Authority Over the Sabbath

Religious leaders from Jerusalem began to object to the looseness of Jesus to their Sabbath traditions, but he used the opportunity to show that the “Son of Man” is “Lord” even over that day. God did cease His creative activities on the seventh day, but its formal establishment as a regulated day on which no work was to be done did not occur until the Torah was given through Moses at Mount Sinai (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”).

Under the traditions followed at the time it was forbidden for an Israelite to journey more than a short distance on the seventh day, a so-called “Sabbath day’s journey.” How far the disciples walked on this day is not stated. The traditional regulation specified a “journey” of no more than 1,999 paces, approximately eight hundred meters.

Sundown - Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash
[Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash]

Additionally, the disciples were observed by more “devout” Jews plucking ears of grain and rubbing them in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff. Under the “
tradition of the elders,” that qualified as “reaping and winnowing,” an activity prohibited on the Sabbath - (Mark 2:23-28).

It was permissible under the Law for anyone passing through a grain field to pick grain by hand for immediate consumption (“gleaning”). The Pharisees objected because the disciples were doing so on a Sabbath day, not because of any violations of the property rights of the landowner - (Deuteronomy 23:25).


Jesus responded to his critics with a question based on the life of David. One day, famished, he and his men ate bread forbidden to them by the Law. The story refers to the “shewbread” or the “bread of the presence,” the twelve loaves of sanctified bread placed in the Tabernacle every Sabbath which only the priests were allowed to eat - (1 Samuel 21:1-6).

The circumstances in David’s story were not the same as those of Jesus and his disciples. They were not in a state of physical distress, and he did not cite the violation of a Torah regulation by David as an excuse. Instead, for him, it was a precedent.

Since the “Son of Man” is the true Messiah and King, if that which is “holy” was set aside for common use by David, how much more appropriate was it to set aside that which is “holy” for use by the Greater David and King of Israel?

His declaration was most appropriate - “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In their zeal to obey the law, some Jews forgot its purpose - To do good to men and women. As the day of rest and worship, God did not intend for anyone to be deprived of the necessities of life on the seventh day. That day was for the well-being of humanity, and even slaves and animals were allowed to rest.

Since the Sabbath was made to benefit mankind, it follows that the “Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He is the designated representative and ruler of Israel.

In the Greek sentence, “Lord” is emphatic and stresses the point - his authority as the “Son of Man” and the “Lord.” The version recorded in Matthew adds the following:

  • Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent? But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

Sabbath restrictions are not absolute. Temple priests engage in “work” on it and other feast days while carrying out their priestly duties. Jesus, the “Son of Man,” was and is something “greater than the Temple.” If priests are authorized to violate the Sabbath in the Temple, and Jesus is greater than the Temple, how can he be restricted in his work by Sabbath regulations, let alone added human traditions?


  • (Mark 3:1-6) – “And he entered again into a synagogue, and there was a man with his hand withered and they were narrowly watching him whether he would heal on the Sabbath that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had his hand withered: Arise into the midst! And he said to them: Is it allowed on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil? To save life or to slay? But they remained silent. And looking around on them with anger, being at the same time grieved on account of the hardening of their heart, he said to the man: Stretch forth your hand! And he stretched it forth, and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees, going out immediately with the Herodians, were giving counsel against him that they should destroy him.”

the version of this story in the Gospel of Luke adds the following - “But they themselves were filled with rage and discussed together what they might do to Jesus. And it was at this time that he went off to the mountain to pray and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”

Is it lawful on the Sabbath to save life or to kill?” Like the Sabbath, the Mosaic Law was intended to bring good to humanity. The first part of the question refers to what Jesus intended to do for the man with the withered hand, good rather than evil. Not restoring his hand would be tantamount to doing him evil. The second half refers to what his opponents were plotting, to destroy Christ, the Messiah of Israel.

Healing on the Sabbath was forbidden, but there was an approved exception. It was permissible to heal if life was at stake. In this case, the man’s life was not at risk. He would come to no harm if Jesus waited until evening to restore his hand. But he refused to draw such a narrow distinction between saving a life and restoring the man to wholeness. To delay healing for even a few hours was to deny the Law’s intent.

Moreover, anyone with a physical deformity was not allowed to enter the Temple and could not function as a full member of the covenant community. The task of restoring the man was paramount – doing so must not be delayed - (Leviticus 21:16-21).

The actions of Jesus answered his question. Not only is it permissible to do good on the Sabbath it is right and merciful to do so. The narrow attitude of his religious opponents could only lead to the destruction of life.

This incident was a major turning point in his Galilean ministry. The reaction of his opponents transformed them from critics into conspirators. From this point forward, they were determined to destroy him.



Salvation for the Nations

His Name is Jesus