Mark 2:23-3:6. Still in the snapshots: Jesus and the Sabbath.

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.  

Disputes over the Sabbath:

Jesus’ disciples pick grain to eat on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, who are keeping Jesus under surveillance by this point, pick this out as “unlawful”. Jesus replies by drawing an analogy with David’s actions in 1 Samuel 21, and then teaching on the Sabbath. Later, he is in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and deliberately picks a fight with the Pharisees who are watching like hawks. 

1) What was the Sabbath day, and why did the Jews observe it? 

2) What is wrong with the Pharisees’ view of the Sabbath, and how is this starkly shown in this incident? Does their misunderstanding of the Sabbath epitomise their error in their view of God’s law as a whole? How was the Pharisaic understanding of the law flawed? 

3) Were the disciples acting lawfully in picking grain?  

4) Was David acting lawfully in what he did? Is the lawfulness or unlawfulness of their actions the focus, either in this passage or in 1 Samuel 21:1-6? How was David’s situation of taking the priests’ bread analogous to Jesus’ situation of doing things on the Sabbath? 

5) Why is the second incident recorded? What does it bring to the Gospel which the first incident does not? 

6) What does this mean for us? How should Christians understand the law? Is the Sabbath law binding today? If so, how? How is it good for us? What blessings does it bring? What should our attitude be towards it?  


1) Perhaps we can answer two different questions here. What was the Sabbath actually for? And when did the Sabbath begin? Sabbath simply means “seventh”, and that is what it was- it was the seventh day of the week. It was given as a day of rest and a day special to God. It had been so ever since God made the world, and rested on the 7th day. The weekly Sabbath was just a way of life for the Jew. It was taken as read that on the Sabbath, there would be no work- not for you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner within your gates. I’m quoting the Law there. And the law goes on to give a reason for this cessation of work. For in six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy (Ex 20:8-11). So it was ordained at creation, that the seventh day was to be a day of resting from work, and a day kept holy to God- kept apart from the other days, and dedicated to God’s service, just like the vessels in the temple were holy vessels- vessels not for common use, but only to be used in the temple for God. We can call the Sabbath a day of rest, but it was not a day for sitting around doing nothing. It was a day kept separate for God. The Sabbath was a day not for common use, and an Israelite would indeed rest from his weekly work, but the point was not to kick back and relax, but to worship God.

To give a brief history of the Sabbath: Adam was created and given life on the 6th day. So the first full day he spent alive was a Sabbath day- a day when he didn’t have to do any work, stamping his authority upon creation, but instead could talk all day to his Creator. The Sabbath was enshrined in the law at Sinai, put on the statute books for Israel’s national life- but it was already old by that point, and God links the Sabbath for Israel to the first Sabbath, instituted at creation. In Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law, which Moses spoke to the Israelites on the borders of Canaan, Moses links the Sabbath not to creation, but to the remembrance of salvation. He says it is a day to remember slavery in the land of Egypt and the deliverance from slavery which God wrought with a mighty hand and outstretched arm (Deut. 5:12-15). The Sabbath was important specifically for God’s people. Keeping it was part of being an Israelite, being one of God’s covenant people, the people he had chosen, and whom he loved and had delivered, and to whom he had promised great things.

