Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mark 2:23–28

Mark 2:23–28 (ESV): Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath


In this passage Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grainfields one Sabbath, and the disciples are plucking some of the heads of grain as they go. The Pharisees see this and question Jesus about it, saying that His disciples are doing something which is “not lawful on the Sabbath” (verse 24 (ESV)).

However, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of the account in 1 Samuel 21:1–6 (ESV), in which David and his men ate some of the “bread of the Presence”—that is, bread which was only supposed to be eaten by the priests, and even then was only supposed to be eaten in a holy place. Normally it would be against the rules for David and his men to eat this bread, but because of their hunger an exception seems to have been made for them, and the account in 1 Samuel doesn’t seem to indicate that the LORD was in any way displeased about this.

Jesus then sums up this story for the Pharisees:
And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (verses 27–28 (ESV))


I just finished writing on this blog that I’m putting off my post about the Sabbath because I’m trying to figure out some stuff regarding “Covenant Theology” vs. “New Covenant Theology,” and then the second post I do happens to be about the Sabbath. Oy vey.

Oh well…

The first thing to note when reading this passage is that it is by no means clear that what the disciples are doing in this instance was actually against Jewish law; Jewish law forbade doing “work” on the Sabbath, but in trying to determine what constitutes “work” the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had come up with all kinds of rules, disallowing people from doing all kinds of things. (An example I remember is that if someone came to your house begging and stuck their hands inside your door you could give them some money, but if you reached your hands outside the door to give them money it would count as “work.”) So although they claim that plucking heads of grain constitutes work, it doesn’t mean it was actually work. Ironically enough, the one who would have been best equipped to make this determination was Jesus himself—if you want a good interpretation of God’s Law, the best person to ask is God!

But this is not where Jesus takes the conversation. He doesn’t bother trying to play the game according to the Pharisees’ rules, but instead ignores their legalities and gets to the heart of the matter. As the example with David and his men illustrates, sometimes things are more important than the rules—and oh, how that would have driven the Pharisees crazy, and probably even drives some modern-day Christians crazy today. It would have been so much easier for everyone involved—the Pharisees and the modern-day Christian Bible readers—if Jesus had just taken some time to break it down for the Pharisees: “Look, here’s how it works: These sixteen activities [or sixteen hundred, or sixteen thousand…] are considered ‘work,’ and shouldn’t be performed on the Sabbath, and everything else is cool.” Instead, Jesus went deeper and looked at the reason for the rule, rather than just the rule itself.

The reason we (the royal “we”) would have preferred Jesus to just break it down for us, and tell us what constitutes “work” and what doesn’t, is that it would be easier that way. It’s too messy to say that something might or might not be considered breaking the Sabbath, depending on the larger issues at play. Was it a sin for anyone in the Old Testament Jewish law to eat the bread of the Presence? Normally yes, and there weren’t any exceptions written into the Law saying that in some circumstances it would be okay, yet it still seemed to be okay for David and his men to eat it, because their hunger and need seem to have superseded the law. What do you do with that? What did the Pharisees do with that? How do you adhere to the Law when it’s not always clear what constitutes adherence?

But that’s just it. Jesus’ point isn’t about adherence; he’s not talking about how to obey the Sabbath, he’s more worried about what the Sabbath means. The Sabbath is rest from work; in the New Testament context, we see that as meaning rest from spiritual work—rest from trying to earn your way into salvation through obeying the Law (which is impossible), and instead resting in Jesus’ work. Jesus is our Sabbath. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is “lord of the Sabbath” it probably got them thinking he was blaspheming, but what they didn’t realize is that he was actually making an understatement. The Sabbath was instituted because of Him. (We could perhaps even say that He Himself instituted it, but I don’t want to get into trying to split divisions of responsibility within the Trinity; I’d be getting way out of my depth…) The Pharisees were interested in rules and regulations, and not so much interested in worshipping God.

In a sense this passage continues on from the last one; in that passage Jesus started to explain that the very nature of worshipping God has changed, that it’s no longer about rules it’s about Him [Jesus], and in this passage we see something very similar. (I should say: it never was just about following rules, but I’m speaking loosely here.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mark 2:18–22

Mark 2:18–22 (ESV): A Question About Fasting


In this passage some people question Jesus about the practice of fasting. (In Matthew 9:14–17 we are told that it’s John the Baptist’s disciples.) The Pharisees were fasting, and John’s disciples were fasting, but Jesus’ disciples were not, so people wanted to know why. It’s not always easy to see tone in these texts, but my guess would be that the question is somewhat accusatory; not so much “why aren’t you fasting,” but “why aren’t you fasting like you’re supposed to?”

