Matthew 12:1-14, “Lord of the Sabbath”
Religion can drive people crazy. Not “religion” in a good way – such as that which is pure & undefiled, caring for widows & orphans and loving God with heart, mind, and strength – but “religion” in a bad way, which has everything to do with man & virtually nothing to do with God. Religious people become obsessed with the smallest of actions, as they try to “thread the needle” (so to speak) of all the things they can & can’t do. They pray certain prayers every day (never meaning what they say, but rather just rattling through the list as fast as possible). They walk through the motions when they come to worship – literally moving their bodies in certain ways, but oblivious to Jesus’ observation that those who truly worship God worship Him in Spirit and truth. They have endless lists of what they can & can’t do & what traditions tell them how to act, etc., and spend countless hours trying to both follow these things for themselves & pressing it upon others.
Most of us can probably think of people we know that believe differently than we do that are truly “religious” in this way. But before we start pointing too many fingers at other groups, we need to realize evangelicals can end up doing exactly the same thing. For evangelicals, this is what happens (often):
- Quiet times become not times of joy, but burdensome as we labor to make it through 10 minutes of a devotional, and then feel heapings of guilt because we missed a couple of days.
- Giving becomes a burden placed upon people, completely guilt-driven instead of the joyful act of worship it ought to be.
- We strive to live holy lives, pure unto God, but when we see someone struggling in an area that is easier for us to handle, we heap condemnation upon them, while extending grace to ourselves.
- The Bible becomes something with which we justify ourselves, rather than something that keeps us humble as we read the word of God.
- The list could go on. If that’s us, we need to be careful! We’re becoming the religious people that the Scriptures warn against.
Jesus had His own share of encounters with religious people – several examples of which are given in Chapter 12. The Pharisees were some of the most orthodox Jewish people around. They held the Scriptures with high regard & spent much effort trying to bring their people back to the teachings of the Bible. IOW, they did a lot of things many of us might find ourselves agreeing with (to the surprise of many Christians!). Yet, many of them had lost themselves in their religion. It wasn’t about the pure teaching of the Bible as it was so much their tradition & additional laws that had been passed down through the years. They obsessed over it, and when they saw someone that violated it, they were quick to bring correction.
It should be stressed that Jesus was never a law-breaker when it came to the Scriptures. Regarding the Law as seen in its moral, ceremonial, and civic code (as revealed throughout the OT), Jesus kept the Law perfectly – as no one before Him or after Him ever could. He was truly innocent & respectful of the Law. Yet when it came to the additional laws of tradition, Jesus didn’t hesitate to break them. The Bible was not to be added to by the traditions of men, and Jesus made it a point to show them who was truly Lord. Was it the Law that was Lord? Was it the legal authorities that was Lord? No…it is Jesus. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, because Jesus is the Lord…period.
Matthew 12:1–14 (NKJV)
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
- The Sabbath comes up a lot in Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees – it’s actually one of the main reasons they decide to kill Him. What exactly is the Sabbath? Plainly put, it’s Saturday. The Sabbath goes all the way back to the act of creation, when God ended His work and rested after He was completed. Because He was done, He blessed the 7th day and sanctified it (Gen 2:1-3). Thus the Sabbath is always the 7th day, which does not change. (Interestingly, when Jesus died upon the cross, He was dead for different parts of 3 days. But the one full 24-hour period in which Jesus was dead was the Sabbath. It was on the day after the Sabbath that He rose to new life, and that became the day the Church came together to worship & celebrate.) Because the day had been set apart by God at the beginning, it was used by God as a sign of the covenant between He & His people (Exo 31:12-17). It was a symbol to the rest of the world that the Hebrews were different and worshipped the one true Creator God. Anyone who did any work on the day could be put to death because it was the symbol of the entire Mosaic covenant. Thus to break the Sabbath was a serious crime.
- Did the disciples violate the Sabbath? No. The disciples’ actions were perfectly natural and normal.
- They weren’t harvesting a field of grain or even a large amount of grain; they were simply wandering through the fields, plucking leisurely as they went along.
