by Dr. Wes Bredenhof
Gospel: St. Mark 2: 23 - 28
A long time ago, a man had an idea. This idea was birthed by necessity. For many years, European traders had been able to travel back and forth to Asia without any difficulty. However, in 1453, Constantinople fell to Islamic armies and land travel to Asia was no longer possible. Additionally, to sail to Asia required a long and arduous journey around Africa. This man had a better idea. Perhaps he could sail to Asia directly west across the Atlantic Ocean. He thought it could be done. So in 1492 he set out to prove it. The man, of course, was Cristoforo Colombo, whom we know better as Christopher Columbus. Columbus set out looking for a trade route to Asia, but what he found was something quite different. On October 12, 1492, Columbus sighted an island in the Bahamas and thus began the modern European exploration and settlement of the Americas.
A man sets out to find one thing and instead he discovers another. The same thing can happen with our text. Your NIV Bible probably has a title over this section, “Lord of the Sabbath.” Many of us see the word “Sabbath,” and we instinctively think that this is going to be a text which tells us how to live. This is going to give us some concrete teaching about what we can and can’t do on Sunday. We think this way because we’re hard-wired for law. Romans 2:15 says that we have the requirements of the law written on our hearts. So, many of us are drawn to law. Sometimes it goes by the name of application. But in the end it’s all the same. Tell us how to live. Tell us five steps to keep the Sabbath day holy. For many of us, that’s our mindset when we come to a passage like this. We’re looking to be told what to do.
We’re going to see this morning that we might come to this passage looking for one thing, but, like Columbus, what we find is something quite different. We come to this passage looking for the law, but what we find is the gospel. We come looking for someone to tell us how to live, and instead we find a Saviour. We come looking for Moses, but we find Christ. So, I preach to you God’s Word with the theme:
Jesus reveals himself as Lord of the Sabbath
Before looking at our passage in detail, we need to back up for a moment and briefly look at the verses before this passage. At the beginning of chapter 2, the Lord Jesus forgave the sins of a paralytic who had been lowered down through his roof. When he did that, some of the Jewish leaders were grossly offended. Who was he to forgive sins? Only God could do that. These same Pharisees were shocked when Jesus not only called Levi to be his disciple (scum of the earth extraordinaire), but when Jesus went to eat with Levi and other so-called sinners, that was just too scandalous. Respectable and dignified rabbis just don’t do this sort of thing. These Pharisees come back again to interrogate and harass Jesus about the fact that his disciples were not fasting. He tells them that it would be inappropriate for the disciples to fast while he’s with them. So, what we see in the context is an intensifying conflict between the Lord Jesus and the Pharisees.
Some of the Pharisees regarded themselves as the self-appointed guardians of public morality. They were like journalists trailing important figures and watching to see if they slip up in doctrine or life. They would investigate the popular Rabbis and ensure that nothing was being taught that contradicted their sense of right and wrong. They saw it as their job to keep Israel pure and on the righteous way.
And so it happened that one Sabbath Jesus was with his disciples. They were walking through a grain field and his disciples began plucking the heads of grain to eat them. They were taking the top part of the stalk and they would pick it apart and roll it in their hands until the chaff was gone and all that was left was the individual grains. Then they would pop those in their mouths and eat them. Anybody who’s ever done this knows that it takes a lot of time to get a full stomach.
Notice the connection here with the previous passage. The Lord Jesus told the Pharisees that his presence meant that his disciples couldn’t fast. Now was a time for feasting and celebrating. Now here they are on the Sabbath and they’re eating. It’s not exactly a grand feast, but they’re definitely not fasting. As they walk with Jesus and enjoy his presence, they can go ahead and eat. This is entirely appropriate for this moment.
The Pharisees didn’t see it the same way. Like some sort of secret police, they were trailing behind Jesus and watching what he and his disciples were doing. They saw them plucking grain and their hearts beat faster. “Ah ha! Now we’ve caught them!” While the law of God did say that the Jews were allowed to go into their neighbour’s fields and pluck standing grain, the same law also said that the Jews were not permitted to work on the Sabbath. The Fourth Commandment was clear enough on that point. And there were other passages like Exodus 31 that also stressed that. Over the centuries since Moses, the Jews debated the definition of work on the Sabbath. The law of God hadn’t really been clear on that point. But as time went on, the rabbis came to develop their own ideas of what was work and what wasn’t. According to the Pharisees, reaping was definitely considered to be work. And what the disciples were doing was a form of reaping and, so the Pharisees reasoned, they were definitely breaking the fourth commandment.
