Reconsider Jesus – Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28)

Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents

An update from Mike: This brings us to the end of Mark chapter two. I have a fair bit of work that I need to do on Mark chapter three which I need a free weekend for, so we will be taking a couple of week hiatus from Reconsider Jesus. Dana has a whole pile of edits for me to put back into the original manuscript from what we have covered so far, so I will be busy doing that as well. If you have any publishing contacts, please let me know at the email below, as I am going to be looking for a publisher in the next couple of weeks. In other news, I do have a couple of interesting reviews of recent creations by Internet Monk Commentators coming in the next week or two, so be prepared to add to your Christmas wish lists.

Lord of the Sabbath

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” – NIV

Mark 2:23-28 – NIV

This section contains a controversial story, a saying of Jesus and an affirmation about Jesus. The general theme that holds these together is the Sabbath, an integral and substantial part of Judaism. Here we see some of the substantial disagreement between Jesus and his critics. This is most certainly a portrait of Jesus challenging the Pharisees at the core of their religious perceptions and not at the fringes. The passage also shows us Christian reasoning about the Sabbath itself and the sort of justification that was put forward by Christians for worshipping on a new day of the week.

It is very uncommon these days to hear a sermon on “Sabbath keeping?” It just isn’t a hot topic in today’s feel good religious environment. At one time “Sabbath keeping” was a major concern of the Christian community, with the Puritans and their heirs placing a strong importance on the idea. We still see the remnant of it within various “Seventh-Day” sects and denominations within Christianity. Still, discussions of the appropriate day of worship or the appropriate behavior on the day of worship are hardly popular today. This is obviously a departure from the Old Testament emphasis on keeping the Sabbath holy and altering behavior in order to show reverence for God on that day. The creation story itself forms the foundation for the Bible’s strong emphasis on a day of worship. It is important that we understand Jesus at this point, as it shows us his own understanding of the Old Testament and his personal attitude toward the day of worship concept.

A quick aside here: The reference to “Abiathar the high priest” seems to be inaccurate when compared with I Samuel 21:2-7 and 22:20. There is no simple way of dealing with this factual difference. This is either an error by Jesus, an error in oral transmission to Mark, or a copyist error. We have evidence for a copying error, but the first and second choices are troubling to those who believe that Jesus made no errors or that the Bible contains no errors. For the record, I have no issue with either option. I believe that the doctrine of incarnation means Jesus was free from sin, not free from human limitation, which included, at times, imperfection in reasoning. Are we to believe Jesus never made an error as a carpenter? That he never missed a name or forgot where he put his shoes? This may seem absurd, but the incarnation is not perfection on this level. The same is true for scripture itself. If inerrancy means there are no statements less than perfectly true, then our doctrine of inspiration becomes a Mormon doctrine of dictation. I would suggest the human element in the scriptures include some inaccuracies in some areas that do not bear on the truthfulness of scripture. This will disturb some I’m sure and I would encourage them to read some of my essays on the topic at my Internet Monk blog, where I discuss with greater detail what this means to me.

According to Deuteronomy 23:25, grain may be plucked from a neighbor’s field. This was part of the provision for the poor in the Old Testament economic system. The Jewish oral law at the time of Jesus restricted thirty nine kinds of labor on the Sabbath and the activity of Jesus and his disciples was a violation of that oral law. As a rabbi and teacher, Jesus was expected to have a high regard for the Sabbath and its place it Jewish life. It separated Israel from other nations and marked Jews with the covenant law of God. Wherever they were, Jews would keep the Sabbath and thus bear witness of their creator and redeemer and lawgiver: Yahweh. In the eyes of the religious leaders, Jesus was despising a sacred trust and leading his followers away from one of the pillars of their faith.

The idea of marking the day of worship by abstinence from labor and conspicuous devotion has become unpopular today. Americans who have lived in “Bible belt” culture where Sunday was honored as a day of rest by the entire community know that such an observance, with all its possibilities for empty use and meaningless abuse, still spoke of a reverence for a “nation under God” that is now largely lacking. Christians who practice abstinence from work on their day of worship are likely to run afoul of their employers, their children’s coaches and members of the family. Even turning off the television on Sunday is considered too much. But is it really? The Pharisees may have been mired in tradition but Jesus was not attacking the keeping of the Sabbath as described in the Old Testament or the premise of a day of worship and rest. All of us who are “people of the book” should spend our day of worship honoring the Lord and abstaining from all but necessary work and ministry. Families would benefit greatly from returning to an honoring of the Lord’s day in the Spirit of true Old Testament Sabbath keeping. Even churches might consider whether they are keeping the day of worship in the spirit of the Bible when they demand hours of activity from leaders and members on the Lord’s day.

