Jesus heals and deliberately contravenes the Sabbath

Healing was an important part of Christ’s work.  The Jews defined healing as work that is not allowed on the Sabbath, but Jesus heals often and deliberately on the Sabbath. Consequently the Sabbath looms huge in the gospels, as it also does in the Old Testament. What important message did Jesus give through His resistance to the Sabbath?

Jesus heals often on the Sabbath.

Christ came to preach the gospel to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to set free the oppressed (Luke 4:18-21).  Many sick people were continually streaming to Him, and He healed them all (Luke 4:40; 6:18-19).  These healings confirmed His divine nature, the supernatural source of His mission and that God can and wants to restore man.  Healing therefore was an integral part of His mission.  In Jesus God has come to live among us.

These healing miracles often were on the Sabbath.  No less than seven Sabbath healing miracles are reported in the gospels:

  1. The Demoniac in the Synagogue (Mark 1:21-28)
  2. Peter’s Mother-in-law (Mark 1.29-34)
  3. The Man with the Withered Hand (Mark 3:1-6)
  4. The Crippled Woman (Luke 13:10-17)
  5. The Invalid at Bethesda (John 5:1-18)
  6. The man that was Born Blind (John 9:1-41)
  7. The Man with Dropsy (Luke 14:1-4)

The Jews disallowed healing on the Sabbath.

The following indicates that, in the view of the Jews, Jesus broke the Sabbath law by healing on the Sabbath:

One Sabbath, while Jesus was teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus drove a demon out of a man (Luke 4:31-37).  Afterwards the people brought all their sick to Him, but they waited until the end of the Sabbath, when the sun was setting (v40).

The Pharisees were watching Jesus to see if He would heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him (Mark 3:1-6).

The synagogue official was angry because Jesus healed the woman who was bent double, and could not straighten up at all, on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17), and said to the people: “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:10-17).

At Bethesda Jesus healed the man who for 38 years was unable to walk.  “For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath” (John 5:16).

Jesus healed the man who was “blind from birth”, after which the Pharisees concluded “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:1-41).

These examples make it clear that the Jews defined healing as work that is disallowed on the Sabbath.

Jesus deliberately contravened the Sabbath.

Why do we read that Jesus heals on the Sabbath?  He well knew that they were seeking justification to kill Him.  The spies followed Him with merciless hostility.  He also knew the laws and traditions well, and knew that He would be singled out as a transgressor if He would heal on the Sabbath.  And none of the sick people whom He cured on the Sabbath asked to be healed.  But still He deliberately and publicly violated the Sabbath, for instance:

None of the people whom He healed also were medical emergencies; All the people that were healed by Christ on the Sabbath, such as the crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17), the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), the man born blind (John 9:2) and the man that has been invalid for 38 years (John 5:5), have been ill for a long time.  In all instances He could have healed these people on any other day of the week, but He healed them deliberately on the Sabbath.

None of them asked to be healed.

After He cured the paralytic at Bethesda Jesus might have warned the man not to carry his bed, but He deliberately told him to pick up his mat and walk.

The Sabbath healing miracles in the gospel of John were not done in the presence of religious rulers and in both instance the healed men did not know who He was.  Christ could have remained anonymous, but after both miracles Christ went to look for the man later on the same day in order that He (Christ) may be identified (John 5:13-15; 9:35).

Not only do we read that Jesus heals deliberately on the Sabbath, He also deliberately combined His healings with other actions which the extremely strict traditions perhaps classified as work:

Jesus healed the blind man (John 9) by making clay to put on his eyes and by telling him to wash his face in a pool (9:14-16). All three of these actions were perhaps classified as work that was not allowed on the Sabbath.  It was not necessary for Christ to make clay or for the man to wash off the clay to heal the blind man of John 9. Perhaps Christ made clay to deliberately contravene Sabbath.

The Jews could identify two contraventions of the Sabbath Law in the incident in John 5.  Firstly the man carried his sleeping mat (5:10) and secondly Jesus healed the sick (compare Luke 13:14).  Jesus was ‘guilty’ of both, because He told the man to carry his mat.) (Note the plural “doing these things” in verse 16).

The Sabbath was not an issue at all in Paul’s time.  This is indicated by the fact that he uses the name “Sabbath” once only in all of his letters, and then only as part of a technical term referring to the entire system of holy days on the Jewish calendar.  But through Christ’s deliberate violation of the Sabbath restrictions the Sabbath looms huge in the gospels, as it also does in the Old Testament.

Jesus conveyed an important message through the Sabbath healings.

