Did Jesus Break the Sabbath?
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. This notion, of course, is flawed and contrary to Bible teaching. As Paul explained to the Romans: “he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments…are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8-10). Paul meant that when you obey the law’s directives concerning how to conduct yourself toward your neighbor, you will be engaging in loving behavior. To love, one must enact God’s laws.
The fact is the perfect Son of God obeyed all of God’s laws, never violating even one Divine precept (Hebrews 4:15). Sin is defined as violation of God’s law (1 John 3:4). Since Jesus was sinless, He never broke God’s laws. Hence, He could not have broken the Sabbath. Those who leveled such an accusation against Him were, in fact, mistaken.
Take, for example, the incident in John 5, when Jesus caused a man, who suffered from a 38-year-old ailment, to rise from his bed of confinement and walk. The fact that Jesus’ action took place on the Sabbath drew the criticism of the Jews who promptly informed the man, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed” (vs. 10). Many would suppose that Jesus would not be concerned with careful conformity to the Law. They would assume that He would chide the Jews for their “nit-picky, legalistic” approach to religion, and that He would be quite willing to dismiss the requirements of the Law in order to give priority to human need in the name of compassion. But this viewpoint is fraught with error, not the least of which is its demeaning assessment of law—law which God, Himself, authored. Law, according to God, is given for human well-being (Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:13; Proverbs 29:18). God’s law is “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12), and serves divinely intended, positive purposes (e.g., Romans 3:20). Indeed, Jesus’ handling of His critics illustrates the high regard He had for law, the necessity of carefully conforming to that law, and the critical importance of applying it accurately.
In John 7, calling attention to the miracle He performed in chapter 5, Jesus offered a logical rebuttal to the allegation that He violated the Sabbath. Here is that argument placed in syllogistic form:
Premise 1: If the Law of Moses requires the circumcision of a male infant on the 8th day after birth—even when the 8th day falls on the Sabbath—then healing a man on the Sabbath is equally legal.
Premise 2: The Law of Moses requires the circumcision of a male infant on the 8th day after birth—even when the 8th day fell on the Sabbath.
Conclusion: Therefore, healing a man on the Sabbath is equally legal.
Jesus then offered a concluding admonition that cinched the validity of His argument: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (vs. 24). Making application of God’s laws based on “appearance” refers to doing so based on how things seem or look to the person making the judgment, i.e., forming an opinion based on inadequate evidence. To the contrary, to “judge with righteous judgment” means to make accurate assessments by drawing only warranted conclusions from the evidence, i.e., thinking and acting rationally. One must be very careful that he is “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB) and not “handling the word of God deceitfully” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Another instance in which Jesus was falsely accused of breaking the Sabbath is seen on the occasion when Jesus entered the synagogue and encountered a man who had a deformed hand (Matthew 12:9-13). This circumstance prompted His enemies to ask Him a question in hopes of being able to accuse Him of breaking the Law. They asked: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Of course, they had pre-decided that the answer to the question was “no,” and that, in fact, the Law would naturally forbid such an action.
Unfortunately, the prevailing interpretation of the Law of Moses at the time, at least among the Jewish leaders, was that the Sabbath law enjoined total inactivity—as if everyone was to sit down for 24 hours and do absolutely nothing. This view was a distortion of God’s Law on the matter. The Law gave the right, even the obligation, to engage in several activities (that could rightly be designated “work”) that did not constitute violation of the Sabbath regulation. On this occasion, Jesus pinpointed one such instance: “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” (vs. 11). Jesus was recalling a directive from the Law of Moses:
You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray, and hide yourself from them; you shall certainly bring them back to your brother. And if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until your brother seeks it; then you shall restore it to him. You shall do the same with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment; with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he has lost and you have found, you shall do likewise; you must not hide yourself. You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fall down along the road, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely help him lift them up again (Deuteronomy 22:1-4; cf. Exodus 23:4-5).
Such passages give insight into the nature of God and provide tremendous assistance in making proper application of God’s laws to everyday circumstances.
