Sabbath Day: Blessing or Burden?

Is the Sabbath Day celebrated as a source of spiritiual renewal and rest, or endured as a day of misery and restriction?

RC Sproul unpacks Jesus' clash with the religious leaders over the issue of Sabbath Regulations (Mark 2:23–3:6).

Living in the Highlands, where Sabbath Observance has historically been a major area of focus, conflict and concern, I find Sproul's insights are very helpful. 

"Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (vv. 23–24). When the disciples picked a few heads of grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees accused them of violating Sabbath law. Actually, they did not violate the Sabbath command, but they did violate at least one rabbinic tradition and probably two.

God gave the laws governing behavior on the Sabbath day to the Jewish people at Sinai. These laws were contained in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and in other guidelines for holy living (Exodus 16, 20, 23, 31, 35; Leviticus 16, 19, 23). Over the centuries, as they did with so many God-given laws, the rabbis devoted themselves to fine-tuning the Sabbath laws and adding specific prohibitions to guard the observation of the Sabbath day. Their prohibitions included many details found nowhere in sacred Scripture, but their traditions eventually became as binding on the people’s consciences as Scripture itself.

One of those prohibitions had to do with what the rabbis called a “Sabbath-day journey,” the maximum distance Jewish people were allowed to travel on the Sabbath. The rabbis defined the Sabbath-day journey as 1,999 paces, a little over half a mile. If a person took one step beyond 1,999, he was considered a Sabbath breaker. Presumably that rabbinic prohibition was in view in this incident recorded by Mark, because the disciples walked quite a while through the grain fields searching for something to eat, and in all likelihood they went over the limit of 1,999 steps.

The rabbis also had determined that since any commerce was prohibited on the Sabbath day, any unnecessary labor on the Sabbath also violated God’s law. So, there was a prohibition against reaping crops on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees considered that when the disciples went through the fields plucking grain, they were guilty of harvesting on the Sabbath day—a terrible infraction in their view.

A Precedent from Jewish History

When Jesus responded to this question from the religious leaders, He first directed their attention to the Bible. As any good attorney would do, He cited a precedent to justify the behavior of His clients, in this case, the disciples. Jesus reminded them of an incident from the life of David: 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 showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” (vv. 25–26). Jesus began by asking, basically, “Have you read your Bibles?” The Pharisees probably found this question insulting. After all, they were supposed to be experts on the Hebrew Scriptures. But it seems they had not considered this incident, which is recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1–6. . . .

Jesus then drew a lesson from the story of David and the showbread: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (v. 27). Jesus was not downplaying the Old Testament law, but rather the rabbinic tradition that had been added to the law."

"Where God had left people free, the rabbis had put them in chains. They had multiplied prohibitions for the Sabbath to an astonishing degree. For example, in trying to define what it meant to go beyond necessary labor on the Sabbath, they decreed that it was a sin to untie a knot on the Sabbath. If someone accidentally knotted his sandal laces, he had to leave them knotted until the Sabbath was over because untying them would be unnecessary work. In another example, they said that if a person tore a garment, he was allowed to sew one stitch, but no more. This is where legalism leads—to absurdity.

Unfortunately, this sort of legalism is all too common within the Christian community, where all kinds of rules are established that have nothing to do with God’s laws. When I began work as a professor at a Christian college, I went to a picnic at the campus lake before classes started. I saw some students playing cards and asked what game they were playing. “Rook,” they said. “Don’t you know that’s the Christian card game? We’re not allowed to play any other game of cards.” It seems that other card games used the joker, the symbol of the Devil, so the students were prohibited from playing those games. There were many other rules in that campus environment—no movies, no dancing, all that sort of thing. Of course, that college was not unique in its establishment of nonbiblical rules. Like the Pharisees, we create rules that we can keep instead of obeying the rules God gives us, which are much more difficult to follow.

Jesus’ point in saying the Sabbath was “made for man” was that it is a gift from God to His people, a gift to keep them from wearing out their bodies, their animals, their servants, and their fields. However, the rabbinic tradition had turned the Sabbath from a great gift to a laborious burden. People had to take great care not to overstep the boundaries the rabbis had set."

From Mark (Saint Andrew's Expositional Commentary) by Sproul, R.C.