Listening to Jesus About the Sabbath

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 2:27-28

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.”

Mark 2:27,28 rsv

Listen to these words of Jesus about the Sabbath, the special day for rest and worship. I’m reading from Mark, chapter 2, verse 27: “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.’” To the people who first heard those words, they must have sounded astonishing, revolutionary. What did Jesus mean when He said this about the most hallowed institution in the life of His people, the Sabbath day.


In seeking to understand, we need to remember first of all that Jesus observed the Sabbath day. An incidental reference in the Gospel according to Luke brings this out. It’s from chapter 4, verse 16: “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” Jesus went to the synagogue for public worship on the Sabbath day. We read that “was his custom” to do that, a regular consistent part of His life. He joined Himself to the people of God. He shared in the worship of God. He listened to, and at times proclaimed, the Word of God – all on the Sabbath day.

And that’s what we would have expected, isn’t it? “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” was one of the commands in the decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Since it was Jesus’ lifelong purpose to do the will of God, He always endeavored to honor the Sabbath. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,” was the command; “but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any 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 hallowed it” (Exod. 20:8-11). It was a day to celebrate God’s mighty works, a day to remember the redemption of His people from bondage, a day to be refreshed and begin life anew.

It was never the intention of Jesus to disobey or abrogate any of God’s laws. He announced that He had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. He taught that no part of the law would ever fall to the ground, that all would be accomplished. Whoever did and taught God’s commandments, He promised, would be great in the kingdom of heaven.


At the same time, Jesus was against certain interpretations and applications of this fourth commandment. He did not agree with many of His contemporaries about how the Sabbath commandment should be kept. Especially He resisted human attempts to control the behavior of others on the Sabbath day.

For example, Jesus met a man in the Capernaum synagogue on the Sabbath. The man had a withered hand. Jesus had compassion on him, invited him to come forward and stretch out his hand. As the man responded, he was marvelously restored.

We would expect that all the worshipers on that day would have rejoiced and praised God at this miracle of mercy. But some of them, strangely, were furious. They began immediately to conspire together as to how they could destroy Jesus. Because, you see, He had done this thing on the Sabbath day. In their judgment, this healing was a form of work and therefore ought never to be done on the Sabbath.

Strange irony here. He was loving; they were hating. He was longing to heal and they were eager to harm and kill. Two strikingly different ways of keeping the Sabbath! Jesus asked them a question about this contrast: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The suspicious onlookers were silent. What could they say?

On another occasion Jesus met a man who had been blind from his birth. He stopped and reflected aloud about the situation. Jesus presented Himself as the Light of the world. Then He spat on the ground, made mud, spread it on the man’s eyes and said, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam!” The man went, washed and came back, marvelously able to see.

Again, the religious authorities were indignant. Why? Because this had happened on the Sabbath day. Their reaction was, “This man [that is, Jesus] is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath” (John 9:16). No. Not in their way. Jesus’ manner of keeping the Sabbath was evidently different from theirs.

Here’s a third incident, the one which led up to the words we’re thinking about today. Jesus and His disciples were going through the grain fields one Sabbath day, and as they made their way, His disciples began to pluck heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands and eating them. It was a perfectly lawful activity for people walking through the fields. The Pharisees, however, raised a question about it to Jesus: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (Mark 2:24). It wasn’t wrong to pluck the grain, wasn’t wrong to eat it. But in their eyes, it was unlawful to do the work involved on the Sabbath day. They saw this as a form of reaping and of preparing food: activities forbidden on the Sabbath. They made their objection to Jesus, considering Him responsible for the behavior of His disciples.

Here was the Lord’s response: “Have you never read what David did, when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of the presence which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat and he gave some to his companions.”

David, of course, had been Israel’s greatest king. Flawed and failing at times, he was still a man after God’s own heart. There came a time, Jesus reminds His critics, when David did what was forbidden by the law. He ate the bread of the presence from God’s sanctuary, the food which only those of the priestly tribe could eat. And he gave some of it for food to his companions also. Note the parallels here: David and his companions, Jesus and His disciples. In each case, something was done which seemed to be a legal violation. And, in both situations, the persons involved were hungry. What the ceremonial requirement of the law seemed to forbid, the urgency of human need made lawful. In Jesus’ eyes, what was technically illegal was yet essentially and morally right.


