We have noted that as we have moved into Mark 2 that the resistance against Jesus is growing. The next three accounts that Mark records link together as Jesus’ authority is challenged. The challenges made by the religious leaders may not seem significant to us. But what Jesus teaches represents a new direction for all humanity to move toward because the king has arrived with his kingdom. So let’s see what issues the religious leaders have with Jesus and what we can learn about the new direction Jesus is providing the world.
In Mark 2:18 we see that the disciples of John and the Pharisees are fasting. We are not told why either are fasting. We know that the Law of Moses established only one fast, which was on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). We also know that the Pharisees fasting twice a week, on Monday and Thursdays (cf. Luke 18:12; Jewish writings). Pious people like the Pharisees fasted but Jesus’ disciples do not. Jesus and his disciples are not doing what we have always done. They must not be devoted to God because they do not fast. Jesus, why don’t your disciples fast?
Jesus answers their question with some illustrations. To understand these illustrations we need a little background information. Weddings were festive, extravagant affairs. A wedding was the largest social event in the life of a village that would last a week or longer. Fasting was frequently used as a sign of mourning. It is this understanding that Jesus uses. In verse 19 Jesus is saying that this is a time for celebration because he has arrived as the bridegroom. To fast during a time of celebration would be unthinkable. I have never been to a wedding where everyone was sad, mourning, and fasting out of anguish. Weddings even in our culture is a time of joy and celebration. It would be inappropriate for fasting to occur while Jesus, the king who is proclaiming the dawn of the kingdom of God, is in their midst. There will be a time when Jesus will be taken from them and there will be mourning. But that is not the case now.
In Mark 2:21-22 Jesus uses two more illustrations to make the same point. New cloth on an old garment is incompatible and new wine in an old wineskin is also incompatible. Jesus’ message is very powerful. Jesus is declaring the kingdom of God to be the new wine that cannot be poured into the old wineskins of Judaism. What Jesus is bringing in the kingdom cannot be combined with the present system of Judaism. Jesus is the new patch. Jesus is the new wine. He is not an attachment, an addition, or an appendage to the status quo of Judaism. Jesus could not be integrated into the existing religious structures. We have seen this in Mark’s gospel already. Jesus goes to the synagogue, but he does not go like everyone else. Jesus goes with a new teaching (1:27) and his authority surpasses the scribes. Jesus honors the Torah but he is not bound by it. Jesus subordinates the Torah to himself through his authority.
Jesus has not come to patch up Israel’s religion or to reform it. Jesus has come to inaugurate a new era of salvation. To use Isaiah’s prophetic words, Jesus is bringing in a new heavens and earth. It is a whole new order and system in Jesus’ kingdom. Unlike the prior prophets, Jesus is not calling Israel to covenant renewal or greater submission to the Law. Jesus has come to fulfill the Law and bringing it to its completion in the kingdom of God. The Law of Moses is becoming old and giving way to the Law of Christ, the new. The age of promise is giving way to the age of fulfillment. These religious leaders cannot simply fuse the message and the person of Jesus into everything Judaism has been. Jesus’ arrival requires new ways and a new direction. We will see this picture pushed forward throughout Mark’s gospel, culminating in Mark 15:38 when the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom when Jesus is crucified. Just as the heaven were torn open at the baptism of Jesus indicated the arrival of the kingdom of heaven to earth, so also Jesus is tearing open the norm of Judaism and ushering in a new age. The next two accounts in Mark’s gospel illustrate this message.
Plucking Grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28)
The picking of grain is not the issue for the Pharisees. In verse 24 we see the issue is doing working on the Sabbath. The Mishnah forbid 39 specific acts on the Sabbath, one of which was reaping. Now it is important to look at Mark’s gospel account of this event because he has a particular teaching that he wants us to see, which can be different from Matthew’s intention and Luke’s intention. Also it is important to read this with the answer Jesus gives and not try to defend or justify Jesus. We do not want to miss the point Jesus makes in this account. So let us carefully examine how Jesus handles this charge.
In verses 25-26 Jesus refers to the actions of David. Jesus speaks to when David was in need and hungry and how he and his companions entered the house of God and ate the bread “which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also give it to those who were with him.” Jesus acknowledges what David did. David did what was not lawful to do. Now this is where I want to start defending Jesus. But notice that Jesus does not do that in verse 27. Jesus simply concludes, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Was Jesus breaking the Sabbath law? My answer is no, but that is not the way Jesus argues, which is fascinating. Jesus is not interested in defending himself but getting the Pharisees to see who he is. Jesus does not debate what constitutes work on the Sabbath. Jesus does not address any distinction between the Pharisees’ traditions and what the Law of Moses actually said. Jesus does not even defend David. Jesus says that what David did was unlawful. Jesus does not say that hunger and taking basic nourishment does not violate the Sabbath, which seems to be the point in Matthew’s account.