Jesus’ point is that gathering food is an act of necessity, even of mercy, to the needs of human beings. To restrict the gathering of food is to go beyond the purpose of sabbath keeping and into legalism. Jesus understood that human beings will take the commandments of God and turn them into a platform for demonstrating human righteousness rather than honor to God. Legalism of this sort becomes a competition to see who can be the most obedient and the most spiritual, when God intended simple and worshipful honoring of His commandment in a spirit of awe and love. Modern Christianity rivals the Pharisees at their worst in this regard. The command to pray becomes who can pray the most. The command to read and obey the word becomes who can own the trendiest Bible. The command to worship and sing becomes a mad competition to see which church can be the most entertaining and unusual. The command to be filled with the Spirit becomes a sad spectacle of demonstrating how spiritual we are with phoney manifestations, a bizarre manner of speaking and ridiculous displays of faked emotion. Be careful before you condemn the Pharisees.

The Sabbath principle was intended to honor God and benefit human beings. It was not an excuse for excessive sabbath-keeping, but joyful worship, quiet reflection, quality interaction with others and personal time with God. We should love the Lord’s day, and look forward to the sweet opportunities it gives us to have deeply satisfying human experiences. In this sense, the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. The law of God follows the creation of man. It is meant to relate man to God and to bless us. Obey and live was the repeated message of Deuteronomy. To the extent that we do not keep God’s law, we are separated from Him and from the blessings of knowing Him. At the heart of all that God asks and commands is His love for us and His desire for the best for us. His laws are not a punishment, a game or an obstacle course. The person whose life is shaped by the law prospers in all he does (Psalm 1).

Critics of Christianity often say we create religion to meet our own needs. Strangely, Jesus seems to be saying that “religion,” at least the external requirements, was created by God to meet our deepest needs. The joyful keeping of the law is a mark of the righteous man because it puts him in covenant with a God of loving kindness and goodness, a God from whom all blessings and mercies flow. Doesn’t this “joyful law keeping” mark the heart of those who know God best?

Christians abandoned the Sabbath not as a way of abandoning the Old Testament, but as a way of moving into the fullness of what the Old Testament taught. Every day is God’s day. Every day is our day of worship. We keep the Lord’s day in the Spirit of the Sabbath, but not in a legalistic manner. On that day we pause to worship, to reflect and to relate because there are our privileges everyday. Sunday worship should be God-centered joy that culminates a week of worship and that anticipates every day in His presence. When we know this God, we know that actions of mercy and works of necessity do not dishonor God on his day, they reflect more aspects of his goodness and compassion. Christians who do not honor the Lord’s Day are not healthy believers. An eager entering into the spirit of Jesus will find us where Jesus was on every day of worship: in the house of the Lord, with His people, proclaiming the goodness of the Lord.

The final statement in this passage is the point Mark most wants to press home: Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. Critics who want to minimize this are simply dedicated to overlooking the obvious. As Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees he is expressing more than just an opinion- this is the Lord of all things showing us the heart of what it means to know him. This is the God who invites us to know that his yoke is easy and light. Jesus calls disciples who discover the meaning of everything God asks us to do in the relationship with Jesus himself. The creator of the Sabbath knows it. Jesus is a living picture of the law of God. As we confess Him as Lord and live under His Lordship, we are invited to affirm all those things Jesus treasured as God’s gifts to us. The Lord of the Sabbath is not just the master- He is the rest of God himself. He is the great intercessor who invites us to pray. He is the living Word who invites us into the scriptures. He is the High Priest that invites us to worship. There is no place in Christianity that the Lordship of Christ does not meet us, show us our need, our weakness and completely meet the very demand God makes of us, thereby making it possible for us to obey God in a new Spirit of obedience.

This is the one who said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) Mark shows us the meaning that Jesus gives to the Sabbath: a freedom from legalism, a sense of the heart of God for human beings and a vision of the Lord Jesus who is and is above the Sabbath. May our lives be full of the reality of Jesus and free from the empty religion that separates human beings from God, others and even our best selves.


Notes from Mike Bell:

1. What questions or thoughts come from your mind from what you have just read? What stood out to you?

2. Would you be interested in a paper or Kindle version of the book when it is available? Please email us at so that we can let you know when it is ready. This is an email to indicate interest only, I am not selling anything at this point, but I sure do appreciate the encouragement!

As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

30 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28)

  1. Matthew 23:2-3: 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it.”
    This is the beginning of the chapter’s diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees: it is not their interpretation of the Law that is in issue, but their exclusivity and lack of care for ordinary folk: they make the Law impossible for ordinary folk to comply with, and then provide no help to them in doing so, then lord it over those same folk because they do not comply with the Law to the strictness that the scribes and Pharisees do.


