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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

The Gospel of Mark: Lord of The Sabbath

‌What do Christians mean when we say Jesus is Lord?

The idea of a “lord” is foreign to the modern American. The closest we get to the concept is by watching Downton Abbey or other British period shows. An ancient person had a more intimate acquaintance with this term and its implications. “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6). What the psalmist claims specifically for the Lord of Heaven is true in the general case for any lord. He does whatever he pleases. A lord has unchecked authority. You would not take Nero to court for arbitration. You simply obeyed.

Perhaps more than any other, Mark’s Gospel introduces Jesus as a lord who has come to rule. Quoting from Isaiah, God commands, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). ‌The Lord was coming to do whatever he pleased. If he wanted “a way” - a highway or road - where there had been none previously, then you had better get busy clearing the landscape. He will do as he pleases.

The principle is put to the test repeatedly in Mark. Often in the opening chapters, Jesus’ lordship is pitted against the defiance of demons and the reality of disease. However, one powerful series of events pits the Lord’s authority against the religiously devout Pharisees and their observance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the day of rest commanded by the Torah, but more than that it was a marker of Jewish identity. For the traditional Pharisees, protecting the Sabbath was protecting their heritage. They built rules and guidelines all around it to prevent sacrilege and to safeguard their values.

‌​”One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain” (Mark 2:23). Even the expression Mark uses here hearkens back to his introduction. Jesus is not merely walking through a grainfield. He and his disciples are “making a way,” trailblazing a path where there had been none. They are breaking ground literally and metaphorically.

As they passed, the disciples plucked some grain as a snack. The Pharisees felt threatened by this. “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24). Today maybe they were just plucking grain, but tomorrow it will be fieldhands working on the Sabbath to bring in a harvest. It's a slippery slope that leads straight to paganism.

Jesus first responded to this concern with a curious tale from the Old Testament. “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 …  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?” (Mark 2:25–26). Commentators get flustered with this passage for several reasons. Is Jesus trying to prove something about the doctrine of the Sabbath? Was David right or wrong in what he did? What is Jesus’ point?

I suspect the point is more subtle than we commonly appreciate. The Pharisees were trying to protect their heritage and the Torah. But the heroes of their heritage had not been nearly as careful about keeping the Torah as the Pharisees were. This example is just one of several stories Jesus could have offered of a king - a lord - doing whatever he pleased. Hezekiah moving the date of the Passover would be another fine example (2 Chronicles 30). 

‌The lords of the past had not been careful about religious norms, at least not as careful as the Pharisees expected everyone to be. The Pharisees were trying to protect a pristine Jewish heritage that had likely never existed.

Whereas the point about David was a subtle provocation, Jesus’ fuller point is given in two sentences that follow. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). There is nothing wrong with having religious norms and guidelines, even strict rules and formal practices. However, all the substance of our religious devotion has been a gift to us for our good. Religion was created to protect humanity, to keep us from our worst inclinations. Our rules are the guardrails that keep us from tumbling off moral cliffs. The Pharisees had reversed this order. They had made the meaning of their lives about protecting their religion, but they had forgotten why it was there in the first place. The guardrails had become tripping hazards.

However, whereas the first point stings, the second point Jesus made is even stronger. “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). The Pharisees believed themselves to be the custodians of their religious norms and the heritage of the past. Jesus claimed to be the Lord who stands above it all. And the Lord does as he pleases. The Lord is lord of our religious norms, “even of the Sabbath.” Our religion exists to help us serve him. He is the aim and the power above it all.

In the following story, Jesus intentionally reasserted this claim. “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him” (‌​Mark 3:1–2). The Pharisees saw Jesus as just another Jewish man, subject to their particular religious devotions. As custodians of their religion, they imagined themselves as his judge and now waited for him to transgress and be corrected.

Jesus summoned the man with the withered hand, and then asked the gathered crowd of his would-be accusers, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (‌​Mark 3:3–4). As before, he was asking them first to reckon with the meaning of the religious devotion rather than merely acting as its enforcers. He was neither suggesting their rules to be bad nor their law immoral. Rather, Jesus was challenging them to consider its purpose. Religion exists to increase our goodness, not to diminish it. It is an instrument of God to draw us to him, not barricade us away from him. Whenever religion becomes a barrier to God’s goodness rather than a guide rail against moral calamity, religion has become the opposite of its intent.

The Pharisees may not have understood all of this, but they saw where it was leading. “But they were silent.” The man they wanted to criticize was acting as their prosecutor instead. He had walked into their synagogue which operated by their rules and challenged everything they believed with a simple question. He was not acting as one subject to their rules. He was acting as one above it.

Their silence spoke volumes and Jesus heard it. Their silence said that there was a simple answer to his question that they would rather not acknowledge. Of course, it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Of course, only God’s power could heal this man. Any man exercising such power could not do so without God’s approval. Of course, the Messiah, the Lord of Israel, could walk into any synagogue he liked and do whatever he pleased.

But they could not bring themselves to say it. They stood silently, like defiant children refusing to answer a parent. But refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship does not make him any less your Lord.

“And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5a). The translators tend to get cold feet in translating that line. “Anger” is a bit of an understatement. Nearly everywhere else this term for “anger” is used, it is translated as “wrath.”

Jesus is not irritated. He is enraged. He is standing in a synagogue where worship is offered to the Lord of Israel, and that same Lord is being treated like a peasant by the local management. I shudder to think what heat must have crossed his face as he looked at the Pharisees. This was the frightening glare of a Lord in his full power, provoked by the insolence of his subjects. This was the piercing judgment of the Son of God, “who has eyes like a flame of fire,” whose head wears many crowns (Revelation 2:18; 19:12-15). 

Denied an admission of his Lordship, Jesus in turn simply acted as Lord. He did whatever he pleased, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. “He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:5).

The postscript in this scene tells us just how frightened the Pharisees were.“The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). We know little about the Herodians, but I understand them to be the political and religious opposites of the Pharisees. The Pharisees - in theory - waited for a Davidic messiah, whereas the Herodians were content to suck up to the dynasty of Herod. The Pharisees were religious purists, whereas Herod and his ilk were notoriously hedonistic and morally lax. The Pharisees were strict traditionalists, whereas the Herodians traded their heritage for the spirit of the age.

And yet, the Pharisees preferred the status quo of the Herodians to the audacious authority claimed by Jesus. The Herodians might flaunt their religious devotions, but Jesus acted as though he stood above all such concerns. The Herodians were a frustrating rival party, but Jesus was not acting as a rival at all. He was acting as a lord.

So what do Christians mean when we say that Jesus is Lord? I do not know what we normally mean, but I know what we must mean. We must mean first of all that he is the Lord of us. He did not come to impose our expectations on others. He came to impose his will on us. He came to do whatever he pleases. He is not our ally; he is our judge.

When we say that Jesus is our Lord, we must mean that all our religious devotion and practice exists only to serve him, and never as his rival. Every sacred cow falls to him. Every righteous practice leads to him. Every guardrail we construct has to crumble if Jesus decides to build a road right through it. Religion may be a means, but Jesus is the end.

The Lordship of Jesus means many things, but before all else, it must mean something to the people professing it.

Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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