Mark 2:23 - 3:6


One of the most important rituals observed among the Jews was the keeping of the Sabbath.  The word “Sabbath” is the Hebrew word for “rest.”  The Lord had commanded Moses to observe the seventh day of each week as a day of rest to commemorate the day in which He had rested from His work of creation.


The Sabbath was to be a day in which all men ceased from their labors and gave themselves to a remembrance of the Lord.  However, the Pharisees in the days of Jesus had changed the Sabbath into something it was never meant to be.  In their desire to protect and to uphold the law, they built a hedge around the keeping of the Sabbath.  They had written up chapter upon chapter concerning what it meant to keep the Sabbath.


           They taught that you should not look in a mirror on the Sabbath because you might be tempted to pluck out a grey hair and that would be reaping.


           They said that you could only eat and egg which had been laid on the Sabbath if you killed the chicken for Sabbath-breaking.


           A donkey could be led out of the stable on the Sabbath, but the harness and saddle had to be placed on him the day before.


           An egg could not be boiled on the Sabbath, either by normal means or by putting it near a hot kettle or by wrapping it in a hot cloth or by putting it in the hot sand outside.


           If the lights were on when the Sabbath came (Sabbath began at sundown), you could not blow them out.  If they had not been lit in time, then you could not light them.


           It was unlawful to move furniture on the Sabbath.  There was an exception to this in that you were allowed to move a ladder on the Sabbath, but you could only move it four steps.


           It was unlawful to wear any jewelry or ornaments on the Sabbath, since this might be construed as carrying a burden.


           It was not permitted to wear false teeth on the Sabbath (that must have been a hit in the synagogue services).


           You were allowed to eat radishes on the Sabbath, but you were warned against dipping them into salt because you might leave them in the salt too long and pickle them and this was considered to be Sabbath-breaking.  The Pharisees actually had discussions as to how long it took to pickle a radish.


           It was fine to spit on a rock on the Sabbath, but you could not spit on the ground, because that made mud and mud was mortar, and that was work.


           If a woman got mud on her dress, she was to wait until it had dried and then she was permitted to crumple the dress in her hands one time and crush it and then shake it out once.  If that did not do the trick, then she had to wear it.


It is against this cultural and religious backdrop that we have two specific events in the ministry of Jesus.  Both of these events are found side by side in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12:1-14; Luke 6:1-11).


The First Sabbath Incident

The Second Sabbath Incident

Took place in a grain field.

Took place in a synagogue.

The disciples picked grain and ate it - this was considered harvesting.

Jesus healed a man with a withered hand.

A verbal accusation was made against the disciples.

No verbal accusation made, but Jesus speaks to the accusations which they held in their hearts.


In each of these two cases, Jesus shows that He and His disciples have not really been guilty of breaking the Sabbath - that their actions are completely consistent with the Law of the Sabbath.


This is important.  Jesus is not doing away with the Sabbath.  He is not saying, “Forget about worshiping God one day a week.”  His actions and His teachings are in complete accord with God’s command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  The issue is not whether one should or should not keep the Sabbath - rather, the issue is the nature of the Sabbath.





1.         Hungry Disciples.


            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. (Mark 2:23).


It was the season of the harvest in Palestine.  As Jesus and His disciples walked through one of the many grainfields, some of the disciples began to pick kernels of grain, rub them in their hands to break open the husks, and then eat them.


This was perfectly legal.  They were neither trespassing or stealing.  The Mosaic Law specifically allowed you to go through a man’s field and pick of the fruit and eat it as long as you ate it on his land and did not try to carry such fruit away with you in a basket or in a wagon.


Likewise, you could pluck the heads of grain with your hands, but you could not bring in heavy equipment to begin your own harvesting operation on his land.


            “When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.” (Deuteronomy 23:25).


The purpose of this law was so that those who were poor and who were traveling a long way would have a means of eating.  It served as a public welfare system to make certain that no one would ever go hungry.


Indeed, farmers were prohibited from harvesting their entire fields.  They were required to leave the outer edges of their fields untouched to provide for needy people.  And so, on this particular day the disciples were grabbing an afternoon snack.


2.         A Pharisaical Objection.


            The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24).


