"And He said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath'" (Mark 2:27-28).
How did Jesus Christ view the Sabbath? Many people see only what they want to see regarding His approach to the seventh day. Some believe, based on misunderstandings, that Jesus came to do away with the law and thus ignored or deliberately broke the Sabbath commandment.
Actually, the Sabbath is mentioned almost 50 times in the four Gospels (more than in the entire first five books of the Bible!), so we have ample historical record of His attitude toward the Sabbath. To understand the Gospel accounts, however, we must consider how Sabbath observance had changed—or, more properly, had been changed—since its inception and later inclusion in the Ten Commandments.
The Sabbath in history
Sabbath observance underwent a dramatic transformation in the centuries leading up to the time of Christ.
Earlier in this booklet we reviewed how God warned Israel not to forget His mighty works and laws. The ancient Israelites' sad record shows they didn't listen. Eventually Israel did forget God and disintegrated as a nation, dividing into the separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah before being taken away into captivity by Assyrian and Babylonian invaders in the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., respectively.
One of the Israelites' most flagrant sins leading up to their national captivity was the violation of God's Sabbath. Even as the kingdom of Judah was self-destructing from its citizens' sinful behavior, God continued to warn them through the prophet Jeremiah to "bear no burden on the Sabbath day . . . nor do any work, but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers . . . But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day . . . then I will kindle a fire . . . , and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched" (Jeremiah 17:21-22, Jeremiah 17:27).
Through the prophet Ezekiel, in Babylon after he and much of the kingdom of Judah had been taken into captivity, God said of the Israelites: "I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. Yet . . . they greatly defiled My Sabbaths . . . They despised My judgments and did not walk in My statutes, but profaned My Sabbaths" (Ezekiel 20:12-16).
God also said of His people, "Her priests have violated My law and profaned My holy things; they have not distinguished between the holy and unholy, nor have they made known the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they have hidden their eyes from My Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them" (Ezekiel 22:26).
Later, many of the Jewish captives returned from Babylon and were restored to their former lands several centuries before Christ's time. They knew from the messages of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that their nation had been destroyed for breaking God's law, and violating the Sabbath was one of their chief sins.
Once restored as a nation, they determined never to make the same mistake again. Consequently, over several centuries Jewish religious authorities crafted meticulous regulations detailing exactly what they considered permissible and impermissible on the Sabbath. They veered from one ditch to the other—from ignoring and abusing the Sabbath to imposing an oppressive, legalistic observance of the day.
Religious authorities added burdensome Sabbath regulations
The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary describes how extreme these measures had become by Christ's day. The religious code regarding the Sabbath listed:
"39 principal classes of prohibited actions: sowing, plowing, reaping, gathering into sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking . . . Each of these chief enactments was further discussed and elaborated, so that actually there were several hundred things a conscientious, law-abiding Jew could not do on the sabbath.
"For example, the prohibition about tying a knot was much too general, and so it became necessary to state what kinds of knots were prohibited and what kind not. It was accordingly laid down that allowable knots were those that could be untied with one hand . . .
"The prohibition regarding writing on the sabbath was further defined as follows: 'He who writes two letters with his right or his left hand, whether of one kind [of letter] or of two kinds, . . . is guilty. He even who should from forgetfulness write two letters is guilty . . . Also he who writes on two walls which form an angle, or on the two tablets of his account-book, so that they can be read together, is guilty" (1967, "Sabbath," p. 736).
Authorities defined "work" in extreme ways
The religious authorities' definition of "work" that could violate the Sabbath command was vastly different from any ordinary definition of work. For example, plowing was a prohibited-work category, and few would dispute that plowing is difficult work. However, according to first-century rabbinic opinion, the prohibition against plowing could be violated by simply spitting on the ground. The spit could disturb the soil, which in the rabbis' view was a type of plowing! Women were forbidden to look into a mirror on the Sabbath, because they might see a gray hair and pull it out, and that would constitute work.
Wearing nailed shoes on the Sabbath was prohibited, because in the authorities' view the addition of the nails meant they were carrying an unnecessary burden. Even walking through grass was not allowed, because some of the grass might be bent and broken, which constituted threshing, one of the forbidden categories of work.
