One of the things Jesus stayed in trouble with the Pharisees and other Jewish “authorities” over was what they considered to be his disregard for the Sabbath. It seems he or his disciples were forever doing something to upset these self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy. It wasn’t just irritating to the Jews, it was downright dangerous to Jesus to be doing this. It wasn’t long after he started healing on the Sabbath that the Pharisees started planning and plotting how to destroy him.
Jesus performed a total of 7 miracles of healing on the Sabbath.
- Jesus Heals a Lame Man by the Pool of Bethesda –John 5:1-18.
- Jesus Drives Out an Evil Spirit –Mark 1:21-28
- Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother-in-law –Mark 1:29-31
- Jesus Heals a Man with a Deformed Hand –Mark 3:1-6
- Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind –John 9:1-16
- Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman –Luke 13:10-17
- Jesus Heals a Man with Dropsy –Luke 14:1-6
It often looks as though Jesus deliberately went out of his way to do these things just to provoke the scribes and Pharisees. Or did he just completely disregard the fourth commandment, deliberately disobeying its strictures against working on that day? Some people think that is exactly what he did and because he just set it aside man no longer is obligated to observe it either.
But that is not how law works. One cannot just disregard law because someone else chooses not to obey a certain law, even if that person seems to have some kind of authority. Of course Jesus does have the ultimate authority to interpret law. After all, he is God and the giver of the law man is expected to live under. But nowhere is it indicated that he dealt with the law or anything required under law to be disregarded and disobeyed. Quite the contrary, he insisted that his followers be obedient to whatever command God had given.
For a moment I want us to think about the incident where his disciples are accused of breaking the Sabbath law for plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath. All three of the synoptic gospels record this incident (Matthew 12:1–8; Mark 2:21-28;Luke 6:1-5). Each of the three records include the statement that is the title of this article; “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” This tells us that he has the authority to correctly interpret and apply the Sabbath law. He was the creator of it. He knew what he meant it to be for man.
God had simply said in giving the Sabbath law that the people were not to work on that day but to rest. God said … “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:10). By Jesus’ day the Jews had imposed a set of complex rules and regulations including 39 categories of things forbidden on the Sabbath. It was this kind of law the disciples had violated – the traditional human interpretation of the Sabbath law. It was the kind of thing the scribes and Pharisees of whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 23:1-12 had done. He said they “sit in Moses’ seat” binding burdens so heavy on the backs of people they couldn’t bear them – and wouldn’t attempt to do so themselves.
These people were so zealous for the law they built a fence around it so high and so dense that no one could penetrate it in order to come close to obeying the law. Keep all these rules and restrictions and you will be sure to not violate the Sabbath they thought. They thought to assure strict compliance with the law, but all they had succeeded in doing was to create a confusing, cumbersome, burdensome, restricting barrier between men and God. God didn’t make his law so confusing and complicated that one would need a lawyer to interpret it for them.
Since Jesus was the one who gave the law to begin with, he had the right to explain what he meant by that law. He begins his answer to the critics by pointing out to them what David did when he was being pursued by Saul who intended to kill him. He said …
“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?”
This bread was supposed to be present before the Lord at all times. It was placed on the “table of the bread of Presence” in the tabernacle/temple and changed once a week when the priests who ministered in the temple were permitted to eat it. It was this bread that David and his men were permitted by the priest to eat.
“…bread frequently stands for God’s provision for his people. The practice of setting the bread of the Presence before God expresses this concept. Every Sabbath the priests put twelve loaves of bread on the table of the bread of Presence in the temple (Exod 25:23-30 ; 35:13 ; 39:36 ; Lev 24:5-9). In contrast to the religious ideas of the surrounding nations, the Bible does not imply that the bread was meant as food for God (Psalm 50:12-15). Instead, the bread was placed before Yahweh as a token of gratitude for his provision for his people. For Jesus, David’s eating of the bread of the Presence suggests that human need can at times overrule ritual prohibition (1 Sam 21:4-6 ; Mark 2:26). (Bread, Bread of Presence).
This presence of the bread in the temple is significant. Since it was a symbol of God’s provision for his people, to have withheld it when it was needed would have been a denial of that provision in the presence of need. In other words, it would have contradicted the nature of God to have denied the bread to David and his men. This is seen in the further answer of Jesus to his critics. In his answer …
“He does not leave it as a mere Jewish question; He broadens His view, and shows that the day of rest is for humanity at large – not, however, as a burden, but as a blessing, the principle which underlies it being ‘mercy, and not sacrifice‘” (Expositors Bible Commentary).
In typical fashion Jesus has gone past the superficial human view of the Sabbath command to the heart of the issue. This is what he was continually doing throughout his ministry. Beginning with the sermon on the mount where he cites the common interpretation of certain of the laws (“You have heard it said…”) and presents the correct, divinely intended meaning of the law (“but I say …”). His qualification? “In this place is One greater than the temple”; (Matt. 12:6) and again: “The Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath day.” (Matt. 12:8)
As he broadens the scope of his consideration he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Thus, out of this conflict there has come to us the Magna Charta of the people’s Sabbath, the full text of which is given in the corresponding passage of the second gospel: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man For the Sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath.” Here we have, on the one hand, the vindication of our rights against those who would deprive us of the day of rest, as if the privilege had been intended only for the Jews, and was abolished when the dispensation closed; and, on the other, the assertion of our liberty against those who, by their petty regulations and restrictions, would make God’s precious gift a burden instead of a blessing. And how wisely and beautifully does He confirm to us our privileges by following the charter with an argument which, though coming still under the head of the great principle (“Mercy, and not sacrifice“), is no mere repetition, but illustrates the wider aspect just unfolded, by its freedom from Jewish color, and its appeal to the conscience and heart of mankind at large: “What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much, then, is a man better than a sheep?” (Matt. 12:11-12). (Expositors Bible Commentary).
One thing we should recognize is why God’s laws were given to man in the first place.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deut. 10:12-13).
The objective of God’s law – Sabbath command included – was not just because God is bigger than we are and can boss us around. Everything God does toward man is for man’s good. His law is a manifestation of his love for man. God knew man needed rest so he gave the Sabbath for man’s good. We should note here that rest does not mean just cessation from labor or doing nothing. When God rested on the seventh day after the six days of creation it was not because he was tired and needed to be refreshed. His rest was for the purpose of enjoying his creation. Man’s observance of the Sabbath was for the same purpose – to enjoy creation and to contemplate the Creator. By their adding all the rules and regulations the Jews had taken the enjoyment of the good gift of rest and turned it into a burden and had at the same time obscured the view of the Creator.
By his healing on the Sabbath Jesus was showing mercy to those who were sick, crippled and blind. He was giving them rest. He was showing them the heart of the Creator. He was fulfilling the intent of the Sabbath. There was, in fact, no better day to do what he was doing in all seven of the instances where he healed on the holy day. He was, in fact, setting right what had gone wrong with the part of creation these people represented. He was expounding by action the true meaning of the Sabbath just as he consistently had corrected the thinking of men regarding numerous other mistakes they had made.