Why did He deliberately contravene the Sabbath?  Why did He not delay healing to another day?  Why was He willing to risk His life and mission for it?  He did not do it simply out of compassion, for there were many other sick people at Bethesda whom He did not heal.  Christ never acted stubbornly.  He did not do things to endanger His life or mission without good cause.  Everything He did and said was important, according to the infinite wisdom of the Father.

We therefore conclude that the message which Christ conveyed through His resistance to the Sabbath laws was important.  What was that important message and for whom was that message; for the Jews, or for the church?

TO: Sabbath Table of Contents

Next: The Real Reason they killed Jesus

TO: General Table of Contents

Law of Christ

Christ did more than to merely interpret the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with much higher moral standards, which Paul calls the Law of Christ.  This law reflects the Father’s perfect heart.  He loves His enemies and has compassion with people.  Therefore, the Law of Christ asks the same from His followers.  The Law of Christ is the eternal law as it existed from the beginning.  The Law of Moses was a temporary watered-down version of the eternal law, suitable for the corrupt condition of the nation.

Overview:

Christ not only interpreted the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses with a higher law with much higher moral standards.  Paul refers to this as the Law of Christ.  The Law of Christ is best illustrated by Matthew 5, where Christ quotes various Old Testament laws, and then, starting with the words, “But I say to you”, for each gives His alternative law, which is at a much higher moral level.  For instance:

He replaced the law against murder with a law against anger.

The revenge-law, which specified “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”, He completely set aside, commanding His followers to “not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”.

This higher level Law reveals the Father’s heart.  The Father is perfect.  He loves His enemies and has compassion with people.  For that reason the Law of Christ requires His followers to do the same.

When Jesus was asked about the provisions for divorce in the Law of Moses, He referred to the creation account, stating that “the two shall become one flesh”.  When the Pharisees then asked why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus responded as follows:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (v8).

This teaches two principles:

Firstly, Christ’s Law is the law as it existed “from the beginning”.

Secondly the Law of Moses was a diluted / watered-down version of the law as it existed “from the beginning” to fit the corrupt condition of the nation.

The question then is, did Christ also replace the Old Testament Sabbath with a much higher Sabbath Law?

Introduction

This page discusses a principle that is seldom sufficiently appreciated, namely that Christ, through His teachings, did more than to interpret the Old Testament Law; He rather replaced the Law of Moses with a higher law with much higher moral standards.

Christ replaced the law of Moses with a higher system of ethics.

The Sermon on the Mount provides perhaps the best examples of this.  Here Christ quoted various Old Testament laws, and then, starting by saying, “But I say to you” (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39 and 44), gave a much elevated version of that law.

For instance, the law against adultery He replaced with a law against looking at a woman with lust:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mat 5:27-28)

This is not an interpretation of the seventh commandment, but on a much higher moral level.

The law against murder He replaced with a law against anger:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not commit murder … But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty …” (Matthew 5:20-21).

Still talking about people that make one angry or scared, He said: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Here Christ lifts the standard exponentially by defining even anger is a sin.  Instead of anger He requires us to love even our enemies.

Christ not only replaced the Ten Commandments; he also replaced other Old Testament laws, for instance, God gave to Moses the rule “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Lev. 24:20), but now Christ teaches that we should not take revenge:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

This was also how Christ lived and died.  Dying on the cross, in incredible pain and suffering, He still had time to think about His enemies:

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

The law of Christ replaced the law of Moses. 

Moses said that “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him” (Deut. 18:15; cf. Acts 3:22), for “I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut. 18:18).  At the transfiguration of Jesus, Moses also appeared with Jesus (Mt. 17:3), but God said of Jesus “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him” (v5).  These statements confirm that Jesus is the law-giver of the new dispensation.

Just before His ascension, Jesus said to His disciples:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Paul wrote “the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14:37) and that he (Paul) is not “without the law of God” because he is “under the law of Christ” (1Cor.  9:21).  He urged Christ’s followers to “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).  The “Law of Christ” refers Christ’s teachings, which is the higher level law which replaced the Law of Moses.

The Law of Christ reveals the Father’s heart.

Christ said:

He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

“I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. (John 8:28)

I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).

It is therefore proposed that the “Law of Christ” is the pure law as it exists in the Father’s heart.  This is supported by Christ’s conclusion of His teachings in Matthew 5,

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

This means there is no anger or revenge in the Father.  He would never expect more from us that from Himself.  He requires us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35) because He loves His enemies.  He told us to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and “I desire compassion” (Matthew 9:13) because that is what the Father is like.  The Bible does sometimes present God as angry or seeking revenge, but it is proposed here that that is simply to explain the infinite One in a way which humans can understand.

