Doing Good on the Sabbath
Luke 6:6-11 records a second Sabbath incident, this time revealing how the scribes and Pharisees misunderstood the whole purpose of the Sabbath commandment. The first incident, of course, established the fact that Jesus was the legitimate high priest who was the Lord of the Sabbath, that is, the final authority for its interpretation. Mark’s account of the same story adds a second lesson, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Matthew 12:7 adds a third lesson to the same story, saying, “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice.”
All of the gospel writers except John record this story and the next one after the other. These stories were relevant to the purpose (and audience) of all three writers. The difference is that Luke focused upon Jesus’ authority to interpret the law, based on His office as the Melchizedek high priest, while Mark focused upon the underlying purpose of the Sabbath, and Matthew focused upon love taking priority over religious forms.
To get the full panorama of its meaning, then, we need the details from all three gospel writers. These lessons, recorded by Matthew and Mark, actually set the stage for the second Sabbath miracle of healing, which all three of these gospels record.
The Spirit of the Law
Luke 6:6, 7 begins,
6 On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely, to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that that they might find reason to accuse Him.
It is a principle of human nature that the carnally-minded men are more interested in being right than in knowing truth. They value winning a legal case more than in doing justice. They are unwilling to violate established forms and procedures, even if these destroy or pervert justice. And so the scribes and Pharisees sent spies to follow Jesus and observe Him to try to catch Him in violation of the law (as they interpreted it).
Because the Sabbath laws were so important to them, the rabbis had established multitudes of rules and regulations (“traditions of men”), determining the precise boundaries of labor and rest. The main reason for all of these regulations was simply because God Himself did not deem it necessary to set forth such precise definitions of “rest.” God was content to leave such discernment to the individual, as they were led by the Spirit.
Those who knew the mind of God would know His heart and intent in giving Sabbath laws. The intent was to give a benefit to men and to prevent the slavery of continuous labor. Hence, the Sabbath was made for man—that is, to set men free—not to turn man into a Sabbath slave. The scribes and Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into another taskmaster. Hence, during the week the people worked as slaves serving the ground for six days, only to serve a second taskmaster, the Sabbath, on the seventh day.
At what point does one’s observance of the Sabbath become unlawful? It is at the point where it ceases to serve man’s best interest. That is the point where Sabbath observance becomes a taskmaster, instead of his healer and friend.
The three Sabbaths (day, year, and Jubilee) ultimately lead us to the place of God’s rest, which Isaiah 58:13 describes as ceasing from our own works and to do God’s works—doing only what we see our Father do. This is how it is interpreted in Heb. 4:10, and we see it also by Jesus’ personal example (John 5:19).
In other words, the Sabbath does not mean that men were to remain idle, but rather that men would turn from their own works and do the works of God.
When the scribes and Pharisees used the Sabbath to try to trap Jesus, they were setting up the Sabbath day as a taskmaster. The underlying purpose of the Sabbath was to give men rest and time to heal physically and mentally. Hence, when Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He was acting in accordance with God’s purpose. But His opponents did not care, nor were they even impressed with the fact that they had just witnessed a divine miracle. They seem to have missed the point that their criticism of Jesus was really a dispute with God who had healed the man on a Sabbath of His own making.
Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
Luke 6:8-10 continues,
8 But He knew what they were thinking, and He said to the man with the withered hand, “Rise and come forward!” And he rose and came forward. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all, He said to him, “Stretch out your hand!” And he did so; and his hand was restored.
Matthew gives us a few more details about what Jesus said on that occasion. We read in Matt. 12:11, 12,
11 And He said to them, “What man is there among you, who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Here Jesus referred to the law found in Deut. 22:4,
4 You shall not see your countryman’s donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up.
This, along with other laws about kindness toward animals and birds in that chapter, show us God’s concern for all of His creation. Jesus takes note of this and asks, “of how much more value then is a man than a sheep?” Of course, the law itself does not say anything about helping animals specifically on the Sabbath. Nonetheless, his question itself implies that if an animal truly needed help on the Sabbath, they would all have labored to save the animal from the pit.