The religious leaders taught that if a house caught on fire on the Sabbath, its inhabitants couldn't carry their clothes out of the house to spare them from the flames because that would be bearing a burden. However, they were allowed to put on all the layers of clothing they could wear and thus remove the clothes by wearing them, which was acceptable.
This was the kind of charged, hypercritical religious atmosphere Jesus Christ entered with His teaching and preaching. Today, without this historical context of how religious authorities had twisted and distorted God's Sabbath commandment, many people draw wrong conclusions about how Jesus viewed the Sabbath.
The writers of the Gospel accounts record numerous confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day concerning the Sabbath. His healings on the Sabbath and His teachings about Sabbath observance stirred frequent controversy. A brief view of the biblical record of His actions and teachings will help us understand how Christ viewed the Sabbath.
As we review these accounts of His life, keep in mind their chronology. Bible scholars generally agree that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written in the first century, from the 50s through the 70s, some 20 to 40 years after the events recorded in them occurred (John, they believe, wrote his Gospel near the end of the first century). If Jesus intended to change, abolish or annul the Sabbath, that intent should be apparent in the Gospel writers' historical records of His life. But as we will see, there is simply no evidence to support that view.
Jesus proclaims He is the Messiah on the Sabbath
The first mention of the Sabbath in the life of Christ is Luke 4:16: "So He [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read."
In this, the Gospels' first mention of the Sabbath, at the very beginning of Christ's ministry, we find that Jesus' custom—His normal activity—was to go "into the synagogue on the Sabbath day." This was not an isolated incident; He would later continue to teach in the synagogue on the Sabbath as well (Mark 6:2; Luke 13:10).
Continuing in Luke's account: "He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.' Then He closed the book . . . And He began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:17-21).
Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1-2, which those in the synagogue recognized as a prophecy of the messianic age. By saying, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing," Jesus claimed to be fulfilling this prophecy—and thereby proclaimed Himself the expected Messiah! Jesus went on to compare His ministry to that of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. His listeners, clearly understanding His meaning, promptly tried to kill Jesus for this claim, but He escaped from them (Luke 4:23-30).
This is the first mention of the Sabbath during His ministry. On that day Jesus Christ first proclaimed that He was the prophesied Messiah—introducing His mission as Savior and Lord of all humanity. This was a significant event. Nazareth was where He grew up. Now, on that Sabbath, the people of Nazareth were the first to hear, directly from Him, that He was the Messiah. He pointed them to the hope of His future reign—the gospel, or good news, in both its present and future fulfillment.
Jesus heals and casts out demons on the Sabbath
Immediately, Jesus began to use the Sabbath to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God and to manifest His miraculous power as the Messiah. "Then He went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbaths. And they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority" (Luke 4:31-32).
Next, Jesus ordered a demon out of a man, and those in the synagogue "were all amazed and spoke among themselves, saying, 'What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out'" (Luke 4:33-36).
Jesus then went to Peter's house, where He healed Peter's mother-in-law of a fever. Finally, as the Sabbath day drew to a close, "all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying out and saying, 'You are the Christ, the Son of God!' And He, rebuking them, did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ" (Luke 4:38-41).
As the Savior, Jesus understood the purpose of the Sabbath, that it was a perfectly appropriate time to bring His message of healing, hope and redemption to humanity and to live that message through His actions. Even the demons recognized that He was the prophesied Messiah (which is the meaning of "Christ," John 1:41), the promised King and Deliverer. Jesus used the Sabbath to point people to Him as the Healer and Savior of mankind.
Pharisees confront Jesus over His disciples' actions on the Sabbath
Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5 are passages misconstrued to imply that Jesus broke the Sabbath commandment. But let's see what really happened. Mark's account states: "He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, 'Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'" (Mark 2:23-24).
The Pharisees were an excessively strict branch of Judaism holding considerable religious authority during Christ's time. As we saw earlier, they were extreme in their interpretation of what was allowed on the Sabbath. Their question would make it appear the disciples were hard at work gathering grain on the Sabbath and were confronted by the Pharisees for violating it. Luke's account clarifies the disciples' actions: As they "went through the grainfields," they "plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands" (Luke 6:1). They did this because they were hungry (Matthew 12:1), not because they were harvesting the field.
