Let us look at all the various examples of Jesus healing people on the Sabbath that are throughout the Gospels. This is one of the things he did that upset the Jewish leaders enough to want to have him killed. They accused him of being in violation of the Law of Moses. What “crime” was committed?
9 Moving on from there, He entered their synagogue. 10 There He saw a man who had a paralyzed hand. And in order to accuse Him they asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” 11 But He said to them, “What man among you, if he had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t take hold of it and lift it out? 12 A man is worth far more than a sheep, so it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath. 13 Then He told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out, and it was restored, as good as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.
10 As He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, 11 a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for over 18 years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, He called out to her, “Woman, you are free of your disability.” 13 Then He laid His hands on her, and instantly she was restored and began to glorify God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded by telling the crowd, “There are six days when work should be done; therefore come on those days and be healed and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “Hypocrites! Doesn’t each one of you untie his ox or donkey from the feeding trough on the Sabbath and lead it to water? 16 Satan has bound this woman, a daughter of Abraham, for 18 years—shouldn’t she be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When He had said these things, all His adversaries were humiliated, but the whole crowd was rejoicing over all the glorious things He was doing.
One Sabbath, when He went to eat at the house of one of the leading Pharisees, they were watching Him closely. 2 There in front of Him was a man whose body was swollen with fluid. 3 In response, Jesus asked the law experts and the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they kept silent. He took the man, healed him, and sent him away. 5 And to them, He said, “Which of you whose son or ox falls into a well, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” 6 To this they could find no answer.
After this, a Jewish festival took place, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 By the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool, called Bethesda in Hebrew, which has five colonnades. 3 Within these lay a large number of the sick—blind, lame, and paralyzed [—waiting for the moving of the water, 4 because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had]. 5 One man was there who had been sick for 38 years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had already been there a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to get well?” 7 “Sir,” the sick man answered, “I don’t have a man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, someone goes down ahead of me.” 8 “Get up,” Jesus told him, “pick up your mat and walk!” 9 Instantly the man got well, picked up his mat, and started to walk. Now that day was the Sabbath, 10 so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “This is the Sabbath! It’s illegal for you to pick up your mat.” 11 He replied, “The man who made me well told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” 12 “Who is this man who told you, ‘Pick up your mat and walk’?” they asked. 13 But the man who was cured did not know who it was, because Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. 14 After this, Jesus found him in the temple complex and said to him, “See, you are well. Do not sin anymore, so that something worse doesn’t happen to you.” 15 The man went and reported to the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.
The Luke 14:1-6, Luke 12:10-17, and Matthew 12:9-14 verses all sound similar, with Jesus pointing out that the accusers will rescue or release an animal on the Sabbath. One would hope that if they have compassion on an animal, they’d have a similar amount of compassion for a human being. He’s trying to appeal to their reason and logic, rather than blindly following a rule.
In the Matthew 12:9-14 verses, the Pharisees are trying to set him up to see if he is going to break the Law. In the Luke 14:1-6 verses, the one most like it in wording (and very likely the same story except for the details of what is wrong with the person), it looks like Jesus is trying to set the Pharisees up.
Here is a list of all the things that you can’t do on the Sabbath according to the Law of Moses. Many activities are derived from work that was required to complete the Temple.
“Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, tanning, scraping hide, marking hides, cutting hide to shape, writing two or more letters, erasing two or more letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object, and finally, transporting an object between a private domain and the public domain, or for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain.”
This is a pretty extensive list. But where is “healing” forbidden? Where is it listed as “work” that you can’t do on the Sabbath? Perhaps “Putting the finishing touch on an object” – because Jesus, by healing someone, was making them complete. What really got Jesus in trouble was that he was pointing out that their rigid adherence to the letter of the Law meant that they couldn’t grasp the spirit of the Law. They followed the Law more than they followed God. He was a threat to their authority, and they were afraid that other people would start to deviate. They were afraid that their tightly woven system was starting to unravel.
In the John 5:1-15 verses, the “crime” is carrying. The man that Jesus healed is carrying his bedroll home. The Pharisees did not know that he had just been healed – all they knew is that he was carrying something, which is forbidden. Even today in Orthodox communities it is forbidden to carry anything at all on the Sabbath – not a purse, not a book, not a pen – nothing. Interestingly, the Pharisees were not amazed that he had been healed. They didn’t want to meet this miracle worker to see if he might be the Messiah. They wanted to cite him for working on the Sabbath.
I am sad that the man told them who had healed him when he found out. What an ungrateful way to show thanks for being healed of a disease that had afflicted him for 38 years – by betraying him to the authorities! I can only hope that he didn’t realize that they were plotting his death.
One very striking example of “working” on the Sabbath and its punishment is found in Numbers 15:32-36. I include this as a historical precedent to show what they did to Sabbath-breakers.
32 While the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses, Aaron, and the entire community. 34 They placed him in custody because it had not been decided what should be done to him. 35 Then the LORD told Moses, “The man is to be put to death. The entire community is to stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the entire community brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD had commanded Moses.
They weren’t kidding. Break a law, and we will kill you. In this case, the authorities told the whole community to do it – and they did. Stone by stone, they didn’t build the Temple. They killed a member of their community.
As a student of the Torah, Jesus knew this story and all these rules in how to be observant of the Law. The most amazing part is that Jesus knew the risk, and did it anyway. He was killed for healing people, and proved in his resurrection that even that couldn’t stop him. Jesus teaches us that it is better to follow God and live – even if it means you will be sentenced to death, than to follow the laws of men and live – but only half-way. A life without God is not a life.
(All translations are HCSB)