Read This Page in My Language
What is the Sabbath? Before I answer that question, we first need to understand why God gave us the Commandments. He gave them for our benefit, not for his own. Take, for example, the fifth commandment: Do not murder. Nobody can murder God, but we can murder people, and people can murder us. Hence, the command: do not murder.
The Third Commandment is another example of this point. We do not give to God in worship; God gives to us. Somebody says, “But we give our offering.” No, no. The only reason you are able to give an offering is because God gave it to you first. So, even in our giving to God—of praise, thanks, time, money, and talents—all of that is only because he has given to us first. What a Savior!
So, true worship is receiving from God, not giving to him. That is what makes Christianity different from every other world religion. All the pagan religions teach that man must give something to God. Christianity states, “God loved the world in this way, he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Why did God give the Israelites the Sabbath? It was so they would stop working and take time to marvel at all that God had done for them throughout their history. It was to worship him, for God’s acts of salvation and providence had been very good. In other words, perfect. He had saved them completely from slavery in Egypt, and then he led them to the security of the Promised Land. So that they would never forget, he instituted the Sabbath.
But over time, Israel forgot the meaning of the Sabbath. It’s kind of like many of the traditions we follow in worship today. Why do we do them? There is a reason. There is a reason why the pastor begins each worship service with the sign of the cross. It is to remind you of your baptism. For at your baptism, the pastor put the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as a redeemed child of God. He then baptized you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, making you a child of God.
Now, God hasn’t commanded us to make the sign of the cross during worship, but he did command the Sabbath. Why? Because he wants to give us his rest.
How does God do this? He frees us from the slavery of sin. Do you see how that image of slavery connects us to the Old Testament? There is no rest for a slave. Just work. The Israelites worked without rest for 430 years in the land of Egypt. And then by way of their baptism in the Red Sea, God saved them from the Egyptians and gave them rest.
Now that is a historical fact. The Red Sea is not a myth. The Old Testament is not a compilation of legends. But the true meaning of all of God’s acts of salvation throughout the Old Testament is found in Jesus Christ. Remember: the purpose of the Old Testament is to lead us to Jesus, the promised Messiah. All the salvation events recorded in it point to the greatest salvation event: Jesus dying on the cross to save us from our sins.
That is what Jesus does for us. He does not ask us to die for our own sins. He does not ask us to do anything for him. Rather he works for us. Now that he has finished his work of salvation, he rests in heaven. And the reason we worship is because it is in worship that Jesus gives us his rest. What is his rest? The forgiveness of sins. In Word and sacrament Jesus not only reminds us that we are forgiven but he is actually present to forgive us. And so, for the believer who comes to worship burdened by sin, the receiving of forgiveness puts him at rest, and as a result he worships God with gratitude and praise.
Okay. Now that we understand all that, the text is easy to understand. I am going to explain it, and then we will end.
Mark writes, One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath? (vv. 23,24).
Now, we read those verses and wonder, “What is wrong with picking some heads of grain on the Sabbath?” But to the Pharisees that was work. That was harvesting. And God had forbidden work on the Sabbath.
Do you see how they mixed up the entire command? God commanded the Israelites to stop what they normally did during the day so that they could worship him and reflect on all the ways he had been good to them. People still ate on the Sabbath. That the disciples grabbed some heads of grain on the Sabbath was not work. They were not preparing a meal. But the Pharisees had redefined the command, and so Jesus needed to restore its proper definition.
And that is what Jesus does here. He goes back to the Word of God. He answers, Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abaithar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for the priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions (vv. 25,26).
In tabernacle there was always freshly baked bread present before the Ark of the Covenant where God dwelled. Not because God needed bread, but as a reminder that God is the one who provides our daily bread. The priests were allowed to eat the bread at the end of the day. But only the priests. David, although the future king, was not a priest. Neither were his soldiers. And yet they ate it, and Jesus said that was okay. Why?
Because the essence of every command God gives us is love. His love for us benefits us, and our love for each other benefits our neighbor. God is love. All the commandments reflect his character. To do an act of love for someone does not break a command, it fulfills God’s commands because God wants to benefit us and our neighbor.
The Pharisees completely misunderstood this. For them, the Sabbath was just a rule to obey to show how devoted they were to God. Jesus properly defines the Sabbath for them, and then he tells them that as God, he has authority even over the Sabbath. He says, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (vv. 27,28).
He is the Master. Therefore, he determines the meaning. And what he says is that we are not to be slaves to the Sabbath command. Rather, the command was given to free us up. That’s what the phrase, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” means. When we worship God, our consciences are freed up. The shackles of sin come off at the cross of Christ! In worship Jesus is present, and you see, ultimately Jesus is our Sabbath rest because wherever Jesus is, there we can rest.
Right? That is why heaven will be so restful. Jesus is there. That is why worship for the believer is so restful. Jesus is present. That’s why when we read our Bible and pray, we receive rest for our souls. Jesus is there. The reason we have so much anxiety, worry, and burden, is because we misunderstand the Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath (Rest!) day to keep it holy. Holy means to set it apart!
So, let us set it apart for Christ in this congregation. Let us come to worship. Not to give, but to receive. Here Christ is the host, and here Christ serves you! Just receive what he gives, and then go home and rest. Amen.