Old Testament Laws: Jesus and the Sabbath (study paper)

Question: Scripture tells us that Jesus kept the Sabbath (for example, Luke 4:16). Was he teaching us how to observe the Sabbath properly so we could follow his example?

Jesus lived sinlessly under the old covenant requirements (Hebrews 4:15). He was born under the law, while the old covenant was still in force (Galatians 4:4). He observed old covenant customs such as participating in the sacrifice of Passover lambs, tithing to the Levites, telling cleansed people to make offerings as prescribed by Moses, and he observed cultural customs such as Hanukkah.

Because of Jesus’ historical context, Christians should be careful about using his example in specific cultural circumstances. We do not have to follow his custom, for example, of going to synagogues.

Jesus never told anyone to keep the Sabbath. Although we are told various things that he did on the Sabbath, we are never told that he rested. According to the Gospels, what he did and taught on the Sabbath was consistently liberal.

Let us examine the Gospels to see what the writers were inspired to preserve about Jesus’ teachings regarding the Sabbath.

Matthew 12:1-12: “Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, `Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’ ”

We know that Jesus did not sin. He did not break the Sabbath, and presumably he did not permit his disciples to break the Sabbath, either. We must conclude that the Pharisees were wrong. However, Exodus 16:29 told people to stay in the camp on the Sabbath and not to pick up food off the ground. Exodus 34:21 says that the Sabbath applied to harvest season.

The Pharisees could claim good scriptural support for prohibiting grain-picking on the Sabbath. But their strictness was excessive — the old covenant rules were not meant to be complete prohibitions of all activity. But Jesus did not try to argue that his disciples were abiding by the biblical law and violating only the pharisaic tradition. Rather, Jesus went to the Bible to show that the biblical law itself can sometimes be set aside.

The Pharisees were not interpreting the Scriptures in the right way. Jesus pointed out this out by mentioning the example of David: “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread — which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests” (verses 3-4).

The law said that showbread was holy and was to be eaten, without exception, by priests. And yet David did it and was presumed innocent. It was not lawful according to the letter of the law,1 and yet it was permitted in the purpose of God’s spiritual law. Jesus’ point here regarding the Sabbath is that the letter of the law is not a reliable guide to holiness. People should be judged on the heart, not on superficial actions.

Jesus gave another example in verses 5-6: “Haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.” Jesus says that the priests “desecrate” the Sabbath day. They are, according to the letter of the Sabbath law, doing something that is not lawful. But yet their work was permitted because it was temple work. Something was more important than the Sabbath, and that something was the temple. The temple and its sacrificial rites were more important than the Sabbath and superseded it.

Jesus, however, is more important than the temple and its sacrifices. The logical conclusion is that he is also more important than the Sabbath. Even before his death and resurrection, he was more important than the Sabbath.2

The Pharisees, instead of worrying about a little activity on a holy day, ought to have been concerned with how they were treating the Holy One of Israel, who was standing before them. They should have worshipped him instead of looking to old covenant holy places and instead of using old covenant holy times to judge the Giver of those times. The Sabbath was holy only because God had designated it so, and here was God himself. They should have accepted without question whatever he did, and they should have followed his example!

Jesus then summarized his argument about the Sabbath and about his own identity: “If you had known what these words mean, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (verses 7-8).

Jesus is telling the Pharisees that love for humans is more important than sticking to worship rituals. Holy bread can be given to ordinary people when they are hungry. Holy time can be used in an ordinary way when people are hungry. If the Pharisees had understood the intent of the law, they would not have been criticizing the disciples. They would have been merciful, not judgmental.

Jesus ends the discussion with his claim to be Lord of the Sabbath — someone who had more authority than the God-given Sabbath did. It is not just that Jesus claimed to have a more accurate understanding of how the day should be kept — he claimed to be more important than the day itself. It was a stupendous claim, and it is no surprise that some Pharisees thought he blasphemed and deserved to die (verse 14).

Jesus’ next activity gives a practical demonstration not only of his authority over the Sabbath, but also the proper use for the Sabbath in the old covenant. “Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, `Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ ” (verses 9-10). The Pharisees seem to be baiting Jesus, confronting him with a situation to test him. Healing was one of the types of work they said was unlawful.

But Jesus again pointed out the hypocrisy in their approach. They would rescue a sheep on the Sabbath (verse 11) — thus even a sheep was more important than resting on the Sabbath — and yet they were so strict that they didn’t allow human needs, whether hunger or healing, to be taken care of on the Sabbath. Their rules were a terrible distortion of what the Sabbath should have been. “How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (verse 12). This is what Jesus taught about the Sabbath. Don’t worry about prohibiting work — be more concerned about doing good.

So Jesus healed the man, and the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus. They thought the holy day was more important than the One who had made it holy.

