The Real Reason they killed Jesus

The Jewish religious rulers received their authority from the complex traditions.  Christ transgressed the traditions—not the Law of Moses—and thereby condemned the Jewish system of authority.  This, combined with the influence Christ gained with the common people, made Christ a threat to their rule, and they sought Jesus death. 

SUMMARY

What Christ did on the Sabbath made the Pharisees so angry that they wanted to kill Him.  Some argue today that Christ cancelled the Sabbath commandment by acting and teaching contrary to it.  However, He accepted the Sabbath as binding, but also consistently refused to admit having transgressed the Sabbath.  The Sabbath laws which Jesus contravened were the Jewish traditions.  The extremely strict Jewish traditions prohibited anything that even remotely looks like work.  It is therefore not possible to argue that He revoked the Sabbath.

Israel’s rulers merely wore a religious cloak.  They were not acquainted with God.  Religion for them was merely a method for maintaining their power over the people.  They ruled on the basis of the Law of Moses, as interpreted by their traditions.  The extremely complex and detailed traditions gave them power over the common people.

Jesus was not accepted by the leaders in Israel, but He gained an influence with the people. But this influence made Him a threat to the authority of the religious rulers.  Furthermore, by ignoring their traditions, and by even acting publicly and deliberately contrary to their traditions, Christ challenged the basis of their authority to rule.  That is why the Pharisees sought Jesus death.

Sometimes it is said that Jesus deliberately violated the rules to liberate the Sabbath from the stranglehold of the traditions, but it is proposed here He healed on the Sabbath, as a deliberate and public violation of the traditions, to condemn the entire Jewish system of authority.

DISCUSSION

WHAT SABBATH LAWS DID JESUS CONTRAVENE?

What Christ did on the Sabbath made the Pharisees so angry that they wanted to kill Him.

Some argue today that Christ cancelled the Sabbath commandment by acting and teaching contrary to it.  However, He never acted or taught contrary to the Old Testament Sabbath laws:

Firstly, as a general principle, Christ never violated any of the Laws of Moses. 

In the Sermon on the Mount He said: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Mat. 5:17-19).  Whatever “fulfill” here means, it at least means that He observed the Law.

This principle is also seen in Christ’s claims that, “I have kept My Father’s commandments” (John 15:10) and “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46).  Christ was a living representative of the law. No violation of its holy precepts was found in His life.

Secondly, He admitted the Sabbath as binding, but refused to admit breaking the Sabbath.

On a number of occasions the Pharisees accused Christ of breaking the Sabbath law.  In His various defenses He never questioned or contested the binding obligation of the Sabbath commandment.  To the contrary, by debating with the Pharisees what is lawful on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4), He admitted that certain things are not lawful, and by implication admitted the Sabbath as binding.

He therefore accepted the Sabbath as binding, but He also consistently refused to admit having transgressed the Sabbath.  He consistently justified His Sabbath deeds on the basis of the Old Testament, arguing that it is the Pharisees that are inconsistent with the Old Testament (Mat. 12:4-12; Mark 3:4; John 7:22-24).

Thirdly, the things which he did on the Sabbath did not violate the Law of Moses; it violated the traditions.

He was accused of breaking the Sabbath in two ways, namely by healing and by picking and eating grain while walking through a grain field.  The Old Testament is silent on both these issues.  When one looks for specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, plowing and harvesting (Ex. 16:23-30; 20:10; 25:3; 34:21; Deut. 5:14).

But healing of people that were disabled for many years is a form of liberation.  Since the Law of Moses presents the Sabbath as a symbol of liberation, (see the article on the Sabbath in the Law of Moses), healing should not only be allowed on the Sabbath; it is the very purpose of the Sabbath.

Furthermore, as Jesus pointed out in the grain-picking incident, the disciples were not just men walking through grain fields on a Sabbath; they were part of His mission.  As such they were doing God’s work, which, as Jesus argued, allowed them to do things on the Sabbath that for other people would not be lawful.

Despite the fact that the Law of Moses is silent on these matters, there was no dispute among the Jewish authorities over whether healing or picking grain are allowed on the Sabbath (Luke 4:40; 13:14; Mark 3:2).  The Sabbath laws which Jesus contravened therefore must have been the Jewish traditions.  The extremely strict Jewish traditions so corrupted the seventh day that even healing of chronically ill patients was prohibited.  It prohibited anything that even remotely looks like work.  It was these traditions that interpreted picking grain as harvesting, rubbing grain in the hands as threshing and blowing the chuff away as winnowing.

