The Real Jesus
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The Real Jesus

Chapter 17

Was Jesus a Lawbreaker?

   It is almost universality assumed that Jesus was dedicated to the task of eradicating the harsh, brutal system of law which had been like a harsh taskmaster, a yoke of bondage, over the Israelitish people from the days of Moses.
   Christ is seen as abrogating the Old Testament, and ushering in the New. Millions believe Him to be the very symbol of deliverance from the requirement to obey the Ten Commandments.
   These concepts are all false.
   As has been amply demonstrated, Jesus Christ of the New Testament was the very God of the Old Testament. He was the Lawgiver, that "Rock" that followed Israel in the wilderness. This was the same member of the God family, later to be born of the virgin Mary and become Jesus of Nazareth, the same Being who wrote the Ten Commandments with His own finger, and delivered them to Moses.
   Jesus was a Jew.
   As such, He studiously obeyed the laws of Moses throughout His entire life. Never once did He commit the slightest infraction either against the "letter of the law" and most specifically never against the intent or the spirit of the law.
   But He did smash the traditions of men.
   His obvious disregard for man-made traditions was used to great advantage in teaching His disciples the moral principles of the spirit of the law, while at the same time condemning the "straining at a gnat and swallowing of a camel" legalistic attitudes of the Pharisees.
   As a lawkeeper, Jesus fulfilled every one. of the Ten Commandments in their deepest spiritual application. As Lord of the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27) Jesus strove to teach His disciples that the "Sabbath was made for man," and instead of being a grievous yoke of bondage wherein an individual could be better advised to spend the day in a straitjacket so as to avoid even the slightest infraction which would bring about sure death, Jesus taught His disciples of the many "grievous burdens" added as humanly devised "do's and don'ts" to the original laws of Moses by the religious leaders of the day.
   The Jewish leaders had added many restrictions to the original law of Moses. They attempted to "build a wall around the Torah" in order to prevent a person from ever getting even close to breaking the law.
   All knew that ancient Israel had been sent into captivity for disregarding God's Law — especially the Sabbath. In the generations following their return from captivity, the religious leaders were determined not to allow the people to ever again break God's Sabbath. So they added many further restrictions to "insulate and protect" the actual law. It was as if a property owner would put "No Trespassing" signs far outside the actual boundaries of his property in order that no one would ever trespass.
   Humanly speaking, the architects of this concept were sincere, God-fearing men, dedicated to God's Law. But with the passing years, as is common to all ideological movements, the pure ideals of the originators became structured into the rigorous regulations of the sustainers. It is impossible to legislate character, however.
   From early boyhood, Jesus recognized how the religious leaders of His day had managed to so exaggerate, misapply, distort, traditionalize and embellish the original Mosaic code that it took, quite literally, experts in "the Law" to even interpret the system.
   Some of these scholarly interpreters of the law were among those who Jesus encountered when He was 12 years of age in the temple. Even then, Jesus' considerable knowledge of the Scriptures, plus the dimension of God's Holy Spirit, enabled Him to ask such embarrassing questions concerning the stringencies of their traditional codes that they were amazed.
   Throughout His life prior to His ministry, Jesus became increasingly aware of the terrible fear gripping the minds of many members of the local synagogues: that the traditional system of law which occupied their time was so unbelievably complex and rigorous that one could find himself nervous, frantic, fretting, questioning and guilty — all at the same time! One had to be seeking continual advice from the religious leaders about every conceivable human act in order to even have a chance to be "righteous."
   Jesus saw this "fear of religion" as a bondage of the worst sort. He called this legalistic mixture of ritual adherence to the laws of Moses "grievous burdens and heavy to be borne." Because of His previous existence as Lawgiver to Israel, Jesus could see that God's Ten Commandments were not intended to be restrictive, negative, punitive or confining. Rather, He knew that God's Law was a great law of liberty (James 1:25), and that any nation which would observe, even in the letter, such a law, would literally ride the high places of the earth.
   Back in Egypt the ancient Israelites had been long accustomed to ceremonial religion; religion involving ritual, religion which required the use of animals as "representations of gods" and therefore worthy of worship, and, in their most grievous sin of all during their sojourn in the wilderness, they made themselves a replica of one of the Egyptian gods by throwing all of their household jewelry into a common pot, and, finally seeing the creation of their own hands in the form of a golden bullock, disintegrated into an idolatrous "religious ceremony" which was nothing more than a frenzied orgy.
   Jesus could recall how He had finally been forced to "give them [ancient Israel] over" to a system of sacrifices in order to teach them certain lessons.
   Repeatedly, in His prehuman form, He had inspired the prophets to explain that the sacrifices were not God's most perfect desire; that they only were able to provide a carnal, profane people with a "system" of ritual which accomplished two basic purposes: (1) It kept ancient Israel, at least from time to time and not perfectly, from embracing the idolatrous customs of heathen nations around them, some of whom practiced infanticide and other forms of human sacrifice; (2) in the slaying of lambs, goats, bullocks, and the offering of turtle doves, there was always the reminder that the wages of sin was death, as well as a shadowy type of the future sacrifice of a Savior.
