Live by the Lord and Truth, or by Legalism and Tradition (Mark 2:18-22)
Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 50:01 — 11.4MB)
Subscribe: Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS
Download Sermon Outline
Sermon Manuscript . . .
Live by the Lord and Truth, or by Legalism and Tradition
Who makes the rules–the Sabbath controversy, from Mark 2:18-22
Most world religions venerate sacred places and times–Islam honors Mecca, Hinduism the Ganges River, and Shintoism the island of Japan. Judaism venerated Jerusalem and especially the Temple as sacred. But even beyond it and perhaps above it, Judaism actually reveres a day even above a holy place, and that day is the Sabbath–on our calendars, Saturday.
Two observances set the Jewish nation apart from all nations–one was circumcision, the other was the Sabbath. Sabbath went from sunset on Friday, to sunset on Saturday. It is the fourth commandment of the ten big ones. In the Old Testament, you were to abstain from every form of labor, because God rested on the seventh day. This included slaves, animals, even vegetation, which could not be harvested or uprooted. But sadly, like most religion, keeping the Sabbath, or obeying the command to rest on the seventh day, deteriorated into external legalism that stripped the day of its intended purpose.
Open your Bibles to the end of Mark chapter 2, verse 23, and follow along in your outline as Jesus demonstrates His authority over this unique day, the weekly Sabbath. In Mark 1 and 2, Christ has been establishing His authority over disease, sin, sinners, tradition and more. By now, Jesus has referred to Himself with several colorful descriptions. He’s called himself The Physician who comes to heal those sick with sin, The Bridegroom who celebrates life with His followers in joy and doesn’t demand external fasting. He is also The Tailor who sews a new patch on new clothes and doesn’t attempt to repair the old garment of corrupted, external Judaism with the new internal work of the Spirit. And today, Jesus rejects the traditions of the religious leaders in favor of the truth of God’s Word in a conflict over eating grain on the Sabbath in Mark 2:23ff.
As Jesus preaches a Gospel of divine accomplishment, there is increasing hostility from those who teach a religion of human achievement. Jesus says you can’t be good enough to save yourself, only God can save you, and He alone does the work. And the Jews say you must live good enough for God to save you, and you alone must do the work–like keeping the Sabbath holy.
Just by walking through some grain fields and eating, Jesus violates the traditions the Jews have invented about the Sabbath. And the Lord uses this violation of their tradition to teach them what the Bible actually says about the Sabbath, and to teach them about their God who called His people to a day of rest. Christ will do this in verses 23 to 28, and as He does, He’ll accomplish three major truths, which come right out of our text, making up our outline for this morning. As we prepare to read these verses together, look for Jesus to show: 1) the Sad Problem of religious formalism, 2) the Scripture Principles over tradition, and 3) God’s Sovereign Prerogative over all.
Read aloud with me, starting in verse 23. “And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees were saying to Him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ 25 And He said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; 26 how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?’ 27 Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’”
The observance of the Sabbath was at the heart of the Jewish legalistic system, and when Jesus violated the traditions as to how that day should be honored, He struck a raw nerve. Both the English Sabbath and the Greek sabbaton transliterate the Hebrew shabbat, which has the basic meaning of ceasing, rest, and inactivity. At the end of creation in Genesis 2:3, the Bible says, “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
In honor of that day, the Lord declared it to be a special time of rest and remembrance for His people, and incorporated its observance into the requirements of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:9 to 11. Now this Sabbath rest law is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is non-moral and purely ceremonial. It was also unique to the Old Covenant and to Israel. It’s the only law of the big ten not repeated as a command in the New Testament. The other nine commandments pertain to moral and spiritual absolutes, and are repeated and expanded in the New Testament. But the Sabbath observance is never recommended, nor commanded for Christians, nor for the Church in the New Testament.
Remember when Jesus began His ministry, the Old Covenant was still in effect, and all of its requirements were binding on Jews, the special people of that covenant. Jesus observed every demand and met every condition of the Scripture, because it was His own Word, which He came to fulfill and not destroy (Matthew 5:17).
