It’s an understatement to that the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t know what to make of Jesus. They didn’t come anywhere close to seeing Him for what He was. He wasn’t Someone who had come tweak their system a bit here and there—He called for a radical revisioning of things (Mark 2:21-22 and the Sermon on the Mount). He had come to transform their burdensome following of God into the liberation and blessing it was meant to be. And because of this, He has brought joy (v. 18-20).
And this brings us to the Sabbath. From the popular point of view in Jesus’ time, it is viewed as a line of demarcation— it separated those who are serious about God from those who aren’t (as well as from the other nations who didn’t practice it). And in the usual pile-on approach that characterized them, the religious leaders had come up with an almost never ending list of things you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Sabbath keeping (by this definition) became a merit badge of the highest honor. Who was in and who was out was determined by how well you did the Sabbath. It would be funny it if wasn’t so serious—all of the religious gymnastics that were done in the name of God. It’s not hard to see how they had obscured the original purpose of the Sabbath or how their actions caused it to swell into an oppressive structure. It’s even possible to understand how they were unable to see it any other way—they had been doing it wrong so long it seemed right.
Jesus corrected the Pharisees and teachers of the law’s misunderstanding of the Sabbath. It was not something created by God to test people’s willingness to jump through the various hoops the leaders had come up with. It was not given to be a burden (v. 27), but a blessing. It was not given because He needed to test Israel, but because they needed the day. It was given to bring rest and restoration at the end of a wearying week. It was meant to provide opportunity for families to enjoy the blessing of being together. When viewed from this perspective (as all of the commands should be), we see why John writes his commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). This is why what David does was not lawful but also not condemned (Mark 2:25-26).
Jesus’ claim to be Lord of the Sabbath is to be understood precisely in this manner. He is Lord of it not because as the Son of God He had authority to say what could and couldn’t be done on it (as the Pharisees and teachers of the law had been doing). He does of course, but that’s not the point He’s making. No, he is Lord of the Sabbath because He is the epitome of what the Sabbath was meant to be about—rest and release. See Matthew’s statement on this in 11:28-30—right before he presents the discussion of what is lawful on the Sabbath in 12:1ff (McGuiggan).There’s no doubt about it—Jesus brings joy for those who wish to follow!