   Jesus inspired His disciples with His own deepest devotion to the Ten Commandments, not only in their letter but in their spiritual intent. He also inspired continual amazement at His almost casual disregard for the terribly complex system of rigorous legalism which had been attached to the divinely revealed law. By the time Jesus walked the earth as a boy and later as a man in His ministry, the religious system of the times represented not only the original Ten Commandments with all of the statutes and judgments given in the wilderness, not only all of the "morning and evening sacrifices" in the temple, including special sacrifices on annual high days and on each weekly Sabbath, but also included hundreds of additional restrictions, taboos, observations, judgments, regulations, ordinances, and legalistic requirements.
   Thus, eventually, though perhaps after Jesus' day, the question had finally been brought to some particularly meticulous religious leader about what one should do if a flea were crawling on you during the incantation in the synagogue. It may have taken months to resolve this huge difficulty, but when it was finally resolved, the regulation handed down was that it would surely break the Sabbath to go to the "work" of picking the flea from your person and casting it away or attempting to crush it between your fingernails, but that if you observed carefully, and it actually bit you, then and only then were you permitted to kill the little beast!
   From the very earliest moments of His ministry, Jesus had taught the broad spiritual principles of God's Law, applying them to human action and thought, while at the same time almost casually disregarding the added legalistic rituals.
   This is why, in the first of His dissertations recorded, "The Sermon on the Mount," Jesus had to use the language He did.
   He could easily have said to His disciples, "As you know, I have come to be the finest example of lawkeeping the world has ever seen!"
   But He didn't.
   Instead, He said, "Don't think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I did not come to destroy them but to fulfill [fill them up to the brim]" (Matt. 5:17).
   Obviously then, people had thought — and perhaps His own disciples were among them — that Jesus was breaking God's Law. He was not, and so had to remind everyone of this absolute fact.
   ("I am telling you the truth; till heaven and earth pass away, not one period, or one crossing of the t will in any way pass away from the law till everyone everywhere is fulfilling it.
   "Whoever it is, therefore, who would break one of the very least of the commandments [whichever one he would hold to be least] and would teach others to do likewise, he will be called the very least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, that person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." vv. 18, 19, paraphrased.)
   Therefore, He said, "Don't think that I am come to destroy the law."
   In a broader sense, Jesus was also referring to the two major sections of the Old Testament! They are referred to in the Bible as "the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms." The "Law" is taken by many scholars to mean the "Torah," or the first five books of the Bible from Genesis to Deuteronomy. In a more restrictive sense, it includes the Ten Commandments, the statutes and judgments.
   Following this statement about law, Jesus explained in great detail what He meant.
   He said, "Because I am telling you, that except your righteous deeds and acts would be even more righteous than those of the Scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you are going to enter into the kingdom of heaven."
   This was a shocking statement. Everyone held that the religious hierarchy were the "most righteous," and their titles, albeit in a different language and a different religious system than that extant in most of our Western world today, were probably quite similar. There may have been "Right Reverend" this and the "Most Reverend" that, meaning holier than thou and practically everybody else.
   To allege that a person could live a more righteous life than a posturing Pharisee was like throwing a brick through a stained-glass window!
   The masses would have thought it impossible, because they assumed "Righteous Joe Pharisee" was living so perfectly and so close to God there was virtually no room for improvement.
   This portion of the Sermon on the Mount, however, continues to explain in great length by using one example after another right out of the Ten Commandments how Jesus meant to magnify the law.
   Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would "magnify the law, and make it honorable" (Isaiah 42:21). So Jesus began to extrapolate the Ten Commandments from what they had always heard into the broad, spiritual principles that God had originally intended.
   Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not kill and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment." (The original commandment against killing meant, from wording and context, "You shall do no murder.")
   "But I say unto you that whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment day, and whoever would say to his brother, 'You vain, empty useless thing,' shall be in danger of the Sanhedrin, but whosoever shall say, 'You idiot, you fool,' shall be in danger of Gehenna."
   Thus Jesus illustrates three steps of human contemptuousness toward a fellow human being. The first-anger, irritation, and "being mad" at someone — brings a person in danger of being judged of God for his anger. The second-hurling an epithet and calling another human being empty, purposeless, wasted and totally useless — would bring about a further degree of stern judgment; in this case being hailed before the council of the Sanhedrin or, in Jesus' broader terms, standing before the spiritual council of God, and giving account for every word that was spoken. The third — to commit the most serious act of actual seething hatred to the depths of one's heart, of wishing another human being dead — would bring about, unless it was repented of, loss of eternal life by being thrown into the Gehenna fire Jesus spoke of.