God never punishes us because of bad things we have done in the past.  He does punish, but it is always with an eye on the future; to achieve better things for the future, for God is love (1 John 4:8, 16).

The Bible speaks about God’s wrath, and His wrath is a reality, but that does not mean that He becomes angry.  Without God we can do nothing.  He is the invisible Force that constantly protects and upholds us both physically and spiritually.  We are not even aware of all the dangers from which He constantly protects us. His wrath, therefore, is simply to give up those people for whom He can do nothing more.  In Romans 1, where Paul discusses “men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v18), he three times wrote that “God gave them over” to their own passions and lusts (v24, 26, 28).  Also with respect to His people Israel, who were “bent on turning from Me”, God said:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? … My heart is turned over within Me, All My compassions are kindled” (Hosea 11:7-8)

Since the Father’s standards are infinitely high, our response should simply be like that of the tax collector:

“standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner’” (Luke 18:13)

God gave Israel the law in a form which they could understand.

But, one may protest, if Christ revealed God’s true law, why was the Law of Moses given at a lower level?  Why did God give Israel a watered-down law?

It is proposed that the law was scaled down to fit the corrupt condition of the nation.  Jesus explained this principle in Matthew 19.  When He was asked about the provisions for divorce in the Law of Moses, He said:

Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” (v4-6)

Jesus therefore responded to their question by referring to the creation account, not the Law of Moses.  This implies that the Law of Christ is the law as it existed “from the beginning”.  For both marriage (Mat. 19:8) and the seventh day (Mark 2:27) Christ reached over the Law of Moses to derive His elevated principles or laws from the way that things were created to be.

The Pharisees then, still adamant to apply the Law of Moses, asked, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (v7)  Jesus then explained:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (v8).

Here we have confirmation that the original law was adapted to Israel’s limited abilities.  God elected Abraham and his seed to be the conduit of His grace to the peoples of the earth.  To Abraham He promised, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).  But, by the time of Moses, Israel has become a corrupt and enslaved little nation; far removed from the sinless and regal human beings that God created.  Due to the deterioration that comes from thousands of years living in a world filled with sin, Israel would not have been able to keep or even to understand the Laws of God as it existed “from the beginning”.  Therefore, to rescue that weak little nation from their addictive and soul-destroying idolatrous practices.  He gave the Law to Moses in the form that was best for Israel due to their “hardness of heart”.  He gave laws to Israel according to their capacity.  Israel needed simple, clear and practical instructions, linked with severe penalties.

This principle is applicable to all of God’s interactions with His creatures.  God meets people where they are.  He speaks to His hearers words that they are able to understand.  He never expects more from people than what they are able to do or able to bear.

Differences between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ

The point is that Christ went beyond interpreting the Law of Moses; He replaced the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments with a much higher system of ethics, here referred to as the “Law of Christ”.  Consider some differences between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ:

The Ten Commandments is God’s Law at Satan’s end of the spectrum; it expresses God’s principles in terms of the practical realities of a world controlled by the evil one.  Take, for instance, the commandment not to kill.  It is based on God’s law—to love the people around you as much as you love yourself—but with Satan’s and man’s fallen nature in mind.   The Ten Commandments therefore are but a dim reflection of His original and eternal law.  The Law of Christ describes what the Father wants us to strive for, namely to be like Him, which is unconditional love.

The Law of Moses is an adaptation of God’s eternal law to fit the condition of a specific nation, place and time; to fit the hardness of man’s heart (Mat 19:8).  The Law of Christ is the law as it existed from the beginning.

The Law of Moses is given at a level where sinful man would be able to keep it.  The Laws of Christ, being at such a high level, is impossible for man, in his current condition, to comply with.

The Law of Moses may be read as teaching that one can earn rewards from God.  The Law of Christ emphasizes grace (mercy).

The Law of Moses focuses mostly on external behavior, while Christ’s laws put the emphasis mostly on the drivers of external behavior, namely internal feelings, such as love, hate and compassion.

Most of the Ten Commandments are stated negatively (what you should not do), while most of Christ’s explanations of the laws are stated positively (what you should do: Matt. 5 – let you light shine – be reconciled – make friends quickly with your opponent – turn the other cheek, to mention a few).

The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for Sabbath breaking (Ex. 31:14), murder (Ex. 21:12), striking or cursing one’s father or mother (Ex. 21:15; Ex. 21:17), adultery (Lev. 20:10), blaspheming the name of the LORD (Lev. 24:16) and various other transgressions.  But Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

Relevance

You may ask why the “Law of Christ” is discussed here as part of a discussion of Christ and the Sabbath.  The reason is that when we read what Jesus said about the Sabbath, we have to listen carefully.  If it can be shown that Christ, through His Sabbath teachings, explained the Sabbath principle as at a much higher moral level than the Law of Moses, then it would be possible to conclude that He replaced the Old Testament Sabbath with a much higher Sabbath Law.

