Luke’s account of Jesus’ early Galilean ministry established Jesus as a uniquely powerful and controversial figure. Jesus placed a premium on mercy, not the traditions of the Pharisees. Something new had arrived and the traditional way of thinking about matters like forgiveness of sin, fasting, and observance of the Sabbath would have to be reconsidered. Jesus’ ministry in Luke 5-6 offered a portrait of His supremacy in Israel’s religion.
(1) In Luke 5:12-26, Jesus demonstrated that He had the power to forgive sin, fulfilling the standards of the Mosaic law. When Jesus cleansed the leper (Matt 8:2-4//Mark 1:40-44//Luke 5:12-14), He warned the man not to make the matter known widely, “But go and show yourself to the priest, and offer what Moses prescribed for your cleansing as a testimony to them” (Luke 5:14). Moses’ instructions in Leviticus 13-14 detailed how priests were to identify and treat skin diseases. The purification protocol Moses established was based on the fact that it took a period of time for skin diseases to run their course. Only after the skin showed no sign of disease could a person return to a state of cleanliness and normal societal relations in Israel. But Jesus cleansed this leper in an instant, simply by His word. Jesus indirectly testified of His messianic status by sending the cleansed man to the priests to tell them what Jesus had done. Luke went on to note that Jesus healed a man who was carried to him on a stretcher and let down through the roof of the home where Jesus was teaching (Matt 9:2-8//Mark 2:3-12//Luke 5:18-26). Luke arranged these healing episodes to emphasize Jesus’ messianic status in accord with Jesus’ proclamation that the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him to set the captives free (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus—in the hearing of the Pharisees and teachers of the law—told the paralyzed man, “So you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…I tell you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go home” (Luke 5:24).
(2) In Luke 5:33-39, Jesus taught that the new covenant required new structures of spirituality. While the Old Testament law required fasting only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26-32), the practice became synonymous with mourning over Israel’s subjection to her enemies (1 Chron 10:12; Zechariah 7-8). The Pharisees traditionally fasted twice per week (Luke 18:12). In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, fasting was looked upon as a special demonstration of one’s piety and concern for the nation of Israel. Some questioned Jesus about why His disciples did not fast like John’s disciples or the Jewish leadership (Matt 9:14-17//Mark 2:18-22//Luke 5:33-39). Jesus answered by saying that the new message of God’s kingdom required a new outlook on spiritual habits like fasting.
(3) In Luke 6:1-5, Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath. After God created the earth in six days, He rested on the Sabbath (Gen 2:1-2). In Moses’ list of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, he stated that God’s Sabbath rest was the reason for Israel to rest on the Sabbath day (Exod 20:8-11). After the destruction of the Second Temple, and even as far back as the days immediately preceding the Babylonian captivity (Jer 17:19-27; Ezekiel 20), Israel and Judah thought the Sabbath second to none in their religion. The Sabbath separated them from all other peoples—showing their special place in God’s plan (Deut 4:1-8). When the Pharisees noticed that Jesus permitted His disciples to pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath, they were out of sorts (Matt 12:1-8//Mark 2:23-28//Luke 6:1-5). Jesus cited David’s unlawful consumption of the showbread when he was on the run from Saul as precedent that His disciples could pick and eat grain. Jesus’ freedom from traditional Sabbath-keeping was an offense to the Pharisees and an affront to any who understood that faithfulness to the rules of the seventh day was the fulcrum of national independence. A new day had dawned.