Lord of The Sabbath, 2:23-3:6


It is harvest time, around May, and while walking past a field of corn, the disciples, as allowed by the law, pick a few ears and eat. The Pharisees point out that the disciples are actually breaking the law because they are involved in the work of harvest - they are reaping on the Sabbath. In the disciples' breaking of legalistic Sabbath regulations by picking grain on the Sabbath, and in Jesus' healing of a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, we are given an insight into the humanitarian nature of God's law and of Jesus' right and authority to adjudicate on matters of law.

The passage

v23-24. Walking through a grain field one Sabbath day, some of Jesus' disciples pick a few heads of ripened grain. With Jesus and the disciples were a number of Pharisees who take issue with the disciples' lax observance of Sabbath law, and by implication, Jesus' failure to keep them in line.

v25-26. In reply, Jesus refers to the Bible story in the first book of Samuel where David and his followers were virtually starving. Given the situation, David took the consecrated bread of the presence from the Tabernacle and ate it with his followers.

v27. Jesus draws two points from this story. First, "The Sabbath was made to serve us, we weren't made to serve the Sabbath", Eugene Peterson, ie. the day of rest was given for our good, it was given to provide a break from work, it wasn't given to imprison us. Biblical laws are intended for our good.

v28. Second, "The Son of man exercises his lordship even over the Sabbath", Heinz Cassirer. Jesus, as God's messiah, the Son of man, has the right and authority adjudicate on matters of Biblical law, and the fact that he does it should remind us all that the day of God's eternal rest is close at hand.

3:1-2. In the second story we see Jesus in a synagogue confronted by a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees are watching on to see whether Jesus will disregard the law again.

v3-4. Jesus has the man stand in font of the congregation and asks a rather tricky question which, for the Pharisees with their legalistic approach to the law, is beyond answering. The point of the question is simple, "to refuse to do good is to do evil; and it could not be right to do evil on the Sabbath", Alfred Plummer.

v5-6. So, Jesus does good and heals the man. The Pharisees, on the other hand, do evil; they plan Jesus' assassination. They should have taken note of Jesus' question and observed the flaw in their logic.

The law of life

Jeremiah prophesied that in the last day when God inaugurates his righteous reign over broken humanity, he will write his law in the heart, rather than on tablets of stone. In our story we see Jesus touching the substance of the law, its humanity rather than its legality. Jesus cuts through the regulations of Sabbath observance, all the don'ts, and exposes its intention for good. Had the Pharisees that day had their wits about them they might have recognized in Jesus a sign of God's coming righteous reign, of His eternal day of rest. Sadly, they missed the sign and so missed the rest.

In both our stories, it is the humanity of the law that is common to each, and that humanity is worth considering. God's laws are there for our good, not our ill; they are not a legalistic tool of oppression, but rather a guide to joyful living. This human flexibility was evident, when, in the early church, the day of rest moved from the seventh day, Saturday, to the first day of the week, Sunday, the day when Christ rose from the dead. For the New Testament church, the fulfillment of their rest in the risen Christ became more important than their waiting for that rest on the Sabbath.

Of course, this humanity, this flexibility, soon dissipated as Sunday observance acquired all the trappings of Pharisaism. Some years ago an elderly lady of faith told me of her childhood. Her strict upbringing in a religious family could be compared with a concentration camp. When it came to Sunday there was to be no talking before or after church, no play, no this, no that. A joyous childhood was certainly not her Sunday experience. The Christian church has had a long history of turning Biblical law into a dark and burdensome load that has crushed even the strongest faith.

For a believer, Biblical law serves as a guide to Christian living, a practical guide toward our renewal by the indwelling compelling love of Christ. Biblical law was never intended to make us holy, but it can show us how to be holy, how to be Christ-like. So, God's law promotes life; let us then use it as a tool for joyous living.


1. In what sense is Jesus master over Biblical law?

2. These two stories tell us something about the humanitarian nature of God's law. In what sense is God's law humanitarian?

3. On what grounds did the early church change the appointed day of rest?

4. What is the humanitarian purpose of Sabbath law?

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