To answer these and related questions, it is important to explain some of the background and to look at the context of the Scripture.
Jesus said that He did not come to do away with the Law of God (Matthew 5:17). He told a young ruler that he was required to keep the commandments of God if he wanted to enter into eternal life (Matthew 19:16-17). He then listed many of the Ten Commandments, so that there could be no doubt what “Law” he was referring to (verses 18-19). James, half-brother of Jesus Christ, later stated that we are a transgressor of the entire Law of God, if we violate just one of His commandments (James 2:10). He clearly identified the “Law” as the Ten Commandments, quoting two of the Ten (verse 11). In the letter to the Hebrews, we find the express confirmation of the ongoing validity of the Sabbath commandment, when we read: “It is therefore the duty of the people of God to keep the Sabbath” (Hebrews 4:9, Lamsa Bible).
Whatever the meaning of Mark 2:27-28 may be, we can already safely state from this overview that Jesus did not teach the abolishment of the Sabbath—the fourth of the Ten Commandments.
Since Christ said that He did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the Law, He did not at the same time come to abolish the rules and regulations defining how to keep the Sabbath. The Fourth Commandment says very clearly that we are not to do servile or customary work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). As God rested on the seventh day from His ordinary work of creating plants, animals and men, so we are to rest from our ordinary labor and to be spiritually refreshed on the Sabbath.
Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man. It was God’s gift to man. It was not supposed to be a burden, but a blessing. As God blessed and sanctified for holy use the seventh day (Genesis 2:3), He did so for man, so man will be blessed when he properly keeps and enjoys the seventh day.
However, the Pharisees at the time of Jesus Christ had made a burden out of the Sabbath. Their motives might have been good, but the result was catastrophic. They remembered that the Assyrians and Babylonians had enslaved the ancient houses of Israel and Judah because of their idolatry and Sabbath-breaking. They wanted to make sure that the people would not again break the Sabbath. In trying to accomplish this, they added many rules and restrictions to God’s Sabbath commandment, reasoning that one had to break first those restrictions, before reaching the core of the Sabbath Law, and that it would be very difficult to peel off the layers of their man-made rules to ever reach the substance of the Law.
They felt that these additional man-made rules constituted a “fence” to protect the substance of the Sabbath. They reasoned that no one would violate the heart and core of the Sabbath Law if they were prevented from breaking certain provisions that “fenced in,” and thereby “protected,” the Fourth Commandment. As stated, their motives might have been laudable, but they had in effect placed a yoke on the people which they were not able to bear.
To give you a better understanding as to the nature of these burdensome pharisaical rules and regulations, we are quoting a brief excerpt from our free booklet, “God’s Commanded Holy Days”:
“The Pharisees totally misinterpreted the prohibition against carrying burdens on the Sabbath. They decreed that a person was guilty of breaking the Sabbath if he carried a sheet of paper, or any food that weighed as much as a dried fig, or if he carried more than one swallow of milk, or enough oil to anoint a small part of the body. If a fire broke out in a person’s home on the Sabbath, he could carry out only the necessary food to be consumed on the Sabbath. This meant that if the fire broke out at the beginning of the Sabbath—right after sunset—the person could take out enough food for three meals; but if the fire broke out on the afternoon of the Sabbath, he could only take out enough food for one meal. The rest could not be carried out and had to be left behind, to burn with the building. Further, only necessary clothes could be taken out of a burning house on the Sabbath.”
Jesus came to make God’s Law great and honorable (Isaiah 42:21) —to show the spiritual intent of the Law. He confronted the Pharisees on many occasions regarding their restrictive interpretations of the Sabbath command. He chided them for transgressing the Law of God to uphold their own traditions (Mark 7:8-9). As stated, God intended the Sabbath to be a blessing for man, not a curse or a burden. In light of this understanding, Christ healed many sick people on the Sabbath—but the Pharisees condemned Him for that, claiming that He should heal them during the six days of the week, but not on the Sabbath. Their idea was that a sick man could not be freed from illness on the Sabbath—preventing him from really enjoying the intent of the Sabbath Law. But Jesus declared to them powerfully and unequivocally: “… it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12).