Love and Compassion is the Heart of God
Jesus shows also that men take priority over sheep—or any other animal—so we see Him addressing their priorities. This is also evident when he said, “I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” A better way to understand this would be: “Compassion is of higher priority than sacrifice.”
Jesus also referenced another principle of divine law when He said, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath … to save a life or to destroy it?” The purpose of the law as a whole was to promote and preserve life. In Deut. 6:2 Moses says that the people should observe the law “that your days may be prolonged.”
In Deut. 6:24 He adds, “for our good always and for our survival.” His economic laws were designed to make us prosperous (Deut. 7:13) and His health laws to make us healthy (Deut. 7:15). In the end, the revelation of the law set before the people a choice between a way of life leading toward health and life or one leading toward sickness and death (Deut. 30:17-20).
The Good Intent of the Law
On a societal level, it was a choice between a just and peaceful society or its degeneration into crime and chaos.
Of course, on a deeper level, Paul recognized that because all have sinned, the law, in the end, could only condemn all men to death. So he says in Rom. 7:10,
10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me.
Even so, he is quick to come to the law’s defense in Rom. 7:13, saying,
13 Therefore, did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be!
The fact that the law judges sin is not the fault of the law, but of the old Adamic identity, which is mortal and carnal and which desires to sin (violate the law). The law only does what God has commissioned it to do—to judge sin and set the moral standard to match the character of God Himself. By setting forth a perfect moral standard, it even prophesies of the level that mankind will achieve when they all come into the full image of Christ. If the law were less righteous and holy, then in the end we ourselves would only achieve that lesser level of righteousness and would be condemned forever to remain in a condition that falls short of the glory of God.
So in Luke 6, Jesus acknowledges not only the good intent of the law toward men, but also the inherent goodness of the law, for it springs from the heart of a God of Love. If the law seems to fall short of God’s glory, it is not the fault of the law but rather of men’s interpretations.
This misinterpretation is what Jesus sought to correct by healing the man on the Sabbath. His intent was to teach people something that they did not know about the character of God, as expressed in the law. His goal was to get them to know the God that they all desired to worship. And because their Sabbath regulations had become oppressive, He had little choice but to destroy those traditions of men in order to bring people into a greater understanding of God’s mind and purpose.
The Reaction of the Pharisees
Unfortunately, the scribes and Pharisees were not interested in moving to a higher position or of achieving a greater understanding of God’s character. They only saw that they were being proven wrong. In their pride, they lost face. Luke 6:11 says,
11 But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.
Matthew’s account says in Matt. 12:14,
14 But the Pharisees went out, and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
Mark 3:6 says that they took counsel with the Herodian party, the political party supporting King Herod’s dynasty as “King of the Jews.” It seems that they found common cause against Jesus, who, as Messiah, was thought to be a potential rival to the Herodian dynasty.
All three of these gospels imply or state that this was the doctrinal origin of the conflict which ultimately brought about Jesus’ crucifixion. It was more than a controversy about the proper interpretation of the Sabbath. The Sabbath controversy itself was rooted in their differing views about the character of God, the purpose of the law, and man’s relationship to both.
Was God meant to be viewed much like men viewed tyrannical kings on earth, or was He actually a God of Love? Did the King of Heaven give laws for His own pleasure and benefit, or were those laws beneficial to men? Were men merely God’s servants, called to do the bidding of their King even if it was detrimental to their life and health, or did the King love His creation so overwhelmingly that He would be willing to come in the form of a servant and even to die for them?
Jesus’ concept of God, which He revealed and instilled in the minds of His disciples, later sealing it by the Holy Spirit through Pentecost, was revolutionary in the history of the world. God was not merely a Monarch to be served, but lived to serve mankind as well by providing them with every good thing that might preserve or promote a long life filled with happiness and blessing. While earthly monarchs were usually selfish and thought of themselves as being worthy to be served, God Himself came to man in the form of a humble servant.
The difference is Love.