“The Disciples Plucking Grain on the Sabbath” by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)
Mark 2:23-28 (ESV) One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 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: 26 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?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
From 2:1 to 3:6, Mark narrates a series of five incidents, or controversies. In each narrative, Jesus and His disciples are “covertly (2:6-7; 3:2) or openly (2:16, 18, 24) challenged by the Pharisees and the scribal interpreters of their tradition.” The common theme of this unit of Mark’s gospel is conflict.
There is conflict due to the coming of Jesus Christ as Lord.
The coming of the King challenged the established powers and kingdoms of this world. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and embodied threatened the very foundations of all earthly religious and political kingdoms.
Jesus was a very, very threatening figure to the rulers of the age, especially religious rulers such as the Pharisees. Jesus continues to be a very, very threatening figure to the rulers of this age, both religious and political.
I would venture to say that the Jesus Christ that is depicted in holy Scripture is the most astonishing and threatening figure ever to grace this earth.
In Mark’s gospel, do we not continually read about how the actions and words of the Lord Jesus bring amazement and great fear to the multitudes?
He is so very threatening and terrifying because, if we take His person and His teachings at face value, we all begin to realize the enormity of our wickedness and rebellion against Him.
We begin to realize the utter worthlessness of our earthly and fleshly pursuits.
We begin to realize that we have enthroned ourselves as lord and ruler and center of our own little universe.
Embracing Christ as Lord and King requires us to turn away from the pitiful little man-centered empires that we all have built up in our lives.
It requires us to, with the apostle Paul, come to the realization that we must
“indeed…count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil. 3:8-9).
The word “rubbish” (σκύβαλον or skubalon) refers to “what is thrown [away] to the dogs, i.e. refuse: dung,” “the excrement of animals.” It points to something as being “worthless and detestable.”
Christ the King announced in Mark 1:15 that the “kingdom of God” was “at hand.” His call was to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Such a call, when properly understood, is threatening and disturbing to men’s souls.
It is threatening because it requires us to turn away from all of our efforts at making our own way in this world. It ultimately requires us to regard all of our earthly trophies and human-centered sources of pride as “worthless and detestable,” as “dung.”
Jesus’ call is a radical one that challenges the powers-that-be at every level, both personal and corporate.
At times we are guilty of minimizing the radical nature of discipleship. We soften the radical and mind-bending demands of Christ as Lord in order to suit our easy-pleasy, utterly Americanized faith. I am just as guilty of this as anyone.
It is at times like this when we must remember that our Lord was tortured and put to death because of the radical nature of the kingdom that He manifested!
It is at times like this when we must remember texts like
Matt. 10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
To the establishmentarians of His day and ours, Jesus’ person and ministry represents something that is threatening and provocative. The radical nature of Jesus’ ministry represents something that must be eliminated and destroyed.
It is for this reason that the rulers of Jesus’ age began to plot His death.
The five incidents from Mark 2:1 to 3:6 occupy a very important position in this gospel in that they begin to inform our understanding as to why Jesus was put to death.
The claims of lordship that Christ made could not have passed by without notice, unchallenged by the established powers.
It is in these five narratives that we begin to understand that Jesus’ coming unavoidably brings conflict.
1. Mark 2:23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
These verses initiate the account of the fourth of the five controversies that Mark recounts in this section of his gospel.
Jesus and His disciples were walking through a grainfield when some of His followers “began…to pluck” the heads of grain.
In the parallel passage in Matthew 12, we are told that the disciples “were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat” (v. 1).
According to Scripture, there was nothing sinful about this act. Deut. 23:25 states, “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.”
The Pharisees, who were surely aware of the teaching in Deuteronomy, were getting worked up because they saw this activity as a violation of their religious rules regarding work and the Sabbath.
The Pharisees were attempting to enforce Sabbath regulations that were grounded in teachings such as found in the Ten Commandments:
Ex. 20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…
Also of note is the following from Ex. 31:
Ex. 31:12 And the LORD said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.
