The Lord of the Sabbath
“And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.”
We have before us a remarkable scene in the earthly life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was early in the morning on Saturday, the sabbath day, the appointed day of worship for the Jews in the Old Testament. Our Lord Jesus and his disciples were, in all likelihood, on their way to a place of public worship. As they walked to the place of worship, they passed through a field of corn. As they walked along, the disciples began to pick a few ears of corn. They rubbed the corn in their hands, I presume to get the grain out and soften it up a little.
To them, it was a totally insignificant thing. They made no attempt to hide or cover their actions because they never gave the matter a thought. But when the Pharisees saw the Lord’s disciples picking corn on the sabbath day, they jumped on them like ducks on June-bugs. Immediately, they accused them to the Lord, as if they had committed some terribly evil moral offense.
“Why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” The answer our Master gave to these self-righteous, work mongers is full of wise instruction for our souls. We should study the passage with care and lay its teachings to heart.
The first thing that is obvious in these verses is the fact that self-righteous, religious legalists are always quick to spot and point the faults of others.
“And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” (vv. 23-24)
These Pharisees represent the very worst of religious men. They were mere ceremonialists and legalists. They cherished the outward shell and show of religion. They loved it so much that they added laws to the laws given by God to Moses and ceremonies to God’s appointed symbolic and typical ceremonies. Their godliness was all form and formality, creed and custom. For them washings and fastings, tithings and forms of prayers, pageantry and ceremonies were holiness. Their godliness was all bodily exercise and will worship. They knew absolutely nothing of repentance, faith, and mercy. People who have obtained mercy are merciful. Those who have experienced forgiveness are forgiving. Those who know grace are gracious.
Our Lord plainly told the Pharisees that if they had known anything of true godliness, they would not have condemned the guiltless. — “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).
But the disciples had done nothing wrong. The Savior said they were guiltless in doing what they did. The Pharisees simply presumed that since it was commonly thought to be wrong, since it broke their traditions, it was horribly wrong. Let us watch and pray, lest we fall into the wickedness of the Pharisees. The leaven of the Pharisees, which our Lord warned us to beware of, is that subtle self-righteousness that makes sinners think they are righteous because of what they do and do not do. Only self-righteous Pharisees and legalists spy on one another. Only self-righteous Pharisees and legalists are quick to point out the faults and offenses of others. Only self-righteous Pharisees and legalists seek to regulate the lives of others.
The second thing I want us to see from this passage is the fact that, as believers, we should always be able to defend our doctrine and our behavior from the Word of God. If our doctrine is not Bible doctrine it is false doctrine.
Our Lord’s reply to these carping Pharisees was taken directly from the Word of God. He was thoroughly familiar with Holy Scriptures. I realize that he is the Author as well as the Subject of this Book. Yet, his example here, as always, is a pattern for us to follow. He defended his disciples and defended them in their behavior from the Word of God.
“And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?” (vv. 25-26)
In spiritual and doctrinal matters nothing is so powerful a defense, nothing is so powerful a weapon to stop the mouths of gainsayers as the plain texts of Scripture, where the meaning is so obvious that it cannot be mistaken.
In all points of doctrine and behavior our only authority, our only basis of conduct is the inspired Word of God. In spiritual matters we have no right to believe or do anything for which we are not able to point to the Word of God and say, “This is why!” We ought to be able to comfortably show from the Word of God the reason of our hope, the reason for our doctrine, and the reason for our ordinances.
The only way we will be able to use the Word of God this way is by making ourselves personally acquainted with its contents. Do not be content with secondhand knowledge and secondhand religion. Study the Word of God for yourself. Read it diligently, perseveringly, and prayerfully, carefully comparing scripture with scripture (John 5:39; 2 Timothy 2:15). J. C. Ryle rightly observed…
“There is no royal road to the knowledge of the Bible. It does not come to man by intuition. The book must be studied, pondered, prayed over, searched into, and not left always lying on a shelf, or carelessly looked at now and then.”
Our Savior’s allusion to the hunger of David and his companions in eating the showbread opens a blessed spiritual application before us. This gospel day in which we live is day of our High Priest, of whom Abiathar and his days were but a shadow. And the Lord Jesus has made all his redeemed both kings and priests unto the Father (Revelation 1:6). On the Lord’s day, or any day, when hungry souls gather in the house of God seeking Christ, the true Showbread (the Bread of Life), the Master’s servants are to always spread the gospel feast. Where else should the hungry soul go for spiritual sustenance, but to the house of God? When our Lord Jesus, of whom David was a type, comes to his house with two or three gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20), he spreads a feast of fat things before them and says, “Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved” (Song of Solomon 5:1). Then the hungry soul is fed from the Master’s table.
A third thing that may be observed from this passage is the fact that apparent discrepancies in the Word of God are easily cleared when thoughtfully considered. Though you may have missed the fact that, while Mark identifies the High Priest in David’s day as a man named Abiathar, in the book of 1 Samuel he is called Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:6). Others have pointed to this as one of many things they see as discrepancies in the Bible. Believers do not quickly spot such apparent discrepancies in the blessed Book, because we do not look for them. But many look for an excuse for their skepticism. They point to this text and say, “There, you see, Mark goofed up. How can you say the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, when it contains such errors?”
Let me assure you first that such apparent discrepancies in the Word of God are not accidental. This Word of God is deliberately written to confuse rebels who will not bow to Christ. For those who are determined to go to hell, who are too smart to live by faith, who are too sophisticated to trust a crucified Substitute, God has put plenty of stumbling stones in the road to keep them tripped up. When God sends blindness, he sends total blindness.
