Tom Wells’ book on the Sabbath: Chapter Three (V)

by | Jun 8, 2011 | Biblical Theology, Book Reviews, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Old Testament, Systematic Theology

Tom Wells’ book on the Sabbath: Chapter Three (IV)

Mark 2:23-28 narrates another incident between Jesus and his disciples and the Pharisees. Jesus was “passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain” (Mk. 2:23). The Pharisees said, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mk. 2:24). This is the regulating question Jesus answers in this passage. According to the Pharisees’ understanding, Christ’s disciples were violating the law of God by doing that which was, in their words, “not lawful on the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:24). Christ, as in Matt. 12:3-4, brings up the example of David and his companions entering the house of God and doing that “which [was] not lawful…” (Mk. 2:26). In Matt. 12:7, he pronounced his disciples innocent. In Matt. 12:12, Jesus said, “So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Though he does not pronounce his disciples innocent in Mark 2, he uses David and his companions as an example of someone in Scripture doing a similar thing his disciples were doing. It seems obvious that if his disciples were innocent in one text (Matt. 12), they are innocent in another (Mk. 2).[1] But how were they innocent? Did they, in fact, do that which was not lawful on the Sabbath? Obviously, Jesus did not think so in Matthew 12 or here. In Jesus’ mind, they did that which was lawful. It was lawful because God desires compassion or mercy over sacrifice (cf. Matt. 12:7). In other words, Jesus makes a distinction between aspects of the Old Testament’s laws. Mercy overrules the positive aspects of the Sabbath under the old covenant.[2]

In Mk. 2:27, Jesus does as Paul and Moses do elsewhere. He draws a principle from creation that is germane to mankind (cf. Exod. 20:8-11 and 1 Tim. 2:12-13). Mark 2:27-28 says, “And He said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.’” First, note that both man and Sabbath are said to be made. The verb used by Mark in v. 27, evge,neto (“made”), comes from gi,nomai, which means ‘to become’ or ‘to be.’ It is the same verb used in Jn. 1:3, where it is translated “made.” There it refers to the creation of all things through the Word. What Jesus is saying in Mk. 2:27 is that, in the past, both man and the Sabbath came into being (i.e., ‘were made’) and that coming into being is described by one verb. This leads us to the conclusion that man and Sabbath were made at the same time. It would be quite clumsy to separate the making of man and the making of the Sabbath by hundreds and maybe even thousands of years by placing the Sabbath’s birth after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in Exod. 16 or 20. Since we know that man was created (i.e., ‘came into being’) according to Gen. 1 and 2 in the Garden of Eden, Christ would have us to conclude that the Sabbath, as he refers to it here, was made at the same time and in the same place (cf. Exod. 20:11). This relates Christ’s teaching on the Sabbath with previous revelation.

Second, both Sabbath and man are singular and articular in the Greek text (To. sa,bbaton… to.n a;nqrwpon [“the Sabbath…the man”]). Both words occur twice in this verse and both words are preceded by an article each time. This is one way to emphasize both Sabbath and man. Jesus did not say “The Sabbath was made for the Jews” or “the Sabbaths[3] were made for the Jews.” He said “the Sabbath” was made for “the man.” “The man” refers either to Adam as the head of the human race or mankind. Either way, it is clear that Christ goes back to the creation account and sees both man and the Sabbath being made. In context, Christ not only corrects the Pharisees for misunderstanding the Sabbath (Mk. 2:23-24), he, in effect, rebukes their narrow-minded and unbiblical approach to this issue. Jesus teaches us that the Sabbath is not unique to the Jews. God caused it to come into being as he caused Adam and all mankind to come into being for his glory and their good. The Sabbath is as old as man, according to Christ, not merely as old as the Jews. Again, this relates Christ’s teaching with previous revelation.

Third, the Sabbath is said to have been “made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Two observations are worthy to consider. First, “[t]he Sabbath was made for man.” It was not made for God. God does not need a Sabbath. We do. It was made by God for our good. Second, man was not made “for the Sabbath.” Man existed first. His needs existed before the Sabbath did. The Sabbath came into being to serve man’s needs to be like God and to enjoy him. We don’t serve the Sabbath, it serves us so we can serve God better. Again, this relates Christ’s teaching with previous revelation.

