The Text: Mark 2:23-28 – And it came to pass that he went through the grain fields on the Sabbath Day; and His disciples began to pluck the ears of grain as they went. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look! Why do they do that which is not lawful [to do] on the Sabbath Day?”
And He said to them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry—he and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and he also gave [some] to them who were with him?” He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Even Mark’s Roman readers knew about the Jews and their Sabbath Day activities (or lack thereof). It’s somewhat like Roman Catholicism today, in that there are certain aspects of that religion that are known throughout the whole world (priests, papacy, cathedrals, etc.). Judaism was the same way, you couldn’t go anywhere in the Roman Empire where the people didn’t at least know about the Jews and some of their seemingly strange Sabbath customs.
But Mark also continues to show the antagonism towards Jesus, building up the tension that would eventually lead to their murder of the Son of God.
The Text, part 1 – Accusing the Disciples on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24).
There’s a progression of sorts in the way Mark has presented these events in chapter two and the relationship with the scribes and Pharisees. (1) The scribes think evil of Jesus, (2) the scribes and Pharisees question Jesus disciples about Jesus, (3) the Pharisee’s disciples ask Jesus about His disciples, and now (4) the Pharisees flat-out accuse Jesus’ disciples of breaking the law (and implicitly accuse Jesus of approving of law-breaking).
It happened that He went through the grain fields on the Sabbath Day, and His disciples, as they went, began to pluck the ears of grain.
Literally, the text says that Jesus went alongside the fields. And as He walked beside these fields of grain, His disciples who were following Him were plucking some grain here and there (KJV says “corn,” though it’s more likely that wheat or barley is under consideration due to how Luke describes their actions in Luke 6:1, rubbing them in their hands). Normally, this would have given nothing for the antagonists of Jesus to complain about, but today was different, because today was a Sabbath Day. So, here come the Pharisees…
The Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why are they doing that which is not lawful [to do] on the Sabbath Day?”
First, it might be worth mentioning that the Pharisees seem to be following Jesus around, looking for things to complain about, jealous that people are following Him, and repulsed by His embracing tax collectors and sinners (this is spelled out for us in the beginning of chapter three). There is nothing in this account to give the impression that the Pharisees were somehow innocent bystanders who just happened to see this, and then ran to Jesus with sincere concern about the spiritual welfare of His disciples. Nothing of the sort!
The first thing they do is accuse Jesus of not paying attention. You might ask where that comes from, and it’s them saying, “Behold!” or “Look!” implying that Jesus wasn’t paying attention to those who were following Him.
The second thing they do is accuse the disciples of breaking the Law of Moses. The Jews had been sent into captivity in Babylon because of idolatry and violating the Sabbath. The Pharisees were so determined to make sure they didn’t violate the Sabbath that they put up extra rules, and interpreted the laws so strictly that they wouldn’t even come close to breaking the Sabbath commandments. In and of themselves, those extra rules weren’t bad. But when the Pharisees started binding those rules on others, accusing them of violating God’s Law because they didn’t follow the man-made Pharisaical rules, it became sinful.
One of those extra rules was that plucking a single head of grain on the Sabbath meant you were violating God’s law by harvesting on the Sabbath. If you took a single grain of wheat and rubbed it between your fingers to get the outer husk off, that meant you were threshing—thus violating the Sabbath. One writer said that these Pharisees were so caught up in their rules that if Jesus’ disciples had walked through the field in the morning, when there was still dew on the grass, the Pharisees probably would have tried to accuse them of irrigating on the Sabbath! (Burton Coffman, notes on Mark 2:23).
The third thing they do is accuse Jesus of endorsing Law-breaking. If Jesus says nothing to His disciples, then He consents to their actions. And if that’s the case, then the Pharisees could discredit Him before the people.
The Text, part 2 – Answering the Objection (Mark 2:25-26).
The response from Jesus is certainly not what they expected, and is also one that seems to have confused many Christians as well.
He said to them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry, he, and they that were with him?”
There’s a subtle jab at the Pharisees in the first part of Jesus’ response. They are supposed to be the experts on the Law of Moses, and Jesus asks them, “Haven’t you ever read it?” Subtly, He’s saying, “Are you sure you’ve read the Scriptures?”