   It was then, right in the midst of these examples of the magnification of the basic points of the Ten Commandments and applying them to broader spiritual purposes, that Jesus showed both His disciples and any other interested listeners that He was both upholding the law of Moses and adding to the practice of formal worship revolving around the temple, spiritual and godly elements of forgiveness and love toward a fellow human being.
   Jesus said, "Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and while you are offering it you remember that you have a contention against a brother, leave the gift there before the altar, and go back about your business. First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come back and offer your gift."
   Jesus showed it does no good whatsoever to perform some sanctimonious religious act in a spiritualistic ritual, so long as the human heart is tainted with contempt, anger, or hostility toward one's fellow man.
   He said, "Agree with your adversary quickly, whenever you are in contention with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. I am telling you the truth, you will not come out of there until you have paid the uttermost part of your fine" [served the final day of your sentence].
   Again, Jesus showed that it made no sense to fight false battles for false purposes. In this case, "your adversary" was obviously able to make a legal case against you, no matter the moral or spiritual right or wrong of the matter.
   Jesus showed His own disciples that a true Christian spirit should be willing to suffer abuse, even if in the right. Jesus taught His disciples to agree with an "adversary" knowing that they would be gaining spiritual riches and that such adversaries, given the smug satisfaction they had won a battle, "had their reward" here and now.
   Again, Jesus upholds due process of law! He points out that the system of that time — and to a large measure the system of our time — required that a person judged guilty by the court be delivered to an officer of that court so that the proper sentence could be carried out.
   Considering the obvious upholding of even these minor points of law, Jesus could never have been accused by His words in the Sermon on the Mount of being a "lawbreaker"!
   If He could have been, if Jesus was advocating the breaking of the law, then the giving of this sermon could have meant the precipitous end to His ministry prior to ever coming down from the mountain!
   Never, throughout the three-and-one-half years of His ministry, in spite of His casual disregard of ritualistic rigorism, could Jesus be arrested on the basis of supposedly "lawbreaking"!
   Yet, this was the most intense area of concentration surrounding His ministry. Continually, Pharisees and Sadducees and other religious groups came to His disciples and plaintively whimpered, "Why does your teacher break every tradition of the elders?" Continually, they challenged Jesus on one or another of the finer points of religious ritualism. But never were they able to convict Him of a single "lawbreaking" act! Always He made it very clear there was a vast distinction between humanly devised religious traditions, and the divinely revealed will and law of God.
   Jesus addressed Himself directly to one of the Ten Commandments when He said, "You have heard that it was said by them of old time, you shall not commit adultery: but I am telling you, that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his mind" (v. 28). Thus, Jesus upheld the original law against adultery, but vastly magnified and made more binding the implication of the law by stating it was just as great a sin in the sight of God to sexually "lust" after a human being as it was to literally complete the act.
   The religious leadership of the time had taken every single point of the Ten Commandments, and added dozens of legalistic addenda.
   However, they had also allowed to creep into their theological system various direct and flagrant violations of the spiritual intent of the first three commandments, by allowing various forms of "oath taking," "swearings," and affirmations of truth which were actually outside the bounds of God's Law.
   Therefore, Jesus said, "Again, you have heard that it has been said by them of old time, you are not to foreswear yourself, but shall perform unto the Eternal all your vows."
   "But I am telling you, do not swear at all! Don't swear by heaven because it is God's throne; don't swear by the earth; because it is His footstool; don't swear by Jerusalem because it is the city of the great king!" (Jesus knew that it was a series of oaths which could be taken in legal or religious proceedings which might embody the use of the heavens, or even the earth, as well as the city of Jerusalem, and addressed Himself not only to these legal applications of "swearing," but also managed to show that the casual use of seemingly harmless "by-words" — meaning "by-this" or "by-that" as used in a common form of swearing — were also contrary to God's expressed will.)
   Even during Jesus' day, people were probably saying, "Merciful heavens." "For heaven's sake," "Good heavens," and similar exclamations. In every language, you will find those same expressions today, from one so-called Christian society to another.
   Most people would see no harm in these expressions, and millions of good "Christian" folk, who would never think of "cussing" or using the language of restroom graffiti, will nevertheless use, quite freely and liberally, expressions which Jesus condemned.
   Jesus said, "Neither shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your communication be Yes, yes or No, no, for whatsoever is more than these is from the evil one."
   To a person who is absolutely truthful, Jesus explained, there is no need whatever for additional embellishments to impress the hearer. To a converted Christian who will not lie, a simple "yes" is sufficient. That "yes," based upon the Christian's perceptions of God's Word and the fact of the Ten Commandments of God as magnified by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout His life, means far more than all of the oaths taken by every person who has ever entered a courtroom, and should be far more valuable than any number of swearings, oath takings, or promises made on the proverbial "stack of Bibles."
   Next, Jesus addressed Himself to the section of the law of Moses in which certain penalties were prescribed for certain actions.
