Still More Controversy: He's Lord of the Sabbath
Sermon Passage: Mark 2:23–3:6 | Preached to Sovereign Grace | 05/16/2021
By Peder Kling
This sermon was not recorded. Enjoy the manuscript!
The Sabbath is about Jesus
Over the last few weeks in our study through Mark’s gospel, we have seen Jesus raise a number of controversies. That’s what this section in Mark’s gospel is all about—very early in his ministry, Jesus began to mark his territory over controversial matters. Between chapter 2 verse 1 and the last verse of today’s passage, he specifically raises 5 controversies. With each controversy, the Pharisees grow in their hostility toward Jesus—even to the point that they begin plotting to destroy him in the last verse of our passage (3:6).
What was he doing? He forgave a man’s sin (something only God can do). He rose controversy when he hung out with tax collectors and sinners—literally, people whose presence actually made you unclean in Israel at the time. He rose controversy when he feasted, rather than fasted like the other Rabis. And I have shown in all these controversies that Jesus claims that all these things are ultimately about him—forgiveness, tax collectors and sinners, feasting and fasting are all matters he has authority over.
And today, the last controversy in this section of controversies pertains to Jesus challenging the Sabbath practices of the day. As we will see, Jesus will once again be quick to claim authority. He says very clearly in verse 26 (chapter 2), “the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath”. The fourth commandment about the Sabbath is really about him.
But Jesus’s day, the Pharisees had made the Sabbath all about themselves and their righteousness. They set up their own rules for Sabbath-keeping—and they judged anyone who did not keep their sabbath rules. This wasn’t about God or resting in his grace. It was about self-righteousness and pride. They had essentially rejected God’s authority over the Sabbath when they began to obey their own sabbath rules, forgetting about God’s word on the Sabbath altogether. To challenge the Sabbath was to challenge their authority, not so much God’s. This, of course, would lead them to reject Jesus’s word and authority over the sabbath for the same reason.
Now before we ourselves get all self-righteous in judging “those pharisees”, don’t forget that many Christians do something very similar. Just as the Pharisees made the Sabbath about themselves, we do the same in our own way. The common practice for many Christians to say, “today’s my sabbath, I can sit and watch TV and sleep around all day, and just focus on myself”. It’s the same problem, isn’t it? The Pharisees thought the Sabbath was about themselves and their law-keeping; we think the sabbath is about ourselves and our leisure, entertainment, rest, and self-worship. That’s why you might hear some Christians say “today is my sabbath”. Whose Sabbath is it? “Today is a Sabbath to the Lord”, is a common refrain in the Old Testament. Or, the New Testament picks this up and regards Sunday as “the Lord’s day”. And today, what do we read in our passage? Jesus says of himself, “The son of man is Lord over the Sabbath”. Our passage reminds us today that the Sabbath is about receiving Jesus and his life-giving authority more than it is about ourselves.
So today, I’d like to help us put the Sabbath in it’s rightful place, and understand why it is good to receive Jesus’s authoritative word regarding the Sabbath. Why is it worth making the Sabbath about Jesus, rather than ourselves?
Three Steps to Making the Sabbath About Jesus
I have three steps to walk us through today—and, I pray that each step will take us a little closer to being excited about Jesus’s Sabbath.
The first step—we need to define the Sabbath, Biblically.
Then in the second step, we will look at what Jesus means when he says that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27).
Then in the third step, we will consider what Jesus means when he says that “the Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath” (2:28). What does it mean that Jesus is Lord over the Sabbath?
If we get these steps into place, I think we will find ourselves enjoying the Sabbath as God intends us to.
The First Stepping Stone: Defining the Sabbath
So the first step in loving the Sabbath (in being a good “Sabbatarian”): let’s make sure we have a good, Biblical definition of the Sabbath in our toolbelts.
The word “sabbath” simply means “to cease” or “to rest”. That’s why some refer to it as our “sabbath-rest”—we are simply saying the same word there in two languages, in Hebrew and then in English. But the Bible certainly has more in mind when it refers to “sabbath”, doesn’t it? It’s talking about something much greater than stopping your day’s work at 5, to come home and rest. Let’s seek to fill this out with a greater glory, as our Bibles do.
