Unlawfulness on the Sabbath

“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?’ But 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?’”—Mark 2:23-26 (NKJV)

Ready to scratch your head?

In Millcreek Canyon, Utah it’s unlawful to “possess an unleashed dog on even-numbered days.” And Oklahoma fines people for making an ugly face at someone else’s dog. Furthermore, while you might enjoy a bear hug now and again, don’t do it in Missouri because (sorry) bear wrestling is banned.

Weird, right? Well, maybe not the bear one—that’s just good sense.

But we can agree laws are important; they maintain order and offer protection. But for the Jewish people, creating oral laws in addition to the written Law Moses had given them offered more than just order and protection. It helped them feel they were maintaining a right standing with God. The laws may have started with good intentions, but they became rigid and extraneous.

For example, Sabbath laws. To be clear, God Himself enjoyed and instituted the Sabbath (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11). It was a holy day set aside for rest and communion with Him. Israel had disobeyed the Sabbath for 490 years and suffered the consequence. So, in an earnest overreaction to ensure Sabbath was kept, scribes added bylaws. As I understand it, there are 39 types of labor that are prohibited and 39 ways within those categories to violate the Sabbath.

What the Pharisees objected to when they saw Jesus’ disciples gathering grain wasn’t that they were eating or gathering from someone’s field, which was not unlawful (see Deuteronomy 23:24-25), but that they plucked the grain and rubbed the chaff from the wheat. Essentially, they were “guilty” of reaping and threshing—both “unlawful” on the Sabbath.

In God’s eyes, the disciples were keeping the Sabbath by resting and communing with Jesus. Ironically, it was the Pharisees who broke the Sabbath by making it a burden. What’s spectacularly superb is Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. He used their learnedness, their very righteousness, against them. He pointed them back to David and reminded them how he literally broke the law by taking the showbread from the tabernacle and giving it to his starving men. Jesus demonstrated the true heart of God that human need supersedes ceremonial law and God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

This lesson is pivotal to religion as a whole as it relates to the appearance of righteousness. It is only through Jesus that we have a right standing with God, not through any observance we adhere to or ceremony we perform. Religion isn’t the heart of God, relationship is. That is the true human need.

PAUSE: What do you see as the problem with people trying to maintain a right standing with God? Is it possible? See John 14:6, Ephesians 2:8, Romans 6:2, and Romans 10:9 for the way to be right with God.

PRACTICE: Examine your heart and life to see if there are any ways you are letting religiosity take away the blessings God wants for your life.

PRAY: Father God, because of Your great love and because of the willingness of Jesus, I can be right with you. It is because of Your grace I’ve been set free from sin and can enjoy a relationship with You. Lord, search my heart and show me anything that restricts me from enjoying this amazing grace so I can leave it at the cross. Amen and amen.

About the Author

Lisa Supp

Lisa Supp lives in Utah and has served within the CCFL Web and Prayer Ministry since 2011. She also volunteers as an editor on the CCFL Prayer Wall and is a writer on the Communications Team. Retired from teaching, Lisa and her husband Ron volunteer at their local Calvary Chapel and share a passion for Scripture, apologetics, and education.