   He said, "You have heard that it has been said an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." While not quoting the rest of it, Jesus knew it also said, "Hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, and wound for wound, and stripe for stripe" (Ex. 21:24, 25).
   But addressing Himself to the entire principle of meting out exact punishment commensurate with the injury, Jesus said, "But I say unto you, that you resist not those who are evil: but whoever will smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue you in the courts, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.
   "And whoever compels you to go with him a mile [this happened from time to time when Roman mail carriers would impose burdens upon hapless passersby and make them carry their own loads] go with him two miles.
   "Give to those who ask of you, and from him who would borrow from you, do not turn him away."
   The principle of "give" — of forgiveness, loving, sharing — was what Jesus preached and practiced. But never did Jesus intend to imply that a Christian under His New Testament teachings was not obligated to obey God, and to obey the commandments which He, Jesus, in His preexistent state, had written with His own finger!
   Later on in this same sermon, following His outline of a prayer, comments on fasting and seeking the kingdom of God over materialistic values, Jesus said, "Therefore, everything you want other men to do to you, you ought to do to them! Because this is the whole meaning of the law and the prophets!" Again, Jesus is upholding the law, magnifying and making it "honorable" by lifting it to the much higher plateau of spiritual application.
   The traditional perception of Jesus is that He was anti-Jewish, having done away with the Old Testament and the law of Moses. The common reasoning behind this conclusion is circular: since Christianity is opposed to Judaism as a concept, and since Christians do not observe the Jewish Sabbath, Holy Days, etc., then Jesus Christ Himself must have been anti-Jewish and opposed to the Old Testament law. Of course, the erroneousness of the conclusion is only exceeded by the absurdity of the logic.
   There are many features about Jesus in the New Testament that stamp Him as indisputably Jewish. His ancestry is traced back to David in two separate accounts (Matt. I and Luke 3). He was circumcised as the law stated (Luke 2:21).
   Yet some have seemed to think that His Jewish heritage was only forced upon Him by quirk of birth — and He abrogated the Jewish law the first chance He had. This assumption is based on several falsehoods: (1) reading the practice, belief and biblical understandings of the later Catholic Church into the gospels, and (2) reading the gospels as if all the Jewish laws and customs being discussed were those perpetuated into modern times by the later rabbinic Judaism.
   Rabbinic Judaism is a post-A.D. 70 phenomenon derived from Pharisaism, but with a strong infusion of other elements as well. However, Judaism before A.D. 70 was a much more diverse and pluralistic entity. The average Jew was not a member of a religious party even though he may have been more or less pious.
   This is important to recognize because many people read Jesus' statements to isolated sectarians, such as the Pharisees, as if Jesus were speaking to all the Jews. Jesus condemned sin in any form, but He especially scourged the hypocrisy and duplicity of those who claimed to be religious teachers yet denied with their own lives the very platitudes they voiced. (This does not mean that every Pharisee or religious proponent was a hypocrite; rather, it is reasonable to require that those who set themselves up as teachers deserve the greater condemnation when they fail to attain their own standards.) Jesus felt only compassion for the poor sinner — the average Jew — who acknowledged his guilt and asked in humility for God's forgiveness and help (Luke 18:9-14).
   Jesus was an ordinary Jew in a Jewish society. As such His associations were primarily with Jews. Far from being a standoffish or a piously aloof individual, Jesus was criticized by religious sectarians on a number of occasions for associating with "sinners." Were these all Gentiles or lepers? By no means.
   Jesus was willing to go to all levels of the Jewish community where He could help, whether it meant associating with the wealthy ruling class at banquets and feasts or with prostitutes and their customers at the lower edge of society.
   Some of the Pharisees and Scribes who belonged to the Pharisaic sect thought it was quite a scandalous situation when Jesus and His disciples were willing to sit down at the same table with such people. In fact one of His disciples whom He had just called (Matthew, or Levi) was a tax collector. ("Tax collector" was, in the common parlance of the day, a synonym for "sinner." They ranked along with harlots, whoremongers, traitors; they were looked upon as crooks even though they might be very wealthy and "respectable." This was an outgrowth of the society of Jesus' own day; there was nothing in the Old Testament forbidding association with such individuals.) When Jesus was asked about this, He replied, "Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. Learn what it means by, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
   Jesus minced no words about the sins of the priests any more than He did about those of the Pharisees and others. Yet He very much respected and upheld the functions of the Old Testament priesthood. On a number of occasions, after He had healed a leper of this loathsome disease, He told him to report to the priest for the proper temple ritual and official pronouncement of cleanliness (Matt. 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-14; 17:12-14). Jesus in fact paid the temple tax even though He was legitimately exempt from it (Matt. 17:24-27).
   Continually, people cite the cases of Jesus chasing the cattle and money changers out of the temple, believing this to be an example of lawbreaking on Christ's part. Apparently, they have never read the scriptural account; or, if they did, they read it only cursorily, and without real understanding.