But for several hundred years, the various schools of rabbis kept adding regulations and traditions to the Sabbath, going far beyond the teaching of Scripture, and in many instances actually contradicting it. Jesus confronted this error of the Pharisees in Matthew 15:6 and 9, “’He is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.’” 9 “‘But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”
In no area were the precepts of men more extensive, and more extreme than in application to the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath was still a binding ceremonial obligation for Israel, yet most Jews had little idea, neither of the original purpose of the Sabbath, nor of how God intended the Sabbath to be honored. Instead of being a day of blessing, the Sabbath had become a day of incredible burden. Because of the thousands of manmade restrictions regarding it, the Sabbath–which was supposed to be a day of rest, was more wearisome than the six days devoted to ones work. In other words, it was harder to have one day of “rest” than to work six days earning a living. How could that be? Feel the weight.
One section alone of the Talmud, the major compilation of Jewish tradition, has twenty-four chapters listing Sabbath laws. One law specified that the limit for travel on the Sabbath was 3,000 feet from one’s house, with some exceptions. For example, if you had placed some food within 3,000 feet of your house, you could go there to eat it–and because the food was considered an extension of the house, you could then go another 3,000 feet beyond the food.
Under Sabbath regulations, a Jew could not carry a load heavier than a dried fig–but if an object weighed half that amount, he could carry it twice. Eating restrictions on the Sabbath were among the most detailed. You could eat nothing larger than an olive–and even if you tasted half an olive, found it to be rotten and spit it out, that half you spit out was considered half your Sabbath allowance. Nothing could be bought or sold, and clothing could not be dyed or washed.
Throwing an object into the air with one hand and catching it with the other hand was prohibited. Tailors did not carry a needle with them on the Sabbath, for fear they might be tempted to mend a garment and thus perform work. A letter could not be dispatched, even if by the hand of a Gentile. No fire could be lit or extinguished, including fire for a lamp, although a fire already lit could be used within certain limits. For that reason, some orthodox Jews today use automatic timers to turn on lights in their homes well before the Sabbath begins. Otherwise they might forget to turn them on in time, and have to spend the night in the dark.
Baths could not be taken, for fear some of the water might spill onto the floor and “wash” it—that would be work. Chairs could not be moved, because dragging them might dig a furrow in the ground, considered work. And a woman was not to look in a mirror, lest she see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it out. False teeth could not be worn, because they exceeded the weight limit for burdens.
If a person became ill on the Sabbath, only enough treatment could be given to keep him alive. Treatment to make him improve was declared to be work, and therefore forbidden. To determine just how much food, medicine, or bandaging would be necessary to keep a person alive and no more was itself an impossible burden to determine. Among the many other forbidden Sabbath activities were sewing, plowing, reaping, grinding, baking, threshing, binding sheaves, winnowing, sifting, dying, shearing, spinning, kneading, separating or weaving two threads, tying or untying a knot, and sewing two stitches.
The Sabbath was anything but a time of rest. It had become a time of oppressive frustration and anxiety. The people were sick to death of this system that had been imposed on them by ungodly, worldly legalists. The Jews at this time were indeed “weary and heavy-laden.” According to all those hair-splitting regulations, a Jew could not pull off a handful of grain to eat on the Sabbath unless he were starving–which, of course, is difficult to determine, and would be a cause for considerable differences of opinion. Now you can understand why . . .
#1 The Sad Problem Verses 23 to 24
Instead of giving you a day of rest, instead of refreshing you so your work week could be a delight, instead of being a time of communion with the Lord–all the tradition and applications added to the Sabbath command actually made the Sabbath a burden instead of a blessing. Our Lord was obedient–He perfectly kept His own Word. Jesus is the one who wrote the Ten Commandments, so He’s the one who graciously designed the Sabbath rest. But the Lord didn’t design, nor approve of all the manmade rules I just shared about the Sabbath. And more so, He did not obey those manmade directives. This brought Jesus into direct conflict with those who believed their manmade traditions about the Sabbath were as authoritative as God’s Word itself. Look at . . .
