Lord of the Sabbath | Mark 2:23-3:6

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.

Mark 2:23-3:6 ESV

Even though he knew that Saul wanted him dead, the events of 1 Samuel 21-22 drove that reality into the very depths of his soul. Wandering in exile with his, still small, band of men, David came to the town of Nob, trembling and in need of food. The high priest informed David that the only bread available was the showbread, reserved exclusively for the priests. Yet, seeing David’s need, he gave it to the anointed outcast.

Sadly, a worthless man named Doeg saw everything and rushed away to informed Saul that the priests of Nob had aided David as he escaped, which was technically true, even though the high priest did not know that David was running from Saul. In his fury, Saul went to Nob and had everyone in the town slaughtered. Only the high priest’s son escaped the horror, entering the wilderness alongside his future king. Saul’s resolve to destroy David led him to be calloused toward others as well, ruthlessly murdering them for mere association with him.

In our present passage, we further witness Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees, who increasingly begin to resemble the behavior of Saul and Doeg.

THE SABBATH WAS MADE FOR MAN \ VERSES 23-28

Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ Galilean ministry continues with the following setup: One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. While this scene may appear to be wholly unremarkable, it is the scenario of Jesus’ next sparring session with the religious leaders, for they asked Jesus: Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?

In order to understand their question, we first have to remind ourselves what the Sabbath is. In Exodus 20:8-11 we find the Fourth of the Ten Commandments, which is also an explanation of the Sabbath:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The Sabbath was Saturday, the seventh day of the week, and it was a day of rest, imitating the pattern of rest that God set for us within the very act of creation. The day was to be set apart from the other six days of the week for rest and worship. It was a good command from our good God. Yet by the time of Jesus, the Pharisees who were teachers of the law had begun to add all kinds of regulations for how exactly the Fourth Commandment was to be obeyed. They even established the precise number of steps that one could take on the Sabbath before your walking entered the classification of work and was, therefore, sinful. Jesus’ disciples, we should note, were in violation of these extrabiblical commands of the Pharisees, not God’s law.

As an analogy for their added regulations, we can picture sin, the violation of God’s laws, as entering into a forbidden house. In order to keep people away from the house, the Pharisees attempted to build a fence all around the house and told everyone that it was sinful even to cross the fence, which was not true. Jesus’ disciples had crossed the fence, not entered the house.

Deuteronomy 23:25 says, “if you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” God’s law obviously permitted what the disciples were doing, since they were not harvesting someone else’s field and thereby stealing. They had only broken the Pharisees own regulations about how to observe the Sabbath.

How then did Jesus answer 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?”

He first took them to 1 Samuel 21, which again describes a time when David and his men were on the run from Saul. They came to the town of Nob, and David asked the priest[1] for some loaves of bread to feed him and his men. Ahimelech informed David that he did not have any bread but only the bread of the Presence, which was only to be consumed by the priests. However, seeing that David was trembling (v. 1), the high priest confirmed that none of the men were ritually unclean and gave them the holy bread. Our Lord appealed to this account as an example of an actual law of Scripture that was bypassed in the case of David’s dire need. How much more, therefore, should the regulations of the Pharisees give way to people’s needs?

He then pressed His point home, saying, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The sheer profundity of this statement is difficult for us to truly grasp two thousand years later and under the New Covenant, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, this must have been either revolutionary or, as I am sure the Pharisees took it, nonsense. Of course, we can see Jesus’ point even in the opening chapters of Scripture. Of all creation, only the man and woman were not spoken into existence; instead, they were formed by God’s own hands, which highlighted man’s significance as being an image-bearer of God. After the creation of humanity, God rested from His work, but since we know that God is omnipotent, we know that He did not rest because He was weary. Instead, He rested as a pattern for us to follow. We are mean to reflect Him, so He displayed the proper rhythm for us Himself. Even then, therefore, the Sabbath was implemented with our benefit in mind.

Jesus then concludes: So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath. The Pharisees would have certainly viewed this as a blasphemous statement. God instituted the Sabbath, making Him the one and only Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus, however, is claiming this prerogative for Himself that belongs to God alone, meaning that He was making Himself equal with God.