It is therefore not possible to argue that He revoked the Sabbath, or even that He planted the seed for later abrogation of the Sabbath.

WHY WERE THE PHARISEES SO ANGRY?

Why were the Pharisees so angry when Jesus contravened the Sabbath traditions?  The synagogue official was annoyed when he saw that Jesus made the woman erect.  He should have been amazed.  It was not like claiming healing for some invisible illness, such as AIDS, where one can see no immediate change.  The people knew the ill people that Christ healed.  Their healings were clearly visible.  If the religious rulers were God’s children, they would have appreciated the infinite invisible Power faintly reflected in the woman’s physical healing.  They would have fallen to their knees and begged for mercy.  But these healing miracles only annoyed them (Luke 6:11; 13:14), and even more astounding, made them want to kill Jesus.

To understand this, remember that Israel had no king or civil rulers at the time.  It was governed by religious leaders.  And as with all human government systems, it is the people with dominating, strong personalities that push themselves forward to become leaders; not the meek and humble children of God.  Consequently Israel’s rulers merely wore a religious cloak.  They were not acquainted with God.  To them His voice through Christ was the voice of a stranger.  As Christ said to them, “you do not have the love of God in yourselves” (John 5:42) and, “You do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:26).

Religion for the religious rulers was merely a method for maintaining their power over the people.  They ruled on the basis of the Law of Moses, as interpreted by their traditions.  The extremely complex and detailed traditions gave them power over the common people.

Into this context Jesus came by the authority of God, bearing His image, fulfilling His word, and seeking His glory; yet He was not accepted by the leaders in Israel because His teaching demanded the sacrifice of self, while the Jews “receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God” (John 5:44).

He gained an influence with the people because they could understand His words, and because their hearts were warmed and comforted.  He spoke of God, not as an avenging Judge, but as a tender Father.  He revealed the image of God as mirrored in Himself.

The influence which Jesus gained with the people made Him a threat to the authority of the religious rulers.  Furthermore, by ignoring their traditions, and by even acting publicly and deliberately contrary to their traditions, Christ challenged the basis of their authority to rule.  In order to maintain their own power, these leaders determined to break down Christ’s influence; they sought Jesus death.

In one incident we see that they actually wanted Him to heal on the Sabbath so that they could justify His murder on the basis of the Old Testament, which requires the death penalty for working on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1).  When He entered into a synagogue where there was a man whose hand was withered, they watched to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.  They did not ask whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10) because they were concerned for the sick man, or because they desired understanding.  They were convinced that they knew the answer to that question, and put this question to Christ to trick Him into the ‘crime’ of healing on the Sabbath, so that they could justify His murder.  After He healed the man the Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

WHY DID CHRIST DELIBERATELY HEAL ON THE SABBATH?

Sometimes it is said that Jesus deliberately violated the rules to liberate the Sabbath from the stranglehold of the traditions and to restore the Sabbath to God’s original intent, but it is proposed here that He had a greater purpose in mind.  He taught that the traditions set the commands of God aside (Mark 7:8-9; Mat 15:3) and “destroyed the authority of God’s word” (Mark 7:13).  It is therefore proposed here that He healed on the Sabbath, as a deliberate and public violation of the traditions, to condemn the entire Jewish system of authority.  The Sabbath miracle healings were therefore a natural part of His condemnation of the Jewish system of authority, and consistent with what He elsewhere said to them:

If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains”  (John 9:41).

“You do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (John 10:26).

I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7), “he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way (implying the Pharisees), he is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd (by implication the Pharisees), … sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees … because he … is not concerned about the sheep.” (John 10:11-13)

TO: Sabbath Table of Contents

Next: Opportunity to teach

TO: General Table of Contents

The Sabbath was made for man

The traditions of the elders were very strict and were applied by the Pharisees without compassion.  Thus the Sabbath, which was intended to be the best day of the week, was converted into the worst day of the week.

The Sabbath was made for man.  The real needs of people are therefore always more important than the Sabbath.

While the disciples were with Jesus, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and thus allowed to do work required for that purpose.