The Pharisees weren’t going to stand idly by and let this slip. So they spoke up and said to Jesus, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” They were outraged and shocked at what they were seeing. That outrage is captured with that word “Look.” The question that follows is not a genuine question, as if the Pharisees were really curious as to what was going on. This was more along the lines of the kinds of questions you hear in the House of Commons during question period. It’s a question with a point, a question with a sharp edge.
When the Lord Jesus was tempted by the devil, you’ll remember that he responded with Holy Scripture. The devil tempted him by twisting God’s Word, but the Lord Jesus responded with God’s Word in its correct and authoritative interpretation. The same thing happens here. He’s questioned, or rather attacked, by the Pharisees and he again responds with the Word of God. They have twisted God’s Word and he responds with the correct and authoritative interpretation of God’s Word. He answered, “Have you never read…?” Before we look at the content of the Bible passage he referred to and how he uses it here, let’s pause for a moment and gaze at our Saviour. He’s being attacked and maligned by his enemies. He gives the perfect response by pointing them back to Scripture, to his Word rightly understood. Loved ones, this is part of his perfect obedience for us. The Word of God was on his lips and on his heart in a perfect way. When Adam was attacked by Satan in the garden, he should have said, “No, Satan, God has said that we’re not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said it clearly and that settles it.” As someone once said, instead of eating the fruit of the tree, Adam should have killed the snake and eaten it. But he didn’t. More often than we care to admit, neither do we. When we’re tempted or attacked, we often don’t respond in the right way. The Word of God is not consistently on our lips and hearts and even when it is, sometimes it isn’t the right interpretation of God’s Word. But look here in our text and see your Saviour. Here’s the second Adam who consistently responded in the right way with the very Word of God rightly understood. He did it for us. His perfect obedience is passed on or imputed to us. He covers for all our failings and weaknesses and so we are right before God. It’s in this way that there’s good news even in those four words, “Have you never read…?”
The obedience of our Saviour is put on display for us when he responds to the Pharisees. And not only his obedience, but also his wisdom. He knows what is appropriate for this moment. And so he points to what happened in the passage we read from 1 Samuel 21. In that passage, David and those with him went to the priestly city of Nob while he was fleeing from Saul. He asked for food and the only food available was the bread of the presence. These were the twelve loaves of bread that sat on a gold table in the Holy Place in the tabernacle. The twelve loaves stood for the twelves tribes and they were a symbol of Israel’s fellowship with God. Every Sabbath the old bread was exchanged for fresh loaves. Normally that old bread could only be eaten by the priests, but because of the circumstances, an exception was made.
Now you may have noticed a small discrepancy between 1 Samuel 21 and Mark 2. In 1 Samuel, we read about Ahimelech, while in Mark 2, the Lord Jesus speaks about Abiathar. How do we explain this difference? I think the best explanation is found in the fact that Ahimelech was the father of Abiathar. Later on, Abiathar was closely connected with the reign of David. He was well-known as a high priest and as a result when referring back to this era, the Jews would say that it happened during the “days of Abiathar the high priest.” Abiathar was alive and even though he may not have been directly involved, it happened in his time. So, there’s no conflict between what Jesus says here and what we read in 1 Samuel 21. It’s simply a matter of the way people talk about a certain time in history.
Now Jesus’ point in referring back to this event is that David was God’s anointed. Even though at that point in time he wasn’t sitting on the throne (he was running from Saul), he had still been anointed by God to be the king. As God’s anointed, David had the right to set aside a divinely ordained ceremonial law when necessity demanded it. David’s authority allowed him to do this. Now if David had the right to do this, then certainly also Jesus, who is God’s anointed in a far greater sense, has the right to set aside all kinds of man-made interpretations of the fourth commandment.
Do you see what’s implied here? Jesus is drawing a parallel here between himself and David. In 1 Samuel 21, David had been anointed but he had not gained the throne. In Mark 2, Jesus is the anointed of God as well. Peter reminds us in Act 10 that Jesus was anointed at his baptism in the Jordan River. So he is the true King of Israel, David’s royal Son. In our text, he has not yet been recognized as such and he’s not yet enthroned, but he is here and he has the same royal prerogatives as his father David. With these words our Saviour is revealing himself to be our divine King with all that involves. Here we see Jesus Christ as the one who rules with wisdom and compassion for his subjects. Rather than ruling them harshly and placing all kinds of extra burdens on them, he comes with a heart of love and feeds the hungry. Here is the King who is also the Good Shepherd! Our Saviour is shown to us here as the King who intimately cares for us. He cares for you.