Observe that God’s laws never contradict or countermand each other. Unlike manmade laws which often manifest inconsistency and contradiction, God’s laws function in perfect harmony with each other. The Mosaic passage to which Jesus alluded demonstrates that the general principle of the cessation of usual work on the Sabbath did not conflict with any number of specific circumstances in which benevolence and compassion were to be expressed. In an agriculturally based society, a family’s survival depends on its farm animals. If a sheep, ox, or donkey were to break out of its stall, flee the premises, and then fall into a pit from which it would be unable to extricate itself, the animal would most likely die or become seriously ill if left in its predicament for 24 hours. To expend the necessary effort (i.e., “work”) to retrieve the animal from danger was not considered by God to be included in the Sabbath prohibition. Hence, Jesus stated the logical conclusion: “Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep?” (vs. 12). If action could be exerted to see to the well-being of a dumb animal, then obviously, God would approve of action taken to see to the physical care of a human being! Here, once again, is Jesus’ argument placed in syllogistic form:
Premise 1: If the Law of Moses requires a person to manifest care, concern, and physical effort to recover a neighbor’s escaped, endangered farm animal—even when the incident occurs on the Sabbath—then healing a man on the Sabbath is equally legal.
Premise 2: The Law of Moses requires a person to manifest care, concern, and physical effort to recover a neighbor’s escaped, endangered farm animal—even when the incident occurs on the Sabbath.
Conclusion: Therefore, healing a man on the Sabbath is equally legal.
The logic is penetrating and decisive. Indeed, “they could not answer Him regarding these things” (Luke 14:6; see also Luke 6:6-11). Far from suggesting that law is unimportant and may be ignored under the guise of “human need,” or implying that humans can break the “letter of the law” in order to keep the “spirit of the law” (see Miller, 2003), Jesus demonstrated that inherently built into God’s laws are all concerns deemed by Deity to be necessary. The benevolent, loving thing to do will always harmonize with God’s laws, since “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10), i.e., every truly loving action has already been defined by God in His legal admonitions.
The Grain Field
A final instance in which Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath is seen in the grain field incident (Matthew 12:1-8). Many commentators automatically assume that the charge leveled against Jesus’ disciples by the Pharisees was a scripturally valid charge. However, when the disciples picked and consumed a few heads of grain from a neighbor’s field, they were doing that which was perfectly lawful (Deuteronomy 23:25). Working would have been a violation of the Sabbath law. If they had pulled out a sickle and begun harvesting the grain, they would have been violating the Sabbath law. However, they were picking strictly for the purpose of eating immediately—an action that was in complete harmony with Mosaic legislation (“but that which everyone must eat”—Exodus 12:16). A modern equivalent might be reaching for a box of cereal on the pantry shelf, pouring it in a bowl, retrieving the milk from the refrigerator, pouring it on the cereal, and eating it. The Pharisees’ charge that the disciples were doing something “not lawful” on the Sabbath was simply an erroneous charge (cf. Matthew 15:2).
Jesus commenced to counter their accusation with masterful, penetrating logic, advancing successive rebuttals. Before He presented specific scriptural refutation of their charge, He first employed a rational device designated by logicians as argumentum ad hominem (literally “argument to the man”). He used the “circumstantial” form of this argument, which enabled Him to “point out a contrast between the opponent’s lifestyle and his expressed opinions, thereby suggesting that the opponent and his statements can be dismissed as hypocritical” (Baum, 1975, p. 470, emp. added). This variety of argumentation spotlights the opponent’s inconsistency, and “charges the adversary with being so prejudiced that his alleged reasons are mere rationalizations of conclusions dictated by self-interest” (Copi, 1972, p. 76).
Observe carefully the technical sophistication inherent in Jesus’ strategy. He called attention to the case of David (vss. 3-4). When David was in exile, literally running for his life to escape the jealous, irrational rage of Saul, he and his companions arrived in Nob, tired and hungry (1 Samuel 21). He lied to the priest and conned him into giving to his traveling companions the showbread, or “bread of the Presence” (12 flat cakes arranged in two rows on the table within the Tabernacle [Exodus 25:23-30; Leviticus 24:5-6])—bread that legally was reserved only for the priests (Leviticus 24:8-9; cf. Exodus 29:31-34; Leviticus 8:31; 22:10ff.). David clearly violated the law. Did the Pharisees condemn him? Absolutely not! They revered David. They held him in high regard. In fact, nearly a thousand years after his passing, his tomb was still being tended (Acts 2:29; cf. 1 Kings 2:10; Nehemiah 3:16; Josephus, 1974a, 13.8.4; 16.7.1; Josephus, 1974b, 1.2.5). On the one hand, they condemned the disciples of Jesus, who were innocent, but on the other hand, they upheld and revered David, who was guilty. Their inconsistency betrayed both their insincerity as well as their ineligibility to bring a charge against the disciples.
After exposing their hypocrisy and inconsistency, Jesus next turned to answer the charge pertaining to violating the Sabbath. He called their attention to the priests who worked in the Temple on the Sabbath (12:5; e.g., Numbers 28:9-10). The priests were “blameless”—not guilty—of violating the Sabbath law because their work was authorized to be performed on that day. As previously noted, the Sabbath law did not imply that everyone was to sit down and do nothing. The Law gave the right, even the obligation, to engage in several activities that did not constitute violation of the Sabbath regulation. Again, examples of such authorization included eating, Temple service, circumcision (John 7:22), tending to the basic care of animals (Exodus 23:4-5; Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Matthew 12:11; Luke 13:15), and extending kindness or assistance to the needy (Matthew 12:12; Luke 13:16; 14:1-6; John 5:5-9; 7:23). The divinely authorized Sabbath activity of the priests proved that the accusation of the Pharisees brought against Jesus’ disciples was false. [The term “profane” (vs. 5) is an example of the figure of speech known as metonymy of the adjunct in which “things are spoken of according to appearance, opinions formed respecting them, or the claims made for them” (Dungan, 1888, p. 295, emp. added). By this figure, Leah was said to be the “mother” of Joseph (Genesis 37:10), Joseph was said to be the “father” of Jesus (Luke 2:48; John 6:42), God’s preached message was said to be “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21), and angels were said to be “men” (e.g., Genesis 18:16; 19:10). Priestly activity on the Sabbath gave the appearance of violation when, in fact, it was not. Coincidentally, Bullinger classified the allusion to “profane” in this verse as an instance of catachresis, or incongruity, stating that “it expresses what was true according to the mistaken notion of the Pharisees as to manual works performed on the Sabbath” (1898, p. 676, emp. added).]
After pointing out the obvious legality of priestly effort expended on the Sabbath, Jesus stated: “But I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple” (12:6). The underlying Greek text actually has “something” instead of “One.” If priests could carry on Tabernacle/Temple service on the Sabbath, surely Jesus’ own disciples were authorized to engage in service in the presence of the Son of God! After all, service directed to the person of Jesus certainly is greater than the pre-Christianity Temple service conducted by Old Testament priests.
For all practical purposes, the discussion was over. Jesus had disproved the claim of the Pharisees. But He did not stop there. He took His methodical confrontation to yet another level. He penetrated beneath the surface argument that the Pharisees had posited and focused on their hearts: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7). In this verse, Jesus quoted from an Old Testament context (Hosea 6:6) in which the prophet of old struck a blow against the mere external, superficial, ritualistic observance of some laws, to the neglect of heartfelt, sincere, humble attention to other laws while treating people properly. The comparison is evident. The Pharisees who confronted Jesus’ disciples were not truly interested in obeying God’s law. They were masquerading under that pretense (cf. Matthew 15:1-9; 23:3). But their problem did not lie in an attitude of desiring careful compliance with God’s law. Rather, their zest for law keeping was hypocritical and unaccompanied by their own obedience and concern for others. They possessed critical hearts and were more concerned with scrutinizing and blasting people than with honest, genuine applications of God’s directives for the good of mankind.
They had neutralized the true intent of divine regulations, making void the Word of God (Matthew 15:6). They had ignored and skipped over the significant laws that enjoined justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). Consequently, though their attention to legal detail was laudable, their misapplication of it, as well as their own neglect and rejection of some aspects of it, made them inappropriate and unqualified promulgators of God’s laws. Indeed, they simply did not fathom the teaching of Hosea 6:6 (cf. Micah 6:6-8). “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” is a Hebraism (cf. Matthew 9:13) [McGarvey, 1875, pp. 82-83]. God was not saying that He did not want sacrifices offered under the Old Testament economy (notice the use of “more” in Hosea 6:6). Rather, He was saying that He did not want sacrifice alone. He wanted mercy with sacrifice. Internal motive and attitude are just as important to God as the external compliance with specifics.
Samuel addressed this same attitude shown by Saul: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). Samuel was not minimizing the essentiality of sacrifice as required by God. Rather, he was convicting Saul of the pretense of using one aspect of God’s requirements, i.e., alleged “sacrifice” of the best animals (1 Samuel 15:15), as a smoke screen for violating God’s instructions, i.e., failing to destroy all the animals (1 Samuel 15:3). If the Pharisees had understood these things, they would not have accused the disciples of breaking the law when the disciples, in fact, had not done so. They “would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7, emp. added).
While the disciples were guilty of violating an injunction that the Pharisees had concocted (supposing the injunction to be a genuine implication of the Sabbath regulation), the disciples were not guilty of a violation of Sabbath law. The Pharisees’ propensity for enjoining their uninspired and erroneous interpretations of Sabbath law upon others was the direct result of cold, unmerciful hearts that found a kind of sadistic glee in binding burdens upon people for burdens’ sake rather than in encouraging people to obey God genuinely.
Jesus placed closure on His exchange with the Pharisees on this occasion by asserting the accuracy of His handling of this entire affair: “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (vs. 8). In other words, Jesus affirmed His deity and, therefore, His credentials and authoritative credibility for making accurate application of the Law of Moses to the issue at hand. One can trust Jesus’ exegesis and application of Sabbath law; after all, He wrote it!
Matthew 12 does not teach that Jesus broke the Sabbath or sanctions occasional violation of His laws under extenuating circumstances. His laws are never optional, relative, or situational—even though people often find God’s will inconvenient and difficult (e.g., John 6:60; Matthew 11:6; 15:12; 19:22; Mark 6:3; 1 Corinthians 1:23). The truth of the matter is that if the heart is receptive to God’s will, His will is “easy” (Matthew 11:30), “not too hard” (Deuteronomy 30:11), nor “burdensome” (1 John 5:3). If, on the other hand, the heart resists His will and does not desire to conform to it, then God’s words are “offensive” (Matthew 15:12), “hard,” (John 6:60), “narrow” (Matthew 7:14), and like a hammer that breaks in pieces and grinds the resister into powder (Jeremiah 23:29; Matthew 21:44).
The religion of Christ surpasses all human religion. It is rooted in the very essence of Deity. When Jesus took on human form on Earth, He showed Himself to be the Master logician and exegete Who always conducted Himself in a rational manner and conformed His actions to divine law. May we do likewise.
[NOTE: For more on Jesus’ handling of the Sabbath, see Miller, 2004.]
Baum, Robert (1975), Logic (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston).
Bullinger, E.W. (1898), Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968 reprint).
Copi, Irving (1972), Introduction To Logic (New York: Macmillan).
Dungan, D.R. (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).
Josephus, Flavius (1974a reprint), Antiquities of the Jews (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Josephus, Flavius (1974b reprint), Wars of the Jews (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
McGarvey, J.W. (1875), Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).
Miller, Dave (2003), “The Spirit and Letter of the Law,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=1225.
Miller, Dave (2004), “Situation Ethics—Extended Version,” Apologetics Press, https://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=7&article=645&topic=38.