One of the most exceptional New Testament writers is, of course, Paul the Apostle. He wrote fourteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. That’s just incredible. However, Paul isn’t the one who wrote the longest book of the New Testament. It’s Luke. The Gospel of Luke is the longest book, the book that we’re studying today. Luke didn’t stop there and wrote a sequel to the Gospel, i.e., the book of Acts. Acts is a lengthy book, too. So Luke and Acts together account for almost twenty-five percent of the entire New Testament. It’s amazing that Luke was able to write that much with pen and ink on papyrus rolls.
Who was Luke? He was most likely a non-Jewish man; he was a Gentile believer from Syria. As we know, he was a physician (medical doctor) and a collaborator and travel companion of the Apostle Paul. Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke to explain the gospel ministry of Jesus Christ. And his purpose of writing the book of Acts was to show to his audience how powerfully the gospel of Christ was spreading all the way to Rome through the ministry of Paul. Luke–Acts is truly important because, if it had not been for him, we would have had no way of knowing how the early church was established and how the gospel advanced. Today, I’d like to invite us to think about a passage in the Gospel of Luke.
Three Sabbath Incidents
Jesus sometimes got into debates with the Pharisees and religious leaders in synagogues. A synagogue is a place of Jewish gatherings and worship. Simply speaking, the synagogue is to Judaism what the church is to Christianity. Furthermore, Jesus would often engage in these debates on the Sabbath. According to the Jewish law, you should not work but rest on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. Simply put, in the New Testament, we have stories about Jesus arguing with the Pharisees in synagogues and on Sabbath days.
Stories about such encounters are present in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, Luke more frequently describes this kind of debates between Jesus and the religious leaders taking place in synagogues on the Sabbath than the other two do. Luke has five such episodes.
The first encounter is in Luke 4 when Jesus was still carrying out his ministry in Galilee. On a Sabbath, Jesus went into a synagogue in Nazareth. When he was given a scroll of Isaiah, he stood up and read Isaiah 61 and 58:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then Jesus declared, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” What caused a commotion was something what he said afterward: He said that in Elijah’s time there was a severe famine, and yet Elijah was sent to the Gentile land of Sidon. Jesus also said that there were many with leprosy in Israel in the time of Elisha, but not one of Israel was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian, the non-Jewish Gentile. All the Jews and the religious leaders in the synagogue became furious and dragged Jesus to the cliff to throw him off to kill him. But Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. So this was the very first “Sabbath–Synagogue” incident recorded in Luke. As we can see, it’s extremely intense. Once Jesus made a statement, the Pharisees got so angry that they wanted to get rid of Jesus! This was the pattern that the rest would also follow.
The second episode happened on a Sabbath, too, but this one didn’t involve a synagogue. Jesus and his disciples were passing through some grainfields. His disciples were hungry, and they picked the grain heads and ate them. Some of the Pharisees got upset because Jesus’ disciples were rubbing the heads of grain in their hands to peel and eat them. To the serious Pharisees, rubbing was work, and you shouldn’t have been working on the Sabbath according to the Jewish law, right? But Jesus’ rejoinder was: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
I will only make a short comment on the next episode, which is in Luke 6. It’s when Jesus healed in the synagogue a man whose right hand was withered, and it happened on the Sabbath. Jesus told him, “Stretch out your hand,” and when he did so, his hand was restored. Did the scribes and Pharisees rejoice at what happened to the poor man? No—and strangely enough, the scribes and Pharisees were filled with rage and discussed together what they might do to Jesus; in other words, they were so ready to kill him. Do you see the intensity here?
So it’s not surprising that Jesus makes two predictions about his death in Luke 9. Jesus said that he would be rejected by the religious leaders and be delivered into the hands of man. And right after the second prediction of his death, Jesus sets out for Jerusalem. I will read Luke 9:51 for you: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem.” What follows is a long description of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem: Luke 9–19.
The Fourth Sabbath Incident
So, this is the context of today’s passage; today’s story therefore takes place during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. In today’s story, Jesus heals a woman, again, in a synagogue on a Sabbath day.
Now, we should know why Jesus kept entering synagogues and engaging with the Jews, scribes, Pharisees, and religious leaders on the Sabbath. It’s because the Sabbath and synagogue were so important to the Jews. More than anything else, it was an issue of their identity. It was one of the things that they thought distinguished them from the Gentiles. Devout Jews would gather in synagogues on the Sabbath. So, a synagogue on Sabbath day is one of the most Jewish places on earth, and Jesus entered synagogues on Sabbath days with a certain intention. And let’s see what Jesus is doing in today’s passage, Luke 13:10–17.