The Pharisees believed that Jesus’ disciples were “profaning” the Sabbath, as instituted by God.
So we see here that the Pharisees did have a biblical basis for their controversy with Jesus. But, as Jesus points out to them, they were guilty of placing the emphasis of God’s teaching on rules, and not on God’s purpose for the rules.
The Pharisees were guilty of placing an “extravagant importance” upon their religious rules regarding the Sabbath, rather than upon the people for whom God had created the Sabbath.
Jesus points this out to them in 2:27: And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
God did not create man to enslave him by the Sabbath. The Sabbath was instituted as a blessing and gift to humanity.
In Jesus’ day, the observance of Sabbath rest from labor
“was perhaps the supremely important demonstration of a Jew’s loyalty to God and to his nation. Some later rabbis said that the Messiah would come if all Israel kept the Sabbath!… The Pharisaic understanding…was that almost everything else was to give way to observe this command. So, in the Jewish Maccabean revolt (168 B.C.), and in subsequent wars, many Jews refused to fight on the Sabbath, even to save their [own] lives.”
Application: In our own time, many well-intentioned conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists are situated in a position not unlike the Pharisees of old.
There are many church leaders who take a biblical precept or principle and begin building up walls and fences and layers of religious rules, usually with the noble intention of honoring God and His Word.
However, what inevitably ends up happening is that the new categories that they create begin to become “hardened,” and ultimately become beliefs that are functionally accorded the same level of importance as Holy Scripture. Anyone who dares to challenge the new traditions are punished in various ways, from verbal rebuke by one or more Christians or church leaders, to shunning and separation, to actual church discipline.
It is in this type of environment where relationships between believers are destroyed.
In a rule-centered environment, the dignity of the person is degraded and dismissed all so that the structure of religious rules can be protected.
The focus is on safeguarding and defending rules rather than ministering to people in need.
Adherence to the religion of conservative evangelicalism or fundamentalism becomes more important than showing love and grace to a brother or sister in Christ.
“A man’s soul is in a bad state when he begins to regard manmade rites and ceremonies as things of superior importance… It is a symptom of spiritual disease.” J. C. Ryle 
2. Mark 2:25 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: 26 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?”
In response to the challenge from the religious leaders of His day, King Jesus refers to an incident that occurred in the life of a revered figure in Jewish history, King David.
In 1 Sam. 21:1-6, David, the rightful future king of Israel, is with a group of hungry men who are fleeing from the rage of King Saul, the ruler at that time. In the urgency of situation during the course of his mission, David breaches the law of God by asking for provision of bread from the high priest, which he is given.
The point of contact between this OT account and Mark 2 is that both King David and King Jesus “represent a new, as yet unrecognized ‘regime’” that finds itself in “emergency circumstances.”
The point is that the actions of Jesus and his disciples are closely connected with their kingly mission.
Here we have two unrecognized kings and their men foraging for food and violating the laws of God and men in the exigency of their particular situation.
The issue boils down to the question “of whether in fact Jesus’ message and mission [came] before the observance of such an important commandment as Sabbath” rest.
The issue is one of calling and authority, for only one who has been called by God and invested with heavenly authority can rightly justify violating God’s Sabbath.
Prior to the incident with the bread of the Presence in 1 Sam. 21, we see that David had already been anointed and empowered by God as the rightful future king:
1 Sam. 16:1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons…. 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him [David] in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward….
With these verses fresh in mind, recall another anointing and empowering by the Spirit of God of another Bethlehemite King that took place in Mark 1:
Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came… and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
So it is that we are to understand the parallels between King David and King Jesus and their authority.
This issue of calling and authority over the Sabbath is directly stated by Jesus in Mark 2:27-8, and is, in fact, the entire theological point of this narrative.
3. Mark 2:27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Jesus points to his authority and primacy over the religious system of His time in the parallel account in Matthew:
Matt. 12:6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ [Hos. 6:6] you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.