By debating with the Pharisees what is allowed on that day, and by saying that “the Sabbath was made for man”, Jesus confirmed the Sabbath as a binding obligation. 

Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5

Overview

One Sabbath Jesus and His disciples walked through a grain-field.  His disciples, because they were hungry, started to pick the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating.  Some Pharisees saw this and immediately complained to Jesus, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath”.

This is one of five conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, with respect to the Sabbath, that are recorded in the Bible, and the only one not caused by a healing miracle.

It is difficult to imagine how the Jews could consider the mere picking and eating of grain, while one is walking through a grain field, to be “work,” but this indicates how strict the traditions of the elders were.  The purpose of the Sabbath was to provide reprieve from the every-day toil to enjoy a day of rest.  But by disallowing anything that even remotely looks like work; even pleasurable activities such as picking and eating grain, the Sabbath became the opposite of what it was supposed to be.  No longer was it the best day of the week, but it became the worst day of the week.

In defense of His disciples Jesus firstly used the example of David and his men who, when they were hungry, ate the temple bread which only the priests were permitted to eat.  By means of this analogy Christ indicated that the real needs of people are always more important than the Sabbath.

To defend His disciples Christ secondly referred to the priests who break the Sabbath” by working in the temple, but remain without guilt because they did this work in God’s service.  Christ then applied this principle to His disciples by saying, “something greater than the temple is here”.  He was referring to Himself as “greater than the temple”.  By comparing Himself to the temple He was, by implication, saying that the disciples were equivalent to priests serving in the temple.  While they were with Him, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and people are allowed to work on the Sabbath if that work is necessitated by being in God’s service.

Christ thirdly accused the Pharisees of judging without compassion.  The first two arguments are two different reasons why His disciples are “innocent” (Mat. 12:7), but with this argument He attacks the Pharisees.  Because the Sabbath is intended to allow rest from the hard work, compassion is particularly applicable to the Sabbath, but the hunger which plagued His disciples did not kindle any feeling of tenderness or eagerness to help within the hearts of the Pharisees.

Christ fourthly added the principle that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”.  He said this because the Jews, through their traditions, made man the servant of the Sabbath.  They made Sabbath holiness the goal, and man the means to achieve this.  But the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit.  The Sabbath is the means and man’s welfare and happiness is the goal.  For that reason human needs are always more important than the Sabbath.  To forbid hungry travelers to pick heads of grain is to pervert the Sabbath’s intended purpose.

Christ concluded, “so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”.  The word “so” means that the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath (v. 28) because the Sabbath was made for man (v. 27).  The title “Son of Man” comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where “One like a Son of Man” receives “everlasting dominion” over “all the peoples, nations and men of every language”.  Putting these thoughts together, He is Lord of the Sabbath because He is Lord over man, while the Sabbath is part of man’s existence. 

Some find in Christ’s claim, to be the Lord of the Sabbath, a statement to the effect that He will change or abrogate the Sabbath.  However, by debating with the Pharisees, on the basis of the Old Testament, what is allowed on the Sabbath, He confirmed that it is a binding obligation.  He was here defending His disciples who were accused of breaking the Sabbath.  This would have been an ideal opportunity to say that the Sabbath was or will be abrogated or changed soon.  But He gave no such indication.  To the contrary, His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” implies that the Sabbath will remain for as long as man exists.

In conclusion His arguments can be divided into two principles.  The reference to David and His men, His demand for compassion and His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” can be combined into a single observation, namely that the Sabbath exists for man’s benefit and must serve man’s needs.

This principle applies in all circumstances, but His other principle is specific to the unique circumstances of the incident, namely that the “Lord of the Sabbath”, who is “greater than the temple”, “is here”.  His presence transformed His disciples into the equivalent of “priests in the temple“, who are allowed to work on the Sabbath.  The principle is that work in God’s service, which is work for man’s redemption, is allowed on the Sabbath.

Somebody else’s grain

To walk through somebody else’s grain field and eat the grain was an accepted practice in the Jewish society.  The Law expressly laid it down that the hungry traveller was entitled to do that, on condition that he only uses his hands and not a sickle (Deut. 23:24-25; cf. Lev. 19:9; 23:22; Ruth 2; cf. Mishnah Peah 8, 7).  But to do this on the Sabbath was interpreted by the traditions to be an act of desecration. Not only was picking the heads of grain regarded as reaping, but the rubbing of it in the hands was regarded as threshing.

