Tag Archives: #sabbath

Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be (Mark 3:1-12)

I find it an interesting quirk of human nature that we turn on our celebrities when we find out they’re different to how we thought they’d be. If a hot superstar turns out to be gay, or a stunning model turns out to have cellulite, or a Hollywood couple get divorced and publicly scrap over the kids or if a mega-church pastor turns out to have problems with humility. We turn on them like a lynch-mob as if they had deliberately lied to us.

Of course what this means is that these people are normal. What it also means is that we somehow want them to not be normal. We want them to be something else. Something we don’t see in our ordinary, mediocre lives. We want to believe that perfection is real, that the hunky movie stars don’t smell when they sweat and they always look like they walked out of the gym. We want them to be their movie characters. We want them to be what we imagine them to be.

We want them to be what we want them to be.

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In Mark 3:1-12, we see two sides of this. We see the Pharisees wanting Jesus to be a bad-guy. And we see the people wanting Jesus to be a rock star savior.

Last week we saw Jesus communicate that he is the Messiah and the Lord by communicating he is the Lord of the Sabbath. As the Lord, he is the new wine. The old wine has been superseded, which was dangerous teaching. He was publicly saying that the established order was being renewed in him.

In that instance, it was Jesus’ disciples who had “broken” the sabbath (according to Jewish regulations). That’s why, in Mark 3:2, the Pharisees watch Jesus closely to see if he will heal on the sabbath (and thereby break it). They want him to break it. They want an excuse to accuse him. According to scripture, sabbath breaking was a capital offence (cf. Numbers 15:32-36). It should be noted here that what Numbers describes is not a prescriptive response to sabbath breaking. The man is punished for breaking the sabbath insofar as his attention was deliberately not on God – which was the purpose for the sabbath in the first place. The Jewish leaders had taken this to be prescriptive and so death was the punishment for all sabbath breaking. Again, we see the history of minimising God’s relationship through a misguided attempt to maximise obedience.

But since the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into sabbath breaking, why would Jesus make the man with the shriveled hand stand up in front of everyone? why wouldn’t he be a bit quieter about it? Doing it publicly seems to play into the hands of the Pharisees. Perhaps to highlight the point above. Jesus is performing a public sign for the purposes of teaching. The Pharisaical approach would be to do nothing in the face of need so as not to break the sabbath. What Jesus shows is the hypocrisy of their approach. What is lawful on the sabbath? To do good or evil? To save a life or to kill? If Jesus is saying that doing good and saving life is lawful, the corollary is that the Pharisees have made evil lawful.

It’s interesting that Jesus is angry and distressed. Even in the divinity with which he heals the man, we see the ragged humanity of his emotions.

The Pharisees, faced with the hideous truth of what they do, go away and plot in secret, away from light where their deeds could be seen clearly. To accuse Jesus of sabbath breaking at that point, would be to publicly admit that Jesus is right.

And think about that. The Pharisees need Jesus to be the bad guy. If Jesus is right about this, their whole approach to the Sabbath crumbles. And if that crumbles, fractures appear in their whole system of maximising obedience/minimising relationship.

Interesting side note: The Herodians and Pharisees were enemies. The Pharisees wanted the restoration of the kingdom of David. The Herodians were a political party and supporters of the Herodian dynasty: the client kings installed by the Romans. What each party wanted therefore was completely different – and yet in this they were united. They needed to get rid of Jesus. Jesus was a threat to both. If he ushered in the kingdom of God, the Pharisees and Herodians were out of business and out of power.

After this, we see Jesus withdrawing to the lake (that is, the Sea of Galilee) and people come from as far north as Sidon and as far south as Idumea to see him. “Beyond the Jordan” even refers to the area around the Decapolis. What we see here is people coming from great distances, and even from Gentile areas.

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Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_century_palestine-es.svg

What we see here is like a scene at a movie premier that everyone knows the star of the show is going to. The crowds are pressing and they all want something. They want to be healed. They want to be touched. They want to touch Jesus. They all want a piece of him.

What did they want of him? They wanted something he had, but not what he came to do. They wanted him to save them, but not in the way that he had come to do.

I guess I look to some people the same way. Bobby Kennedy is one of my heroes. I wanted Barack Obama to be the next Bobby Kennedy. I wanted him to bring light into a dark and dismal world. I wanted to believe that change was possible. I wanted to feel that there was something better, aspirational, inspirational. I wanted to believe.

