One sabbath day (Mark 2:23-27), Jesus was out with His disciples, walking through corn fields. As they went, the disciples plucked a few ears of corn to eat. The Pharisees caught wind of it and rebuked them, saying that they were breaking the law of the sabbath.
In response, Jesus reminded them of the time (1 Samuel 21) when King David and his men were hungry and went into the tabernacle to eat the sacred bread, despite the fact that the law forbade any but the priest from eating it. The fact that Jesus holds this account up in a virtuous light tells us that David did nothing wrong.
Let me repeat that: David TECHNICALLY broke the law and yet God Himself did not consider it a violation. How can this be? The Lord’s next words clarify things. Jesus said to them “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” In other words, obedience to the sabbath was meant to help and serve the Jew; it wasn’t meant for the Jew to be enslaved and hurt by it.
So let’s break this down before we make application:
First, it was a command to respect the sabbath. There is no doubt of this.
Second, Jesus’ disciples technically broke that command. I know some try to argue otherwise, saying that they were only breaking the Pharisees’ traditions of the sabbath, but I would point out in response to that how Jesus did not speak here to tradition, but to commandment. You can find other occasions where He rebukes Pharisaical tradition (Matthew 15:1-3).
Third, Jesus’ disciples were not considered wrong-doers by God, despite their breaking the command. Why? Based on the story told of David, the answer is: God factors in circumstances and, presumably, the heart of the one in question.
David did not set out to break God’s law. He was not “being rebellious.” He was in need and ate bread that was technically illegal because of that need. The circumstances were: “Don’t eat and die, or eat and live.” Jesus holds up this account as justification for His disciples plucking corn on the sabbath: There was a need and they were not acting from a rebellious mentality.
Put simply: God weighs circumstances into consideration when it comes to actions of technical disobedience.
Does this account teach us that we are free to disobey whatever commands we want? Obviously not. What this text teaches is the danger in becoming a slave to commandment-keeping, to the point where the point of the commandment is lost and the obedient person suffers unnecessarily as a result.
We are commanded to assemble as a church family on the Lord’s day. Yesterday many of us across the world did not obey that command. Did we sin? No, for the same reason David did not sin; for the same reason the disciples of Jesus did not sin.
Some are quick to pass judgment, question motive, or apply the letter of the law over the spirit of it, but that defies the very words and actions of Jesus in Mark 2. These are particular circumstances. We’re not happy about them. We pray they change as soon as possible.
Our heart’s desire is to assemble but right now we are not. Our reason is not because of a desire to reject Christianity, but to keep each other and our neighbors safe from a virus. This is not a matter of persecution, where the question of our assembling is a litmus test for our faith in God. This is a health matter. You stay home when you’re sick; now we all stay home to prevent the spread of sickness.
In the meantime we’re not assembling. To be clear: Watching an online service isn’t an assembly; it’s a way to have the feeling of connection, without the actuality of it. We didn’t assemble yesterday. You all assembled separately, with your immediate family in your homes, but as a congregation we did not assemble. We pray that we will assemble again as soon as the Lord wills. But right now we’re not assembling as one congregation.
And that’s okay.
The Sunday Assembly, like the Sabbath, was made to serve man, not man be servants of the assembly.