What does it mean that Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath? Most people who call themselves Christians today are virulently opposed to the seventh Day Sabbath as was commanded by God. There are a variety of reasons for this hostility, ranging from simple ignorance to anti-Semitism to a deliberate hatred of the liberty that the Sabbath stands for. All of these aspects are worthy of discussion, though to keep this blog entry at a reasonable length I would like to focus today on a much narrower subject, and that is what it means for Jesus Christ to be the Lord of the Sabbath, along with the implications and context of that statement within the Renewed Covenant texts.
The Son Of Man Is Lord Even Of The Sabbath
Three times in the Gospels the statement of made by Jesus Christ that He is the Lord of the Sabbath. Clearly, if the Sabbath was not an important matter, this subject would not have been deemed worthy of being mentioned three times among all of the incidents of Jesus Christ’s ministry. Clearly, the repetition of this statement in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is significant, and it suggests that the Sabbath is greatly important to God, even though the Sabbath was an aspect of God’s law that the Jews of Jesus’ time thought (incorrectly) that they understood well at the time. Let us look at the three passages in which Jesus Christ states that He is the Lord of the Sabbath and then examine the elements we see when we combine all of the stories together.
Matthew 12:1-8 reads: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Mark 2:23-28 reads as follows: “Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples went out to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbraed, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” 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.”
And Luke 6:1-5 reads: “Now it happened on the second Sabbath after the first that He went through the grainfields. And His disciples plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands. And some of the Pharisees said to them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” But Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read this, what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God, took and ate the showbread, and also gave some to those with him, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat?” And He said to them, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
Combined, these three stories paint an intriguing picture. First, the Sabbath that this occurred was the second Sabbath during the Feast of Weeks, the only time where Sabbaths are counted in scripture (see Leviticus 23:15), at the beginning of the grain harvest. The disciples of Jesus Christ were hungry, picked up some of the heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands to get rid of the husks, and then ate the heads of grain raw. The Pharisees, who considered this to be “harvesting” and therefore one of their 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath, questioned Jesus as to the lack of Sabbath obedience among His disciples.
This scene, which featured dramatically different ideas about the Sabbath between the Pharisees (whose heirs are in Orthodox Judaism, focused on questions of halakha), and Jesus Christ, who wished to point the law-obsessed Pharisees to the real point of the Sabbath. The three accounts together give the following parts of Jesus’ argument about the correctness of the behavior of the disciples, which we will shortly examine in greater detail: cases of genuine need (like hunger) trump narrow interpretations of biblical law, using the example of David and his men eating the showbread in 1 Samuel 21, how the priests doing the spiritual work of God in the temple profane the Sabbath by so working (a reference to the law in Numbers 28:9, how God desired mercy and not sacrifice (a reference to Hosea 6:6), and the fact that the Sabbath was made for mankind and not mankind for the Sabbath (a reference back to the Creation account in Genesis 2:2-3 where the Sabbath was established by God resting after all of His works were finished). It is in light of that full argument that Jesus says that the Son of Man (as the Creator God) is therefore Lord of the Sabbath (see John 1:1-3), based on the ownership rights of the Creator. And therefore the interpretation of Jesus Christ is superior to the interpretations of the various rabbis of the school of the Pharisees, since the Creator is superior to the creation.
Examining Jesus’ Case For Being Lord Of The Sabbath
Let us therefore now examine the Messiah’s case for being Lord of the Sabbath. This claim rests on four elements. The first is a reference to the permission He gave the high priest Abimelech in the time of David to disregard the law that limited showbread to the priests alone because of the humanitarian need of David and his men, who were hungry. The second is a reference to the fact that the commanded labor of priests on the Sabbath profanes the Sabbath (technically, because no work is allowed), but the priests are blameless because they are serving God. The third is a reference to the prophet Hosea, who stated under divine inspiration that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, more concerned about the heart than the mere form of obedience. Finally, Jesus pointed to the fact that the Sabbath was created by God for man as legitimizing His own position as Lord of the Sabbath, with the right to provide the definitive interpretation of how the Sabbath is to be kept. Let us examine each of these elements to Jesus’ argument in turn.
First, let us examine 1 Samuel 21:1-6, which talks about how David obtained the showbread from the priests at Nob. 1 Samuel 21:1-6 reads: “Now David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech was afraid when he met David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one is with you? So David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you or what I have commanded you.’ And I have directed my young men to such and such a place. Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or anything that can be found.” And the priest answered David and said, “There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.” Then David answered the priest, and said to him, “Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was consecrated in the vessel this day.” So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away.”
Now, let us note that it was contrary to the strict letter of biblical law for David and his men to be given the showbread, even though it had been replaced by new bread. Even though the showbread was baked by Levites of the Sons of Korah (see 1 Chronicles 9:31-32), it was only permissible for priests to eat according to Leviticus 24:5-9, which reads: “And you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it. Two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. You shall set them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure gold table before Lord. And you shall put pure frankincense on each row, that it may be on the bred for a memorial, an offering made by fire to the Lord. Every Sabbath he shall set it in order before the Lord continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the offerings of the Lord made by fire, by a perpetual statute.”
