to their claims of Sabbath-breaking, their allegations. We're going to come back to the actual argument; just look at His method for now. Does He offer a counter opinion? Does He point to the way He was raised? You know, "This is how My mama taught me to keep the Sabbath" – is that what He says? Does He appeal to a different tradition? He doesn't begin with, "Well, that's your view, but I always felt that a better way was…" What does Jesus do to settle the dispute? How should we settle disputes in points where there's disagreement over doctrine? He asks them, doesn't He, "Have you never read?" Where is He pointing them? He's pointing them back to holy Scripture. "Haven't you ever read?"
The Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the summary statement of the way the Presbyterian Church in America understands the Scriptures, at the end of its opening paragraph has an extraordinarily helpful statement on the authority of Scripture. It says this: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private spirits are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” That’s very helpful. The Spirit speaking in the Scripture. When it comes to any point of controversy or debate, when it comes to keeping the Sabbath day holy, it really doesn’t matter how you feel about it, how I feel about it. It really doesn’t matter what the world says about it, what prevailing opinion may be with reference to it; what some great or good authority may have to say on the matter. What settles it is what God says about it in His holy Word. We do need to train ourselves to make our appeal there and to rest in the sentence of the supreme judge – the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. So the dispute, first of all.
Then secondly, let’s look at the directions Jesus provides with regard to the Sabbath. I think it really is very important as we read these two stories to understand Jesus is not rejecting the Sabbath principle, He is not undermining the Sabbath principle, He isn't even really reinterpreting the Sabbath principle. He is, rather, equipping us to keep the Sabbath holy. And
Principle of Necessity
He does that by giving two principles to us to direct and to guide us as we determine how best to keep the Lord's Day. The first of them is the principle of necessity. You see that in chapter 2:25 and 26 where He points to the actions of David, 1 Samuel 21. You remember the story, perhaps. David is on the run from King Saul and he and his men enter the tabernacle and they ate the bread of the presence, the showbread that the priests, these twelve loaves of bread that the priests would deposit on the altar every Sabbath day as an emblem and a reminder to the worshipers of the covenant promise of God and the faithfulness of the provision of God for the needs of His people. And only the priests were allowed to eat the showbread, the bread of presence. But on this occasion, David and his men are starving; they're on the run, and so they go in and they take the bread and they eat and are satisfied. The ceremonial law, you see, that prohibited David from eating, gives way to necessity.
Actually if you think about it, there would have been something terribly contradictory if in that moment of urgent need the bread on the altar that is an emblem, a powerful symbol of the provision of God for the needs of His people, if in that moment of David’s need God’s appointed king, David, was prohibited from taking the bread that is the picture of God’s provision for His people’s needs. And so you see, in order for the deeper significance of the ceremonial law to be fulfilled, on this occasion the formal demand of the law was set aside.
Jesus reminds us the Sabbath isn’t about being miserable. The Sabbath is about blessing. So verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is a gift of grace for our restoration, for our welfare. Is it really God’s plan that His people should remain hungry on a day that speaks about His provision, His grace? No, no. The inner significance and meaning of the Sabbath itself urges and encourages us to make provision for our daily necessities and for the necessities of those around us who need us and depend upon us. And so the first principle to help direct and guide us as we keep the Lord’s Day is the principle of necessity.
The Principle of Mercy
The second is in verses 1 to 6 of chapter 3 and it’s the principle, this time, of mercy. The principle of mercy. This time, the scene shifts; we’re not in the grainfields. Now we’re on another Sabbath day in the synagogue. And this time Jesus doesn’t wait for the Pharisees to take the initiative. Jesus, rather, seizes the offensive. He has this man with a withered hand stand up in the midst of the congregation. Mark tells us the Pharisees are all poised, waiting with baited breath to see what Jesus will do, that they might accuse Him. But verse 4, Jesus begins the interrogation. Jesus questions them this time. Verse 4, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” And no one would answer Him; we already know why. They’re harboring in their hearts a hatred toward Jesus. They’re planning to kill Him on the Sabbath. They want to say it’s lawful to kill on the Sabbath because, verse 6, that’s precisely what they make plans to do. But they know the real answer ought to be to save life, to do good, to heal. So no one answers.
Jesus is enormously grieved and frustrated with their misbehavior and their failure to answer what they know to be true, and so He heals the man. “Stretch out your hand,” He says. “And the man stretched out his hand and was restored.” It’s not a difficult point to see; it’s not opaque, is it? It’s perfectly clear what we’re being taught. Nothing fits the Sabbath better than mercy. Nothing comports with God’s design for the Lord’s Day more than doing good, than saving life and showing mercy.
Now I think this is important because many of us want an approach to the Sabbath day that helps us justify whatever we like to do on Sundays. If we’re honest, we don’t have a lot of patience with the historic teaching of the Bible that God has ordained one whole day in seven to be a Sabbath, kept holy to the Lord and used entirely for rest and worship and for works of necessity and mercy. We’d rather read Jesus in these passages as saying something like, “Look, now that I’ve come, let’s all just lighten up. The Sabbath isn’t the big deal you Pharisees think it is, and so let’s all just go ahead and live a little. It really doesn’t matter what you do on the Lord’s Day.” Well that might be a way to read this that is convenient for us, but Jesus is not relativizing the Sabbath; He’s not. He’s not removing the Sabbath principle, but He is helping us keep it well. He’s neither too narrow like the Pharisees who would deny mercy or bodily necessity just to keep a rule, nor too lax like a great many in the contemporary church who seem only to have nine commandments rather than ten. No, Jesus wants us to keep the Sabbath holy, and here He gives us some direction to help us. Necessity and mercy aren’t exceptions to the Sabbath rest. Properly understood, they actually help us fulfill the heart and meaning and purpose for which the day was given to us. The Sabbath was made for our good.
