Summary: Is it lawful to good on the sabbath days?

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Mark 2:23-3:6

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled’ (Matthew 5:6). The hunger and thirst which He spoke of in that Beatitude is evidently spiritual, but it is amply illustrated in the two factual incidents recorded in this extended passage of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2:23-28 and Mark 3:1-6).

1. The first section (Mark 2:23-28) is an account of a controversy which arose from the actions of Jesus’ disciples one Sabbath when they were physically hungry.

The ever-vigilant Pharisees had been self-appointed guardians of the old laws and traditions for two or three hundred years by this time. They were looking for some excuse to challenge Jesus - and finding nothing in Him (cf. John 14:30), they sought to bring charges against His disciples.

# This still sometimes happens, so we need to be diligent.

There is no doubt that the Sabbath law is Biblical. It is both a Creation ordinance (Exodus 20:8-11), and an ordinance of Redemption (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). However, what was not so Biblical was the thirty-nine man-made regulations with which the Rabbis had sought to hedge in the Sabbath.

The disciples were accused of doing “that which is not lawful on the Sabbath” (Mark 2:24). “Why do they?” asked the Pharisees.

Jesus’ answered them in much the same way as He overcame the tempter (cf. Matthew 4:1-11) - with Scripture. “Have you not read what David did…?” (Mark 2:25).

# In order for us to be armed and ready for the spiritual battles which we will face, we must take up ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17).

So what did David do? The fugitive David fed his men when they were hungry with the ‘showbread’ (1 Samuel 21:3-6). According to God’s law (and not just by man’s tradition), this was only lawful for the priests to eat (cf. Leviticus 24:5-9).

# The spirit of the law takes priority over rigid application, as we will see in the second part of our passage.

The rule-of-thumb for both parts of the passage is the Dominical saying which hinges them (Mark 2:27-28). No doubt the Pharisees felt that Jesus’ disciples were being unpatriotic by not keeping Israel’s law: but what they were forgetting was that the Sabbath was not an end in itself. It pointed forward to the redemption to come (Hebrews 4:9) - and they refused to recognise the Redeemer in their midst!

Furthermore, Jesus was - like David in the passage which He quoted - a king-in-waiting. Jesus is here identified with the Messianic motif of “Son of man” (cf. Daniel 7:13-14): and as such He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

This should have been the end of the argument but…

2. From the fields, we come in to the synagogue for our second scene (Mark 3:1-6). This is not now a controversy, but a courtroom. But who is on trial: Jesus or the Pharisees?

There was a man there with a withered hand.

# Withering speaks to me of thirst, in a dry parched land (Psalm 63:1). Yet the LORD pours water upon the spiritually thirsty, and His Spirit upon our offspring (Isaiah 44:3).

“They” (Mark 3:2) who are “the Pharisees” (Mark 3:6) watched Jesus to see if He would break another petty regulation designed to hedge in the Sabbath. “Arise,” said Jesus to the man, “into the midst” (Mark 3:3).

# Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25): so “arise”

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil,” Jesus asked His would-be accusers, “to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). They held their peace. Jesus, who knows the hearts of all men (John 2:24-25), was anticipating the plot that would “immediately” be unleashed against Him (Mark 3:6). Jesus restored the man’s hand, whole as the other (Mark 3:5).

There is the irony. Jesus brings life, and healing. The Pharisees plot (on the Sabbath!) with their sworn enemies (those collaborators!) to murder an innocent man. No wonder Jesus was angry, and aggrieved at their hardness of heart.

# The LORD requires that which is good: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Not just on the Sabbath, but every day.

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