A sermon preached at All Saints in Boise, Idaho on 14 July 2013.
For the past eight weeks, we have been studying the Gospel of Mark. I think it’s very cool that I am now the fourth person to preach in this series — 8 weeks, 4 different speakers, 8 different stories from the Gospel of Mark, but 1 message in Mark’s Gospel: that Jesus has come with authority and power to change the world.
If you’ve been here these past few weeks, you’ll remember that the Gospel of Mark is the “action gospel.” It focuses more on what Jesus did than what he taught. Mark presents Jesus as a man of action, going here and there, intervening in people’s lives, taking pity on them, healing them, forgiving their sins.
If you take a step back and read Mark’s Gospel with fresh eyes, you will see that it is an exciting story and an often surprising one. You can’t help but notice that Jesus doesn’t speak or act like other people. Have you ever met anyone who says or does these kinds of things? In Mark’s stories it seems like everyone around him is usually surprised at the things he does.
And he is constantly doing something in Mark: suddenly, immediately, going, doing, saving, rolling back the different kinds of evil that sin has caused in the world.
In the part of Mark’s gospel that we will read today, Jesus and the church leaders of his day have a disagreement about how to keep the Sabbath day. At first glance, this might seem to be an obscure dispute about ancient Old Testament law, a law that was over 1400 years old in Jesus’ day and nearly 3500 years old today.
But this story is not a legal debate. Jesus is not trying to prove that he’s a better attorney than the religious leaders called the Pharisees. This story is really about something else — it’s ultimately about who Jesus is and what he is trying to accomplish. Let’s read this it together:
2.23 And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
The Pharisees’ accusation shows a very antagonistic heart. They’re really looking for something they can criticize. It is a big stretch to claim that plucking and eating some grains is working, reaping, stealing, or violating any other kind of law. In fact, according to Deut 23.25, this very act of plucking and eating grain is actually permitted in biblical law. As long as you didn’t take a sickle and start harvesting someone else’s grain, you were allowed to pluck some and eat it. It wasn’t stealing.
But the Pharisees had another law, the traditional rabbinical law, that they used in addition to the Old Testament scriptures. According to the rabbinical law, plucking is reaping, reaping is work, and work is not allowed on the Sabbath. One writer described their rules as “changing the Sabbath into a cruel tyrant, and man into that tyrant’s slave.”
To look at it a different way, the Pharisees are far more concerned about how we keep the law externally (with our hands) than keeping the law internally (with our hearts). As we will see later, their hearts were full of anger and hatred and malice. But they’re more concerned about who is plucking grain when they’re not supposed to.
This is a common problem actually. We are often just as quick to condemn others over little things while we ourselves struggle with much bigger problems. We don’t give other people nearly as much grace as we give ourselves. We permit or excuse or ignore our own deep heart issues and instead criticize the little things that other people do.
As one writer put it, that when we lack grace in our relationships with others, “It ought to be a settled principle in our minds, that a man’s soul is in a bad state…”
25 And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; 26 how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
Notice how Jesus answers the Pharisees and shows them their error. They tried to pit law against law to trap him. Would he obey or ignore the biblical law? What about the traditional rabbinical law? By responding with the biblical story of David, Jesus is telling them that the biblical law is greater than their rabbinical law.
28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
We can’t underestimate this saying of Jesus. It’s a very big deal. The Son of Man is Jesus’ own description of himself. Everyone who heard him say this knew he was talking about himself.
Jesus’ claim to be the Lord of the Sabbath is an incredible claim of power and authority. The Sabbath exists because of two things: in Genesis 2, God created the Sabbath when he created the world. And in the Ten Commandments, God tells his people to observe the Sabbath day in the fourth commandment.
By claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is saying that he is Lord of creation and the commandments too! He is claiming that he created the Sabbath at the beginning of the world and that he gave the fourth commandment to Israel at Sinai.
Anyone who heard this, even the person who went to synagogue the least, would have understood Jesus to be claiming to have authority and power that only God himself can have. He is claiming to be God, and everyone there knew it. It is a very shocking and very serious claim.
3.1 He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered.
You’ll see why in a minute, but it’s important to note here that this man’s problem was not a life-and-death situation. He would have survived without being healed. Healing him would improve his quality of life, but it is not an essential work of saving a person’s life.
2 They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.
From the beginning, when he walked into that building, the Pharisees’ attention was on Jesus and what he was doing, because they wanted to accuse him. They were hoping that he would heal this man so they could make an issue out of it.
They were not thinking about or worshipping God. They were not really even concerned about the Sabbath. The reason they were there was to accuse Jesus and find something — anything — that they could use to discredit him and ultimately destroy him.
The inside of the Pharisees’ hearts and minds are revealed in this story. They’re not the God-loving rule keepers they pretend to be. They showed up to church that day not to worship but to destroy, and it didn’t bother them that they were not loving God or their neighbor.