TO: Rebuttal of the article “The Law of Christ”

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First two Sabbath healing miracles

Jesus heals the sick on the Sabbath.  The first people were a demon possessed man and Simon’s mother-in-law.  Then the people brought all their sick to Him, but they waited until the end of the Sabbath.  Everybody knew that the traditions do not allow healing on the Sabbath.  Jesus, by acting contrary to the traditions, thereby powerfully condemned the traditions, as well as the Jewish system of authority, which was based on the traditions.

Summary

After Jesus was baptized, and after He overcame the temptations of the devil for forty days in the wilderness, He began His ministry.  He taught in various synagogues.  “They were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority”.

One Sabbath soon afterwards, while Jesus was teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, a demon possessed man cried out with a loud voice and identified Jesus as “the Holy One of God“!  Jesus then drove the demon out.  This happened in the synagogue in full view of everybody.

Later that same day Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who was suffering from a high fever, but that was privately in Simon’s home.

Then the people brought all their sick to Him, but they waited until the end of the Sabbath, when the sun was setting.  This means that everybody knew that their traditions did not permit healing on the Sabbath.  Although nothing is reported in this chapter as said for or against Sabbath healing, we can assume that the synagogue officials were alarmed by His Sabbath healing miracles.  Jesus, who also knew the traditions very well, effectively condemned the traditions by healing on the Sabbath in public view of all.  Furthermore, since “the report about Him was spreading into every locality in the surrounding district”, these miracles laid the foundation for the later confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees about His Sabbath healing miracles.

Discussion

Luke chapter four describes events very early in Christ’s ministry.  After Jesus was baptized (Luke 3:21) and began His ministry at the age of 30 (Luke 3:23), He “was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1-13).  There-after He “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14) and “began teaching in their synagogues” (4:15).  When “He came to Nazareth” (Luke 4:16) He announced Himself as the One predicted by Isaiah on whom “the spirit of the LORD” will be; to be “anointed” by God “to preach the gospel to the poor. … to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD.” (Luke 4:17-20)

This announcement is followed by two Sabbath healings.  The first was the healing of a demon-possessed man in the synagogue in Capernaum (Luke 4:31-37).  It happened while He was teaching.  “They were amazed at His teaching, for His message was with authority”.  But then “a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon … cried out with a loud voice:

Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are–the Holy One of God!

But Jesus rebuked the demon, commanding it to be quiet and come out of the man.  The demon then threw the man down in the midst of the people, but came out of the man without doing him any harm. Amazement came upon all and the report about Jesus spread throughout the surrounding district.

Later that same day Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who was suffering from a high fever (Luke 4:38-39).

Then “all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him”, and He healed them (Luke 4:40).  The whole city had gathered at the door (Mark 1:33).  But it is interesting to note that the people waited until the end of the Sabbath, when the sun was setting (Luke 4:40; cf. Mark 1:32-33), before they brought their sick.  The Old Testament says nothing specifically about healing on the Sabbath, but this incident makes it clear that healing was not permitted on the Sabbath.  This means that it was the traditions—the Jewish application of the Law—which disallowed healing on the Sabbath.

These were no ordinary healings.  These were supernatural healings.  It was God at work, but even supernatural healing was not allowed.  By implication the Jews subjected God to the Sabbath Law.

But if they disallowed supernatural healing on the Sabbath, one wonders what their attitude was towards the sick on the Sabbath.  The Pharisees were the strictest sect of the Jewish religion (Acts 26:5), and on the Sabbath they disallowed anything that even remotely looked like work.  Does that mean that they left the sick to suffer by themselves; not doing anything to help them?

Nothing is reported in this chapter about Jesus or any of the religious authorities saying anything about the Sabbath healings, but since the people waited until the end of the Sabbath to bring their sick, we can assume that all knew that Sabbath healing was not allowed.  This means that the synagogue officials would have been alarmed by His Sabbath healing miracles.  Jesus also knew their rules very well, and by healing the man on the Sabbath, in public view of all, He effectively condemned the traditions.

Furthermore, since “the report about Him was spreading into every locality in the surrounding district”, these miracles laid the foundation for the later confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees about His Sabbath healing miracles.  The next time that Jesus “entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered”, the scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. (Luke 6:6-7)

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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.

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