First, let’s think about God’s sabbath, or God’s rest. When we think of God’s rest, the first thing that comes to mind is God’s rest at creation. That’s usually what people think when they consider God’s rest. Genesis 2:1–3,
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
Now what sort of rest is this referring to? Was God tired? Was it a lot of tiresome work for God to create the cosmos, and all the creatures in it? That’ can’t be it. God doesn’t get tired. In fact, this is where see see that God’s rest, Biblically, is something holy and special.
So what does it mean for God to rest on the 7th day of creation? To answer that, it is helpful to understand what Genesis 1 is really describing. It is describing creation—but it’s describing something more. God is creating a temple of his glory. Think about it. He creates all sorts of glorious things—the sun, moon, stars, mountains, oceans, the sky and the dry land, creatures of the field and fish in the sea. Then what does he do? He creates man “in the image of God”, and places him at the center of his creation in a sacred garden, to care for it. Man is to exercise dominion over the cosmos—to act as something of a king or Lord over God’s creation. So—you have a small image of God placed in the center of God’s creation, and this image-bearing creature is called to exercise dominion over God’s creation. What God is doing, here, is that he is creating drama of his glory. He’s creating a kingdom for himself, wherein his image-bearer—a little idol of himself, as some people say—exercises dominion over his creation. At the center of his kingdom is a temple where he dwells with his people perfectly—and those people are to be representatives of his dominion throughout the whole world, to fill it and nurture it with his glorious picture stamped upon them.
The Royal Rest of a King (Established and Re-Established)
Now God creates this, and on the seventh day he rested. Do you know what that rest is? It’s the rest of a king who has built up his kingdom, and looks back and sees peaceful flourishing and prosperity under his provision and wisdom. Kings at war are not at rest. Kings with economic instability are not at rest. But God rested, for his creation was good. And what’s beautiful about this is that when the king rests, the king’s people rest. Adam and Eve were given everything they need from God—they literally lived in God’s garden, and walked with God in perfect fellowship, enjoying his presence, provision, and mission.
That’s how we should understand God’s rest in Genesis 2—it’s a royal rest. That’s where this Biblical motif of God’s rest begins.
Now, turn to Psalm 95. This is the passage we read for our “call to worship” this morning. I read the first 5 verses where God’s people are called to worship him, “for the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. [then the next verse describes that kingdom:] In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” That’s the geography of his kingdom. Then verse 6 describes the people of his kingdom. “he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand”. Sounds restful, doesn’t it? I love the sheep and pasture imagery of the Bible—rest in God’s care and provision like well-fed sheep, in his grand pasture that we call Earth. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”—it’s a great sabbath picture for you.
But then Psalm 95 gets a bit more fierce, and reminds us that not everything is at rest in God’s creation. It reminds us that God’s creation fell under a curse, and that most people are not at rest in God’s care, but in rebellion against God. God’s rest, now, is something to be entered into by faith in the king’s promises rather than to be experienced universally by all people. Psalm 95 says, in verses 7–11—
7b Today, if you hear his voice [i.e., his promises],
8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
The Psalmist, here, is speaking of when the Israelites feared the big nations who they were to conquer in the Promised land. God promised to give them victory so that Israel could enter his rest in the promised land—but when they heard his voice, they rejected his promise and hardened their hearts. So Psalm 95 tells us what God said to these people—
10 For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
So, that’s the second half of Psalm 95. There, you see that the Psalmist is speaking to God’s people of later generations (even you and me). We are reminded not to be like the Israelites who hardened their hearts against God’s promise to bring them into the promised land. So God swore in his wrath, “they shall not enter my rest”. To not be in God’s rest is to be loathed by God. It is to have a hard heart, to not know God’s ways. Is that the life you want, that you would reject his rest?
Now, just to make it clear—the “rest” God is referring to in Psalm 95 is equivalent to God’s promised land where Israel would be a mighty nation experiencing God’s blessings. He said there, “I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest”—that is, his promised land.
Why would the Bible overlap God’s royal rest at creation with the rest God offered Israel in the promised land? That’s exactly what’s at play here, isn’t it? In fact, Hebrews chapter 4, verse 4 makes this link explicit. There, the author of Hebrews says that “[God] has… spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’ And again [he speaks of this rest] …. when he said, “they shall not enter my rest”. So, Hebrews is saying that the Sabbath rest God experienced in Genesis 2 is the same rest that Israel was to experience in the promised land. And then, Hebrews continues to say that the same rest is now offered to us in Jesus.
