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Article about the Sabbath

Sabbath made for man and not man for Sabbath – What did God mean?

by Keith Green [ published 24/9/2011].

Today many in God’s Church identify themselves as God’s special chosen people partly based on the fact that they observe the seventh day Sabbath. One of the reasons they observe the Sabbath is because Christ clearly said the Sabbath was made for man. In other words, it was created to do man good and take care of his needs (not merely to be a sign as some seem to suppose). The full statement is in Mark 2:27:

”The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath...” (NKJV).

However, even though this statement clearly shows that God intended mankind to observe the Sabbath, unless we understand the full meaning of what Christ said in this verse, our Sabbath observance, like the way the Pharisees observed the day, may be a waste of time. They too observed these days, and yet on more than one occasion Christ referred to them as hypocrites – and said in Matthew 5:10 that unless our righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees we would by no means enter God’s Kingdom. He also was not pleased with the hardness of their hearts, and said that they neglected the weighty matters of the law (Matthew 23:23; Mark 3-5).

If we want to be the true followers of Christ, then we need to follow his example and understand the way he taught the Sabbath should be observed by New Testament Christians. One such statement Christ made in this regard was:

the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath...” (Mark 2:27; NKJV).

But what did he mean?  In order to find out, we will now examine the context in which the statement was made and look at other statements Christ made that are related to this question.

The Context

We pick up the story in Mark 2:23. Christ’s disciples were very hungry, and so as they walked with Jesus through the grain fields they began plucking ears of grain. For this, they were accused by the Pharisees of breaking God’s command to rest from work on the Sabbath:

“At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry [NT:3583: to famish], and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!" (Matthew 12:1-2; NKJV).

Christ, disagreeing with the Pharisees overly strict letter of the law application of the Sabbath command “ you shall do no work” (even though the Pharisees were being very picky about what they called work) began to justify his disciples  actions by demonstrating that under certain circumstances, where important human needs are involved, it was not a violation of the Sabbath to satisfy those needs – and that the command to work was not so rigid as the Pharisees had interpreted. Today, the equivalent would be something like preparing a simple meal at home to eat when you are very hungry. Christ justified his disciples actions by giving two biblical examples where it was permissible to put that which God had set apart for Holy use to what would usually under normal circumstances be considered unlawful use. In other words, even though the Sabbath command appeared clear enough “... you shall do no work...” there were exceptions. Putting it another way, under certain circumstances where human need was involved the general principle not to work did not apply, and therefore in those cases was not a violation of what God intended when he gave the Sabbath command to rest from work. The two examples that God used to illustrate this principle were: 1) the account where David and his men were very hungry and ate of the shewbread, which under the old covenant law was set apart for Holy use and for the priests only to eat. 2) The example in the Old Testament where the priests were permitted to work on the Sabbath.

"Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him:  how he entered the house of God and ate the shewbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?  Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? (Matthew 12:3-6; NKJV).

Christ in the above verses was making clear to future Christians, who would later read about this incident, the difference between correct Sabbath observance compared to the unmerciful, overly strict way the Pharisees taught the Sabbath should be observed.  From the two examples that Christ quoted, an important principle can be established that Christ expects Christians to be governed by when making judgments regarding Sabbath observance. The principle is: that which has been set aside for Holy use and purpose can be put to what, under normal circumstances, would be considered common use if it is an act of goodness or mercy (in the case of the priests, their work on the Sabbath was doing good because they were offering up sacrifices on behalf of the people for forgiveness of sins).

In both these examples of David and the shewbread and the priests it shows God’s priorities. It shows that if a choice had to be made between resting from work on the Sabbath and performing an act of goodness and mercy that needed to be done that day he wants people to choose and do the later. It is therefore in this context that Christ’s statement:“the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” needs to be understood.  He was saying that man was not made for the sake satisfying the physical Sabbath command to rest if it interfered with performing acts of goodness and mercy that need to be done that day – as the Pharisees would have people believe because of the way they strictly enforced the letter of the law regarding the command not to work. As we will see in the next subheading of this article, the guiding principle connected with this subject is really quite simple. God’s way is to be merciful – not harsh, rigid or insensitive to human need.

