Did Jesus Violate the Sabbath?

By Wayne Jackson

“A Christian writer/speaker, who travels extensively and lectures on ‘Does God Exist?,’ has written that the Bible indicates that Jesus, on one occasion, ‘violated’ the Old Testament Sabbath-day law. He has cited the Gospel of Mark 2:23-24. Would you comment on this?”

It is very unfortunate that the misguided gentleman made such a reckless and unfounded assertion. The statement is not only wrong, it involves both the Scriptures, and the Lord Jesus, in serious difficulty. Note these two points.

First, if Christ “violated” the law of God, then he sinned. Transgression of the law is sin (1 Jn. 3:4). If the Lord sinned, the biblical affirmations regarding his perfection are false (see Jn. 8:29; Heb. 4:15;1 Pet. 2:22). Thus, the brother’s careless statement casts a reflection upon the integrity of the sacred Scriptures.

Second, if Jesus broke the law of God, he would have been unable to function as the spotless sacrifice for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). Consequently, we would remain unredeemed, and of all men, be most pitiable.

And so, to contend that the Son of God “violated” the sabbath law is a concept that has dreadful consequences. The fact is, such a claim reveals a profound misunderstanding of the circumstances connected with Mark 2:23ff. Let us survey the details of that narrative.

On a certain sabbath day, Christ and his disciples were passing through a grain field. The disciples, being hungry (Mt. 12:1), began to pluck ears of grain and to husk them with their hands (Lk. 6:1). The Pharisees saw the Lord’s men, and began to question Jesus as to why his disciples did that which was “not lawful” on the sabbath. These are the basic facts of the episode. Let us analyze the case.

First, Christ himself was not directly accused of breaking the law on this occasion. Only the disciples were charged with the violation. But the Pharisees were hoping to hold Christ accountable for the conduct of his students. How many teachers today would be persuaded by such an argument?

Second, the truth is, however, not even the disciples actually violated the sabbath law of the Mosaic system. Hebrew law made provision for those in need to eat when they passed through a field of grain (Dt. 23:25; cf. Ruth 2:2-3). So it was not “stealing” that was the focus of the Pharisaic criticism. Rather, this was the crux of the matter. Over the years, Rabbinic tradition had evolved a host of infractions (some 39) that, allegedly, violated the law’s prohibition of work on the sabbath. (This matter has been discussed in detail in Emil Schurer’s, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1891, II, pp. 96-105.)

One of these forbidden acts was “grinding,” which, by a nit-picking Pharisaical stretch, the disciples actions would be perceived to be doing. The activity, however, was hardly that of commercial grinding, as contemplated in the law.

Third, Jesus, in commenting upon the disciples’ conduct, plainly said they were “guiltless” (Mt. 12:7). The Greek term describes one who is not liable to blame in the matter of a crime (see W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary, Iowa Falls: World, 1991, p. 367). The disciples broke no law.

Christ did not intend to let these arrogant, law-making Pharisees usurp the place of God in binding unauthorized burdens upon his men. With brilliant logic he demolished the charges of the opposition. Here was his procedure.

First, by an ad hominem argument (i.e., one designed to expose the inconsistency of an adversary) the Lord cited the case where David unlawfully ate of the tabernacle showbread (Mt. 12:4; cf. 1 Sam. 21:6). Since the Pharisees did not condemn David, who actually did what was “not lawful,” they were hopelessly illogical in censuring the Master’s men, who had breached no more than Pharisaic, uninspired traditions. This was a blistering exposure of their insincerity.

Second, Christ demonstrated that not all labor on the sabbath was condemned. The priests served (worked) on that holy day without any guilt whatever (Mt. 12:5; cf. Num. 28:10). The priestly “profaning” of that day was merely one of perception, not reality. What the priests did was authorized by God.

Jesus then said: “one greater than the temple is here” (v. 6). The expression “greater than the temple” is a clear affirmation of Christ’s authority as deity. If the priests, implementing Jehovah’s business, could work on the sabbath, surely the disciples, operating on behalf of God, the Son, were equally blameless in their conduct.

Third, another argument which justified the disciples’ conduct was Christ’s use of the expression “lord of the sabbath,” with reference to himself. As an agent in the creation of the universe (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), certainly Jesus had the authority to regulate the use of the day of rest that followed the creation activity. One aspect of the term “lord” (kurios) signified “one who has full control of something” (F.W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, 577). It affirmed that Jesus had the right to exercise “authority over the rules that govern the Sabbath” (J.B. Green, S. McKnight, I.H. Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 1992, 489). Christ actually was contending that he had the authority to determine how the sabbath would be used, because he possessed the very nature of God.

Finally, the Lord argued for the legitimacy of the disciples’ conduct on the ground of the purpose of the sabbath law. It was designed originally for the benefit of man. It was an act of “mercy” from God to grant the Hebrews a respite one day a week — to rest the body and refresh the soul with religious exercises. The sabbath law was never intended to be a slavish regulation that functioned as an “end” within itself. Had the Pharisees recognized this principle, they would never have condemned these “guiltless” disciples of the Savior (Mt. 12:7).

And so, it is quite obvious, when all the facts are considered, that Jesus did not “violate” the sabbath, nor did he sanction the disciples’ violation of that sacred day. Those who take it upon themselves to be public teachers should study carefully before they make such irresponsible statements as that contained in the quotation under review.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.