Question: "What does it mean that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath?"
Answer: In Mark 2:27 Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This statement was in response to the accusation that His disciples were breaking the law regarding resting on the Sabbath when they walked by some fields and plucked heads of grain (see Mark 2:23–28; also Matthew 12:1–8; Luke 6:1–5).
When the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples, Jesus referred them to an example from the Old Testament. David was once in need of food and was given consecrated bread that, technically, was only lawful for the priests to eat (1 Samuel 21:1–6). The holy bread served a practical need of God’s anointed (David) and his followers, just as, in Jesus’ day, the grain served a practical need for God’s anointed (Jesus) and His followers.
David and his men had not acted sinfully in eating the showbread, and neither were Jesus’ disciples acting sinfully in picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Jesus concludes, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28). His response to the accusing Pharisees contains two important teachings.
First, the Sabbath was intended to help people, not burden them. In contrast with the grueling daily work as slaves in Egypt, the Israelites were commanded to take a full day of rest each week under the Mosaic Law. Pharisaical law had morphed the Sabbath into a burden, adding restrictions beyond what God’s law said. The act of picking a head of grain and munching on it as one walked along a field should not be considered “harvesting,” as the Pharisees tried to categorize it. The disciples had not broken God’s law; they had only violated the Pharisees’ strict interpretation of the law. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of the original intent of the Sabbath rest.
Jesus gives a similar reminder in Mark 3:1–6 (also Matthew 12:9–14; Luke 6:6–11) when He heals a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were looking to accuse Jesus and closely watched His response to a man with a shriveled hand. “Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent” (Mark 3:4). The Sabbath was not intended to burden people but to ease their burden. For someone to forbid acts of mercy and goodness on God’s day of rest is contrary to all that is right. Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, did what was right and healed the man, and that’s when the Pharisees began to plot with the Herodians to kill Jesus.
Second, Jesus is Lord even of the Sabbath. What does this mean? Another way to express the idea is to say Jesus is in charge of the Sabbath. He is God in human form, and He created the Sabbath day. As the One who wrote the law, Jesus certainly has oversight over how the law is to be enforced. The Pharisees had lifted their own rules to the level of God’s, placing onerous burdens on people, and they ended up rebuking the Lawgiver Himself.
Jesus is also the Lord of the Sabbath in that the Sabbath pointed to the rest Jesus provides. Jesus became our rest when He did all the work necessary for our salvation (Hebrews 4). He fulfilled the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). We rest, spiritually, in Him; He has secured our eternal blessing.
As believers, set free in Christ, we are not judged by whether or not we keep the Sabbath day (Colossians 2:16). Instead, we follow the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus Christ. We find our rest in Him, and seven days a week are filled with worship of Him.