Sabbath breaking was no light matter. It was there in the 10 commandments, the quick memorable summary of the law. People could be stoned for Sabbath breaking (Exodus 31:12-17; 35:1-3). In Numbers 15, you have a short account of a man who was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and the people bring him to Moses and Aaron before all the gathered Israelites, and the Lord told Moses that he was to be taken outside the camp, and stoned to death. And this sounds rather severe to our ears, does it not? I mean, come on, the guy is just picking up a few sticks on a Saturday- he doesn’t deserve death, does he? But when we think like this, we are not thinking in Israelite terms. We have individual mindsets, not covenantal corporate mindsets. This man wasn’t “just picking up a few sticks on a Saturday”. He was wilfully breaking the Sabbath. He was explicitly going against the command of Exodus 35, which enjoins the death penalty on those who light fires on the Sabbath. Every other day of the week, all round the Israelite camp, there would be little camp fires burning. Tiny columns of smoke would be going up, and people would be going about their business. The camp would be noisy, bustling, full of people coming and going. But not on the Sabbath. The man couldn’t have missed it, couldn’t have just forgotten. The whole atmosphere of the camp would be different on the Sabbath. By continuing to do his weekly work, this man was saying publicly by his actions, “I don’t care for God’s law, and I don’t care about being one of his people, and I don’t care for God himself.” By doing so, he brought danger on all the people. The man had rejected God, and so either he had to be cut off from Israel, or Israel would be cut off from God. This sort of thing could not be tolerated in the midst of God’s people. And so the people dragged him outside the clean camp into the unclean wilderness, and picked up stones, and hurled them at him, until he was smashed to death. This was done at God’s direct command, and it was the only thing they could do. He had to be removed from God’s holy people, removed from the clean camp where they lived, and put to death in the wilderness. The whole people took responsibility for it. Stoning is a very corporate method of execution. No single person was responsible for killing the man- everyone was. It purged the whole nation of the evil which had been among them.

And the Sabbath was still important to the Jews of Jesus day, and was still linked to being God’s people, and to the hope of deliverance. A strand of Rabbinic tradition taught that when all Israel kept the Sabbath, then God would send the Messiah. And in the Maccabean revolt against Syria, between the Old and New Testaments, many of the Jews refused to fight on the Sabbath, even though it meant certain death for them. 

2) The Pharisees’ take on the Sabbath.

So God thought that the Sabbath was important. And the Pharisees clearly agreed. In typical Pharisaic fashion, they had looked at the law and said, “Well, this must be kept. We are not allowed to work on the Sabbath- that much is clear. Now we need to be sure that we don’t work, and in order to be sure that we’re not working by accident, we need to define very carefully what work is, and what it is not. The law says, “For six days you shall labour 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.” Seems plain enough, doesn’t it? Well, the Pharisees rightly wanted to apply it clearly to themselves. So they went about defining precisely what work was. If you went on a long arduous hike on the Sabbath, was that work? If it was, then how about a short hike? How about walking to the Synagogue? How many steps should you be allowed to take? Some Pharisees actually set limits on the number of steps they could take. It was stupid, over the top. Counting your steps made more work, made the Sabbath a burden rather than a rest, made it harder to concentrate on God, not easier. They started by trying to uphold the law, but finished up undermining it, unable to see the wood for the trees.

In the example we have in here- what about gathering in the harvest? Reaping was definitely work, wasn’t it? Of course it was. Moses had given some directions about what was and what was not permitted. And in the law, reaping was one category of things that was definitely out (Exodus 34:21). At harvest time, Israelites would sweat in the fields all day. This was exactly what work was all about, eating food by the sweat of the face, wrestling crops out of the cursed earth. So then, no reaping on the Sabbath, that ought to be very clear.But then, if we’re going to keep the law properly, we need to know exactly when we are reaping and when we aren’t. The urge then was to define reaping very tightly, leaving no room for doubt or ambiguity. So reaping is defined as picking grain from the stalk. And that means that if a man strolling through his field on his way to the synagogue on a sunny Sabbath morning should pick a few grains from the wheat crop and rub the husks off and pop them in his mouth, then for the Pharisees, he was a lawbreaker. The Pharisees’ take on the Sabbath was just like their take on the other laws. Their problem wasn’t that they were concerned with the minute details of the law- it was that in their concern, they forgot the broader sweep of it. Jesus does not criticise them for tithing the mint and cumin in their gardens, but for doing it so myopically that they forgot the weightier matters of the law, mercy and justice. They were right to be careful about law keeping. They had gone wrong in that they had wickedly over-inflated the importance of their extra regulations.

It wasn’t even the urge to define that was wrong per se. If a Pharisee wanted to define what was reaping and what was not, then all power to his elbow. It would be a good and profitable exercise… provided of course that his reason for so doing was to glorify the thrice holy God by striving to please him in obedience. But the Pharisee must always remember that his definition, though it may be a help to the law, is only a help to the law. It is not the law itself. It does not carry the full weight of the law in itself. And the Pharisee needs to retain the larger perspective- when enforcing the help to the law would actually violate a part of the law, then of course the help is a help no longer, and must be abandoned. The Pharisees went wrong in that they had forgotten this. Their view of what was law had extended to include their own traditions. They no longer thought of their traditions as commentaries on the law, but as authoritative, like the law itself. They were adding to the law. 

