Once it happened that the Master and his disciples walked in the holy city of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day when they encountered a man blind from birth. Our Master spat on the ground, made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to the man’s eyes. Then he told the man, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” The man went and immersed, and miraculously, he could see.
To heal the man, Jesus spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle. Mixing two substances to form a third is a form of work that Jewish law prohibits on the Sabbath day. Jesus smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Applying a salve or medicine by means of smearing is also considered a form of work prohibited on the Sabbath day. It is a violation of the Sabbath. He sent the man to immerse himself. At least by conventional definition in traditional, Jewish interpretation, immersions are not done on the Sabbath. This single healing incident from the Gospels potentially involves three Sabbath violations.
The Pharisees claimed, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:16). Vocal critics of the Master insisted, “He is a Sabbath breaker.”
Do we appreciate the gravity of this allegation?
-D. Thomas Lancaster
from “Introduction: This Man Breaks the Sabbath” (pg 7)
The Sabbath Breaker: Jesus of Nazareth and The Gospels’ Sabbath Conflicts
This is Lancaster’s latest book published by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) and, like a number of Lancaster’s books, leverages material previously published in volumes of the Torah Club and issues of Messiah Journal. A great deal of valuable information on topics of intense interest to Christians both in the church and within the Messianic community, is “buried” within much larger documents. In order to make this information more readily accessible, FFOZ is taking material on specific subjects from these “tomes” and refactoring it into several smaller, self-contained books. Lancaster’s The Sabbath Breaker is one such book.
The focus of Lancaster’s book is rather narrow, so don’t imagine it will answer questions such as “Was Sabbath changed from Saturday to Sunday,” “Should Gentile Christians keep the ‘Jewish’ Sabbath and if so, how,” or “Should Messianic Jews keep the Sabbath in the same way as non-Messianic Jews.” The book’s entire focus is to address whether or not Jesus broke the Sabbath and if he didn’t, then how can we explain why he was criticized by the Jewish religious authorities for healing on Shabbat, gleaning with his disciples on Shabbat, and telling other people who were not his disciples to carry and to immerse on Shabbat?
Christianity tends to believe that Jesus did break the Shabbat in order to show us that he had cancelled all of the Shabbat restrictions and Shabbat itself, as part of his “nailing the Law to the cross,” setting us free from the Law and putting us under the Law of Grace.
As you might imagine, Lancaster dismisses the traditional Christian interpretation out of hand and frankly, so do I. But then how can this be explained? Was Jesus “cancelling” the halachah of the Pharisees? Was it indeed permissible Biblically to glean on Shabbat, to heal on Shabbat, to carry on Shabbat, and to immerse on Shabbat? Were the Pharisees adding unreasonable man-made burdens and was Jesus correcting them and rebuking the Pharisees? Or was it more a matter that the Pharisees thought they were upholding the Biblical way to keep Shabbat (and after all, they wanted to kill Jesus for healing on Shabbat, so they were obviously sincere), and Jesus was just interpreting the Bible better?
How about none of the above:
For many Bible readers, this distinction may be too obscure, but if missed, the reader also misses the message of all the Sabbath stories in the Gospels. The essential message is not that Jesus has cancelled the Sabbath or that the rabbinic interpretation of Sabbath is illegitimate. The Sabbath-conflict stories instead communicate that acts of compassion and mercy performed to alleviate human suffering take precedence over the ritual taboo. The miraculous power by which Jesus performs the healings only serves to add God’s endorsement to Jesus’ halachic, legal rationale.
Did Jesus’ disciples break the Sabbath in the grain fields? Yes. But they were justified in doing so because their need took precedence over the Temple service, and the Temple service took precedence over the Sabbath. Therefore Jesus declared them guiltless and told the Pharisees, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).
Did the Master break the Sabbath when he healed on the Sabbath day? Yes. Would fixing a car break the Sabbath? Of course it would, and by the same standard so does fixing a human body. Nevertheless, the Master justified doing so because compassion for his fellow man took precedence over the Sabbath.
