Jesus healed the man, saying, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”. The Pharisees went out and immediately began to conspire as to how they might destroy Him.
Matthew 12:9-14 and Mark 3:1-6 describe Christ’s public Sabbath healing of a man’s withered hand, deliberately acting contrary to the prevailing Sabbath restrictions.
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 Him to heal of 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 evidence against Jesus.
One Sabbath He entered into a synagogue. Amongst 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 healings, and expected Him to also heal this man. 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.
The traditions prohibited healing on the Sabbath.
The Old Testament is silent on healing on the Sabbath, but this incident shows that the Jews were confident that healing—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 this man therefore conveyed an important message 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. None 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 lure Him into healing, 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 healed 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.
Sabbath: Table of Contents
Next: The Crippled Woman