Christ's disciples didn't violate the Sabbath commandment
Their actions were perfectly acceptable according to the laws God had given the nation of Israel. As a matter of fact, God made specific allowance for picking handfuls of grain from another person's field as the disciples were doing here (Deuteronomy 23:25). God even told His people to leave portions of their fields unharvested so the poor and travelers would be able to eat what was left (Leviticus 19:9-10; Leviticus 23:22).
The disciples were walking through the field, and as they walked they picked heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands to remove the chaff, then ate the kernels. Requiring almost no effort, this could hardly be construed as work. Yet the Pharisees, who were among the most strict in their rules concerning the Sabbath, viewed the disciples' actions as "reaping" and "threshing," which were among the 39 categories of work forbidden on that day. Although these actions did not violate God's Sabbath commandment, they did violate the Pharisees' man-made regulations. The Pharisees viewed the disciples' conduct as "not lawful on the Sabbath" and criticized them for it.
God's law allowed for mercy on the Sabbath
Jesus pointed out that King David and his hungry followers, when they were fleeing King Saul's armies, were given bread that was normally to be eaten only by priests, yet they were guiltless in God's sight (Mark 2:25-26). He also pointed out that even the priests serving in the temple of God labored on the Sabbath by conducting worship services and performing sacrifices, but God held them blameless (Matthew 12:5).
In both examples, the spirit and intent of the law were not broken, and both instances were specifically allowed by God for the greater good, Christ said. He emphasized that God's law allowed for mercy, and the Pharisees were completely wrong in elevating their harsh, humanly devised regulations above everything else, including mercy.
He said that, because of the Pharisees' distorted view, they had actually turned matters upside down. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," He countered. Because of their narrow, legalistic view of the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week had become a hardship, weighted down with hundreds of rules and regulations.
Jesus, however, pointed out the true purpose of the day intended from its inception: God created the day to be a blessing, a time for genuine rest from normal labors rather than an unmanageable, overly restrictive burden. It was a time to be enjoyed, not endured. Further, He said the Sabbath was created for all mankind, not just for the nation of Israel.
Jesus' teaching in these verses is summarized in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: "At times Jesus is interpreted to have abrogated or suspended the sabbath commandment on the basis of the controversies brought about by sabbath healings and other acts. Careful analysis of the respective passages does not seem to give credence to this interpretation.
"The action of plucking ears of grain on the sabbath by the disciples is particularly important in this matter. Jesus makes a foundational pronouncement . . . : 'The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath' (Mark 2:27). The disciples' act of plucking grain infringed against the rabbinic halakhah [way to walk, denoting law from tradition] of minute casuistry [case-based reasoning] in which it was forbidden to reap, thresh, winnow, and grind on the Sabbath . . .
"Jesus reforms the sabbath and restores it to its rightful place as designed in creation, where the sabbath is made for all mankind and not specifically for Israel, as claimed by normative Judaism . . . It was God's will at creation that the sabbath have the purpose of serving mankind for rest and [to] bring blessing" (1992, Vol. 5, "Sabbath," p. 855).
In this example, we see that Jesus Christ understood and explained the Sabbath's true intent—that it was created to be a day of rest from normal labors, a blessing and benefit to all humanity.
Another Sabbath healing
Immediately after the dispute with the Pharisees over the disciples' plucking grain on the Sabbath, the Gospel accounts record that Jesus found Himself in another confrontation over what could and could not be lawfully done on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11). The Pharisees' intolerant regulations went so far as to forbid giving aid to someone who was ill on the Sabbath unless the person's life was in jeopardy!
In the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus met a man with a withered, shriveled hand—a severe handicap, but not life-threatening. "Stand up in front of everyone," Jesus told the man (Mark 3:3, New International Version). Angered and grieved that their callous, hardened minds were incapable of grasping the most fundamental intent of God's law, Jesus asked those watching, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"
Unable or unwilling to answer, they remained silent. In front of the entire synagogue, Jesus healed the man's hand, making it "completely restored." Far from rejoicing at the blessing given the man, the Pharisees "went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus" (Mark 3:4-6, NIV).
