Legalism and the Sabbath

May 10, 2021 / No. 4088

Mark 2:23-28

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.

Who is Jesus, and why has He come? These are the questions that we are asking as we study the Gospel of Mark. And in these verses, in answer to the first question, Who is Jesus?, we see three things. Jesus is the Son of man, Jesus is the Lord, and Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. In answer to the second question, Why has He come?, we see, and this is the whole drift of this chapter, that He has come to give us freedom from legalism and its righteousness by works, by bringing to us the gospel of grace. And He has come also, in connection with that, as the Lord of the Sabbath, to fulfill the Sabbath and to bring us into the enjoyment of our eternal rest.

So, we have in verse 24 the fourth accusation that the Pharisees lodge against Jesus in this chapter. This one they address directly to Jesus. Notice in verse 23, we are introduced to Jesus and the disciples walking in fields on the Jewish Sabbath. Matthew tells us that the disciples were hungry as they walked, and Mark tells us here that they plucked the grain by picking it from the stalks. So, it was obviously harvesttime in the fall. And on a trip like this, through the fields, as they traversed from one place to another, the Jewish travelers did not have a convenience store on the way to stop, so they were allowed to eat from the fields of their fellow countrymen. This is the way that God showed mercy to the needs of His people.

You see that it is a matter of need. Jesus said, “David did, when he had need.” The need was hunger. And God in His law gave an allowance for such need in Deuteronomy 23:24 and 25: “When thou comest into thy neighbor’s vineyard, then thou mayest eat grapes thy fill at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel. 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.” You see what God allowed? God allowed them to eat for their need from the field of the fellow countrymen as they traveled.

What we see from that is that what the disciples would do here is not stealing, it is not trespassing. That was not the problem, either, that the Jewish leaders had with what they were doing. Their problem was that they saw this as work, because the disciples did it on their Sabbath. And they wanted to indict Jesus and they wanted to indict His disciples for working, breaking the Sabbath.

Let us try to understand a little bit their mindset and thinking, their methodology, that made them draw this conclusion. What the Pharisees and the Jewish lawyers (the Jewish teachers of the law) had done was that they had extracted from the Old Testament all the other requirements and fit them under each of the Ten Commandments. They took all those different things and, in connection with real life, drew up all the possible applications. Then, with all those possible applications, they had drawn up a list of rules for daily conduct. So, they ended up with 630 or so commandments instead of just the ten. And 234 of those commandments had to do with Sabbath observance. Almost half of their law had to do with what you could and could not do on the Sabbath Day. Then, each of those commandments was carefully explained in the Talmud so that there were 24 chapters containing the laws and the explanations of those laws for Sabbath observance. Their Sabbath laws were something like the IRS tax code, as one commentator points out. There were Sabbath laws about wine, honey, milk, sitting, writing, and getting dirt off your clothes—anything that might be conceived as work was forbidden. On the Sabbath the scribes were forbidden to carry their pens, the tailors were forbidden to carry their needles, and the students to carry their books. To do so might tempt one to work. In fact, carrying anything heavier than a fig was forbidden on the Sabbath. If you threw what you were carrying into the air, it had to be caught with the same hand. To catch it with the other hand would be considered work. No insect could be killed—that would be considered hunting. No candle light or flame could be extinguished. No bathing was allowed, since water might accidentally spill on the floor and wash the floor. No furniture could be moved around in the house lest it leave a rut in the dirt that would be considered plowing. An egg could not be boiled, and you could not leave an egg out in the hot sun, either, to cook. A radish could not be left in salt because it would become a pickle and pickling was work. These were their Sabbath regulations.

Now, it is in that mindset that they come to Jesus here in verse 44 and say, “Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” This had nothing to do with any Old Testament law or any biblical law that was transgressed but only with their man-made traditions that they had elevated to the level of and even above Scripture. According to their Rabbinical laws, the disciples would have been guilty of reaping by picking the grain, of sifting by separating the husks from the shell, of threshing by rubbing the grain between their hands, of winnowing by throwing the husks (the chaff) into the air, and of preparing a meal by eating the grain after they had cleaned it. These Jewish leaders had used their position to impose these things on the people as regulations. And Jesus said, “They placed burdens on the people too heavy to be carried.” With no concern for the need and the hunger and well-being of Jesus and His disciples here, they cared only about protecting their petty regulations that belonged to their hypocritical system of external religion.

They come to Jesus with this question. You see their hatred here. And their purpose. Notice: “Behold,” verse 24. That means: “Jesus, look! Look what your disciples are doing!” And there is one purpose, is there not? They are out there to get Jesus. This attack is not so much on the disciples, but on Jesus Himself for permitting the disciples to break these laws.

That is the accusation. And it fits with what we have been looking at earlier in this chapter. If Jesus and His disciples were truly religious, they would not do this. We Pharisees do not do this. So they are not as religious as we are. They are not as spiritual as we are.

