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Jesus & the Sabbath

By Fred G. Zaspel

      An Exegetical Study of Mark 2:23-28


      Controversy seems at times to have been all but a way of life for Jesus during the time of his earthly ministry. The Gospel writers record such controversies with some frequency, for on these occasions our Lord spoke very clearly to the various issues at hand. Indeed, he seems to have used these occasions as opportunities to stress the important truths concerning himself.

      Mark 2:18-3:6 records three episodes in which Jesus was brought into conflict with the religious leaders of the day. The question of fasting was used to show something of the epochal significance of Jesus' person and presence on earth (2:18-22). The following passage further illustrates the same as Jesus is brought into dispute concerning his view of the sabbath (2:23-28 and 3:1-6).

      The passage under consideration (2:23-28) seems intended to underscore Jesus' supreme lordship; in fact, this is the conclusion stated in v.28. But it is not Jesus' lordship alone that is here given definition. Far-reaching implications are made about the sabbath also. This paper is designed to briefly examine this passage with a view primarily to highlighting its teachings on these issues.

      The Occasion of the Controversy (v.23)

      Jesus and his disciples were walking by a "sown field" (sporimon) of grain,1 the disciples plucking heads of grain and eating as they went. Whether hodon poiein ("making a way") signifies simply a pushing away of the stalks of grain which had fallen over on to the narrow path, or "making a path" where there was none previously is difficult to determine. The latter is perhaps the simplest meaning of the terms and is the understanding defended by some, but it would seem unlikely that they would be so reckless with another man's field and not take an existing path. Cranfield argues that the phrase merely indicates "to journey,"2 and the sense seems to be somewhat similar to that: "they began to make their way, plucking heads of grain as they went." Luke adds the detail that the disciples were rubbing the grain in their hands (6:1). Given the ripeness of the grain the event probably took place sometime in late spring, soon after the Passover and shortly before harvest.

      What becomes significant as the event unfolds is that this took place "on the sabbath" (en tois sabbasin). The plural may hint that this was not an isolated occurrence, but more likely it is singular in meaning.3 Plummer saw some conflict with Matthew at this point as over against Mark and Luke,4 but since neither Mark nor Luke specify any chronological relation to what precedes the connection may as easily be logical. This is likely given the emphasis on the "new" significance attached to the present age now that Christ is present (Mar.2:19-22): the implications reach even to the sabbath!

      The Confrontation (v.24)

      Ever watchful the Pharisees rush to upbraid Jesus for the activities of his disciples.5 It was not the plucking of grain that was wrong, itself considered; for this the law made specific allowance (Deu.23:25). The objection was that this was done on the sabbath day, in which case plucking grain was perceived as harvesting and a violation of the sabbath law as interpreted by Israel's rabbis.6 Since the disciples were followers of Jesus the Pharisees very naturally (and rightly) assumed that their activity met with their Master's approval.7 Jesus, then, the teacher, was the focus of the criticism.

      Ide ("look!") highlights the Pharisees' on-going attempt to find fault with Jesus. Elegon (imperfect, "they were saying") may not suggest that the statement was repeated, but this with the following "Why?" attached to a statement of assumed guilt leaves the impression of a horrified and perhaps self-vindicating censure not unlike, "See! I told you!" It is significant also that the charge was never brought against Jesus or his disciples formally; it evidently would not have stood even in their own religious court.8 The charge shows both their disdain for all those ignorant of the (rabbinic) laws governing such things and their eagerness to grasp at any opportunity to contradict Jesus.

      Jesus' Response (vv.25-28)

      Curiously, in response Jesus does not question their interpretation of the law. That their activity constituted a technical violation of the sabbath he allows -- for the moment.

      But then if these are violating the law, then what of David? In rabbinic fashion ("Did you never read?") Jesus points them to their revered king whose example would always be assumed honorable and ideal (unless specifically stated otherwise by the Scripture writers), and who with his soldiers, when fleeing from Saul, took and ate of the shewbread9 in the house of God (cf, 1Sa.21:1-6). The consecrated bread was to be eaten by the priests only (Lev.24:5-9), yet David when hungry and in need allowed--demanded--this exception from the priest10 and that on the sabbath day.11 So Jesus' opponents are faced with a dilemma: they must choose between their traditions and interpretations of the law on the one hand and David their great king on the other. But in opting for David they would thereby exonerate the activities of Jesus' disciples, whom they have already pronounced guilty, and implicitly acknowledge the narrowness of their own teachers. But the conclusion was an obvious one, however difficult it may have been.

