The Sabbath was a Divine institution; and as such it could not be abrogated, nor its prescribed observance altered, or modified, by any authority less than Divine. When our Lord, therefore, claimed absolute power over the Sabbath-day—when He declared that the Son of man was “Lord even of the Sabbath-day,” He claimed no less than Divine authority, and was understood to do so. He might have abrogated it wholly if He had seen fit; but his purpose seems to have been no more than to bring it back to its primary purpose as a day of free and blessed rest; relieving it from the special observances and restrictions which the law of Moses had imposed, and which, being no longer needed in the service of the more spiritual nature which Christ introduced, were to be counted among things that were old and had passed away.
Yet it is to be observed, that while Christ claimed this absolute power, his actual operations, so far as brought under our notice, did not affect any one of the Mosaic ordinances, as plainly and literally understood. We see Jesus again and again accused of Sabbath-violation for performing certain acts on the seventh-day. But if we turn to the code of Moses in search of the laws alleged to be violated, we cannot find them—they are not there. The fact is, that in this, as in other matters, the letter of the law had, in our Lord’s time, been overlaid by a mass of traditionary explanations, extensions, and applications, every one of which was regarded as of equal authority with the letter of the law itself, and every transgression equally an act of Sabbath violation, and equally liable to be visited with the penalties of that offence. These traditions only did our Lord’s Sabbath acts infringe. But of these traditions He always expressed his utter disregard, and often his reprobation. And his argument, in answer to the charges brought against Him in this respect, was—either that the particular act was not a violation of the law of Moses, but was in perfect accordance with its spirit, or that the power which the Father had given to Him was not subject to the limitations of that law.
The case which has already passed under our notice, that of the man carrying his bed through the streets on the Sabbath-day by our Lord’s order, makes the nearest approach to a real infraction of the law; and the charge founded on it is, therefore, met by our Lord with an assertion of his superior authority. There is, indeed, no law in the books of Moses forbidding the carrying of a bed, or, more generally, of carrying a burden. But that the law was so understood by those whose authority we cannot dispute, is clear from Neh_13:15-19, and from Jer_17:22. The ground of this is obvious. All work on the Sabbath-day was forbidden; but the principal work of men who labor was the carrying of burdens, consequently the carrying of any burden was unlawful. Our Lord, therefore, replied to this only by an assertion of his authority, evinced, as it was, by the miracle He had performed. But, in fact, the carrying of his bed was anything but work; it was a joy and a pleasure to the man who had been bed-ridden so long. It was a triumph. He led captivity captive, as he bounded through the streets bearing the bed which had so long borne him. By this act, therefore, our Lord seems to have evinced his intention, and certainly He avowed his authority, to abrogate the Jewish Sabbath as such, and especially as it was then understood. Some have thought He intended to try the man’s faith by healing him on the Sabbath-day, and by commanding him to carry his bed; both which acts he must have believed to be unlawful. We doubt that Jesus required any man to wound his conscience by doing what he believed to be sinful; and it has escaped notice that if Christ healed the man on the Sabbath-day, the man was lying by the pool of Bethesda on that day for the express purpose of being healed.
But let us turn to another instance which occurred on probably the next Sabbath. Jesus was walking through the corn fields with his disciples, when the latter, being hungry, began to pluck some of the ears of corn, and eat the grain, rubbing it out between their hands. This was objected to as an infringement of the Sabbath. Did this lie in the walk, the gathering of the ears, the rubbing them out, or the eating the grain? It was not the walking in the fields, for the rules to which we have referred allowed this to the distance of 2,000 cubits (reckoned as so many paces) beyond the limits of a town, this being called “a Sabbath day’s journey.” It was not plucking the ears of corn in another’s field, for custom allowed, and still allows it. Dr. Robinson mentions that his people did this frequently (in Palestine), and ate it in the same manner as the apostles; and, when questioned on the matter they said: “this was an old custom; and no one would speak against it: they were supposed to be hungry, and it was allowed as a charity.” The mere eating could not, of course, be construed as unlawful.
What, then, was?
Simply the plucking the ears and rubbing the grain out between the hands. The act was thus made out to be an infringement of the Sabbath. Servile work was forbidden on the Sabbath-day. Reaping is servile work; and he who reaps on the Sabbath-day, however little, is a Sabbath-breaker. But plucking ears of corn is a kind of reaping; therefore, even to pluck anything from the springing of his own fruit, makes one a Sabbath-breaker. Again, rubbing ears between the hands to get out the grain, is a species of threshing; and he who does this, is therefore a Sabbath-breaker.
After this transaction, and after our Lord had replied to the objections of those by whom it was witnessed, He proceeded to the synagogue. There was in the congregation a man whose hand was withered. Observing that this man had attracted the attention of Jesus, and being aware of what was likely to follow—the Pharisees, who had now become his avowed enemies, determined to raise a discussion beforehand, that, seeing their former attempts against Him had been frustrated, probably from want of sufficiently definite evidence, they might extract from his own words matter on which to found an accusation against Him. This they did many times, but He never fell into the snares thus laid for Him; his discreet, wise, and uncompromising answers, being not only unassailable, but tending rather to their own confusion than to his.
The question on this occasion was, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath-day?” If He said, No, He would condemn himself; if He said, Yes, they could denounce Him for that opinion joined to his corresponding acts; for the traditions made healing on the seventh-day to be a violation of its sanctity. A man might not, indeed, do anything for himself, or another for him, which might contribute to his own cure of a disease on the Sabbath-day, except in a matter of extreme danger, when it was allowable for him to profane the Sabbath by doing whatever the cure required. But it will be observed, that most of our Lord’s Sabbath cures, were of diseases not immediately dangerous, and therefore not open to this exception. The reply which our Lord made to the question was unanswerable and ought to have filled these heartless hypocrites with confusion. He reminded them that the law allowed a man, whose sheep had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath-day, to lay hold on it and lift it out. “How much, then, is a man better than a sheep?” He asked. There was a sudden pause, but no answer. Then, looking round upon them with indignation, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, He turned to the afflicted man, and said, “Stretch forth thine hand!” and immediately he held forth his hand, and it was instantly restored, and became as free from disease as the other.
The Pharisees were highly exasperated at this plain and significant rebuke, and indeed with the whole proceeding, and they left the synagogue with the full purpose of finding means for his destruction. It must have seemed to them difficult to accomplish this under the usual forms of law. Had He not set at nought all those traditions which in their hearts they honored above the law itself? Had He not even assumed the power of dispensing with the law? Had not this obscure man of Galilee, as He seemed to them, dared to institute equalizing comparisons between himself and the great and ineffable Jehovah? Had He not plainly avowed himself the Messiah—not, as such, to lead Israel to terrestrial glories—but as such to give spiritual life, to exercise power over disease and death, and to sit on the throne of judgment at the last day?
They were, however, foiled in their immediate object by our Lord’s withdrawal into Galilee But after this memorable visit to Jerusalem, the Pharisaic party never lost sight of Jesus, nor ceased to watch his footsteps with the most hostile intentions. Henceforth we find every opportunity taken of detecting Him in further violation of their statutes, and every pretext laid hold of for inflaming the popular mind against Him for his neglect, or open defiance of their ordinances.