The way the people press forward to Jesus feels familiar to me. There is a hunger in the crowd – a need. What Jesus was doing had spread by word of mouth so far and so quickly that people were coming from everywhere to see him. Were they coming because they believed? Or because they wanted to believe? Perhaps both. But what they wanted was only a tiny slice of who he was and what he had come to do. Because while they might have flocked to him as I would have to Bobby Kennedy had I been around in the 1960s, Bobby Kennedy was just Bobby Kennedy. The person they had in front of them was God himself.

But Jesus seems content to let them follow for the moment. When he casts out evil spirits, he commands them not to tell anyone. Why? Surely he would want to bring his followers along with him – we have seen previously how he was carefully controlling how his ministry was communicated. Surely now he can start communicating more clearly as the crowds press towards him?

I don’t think it was that simple. In John 6 we see Jesus starting to be more open about what his message is and what following him truly means and people turn away from him. Jesus knows that this will happen, but his ministry is too new for this to happen just yet. He needs his followers to learn as they follow at this point. In fact Mark as a gospel takes this approach – as we follow the story, we learn for ourselves the truth of who Jesus is.

Humans are horribly flawed. We have enormous expectations and we hold to them rigidly. Changing them requires time and gentleness, and largely we have to decide to change our expectations for ourselves. If others change them for us, we feel attacked and betrayed. For the moment, Jesus needs his followers to gradually learn the truth. As his teaching becomes more explicit, their expectations will already have been shaped and molded. People will still turn their backs when he turns out to not be who they thought (or wanted him to be), but more of them will represent the fertile soil in which seeds can grow.

This is why we still need the gospel of Mark. Today we like to see Jesus as the guy who is all about love and forgiveness. This is true – but before love and forgiveness comes knowledge of our sin. Just look at the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50. There’s a woman convicted of her sin and comes to Jesus in repentance. After that, there’s justification but there’s also sanctification. There is work to be done in our relationship. This isn’t easy.

Some of us want Jesus to be the love guy whose name we can pray to God in for the things we need. This is normal and valid – because he is the love guy we pray to God in, and we are supposed to bring our requests to God. The problem occurs when he is only that.

Who do we want Jesus to be?

The answer is, Who is Jesus telling us he is. The work and person of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what we want him to be. He is who we need him to be.

And who do we need him to be? This is what we’ll explore as Mark leads us through the nuance of Jesus as a man, as God, as the Messiah and our Lord.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel

Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20

Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45

Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17

Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28

Reader question: When do we sabbath?

Every so often, I get a reader who sends me a message with a subject they’d like me to talk about. One recent question was when do women sabbath? You’ll see a bit later why I’ve broadened it to include women and men. But I appreciate why she asked the question of women particularly. On the face of it, it’s an easy answer. We roll our eyes and look at each other and acknowledge that women never sabbath. There’s always something to do – groceries, cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry, kids, kids activities and sports, birthday parties, homework….the “sabbath” seems to have become the day that’s left over to do all the jobs we don’t have time to do in the rest of the week.

BUT it’s actually a really good question and it’s not an obvious answer.

There are several bits of the question we need to unpack. One is what exactly is the sabbath and what do we mean when we say that? The second is why women particularly?

Modern Christians talk about the sabbath as Sunday, and as a day of rest. But this is not biblically or historically correct. Let’s dig into the past a little…..

The sabbath is a peculiarly Israelite rite observed on the seventh day – Saturday – linked to God’s rest after he had completed his work of creation. For the Jews it’s the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, not your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11).

It is a day to honour God and the work of his hands in creation. It is to be holy – that is, consecrated, set apart for God’s use – so it’s not a day of rest for rest’s sake.

By Jewish reckoning (who calculated days from sundown to sundown), the sabbath lasted from Friday night to Saturday night. When Jesus was crucified, the earliest Christians focussed their attention, not on this seventh day of the week (Friday to Saturday), but on the first day of the week (for the Jews that was Saturday night to Sunday night) in remembrance of the day of Christ’s resurrection.

Some early Christians, coming from the Jewish tradition, still observed the sabbath, but focussed on Sunday as of key importance. Other early Christians, converted Greeks, disliked the keeping of the sabbath as too “Jewish” for the new Christian tradition.

At no point though, was the Jewish sabbath of the seventh day, the day or rest, equated by the Christians with the first day of the week, Sunday, a day of celebration of the resurrection.

So when did “sabbath” come to mean what we modern Christians commonly think it means? Well, the Roman Emperor Constantine (who made Christianity an official religion of the Empire), in the year 321AD, ruled that the first day of the week was to be a day of rest. This is the first conflation of the sabbath rest concept with the first day of the week. And, now that Sunday was an official day of rest, Christians had the luxury of time and their meetings and liturgies became longer and more elaborate.

