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Why was Jesus healing on the Sabbath such a big deal to the Pharisees?

Jesus was known to the people of His day as a teacher who healed people (Matthew 4:24). Several times, He healed on the Sabbath day:

  • Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31)
  • a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6)
  • a man born blind (John 9:1-16)
  • a crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17)
  • a man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6)
  • a demon-possessed man (Mark 1:21-28)
  • a lame man (John 5:1-18)

Need keeps no calendar. People need help when they need it, and Jesus was there to help them. However, the religious leaders of the day, especially the Pharisees, were upset with Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. They saw His healing as a violation of their strict rule of no work on the Sabbath.

Of course, the “no work” rule on the Sabbath was originally God’s idea. He gave the Jews the Ten Commandments, the fifth of which was, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:8-10).

What counts as "work"?

The question arose later of what constitutes “work.” During Israel’s time in the wilderness, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath day, and “those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly” to see what should be done to him (Numbers 15:33). Moses inquired of God, and “the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must die’” (v. 35). “So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death” (v. 36). Obviously, violations of the Sabbath were serious in those days. God did not tolerate law-breakers in Israel.

But Jesus was not a law-breaker (Matthew 5:17). He did not break the Sabbath law by healing people; rather, He showed God’s goodness and power. The problem the Pharisees had with Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath had to do with their interpretation of the Sabbath law and all their many addendums to it. Over the years, more and more rules had been added to God's original law. By Jesus’ day, it was quite severe. The Talmud lists 39 types of work forbidden on the Sabbath, amounting to hundreds of laws (Mishnah Shabbat 7.1). It was easy to mess up within the Pharisees’ strict regulations, and the restrictions they added became burdens to the Jews.

When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, the Pharisees saw the miracle as "work." Mark 3:1-5 records a public confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees over the matter of a Sabbath healing:

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”

Did Jesus sin by healing on the Sabbath?

Jesus did not sin by healing on the Sabbath; rather, as Jesus points out, the good that He was doing was in line with the commandment’s intention. Jesus was not breaking God’s rule. But the Pharisees would have none of it. They were angry—murderously so. Not only was their tradition broken, but Jesus had silenced them in front of the crowd. Even worse, Jesus, whom they considered a sinner, was garnering fame and the love of the people because the “work” He had done was miraculous.

Earlier, Jesus had tried to help the Pharisees understand the heart behind God’s Sabbath rule: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Pharisees had misconstrued the meaning of the Sabbath day: “Pharisaic Judaism taught that the reason God made Israel was for honoring the Sabbath. Therefore, Israel was made for the Sabbath. Jesus, however, taught that the exact opposite was true. Israel was not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made for Israel. The purpose of the Sabbath was to give Israel a day of refreshment and rest, not to enslave Israel to Sabbath Laws”1.

The day of rest was meant for humanity to step back from their work so they could rest and enjoy the creation of God. Later, the Sabbath law was given to Israel as part of their covenant with God. Even then, keeping the Sabbath was to be beneficial; it was not meant as a means of attaining righteousness or further burdening the people of God.

Jesus also proclaimed His authority over the Pharisees’ regulations: “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). “As Lord of the Sabbath, He could allow what they disallowed, and He could disallow what they allowed. As long as He did not violate the Mosaic Law Himself, they had no grounds for any accusation against Him” (ibid.). Jesus is not a rule-breaker; He is the Rule-maker.

Ultimately, true rest is found only in Jesus. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Mark 11:28-30). Jesus is our Sabbath rest, and in Him we cease from our spiritual labors, not just one day a week, but always (Hebrews 4:1-11).

REFERENCES: 1. Fruchtenbaum, A. G., “The Three Sabbath Controversies Between Jesus and the Pharisees,” Messianic Bible Study #036, Ariel Ministries, 2005

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TL;DR

Jesus did not sin by healing on the Sabbath; rather, as Jesus points out, the good that He was doing was in line with the commandment’s intention. Jesus was not breaking God’s rule. The day of rest was meant for humanity to step back from their work so they could rest and enjoy the creation of God. Later, the Sabbath law was given to Israel as part of their covenant with God. Even then, keeping the Sabbath was to be beneficial; it was not meant as a means of attaining righteousness or further burdening the people of God. But the Pharisees disagreed enough to feed their murderous intentions.

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