   You'll find the account in Matthew 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-47, and John 2:14-17.
   Here, Jesus appears, not as a "vagabond" or "wayfarer" who is causing a disturbance against established authority, but as the proprietor of the temple, and the direct representative of its ultimate owner, God the Father. He said, "It is written," thus citing the greatest law common to them all, that of the Word of God, "My house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves." (In that day Roman money had to be changed into Jewish, in which temple contributions were collected, and no doubt shortchanging occurred, considering the differences in value of the two types of coins and the general tendency of human greed!)
   Christ was in authority here, not a casual visitor. Not once did the money changers, nor the owners of the cattle, nor the Jewish religious leaders, say one word about anything "unlawful."
   If He broke the law, why not arrest Him? But no law was broken; it was being upheld. Christ cited the law, when He quoted Isaiah 56:7. He, then, was a representative, both of the property (the temple), and the law.
   Remember, too, that even when false witnesses were being bribed to bring false charges against Him during His trial, not once did anyone bring up the issue of Christ chasing the cattle and money changers out of the temple — even though He did so twice, about two years apart.
   Jesus' respect for the temple is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than by these two cleansings of the temple. As soon as Jesus reached Jerusalem, He had a look around the temple, illustrating His concern for it (Mark 11:11). The next day He returned and entered into it in wrath to clean it of the gross disrespect being shown by the business dealings in the temple precinct. He was determined that the temple, which He regarded as His Father's house, would not become a robbers' nest while He was around in the flesh. He even prevented people from carrying things through the temple area (Mark 11:16). Could Jesus have therefore regarded the temple as an obsolete vestige of an antiquated religion? His intense concern, risking bodily harm, demonstrates just the opposite!
   Throughout His ministry, Jesus is described as teaching in the synagogues (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 12:9; 13:54: John 6:59: 18:20), as well as other places, such as His house. Although we are not told of His years before His ministry, we may safely conclude that He regularly attended the synagogue and participated in the weekly Sabbath services (Luke 4:16). He caused astonishment by His bold teaching in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-22; Luke 4:31-32). In His own home city, Jesus attended the synagogue on the Sabbath day "as was His custom."
   Jesus' relationship to the Sabbath has confused many people, most especially the vast majority of the Christian world who are determined to cast Him as a Sabbath breaker Himself and a Sabbath destroyer for everyone else.
   But Jesus' sayings about, and actions on, the Sabbath have to be read in the proper context both of the gospel accounts and of the Sabbath beliefs of the Jews of the time. Without the proper cultural background some have twisted the Scriptures in order to justify their own personal convictions, traditions or desires.
   Sabbath keeping was a practice among all Jews, both those in Palestine and in the Diaspora. In fact, Sabbath observance was very widely known in the Roman world as a whole even among non-Jews. This is clear from the number of references in various writers in the first centuries B.C. and A.D., including Josephus.
   Sabbath observance was so important in the Jewish religion that there are statements in Talmudic literature to the effect that Sabbath observance is equivalent to the Abrahamic Covenant, and that the law of the Sabbath was said to be equal to all the other laws and commandments in the Torah! (Mekhilta 62; Pesikta Rabbati 23; Palestinian Talmud Berachot 3; Nedarim 38; Exodus Rabba 25). This is an incredible concept and highly relevant for achieving an accurate understanding of the teaching of the New Testament regarding Sabbath observance for the Christian.
   The enormous importance of the Sabbath in Judaism — said to actually be the equivalent of all the other laws of God — is powerful corroboratory evidence that neither Jesus nor any of the following apostles ever "did away" with Sabbath observance as the day God created for rest and worship. The few scriptures (primarily in Paul's writings), often quoted in an attempt to end the obligation of Christians to keep the Sabbath pale by comparison with the overwhelming significance of the Sabbath. If the apostles had dared to eliminate the Sabbath, surely a gargantuan conflict would have exploded into the New Testament record. Compare, for example, the major controversy in the New Testament Church over circumcision (Acts 15), which was declared to be unnecessary or optional for Christians, with the relatively minor controversy over how a Christian should observe the Sabbath (in contradistinction to the customary rigorous regulations of common Jewish law).
   Since the Sabbath was considered by the Jews to be so important — as important as all the rest of the law put together in some circles — if Jesus and His apostles had taught and practiced the total abrogation of the Sabbath commandment as is claimed by professing Christianity, then the religious controversy and disputations would had to have filled the gospels, the book of Acts and all the epistles! There was no such enormous controversy in the New Testament church because the Sabbath was not "done away"!
