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In Matthew 5:19, Jesus states that anyone who relaxes (ESV) even the least of the commandments in the Law and teaches others to do the same would be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But then in several instances, with regard to the Sabbath, he seems to do just that.

In the Old Testament, the interpretation of the commandments is very strict. One little infraction, even if accidental could result in instant death. Jesus’ interpretation of some of the commandments seems to go beyond even what is given in the OT, e.g., even being angry with a brother can be considered worthy of judgment in the same way as murder, and even looking upon a woman in lust is equivalent to adultery.

But his view of the Sabbath seems quite different. He seems to be teaching to take a more “practical” view of the Sabbath.

In Mark 2:27, after being questioned about why it was apparently okay with him for his disciples to be plucking grain to eat from the fields they were passing through, he states that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.

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  • Does this answer your question? At John 5:18, did Jesus break the Sabbath?
    – Michael16
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:12
  • Before asking, search thoroughly for that topic. My answer answers your que hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/76584/… The principle is practicality, ignoring smaller laws for the sake of greater laws.
    – Michael16
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:14
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    We have a contrast of extremes between Matthew 5:18 and 11:11-15. After all, is "least" greater' or least?
    – Betho's
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:24
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    John the Baptist claimed that Jesus was greater and that he was not worthy to untie his shoes in John 1:27. Jesus in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28 recalls this condition, however, remaining the least by serving the disciples and strictly fulfilling the two greatest commandments.
    – Betho's
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 15:25
  • The variant in Mark 2 would've been more relevant as a new topic Jesus saw a man working on sabbath and told him "Man, if you know what you do, blessed are you; but if you do not know, you are cursed and a transgressor of the law.
    – Michael16
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 2:52

7 Answers 7

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The difference needs to be seen between what the Mosaic law actually stated regarding Sabbath rules, and the additional interpretations that later scribes wrote down, so that the most minute detail was 'covered' to their satisfaction. The Mishnah contained Jewish tradition, but the Mishnah is not the Mosaic law.

For example, with regard to tithing rules, even weighing herbs was regulated, so as to get the most precise accuracy for tithing on herbs. The Mosaic law did not so regulate. Jesus exposed that particular example by saying:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faith. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." Matthew 23:23-24 N.I.V.

Notice that Jesus did not say they can neglect to give a tenth of their spices. He agreed with the Mosaic law that would include spices and herbs in the tithing reckoning, but he gave no agreement about the way the scribes and Pharisees sought to control the people with their strict interpretations whilst being hypocrites regarding the weighty matters of the law.

It was the same with strict Sabbath rules. Jesus' disciples had not broken the Mosaic law, for it allowed people to hand-pick from the margins of the fields, where grain was deliberately left uncut, for poor people to benefit from. See Exodus 34:21. However, the Mishnah was what Jesus' accusers were basing their criticism of his disciples on. They were seeking to find fault with Jesus, to discredit his ministry.

Jesus' answer was to remind them of what the Hebrew scriptures recorded regarding king David and his men, in need of food, in the days of Abiathar the high priest; he went into the house of God. He and his men ate the consecrated bread, which only the priests could lawfully eat. Now, that point is in the Mosaic law! See 1 Samuel 21:1-6 in the Bible.

Jesus concluded his expose of the nasty motive behind such pharisaical criticism that particular Sabbath day by saying that he is Lord of the Sabbath (which was made for man - not man made for the Sabbath) Mark 2:25-27. Constantly, Jesus had to expose the motives behind his enemies verbal attacks. That is the point missed by those seeking to accuse and to trip up those who believe in Jesus, including the Pharisees of his day. That clears up the seeming contradiction, showing that it was no contradiction at all.

