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17. The Lord Of The Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14)

After the arrest of John the Baptist, the tide begins to turn against Jesus. The opposition, that is, the leaders of the Jews, step up their criticisms and their plans to destroy Him. And so in chapter 12 we discover first the accusation that Jesus and His disciples were violating the Sabbath (1-14), and then the accusation that Jesus did His miracles by the power of Satan (22-37), and then the demand for a sign from Jesus to prove who He was (38-45). In the first case Jesus refutes their accusation rather easily, but then withdraws to escape their plans to kill Him (15-21). In the second case Jesus powerfully destroys their argument and declares that they are condemning themselves. And then after they demand a sign, Jesus refuses, except for the sign of Jonah, which will be too late for what they want, for by then they will already be guilty of putting Him to death. The chapter ends with a strange episode in which Jesus appears to be rejecting His family (46-49); actually, He uses their visit to show that He is turning to people who believe in Him instead of the Jews who are His people. He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him; and so to those who would receive Him He gave power to become the children of God.

You should read through chapter 12 to get the flow of where these episodes are going. But this study will focus on the first 14 verses of the chapter.

Reading the Text

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread--which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as the other.

14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

Observations on the Text

First it will be helpful to lay out the structure of the material. We basically have two incidents, the grain field and the synagogue, verses 1-8 and 9-13 respectively. Verse 14 is the Pharisees’ response to both. In the first incident we have the report of the issue with the accusation (1,2), followed by Jesus’ lengthy answer (3-8). In the second incident we have the report of the issue and the challenging question (9,10), followed by Jesus’ answer and miracle (11-13). In both incidents the Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus in a violation of the Law in order to discredit Him. But in both cases Jesus demonstrated His superior knowledge of Scripture and His power. They could not argue with these, and so they sought to kill Him—legally of course.

Second, we should note that again the speeches are central to the meaning of the passage. The Pharisees speak twice, first in verse 2 to accuse Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Law, and again in verse 10 to challenge Jesus’ view of the Sabbath laws. They were put down by Jesus’ answer in the first case, and so they were cautious about confronting Him again and instead set Him up and asked what He would do.

Jesus’ speeches are, of course, the heart of this passage’s revelation. His first reply to the accusation is with questions, designed to show their failure to understand the Law. He then rebukes them for not understanding what Scripture meant about showing mercy. And finally he claimed to be LORD of the Sabbath. The way these different sayings build on one another shows that as LORD of the Sabbath He alone understands the laws about the Sabbath.

In Jesus’ second reply Jesus does not appeal to Scripture, but to their own customs which were written in their teachings. He uses a common Jewish way of reasoning, from the lesser to the greater—if it is true of the lesser, it is certainly true of the greater. The argument is worded with “How much more . . . .” We will look at this more, but for now it is worth noting that He uses their own “laws” against them.

Jesus final speech is the simple command to the man to stretch out his hand. Here Jesus shows His authority as the Creator, and if the Creator, then the LORD of the Sabbath.

Third, the contrasts in the use of the Law are interesting. In the first place the disciples are hungry and so eat from the wheat fields. The legalists want them condemned for violating a law. In the end of the passage Jesus restores full life to the man, and the legalists want to put Him to death. In both cases the enemies of Christ show that they do not desire mercy, and that they have missed the spirit of the Law which is life. They are spiritual frauds who seek power over the people—and over Christ.

And fourth, we should not miss the fact that these events followed on the end of chapter 11 pretty closely. Jesus had just then called on people to abandon the teaching authority of the scribes and Pharisees and follow His teachings, because He alone could give them rest for their souls. His charge would continue to be that the Pharisees laid burdens on people that they could not handle. So in this chapter the Pharisees are challenging His authority as a teacher in Israel. If they can show that He violates the Law, then He is discredited. But in the process, they are discredited. But this chapter shows the disciples how they should learn of Christ, and not from the Pharisees.

Background to the Text

There are other things that may be observed as well, such as Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, and of their laws. But these we will discuss in the analysis of the text.

The study of a passage like this also calls for a bit of study of the Sabbath day laws. You can read about this in a good Bible dictionary, or in a good biblical theology. The Law simply said that Israel was to remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy (set apart to God and His service). They could do their ordinary labor for six days, but on the Sabbath they were to stop. In fact, the Hebrew word shabat means “to cease” more than it does “to rest.” The idea of “rest” is more like coming to rest, stopping. The observance was for Israel the sign of the covenant made at Sinai with the LORD the Creator. Since He worked for six days and “rested” the seventh, they were to pattern their life after that. Obviously, God did not “rest” in the sense of needing to restore His strength; it was a celebration of all His work of creation.