And so before we move on, let me ask you, “What’s your attitude to the Sabbath day?” Do you strive purposefully, joyfully to keep the Sabbath holy? Do you call the Sabbath a delight or do you feel it to be really a drudgery? Is the worship of God and the fellowship of the saints and purposeful rest of mind and body from worldly employments and recreations an awfully inconvenient burden to you? Or do you find yourself looking forward to the Lord’s Day when you can be under the preaching of the Word, around the table of the Lord, with the people of God, in fellowship, singing His praise and serving Him together? The dispute and then the directions that Jesus gives encouraging us to set apart the Lord’s Day for His glory and our good.
Then finally, notice the discovery that Jesus helps us make here of the real meaning and the true source of Sabbath blessing. When Jesus picked the ears of grain in the field that Sabbath afternoon, by appealing to David in 1 Samuel 21, I wonder if you had a sense of the enormity of the claim He was making. He was drawing a parallel, do you see it, between Himself and Israel’s greatest king. “I am,” He’s saying to the Pharisees, “just like David in 1 Samuel 21.” Which is pretty stunning, but even more stunning is the claim He makes in verse 28 of chapter 2. “The Son of Man,” He says, “is Lord of the Sabbath.” He is the Son of Man, Jesus. Now to Jewish ears, “Lord of the Sabbath” could refer only to Yahweh, the LORD God, who instituted the Sabbath at the end of the creation week. And so Jesus is saying, “Not only am I David’s heir, Israel’s King, I am Israel’s God come down, taken flesh, and is standing in His grainfield on the Sabbath day, the very day I instituted by My own Word and decree on the seventh day.”
Sign of a Final Rest
Now you may remember when the Sabbath was first given back in Genesis chapter 1 it was given to be a sign to our first parents of a world that was still to come, of perfect, final rest. Had Adam obeyed God and kept covenant with God, the eternal Sabbath rest would immediately have dawned and the provisional beauty of the unfallen garden would have been consummated and swept up into the unfading glory of the new heavens and the new earth. But Adam didn’t obey. Did he? And ever since, in every age, the Sabbath day has continued, week in and week out, speaking to us, holding out a promise to us of a world of rest still waiting to come; a world where the shalom, the peace of God, not the stain of sin, not the sting of suffering, the peace of God, where that peace would reign at last.
Real Present Rest
And so now do you see what Jesus was really teaching in these two stories that Mark records? He’s saying, “Now, here, at last, the Lord of the Sabbath Himself has come. Israel’s great King, David’s true heir, and He’s come, you see, to bring that Sabbath rest down to begin the reign of shalom, of peace, right here, already, in the middle of this broken world.” Interestingly, when Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, we’re told “he stretched out his hand and it was restored.” The verb He uses is used two more times in Mark – once more for another healing and then in Mark chapter 9 to speak about the restoration of all things at the end of the age. You see what’s happening when Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath, is He is providing us a window into the real meaning of the Sabbath day, where Sabbath rest can be found, of Sabbath wholeness, of renewal, of new creation. Where does it come from? Where can you taste it and see it and know it for yourself? It comes from the Lord of the Sabbath. It comes from Jesus. Jesus has come and He has triumphed over sin and death and hell and gathered and is gathering a people for Himself, from every tribe and language and nation, He is building His kingdom in the midst of this dark world. And in His kingdom, there is hope and rest and peace. Not perfect rest, not the full realization of our hope, not final peace, and yet real rest and hope and peace.
And just as the Sabbath day continues, as we trust in Jesus, we look forward to that day to come not with any degree of uncertainty but with real confidence knowing that the Lord of the Sabbath will return. And what we taste and know truly and deeply, though imperfectly and yet incompletely here, will one day dawn in all its fullness hereafter. The Sabbath preaches good news to us. It says as Jesus said, you remember, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” There is rest for you in the Lord of the Sabbath. There is restoration for you in the Lord of the Sabbath.
What do you think about Sunday, really? Are you just ticking a box, fulfilling all righteousness? Is Sabbath a drudgery and a burden? Are you indifferent to Sunday? Is the Sabbath day for you, a way for you to boast in your religious performance? What do you think about Sunday really? Do you see that it is in fact an opportunity, an invitation to come and have fellowship with the Lord of the Sabbath Himself? It’s an invitation to lay aside everything else for a day and commune with the Redeemer who rose, bringing life and immortality to light, on the day the light was made, the first day of the week, the Sunday Sabbath day that is the inheritance of the Church of Jesus Christ. There is an opportunity for you to come and find rest in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the inner meaning of the Sabbath day. I wonder if you’ve come to taste it for yourself. Let’s pray together.
Lord, the truth is, some of us are proud of our diligence on a Sunday. Others of us find Sunday to be dull and wearisome. Some of us are indifferent. Sunday is another day for self and for recreation and for my earthly pleasures. Would You please forgive us for the great damage we do our own souls by the neglect of Your day, by failing to use it as You ordained we should, to know You, to feast by faith upon You, to have fellowship with Your people under Your Word and to be nourished by You? O Lord, would You help us by Your Spirit’s power not to become slaves to some narrow, legalistic view of Your law or of Your day, but to instead to discover the inner joy and wonder of it as we begin to have communion with the Lord of the Sabbath Himself? Do that, we pray, for Your glory and honor, in Jesus’ name, amen.
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