January 17, 2016
It was on August 28 that thousands of citizens of Trenton, New Jersey, decided, en masse, to break the law. Their crime? On that Sunday in 1921, 18,000 people spent fifty cents, and went to the movies. The feature presentation that day was The Old Nest, billed as “a picture that presents the most beautiful and the most sacred of all things – a mother’s love.”
How in the world could going to that movie break the law? Well, Trenton, New Jersey, had on its books, along with most other cities along the East Coast, a law that made, quote, “dancing, singing, fiddling, or other music for the sake of merriment” illegal on Sunday. You perhaps know them as the Sunday Blue Laws. While nothing happened on that fateful August 28, one week later, September 4, 65 sheriff deputies patrolled the city’s ten movie theaters. When films began playing, managers, cashiers and receptionists were arrested, and the crowds were told to go home. In the end, those arrested had to pay a one dollar fine, and promise not to show movies on Sundays anymore. And they didn’t, until twelve years later, when the Blue Laws were repealed. What was the problem with showing movies on Sundays? Well, that was amusement, and you can’t pay for amusement on Sunday.
But why, you might ask? Because, Sunday is a holy day – the Christian Sabbath – the Lord’s Day – a day of rest. We shouldn’t go to the movies on Sunday. Nor should we watch TV, work or play sports. You can’t wash the car, you can’t mow the lawn. Many of you grew up thinking of Sunday as a solemn day, when doing anything fun was prohibited. It was a “you can’t do anything day,” a day when you were more likely, as a kid, to get in trouble.
There is much confusion even today about Sundays, and the Sabbath. A few years ago, we held the Franklin Graham Festival 2000 at the ASU football stadium. During the three-day crusade, over 40,000 people showed up, and almost 900 people made professions of faith in Christ. Churches in the community were invited to participate, and most did. But I remember one that didn’t – one which sees the seventh day of the week, Saturday or the Sabbath, as very important. Interestingly, while they choose not to participate in the stadium, when we came out of the stadium and went to our cars, there on our windshields was a magazine, stressing the importance of keeping the Sabbath Day holy. Every article in the magazine dealt with the topic. Apparently, this particular group thought the most important thing for these new believers was to observe the Sabbath.
Among Christian denominations, there is disagreement as to whether believers are bound to observe the Sabbath. Many do view Sunday, the first day of the week, as the Christian Sabbath, a day that has superseded the Jewish Sabbath, which was the seventh day of the week – again, Saturday. Now, in Acts 20:7, it appears the church did meet on the first day of the week. In I Corinthians 16:2, Paul instructed believers to bring their offerings on the first day of the week. In Revelation 1:10, John calls the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. Justin Martyr, who lived right after the apostles, said the church met and gave offerings on the first day of the week. There is ample support for the idea the church meets on Sundays. That’s not the issue. The questions are these: Are we still bound to obey the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”? If so, how do we observe it? And, is Sunday the Christian Sabbath, and if it is, what’s that mean? No movies, no bowling? And if it isn’t, what does Sabbath rest mean to believers?
That last question is a very important one for us this morning – one which gets at the heart of the matter – what is Sabbath rest for believers in Jesus Christ? As we answer that question, I think rather than be discouraged by the onerous demands of the Jewish Sabbath, you’ll be encouraged by the rest that is presently yours, right now.
Turn in your Bibles to Mark 2. Let me remind you where we are in our study of this book. Mark’s clear objective is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And he’s been doing that in a number of ways – through Jesus’ fulfillment of OT prophecy; through His divine introduction by the Father; through opposition from the forces of evil; through His teaching with authority; through His amazing miracles; and through His authority to forgive sins.
As a result, with that revelation came rising opposition. While His popularity with the people increased, so did resistance from the religious establishment. We are looking at five specific stories in a row that describe the rising opposition. The first was His audacity to forgive the sins of the paralytic. Who can do that but God? Exactly. The second had to with the call of Matthew, and the subsequent party, where Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. Because, after all, He didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners into His kingdom. The third had to do with fasting – or the fact that Jesus and His disciples weren’t fasting. And Jesus used the confrontation to subtly teach the truth that He had come to bring new wine – the glorious truth of the New Covenant.
And so, those who opposed Him were becoming more vocal with their hostility. They began questioning, badgering, spying on Him, trying to catch Him in some inconsistency, trying to show how He violated their understanding of Old Testament Law. This opposition will continue until, by the end of the book, it reaches a fever pitch, and they crucify Him.