3) Were Jesus’ disciples transgressing the law?

Jesus’ disciples were not breaking the law in what they did. They were transgressing against the Pharisaic tradition, but not against the law itself. You can make an argument from the law that their actions did not constitute “reaping” proper. The law allowed for gleaning (Deut. 23:25), and did not call it theft. A man could walk through another man’s harvest, pluck some of his crop with his bare hands and without the owner’s permission, and walk away. The owner of the harvest was not to class this as stealing. But if the same man were to take a scythe to his neighbour’s harvest, I rather think that this would be classed as theft. So the disciples, casually picking grain as they walked by, were not stealing another man’s harvest, and so presumably were not “reaping”. They were not breaking the Sabbath, for this was not work that they were doing.

Which rather begs the question- why did Jesus reply with reference to David? Why not just say to the Pharisees “Look, you’re taking this to absurdity and beyond. You’re making the Sabbath a burden which it was never meant to be. Sure, forbid work, forbid fires, forbid stick gathering- that is all good, and all in the God-given law, and all meant so that Israel can join together in worshipping God. But when you start forbidding picking grain with your hands, you’re going beyond what God said- and even going against what God said.”  

4) So how is the David reference relevant?

Was David doing something similar at all? The passage Jesus is referring to is 1 Samuel 21:1-6. (See end note for possible explanations of the apparent confusion between Ahimelech and Abiathar.) In this passage, there is no mention of the Sabbath unless “how much more then today” implies it. So it is not for an authoritative answer on the question of the Sabbath that Jesus appeals to 1 Samuel. And neither is it to justify lawbreaking, since Jesus’ disciples are not breaking the law and do not need to be justified on this point.Remember some of the background here. David has already been anointed king by Samuel, has slain Goliath, has been a kind of court musician, and also a national hero as a warrior. He has commanded armies, and the people sing about him “David has slain his tens of thousands.” But immediately before this incident, David has fallen from grace at the court. David has just been declared persona non grata at Saul’s court, and is now on the run, suspected of treachery. A small band of loyal followers are with him, and these men trust David and believe that he is the rightful king (although they are inconsistent in this. They leave home and family for an uncertain life as outlaws for David’s sake, yet at times they are ready to stone him.). David is in hiding with this band of outcasts, and they are hungry. They are God’s faithful people, suffering rejection by the official leaders of Israel under king Saul. They are hungry because they are in hiding, and they are in hiding because they are faithful.

So David goes to the priests at Nob, where the priests were in those days (this was before Jerusalem was captured from the Jebusites). Ahimelech, the priest, is scared, probably because he is aware of Saul’s temper and suspicion of David, and when he sees David on his own, with no official retinue, he suspects that David has been thrown out. David, however, lies to Ahimelech, and says that he is on a top secret mission for Saul. He explains that his men are going to meet him later, at a secret location, but that he now wants food. David demands of the priests, “Give me five loaves or whatever you have.” He knows that there will be at least twelve loaves there on the golden table, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are to remain before God all week, and to be replaced with fresh loaves on the Sabbath. Only the priests may eat this bread and they are to eat it in a holy place (Lev. 24:5-9). Ahimelech replies that the only bread there is this holy bread, but offers it to David on the understanding that only clean men will eat it. He also gives David the sword of Goliath, the Philistine. Ahimelech is deliberately crossing Saul in favour of David, and will pay for this later with his life.