      So far unexplained is the justification of David's activity (and, by extension, the disciples'). In Luke's account Jesus mentions the fact of David's hunger (6:3), thus demonstrating a parallel situation. So much is at least implied here also: David needed (chreian eschen) to eat, and so now do Jesus' disciples.12 The underlying assumption seems to be that of human need which takes precedence over religious ritual.13 This understanding fits well with v.27: "The sabbath was made for (dia + accusative) man, and not man for the sabbath."14 That is, this religious observance was intended for man's benefit, not his enslavement. According to Lane the formula kai elegen autois always "signals that only a fragment of the conversation or teaching which took place has been recorded."15 This being the case, the statement of v.27 should be seen at the very least as a major point if not a summary of Jesus' argument. The sabbath should not be used--and was not intended--to destroy man and should not come between him and his other legitimate needs.

      By implication Jesus also lends insight into the nature of the sabbath law itself. Often understood as a part of God's unchangeable "moral law" it is seen as inviolable and absolute in and of itself--as the laws concerning other gods, idolatry, God's name, etc. Yet it would be difficult to find any exception at all for these "moral" laws, particularly an exception grounded in human concerns.16 So far from "eternal moral law," then, Jesus seems to classify the sabbath otherwise. And it was precisely this that his legalistic opponents failed to see. The sabbath was not an end in itself, an absolute that admitted no exceptions.17 It was intended for man's benefit, his well-being. To elevate it to a place of tyranny over man is to make more of it than was intended; indeed, it would overthrow it altogether.18

      Moreover, it is Jesus who possesses the authority to decide these things (v.28). His Lordship over "even" (ascensive kai) the sabbath demonstrates again the significance of his person and the "new" order of things marked by his arrival. The statement as it is neither confirms nor disallows the continuation of sabbath observance, in explicit terms. But it emphatically affirms Jesus' inherent right to do with the law as he sees fit, and so the foundation for an epochal shift in the meaning of the sabbath is clearly implied.

      Significant also is the fact that he designates himself here "Son of Man." Mark's so-called "messianic secret" is not so secret here!19 And for good cause: Jesus is facing an opposition which is demanding justification for his activity. David had the right to lay claim to exception to ritual law; no less a right belongs to the Son of Man. And lordship over the sabbath is something which no mere man could claim, but for Daniel's Son of Man the situation is much different.


      Hoste ("thus") identifies the statement of v.28 as a conclusion that has been reached by what has preceded. Mark explicitly affirms, then, that the passage is intended to show the authority of Christ and the changes brought about by his arrival. Jesus' appeal to scripture (vv.25-26) served well to justify his disciples' actions, but in the end it was more a prelude to a claim of great personal authority (v.28) by which he stands superior to even the sabbath.

      And this is not without consequence: Jesus' lordship over the sabbath is not an authority which he does not exercise. The fuller details of this await the apostolic writings where it is asserted in more specific terms that the sabbath is no longer a binding principle but in this new age finds its fulfillment in Jesus (e.g., Col.2:16-17). But our Lord himself here lays the groundwork for that very teaching, and his invitation for men to come to him and "rest" (Mat.11:28-30) seems reflective of the same. And when the writer to the Hebrews explains that the new covenant believer, resting in the Lord Jesus Christ, enjoys now and eternally what the old sabbath could only anticipate (cf., Heb.4:3-10), it is merely an extension of the truth laid down here; namely, that the coming of Jesus Christ changed the whole significance of the sabbath forever.


      Of the more obvious applications of the dialogue recorded in this passage is one learned from the mistake of the Pharisees. Their interpretation of the law was very rigid and became an end in itself. It left no room for compassion or any act of goodness which conflicted with it. It offered no governing principles to guide life, only regulations. And these regulations were not themselves of divine origin but human reasoning elevated to a position of which they were not worthy. When law becomes the focus and when human traditions are given the status of divine mandate, the spirit of Christ is absent.