- They weren’t stealing; they were specifically allowed by the law to engage in the practice. (Deut 23:35)
- They were simply doing what any of us might be doing on a Saturday afternoon: grabbing a snack. Obviously it was legal to eat on the Sabbath & that’s all the disciples were doing. IOW, this wasn’t a big deal! The Pharisees were making a mountain out of a molehill (and it wasn’t even the level of a molehill).
- The Pharisees’ accusation was without merit. To pluck the heads of grain was such a minor matter. There was absolutely no violation of the Sabbath law. However, there WAS a violation of their own added-on traditions to the law. The Jewish rabbis through the years had defined 39 categories of work – all of which were forbidden on the Sabbath. Things ranged from “carrying,” in which someone was not allowed to carry anything on their hands or their person, save the clothes they were wearing – to “harvesting,” “threshing” (removing grain from its husk), and “selecting” (where pieces of unwanted food would be separated by hand). From the Pharisees’ perspective, Jesus & His disciples were flagrantly violating many aspects of the Sabbath.
- There is incredible inherent danger when we add to the word of God! Beware of traditions that become so ingrained that we just imagine them to be Scriptural commands, when there’s nothing of the sort. Beware of legalism which drains the joy away from walking with Jesus. Jesus came to give us rest – which He made clear at the end of the last chapter (Matt 11:28-30). He didn’t come to burden us. He didn’t come to put a yoke of bondage upon us. So often people come to Christ for the forgiveness of sin, but once they’ve tasted of the promise they try to perfect themselves through their own labors & efforts (the power of the flesh). Instead of remaining humbly dependent upon the Lord & the continual work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they become proud in their own efforts. In essence, they’ve put themselves back under the law & are become self-righteous in their legalism. True Christianity has nothing to do with that sort of thing. We remain humble & dependent upon the grace of God, and He is the one who gives us strength to walk with Him.
3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?
- Example #1: David. Jesus relates the story from 1 Samuel 21. [1 Samuel 21:1-6] When David ate the showbread, he explicitly broke the law. David hadn’t broken the law when he was running from Saul, or because he was hungry – but because he ate the showbread which had been consecrated to God. Although the law does not specifically state that no one else is supposed to eat the bread, it does state that Aaron & his sons were the ones for whom the bread was intended to be eaten. (Exo 29:32, Lev 24:9) Considering Jesus declares the act to be unlawful, it’s safe to say that David had squarely broken the law on this issue.
- Why did David eat? Because he was hungry! His men were on the run & they needed to eat. It’s not that David didn’t understand that the bread was holy & had been consecrated to God. David certainly understood the holiness of God & did not attempt to defile it in any way. He ensured his men were ceremonially pure before they were able to partake. And at the same time, David also understood the heart of God to be mercy & love in addition to holiness. (This was so ingrained in David that even during the times in which David was being disciplined by God, David would rather put himself in the hands of God than the hands of man. David knew God’s nature to be love.)
- Why would Jesus bring up David? Because Jesus is greater than David! If David could eat the showbread without punishment from the Lord, then surely the Messiah could eat grain on the Sabbath. Understand that David likely ate of the showbread on the Sabbath day (it was the only day the bread would have been changed), and if the Scripture never condemned David for such an act, surely the Messiah (the Greater-than-David) could do something far less.
5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?
- Example #2: the priestly work. There were daily sacrifices offered at the temple. Every morning & every evening a lamb was offered up (at the very least, depending on the feast & what else was going on). Day in & day out, sacrificial blood was shed, emphasizing the continual need for sacrifice due to sin – which is done away with in the one sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ! (Heb 10:11-14) When the Sabbath day came around every week, there was a specific ritual to be done. Numbers 28:9–10, "(9) ‘And on the Sabbath day two lambs in their first year, without blemish, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with oil, with its drink offering— (10) this is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering with its drink offering."  Keep in mind that the Sabbath sacrifices were in addition to the other daily sacrifices. God did not command less sacrifice on the day of rest; He commanded more. Things were doubled at the temple on the day of Sabbath. Jesus’ point? This was hard work! The priests had much to accomplish on the day ordained for rest, and they labored for the Lord. Surely the work was a joy for them to do, but it was still work.
