To understand the anger Jesus aroused among the Jewish religious leaders for "breaking the Sabbath," it is necessary to examine the meaning of the Sabbath for the first-century Jewish community. The word Sabbath comes from a root word that means "to cease," or "to desist." The primary reason for all Sabbath celebration lies with God, who ceased from his labors of creation on the seventh day and commanded his people through Moses also to cease their work on the seventh day. in this setting, the Sabbath was a joyous recognition of the sovereignty of God in providing a respite from daily toil.
During the Exodus, God provided a double portion of manna on the sixth day in the wilderness so that the children of Israel would not have to look for food on the seventh day. Moses later received the Ten Commandments from God, which included the commandment to 11 remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." More words are used in expressing the commandment to honor the Sabbath than are used in any of the other nine commandments. The observance of the Sabbath is rooted in the way God created the earth, linking human observance to divine example.
The basic concept in keeping the Sabbath is that it is the one day that especially belongs to the Lord. He has blessed it and set it apart for joyful observance. Moses set forth detailed Sabbath legislation in Exodus and Leviticus. Breaking the Sabbath was punishable by death through stoning. The only mention in the Bible of a person who was stoned for Sabbath-breaking is found in Numbers 15 where a man was stoned for collecting firewood on the Sabbath.
The prophets emphasized in their writings that blessings will follow the proper observance of the Sabbath, and that judgment will follow the desecration of the Sabbath. During and after the exilic period, there was a change in Sabbath-keeping; the observance of the Sabbath became increasingly a distinctive characteristic of the Jewish people, which set them apart from all other peoples. it increasingly became a focus that preserved their identity as a special people and that precluded their absorption into alien cultures. Thus, keeping the Sabbath became not only a means of honoring God, but also a method of insuring ethnic survival.
With this added dimension, the rules and regulations that defined proper Sabbath observance became both complex and crucial. Increasing attention was paid to the smallest detail to the exclusion of the overall principle. Rules upon rules were added, until the keeping of the Sabbath became-by the time of Jesus-more of a legalistic burden than a joyous celebration.
Jews were forbidden to do any enduring work on the Sabbath; indeed, thirty-nine (a number suggesting "everything") types of work were expressly forbidden. Many of these were such agricultural tasks as reaping, threshing, and winnowing. Because healing resulted in a long term benefit to the person healed, the religious rulers were scandalized that Jesus healed on a Sabbath. However, an act to save a life was not only permissible but mandatory.
The preparing of food on the Sabbath was forbidden. All meals to be eaten were prepared beforehand. So when Jesus' disciples walked through the fields, picked, and ate grain as food, they were guilty of breaking several Sabbath rules. They probably walked too far (the limit was 2,000 cubits), and they reaped, threshed, winnowed, and thus worked to feed themselves. Jesus clearly condoned their actions, which deeply offended the leaders.
The religious leaders were committed to preserve the nation in the name of God during an age that lured many young Jews to follow Greek and Roman ways. When Jesus claimed that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, he attacked the heart of all that the leaders held dear. When he spoke of himself as Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2.28), he equated himself with God, who had originally set the Sabbath aside as his holy day. They saw this as blasphemy. An insoluble conflict over the Sabbath separated Jesus and his critics. He thought the day should be honored according to its spirit without the burden of harsh, restrictive rules; they believed that the rules preserved both the special character of the Sabbath and the identity of the nation itself.