Lord of the Sabbath

Synopsis - Jesus as the “Son of Man” is the “Lord of the Sabbath  with the full authority to reign over it  Mark 2:23-28.

Jesus and his disciples
Jesus and his disciples
A story recorded in the second chapter of the gospel of Mark raises the issue of the Sabbath Day and the regulations imposed on it by Jewish oral traditions. At the end of the passage, Jesus as the “Son of Man” is declared the “Lord of the Sabbath” who, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, makes pronouncements on Sabbath-keeping on his own authority (Mark 2:23-28).

The book of Genesis describes God ceasing from his creative activities on the seventh day of creation; however, the formal establishment of the Sabbath as a regulated day of rest was not until the giving of the Law or Torah at Mount Sinai.

In the passage, the disciples were walking on the Sabbath Day when it was forbidden to journey more than a short distance, the so-called “Sabbath day’s journey.” How far the disciples walked is not stated by the text. At that time, the traditional regulation specified one could travel of no more than 1,999 paces on the Sabbath, approximately eight hundred meters.

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, one of the many types of “work” 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” [Citation from the Emphasized Bible]. (Parallel passages: Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5).

The parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew adds the following to this story—

  • Or have ye not read in the law that on the Sabbaths the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are blameless? But I say unto you, something greater than the Temple is here! If, however, you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the blameless” (Matthew 12:5-7).

Under the Law of Moses, it was permissible for anyone passing through a grain field to pick grain by hand for immediate personal consumption. In this account, the Pharisees objected because the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath, not to any violation of property rights by them (Deuteronomy 23:25).

In the Torah, harvesting by sickle was forbidden on the Sabbath. By Christ’s time, rigorist groups like the Pharisees evolved the Law’s Sabbath regulations into an extensive set of rules. Picking a few ears of grain by hand became defined as “reaping.”

Moon Rise - Photo by Mike Lewinski on Unsplash
Mike Lewinski on Unsplash
Jesus responded to his critics with a counter-question from the life of David. He and his men were living an outlaw existence. One day they were famished and ate the “show-bread” from the Tabernacle that was set aside exclusively to be consumed by the priests. The “show-bread” or “bread of the presence” consisted of twelve loaves of sanctified bread placed before the “presence” of Yahweh in the Tabernacle each week on the Sabbath day (1 Samuel 21:1-6).

The circumstances from David’s story were not precisely parallel to the situation of Jesus and his disciples. They were not in a state of physical distress, just simply hungry. The Lord did not cite David’s violation of the Torah regulation as an excuse but, rather, as a precedent.

Since Jesus is the Greater David and the true King of Israel, if that which is holy (i.e., the show-bread) was set aside for David, how much more appropriate was it to set aside that which is holy for the Greater David, the “Son of Man”?

His statement - “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” - was quite appropriate. In their zeal to obey the law, some of the more rigorist Jews had forgotten the purpose of the Law - To do good to mankind.

As a day of rest and worship, Yahweh never intend for a man or woman to be deprived of the necessities of life on that day - The Sabbath was for the well-being of men and women. The Law even specified that slaves and domesticated animals be allowed to rest on the seventh day of the week (“The Sabbath was for the sake of man, not man for the sake of the Sabbath” ).

Since the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit, it follows that the “Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” because 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 – The authority of Jesus as the “Son of Man” and “Lord.” Literally, it reads: “Consequently, Lord is the Son of Man of the Sabbath.”

Sabbath restrictions were not absolute. Temple priests engaged in “work” on the Sabbath and other feast days when performing their priestly duties, and the priests carried out their work in the Temple, the very house where the presence of God “dwelt.”

Jesus, the “Son of Man,” is the something “greater than the Temple.” If priests were allowed to violate the Sabbath in the Temple, and if Jesus was greater than it, then how could he be restricted in his “work” activities by Sabbath regulations?

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