This morning we are in Mark chapter 2. We are looking at the last of 5 events which reveal an escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment of his day.
It began with Jesus’ pronouncement that a man’s sins were forgiven. Who can forgive sins but God alone!? It escalated when Jesus freely associated with known sinners. Why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?! The perspective of Jesus on the conflict was revealed after he was asked why his disciples didn’t fast like other religious devotees. No one pours new wine into old wineskins.
In our passage today the conflict erupts and the plot to kill Jesus begins.
Lets read Mark 2:23-3:6
A few weeks ago I sat on a plane next to a young Jewish man named Shmuel. Shmuel is a student in Jerusalem studying the Talmud. His devotion was evident. When food was passed out by the flight attendants, he carefully examined the ingredients to make sure they did not violate the law of God. When the sun was setting, he politely stopped our conversation to silently mouth his required nightly prayer. We had a fascinating conversation.
I had my Bible open to the book of Hebrews, he was looking over my shoulder, reading the New Testament for the first time. The longer we talked, the more restless Shmuel became. After some time he pulled out his Talmud, the sacred rabbinical commentary on the Old Testament. He showed me a passage which stated that if a faithful Jew found a Torah corrupted by publication alongside the Christian writings, it should be burned. (I carefully moved my Bible out of his sight.) He told me that it was not permitted for him to read the New Testament.
Shmuel’s religion was sincere and devoted and it clouded his eyes so that he couldn’t see the living God.
Law based religion is attractive. It is practical and tangible – it gives me something to do. It gives me a measure of control – righteousness and favor with God are in my hands. It provides the satisfaction of the feeling of devotion.
Nobody knew this more than the Pharisees of Jesus day. They were sincere and devoted. One of the most visible signs of their devotion was the observance of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is the 7th day of the Jewish week which falls on what we call Saturday. The observance of the Sabbath began with the ten commandments in the book of Exodus.
The Sabbath command is the 4th and longest commandment. It is unique among the ten as the only one grounded in the creation of the world.
For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The Sabbath law is summarized in Exodus 34.
“Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”
For the Jewish people, the temple in Jerusalem was a sacred space. And the Sabbath was a sacred time. Life revolved around the Sabbath. It can be argued that nothing was more important to the practice of Jewish holiness than Sabbath worship.
Every Friday night, when the first three stars were visible in the sky and the synagogue ruler blew his shofar, all work was set aside for the next 24 hours.
For the faithful Jew, the prohibition against work brought up questions. What exactly is work?
By Jesus day, the Pharisees had established 39 activities that counted as work. Farming was work. Tying or loosening a knot was work. Setting a broken or dislocated bone was work. Repair a roof which feel on the Sabbath was work.
If a building collapsed, you can only move rubble if there were people underneath. If the people were alive, you could pull them out. If they weren’t, you had to leave the body until the sabbath ended.
This is the context of the 4th and 5th events in Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees.
On the Sabbath Jesus is walking through a grain field with his followers. The Pharisees who are apparently following Jesus now, are shocked when they see some of the men with Jesus reach down to grab handfuls of grain off their stalks. “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Jesus replies with an observation about precedent, referencing the actions of David in the Old Testament. Then he gives two incredible statements – one revealing the true nature of the Sabbath law and the other revealing the true nature of Jesus himself.
First the Sabbath – the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Some of us have grown up in law based religious environments. You’ve known what it is to live under the rule of the law, under the watchful eye of the protectors and keepers of the law. For you, this statement of Jesus flows like cool water on an oppressively hot day.
The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Jesus transforms religion from transactional to relational exchange, from law to liberty, from external form to expansive inner reality. He restores the dignity of humanity. This was a challenge to those who had elevated the Sabbath above the man.
Next Jesus reveals a shocking reality about himself – the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.
The Son of Man is one of the titles Jesus uses to refer to himself. It may be a reference to a vision of the end times in the book of Daniel. It may be a reference to the incarnation.
What we do know is that Jesus was referring to himself and he does it in a shocking way.
I am the Lord of the Sabbath.
If the Pharisees knew who it was they were questioning, they would fall on their knees in shame, fear and reverence.
The one they were cross-examining in the field was the one by whose power that field was created. The one they were accusing of violating the law was the originator of the law. The one they questioned on the Word of God was the living incarnation of the Word.
But they couldn’t see it. They were blinded by their devotion to law based religion.
Whether we are aware of it or not, much of our spiritual life is sustained by rules, regulations, practices and rituals which give shape to our daily existence, not least in difficult and dry days. They become like boundaries and goal posts to a playing field, or white lines down the middle of a road. Our dependence upon them becomes so great that when anyone begins to alter the boundaries or move the goal posts or paint new lines, our whole spiritual life seems to be threatened. -Donald English
We can miss Jesus even when he is there, right in front of us.
This week I heard the story of one of the great evangelists in the history of the church. He preached in the UK in the early 1900s. In twenty years of work, he planted 153 thriving churches. His name is George Jeffreys. You’ve never heard of him. Why? Because he spoke in tongues. He didn’t operate in the boundaries of the ruling tradition.
We can miss the work of Jesus right in front of our eyes when we are blinded by devotion to the ‘rules’ of our tradition.
The 5th and final event which pushes the Pharisees over the edge was the healing of a man on the Sabbath.
Jesus entered the synagogue for the Sabbath service. In the room was a man with a withered hand.
We know what it is like to have a disability in the family. To welcome your child into the world and discover an unwanted surprise.
This man knew a lifetime of physical limitations and he knew a lifetime of shame. He knew the insults of the kids on the playground. He knew the questions from the religious people – who sinned, you or your parents that this happened to you? He knew what it was to wonder what he did wrong that God allowed pain in his life.
What was it like to be singled out by Jesus in that moment? Did he feel a warmth in his hand? Did his whole body tingle? What was it like to be in that room? Could you feel the power of Jesus as it moved in the room? What was it like to experience a lifetime of pain undone in a moment?
The Pharisees should have been shouting with joy. They should have been embracing their brother and rejoicing in his restoration. They should have been on their knees in gratitude to Jesus.
Instead they stormed out of the room and began a plot to kill Jesus.
Law based religion had blinded them to the presence of Jesus, to the dignity of their humanity and to the power of God.
Do you see the goodness in the work of Jesus here? He is so good. When he healed that man, he gave him a new life. He showed us the heart of God behind the law. That act of goodness would cost Jesus his life.
The Pharisees went out and started a plan which would end with Jesus humiliated on the cross.
The Bible tells us something extraordinary happened on that cross.
The sins of the world, your sin and mine, were laid on Jesus shoulders. He lived the perfect life, perfectly fulfilling the law of God. He gave his life as a substitute for us. He took our sins so that he could give us his righteousness.
The result of that exchange is that whoever trusts in him can find what everyone is looking for – rest. The one who trusts in Jesus will find every sin forgiven, every demand of the law satisfied. They will find perfect rest.
Do you have that rest?
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown