Did Jesus Break the Sabbath?
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
When Jesus walked on earth, He was sometimes accused of breaking the Sabbath. In one case, Jesus and the disciples picked heads of grain on the Sabbath and ate them. The Pharisees accused them of transgressing the Sabbath. “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath’” (Matthew 12:2). In other places, Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath for healing people (Mark 2:24, Luke 6:7, 14:3, John 9:16).
John, one of the early disciples of Christ, said: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin” (I John 3:4-5).
One definition of sin is transgression of God’s Law. John made it clear that Christ never transgressed it. He was perfectly lawful His entire life. So why did the Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking the law?
By the time of Jesus, the Jewish leaders had developed a large body of oral laws. Many of these rules added extra requirements to something God commanded in the Torah. When it comes to the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders developed 39 categories of actions that were classified as work.
Among them included picking grain (considered reaping), removing the husk from the grain (considered threshing), carrying earth, carrying something in public, and intentional healing (it seems that accidental healing was acceptable!). The Mishnah is a second-century compilation of these teachings. We have excerpts from it below pertaining to the Sabbath:
Mishnah, Shabbat 7 (thirty-nine categories of work)
“This fundamental mishna enumerates those who perform the primary categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat, which number forty-less-one. They are grouped in accordance with their function: One who sows, and one who plows, and one who reaps, and one who gathers sheaves into a pile, and one who threshes, removing the kernel from the husk, and one who winnows threshed grain in the wind, and one who selects the inedible waste from the edible…”
Mishnah, Shabbat 7 (prohibition of carrying too much food)
“One who carries out a measure of foods fit for human consumption equivalent to a dried fig-bulk into a domain where carrying is prohibited on Shabbat is liable [meaning, guilty of sin]. And all those foods join together with one another to constitute that amount because they are equal in their measures. This amount is calculated without their shells, and their seeds, and their stems, and their bran, the husk that comes off of the wheat kernel when pounded, and their coarse bran that remains in the flour…”
Mishnah, Shabbat 10 (prohibition of carrying an object into the public domain)
“One who carries out an object into the public domain on Shabbat, whether he carried it out in his right hand or in his left hand, whether he carried it in his lap or on his shoulders, he is liable…”
Mishnah, Shabbat 10 (prohibition of picking, which they considered reaping)
“One who severs a leaf or a fruit from a plant growing in a perforated flowerpot on Shabbat is liable, as a plant in a flowerpot with holes in it has the legal status of a plant connected to the ground. Picking from it is prohibited due to reaping…”
Mishnah Shabbat 14 (prohibition against intentional healing)
“One may not eat eizoveyon on Shabbat because healthy people do not eat it, and therefore it is clear that anyone eating it is doing so for its medicinal value. However, one may eat a plant called yo’ezer and may drink abuvro’e. Furthermore, all types of food that healthy people eat may be eaten by a person even for medicinal purposes. And one may drink all drinks except for water from palm trees and a kos ikarin because they are known as a remedy for jaundice. Therefore, it is prohibited to drink them on Shabbat for curative purposes…One who is concerned about pain in his teeth may not sip vinegar through them on Shabbat for medicinal purposes: however, he may dip his food in vinegar in his usual manner and eat it, and if he is healed by the vinegar, he is healed. One who is concerned about pain in his loins may not smear wine and vinegar on them on Shabbat because that is a medical treatment. However, one may smear oil on them. However, one may not use rose oil, which is very expensive and used exclusively as a cure. However, princes may smear with rose oil on their wounds on Shabbat because it is their usual manner to smear rose oil on themselves during the week for pleasure. Rabbi Shimon says: All of the Jewish people are princes, and it is permitted for them to smear rose oil on themselves on Shabbat…”
As we can see, the Jewish leaders invented all kinds of rules not discussed in the Bible and attached them to keeping the commandments of God. This explains why Jesus said concerning the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4, NIV). Among the more cumbersome rules had to do with healing on the Sabbath. Basically, they allowed unintentional healing, but not intentional healing. No such rule can be found in the Bible!
When Jesus and the disciples plucked heads of grain to eat with his hands, they were simply eating. Their rules claimed that he was reaping with such an action. Yet His action was completely valid according to the Torah: “When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the ears with your hand; but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor’s standing grain” (Deut. 23:25). Jesus did not harvest grain. He picked heads of grain for food. He broke their man-made rules, not God’s law.
When Jesus healed people, He broke the Jewish rules prohibiting intentional healing. As Jesus pointed out, there is nothing in the Torah that prohibits a person from being made whole on the Sabbath.
In John 5:1-15, Jesus asked the man to carry his mat so that he would be healed. The man obeyed and was healed! The Jewish leaders gave him a hard time because he broke their rules of carrying such an item in public. The man was not carrying any kind of load (see Jeremiah 17:19-27); he was just carrying a mat.
When Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath, we must realize that He did not transgress a single commandment of God. Instead, he violated their man-made rules. He routinely pointed out how their man-made rules contradicted God’s commandments (Matthew 15:1-20).
Moreover, when such accusations were made against Jesus, He often gave them the correct explanation of Torah. This was one way in which He properly fulfilled them. He said things such as:
“Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day.” (Matthew 12:12)
“Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm? To save a life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4)
“15 Therefore the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each one of you free his ox or his donkey from the stall on the Sabbath, and lead him away to water? 16 Ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham whom Satan had bound eighteen long years, be freed from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16)
“22 Moses has given you circumcision (not that it is of Moses, but of the fathers), and on the Sabbath you circumcise a boy. 23 If a boy receives circumcision on the Sabbath, that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me, because I made a man completely healthy on the Sabbath? 24 Don’t judge according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:22-24)
What about John 5:17?
In this discussion about Jesus and the Sabbath, much is made of John 5:17. This verse reads: “But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, so I am working, too.’”
Many have claimed that this verse is proof that Jesus and the Father break the Sabbath or perform work on it. We must realize that there is a difference between the work done during the six days of the week and the supernatural work of God. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Ex. 20:9).
John 5:17 is referring to the work done for God’s Kingdom, not work we do for our own goals and purposes. In context, He healed a man. This is part of God’s supernatural work which did not and does not violate the commandments of God; Jesus did not labor in any way.
As we can see, Jesus never broke the Sabbath. He correctly interpreted the Torah and showed people how to be free from the man-made rules of the Pharisees.
Next week, we will look deeper into the work of God!
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
World English Bible (WEB) and New International Versions (NIV) were used.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
(All Mishna quotes taken from: https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Shabbat)