Last time, we finished up Matthew 11 with Jesus’ wonderful invitation for all of us who labor and are heavily burdened to find our rest in Him for His demands upon us are easy. Because Jesus is God come to Earth in the flesh of a man, we can also rest assured, that whatever burdens He places upon us, He will also empower us to bear. Furthermore, since God is good all the time, we can also rest assured that His will for us is perfect and absolutely in our best interest.
Matthew 12:1-14 – Jesus is LORD of the Sabbath
Matthew continues now in chapter 12 of his gospel with a couple of specific incidents in Jesus’ ministry related to this idea of rest – specifically God’s ordinance of a Sabbath day of rest to be honored by people for our own well being. Sadly, Jew and Gentile alike through the ages have not only dishonored God’s Sabbath day law by simply ignoring it, but often also adding additional Sabbath day burdens and requirements that God surely never intended when He first ordained the day of rest.
1At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” 9He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.Matthew 12:1-14 [ESV]
Establishment of the Sabbath
The first occurrence of the word שַׁבָּת šabāṯ in God’s Word is found in Exodus 16:23 in connection with the manna (מָן mān) God provided to feed the Israelites in the wilderness as they journeyed from captivity in Egypt. Recall that the Israelites were to gather only enough manna each day for that day’s provision. Any extra manna they kept overnight developed worms and stank. But on the sixth day, they gathered twice as much manna, and kept half overnight for the Sabbath day’s provision. On this day, the extra manna did not rot overnight. How fitting that the Sabbath should be associated with God’s provision for His people.
Of course, the concept of a weekly day of rest was initiated by God Himself thousands of years prior.
1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.Genesis 2:1-3 [ESV]
Later on at Mt. Sinai, God formalized the Sabbath in the 4th commandment of the Law of Moses.
8“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.Exodus 20:8-11 [ESV]
Dishonoring the Sabbath
When we think about the ways in which we dishonor God’s appointed Sabbath we usually think about simply ignoring it altogether. Our modern society – in the West at least – is based on a 24/7 always-open economy. We expect to be able to go to our local convenience store, or gas station, or pharmacy and find it open for business at any time on any day or night. For that economy to function, obviously someone needs to work on the society’s chosen Sabbath day – usually Sunday or Saturday. When we turn on the light switch in our home, we expect electrical power to be available all the time. To make that happen, someone has to operate the underlying infrastructure at all times as well. Obviously, it is possible for different people to simply take their Sabbath rest on different days. No one is expected to work all day every day. But most of us don’t really ever take a full day of rest as God has ordained. We simply busy ourselves with our avocations rather than our vocations on that day. Practically no one in our society devotes full attention to our relationship with our LORD all day on the Sabbath any more than we do any other day.
But simply ignoring it isn’t the only way we dishonor the Sabbath. God’s intent for the Sabbath was to give His people a time of relaxation during which we could focus and meditate fully on Him and our relationship with Him. But instead, religious people throughout history have created rules and regulations that turned God’s Sabbath into a stressful burden rather than a refreshing time of relaxation and meditation. It has only been in recent decades in various localities around the USA that many of the so-called “blue laws” forbidding specific activities on Sunday have been slowly removed from the legal code.
Nowhere is the list of burdensome Sabbath restrictions more evident than in the modern state of Israel. Jewish religious scholars provide “clarification” of exactly what constitutes Sabbath day work and what does not continually, and they are sought out to learn their opinions on the matter. For example, every town and village has a Sabbath line around its perimeter. It is perfectly okay to walk around within this perimeter on the Sabbath. Waking around inside the perimeter regardless of the speed or duration of the walk is considered a recreational and restful lawful activity on the Sabbath. But if one crosses over the line (even if doing so would be the shortest route to a given destination), that constitutes unlawful Sabbath day work. In the larger cities, hotels and other tall buildings have a designated Sabbath elevator which stops on every floor automatically so that one need not do the work of pushing a button to summon the car or select a desired floor. After all, pushing a button creates an electrical spark which is the symbolic equivalent of kindling a fire – unlawful work on a Sabbath day.
