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Did Jesus Really Break God’s Rules by Healing on the Sabbath?

I want to preface this article by saying I had a hard time writing it because I love pastors and Bible teachers even when they teach opposing doctrines. They’re dedicated, hard-working, sincere, loving people who sacrifice much of their lives for their people. But it hurts my heart when I see teachers teaching different things about a topic in the Bible.  One thing that hurts is that these teachers often present these doctrines as clear and absolute when in fact there are probably people in the pews who have been taught the opposite of what they are now being presented. I can feel the pain that conundrum causes in those people when they must ask themselves whether this teacher is right or was their old teacher right? That does not serve to strengthen their faith.

Like most of you I talk to people about my faith in Christ. While I have been blessed to have lead someone to Christ on a few occasions most the people I talk to do not change their beliefs after we talk. From time to time I have asked why they don’t believe. Of course there are many and varied responses from things like “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny either”, to “I believe in science” to “look at the corruption in the Catholic Church. I don’t want any part of that”. But a response that I have heard on a regular basis is that people don’t believe because it’s obvious that anybody can take anything out of the Bible to say anything they want it to say.  Then they cite examples of how Southern preachers in the past used the Bible to enforce slave practices, how Mennonites use the Bible as say that anything modern is sinful, how white supremacists use the Bible to reinforce their ideology, and how you can go from one church to another and hear different teaching on the same topic.  How can the Bible be truth if so many people say it says so many different things?  This last witness is true. And it is at the heart of this discussion.

This brings up something that I’ve talked about in another article, Yo-Yo Christianity. Not everyone stays in the same church all their life, in fact, most people I know, for different reasons, go to at least several different churches over the years. Yo-yo Christianity is what happens as people move from church to church, and are forced to accept different teachings then they were taught previously.     I personally have been in churches that have taught that Jesus broke God’s rules by healing on the Sabbath day and that Jesus never broke God’s rules by healing on the Sabbath day. Agaon, Yo-yo christianity works against strong faith.

I want to add that I’ve also talked to pastors at different times about various teachings and the differences between denominations and so forth and what I have heard is that seminary doesn’t delve that deeply into a lot of the topics that I talk about here on this website. In fact, several pastors from different denominations told me the same thing, that is, that seminary is a rigorous curriculum where topics are covered quickly in a lot of cases and moved on. They say that theology is only one of the many things covered. Moreover, theology is almost uniformly presented from whatever denomination or doctrinal school founded the seminary. In other words, they may have been taught that a certain doctrine is different than Catholic doctrine or some other denomination but there was not an in-depth look at all viewpoints on the topic. And for the most part the last thing you want to do in seminary is disagree with your church’s teaching. And lastly, seminary for almost all of the pastors that I have talked to is more about preparation for leading a church including certainly preaching, but also administration and all the different programs in a church than it is about in depth theological training into Christian doctrine.

Some people teach that Jesus was able to break God’s rules. In my experience more teachers have taught that Jesus always obeyed the Law but was only accused of breaking the Law by religious leaders. Of course christian doctrine is not a democracy where the most votes win, it just appears the former viewpoint is in the minority.  As one writer put it, “One common misconception regarding the behavior of Jesus is that, on occasion, in healing the sick and performing other benevolent actions, He broke the Sabbath in order to accommodate the higher law of love. This viewpoint leaves the impression that law is sometimes, if not frequently, antithetical to being loving. It implies that sometimes breaking God’s laws is necessary in order to be loving.”[i]

There are a number of records where the Pharisees point out that Jesus is breaking the law of the Sabbath.  Here are a couple of them:

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”  (Mar 2:23-28 ESV)

Here we see the Pharisees pointing out that it is against the law to pluck grain on the Sabbath.   I have heard preachers say that Jesus here was breaking the law of the Sabbath but it was okay because of who he was.   Let’s look at another section:

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them.  (Joh 9:13-16 ESV)

Again, some have taken verses like these to say that Jesus broke the law (or God’s rules) and we have him as an example that it is okay to sometimes break God’s rules.  I mean it looks like Jesus broke the Law, right?    The Pharisees were Israel’s guardians of the law.   And we know that breaking the Law is sin:

Through the law is the knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20b ESV)

If Jesus really broke the law then he would be a sinner but we know that sin was not found in him.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2Co 5:21 ESV)

How can this be reconciled? 

Let’s look at another account:

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  (Mat 12:9-12 ESV)

Aha, in this account we see Jesus teaching the teachers, even if they’re not willing or able to hear it, in which case he is still teaching the people around him.  Notice that his point here is that what he was doing was lawful!   Jesus did certain things on the Sabbath day and taught that things like pulling an ox out of a ditch, or eating grain off the stalk, or healing someone is not violating the Law!

There is a section in the Law that requires people to pull a fallen animal out of the ditch:

“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother. And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him. And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it. You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again.  (Deu 22:1-4 ESV)

Look at these verses and notice that there is no exception for the Sabbath! By the law of  Moses if someone is walking and sees that a fallen animal in a ditch they are commanded by the law to recover the animal! There is no provision that says not to do it on the Sabbath!

That is exactly what Jesus says in these verses:

The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?” Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (Joh 7:15-24 ESV)

Here, Jesus turns the tables on those who accuse him of not keeping the law. He says that none of them keep the law, yet they are trying to use it to try to kill him!  Jesus then uses the example of their own behavior to show that his practices are similar to some of their own practices. He cites the example of circumcision. By law circumcision is on the eighth day. Sometimes the eighth day is on the Sabbath. People perform circumcisions on the eighth day yet that is a form of manual labor! So he asked them why it is okay for them to perform a circumcision on the Sabbath when they condemn him for healing on the Sabbath!