Jesus’ response is to compare himself to a bridegroom: a wedding is a time for celebration not for fasting, so when you’re with the bridegroom of course you don’t fast. Jesus goes on to say that the days will come when the bridegroom—himself—will be taken away, and then his disciples will fast.

Jesus then goes on to say something that seems like a non-sequitor:

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins. (verses 21–22 (ESV), Jesus speaking)


One obvious example of Jesus’ disciples fasting after the bridegroom was taken away from them would be right after his crucifixion, before he’d risen again. They were quite obviously in a time of mourning then. But even aside from that, the New Testament continues to include the practice of fasting—for example, see Acts 13:2 (ESV)—so this isn’t something that was abolished with New Testament Christianity. We still mourn over sin (and our own sinfulness), and it’s appropriate to do so.

Jesus then gives the metaphors of sewing a new piece of cloth onto an old garment, and putting new wine into old wineskins. These are metaphors for how New Testament Christianity relates to Old Testament Judaism: Christianity is not simply a “patch” on Judaism. If you were to view Christianity as nothing more than an extension of Judaism, a couple of extra rules added to the rules we already had from the Old Testament, you’d be missing some fundamental aspects of Christianity. Definitely there is a sense in which Christianity carries on from Judaism, there is a sense in which it is an extension of what God had already revealed in the Old Testament, it’s even true that Jesus focused most of his evangelism on the Jews, and it wasn’t until He’d gone back to be with the Father that Christians really began the push to evanglize gentiles. But it’s also true that Christianity is fundamentally different than Judaism; it’s not at all about following rules, it’s about faith in Jesus. Jesus is beginning to tell his disciples something that Israelites in the Old Testament could not have understood, or at least not understood fully: that the Law of the Old Testament was never intended to save them, all it could do was point to their need for God to save them.

So my question is this: all of this being understood, why is Jesus making this point right now? The people haven’t asked him about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. (They don’t even know something called a “New Testament” or a “New Covenant” is going to be created.) They’ve asked him why his disciples aren’t fasting, and he’s talking about the fact that something entirely new is starting now, which is fundamentally different from the old. What’s going on here?

I hinted at it above: Old Testament Judaism, as people understood it, was about following the rules which had been handed down by God, whereas New Testament Christianity is about faith in Jesus. It’s right there in the name: Christianity. In a word, the difference between the Old and New Testaments is Jesus. Jesus is what Christianity is all about. So think it through: people come to ask Jesus why his disciples aren’t fasting, and Jesus tells them that it’s because the bridegroom is still with them, so fasting isn’t appropriate. Why is it not appropriate? Because Jesus is more than just a teacher, he’s more than even a prophet. If any of the well known rabbis of the day had been there, if Isaiah the prophet had been there, even if Moses had been there, their disciples would have fasted. But Jesus is different; Jesus is their God.

This is what Jesus is trying to teach them. I doubt they got it, I doubt even the twelve got it; it wouldn’t be until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that things would start to get more clear for people. But when the Holy Spirit really started to open their eyes, they would remember teachings such as this one.

Er… maybe I should just come back

As previously mentioned, I was gone for a while for a number of reasons, and my Sabbath and “Covenant vs. New Covenant Theologies” posts were part of it. Now that I’m back to a more regular schedule at work, however, I’ve got these two mostly-written blog posts sitting there, mocking me, teasing me that I may never figure out why Covenant Theologists believe what they believe. (And knowing that if/when any of them read the post, they’ll be sputtering in disbelief, wondering how I can believe what I believe. And though I’m joking about it here, in the post I’m trying to be fair to the side that I don’t understand, assuming that they’ve got some Biblical back-up for their system of theology. That’s what is taking up the most amount of time in writing the post.)

In the meantime, then, as I wrestle with that (off and on), I’m thinking I should just go ahead and get back to my “regular schedule” of going through the Bible, piece by piece, and someday when I finish the two posts I’ll put ’em up.

So that’s my current plan. And I put “regular schedule” in quotes for a reason, because anyone who knows this blog, especially me, knows that the schedule will be anything but regular.