Healing on the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1–21; Mark 2:23–3:12; Luke 6:1–11

Jesus and his disciples were pulling grain and eating on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees took issue with what they interpreted as their “working” on the Sabbath. The apostle John gave a blunt explanation that summed up the Pharisaical animosity towards Jesus, which revolved around Christ’s Sabbath activity. The law regarding the Sabbath was one of observant cessation for holiness (Exod. 20:8). What they were doing was not a violation of the Sabbath. Instead, they violated the traditional keeping of the Sabbath as it was defined by the rabbis.

God permitted the Jews to eat grain as they passed through a grain field (Deut. 23:25; Ruth 2:2–3). Sabbath prohibitions were to not start a fire for cooking (Exod. 16:22–30; 35:3), gather fuel (Num. 15:32–36), bear a load (Jer. 17:21–22), or conduct business (Neh. 10:31; 13:15, 19). The rabbinical tradition, however, demanded thirty-nine particular restrictions, including reaping (Shab. 7.2). Therefore, the disciples picking grain was perceived by the Pharisees as reaping and thus a violation of the law.

Jesus proved the Pharisee’s inconsistency by exposing their veneration of David while neglecting David’s disobedience of the law while Jesus and his disciples were not breaking the law. Furthermore, Jesus, not the Pharisees, was “lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath does not indicate that Jesus violated the law. Some have categorized this narrative as one of situational ethics, but that is not the case. Jesus was not bending the rules or saying he could because of his lordship over the Sabbath. Instead, he was the legislator of the law and, bound by it (cf. Matt. 5:17–19), would not have broken it. Had Jesus defied the law, he could not have been called sinless (1 John 3:4; cf. Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22). If Jesus sinned, he could not have been our sacrifice humanity would still be in sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Matthew adds the detail that Jesus pointed out that the priests broke the law, working on the Sabbath, but were blameless. Then, for the second time, he cites Hosea, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” 

Jesus is next faced with healing on the Sabbath. By this time, the Pharisees kept a steady eye on the Lord to determine whether he would violate their traditions. However, later rabbinic traditions attest to an answer to the question of Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or harm, to save life or to destroy it?” The rabbis agreed that preserving life overruled Sabbath restrictions when life was at stake (Yoma 8.6; cf. Shab. 18.3; 19.2). However, life wasn’t at risk in this story. Mark permits us a glimpse into how Jesus felt about their hardness of hearts: he “looked … at them with anger, bring grieved” (Mark 3:5). Jesus did this miracle publicly not to provoke but to persuade. The proof was required to attest to his identity to know that he was Lord. Once he healed the man, though, the Pharisees began plotting with Herodians, a detail unique to Mark, which makes for an ironic narrative. Since the Sabbath was meant for cessation, their plotting contradicts their ceasing. 

Jesus removes himself, healing those who came to him in Tyre and Sidon (Mark 3:7–12), Gentile cities that perhaps spoke to the offer of salvation even to Gentiles. Matthew cited Isaiah’s words as the explanation of being in Tyre and Sidon (12:16–21; cf. Is. 42:1–4).  

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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