Christ’s Responses

Jesus responded with four or perhaps five statements.  All four statements are provided by Matthew 12, but only the first and the last by Mark 2 and Luke 6.  However, the fourth statement is given more fully in Mark 2 than in the other two gospels:

Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?

Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.

Harsh Traditions

As stated above, the Sabbath was created to be the best day of the week, but the extremely harsh traditions, combined with the strict policing by the proud and terrifying religious rulers, made it the worst day of the week.

Many people still today keep the Sabbath; either on Saturday or on Sunday, but make the same mistake.  In their eagerness to ensure that they comply with the law they disallow even pleasurable activities, such as swimming or hiking.  The poor children suffer the most.  The purpose of the Jewish Sabbath was to be a day of joy.  There were some animal sacrifices prescribed for the Sabbath, but it was not prescribed as a day for religious activities.  It was a day to cease the hard work of the other days and to rest and enjoy.  If it is you view that you must keep the Sabbath, please ensure that you keep it as a day to enjoy.

To Do Good

In the healing Sabbath controversies Christ argued that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.  “To do good” implies doing something for somebody else.   In the current instance, since the disciples were picking grains for themselves, He did not use this justification.

David and His Men

In response Jesus firstly used the example of David and his men who, when they were hungry, ate the temple bread which only the priests were permitted to eat (Mat. 12:3-4; Mark 2:25-26; Luke 6:3-4).  This example presents us with an order of priority: easing the hunger of David and his men, in their hour of crisis, was more important than the prescripts with respect to the showbread.  By implication Christ was saying that to ease the hunger of the disciples was more important than the Sabbath.  Generally stated, the real needs of people are always more important than the Sabbath.

Priests in the Temple

Christ secondly referred to the priests who “break the Sabbath” by working in the temple, but remain without guilt because they did this work in God’s service.  (Mat. 12:5-6).  For instance, the priests baked bread (Ex. 16:23; 1 Sam. 21:3-6) to replace the week-old bread of the presence (Lev. 24:8; 1 Chr. 9:32) and performed many other tasks related to the maintenance of the temple and sacrificial system. The same labor in a secular context would not be allowed on the Sabbath.  The principle is that work is allowed on the Sabbath if that work is done in God service of redemption; to provide forgiveness and salvation to sinners.

Christ applied this principle to His disciples by saying, “something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6).  He was referring to Himself as “greater than the temple” (compare Mat. 12:41, 42).  The temple and its services were mere symbols of Christ and His mission.  By comparing Himself to the temple He was, by implication, saying that the disciples were equivalent to priests serving in the temple.  While they were with Him, they were in God’s service for the redemption of sinners, and people are allowed to work on the Sabbath if that work is necessitated by being in God’s service!

This principle must be distinguished from the argument which Jesus used to justify His Sabbath healing miracles in the gospel of John, where He said that, by healing on the Sabbath, He is doing the work of the Father.  Healing is directly doing God’s work to redeem and restore men.  The picking of grain was not directly doing God’s work, but doing other work done while in God’s service.

Compassion

Christ thirdly said:

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Mat. 12:7)

Christ here quotes from the prophet Hosea, who rebukes his people for “seeking the Lord . . . with their flocks and herds” (5:6) as if God could be appeased by the many and costly sacrifices (cf. 1 Sam. 15:22), stating that compassion is more important than sacrifices.

With this quote Christ accused the Pharisees of judging without compassion.  The first two arguments are two different reasons why His disciples are “innocent” (Mat. 12:7), but with this argument He attacked the Pharisees.

Compassion can be defined as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others; a feeling of sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Because the Sabbath is intended to allow rest from the hard work, compassion is particularly applicable to the Sabbath, but the hunger which plagued His disciples did not kindle any feeling of tenderness or eagerness to help within the hearts of the Pharisees.  Instead they were quick to condemn the disciples.  As Jesus said at another time:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

To pretend to speak for God and then to judge people harshly is a horrible sin, because it misrepresents God as cruel and harsh, and what sin could be worse?  It drives people away from God and away from the Truth.  Let us rather mimic the One that said to the woman caught in adultery:

“I do not condemn you, either” (John 8:11).

Let us also judge people with compassion.  Christ also said: “in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Mat 7:2).  Do you want to be judged the way that you judge other people?