At the same time, the Pharisees’ interpretation and practices lacked in consequential teaching and application. They would allow a baby to be circumcised on the Sabbath—if the eighth day after birth fell on the Sabbath–but they would not allow a sick person to be healed on the Sabbath. They would also allow an ox which had fallen into the pit to be rescued on the Sabbath, or to water their animals on the Sabbath, but they would not allow the healing of a human being on the Sabbath, who was created in the image of God.
In addition, they criticized the disciples of Christ for plucking the heads of grain on the Sabbath, to satisfy their hunger (Mark 2:23-24; Matthew 12:1-2). It was their position that they should rather go hungry than to pluck a few heads of grain, falsely interpreting such conduct as prohibited “harvesting.”
It was this kind of environment and philosophy that Jesus was addressing, when He made the profound statements in Mark 2:27-28: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
In the parallel account of Matthew 12, He adds the following: “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (verses 6-8). As an aside, the word “even” is not in the original Greek and was added by the translator.
Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man—the One greater than the Temple—the Lord of the Sabbath. As we have seen in a previous Q&A [“Did Jesus Exist Prior to His Human Birth?”] it was He who created the Sabbath. We read that God the Father created everything through and by Jesus Christ—and that includes man and the Sabbath. Jesus created the Sabbath for man, and as the Lord of the Sabbath, He can tell us with authority how to keep it. The discussion did not evolve around whether or not to keep it—Jesus kept the Sabbath, as was His custom (Luke 4:16). Later, Paul kept the Sabbath, as was his custom (Acts 17:2), and he told Gentile converts in Corinth to follow or imitate him as he followed Christ (compare 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1). Christ never allowed or authorized man to change the Sabbath to Sunday. In fact, He condemns this kind of religious worship (compare Matthew 5:19). Those who think they can worship God the Father and Jesus Christ on Sunday, instead of the Sabbath—thereby upholding their own traditions, while transgressing and abolishing the commandments of God—are engaging in a kind of worship which is NOT acceptable to God (Matthew 15:7-9, 13-14).
Christ placed mercy over strict pharisaical restrictions, pointing out that David ate from the showbread of the temple, when he was hungry, although it was not “lawful” for him to eat it (Matthew 12:3-4). But Christ did not condemn David for this. He also taught that the priests in the temple had to fulfill their responsibilities on the Sabbath, which—according to pharisaical consequential reasoning–would have been tantamount to “breaking” or “profaning” the Sabbath, but Christ said they were “blameless” in doing so (Matthew 12:5). When today God’s ministers “work” on the Sabbath in preparing and delivering sermons, they are equally blameless and guiltless.
On the other hand, Christ did not teach that we can violate God’s Sabbath by just trampling it under foot—by working in our jobs to earn a living and by pursuing our own pleasures and hobbies. Isaiah 58:13 states to you (according to the New International Version) that you are to “keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day” and to “call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable” and to “honor it by not doing as you please or speaking idle words.” The Living Bible clarifies that “doing as you please” refers to “your own fun and business.”
Yet, in emergencies, we can and should take care of our personal needs, but this does not mean that we should create emergencies in the first place, so that we can then “break” the Sabbath in order to take care of them. We are not to throw a sheep into the ditch on Friday so that we can rescue it on the Sabbath day.
Jesus is the LORD of the Sabbath. He tells us with authority that we must keep it—and how to do so. Jesus made the Sabbath for MAN (not just the Jew), to be a blessing for man. The Sabbath was not made to be a curse or a burden for us. Man was not made for the Sabbath, to be under a cruel and merciless pharisaical yoke. The Pharisees, through their legalistic approach, had placed undue restrictions on the Sabbath, teaching in effect that man was made for the Sabbath. But Jesus came to show that the Sabbath was made FOR man, to be joyfully observed and to be called “a delight.” In keeping the Sabbath properly, we draw closer to God and are reminded of His great love for us, who created us in the first place with the potential of entering His very Family. See our recent Q&A, “Why was man created?”
None of His commandments are to be viewed as a burden for us (1 John 5:3). Rather, God’s love in us enables us to keep all of His commandments properly and from the heart (2 John 6). God’s entire Law is an expression of His love, and God IS love (1 John 4:8).
Lead Writer: Norbert Link