Jesus gives a rather lengthy answer to that in four verses: verses 25-28. We have in Jesus’ answer here a very profound explanation of the Sabbath and of Sabbath observance, which includes all the main elements or principles for the observance of the Sabbath and the application of the fourth commandment to our own lives. What we see here, primarily, is that the Sabbath is not to be observed just by following a set of rules that you might extrapolate from the fourth commandment. There is wisdom in the application of the principles, with the primary thing being the recognition that Christ is Lord, and the Sabbath is a day for us a blessing and advantage.

In the first part of the answer (vv. 25, 26), Jesus allows on the Sabbath works of necessity. There are two main allowances for work on the Sabbath: works of necessity and works of mercy. Jesus here gives allowance for works of necessity, and in the next passage (the beginning of chapter 3) He allows for works of mercy.

Jesus tells here a familiar story from the Old Testament. Notice how He begins in verse 25: “Have ye never read…have ye never read?” He begins with the Scriptures. The Scriptures are the ultimate authority, not the words or the traditions of man. “Have ye never read?” He asked. And the story He tells is of David fleeing from Saul with a company of men. He and his men come to the tabernacle and they are hungry. And he asks the priest for food. There is no food but the shewbread, which had been sanctified and placed on the table before the Holy Place in dedication to God. According to the law of Moses, it was to be eaten by the priests only.

Jesus’ point here is that necessity creates the exception to the commandment. In David’s case, the necessity of hunger created the exception to the law who could eat the shewbread. Just as God in mercy allowed His people to eat from the field of a fellow countryman when they were hungry, so God allowed David and his men to eat the sanctified bread of the tabernacle in their need. A very powerful argument. He appealed to Scripture. He uses the example of the revered king David. And He shows the folly of the forbidding of their law—that one could not eat like this on the Sabbath.

So, first, there is this argument based on necessity. That is wisdom in application of the Sabbath commandment—not legalism, not rule-following, but wisdom.

He continues His argument in verse 27 with a second consideration. There is a kind of pause between verse 26 and verse 27. He asks, “Have ye never read?” He tells the story of David and need. And the Pharisees are silent. Then He continued (v. 27): “And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Here He gets at another failure in the thinking of the Pharisees with regard to the Sabbath, and even with regard to the entire law of God. Now the argument that Jesus gives is one of freedom and not bondage. The Sabbath is a gift for man. The idea of the Sabbath is rest, not rigor. It is freedom, not bondage. And Jesus takes the Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, back to the creation account. First, man was made. And then God, after He had made man, instructed man to work in his care of the creation. Then, following that, God created the Sabbath day, and He gifted it to man as a day of rest from his work. That was for his physical health and the health of his body. But it was especially for the enjoyment of his spiritual rest and worship, a day to enjoy life with God and to enjoy the works of God, what God had done for man. God gave this rest to man, teaching him by this that it was not by his own labor and work that he would enter into rest and the rest of covenant life with God, but this is God’s gift to him.

If we look through the Scriptures, at the whole idea of Sabbath, and Sabbath means rest, we see in the Scriptures that it is a description of our salvation in Jesus Christ. It is the rest that we have from the burden of sin and the requirement of obedience. Christ has accomplished our righteousness. And it is a picture also of heaven to come, when we will rest from the curse and its remaining effects, so that Hebrews 4 speaks of the rest that yet remains for the people of God.

You see the point here. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” Man was not made to serve under the yoke of Sabbath rules and expectations, but the Sabbath was given to man as the day to enjoy the liberty of the peace and the blessedness that is his, that is ours, in Jesus Christ and in life and fellowship with God. This is what is missing in these 234 “Thou shalt not” stipulations of the Jewish law. So that the people dared not raise a finger or exhale, lest they break one of the commandments. Do you see the freedom here that Jesus gave to His disciples? They walk in the field, take the grain, and eat—free from legalistic requirements. It is not the bondage of legalism and the law as a way to righteousness.

The third part of Jesus’ answer is in verse 28: “Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.” This is a most striking part of Jesus’ argument. Really, it seals the argument, like the nail in a coffin. The whole dispute in this chapter has been about the authority and the identity of Jesus Christ. Who is He that He says and does these things? Jesus here asserts both His identity and His authority. He is the “Son of man.” The Son of man becomes His most used way of referring to Himself. It is not simply a reference to His humanity, but it is taken from the Old Testament prophecy of Daniel, which speaks of the Son of man coming toward the Ancient of Days, receiving a crown, and receiving dominion over all the kingdoms and nations of the earth. This is the reference to the exalted Christ, and an unashamed claim on His part to be the God-sent Messiah who would be crowned. Yes, He is human, born of a woman (Son of man), but He is the Anointed of God, the Messiah.

