Mark 2:23-28

We are in the middle of a series of short narratives describing conflict between the Lord Jesus and the religious leadership. They have complained about his arrogating to himself the authority to forgive sins – his power to work miracles notwithstanding – they have complained about his association with people they considered unclean and unworthy, and about his failure to practice their approved forms of private devotion. In each case the conflict has provided the Lord the opportunity to add another deft stroke to his self-portrait and provided Mark with another piece of his revelation of Jesus of Nazareth. In these narratives we have learned that he is the Son of Man who has the authority to forgive sins; he is the physician come to heal the sick; he is the bridegroom come to marry his bride; and, now, we will discover him to be the Lord of the Sabbath. The disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning the proper observance of the Sabbath day would be a running sore throughout the course of the Lord’s ministry and here is the subject of two separate incidents, narrated in our text to the end of chapter 2 and then another in the first paragraph of chapter 3. They raise issues sufficiently different that I will consider them separately.

It is hard, even for Christian people of our Western culture, for whom the Lord’s Day is more and more a matter of indifference, to appreciate how important the Sabbath was to the Jews in the first century. Together with circumcision it was the defining feature of their self-identity and of their spiritual culture. It was what most plainly distinguished them from other people. The fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments – the commandment requiring the keeping of the Sabbath day – is the longest of the commandments, the only one that hearkens back to creation, the only one in which we are commanded actually to imitate God himself. They noticed that among the Ten Commandments the fourth commandment receives special attention. By this time, the rabbis had developed an extensive and elaborate understanding of the fourth commandment and of Sabbath observance. They had developed a long list of regulations including some 39 classes of work forbidden on the Lord’s Day. Plowing and hunting we might have expected; perhaps not so much tying or loosening knots, writing more than one letter, or taking anything from one place to another. The rabbis’ intention was to leave nothing to chance, to anticipate every conceivable question. In this way no one would violate this very important commandment unknowingly. The sweeping regulation of Sabbath observance at this time is reflected in the ruling that if a building fell down on the Sabbath enough rubble could be removed to determine if those buried in the rubble were alive or dead. Those alive could be rescued. The corpses of the dead must be left until the Sabbath was over. [m. Yoma 8:7] Further, it was unlawful to set a dislocated foot on the Sabbath because the injury was not life-threatening and so the work was not absolutely necessary. The Sectarians at Qumran had, if possible, a still more rigorous approach to Sabbath keeping: forbidding the carrying of children, giving help to birthing animals, or the retrieval of an animal that had fallen into a pit. [CD 10-11] [Edwards, 93-94] The Pharisees’ objection must be understood against this backdrop of a very serious commitment to Sabbath-keeping, seen in terms of a rigid determination to avoid anything that might be regarded as the work that man is forbidden to do on the Lord’s Day.

In this case the Pharisees apparently objected to the Lord’s behavior with his disciples in precisely this respect: they were doing work, work that was forbidden on the Sabbath. First, and explicitly, the disciples were “reaping,” a category of work forbidden by the Law of Moses (Ex. 31:13-17) and then still more regulated by the rabbis. Taking a small amount of grain from a neighbor’s field was, in fact, explicitly permitted by the Law of Moses, it was not regarded as reaping but, according to the rabbis, not on the Sabbath day. The Law of Moses didn’t say this, but the rabbis, especially the rabbis who were followed by the Pharisees, understood the obligation in this way. Mark’s particular wording may suggest that the Pharisees also thought that the Lord’s disciples had walked too far, violating the ruling that on a Sabbath a person could travel no more than a Sabbath Day’s journey, approximately 800 meters. Again, this is regulation found nowhere in the Law of Moses but taught by the rabbis as, in their view, the implication of the Law of Moses.

