Did Jesus Break the Sabbath?
Practically anyone who has been exposed to Christianity knows that Jesus Christ grew up in an environment steeped in Old Testament scriptures; He knew them, quoted them and lived by them.
Or did He? Some believe that Jesus kept the law so that others after Him would no longer need to. Others say that He revealed new meaning through old laws. Many, however, believe that Jesus made a "break" with the old Law, and in breaking the law established a new pattern of living for His followers.
Nowadays, even many who call themselves friends of Jesus say that He broke the law. Originally, however—during His lifetime on earth—it was His enemies who made that accusation.
Because Jesus performed miracles of healing on the Sabbath, some Pharisees accused Him of breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10; Mark 3:2, John 9:14–16). John records that Jesus performed a healing during one of the festivals in Jerusalem. John's gospel records what happened next, when Jesus confronted His accusers: "Jesus answered them, 'My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.' Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (John 5:17–18). From this, many assume that the Pharisees' accusation—that Jesus broke the Sabbath—was correct, and that Christians as a result are free to do so.
Scripture also records that Jesus' disciples were walking through a field on the Sabbath when they plucked and ate heads of grain. Seeing this, some Pharisees asked them: "Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?" (Luke 6:2). Many accept that the Pharisees' accusation is correct, and that by their actions Jesus and His disciples did not keep the Sabbath.
To understand what is at issue in these accounts, it is helpful to understand something of the rabbinical tradition that lay behind the Sabbath-breaking charges leveled against Jesus and His disciples. The Pharisaic tradition, by Jesus' day, had developed into an array of petty rules having to do with the minutiae of the law. It focused on physical works that had little to do with the spirit and intent of the law—and which, in fact, often violated the law (Matthew 15:1–9; Mark 7:1–13; John 7:19; Galatians 6:13).
The scribes among the Pharisees created and transmitted the Pharisaic rabbinical traditions. The body of traditional law that they formulated, called the Halakah (preserved in the Mishnah), is extra-biblical. Although authoritative for Jews who follow Pharisaic tradition, much of the Halakah is not directly supported by Scripture, but is intended as a "hedge" about the law, to prevent any possibility of its being broken.
Ironically, in an attempt to ensure their law-keeping by putting a "hedge" about the law, the Pharisees were breaking the law, for God had said: "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2; also 12:32). By adding the weight of their tradition to the law of God, they bound "heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders" (Matthew 23:4).
The Pharisees placed the authority of their traditions above that of Scripture itself, thus going against the word of God. Scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias affirms that for the Pharisees, the oral tradition was "above the Torah," and that the esoteric writings containing scribal teachings were regarded as inspired and surpassing the canonical books "in value and sanctity" (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, pp. 236, 238–239). Alfred Edersheim also points out that traditional law was of "even greater obligation than Scripture itself" (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book I, 1.98).
What was the nature of these traditional ordinances? "The Halakah indicated with the most minute and painful punctiliousness [attention to detail] every legal ordinance as to outward observance.… But beyond this it left the inner man, the spring of actions, untouched." Echoing what Jesus said (Mark 7:5–13), Edersheim continues: "Israel had made void the Law by its traditions. Under a load of outward ordinances and observances its spirit had been crushed" (Book I, 1.106, 1.108).
The sometimes-absurd contradictions within Pharisaic law are especially apparent in the rules of Sabbath observance. Edersheim writes: "On no other subject is Rabbinic teaching more painfully minute and more manifestly incongruous to its professed object." Edersheim charges the scribes with "terribly exaggerated views on the Sabbath" and "endless burdensome rules with which they encumbered everything connected with its sanctity" (ibid., Book II, 2.52, 2.53). "In not less than twenty-four chapters [of the Mishna], matters are seriously discussed [regarding Sabbath observance] as of vital religious importance, which one would scarcely imagine a sane intellect would seriously entertain." Yet "in all these wearisome details there is not a single trace of anything spiritual—not a word even to suggest higher thoughts on God's holy day and its observance" (ibid., 2.778–779).