This example of David is found in 1 Samuel 21. The first parallel is that David and his men were hungry, and Jesus’ disciples were hungry.
How he went into the house of God
David went to the tabernacle (the temple was not yet built), but the same laws applied for the priests and the showbread in both places.
In the days of Abiathar the high priest
Some manuscripts don’t have the phrase “the high priest,” and I Samuel 21 shows Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech, was the priest at that time. However, the phrase “in the days of” comes from a Greek word (epi) that can also mean “before,” so Jesus might have actually said “before Abiathar was high priest.”
And he ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and gave it also to those who were with him?
Some have drawn the conclusion from this example that Jesus was agreeing with the Pharisees, that yes, His disciples were violating the Sabbath. But that’s not a valid conclusion.
Jesus shows that these are similar situations—similar, but not exact. What David did was eat the bread that the Scriptures said were only for the priests. One writer said:
Lit., the loaves of proposition, i.e., the loaves which were set forth before the Lord. The Jews called them the loaves of the face, i.e., of the presence of God. The bread was made of the finest wheaten flour that had been passed through eleven sieves. There were twelve loaves, or cakes, according to the number of tribes, ranged in two piles of six each. Each cake was made of about five pints of wheat. They were anointed in the middle with oil, in the form of a cross. According to tradition, each cake was five hand-breadths broad and ten long, but turned up at either end, two hand-breadths on each side, to resemble in outline the ark of the covenant. The shewbread was prepared on Friday, unless that day happened to be a feast-day that required sabbatical rest; in which case it was prepared on Thursday afternoon. The renewal of the shewbread was the first of the priestly functions on the commencement of the Sabbath. The bread which was taken off was deposited on the golden table in the porch of the sanctuary, and distributed among the outgoing and incoming courses of priests (compare save for the priests). It was eaten during the Sabbath, and in the temple itself, but only by such priests as were Levitically pure. This old bread, removed on the Sabbath morning, was that which David ate. (Vincent’s Word Studies, notes on this verse).
When we read Matthew’s account, we find more detail than Mark gives. Matthew (12:5-7) shows that Jesus added this:
Or haven’t you read in the Law, how that on the Sabbath Days, the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?
That is, the priests are expected to work on the Sabbath, which (if we’re being legalistic like the Pharisees) is a violation of the Law of Moses. But because they are doing the work of the temple, they are free from blame.
But I say to you, that in this place is one [who is] greater than the temple!
Thus, even if what the disciples did could technically be seen as a violation of the Law of Moses (and Jesus is not saying that they were violating it), the fact that they are in service of one greater than the temple renders them blameless from the Sabbath restrictions.
But if you had known what this means: “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,” you wouldn’t have condemned the guiltless.
The priest in 1 Samuel 21 had mercy on David and his men, and offered them something that was supposed to be reserved for the priests. But the point I want you to get from this is that Jesus said very clearly that His disciples had not broken the Law of Moses. They had not broken it by principle, by precept, or by anything else. The extra rules of the Pharisees were so strict and unbending that they completely missed the whole idea of mercy and of “thus saith the Lord”!
The Pharisees wouldn’t dare to condemn David for his actions which Jesus said were “not lawful.” David goes and takes something that has been consecrated to God, something that has been set aside for only the priests, and eats it with his men—and the Pharisees wouldn’t dare condemn their hero for doing that. Yet they would gladly condemn Jesus and His disciples for picking a few heads of grain out of a field. Compare the two events, and if you had to pick one to deem sinful, it has to be David’s. But not with the hypocritical Pharisees.
The Text, part 3 – Man’s Relationship to the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28).
What could the Pharisees possibly say in response to this? If they continued to insist on condemning Jesus’ disciples, they had no choice but to condemn David for his actions. They were beaten. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He gave a concluding thought for them to chew on.
He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
The entire basis of the Sabbath Day comes from the first week of creation. God created the heavens and the earth, the sun, moon, and stars, the plants and animals, the atmosphere, and mankind too, all in six days. Then, on the seventh day (the Sabbath), God rested (Genesis 1). When the Law of Moses was given to the Israelites, they were told to remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy, because God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh (Exodus 20:11). In fact, Jehovah Himself says, “In six days Jehovah made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17).