Remember that Jesus and his disciples were still in the middle of their journey toward Jerusalem. On the Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue and was teaching there when he saw there was a woman whose body was painfully bent over because she’d been bound by an evil spirit for eighteen years! Jesus called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Jesus even put his hands on her, and immediately, she straightened up and praised God! The synagogue manager was, of course, not happy but indignant because Jesus had again broken the law of the Sabbath. But Jesus rebuked this synagogue official by calling him and his fellow Pharisees “hypocrites!” Jesus’ argument was that they cared about their animals but didn’t care about this daughter of Abraham who had been bound by Satan. Let me read the last verse of today’s passage (v. 17): “When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.”
The Gospel Sets Us Free
Jesus was considered a rabbi, and rabbis were expected to teach in synagogues whenever they were asked. That’s what Jesus was doing (v. 10): he was teaching in one of the synagogues, and it was on Sabbath day. So perhaps the place was packed with Jewish people.
What was he teaching then? We don’t know for sure. However, as we saw in Luke 4, we can assume that Jesus was proclaiming the gospel—the good news for the poor, the good news of the kingdom of God.
The gospel—the good news that Jesus brings to the world—is that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). It’s the greatest news you’ve ever heard that our sins have been atoned for through Christ and we are forgiven and made right with God in Christ. The Apostle Paul says this in Romans 3:22–24:
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus
So, what’s the power of the gospel? The gospel liberates us from the grip of the Enemy, and it moves us into the household of God. If you really ponder about this deeply, you’ll be stunned because the gospel says that if you believe in Christ, you’ve been set free from the bondage and that you have become a child of God—that’s who you are and that’s where you are!
That’s why Jesus approached the woman in the synagogue. This is important because Jesus’ ministry was one of setting free (liberation). Jesus brought the good news of release and freedom, and in the synagogue, he saw this woman who had been terribly bound and suffering for eighteen years. The degree of her suffering was immense. Her sickness had been caused by an evil spirit—Jesus says of it that “Satan has kept her bound for 18 long years” (v. 16). She was bent double and could not straighten up at all for eighteen years. Imagine what it would be like to live life in such a way. The agonizing pain itself was of course unbearable, but the most atrocious thing in her life was likely what’s called “social ostracism” (Joel Green); she wasn’t welcomed by anyone in the community because of her illness. She was “socially invisible” (Joel Green). No one cared about her. No one saw her.
And Jesus saw her (v. 12). He called her over. He said to her something both shocking and amazing, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness” (v. 12). And when he laid his hands on her, she immediately straightened up and glorified God.
It goes without saying that this poor woman represents the fallen humanity under the bondage of sin. When Jesus says to the woman, “you are freed,” he means that she is in the perfect state of being free (ἀπολέλυσαι; in the perfect tense-form) from her bondage. The Apostle Paul says the same thing in Rom 8:1: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
No matter how terribly you were bound by Satan, the gospel has set you free. The gospel of Christ proclaims that God has moved us from under the bondage of Satan to the household of God through the atoning blood of Jesus. This freedom that the gospel of Christ gives us is so unbelievably good that I used to have a hard time fully internalizing and enjoying this freedom in the gospel. Under this Satanic slavery, humans tend to default to try and work their way into earning God’s favor.
The Anti-Gospel Binds Us
The synagogue leader was indignant (v. 14), and we think this strange, because “indignant” means “angry” especially when you believe something is terribly wrong. For example, in Matthew 26, when Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man named Simon, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume. She poured all the perfume on Jesus’ head, which made the disciples “indignant.” They complained, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” The disciples thought what the woman did was wrong—that’s why they were angry and indignant.
Likewise, this synagogue manager’s indignation arose because he thought what Jesus did was wrong according to the Jewish law: “you shall not work but rest on the seventh day.” To the synagogue leader, healing was work. So, he thought Jesus broke the Mosaic law by working on a Sabbath. This is why the synagogue official was angry. However, do you think he had the right reason for indignation? I don’t think so.
The official from the synagogue was a coward because, instead of engaging Jesus directly, he turned to the crowd in the synagogue and said, “hey people, there are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day” (v. 14).
