Jesus continued to show the inflexibility of the Pharisees, especially over matters of their poor interpretation of the law. The Pharisees took an extreme legalistic approach to the law which left no room for compassion. They said that no work was to be done on the Sabbath as the law stated, but took that to extremes as well as excluding healing on the Sabbath which they defined as work.
In this scripture we see a man with a withered hand come to Jesus for healing. The approach that the Pharisees took in another version of this event, was to say that there are six other days of the week and he should come back on one of those days. Such strictness in the adoption of the law has the appearance of great piety, but in fact showed disrespect and disregard for the man who was suffering. However Jesus showed that even the Pharisees would work on the Sabbath if it was necessary. He said that a child is circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, but this too is work and thus they break one law to keep another. (John 7:23) He also showed that if any of them had a beast that had fallen in a pit they would get it out on the Sabbath so that it would not suffer. Thus in like manner this man with the withered hand who was suffering should be permitted to be healed on the Sabbath to ease his suffering. The approach of the Pharisees was all about outward appearances, not about compassion.
Besides, who was it doing this work? Was it the Pharisees? No, this healing was the work of God. Jesus also had said in relation to the Sabbath that, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (John 5:17) As a result of this the Pharisees sought to have him killed because they believed he not only broke the Sabbath, but in this statement made himself equal to God. Despite the miracle that he performed and the many others both before and after, they would not recognise him as the Son of God.
One of the challenges for Christianity today is around the keeping of the law. In most churches today it is still taught that Christians are bound to keep the law of God, or at least the ten commandments. But Jesus came so that we could be set free from the law and receive life. He set us free from sin and the law in his death, not so that we could sin, but so that we may receive righteousness by faith. It is clear in these sections where he teaches about the Sabbath that there was something greater than the Sabbath and indeed greater than the law at work.
The truth is that if a person is seeking righteousness by faith and finds it, they do not need the law. The law was not laid down for the righteous but for the sinners. (1 Timothy 1:9) It is those who sin who need the instruction and discipline of the law, not those who do right. If a person is doing the right thing, who will condemn them? God does not condemn us for doing what is right and the law does not condemn those who are doing what is right. But what does it mean to be doing what is right? It means to be obedient to God, and his requirement of us was not about law, but about faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus showed us that the works of God were not about the law but about faith. He said, “Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29) This is the work of God, to have faith and believe in Jesus Christ whom he sent to be the expiation for our sins and to release us from the bondages of sin and the law.
Jesus showed in the healing on the Sabbath that it is always right to do the right thing. Which is more right, to keep the letter of the law of the Sabbath when someone is suffering or to relieve the person who is suffering? Surely it is the latter, because it is based upon love for a fellow man, and this is exactly what Jesus showed. The very essence of the call of God is for us to come into a relationship with him and with each other in a way that is based upon God’s love. The letter of the law though, as the Pharisees interpreted it, was not about relationships built on love but about punishment for failure.
This was not the teaching of Jesus and he showed the difference in the approach sought by God as compared to that taught by man. He said elsewhere, “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure.” (Hebrews 10:5-6) It was not the letter of the law that God was interested in but in the change in the heart of a man, as instructed under the law, so that they would choose to do right. The will of God was that through the law man would learn the difference between right and wrong and use the law to build up rather than condemn. But the Pharisees used it as a means of power holding the people in subjugation through the threat of condemnation and being cast out of the synagogues. Jesus came to put this right and offer us salvation based on faith and not through works of law, for the law cannot make anyone righteous.