Yet, that which seems a discrepancy to the infidel is easily cleared for the believer. There are two very likely reasons why Mark and Samuel may have used different names in their accounts of David going into the house of the High Priest and eating the showbread. First, there may have been, as was sometimes the case, two men serving as the High Priest at that time (2 Samuel 8:17). If that were the case, both may well have acted together in providing the showbread to David and his men; and it would be altogether proper, when describing the matter, to use either name. Second, and in my opinion most likely, Ahimelech had a second name, by which he was commonly called, Abiathar.
Lord of the Sabbath
The fourth thing revealed in this passage is the fact that Christ our Savior is the Lord of the sabbath.
“And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (vv. 27-28).
There is a great depth of spiritual truth in these two verses, truths that simply must be understood and remembered by us. They are set before us in three, crystal clear, simple statements. I do not doubt that neither the Pharisees nor the Lord’s disciples understood them at the time. But there is no reason for confusion in these matters today. The Holy Spirit has now taken the things of Christ and shown their meaning in the Apostolic Epistles. Let’s look at these three statements, one by one.
Theologians, commentators, and preachers labor, and dig, and study, and work very hard to make that statement seem confusing. It is not confusing at all. When God established the sabbath day, he established it for the benefit of man. It was made to help, not to hurt, man. God instituted the sabbath observance of the Old Testament for exactly the same reason he instituted the temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifices of that typical age. He did it to portray to man the way of salvation and life by faith in Christ.
The sabbath was made for man. It was made to be a day of rest, pointing to the blessed rest of faith we find in Christ, who is our Rest, our Sabbath (Isaiah 28:12; Psalm 116:7). “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9); and Christ is that Rest. Just as a man, in keeping the sabbath ceased from his own works, trusting God to provide everything he needed, so we come to Christ, ceasing from our own works, trusting him alone for everything. Resting in him, we keep the sabbath of faith (Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:7-10).
When our Lord says the sabbath was made for man, we must never imagine that it was made for all men. The Scriptures are explicitly clear in telling us that the sabbath was made for the Jews of the Mosaic dispensation, who were the typical people of God. It was never given to or required of Gentiles (Exodus 31:16-17). Not only did the ancient Jews never require Gentiles to keep the sabbath, they positively forbade sabbath day observance by Gentiles. And our Lord Jesus Christ is the Sabbath Rest made for the Israel of God.
Though the Lord God himself kept a sabbath of rest, after creating the heavens and the earth, he never required Sabbath keeping of anyone until the law was given to Moses and the children of Israel at Sinai.
Understand the meaning of this. Men and women worshipped and served God for hundreds, even thousands of years, without being under laws of sabbath keeping, or any other form of law for that matter. Enoch walked with God; but he never kept a sabbath day. Noah was a righteous man; but he never observed a sabbath. Abraham was the friend of God; but he never kept a sabbath day.
“Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (v. 2:28). The simple, clear, and obvious meaning of this sentence is that he who is the Christ of God instituted the sabbath, fulfilled the sabbath, dispensed with the sabbath, and abrogated the sabbath in exactly the same way and to exactly the same degree as he did all the other carnal ordinances, rituals, and ceremonies of the legal dispensation.
You may be thinking, “If that is the case, then we ought never keep a legal, ceremonial sabbath day.” If so, you are exactly right. Sabbath day observance is expressly and positively forbidden in the New Testament, just as much so as Passover observance (Galatians 4:10-11; Colossians 2:16-17).
As we have seen already, sabbath observance was never binding upon Gentiles. “And believers in Christ,” wrote John Gill, “be they who they will are by no means obliged to it, nor ought they to observe it. Should it be imposed upon them, they ought to reject it. Should they be judged, censored, and condemned for so doing, they ought not to mind it.”
Christ, who is the Lord of the sabbath is himself our Sabbath. We keep no Sabbath, but the sabbath of faith. We do so because this is what our God requires of us. Not only are we free from the law in Christ, it is our responsibility to live as free men and women in him. To do otherwise is to deny his finished work as our Substitute, Redeemer, and Savior (Romans 10:4; Galatians 5:1-4).
The sabbath day, that day of rest,
Was sanctified and blest
To point us to our Savior Christ,
In whom alone is rest.
That legal sabbath ended when
Christ died and rose again.
Yet, there’s a sabbath that remains,
A rest that’s found in Him.
“Come unto Me,” the Savior said,
“And I will give you rest.”
O weary sinners, cease from works,
Trust Christ and find sweet rest.
Ah, sweet refreshment for my soul,
The rest of faith is rest!
Ceasing from works, I trust God’s Son,
Christ is my Sabbath Rest!
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 We observe the sabbath of faith, a spiritual sabbath rest in Christ, and live in the hope and anticipation of a glorious, eternal sabbath rest with Christ (Hebrews 4:3-9); but there is absolutely no sense in which we keep a carnal, legal sabbath day in this age of grace. The New Testament clearly forbids the observance of such sabbath days, which were but “a shadow of things to come” (Colossians 2:16-17). Believers commonly gather in the house of God and worship on Sunday, which is called “the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10), because our Savior arose on the first day of the week; but Sunday is not the Sabbath.
Why are we so insistent and dogmatic about this? Because Christ, who is the Lord of the sabbath, is Christ our Sabbath. For us to go back to keeping a sabbath day, as the Jews did in the Old Testament, or for us to put on the yoke of legal religion, is to say that Christ fulfilled nothing. Legalism is, in its essence, a denial of Christ’s finished work as the sinners’ Substitute. That was the reason for Paul’s strong denunciation of Peter’s behavior at Antioch.
 The Jerusalem Council’s recommendations said nothing about sabbath day observance (Acts 15). If ever the practice of sabbath keeping was to be imposed upon Gentiles that is the place where it would have been done.