Continuing our series addressing Peter Goodgame’s arguments that keeping the Torah is contrary to the New Covenant based on Yeshua’s own teachings and example, we’ll begin by quoting Peter again:
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:19-20)
This is a very hard-core statement that seems to uphold the view of Torah-observant Christians that Jesus was a reformer sent to call Israel back to the strict observance of the Mosaic Law. Yet Jesus Himself showed no such literal devotion to the letter of the Mosaic Law! Later in the Gospels we read that Jesus defended and protected His disciples who were breaking the Sabbath in Matthew 12:3-8, He directed the healed paralytic to break the Sabbath in John 5:8, and Jesus Himself then admitted to breaking the Sabbath in John 5:17-18.
Did he now? Because, as we pointed out in the previous post, if Jesus violated the Torah, then he was by definition a sinner, not a Savior. So let’s look at what is really going on here.
To demonstrate that Yeshua’s command to the healed paralytic to pick up his bed and walk was indeed a violation of God’s commandments, Peter cites two passages of Scripture:
Exodus 20:10 – But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.
Jeremiah 17:21-22 – Thus saith the LORD; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day, neither do ye any work, but hallow ye the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.
While some activities are clearly forbidden on the Sabbath by the Torah, such as lighting a fire (Exo. 35:3), there is no one passage in the Torah that defines what exactly counts as work. The early rabbis narrowed the list down to 39 types of activity (Mishneh Shabbat 7:2), which included carrying burdens between “domains” such as houses and city gates, on the basis of the passage from Jeremiah that Peter cites. However, there is no Biblical passage that defines exactly what amount of weight or kind of object constitutes a “burden.”
The Hebrew word for “burden” is massa. It is used to describe a heavy load that one would nominally carry on an animal (Exo. 23:5; 2Ki. 5:17, 8:9), to describe the weight of the Tabernacle components and furnishings (Num. 4), as well as loads brought into the city for commerce (Neh. 13:15, 19). In a metaphorical sense, it’s always used of bearing a heavy spiritual burden, such as the burden Moses bore in leading Israel (Num. 11:11). It is clear from the way the word is used elsewhere that Jeremiah is talking about people going about their normal commerce, carrying burdens of goods for sale.
The rabbis, as is their wont, put a “fence” around the commandment so that any object at all is considered a burden. Even today, an Orthodox Jew will not carry so much as a handkerchief in his pocket from one “domain” to another. To prevent this from becoming an unbearable tradition, they have also set up the tradition that a Jewish neighborhood may set up an ‘eruv, a table in the center which everyone contributes a bit of food to as a way of declaring that they are all celebrating Sabbath together as one domain, allowing the transport of reasonable amounts.
But–and this is the key–the restriction of carrying so much as a handkerchief on the Sabbath is not itself the Biblical commandment. It is a tradition only, and one that Yeshua clearly disagreed with. By commanding the man who had just been set free from the burden of his paralysis to violate the tradition, Yeshua was by no means sinning or commanding a sin against the Torah–but he was most certainly getting the attention of the authorities!
But what about Yeshua’s response? “My Father is working until now, and I myself am working” (John 5:17). First, note that his response is not to the controversy of a man carrying his pallet, but over the fact that Yeshua had healed him on the Sabbath at all! This was not the only time he had been forced to defend doing a miracle on the Sabbath (cf. Mat. 12:10ff). His response finds parallels in Jewish literature: “[God] rested only from the work of creating his world, but not from the work of dealing with the wicked and from the work of dealing with the righteous” (Genesis Midrash Rabba 11:10) and, “He also matchmakes on the Sabbath” (Gen.R. 68:4), are but two examples. Since men were born (and conceived) on the Sabbath and died on the Sabbath, God continued to do the work of granting and taking back souls on the Sabbath. Since Creation didn’t vanish, obviously God continued the work of sustaining it (cf. Heb. 1:3).
Yeshua’s response, then, is simply, “Hey, we all know that the Father himself works on the Sabbath, and it is very obvious that he chose to do a miracle on the Sabbath here, so what exactly is the problem of me doing the Father’s work?” The argument is very similar in that respect to his point that the priests “profane” the Sabbath by doing the work of the sacrificial service, and yet they haven’t sinned (Mat. 12:5).
At that time, Yeshua went on the Sabbath day through the grain fields. His disciples were hungry and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, “Behold, your disciples do what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him; how he entered into God’s house, and ate the show bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Torah, that on the Sabbath day, the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? But I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ (Hos. 6:6) you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Mat. 12:1-8)
To understand this event, we have to ask ourselves a couple of important questions: Why were they all hanging out in the middle of a field on the Sabbath and why did the disciples go to glean from the field when they became hungry? There is only one possible answer: They had been traveling and had not yet reached the next village before the Sabbath began at sundown on Friday, and they had run out of food in their packs. Now note what they didn’t do:
- They didn’t just keep going a few more miles to reach that next village so that they could get food. (Among Jews, it’s considered a great mitzvot to have guests on the Sabbath, so if they had made it there, they certainly could have found a hot meal.)
- They didn’t grind or cook the grain, but simply rubbed the heads open with their hands (Luke 6:1) and ate them raw.
If Yeshua no longer considered the Sabbath to be binding, they had at least two options that would have made for a much more comfortable setting and tasty meal. Obviously, while he considered the health and comfort of the hungry to have greater precedence (and cited Biblical precedence that was undeniably under the Law to prove his point), he and his disciples still refrained from work on the Sabbath. Indeed, Yeshua’s entire response to the Pharisees assumes the ongoing commandment of the Sabbath: He only claimed the authority to declare what was a violation of it and what wasn’t, not the authority to abolish it.
Yeshua’s whole teaching on the Sabbath boils down to one verse: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). That is, the Sabbath was meant as a blessing, not as an onerous religious duty. That being the case, it makes no sense at all that Yeshua would take the blessing of the Sabbath away in the New Covenant–and most Christians throughout history, even if they’ve celebrated it on a different day, have recognized this.