By virtue of Jesus’ authority and mission as the rightful King of Israel, He presents Himself as judge and arbiter over what is permissible or not on the Sabbath.
I’m going to ask everyone to bow their heads and consider the questions and call I’m about to place before you this day.
Application: Jesus is the rightful Lord and King not only over Israel, but over the entire universe, and over your life. The Pharisees didn’t understand this and failed to yield to His divine authority.
Do we fully understand and appreciate the claim of King Jesus on our lives?
Can we honestly say that we are always yielding in every area of our hearts to Him and His authority over us?
Do we truly understand the radical nature of His call and claim upon our lives?
Or, are we like the Pharisees of old, who stubbornly held onto the structures and rules of their earthly kingdom, even in the presence of the King Himself?
Do we not recognize that it is the King who determines the rules and their application, and not us?
Or do we go about enforcing our own rules in our own way?
The call today is a call to yield to the lordship and kingship of Jesus Christ.
Will you respond to this call?
Will you respond in grateful submission and loving adoration to the King of the universe who not only created you, but also pursued you in your sin and rebellion against His authority?
Will you respond to the One who lovingly pursued you, the One who took the punishment for your sin upon Himself on the cross, and with His life as a ransom, purchased you out of the bonds of the slavery of sin and death in order to give you life abundant and eternal?
Will you enthrone Jesus as Lord and King of your life?
 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. by Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 91.
 Cf. 1:22; 2:12; 5:15, 20, 33, 36, 42; 6:2, 50-51; 7:37; 9:6, 15, 32; 10:32; 11:18; 12:17; 15:5, 44.
 Key Dictionary of the Greek New Testament, based on the Greek Strong’s Dictionary, ed. by Rick Bennett, Version 1.4, Accordance Bible Software, 8.4.6, Oak Tree Software, Inc., 2010.
 Joseph Henry Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Version 1.4, Accordance Bible Software, 8.4.6, Oak Tree Software, Inc., 2010.
 Lane: “This Galilean unit [of five narratives]…is balanced in the latter half of the Gospel by a series of five controversies in Jerusalem (11:27-12:37),” 91.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Mark (n.p., 2007; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 37.
 Larry W. Hurtado, Mark, New International Biblical Commentary, ed. by W. Ward Gasque (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 47-8.
 I find it sadly ironic that Protestants decry the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in elevating their traditions and catechisms to the same level as Scripture, when in reality, many conservatives functionally elevate their own religious beliefs to a similar canonic status. In some ways, I have more respect for the Romanists than for conservatives and fundamentalists in this regard, because the Romanists at least publish their catechisms for public inspection and consumption, while the rules of conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism are unwritten and subject to all kinds of shifting and exception-making.
 Ryle, 38.
 Hurtado, 48. He notes vv. 23-4, stating that, “The actions of Jesus and his disciples are to be seen as happening in the context of their itinerant ministry, in which they proclaimed with prophetic urgency the approach of the kingdom of God.”
 Hurtado, 48.
 Lane states, “The relationship between the OT incident and the infringement of the Sabbath by the disciples lies in the fact that on both occasions pious men did something forbidden…” (117). Although believing that this explanation is satisfactory, I don’t believe he goes far enough in that he neglects to mention the further points of contact between the mission of the unrecognized king (David) and his men in 1 Sam. 21, and the mission of the unrecognized King (Jesus) and His men in Mark 2.
 Hurtado, 49.
 Lane: “With this word [vv. 27-8] Mark drives home for his readers the theological point of the pericope. These things were written that they [his readers] may understand Jesus’ true dignity: he is the Lord of the Sabbath” (120).
 Hurtado: “Mark’s point is not some generalizing principle like ‘people are more important than rules’ (which sounds so congenial to the modern reader). Rather, by virtue of Jesus’ authority and the urgency of his mission, he is presented as free to judge how to employ even the Sabbath day in the pursuit of his task, in which he heralds the arrival of the ultimate ‘good’ for humanity, symbolized in the gift of the Sabbath rest” (49).