Mark 1:21-22 — “They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” This verse doesn’t tell us much about the Sabbath, merely that Jesus happened to teach on this day. Presumably he taught on other days of the week, in other locations, but this is the day on which he could teach in a synagogue.

The passage says that Jesus taught with authority. He also cast out demons with authority (verses 23-26), and the people were amazed at his authority (verse 27). Luke 4:31-37 is a parallel account.

Mark 2:23-3:6 is parallel to Matthew 12:1-12. Mark does not include the comments about sheep and mercy, but he makes a similar point by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Several unsubstantiated claims have been made about verse 27. Let’s note what it says and what it does not say. First, it says that the Sabbath was made for humans. It was given to serve their needs and to benefit them. Actually, all of God’s laws, even the laws of sacrifice, were given for human good. They were made to benefit humans. But their value has been eclipsed in Christ. God has given us something better.

Jesus did not say when the Sabbath came into existence. Nothing in the context indicates that Jesus was alluding to creation week.3 We cannot assume that something made for humans necessarily had to be made immediately after humans were. For example, we could also say that the festivals were made for human benefit, and the rite of circumcision was instituted for human benefit, and Christ was crucified for us. All these show that the word “for” is not precise enough to conclude, from this verse, when the Sabbath originated.

Also, Jesus did not say that the Sabbath was made for both gentiles and Jews — this is not in the context. When Jesus used the word “man” in Mark 2:27, he was using it in a general sense, without any reference to Jews specifically or to gentiles specifically. Most first-century Jews did not believe that gentiles had to keep the Sabbath,4 and Jesus was not addressing this question. We should not ask questions that are beyond the context of the passage.5

The verse simply says that the Sabbath was made to benefit humans. We cannot assume that it was made at creation, nor that it hasn’t been superseded by a better blessing in the new covenant. Since the Sabbath was made for human benefit, the Son of Man has authority over it (verse 28). He is more important than the Sabbath. Our relationship with God is based on faith in him, not in old covenant institutions. [Click here for another article about Mark 2:27.]

In the Sabbath healing that follows, Mark again is slightly different than Matthew. Particularly striking is the emotion of Jesus: “He looked around at them in anger…deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5). Jesus was angry at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were so much more concerned about the holiness of a day than about the well-being of humans. They were really more concerned with self than with God, for they were failing to do what God himself would do.

Luke 4:15-30 — “He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read.” Jesus taught in the synagogues on the Sabbaths. Considering the historical context, there is nothing unusual about that.

What is more significant is what Jesus taught: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (verses 18-19).

Jesus used the Sabbath, in his preaching and in his miracles, to deliver poor people from bondage. His ministry was like a jubilee year. He preached the good news that the Lord’s favor was on the people. He gave physical sight to a few, but spiritual sight to many. He did not release anyone from physical prisons, but freed many from spiritual captivity (through casting out demons and through forgiving sins). Although many people appreciated his ministry, many others did not.

In Nazareth, people were offended at who Jesus was. They recognized that he had wisdom, and that he could do miracles, but they also thought of him as an ordinary villager (Mark 6:2-3). How could a carpenter, the son of a carpenter, have such authority?

They could not believe that Jesus was more than an ordinary human, and Jesus said that it was a typical situation: “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24). And after Jesus reminded the people that God often sent his prophets to non-Israelites, the people were furious and tried to kill him (verses 25-29).

Although these incidents occurred on a Sabbath, there is little here about the Sabbath itself. There is more about who Jesus is and what he preached. He preached liberty and salvation. Jesus simply means that he has authority over the day. This is demonstrated by the healing that follows in all three Synoptic accounts. The miracle demonstrated not only Jesus’ ministry of liberation, but also his authority over the Sabbath, since he could perform such miracles on the Sabbath.

Luke 13:10-17 — Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke includes two more stories of Sabbath healings, and these provide further information to us regarding Jesus’ attitude toward the Sabbath. “On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, `Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’ Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God” (verses 10-13).

By using the words “set free” or “loose,” Jesus was emphasizing liberation rather than healing. This also provided the context for the comparison Jesus soon made.

The synagogue ruler (most synagogues were run by Pharisees) complained, saying that healing was a work that could be done on the other six days and was not appropriate for the Sabbath (verse 14). “The Lord answered him, `You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?’ ” (verses 15-16).

Since humans are more valuable than animals, and animals can be loosed on the Sabbath — an ordinary, daily, mundane task — then humans can be loosed on the Sabbath, too. The pharisaic rules about the Sabbath were not designed to benefit humans. Instead, the rules served the self-righteous attitudes of the Pharisees. The Pharisees would prefer to see the woman labor with her infirmity rather than see the labor of healing. They were binding unnecessary obligations on the people, and Jesus said that the people should be “set free” or “loosed” on the Sabbath day.

