Authority over the Sabbath

SYNOPSIS - Jesus responded to criticisms over his looseness to Sabbath regulations by demonstrating that he is Lord of the “Sabbath Day” – Mark 2:23-3:6

Moon Rise - Photo by Mike Lewinski on Unsplash
On one occasion in Galilee, a group of religious leaders objected to the looseness of Jesus to their Sabbath Day traditions, but he used the opportunity to demonstrate that the Messiah, the “Son of Man,” is “Lord” even over that day. God did cease His creative activities on the seventh day; however, the formal establishment of the Sabbath as a regulated day did not occur until the Torah was given at Mount Sinai - (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”). - [
Photo by Mike Lewinski on Unsplash].

Sowing and Reaping

The disciples were walking on the Sabbath. It was forbidden for an Israelite to journey more than a short distance on the seventh day, a so-called “Sabbath day’s journey.”  How far the disciples did walk is not stated. By the time of Jesus, 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. This was considered “reaping and winnowing” in the eyes of the Pharisees - work activities 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 saith unto them —Have ye 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 the presence-bread did eat — which it is not allowed to eat, save unto the priests — and gave unto them also who were with him? And he was saying unto them — The Sabbath for man was made, and not man for the Sabbath: So that the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. And he entered again into a synagogue, and there-was there a man having his hand withered and they were narrowly watching him, whether on the Sabbath he would cure him, that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man who hath his hand withered, Arise, into the midst! and saith unto 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 round upon them with anger, being at the same time grieved on account of the hardening of their heart, he saith unto the man — Stretch forth thy hand! and he stretched it forth, and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees, going out straightway with the Herodians; were giving counsel against him, that they should destroy him” – (The Emphasized Bible – Parallel passagesMatthew 12:1-8Luke 6:1-5).
It was permissible for anyone passing through a grain field to pick grain by hand for immediate personal consumption (“Gleaning”). The Pharisees objected because the disciples were doing this “work” on the Sabbath. They were not concerned about any potential violation 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, rigorist groups like the Pharisees had developed extensive and additional Sabbath regulations. Under them, picking a few ears of grain by hand became 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 each Sabbath day. Only priests could eat this bread - (1 Samuel 21:1-6).

The circumstances from David’s story were not the same as those of Jesus and his disciples - The disciples were not in a state of physical distress. Christ did not cite the violation of a Torah regulation by David as an excuse, but instead as 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 forgot its purpose - To do good to men and women. As a day of rest and worship, God did not intend for anyone to be deprived of the necessities of life on the seventh day of the week – That day was especially for the well-being of humanity. Even slaves and animals were allowed to rest on the Sabbath.

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. The construction is unusual and designed to emphasize the point - His authority as the “Son of Man” and “Lord.” The version recorded in Matthew adds:
  • 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 to fulfill their priestly duties. The priests performed their work in the Temple. 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?

Healing on the Sabbath
  • (Mark 3:1-6) – “And he entered again into a synagogue, and there-was there a man having his hand withered and they were narrowly watching him, whether on the Sabbath he would cure him, that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man who hath his hand withered, Arise, into the midst! and saith unto 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 round upon them with anger, being at the same time grieved on account of the hardening of their heart, he saith unto the man — Stretch forth thy hand! and he stretched it forth, and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees, going out straightway with the Herodians; were giving counsel against him, that they should destroy him” – (The Emphasized Bible – Parallel passagesMatthew 12:9-13Luke 6:6-11).
The version of this passage from the gospel of 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 lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” Like the Sabbath, the Law of Moses was intended to bring good to humanity, not human neglect, indifference, and certainly not acts of evil. The first part of the question refers to what Jesus intended to do for the man with the withered hand - 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 Jesus.

Healing on the Sabbath was forbidden, but by the time of Christ, there was an approved exception - It was permissible to heal if a 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 it to wholeness. To delay healing for even a few hours was to deny the Law’s intent.

A person with a deformity was not allowed to enter the Temple, and thus could not be a full member of God’s covenant community. The task of restoring this man to the covenant people was paramount and not to be delayed - (Leviticus 21:16-21).

The actions by Jesus answered his question - Not only was it permissible to heal and do good on the Sabbath, but it was also right and merciful to do so. The narrow attitude of his opponents could only lead to the destruction of life.
‘Mark’ does not describe the withered hand as “healed” but “restored.” In addition to a restored hand, this meant the restoration of the man as a full member of the people of Israel, one entitled to enter the Temple and participate fully in the nation’s religious life.
The word used for the “anger” expressed by Jesus is orgĂ©, 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 delivered a man from a demon. Some of his audience had heard his teachings and witnessed his healings previously, but their hearts remained hardened to what God was doing in and through the “Son of Man.”

‘Mark’ clarifies who the opponents were - Pharisees. He also introduces a new group, the Herodians, a group composed of Jewish partisans for Herod Antipas. The Pharisees were political enemies of Herod and unlikely allies of the Herodians - They viewed them as collaborators with an apostate regime. But the two groups allied in their mutual hostility to Jesus - (Mark 12:13).

In Mark, this story is a major turning point in the ministry of Jesus. The reaction of his opponents to this healing transformed them from critics to conspirators in a plot to destroy him - (Mark 11:18, 15:1).

The gospel of Mark does not give the precise reasons why the Pharisees and Herodians began at this time to plot his death. However, this story (and the preceding one) provides several possibilities:
  • Sabbath violation.
  • Fraternizing with sinners.
  • Disregarding customs and regulations of their oral traditions.
  • The presumption of Jesus to have the authority to forgive sins.
Later, Jesus was accused of casting out demons by Satan, a charge he categorized as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” an unpardonable sin. The present hardening of hearts and their plots to destroy him anticipate what he meant by the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”


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