If we’re honest, I think this is more true of us than we would like to admit. How often do we try to act like we are doing the right thing, but we really have other motives? How often do we look at other people and condemn them. Have you ever thought, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like them! Look at how they’re struggling, look at the errors or mistakes they’re making. I’m glad I don’t do that.”
But if we’re really telling ourselves the truth, we struggle with the same things everyone else does, don’t we? Is there anyone here who often doesn’t like God’s rules and would rather make their own? Is there anyone here who is selfish in their relationships with other people? Does anyone here like to compare themselves with other people to prove their goodness or value?
When we look at the Pharisees, it’s important that we see ourselves in them. Let’s think of it this way: we’re a lot more like them than we are Jesus.
3 He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!”
Jesus is here about to deliberately challenge the Pharisees. He didn’t have to heal this man — as we noticed before, he wasn’t in a life-and-death situation. And Jesus didn’t have to heal him right then. It could have waited. He could’ve come back the next day and healed him. He could’ve told the man, tomorrow when you wake up, your hand will be healed! But he chooses to heal this man and do it now because he wants to deliberately challenge the Pharisees’ idea of what the Sabbath means, what is its purpose, and who is Lord of the Sabbath.
4 And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?”
This is an easy question. One writer put it this way: “The answer to Christ’s question was so obvious that a child could have given it.” The truth is, a person who really wanted to fulfill the law would have understood that the good work that Jesus was about to do is required, not forbidden, by the law.
At a different time Jesus summarized our obligation under the law toward other people as, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, which is more loving, to do good to your neighbor, in this case by healing him, or to do harm to your neighbor by leaving him to suffer? Which would you rather have someone do to you?
The Pharisees saw Jesus’ “work” of healing as a violation of the law, but that shows that they didn’t understand the law at all! The law required Jesus to love his neighbor as himself, which is exactly what he did.
Notice also how Jesus asks his question in such a way that contrasts doing good and killing. Here he is confronting their malicious motives. They are hoping for ill to come out of this situation. Their best-case scenario is that someone would be destroyed because of what happened in the synagogue that day. But Jesus’ desire is for someone to be healed, repaired, restored.
It’s obvious which is the better motive. But do the Pharisees get what Jesus is saying to them?
But they kept silent.
Sadly, they didn’t get it. How difficult it is for us to be honest with ourselves about our sin!
5 After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
Isn’t it great? As one writer put it, “Subsequent treatments or check-ups were not required”! The healing work of Jesus is powerful and moving and is always a cause to rejoice.
Here also is one of the examples in the Bible of a person being angry but not sinning. Jesus’ anger toward the Pharisees is just and right, so we learn that not all anger is evil. But that is a very difficult subject about which one writer said, “A sinless wrath is a very rare thing.”
6 The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
Conspiring with the Herodians is a strange thing for the Pharisees to do. The Herodians are the Roman invaders, the enemies of Israel. They were exact opposites in culture, philosophy, literature, religion, ethics, everything. What are two extremes in our society today? It would be like the Republicans and Democrats coming together. It would be like the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence agreeing on something. It would be like the Americans and the Russians in the Cold War both being so against someone that they would team up to destroy him.
You get the picture. But even more than being unusual, the Pharisees’ recognition of the Roman government was against biblical law according to Deut 17.15. So again, the Pharisees’ concern about the biblical law turns out to be less important than their desire to be right, which we should all be able to relate to.
That is the story as Mark tells it. It is a surprising story and would have been quite shocking to us if we had been there to see it first-hand. I think there are at least two reasons why it should still surprise us even today. Let me tell you what they are.
First: Like the Pharisees, we too often misunderstand the Sabbath. The Sabbath is one of God’s laws, the fourth commandment, which we read earlier. But why did God give us laws? What is their purpose? That’s a question we rarely ask.
Most often, we don’t like laws. Which would you like better, having someone else tell you what to do, or deciding what to do for yourself? It’s an easy decision that comes very naturally to us. We tend to think of laws as someone telling us what to do, and we don’t like it when someone tells us what to do.
We think, the last thing we need is another law, and that’s exactly how we end up thinking about God’s laws. We naturally view God’s laws as burdensome and we naturally view God as oppressive for giving us laws. If God would only stop being so mean, leave us alone, let us do what we want, we think, then we would be happy.
But that’s really a very dangerous way to think. What would happen if there were no laws? If there were no laws, we would die. I think this is most easily seen in science. What would happen if someone did away with the laws of thermodynamics or the laws of gravity? If that happened, we would all float away into space and we would die.
We can see it in government too. What would it be like if there were no laws in our city? Would you want to live in a city like that? Why not — it would be the freest city in the world!
It should be obvious that living without laws isn’t really living, and it doesn’t last very long. Sure, there are bad laws and any law can be abused, but the idea of law itself is a good thing. It preserves life; without law, we couldn’t have life at all.