Gradually, over hundreds of years, the sabbath concept became attached to Sunday rather than Saturday. In addition, as the mystery of the Eucharist became centralised in the Catholic tradition, Sunday rites and practices became more somber and focussed on the body and blood of Christ, rather than rejoicing in the resurrection.

The world was also moving on. The Reformation gave people God’s word in their own language again. This assisted the rise of personal piety outside of convents and monasteries as people connected with Jesus in a way they had not been able to before. This gave Sundays a particular significance for devotion and reflection for some groups. It’s possibly this is what we’re thinking of when we say “when do we sabbath”.

In our modern world, our barrier to “sabbathing” is not language and tradition, but busy-ness and a lack of a cultural tradition. As I said above, Sunday is commonly seen as a day to catch up on chores. We go to church, we might even seek hospitality and fellowship for lunch. But by and large, we get the laundry done, clean the house, put the bins out and get the uniforms and lunches ready for the coming week. Do we rest? Possibly, by snatching some Netflix time or playing with the kids in the garden.

But when do we sabbath? The answer is, I think, never. Not in the Jewish way, but that’s ok because we’re not Jewish. Do our Sundays reflect those of the early church? Possibly in part. Those early Christians met before dawn because most had employers and owners that required their work. Their time was not their own. So they met and broke bread and worshipped and rejoiced in the risen Lord. And then they went to work. In one way, our Sunday is similar – we meet and then we go about our business. In another way our Sunday is not similar – we sit through our church services, but do we rejoice and celebrate the resurrection? Possibly not. Or possibly a bit.

This presents a conundrum. What are we supposed to do on our sabbath? Do we try and follow a Jewish tradition (but on a Sunday rather than Saturday), mixed with some early church rejoicing and fellowship? Or should we be like the Puritans of the 17th century? Being holy and spending time in reflection and consecrating our time to God?

The simple answer is that we’re not supposed to do anything. Jesus was the Lord of the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) and he changed the Jewish understanding of the day. But Jesus made no comment on keeping “the Lord’s day” (ie Sunday) because he hadn’t died yet.

A full answer would take a whole book, but I think there are some important take-aways. First, Jesus was a Jew and while he came to fulfil the prophets, he still set aside time for prayer and worship. This is a key element in consecrating time to God. There must be set time(s) that we keep holy at church and at home.

Second, rest is important. The prophets and Jesus himself had a lot to say about it. So it seems to me that this remains an important element of the time we set aside.

Third, personal piety and devotions are also really important. It shows obedience, but it also feeds our faith and grows our relationship with our God. It’s part of time that we keep holy and set aside and offer up to God. Giving time is a worthy sacrifice to God.

Fourth, when we talk about sabbathing, I suspect we often think of it as an individual thing. From the beginning, the sabbath and then Sunday observance was a communal thing. And, from the Reformation, piety enveloped the family. I can highly recommend reading about the Puritans. They were pretty amazing and have been given some bad press. But they were the Reformed Evangelicals of their day and their focus on family devotion and godly growth together is amazing.

Given all this, the one to set the pattern for your sabbath is you. If you are a family unit, I would recommend having a full conversation and pray about it. But be clear about what it is you want to achieve. Is it time for personal piety? Is it a family observance? If you are single, the same decisions apply. What time are you going to consecrate and how are you going to use it to honour God?

This observance will take some discipline. As a family you’ll need to work together to make sure it happens. As a single, we’ll also need some self-control to stick to our decisions. This is a man and woman thing.

But for women, this is of particular emphasis. If we are seeking a sabbath because we crave rest, there is a conversation to be had. Maybe Sundays need to look a little different. Remember, rest is super important and wanting it is OK!

If we are seeking communion with God, we must look to creating time and space for devotional time – and sometimes we need help to do that. At the very least, we should carve out time for retreats and conferences. This gives us a solid chunk of time to commune with God and shut out the noise of the world for a little while.

We also need to give ourselves a bit of a talking to. Because a sabbath is not about the blessed relief and quietness of a cloister. And it’s not about walking slow motion on a beach while we listen to the Bible on audible. We are not in a fantasy. We are in the real world and we can be our own worst enemy. There is always something to do and something that needs to be cleaned or cooked or folded. We need to be tougher with ourselves. We need to choose to be ok with some chaos if it means taking some sabbath time.

Above all, grace. We don’t have to do anything. Jesus has already done it all. Be kind to yourself. Build your sabbath on God’s grace.