Legalistic Sabbath Police

by Joseph Franks

Jesus knew the Greatest Commandment. He understood perfectly how to love the Father with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.

He also knew the Second Greatest Commandment extremely well. This rule of love was prescribed, memorized, taught, and modeled by him. He excelled in exemplifying the love for neighbor desired, expected, and demanded by the Holy God.

When it came to Sabbath observance, if anyone understood that which was required by the Fourth Commandment of God’s Moral Law, Jesus was that man. And there was no greater expert on Sabbath observance than the Son of God. He also mastered the Civil and Ceremonial attachments given by God through Moses to the Israelites. Six days he worshiped God by working, and on one special day each week he worshiped God by resting.

Contrary to the view of some, Jesus was not a law-breaker. No, he was a law-fulfiller who demanded his disciples do the same. At this point in Israel’s history (or in this particular dispensation if you are not so inclined to swallow Covenant Theology), Jesus was an obedient, Old Covenant of Grace law-keeper. He honored his Father by doing all that was found in the Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil legislation. He was perfectly righteous both within and without.

However, God’s laws regarding Sabbath observance and other issues were not sufficient to the scribes, pharisees, and elders of Jesus’ day. Prominent religious leaders added their own traditions and rituals to the Law of God. They then required all their fellow worshipers and followers to keep these “traditions of men” in order to view themselves as righteousness.

This was legalism, and an example of such was provided in the third chapter of Mark:

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)

This legalism, seen in Mark 3, was one of the sins which made Jesus very angry. It was harmful to God’s people and hated by God’s Shepherd. This legalism was one of the sins for which Jesus came to die. It was also one of the trappings of false religion from which Jesus came to free his people.

The Gospel writer continued with his story:

And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.   (Mark 3:3-5)

Jesus looked at the legalists with anger. Then he looked at the crippled man and the legalistic Sabbath police with compassion. He then finished the lesson he had begun. In their face, despite their rules, Jesus transgressed their extra-biblical expectations. In their face, he offended their religious sensitivities. And in their face he healed his handicapped neighbor. Jesus did that which was right in the face of God despite that which had been taught in the Sunday school classes of men. He proclaimed his power. He proclaimed himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath. He also showed his disciples — then and now — how they ought not be bound by the legalistic rules and trappings of the religious mafioso.

And how did the scribes and pharisees respond to Jesus Sabbath practice? The responded the same way many self-righteous Sabbath Police do today:

The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.    (Mark 3:6)

They were not impressed with the righteous man who would not keep their traditional rules and regulations. They were hell-bent to destroy him, even if he was the beloved Son of God, with whom God was well pleased.