The Pharisees do not accuse the disciples of stealing grain.  Stealing would have been wrong on any day of the week.  But that is not the issue here.  The issue is that they are doing this activity on the Sabbath day.

The Pharisees are accusing the disciples of harvesting and threshing - of working on the Sabbath.


The Mishnah listed 39 different categories of work that was forbidden on the Sabbath and reaping ranked third on the list.  Even to pluck a gray hair was an infraction of this prohibition.


Now I want to ask you a question.  Are there rules with which you are comfortable and which would bother you if they were not imposed?  What would be your reaction if someone walked into your church service wearing a T-shirt and a pair of cut-offs?  How about if the music director came up with a radically different style of music one Sunday?  The truth is that we tend to become polarized to that which we are accustomed.


3.         A Biblical Precedent.


            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?” (Mark 2:25-26).


Notice that Jesus does not comment on the rabbinic rituals.  He turns instead to the Scriptures.  He refers to an incident described in 1 Samuel 21:1-6.


David and his men were on the run.  They were being pursued by King Saul.  And if that were not bad enough, they were without food.  It was in this condition that they came to one of the cities of the priests of Israel.  It was here that David met with one of the priests and requested food for himself and for his men.  There was no available food except for the old bread which had been taken from the Table of Shewbread inside the Tabernacle of the Lord.


This was special bread.  It had been set apart for a special purpose.  It was considered to be holy.  It had sat in the Tabernacle before the presence of the Lord.  It had been designated as “the bread of the presence.”  No one was allowed to eat of this bread except for the descendants of Aaron - those of the priesthood (Leviticus 24:9).  This was no mere rabbinic ritual - it was the unabridged law of God.


David and his men were given this bread to eat.  They partook of that which only the priests were supposed to eat.  Why?  Because they had a need and because they were God’s people and because the needs of God’s people transcend religious rituals, even when those religious rituals and right and proper.


Do you have a problem with that?  Do you tend to think that religious rituals ought to be observed, no matter what?  It is because you have failed to understand the true purpose of those rituals.  They are not designed for God’s welfare.  They are designed for you.  This is made clear in verse 27.


4.         The Purpose of the Sabbath:  Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).


Ritual was made to serve man, not to bind him.  It is to be a source of help to him, not a source of bondage.  It is to provide for him a relief and a rest, not a burden which he must bear.


Let me ask you a question.  Which came first, man or the Sabbath? Man did!  Man was created on the sixth day of creation.  The Sabbath was not instituted until the seventh day.


This means that man is a higher priority than does the Sabbath.  He was not made to serve the Sabbath; the Sabbath was instituted to serve him.  It was for his benefit.


5.         A Striking Conclusion:  “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:28).


If the Sabbath was made to serve man, and if the Son of Man is Lord of all other men, then it stands to reason that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.  He has authority over the Sabbath day.  And that means His disciples can do whatever He directs to be done on the Sabbath.





Luke’s account tells us that this second incident took place on a different Sabbath.  It was at least a week later that Jesus came to a local synagogue.


1.         A Critical Congregation.


            He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered.  2  They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. (Mark 3:1-2).


Imagine the scene.  The synagogue consists of a large rood with a double colonnade down the central aisle.  Behind a partition is the place where the women are permitted to assemble and to listen to the services.  At the front of the synagogue is a large raised dais on which rests the Bema Seat.  Next to it is a lectern.  It is from here that the Scriptures are read and taught.


On either side of the Bema Seat and slightly behind it are placed several chairs.  These are the “chief seats” and are reserved for the rabbis and distinguished Pharisees.  From their vantage point, they can see that Jesus has entered their synagogue service.  And they can also see something else.  There is a man present who has a crippled hand.  They know the reputation of Jesus as a healer.  They have also heard his untraditional views on the Sabbath.  Will He move to heal this man?  They already know the answer.  And they are already framing their accusations.


There is nothing more deadly to godliness than a critical spirit.  It is poison to the people of God.


The story is told of a man who was known for his critical nature and with finding fault with everything and anything.  He was going out hunting with a friend and, upon seeing the friend’s new hunting dog, he remarked, “Doesn’t look like much of a dog.”


They were walking through the forest, when they came to the edge of a lake.  As a flock of birds flew overhead, the hunters cut loose with their guns and one of the birds fell out of the sky and into the lake.