And the Son of man, He says, is Lord also of the Sabbath. Really, He adds here to the reference of His authority. He has already demonstrated that He is Lord of disease, that He is the Lord who has the authority to forgive sins, that He is the Lord over fasting and religious practices. And now He says, “I am the Lord also of the Sabbath.” Really, He is saying this, “I have the authority over the Sabbath, not you. That authority is vested in this that I am the Creator of the Sabbath.” He goes back to the beginning. “I have come to fulfill the Sabbath. I am the Rest-giver, and I am come to bring My people into rest, to free them from bondage. This is My day, not your day. And I will not allow you to change it from being a day of liberty and freedom and joy in God to a day of bondage and servitude and condemnation.” You see here a kind of jealousy, protectiveness of the Sabbath on His part. “I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God.”

That really takes us to the bigger, the over-riding concern of Jesus here. And that is to address the legalism of the Pharisees. There is no righteousness, there is no peace, there is no rest, there is no salvation in works. And true spirituality is not measured by conformity to an external set of standards. The Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath.

That brings us to the application. There are four points here.

First, the application is not this, that we dismiss the Sabbath commandment altogether. That is what some have done with this passage. And they argue from this passage that Sabbath keeping and Sabbath observance is just a part of the Old Testament ceremonial law and that Jesus establishes Himself as Lord of the Sabbath, and by that has the authority to dismiss the Sabbath. But, from the passage itself, there is a very strong argument against that thinking. These three things: first, Jesus here does not dismiss the commandments themselves, the law itself, but He has issue here with man-made impositions on that law. Second, Jesus speaks here of the necessity of the Sabbath for man when He says, “the Sabbath was made for man.” That is the necessity of the Sabbath. It is a blessing and it is a gift. It is something that we need for our mental and our physical and our spiritual well-being. Even in Paradise, in the original creation before the Fall into sin, Adam needed the Sabbath. And we need it. The Sabbath is made for us, gifted to us by God. Third, those final words of Jesus in the chapter, “Is Lord also of the sabbath,” should give us pause. Instead of the abolishing of the Sabbath, Jesus is saying here, “My lordship over your life and over every aspect of your life extends also to the Sabbath day. This is the Lord’s Day.” Not, “Let’s do away with the Sabbath but, the Sabbath now is the Lord’s Day.”

We could say some more things about the fact that it is the Lord’s Day, which is now the first day of the week in the New Testament. We see that in the pattern of the disciples, the New Testament church, and even Jesus’ gathering with the disciples on the first day of the week after His resurrection. But the point is that the Sabbath Day, the Christian Sabbath, belongs to the Lord. And Jesus says, “Submit to Me. Give yourselves to Me on the Sabbath day.” If we dismiss the Sabbath day, we miss the blessings of the Sabbath day. And Jesus emphasizes the blessings here when He says, “The Sabbath is made for man, for the advantage of man, for your profit, not for your bondage but for your profit.” So, the first application is that we not dismiss the Sabbath day.

The second application is this, that we should find the Sabbath day to be a delight and a joy in God, not a burden, not a day of rule-keeping, but a day of enjoyment in the freedom and the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly, obedience to the fourth commandment is contrary to our nature and it is contrary to our culture, which are self-serving. When Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for man,” He did not mean that the Sabbath is for you to serve all your self-interests. No, He means that it is for your spiritual profit, that God intends our spiritual good in giving to us the Sabbath. And the good is that we know God and that we glorify God. This is man’s chief end: to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. And it is the child of God who learns to delight in God and to rest in the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and to be enriched by the Word of God and to enjoy worship and singing and praise on the Sabbath day. That child of God does not think of the Sabbath as restrictive. It is something that we look forward to with joy and anticipation and expectation, and in a similar way we have a hope of the eternal Sabbath to come because of the freedom that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Then third, as a point of application. Let us be very careful that we not turn every personal practice or every preference that we have into a principle for others. The principles are laid down in the Word of God. And the danger is that we set up our own practices as principles and requirements for others. The danger is not only that we do that, but that then our view of the Christian life becomes very works-based, Pharisee-like, comparative. This goes back to a question that I asked in the sermon last week: “How do you know that you are trusting in your work, that you are living a works-based Christian life? Well, you know by whether you are always comparing yourself to others and saying something like the Pharisees here: Why do they do that on the Sabbath? We don’t do that.” One commentator says, We are all like the Pharisees when we create rules that we can keep instead of obeying the rules that God gave us, which are much more difficult to follow. So, let us be careful not to fall into this practical legalism. The Pharisees had the idea that they had arrived, but they missed it altogether. They thought that by keeping all their regulations they had got it. But God was not pleased at all. The humble believer says, “I haven’t arrived. It’s not on account of my doings.”

That brings me to the final application. It is really the opposite of trusting in yourself. This: Trust in Christ and His righteousness, not your own. Trust in His perfect obedience to the law, not your law-keeping. Trust in His sacrifice and payment for your sins, not your pacifying God by your good works. Do not look at what you have done, but look to Christ. You see, the Pharisees were enemies of the gospel of grace by their establishment of legalistic requirements. We have to see the Phariseeism in our own hearts and turn away from our own works in righteousness and comparative living and recognize our failings that at best are tainted with sin. We have not arrived, and we need the mercies of Christ every day.