Jesus’ Teachings About the Sabbath
In Jesus’ day of course, it was the sect of the Pharisees with their strict devotion to obeying the letter (if not the spirit) of the Law who set up the definitions of what was and wasn’t lawful to do on the Sabbath. Just as in modern times, their Sabbath rules and regulations were often silly and arbitrary. Furthermore, the Pharisees themselves frequently violated their own Sabbath restrictions. Their Sabbath hypocrisies angered Jesus, and He frequently did the very things that had been forbidden on the Sabbath day just to provide an opportunity for Him to point up the hypocrisy, and teach the Pharisees and everyone else about the spirit of the Law, not just its letter. Two such occasions are reported by Matthew here in chapter 12 of his gospel.
1At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?Matthew 12:1-4 [ESV]
In his frequent disputes with the scribes, pharisees, and lawyers of the day, Jesus usually tried to reason with them using the very Scriptures they so proudly esteemed. In this instance, Jesus refers to a story from 1 Samuel 21 with which the Pharisees would have been quite familiar. The context of that story is that David was running away from the presence of King Saul who sought to kill Him. David and his men had departed in haste, with no provisions for their journey. They came to Nob – a Levitical city just north of Jerusalem – which was apparently where the tabernacle of the LORD was located at that time. There David asked Ahimelek the priest for provisions and weapons, but the priests had no food on hand except the showbread kept before the LORD in the holy place of the tabernacle in accordance with the Law of Moses. Ordinarily, when the showbread was replaced each seventh day, the priests themselves ate it, but Ahimelek allowed David and his men to take it instead.
5Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.Matthew 12:5-6 [ESV]
One can almost see the anger in the faces of Jesus’ Pharisee audience when He makes these two statements. They would have been angered by the first statement because they knew it was true. In effect, Jesus had hoisted them by their own petard. They knew very well that the work of the priests in the temple service continued every day including the Sabbath. In fact, since the ordained feasts of the Jewish calendar take place on Sabbaths, the work of the priests on those days was even greater than on other Sabbaths throughout the year. Jesus is careful to point out that these priests performing their temple service on the Sabbath were blameless, because they were doing the work of the temple service in accordance with the Law even when they did so on a Sabbath.
But if that first statement angered them, Jesus’ claim to be even greater than the temple these Pharisees practically worshiped must have absolutely outraged them. We see later on that these two statements which seem benign enough to us, angered the Pharisees so much that they began to seek a way in which they could have Jesus killed.
7And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.Matthew 12:7 [ESV]
Jesus quotes here from Hosea 6:6
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.Hosea 6:6 [ESV]
The Hebrew word in Hosea 6:6 translated in the ESV as “steadfast love” is חֶסֶד ḥeseḏ. Although the ESV translates it as steadfast love, other English translations render it as mercy. In fact, the vast majority of the occurrences of חֶסֶד ḥeseḏ in the Old Testament are translated most often as “mercy.” The corresponding Greek word we find in Jesus’ quote from Hosea here in Matthew 10 is ἔλεος eleos. It is universally translated as “mercy” except by the NASB which translates it as “compassion.” In our study of Matthew 9, we saw Jesus had quoted from Hosea 6:6 once before at the gathering of tax collectors in which Jesus said He had come to call sinners – not the righteous – to repentance.
Jesus’ choice of this verse to reason with the Pharisees gets to the very heart of their problematic relationship with the Law. The Pharisees prided themselves on their strict conformance with the letter of the law – so much so that they had lost sight of God’s reasons for giving the Law. God never intended the Law to be an end unto itself. In fact, in many ways – particularly with the cleansing and dietary ordinances – the Law was a real blessing, providing tangible health benefits to those who followed it. Instead, the Pharisees and other legalists down through the ages have viewed the Law as a burdensome duty to be followed. Consequently those of us who have fallen into this legalistic trap often lose sight of the Spirit of love and compassion that the Law enshrines.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.Matthew 23:23 [ESV]
In fact, as Paul pointed out in his letter to the church in Rome, the Law was given by God at least in part to point out to us who might have a legalistic bent how incapable we are of following the letter of the Law to God’s declared standard of utter perfection, and thus our desperate need of a Savior and Redeemer who can cleanse us from our unrighteousness apart from the Law.