Let’s look at the some of the stringent law regarding the Sabbath in the Old Testament.  Here is one of the commandments:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.  (Exo 20:8-11 ESV)

This rule is reiterated later in Exodus:

And the LORD said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exo 31:12-17 ESV)

There are some specifics given about the Sabbath:

Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” Moses said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the LORD has commanded.  (Exo 35:1-4 ESV)

Okay, no fire kindling restricts cooking, doesn’t it?

What is not here is the rabbinical delineation of definitions that were decided by the Pharisees on what constituted a breaking of this law.  The Israelites interpreted the above law to make a list of forbidden activities.

Here is a breakdown of the forbidden activities from a modern site on Jewish law:

“Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], untying [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches, hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it, writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another. These are the principal Melakhot – [they number] forty minus one.”[ii]

Do a Google search on Talmud and look for all the rules of the Sabbath.   Here are a few examples: 

“A man may not go out with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a shield, nor with a round shield, nor with a spear. If he has gone out [with any of these] he is liable for a Chattat. Rabbi Eliezer says: They are ornaments for him. But the Sages say: They are nothing but an indignity, for it is said, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears unto pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). A garter is not subject to impurity and one may go out with it on Shabbat; foot-chains are subject to impurity, and one may not go out with them on Shabbat. “


“A woman may go out with braids of hair whether of her own [hair]
, or of another woman, or of an animal. [She may go out] with a frontlet [on her forehead], or with bangles if they are sewn [to the cap]; with a cap [under the head-dress] or with a wig into the courtyard; with wool in her ears, or with wool in her shoe, or with wool she has arranged for her menstruation; or with a pepper, or with a grain [of] salt, or with whatever else she [is accustomed to] put in her mouth [to dispel bad breath] provided she does not first put it [into her mouth] on Shabbat. And if she drops it [out of her mouth] she may not replace it. [With regard to a] false tooth or a gold tooth, Rabbi allows [one to go out with it], but the Sages prohibit [it].”

Now as you can see from reading the above passages that this is a very strict interpretation of the Law just as we see in the records we have with Jesus.  The Pharisees were citing Jesus and his disciples because eating grain from the field requires reaping and reaping is a violation of their codification of the law. But their codification was more than what God specified,and that was Jesus’ point.

There are many valuable lessons here. Obviously, the lesson foremost is that Jesus did not break the law of the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath day, or letting his disciples eat grain out of the field.

Jesus did not break the law! He broke the Pharisee’s understanding of the law, but their understanding was erroneous!

It is very important when reading the bible to understand that just because people are saying something or accusing something that doesn’t make it true! You have to dig deeper into the context, both the local context and the greater context of the whole word of God.

The bigger lesson here is how misunderstandings, i.e., divisions among believers happened over these teachings like these. There are some that teach that Jesus broke God’s rules, i.e. the law, and that that was okay whereas others teach that the point of the whole topic is that Jesus did not break the law, rather it was the Pharisees who misunderstood and misappropriated the enactment of the law.  How is this different than the issue of righteousness by faith or works? How is this different than the issue of child baptism vs believers baptism! How is this different than the issue of whether it’s okay to drink alcohol or not? The answer is that it is not!

Here we have a clear case of how the divisions among us spring up.  And that is the biggest lesson of all.  We have this example in the Bible of some strict instructions regarding the Sabbath. God worked six days on creation and rested the seventh day. He set that as an example as a guide, not impediment, to us so that we might be able to rest one day a week. When God gave the law he said some strict instructions about not working. But as Jesus pointed out God gave the law for the good of man, not to hurt man.  Yet the Pharisees over time constructed this intensely legalistic definition that completely went against what God had intended for the law all along.

Misunderstanding the intent of Scripture is a big part of the lesson here. 

This legalistic tendency shown in the healing on the Sabbath stories was not just limited to the time of Jesus. We still have that tendency and there are some among us that’s still are under its spell.  Can you see a correlation to some denominational laws and systems? I can.  What other things have individuals and whole denominations misunderstood?

The nature of this discussion is right at the heart of the originalChristianity.net website because misunderstandings have escalated within the body of Christ to where there are tens of thousands of denominations all over the board on a host of issues.

First I want to pray. I pray that God the Father works through the power of the Holy Spirit that touches us all to help break down these barriers between us, these bastions of ideologies and competing religious dogmas that divide us in so many ways to bring us back to the unity of one spirit and one knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But I also want to issue a challenge to all believers to be like the Bereans:

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Act 17:11 ESV)

Be like the Bereans and research! When you search the scriptures don’t just guess what they mean, rather use tools like concordances and lexicons to get to the intended meaning of the words in the verse. Search online to find out what other teachers have written and examine their logic. Has the writer searched out the meaning in the local context and the greater context in the word of God? Have they compared all the sections of scripture that relate to the subject? If part of the support is things written by the church fathers and later writers then read those writings for yourself and decide if those writers are correctly portrayed or are their writings used in a manipulative fashion where they perhaps mention the topic but don’t give the meaning of the topic that is now being presented.

I want to issue a challenge to pastors and Bible teachers everywhere. Teach the same thing. Don’t get so locked into your tradition and denominational background that you are part of this problem. Before you just reiterate something that you heard before from even someone you may have respected very much take the time to check it out, look at the different viewpoints, and be courageous to speak the truth even if it goes against your denominational tradition.


[i] http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?article=5155

[ii] https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Shabbat.7.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

March 27th, 2019 Posted by | Divisions | no comments