The ordinary sense people have of the Lord’s argument is that the Sabbath prohibition against work did not mean and should never have been taken to mean that people should starve, or even spend the day very hungry, rather than take available food because the taking would be work. That is correct, no doubt. And the Lord confirms that by saying that the Sabbath was meant for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was never meant to be a burden to man to make his life more difficult it was always to be a boon. But here the chief point the Lord is making seems to be otherwise. After all, the Lord’s disciples weren’t that hungry; they were certainly in no danger of starving. David was at that time, fleeing from King Saul, but the Lord’s disciples were under no such pressure. Indeed, they certainly could have prepared a lunch before hand so that they had no need to pluck grain in someone’s field on the Sabbath. So the point of comparison is not the need in 1 Sam. 21 and the need of the Lord’s disciples here. The point of comparison is rather David himself, Israel’s king on the one hand, and Jesus on the other. It was proper for David to take the consecrated bread that had, on that Sabbath day, just been removed and replaced with hot bread, but Jesus isn’t so much pleading for a similar right for his own disciples as he is asserting that as David established a precedent for Sabbath behavior, and as David illustrated the true nature of Sabbath observance so Jesus could too! This is then the sense of the concluding and climactic identification of Jesus himself as “the Lord of the Sabbath.” It is even more emphatic in Mark’s Greek, with κύριός, “Lord,” thrown to the front of the sentence. Jesus is a king like David, with an authority even greater than Israel’s greatest king. Here we have, as with “bridegroom” and “physician” and “forgiver of sins,” and really surpassing them all, the Lord’s identification of himself with Yahweh, the Lord God, for who else could have been thought or said to be “Lord of the Sabbath?” Isaiah referred to the Sabbath as “the Yahweh’s holy day.” God himself instituted the Sabbath and here is Jesus claiming authority over it!

It is of capital importance at the outset to realize or remember that the Pharisees, in their view of the Law and obedience to the Law, were not faithful representatives of the teaching of the Bible. It is far too often thought by Christians who ought to know better that the Pharisees represented the Old Testament view of Sabbath-keeping, strict, narrow and restrictive and the Lord Jesus simply annulled that view, cancelled it, and replaced with a much kinder, gentler Sabbath. But that is not right. There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus and his disciples did not keep the Sabbath precisely as Moses required it to be kept. There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus ever taught his disciples not to keep the Sabbath day in faithfulness to the Ten Commandments. The Pharisees, as they did with all the commandments, transformed the fourth commandment Sabbath commandment into something very different by imposing their theory of obedience upon it.

You will, of course, find better views of the Law and of the Sabbath law in particular expressed by some rabbis here and there during this period. But the evidence is clear that the rabbis in general, in application of their theory of acceptance with God based on right behavior, succeeded in burying the Old Testament’s religion of personal faith in a God of love and the obedient life as a loving response to God’s grace – what we might call a “covenantal view” of law and obedience, they succeeded in burying that under a mass of manmade regulations. One has only to begin to read the tractate “Shabbath” in the Mishnah, the chapter devoted to the Sabbath and its observance, to realize that one has entered a world very different from that of the Bible and a view of life very different from that taught both by Moses and Jesus. There is nothing in Exodus or Deuteronomy at all like the mind-numbing regulations that go on for pages and pages what can and cannot be done on that day. According to the rabbis, you could, for example, untie a knot if you could do it with one hand; if it required two, it was work.

Another regulation, apparently thought important, even if a bit creepy to us today, is this one: if a man away from home bathed in the water of a cave on a Sabbath day and dried himself, even if he used ten towels to dry himself (thereby getting no single towel very wet), he still could not carry the towels away with him – apparently so as not to violate the principle that squeezing water out of a towel is work and gripping the ten towels together would likely result in some squeezing action. But if ten men bathed and all used the same towel to dry themselves they could carry the one towel away – apparently because you could carefully hold one towel with no fear of accidentally squeezing water out of it. Frankly, if I had to be the ninth or tenth man to use the same towel, I think I would have concluded that perhaps bathing itself is work and shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath day!

You may remember that at the Synod in Jerusalem, as we read in Acts 15, Peter, responding to the demands of some Jewish Christians that Gentile converts be required to be circumcised and in other ways be required to obey certain stipulations of the Law of Moses else they could not be saved, that’s what we read there, famously replied that these men were, in effect, putting on the necks of the disciples “a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear.” [15:10] He’s not talking about Moses, he’s not talking about the law of God as God revealed it to his people. Peter was speaking of precisely this sort of misunderstanding of the law and of obedience that Jesus is addressing here in Mark 2. The law reduced to a mass of regulations to be obeyed according to a principle of salvation by right behavior. If your view of salvation is that it comes through right behavior, then, obviously, you have to know precisely what behavior is right and what is wrong. You spin out interpretations and applications of the law ad nauseum. And you inevitably lose sight of what the law really means and what it is for and how it is to be obeyed and for what purpose. The mass of manmade regulations cover up and hide from view the Law of God and then turn it into something other than what it is: the eyes of a believer’s love, the way he has been shown by which to love and to give thanks to the God of his salvation. Paul would later describe this Pharisaical viewpoint as “reliance on the law” [Rom. 2:17]. That is what the Pharisees were doing and what, later, some Jewish Christians again began to do: to rely on the law, to rely on it for their peace with God, for their acceptance by him.