-Lancaster, pg 61
“Chapter Seven: At Dinner with the Sages”
That’s not the full description of course, and you’ll have to read Lancaster’s book to get all the answers. Not including the footnotes, the book is about 135 pages long, so you should be able to get through it pretty quickly.
The book is divided into three sections:
- Sabbath Conflicts in the Synoptic Gospels
- Sabbath Conflicts in the Gospel of John
- The Thirty-Nine Prohibited Forms of Work
The first two sections focus on different explanations (or the lack thereof in the case of John’s Gospel) for Jesus’s apparent “Sabbath breaking” activities. The quote from Lancaster above is a nice summary of the first section. The second one presents some problems, which Lancaster readily admits, such as Jesus telling the man he healed in John 5 to “take up your bed and walk.” (John 5:8). While the content of the book up to this point (pg 65) confirms that Jesus did break the Sabbath by healing but that chesed (lovingkindness or compassion) takes precedence over Shabbat (it’s more involved than that, but you’ll have to read the book to get all the details), carrying is considered a form of Melachah, or a type of work that involves creation and mastery over our environment (a concept that has to be understood to grasp Lancaster’s major points in his book), and this is forbidden on Shabbat, at least in modern times in Orthodox Judaism.
That brings up the issue of whether or not the Thirty-Nine Prohibited Forms of Work can reasonably be applied to First-Century normative forms of Judaism, and that’s a big if. Lancaster addresses this question in his book and seems convinced that an earlier, less formalized version of this halachah was in existence in the day of Jesus’s ministry on earth. The reader will have to decide if this is credible from their own understanding, but capable arguments can be made either way.
Part two which reviews the healings of Jesus in the Gospel of John departs from the legal and even mechanical explanation of his Sabbath breaking activities and the fact that he told a man to do something that also breaks the Sabbath remains a mystery. It is interesting though that after initially criticizing the man for carrying on Shabbat, once they find out that a healing was done on Shabbat also, the Pharisees lose all interest in the man carrying and seek out the healer instead.
Part three is Lancaster’s description, in some detail, of the thirty-nine melachot or types of work that are forbidden on Shabbat. This may be the part of the book most readers will blow past as irrelevant, even if they are Messianic Jews or non-Jews who observe some form of Shabbat, but I think that would be a mistake.
Protestant Christianity does not consider Sabbath a concept worth consideration or if they do, they simply believe that going to church on Sunday fulfills the fourth commandment out of the ten. Grace makes all things permitted on the “Sabbath” so no one has to struggle to confine their behavior, separating the mundane from the sacred on one day of the week.
Christians who are Sabbatarians including those who are involved in the Hebrew Roots or Messianic Jewish movements, for the most part, tend to create their own “halachah” or methods of Shabbat observance, either as individuals or as individual congregations. I would be willing to wager that there are few if any standards for Sabbath observance that encompass large collections of congregations, unless those groups adhere to a set of halachot established by an umbrella group that has adopted Shabbat observance behaviors from another, normative form of Judaism.
We all want to believe that Jesus can be our guide to correct Shabbat observance (assuming we value Shabbat observance) and that God has an objective set of standards for how Shabbat is to be kept (and like Lancaster, I’m not going to get into who should keep Shabbat). However the Melachot were derived from Torah (Lancaster’s book provides those specifics as well) so they weren’t just dreamed up out of someone’s imagination. If you believe in an objectively established Sabbath and (again, assuming you believe you are either required to keep the Sabbath or voluntarily choose to do so out of personal conviction or for other reasons) that there are objective standards for keeping Sabbath, then the third part of Lancaster’s book, if you can believe it is reasonably connected back to the first two parts, may actually be your roadmap for how a Jesus-following Sabbath keeper should keep Sabbath.
In The Sabbath Breaker, Lancaster takes a decidedly different approach to looking at Jesus and his “sabbath breaking” behaviors, acknowledging that he did break the Sabbath, not to cancel it, but to uphold it and to illustrate that there are circumstances wherein it is permissible to break the Sabbath for a higher purpose. Jesus himself, according to Lancaster, is not the higher purpose: human beings are. After all, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).