We’re beginning to understand the religious establishment of the day had created onerous rules to be observed – but none more important than the Sabbath. And so, the fourth and fifth stories have to do with the Sabbath – eating on the Sabbath today, and healing on the Sabbath next week. You see, that day, the Sabbath, intended to bring rest and renewal, had become an overwhelming weight. People were spiritually exhausted, trying to meet the demands of this external, meaningless, self-righteous system. And in the midst of that, Jesus shows up and offers rest to those who were weary and heavy-laden – those who had tried and failed miserably to meet the demands of the self-righteous, religious people of the day.
To these exhausted people, Jesus said, come to Me, all you who are weary, and you will find rest, not just for your bodies, but for your souls. That is exactly what the Sabbath pointed to – rest. But the Pharisees had messed it up. They had made Sabbath-keeping such a difficult task that no one found rest – neither for their bodies nor their souls. It is this abuse Jesus addresses in our text today. In so doing, He teaches us what a true Sabbath rest is. The fact is, the Pharisees, much like people today, didn’t understand what the Sabbath was all about. We’re going to find in our passage Jesus pegs them, not just for their list of rules in keeping the Sabbath, but for missing the point of Sabbath altogether. And I want to offer to you – Jesus offers to you today, Sabbath rest. Look at the passage, Mark 2:23-28.
Wow – that last verse is significant. David could violate the Sabbath by eating the showbread, and yet still keep the intent of the Sabbath. And David’s greater Son – the Messiah, could violate the Sabbath, and yet still keep the intent of the Sabbath – indeed, He is Lord of the Sabbath. This is a significant declaration of who Jesus is – the very Son of God. I need to do some teaching this morning, so you’ll have to stick with me. I have three things I want us to see:
- First, let’s look at what the Old Testament Sabbath was.
- Then, we’ll look at this text to see how the Pharisees abused the Sabbath.
- Then, we’ll look at how we as believers observe a Sabbath rest – the New Testament Sabbath. Are they different – this OT and NT Sabbath? No, but we’re going to find that Jesus becomes the fulfillment of Sabbath rest. If you hang in there till the end, I think you’ll be encouraged this morning.
Let’s start with the OT Sabbath. Just what was it? The word in the Greek is sabbaton, and it means literally to cease or to rest. Now, where did the Sabbath thing come from? Back in Genesis 1, we read about the creation of the world. In six literal days, we read God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in them. At the end of chapter one, we saw God sit back, as it were, with a big smile, as He observed everything He’d made – and He saw that it was all very good. By the time we get to Genesis 2, when God had finished His creative works, we read in verses 1-3:
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
There you have it – the first seventh-day rest – the first Sabbath. It was blessed and sanctified – that means it was a happy and holy day. It was supposed to be a good day. But let me ask you, why did God rest on the seventh day? Was He was tired? Needed a day off? Of course not. He was finished. This was an “It is finished” rest. His work was done, He was able to sit back and rest in the completeness and goodness of His creation. I’m going to give you a little preview. When Jesus finished His work, He said it – It is finished. Then He sat down at the right hand of the Father. And He has become our Sabbath rest.
Roll the clock forward a few thousand years after creation. It wasn’t until God gave the Law we see Him demanding we observe a Sabbath. It was in Exodus 20, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. There, we read these words in the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant, or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” That’s actually the longest of the Ten Commandments.
Again, what was the purpose of the Sabbath? Just because the Jews needed a day off – they were tired – kind of the first labor law so workers couldn’t be abused seven days a week? I think that’s a byproduct. But the purpose was rest – it was a Sabbath of the Lord your God. On that seventh day, the people were to cease from their work and rest in God. It’s important we understand this. If we see the Sabbath as simply a cessation of labor, then we’ll be like the Pharisees and come up with all kinds of things you can’t do – we’ll focus on the prohibition rather than the command to rest in God. To sit back, as it were, to observe all God is and what He has done, smile and say, isn’t God good. That’s the point. And here’s the sneak preview again: it was supposed to be a picture pointing to the glorious rest we would one day have in Christ.
So, much like God rested from His labor to enjoy His handiwork, they were to rest from their labor and rest in the presence of God. But the Jews missed the point. And from that point on in Israel’s history, the Sabbath became central to all their laws. It was the pinnacle of their observance. They reasoned, I suppose, that since it was the longest of the commandments that it deserved most of their attention, and they wrote more about the Sabbath than anything else. Later, in the Mishna and the Talmud, we find literally thousands of laws written about what it means to observe the Sabbath.