Let us note that even though the law about the showbread indicated that it was for the priests, the sons of Aaron, that the law could be set aside because of humanitarian concerns, provided that rigorous standards of ritual purity were met (see also Exodus 19:15 for a similar prohibition made on ceremonially defilement through sex for common Israelites to come near to God before the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant at Mount Sinai). Interestingly enough, it would appear that 1 Samuel 21 occurred on a Sabbath day as well, making the analogy between the situation of David and his young men with the disciples of Jesus Christ particularly close, since the fact that the showbread had been replaced that day when the showbread was to be set in order on the Sabbath suggests that the day referred to when the old showbread had been “consecreted that day” but replaced by new bread was itself the Sabbath. It is rather telling that the Pharisees, so concerned with obedience to law in its technical form, would completely disregard the fact that the law was designed to serve man instead of providing an excuse not to help him.
Next, we see that Jesus Christ stated that the priests profaned the Sabbath but were blameless. How did the priests profane the Sabbath? Well, they worked on the Sabbath. An example of the work they did on the Sabbath is written in Numbers 28:9-10: “And on the Sabbath day two lambs in their first year, without blemish, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with oil, with its drink offering–this is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering with its drink offering.” Here we see that the priests were commanded by God to profane the Sabbath through performing the work of sacrifice. Other Levites were commanded to sing and guard the gates on the Sabbath, and they were held blameless because their service was to God and was not servile labor for others. The same would apply to all those who work as modern-day Levites today in areas such as hall setup/takedown, valet service , ushering, security, sound, music, or speaking for church services. Here we see another “exception” to the fact that we are not to work on the Sabbath, in that service to God and the people of God is not prohibited, even if work for economic gain and profit is forbidden, a line we must be very careful not to cross. We are not forbidden to find godly pleasure, but rather to pursue our own personal profit or exploit the labor of others on God’s time.
Next, let us examine the third argument that Jesus makes to support His claims to being Lord of the Sabbath, a reference to Hosea 6:6, which states “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice ,and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” What this means is that while ceremonial worship practices are vital, they are not sympathetic magic that can be performed to gain God’s favor in the absence of faith and obedience. God is insulted by ceremonial practices practiced in precisely perfect form by those whose hearts and minds and spirits are far from God’s ways, and who present themselves to be models of godly obedience. It is for this reason that Jesus Christ was so offended by the practices of the Pharisees in particular, not because of any hostility to His own laws, but because of how they had been twisted and corrupted by a shame religiosity absent a genuinely repentant attitude or a compassionate love for one’s fellow man, especially struggling and suffering fellow man.
Finally, let us examine the last argument that Jesus Christ uses to bolster his claim to be the Lord of the Sabbath, a claim based on the fact that the Sabbath was created for all mankind. Rather than being a special celebration only for the privileged Jews, the Sabbath was designed as the culmination of creation for mankind to enjoy a relationship with their creator, as God rested after having created mankind, so that men and women could rest themselves (see Genesis 2:2-3). Since God is the Creator of the world and the people in it, He has the authority to set boundaries on their labor, and to provide opportunities to limit their exploitation by others.
Not surprisingly, it is the fact that the Sabbath is to provide liberty from such exploitation, in weekly liberty in a day of rest, annual Holy Days where the wealthy are commanded to share with the poor and landless (see Deuteronomy 14:27-29), Sabbath years where debts are forgiven, and a Jubilee year where Israelite servants were freed and where land was restored to the common people instead of being hoarded by elites , that some people who wish to exploit the poor are so hostile towards. But the fact that the Sabbath was about liberty and grace and removing the burdens from others points out the fact that Jesus Christ’s claiming the proper title of Lord of the Sabbath was concerned with making sure that the Sabbath would serve its true purpose rather than be corrupted to serve as a burden for precisely those people it was meant to help.
It ought to be obvious in the foregoing that Jesus’ claiming of the title Lord of the Sabbath was a statement of the massive importance of the Sabbath in providing a way for God’s grace to be manifest on earth through the generosity and graciousness of believers in their practice toward their brethren and neighbors and strangers among them. This graciousness (commanded by God, to be sure) was designed to show humanity how good and how pleasant God’s ways are, how much more wonderful they are compared to the degradation suffered by mankind being exploited 24-7-365 for the benefit of others without rest, without hope of having one’s debts or mistakes forgiven, or without a hope of a clean slate and a second change to live life correctly. All of this was provided by the Sabbath as God designed it, but not as the Pharisees have corrupted it. Nonetheless, the whole argument between the Pharisees and Jesus Christ, in this matter and others (including healing on the Sabbath) presuppose the importance of and the divinely commanded nature of the Sabbath. The controversy exists solely on the level of a serious disagreement about the purposes and practices that are proper on what is recognized by both Jesus Christ and the Pharisees as a divinely commanded day of Sabbath rest. And since Jesus Christ’s title of Lord of the Sabbath as well as His defense of the purposes of the Sabbath for grace and liberty presuppose that the Sabbath remains for the people of God (see Hebrews 4:9), anyone who is a true worshiper of Christ will appreciate and love the seventh day Sabbath as it was practiced and defended by Jesus Christ.
