When the Pharisees accused Jesus Christ of breaking the Sabbath, were they basing it on the Sabbath commandment in the Bible or their own traditions?
During His ministry as a human here on earth, Jesus Christ and His disciples were accused of breaking the Sabbath commandment: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!’ ...
“And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’—that they might accuse Him” (Matthew 12:1-2, 10; see also Mark 2:24; 3:2; Luke 6:2, 7; 13:14; John 5:16, 18; 9:16).
Based upon these accusations by the Pharisees, some have mistakenly concluded that Jesus actually did break the Sabbath commandment, and that this means it is okay for them today to “also” break the Sabbath.
But before making such a judgment, consider whether the accusations were correct. Did Jesus Christ really break God’s Sabbath law?
What did Jesus do on the Sabbath?
Jesus’ custom was to go to the synagogue to worship God on the Sabbath: “So He came to Nazareth, where He has been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read” (Luke 4:16).
God designated the Sabbath as a “holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:2, 4)—meaning that it was a time to assemble with others to worship God.
Jesus taught the importance of all of God’s commandments, which would include the Fourth Commandment about the Sabbath. He told a man who asked how to enter into eternal life, “But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). In His famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (5:17).
Did Jesus work on the Sabbath?
The accusations of Sabbath breaking against Jesus Christ were not because He neglected to assemble with others on this day to hear God’s law read and to listen to exhortations to serve God. The accusations arose over the additional rules the Jews had established about how they thought the Sabbath was to be observed.The accusations of Sabbath breaking against Jesus Christ were not because He neglected to assemble with others on this day to hear God’s law read and to listen to exhortations to serve God. The accusations arose over the additional rules the Jews had established about how they thought the Sabbath was to be observed.
Specifically they considered His disciples’ plucking of some grain to eat and Jesus’ healings to be work. But did these things really break the Sabbath commandment of the Bible? Or just the Pharisees’ extra rules?
Jewish traditions about 39 forbidden types of work
The Mishnah—a written record of Jewish oral traditions completed in the second century after Christ—lists 39 forbidden types of work on the Sabbath.
In general, the rabbis believed that all work that was creative and exercised control or dominion over the environment was forbidden (Judaism 101, “Shabbat”). Noting that God had ceased from His creative work after preparing the earth for mankind in six days (Genesis 2:1-3), the rabbis reasoned that similar types of work prohibited on the Sabbath would include agricultural activity such as plowing, sowing and harvesting.
Two of the major Jewish accusations of Sabbath breaking are recorded in Matthew 12:1-13.
One of these occurred when Jesus’ disciples picked a few heads of grain and ate them as they walked through a grain field on the Sabbath. The accusers considered this harvesting.
The other arose over Jesus healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. The accusers considered this miracle to be work.
The Lord of the Sabbath teaches how the Sabbath is really to be observed
Instead of arguing with their definitions, Jesus supplied scriptural references and logical examples showing that what He and His disciples had done did not break the Sabbath commandment.
The biblical Sabbath law allows doing good and dealing with emergencies. If it is okay to pull a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath (verse 11), why would it be wrong for Jesus to heal someone?
Jesus said, “Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (verse 12).
He also chided the hypocritical Pharisees about their lack of understanding of God’s will: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (verse 7).
By saying the disciples were guiltless, He was saying they did not break the Sabbath commandment.
Jesus added that He is the “Lord” of the Sabbath—the One who can properly explain how the Sabbath is to be observed (Matthew 12:8).
The account in Mark adds that the Sabbath was created to be a benefit for all mankind: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). The Sabbath was designed to be a benefit—not a burden as the extra rules were making it.
Jesus’ actions had not broken the Sabbath. His activities were teaching opportunities for those who wished to understand how the Sabbath was to be observed. Sadly, instead of accepting this teaching, the Pharisees then “plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him” (verse 14).
Jesus was sinless
The truth is that Jesus lived a perfect, sin-free life. As Paul explained: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus’ sinlessness is also described in Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Jesus did not break the Sabbath. Instead, He showed how it is to be observed. Those of us who wish to serve God are to “walk just as He [Jesus] walked” (1 John 2:6). We, too, need to keep the Sabbath.
For further study on the Sabbath, see the article “How to Keep the Sabbath Holy.”