Notice also that Jesus again gives Himself the title, Son of Man, and reasons that if the Sabbath was made to serve men, then the Son of Man must be lord over even the Sabbath. In the Old Testament, this phrase was most often used by God or an angel when speaking or referring to a human, so there is likely a sense in which Jesus used this phrase as an identification with mankind. However, another Son of Man was seen in Daniel 7, who appeared to be both divine and human, coming in the clouds of heaven and receiving an eternal kingdom from the Ancient of Days. In Mark 14:62, Jesus will explicitly claim before the high priest to be that very Son of Man; therefore, it should be safe for us to say that Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man is what Jesus primarily intends as He uses the phrase. As this Son of Man, both human and divine, Jesus is Lord, which means that He is even lord over the Sabbath.

N. T. Wright gives a vivid description of how such a revelation should strike us:

How can you live with the terrifying thought that the hurricane has become human, that fire has become flesh, that life itself became life and walked in our midst? Christianity either means that, or it means nothing. It is either the most devastating disclosure of the deepest reality of the world, or it is a sham, a nonsense, a bit of deceitful playacting. Most of us, unable to cope with saying either of those things, condemn ourselves to live in the shallow world in between.[2]

In a recent podcast, Jordan Peterson, who is not a Christian but nevertheless highly values the Bible, became emotional when considering the weight of Jesus being the logos made flesh. And he is right to be overwhelmed. If Jesus really is who He says He is then perfection, wisdom, goodness, holiness, power, etc. are not abstract qualities to strive toward, they are all embodied in a person, whom many touched and ate meals with. Our familiarity with Christ’s incarnation often subtracts from its wonder. We should regularly pause to meditate on the fact that Jesus is God become man.

Yet Hebrews 4:9-11 tell us that Jesus has deepen the significance of the Sabbath: “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest…” Jesus came to forgive sins, to call sinners to Himself, to rescue and redeem His bride, and He did so by giving His life as a ransom for our lives upon the cross. Through the crucifixion, He enabled the greatest exchange of all time: our sin exchanged for His righteousness, our defilement for His holiness. Because of this, all who repent and believe in this gospel receive a perpetual Sabbath, a rest that goes all seven days of the week and into eternity. The Lord of the Sabbath gives us rest from our (fruitless) labors to earn the favor of God.

ANOTHER SABBATH SHOWDOWN \ VERSES 1-6

With the tension of Jesus’ divine claims hanging like rain clouds over their heads, the Pharisees prepare to have another Sabbath showdown with Jesus. This time it took place in the synagogue and revolved around a man with a withered hand. The wolves had agreed that this man would be their bait to ensnare Jesus: And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. They made it their business to study Him, not that they might imitate His holiness but so that they could accuse Him. Jesus’ fame, after all, was spreading as a healer, so for Him to heal on the Sabbath would have been a form of work.

I find it interesting that they have finally turned their attention onto Jesus Himself. When Jesus healed the paralytic, they questioned Jesus’ ability to forgive sins in their hearts, not out loud. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, they questioned His disciples rather than Him directly. When walking through the grainfield, they brought accusation against His disciples to Him. Of course, they were still cowardly watching in silence, waiting for the right moment to pounce.  

Jesus does not backdown from their challenge but directly faces it, calling the man to Him and asking the Pharisees, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? Take note that Jesus did not ask about whether or not it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Instead, He reframed the issue as a matter of doing good or doing harm, to save life or to kill. He removed the Pharisees’ pretense of neutrality and exposed their indifference to the man’s physical plight as an active harm against their neighbor.

But they were silent. Of course, they were. Jesus had caught them so that they could only answer by either repenting of their callousness or expose themselves as fools. Instead of either option, they chose to seethe in silence, to bury and fertilize their already sprouting hatred for Christ. Proverbs 3:17-18 proved true of their plan to accuse the Lord, “For in vain is a net spread in the sight of any bird, but these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives.”