Examining The Context
The importance of the Sabbath in lessening the burdens of believers becomes even more obvious when one examines the context of Jesus’ claim to be Lord of the Sabbath. Let us examine both the close and the larger context of this statement, looking both for the near context that shows that Jesus Christ was very self-aware in seeking to point the Sabbath toward a freeing of believers from burdens rather than placing burdens on others, and a larger context that connects Jesus’ title as the Lord of the Sabbath with a title given to Him in James 5 by his half-brother as the Lord of Sabaoth (the Lord of Hosts).
The close context of Matthew 12:1-8 includes two passages, Matthew 11:25-30 and Matthew 12:8-14. Matthew 11:25-30 reads as follows: “At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by the Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Just before showing the proper role of the Sabbath in providing freedom for mankind, Jesus proclaims that his yoke and burden is light–a burden that includes the Sabbath and its commands to free others of their burdens to us, whether those burdens are laboring for our profit the entire week, owing us debts for past sins or economic mistakes. We are to lighten the burdens on others just as Jesus Christ promises us that through obedience to the Sabbath as He had created it that we would find true rest for our bodies and spirits.
And in Matthew 12:9-14 we see a practical demonstration of how Jesus Christ intended the Sabbath day to free people from their burdens: “Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”–that they might accuse Him. Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him. Here we see that while Jesus Christ used the Sabbath as an opportunity to set believers free from their burdens of sickness and infirmity (burdens many of us know all too well), the Pharisees used the Sabbath to plot Jesus’ death and destruction because He had shown them to be hard-hearted hypocrites, willing to save their own sheep on the Sabbath but not to do good for their fellow man on the Sabbath in order to feign righteousness for a pretended respect of the Sabbath commandment of God.
The close context to Mark 2:23-28 includes two passages, one of which, Mark 2:18-22, is a comment about fasting, where Jesus Christ states in almost so many words that His disciples would not fast regularly while He was around them but that they would fast when He was gone. The other passage in the near context, Mark 3:1-6, relays the same miracle of healing the man with the withered hand as we just examined above in Matthew 12:9-14. Slightly earlier, in Mark 2:-12, Jesus Christ heals a paralytic man of his sins and tells him to pick up his pallet (a fairly light burden), and graciously calls Matthew, a tax collector, as a disciple, showing grace to a particularly hated member of his society. Tax collectors in general are not beloved by many, but they are by Jesus Christ, another example of His love and grace within the context of His dispute with the Pharisees about the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath as an instrument of grace rather than a burden for believers. And in Luke we have the same close context as in Mark, with a question about fasting in Luke 5:33-39 and the healing of the man with the withered right hand in Luke 6:6-11.
Let us conclude our examination on the larger context of Jesus Christ’s position as Lord of the Sabbath by examining an unusual punning title given to Jesus Christ by his half-brother James in James 5:1-6: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.”
Here we see that it is the exploitation and greed and corruption of the ungodly wealthy that James harshly condemns. The behavior practiced by the wealthy of James 5:1-6, which mirrors the behavior of many of the wealthy in our day and age as well as throughout human history, who use their wealth and power to exploit others, corrupt governments for their own profit and cheating their creditors while squeezing their own debtors, who hoard up gold and silver and other resources for themselves while letting others suffer misery without compassion, is the exact opposite of the behavior and attitude of the Lord of the Sabbath, who came to set men free from their burdens rather than to treat them as beasts of burdens and mere cattle. For their exploitation and hard-heartedness, James pronounces a divinely inspired curse on them for failing to show grace and love for their poorer neighbors, even to the extent of cheating them out of their hard-earned wages. Just as Jesus Christ promises to lighten the burden on the poor (both physically and spiritually speaking), He promises vengeance on those who have abused their wealth and position. Let us show mercy and grace to others, freeing others from their burdens even as we seek to reduce our own, seeing as we are all in need of forgiveness of our sins and our own debts and freedom from our own burdens from the Lord of the Sabbath and the Lord of Sabaoth.
In examining Jesus’ claim to be the Lord of the Sabbath both in its content as well as in its context, we see that the Sabbath was a sign of liberty and freedom from burdens to Jesus Christ, rather than being a burden for believers. We have seen that Jesus’ legitimacy in claiming the title of Lord of the Sabbath is due to the fact that the law and the Sabbath were both designed to serve man rather than being an excuse to deny help to those who are suffering and in need. Additionally, the fact that Jesus Christ came to free mankind (and that the Sabbath is a sign of grace and freedom) is related to the fact that Jesus Christ will come as the Lord of Sabaoth to bring judgment and vengeance on those who exploit and take advantage of others contrary to God’s commanded Sabbath rest. Let us therefore find the true Sabbath rest of Jesus Christ in a proper and gracious and loving obedience to the often-neglected Fourth commandment, so that we may be loyal and obedient subjects of the Lord of the Sabbath.
 I am not joking about this. My “home” congregation has some serious parking difficulties and a fairly elderly population, so among the services provided by the congregation for its elders is valet service where brethren are dropped off and picked up at the door while their car is taken by a member of the congregation to the somewhat distant parking spaces.