Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 5)

March 21, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Sabbath Miracles (Part 2)

Besides the healing of the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (covered in Miracles part four), there are other accounts of healings on the Sabbath in the Gospels, two of which we will cover here. These two—the healing of the woman who was bent over and of the man with dropsy—are found only in the Gospel of Luke.

The Bent-Over Woman

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.

But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.1

As we see in this and other healing stories, as well as elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus regularly attended the synagogue on the Sabbath day.2 In this passage, we read that He was teaching in the synagogue and a woman in need of help was present. We’re also told that she had this infirmity for 18 years, and that her condition was demonically influenced. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she was demon-possessed. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see examples of other infirmities attributed to the influence of Satan:

Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.3

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.4

This woman’s condition was such that she could never stand up straight. As in other scenarios, Jesus initiated the healing, called her to come to Him, told her she was set free from her disability, and laid His hands on her. She was immediately able to stand up straight for the first time in almost two decades. Jesus’ authority is seen here, as well as His power, especially when He makes the point that the woman was bound by Satan. Jesus has set her free from her illness, and has liberated her from the root of her bondage—Satan. The Greek phrase translated as “she was made straight” is a passive verb and so emphasizes that the healing came from God. The woman understood this, as she reacted by glorifying God.

Upon seeing this, the “ruler of the synagogue” became indignant. The synagogue ruler was responsible for maintaining faithfulness to the teachings of the Law and proper observance of the commandments, and he clearly felt that healing this suffering woman contravened the Sabbath “no work” rule, which stated:

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 or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.5

He was irate, and rather than speaking directly to Jesus, he addressed those present in the synagogue. In doing so, he was publicly challenging Jesus’ authority as a teacher and stressing to those gathered that he was the authorized interpreter of Scripture.6 He considered healing to be work, as seen by what he said: “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” His outlook was that the woman had been in this condition for a long time and it wasn’t life threatening, so her healing could wait until the next day, and shouldn’t supersede the Sabbath rules.

Jesus’ response was quick and pointed. His rebuke—you hypocrites—is plural, indicating that He knew that others in the synagogue were in agreement with the ruler’s opinion, and so He is answering them all. He pointed out that each of them does the work of untying their oxen or donkeys and leading them to water on the Sabbath. The oral interpretation of the Mosaic law (which was later written down in the Mishnah) allowed for cattle to be led on the Sabbath, as long as they weren’t carrying a load. They could walk up to 900 meters in order to go to pasture, and their owners could tie them up. Making sure that one’s cattle were fed and watered on the Sabbath was an act of labor and also of compassion. Jesus asks this rhetorical question aware that each of them knowingly did some work on the Sabbath for the sake of their cattle’s well-being, and didn’t consider themselves as contravening the holy day because of it.

Jesus then makes an “a fortiori”7 argument: If one does the work of untying their animal and brings it to water on the Sabbath, how much more should a woman, a fellow Jew, a daughter of Abraham, who has been bound for eighteen years, be loosed from her bond on the Sabbath? Jesus was asking them how they could have more concern for an animal on the Sabbath than for a human being. Jesus made the point that His act of freeing the woman from her bondage did not violate the Sabbath, but was in alignment with the intent of the Sabbath; thus the ruler of the synagogue, and those who agreed with him, were wrong.

The ruler of the synagogue tried to shame Jesus by showing that He misinterpreted Scripture, but the tables were turned by Jesus’ response, and all [Jesus’] adversaries were put to shame. Having seen Jesus’ act of compassion, those who witnessed the miracle and heard His reply to the ruler of the synagogue rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. Jesus once again made the point that His view of the Sabbath was the right one.