   Why then do we not find repeated reaffirmations of the Sabbath as a command of God? It is mentioned, of course (e.g., Acts 13:42; 17:2 etc.), but everybody in the New Testament world already knew about or already believed in the importance of the Sabbath. There was no doubt or uncertainty. To have emphasized Sabbath keeping in the New Testament would have been like the proverbial carrying coals to Newcastle or taking ice to Eskimos. The issue that Jews (and later the apostles) addressed was not whether to observe the Sabbath — it was always revered as the fourth of the Ten Commandments; the issue was rather how to observe the Sabbath in light of the repressive, restrictive concepts of the day.
   The Jewish reverence for the Sabbath developed during the exilic period — because the Jews realized that the careless or flagrant desecration of the Sabbath was one of the major causes of their captivity. This profound Sabbath concern continued strong throughout the intertestamental period. During the persecutions of Antioch us IV (Epiphanes), one group of devout Jews refused to defend themselves on the Sabbath and was slaughtered (I Mace. 2:33 ff.). Therefore, Mattathias and his followers determined to fight in self-defense on the Sabbath. But even then they would not take the offensive on that day (II Mace. 8:26 ff.).
   The Book of Jubilees, a midrash (extended paraphrase and commentary) on Genesis, gives some detailed laws on Sabbath observance. While the book itself may have arisen in sectarian circles, it concurs with the general Jewish views of the time as known from other sources. (It is generally dated to the second century B.C.) Among its regulations are not to prepare any food or drink, carry any burden in or out not already prepared before the Sabbath, take anything between houses, or draw water (2:29-30). Other rules include not lighting a fire, riding on an animal or ship, catching and/or killing an animal, fasting, making war, or having sexual relations (50:8, 12).
   The Qumran community, generally identified with the Essenes, preserved similar regulations. Forbidden are going more than a thousand cubits from one's town or lifting an animal from a pit or helping it give birth, as well as a number of the regulations mentioned in Jubilees. One is apparently allowed to save a human from water or fire, though use of an instrument to do so seems prohibited (Damascus Covenant x. 14-xi. 18).
   When we turn to the rabbinic literature, we find that 39 kinds of things were forbidden on the Sabbath (Mishah Shabbath 7.2). One cannot automatically project the statements of later rabbinic literature back into Palestine before A.D. 70. Recent research has shown that much of the rabbinic material was derived in shape and detail from post-A.D. 70 times (see the works of Jacob Neusner). However, many of the kinds of things prohibited by the Mishnah are borne out by New Testament examples as being genuine practices in the time of Jesus.
   By comparing the regulations of the Mishnah and later literature with the intertestamental and New Testament writings, there also seems even to have been a gradual relaxing of strictness. G. F. Moore writes, "Where the Sabbath observance in these [earlier] writings differs substantially from the Tannaite Halakah [later rabbinic teachings], it is generally in the direction of greater strictness' (Judaism, II, 27). Billerbeck agrees "that there was a more rigorous administration of Sabbath observance in the days of Jesus than in the time during which the regulations of the Mishnah arose" (Kommentar, II, 819). If one thinks that the later proverbial talmud of Sabbath laws espoused by rabbinic Judaism was burdensome, they were still less exacting than many in Jesus' own time.
   Therefore, when Jesus was called into account for doing certain things on the Sabbath, it was certainly not for violating specific Old Testament prohibitions. Rather, Jesus was ignoring the rigorous Sabbath regulations devised by sincere, though misguided, men. The Old Testament did not forbid one to pick ears of grain on the Sabbath and then eat them on the spot. Yet when Jesus and His disciples did this (Mark 2:23; Matt. 12:1; Luke 6:1), He was called to account and severely chastised, because this was classified as reaping, and their rubbing loose the grain into their hands as threshing. Similarly, it was forbidden to treat a sickness when the sick person's life was in no immediate danger. Jesus' healing of the man with the withered arm was a violation of this rule. (The incident immediately follows the one just mentioned in each of the gospels.) Many regulations — some early and some late — are given in the tractate Shabbath in the Mishnah and especially the two Talmuds.
   The Pharisees and Scribes were watching Jesus to see whether He would heal on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11). Note the analogy that Jesus used of pulling a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath. Which was worth more, was the biting rhetorical question, a sheep or a man?
   Was it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? Of course. And to prove it, Jesus healed the man. By using the analogy that He did, Jesus clearly showed that He was not breaking the Sabbath; Jesus was, in fact, upholding the purity and holiness of the Sabbath, doing what was quite consistent with its original purpose. To do good, to relieve another from suffering, was not only not a violation of the Sabbath, it was actually perfectly fulfilling its profound spiritual meaning that God created for man (Mark 2:26).
   After Jesus healed a cripple of 38 years, He told him to take up his pallet and walk (John 5:5-9). The man had been sitting on a pallet to protect him from the stone floor. He was not lying on a queen-size four-poster bed or a king-size water bed. Therefore, when he carried his pallet away, as told by Jesus, he was hardly violating the law against bearing a burden on the Sabbath (Jer. 17:21, 22, 27). Therefore, the statement, "This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father," can in no way be taken as even an indirect statement that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Only in the opinion of the onlooking Jews, steeped in their own restrictive regulations, had He violated the Sabbath.