Rather than learning a vital spiritual lesson about the intent and purpose of both the Sabbath and Jesus Christ's ministry, the Pharisees were infuriated that Jesus ignored their strict directives. Rather than considering a message of mercy and compassion in applying God's law, they conspired to kill the Messenger.
Far from annulling the Sabbath, Jesus demonstrated that the Sabbath is an appropriate time to give aid and comfort to those in need. The Sabbath command didn't instruct people on what they were to do on that day, just what they were not to do. Jesus clarified what was acceptable to God. "It is lawful [within God's law] to do good on the Sabbath," He declared (Matthew 12:12).
The Pharisees' legalism had gone far beyond God's stated commandment to not work and created a myriad of rules restricting even the very basics of human activity—something God never intended. Yet even the Pharisees' regulations gave way to emergencies like getting a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11). Jesus declared that the Sabbath was a day on which good could and should be done.
Some who oppose Sabbath observance view Christ's statement that "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" as ending any distinction of days for rest or other religious purposes. However, to conclude that Jesus annulled the Sabbath's unique nature by teaching that it is lawful to do good on it, one must assume that it was originally unlawful to do good on that day. That is clearly not the case. As He frequently chided those who criticized Him, doing good was specifically allowed on the Sabbath, as it always had been (Matthew 12:12; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9). The Sabbath is a day given by God for rest and religious observance, but this does not preclude doing good.
Jesus' healing acts on the Sabbath also foreshadowed something much larger—the miraculous healings still to come in the messianic age when He will reign over the world. Isaiah prophesied of this time: "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy" (Isaiah 35:5-6, NIV).
The Savior's actions on the Sabbath are a reminder of that coming time of peace, restoration and healing for all mankind.
Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath
Luke 13:10-17 records another incident of Jesus' healing of a chronically ill person on the Sabbath in the synagogue, in this case "a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up" (Luke 13:11). Calling her to Him, He laid His hands on her, "and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God" (Luke 12:12-13).
The crowd, knowing that Jesus had just violated the narrow, restrictive prohibition against giving aid to an ill person unless the situation were life-threatening, waited to see what would happen next. The people didn't have to wait long. "The ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, 'There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day'" (Luke 13:14).
Jesus would have none of this attitude. "Hypocrite!" He responded. "Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?" His answer sank in on the crowd. "And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him" (Luke 13:15-17).
Jesus stressed here that the Sabbath represents a time of liberation, of loosing from bondage, as we saw in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, and so helps us further understand God's intent for Sabbath observance. Even the Pharisees' strict regulations allowed for the feeding and watering of animals on the Sabbath. If caring for the basic life needs of animals doesn't break the Fourth Commandment, then how much more is "loosing" by healing appropriate on the Sabbath!
Jesus' example reminds us that the Sabbath is an appropriate time to visit the sick and elderly, helping them celebrate the day as a time of freedom. As He proclaimed earlier, He came to "proclaim liberty to the captives [and] to set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18)—referring to the glorious freedom and liberty from spiritual bondage that will be a hallmark of His coming rule as Messiah.
Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath
The next mention of the Sabbath during Christ's ministry follows in Luke 14:1-6. Rather than in the synagogue, this incident took place in the home of a prominent Pharisee where Jesus had gone to share a meal on the Sabbath.
A man with a chronic health problem came before Him. Jesus pointedly asked the Jewish legal experts and Pharisees, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" None answered. Jesus healed the man, who promptly left the uneasy atmosphere of the gathering (Luke 14:2-4).
"Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?" Jesus asked. Again, they had nothing to say (Luke 14:5-6). Questions such as these had been debated among the Jewish religious teachers for years, and even they recognized that the command to rest didn't include ignoring emergency situations in which life and limb were at stake.
Jesus' approach was that when an opportunity to relieve suffering presents itself, the opportunity should be taken. God's Sabbath command was never intended to prohibit doing good on that day. Jesus well knew the heart and core of God's law: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Both James and Paul understood that love was the intent and fulfillment of God's law (James 2:8; Galatians 5:14).
