Man and the Sabbath

And [Jesus] said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

Perhaps one of the greatest points of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees and other religious authorities involved the Sabbath. In the Law of Moses, God commanded the Israelites to sanctify the seventh day as a day of rest– the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11). Israelites, their servants, their animals, and sojourners in their midst were to do no labor on that day.

For many years the people profaned the Sabbath and considered it to be just another day of the week (cf. Nehemiah 13:15-22, Amos 8:5). For the most part after the exile, however, the Jews religiously observed the Sabbath day. They would go no more than three-quarters of a mile to go to a synagogue to read from the Law and pray (any further than three-quarters of a mile would be considered “work”).

It would not take long before all kinds of traditions grew up around the Sabbath. The intentions of the traditions were good: they would be a “hedge” around the Sabbath to completely make sure that no one violated it. One could not do anything that remotely looked like it involved labor or effort. Even spitting on the ground was forbidden– the spittle would likely disturb the earth, thus “plowing” it, thus representing an expenditure of effort!

As is evident, the traditions, despite the intentions behind them, became utterly burdensome. One could easily live in fear on the Sabbath day, worried that in some way, somehow, he has violated the Sabbath. By building up that hedge around the Sabbath, the religious authorities drained the life out of the command!

Jesus did not come to break the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 16:17). Therefore, Jesus does not intend to break the Sabbath, and as far as we can tell from what has been revealed, He never really breaks the Sabbath. He does, however, break the traditions of the Pharisees and other religious authorities regarding the Sabbath, and for that He was condemned by them as a sinner (cf. John 9:16). In the eyes of the Pharisees and the other religious authorities, Jesus did not keep the Sabbath– He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), and He even allowed His disciples to pluck heads of grain and to eat them on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-26)!

The latter example was quite difficult for the Pharisees: after all, plucking grain heads and crushing them with your hand to get the grain out is certainly “work.” In response, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of how David and his men are the bread of the Presence even though they were not priests (Mark 2:25-26; cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-7). In so doing, Jesus demonstrates that necessity can, in times of distress, lead to a little “wiggle room” in the Law. That “wiggle room” is not there on account of a disobedient or rebellious spirit but on the basis of what Jesus indicates in verse 27: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Son of Man, that is, Jesus, is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). The disciples, therefore, are not doing wrong. The Pharisees and their traditions may be offended, but God is not!

This circumstance is quite instructive for us as believers in God today. The parallel to the Jewish Sabbath in the new covenant would be the assemblies of the saints (although it must be stressed that the assemblies of Christians are never explicitly identified with the Sabbath and that the Bible gives us no impression that Sunday is the “new Sabbath”). As God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, so God commands Christians to assemble with one another (Hebrews 10:25). God has specified the types of activities that take place in those assemblies: the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a collection for the work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8-9), praying (1 Corinthians 14:14-17), singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), Bible study (Acts 2:42), and preaching (Acts 20:7, 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

These things are well and good, but it is also very easy for traditions to be created around these commands. If man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, then man was not made for the assembly, but the assembly for man. The assembly is designed to lead to the encouragement and edification of the believers (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:24). Yes, this encouragement and edification must be accomplished according to what is written in the Scriptures (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17), but it also means that we must take care so that we do not drain the life out of the assembly like the Pharisees and religious authorities drained the life out of the Sabbath. God established these things for men for their benefit!

The line between truth and tradition is easily blurred. We must never defend tradition as if it is truth. We must never be as casual with truth as we can be with tradition. In the end, we must keep a proper perspective on these matters. Let us assemble with fellow believers to encourage and edify them, and not allow traditions regarding those assemblies to drain the life out of them!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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