Jesus is quoting this incident in order to draw strong parallels between himself and David. Jesus is claiming that he stands in David’s shoes. He is God’s anointed king. He is unrecognised by others. He is oppressed by the authorities, but he really has the right to reign. And it is his followers, the band supporting his right to rule, that are being fed. Jesus is the new and greater David. He has come as the anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah- those words all mean the same thing. The official rulers do not accept him. A band of outcasts follow him, and he feeds them as they go about their business. Their walk through the fields is unlikely to be an afternoon stroll. It is the Sabbath, they are probably going to the synagogue to preach and teach there. This is part of their mission. It is kingdom work. And for the purposes of the kingdom, Jesus has authority to break with convention. David has authority to actually break the law, and the priest recognises this. He gives David the bread, knowing that David’s need is more important than the law about priests only eating the bread, and he gives David a sword even though he almost certainly sees through David’s flimsy lie. Who goes on a secret mission with a bunch of men, without taking food, and without even taking a sword? Ahimelech knows that what he is doing will not offend God, because David is God’s king. Jesus is telling the Pharisees to watch it, because by questioning him, they put themselves in the position of the new Sauls. This is not a general “People are more important than rules” point. It is a point about the kingdom. Jesus is saying that because of who he is, he has the absolute right to judge how the Sabbath ought to be employed. He is lord of the Sabbath. His authority is absolute. Faithfulness to God is now measured by allegiance to Jesus before any other standard. 

NOTE- Jesus refers to the incident as being “in the days of Abiathar the high priest”. But in the passage from Samuel, it is Ahimelech who is mentioned, not Abiathar. Abiathar was actually Ahimelech’s more famous son. One of Saul’s men, an Edomite shepherd, witnessed Ahimelech giving aid to David, and when Saul heard of it he called the priests to him, and accused them of helping David. Ahimelech replied in a roundabout manner, saying that David was the king’s son-in-law, and very loyal and honourable. But Saul ordered his soldiers to slaughter the priests. None of the soldiers was willing to carry out these orders, and so the Edomite shepherd did it. Abiathar managed to escape the massacre, went to join David, and became High Priest a chapter later.Some interpret this as a sort of “President Reagan stars in this film” statement. I have a DVD at home, which features Ronald Reagan, who was a B-movie actor in his youth. At the time he was in the film, he was certainly not President, but we can still talk of him as “President Reagan”, since that is what he was famous for. This seems unlikely to be the case here though. Abiathar is not a player at all in the drama in 1 Samuel 21, and Jesus is talking about Abiathar’s predecessor. If we were talking about US politics during the Carter presidency, we wouldn’t speak of it as “in the days of President Reagan”, even though Reagan was undoubtedly alive at that time. We would instead refer to it as “in the days of President Carter”.

It could be a statement analogous to that in 12:26 -“Have you never read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush…” Commentators say that the Greek phrase is analogous. The point of referring to Abiathar would then be to identify the section of the scroll of Samuel in which the account of David and Ahimelech is found.

5) What about the healing of the man on the Sabbath?

This escalates the matter. Jesus goes into the synagogue, quite possibly later on the same Sabbath day, and there is a man there with a dead hand. Jesus can see the Pharisees watching him, and it is obvious what they are thinking. They are looking for a reason to condemn him, and they know that healing the man is the sort of thing that Jesus would do.

So Jesus deliberately makes a confrontation out of it. He gets the man to stand up in front of everybody and walk over to him. Everyone’s eyes are on Jesus and the sick man. Then Jesus challenges the Pharisees publicly in the synagogue. He brings them back to the point of the Sabbath. What is it about? Is it a blessing, or a curse? Should it be a happy day or a burden? Is it right to do good, or to refrain from doing good in order to keep some pathetic regulations dreamt up by the Pharisees? The Sabbath, of course, was a blessing, a day of rest, a day of communion with God, almost a day on which the curse was temporarily lifted.

The OT law forbade the man from the temple (Lev 21:16-24 gives a list of injuries which precluded a man from temple worship, since injuries were marks of the curse). The man was cut off from God, and Jesus restores him to fellowship with God on the Sabbath. It is exactly what the Sabbath ought to be used for. Jesus often heals on the Sabbath (Lk 14:1-6; 13:10-17; Jn 5:2-18; 7:22-24; 9:1-17), perhaps to make the point that the Sabbath is for blessing and communion with God. If the miracles are “signs of the kingdom”- and we’ve discussed that concept in previous weeks- then the Sabbath is a foretaste of the kingdom. The writer to the Hebrews can talk of the Sabbath rest that yet remains for the people of God, when the kingdom is bought to its fullest expression as heaven and earth are remade. The Sabbath anticipates this rest, and it is fitting that Jesus should heal on the Sabbath.