8For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”Matthew 12:8 [ESV]
In examining verse 8, it will be very helpful to look at Mark’s report of this event.
27And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”Mark 2:27-28 [ESV]
Jesus’ teaching here couldn’t be any clearer. God’s intent with His ordinance of the Sabbath was to bless mankind. God first demonstrated the benefit of a Sabbath rest on the very first Sabbath when He Himself rested from His labors of creation – not that He had been wearied by that work and needed a rest, but so that by His example, we might see the blessing to be gained by a Sabbath rest.
Furthermore, in this succinct teaching Jesus lays claim to the authority to make the ordinances regarding the Sabbath – authority which the Pharisees and their legalistic descendants have usurped from Him! Recall that it was Jesus who created all things by the power of His Word, and who set the example of that very first Sabbath rest.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.John 1:1-3 [ESV]
Of course, the overwhelming majority of the Pharisees and their Jewish descendants failed to recognize Jesus as their awaited Messiah, and thus His right to claim authority over the Sabbath. Thus they continued to challenge Him regarding various works He did on the Sabbath in violation of their illegitimate Sabbath ordinances.
Sabbath Healing in Capernaum
9He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him.Matthew 12:9-10 [ESV]
Once again, we find in Mark’s gospel a slightly different account of this event which gives us a better insight into Jesus’ motivations in these challenges to His authority.
1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart…Mark 3:1-5a [ESV]
The Pharisees probably thought they were being sneaky, hanging around waiting for Jesus to take a misstep. In the end of course, they could find no legitimate charge against Him, and had to bring in lying witnesses against Him at His sham trial. Even after they brought Him to the Roman authorities demanding crucifixion, Pilate could find nothing against Him deserving of death. Jesus knew what was in their hearts on that Sabbath day in the synagogue at Capernaum – even that their false charges would eventually get Him nailed to the cross. Yet in His infinite love and compassion, He used this occasion as an opportunity to teach His Truth so that perhaps some among them might be saved. Our rebellion against Jesus’ tender calling grieves His Spirit. His love for us is so all-consuming that He offered up His own life even before the dawn of creation so that we might be reconciled to God despite our sins. Nowhere is the vision of Jesus’ compassion for us clearer than when He taught in the temple at Jerusalem for the very last time before He was crucified.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!Matthew 23:37 [ESV]
11He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”Matthew 12:11-12 [ESV]
Here Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Sabbath regulations the Pharisees and legalists heaped upon the people, but often neglected to shoulder themselves. Of course, no one would allow one of our livestock to die if we have the capacity to save it – albeit through labor on the Sabbath. When my wife and I came up on the injured dog lying in the road as we were on our way to church a few Sundays ago, we didn’t even think twice about tending to the animal rather than continuing on to church. If I were the pastor of the church or some other church servant with people depending on me to perform a church service ministry that morning, I would have done exactly the same thing. We must live our lives with a heart of love, humility, compassion, mercy, and kindness having our thoughts, words, and deeds governed by those attitudes rather than blind, unthinking conformance to a set of rules and regulations. That is the lesson Jesus was attempting to impart to these Pharisees when He quoted Hosea 6:6 to them. We too would do well to take that lesson to heart.
13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.Matthew 12:13 [ESV]
As with so many of Jesus’ other miracles that we read of in the gospels, His healing of this poor crippled man’s hand is just mentioned in passing. Nothing more is said or known about the man’s life from that time forward. The important thing about the story is the lesson on love and mercy in the face of the rigid Sabbath regulations, not the healing itself – although I’m sure the man himself might beg to differ.
14But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.Matthew 12:14 [ESV]
Yet in the hardness of their hearts, these religious legalists were angered rather than overjoyed at this amazing, miraculous healing because Jesus had performed this act of love and mercy in violation of their arbitrary rules. We see the same sort of thing at work today. Our government seeks to restrict and shut down organizations that do wonderful works of mercy, grace, and love within the community simply because they refuse on moral and religious principles to obey arbitrary legal restrictions laid on them by the civil authorities as part of their own agenda.
Next time, God willing, we’ll take a look at Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecies concerning God’s chosen servant.