Then He told them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.’”
My favorite way to read Scripture is in context. When you do so, you begin to see that the New Testament needs the Old, and everything in the Old Testament points to Christ in the New. Scripture interprets itself.
This is a perfect passage to do that with because there are several Old Testament references. The story begins with the disciples walking through the fields. It’s the Sabbath and they begin to pick some of the heads of grain.
To us, it might be surprising. The problem wasn’t in trespassing or taking some of the grain. In fact, Deuteronomy 23:25 permits this very action, “When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck heads of grain with your hand, but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.” The problem here was that work was prohibited on the Sabbath.
First-century rabbis divided work into 39 different categories, each with subcategories. Three of the prohibited categories were picking, threshing, and winnowing. The disciples picked grain and then rubbed it between their hands to remove the husks, breaking the law on three different accounts.
But Jesus used this opportunity to teach that the Sabbath law was overridden by human need, worship, and acts of kindness.
Take David, for example. In 1 Samuel 21:1-6, he was running for his life, trying to get away from Saul. He went to the priest looking for food, but the only food the priest had to offer was consecrated bread, known as the Bread of the Presence.
This bread was baked into 12 loaves (for Israel’s 12 tribes) every Sabbath (see Leviticus 24:5-9). Normally, only priests ate it, but Ahimelech was willing to share it with ordinary soldiers as long as they were ceremonially clean. He wasn’t condemned for his actions. Human need trumped.
Another example is this: every Sabbath, as part of the Law, the priests would fill the lavers, prepare the altar, offer sacrifices, trim the lamp stand, and burn incense. These duties, although work, were worship, which trumped.
But the key here is true worship. Jesus said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” This is a reference to Hosea 6:6. In Hosea, the prophet didn’t reject sacrifices, but spoke to the heart. God doesn’t want empty rituals or worship without love and faithfulness. His desire is for mercy.
In Mark, this story concludes with Jesus saying, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” But, what does that even mean? Well, the Sabbath wasn’t supposed to be another rule that we upheld at others’ expense. It was made for our benefit.
The first instance of a Sabbath is in the Creation story. In Genesis 1, on the seventh day, God rested. We like to think it begins with rest. After all, we consider Sunday to be the first day of the week. But, in reality, it ends with rest.
The entire Creation story moves toward Sabbath, toward rest. In biblical times, rest was a sign of conquering. After enemies were defeated and a king’s domain was fully under their control, there was rest (see Joshua 1:13, 11:23, 14:15 and 2 Samuel 7:1).
The second instance is in Exodus 16. God provides food for the Israelites, manna from heaven. He tells them to collect just enough for each day, but to gather a double portion on the sixth day so the Sabbath can be a complete day of rest.
How does this apply to us? In a society where work and productivity determines our value, Sabbath is a rebellion. It says to the rest of the world that God defines us—not what we do. It says we trust God enough to help us get everything done in six days, rather than seven. He provides our double portion. It’s not empty and ritualistic, but it looks to Him as the Lord of the Sabbath.
+ HCSB Study Bible, by Holman Bible Editorial Staff
+ The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament, by Sandra L. Richter
- Do you see the Sabbath as a rule, condemning you for working? Or do you see it as an act of rebellion?
- Is rest something you struggle with? Why? What do you think that says about your relationship with God?
- Do you trust God for your double portion?