This passage opens with Jesus simply walking through a field with His disciples. Mark, along with the other gospel writers, takes note of several times when Jesus is just walking along, going from one place to another, and along the way things happen and lives are changed. Recall the time Jesus was walking along on His way to raise a young girl from the dead when the woman with the issue of blood came up in the crowd, touched the hem of His garment, and was instantly healed. Recall when Jesus was walking down the Road to Emmaus and came upon two travelers, explained the Scriptures to them, and revealed Himself as the Risen Lord. Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee when He encountered Levi and called Him to be His disciple. Even the action of Jesus passing by brings about transformation. His passing alone stirs things up! He passes by and calls us to Himself; He walks through grain fields and, through his call, divides the whole human race between those who will follow Him, and those who refuse to follow. Here, He is simply walking and yet He finds Himself in the midst of one of the most controversial topics of His day: the proper way to observe the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is interwoven into the very fabric of creation itself. At the dawn of creation, God established the Sabbath when He rested on the seventh day. When the Scriptures say that God rested, it certainly does not mean that God was exhausted or tired after creating the world. It is impossible for God to be tired or to need rest. Sabbath does not mean to rest so much as it means to cease. God ceased His work in order that He might enjoy a creation of His own making that He called “very good.” Unlike the other six days of creation which all came to an end, the seventh day was never brought to an end. It was never intended to end. The Sabbath was not so much a “day” as a condition – a time to cease and to celebrate God’s rule. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule in the Fall, they broke the Sabbath condition and brought the seventh day to an end. They fell, not just by violating some minor offense, but by shattering the ongoing celebration of God’s rule and reign that lay at the heart of the Garden of Eden.
With this background in mind, there are three important points about the Sabbath that come from this text. First, the Sabbath is not just about our not doing something. It is not just about inactivity. That is the very problem Jesus encountered with the Pharisees in this text, who had made the Sabbath into a legalism of “not doing.” Instead, the Mosaic law called for the Jews to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Moses was not establishing something new, but rather calling us to remember what once was. It is a weekly reminder that the world today is not as it should be, that we have all been touched by the Fall, and we long for the day when God’s Sabbath reign will be reestablished in the New Creation. We honor the Sabbath and keep it holy by remembering what the world was like before we messed it up with sin. We cease from our labors so that we can remember why we work the other six days and recognize that the most important things that happen in our lives are the things that happen through God’s work.
Second, the Sabbath is our weekly opportunity to break our trust in work. The Pharisees had missed this entirely because they turned their inactivity on the Sabbath into a “work” that they trusted to establish their own self-righteousness. Jesus makes it clear that the Sabbath is not an obligation which we grudgingly undertake to make God happy. The Sabbath rest is God’s gift to us. As verse 27 points out, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus is saying that we’ve gotten it turned the wrong way around. We’ve turned the Sabbath into a law of inactivity which is somehow going to gain us favor before God. In fact, the Sabbath has little to do with our not working, but with God’s ongoing work in our lives. It is a day to quit trusting in our works and allow God to work. The reason we cease from our labors one day of the week is because we need to take time to remember. It is a weekly reminder of our dependence on God. For most of us, our work gives us three things: our self worth, our sustenance, and our sense of independence. The Sabbath reminds us that our self worth comes first and foremost from God, that He is our provider and sustainer, and that we are totally dependent upon Him. Breaking our weekly trust in work actually enables us to work better and more effectively the other six days because it is now kept in the proper perspective.
Third, the Sabbath is a celebration of the resurrection and the future re-establishment of the Sabbath. In the Old Testament, the fourth commandment looked backwards at the original creation and how God ceased his work on the seventh day. In the New Testament, the Christians wisely shifted the focus from the seventh day to the first day of the week, which was the day of the resurrection of Christ. By doing this, they were looking forward to Christ’s second coming and the New Creation when the Sabbath reign of God will be re-established. We no longer look back and remember what should have been; instead, we look forward and eagerly await the new heavens and the new earth. In Christ, we see the in-breaking of these future realities and a foretaste of the health and wholeness and full reign of the Kingdom that is to come. The man with the withered hand who comes forward in this passage is a picture of all of us, crippled by the Fall and withering away because of sin. When Jesus heals him, He is not breaking the Sabbath. Rather, the Sabbath is breaking into this man’s life! Whenever Christ moves in our lives, He’s inbreaking into our lives with a glimpse of the true Sabbath! He’s giving us a glimpse of what life under God’s Sabbath reign is like, the true rule of God where sin and decay have no hold. Jesus embodies the very essence of what Sabbath is – the rule and reign of God perfectly demonstrated in the life of the Son of God. A whole new life is present in the person of Jesus, a life that reverses death and decay, a life that gives a foretaste and a glimpse of what God’s rule is like.
Unfortunately, the Pharisees miss this altogether. All they can see is that Jesus is breaking their legalistic rules of what should and should not be done on the Sabbath. This is one of the few times in the New Testament which records that Jesus was angry. His was not the kind of sinful anger which we have, but rather a true righteous anger that the Pharisees have so blindly missed the very point of the Sabbath. It is not a day to get lost in a legalistic debate about what constitutes work, but rather a day to celebrate God doing that which we cannot do. It is a day to regain proper perspective on our lives, and thus carry that perspective into the work of the days ahead. It is a day to celebrate God’s reign and rule in the world, and to look forward to the consummation of that reality. While the Pharisees were lost in their web of regulations and requirements for the Sabbath, they missed what was right in front of their eyes: the very embodiment of the Sabbath of God, the inbreaking of that great reality which they, as the religious leaders, should have been seeking. They missed the Lord of the Sabbath Himself.