We see this most clearly in God’s law. Imagine for a minute what it would be like if everyone, everywhere, always lived their lives following the Ten Commandments. Imagine if no one coveted or murdered or stole anything, but instead everyone protected everybody else’s life and property and reputation. Imagine if our relationships were characterized by honor and respect and we wanted the best for others no matter what. Imagine a world in which everyone only loved and worshiped one God and there was never any religious fighting.
What a world that would be! It would be perfect — it would be utopia! Now imagine a world in which no one kept the law of God. That’s easier to imagine maybe? A world without the influence of God’s law is a terrible place.
That’s why God gave us his law — not to oppress us, but to bless us! The law was made for us, not us for the law.
And that is exactly what Jesus is trying to show the Pharisees. They had lost sight of the purpose of the Sabbath. They had made it about rules and regulations. According to the Pharisees, if you keep the rules, you’re a good person. If you don’t, then you’re evil. They had made the Sabbath a burden to the people.
But that’s not what the Sabbath is about! Isaiah 58 says we are to call the Sabbath a delight. The Sabbath is meant to be a blessing to us!
How many of us are tired, too busy, worn out, physically exhausted, can’t take a break? How many of us never seem to have enough time to spend with our families and friends?
How many of us wish we had a chance to do more good in the world, to serve other people, to do acts of kindness and better other people’s lives?
How many of us can never quite seem to find the time to pay attention to God, to delight in him, to ask him the big questions, to pray, to read his Word, to really worship like we were made to do?
Jesus says the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. All the way back at the creation of the world in Genesis 2, God programmed into the pattern of life one day a week, set aside, in which we can do any and all of those things.
What a blessing! Just as Jesus healed this man’s hand on the Sabbath, he can also heal your tired body, your exhausted mind, your strained relationships with family, friends, and God himself.
In this story, Jesus is renewing the Sabbath, seizing it back from those who have abused and distorted it so that it can again be a blessing to everyone who keeps it. And he gives us an example of how to keep it: not by twisting it into something difficult and oppressive, but by using the Sabbath to show love to God and others.
What is keeping you from having a Sabbath? What in your life is more important than this blessing? Let this story from Mark cause you to reevaluate how you use this blessing, this weekly time that God has given you.
The first reason this story should still surprise us was that, like the Pharisees, we too often misunderstand the Sabbath. Now second, and most important of all, reason that this story should still surprise us: Like the Pharisees, we too often misunderstand Jesus.
The Pharisees misunderstood who Jesus was and what he was doing. They thought he was a fake teacher, a phony prophet. They resented the fact that they had studied all their lives, and now here the crowd is following around this construction worker! He pulls off these miracles — they must be tricks — and he claims to forgive sins and be Lord of the Sabbath — who does he think he is?
And what does he think he is doing? They had set up certain religious practices that everyone understood and tried to live up to. These practices were the foundation of their society, the traditional values of their culture. And now this guy Jesus comes along and tells everyone that we’re doing it wrong! He’s going to undermine our entire society!
The Pharisees misunderstood who Jesus is and what he is doing, but too often we make the same mistake. All human beings, even Christians, tend to slip into thinking like the Pharisees. Too often we forget that following Jesus is about the gospel and not about religion.
All religions are, at their core, advice about how to live well. Religions offer principles you should live by, and the take-away from all religion is: Therefore, go and do good things so that God can be happy with you, and you can be happy because of what you have done. The Pharisees treated the Sabbath like advice: if you want God to be happy with you, do these things, follow these steps, and it will be so.
In contrast, the gospel is, at its core, news about what Jesus has done. The gospel tells you that Jesus has lived and died and been raised for you, and the take-away from the gospel is: Therefore, God is happy with you, and you can be happy because of what Jesus has done for you. Jesus treated the Sabbath like good news: God has given us these blessings, so go and rejoice and share them and do good with them.
A friend of mine illustrates this difference between religion and gospel with two words: do and done. Religion tells you to go and do; the gospel tells you that it is done. Religion tells you to work harder and keep trying; the gospel tells you to rest in what Jesus has done.
The film Chariots of Fire tells the story of runners at the Paris Olympics in 1924. The best-known quote from Eric Liddell: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” The best-known quote from Harold Abrahams: “I’ve got ten seconds to justify my existence.”
Religion tells you that your true identity is found in what you have done; the gospel tells you that your true identity is found in what Jesus has done.
For everyone who is tired and worn out from trying so hard, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” For everyone who is broken and in pain, Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus to be our healer and restorer. For everyone who struggles with the incredible burden of sin, Jesus offers forgiveness.
Do you see — Jesus himself is the true Sabbath! All of the Sabbath promises are ultimately pointing to him! He is our refuge, our place of eternal rest. And his Sabbath is not just one day in a week; according to Heb 4, it is a future, forever Sabbath! That is the best news, our only hope, and our greatest joy. Turn to Jesus and find the rest you are looking for.