Sabbath Controversy

The Jews had many issues with Jesus. His disciples ate with unwashed hands and ignored the “tradition of the elders” (Mt. 15:1-2). He accepted invitations of tax collectors to enter their homes and to eat with them. His parables were pointed and hard to misunderstand the thrust of their teaching. He called them out on their hypocrisy, love of praise, and love of money. Being full of pride the rulers resented Jesus’ plain teaching.

Perhaps their greatest issue with Jesus regarded the Sabbath. They condemned His disciples because they broke off ears of grain to eat on the Sabbath and because He healed on the Sabbath. There are records of many Sabbath healings: casting out an unclean spirit from a man (Mk. 1:21-26); healing a man with a withered hand (Mk. 3:2); healing a woman who had an infirmity eighteen years (Lk. 13:10-13); giving a sign to a man who had been born blind (Jn. 9:6-7); and, healing a lame man by the pool of Bethesda (Jn. 5:8-9).

“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” was the fourth of the ten commandments God gave Israel through the hand of Moses (Ex. 20:8-11; Dt. 5:12). Ever since the Sabbath was revealed on Mount Sinai, Israel had had a checkered history in the keeping of it. In the wilderness after the Sabbath law was given, a man showed his disdain for that law by gathering sticks on the Sabbath. God commanded that the man be stoned to death (Num. 15:32-36). In the days of Amos, the prophet chided them because they complained about the law, wishing it to be past so they could return to normal activities (Amos 8:5). Even after exiles returned from Babylon to Judaea, Nehemiah found great laxity toward the observance of the day. He tried turning the people to a stricter observance of it, keeping close watch on all lest they violate it (Neh. 13:15-22). However, by the time of Jesus the nation had turned to a strict keeping of it — largely through the efforts of the Pharisees.

But the rulers pressed the commandment beyond the limits God intended. When the disciples went through a grain field on the Sabbath, they were hungry and broke off some of the grain and ate it (Mk. 2:23). The ruler The claimed the disciples were “harvesting” by breaking off heads of the grain. But there was no prohibition against eating which was what the disciples were doing. The law allowed a man to break off grain or eat fruit to satisfy one’s hunger from another man’s field. He was forbidden, however, to fill a vessel with the fruit or grain (Dt. 23:24-25), thus “eating” was what the disciples were doing.

Jesus reminded the Jews that when two laws conflicted with one another, the lesser one was to give place to the greater. The male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day even when that day was the Sabbath (Jn. 7:22). The rulers understood and practiced this. The priests in temple service offered a morning and evening sacrifice, even on the Sabbath. The rulers did not protest that the priests offered daily those morning and evening sacrifices (Mt. 12:5).

Jesus taught them the “law of compassion and mercy” took precedence over outward forms and procedures. He reminded them that David and the men with him ate the unleavened bread put in the tabernacle (called “shewbread”). This was bread of which only the priests were to eat (Mt. 12:3-4), adding that God said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mt. 12:7; Hos. 6:6). The rulers understood this principle. They would lead their ox or donkey from the stall to water him on the Sabbath (Lk. 13:15). They would, on the Sabbath, lift their donkey, ox, or sheep from a pit or well into which it had fallen (Lk. 14:5). Jesus reminded them they would do all these things to a dumb beast and then added that a man was of much more value than a sheep (Mt. 12:12). If they condemned no man who lifted a sheep from a pit or well it had fallen into on the Sabbath, why did they condemn Him from healing a man’s withered hand, giving sight to a sightless man, or restoring to health a woman who had a physical infirmity for eighteen years on the Sabbath?

In these illustrations Jesus taught His nation that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He claimed and demonstrated through His miracles that He was God, and was therefore Lord of the Sabbath (Lk. 6:5-6). Most of the rulers didn’t agree with His conclusions but they could not answer His truths.

Jim McDonald