   Several other healings are mentioned as taking place on the Sabbath. In several cases Jesus had to defend Himself and used an argument similar to the one already mentioned. Diseases healed included blindness (John 9), a crooked back (Luke 13:10-13), and dropsy (Luke 14:1-6). Once again, the fundamental point being made is a reaffirmation by Jesus of why He had created the Sabbath, what its purpose was, and how it was a great blessing to man.
   Josephus reports that the Essenes were so strict they would not even relieve themselves on the Sabbath (War 2.8.9). (It seems that more effort would have been exerted to wait than to go!) Whether Josephus can be trusted in this is not certain, but it does help illustrate the strictness with which many kept the Sabbath.
   Jesus did not violate the principles of the Old Testament Sabbath; He showed the correct spirit in which it should be kept. Jesus was a Sabbath keeper, not a Sabbath breaker.
   Just as He kept the weekly Sabbath, Jesus also kept the annual feast days. It was quite customary for Him to be in Jerusalem at the time. It was so expected that people waited to see whether He would come when his life was in danger (John 7:11; 11:55-57).
   The final feast Jesus attended was the Passover, of course. But He came to Jerusalem at the Passover time on at least another occasion (John 2:13). He also spent one Passover in the region of Galilee (John 6:1-4).
   John 4:45 mentions that Jesus had been to Jerusalem at "the feast." John 5:1 also mentions a "feast." In neither passage is the exact festival designated. It was likely that it was the spring or fall festival since these seem to have been the major times for one to go to Jerusalem. John 7 describes the Feast of Tabernacles (especially v. 2).
   Jesus also observed at least one festival which was unique to the Jews and not given in the Old Testament. This was the Feast of Dedication or, as it is usually called today, Hanukkah. It was a festival of eight days, ending on Kislev 25 (i.e., sometime in December usually). Jesus may have had other reasons for being in Jerusalem, but it is especially noted that He was in the temple on this festival (John 10:22-23).
   Another passage which has often been misunderstood concerns the disciples' not washing their hands (Matt. 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23; Luke 11:34-41). The scribes and Pharisees were astonished at this. Was it because the disciples were unhygienic? No, because the washing is linked to the "traditions of the elders" (Mark 7:3-4). The subject was not cleanliness per se but ritual cleanliness or purity.
   As Jesus showed, a person is not "defiled" by anything physical. A person can become ritually unclean; he can even kill ,himself by eating poison. But this is not defilement in its spiritual meaning. Only those sins committed by "coming out" of an individual truly defile him. What if he eats a bit of dirt? What if he even eats something unclean according to Old Testament law? It is not good for him but he is still not spiritually defiled.
   Jesus was not opposing the Old Testament laws of purity. He was opposing the "traditions of the elders" because they were so much nonsense, holding up to ridicule the original instructions of God to Israel. Yet most of all, Jesus was showing that the real concern of the individual should be for spiritual and moral issues. Ritual purity without these was nothing. These without ritual purity could make one righteous before God even if not "perfect."
   There is no hint that Jesus Himself violated any of the Old Testament laws of purity. We can be sure that He kept them in every detail. The only fault found with Him was that of not observing the "traditions of the elders." But as He showed, these became an excuse to overturn the very heart of Old Testament laws, such as honor and respect of parents.
   As already mentioned, Jesus did not in any way dishonor the temple. On the contrary, He upheld the proper respect for it. Among the regulations relating to the temple were the laws of tithing. The well-known passage in Matthew 23:23 shows that He commanded tithing — even in a rather unnecessarily minute fashion — so long as the weightier matters of the law were not overlooked.
   Another example is that of the poor widow who put in only two copper coins (given the value of the English coin "mite" in the King James translation). Jesus emphasized the greatness of her sacrifice in comparison to some who gave much more (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). However, something often not noticed is that the money was being contributed to the temple treasure. Furthermore, Jesus commended the widow's sacrifice for the sake of the temple. This is certainly not the attitude of one who considers the temple of no value.
   During the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus went up into the temple, openly, and began teaching a sizable crowd of people, bringing up another of His examples about the law.
   He said, "I have done one work; and you all marvel. Moses gave circumcision and so you practice circumcision even on the Sabbath day (not because Moses was the one who gave it but because it came from the Father long before Moses' time).
   "If a man is to receive circumcision on the Sabbath day, in order that you avoid breaking the law of Moses, the way you look at it, why should you be angry at me, because I have made a man every bit whole on the Sabbath day?
   "Don't judge according to appearance, leaping to conclusions when you don't have the facts; judge righteous judgment!" (John 7:21-24, paraphrased.)
   What an indictment!
