Why did Jesus heal on the Sabbath?To understand why Jesus healed on the Sabbath, we must understand the history and purpose of the Sabbath. When Israel left Egypt after being enslaved there, God commanded them to observe a Sabbath rest, first in relation to the manna He provided in the wilderness (Exodus 16:23–30). The manna would come each morning and they were to gather what they needed for that day; no manna would keep overnight. However, on the sixth day, they were to collect twice as much and the excess would keep overnight. The seventh day was "a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD" (Exodus 16:23). They did not gather manna on that day and instead ate the extra God had provided for them from the day before.
When God gave Israel the Ten Commandments, He included: "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" (Exodus 20:8–11; cf. Genesis 2:1–4). The Sabbath functioned, in part, as a sign of the Mosaic covenant.
Israel came into the land God promised, but the nation did not honor their covenant with God (Ezekiel 20). Eventually the twelve tribes split into two kingdoms, and each kingdom was taken into captivity. However, under King Cyrus, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the Jews were returned to Jerusalem and restored the temple. The Gospel accounts begin a little over four hundred years later, with the Jews living under the Roman government. By this time, the religious leaders had "built fences" around much of the Mosaic law. They essentially added extra laws to try to ensure that no one would break the actual law. The Sabbath law was no exception. What was supposed to be a day of rest and thanksgiving became a day full of restrictions on what was considered work. Even today, certain Jewish communities are very careful about they will and will not do on Sabbath.
With that understanding, let us explore Jesus' healing on the Sabbath. Of the record of miraculous healings in the Bible, only six of them were on the Sabbath (Mark 1:29–31, 3:1–6, Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6, John 5:1–18; 9:1–16). Jesus was called to task for many of these because they were seen as Him working on the Sabbath. But Jesus was not breaking the Sabbath law that God had given. He was going against the manmade traditions around the Law, which were serving only to distract from God's purpose in the Law. Jesus both fulfilled the Mosaic law and demonstrated its purpose (Matthew 5:17–48).
On one Sabbath, Jesus and His disciples were walking through a grain field, and His disciples were picking heads of grain and eating them. The Pharisees told them it was "not lawful to do on the Sabbath" (Luke 6:2). Jesus reminded the religious leaders of how King David and his men ate the bread of the Presence in the temple (a much bigger issue) when he and his soldiers were hungry and on the run. He concluded with "The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath" (Luke 6:1–5).
On another Sabbath, a man with a withered hand was in the synagogue. The Pharisees and scribes watched to see what Jesus would do. So Jesus called the man to Himself and asked "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?" (Luke 6:9; cf. Mark 3:3). He then healed the man's hand, which infuriated the leaders. "The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him" (Mark 3:6).
Another time Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, He healed a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. A ruler of the synagogue was upset and told the people to come on a different day of the week to be healed. Jesus replied, "'You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?' As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him" (Luke 13:15–17).
When Jesus healed a man who had been born blind on a Sabbath day, the Pharisees questioned the man. The man told them that Jesus "put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see" (John 9:15). Some of the Pharisees saw this as proof that Jesus was not from God "for he does not keep the Sabbath" (John 9:16). But others realized that such healing power comes from God (John 9:16). The previously blind man declared, "Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. … You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing" (John 9:25, 30–33).
Jesus one time explained, "I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave 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" (John 7:21–24).
Jesus wants them to understand that first, He has the authority to do this, and second, it is not against the spirit of God's law. Everything Jesus did on a Sabbath was to meet a human need. God always meant for the Sabbath to be a good, restful, and restoring day. The Pharisees had taken this gift from God and made it a burden. In the new covenant of Jesus' blood, He fulfilled all of the Law, including the eternal rest we now have when we believe what Jesus did for us (Hebrews 4:8–11). Jesus is not only Lord of the Sabbath; He is our Sabbath rest. We need not strive to meet the standard of perfection through endless rules. We need only believe.
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