Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 4)

March 14, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Sabbath Miracles (Part 1)

Throughout the Gospels, we read of Jesus healing people on the Sabbath and of the opposition He encountered when He did. Healing on the Sabbath was controversial because some perceived it as working on the Sabbath, which was forbidden in the Mosaic law.

In the story of creation in Genesis, we read of the origin of the Sabbath:

On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.1

After delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God gave them His law, and within it the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment was to keep the Sabbath day holy by doing no work on that day.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.2

The Sabbath (which is still observed by Jews worldwide) begins on Friday evening at sundown and ends at the same time Saturday evening. In the Mosaic law, transgressing the Sabbath was treated as a capital offense, resulting in death.

You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.3

The English word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew term “Shabbat,” which was originally formed from shabat, which means “to cease,” “to desist,” or “to rest.” Throughout the Old Testament and in Jesus’ day (and for observant Jews today), ordinary work is not done on this day. The weekly Sabbath was considered a gift to God’s people. When they were slaves in Egypt, they had had no rest from their hard labors, so having a day of rest each week was a tremendous blessing. The Sabbath applied to everyone, including slaves and work animals.4 It was a time which was consecrated to the Lord:

You shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD.5

Observing the Sabbath was a sign of Israel’s special covenantal relationship with God:

Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.6

It was a reminder that God had mightily delivered them from slavery.

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.7

After the return from captivity in Babylon and until 70 AD (a period known as the Second Temple period, 515 BC–70 AD), experts in the Law, such as the scribes, began to heavily interpret Scripture. The intent was to spell out the duties of God’s people by defining the terms and limits of God’s commands, and when it came to the Sabbath they wanted people to know precisely what was considered work and therefore needed to be avoided on the Sabbath. Some things were clear from Scripture, such as You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.8 But a command such as Do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day9 needed a legal definition of exactly what a burden was. A similar case had to do with walking outside of one’s “place”:

Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.10

If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath…11

It was necessary to define the limits of a legitimate journey; thus they defined “a Sabbath day’s journey,” which we see mentioned in the Bible in Acts 1:12. Additional guidelines were needed for when the Sabbath rules conflicted with other commandments. Therefore the principle of “no work” could be ignored when someone’s life was at stake. Priests’ service in the Temple could be done on the Sabbath, and male children could be circumcised as well.

In the Intertestamental Period—the time between the last writings of the Old Testament and the writing of the New—Jewish writings detailed Sabbath restrictions which limited activity on the Sabbath. These included plowing a field, starting a fire, riding an animal, riding in a boat, killing anything, walking farther than 1,000 cubits, drinking outside the camp, drawing water into any vessel, wearing perfume, opening a sealed vessel, assisting an animal to give birth or helping an animal out of a pit, and making war. The prohibition against making war was eventually changed, as some battles were lost due to Jewish soldiers not being able to fight on the Sabbath. In time it became legal for soldiers to defend themselves on the Sabbath, and eventually this was changed so that Jews could also attack their enemies on the holy day.12

With this background, we can now move on to the accounts of Jesus healing those in need on the Sabbath, and the reactions of the scribes to what they considered His unlawful acts.13

In Luke, we read about Jesus healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath. This story is also told, with some variation, in Matthew and Mark. Luke’s version says:

On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.14

Healing or medical work was allowed on the Sabbath if a person’s life was in danger, a baby was being born, or a circumcision needed to be performed. However, someone who was sick or crippled, but whose life was not in peril, was expected to wait a day before getting treated. Because the man with the paralyzed hand wasn’t in danger and thus there was no urgency, the scribes and Pharisees watched to see if Jesus would heal on the Sabbath in contravention of their interpretation of the Law. It’s interesting that the man didn’t ask Jesus to heal him, but instead Jesus initiated the healing, thus acting in a way that would certainly bring up controversy.