The Sabbath was made for Man

Christ fourthly added this principle:

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

Christ here referred to the creation account, where it is stated that the Sabbath was created to be a blessing (Gen 2:3); in other words, for man’s benefit.  “The Sabbath was made” by God by resting on the seventh day and then by blessing and sanctifying the day.  God was not tired after six days of work.  He did not have to rest.  He rested to set an example to man.  The Sabbath is not merely a reminder that God rested on the seventh day; God rested to create the seventh day.

The Jewish traditions made man the servant of the Sabbath.  It made Sabbath holiness the goal, and man had to ensure this.  But the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit; for his welfare and happiness.  Therefore human needs are more important than the Sabbath.  Wearisome rules with respect to how the Sabbath is to be observed, defeats it purpose.

Compassion is a fundamental principle of God’s kingdom, but the principle that “the Sabbath was made for man” provides particular support for Christ’s demand for compassion for the sufferings or misfortunes of others when judging people with respect to what they do in the Sabbath.

Lord of the Sabbath

Christ concluded:

So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28; Mat. 12:8; Luke 6:5).

Why did Christ find it necessary to say that He is “Lord even of the Sabbath”?

Some propose that He said it to indicate that He will change or abrogate the Sabbath, but there is no indication of this in the text.  To the contrary, His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” implies that the Sabbath will remain for as long as man exists.

It is proposed here that He did not say that He is “Lord even of the Sabbath” to say something about the Sabbath, but to say something about Himself.  In the same context He also said that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). that “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father” (Mat 11:27) and that He is “greater than the temple”, “greater than Jonah” and  “greater than Solomon” (Mat. 12:6, 41, 42).  And frequently He identified Himself as the “Son of man”.  This identifies Him as the “One like a Son of Man” who will receive “everlasting dominion” over “all the peoples, nations and men of every language” (Daniel 7:13-14).

Conclusion

In conclusion His arguments can be divided into two principles.  The reference to David and His men, His demand for compassion and His statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” can be combined into a single principle, namely that the Sabbath exists for man’s benefit and must serve man’s needs.

This principle applies in all circumstances, but His other argument is specific to the unique circumstances of the incident, namely that the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:8; Luke 6:5), who is “greater than the temple”, “is here” (Mat. 12:6).  His presence transformed His disciples into the equivalent of “priests in the temple“, who are allowed to work on the Sabbath (Mat. 12:5).  The principle is that work while in God’s service, for man’s redemption, is allowed on the Sabbath.

TO:  Sabbath Table of Contents

NEXT: Bethesda – John 5

TO: General Table of Contents

The religious leaders wanted Jesus to heal on the Sabbath

The rulers of the chosen nation actually wanted Jesus to heal on the Sabbath so that, on the basis that the Old Testament prescribed the death penalty for working on the Sabbath, they could justify His execution.  Are we the same?  Will it happen again?

Matthew 12:9-14 and Mark 3:1-6

Summary

Israel had no king or civil rulers at the time.  It was governed by religious leaders, but they only wore a religious cloak.  They were not acquainted with God.  Jesus’ healing miracles were clearly visible, but it only annoyed them, and even more astounding, made them want to kill Him.

The Old Testament is silent on healing on the Sabbath, but healing was a contravention of the Jewish traditions.  These traditions were many times more detailed and complex than the Law of Moses and were regarded by the Jews as equally important to the Law of Moses.  It applied the Sabbath extremely strictly.  It disallowed anything that even remotely looked like work.

For the religious rulers their religious rules, including the Sabbath, were tools whereby they controlled the masses.  But when Christ challenged their traditions, He challenged their authority.  In order to maintain power, they were intent on killing Him.  They actually wanted Jesus to heal on the Sabbath so that, on the basis that the Old Testament prescribed the death penalty for working on the Sabbath, they could justify His murder.

When accused of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus never disputed the binding nature of the Sabbath, but rather debated with the Pharisees what is allowed on the Sabbath.  This means that He accepted the Sabbath commandment as binding.

But He changed the nature of the seventh day.  The Law of Moses requires the seventh day simply as a day of rest, prohibiting all work; passively allowing rest to servants and animals.  By allowing work on the Sabbath, on condition that that work is to supply in the needs of those in distress, Jesus put a very different perspective on seventh day, converting it to a day of activity.