Jesus’ reaction is both anger and sorrow: And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart. Such furious grief immediately brings to mind God’s evaluation of the world prior to the great flood.

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

Genesis 6:5-6

Although the Pharisees looked righteous and holy by their conduct, Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and found only hardness. They were more than willing to use the man as a prop to defeat Jesus rather than actually caring for him. R. C. Sproul notes that we too should be grieved by this story:

All of us have some degree of callousness of heart, some stiffness of neck. We know that nothing exposes us like God’s Word, so we want nothing to do with it. Is that true of you? Do you have some kind of shield you use to keep God’s truth from piercing your heart? I urge you, do not harden your heart when you hear the Word of God.

We must guard against reading a story like this, where we see our Lord angry and grief-stricken over human sin, and simply say to ourselves, “Oh, those bad Pharisees.” When we do that, we are just like them. Rather, we should go to God in prayer and say: “O God, do not be angry with me. Do not let me give You cause to be furious at me. Do not let me grieve You because my heart is hardened. Instead, tell me what You want from me. Give me ears to hear, and a heart open to embrace everything that you say.[3]

Since they refused to say anything, Jesus took the next action, calling the man to stretch out his hand, and it was restored. Robert Martin points out the further knife that Jesus thrust into the Pharisees by healing the man in this manner:

Interestingly, on this occasion our Lord did not actually break the rabbinical rules. He applied no medical remedy. He did not touch the man. He did not even say, “Be healed of your affliction.” He merely told him to stretch out his hand. This, along with other details in the narrative, shows how easily he could untie the snares laid for him, when he was minded to do so.[4]

Our passage then concludes with a tragic report: The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Their absolute, blinding hatred of Jesus had driven them to conspiring with their enemies, the Herodians. While the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat to their religious authority, the Herodians saw Jesus as a rising political threat because of His great popularity and Judea’s long history with self-proclaimed messiahs.

But what is most tragic is that they have now gone beyond their refusal to acknowledge their sinful hearts regarding the man with the withered hand. Jesus had equated their calloused hearts to doing him active harm, yet they only planted their feet more firmly into the ground in opposition to Him. Now they were truly plotting to kill rather than save life, and they were doing so on the Sabbath. Evidently such planning was a work that could not wait for Sunday morning. Still, I am certain that they counted each of their steps on the way to meet with Herodians, lest they violate the law while preparing to murder the Lawgiver.

This verse should sit in the back of our minds as we continue to read Mark’s Gospel, for the writer has made it clear even here at the beginning of chapter 3 that the religious leaders intended to eliminate Jesus. All future interactions between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees should have this revelation in mind. They were no longer seeking only to accuse Him; they were seeking to destroy Him.

Let us give thanks, however, that even by the hands of wicked men, God works His mighty plans. Although their eyes and ears could not see nor hear the truth that they were standing in the presence of the King of glory, their hardness of heart was used to bring about Christ’s work of redemption. So it is that those who most vehemently rebel against the LORD become instruments used by Him. Although they intend to foil God’s work, He incorporates their opposition into the fulfillment of His designs. The Pharisees did not understand that in their hatred they were preparing to accomplish Christ’s purpose in coming to earth as a man.

Let us take comfort, therefore, from viewing Romans 8:28’s marvelous promise through the lens of this particular work of providence: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God’s purposes most certainly do tend to involve suffering, as evidenced by His own Son; however,

let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2

Let us endure whatever opposition and afflictions we may meet in this life, for our Lord has set joy and everlasting rest before us as well.


[1] Interestingly, the priest was actually Ahimelech. Abiathar, Ahimelech’s son, did later become the high priest under David’s reign, and he was the only person to survive Saul’s slaughter of Nob. Many answers have been given for why Jesus said “in the time of Abiathar the high priest,” but I agree with Sproul and others that Jesus was most likely just referencing the overall time period, of which Abiathar was certainly the most well-known high priest.

[2] Cited in Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, 45.

[3] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expository Commentary, 50.

[4] Robert Paul Martin, The Christian Sabbath: Its Redemptive-Historical Foundation, Present Obligation, and Practical Observance, 210. l

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