(Note: This lesson was prompted by David Roper’s article in Truth for Today, The Life of Christ, 3, and is largely based on that article.)
Early in the second year of his ministry, as Jesus continued his great Galilean work, his popularity continued to increase. Great crowds came to hear him and to obtain healing. As he found more approval among the common people, the Jewish leaders became more hostile to him. According to Mark 3:2 and Matthew 12:10, spies followed Jesus everywhere, trying to find some basis for bringing him down. “The Pharisees . . . counseled together against Him, as to how they might destroy him” (Matthew 12:14).
Why, do you suppose, did the gospel writers describe the unreasonable hatred of the Jewish hierarchy for Jesus? Probably it was to trace the enmity which culminated in the death of Jesus. Unbelievers to this day have been known to question how Jesus could be perfect, as his followers claim, but still died as a criminal. Thus they seem to hold Jesus’ death against him – as if his execution somehow showed that he was at fault.
Let us hope that this study will reinforce our understanding of the opposition he faced, and our belief that his death was unjustified and a black mark against the human race.
We will look at three instances during this period, when Jesus faced open hostility among the Jewish leaders, and see what Jesus did to counter this opposition.
Since all three incidents had to do with the Sabbath, we will begin by observing a few facts about the Sabbath.
A. About the Sabbath
1. The Sabbath is first mentioned in the Bible as a “day of rest,” the “seventh day,” when “the people rested” (Ex. 16:23-30). Apparently this was a new concept for the Israelites, for their leaders seemed concerned that God had for some reason provided a double portion of manna on the morning of the sixth day, and Moses had to explain that they were to observe the Sabbath the next day (Ex. 16:23-24). While the Sabbath was a day of rest, it was also “a holy Sabbath to the Lord”; but at this point we are not told what that involves.
2. The Sabbath is next mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8-11). Here it is repeated that the Sabbath is holy, and added that the Lord blessed the Sabbath. The people are commanded to keep the Sabbath and do no work. Thus far, doing no work seems to be the only physical command associated with the Sabbath. But God does state a reason for the Sabbath (Verse 11).
3. Looking at this precedent for the Sabbath, we find that God spent six days in the work of creation and rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:1-3). The passage indicates that God rested from his work of creation, but not that he ceased all activities. This passage contains no command for man to rest on the seventh day, and there is no later revelation to Adam or his immediate posterity suggesting the observance of any such thing as the Jewish Sabbath. Thus, contrary to the conclusions of some commentators, the Sabbath was not established in the beginning.
4. Under the Law there were other “Sabbaths,” that is, days treated like the Sabbath; these included the first and last days of Passover (sometimes called “high” Sabbaths, the first days of the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and the Feast of Tabernacles, and the first day of every month (the “new moon”). When one of those special days fell just before or after the regular Sabbath, they observed two in a row.
5. Later instructions set forth the rules on how the Sabbath was to be observed. It was to be a day of reflecting on God’s goodness, a day of joy. People and animals were to have complete rest, not doing any work (Ex. 31:14; 35:2). But religious work seemed to be excepted since priests worked in the tabernacle/temple and were “innocent” according to Jesus himself (Mt. 12:5), and guards were at the temple on that day (2 Kgs. 11:7-9). Specific instructions included gathering no sticks (Num. 15:32-36), doing no plowing or harvesting (Ex. 34:21), conducting no business or commerce (Neh. 13:15-22), carrying no loads (Jer. 17:22-23), building no fire in the house (Ex. 35:3), and limiting travel to a “Sabbath day’s journey” (Acts 1:12 – that distance was about 3000 feet), handling no dead bodies (Jn. 19:31; Mk. 16:1).
6. The penalty for “everyone who profanes the Sabbath” was to be death (Ex. 31:14-15). No wonder then that the Jewish leaders wanted to catch Jesus in such violation, even though in their day Sabbath observance was not usually enforced so strongly against others.
7. According to the way of thinking by the scribes and Pharisees, the rather general laws of Sabbath observance had to be interpreted in minute detail and regulations, so they did that, adding some more rules which to them had the same weight as Scripture, or perhaps even more. Their rules prohibited plucking grain to eat, healing the sick, carrying even small burdens (defined as anything equivalent to enough oil to anoint the smallest toe of a newborn baby!). A nailed shoe could not be worn on the Sabbath, because that was a burden; one man could carry a loaf of bread, but two men could not carry the loaf between them. They had hundreds of these rules — in short, observing the letter but not the spirit, of the Sabbath.
8 Since, for all practical purposes, no one could keep all the Sabbath rules perfectly, these rules became the Jewish leaders’ “favorite piece of legislation” according to one commentator. They thought they would have no trouble catching Jesus in a violation.
B. Jesus heals a cripple on the Sabbath (Jn. 5:1-47)
1. The circumstances (Jn. 5:1-9)
Jesus was taking a break from his Galilean ministry to go to Jerusalem for a major feast which Jewish men were required to attend. Since older versions say “the feast of the Jews,” which could only mean the Passover, it appears that this was the feast Jesus observed. During the previous Passover, Jesus had upset the Jewish leaders by running the merchants out of the temple (Jn. 2:13-17). This time he enraged them by healing a man at the pool of Bethesda. He told the man, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk,” which the man immediately did. Under Jewish tradition it was okay to carry a man on his pallet on the Sabbath, but unlawful to carry just the pallet!
2. The accusations
The Jewish leaders first jumped on the man who had been healed, because he was carrying his pallet, but when the told them it was Jesus who had healed him and told him to carry his pallet, they directed their attack at Jesus. “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.”
When they criticized Jesus, his response prompted them to accuse him on two grounds which will become apparent in considering Jesus’ response.