But it was never the law’s purpose that people should rely on it, count on it, trust in it. No! Men and women are to rely on the Lord, count on him, trust in him. In fact, in the Bible, and in the Law of Moses itself, the law, the תורה, is first and original meaning is instruction. The basic idea is not regulation or commandment, but instruction. It is the teaching of the Lord. In the law the Lord tells us how to live that we might remain in close fellowship with him and come into the fulfillment of that happy life for which he has made us and saved us. Before it is rules and regulations and much more than that, it is a Father’s wise instruction to a son whose life he wants to be happy and holy and fruitful. The law, in Moses, is the stipulations of God’s covenant. He enters into a covenant with Israel first. He brings her into fellowship with himself. He, as it were, becomes her lover, her friend, her protector. Then, loving her as he does, he makes sure she knows how to live in that way that will bring her happiness and keep their relationship sweet and close.

This is why, in the Bible, the law of God is thought to be such a treasure, a gift, a blessing. This is why believers love it and sing about it and memorize it and hide it in their hearts. It is one of God’s loving gift to his people.

This is why, in the Bible, disobedience to God’s law is something else before it is simply the doing of what is wrong. Before that it is foolishness. And before that it is ingratitude. Take the very first sin, the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God had given them so much and laid before them an unending life of perfect happiness and fulfillment. He had offered himself to them so that they could live in fellowship with him. But, when tempted by the Devil, they came to think that they might have something more, that God had not been good enough to them, that they might be better and do better on their own. What ingrates! What fools! And this is everywhere the story of human disobedience. Is any man or woman better off for disobeying the law of God? Are human beings happier living out of fellowship with God and doing what they find natural and easy to do? They may think so, to be sure, but are they really better off?

It is here that we come face to face with the fundamental psychological fact of human existence. Human beings are by nature rebels against God and the rebel does not wish to submit in the nature of the case. He would – strange to say it – he would rather commit himself to misery than to submit himself to God. He may be very sophisticated in his rationalizations – as the Pharisees were and as many modern types are – but the fact remains that they over and again choose the hard way because the smooth way, the right way, the wise way, the good way happens to be God’s way and so that way is not available to them. They would rather be miserable than submit to God. The Pharisees would rather keep their laws than obey God’s law. That was the principle that led to those thousand and one minute regulations of the Mishnah. The law became theirs in that way and not God’s and so they could keep it without submitting to him. I don’t say they ever said that or thought that out loud to themselves, but very clearly that is what lies beneath what they did. The Pharisees were rebels against God, as all men are and as a result these men never knew the love of God or the thrill of the knowledge of Jesus Christ the Savior though he came into their midst and they saw him with their own eyes.

Men have a natural objection to being controlled, to being under orders, to being subject to another. And, as all men have knowledge of God, however ardently they suppress this knowledge, their refusal to be controlled is, finally and ultimately, a refusal to bend the knee to God. When someone becomes a Christian is it not universally true that he or she will say of himself or herself in the words of Horatius Bonar’s hymn or words like them:

“I was a wandering sheep, I did not love the fold;
I did not love my Shepherd’s voice, I would not be controlled.”

Man wants to be the architect of his own fortunes. And in their pride human beings think they know better than and can do better than God. Can anyone deny this? Have we not seen it a thousand times? We watch a young man or young woman squandering his or her opportunities, making one foolish choice after another. It is as plain as day that these choices are folly and must lead to loss and pain and deep disappointment. But these choices are the way of rebellion and rebellion is what rebels live for and give themselves to.

But we don’t need the evidence of others to prove that point. We find the evidence in ourselves every day that we live. We Christians find it in ourselves just as unbelievers would find it in themselves if only they would be honest about themselves with themselves. How else can we explain our unaccountable backwardness to obey when we ourselves know that such obedience would bring us happiness and satisfaction and more of the presence of the Lord?

The Lord has commanded us to pray. We want to pray. We want the blessings that would be ours were we to pray more faithfully. We want to be men and women of prayer because we are Christians and we believe that God answers prayer. We know that prayer is nothing else but fellowship with God and who would not want more fellowship with God? But why then do we struggle so to pray? Why is it so often true of us, as Thomas Shepard, the pilgrim father, said it was true of him, that there were many times when he would rather die than pray? Why? Because even as Christians there is still so much of our old spirit of rebellion left in us. We don’t want to pray because we don’t want to submit. We would prefer, God help us, to do what we want rather than what God wants.