First The Circumstances
Look at verse 23, “And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain.” Picture yourself in a vast farming community, like the San Joaquin Valley in the middle of California. But see it with very few roads. To make your way from Fresno to Bakersfield you have to walk along cultivated fields right next to the crops–these form the only good paths on which to travel long distances.
Verse 23 begins with “and it happened,” or and it came to pass. Right before this moment, the gospel of John chapter 5 describes Jesus going to Jerusalem and healing the man who waited by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years. Because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath, the religious leaders wanted to kill Him. In response, Jesus teaches them that He is equal to the Father–He is God. He does nothing without God’s approval–they are one. So the religious leaders now watch everything Jesus does, especially what He does on the Sabbath. Verse 23 could actually be His return to Galilee from Jerusalem, when it says, “and it happened as He returned.”
Jesus and His disciples are walking along these paths with grain. The crops are literally in arm’s reach. So the Lord’s men begin picking off the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, blowing off the chaff, then eating the grain because they’re hungry. We know this from the parallel accounts in Luke and Matthew. Luke 6:1 says they “rubbed them in their hands.” Matthew says, not only did they pick the grain, but they also “ate” the grain (Matthew 12:1). The reason they picked the grain, rubbed the grain, then ate the grain is because Matthew says they were “hungry” (12:1).
Oh, so they are stealing food, robbing those poor farmers, and that’s what made the Pharisees so mad. No, that’s not it at all. To pick the heads of grain was not the problem. In fact, God’s law made provision for just such a circumstance. They were actually following God’s law in Deuteronomy 23:25 which says, “When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.”
The problem here was not “what” they did, but “when” they did it. They were picking grain on the Sabbath. According to Jewish traditions on the Sabbath, the disciples were sifting, winnowing, and reaping–in other words, they were working on the Sabbath. Though Deuteronomy allowed for this, the Talmud (Jewish tradition) said, “If a person rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is sifting. If he rubs the heads of wheat, it is threshing. If he cleans off the side adherences, it is sifting. If he bruises the ears, it is grinding. And if he throws it up in his hand, it is winnowing.”
Because they would have eaten only ripened grain, the season was probably late March or early April (when grain normally ripened in the Jordan valley), and therefore near Passover. Inns were rare in small communities, and inns were nonexistent between them. If a traveler didn’t take enough food with him, or found his trip extended for some reason, he had to live off the land. The Lord recognized this kind of need, so the disciples were not reaping on the Sabbath, which was forbidden by Mosaic Law (in Exodus 34:21), but simply satisfying their hunger, according to the provision of Deuteronomy 23.
Rabbinic tradition, however, had ridiculously interpreted the rubbing of grain together in the hands, which the disciples were doing, as a form of threshing. And they regarded blowing away the chaff as a form of winnowing. The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus, and had no source of income, other than occasional gifts from their families and fellow believers.
When they became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain to eat, they were perfectly within their scriptural rights. They lived by faith, and the divine law of the land provided for just such sustenance. Jesus did nothing to discourage the disciples, and probably joined them in eating the grain. The Lord of the Harvest is with them–the Creator of the seed, the rain, the sun and the soil–the Maker of the grain is actually walking next to them. They have the right to eat the grain, unless by doing so it violated all your manmade rules about the Sabbath–unless your goal is to earn your salvation by keeping all the rules. Then picking grain on the Sabbath is going to be met with . . .
Second The Criticism Verse 24
“The Pharisees were saying to Him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” Can you believe these guys? Look at what they are doing. They’re sneaking around with spies, waiting for Jesus or one of His disciples to mess up. These guys are so critical, they are like OSHA, the IRS, and your mother-in-law all rolled into one. What a sad life. The Pharisees are pathetic.
