Exodus 31:14b (KJV 1900)
for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off
from among his people.
work is מְלָאכָה, məlāʾḵâ and while many argue that this has to refer only to trade or an occupation, or laborious work that involves toil (that's certainly the primary meaning), I think the meaning is broader, as it includes:
- religious service in the Temple by Levites: 1 Chron 28.13
- the work(s) of God - Jeremiah 50:25 and Nehemiah 6:16
So I don't think it's true that, for example, "healing" would not be considered work or teaching would not be considered work, nor that it's not work if it's not your occupation. Something else is at play here other than the definition of work because Jesus outlines a completely different interpretation of the sabbath than the one held by the Pharisees, so let's try to understand Christ's teachings:
Sign and Referent
First, the sabbath, circumcision, the temple, and sacrifices, are all symbols of another referent:
Exodus 31:13 (KJV 1900)
13 Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my
sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout
your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth
The Pharisees were focused on the sign at the expense of the referent, and so judged wrongly when one had to choose between them - they choose to honor the sign and dishonor the referent.
It is like a man who builds a costly monument to his wife, and so sells his wife into slavery in order to obtain funds to build it.
This was a constant theme of contention between Christ and the Pharisees [e.g. Matt 12:34-35, Matt 15.18, Luke 16:15]. Now the referent is always internal -- "that you may know" or "that you may receive mercy", "the presence of God", "deliverance", "peace", etc. It's not something you can see with the eyes. This is why God gave signs according to the outward appearance, but to focus on the sign and forget the referent is to judge wrongly:
23 If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law
of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made
a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?
24 Judge not according to
the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. [John 7:22-24]
The purpose of the Sabbath observance (the sign) is to recognize that God makes Israel holy (the referent). How is the sign related to the referent? Holy means separated, so separate from what? From Egypt, the land of toil. But it is not Israel that gives themselves rest, it is God that gives them rest.
that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth
People in Egypt can also stop working, but if they do, their needs aren't met. In Israel when people stop working, God provides their needs.
Exodus 16:29 (KJV 1900)
29 See, for that the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he
giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man
in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.
God's Priest must work on the Sabbath
Therefore God must do work on the Sabbath -- even more work than on any other day.
[John 5:17] But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I
Now God lives in eternity and all the works were completed from the foundation of the world (Heb 4:3), but here on earth, God's vessels do double duty: The priests mediate between God, and they work extra hard on the Sabbath with additional offerings in order for all the people's needs to be met.
9 “On the Sabbath day, two male lambs a year old without blemish, and
two tenths of an ephah of fine flour for a grain offering, mixed with
oil, and its drink offering: 10 this is the burnt offering of every
Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering. [Num 28:9-10 ESV]
This was Jesus' defense to accusations that he should not work:
[Matt 12.5-7] 5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath
days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?
[Matt 12.3-4] But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was
an hungred, and they that were with him; 4 How he entered into the
house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him
to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the
The picture of David entering the holy place and bringing out bread for his soldiers to eat is the image of Christ, and he has rights to do this since the bread is his body by which rest is obtained. Thus Jesus, like the priests, will be doing double duty on the sabbath providing rest to the people.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. [Matt 11:28]
The Sabbath work of the Priest is to give rest
All of the sabbath miracles that Jesus performed were to make people whole so they can have true rest on the Sabbath, not seeing any lack. Like the man who was laboring to get into the turbulent water, but Jesus healed him by grace, merely because he asked (a type for prayer), and then told him to pick up his bed and go home so that he can finally lie down in rest. This is the picture of God's provision on the Sabbath. It is in this sense that Jesus said "the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath" [Matt 12.8] - not because it means he can violate the sabbath, but because he is the one who sanctifies by giving rest.
Now we know that on the Sabbath, during the time of Christ, the people prayed for healing on the sabbath, as we found an Amidah prayer(1) believed to be pre-AD 70:
Heal us, Lord our God,
רפאינו יי אלהינו
from the pain of our heart and grief,
ממכאוב לבנו ויגון
and remove sighing from us,
ואנחה העבר ממבו
and bring healing for our wounds.
והעלה רפואה למכותינו
Blessed are you Lord, who heals
ברוך אתה יי רופא
the sick of his people Israel.
חולי עמו ישראל
Four times on the Sabbath (five times on high holy days) this prayer was recited, asking for spiritual, emotional, and physical healing. And when God sent a vessel to answer this prayer, the Pharisees accused the vessel of breaking the sabbath. They sold the wife in order to build a monument to her.
The Drift From Grace
The Pharisees scrambled the referent, which was about God's provision of rest, instead making it about their efforts of avoiding work.
How did the Pharisees then justify the extra work that the Priests must do on the Sabbath if it was not a recognition that God must provide more on that day? They actually thought God wanted more bulls to be given to him, rather than desiring mercy for the people, again confusing the sign (bulls offered) with the referent (God's forgiveness) so Christ said:
Matthew 12:7 (KJV 1900)
7 But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not
sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.
If they understood that the purpose of all those extra sacrifices was to give people peace, rather than giving God bulls, then they would know why the Priests must work double duty on the Sabbath and they would welcome more healings and more people having their burdens lifted on the Sabbath.
Similarly, in Mark 2.27: "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath", Jesus is saying that the purpose of the Sabbath is for people to obtain rest, not for God to see them making observances.
These are subtle distinctions -- in the wilderness it was clear that a double portion of manna fell from Heaven, but in Israel they could just work extra hard and set aside the fruit of their own labor to eat on the Sabbath and so lose sight of God's provision. Similarly, they misinterpret "the LORD hath given you the sabbath" in Ex 16.19, reading it as "the LORD hath given you rules about observing the Sabbath" - another subtle shift. That is, they thought the Law regarding the Sabbath was the gift, when the true gift was the rest. The referent was the gift.
Romans 10:2–3 (KJV 1900)
2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not
according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s
righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness,
have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.
Thus the double portion of manna from heaven was hidden from the Pharisees and so they could not obtain rest. What's worse, they also hid the referent from the people, thus preventing the people from obtaining rest, making the sign of no effect
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the
kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor
do you allow those who are entering to go in. [Matt 23:13]
A true observance of the Sabbath would require each man to take whatever burden they have, whether it is the need to do work, or some illness, or worry, and then turn to God in prayer, saying "Just as you delivered Israel from the toil of Egypt by your power, I know that you deliver me, and so I will rest and do nothing to meet the need by my own efforts as a sign that I recognize you meet all needs." Note that this is almost the Amidah prayer, but these are all subtle deviations from the road at the end of which they toil away trying to earn God's blessings through observance and they fall short of the Sabbath rest.
- David Instone-Brewer, Prayer and Agriculture, vol. 1, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 97–101.