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    +1. Excellent answer.
    – Dottard
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 20:05
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    @conceptualinertia Plucking the heads of grain is not harvesting. Harvesting of wheat usually involves a scythe and bundling them up in giant batches, then hauling them off, beating them to separate the heads from the stalk, and then also using various laborious processing to remove the chaff. The specific mention of plucking heads of grain is understood to mean "feeding of the poor", which you should not neglect during the Sabbath.
    – Nelson
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 0:57
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    In a way, the Mishnah was indeed the Mosaic law. As Jesus said in Matthew 23:2 "the Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses so do whatever they tell you." This is a reference to "Oral Torah," meaning that the "traditions of the elders" (Mk 7:3) have the same authority as Moses himself did. The issues that Jesus dealt with were part of an ongoing debate that still has not been completely resolves by observant Jews. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 3:14
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    @conceptualinertia Then it can be understood that, in the desire to "obey the law", the interpretation basically justified cruelty (not feeding the poor) for the sake of the law, which is precisely why Jesus got so angry. The obedience of the law is supposed to be an act of worship to God, but instead, it was corrupted to become license to cruelty. Straining a gnat and swallowing a camel; Missing the forest for the trees. The point is not the compliance of the law, but the Holiness of God.
    – Nelson
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 6:00
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    @dsollen Read Leviticus 27:30-34 & Numbers 18:21-29, for 2 examples of Mosaic tithing. Yes, tithing was done before the law was given, but it's also in the law. Even the Levitical priests had to tithe on the tithe they were entitled to (from the people)!
    – Anne
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 16:14
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This particular issue -- working on the sabbath -- was a matter of internal dispute among the Torah experts at the time. Indeed many of these issues are still matters of debate today among Orthodox Jews. Some rabbis allow one thing, some do not. So much more so in Jesus' day, when the Talmud was more still two centuries away.

Regarding healing, the general guideline would later emerge in the Talmud that healing on the Sabbath was permitted to save a life but not for less serious problems. However, it should be noted that problems with the eyes were considered serious enough that some rabbis allowed Sabbath-work restrictions to be set aside for that purpose. Jesus seems to have been among this group, for he healed a blind man on the Sabbath in John 9. Sources for Jesus' own time are scarce but the Talmud preserves a disagreement between the two major schools of the time regarding healing on the Sabbath:

(The house of Shammai says) one does not [even] pray for the sick on the Sabbath.’ The house of Hillel permits these activities.” (Tosefta Shabbat 16:22)

Regarding cooking, gleaning, plucking grain: these issues have been matters of debate among the rabbis from before the time of Jesus to the present day. Jesus placed himself among the "liberal" interpreters of the Law on questions of the Sabbath, commerce with Gentiles, and other halakhic issues. But on others, notably divorce, he was quite conservative.

Jesus emphasized that the Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa. In so saying he adopted a position in line with prophets like Hosea, who said: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6). Just as God commanded sacrifices as a way for people to be reconciled with Him, so God instituted the Sabbath as a day of rest, even for slaves and others who were vulnerable to exploitation.

Jesus' stance on the Sabbath was very much within the Jewish tradition not opposed to it.

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  • The Jews accused Jesus of performing therapy on the Sabbath and not of performing miracles. What do you think about?
    – Betho's
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 4:04
  • "The Jews" is too broad... like saying "the Christians" supported black slavery. There were debates then, as now, as to whether it was OK to do medical work on the Sabbath. There is evidence that the Essenes were very strict on this issue but others, like Jesus, took the view that saving a life was more important. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:26
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    In the Tamud Rav Yehudah told a story about why preparing and administering medicine for a sore eye should be permitted even on the Sabbath: -- 'It once happened to a maidservant in Mar Shmu’el’s house that her eye became inflamed on a Sabbath. She cried, but no one attended her [because of the Sabbath prohibitions] and her eye burst. The very next day, Mar Shmu’el went out and taught that if one’s eye gets out of order it is permissible to apply salve even on the Sabbath.” (b.Avodah Zarah 28b) Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:28
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The simplest explanation was that Jesus was arguing that his disciples were starving and therefore permitted to violate the Sabbath to eat under the principle of "Pikuach Nefesh"--saving lives--which overrides the Sabbath.

In Mark 2:25-26, Jesus compares his and his disciples situation to when David ate the consecreated bread--something forbidden for non-priests. The Oral Tradition's explanation for David's actions was that David and his men were starving and needed the food to survive.

Jesus then adds that preserving human life overrides the Sabbath because the Sabbath was made for man.

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Jesus spoke against the Pharisees in Mark 7:

9b “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!

Matthew 5:

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Jesus wasn't addressing the Gentile teachers but only the Jewish teachers, particularly the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.

Mark 2:

23One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26how he entered the house of God, in the time ofd Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Did Jesus relax or set aside or break the Sabbath law?

He might have. In any case, he could do it on that occasion because he was the lord of the Sabbath.

Did Paul set aside the Sabbath law in Colossians 2:

16 let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.

Paul addressed the gentiles not the Jews. The gentiles were never commanded to keep the Sabbath in the first place.

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There was no contradiction.

Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples picked some heads of wheat, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. Luke. 6:1 NET

The verse is clear in touching the disciples have no tools to remove the husks from the corn. This sentence is very important for the context because it indicates the fulfillment of this law:

When you go into the ripe grain fields of your neighbor you may pluck off the kernels with your hand, but you must not use a sickle on your neighbor's ripe grain. Deut. 23:25 NET

About "not lawful to do on the sabbath days", let's see:

You may have the Sabbath produce of the land to eat– you, your male servant, your female servant, your hired worker, the resident foreigner who stays with you Lev. 25:6 NET

In Nehemiah 10:31 the Jews volunteer to carry out the rest law of the land, like done for example in Maccabees 6:49 "σάββατον ἦν τῇ γῇ"

We will not buy on the Sabbath or on a holy day from the neighboring peoples who bring their wares and all kinds of grain to sell on the Sabbath day. We will let the fields lie fallow every seventh year, and we will cancel every loan. NET Nehemiah 10:31

Then some questions arise:

  1. In the ministry of Jesus was there a Sabbath of rest for the land?

  2. Did Jesus interpret the Sabbath of the Sabbath rest of the land in a non-peculiar way?

In the way i suspect!

The traditional text includes the adjective δευτεροπρώτῳ after the noun Sabbath in Luke 6:1 and the modern critical text omits it.

This variant, a great theological mystery, indicates at the very least a differentiation from the standard weekly Sabbath.

So it is necessary to consult the historical Hebrew writings regarding this particularity.

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  • Once again, this comes down to an internal debate among Jews. The acting of picking and rubbing was considered "work" by some, but not by others. Since there are very few contemporary sources for this outside the NT, it is hard to say whether Jesus ideas about the Sabbath were peculiar or not. Rabbinic opinions on such issues were not preserved until a couple of centuries later. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:38
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    Lev 25 is talking about the sabbath year, the every seventh year in which they don't sow any crop, but eat only fruits. The purpose of your quoting Nehemiah 10:31 is unclear, they say they do not buy anything on sabbath from the nations.
    – Michael16
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 9:39
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The most comprehensive command on the Sabbath is found in Leviticus:

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places. (Leviticus 23:3 ESV)

Only here is the triadic requirement of rest, gathering, and not working stated.

In addition to rest and not working, the Sabbath requires a מִקְרָא, typically translated as convocation, assembly, or reading. In each and every occasion in which Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath, the focus is on what is against the law, ignoring the fact Jesus is always on the way to the synagogue or the Temple, or in the synagogue or Temple. He is always fulfilling the requirement of meeting.

Nowhere can it be said Jesus relaxed the requirement of gathering on the Sabbath.

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In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5,6,7), Jesus indeed set the bar far higher than that of the Law.

Jesus did this many times by saying “You have heard that it was said…”,(and then refers to the particular law), and then He would go on to say, “But I say to you…”, (and He then goes on to raise the bar even higher).

Here is an example:

Matthew 5:27, 28 AMPC

27 You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that everyone who so much as looks at a woman with evil desire for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Here is another example;

Matthew 5:43, 44 AMPC

43 You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy; 44 But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

You pointed out that the Law was strict and yet here in each of these examples that Jesus speaks of, the hearer is confronted with an astoundingly higher and practically impossible standard.

So, why did Jesus do this?

I believe it was because Jesus was illustrating just how high the bar of the holiness of God, actually is … and how impossible it is for a man to attain it by his own effort.

Jesus wanted them to come to the end of themselves.

Matthew 5:20 ESV

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

After saying many such things, Jesus then leads His hearers to a stunning crescendo of the Sermon on The Mount in Ch 7 by concluding that those who Hear His Words but do not Do or Practice them, are hypocrites, but those who are wise, are those who are both Hearers and Doers.

Which would have left his hearers astonished and thinking “how can we even hope to keep such high laws? such that even the thoughts of our hearts are completely pure?, how can our righteousness ever hope to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? How can we ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven then?”.

Of course, you and I when we hear this, must also ask ourselves “how can we keep these laws?”

The answer is: We cannot.

Matthew 5:17 ESV

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Romans 3:20-25 ESV

20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith

It is only Jesus, alone, who has kept the perfect and Holy and high law of God.

We, fail. Miserably.

Our ability to emulate all that Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount, lies in our being Born Again in Him, receiving His righteousness, and being given new hearts, onto which He writes the Law of love, by which we then seek to Love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbour as our selves, through the empowerment of His Holy Spirit, and in doing so, we keep the Law of God, not by the measure of rules, but by the measure of love in our hearts.

Because all the Law and the Prophets are summed up in this,

Matthew 22:37-40 NKJV

37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

This is why Love is the fulfillment of the Law and prophets.

And this is why Sin = Lack of Love.

Sin, misses the mark.. of Love.

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