Like them, critical people are filled with misery. Critical people collect the fault and guilt of others. If you are a critical spouse, you are miserable. If you are married to a critical spouse, the corner of my rooftop is available free of charge. Their complaint is petty. I can hardly imagine the burden that these legalistic naysayers were to Christ. He was healing, loving, serving and giving, and the Pharisees followed Him with their spiritual micrometers measuring every step and judging Him when He fell short of their manmade, artificial, external, legalistic standards.
They are not comparing Christ to the Old Testament, or the Law of Moses, they are comparing Christ to their traditions. The Old Testament injunction is not to work on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were so overly zealous, they were troubled that those words to “not work on the Sabbath” weren’t thorough enough. So they created thirty-nine categories of work that they prohibited. The gleaning activity of the disciples broke several of their manmade laws. They were so arrogant, they thought they could improve on God’s standard, and in the process lost the truth.
As you read verse 24, I’m certain you’re wondering what the Pharisees are doing out in the grainfields, or from what vantage point they actually saw Jesus and His men on the Sabbath? How did they catch them in the act of breaking their oral traditions? Jesus can’t go anywhere now without someone watching Him. Maybe as the self-appointed guardians of tradition, they were able to break their manmade laws in order to catch lawbreakers.
Regardless, Mark tells us the first word they say in verse 24 is look. The word “look” implies an accusation, a charge. How dare you. They were saying, the Law forbids any work on the Sabbath. The tense of saying tells us they were continually accusing Jesus. Jesus, everyone knows the Law. In Exodus 20:10, “But the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work.”
But that is not what they said, nor what they meant. They weren’t quoting the Bible about work on the Sabbath, they were quoting their rules about what that meant–the thirty-nine actions they said constituted work. Some, like plowing, we’d expect. But there were some we’d not expect, like it was forbidden to set a dislocated foot or hand on the Sabbath, spit on the ground, or rescue dead bodies from a collapsed building. Their rules had frustrated the Sabbath, not freed the Sabbath.
What God designed for worship and rest on the Sabbath had been transformed into a legalistic straightjacket. And the Pharisees accused the Lord and His disciples of disobeying their distorted, manmade traditions, thus perverting God’s intention for the Sabbath, which was to provide man with a special day of rest, not a painful day of burdens.
And get this–the very charge that Jesus’s disciples were continually doing what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath was itself sinful, because it put human tradition on a par with God’s own Word. Rabbinic tradition was not legitimate Jewish Law, but many centuries of observance had given it that status in the minds of most Jews, especially the legalistic Pharisees.
The sad problem was God’s Word was honored only in name. The Scripture wasn’t studied nor obeyed directly by the rulers. The Bible was rather used as a means to justify their traditions, many of which actually contradicted and invalidated the Word. And Jesus knows what He is doing with His men did not violate the Word of God, it merely contradicted their human tradition. So the Lord proves it by sharing . . .
#2 The Scriptural Precedent Verses 25 to 26
Jesus does what every genuine believer desires to do. He proves His point with Scripture. Look at verse 25, “Have you never read?” He turns to the Word of God (His words) and shows His critics that their traditions for the Sabbath are too harsh–they missed the point. Even the king they all venerate more than any other Israelite king, King David was allowed to eat bread set apart only for priests.
Read verses 25 and 26, “And He said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; 26 how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?’”
The Lord is powerfully sharp with these external hypocrites. “Have you not read”–as if to say, you guys pride yourselves on being the very people who obey the law, even so deep in it your scribes are supposedly the only ones who can teach it. Yet you are not acquainted with a biblical example where the ceremonial restrictions were waved in order to meet a great need on the part of King David.
Our Lord justifies the action of His disciples on the grounds that they were hungry, and cites the case of David, who satisfied his hunger by eating bread–bread specially reserved only for the priests, from the table in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle. This showbread was placed on a unique table in the Tabernacle. This table was three feet in length, one and half feet wide, and two feet three inches high, and it was overlaid with pure gold. On the table were laid twelve loaves of bread in two rows representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and symbolizing their constant fellowship with their God. Simply stated, the twelve tribes were guests at the Lord’s Table.