Jesus' example showed that every day is to be lived in the spirit and purpose of God's law, which is love.
Jesus heals an invalid on the Sabbath
John 5:1-18 records a Sabbath healing not mentioned in the other Gospels, thereby adding another dimension to Christ's activities on the Sabbath. In this instance, Jesus healed a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk," Jesus told him (John 5:8, NIV).
The man was instantly healed, took up the mat on which he had lain and walked away, only to be confronted by other Jews for carrying his mat. "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat," they warned him (John 5:10, NIV). "The man who made me well said to me, 'Pick up your mat and walk,'" he replied.
After determining that it was Jesus who had performed the healing and told the man to carry his mat, they "persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath" (John 5:16). Their view of the Sabbath was so distorted that they focused more on their own petty rules about what could not be carried on the Sabbath than on the wonderful healing of a man's 38-year affliction!
Jesus' response to their accusation of breaking the Sabbath angered His accusers even more. "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working," He said. "Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (John 5:17-18).
Of course, what He broke was not God's Sabbath command, but the Pharisees' restrictive regulations regarding what they thought was allowable on the Sabbath. Jesus would not have broken the Sabbath, because He had earlier pronounced a curse on anyone who "breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so" (Matthew 5:19).
But what did Christ mean when He said, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working"? The Life Application Bible, commenting on this verse, says: "If God stopped every kind of work on the Sabbath, nature would fall into chaos, and sin would overrun the world. Genesis 2:2 says that God rested on the seventh day, but this can't mean that he stopped doing good. Jesus wanted to teach that when the opportunity to do good presents itself, it should not be ignored, even on the Sabbath."
God made the Sabbath as a day of rest for mankind, not for Himself. He rested from His work of forming the world on the seventh day to show us that we should also rest from our normal work. But God continues some work without ceasing. Night and day, seven days a week, He works to bring people into His Kingdom. He works to help them grow spiritually on the Sabbath. He works constantly to build a close, personal relationship with His people.
According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus healed more people on the Sabbath than on any other day. He taught and preached on the Sabbath. Was He sinning? No. His activities were part of God's work of helping people understand and ultimately enter the Kingdom of God and were therefore perfectly acceptable to God.
Circumcision and the Sabbath
In John 7:24 Jesus summed up what should have been obvious to those who criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." The Pharisees' narrow, intolerant view focused more on outward appearance than anything else. Jesus upbraided them for their emphasis on physical things while neglecting more important matters such as justice, mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23).
To illustrate the extremes to which the Pharisees took their views, Jesus in the preceding verses used the example of circumcision. He pointed out that circumcision, a sign of the covenant between God and the nation of Israel, could be performed on the Sabbath without breaking it. And if this alteration of one of the 248 parts (by Jewish calculation) of the body could be done on the Sabbath, He argued, "Why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath?" (John 7:22-23, NIV).
The inconsistency of allowing the ritual of circumcision while outlawing mercy to those who needed healing was to callously disregard the intent of God's law. It was in this context that Jesus warned His detractors in John 7:24, which the NIV renders as: "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment."
Rather than upholding God's law by their added rules and regulations, their distorted view of God's commands led them to actually break the law, according to Jesus (Matthew 23:3, Matthew 23:28; Mark 7:6-9). "Not one of you keeps the law," He told them (John 7:19, NIV), reproving them for their twisted interpretation of God's law. They were not keeping the law correctly, and Jesus restored its proper understanding and practice.
Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath
Jesus used the incident of healing a blind man on the Sabbath in John 9:1-34 to twice proclaim His messiahship. Speaking to His disciples, He said, "I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day . . . As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:4-5). He then healed the man of his blindness.
The Pharisees caught up with the recently healed man, then interrogated and intimidated him. "This Man [Jesus] is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath," they argued (John 9:16). The man countered, "This is a marvelous thing . . . He has opened My eyes! . . . If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing" (John 9:30-33).