However, by explaining Gods intent behind the Sabbath, Christ was not saying that the Sabbath command not to work on that day was done away. On the contrary, he was saying the Sabbath was made and set apart for holy use and purpose “for man...” (as a blessing) – and was explaining only that the command to rest was not intended to be strictly applied to all circumstances.

Adding support to what we have discovered so far, Christ also made another statement in the same context and section of scripture: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice...”

I will have mercy and not sacrifice

When considering what Christ meant by his statement “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” it is difficult not to take into account Hosea 6:6 because Christ quoted that verse in the same passage of scripture that contains his statement about the Sabbath:

“But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7: NKJV).

The context shows that the guiltless referred to were Christ’s disciples whom the Pharisees had accused of breaking the Sabbath. By making this statement to the Pharisees Christ reveals to us that what is most important to God is that people learn about and live his way of life (involving mercy and doing good) in comparison to merely performing  physical sacrifices and thinking that is all that is required to please God and to be justified. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary  puts it this way:

Hosea 6:6 ...(Hosea 5:6)... God had said, "They shall go with their flocks and herds to seek the Lord, but they shall not find Him;" for He adds here, "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice." Do not excuse yourselves by thinking of the sacrifices you have offered to me: these were not what I required, so much as mercy and general goodness and piety on your parts: but these are the very duties which you failed to fulfill in obedience to me, and without which, your sacrifices are vain.
(from Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, Electronic Database by Biblesoft, Inc)

The equivalent today would be thinking that it didn’t matter what you did during the week as long as you
 went to confession or turned up to church. In other words, having complete disregard for what was most important to God – showing mercy to others and doing good in your day to day life. This Pharisaic approach was also mentioned by Christ in another verse:

“ Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.  Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24; NKJV).

This verse shows that the Pharisees were very particular about small physical aspects of Gods law (yes they were required). However, when it came to more important spiritual matters they had no idea. No idea about the simplicity found all through Christ’s example and teaching – GOD IS KIND and how he expects us to be the same. In fact, Christ compared the tithing of mint etc (a physical matter) to that of straining out a mosquito (a small unclean creature).Whereas, in regard to neglecting the merciful aspects of God’s law, he said it was like a person having no qualms about eating a Camel (a very large unclean creature). This clash between the Pharisees and Christ shows the difference between the mind of Christ and the unmerciful pharisaic mentality. So when Christ said that he desired mercy and not sacrifice, he was explaining what he meant by his statement: “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” He was explaining that God’s priority is that we practice mercy and doing good to our neighbour if it needed to be done that day, even if it involved work. In fact, when you consider how Hebrews 4:11 shows that one of the reasons God created the Sabbath in the first place was for the purpose of foreshadowing and keeping us mindful of the future Kingdom of God consisting of Spirit beings living his way of life (practicing mercy and doing good works) it makes no sense at all that God would expect us to act any other way on that day.

So far in our studies all evidence shows that the command to rest simply was not intended to be so strictly applied if it prevented Christians from doing merciful and good works that needed to be done on the Sabbath, yet there are more scriptures that further support this conclusion and show God’s mind behind the statement “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath”

Two other scriptures

Christ made two other statements in the New Testament that support the conclusion that have been made so far in this article. The relevant verses are as follows:

"What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?  Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." (Matthew 12:11-12; NKJV).

“Then He said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”(Mark 3:4 NKJV)

At this stage I could keep going and quote hundreds and hundreds and scriptures throughout the Bible to show that God is merciful, kind, loving and how his nature is such that he has no problem with a person performing good or merciful acts that need to be done on the Sabbath day, even if it involved work. It’s really that simple. No, the Sabbath is not done away; it just needs to be kept the way Christ kept it.


When Christ said:“the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” he was showing God’s priorities. In other words, Christ was saying that man’s good is always God’s priority, and if there was a conflict between resting from work on the Sabbath and doing good or performing merciful acts that needed to be done that day – He prefers the later.