3. Jesus’ words in response
His defense was that if God could “work” on the Sabbath, so could he (v. 17). The Jewish leaders were outraged, and even more determined to murder him, because he was calling God his Father, making himself equal with God.
Jesus then gave examples of activities in which he and his Father were partners (v. 19-30). So he gave life to whom he wished (v. 21), his voice would raise the dead at the last day (v. 25-29), and he will execute judgment (v. 22).
Jesus went further and presented witnesses to prove that he was who he claimed to be (v. 31-47): John the Baptist (v. 32-33), Jesus’ own miracles (v. 36), and God himself (v. 37).
Some people think that Jesus was simply a good man who never even claimed to be divine. The next time somebody tells you that, suggest that he or she read the fifth chapter of John (one of many places in the New Testament where Jesus claimed to be one with God). If we read and meditate on the rest of John 5, we have to agree with commentator Burton Coffman that Jesus’ words on that occasion “are among the most profound and instructive in holy writ.”
C. Jesus’ disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1-8; Mk. 2:23-28; Lk. 6:1-5)
1. The circumstances
After Jesus had returned to Galilee, as he and his disciples were walking through a field, the disciples got hungry, and began to pick the heads of grain and eat (Mt. 12:1). They were rubbing the heads of grain in their hands (Lk. 6:1) to remove the husks from the grain or the grain from the ear; they could then blow away the husks and toss the grain into their mouths. And the Law itself allowed travelers to pick grain and eat it (Dt. 23:25: “When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, they you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s grain”).
2. The accusation
Some Pharisees (spying on Jesus, no doubt) saw what the disciples were doing and jumped on Jesus about it. David Roper wrote that, in the Pharisees’ eyes, picking a little grain was harvesting, rubbing it was threshing, blowing the husks away was winnowing, and eating the grain was grinding! And of course it was unlawful to prepare a meal on the Sabbath.
3. Jesus’ response
Near the end of his reply Jesus said in effect that the Pharisees were condemning the innocent (Mt. 12:7). So he was pleading “not guilty,” and he offered five grounds for his defense:
• Because they did not consider David guilty when he and his men ate some sacred bread in the tabernacle to ease their hunger (Mt. 12:3-4, Lk. 6:3-4; 1 Sam. 21:6; Lev. 24:5-9). This bread was known as the “showbread.” Actually, what David did was unlawful, since only the priest and his sons could eat bread which had been consecrated, and that was only after the bread had been replaced by a new batch, heated the next Sabbath; but the Jewish leaders overlooked that. Otherwise, they probably would have responded that both David and Jesus were sinners.
• Because the priests were not judged guilty when they worked on the Sabbath, their busiest day of the week (Mt. 12:5; Num. 28:2, 18-19). Even if Jesus’ disciples had violated the law (which they had not done), they were doing the Lord’s work as surely as the priests were.
• Because the Sabbath was intended as a blessing, not a burden. “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). Denying the disciples food would place an unreasonable burden on them.
•Because relieving suffering (including hunger) was more important than fulfilling rituals (especially man-made ones). Jesus cited Hos. 6:6, “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice” (Mt. 12:7).
• Because the Christ could not be subjected to men’s traditions. Indeed, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:8; Mk. 2:28; Lk. 6:5).
D. Jesus heals a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:9-14; Mk. 3:1-6; Lk. 6:6-11)
1. The circumstances
This incident took place “on another Sabbath” (Lk. 6:6), apparently in the synagogue of the Pharisees who had complained about the disciples eating the grain. A man with a withered (shriveled) hand was there, perhaps being brought there by the Pharisees, and the Pharisees watched carefully to see whether Jesus would heal him, so they could again accuse him. Finally they interrupted Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus was not intimidated. He told the man with the shriveled hand to stand up, come forward and stretch out his hand, and he healed him.
2. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ unspoken disapproval
He used a simple illustration to show that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath: since they would all try to pull a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath, wasn’t a person worth more than a sheep? And he asked, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, to save a life or destroy it?”
E. Jesus’ response to hostility with action (Mt. 12:15-21)
He separated himself from his enemies to avoid further conflict. After this last incident, the Pharisees conspired to destroy him. Aware of this, Jesus withdrew to the Sea of Galilee, where he taught multitudes of people, healed the sick and cast out demons. This was his first withdrawal to avoid conflict; there would be others later in his ministry.
Matthew emphasized that everything that had happened was the fulfillment of prophecy (Mt. 12:17-21; Isa. 42:1-4): “He will not quarrel, nor cry out; or will anyone hear His voice in the streets.” He continued to teach and heal but avoided further encounters with the Jewish leaders. He never broke God’s Sabbath laws or encouraged anyone else to do so, although he occasionally violated the man-made rules that had been tacked on.
Conc. This look at some of Jesus’ history should bring home to us what a difficult task he had before him. While multitudes flocked to him, the religious leaders of Israel, who were next to the Romans in authority, were locked into nominal obedience to a Law which they had so complicated by attaching their man-made rules that no one could observe them all. Yet they refused to see that the Son of God was among them, offering liberation and salvation.
Jesus was criticized unjustly, but that didn’t swerve him from his mission. He continued working to accomplish what God wanted him to do. We must do the same.
This very day the enemies of Christ raise as many obstacles as they can to keep people from understanding and embracing the freedom and joy of salvation in Christ. Let our resistance to their accusations be civil but firm, just as our Lord’s response was to his accusers. And may our appreciation for his work, his sacrifices of comfort and ease, and his saving message only grow deeper as we study his wonderful life of service on behalf of the human family.
–Travis Allen, 5-24-09, a.m.