On the one side you had the Pharisees who observed the Sabbath in a legalistic way in order to create merit and thereby "earn" their righteousness before God.
On the other side you had Jesus preaching a religion of grace. Consequently, we don't need, it was preached to us, to keep the Sabbath because legalistic, works-based righteousness isn't what Christianity is all about. We are saved by grace and not by works (i.e., "Sabbath keeping").
I now realize that this vision of the Sabbath debates is totally wrong-headed. The debates between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath have nothing to do with grace versus works.
So what were the Sabbath debates all about?
The work of scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright have helped us see that the debates about the Sabbath weren't about a works-based religion. The heart of the Sabbath debates were about the identity of Jesus.
In his debates about the Sabbath with the Pharisees Jesus wasn't presenting a gospel of grace and justification by faith. The vision Jesus was presenting was this: that he--the Son of Man--was "Lord of the Sabbath." That was the essential conflict. That Jesus was someone positioning himself as greater than the Sabbath.
This is identical to Jesus's conflict with the Temple when he said, "there is one here who is greater than the temple."
No wonder they wanted to kill Jesus. The Pharisees didn't want to kill Jesus because he was a liberal hippie preaching a message of grace. They wanted to kill him because he was placing himself over both the Torah and the Temple. That was blasphemy.
In short, the issue about the Sabbath was an issue about authority--Jesus's authority in particular. The conflict wasn't about grace versus works.
But that's not to say that there wasn't a type of conflict between grace and law in the Sabbath debates. It's just not the grace vs. law conflict we've tended to think about.
The grace at stake in the Sabbath debates wasn't a grace for myself, my personal being "saved by grace." The grace in question was the grace we extend to others, and how religious law was interfering with the extension of that grace to others.
Clearly Jesus was doing things on the Sabbath that rankled. Things he shouldn't have been doing according to a particular reading of the Torah. That was the debate that brought Jesus's authority into focus. Who was authorizing what Jesus was doing?
But what, exactly, was Jesus doing?
For the most part he was healing. In one instance he allowed his hungry followers to gather some food. In short, Jesus was being gracious to others. And the Pharisees, while sympathetic I'm sure, found that problematic given how they viewed Sabbath observance and their attempts to please God.
So there was a grace vs. law debate. But the grace in question was about extending grace toward others, not claiming it for myself. The debate wasn't about works-based righteousness versus being saved by grace.
The central question was the question Jesus asked: Is it lawful to good on the Sabbath?
The debate was about doing good and the religious interference of doing good.
The debate was about empathy and compassion versus placing religious observance and ritual over caring for others. The debate was about putting God before people.
And this is, in fact, the exact same debate we are still having about what it means to be a Christian.
Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? What comes first, obeying God or caring for people?
Interestingly, Jesus never gives a verbal answer to the question he asked.
Rather, Jesus answers with this actions.
He breaks the Sabbath and does good.