The Sabbath Principle (Mark 2:23 - 3:6)

7 June 2024

The Sabbath Principle (Mark 2:23 - 3:6) Image

By Rev. Dr Clive W Ayre

One of the major changes of the last 70 years or so has been in the way Sunday was observed. For many, Sunday was taken up almost completely with church activity, and strict rules were applied concerning what may or may not be done on 'the Sabbath'. We live now in very different times. It is that same issue of what is or is not permissible on the Sabbath, which is the cement binding together the two little stories in Mark. But there are other issues involved. The Sabbath Principle, as I'm calling it, emerges as a matter of some significance, and it is important that we come to terms with it.

As Mark tells the story, it was in the context of a defence of both his own and his disciples' actions that Jesus enunciated this first principle of sabbath observance. “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath”. At first, it may seem that this approach means an open season on Sunday, that the day is ours to do with as we will. But that would be superficial. Jesus is not saying that the Sabbath, or Sunday for us, does not have to be special. Rather, he is challenging any form of legalism which would reduce religion to the keeping of rules. In more positive terms, the central element of our Sunday observance is the welfare of people and the worship of God.

At one level, the sabbath principle is not specifically Christian. Many others would also affirm the need for regular forms of rest. Moltmann argues that the sabbath principle is built into the very structure of creation, as represented in the account in which God rested on the 7th day. It is part of the rhythm of creation, and we ignore it at our peril.

When the early church adopted Sunday as the Lord's day, it 'intended to preserve the substance of Jesus' principle while sitting loose to its forms'. We now risk the loss both of substance and form. 'Over against the easy licence of our time into which our tolerance so easily degenerates, Jesus challenges Christians to ask, "How can we keep the Sabbath as to honour God and acknowledge the lordship of the Son of man"?' Jesus as Lord of the sabbath means that, as Luccock says, “Any final authority and sanctity that an institution deserves comes from its service to the wide variety of human need”.

The Sabbath principle is saying to us that Sundays are not to be spent either in self-indulgence or in self-denial but in renewal and in service. It is not only to rest and to worship but to save life as well. Williamson writes, “Jesus points opponents and disciples beyond picky rules to concern for human need, and beyond them both to the wholeness of life under his own lordship”. You might be left wondering what all of this means in real terms. There are no easy answers, but whatever we feel led to do, let us be sure Christ is at the centre.

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