Jesus is quoting from 1 Samuel 21, where David is already anointed as king, but is fleeing for his life from the current king. King Saul is seeking to kill David. And while on the run and in desperation, fugitive David comes to the Tabernacle and was given the bread that is set apart only for the priests to eat. And here is the key–God was not offended. There is no condemnation from God–there is neither correction in Scripture, nor a woe from a prophet for this action. God does not discipline David or the High Priest.
The argument is not that necessity overrules God’s clear Word, but the argument here is God did not condemn David. David’s action here shows that the rigidity with which the Pharisees interpreted the Law was not in accordance with Scripture, and so, was not a proper understanding of the Law itself. And if God makes allowances for His own Law to be broken under certain circumstances for the welfare of His people, Jesus says, God surely permits foolish manmade traditions to be broken for the welfare of His people too. If David and His men can eat that which the Bible forbids in this case and not be condemned, then Jesus says, my disciples can eat that which your foolish tradition forbids and not be condemned.
The text of Mark, verse 26 says, “In the time of Abiathar the high priest.” But some point out that the high priest during 1 Samuel 21 was Ahimelech, not Abiathar! How can we understand this? Abiathar is the son of Ahimelech. Most likely they both were present when David came to the Tabernacle, and as often was done, both father and son owned the title of High Priest simultaneously.
And don’t miss the Lord comparing Himself with David to some degree here. Jesus is inviting a comparison between His person and Israel’s royal Messianic prototype, David. This is the first of several references to David in Mark’s Gospel that help define what kind of Son of God Jesus is. Blind Bartimaeus will later call Jesus the Son of David (10:47). Later in the Temple, Jesus will question the religious leaders, “How it is possible for the Messiah to be both David’s son and David’s lord?” (12:35 to 37). The implication is that the Messiah is the son of David because He is descended from David, but the lord of David because He is God.
So in verses 25 and 26, Jesus hits the Pharisees with an upper cut of Scripture, proving He and His men had the right to eat on the Sabbath, as the law affirmed and David proved. To the Pharisees, what the rabbinical fathers said was more important than what their Heavenly Father said. The Pharisees were too busy with trivia to see truth, even when thee Truth was personally staring them in the face. Which leads the Lord to give the knockout punch of His . . .
#3 The Sovereign Prerogative Verses 27 to 28
Again, from a heart of mercy, the Lord is going to give them clues as to who He really is. He is going to correct their errant position based on tradition, then will affirm exactly who He is. If they would listen, then they would understand.
First The Sabbath Purpose Verse 27
Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The Pharisees were continually pressing Jesus with their criticism in verse 24, and now Jesus is continually pressing them back with His instruction on the real purpose of the Sabbath in verse 27. The word man in this verse is not referring to a male individual, aner, but the racial generic term referring to mankind, anthropos. And Mark makes it clear in His use of language that Jesus is referring to the creation account, literally saying here that mankind came into existence first, in Genesis 1, long before the Law was given in Exodus 20 concerning the Sabbath.
In fact, it is fair to say that the Sabbath rest came 2,500 years after the creation of mankind. Even though the Sabbath had its roots in creation, because God Himself, after working in creative activity for six literal days rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath was created for man. That was its purpose. A wise and gracious Heavenly Father planned for the Sabbath to be a weekly blessing to His own people. One day in seven was to be a holiday from work. The body could have its quota of rest, and the spirit could be restored by the worship of God.
The Lord knows our frame and remembers we are but dust, so He instituted the Sabbath for Israel for their good. The Sabbath was made as a blessing for man, but by the time the rabbis had finished adding all their prohibitions to it, the Sabbath became an intolerable burden. Jesus says the purpose of the Sabbath was instituted by God for His people Israel to be a refreshment for their happiness, not to be an endless list of rules, adding to their heaviness. The binding legalism of the Pharisees negated the whole purpose that God had given the Sabbath. But by what authority can Jesus make this statement?