  2. Great song — draws you in with humor as the singer laments his situation, goes darker than any death metal song would have the sensitivity, intelligence, and courage to manage, then turns around and pulls you right into the center of the song as its new subject: “It’ll happen to you….” Brilliant songwriting.

    But I’m at a loss to understand your fit of spleen.


  3. There are a number of things that can be “explained away”. But when your list of things that have to get “explained away” gets too big, you have to wonder if “explained away” is the right answer.


  4. I think it should survive the edits. It is possible that others may have more traction on the OT, but MS is no slouch.


  5. “As non-Jews the Law never applied to us in the first place: it is not our burden or our privilege to follow it.”

    Ian, this is an excellent point and too often misunderstood. Most Christians seem to think that the Law had 3 parts (moral, civil, and ceremonial) and that Christians are not obligated to keep the first part. However, Jews never viewed the Law that way, even those who wrote the New Testament (e.g. James 2:10). They do agree, however (with every Jewish document we have from the ancient world that addresses this) that the Law only applied to Jews (e.g. Rom 3:19 – it ‘speaks to those under the Law’). As you note, Gentiles were never a party to the covenant between God and Israel, and the Law was the ‘document’ that regulated that covenant. This what is behind Peter’s comment in Acts 15:10 – Peter recognizes that the ‘burden’ of the Law is NOT currently ‘placed upon their necks’. As Christians, we are under a different covenant (the New Covenant) and a ‘new’ Law – the Law of Christ.


  6. “In their minds, only the rich had the wherewithal to afford all the requirements that the Law” – very interesting observation! I had not heard that before.


  7. “Jesus elsewhere also endorses the scribes and Pharisees as interpreters and teachers of the Law and urges people to follow them.” – I am genuinely interested in reading the chapter and verse that describes this. I did not have this impression, but am willing to be corrected.


  8. From the footnotes to the introduction:

    “When teaching, Michael Spencer used the English Standard Version (ESV). In his writing he tended to use the New Living Translation (NLT) and in earlier years the New International Version (NIV). He would also quote from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and New American Standard Bible (NASB). He recommended Phillips and The Message as alternatives. He also noted that he grew up with the King James Version and that it is the favorite translation of many of the churches in his area of Kentucky.”

    From 1998: “I suggest to my students five readings of the Gospel, at least three in a familiar translation and the other two from something fresher and daring. (I will use the NIV text, with occasional resorts to RSV and NASB. I recommend Phillips and The Message as alternatives.”

    The NIV has tended to be my (Mike Bell’s) go to version when there is not good reason to put another version in. For scholarly work I prefer the NRSV, though I don’t see Michael Spencer using it which is why I haven’t referenced it to this point.

    But because Michael Spender tended to switch things up a bit, I have done the same, especially if a particular version helps clarify the point that he was trying to make.


  9. As I am the compiler and editor, I can’t substantially change what Michael Spencer has written. I only include about half of what he has written or preached, the remainder of which is either tangential or anecdoctal. This was one section where I went “hmm, I wonder what the reaction is going to be to this.”. It may not survive the next round of edits.


  10. More and more I am of the opinion that Ezra and Nehemiah are not included in Scripture not as examples to emulate but warnings to be heeded.


  11. Coincidentally, just yesterday in the Sunday school class I facilitate, we studied Nehemiah 10 in which the Israelites, having returned from captivity and rebuilt the wall, now enter into a binding agreement on several points of Law, including one regarding the Sabbath. The “Sabbath” agreement part of the covenant was simply this:

    “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day.” (Neh 10:31a)

    Doesn’t seem all that onerous.

    Funny thing about “keeping the Sabbath holy.” Seems like another one of those “laws” righteous people can point at to show their righteousness. “Look at me! I never do anything on Sunday. Aren’t I holy!!??”

    It also seems like another one of those “laws” that Jesus would nail someone over their hypocrisy. “Oh, I see you never do anything on Sunday. Good. Now, how are you doing in loving your neighbor, like ‘Good Samaritan’ kind of love…?”


  12. Our sh*t’s f***ed up. I don’t foresee it getting unf***ed any time soon, and I certainly don’t trust anybody’s program in particular to unf*** it. I’m too angry to do it well, and I don’t see anybody else out there much more even-tempered.

    We’re all loaded for bear, no, rhinos.


  13. I stand corrected with regard to the idea of Pharisaic Law separate from the Law.

    With regard to that reading of “then who can be saved,” it is not original to me. I came across it somewhere a long time ago, and it seemed like a very plausible reading of the text.


