In the New Testament, we witness three conflicts with the Mosaic law — Peter with dietary laws, Paul with circumcision, and Jesus with the Sabbath. Jesus seemed to be in constant conflict with the Pharisees over what constituted acceptable Sabbath conduct. The first passage in the New Testament concerning the issue is typical.
In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field. They start harvesting and threshing the grain — at least on a very small scale — as they pick some heads, rub them between their hands, and eat them. To the Pharisees, it is a clear-cut case of Sabbath-breaking. “Look! Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” cry the Pharisees.
Jesus rolls his eyes¹ and gives two counter-examples from the Old Testament. The priests work each Sabbath and David broke the Levitical law by eating the Bread of the Presence. Jesus then makes three statements: “Something greater than the temple is here,” “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” and “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Jesus then enters a synagogue to find a man with a withered hand and is asked if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. It’s not a wholly unreasonable question since the Mosaic law does not specifically address it, but they are seeking a reason to accuse him, not information. Christ answers in good rabbinical fashion with a question. “Which one of you, who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” The implied and assumed answer is, “Every one of you.” “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep?” Again, the obvious answer is, “Much more.” From this short argument Jesus issues the conclusion, “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” He then promptly heals the man’s hand, which enrages the Pharisees who plot to destroy Jesus.²
Few things seemed to anger the Pharisees as much as Jesus healing on the Sabbath. He was violating their tightly-controlled interpretation of “work” on the Sabbath, but he was also upstaging them in doing so. He was not merely walking through grain fields, he was healing people of all sorts of ailments. This was something they were unable to do and was making him very popular among the people.
The Gospels record about 8 instances in which Jesus healed on the Sabbath, in addition to mentioning him teaching on the Sabbath. (No one ever opposed that activity. Teachers, is your job not work?) In many of the instances, when he was challenged, he gave a similar reply to the one we considered from Matthew 12. He asked either about livestock or children needing assistance or basic care on the Sabbath. The unstated answer always being, “Of course you do that.”
Was Jesus resolutely anti-fourth commandment? Tomorrow we will examine some texts from the Gospel that indicate the importance of Sabbath-keeping to his disciples.
¹ There is, of course, no scriptural support for my conjecture. In fact, I am most likely projecting myself onto Christ at this point, which is something we need to be wary of. It is easy to slip from “What would Jesus do” to “What would I do if I was Jesus?”
² The Pharisees are enraged for multiple reasons. The most reasonable reason is that Jesus is asserting authority to interpret the law which could be construed as a claim to messianic identity. To claim this falsely is blasphemy and worthy of death.