You children, why is it that you bristle when your parents tell you to do something: to complete your chores, to finish your homework, even to brush your teeth. You know that you ought to do those things. In your heart and mind you will readily admit that you want to be the kind of person who is faithful at his or her responsibilities. You don’t want to show up at school the next day with unbrushed teeth or your homework not done or poorly done. Your parents are instructing you wisely, helping you to be and do what you want to be and do. You know they are. And still you bristle to be told what to do. Why? Because a large piece of the rebel heart still beats within you.

You husbands, you know this as well. The Lord tells you in his law to treasure your wives and to love, appreciate, and celebrate them with your words. In the Bible we are commanded to do this; we are shown how to do this; and we are encouraged to do it as the way to a happy, romantic, fulfilling, holy, and fruitful marriage. But, is there a man listening to me now who has not had precisely this experience and more times than you care to admit. You know that the time has come for you to speak to your wife. You know you ought to declare your love, your appreciation, your happiness in her, your thanksgiving for her. You, in fact, know just exactly what you ought to say. You also know that if you were to say it, she would be happy and you would be happy as well for having said the words. The distance that has come between the two of you, or the irritation or discomfort in your relationship at that moment would be immediately overcome, or, if there is no distance or discomfort, your relationship still would be wonderfully brightened and made immediately the source of a deeper happiness and love for the two of you together. You have this power. It requires nothing more than the utterance of a few words and you know exactly what words should be spoken. But you can’t get the words out of your mouth. You rob yourself of your own happiness. Why, for goodness sake? Because there is that deep within you that does not want to do what God wants you to do. There is a mysterious x-factor inside of you that predisposes you not to do what God tells you to do. And since what God wants you to do is what is suited to make you happy, to purify and ennoble and enrich your life, you end up seeking your own unhappiness and your own unfulfillment, just so that you don’t have to do the will of God. Strange, but true. This is the true mystery and the true mastery of sin and this is the explanation of human life as we know it.

Take the present example. The Sabbath day was a holiday. A day of rest from work. A day to be enjoyed in the worship of God, in the fellowship of other people and of one’s family, and in the doing of good works, the sort of works that not only bless others but make the doer of them so much more satisfied with his or her life. What is there about the Sabbath day not to like? And yet most people think it a galling yoke and even religious people, like the Pharisees of Jesus day and, alas, many Christians since, managed to turn it into a day more oppressive than refreshing, more a burden than a holiday. How is it that we can corrupt even God’s great gifts and screw up even our most golden opportunities? Well, the answer is that, being rebels, we have to do something else than what God has told us to do. And since what he has told us to do is what is best for us and for our happiness, we are left with what is worse. If the Sabbath as God gave it to us is happy, a splendid thing, then we have to make it into a dull, dreary, boring thing because only in that way can it be ours and not God’s. No one’s life is ever richer, ever nobler, ever more pleasing because he or she lives contrary to God’s law.

There is no help for this unless and until we realize that the law of God is, in fact, nothing other but his loving, gracious, generous, wise, and kind instruction. There is no help for this until we realize that the laws and commandments of God are simply the Lord showing us the way he wants us to live because he loves us and knows what is best for us.

What we always do – what the Pharisees did as well – is to replace the Lord’s person with laws and commandments. We depersonalize the law. We detach the law from the person of the Lord himself and our obedience to it from a living, active, personal relationship with him. Yes Lord, thank you for giving me this direction and helping me to see the right way forward. Jesus reminds us here of that most important, that essential connection between the law and himself. He is the Lord of the Sabbath. In keeping the Sabbath law we are doing his will. He made the Sabbath and gave it to us as a great gift, as he gave us all his other laws. They were all made for us, for our welfare and happiness. It is the person of the Lord that stands behind all of the laws of Holy Scripture, his heart, his mind, his will for us his people. The laws of God are the laws of the one who forgives our sins, they are the laws of the Great Physician, and of our bridegroom.