Immediately, the dog ran forward, not swimming, but running on top of the lake, his little paws barely touching the top of the water.  He crossed the lake, picked up the dead bird in his mouth and brought it back, still running on top of the water to lay the bird at the feet of the hunters.


“What do you think of my dog now?” asked the friend.  “Dumb dog,” replied the fault-finder.  “He can’t even swim.”


Critical people are like that.  You cannot make them happy, no matter what you do.  Given the opportunity, they would even find something in the Son of God about which to criticize.


2.         A Legal Question.


            He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!”  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?”  But they kept silent. (Mark 3:3-4).


Jesus takes charge of the situation.  He tells the man with the withered hand to stand before those who sit in the chief seats of the synagogue.  He is going to perform a miracle and He is going to do it where everyone can see.  But before He does, He poses a question to the synagogue leaders.  It is a question that deals with activity during the Sabbath.


Is it lawful...

To do good on the Sabbath?

To do harm on the Sabbath?

To save a life?

To kill?


This is not a mute question.  These leaders have murder in their hearts. Before this day is over, they will be seeking how they can put Jesus to death.


In the days of the Maccabean Revolt, nearly 200 years earlier, the Jews had dealt with the question of whether it is permissible for a Jewish soldier to fight on the Sabbath.  The enemies of the Jews had hit upon a simple strategy.  They would wait until the Sabbath and then they would launch their attack and the Jews would not defend themselves because it was the Sabbath.  As a result of some terrible massacres, the rabbis had declared that it was permissible for soldiers to fight to protect themselves and to save lives on the Sabbath.


Jesus is asking a related question.  If it is okay to fight to protect yourself on the Sabbath, then isn’t it also permissible to cure a man of his disease on the Sabbath?  If it is okay to kill a man on the Sabbath, then isn’t it okay to cure a man on the Sabbath?


3.         A Miraculous Healing.


            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. (Mark 3:5).


Jesus was not unmoved at their rejection of Him.  He had mixed feelings.  There was anger at their critical spirit.  And there was grief at their callousness of heart.


There is a lesson here.  It is that Jesus is not unconcerned with sin.  He is not apathetic to the plight of the lost.  He cares.  And that means we should care, too.  We often think that the opposite of love is hate, but it is not.  The opposite of love is apathy.


The healing of this man is almost anticlimactic.  The Pharisees and the rulers of the synagogue are past the point where they are even impressed by the supernatural work of God in their midst.  They can only see the infraction of their own petty rules.


4.         A Consolidated Conspiracy.


            The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him. (Mark 3:6).


The Pharisees waste no time at all.  They went out IMMEDIATELY to plan the downfall of Jesus.  If we take this literally, then they did not even wait until the Sabbath was over.  And if this is the case, then they demonstrated their own desire to kill on the Sabbath.


They conspired with the Herodians.  These were made up of the pro-Herod political party.  The Pharisees and the Herodians were on the opposite ends of the religious and political spectrum.  This would be like leaders of the Moral Majority planning strategy with the leaders of Gay Rights.




They had separated themselves from the influences of Greek culture.

They had joined themselves to Greek culture.

They endured Rome, longing for the day when they might again be free.

They embraced Rome since it was the legal source of power for the Herods.

They were ready to revolt when pagan statues were brought into Jerusalem and into the Temple.

They were unconcerned about such issues as idolatry and paganism in their midst.


The Herodians were made up of that political party which backed Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and son of Herod the Great.  They desired nothing more than to see a return to the good old days when a Herod had sat upon the throne of a united Israel under Rome.


Perhaps there is a lesson here.  It is that the only time that evil is ever unified is when it gets together to fight against good.


When I was in college, it was popular to talk about world-wide conspiracies that were supposedly going around.  Henry Kissinger was accused of being the Antichrist and the Pope was his right-hand man and the Illuminati was the organizational arm and the communists were somehow involved along with the A.C.L.U., the Masons and the Ecumenical Movement.


Since that time, I’ve become convinced that evil is not that well organized.  There is only one time that evil gets together, and that is when it comes together to fight against good.


Have you been facing any opposition lately?  Does it feel like everyone is against you?  It might be just your imagination.  But maybe it is because evil will always get together to fight good.


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