So, what’s happening? How can we regard God’s rest at creation and the rest God promised Israel in the promised land as the same rest? Well, again, this is a royal rest that a king experiences when his kingdom is in order in perfect justice and prosperity.
Let me ask you this—how long did God’s rest last at creation? I suppose we don’t know the length in terms of days and years, but I can tell you in terms of biblical chapters—two chapters. God created the world, rested, enjoyed his kingdom and then Genesis chapter 3 comes in and his little image bearers bring sin into the world, and God ceases from his rest as he curses his land with a deadly curse. God, you might say, goes to war—and we, along with the devil, are his enemies. Romans 5:10, “we were enemies [of God]”.
So that’s the problem, isn’t it? God’s kingdom—his creation—has rebels in it, even his own image-bearers. And what we need to see here is that God’s royal rest was interrupted by sin. So as a good king, God judges the sin by cursing both creation and his image-bearers. But that’s not God’s final plan. He is on a mission to re-establish his royal rest in a way that is far better than even the rest of his first creation. This all explains why Jesus said in John 5:15, after healing on the Sabbath, “my father is working until now, and I am working”.
God, as a good king, makes haste to bring his rest—his peace and security—back into his creation. He creates Israel—his kingdom of priests who would mediate his glory and blessings from the promised land to the rest of the world. They were his holy nation, and they were to live in something of a garden of Eden—the promised land where God’s Sabbath rest might be restored. Don’t you love the descriptions of the promised land, as God promised it to the Israelites? Right after God gave the Israelites the ten commandments which they were to obey, so that they could be a holy nation, God gives them great motivation for obedience and faithfulness to him. Deuteronomy 6:10 says
...when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of slavery.
Do you see how this was supposed to be restful—even reminiscent to the garden of Eden? God had created a new nation—a new people—and placed them in a place filled with blessings that he provided for them, as he wiped these nations out, gave Israel military security and victory, and gave Israel the abundance that these nations had. This was not to be Sunday afternoon naptime restful—this was political, economic, military rest which trickles down into personal rest in the souls of every well-fed citizen in the kingdom. This was to be God’s rest offered to his people—abundant in provision and peace and joy, and marked by his glory as Israel was to be a kingdom of priests to the nations.
One Day of Seven Shall be a Holy Sabbath
Now, all this is not to say that the command to honor one day a week as the Sabbath somehow disappeared when sin entered the world. Based on what I’ve said, you might think that God’s Sabbath is not a designated day of the week, but the general rest that you experience in God’s kingdom. And, here is where we can begin to really see our definitions of the Sabbath take form. From one perspective, the Sabbath is the blessed everyday rest associated with his kingdom of peace and prosperity. That’s what the Sabbath is all about—receiving that rest, enjoying it, and honoring the creator and king through it.
But, God did make one day out of the week holy—and, the day he chooses to make holy is always the day when his creation is finalized, when he rests over it. God rested on the seventh day, after he had made everything—and, he made that day holy. And in his creative providence, he also created Israel on the seventh day—the day when he delivered Israel out of Egypt, and claimed Israel as his new people for blessing and life. The Sabbath would not merely mark the day when God rested over his creation in Genesis 1, but also when he first created Israel as his new people of life and blessing.
There’s a running definition of the Sabbath in the Bible—especially in the Old Testament. It’s God’s royal rest wherein he rests like a prosperous king. It’s also a specific day that he makes holy, so that all his creation would worship and enjoy him in his kingdom. Given the curse, God began a work of re-creation in order to establish his restful kingdom once again—and, Israel is to acknowledge that work of re-creation on the Sabbath day, and trust in the king’s promises to deliver them from all their enemies.
That’s what the Sabbath is all about—the king, and the life-giving blessings of his kingdom. Understanding this is the first steppingstone to really loving and enjoying the Sabbath command, rather than seeing it as stifling religion in your week. And more so, this Biblical story of the Sabbath brilliantly sets us up to understand what Jesus was saying and doing in our passage today.
Jesus’s Two Lessons about the Sabbath
Now, let’s turn our minds back to our passage in Mark 2, our passage for this morning. In this passage, Jesus irks the Pharisees when he allows his disciples to walk the fields and eat grain on the Sabbath. Then, Jesus really tips the scales when he heals a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. Both of these actions transgressed the Pharisee’s standards for Sabbath-keeping.