A similar point is made in the next chapter. Luke 14:1-6 — “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, `Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ ” (verses 1-3). As in previous situations, the Pharisees had probably set the situation up to test Jesus. Jesus knew their thoughts and handled the situation so expertly that he left them speechless.

Jesus healed the man, then asked, “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” (verse 5). Of course, the Pharisees would rescue a child or beast on the Sabbath. Rescue was permitted, so healing ought to be permitted, too.6

Consistently, whether alleviating minor hunger or healing major pain, Jesus pointed out that humanitarian needs took precedence over the Sabbath. The day was supposed to benefit humans, not cause burdens for them.7

John 5:1-18 — The Gospel of John has some additional stories about Jesus’ Sabbath activities, and they reinforce the emphases we have already seen. On the Sabbath, Jesus healed a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. And he told the man, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (verse 8). The Jews accused the man of breaking the Sabbath because he was carrying his mat.

Why did Jesus tell the man to carry his mat? There was no emergency, and the man was certainly capable of coming back after the Sabbath to get his mat. Jesus could have easily said, “You can carry your mat today if you want, but to avoid offense, leave it here for now.” But Jesus was not that conservative. He wanted to emphasize human freedom — not only the man’s freedom from his infirmity, but also his freedom to do something on the Sabbath.

The Jews criticized Jesus for what he was doing on the Sabbath, but Jesus provoked them even further by boldly saying that he was indeed working on the Sabbath and that he did so because he was like the Father! (verse 17). “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (verse 18). Jesus continued to equate himself with the Father (verses 19-27).

Jesus did not try to defend his work, and the man’s work, as within the intent of the law. Instead, he boldly described his activity on the Sabbath as “work.” However, we know from Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus kept the Sabbath perfectly, even within the parameters of old covenant law. Just as the priests could do God’s work on the Sabbath, Jesus could, too.

However, we today are not under the old covenant restrictions. Just what that means for the Sabbath is not addressed in this passage. If we imitate our Savior, we might conclude that we are allowed to work on the Sabbath. At least John does nothing to prevent such a conclusion.

Jesus alluded to this Sabbath healing, and the controversy it caused, in John 7:22-23. He pointed out the irony that the Jews did not allow healing on the Sabbath, but they did allow circumcision. “If a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath?”

Work could be done on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses would not be broken, showing that the law of Moses commanding circumcision was considered more important than the Sabbath restriction. The circumcision law was more important than the strictness of the Sabbath law, just as the laws of temple ritual were.

The Jews probably had no answer for Jesus. They could not refute what he said, and that is one reason they tried to kill him. But the readers of John’s Gospel would understand that circumcision, temple rituals and “the law of Moses” were not required for gentile Christians. If important laws could be swept aside, what does that imply for the lesser requirements, such as the Sabbath law?

In John 9, Jesus made mud to heal a blind man (verses 1-7). “Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath” (verse 14). All this had a spiritual meaning, of course: Jesus is the light of the world, enabling spiritually blind people to see the truth.

On this Sabbath day, Jesus said, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (verse 4). Work must be done on the Sabbath, Jesus said.

The Jews, of course, objected to Jesus’ work — and they objected to it being done on the Sabbath. Making mud was against their law, and so was healing. They judged Jesus according to their law, and they judged unrighteously. They claimed to have the correct standard, but they were spiritually blind, neglecting love, justice, mercy and faith (verse 41). They were looking at the law instead of the Lawgiver as the standard of judgment.

Throughout these Sabbath incidents, Jesus liberalized the standards. He repeatedly did things that could have waited until sundown. He boldly claimed to have authority to work on the Sabbath. That is one reason why many Christians conclude that the Sabbath is no longer required. Other Christians, who are also committed to God, conclude that they should keep the Sabbath, although not as strictly as the Pharisees did. They are all welcome to their opinions provided they do not judge others on this topic.

Every Christian should be fully convinced, living every day to the Lord, seeking to be led by the Holy Spirit. If people think that the day is required, then to them it is required. If people think that they have freedom in this matter, then Christ expects them to act responsibly with that freedom. Whatever is not done in faith is sin. [Click here for article on Romans 14.]

Numerous scriptures admonish us to follow the example of our Savior. In following his example, however, we must distinguish between his activities that were based on the historical situation he lived in (going to synagogues, for example), and those activities that were based on timeless laws of interpersonal conduct and worship in spirit and truth. We see some of these more important principles when we notice the context in which the scriptures admonish us to do as he did:

We are to serve one another, as he served his disciples (John 13:14-15). We are to love as he loved us (John 13:34; 1 John 2:5-7; 2 John 5). We are to accept one another, just as he accepted us (Romans 15:7). We are to be humble, as he was (Philippians 2:5-7). We are to suffer without retaliation, as he did (1 Peter 2:19-23). We should make sacrifices for one another, just as he did for us (1 John 3:16).