Because of the arrogance, “distorted moralism” (Sproul), and legalism of this man, the joyful atmosphere suddenly got terribly awkward. The suffering woman was just healed, and she was glorifying God through the ministry of Jesus. But all of a sudden, this synagogue official began to disapprove of and ridicule the amazing thing that Jesus had done.
Jesus Condemns the Anti-Gospel and Hypocrisy
It’s important to see that Luke is now using the title “the Lord” in v. 15: he writes, “the Lord answered him.” This means that Jesus is the Lord who has the final say. He is far superior to the Jewish law of Sabbath. So, our Lord wouldn’t let this man get away with his cowardly attack; Lord Jesus turns to the synagogue official and says, “You hypocrites!” (v. 15).
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus uses this strong word “hypocrites” seventeen times to rebuke the Pharisees. Now all the eyes of the people in the synagogue are on Jesus. Jesus continues: “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him?” (v. 15). What Jesus is saying is: “you sound like you’re faithfully observing the Sabbath law, but you are not. You keep making exceptions to the law when your own benefit is at risk. You make exceptions to care for animals, and you refuse to do the same to care for this woman, a precious human being, a daughter of Abraham, who has been suffering from eighteen years of misery. Where is your compassion? If you have no problem untying and watering your animal on the Sabbath day, then should not this woman be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her for such a long time? What’s wrong with you hypocrites?”
I am sure that the synagogue official was taking the Jewish law seriously. He believed that observing the law was the only means of securing his right standing before God. But it’s impossible for any human being to keep the law fully. And because of this simple fact were they making all kinds of weird exceptions and allowances. The ultimate outcome was therefore hypocrisy and arrogance. The Pharisees and scribes (and many other Jews) were arrogant hypocrites because they acted like they were faithfully observing the law although they knew they weren’t. They were arrogant hypocrites because, even though they themselves were not really into observing the law, they required that others keep the law. Luke 11:45–46 says this: “One of the experts in the law answered him, ‘Teacher [Jesus], when you say these things, you insult us also.’ Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”
Such arrogance and hypocrisy make us extremely selfish and cruel. Once blinded, anyone can do the same thing. Unless we understand and embrace the gospel, all we are left with is this arrogance and hypocrisy. But most of all, the synagogue official’s pride and hypocrisy blinded him from the true Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus Christ, who was standing right before his eyes.
So, what we see now is the intense encounter between the gospel of Christ and the accusation of the anti-gospel.
What we should remember is that this is an either/or, not a both/and situation. It is either you come to the gospel of Christ that sets you free or you stay under the burden, arrogance, and hypocrisy of the law that keeps you bound because you can never fully obey it.
The last verse of today’s passage (v. 17) shows the diametrical difference between two worlds: (a) those who welcome and rejoice over the gospel of Christ and (b) those who belong to the anti-gospel of the Enemy: “When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.”
One of the things that today’s passage shows is that, when the gospel is proclaimed, there is no via media—there is no middle way between God and the world. When the gospel is proclaimed today, the same phenomenon takes place. The reaction will always be an either/or one. Some are thrilled to embrace the gospel while others become angry, cold-hearted, and indignant, and claim that the gospel is nonsense. But brothers and sisters, my sincere prayer is that you are not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16) and it is the message of Christ that sets you free.
Jesus healed the woman. But what’s even more amazing is that the bent-over woman didn’t do anything to be healed; she didn’t even ask to be healed. Some may say that she voluntarily came in the synagogue to listen to Jesus’ teaching. True enough. But still, according to Luke’s description, she was only passively sitting there. It was Lord Jesus Christ who took the initiative—he saw her; he singled her out, calling her forward, and healed her, saying, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” This draws a beautiful picture of forgiveness of sins and freedom from slavery that are given to us for free. Unless God himself approaches us, none of us will even begin to seek God, because we’re all sinners and rebels. So, here we are, not because we did our best to win God’s favor but because Christ died for us while we were still sinners. And only because of Christ, we are free.
Father God, we thank you that you first loved us and sent your Son as an atoning sacrifice for us. Because of Christ, we are set free from the bondage of the Enemy, and we now call you with confidence, Abba, Father! Protect us from the Enemy’s deceiving word that Christ’s sacrifice is not enough. Help us hold fast to the gospel of Christ that sets us free and help us not submit again to a yoke of slavery under Satan. Thank you for your mercy. Thank you for your daily sufficient grace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Painting: “Christ Healing an Infirm Woman” (James Tissot, 1886–1896, Public Domain)