Pharisees, Sabbath, and Fasting (Mark 2:18-3:6)

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I watched an interview of a Japanese man who converted to Islam. After years of working as a salaryman, he began to ask about the meaning of life. He began to explore different religions. He was most attracted to Christianity and Islam. Islam had many more rules that were clearly defined—for example, telling you how many times to pray each day. Islam was the most appealing religion because he wanted order, rules, details, and clarity. These are not bad things necessarily.

But as we’ll see in today’s passage, rules can also control our lives in an unhealthy way. In today’s story from Mark’s Gospel we will meet the Pharisees again, a group of Jews who were passionate about keeping religious rules. First, let’s pray.

[Read Mark 2:18-3:6]

Who are the Pharisees? Why were they so angry with Jesus? What does Jesus say about keeping rules? Let’s try to understand these things, starting with who are the Pharisees.

Who are the Pharisees?

The Hebrew word “pharisees” means “separated”. During this time, Israel was occupied by the Roman army. The Pharisees wanted to maintain their Jewish identity and keep themselves pure by obeying God’s laws.

They believed that by keeping these laws, their nation could avoid God’s curse mentioned in Deuteronomy 28 (which is exile) and instead receive blessing (which is God restoring the nation to prosperity). So, you can see that their intention was good.

But keeping God’s laws given through the patriarch Moses was not easy. For example, the Law only provides general guidelines on some matters like the Sabbath. God said, “Honor the Sabbath by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8) and “On this day you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10). But He does not specify what qualifies as work.

So, Jewish scholars and elders created sub-rules to provide more details. These sub-rules became tradition, which the Pharisees obeyed devoutly. For example, preparing food was considered work, so cooking was prohibited on the Sabbath. That sounds reasonable, but the sub-rules became more and more detailed. Carrying things was considered work on the Sabbath. So even today some Orthodox Jews will not carry anything outside their house except the clothes they are wearing—not even a wallet, house keys, or a baby.

Why were the Pharisees angry with Jesus?

Now, why did the Pharisees opposed Jesus? They thought, incorrectly, that Jesus was teaching people to disregard the Law. For the Pharisees, this was dangerous for the nation. Furthermore, they were outraged by the way Jesus compared himself to King David and, worse, to God. When Jesus called himself a “bridegroom” in 2:19 and “Lord of the Sabbath” in 2:28, he likened himself to God.

According to the prophet Isaiah, God describes himself like a bridegroom rejoicing over his bride, the people of Israel (Isaiah 62:5). According to the prophet Hosea, God is a husband trying to restore his marriage with an unfaithful wife (Hosea 2).

Even if the Pharisees weren’t bothered by the bridegroom metaphor, they were definitely bothered when Jesus called himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus was implying, “I made the Sabbath. It is I who decides what is right on the Sabbath.”

For all these reasons, the Pharisees were willing to join forces with the Herodians to kill Jesus. The Herodians were a group of Jews that the Pharisees hated for allying with the Roman Empire.

Fasting and the Sabbath

In today’s passage, the Pharisees objected to Jesus on two specific issues: fasting and the Sabbath. But according to Jesus, they had misunderstood God and the Scriptures in some important ways.

First, they criticized Jesus’ disciples for not fasting. The Pharisees were known for fasting twice a week. Yet, the law of Moses only calls for mandatory fasting once a year, during the annual Day of Atonement.

In today’s passage, Jesus responded by using the metaphor of a bridegroom. Mark 2:19: “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” During weddings, it is right to feast and celebrate, while it is inappropriate to fast. In other words, Jesus meant this: “You are with me, the bridegroom, so celebrate! Be joyful!”

There are appropriate times of fasting or mourning, of course. For example, Jesus said in verse 20, “But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.” He was foreshadowing his arrest and death on the Cross.

By speaking of celebration, Jesus could have been criticizing the way Pharisees fasted. In the Matthew 6, Jesus noticed that they purposely looked like they were suffering, so that people would be impressed by their fasting. In Luke 11, he accused them of trying to look good on the outside while neglecting the purity of their hearts (Luke 11:39). In other words, what matters more than how we act is our inner attitude towards God.