Second The Sovereign Person Verse 28
This concludes with, “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” The “Son of Man” refers back to Daniel 7:14, where the Son was vested with all authority and power from the Ancient of Days. It is the Father giving all authority to the Son. It is the Son of all mankind, the God man, the one who’d be born as a man to take sinful man’s place on the cross, die for the sins of man, then rise from the dead. He has all authority from the Father–so Jesus says He is Lord of the Sabbath.
The word for “Lord” (kyrios) is in the emphatic position, emphasizing who the Lord of the Sabbath is. Translate it this way: “Who is Lord of the Sabbath? The Son of Man.” The Lord is the ruler of the Sabbath. He has prerogative over the Sabbath because He made the Sabbath. He’s the author.
At a theology conference, a pastor was listening to a paper being attacked by a presenter. When the time came for questions, this pastor raised his hand and began to defend the paper the speaker was attacking. They argued back and forth for a time, and then the presenter cut the pastor off and said, “I beg your pardon, but I think you’ve totally misunderstood the intention of the author of this paper.” The pastor replied, “I beg your pardon, but I am the author of that paper you just attacked.” The author knows best. He wrote the paper.
Scriptures declare that Jesus is the Creator of the universe. When the Bible says on the seventh day God rested from His work–that was Jesus, the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, resting from His creative activity. Jesus is the author of the Sabbath. Doesn’t it make sense He would know its purpose as the sovereign ruler of all? He is Lord of the Sabbath, which is another way of saying, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am the Lord, and you are not! You submit to Me. I am Lord.”
Jesus tells them again, He is God. And God says people are more important than manmade rules. And Jesus has the right to exercise authority over all tradition. Our Lord was no Sabbath breaker, but He set Himself against an attitude towards the Sabbath that would not permit the doing of good to a fellow human being, because it involved what the formalists called work, such as what Jesus will do next in Chapter 3. What does He do? You have to come back next week.
1 Where is your heart right now? Today, this moment, when you sang, did you sing with all your heart, or were you just mouthing through the words? As you listened to God’s Word, were you listening to the Spirit convict you, or applying the Word to someone else–or worse, nothing? Are you here to depend on Christ to love God’s Word, or are you here to do your duty and hear another sermon? Friends, the heart of a born again Christian is a heart that wants to worship God with all that you are, desires to obey God’s Word in everything, and is willing to do whatever Jesus says. Is that your heart, and does it show? Is your faith real?
2 Are you given to externalism, ritualism or legalism? Do you have all the forms right, but a cold and indifferent heart? You don’t drink or smoke or chew or go with girls that do? You attend a little, give a little, pray a little, respond to the Word a little, but Christ is not the Lord of all. You’re not living for Him, you are living for yourself, with a little Jesus sprinkled in. You do what you have to in order to appear Christian, but Christ is not your first love. You’re not hot for Him, there is no fruit, and you impact no one’s life for His glory. You just wear the T-shirts. That’s modern day externalism, and if that’s you, you need to repent and turn to Christ–only He can save you.
3 Where are you lacking in what Christ wants for you? Okay, you serve Christ, but do you give sacrificially? Sacrificially? You show up for church, but do you serve? You sing, but not forgive? You say you love Him, but you don’t study His Word, nor pray? Stop feeling smug about your walk. Stop calling Christ your Lord, when you are not making any efforts to obey Him in an area where the New Testament is clearly commanding you to obey. Let’s pray.
[…] In Chris’ sermon on Sunday, he spoke on Mark 2:23-28, where Jesus addresses the Pharisees’ legalism. Chris also asked very pointed statements about legalism and externalism in or lives. After the sermon, this question stood in my mind: Where in my life am I defending or holding fast to my opinion, my rules or cultural norms instead of the Word of God? […]