Why was he doing these things? Jesus himself gives us two reasons—and you can find them in chapter 2, verses 27 and 28. First, he does them because he wants to correct a mistaken view of the Sabbath. He reminds us that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. But perhaps more importantly, he does these things to demonstrate that he is Lord over the Sabbath (verse 28). Let’s now turn to those two lessons from Jesus, and consider how they might be two more stepping stones toward loving the Sabbath.
The Second Stepping Stone: "The Sabbath was Made for Man"
So, let’s take a moment to consider what Jesus means when he tells us, “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” If you ask anyone today what they think of Sabbath law or people who keep the Sabbath, you will most likely hear someone tell you about stifling religion—devoted church goers and boring Sunday afternoons. You might hear something about “old time religion” and “patriarchal families” where the kids aren’t allowed to have fun. That’s what I thought about the Sabbath growing up.
Then, you throw in the example of the Pharisees and the Jews of Jesus’s day. In an effort to encourage Israel to keep the Sabbath, the scribes and Pharisees created all sorts of laws about the Sabbath which God said nothing about in his word. There were God’s Sabbath laws, and then there were the Pharisee’s sabbath laws. The logic was simple—if you keep the Pharisee’s more extreme laws, you will be sure that you are good in God’s book.
Now think about this—based on everything I’ve said about the Sabbath so far, the Pharisees completely flipped the meaning of the Sabbath. Instead of honoring the Sabbath by acknowledging God’s kingdom of blessing and life, they used it to establish their own kingdom, with their own laws which suffocated the people. These laws were well-intended at first, but they quickly became a means of pride and self-righteousness. They oppressed the people and made life miserable.
But that’s what man-made, works-based religion does to you, isn’t it? I described this situation a few weeks ago. When you don’t live by God’s grace, free in his blessings and forgiveness, you are then left to yourself for your own justification, righteousness, and peace of mind. That will drive a person mad—it will give you a very paranoid conscience. The picture of a conflicted family comes to mind. Perhaps you’ve been in (or heard of) a family where there is no grace for offenses. People get paranoid because one little aggravation will spark a short-tempered father into wrath. The list of sins grow long, and every detailed offense is remembered and used against you. So, what happens is certain practices or laws are drawn up in order to put a hedge around yourself—“Dad doesn’t like a lot of things I say, so I’m only going to talk to him in these particular circumstances.” Or, “Dad doesn’t like being bothered when he’s watching TV, so I’m just not going to be in the house when he’s in the lazy boy.” In this situation, a religion of paranoia, laws, and fear is built up around the father—and, it destroys. Or think of man-made social pressures—“I want to fit in, so I have to learn all the rules of the cool kids, and exceed them with my own rules, lest I get rejected”. In all these situations, the person usually ends up leaving—getting out of the house, or out of the social circle; out of the religion. A paranoid conscience is miserable—it makes all kinds of laws that will destroy a person. And the sad thing is—this is how many approach God because they don’t understand his love and grace. It just illustrates how sweet forgiveness truly is, doesn’t it? In Jesus, God does not require us to make ourselves right with him—he does the work for us. His love and salvation is a gift of grace, through faith in Jesus’s atoning blood and justifying righteousness—this is not of our own works, that we should be paranoid with rules. This means obedience is a freedom and a means to worship rather than a means to be made righteous.
This also means that for God’s people, the Sabbath law which he gave us is about pursuing his love and grace by faith. It’s not about stingy legalism. Remember, “The Sabbath was made for man”, not the other way around. God made the Sabbath for YOU. It’s supposed to be a life-giving blessing.
Jesus illustrates this point in our passage when he appeals to the story in 1 Samuel 21 when David and his buddies ate the bread of the presence. At the time, David was fleeing from Saul with his men, and he came to a city where priests lived. A priest had bread dedicated to holy use in the temple—this bread was only to be eaten by holy priests in a holy place. David and his men needed food, so David asked the priest for bread. The priest only had the holy bread—something the law forbade David to eat. Jesus even points this out when he says that the bread of the presence was “not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat” (chapte 2 verse 26 of our passage).