The religious leaders were seeking for evidence against Jesus.

One Sabbath He entered into a synagogue.  Among the people in the synagogue there was this man with his withered hand.  The religious leaders were watching Jesus.  They knew about His earlier Sabbath healing miracles, and expected Him to also in this case to heal on the Sabbath.  But rather than be amazed by His miracles, they saw this as an opportunity to obtain evidence against Jesus:

They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him”.  (Mark 3:1)

They were intent on killing Him.  They did not wait for Jesus to act, but initiated the confrontation by asking Jesus:

“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10 and Mark 3:1)

They did not ask this because of concern for the sick man, or because they desired understanding.  They were convinced that they knew the answer to their own question, but put this question to Christ to trick Him into healing on the Sabbath, so that they might condemn Him on the basis of their laws.

To heal on the Sabbath was prohibited by the traditions

The Old Testament is silent on healing on the Sabbath, but this incident shows that the Jews were confident that to heal on the Sabbath—even miracle healing—was a contravention of the Sabbath.  Since there is nothing about this in the Law of Moses, this prohibition must have been in their traditions.  To understand this incident it is very important to understand the role of the traditions in the Jewish society.  The traditions were many times more detailed and complex than the Law of Moses and were regarded by the Jews as equally important to the Law of Moses.  It was so detailed and complex that, to know it, required a lifetime of study.  It had more than 1000 rules with respect to the Sabbath, applying the Sabbath rest extremely strictly.  It disallowed anything that even remotely looked like work.  On the Sabbath sick people were left to fend for themselves; they could only expect help after the end of the Sabbath, after sun went down.  See here for more information.

This incident contains an important message.

Christ knew the traditions well, and He knew that He would be regarded as a transgressor if He would heal on the Sabbath, but He did not back off.  He invites the man forward.  He said to the man with the withered hand:

“Get up and come forward!” (Mark 3:3)

Even though He knew that they were seeking justification to kill Him, He deliberately and publicly contravened the traditions by healing this man.  Being the image of the Father (John 14:7), we know that Christ never acted stubbornly.  Everything He did and said was important, according to the infinite wisdom of the Father.  To heal on the Sabbath therefore said something important about the Sabbath.  Our question now is what His message was.

He desired to teach the Jews.

Jesus desired to break through the dull spiritual understanding of the religious leaders so that they would appreciate the absurdity of the situation, namely that, on the Sabbath, they were planning to kill (Him), while He was saving lives and bringing happiness to multitudes through God’s supernatural working.  He therefore answered their question with another question:

 “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?”  (Mark 3:4)

He accepted the Sabbath as binding.

Notice that He did not dispute the binding nature of the Sabbath.  By debating with the Pharisees what is allowed on the Sabbath, Christ confirmed that certain things are not allowed on the Sabbath.  He thus accepted the Sabbath commandment as a binding obligation.  There is no indication in His teaching that the Sabbath law is no longer relevant or that it ever will become irrelevant.

But they kept silent (Mark 3:4).  They refused to admit that they were wrong.  The opportunity they had to reflect and realize their mistake has passed.  By adding refusal to admit their error to their intention to kill Christ they became even more confirmed in their opposition to God.

Not emergency healing only

Jesus then answered His own question:

What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

We should not conclude, on the basis of this example, that Christ here authorizes healing in emergencies only, because He used this example to justify the healing of a man’s withered hand, which was not an emergency.  Not one of Christ’s seven Sabbath healing miracles were emergencies.  The point of this example is rather that, since a man worth much more than a sheep, and since we all, even on the Sabbath, help a sheep that is in trouble, how much more should we not help a man that is in trouble, even on the Sabbath?

Jesus changed the nature of the seventh day.

The question that hovers over the entire incident is: what is lawful on the Sabbath?:

This is the question put by the experts of the law to Jesus (Matthew 12:10) when they tried to get Him to heal on the Sabbath, so that they can accuse Him of sin.

This is the question with which Christ responded in an effort to soften their consciences (Mark 3:4).

This is also Christ’s concluding words after the Pharisees confirmed their aggression to Jesus through their silence: “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.

