Let us begin by quoting Mark 2:27-28. Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Sabbatarians generally make the following assumptions about this verse. They believe Jesus was commanding all people in all ages to observe the weekly Sabbath as “holy time.” They reason that the Sabbath law could be changed or eliminated only if Jesus had specifically stated here that it was abrogated. But, Sabbatarians claim, Jesus by his word and actions in Mark 2:27-28 was implying that the Sabbath must be observed by all human beings. Therefore, they conclude that this passage in Mark is, in effect, a command to observe the Sabbath.
Is that what Mark 2:27-28 tells us? Let’s look at the context of Mark 2 to see what Jesus’ purpose was in saying what he did in verses 27 and 28. One Sabbath, Jesus and the disciples were picking heads of grain (verse 23). Jesus’ action and that of his disciples was challenged by the Pharisees. “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” they demanded to know (verse 24). The Pharisees had set themselves up as religious authorities, defining what could or could not be done on the Sabbath.
Disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. Illustration by Gustave Dore
A question of how, not who
What the Pharisees objected to was Jesus and his disciples picking the heads of grain on the Sabbath. They regarded this as reaping. It was one of the many acts the teachers of the law had decided should be forbidden on the Sabbath. The people challenging Jesus in Mark 2 would all have rightly assumed that the Law of Moses commanded them to keep the Sabbath. As the old covenant people of God, they were obligated to observe it. The question for these people was how to keep it.
To answer this question, Jesus countered their challenge with a question, and an example of his own about David and his companions. He pointed out that on one occasion, because they were hungry, David and his companions ate the consecrated bread, which was unlawful for anyone but priests to eat (verses 25-26). Jesus was pointing out that while David technically broke the Law of Moses, he was not condemned, because such violations under certain conditions of need might be warranted. Jesus applied this principle to what he and the disciples were doing when they were picking the heads of grain on the Sabbath.
Jesus’ point was that although the action of David was contrary to the Law of Moses, he was not condemned for it. The issue in this passage, then, is how to interpret the Mosaic Law, and who has the authority to do so. Nothing is said about which group of people, or whether everyone, is commanded to keep the Sabbath.
To drive home this explanation regarding the purpose of the weekly rest day, Jesus said to the Pharisees: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” What was his point? It was not whether Christians – or everyone – or a limited group – must observe the old covenant Sabbath. That doesn’t come up at all in the conversation.
Jesus was talking to Jews under the old covenant. Jesus was a Jew, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4). Jesus kept the old covenant worship regulations.
The issue was how should the Sabbath law be interpreted and observed by those people, the Jews, to whom it applied. The Jewish teachers of the law, at least many of them, had made the Sabbath a burden for the people. Jesus was pointing out that human needs sometimes supersede legal requirements. His statement has no application to the question of whether Christians should or should not keep the Sabbath. The question was, “How should those who are required to keep the Sabbath (the Jews under the old covenant) do so?”
Made for human need
Jesus was saying that the Sabbath, under the old covenant, was meant to serve human needs, not the other way around, thus the use of the expression that the “Sabbath was made for man.” It was made for human need in a certain context, under the old covenant worship system as defined by the Law of Moses, until the Seed, Christ, should come.
Israelites were to rest from their work because they needed a rest from their agricultural toil. Through that rest they could worship God as the provider of all their needs, and as the God who had saved them from slave-like toil in Egypt. The Sabbath regulation was not given to Israel simply because God wanted people to keep religious rituals. It had a purpose for all those human beings to whom it was given. But it was given only to Israel under the old covenant.
Jews recognized that the Law of Moses, particularly its cultic observances such as weekly and annual Sabbaths, applied only to national Israel. Jewish rabbis understood that non-Jews did not need to keep the Law of Moses, including the Sabbath rest. This law was given to Israel alone, and only for as long as the old covenant was in force.
Lord of the Sabbath
In his conversation with the Pharisees in Mark 2, Jesus added another thought: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Why did Jesus say this? The issue was not about who should keep the Sabbath, but about who had authority or lordship in terms of deciding how it should be kept in the old covenant era. In the conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees, the question of “who” should keep the Sabbath never came up. Everyone understood that the Jews under the old covenant Law were the ones who should keep it. The question was: For those who were required to keep the Sabbath, how should they keep it – and who had the authority to determine how it should be kept?
The Pharisees, the religious leaders, had questioned Jesus’ authority on the matter of his disciples’ picking grain on the Sabbath. They had set themselves up above him on the issue of Sabbath interpretation. Yet, Jesus was the Word of God made flesh. Therefore, Jesus, God incarnate, had more authority than the Pharisees to decide how the Sabbath should be observed – again, under the circumstances where it was required. He was, after all, the Lord of the law that had commanded Sabbath observance for old covenant Israel.
Jesus’ statement says nothing about who should or should not keep the Sabbath. Of course Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. He is Lord of every command ever given by God – including all the 613 commands (by rabbinical count) of the Law of Moses. Jesus is also Lord of all time and all days of the week, including Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Jesus is, after all, Lord. But his being Lord of the Sabbath does not mean to say it is commanded for all people. The Lord of Israel was Lord of the law of circumcision, given as a sign to the children of Israel. But the fact that God was Lord of the circumcision law does not of itself imply that all human beings must keep it. In all cases, we have to know which of the laws apply to new covenant Christians.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in the late 1990s and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
Let us ask what has been and has not been said about the Sabbath in Mark 2:27. Jesus was addressing the Sabbath issue in the context of speaking to the religious leaders of old covenant Israel and the interpreters of the Law of Moses in his day. He was telling them as old covenant people how they should apply the law of the Sabbath, that is, with mercy and thought to human need. He was telling them he had the authority to define how they should observe the Sabbath.
What isn’t said here? The issue of whether Gentiles or Christians need to keep the Sabbath is not mentioned. Jesus is not commanding anyone to observe the Sabbath. That is not the question under debate in this verse. Therefore, we should not import this idea into this passage of Scripture. That is, we shouldn’t first assume that Christians must observe the Sabbath, and then claim that this idea is found in Mark 2:27-28, because it isn’t there.
To conclude, Jesus’ comments about the Sabbath being made for humanity reflect the idea that the Pharisees (as representatives of old covenant Israel) should have taught an enlightened Sabbath observance, not missing the reason why God gave the nation this holy time. Jesus’ statement about being the Lord of the Sabbath challenged the Pharisees’ attempt to subvert his authority in the matter and claim it for themselves.