God didn’t rest because it was the Sabbath and He was forced to do it; He rested because He was done for the week, and wanted to be refreshed.
God gave the commandment regarding the Sabbath, not because the seventh day somehow needed mankind, but because man needs a time to rest and be refreshed. We need a break. The commandment to observe the Sabbath was for man’s benefit. All of this goes together to show that the rules and regulations that the Pharisees added to the Law were completely destroying the spirit of what God intended the Sabbath to do. God gave it as a required “day off,” whereas the Pharisees made it as a day where you could hardly do anything—turning it from a day of rest to a day of constant worry.
Therefore, the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath
It appears as though Jesus is referring to Himself here, though there are those who think that this is simply a reference to mankind in general.
The point, however, remains the same: Jesus is not a slave to the Sabbath, but is Master over it. As we will see in the next study, Jesus makes it very clear that the Sabbath was never given to prevent people from doing good deeds to others. He asks elsewhere whether it is permissible to get your ox out of the ditch (which is an awful lot of work) on the Sabbath. Since this is the case, then Jesus’ disciples are also not slaves to the Sabbath. Again, the Sabbath was a day to benefit man, not a day to restrain his every move.
But consider a little bit more that Jesus says He is Lord of the Sabbath. Some people have taken this statement and assumed that Jesus means He can violate the Sabbath Laws all He wants because He’s God and isn’t bound by them. Yet if Jesus really violated the Law of Moses, then He sinned, and His sacrifice was completely worthless to save us. Jesus didn’t ever violate the Law of Moses, but lived perfectly, without sin. Whatever the Scriptures said specifically regarding the Sabbath, Jesus obeyed. He didn’t just keep the letter of the Law, but also the spirit of the Law. That serves as an excellent example for us today.
Don’t be a Pharisee!
We have things that we do, traditions, that are fine in and of themselves, but we can’t become like the Pharisees and condemn other Christians for not doing the same thing. One example is Sunday evening services. We have them, and it is a great opportunity to gather together for additional time to read and study God’s word, have fellowship with each other, be strengthened, and sing praises to the God of heaven. But I know of some brethren who question a congregation’s faithfulness if they only meet once on Sunday. I remember hearing, as I was growing up, someone insinuating that if you used “Song of the Church” (the songbook we have here) instead of “Sacred Selections for the Church,” you were headed into liberalism. The person who said it meant well, wanting to make certain there was no way that we might end up singing some of the songs that were “questionable,” but to then seek to bind the choice of songbooks on others is ridiculous! When I lived in Arkansas, a man who was visiting once told me that we were unscriptural because we didn’t end our services with the Lord’s Supper.
In short, if you can prove from the Bible that it is supposed to be a specific way, then show it, stand by it, and never forsake it. If it is in the realm of choice, expediency, or opinion, then with grace we should permit others the same liberty that Christ gives us. Jesus had strong words about the Pharisees in Matthew 23, and I don’t want anything like that to be said of me by our Lord.
God’s Commands are for Our Benefit
It is amazing how many people think that the laws of God are arbitrary, when in truth they actually benefit the ones obeying. Beyond salvation, there are commands that actually make life much better here on earth. There are commands about working hard, as though you were working for the Lord Himself—have you noticed that if you are a hard, diligent worker, you generally are able to keep your job? There are commands about not being a gossip—have you noticed that relationships are better and there is more peace when there is no gossip? There are commands about how to treat others—have you noticed that when you follow those commands, you have more friends, better friends, better relationships, better marriages? Just like the Sabbath, we need to remember that those commands were given for our benefit—and remember that God knows best!
God knows what is best for us here on this earth, but He also knows best when it comes to attaining that eternal home with Him. We don’t have to go with any man-made doctrine, because God, in His wondrous mercy, gave us all we need to have eternal life and forgiveness of our sins. His word, the Scriptures, lay it all out for us. We must hear about Jesus, the one who was crucified and raised from the dead; we must believe that He is the Christ; we must repent of our sins; We must make that good confession of our belief; and we must be baptized into Him for the remission of sins. Have you done that?