Which leads to our next point, the abuse of the Sabbath. Jews, to the present day, see the observance of the Sabbath as the most important thing they can do, and that meant, to them, no work at all. Well, what’s work? Glad you asked – they spent centuries defining what work was and wasn’t. Let me give you some examples:
On a national scale, the apocryphal book of I Maccabees tells of an incident during the time of Judas Maccabaeus. A group of Jews refused to defend themselves against a Greek army led by Antiochus Ephiphanes, because the battle fell on the Sabbath. As a result, a thousand men, women and children were slaughtered. Later, Josephus records the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman general Pompey was in part due to the Sabbath. The Roman army built a siege ramp against the city walls, but they only worked on it on the Sabbath, knowing they could do so without resistance. As a result, the ramp was built, and Jerusalem fell.
On a personal level, there were laws governing everything you did. For example, you were only allowed to travel about 1000 yards from your house. Under Sabbath laws, a Jew could not carry a load heavier than a dried fig. But, if the object weighed half as much as a dried fig, he could carry it twice. You couldn’t eat anything larger than an olive. A tailor was advised to put down his needle a half-hour before sunset lest he inadvertently carry it on the Sabbath. Carrying any instrument required for work was forbidden. Throwing an object into the air with one hand and catching it with the other…prohibited. Baths could not be taken on the Sabbath. Why? You might drip some water, and if you wipe it up, you’re cleaning the floor. Chairs could not be moved, because if you drag them across the floor, you might make a furrow in the ground. Women were forbidden from looking in the mirror. Why? She might see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it out – forbidden.
Of course, there could be no buying, selling, sewing, plowing, reaping, grinding, binding, baking, threshing, winnowing, sifting, dying, shearing, spinning, kneading, tying or untying. Are you exhausted by these rules designed to give you rest? You should be.
Even today, orthodox Jews continue their extreme observance of the Sabbath. To open a refrigerator door on the Sabbath, you must first disconnect the interior light before the Sabbath. Why? Because Exodus 35:3 says, “You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” Turning on a light comes under the category of “kindling.” Letting warm air into the refrigerator also creates a problem, because that will cause the compressor to activate before it otherwise do so. This would cause the compressor to spark, also a Sabbath violation. Therefore, you install a timer to run the compressor motor at set intervals, rather than a thermostat. Another proposed solution: open the door only when the compressor is already running.
A Jewish doctor is allowed to care for patients, but only those terminally ill. But, if he does have to suspend Sabbath rules for a higher principle, such as care of the very ill, one must do so with the least possible intrusion into Sabbath laws. In fact, one must perform any act that would otherwise transgress the Sabbath in an unusual manner thus acknowledging the Sabbath. For example, a doctor may drive on the Sabbath if he must go to an emergency, but he should start the engine by turning the key with two fingers, not the usual thumb and forefinger. As to the vehicle driven to an emergency, the doctor must leave the motor running, as turning off the engine is not necessary to save life. If a doctor has to write, he must write with his left hand if right-handed (and vice-versa), use the minimum number of words possible, and sign with his initials, not his full name. A nurse or doctor applying an antiseptic to the skin on the Sabbath must use a nonabsorbent swab as opposed to cotton which could absorb the medication and thus, presumably, be classified as dyeing.
Are you getting tired? You say, okay, we get it – move on. No – you’re just starting to get it. There were thousands of rules just like the 8 or 10 I just read. And you’re weary just listening to a few, try thousands. Try living them. There were 24 chapters in the Talmud addressing Sabbath restrictions, and it’s said it would take a rabbi two and a half years to go through one chapter to understand it all. And in all that legalism, they missed the point. They missed that they were to rest in God. They were to celebrate His goodness on their behalf. And as a result of all those regulations, the Sabbath, far from being a day of rest, had become an incredible day of burden. It was a day of oppressive frustration and anxiety. The best day of the week had become the worst; the day of rest became harder than a day of work; the happy day became a gloomy day. The people were exhausted in the system; they had become weary, and heavy-laden.
Which brings us to our third point and our text where Jesus deals with the true meaning of the Sabbath. The story begins with Jesus and His disciples making their way through the grainfields. We’re not told where they were going, or how far they traveled – those were unimportant details. What we do see is the disciples became hungry, and began to pick the heads of grain, and eat them. Now, eating the grain along the path was not the problem – that’s not stealing, that’s permitted in Deuteronomy 23.
The issues the Pharisees had were they were picking the grain – that’s reaping; they were rubbing the grain together in their hands – that’s threshing; and they were blowing the chaff away – that’s winnowing. And while they were rubbing the grain, it was not doubt breaking it up – that’s grinding. In short, the disciples, as far as the Pharisees were concerned, were working, and thus violating the Sabbath.
Now, let me make one thing clear here. Jesus, in His response, was not allowing a violation of the Sabbath. He was not reducing the demands of the Law – He kept the Law, the real Law, perfectly. The fact is, there was nothing wrong with eating on the Sabbath. The disciples weren’t doing anything wrong. The issue was not the Pharisees were too rigorous in their observance of the Sabbath – the issue was they didn’t understand the Sabbath. And so Jesus takes them to task.