Fourth, Christ puts his stamp of Messianic lordship on the Sabbath that was made at creation. “Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:28). This provides us with the expectation that the Sabbath will abide under his lordship and will take on characteristics appropriate to this lordship under the new covenant (cf. Rev. 1:10). John Murray comments:

 

What the Lord is affirming is that the Sabbath has its place within the sphere of his messianic lordship and that he exercises lordship over the Sabbath because the Sabbath was made for man. Since he is Lord of the Sabbath it is his to guard it against those distortions and perversions with which Pharisaism had surrounded it and by which its truly beneficent purpose has been defeated. But he is also its Lord to guard and vindicate its permanent place within that messianic lordship which he exercises over all things–he is Lord of the Sabbath, too. And he is Lord of it, not for the purpose of depriving men of that inestimable benefit which the Sabbath bestows, but for the purpose of bringing to the fullest realization on behalf of men that beneficent design for which the Sabbath was instituted. If the Sabbath was made for man, and if Jesus is the Son of man to save man, surely the lordship which he exercises to that end is not to deprive man of that which was made for his good, but to seal to man that which the Sabbath institution involves. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath–we dare not tamper with his authority and we dare not misconstrue the intent of his words.[4]

It is clear from the text in Daniel, where the phrase “Son of Man” comes from, that it refers to Christ in the posture of enthronement, immediately following his ascension into glory and is a title appropriate for him during the days in which he is given a kingdom and the nations become his.

I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14)

In other words, Christ administrates the Sabbath as the Son of Man during the whole interadvental period–the days of the new covenant. This relates Chris’s teaching on the Sabbath with both previous and future revelation. Christ’s lordship over the Sabbath also implies Christ’s deity. The Sabbath is God’s (Isa. 56:4; 58:13). Since Christ is Lord of the Sabbath as Son of Man and since this title is his during the inter-advental days of the new covenant, then we should not be shocked if the Sabbath bears unique characteristics of his lordship under the new covenant. Patrick Fairbairn says:

He is Lord of the Sabbath, and, as such, has a right to order everything concerning it, so as to make it, in the fullest sense, a day of blessing for man–a right, therefore, if He should see fit, to transfer its observance from the last day of the week to the first, that it might be associated with the consummation of His redemptive work, and to make it, in accordance with the impulsive life and energy thereby brought in, more than in the past, a day of active and hallowed employment for the good of men.[5]

Jesus (Matt. 19:4-5 [and Mk. 2:27-28]), Paul (1 Tim. 2:12-13), and Moses (Exod. 20:11) argue in similar fashion. Each of them goes back to the creation account for the basis of ethics in terms of marriage, divorce, male/female roles in the church, and Sabbath. They all apply the same reasoning, though to different issues. If the basis for their argument is creation, and if creation transcends covenants and cultures, how can we not conclude that what they are arguing for applies to all men at all times, though dependant upon revelation from God in terms of specific application at any given point in redemptive history? In other words, though the application may vary due to various redemptive-historical situations (i.e., divorce permitted due to the entrance of sin, 7th day Sabbath to 1st day Sabbath/Lord’s Day, etc.), the principle itself stands. And the reason why it stands is due to the order and ethical implications of creation drawn out by the Bible itself.

If the principle applies to marriage, divorce, and male/female roles in the church, then doesn’t it still apply to the Sabbath as well? If it does not apply to the Sabbath, upon what grounds is the principle dismissed? If one says, “The Sabbath was an ordinance for the Jews only. It was theirs’ as God’s old covenant people to apply to their culture alone in the Promised Land,” then couldn’t someone argue the same for male/female roles in the church? They could say, “Paul was dealing with a culture-relative issue. His reasoning applied to that culture alone. Women, therefore, may have authority over men in the church and may teach and preach to them. Women may be pastors.” Some in our day argue this way. But when the Bible bases ethics upon creation, the principle applies to all cultures at all times. And until this age gives way to the fullness of the age to come, creation-based ethics (i.e., creation ordinances) are moral laws for all men.


[1] If Matthew utilized Mark, it could be that he filled out the incident for his own purposes. If Mark used Matthew, it could be that he trimmed the incident because he knew Matthew had dealt with it in detail. If the Gospel writers wrote independent of each other based on eye-witness accounts, each one wrote what they did for authorial purposes. Either way, both texts were inspired by God and can and ought to be used to interpret each other.

[2] See the Second London Baptist Confession, 22:7, where it acknowledges that the Sabbath is “a positive moral, and perpetual commandment…” I take this to mean that the Sabbath can and does take upon itself temporary aspects (i.e., positive laws) during the history of redemption, which can and do change, yet its essence is moral or perpetual. This means that its positive aspects may give way to the moral or perpetual aspects of God’s law.

[3] The Jews under the old covenant had both a weekly Sabbath and other non-weekly Sabbaths.

[4] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. I (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 208.

[5] Fairbairn, Revelation of Law, 238.

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