   As He did throughout His ministry, Jesus pointed up once again the ridiculousness of religious ceremony which so perverted true religion that it became a legal system of do's and don'ts, a ritual of exacting, constricted practice which totally ignored the great spiritual values of love, joy, peace, forgiveness, deliverance, tenderness and com passion.
   Just after the Feast, Jesus had another opportunity to put the religious leaders to shame, and to show the difference between ritualistic legalism and the carrying out of prescribed penalties of the law in the letter, as opposed to mercy and forgiveness.
   Early in the morning a few days later, He was again in the temple teaching a group of people when the Scribes and Pharisees heard about it.
   They were right in the process of questioning a woman who had been caught while in the very act of adultery. Why they couldn't catch the man is obscure. At any rate, the poor woman, terrified, knew she was as good as dead. They thoroughly intended to stone her to death that very same day. However, a new thought arose. Here, it seemed, was a marvelous opportunity to take the woman directly to Jesus, and see if He would defy the prescribed penalty according to the law of Moses.
   If He did, they thought they might be able to have legal excuse for stoning Him to death right along with the woman.
   If they could make Him even appear to be an accomplice to adultery, a person who would condone the deed, it would degrade Jesus and be better for them.
   Dragging the woman along with them, they finally came to the temple, and pushed their way forward until they brought the woman directly before Jesus.
   "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, during the very act. There is no question about it, there are sufficient witnesses, and she is guilty.
   "Now, Moses in the law strictly commands us that such a person should be stoned to death, but what do you say about it?''
   The temple's floor was dusty in this large court from so many feet moving about in a public place, but the stones were highly polished and very smooth. Without a word, but with tension sparking the electrified air, Jesus stooped down, and appeared to begin writing characters on the dust of the stones with his finger. He kept writing for a few moments, with head down, arm and hand moving rapidly over the stones of the floor. Then Jesus stood up, took a couple of steps back, and looked at them and said, "Whoever among you has never committed any sin whatsoever, be sure you are the one to throw the first rock at this woman, will you?"
   After saying this, He looked at them meaningfully, stooped on the ground, and began to write again where He had left off.
   They rigorously adhered to their "pecking order" of religious rank, and one by one, beginning with the eldest, filed up near to Jesus to look over His shoulders on the ground. What they saw is obvious from the account.
   How many of them were adulterers? How many were thieves? How many were liars, cheats and hypocrites? How many were "abusers of themselves with mankind"?
   There is no way of knowing. However, what Jesus wrote was so sufficiently shameful, and so obviously dealt with their own personal, private sins, that their glass houses came suddenly shattering apart. Each, in his turn, walked by Jesus' shoulders and read very clearly what Jesus' own finger had written on the dusty, polished marble floor. Was it a series of names? Were their names attached to two or three words which convicted each, in his own turn?
   We can only speculate, but the account in John's eighth chapter is clear. Each was convicted by his own conscience. And each very quietly and embarrassedly shuffled right on by Jesus, head to the ground, looking neither left nor right, until he could find his way out of the group and outside of the tern pie.
   The woman still stood by. Jesus arose, looked around, and saw the woman standing there with the group of people he had been teaching, including some of His disciples.
   He said, "Woman where are all your accusers? Is no one going to stay around to condemn you?"
   The woman said, "There is no one here."
   However, the woman probably feared that Jesus, who so obviously seemed to be in authority on the occasion, could have had the power to condemn her. Her shame, torment, sorrow and fear shone clearly out of her eyes.
   Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more!"
   Jesus was not condoning sin; he was offering forgiveness for sin, and the opportunity to repent and "sin no more."
   Time and again Jesus ripped away this facade and let the people and His disciples see the futility in believing God is appeased by repetitive mouthings and posturings.
   Jesus showed it makes no difference if men turn around in circles, stand on this foot or that, raise this hand or the other, wear this cloak or the other, carefully pronounce this word or the other, sprinkle salt, tinkle bells, light candles, thump Bibles, talk out of the side of their mouths in colloquial accents, butcher and slaughter sheep, cattle, goats and oxen by the thousands, rotate prayer wheels, swallow wafers, smudge ashes on their foreheads, wave palm fronds about in the air, stare at the sun while it rises, squat, stoop, kneel, splash water, dab, leap over chairs, grovel on the ground, babble in gibberish, walk with half steps, bob and weave, peep and mutter, cry genuine tears, sing beautiful songs, smile beatific smiles, grow beards, shave beards, wear uniforms, eschew uniforms, drive automobiles or shun automobiles, repeat the Lord's Prayer endlessly, or softly intone, "Bless you Jesus," until the words lose meaning!
   None of this appeases, satisfies, moves, or mollifies God!
   But giving, serving, sharing, forgiving, healing, helping — that's what Jesus said God's true religion is all about.
   Jesus fully supported the Sabbath and Holy Days of the Old Testament. He had created them as God. He observed them Himself as a man; and He taught His disciples to teach their disciples that all men should keep these God-ordained laws.

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Publication Date: 1977
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