- The Sabbath wasn’t given to make “work” illegal and make people feel guilty about partaking in even the smallest of actions. The Sabbath was given so that people could rest and rejoice in the Lord. The Sabbath was given to point people back to God as their foundation and sustenance. And specifically for the Jews, the Sabbath was given to show the people that they had been set apart to the Lord, trusting Him to provide their every need. The way some groups kept the Sabbath (and how some groups still do so today), it seems as if God has nothing to do with it! It becomes all about man’s efforts to show how hard they go about their resting – how much they can demonstrate that they’re doing no work…which is anything but resting at all!
- This is all backwards. Instead of the Sabbath being a gift, it was a burden. Instead of it being a sign of their covenant with God, it was something with which to prove their own self-righteousness. Their tradition reversed the role of the Sabbath to the Sabbath being what was served, rather than the Sabbath serving the people by assisting them in their worship of God. As Mark records this event for Jesus, Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The goodness of God was what was supposed to be showcased on the Sabbath; not the self-righteousness of man.
- Ultimately, the Sabbath is mean to point us to our rest in Christ. We don’t have to labor and strive to cleanse ourselves from sin – our labors are insufficient anyway. Because Jesus cleanses us through His sacrifice, we find true rest in Christ. Jesus IS our Sabbath rest. Hebrews 4:1–3, "(1) Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. (2) For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. (3) For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ ” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world." 
- Have you ever wondered why the 4th Commandment (Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy) is the only one of the 10 Commandments not repeated in the NT? This is one of the reasons. When we come to faith in Christ, we ARE resting from our labors at all times because Jesus IS our Sabbath rest. Thus we don’t have to enter it again & again & again, because Jesus’ one sacrifice is sufficient to give us all the rest we need from striving to make ourselves right in the sight of God. When we’ve received Christ as Lord, we’ve entered into the true Sabbath rest of God.
- Have you entered into the rest offered by Christ Jesus? Or do you still strive to prove your own self-righteousness? Are you consumed with guilt because you can never make yourself “clean enough” from your past sin? Jesus offers rest. Receive Him as Lord & experience the blissful rest of Christ today!
6 Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.
- Jesus is greater than David, and Jesus is also greater than the temple. The temple was the pinnacle and center of the Jewish worship life. And yet Jesus is better and more holy than the temple was in its glorious heyday during the reign of Solomon! Jesus supersedes anything that was done at the temple because everything at the temple was designed to point towards Christ in the first place. From the original design given by God through the tabernacle, to the more ornate permanent version in the temple, everything about Hebrew worship pointed to the sacrificial, priestly work of Christ. Only the pure could enter the work, as they had to be clothed in the righteousness of God. At the altar, blood was shed for sin. At the altar of incense, the prayers were given to God through an intercessor. At the mercy seat, blood was poured out upon it through a mediator. And on & on. Jesus is greater than the temple & all of the work there because it was all about Him.
- Jesus is greater than the priests. Their work was simply a shadow of Jesus’ complete work anyway. The priests were commanded to labor at the Temple on the day of Sabbath. They had been commanded to work, so surely the Messiah and great High Priest of all the world could choose to pluck some grain if He wanted.
7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
- The Pharisees had missed the point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly called people back to the heart of God and He does the same thing here. Quoting Hosea. Hosea 6:4–6, "(4) “O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, And like the early dew it goes away. (5) Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of My mouth; And your judgments are like light that goes forth. (6) For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings."  This is a call to repentance for all of God’s people (both northern and southern kingdoms). The people may have been faithful in their sacrifices, but they acted in complete wickedness. Like King Saul when he battled the Amalekites (1 Sam 15), they thought external acts of worship would cover up disobedience and an internal corrupted heart. It simply doesn’t work that way.
- Notice what the Pharisees did in their legalism: they ended up condemning the innocent Son of God.
- How absurd a thought! Like a little child correcting his/her parent’s actions, even though the child has no idea of what he/she is talking about. (True, sometimes parents need the correction…other times, the kids simply don’t understand.) The Pharisees are like little children looking for even the smallest critique of God. This is absurd foolishness. (1) God can never be corrected, because He’s perfect. (He’s God!) (2) Even if God could be corrected, WE certainly would not be the ones to correct Him. How arrogant a thought that evil wicked people like us could dare bring correction to Almighty Infinite God?!