Jesus’ opposition was clearly looking for something to confront Him with. The Greek word used in this passage for watched (paratēreō) means to spy on or watch out of the corner of one’s eye, to watch insidiously, malevolently. The text conveys the idea that the scribes and Pharisees were lying in wait to catch Jesus doing something wrong so that they could bring accusation against Him. From their point of view, if Jesus were to heal the man, He would be guilty of breaking the Sabbath. We’re told that Jesus knew what they were thinking, and this ability is also mentioned elsewhere in the Gospels.15

Jesus … said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” Jesus was teaching, so presumably He was where everyone in the synagogue could see Him, and could also see the man with the paralyzed hand. Jesus said to them, meaning that He was addressing the scribes, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”

The scribes and the Pharisees wouldn’t have had any problem with Jesus healing someone to save their life, as that would have been in alignment with their interpretation of Scripture. But Jesus interpreted the Law differently. He understood that God’s intent for the Sabbath was to give people a day of rest, to allow them to rest and rejuvenate, and to think about God and be grateful to Him. Jesus’ outlook on the Sabbath reflected what was written in the book of Isaiah:

Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.16

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?17

Jesus understood that the Sabbath was never intended to keep anyone from doing good. He made the point that there was someone in their presence who needed healing—and why wait when you can do good right now?

Having asked whether it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, Jesus proved that His was the proper understanding of the Sabbath by saying to the man: “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. Healing the man showed that doing good on the Sabbath was sanctioned by God—for had it not been, the healing would not have occurred. It’s interesting that Jesus performed this miracle without doing any “work.” He simply instructed the man to stretch out his hand, and he did so, and his hand was restored. God showed His compassion and power, through Jesus, while at the same time showing Jesus’ authority as His representative.

In reaction to this healing, the scribes and Pharisees were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel puts it this way:

The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.18 

Mark wrote:

The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians19 against him, how to destroy him.20 

The healings Jesus performed on the Sabbath infuriated the scribes and Pharisees because it challenged their understanding and interpretation of Scripture. The word translated as fury in Luke is translated in other Bible versions as rage or madness. This deep rage led them to conspire against Jesus and seek to destroy Him.

This account of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand isn’t the only mention of Jesus performing healing miracles on the Sabbath, nor of the resulting confrontation. We will explore other instances of Sabbath miracles in subsequent articles. Besides the healings Jesus performed on the Sabbath, there were also other instances in the Gospels when Jesus’ opponents questioned His Sabbath-day activities, which we will also cover.

In challenging the traditional interpretation of what was allowed on the Sabbath, and by performing a miracle which proved His interpretation was the right one, Jesus challenged the scribal interpretation of the Law and the many rules and regulations which arose from their interpretation of proper Sabbath conduct. For Jesus, doing good, helping those in need, and healing afflictions was the spirit of the Sabbath—it was part of God giving rest to His people. In healing the man’s hand, Jesus was doing good and bringing restoration, and according to Him, it was lawful on the Sabbath. Showing mercy and compassion was Jesus’ true interpretation of the Sabbath.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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1 Genesis 2:2–3.

2 Exodus 20:8–11.

3 Exodus 31:14.

4 E. E. Carpenter & P. W. Comfort, in Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 157.

5 Exodus 35:2.

6 Exodus 31:13.

7 Deuteronomy 5:15.

8 Exodus 35:3.

9 Jeremiah 17:21.

10 Exodus 16:29.

11 Isaiah 58:13 NIV.

12 B. C. Babcock, “Sabbath,” in J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

13 Many points in the following paragraphs were adapted and condensed from Darrel L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 527–531.

14 Luke 6:6–11.

15 Luke 5:22; 9:47–48; Mark 2:8.

16 Isaiah 1:16–17.

17 Isaiah 58:6–7.

18 Matthew 12:14.

19 Author Robert Stein explains: The exact identity of the Herodians is uncertain. Most likely they were not a religious sect but a political party of aristocratic families who favored the rule of Herod the Great and his descendants rather than direct Roman rule. Mention of the Herodians in connection with the Pharisees makes these two groups representative of the political and religious leaders who plotted against Jesus (Mark, 156).

20 Mark 3:1–6.