Now, the passage does not say whether this event occurred on the Sabbath, and that’s beside the point. The point Jesus is making is that David’s example shows us how God’s kingdom is not a matter of “eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Or, you might think of the Biblical principle that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice”. Love for God and thy neighbor is the golden standard, here. This is where Jesus says “the sabbath was not made for man, but man for the sabbath”. Strive to keep the Sabbath day holy. Pursue the king’s blessings on it, and devote the day to worshipping and enjoying him. Jesus is not saying “ignore the sabbath”, here. He’s not saying “I’m doing away with it”. He’s saying it’s made for you—it’s good, and honor it. But, if there is a work of necessity or mercy that needs to be tended to for your or another person’s well-being, let it be so. There’s Jesus’s authoritative interpretation of the Sabbath—it’s for you, and understanding this is the second stepping stone to loving the Sabbath.
So, we’ve seen a Biblical definition of the Sabbath, and we’ve seen that the Sabbath is made for you.
The Third Stepping Stone: “The Lord of the Sabbath”
But, the Sabbath is also about the king. That’s the third stepping stone to loving the Sabbath. In the very next verse, Jesus wraps this all up by saying that the Sabbath is not merely made for man, but that “the Son of man [i.e., Jesus] is Lord over the Sabbath.” So, he claims an authoritative position over the sabbath here.
Now, what does it ultimately mean for Jesus to be Lord over the Sabbath?
First, it means he is God. God rested on his Sabbath day, on the seventh day after he created his kingdom as its Lord. Jesus is saying he is that Lord—and, the New Testament heartily agrees. You might think Colossians 1:15—
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God … by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
That’s one reason why Jesus said he is Lord of the Sabbath.
The second reason is that as Lord, he is also the provider of all the blessings that God’s kingdom offers—especially through his new creation. Jesus came to establish his new kingdom, redeemed from the curse. He lived the perfectly life on our behalf, and died the perfect death for our sin and the curse. By faith, we can receive his righteousness and sacrifice as sufficient for our salvation—and, we can receive all the blessings that come with his new kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. A conscience cleansed so that our souls can rest easy; adoption into his family wherein we might call God “our Father” (as he taught us to pray); his Spirit who makes us willing and able to worship and follow him in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control; an eternity of fellowship with him, without any sense or sight of sin before us or within us; no misery like death, sickness, or pain. These are the sorts of blessings Christ offers in his new creation and kingdom—and as the rock-solid promise goes, “if anyone is in Christ [by faith], he is a new creation. The old has passed away, and the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). And with the new comes a glorious sabbath rest from sin and misery—a rest that we experience now in the Spirit by faith, but which we will one day experience fully when our souls pass to glory. Christ secured all this—and therefore, he’s Lord of the Sabbath. Rest in him, the king, and his blessings on the Sabbath. It does well to get your eyes off your sin and misery.
But one last observation—for Jesus to be “Lord of the Sabbath” means the Sabbath day is now Sunday, not Saturday. Earlier, I said that the day God chooses to make as a holy Sabbath is always the day when his creation is finalized, and he rests over it. In Genesis 1, after making the world, God rested from his work on Saturday—and so the Sabbath day was Saturday. But we, as Christians, are members of God’s new creation in Christ. When did God complete his work of new creation? Simple: when Jesus rose from the dead with his new body—as the firstborn of the new creation. That day was a Sunday, the “Lord’s day”(cf. Rev. 1:10). So now, as members of the new creation, we rest in Christ’s new creation by honoring the sabbath day on Sunday, the Lord’s day, when Christ first rested in the glory of his new creation, his kingdom. He sat at his father’s right hand because his new creation, his kingdom, was established upon the basis of his unshakable righteousness. We honor the Sabbath command by resting in that new creation Sabbath day, by faith, on Sunday. On Sundays, feast like citizens of a most blessed kingdom.
Jesus is “Lord of the Sabbath” because he’s God, he offers the sabbath blessings of his kingdom, and we would do well to pursue those blessings by faith every day of the week—but especially on the sabbath day of the new creation, the Lord’s day.
So, we have defined God’s Sabbath rest. It is the rest he experiences over his prosperous kingdom. The curse interrupted that rest, and so he worked to establish a greater rest through a greater creation in his Son, Jesus Christ. This creation is built upon the king’s unshakable blood and righteousness.
We have seen that the Sabbath is for you—it is for your blessing, if you would gaze your eyes upon the king to receive and rest in his blessing.
And, we have seen that Christ is ultimately Lord of the Sabbath, for (1) he is God, (2) he is the benefactor of our souls, in whose blessings we rest by faith, and (3) he rose from the dead with the new creation in his hands, so that we might worship him on the Lord’s day, and everyday from now to eternity.