For example, the law included detailed regulations regarding what constituted a "burden" that could not be carried on the Sabbath; for example, pieces of paper, horses hairs, wax, a piece of broken earthenware or animal food. Generally a burden was anything as heavy as a dried fig, or a quantity sufficient to be of any practical use (e.g. a scrap of paper large enough to be converted into a note or a wrapper). It prescribed what might or might not be saved if one's house caught on fire. Only those clothes that were absolutely necessary could be saved. But one could put on a dress, save it, then go back and put on another. One could not ask a Gentile to extinguish the flames. But if he did so voluntarily, he should not be hindered. One could eat food on the Sabbath lawfully only if it had been specifically prepared for the Sabbath on a weekday. If a laying hen laid an egg on the Sabbath, it could not be eaten. But if the hen had been kept for fattening and not laying, the egg could be eaten, since it would be considered a part of the hen that had fallen off! These regulations considered studying the Mishna on the Sabbath more important than studying the Bible. The Hagiographa (the Old Testament "Writings") were not to be read on the Sabbath except in the evening. And there are many other similar examples.
Of special interest to us are the laws regarding harvesting and healing on the Sabbath. Even the slightest activity involving picking grain—removing the husks, rubbing the heads, cleaning or bruising the ears or throwing them up in the hand—was forbidden. Yet if a man wanted to move a sheaf on his field, he had only to lay a spoon on it; then, in order to remove the spoon, he might also remove the sheaf on which it lay!
It should be noted that, unlike the Pharisees (whose numbers were relatively few), most Jews of Jesus' day paid little attention to these petty rules.
When the Pharisees complained about Jesus' disciples plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath, Jesus (as He often did) was able to point out the contradictions in Pharisaic law. Jesus noted how David and his followers, famished and fleeing for their lives, ate the shewbread when no other food was available, though it was normally only for the priests to eat (Matthew 12:3–4; Mark 2:25–26; Luke 6:3–4; 1 Samuel 21:1–6). Even the Pharisaic law agreed with the original written law on this point, vindicating what David chose to do when his life was in danger (Edersheim, Book II, 2.58). Jesus simply said: "Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:6–8).
Of course, the Sabbath commandment is in a separate category from the sacrificial ordinances. Yet since Jewish law permitted the feeding and watering of animals on the Sabbath to relieve unnecessary suffering, this principle would logically and naturally extend to human beings—in this case, Jesus' disciples—who were partaking of the only food readily available at that time.
This controversy would never have been possible were it not for the Pharisees' exaggerated views about actions forbidden or allowed on the Sabbath. The priests in the Temple worked on the Sabbath, yet were guiltless (Matthew 12:5). The scribes knew this, but apparently did not clearly understand why it was so. Somehow, they missed the point that God instituted the Sabbath not only to give human beings rest from physical labors, but also to give them a time to devote to God by doing His works and serving Him. The disciples' actions were "clearly not a breach of the Biblical, but of the Rabbinic Law" (Edersheim, Book II, 2.56). Jesus said that the Pharisees, not understanding the law, had "condemned the guiltless" (Matthew 12:7). Clearly, the disciples were falsely accused, and were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath as charged.
Since healing might entail work, Pharisaic law permitted it on the Sabbath only if necessary to save life or prevent death. Thus a plaster might be applied to a wound if the object was to prevent it from getting worse, but not to heal it. Yet, contrarily, a splinter might be removed from the eye, or a thorn from the body, though no immediate danger to life was perceived. Furthermore, an animal might be removed from a pit, or taken to water, on the Sabbath.
When the Pharisees accused Jesus of violating the law by healing on the Sabbath, He again was able to reveal their hypocrisy by using their own contradictory rules. First, we will examine Jesus' acknowledgement that He had been working. The Sabbath law is, in part: "Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work" (Exodus 20:9–10). Notice that the work forbidden by the Sabbath law is "your work." The law does not forbid works of service towards God. Indeed, the very reason we are commanded to cease from our own works on the Sabbath is so we may devote the time to the work of honoring and serving God; that we may "turn your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words" (Isaiah 58:13). Here it is clear that it is our own works—the course of our everyday business—that we are to avoid on the Sabbath. On the other hand, we are to honor God on the Sabbath. Giving honor to God often entails work—"good works."
