Yeshua’s mission was to bring salvation to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and bring about the initiation of the kingdom of heaven.
He taught, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This involved healing, teaching, and other miracles that foreshadowed the promises of the Messianic Kingdom. Daniel Lancaster summarizes this succinctly in Jesus, My Rabbi:
All of the miracles of the Messiah relate, in some fashion or another, to Jewish expectations of the kingdom era. In the Messianic Era, sickness will be removed, the dead will be raised, and Satan will be chained. Therefore, when He sent out His disciples, Yeshua instructed them to preach the good news, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7-8).
These ideas resonated with the people and even the religious leaders in Yeshua’s day, but what got Yeshua into most of his trouble were Sabbath healings. These Sabbath healings and disputes with the Pharisees led subsequent theologians to conclude that the Sabbath is no longer relevant for believers in Yeshua. Sadly, the accusations of his enemies have become the arguments of his followers.
The argument states that Yeshua did away with the Sabbath. Some believers stress that Yeshua was merely challenging the authority of the sages regarding Sabbath law. However, neither of these arguments holds water when tested. If he was teaching against the Sabbath, he would have been violating Scripture and could not have been the Messiah. Yeshua is challenging the Pharisees’ opinion that healing is prohibited on the Sabbath, but he is not doing so to undermine rabbinic authority. In fact, he somewhat agrees with the sages that healing is not permitted. That’s why he gives elaborate justifications for his actions instead of dismissing the Pharisees’ concerns as mere “traditions of men.” So why did Yeshua take such a strong stance on healing on the Sabbath? Could he not have simply healed on a different day of the week to avoid heated arguments with the Pharisees?
Yeshua never argued with the Pharisees for the sake of arguing. Like all the other sages before and after him, he argued over the details of how the Torah should be kept and to teach how one can take hold of the coming kingdom. Let’s take a look at some of Yeshua’s arguments with the Pharisees over healing on the Sabbath and see if we can discover why healing on that day was such a priority for him.
Matthew 12:11-12 says:
He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
In other words, if one would show mercy to an animal and relieve its suffering, how much more so should one show mercy to a human being who is suffering. Mercy to animals (lifting out of a pit, hauling food and water, etc.) overrides the Sabbath prohibition on carrying, so how much more so is one allowed to bring healing to a human.
Yeshua uses similar logic in Matthew 12:1 to defend his disciples after they picked grain on the Sabbath. He argues that since David put his men’s hunger above the prohibition on eating the bread of the Presence in the Tabernacle, so too, should his disciples be allowed to pick grain to satisfy their hunger. In both instances, human suffering overrides the Sabbath and the Temple rituals.
However, there seems to be something deeper that Yeshua is trying to portray in his healings. Similar to his miracles, it seems that his Sabbath healings and activities are also meant to represent a picture of the coming Messianic Era. Many times, when Yeshua heals someone, he also calls for their repentance and for them to quit sinning. An interesting Jewish source also equates physical healing, or more specifically, saving a life, to spiritual renewal:
It seems to me that the obligation for rebuke is based on the negative commandment, “do not stand idly while your neighbor’s blood is shed” that is to say, if you could save him from drowning in the river and rescue his body, how much more so is it a mitzvah to save him from losing his soul and his body. That is to say, surely there is an obligation to restore him to what is good. (Minchat Chinuch 239:4)
If it is important to save your neighbor and bring physical healing, how much more so is it vital to bring correction or spiritual healing to them? Taking this idea from the physical to the spiritual, we can start to see why healing was so important for Yeshua on the Sabbath. His physical healing is just a small part of the spiritual healing he brings. It is a foretaste of the coming kingdom when everyone will experience complete physical and spiritual restoration.
Bringing back the lost sheep, teaching repentance, and bringing complete healing of the soul is Yeshua’s main message throughout the Gospels. We see this clearly in Matthew 9:2-8, where Yeshua heals a man and also forgives his sins, thereby connecting both physical and spiritual healing. Likewise, we can say that when Yeshua heals the man with the withered hand, he is revealing not only physical healing but also a step toward reconciling the man into the kingdom.
In Judaism, Shabbat is enjoyed as a partial entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Each week is a glimpse into the future era when there will be abundant celebration and joy in God’s rest. Yeshua felt compelled to heal, cast out demons, and restore broken bodies on the Sabbath because it was a way to show the fruits of the Messianic Era on the very day that reflects the coming kingdom:
The rabbis envisioned a one-thousand-year era of Sabbath rest, so to speak. The New Testament refers to the “thousand years” of Sabbath rest as the era of the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the biblical idea that history works together toward a final culmination and era of redemption is based on the weekly cycle of six days followed by the Sabbath rest. One might even say that the whole concept of an end-times redemption and kingdom era hangs upon the observance of the Sabbath. (Daniel Lancaster, From Sabbath to Sabbath)
Yeshua casts out the demon on the Sabbath to symbolize Satan’s imprisonment in the Messianic Era. He allows his disciples to pluck grain, which symbolizes the abundance of food and the absence of hunger in the Messianic Age. His healing of the man born blind in John 9 also alludes to the unveiling of these spiritual truths and the ultimate work of salvation Yeshua brings. Yeshua felt compelled to heal and do his Father’s will on the Sabbath as a precursor of the complete healing that will come at the resurrection of the dead. Yeshua directly associates his healings on the Sabbath with the redemption and the resurrection of the dead in John 5:15-24. Yeshua argues that he must do the work he is doing because God is also carrying out these acts.
Yeshua’s healing on the Sabbath is justified through the greater need to prioritize human suffering and prepare the world for the kingdom of heaven. If Yeshua is healing and performing miracles that allude to the Messianic Era on the regular days of the week, how much more so does he feel obligated to do these tasks on the Sabbath?
Yeshua’s consistent work of displaying the miracles of the coming kingdom and teaching repentance and forgiveness of sins come to fruition on the Sabbath day. Each miracle Yeshua performed was a part of portraying the coming kingdom, and in a way, he was bringing the weekly Sabbath that much closer to the ultimate Sabbath rest of the Messianic Era.