Question: "Did Jesus break the Sabbath law?"
Answer: The gospels record several instances when Jesus healed a person on the Sabbath:
1. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Peter’s home (Mark 1:29–31).
2. A man with a withered hand in the synagogue (Mark 3:1–6).
3. A man born blind in Jerusalem (John 9:1–16).
4. A crippled woman in a synagogue (Luke 13:10–17).
5. A man with dropsy at a Pharisee’s house (Luke 14:1–6).
6. A demon-possessed man in Capernaum (Mark 1:21–28).
7. A lame man by the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–18).
Whenever Jesus publicly healed someone on the Sabbath, the Pharisees accused Him of breaking the Sabbath law (Matthew 12:10; Mark 3:2, John 5:14; 9:14–16). Jesus’ response was that He was working just as His Father was working, an answer that did not appease the religious leaders: “For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Breaking the Sabbath would have been a sin, so we must ask the question: did Jesus actually break the Sabbath law?
The short answer is “no,” but here is some background: God instituted the Sabbath for the Israelites when He gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8–11). On the seventh day of the week, the Israelites were to rest, remembering that God created the universe in six days and then “rested” on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1–3). The Sabbath was given for the benefit of the people (Mark 2:27) and as a sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:13). Over time, however, perspectives on the Sabbath changed. By Jesus’ time, the religious leaders had added burdensome rules and traditions for keeping the Sabbath and had elevated their own rules to the level of God’s instructions. It was so bad that, when Jesus’ disciples picked and ate some heads of grain as they walked through a field, the Pharisees accused them of breaking the Sabbath because they were supposedly “harvesting” and “threshing” (Luke 6:1–2).
Jesus did not break the Sabbath, as outlined by God under the Old Covenant. As He publicly stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The Pharisees had so conflated their own standard of holiness with God’s that they accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath law. They were furious over Jesus’ actions, yet it was only their Sabbath law He did not keep. Jesus kept God’s law, and He had done nothing to violate the Sabbath.
Many Pharisees opposed Jesus. He taught with authority unlike the scribes (Matthew 7:29). He called out their hypocrisy, saying, “They do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:3). He also equated Himself with God (John 5:18). In the incident involving the man with the withered hand, the Pharisees asked Jesus, accusingly, if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10). Jesus’ response was full of logic: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11). Jesus applied God’s principle of desiring mercy not sacrifice (verse 7), referring back to Hosea 6:6. This infuriated the Pharisees, and they plotted how they might kill Him (Matthew 12:14). Yet Jesus came to do the will of the Father (John 5:19) not to follow the man-made religious rules.
Jesus referred to Himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5). In doing so, Jesus proclaimed that He is greater than the law and has authority even over the laws that govern the Sabbath day. Jesus is the One who made all things (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16), and He instituted the Sabbath day. He had the authority to overrule the Pharisees’ traditions and regulations that they had placed on the Sabbath. By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus showed God’s goodness, revealed the Pharisees’ hardness of heart, and gave a glimpse of the full healing from sin that would soon be made possible by His sacrifice on the cross.
Jesus did not break the Sabbath law, although He did act against the Pharisaical interpretation of the law. He broke the Pharisees’ laws, and they couldn’t stand it. Jesus healed on the Sabbath to help people, to glorify God, and to remind people that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Just as the Sabbath was originally instituted to give people rest from their work and to turn people to God, so Jesus came to provide us rest from attempting to achieve salvation by our own labors. His sacrifice on the cross made a way for the law to be fulfilled and for righteousness and rest to come to all who trust in His finished work.