As an aside, it is important for Christians to know that the Sabbath was the sign of the Old Covenant, not the New Covenant (or Testaments as we call them). The covenants are very different, and the signs indicate that. The Old Covenant was the Law, and it was based on the Creator. The sign looked back to creation’s Sabbath. The New Covenant is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, and it looks forward to eternal redemption. Its sign is the cup of the New Covenant which Jesus institutionalized in the upper room. Because Jesus fulfilled the Law in His life and His death, all Old Testament laws have to be interpreted through His fulfillment. Sacrifices and ritual and holy days--all change with Christ. So believers today are not bound to keep the Sabbath Day because we have a New Covenant. The Sabbath for us is interpreted through the Christ event--when we believe in Jesus, we enter into the rest He promised (Matt. 11:28), which is the eternal Sabbath. Every day is to be sanctified to the Lord as a day of spiritual rest; the whole life is a Sabbath fulfillment. And in the age to come there will be a restoration of the whole Sabbath with the removal of the curse. Paul teaches that the Christian is not to observe holy days in a legalistic way. They are helpful for instruction and meditation, but not legally binding. But the Christian is to live out the spirit of the Law, what those regulations were intended to convey. And so a sanctified life given to the Lord and lived out in salvation’s rest from anxious toil and spiritual works is what should characterize the believer who has entered into the Sabbath rest (see Hebrews 3, 4). A simplistic and legalistic observance of a “Christian Sabbath” is not the way to sanctification.

Analysis of the Text

I. In response to legalistic criticism, Jesus declares that He is LORD of the Sabbath (1-8). This is the essence of the first incident in the chapter, and the main point of the whole section.

First, there is the incident (1,2). The act that triggered the whole discussion was a simple one--they were walking through the field and the disciples snacked on some of the heads of grain because they were hungry. On the surface it would appear no more a work than sitting at a table and eating.

But the legalistic Pharisees were bent on discrediting Jesus, and so they accused them of violating the Sabbath day. How was this a violation of the Sabbath Law? If you look at the Ten Commandments, this hardly seems like the labor they were to cease to set the day apart for God. Well, the only way it could be considered a violation is that the Jewish teachers had made lists of things that would be helpful in determining what the works were that should stop. Whenever the text of Scripture seems unclear, it may be for a purpose, that God expects people to act by faith and determine the application. But there are always religious teachers who cannot abide by that, and they make the detailed applications. That would be fine, expect those applications often get elevated to the status of authoritative Scripture. For the Sabbath the religious teachers had come up with a list of things that should not be done on the holy days; they were later recorded in the Mishnah (tractate “Shabbath”) as thirty-eight forbidden works. One of them was reaping the harvest. So apparently taking the heads of the grain off the stocks was considered a work, and so a violation of the Law.

But it was only a violation of the law as they interpreted it—not as God had written it. Jesus’ answer will get to the spirit of the Law, which they had completely missed in their effort to make legal clarifications. To be fair, not all religious leaders in Jesus’ day would have agreed with the interpretation of these Pharisees, but they held the leadership and so spoke for the group. Later, this particular activity was allowed on the Sabbath, but that was much later, and perhaps influenced by Christianity.

So second, we have Jesus’ response (3-8). In this response there are several different arguments being used. The immediate one is the case of David’s eating the bread in the sanctuary. You will have to go back and read the story in all its details. The story is in 1 Samuel 21:1-6; and the references for the bread in the tabernacle are in Exodus 25:30 and Leviticus 24:5-9. The twelve loaves of bread were placed on the table inside the tent of the tabernacle, in the holy place, and were only to be eaten by the sanctified priests. But David and his men, running from Saul, stopped at the sanctuary when it was in Nob and ate the bread, perhaps reasoning that they were on a holy mission, or that it was a matter of life and death.

In referring to this incident Jesus is not trying to argue the case for or against David by saying there were rules but David was permitted to break the rules. His point is that Scripture nowhere condemns David for doing this. If David could break the laws of holiness and eat from the holy food in the sanctuary and Scripture not condemn him, then why should His disciples not be allowed to eat from the grain on a Saturday?

Jesus is not justifying the disciples’ act, for it is not obvious that they broke any law in the Law. Rather, Jesus is dealing with the Pharisees interpretation of the Law in general, showing that He is the more knowledgeable teacher and that people should come to Him.

In the story in Samuel, the regulations of the Law were set aside for David and his companions. Jesus is building the case that He is greater than David, and so regulations (legitimate or not) can be set aside for Him and His companions too.

Jesus’ second argument is from the Law in general (Num. 28:9-10); technically, the priests violated the Law every Sabbath by the work that they did. Of course the priests were not guilty, because the same Law that ruled on the Sabbath made them priests. Since the Law established their duties, the Law established the right of the priests to break the Law and to do some pretty hard work at the altar.