The point seems to be this: if David, the Lord’s anointed and his companions could eat the consecrated bread, how much more can the Messiah, David’s greater son, and his companions! Jesus’ point focuses on a foundational issue: the relationship between the Law and the Son of Man. If regulations to protect the holy could be set aside for David and those with him, then how much more so for the Son of Man (Messiah) who has supreme authority over the Sabbath which was made for humanity! David’s authority legitimized his actions. Think about David’s situation: David is anointed as king but not enthroned yet. This is where Jesus is at also. Jesus is anointed which we read at his baptism (1:10) but he is not enthroned yet, which will occur at his death, resurrection, and ascension. David is the anointed king whose authority has not yet been recognized within Israel except for his band of outcast followers. Jesus is the anointed king whose authority has not yet been recognized within Israel except for his band of outcast followers.
The point Jesus is making is intentional! Jesus is not breaking the Law of Moses or being shown as a sinful person. Jesus is doing this as a deliberate sign, like the refusal to fast. This is a sign that the King is here, that the kingdom is arriving, and the new system and direction is upon them all. Jesus’ point is not that humanitarian needs trumps the law. HIs point is that all the authority of the King has arrived. Let me illustrate this in a way I think we can understand. When the president arrives, his motorcade drives through red lights and stop signs to get to where he is going. Is the president a law breaker for this? No, because his authority is greater than the law. This is the point Jesus is making. The Sabbath was made for man, but the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath. Jesus is not a law breaker because of who he is.
Healing on the Sabbath (3:1-6)
This brings us to the final example of this teaching which is found in Mark 3:1-6. There is a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. What are the people looking at Jesus to see? Notice that they are not looking to see if Jesus will heal him. They are looking to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath “so that they might accuse him.” We are seeing the hardness of heart of these people (3:5). This man has a withered hand and is now standing in front of the Lord who has come to heal. So Jesus asks in verse 4 if it is lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath. To not heal would be to do this man harm. Are we really not going to do good for this man because it is the Sabbath? But that is exactly what these leaders think. Look at how upset Jesus is at this in verse 5.
And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart. (Mark 3:5 ESV)
They do not see who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Not only this, they do not even understand the meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a time for worship, remembering how God had liberated the people. God had given Israel rest from the oppression of Egyptian slavery. God delivered these people. The Sabbath was a mark of God’s people whose lives were transformed by the exodus God had performed for them that they were to remember every week. Now the Christ, the one who has come with authority to cast out unclean spirits, heal the lame, give sight to the blind, heal the sick, to call sinners for healing, is standing with a man who needs healing. This moment was what the Sabbath was all about: setting people free. Jesus is going to set this man free of his infirmity with his withered hand. The arrival of the kingdom is the healing of the nations. The arrival of Jesus and his kingdom is the rescuing of people, bringing light into darkness, and hope to the hopeless. The arrival of his kingdom is help, hope, and healing. It is what the Sabbath was all about. The Sabbath is about restoration! Yet these leaders did not see that. They are so hard in their hearts that they do not understand the meaning of the Sabbath and the meaning of what Jesus is doing. All that they can see is the law and their rules surrounding those laws. Think about this: the leaders are so concerned about their Sabbath regulations that they do not want Jesus to heal this man. It is stunning.
So what is Mark showing us about Jesus especially considering its connection to the last account concerning the Sabbath. Jesus is saying that he is the Lord over the Sabbath. It is a whole new direction and a whole new system. Jesus is not patching up the old system. But even further, Jesus is the Sabbath. Jesus is the source of the deep rest we need. Jesus has come to completely change the way we rest. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is the one who gives the true rest that we need. The one day a week rest was just a taste of the deep divine rest that we need. Jesus is the source of that rest. Jesus wants us to see that our hope, our help, our restoration, our healing, our joy, and our satisfaction are in him. You can only be satisfied in Jesus. You can only rest in him. You will never find rest in anything else or anyone else but Jesus. We know this passage but listen to it again in the light of Sabbath.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29 NRSV)
Jesus has brought a new system and new direction. The new direction is that Jesus is lord of the Sabbath and your rest is in him. Jesus is the rest we need. The turmoil you have can enjoy rest if you will come to Jesus and see him as the restorer and healer of your soul. Jesus has broken into this world so that you can rest in him. Won’t you come to him in faith today?