But the Lord Jesus doesn’t stop there. He not only reveals himself as the King in David’s line, he also shows that he is the one who restores the Sabbath to what it was designed to be. The Sabbath didn’t originate with the Mosaic law or the fourth commandment. The Sabbath is something that we call a creation ordinance. It has its origin in the first two chapters of Genesis. After God created everything, on the seventh day he rested. We know that his resting was meant to be a pattern for man because we’re told so in the fourth commandment as it’s given in Exodus 20. Marriage is another creation ordinance. And like marriage, the Sabbath is a good gift of God to man. It was not designed to be a burden. God didn’t give the Sabbath so that self-appointed Bible teachers could come up with all sorts of rules about what can and cannot be done on this day. That’s exactly what the Pharisees had done and in so doing, they had destroyed the character of the day as a holy gift of God. It wasn’t a day of joy and rest anymore; it was no longer a day of celebrating redemption and freedom from Egypt. Instead, it became the day of counting your steps and watching how far you travel and so on. The Pharisees had made the day a burden.
The Lord Jesus, our chief prophet and teacher, brought back the true meaning and purpose of the Sabbath. He did that when he said in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was a gift of God to man. God gave it so that people would have a dedicated time to rest and worship. It was never meant to be a day of rules and regulations. Nobody understood that better than the one who has brought us into the rest of God, Christ himself.
In his compassion for us, Christ has revealed the goodness of God in this gift of the Sabbath. Now today, of course, we no longer have the Jewish Sabbath. The Lord’s Day, the Sunday, has become the Christian Sabbath, the one day in seven given to us for rest and worship. What a blessing such a day is! How we see the goodness of God in lifting our burdens so that we can freely come to church twice and sit under the means of grace! Together in God’s presence, we can enjoy the feast of his Word and sacraments. How we see God’s mercy in giving us a day in which we have the freedom to focus on spiritual things. A day to rest and relax from our normal daily activities. This day was made for us and for our blessing and benefit. Christ shows us God’s goodness here!
And that brings him to his concluding words in verse 28, “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” This is what everything has been leading up to. Jesus is saying that if the Sabbath is God’s gift to man, then the Sabbath really belongs to him, since Jesus is the true human being, the Son of Man. It is the Lord’s Day. It belongs to him and he is the one who brings that day back to what God had in mind for it.
Jesus Christ is shown to us here as being what mankind was designed to be from the beginning: Lord and master. God gave the creation and all its institutions into Adam’s hand. Adam was to fill the earth and subdue it. Adam was to be over the created order, not the other way around. With the fall into sin, everything changed. The law became a master and a tutor over Adam and his offspring. That included the Sabbath. With the coming of the Second Adam, we see a restoration taking place. It is the restoration of God’s image in man. Through this restoration in Christ, the Sabbath is restored to what it should be as well: not a day of rules and regulations, but a glorious and blessed day, a holy gift from God. A day for man. In Christ, we are now free to use this day the way it was intended from the beginning!
Beloved, our text reveals a Saviour who is the Lord of the Sabbath. Our text shows us Jesus Christ, the one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. We see a Saviour here, not a new Moses.
He is our Saviour and we can be grateful that each Sunday we can enjoy his day. His being Lord of the Sabbath confirms to us that this day is a gift from God, just as Christ himself was and is a gift. We celebrate this day knowing that glorious redemption we have in the risen Christ. We have every reason to be filled with joy when Sunday comes along, remembering Christ’s victory over sin and death. And so with thankful Spirit-filled hearts, we’ll accept this gift and rest from our normal labours and devote this day to worshipping our God, the God of our salvation. In so doing, we also look forward to the eternal Sabbath – for the age to come when we will rest from all our sinful works forever and worship God like there’s no tomorrow.
Let us pray:
In our busy lives, we thank you for the gracious gift of the Sabbath. We thank you that you give us a holy day of rest and worship. Christ Jesus, we praise you as the Lord of the Sabbath, the one who restored this day to its proper meaning and purpose. We thank you also for your perfect obedience given to us. O Holy Spirit, fan the flame of our hearts so that the fire of our faith in this Saviour grows hotter with each day. Help us to see the goodness of our God and accept this gracious and holy gift of one day in seven. LORD God, we pray for the coming of the eternal Sabbath. We earnestly ask that our Lord would come quickly with the clouds of heaven to inaugurate the age to come. We pray in the name of the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath, AMEN.
Sermons and Bible Commentary/Analysis for the 3rd sunday after Sleebo
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