The Man with Dropsy

We read of Jesus making this point again later in Luke’s Gospel:

One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.8

In this instance, Jesus was invited to eat at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. As the ruler of the Pharisees was a prominent person, it is likely that all the others at the table were prominent people who kept the same religious purity laws as the Pharisees. These laws dictated both what they could eat and who they could eat with. It is mentioned that other Pharisees and lawyers attended. Lawyer is a term used primarily in the Gospel of Luke (five times, compared to only once in Matthew, and not at all in Mark or John) for one who was an authoritative expert of the Mosaic law. This term is used synonymously with “scribe” and “teacher of the law” throughout the Gospels. In Luke, lawyers are not spoken well of.9 We’re told that the Pharisees and the lawyers were watching him carefully. The Greek word used here means to watch insidiously or lurkingly.

A man with dropsy was present. Dropsy is an almost obsolete term for generalized edema, which refers to bodily swelling due to an excess of fluid; not a disease itself, dropsy is an indication of malfunction in the body, especially congestive heart failure or kidney disease.10 We’re not told why the man with dropsy was there. He seems out of place in the presence of a gathering of Pharisees, where ritual cleanliness was required; a person with dropsy was considered unclean, especially since the disease was regarded as a punishment for sin by some religious people of the day.

While there’s no explanation as to the man’s presence, the way the text is worded, using the phrase “and behold” (And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy), could indicate surprise that the man, though uninvited, was there. We read the same phrase earlier in Luke’s Gospel, when an uninvited woman stood at Jesus’ feet when He was reclining at the table.

And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.11

Kenneth Bailey wrote:

At traditional Middle Eastern village meals, the outcasts of the community are not shut out. They sit quietly on the floor against the wall, and at the end of the meal are fed. Their presence is a compliment to the host, who is thereby seen as so noble that he even feeds the outcasts of the community. The rabbis insisted that the door be open when a meal was in progress lest you ‘lack of food’ (i.e., lest you shut out the blessings of God).12

So it’s possible that this man was one of the poor who were allowed to be present.

Darrell Bock proffers another possibility:

Was the man invited to the meal in order to trap Jesus, or did he simply come in (uninvited guests were part of this culture)? The account, however, gives no other indication that he was not already there. In this view the surprise [behold] is that such a person is at the meal. Combined with the presence of the “watching eyes” of the leadership, this verse probably suggests a trap, especially since [Luke] 11:54 indicates that after the last meal the leadership determined to catch Jesus.13

Whichever the case, the man was there and Jesus was going to help him. Without any record of the Pharisees or the lawyers speaking, He knew what they were thinking, so He addressed it. Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” They gave no answer. We’re told that Jesus then healed the man and sent him away.

Though the Pharisees and lawyers said nothing, we as the readers know from other passages of Scripture that they didn’t agree with how Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus knew what they were thinking, so He addressed accepted Sabbath practices which showed what everyone, including those present, would do if their child or ox fell into a well on the Sabbath. They would, of course, take action—even on the Sabbath—instead of leaving them there until the next day.

Once again Jesus, as an authoritative teacher, was presenting the proper way to understand the Sabbath: a day of God’s blessing, for doing good, for freeing those bound by disease, for restoration, to share in the redemption God has made available. He was calling them to change their outlook and to align themselves with the values of the kingdom of God.


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 Luke 13:10–17.

2 For more information on the synagogue and the Sabbath services see Jesus—His Life and Message: Synagogues and Sabbath.

3 Luke 11:14.

4 2 Corinthians 12:7.

5 Deuteronomy 5:13–14.

6 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 523.

7 A fortiori (ah-for-she-ory) statements are a type of logical argument that makes a case that if one thing is true, then it can be inferred that a second thing is even more certainly true. It was a teaching technique used by Jewish rabbis to teach from “the lesser to the greater,” meaning that if a conclusion applies in a lesser case, it also applies in a more important one. This lesser-to-greater argument is recognized when the text says something like “If … how much more.”

8 Luke 14:1–6.

9 Luke 7:30; 11:45–46, 52–53.

10 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 547.

11 Luke 7:37–38.

12 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 246, footnote 15.

13 Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1256–57.