Frances Williams

id Jesus break the Sabbath? Was it necessary for Jesus to break the letter of the Sabbath law in order to obey the higher principle of love? Unlike the other nine commandments, the Sabbath law had a ceremonial as well as a moral element. The ceremonial observance was a symbolic picture of a higher moral and spiritual truth. The higher moral principle is this: only when we rest in Christ Jesus can we truly worship God, and our worship itself looks for- ward to the ultimate spiritual rest in the age to come.

The Rabbis' Interpretation

The Pharisees confronted Jesus with allowing His disciples to break the Sabbath by their plucking of a few heads of grain, and rubbing them between their hands to free the grain from the chaff (Matt. 12:2). This would have been lawful on any other day (Deut. 23:25), but according to the Rabbinic interpretation of the Law, on the Sabbath it involved two distinct sins, that of reaping and threshing (Talmud, Jer. Shabb. p. 10a, lines 28 to 26 from the bottom).

The Law of Moses forbade any work on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:15). In order to enforce absolute rest the Rabbis had added numerous, ridiculous and burdensome commandments to the Sabbath law. The Talmud contains 24 chapters that deal with what is work, or not work on the Sabbath. The external nature of these Rabbinic laws can be seen from the following example, as cited by Alfred Edersheim in "The Life ad Times of Jesus the Messiah": If a man wished to remove a sheaf from his fields, which was normally considered work, he could lay his spoon which was in common use on the sheaf, and as he removed his spoon he could also remove the sheaf (Shabb 142b, line 6 from bottom). Yet it was forbidden to treat a wound that was not life-threatening.

The Sabbath, A Delight?

Even the Rabbis to some small extent recognized that the outward ceremonial Sabbath taught a deeper truth. They made complicated and incredibly burdensome laws to make the Sabbath a delight (Is. 58:13). Thus for example, a special Sabbath dress, and the choicest of food were in order, even though a man had to work all week for the food or receive it through public charity (Peah 8:7). One story is told, how by buying the choicest of food to celebrate the Sabbath, the pious poor had gained merit and Heaven's blessing. Of course, these mistaken and burdensome laws robbed the Sabbath of much of its delight, and worked against the higher truths the Rabbis sought to observe by these outward means.

However, Rabbinism did teach that some things superseded (that is, set aside) the Sabbath. For example, danger to the life of an Israelite, but not that of a heathen or Samaritan, allowed the outward observance to be suspended (Yoma 84b). It was argued from Leviticus 18:5 that a man was to keep the Law so that he might live. If the outward observance of the Sabbath law would bring death, it had to be set aside in order to fulfill the higher purpose of the law. It was believed that David's violation of the Sabbath (by eating the show bread reserved from the priests) was lawful since danger to life superseded the Sabbath law. Furthermore, it was believed that every positive commandment set aside the Sabbath rest. Rabbinism taught that this was the reason that it was lawful for the priests to work in the temple on the Sabbath. However, these conclusions were based on rigid and faulty reasoning, as we shall see.

Jesus' Interpretation

What the Rabbis had failed to see was that the Sabbath was never intended to be merely a physical rest. It was rest in order to serve God. It was lawful for the priests to work in the temple on the Sabbath, for in so doing they kept the very essence of the Sabbath law: they were serving God. It was not necessary for the priests to set aside the Sabbath law, for in serving God they were fulfilling the intent of the Sabbath law. Ahimelech had allowed David to eat the show bread based on his plea that he was serving the king (1 Sam. 21:2). Since Israel was a theocracy, to serve the king anointed by God was at least theoretically to serve God. (Whether David was right or wrong in his action is another matter. However, it is interesting to note that this was one of the law points in David's faith. Once David had stood up to Goliath with nothing more than a slingshot and a few stones, trusting in God to conquer the giant. But now, when David asked for a weapon and was told only Goliath's sword was available, he seized upon it, saying "There is none like it; give it to me". I Sam. 21:9)

It was generally agreed that the service of God and the service of the temple superseded the Sabbath law. (This was faulty reasoning as we mentioned above. Service to God fulfilled the Sabbath law, it did not set it aside.) Jesus argued that "One greater than the temple is here" (Matt. 12:6). Since the temple represented God's presence among His people, who could be greater than the temple? In this way Jesus declares Himself to be God-in-the-flesh. The disciples, as they followed their Master, were busy in God's service. They were keeping the very essence of the Sabbath law.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Jesus said to the Pharisees, "If you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice' you would not have condemned the guiltless". If the Pharisees had understood this passage Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6, they would never have made their accusation against His disciples. It would have been obvious to them that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath rest was given to enable Israel to worship their God. It was never against the Sabbath law to pluck a few heads of grain in order to satisfy one's hunger while busy in God's service. It was the legalism of the Pharisees that caused them to reject Christ as the Son of God and to interpret the Sabbath law in this rigid way.