This is a key concept in the current study.  “To do” is to work.  What Christ said is that work is allowed on the Sabbath, if that work provides relief to people and animals in distress.  “To do good” includes healing.  The Sabbath is the time to express kindness and mercy toward others through kind deeds.  Jesus thereby changed the nature of the seventh day:

The Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments, requires the seventh day simply as a Sabbath, which means a day of rest.  It prohibited any work.  It was “a sabbath of complete rest … You shall not do any work” (Lev. 23:3)

By allowing work on the Sabbath, if that work is “to do good”, Jesus put a very different perspective on seventh day.  While the Sabbath commandment focused on what must not be done on the Sabbath (work), Christ focused on what may and even must be done on the Sabbath, converting it from day of idleness to a day of activity.

For this view of the seventh day Christ seems to go beyond the time of Moses to the origin, namely the creation account, which states that the seventh day was blessed (Gen 2:3), which implies it is intended to be a blessing to mankind.

It also seems as if He used the fact that the Sabbath was a memorial of the divine redemption from the bondage of Egypt (Deut. 5:15) to convert the day:

From passively allowing rest to servants and animals;

To actively performing deeds of compassion to people and animals;

In His view, on the seventh day, animals should not only be lead to water, but should also be allowed other joys that are not available on other days.  Any work that is required to achieve this, for instance taking animals somewhere and to bring them back, are allowed.

The point is that Christ attached a meaning to the seventh day that is not immediately evident from the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses.  We, like the Pharisees, would not have arrived at His view by simply studying the Law of Moses.

Israel’s rulers wore a religious cloak.

 After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” (Mark 3:5)

Christ was “grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5) because He loved His people and earnestly desired that they would accept His message.

The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him” (Mark 3:6).

It is with surprise that we read that the Jewish leaders were not impressed by Jesus’ healing miracles.  Right in front of their eyes the man with the withered hand, whom they knew well, was healed.  In another incident the synagogue official was annoyed when he saw that that Jesus made the woman erect (Luke 13:10-17).  He should have been amazed.  It was not like claiming healing for some invisible illness, such as AIDS, where one can see no immediate change.  The people knew this woman and this man and their physical problems.  Their healings were clearly visible.  If they were God’s children, the religious leaders would have appreciated the infinite invisible Power faintly reflected in physical healings.  They would have fallen on their knees and begged for mercy.  But this healing miracle only annoyed the synagogue official.  Even more astounding, “the Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him”.

To understand this we need to remember that Israel had no king or civil rulers at the time.  It was governed by its religious leaders, and as in all human government systems, it is the people with dominating personalities that become the leaders; not the meek and humble children of God.  Effectively Israel’s rulers wore a religious cloak.  They were not acquainted with God, and to them His voice through Christ was the voice of a stranger.

Religion for them was a method of maintaining their power over the people.  The Sabbath was for the Jewish leaders a tool whereby they controlled the people.

The man with the withered hand did not ask to be healed and he did not have to prove his faith before he was healed.  Jesus simply used him to divinely condemn the Pharisees and their traditions.  But when Christ challenged their religious system, He challenged their authority.  The Pharisees were not angry because Christ did heal on the Sabbath.  They were angry because Christ was a threat to their authority.  Jesus came by the authority of God, bearing His image, fulfilling His word, and seeking His glory; yet He was not accepted by the leaders in Israel because His teaching demanded the sacrifice of self, while the Jews “receive glory from one another and … not seek the glory that is from the one and only God” (John 5:44).  Christ was a threat to their power.  He gained an influence with the people because they could understand His words, and because their hearts were warmed and comforted.  He spoke of God, not as an avenging judge, but as a tender Father.  He revealed the image of God as mirrored in Himself.

In order to maintain their own power, these leaders determined to break down Jesus’ influence.  They actually wanted Him to heal of the Sabbath.  They asked Him whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10) to trick Him into committing the “sin” of healing on the Sabbath, so that, on the basis that the Old Testament prescribed the death penalty for working on the Sabbath, and on the basis of their traditions, they could justify His murder.

The Sabbath is a day for good deeds.

The Sabbath is not intended to be a period of useless inactivity.  The necessities of life must be attended to and the sick must be cared for.  It is a day for planned good deeds to supply in the wants of the needy.  We are guilty if we neglect to relieve suffering, especially on the Sabbath.  God’s holy rest day was made for man, and acts of mercy, including healing, are in perfect harmony with its intent.

NEXT: The Crippled Woman

TO: Sabbath Table of Contents

TO: General Table of Contents