He begins by chiding the Pharisees for their lack of biblical insight. He says in verse 25, “Have you never read…” You’re supposed to be the custodians of the Scripture – don’t you know what it says? This would have irritated them just a bit. And from there, Jesus gives some important truths about the Sabbath:
First, the Sabbath was never intended to keep from meeting needs. The disciples were hungry. There was food, they ate it, and that was not a violation of the Sabbath. Not only that, Jesus takes it a step further – and it’s important we understand what He’s saying. He gives the example of David and his companions going into the house of God – the Tabernacle and they ate the consecrated bread. You may know it as the show bread, or the bread of Presence. Every week, the priests baked twelve new loaves of bread, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and placed it in the Tabernacle. The bread represented the provision of God. After they placed the new bread in the Tabernacle, the priests, and they alone, were allowed to eat the week old bread.
But, on this occasion, David and his companions ate it, because they were hungry. And yet, neither they nor the high priest were condemned for it. So, Jesus says, what do you do with that? What’s Jesus saying? Why, when asked about the Sabbath, does He talk about David eating bread? There’s no indication they even ate it on the Sabbath, so what’s the point? Again, He’s emphasizing the truth that not only the Sabbath, but the entire sacrificial and ceremonial system, was not supposed to keep people from meeting needs.
Eating bread was not a moral issue. Frankly, working on the Sabbath is not a moral issue. Both of these things were not part of the moral law – they were part of the ceremonial, sacrificial system – a system God never intended to keep from meeting needs. God’s people will be known not by their external observance of some code of laws, they would be known by the way they love others, and meet needs.
And a second, very subtle, but very important point Jesus is making is this: The bread, the Sabbath – the entire ceremonial and sacrificial system – was a picture pointing to Christ. Jesus is the bread of life – if we eat, we will never hunger again. He is the water of life, if we drink, we never thirst again. And when we come to faith in Christ – He becomes our Sabbath rest. We rest in Him. That’s why we don’t have baked loaves of bread here this morning. And that’s why the command to observe the Sabbath is not repeated in the New Testament under the New Covenant. All nine of the other Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament because they are moral laws. They’re affirmed in the New Testament.
And the command to observe the Sabbath is also affirmed in the New Testament – in Matthew chapter 11 – come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you – not the yoke of the Law – you could never keep that. Not the yoke of the legalistic Pharisees. Take my yoke – for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law – He has become our Sabbath rest.
Look at Hebrews 4:9-10, “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did in His.” Do you see? There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God – it’s in Jesus – we cease from our works, just like God ceased from His. On Saturdays? You bet. On Sundays? You bet. And on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, too. Jesus has become our Sabbath rest. The Old Testament Sabbath pointed to the rest believers find in Jesus.
So, are believers supposed to observe an Old Testament Sabbath? No – not unless you want to keep the whole ceremonial and sacrificial system, too. Is Sunday a Christian Sabbath? No. The Sabbath was merely a picture pointing to Christ. And so, my brothers and sister, we have the real thing – we have entered His rest, we can cease from our works of self-righteousness, and rest in Christ – who He is and what He has done for us.
And so, the Sabbath was made for man – not the other way around. We are not under this picture of the Sabbath, as if it is supreme. No, the Sabbath was made for man – to point us to the Sabbath rest we have in Christ. And so, Jesus says, the Son of Man – He Himself – is Lord even of the Sabbath. Who made the Sabbath? The Lord – Yahweh – God Himself. And here, Jesus says, I am the Lord of the Sabbath – a clear declaration of deity. But more than that – I am what the Sabbath is all about.
I’m talking about rest this morning. Jesus has become our Sabbath rest. And some of you who are exhausted, trying to keep up with all the Christian rules, need to rest in Jesus. And you of you may thinking – shhh. If you tell people to rest, they’re gonna – they’ll get slack in their obedience and they won’t do anything. We won’t have enough AWANA workers, we won’t have enough Life Group Leaders, we won’t have enough children’s workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Resting in Christ does not produce negotiable obedience and optional service. Once you’ve entered into His rest – it compels you to obey, to meet needs, to serve God, and show mercy. And you find you have the ability to do that you never had before. And you cease your striving and rest in His finished work. Jesus has become our Sabbath rest. And we rest in Him 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And the true Sabbath rest causes us to sit back, smile, and say, isn’t God good. And it causes us to work, in His power, in His kingdom. That is Sabbath rest – His yoke is easy, His burden is light.