Question: Jesus risked his life by what he did on the Sabbath. Didn’t he do this for the purpose of showing his disciples how to keep the Sabbath properly?

Jesus criticized the Pharisees’ approach to various laws and rituals, including ritual handwashing (Matthew 15:2), phylacteries (Matthew 23:5) and Corban rules (Mark 7:11-13). In all these things, he antagonized the Pharisees and risked his life. But these criticisms were not attempts to tell his disciples how to continue these customs in a better way. In fact, Jesus’ criticisms helped the early church realize that these customs were obsolete. Therefore, we cannot assume, when the Gospels record Jesus criticizing the way something was done, that he wanted the practice continued by the church in a better way.

Jesus sometimes criticized the way the Pharisees approached customs that were good, including almsgiving, prayer and fasting (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). On these topics, Jesus clearly taught his disciples to continue the practice (verses 3, 6, 17). But Jesus never taught his disciples to keep the Sabbath. We are told about work that Jesus did on the Sabbath, but we are never told that he rested on the Sabbath. He repeatedly noted that restrictive rules were violations of the intent of the Sabbath — he taught that a focus on external details was ineffective and incorrect. Those restrictions did not transform the heart.

Jesus never broke the Sabbath, nor did he teach others to break the Sabbath. But neither did he teach against circumcision and sacrifices. He could not while the old covenant was still in force. He could point out administrative problems, and present himself as the Lord, but it was not yet time to publicly reject any particular law (see John 16:12-13). But the implications are there. When John describes Jesus as working on the Sabbath, he does not feel compelled to explain that Christians cannot. When Luke says that people are freed on the Sabbath, he does not feel compelled to qualify what he said. Jesus’ example regarding the Sabbath is liberty, not rules.


1 Jesus clearly said that David did something that was not lawful.

2 Christianity rejects both the temple and its sacrifices, although some Jewish Christians continued participating in both while the temple still stood. Jesus is more important than those rituals, and they are now obsolete. Jesus is more important than the Sabbath, too, which implies that he has superseded it, just as he superseded the rituals. In defending his Sabbath activities, Jesus put the Sabbath in the same legal category as showbread, sacrifices, and the physical temple, all of which are now obsolete.

3 In Mark 2:27 Jesus did not use the word for create — he used egeneto, which is usually translated “became.” This word does not allude to the creation account (the Septuagint does not useegeneto in Genesis 2:2-3), nor can any stress be put on the English word “made,” since it is not in the Greek.

4 The rabbis taught that gentiles should observe laws that go back to Noah, and the Sabbath was not part of the “Noachian” requirements (see the Jewish Encyclopedia or the Encyclopedia Judaica). Although the number of Noachian laws and the prohibitions varied, the lists did not include the Sabbath. The rabbis looked on the Sabbath, like circumcision, as something that marked the Jewish people as different from other nations. The second-century B.C. book of Jubilees gave the view that seems to have been common: “The Creator of all blessed it, but he did not sanctify any people or nations to keep the sabbath thereon with the sole exception of Israel. He granted to them alone that they might eat and drink and keep the sabbath thereon upon the earth” (Jubilees 2:31, quoted from James Charlesworth, editor, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [Doubleday, 1985], vol. 2, p. 58.). Although the Sabbath was patterned after the creation week, Deuteronomy 5:15 says that the Sabbath was given to the Israelites because God had brought them out of Egypt. That implies that it was not given to other nations. Gentiles did not have a covenant relationship with God.

5 For example, some might ask: Was the Sabbath made to exalt God, or was it for human benefit? If we use verse 27 to try to answer the question, we are using it out of context and trying to read something into the text. In the same way, we twist the context and intrude into the verse if we use it to answer questions such as, Was the Sabbath made at creation? — or, Was the Sabbath made for all humans or just for Israelites? These questions are inappropriate for this verse. Jesus was saying that the Sabbath was made for humanitarian benefit; he was not commenting on other questions.

6 Today, we call various emergencies “an ox in the ditch.” Jesus, however, was not basing his argument on the urgency of the situation. The healing was a humanitarian need, but not an emergency need. Jesus could justify his healing activities equally well by referring to an ox in the ditch or to the ordinary need of leading an animal to water. His point was not urgency, but simple need.

7 If Sabbath work actually dishonored God, then the Sabbath would have priority over humans in need and oxen in pits, since correct worship of God is more important than human lives and oxen. If absolute rest were essential to worship, then Sabbath-keepers should let houses burn down, since that would only be a monetary loss, and God’s honor is far more important than our material goods. This indicates that the command to rest on a specific day is a ceremonial matter rather than a moral one. God’s spiritual law does not have any exceptions.

Author: Michael Morrison


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