Authority Over the Sabbath

In response to Jewish leaders, Jesus demonstrated that he is Lord even over the “Sabbath Day” - Mark 2:23-3:6

One day, certain religious leaders objected to Christ’s looseness to their Sabbath traditions, but he used the opportunity to demonstrate that the “Son of Man” is “Lord” even over that day. God did cease His creative activities on the seventh day, but its formal establishment as a regulated day did not occur until the Torah was given.

It was forbidden for an Israelite to journey more than a short distance on the seventh day, the so-called “Sabbath day’s journey.”  How far the disciples did walk on this Sabbath day is not stated. The traditional regulation specified a “journey” of no more than 1,999 paces, approximately eight hundred meters.

Additionally, the disciples were plucking ears of grain and rubbing them in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff, and this was considered “reaping and winnowing” by the Pharisees, an activity that was prohibited on the Sabbath.
  • (Mark 2:23-28) - “And it came to pass, that he, on the Sabbath, was passing through the cornfields, and his disciples began to be going forward plucking the ears of corn. And the Pharisees were saying: See! Why are they doing on the Sabbath what is not allowed? And he said to them: Have you never read what David did when he had need and hungered, he and they who were with him, how he entered into the house of God, while Abiathar was High-priest and ate the shewbread, which it is not allowed to eat except for the priests, and gave to them also who were with him? And he was saying to 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.” – (Parallel passagesMatthew 12:1-8Luke 6:1-5).
It was permissible under the Mosaic Law for anyone passing through a grain field to pick grain by hand for immediate consumption (“gleaning”). The Pharisees objected because the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath. They were not concerned about any violations of the property rights of the landowner - (Deuteronomy 23:25).

In the Torah, harvesting by sickle was forbidden on the Sabbath. By the first century, rigorists like the Pharisees had developed extensive Sabbath regulations. Under them, picking a few ears of grain by hand on the Sabbath was defined as “reaping.”

Jesus responded with a question based on the life of David. He and his men were living as outlaws. One day, being famished, they ate bread forbidden to them by the Law. The story refers to the “shewbread” or the “bread of the presence,” the twelve loaves of sanctified bread placed before the “presence” of Yahweh in the Tabernacle on the Sabbath. Only the priests were allowed to eat this bread - (1 Samuel 21:1-6).

The circumstances in David’s story were not the same as those of Jesus and his disciples. They were not in a state of physical distress, and he did not cite the violation of a Torah regulation by David as an excuse. Instead, for him, it became a precedent.

Since the “Son of Man” was the true King of Israel, if that which was “holy” was set aside for common use by David, how much more appropriate was it to set aside that which is “holy” for use by the Greater David?

This statement was most appropriate - “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In their zeal to obey the law, some Jews had forgotten its purpose - To do good to men and women. As the day of rest and worship, God did not intend for anyone to be deprived of the necessities of life on the seventh day. That day was for the well-being of humanity, and even slaves and animals were allowed to rest.

Since the Sabbath was made to benefit mankind, it follows that the “Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He is the designated representative and ruler of Israel. In the Greek sentence, “Lord” is emphatic to emphasize the point - his authority as the “Son of Man” and the “Lord.” The version recorded in Matthew adds the following:
  • Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent? But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
Sabbath restrictions were not absolute. Temple priests engaged in “work” on it and other feast days while carrying out their priestly duties. Jesus, the “Son of Man,” was something “greater than the Temple.” If priests were authorized to violate the Sabbath in the Temple, and Jesus was greater than the Temple, how could he be restricted in his work by Sabbath regulations?
  • (Mark 3:1-6) – “And he entered again into a synagogue, and there was a man with his hand withered and they were narrowly watching him whether he would heal on the Sabbath that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had his hand withered: Arise into the midst! And he said to them: Is it allowed on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil? To save life or to slay? But they remained silent. And looking around on them with anger, being at the same time grieved on account of the hardening of their heart, he said to the man: Stretch forth your hand! And he stretched it forth, and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees, going out immediately with the Herodians, were giving counsel against him that they should destroy him.”
And the version of this story recorded Luke adds the following - “But they themselves were filled with rage and discussed together what they might do to Jesus. And it was at this time that he went off to the mountain to pray and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”

Is it lawful on the Sabbath to save life or to kill?” Like the Sabbath, the Mosaic Law was intended to bring good to humanity, not indifference or neglect. The first part of the question refers to what Jesus intended to do for the man with the withered hand, to do him good, not evil. Not to restore his hand would be tantamount to doing evil. The second half refers to what his opponents were plotting, to destroy Christ, the Messiah of Israel.

Healing on the Sabbath was forbidden, but there was an approved exception. It was permissible to heal if life was at stake. In this case, the man’s life was not at risk. He would come to no harm if Jesus waited until evening to restore his hand. But he refused to draw such a narrow distinction between saving a life and restoring the man to wholeness. To delay healing for even a few hours was to deny the Law’s intent.

Moreover, anyone with a physical deformity was not allowed to enter the Temple and could not function as a full member of the covenant community. The task of restoring the man was paramount and not to be delayed - (Leviticus 21:16-21).

His actions that day answered his question. Not only was it permissible to do good on the Sabbath it was right and merciful to do so. The narrow attitude of his religious opponents could only lead to the destruction of life.

Mark’s account labels the man’s hand “restored” rather than “healed.” This meant his restoration as a full member of Israel entitled to enter the Temple and participate fully in the nation’s religious life.

The word used for the “anger” expressed by Jesus is orgé, a noun used elsewhere for the “wrath” of God. This is the only place in any of the four gospel accounts where this word is applied to Christ. Verse 1 provides a clue to his anger - “And he entered again into the synagogue.” This is the same synagogue where he had delivered a man from a demon. Some of his audience had heard his teachings and witnessed his exorcisms, yet their hearts remained hardened to what God was doing through the “Son of Man.”

This story is a major turning point in his Galilean ministry. The reaction of his opponents to this healing transformed them from critics to conspirators who were intent on destroying him. Later, Jesus will be accused of casting out demons by Satan, a charge he categorized as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” Here, the hardening of their hearts and the desire to destroy him anticipate that future confrontation and charge.


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