Now the Lord gives expression to the principle involved. Listen: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” Let’s look at the negative side of that first. Man, or humankind, says Jesus, was not made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not God. Man was not created in order to keep the Sabbath. Sabbath observance is not the ultimate meaning of our life. The Sabbath imposes no absolute claim upon us. It has been instituted by God for His purposes. Only He can legislate how it is to be observed.

Humankind has been created for God to live in communion with Him, to know Him, love Him, honor Him and serve His purpose in the world. To say that the Sabbath has ultimate significance, that man was made for it, would be to put the day itself in the place of the Lord, would make a certain way of Sabbath observance our supreme duty, our chief good. But this Jesus steadfastly refused to do.

Jesus was a Sabbath keeper because He loved the God who had ordained the Sabbath. He delighted to do His will, to seek His face, to show forth His praise. If we want a model for keeping the Sabbath day holy, we have an unfailing one in Jesus of Nazareth.

A lady came to me in a church I once served, telling me excitedly about a recent experience she had had. She had witnessed, she said, to her neighbor. I was happy to hear that. I was always trying to encourage the people in my congregation to share the good news with others. I asked the lady to tell me about it. “Well,” she said, “my next door neighbor was washing his car and I told him he ought not to do that on Sunday.” I waited, but that was the end of the story. That was all she had said. For her, witnessing meant just that, telling someone what not to do on Sunday. Presumably, if he had heeded her words, his life would have been complete! That’s like saying that people are made for the Sabbath.

Jesus turns this around. “The sabbath was made for man, for humankind.” It was instituted for our good, for our benefit, for our refreshment. Keeping the Sabbath was never intended to be an end in itself. It was meant to minister to the wholeness, rest and renewal of human lives in communion with God.

The Sabbath command involves restriction, limitation, of course. People are not to work or have family members, servants, employees work. Why? Because God has some arbitrary whim against people working seven consecutive days? Because He simply wants to test and see if we will do it or not? Or is it wholly for our benefit? The Sabbath, says Jesus, was made for us, that we wouldn’t be so caught up in the world of work as to forget the real meaning of our lives, so that we wouldn’t idolize our work or be enslaved by it. What a boon the Sabbath is to all who labor! What a tragedy when its place is lost, its importance forgotten!

There are penalties for breaking this command. We can see them all around us. Those who work all the time, never stopping at an oasis of refreshment, wear themselves out and fall by the way. Societies that have no time for worship become increasingly shallow and superficial. Thus the ties that bind people together tend to weaken. Further, those who will not submit to God’s gracious ordering of human life often find themselves the victims of human tyranny.

But these, friends, are evils we bring upon ourselves when we reject God’s good way, when we neglect to our great loss the kind provision He has made for us. The Sabbath was made for us. The God who created us, who understands us altogether, knows that human life works best when one day out of seven is set apart for rest and worship. This commandment, like all the rest, is for our good always.


Then comes the Lord’s closing word: “So the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.” Since the sabbath is made for humankind, the Son of man, God’s idea of a human being, the representative person, reigns over the Sabbath. He is high above it. It is subject to His lordship, under His authority. He holds the final say as to its observance.

This phrase “the Son of man” is Jesus’ favorite name for Himself. It speaks, of course, of His humanity and His representative role. But it has far more meaning than that. The Son of man in the Old Testament Book of Daniel is a heavenly figure. Listen to these words about Him:

I watched one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven, and he came to the ancient one and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14).

Jesus now presents Himself as this One coming with the clouds of heaven, to whom all sovereignty belongs. And yet He shares our humanity. He is one of us. As this heavenly Son of man, Jesus has authority even over the most cherished and sacred institution in the life of His people, the Sabbath. To many of His Jewish hearers, this may have been the most astounding and offensive claim that Jesus ever made.

Have you noticed how everything Jesus taught points us finally to who He is? His words lead us to worship, His doctrine to devotion. We only appropriate the heart of what Jesus teaches when we submit ourselves to His reign. Jesus is the Lord, the Lord of everything. He’s the One who has shared our humanity, who has borne our sins, dying in our place, who has conquered death for us, who lives today to offer us forgiveness and new life. Will you say today to Him, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of all, “my Lord and my God”? Oh, may it be so!