- Jesus was truly innocent. Not only is correcting Jesus an absurd thought, condemning Him is totally incorrect. In the Pharisees zeal for the Sabbath (their supposed zeal for the Law), they ended up denying the One who IS the true Sabbath of God.
- Beyond the idea of accusing Jesus, there’s something we can learn in general about accusing other people. Beware of imposing your traditions upon others. Certainly we have to be true to our own convictions about the Scripture, and we ought to boldly take a stand for righteousness. At the same time, we need to be truly careful about distinguishing between that which is essential & those things that are not. We should not judge others – especially on non-essential issues of the faith. You are not the master of another Christian; Jesus is. They will have to answer to Him – as will we. The NT specifically identifies the Sabbath as one area in which we aren’t to judge one another. (Romans 14) If someone decides to keep the Sabbath – that’s up to them. Likewise, we should not come under a burden of guilt because we do not observe the 7th day Sabbath the way others do. May we be careful that we do not end up condemning the guiltless – that’s something for which we will be held to account.
8 For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
- Here’s the crux of the argument. Jesus is greater than David – greater than the temple – greater than the priests – and ultimately, Jesus is greater than the Sabbath. As God, Jesus created the Sabbath – after all, He’s the one who made the 7th day. As Messiah, Jesus fulfills the Sabbath – He’s the one that truly offers the rest of God that the Sabbath represents.
- It comes down to the simple question of: who is serving whom? Jesus is the Lord; not that which He created. God will not break the Law He instituted, but He is not subservient to it either. Who has more authority to interpret the law: the legalists or the Lawgiver? God created the law & the Sabbath. Jesus is explicitly claiming to have that kind of inherent authority. (And He does, because He is God!)
9 Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—that they might accuse Him.
- The Pharisees set up a trap for Jesus, using a man with a crippled hand as bait. Truly pathetic! In their zeal to be proved more righteous than Jesus (pretty absurd thought in itself!), they were willing to step on anyone to get what they wanted.
- There’s also a bit of irony here. Think about it: the Pharisees want to accuse Jesus. They were looking to accuse the only One who would defend them from the eternal charges against them. They hoped to accuse the only One who would be their advocate before God the Father.
11 Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
- Jesus answers their question with a question of His own: when is it ever illegal to do the right thing? It’s much more work to dig an animal out of a mud pit, but what rancher wouldn’t do it? When talking about people, even the Rabbinical interpretation of Sabbath law allowed the law to be broken in cases of life & death. After all, when our family is in danger, no labor would be too much; no cost would be too great. Even when we’re talking about animals, we have enough compassion to attempt to rescue them from needless suffering, instead of saying to ourselves, “Well, I’d save them, but I’ve got other obligations. Hopefully they’ll still be alive in 24 hours, and I’ll come back then.” Of course we’d help! Of course even the Pharisees would have helped. Why? It’s compassionate and needful at the time. To stand by and acquiesce to suffering in the name of “piety” is shameful. If you can do something to relieve suffering (especially in the name of Jesus), then you DO it. It’s just the right thing to do.
- Sadly, the Pharisees were treating the man much worse than a sheep: to them, he was a lab rat. It ought not to be so with people. People have value! People are to be respected, simply because we are made in the image of God.
- It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath because the Sabbath is about GOD. We honor Him when we do what is right in His name. To use His name for evil or neglect or callousness is anything BUT honoring to God.
13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other.
- Jesus heals the man. Of course, this was never in doubt, but it proved Jesus’ authority to teach what He was teaching about the Sabbath.
- Notice that the Pharisees knew that Jesus could heal him…that was the reason for their whole test in the first place. They knew Jesus was supernaturally appointed by God (Nicodemus, John 3); they just didn’t want anything to do with Him. They hated Jesus, but for all of the wrong reasons. They didn’t hate Jesus because of His healing power (which was obvious & undisguised). They hated Jesus because of His teaching and His claims. He claimed to be God – He claimed to be the King – He claimed to be the one with the right to interpret the Scripture. And because He proved His authority to be true, they hated Him. The one thing that should have been obvious to them in order for them to know that Jesus is the Messiah, they denied. A crazy man they could have written off. An incompetent man would have been easy. The God-Man with proof of authority? He could not be ignored.
