Our church was Sunday-sabbatarian. We believed Jewish Sabbath laws were transferred to Sunday, so we did no work on Sundays. In our home, we cooked Sunday meals on Saturday and washed the dishes on Monday. As a child I built a fort in the back yard but was concerned about working on it Sundays, even though it was really play. I decided against it.
One church lady complained about people working Sundays in hospitals. She said if people refused to work Sundays then God would assure that no one needed medical care that day.
Years later, I wrote a research paper on the Lord’s Day Alliance (which promoted Sunday as the Sabbath), and from what I learned I no longer accepted Sunday as the Sabbath.
Later still, as a Christian bookstore manager, an Adventist customer who enjoyed discussing theology with me stated that Sunday was NOT the Sabbath; and I replied, “Of course not.” He was shocked. I told him we didn’t honor Sunday as a Christian Sabbath but because it recalled Jesus’ resurrection. We observed no ‘Sabbath’ at all.
Jesus did not end Sabbath observance during his ministry, but he set the stage for it.
Picking Grain on the Sabbath
Mark 2 says:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
We might wonder why the disciples were picking grain from another person’s field, but Deuteronomy 23 states that ‘If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain.’ Still, the Pharisees thought it inappropriate because of God’s commandment in Exodus 34: Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.
This is a general commandment, but the Pharisees were far along in developing detailed rules on what labor was disallowed on the Sabbath.
Jesus disagreed with them.
He answered, “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.”
Now David’s action had nothing to do with the Sabbath, but it did concern a variance from the Law; so Jesus’ point is that the Law is flexible rather than rigid. Jesus made a stand against legalism, and many legalists today could benefit by reflecting on Jesus’ statement—including his concluding pronouncement.
Then 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.”
In a time when people labored every day, the Law instituted the Sabbath to provide relief and an opportunity to spend quality time with God and family. But the Pharisees had bound the Sabbath rest with heavy legalistic burdens. In contrast, Jesus declared that people were not made to observe legalistic Sabbath rules. The Sabbath was given as a benefit to people.
People are more important than the Sabbath. This becomes even more clear in the second Sabbath conflict that follows immediately.
Jesus Breaks the Sabbath by Healing
Mark 3 reports:
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. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
It seems the Pharisees understand Jesus’ loose attitude toward the Sabbath and watch to see if he will violate it again. The synagogue was the Pharisees’ domain, and today he is in THEIR synagogue; what will he do?
Jesus is aware of the situation and asks the disabled man to stand up; this creates immediate tension.
Then Jesus asks them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
Actually, it was lawful to save lives on the Sabbath, but this healing could easily wait until the next day. Jesus’ challenge was deeper. Doing good on the Sabbath is an open concept at odds with Pharisaic rules that preempted personal judgment.
Matthew 12 adds a story not found in Mark, and Luke 14 uses a similar story in another context.
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
The tension and anticipation must have been very high for everyone in the synagogue: Jesus, the Pharisees, observers, the disabled man. This was a public confrontation between the wills of the authoritative Pharisees and of Jesus, whose healing and teaching made him a very public figure with enthusiastic followers.
Something had to give.
The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End
In this moment of high tension:
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Jesus acted suddenly: he asked the man to stretch out his disabled hand, and he restored it—simple as that. In doing so, he demonstrated his own authority over legalistic rules.
The reaction was just as rapid and deliberate: the Pharisees joined with agents of the ruler, Herod Antipas, to plan Jesus’ destruction. The government didn’t want Rome investigating a potential rabble-rouser in their turf.
This is a big break-point in Jesus’ work. He stood up against the Pharisees, and now Jesus is in big trouble with both the religious and political establishments. It is the end of the beginning of Jesus’ work, which we have been reading over the past few weeks; and it is the beginning of the end. From this point the Pharisees are increasingly hostile.
It is also the end of this series: Jesus Begins His Work. Next time we will discuss what we have learned about Jesus, and we will decide together what direction the blog goes from here.
Articles in this series
Jesus Begins His Work
The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?