Most people are not atheists. There have always been few atheists. Most people are deists, who believe that there is a God, a creator, but a God who has very little to do with our daily life. He has laid down laws and it is ours to obey them, such as they are. God will approve us if we do. The serious-minded among us will make more of that obedience; the lax will make less of it. But none views that obedience as an expression of a living relationship with a present God who loves us and is in giving us those commandments caring for us. And Christians themselves can fall very easily into that deistic way of thinking about their lives, their obedience and their behavior.

And so it behooves us to remember, to take care to remember what we find so easy to forget. The Lord Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. It is his law, his will. Our Savior who gave himself for us also gave us this instruction about one day in seven as he gave us all his other laws, about telling the truth, obeying our parents, maintaining sexual purity, respecting the property of others, and so on. He didn’t give us these laws that we might make ladders of them by which to climb up to heaven. Heaven is the gift of his love granted to all who trust in him. He didn’t give us these laws because he is a misanthrope or a spoilsport and wanted us to prove our loyalty to him by our willingness to live a life of grinding misery, the sort of life one lives who obeys these commandments. You keep these commandments and you will be among the happiest people in this world.

He gave us his laws because he loves us and wants us to find true fulfillment of life both in this world and the world to come. He wants us to live well, which is the only way to live fully. He wants our lives to work and no one knows better than he how a human life works best than the one who made it. His laws are, in effect, an owner’s manual for human life. The Lord Jesus wants us to live our lives in close fellowship with him, knowing his presence – the greatest privilege any human being ever experiences in this world – and his laws describe the sort of life he loves to bless with more of himself.

Now to be sure there is a “No!” in these laws. There are things one will not do on Sunday, there are physical pleasures one will forego in order to maintain purity, there are sometimes painful consequence one will sometimes face in order to tell the truth. But the Lord, with love in his heart for you and with a perfect knowledge of both you and the world and the future, tells you not to do that thing, don’t do it, even if that thing is very enticing, very exciting, very beguiling, don’t do it. Obedience can be difficult, demanding work. It will involve self-denial. But think for a moment of that commandment that you least like, that commandment that you find most restricting, that commandment that, so it seems, most ruins your fun, or spoils your freedom, or you are tempted to think most shrinks your life. Think of that commandment you most resist and resent having to obey. Think of that commandment now while I tell you a story.

There was a little Dutch boy whose home was on a dyke not far from a great windmill. The arms of this windmill swept so close to the ground as to be very dangerous for anyone who came to near. The boy loved to play near the windmill but his parents, aware of the danger, had forbidden him to do so. They had warned him of what would happen if he was caught, swept up into the air, and flung to the earth and beaten with the unfeeling strokes of those great blades.

But, as children will, beguiled by the windmill and jealous of his freedom from the control of his parents, one day he played near the windmill’s arms and, soon absorbed in what he was doing, forgot where he was. “Perhaps he was half conscious of a breeze springing up; and somewhere in the depths of his soul, he may have been obscurely aware of the danger” concerning which he had been warned. At any rate, suddenly, as he played, he was struck powerfully from behind and found himself swept up into the air, his head downwards and then came the blows. It had happened then. He was finished. He had come to the end. “In his terrified writhing, he twisted himself around, and looking up, saw not the immeasurable expanse of the…heavens above him, but his father’s face. At once he realized…that he was caught not in the mill, but was only receiving the threatened punishment of his disobedience. He melted into tears, not of pain, but of relief and joy.” [B.B. Warfield, “What Fatalism Is,” Selected Shorter Writings, i, 395-396] There was a “No!” but it was a wise father’s “No!” There was rebellion and it was foolish and dangerous. Rebellion against God always is. There was a consequence to disobedience, but it was the consequence his Father – the Father who loved his son – imposed for his son’s sake. And so it always is with the law of God. When the law of God confines us or restricts us it is the Lord himself telling us, “No, you are safer, you will be happier, you will be better here.” The Lord punishes us when we disobey his law but always and only to insure we get that point.

There is the difference between laws, impersonal, abstract, absolute on the one hand, and the instruction, the commandments, even the “No!” of God and of Jesus Christ our Savior on the other. We speak of the laws of nature, but mean by them something impersonal, without heart, without feeling, without the intention to do us good. But God’s laws are not that way. These are not the laws of a machine, but of a person, of an infinitely wise mind, of a measurelessly large heart. We do not understand these laws at all – as the Pharisees did not understand them – if we do not regard them as the instruction of our heavenly Father and our Savior, the means by which the Lord intends to do us good. If we remember that, we will love to obey, however hard it is sometimes to do, and we will know that no one will be better for that obedience than we ourselves.