      More significant still is the portrait of Christ painted here. His coming has ushered in a new age in which the promised salvation of God is realized. The gospel of Christ offers a rest which is more than physical and temporal but, in him, spiritual and eternal.

      1. The AV "corn fields" is misleading and reflects the older (British) use of the term. Our corn (maize) was unknown to the ancient world as well as to the AV translators.

      2. C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (New York: Cambridge University Press, n.d.), 114.

      3. The word in the NT is often used in the plural but with a singular meaning. Cf., en tois Ierosolumois, John 10:22.

      4. The Gospel According to St. Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914), 95.

      5. This perhaps accounts for the erxanto of v.23--their activity was interrupted by the objecting Pharisees!

      6. They perhaps also saw the disciples' "rubbing out of the grain as threshing and their blowing away of the chaff as winnowing." D. Edmond Hiebert, Mark: A Portrait of the Servant (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 77. For a list of thirty- nine classes of prohibited work extrapolated from the prohibition of Exo.34:21 see Mishna Shabbath vii.

      7. Cf. 2:18 and 7:5. Of the six instances in the Gospels in which Jesus is criticized for his sabbath ideals, this is the only one in which the criticism involves the activity of his disciples.

      8. However, this and the following incident (3:1-5) did result in an unusual confederacy of the Pharisees and the Herodians designed to bring about Jesus' destruction (3:6).

      9. artous tes protheseos, the bread of setting forth (before God). Cf. LXX Lev.24:5-9.

      10. Epi abiathar archiereos seems to be in conflict with the 1Samuel account which names Ahimelech as high priest. It would be too much to assume ignorance on the part of Mark here; indeed, it would indicate ignorance on the part of Jesus himself! Some have argued on the basis of 1Sa.22:20; 2Sa.8:17; and 1Ch.18:16 that both father and son bore both names. See J. A. Alexander, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980; originally published 1858), 53-54. The addition of tou ("the") in some manuscripts, perhaps reveals a scribal attempt to reconcile the problem: "in the days of Abiathar (who became) high priest." Since, however, the incident under discussion was also the occasion of Ahimelech's death and Abiathar's ascendancy to the high priesthood under David's protection (1Sa.22:6-23), the statement is easily reconcilable with the historical data. The phrase may as well be understood in the sense of, "upon Abiathar's (becoming) high priest." Also, archiereos may connote "chief priest" which can refer to the priestly family and not the high priest only.

      11. So says rabbinic tradition; see B.Men.95b.

      12. Whether or not Jesus' disciples were, like David's men, hungry to the point of exhaustion is incidental. The simple fact that they were hungry is sufficient to establish the parallel.

      13. Significant also is the fact that in the following incident Jesus makes the point explicitly that to do good on the sabbath can never be wrong (3:4).

      14. Not in Matthew or Luke. The statement is not entirely unique or contrary to Jewish thought; rather it is somewhat similar to Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya in the Mekilta on Exo.31:13: "The Sabbath is given to you, but you are not surrendered to the Sabbath." Cited in Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p.119.

      15. In a footnote he cites for support 4:2b, 11, 21, 24, 26; 6:10; 7:9; 8:21; and 9:1. The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 118-119.

      16. Cf. Ezra P. Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, ICC (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), 50. Nor does this statement lend weight to the idea that the sabbath was a creation ordinance, and to press egeneto so would be unwarranted. See M. Max B. Turner, "The Sabbath, Sunday, and the Law in Luke/Acts," in D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord's Day (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 103.

      17. However, the Pharisees would have admitted this in other circumstances; e.g., circumcision.

      18. See S. Westerholm, "Sabbath" in Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 717.

      19. From the introductory particle hoste Lane argues that v.28 is a concluding summary inserted by Mark (The Gospel According to Mark, p.120). Others argue the same adding that the statement could not be the words of Jesus on this occasion because it would be too soon and too explicit a declaration of his messiahship. But while Jesus was hesitant to attract the masses by means of miracles, he was not unwilling to call for faith, and such a declaration in this setting is not difficult to see. And this may also add explanation to the more determined opposition of 3:6. See Donald English, The Message of Mark (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 75-76.

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