Healing on the Sabbath

9Going on from that place, He went into their synagogue, 10and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked Him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"

11He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

13Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

15Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed Him, and He healed all their sick, 16warning them not to tell who He was. 17This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: 18"Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on Him, and He will proclaim justice to the nations. 19He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear His voice in the streets. 20A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out, till He leads justice to victory. 21In His name the nations will put their hope."

In the previous section, Jesus defended His disciples against the accusations of profaning the Sabbath by the Pharisees. Jesus convincingly did so, teaching the Pharisees the spirit of the Sabbath. Jesus also proclaimed Himself the Lord of the Sabbath.

Not content to "leave well enough alone", the Pharisees set up a situation to confront Jesus publicly concerning His own observance of the Sabbath: "Going on from that place, He went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked Him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’" (vss. 9-11). This episode, I think, is quite surprising, in demonstrating clearly the evil attitude of the Pharisees. For they had faith that Jesus could miraculously heal the man with the shriveled hand. And in fact, they believed in Jesus’ goodness, for they knew that Jesus would heal the man. Given such knowledge of His power, and His goodness, how could they deny that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath? But rather than responding to their faith with repentance, and then taking to heart the teachings of the Lord, the Pharisees looked "for a reason to accuse Jesus."

Jesus answered their attempt to accuse Him by pointing out the absurdity of their rules concerning the Sabbath, while at the same time appealing to their common sense: "He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’" (vs. 11-12). The Pharisees, by their rules, would have been able to help a sheep, but not a man. Jesus ignored their rules and did what was right and good: "Then He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other" (vs. 13).

The Pharisees had a curious reaction to witnessing so grand and glorious a miracle: "But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus" (vs. 14). "What evil had our Lord done, that He should be so treated? None, none at all: no charge could be brought against His life. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners; His days were spent in doing good" [Ryle, 125]. In plotting to kill Jesus, the Pharisees demonstrated that their hearts were hardened beyond repair. "His arguments had not convinced them of their error, and His miracle mercy had only intensified their hostility" [Thomas, 173]. "What a stubborn rage it is that drives the reprobate to resist God! Let them be convicted, and their poison will only pour out the more" [Calvin, 34]. The Pharisees also demonstrated a great amount of hypocrisy. For they accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath for healing a man, and yet, did they not break their own rules concerning the Sabbath by plotting His death? "What a reproach upon human nature, to see men maintaining that it was a mortal sin to heal disease on the Sabbath, and yet foully plotting on that same sacred day, how they might destroy the innocent Teacher and Healer" [Broadus, 263].

Jesus, somehow, either by human or divine intuition, knew of their plot, and responded to it: "Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed Him, and He healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who He was" (vss. 15-16). Jesus did not withdraw because He was afraid of the Pharisees. He could have, of course, through divine power, destroyed His enemies. Yet, to do such a thing was not a part of the plan of God, under which the Messiah came to this earth, the first time, in humility. "His reaction was to avoid provocation; He would die courageously when the right time came, but He would not engage in needless provocation of His enemies until His ministry drew to its close" [Morris, 309]. He did not want His quarrels with the Pharisees to hinder His ministry to the people. There would come a time when He would allow His confrontation with the Pharisees to run its course, but until then, Jesus was determined to do as much good, for as many people as He could.

Though He withdrew from where the Pharisees were, He was hardly alone, for "many followed Him." Jesus’ reaction to His followers was not to shoo them away, but to "heal all their sick." Such is the love of Christ. The contrast between the behavior of Jesus and the behavior of the Pharisees (the so-called religious leaders of the time) is stark: Jesus "healed all the sick"; the Pharisees planned to murder the Healer of All.

In order that His ministry not be hindered by further confrontation with the religious leaders, Jesus warned those whom He healed "not to tell who He was" (vs. 16). "Jesus did not want unnecessary publicity. Obviously with a large crowd following Him a certain amount of publicity was inevitable. But He was no publicity seeker, apparently not because He would be in danger if His enemies knew where He was, but because He preferred to do His work quietly and without fuss" [Morris, 309]. Jesus’ warning was intended only for His followers at that time. We, of course, are under no such warning. We should declare His great works to anyone who will listen.

We have seen throughout the book of Matthew that one focus of Matthew’s Gospel is to show how Jesus fulfilled prophecy. So here, Matthew takes an opportunity to point out that Jesus’ passive response to the Pharisees was as the Messiah was prophesied to act: "This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on Him, and He will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear His voice in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out, till He leads justice to victory. In His name the nations will put their hope’" (vss. 17-20). And indeed, Jesus’ behavior fulfills this prophecy. When confronted by the Pharisees, Jesus did not shy away, but He spoke the truth, "proclaiming justice to the nations." Yet, He did not push the point so as to "quarrel or cry out." He did not demand to defend Himself by raising "His voice in the streets." "He did not aim at raising Himself in the esteem of the multitude by successfully contending with the Pharisees; for His method was of another sort" [Spurgeon, 150]. "He shall do His office meekly and humbly, and not manage His spiritual kingdom by violence, nor unnecessarily contest with the Pharisees, who consulted how to destroy Him" [Westminster Divines]. Jesus’ behavior is greatly contrasted to that of the Pharisees. The Pharisees sought out confrontation, as they "looked for a reason to accuse Jesus" (vs. 9). They were angry at Jesus for no reason, for Jesus was merely speaking the truth of God. Though Jesus had just cause and reason to be angry at the Pharisees, He did not seek out a confrontation, but rather withdrew so that He could continue His good works in peace.

As pointed out in the prophecy cited here, many of Jesus’ good works concerned His help to the helpless: "A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out" (vs. 20). Leon Morris explains the metaphor: "The natural thing was to discard an imperfect reed and replace it with a better one. But the Lord’s servant does not discard those who can be likened to shattered reeds, earth’s broken ones… A wick that functioned imperfectly was a nuisance: it would not give out good light and its smoldering released a certain amount of smoke. The simple thing was to snuff it out and throw it away. A little bit of flax did not cost much, so replacing it was the normal procedure. It took time and patience and the willing to take pains to make anything useful out of a bruised reed or a smoking wick. People in general would not take the trouble. In a similar fashion, most of us regard the world’s down-and-outs as not worth troubling ourselves over; we do not see how anything can be made of them. But love and care and patience can do wonders, and that is what the prophet is talking about" [Morris, 311]. In my view, those servants of the Lord who are most Christ-like are those that minister to the "bruised reeds" and "smoldering wicks" of society: the poor, the down-trodden, the homeless, those who are in prison. May the Lord bless the work of these ministers of Christ.

This prophecy concerning Christ is especially important because most of the children of Israel did not expect their Messiah to act in this way. "In popular expectation Messiahs exercised their authority by crushing opposition, but Jesus showed His authority in His concern for the helpless and downtrodden" [Morris, 309]. "God laid on His Son a humble and lowly role. But the simple might be offended at His contemptible and obscure life; and so the prophets and Matthew agree that this was no accident but came to pass by the decree of heaven" [Calvin, 35]. "The Jews expected the Messiah to be a great conqueror, whose warlike exploits would attract universal attention; and as the character and course of Jesus were quite the reverse of all this, it was important for Matthew’s purpose of convincing the Jews that He was the Messiah, to point out that His action in this respect was in accordance with Messianic prediction" [Broadus, 263].

Home | Previous Article | Next Article | Back Issues | Contents | Complete Index | Mailing List

To contact us:

ssper@scripturestudies.com