Next, the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for gathering food on the Sabbath, which they considered work. Jesus responds this way, in Mark 2:25: “Have you never read…?” He pointed them back to Scripture, to a story about King David. During a crisis David, who was starving, ate sacred bread that was meant only for Levite priests.

Jesus concluded, in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, God gave rules to benefit and bless mankind. Rules are not meant to be followed blindly in a way that harms and destroys. This idea is reinforced by Jesus’ words in 3:4: “Which is lawful to do on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

Old and New

It’s not that he wanted them to abandon God’s laws. In fact, Jesus’ moral standards were even higher than the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law. For example, the law defines adultery as sleeping with someone’s else spouse. Jesus, however, defined adultery as even just looking at someone other than one’s spouse with lust.

Rather, Jesus questioned whether the Pharisees had understood God’s law or God himself, correctly. Later, in Mark 7:8, Jesus says, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

The Pharisees had good intentions, but their method of carrying out those intentions wasn’t so good. Their understanding of God’s law was narrow. In the end, they got carried away by their zeal to do things correctly. They emphasized rigid obedience to some rules while neglecting other things that mattered to God, like showing mercy and caring for the poor (Luke 11:42).

Therefore, they could not accept Jesus’ teaching, just as old wineskins cannot hold new wine without breaking the skins. Jesus’ teaching seemed incompatible with their system, just as you can’t sew a red patch onto a blue cloth and expect the colors to blend. I think Jesus used these metaphors to say that the Pharisees needed a huge change in thinking. Their very foundation had to change.

Five lessons for us

So what are some lessons we can draw for our lives today? I would like to suggest five lessons.

First, God’s laws were given to bless us. God does not ask us to blindly obey rules, especially in a way that causes harm.

How do we know what rules to keep, or how to follow them? To answer these kinds of questions, we need to continually learn about the Scriptures. The Bible is not a rulebook. It is a story—about God and how he is restoring our world through Jesus Christ. It’s important to understand how different parts of the Bible, including the rules, fit into that story. Without knowing the overall story and God’s character, we will not understand the rules.

Secondly, “the spirit of the law” is more important than the law itself. In other words, we should try to understand the principle or purpose behind the law. That enables us to interpret the law more correctly.

Using the Sabbath example: We must go beyond asking, “How do we define ‘work’?” When God gave the Sabbath law, he didn’t give detailed instructions because he knew that the ways we work and the ways we rest would change over the centuries. It’s up to us to recognize what will help us rest.

We should ask, “What is the point of Sabbath?” The point is not to avoid work but to find rest. The law says, “Have a weekly day where you don’t work.” But the spirit of the law is: “Take regular rest. Rest is part of God’s rhythm for creation.”

We can go further by asking, “What is the purpose of rest? Is it merely to recharge our bodies for more work?” The book of Exodus tells us that we are made to rest because we reflect our Creator, who himself rested. As Exodus 20:11 says, “He rested on the seventh day”—that is, after the six days of creation. Through the Sabbath day, we experience the way God stopped working and simply enjoyed the world he created.

The third lesson is this: The law is important but character and relationship are more important. What is the point of having laws in the first place? God’s laws not only protect us but are also meant to shape our character. We are to be people who love God and love our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40). This was an important point that Jesus said the Pharisees missed out.

Fourth, God wants us to find joy in being with him. Jesus described himself as a bridegroom. Elsewhere in the Bible, we learn that we are his bride (Ephesians 5:25-32). Just as a newly married couple delights in each other, that is the kind of joy we are meant to experience with God.

Fifth, God gives us rest. Jesus called himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” He is the Lord of Rest. In Matthew 11:28 he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Rather than giving us more rules, he says, “Come and rest.”

One of the many ways we can receive this rest is by practicing the Sabbath. We each have different circumstances, so our Sabbath may look different. But the principle is that we trust God to provide for our needs. We allow ourselves to enjoy God and life. It’s not so much that we cease from activity. Rather, resting now gives us a glimpse of what the Garden of Eden used to be like. And it gives us a taste of our future eternal rest.


To end, I hope that we won’t see the Christian life as a set of rules to keep, or even a set of a good principles. Rather, the Christian life is about nurturing our relationship with God. That life includes celebration and caring for others. Let’s pray.

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