Angered at having their authority questioned and their opinions challenged, "they cast him out," excommunicating the man from the synagogue (John 9:34). He was condemned as a heretic, cut off from family and friends.
Jesus sought out the man He had healed. "Do you believe in the Son of God?" Jesus asked.
"Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?" the man replied.
"You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you," Christ answered. The man then accepted Jesus as the Son of God. At this, Christ said, "For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind" (John 9:35-39).
Jesus Christ again made it clear that He was the Messiah, the very Son of God. In this incident He continued to teach, as He did so many times on the Sabbath, of His redemptive work for mankind.
Did Jesus change the law?
These accounts summarize the specific activities of Christ on the Sabbath recorded in the four Gospels. As stated earlier, some see only what they want to see in these verses—supposed proof that Jesus broke the Fourth Commandment. However, as the Scriptures actually show, He did no such thing. He did ignore the misguided, restrictive regulations the religious leaders attached to the Sabbath, often showing where they were wrong. But He never broke God's commandments. Had He done so, He would have sinned (1 John 3:4), yet Jesus never sinned. He lived a sinless life so He could be our perfect sacrifice, the Savior of all mankind (1 Peter 2:22; Ephesians 5:2; 1 John 4:14).
It would have been unthinkable for Jesus to disobey God's commandments. He said of Himself, "The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He [God the Father] does, the Son also does in like manner" (John 5:19).
What did Jesus do? In His own words, He did exactly what the Father did. Yet some mistakenly think He came to overturn God's holy law and remove it as a standard of guidance and behavior for mankind.
"I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me," He said (John 5:30). Christ's motivation was to please the Father. What the Father wanted was most important to Him.
"My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work," He told the disciples (John 4:34). That was His motivation, His reason for living—to do the will of God the Father. Through Christ's teaching on the Sabbaths during His earthly ministry, He revealed God's will and determined to carry out God's work in spite of the opposition and persecution that came with it, ultimately bringing about His cruel torture and death.
Jesus Christ's clear statement
Jesus Himself clearly denied that He intended to change or abolish the Sabbath or any part of God's law. "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets," He said. "I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).
The Greek word pleroo, translated "fulfill" here, means "to make full, to fill, to fill up . . . to fill to the full" or "to render full" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2005, "Fulfill"). In other words, Jesus said He came to fill the law to the full—to complete it and make it perfect. How? By showing the spiritual intent and application of God's law. His meaning is clear from the remainder of the chapter, where He showed the full spiritual intent of specific commandments.
Some distort the meaning of "fulfill" to have Jesus saying, "I did not come to destroy the law, but to end it by fulfilling it." This is entirely inconsistent with His own words. Through the remainder of the chapter, He showed that the spiritual application of the law made it an even higher standard of behavior and thought, not that it was annulled or no longer necessary.
Jesus made it clear that He wasn't abolishing any of God's law: "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18). Here a different Greek word is used for "fulfilled"—ginomai, meaning "to become, i.e. to come into existence" or "to come to pass" (Thayer's). Only after everything necessary would come to pass would any of God's law pass from existence, said Christ.
To prevent any possible misunderstanding, He warned those who would try to abolish God's law: "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least [by those] in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great [by those] in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).
Jesus, by explaining, expanding and exemplifying God's law, fulfilled a prophecy of the Messiah found in Isaiah 42:21: "The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable" (King James Version). The Hebrew word gadal, translated "magnify," literally means "to be or become great" (William Wilson, Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies, "Magnify"). Jesus Christ did exactly that, showing the true purpose and scope of God's Sabbath rest.
We are to follow Jesus' example
When asked, "Which is the first commandment of all?" Jesus answered: "The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment" (Mark 12:28-30).
Here Christ restated the greatest commandment of the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Those who observe the biblical Sabbath strive to obey that commandment, putting God first in their lives and keeping His command to observe the Sabbath. They will also follow Jesus' instruction: "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me" (John 14:21).
Jesus Christ is our Lord and Master (Philippians 2:9-11). He also proclaimed that He is "Lord of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28), so we should follow His example in observing the Sabbath—and all God's commandments—in the way He taught and lived (1 John 2:6).