Jesus teaches a principle here that we must be careful to observe. God loves mercy above and beyond any outward act of worship (Matt. 12:6). Any ceremonial observances that God has given us are intended to help us in our service to Him. Our service to God includes being merciful to other people. The ceremonial observances must not be made all in all or we will find ourselves breaking the very essence of what these outward rites symbolize. God knows the intention of the heart, and we must not judge the hearts of others based solely on what appears to us to be an inadequate keeping of ceremonial law.

Lord of the Sabbath

To conclude His teaching on this subject, Jesus said, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:7). Jesus was the author of the Sabbath. Who else could interpret the intent of the Sabbath law better than He? Furthermore, Jesus as God was the very One that Israel was to serve in and through the Sabbath. More than that, Jesus in declaring Himself Lord of the Sabbath, describes Himself as the Son of Man. The narrow Judaic Sabbath would be nailed to the cross, but the spiritual Sabbath would be fulfilled in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who calls all humankind to rest in Him. We must rest on the atoning sacrifice of God's beloved Son, so that we may offer our hearts and lives in service to Him.

Healing on the Sabbath

The Pharisees also questioned Jesus about healing on the Sabbath. Rabbinism forbade any treatment for a condition that was not life threatening. However, life threatening conditions were sometimes thought to include disease of the ear (Debar. R. 10), throat disease (Yoma 8:6), angina (Yoma 84a), as well as other medical problems. All applications to the outside of the body were forbidden on the Sabbath. According to Rabbinic law, the man with the withered hand could not be healed on the Sabbath, since his medical problem was not life threatening.

It is interesting to note that the Rabbis themselves taught that where life was in danger the Sabbath should be set aside, for "the Sabbath is handed over to you; not, you are handed over to the Sabbath" (Mechilt. on Ex.31:13, ed Weiss, p. 109b). What the Pharisees had failed to see was that serving God was the essence of the Sabbath-rest. An active love for others was also service to God. Therefore, it was lawful on the Sabbath to save life, or to do good of any kind (Mark 3:4). It was only the rigid Rabbinic interpretations that Jesus had to set aside, not the holy Sabbath law of God.

Jesus had compassion on the man with the withered hand, and healed him. Ironically, in breaking the Rabbinic law against healing on the Sabbath, Jesus had not used any forbidden remedies or outward applications. As Edersheim so beautifully says: "He had broken the Sabbath-rest, as God breaks it, when He sends, or sustains, or restores life, or does good: all unseen and unheard, without touch or outward application, by the Word of His power, by the Presence of His life."

An Unchanging Standard

Jesus did not break the letter of the Sabbath law in order to keep the higher principle of love. The Sabbath law, even in its ceremonial form, taught the higher principles of service to God and one another. Jesus' miracles were lawful and in full accord with the Sabbath law.

Jesus kept all the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. He knew that at the cross the temple worship, sacrifices, priestly garments, holy days, and clean/unclean laws would be fulfilled in His Person and Work. Today we are not subject to the Old Testament ceremonial laws. However, we are subject to the unchanging moral and spiritual principles that had been taught by these ceremonial laws.

God has an unchanging moral law. The radical difference between the old and new covenants is the manner in which God compels obedience to His moral law. The old covenant of law could enforce only an outward obedience (because of our sinful nature). The new covenant of forgiveness compels the believer to an inward obedience (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Phil. 2:13). Those Jews, who were saved in the Old Testament era, were saved under the new covenant of forgiveness, first hinted at in the Garden (Gen. 3:15), and given in embryonic form to Abraham (Gen. 12:3). The Law of Moses added 430 years later could not annul this covenant of promise (Gal. 3:17). The new covenant is "new" only in terms of its fulfillment and completion in Christ Jesus.


We must not seek to be justified by our obedience to a written (or unwritten) code of law. Rather, we must look to Christ, the Person, as the ultimate expression of God's unchanging moral law. Jesus Christ came as God-in-the-flesh, the living Word of God. We must recognize that we all fall short of Christ's moral demands. Our obedience must come as a heart-felt response to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

God has not freed us from the objective standard of His moral law. The Spirit leads us to understand God's unchanging moral will as it has been revealed in the Old Testament and ultimately in Jesus. We must not teach others that they may be justified (declared not guilty) by their obedience to a written (or unwritten) code. Such obedience is always rigid, legalistic, or formalistic. However, we do teach others that they must know God through Christ and obey His unchanging moral will: "Not that we are competent of ourselves to judge anything we do, but our competence comes from God. He has enabled us to be ministers of a new covenant not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:5-6).