This account also shows the hardness of the opposition to Jesus. It appears that the Pharisees actually know that Jesus is in the right here. They can’t answer him. They are forced into a resentful silence. They know that he is right and they are wrong, and they hate him for it. The only answer they could make is “Yes, we’ve got it wrong, and you’ve had it right all along. Sorry”, and they’re just not willing to do that. This is one of the most scary passages in the Bible for me. It shows the utter depravity of the human heart. These men have seen Jesus do miracles, have heard Jesus’ teaching, and have seen his compassion for the sick, and all it makes them do is harden their hearts in hatred against him. This is the epitome of the older brother attitude. They really will cut off their noses to spite their faces. They’d rather have their stubborn pride than God’s kingdom.

6) The Sabbath and us

We live in the new covenant age. And many think that God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai does not apply to us. “We live under grace, not under law”, is heard often. And this is very true- we do live under grace, and not under law. It must be true, because Paul said so. But Paul does not mean that we throw the law out of the window. In fact, he means the very opposite- he means that we have been rescued from our lawbreaking, and that as those in Christ, we must keep the law. He is talking about the new and old covenants, and the ability given to the believer to keep the law. Paul (in Romans 5 and 6) says that the law was given so that people might become more guilty- but that where sin increased, grace increased all the more. He goes on to knock down the argument that runs “well then if grace is magnified in the forgiveness of sin, shouldn’t we sin lots, so that grace becomes very great?”, arguing that those who are united to Jesus Christ have died to sin and are alive to God, and concludes with the statement “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”

Paul is not saying that the law is irrelevant now that Jesus has come. Rather, he is saying that those who are united to Jesus will keep the law and not sin.

We could argue that the law is an expression of God’s holy character, and so forever valid. Keeping the law will always please God. Jesus said that the law would stand until heaven and earth pass away.And so how then should we view the law? We can look at it through several lenses. On the one hand, we could look at it as a sort of manual for right living. If I buy a Hi-Fi, then it comes with a set of instructions- a little booklet which tells me how to set the thing up properly, what all the buttons do, and how to sort out problems. If I follow the manufacturers’ instructions, then I will get the best usage out of my Hi-Fi. The people who know best how the Hi-Fi is supposed to work, are the people who made it. And many believers see the law as a little like this. God is our maker. He knows what makes us tick, and if we follow his instructions, then that will be best for us. And we can see this working out in reality. Attempts to change the week from 7 days have been impractical, and short-lived at best (The French tried to decimalise the week in the aftermath of the French Revolution, along with a decimalisation of the minute, hour, day, month and year. The Soviet Union introduced 5 and 6-day weeks, in part as a specifically anti-Christian measure). God made us to function on a 7-day cycle, and this can be a helpful way of reading the OT law.But there is more to the law than just doing what is best. If I buy a Hi-Fi then I can, if I so choose, throw the instruction manual out of the window and proceed to press whichever buttons I feel like. That may be foolish, but it isn’t actually wrong, and nor is it illegal. The point is that law is law, and should also be viewed through that lens. Following it is not only good, but also necessary. Breaking it is wrong.I am not arguing for a direct imposition of the OT commands onto a modern setting- meaning that we would cease from eating shellfish, make sure that our roofs had parapets around them, and never wear jumpers made of mixed fibres. Rather, I would argue for a careful reading of the law, and for careful keeping of the principles behind those commands in a modern setting. A New Testament implementation of the food laws (and, by extension, other similar laws like the law about mixed fibres) is given a fair bit of space in the NT, and we shall come to it in Mark 7. We should still be careful for the safety of others when they are on our property, which is the thrust of the parapet law. But these laws are not merely guidelines, which we have the authority to ignore when it suits us to do so. When the Bible commands that a holy day be kept for the Lord, then we should treat that law seriously- as law.”If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honourable”, says the Lord to Israel, “if you honour it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth”. There is great blessing to be found in keeping the Sabbath. It is a picture of heaven, of the final Sabbath rest to be enjoyed by God with his people, when perfection will be the de-facto standard of behaviour, and a de-jure standard will no longer be necessary.

And only Jesus can bring the grace we need to enter into the final Sabbath rest of the kingdom, in joyful obedience to God’s commands

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