A careful reading of Scripture reveals that we are to cease and rest from common or profane work on the Sabbath, so that the time may be devoted to God's holy purpose. But implicit in the Sabbath command is that we do the work necessary to fulfill the spiritual aim and meaning of the Sabbath. On the first Sabbath, God rested from His work of physical creation, but He did the work of creating the Sabbath, blessing and sanctifying it (Genesis 2:2–3; Mark 2:27). The weekly Sabbaths and the annual Sabbaths were proclaimed to be "holy convocations"—commanded assemblies for the purpose of gathering to hear God's word taught, and for congregational worship (Leviticus 23:2, 4). This includes the "work" required to travel to the place of assembly, and to listen, learn and participate in the worship service. Those commissioned to teach did the work of reading and explaining God's word. On such occasions, people customarily did the work of eating and drinking, sharing and rejoicing in the holy day and in the truth of God's word (Nehemiah 8:1–12). Other work implicit in the command was done, too: even on the most solemn day of the year—the Day of Atonement—the priests did the work of slaying animals and offering sacrifices before God, according to the requirements of the law (Leviticus 16).
The work of honoring and worshiping God is not forbidden on the Sabbath. Indeed, it is the object of the Sabbath. That is why the priests could work on the Sabbath and not be guilty. Their work was a necessary part of the congregational Sabbath duty of honoring and serving God. It was, in that sense, not their work but God's work that was being done. On a Sabbath day early in His ministry, Jesus announced in summary form the work He had been sent to perform. His work was preaching the gospel, healing [both physically and spiritually] and liberating from oppression (Luke 4:18–19). The works Jesus did were not His works, but God's works, which He had been sent to perform (John 4:34; 9:4; 17:4). Healing was an integral part of Christ's ministry. In perfect harmony with what the Sabbath rest pictures—and with the gospel message—Jesus' healings typified the physical and spiritual healings that Christ will perform during the Millennium, when the Kingdom of God is established on the earth (see Isaiah 35:5–6, 57:16–20; Jeremiah 30:10, 17; Ezekiel 47:8–10).
When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He was not breaking the Sabbath, but fulfilling it, because one is not at rest when afflicted, oppressed and bound by disease or infirmity. As many scriptures show, God delights in redeeming and restoring the afflicted, and giving them the rest exemplified by His Sabbath. God "hears the cry of the afflicted. When he gives quietness [rest], who then can make trouble?" (Job 34:28–29). Bound by their false traditions, the Pharisees did try to make trouble for the Messiah, condemning Him for giving those whom He healed rest from their afflictions.
Instead, they should have offered praise. Speaking of ones afflicted and at death's door, the psalmist wrote: "Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses. He sent His word and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions. Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! Let them sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving, and declare His works with rejoicing" (Psalm 107:19–22).
Jesus answered those who accused him of breaking the Sabbath: "If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:23–24).
As we have seen, when John wrote that Jesus "broke the Sabbath" (John 5:18), he was describing Jesus' actions from the Pharisees' perspective (compare 9:14–16). Those who say Jesus did actually break the Sabbath are agreeing with Christ's enemies—His accusers—that Jesus' miraculous works of healing were a breach of the Sabbath law. They are agreeing with Jesus' accusers that He was a Sabbath-breaker. To be consistent, they must also agree with the Pharisees when they said of Christ: "We know that this man is a sinner" (v. 24). The blind man who had been healed knew better than that, saying that "we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him" (v. 31).
When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He was not violating the law of God. By His actions, He demonstrated the true application of God's laws—rather than Pharisaic traditions—that "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:12). The "law" that Jesus violated was a man-made rule that was itself against the principles of God's law.
Remember: Had Jesus Christ actually broken the Sabbath, He would have been sinning. But the Scripture says that He "committed no sin" (1 Peter 2:22). Had He sinned, He could not be our Savior. But He, being undefiled and separate from sinners, offered Himself without spot and without blemish to God for our redemption (Hebrews 7:26; 9:14; 1 Peter 1:18–19). No, Jesus did not break the Sabbath. He spent the Sabbath preaching, teaching, healing, honoring God and doing the good work of His ministry—the work of God.
The record of Scripture is that Jesus kept the Sabbath faithfully, as God intended it to be kept. In doing so, He set us an example. "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked" (1 John 2:6).