  14. The savagely austere Calvinist Sabbaths of their period of ascendancy are not what I had in mind when I mentioned the sanctification of time, but the older, happier saints’ days with their folkways and ‘pagan’ survivals.

    I would certainly have taken King James’ side in his conflict with those rock-ribbed worthies. Still, I grew up with a strict (Dutch Calvinist – Calvinism with good food and drink) Sabbath in Western Michigan and the memories are fond. Of course, 60 year old memories have been softened considerably. My nine year old self found it quite grating that the ice cream parlor was not open.


  15. Strict Sunday observance has historically been in many ways a burden on the poor, at least until the invention of the weekend. When the working poor only had Sunday off from work, shutting down of anything they could do to relax and enjoy the day and take a break from the drudgery of the week was not necessarily a truly Christian way of proceeding.


  16. It had actually not occurred to me to read that into “then who can be saved?” – that’s a very good point.
    I’d be a little careful on “Pharisaic Law”, though: there’s really no such thing. The Pharisees were a particular sect of Judaism but the interpretations they put on the Law were not exclusive to them, or regarded as particularly “Pharisaic” Law. It is also important to remember that it is directly from the Pharisees that modern Judaism is derived: following the destruction of Jerusalem the Pharisees deliberately ditched the name (“Pharisee” means “separated”) and the attitude that went with it and stepped up to provide leadership to the Jewish people as a whole, centred around Torah observance and learning and the synagogue to preserve Jewish tradition and worship with the Temple gone.


  17. I agree, Iain. “Abandoned” is too strong a word, and not quite accurate. “Altered” isn’t right either, but I think it’s closer in meaning.


  18. The Christian abandonment of the (civil recognition of the) day of the Resurrection is the last copper spent from the coffer of the sanctification of time constructed by classical Christianity, east and west. At one time, the Church insisted on days when no economic transactions would be conducted, no war would be waged, and no marital congress could occur. In truth, the Eastern Church still demands it and maybe the Western Church as well, but hey! who listens to the Church anymore as a arbiter of time and activity? How many divisions does the Church have? There are enemies to crush, competitors to throttle, mistresses to placate, earthly powers to supplicate. With money, all things are possible.

    In addition, I have noticed that Sunday mornings on network television is almost entirely political in nature. Radio equally so. With my man in charge, all things are possible…


  19. >If the Pharisees rules were applied in this way, those who didn’t have the time and luxury to prepare food the day before and keep it ready to eat on the Sabbath as the Pharisees did would be unable to properly keep the Sabbath at all and be excluded from the community of Israel.

    This is also why, when Jesus said that it was harder for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” In their minds, only the rich had the wherewithal to afford all the requirements that the Law, particularly the Pharisaic Law, involved.


  20. As to the I Samuel 21:2-7 and 22:20 and Jesus’ citing “Abiathar the high priest”…

    Abiathar was the only surviving son of Ahimelech who was the priest in Nob murdered by Doeg. If memory serves, Abiathar was appointed high priest by David after David secured his throne. It doesn’t strike me as odd that Jesus would use the referent “in the days of Abiathar” when referencing a general time period. Doing so *seems* typically Judaic in that it would have brought to mind the entire history of the period to the listener’s minds.

    Don’t get me wrong. I adamantly do not think “harmony of the Scriptures” is supportable, but I can see how this incident would be a poor example of dissonance.


  21. Jesus elsewhere also endorses the scribes and Pharisees as interpreters and teachers of the Law and urges people to follow them. I think here we are talking more about a sanctimonious exclusivity and the rights of the poor. If what the disciples were doing were forbidden, the poor would go hungry on the Sabbath, and the oral elaboration of how the Sabbath should be kept would be contradicting the written law allowing them to so this precisely so no-one should go hungry in this way.
    I don’t think Jesus is condemning “legalism” here so much as *exclusive* legalism. IIRC what was permitted was to pluck grains and eat them on the spot: taking any home was theft. If the Pharisees rules were applied in this way, those who didn’t have the time and luxury to prepare food the day before and keep it ready to eat on the Sabbath as the Pharisees did would be unable to properly keep the Sabbath at all and be excluded from the community of Israel.
    I don’t think it’s accurate to say Christians “abandoned” the Sabbath. The Law was given to Moses for the children of Israel to keep in the homeland he was giving them. Paul is clear in his writings that we non-Jewish Christians are not heirs to that promise, but rather “grafted on” to the promise given to Abraham, which did not include the Law. As non-Jews the Law never applied to us in the first place: it is not our burden or our privilege to follow it.
    Sunday observance does not for is supersede the Jewish Sabbath, but is rather a religious observance that Christian tradition has created in imitation of it, as our equivalent to serve the same purposes, which you have outlined above.


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