- Before moving on, consider the man who was healed for a moment. The man tends to get left out in this story. After all, he’s merely the bait the Pharisees used to accuse Jesus. Yet Jesus treats him as so much more than bait; Jesus treats him as a real person. The guy had been drug out to the synagogue by the plotting Pharisees. But he left the synagogue completely whole, healed by Jesus! We need to understand that because of his hand, culturally speaking he would have been viewed as cursed by God. Yet he learned quickly that not only was he NOT cursed, he was LOVED by God & was the personal recipient of the mercy of God!
- Have you experienced the mercy of Jesus? It’s just as available to you as it was to that man.
- There’s good news here to those who have been mistreated by “religious” people. Jesus loves you and makes His mercies available to you as well.
14 Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.
- The Pharisees’ response to such a miracle? A death wish for Jesus. So upsetting was His teaching on this point that they conspired against Him, looking for an opportunity to kill Him. Amazing rebellion! Instead of rejoicing in the healing which had taken place right before their eyes – instead of actually heeding the demonstration of Jesus’ authority and pondering what He had to say – they decided that Jesus was a threat and must be stopped.
- Some people attempt to ignore Jesus (which cannot truly be done – we simply don’t have that option). Other people actively and specifically reject Jesus. No matter how much proof is offered to them – no matter how much truth is taught – they choose to reject Jesus at all costs. (Satan did much the same thing in his own rebellion.) WHY? Lordship.
- To acknowledge Jesus as being right is to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. We must give up sovereignty over our own lives and surrender it to Jesus. If Jesus truly is God the King, He must be received as such. Granted, there are many people in the world who have not yet realized this – they simply don’t know enough about Jesus to know that He is Lord. Yet there are many others who DO know. (You may be one of them.) They completely understand the claims of Christ and have seen the proof of the resurrection. The problem? They simply don’t want Jesus. They don’t want Him as their King & thus they reject His lordship.
- Understand this: when you reject Jesus, you reject God. You reject your only possibility for: sacrifice, propitiation, advocate, mediator, friend, co-heir, and way to God the Father. To reject Jesus is to reject all hope. That’s foolishness! That’s suicide!
- On top of this, there’s no reason to reject Jesus. We’ve seen His love, mercy, and compassion. We’ve seen His truth and power. If we are to have a king, then surely Jesus is the very best king imaginable! He’s the very LAST king anyone ought to choose to reject. Don’t throw away your only hope – don’t reject the King.
Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath because Jesus is the Lord. The Lord has the right to interpret the law – the Lord has the authority to heal and do good – the Lord has the ability to offer true rest, beyond what any religious activity could ever offer. Our only hope is in the Lord God, who has revealed Himself to be the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christian, beware of legalism that robs you of the joy of Christ. Beware of traditions that get added on to the Scripture so that we cannot see the truth of the Scripture any longer. As a general rule of thumb: true use of the Bible points us to God, humbling ourselves before Him & showing how reliant we must be upon His grace. False use of the Bible (which is often the result of extra-biblical tradition) points us to ourselves & the things we can do to make ourselves holy in the eyes of men. Keep your eyes upon Jesus! Walk in love and in mercy. Extend that mercy to others…these are true acts of “religion” and holiness. It’s not about what WE can do; it’s about resting in Jesus!
Perhaps you’ve found yourself caught in a trap of legalism. Like quicksand, you’ve stepped into a whole bunch of rules and traditions & you’re not quite sure what happened to an authentic relationship with Christ…and now you feel stuck & unable to free yourself. More rules & more traditions will never free you – the only thing that brings liberty is the grace of Jesus Christ. Rest in Him! Rely upon His grace today & remember the joy of your salvation. He didn’t save you so that you could become entangled in legalistic bondage – He saved you so that you could rejoice in your freedom & give Him glory. Walk in that freedom today.