A major conflict between Jesus and Israel’s leaders focused on his “violation” of Sabbath rules and regulations every devout Israelite was expected to honor. In the Ten Commandments God gave Israel at Sinai [shortly after Israel was delivered from Egypt], God instructed Israel to keep the Sabbath [Saturday] holy. They were to keep the Sabbath holy by doing no work on that day. The command was specific: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:9,10). On the seventh day [Saturday] no one in the nation was to work: not the Israelite, not the Israelite’s servant, not the Israelite’s livestock, not the Israelite’s visitor. Interestingly [to us], Israel kept the seventh day holy by staying at home and doing no work (see Luke 23:56). Worship was not the means of keeping the Sabbath holy. Regardless of the time of the year, regardless of what was in progress [even the harvest!] (see Exodus 31:12-17; Exodus 35:1-3; Nehemiah 10:31; Nehemiah 13:15-18; Jeremiah 17:19-23; Leviticus 25:1-7), Israelites declared their dependence on God by honoring the Sabbath as a time of rest.
Through the centuries, Israel developed rules and regulations to be certain no work was done on the Sabbath. Consider some examples. They defined work. A person must not have access to the tool of his trade [a tailor could not carry a needle, nor a school teacher read]. Strict regulations forbade cooking. There were correct ways to allow lamps to burn on the Sabbath. There were regulations about deaths on Sabbaths and about rescues from accidents on Sabbaths. There were even regulations about a house fire on a Sabbath! Such regulations controlled how far an Israelite could walk on a Sabbath [a Sabbath day’s journey – see Acts 1:12]. Sabbath regulations were extremely important religious expressions in Israel. In Jesus’ ministry, his actions on Sabbaths often distressed religious leaders (see Matthew 12:1, 2; Luke 14:1-3; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). A failure to observe these regulations guaranteed the Israelite offender would be subjected to the wrath of religious leaders.
In our text, note (1) the miracle took place on a Sabbath in a synagogue; (2) the synagogue official was offended and upset by Jesus’ miracle; (3) it was not the miracle that upset the synagogue official, but the “violation” of the Sabbath. Jesus’ justification of the miracle was not primarily a defense of his miracle. It was primarily a questioning of long accepted Sabbath priorities. Jesus aroused the indignation of the synagogue official because his actions violated long established and accepted understandings! He dared point out (1) common Sabbath priorities were not God’s Sabbath priorities, and (2) Israelite officials were inconsistent in applying their own Sabbath priorities. The incident involved the physical affliction of a woman who was stooped. As Jesus taught, he observed a woman in the synagogue audience who was “bent double” for eighteen years by a spirit sent by Satan. For a long time it had been impossible for her to straighten up! Jesus miraculously freed the woman from her sickness. When he laid his hands on her, she was immediately erect and began glorifying God.
The synagogue official was indignant! Please note he allowed Jesus to teach in that synagogue, but Jesus was not to heal on the Sabbath! Again, the issue is not a matter of power, but a matter of time. The fact that Jesus had the power to do this was insignificant. The fact that Jesus “worked on the Sabbath” was of primary importance because he “violated” Sabbath regulations. This was the reasoning: “The woman has been sick for eighteen years. Her life is not in jeopardy! This is a miracle that can wait a day! Heal her tomorrow, on Sunday, not today on the Sabbath! This healing directly violates of one of the Ten Commandments God gave Israel! Heal on work days, not on Sabbath days!”
It is difficult for American Christians to understand the problem because American Christians are unfamiliar with a day of rest that exists to humbly declare dependence on God. If we are not careful, we view “the problem” in the incident as a power issue rather than a time issue. For us, holiness is primarily expressed through worship, not through the rest of dependence.
Jesus classified the indignation of the synagogue official as hypocrisy. He used the plural “hypocrites” in responding to the man’s reaction. The problem was much bigger than the individual reaction of one synagogue official. The problem was centered in the national acceptance of the Sabbath’s purpose and the meaning of holiness.
First, Jesus focused their attention on the inconsistency of their Sabbath regulations. To halter domesticated livestock in a stall and lead thirsty animals to water on a Sabbath day would be an act of work in violation of the Sabbath. However, to untie domestic animals and allow them to roam from the stall to the water was not considered an act of work. Therefore, that course of action did not violate a Sabbath. The objective was identical – get thirsty animals to water. One merely had to achieve it in the proper manner.
Second, Jesus focused their attention on their Sabbath priorities. This Jewish woman was sick for eighteen years as a result of Satan’s initiative. Was it a violation of a day devoted to God’s holiness to rescue an Israelite woman from Satan’s physical control? If you can untie a thirsty ox to go get a drink on the Sabbath, can I untie the woman from enduring Satan’s control on a Sabbath? Are not suffering people of greater importance then thirsty animals? In God’s priorities, is holiness expressed in the day or in concern for suffering people?
The end result was more than the healing of a sick woman. The miracle combined with Jesus’ emphasis humiliated Jesus’ opponents. The combination caused the people to rejoice for two reasons: (1) a sick woman was healed, and (2) God’s priorities were championed. People saw Jesus’ actions and teachings as appropriate and good. Opponents were frustrated and irritated.
With an incorrect focus, we who are devoted to God’s command can distort God’s priorities. It is possible to be obedient in technicalities and to misrepresent God at the same time. To do such is to practice hypocrisy.
- Why were Jesus’ Sabbath activities a matter of controversy between Jesus and Israel’s religious leaders?
- In today’s text, explain why Jesus’ healing upset the synagogue official.
- In today’s text, how did Jesus emphasize that his act of healing was the proper thing to do?
- Discuss this statement: “The issue was not Jesus’ power, but time.”
- Explain why the attitude of the synagogue official came from hypocrisy. How can we be guilty of the same form of hypocrisy?