There is an obvious difference between Christ and the Pharisees on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were not there to worship God. Their questions were not asked out of loving concern. They were there as accusing authorities who wanted to judge Christ by their own regulations.
At the time, the Jews had been compiling for a number of years a code of regulations by which they hoped to make it virtually impossible for a person to sin. Eventually, there were 1,521 regulations just regarding keeping the Sabbath! These people did it in sincerity, a misdirected zeal. What happened is that they turned the observance of the day into a legalistic ritual rather than a loving service toward God and fellow man.
Consider the actions and words in Matthew 12 and in Mark 3. Is Christ doing away with the Sabbath observance, or is He restoring it to its original, divine value and function? Jesus helps us understand this by a principle He gives in Matthew 19:8. Referring to divorce and remarriage, Jesus says, "But from the beginning it was not so." So it is here. He is showing God's original intent for the Sabbath.
He is not saying, "You don't have to worry about breaking it," or, "I'm going to do away with this day in the future anyway, so it doesn't matter what we do." Instead, by what He says and does, He focuses attention on His own Sabbath activities: To relieve somebody of a burden, to deliver one from a withered hand. By these acts, we see that the Sabbath is a day of redemption, deliverance, freedom, and healing. It is a day to do kind acts. It is a day to help one's fellow man in some way and to relieve him of some burden, as much as lies within us.
Jesus' healing here was not done to a man whose life was in danger. He had a chronic problem, and it easily could have waited until the next day. He could have said, "Come back tomorrow." Instead, He purposely shows what the Sabbath is for. It is for healing—either physical or spiritual healing.
The man's chronic illness parallels us spiritually: We are chronically sinful! Jeremiah 17:9-10 says that the heart is incurably sick. The Sabbath, then, is a day given to free us from the chronic problems of human nature.
By Jesus' example—His reactions, His words—it becomes clear that God not only intends that "good" be done, but to fail to do good when the opportunity presents itself implies "evil" and "killing." If not, why was He angry? He was angry because the Pharisees were failing to do something to relieve this man of his burden. Instead, they were using him to provoke Jesus into what they considered as sinning so that they might accuse Him. Thus, the person who is not concerned for the physical and/or spiritual salvation of others on the Sabbath is automatically involved in destructive efforts and attitudes.
One of the Sabbath's uses is to prepare us to be used for the salvation of others. We are not in the position yet that Christ was. He was able, because of His closeness to God, because He was God in the flesh, because He had the Spirit of God without measure, to do things that we are unable to do. But the principle is there!
There are many such things—as opportunities present themselves—that we can do on the Sabbath. It is within our power to relieve other's burdens. It may only be giving someone encouragement or writing a letter or telephoning to let another know that he is cared for and thought of. It may be a little thing, but it is within our power to do things like this to help others along the way.
Consider the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy 5: The Sabbath was made to show compassion toward the weak and the defenseless. The command says that we are to give others who are under our authority the Sabbath day to rest. We relieve them—manservant, maidservant, even animals—of the burden of work. They, too, are to be given the opportunity to be relieved of a burden. They are physical. If they are worked constantly, they will wear out more quickly. And so it is wise to give them rest, is it not? It is to our benefit to give them the relief that they need. A similar command is given in Exodus 23:12:
Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 2)
Matthew 12:9-14 is in many respects very similar to John 9. Jesus healed a man with a chronic problem. It was not an emergency situation. He could have allowed the person to go on and heal him after the Sabbath was over, but He deliberately chose to heal him on the Sabbath day. Why?
The answer is to show us that God's mind, His nature, His law, is always to be merciful under every circumstance. In following His example, we have to make sure that what we are doing, our intent, really is showing mercy to the person. Necessity in this case did not demand that He heal the man on the Sabbath, but it provided an excellent example that mercy is always right when the opportunity presents itself.
Even though Jesus had the power from God to do this, He did not frequently go out of His way to heal people on the Sabbath. On the other hand, if people came to Him on the Sabbath, He healed them.
The Pharisees were so far from God that they were blinded to the wickedness of their plans. They were looking for an opportunity to get evidence against Jesus to kill Him. Their wicked motivation for their actions is probably the most gross Sabbath violation in all the Bible: They used the Sabbath to plot the murder of an innocent Man.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Sabbathkeeping (Part 4)
Jesus' healing of the man with the withered hand (also in Mark 3:1-6) reveals a fundamental difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in their approach to the Sabbath. The Pharisees had not entered the synagogue to worship, nor did they ask Jesus their question—"Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"—out of loving concern. No, they were an accusing authority attempting to judge Christ by their regulations.
It helps to remember the historical context. The Jews were developing specific regulations to cover any and every possible circumstance to keep them from sinning. Eventually, they compiled 1,521 regulations covering Sabbath conduct alone. By Jesus' time, they had already turned their observance of the law into a legalistic ritual rather than a loving service to God and man. They did this sincerely in a vain effort to become holy, not understanding that this is not how a man becomes spiritually holy.
In this vignette, does Christ do away with the Sabbath or restore it to its original divine value and function, as He did with marriage and divorce in Matthew 19:8? He gives no indication that He intended doing away with it. He merely broke their misguided perception of how to observe the Sabbath.
We also need to recognize that the liberating healing He performed was not done to a man whose life was in immediate danger, but to one who was chronically ill. So are we spiritually; as Jeremiah 17:9 says, our heart is "incurably sick" (margin). God gives us the Sabbath day to help free us from the chronic problems of human nature.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part Two): Christ's Attitude Toward the Sabbath
Jesus' healing of the man with the withered hand (Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11) reveals that wherever we go and whatever we do, like Christ, we are "under surveillance." This should spur us to exercise added control over our conduct so we may be true witnesses of God's way of life and not give cause for others to blaspheme Him. Although neither Jesus nor the healed man present any cause for accusation against them, the Pharisees need no reason—they are poised to strike.
Eventually, the conniving religious leaders join hands with the political leaders, including the Herodians, and their hatred rises to a fever pitch of intended violence against Jesus. The Herodians, the party of Herod, answer to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who beheaded John the Baptist. His father was the Herod who, in an earlier attempt to kill the Christ, ordered the children of Bethlehem to be slain (Matthew 2:16-18).
Martin G. Collins
The Miracles of Jesus Christ: Healing a Withered Hand (Part Two)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 12:11: