[This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to preach on Mark 2:23-28. I’ve included a portion of it below. You can download the sermon pdf from this site or download audio here.
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
1. The Significance of the Sabbaths in Mark’s Gospel
In today’s text, we encounter one of the Gospel of Mark’s four Sabbath narratives. The Sabbath narratives, in order, are:
A. Teaching in the Synagogue (1:21-28)
B. Plucking heads of Grain (2:23-28)
C. Withered Hand (3:1-6)
D. Teaching at Hometown (6:1-6)
You may have noticed that the first and last Sabbath narratives mirror each other. In the first Sabbath narrative (1:21-28) Jesus teaches, casts out demons, and the people marvel at his authority; in the last Sabbath narrative (6:1-6), Jesus teaches, the people marvel at his authority, and they are offended by him. Similarly, the second and third Sabbath narratives also mirror each other. In the second Sabbath narrative (2:23-28, today’s text) our Lord’s disciples pluck heads of grain, rubbing the grains in their hands, to feed themselves on the Sabbath; in the third Sabbath narrative (3:1-6), the man with a withered hand stretches out his hand. In the second Sabbath narrative, in other words, the disciples actively receive sustenance via the use of their hands; whereas in the third Sabbath narrative, the man with the withered hand passively receives the healing of his hand via Christ’s almighty word.
The significance of these four Sabbath narratives consists in how they demonstrate that Christ is working for us, to free us from the evil one (1:21), to sustain us with bread (2:24, et al), to heal us by his Word (3:2,4), and to teach us (6:2). And these narratives make the fifth Sabbath reference, not a complete narrative but simply a reference, so powerful. On the last Sabbath mentioned by Mark, Christ is doing all of these things – by laying in the tomb. The death of Christ is the crushing of the serpent’s head, the casting down of Satan, the binding up of the strong man. The death of Christ is the bread and wine that imparts life to us and sustains us (figuratively, of course, cf. John 6). The death of Christ is what restores us to God that we may present ourselves as acceptable sacrifices to God. The death of Christ is effective for those who believe. Our Lord’s resting in the tomb on the Sabbath is the ultimate fulfillment of the Sabbath, and it ensures us of the aforementioned benefits.
2. The Significance of Jesus’ Response
Hence, in Mark 2 we see the Lord not merely providing his disciples with physical rest but also spiritual nourishment. Christ argues from the example of David and his men, providing a practical counterargument to the unscriptural objections to grain-plucking raised by the Pharisees. This example subtly draws a parallel between the typological messiah (namely, David) and the actual Messiah, Jesus. As David took of the bread of the Old Covenant and distributed it to his soldiers, so our Lord Jesus would soon take of the bread of the New Covenant and distribute it among his disciples. As David was simultaneously prophet, priest, and king, albeit in a temporary and typological manner, so our Lord Jesus is simultaneously our prophet, priest, and king truly and eternally.
Our Lord Jesus’ response is mind-boggling, in terms of its simultaneous breadth, depth, and brevity. Regarding breadth, he addresses the present concern about obeying the law, demonstrating that his disciples were not breaking the Sabbath. He also demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who do not condemn David, but do condemn Christ and his disciples who were not breaking the Law of God. Regarding depth, the answer he gives ties together the present moment and that of David, establishing a typological link between himself and David as prophet, priest, and king. He also points forward to what he will do as a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Regarding brevity, what takes theologians volumes to explicate – namely the typological, historical, and theological connections between David and his Lord (Jesus) – Christ states in a few short words!
3. The Matthean Context
Mark’s record of this event is given in more detail in Matthew’s Gospel, which tells us that just prior to refuting the Pharisees’ claim that Sabbath grain-plucking was unlawful our Lord Jesus declared:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” – Matt 11:28.
Thus, we see that Christ’s provision of grain for his disciples on the Sabbath is the immediate fulfillment of these words in a very literal manner.
Yet there is another sense in which we see our Lord providing rest for his disciples, and that is by his refutation of the Pharisees’ interpretation and application of the Law. The disciples, and by implication our Lord God Christ, were being falsely accused of breaking God’s Law against working on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, apparently unaware of their own transgressions against the real commandments of God, sought to place the disciples of our Lord Jesus under their man-made rules. They sought to bind the consciences of the followers of Christ to customs that were not the Word of God and, therefore, not binding upon God’s people. So what does our Advocate do? He argues from Scripture against the Pharisees and for his people. He does not excuse sin, but reveals that the disciples’ actions in this instance were not sinful. Jesus judges the conduct of his people righteously, not according to man-made traditions or customs.
In our day, there are many churches which guilt trip their members by placing unnecessarily heavy loads of work on them every Lord’s day. Those who don’t attend to every meal, to every social gathering, to every outreach program, to every bible study and book study, those who, in fact, openly state that they are under no requirement to do so are met with a series of wagging fingers of shame. The Pharisees, like those in these present day places of worship, were not upholding a wise and scripturally sound practice, they were not upholding a divine command either – they were upholding a law of their own devising which actually contradicted God’s Law. These men were not like the sound elders over whom God has placed his church, men who pray and study God’s Word when seeking to establish guidelines for certain ecclesiastical realities upon which Scripture is seemingly silent (or is, the very least, not explicit in addressing these realities). In our study of Peter not too long ago, we learned of how our elders are to rule/lead. And what are their duties? Rebuking, Exhorting, Correcting, Discipling, Disciplining, Teaching, Encouraging, and Comforting through the Word of God preached. This is not what the Pharisees were doing. Rather, they were placing their word in direct opposition to God’s Law and, thereby, harming God’s people. Jesus doesn’t give them a green light to continue this sinful behavior. Jesus does not let it slide, as it were. He openly demonstrates, from the Scriptures, how these men have completely misunderstood the Scriptures. They have misunderstood the Law, and they have misunderstood the prophets. Consequently, they have mistreated God’s sheep, teaching as commandments the traditions of men.
And Jesus our Lord does this for his sheep. He demonstrates his role as our perfect Advocate, examining us and the accusations of his enemies against us, concluding with the unalterably true verdict of either “Guilty” or “Innocent.” We read of this very thing in Zechariah 3:1-5:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.
Christ the Lord stands before our accuser and declares the truth, providing us with rest from the attacks of Satan, the flesh, and the world.
Soli Deo Gloria.
 Mark’s Sabbath Narratives & References:
A. Teaching in the Synagogue (1:21)
B. Plucking heads of Grain (2:24, 27. 28)
C. Withered Hand (3:2, 4)
D. Teaching at Hometown (6:2)
[E. Resting in the Tomb (15:42 & 16:1)]