Jesus uses this to argue from the lesser to the greater by analogy: if that was permitted for the priests, how much more for someone greater than the priests, or the temple itself. His analogy works only because He actually is greater than the temple and the priests. And the argument of the gospel is that Jesus and His kingdom are greater than the temple and all the priests and prophets and kings of the past. The point that Jesus makes then, is that in the Old Testament the laws of Sabbath were superceded by the duties of the priests, and so in His day the laws of the Sabbath were superceded by His duties as the Messiah and Redeemer. It shows there is a greater authority present than the ordinary leaders. Because the Son of Man was present, the Law would be superceded. He temple represented the presence of God with His people; but the presence of Jesus meant that God was with them in mortal flesh.

And so Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for missing the point of the Law, which is mercy (see Hos. 6:6). The spirit of the Law was life and peace with God, and at the heart of that was mercy. But they were so worked up over the cultic ritual laws that they missed the spirit of the Law. They really did not understand the Law because they were so busy looking at details, mostly prohibitions in this case. But now as accusers they stood accused. And the accused, the disciples, were declared innocent because the one greater than the Temple was there.

To refer to Himself as the LORD of the Sabbath means that He can handle the Sabbath laws any way that He wants, or can supercede them in the same way that the temple service of priests superceded Sabbath observance. As LORD of the Sabbath Jesus is the Son of Man, the divine Creator, the covenant God. And as LORD of the Sabbath Jesus the Messiah has authority over the temple too.

II. In response to the challenge from the Pharisees, Jesus healed on the Sabbath and demonstrated the importance of mercy (9-13). The second part could be taken as a separate Bible study, but since it overlaps so much the two can be taken together. Luke 6:6-11 indicates it was on another Sabbath; but Matthew has combined the two to make his point.

First, the incident (9, 10). Jesus went into the synagogue and there was a man there with a shriveled hand. Matthew says that the leaders were looking for a way to accuse Jesus, and so they asked Him if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. The focus now will be on Him and not the disciples; on something He would actually do, and in some detail on the enemies’ opposition.

Second, we have Jesus’ answer (11-13) The early Jews discussed at great length the question that they asked Jesus now. In general, it was fine to cure on the Sabbath Day if it was not an emergency. Their question was whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath; and Jesus argued that it was lawful, not that it was required. According to Jewish teaching while healing was permitted in some cases on the Sabbath, the patient had to be dying, or the situation life threatening. And that does not seem to be the case here, unless one were to argue that it was a matter of life and death, and that by healing him Jesus was rescuing his soul as well. But Jesus makes the analogy that if they had a sheep that fell into a pit they would lift it out on a Sabbath day--how much more a human in trouble. Neither the man with the withered hand, nor the sheep in the pit, were in danger of losing their life. So it was a matter of doing a good deed on the holy day. He knew that in principle they practiced that, but now were simply trying to accuse Him of violating their law.

Then Jesus healed the man. The healing comes after Jesus’ bold words about Himself and about His authority over the Sabbath day. But the miracle authenticates His powerful words, and in Matthew’s presentation of the order it also authenticates His prior claim of being LORD of the Sabbath.

III. The Pharisees plot to kill Jesus (14). Finally, the outcome of the exchange is that the Pharisees wanted to put Jesus to death (14). A lot of scholars do not think the Pharisees would have done this over a different interpretation of legal teaching, and that instead of “kill” it meant banish from the synagogue. But the point, of course, is that it is not merely a dispute over interpretation, but over the identity and authority of who Jesus is. The text is clear that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and claimed to have authority, and demonstrated it by His powerful works. And in the process He showed that He cared not for the numerous, detailed rulings that the Jewish teachings put in place--they were an added burden to what the Law had originally had in place. The disagreement over the Sabbath did not cause them to plot His death; it was the occasion for it based on His claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath. They were opposed to Him personally.

Central Theme

The point that the passage is making is best expressed by Jesus’ own claim that He is the LORD of the Sabbath. That means that He is the one who instituted it and He is the one who rules over it. He of all people would then know what the intent of the Sabbath day was--mercy, and not simply a day to avoid work. He never intended it to be subjected to a myriad of legalistic rulings. It was a day for celebration and refreshment and communion with the LORD.

But as LORD of the Sabbath Jesus had authority over all creation, including al people. He demonstrated that authority with His claims, and authenticated it with His mighty works, here the healing of the man with the withered hand. They understand His claim; they saw His mighty works. They either had to submit to His authority, or try to get rid of Him. Unfortunately for them they pursued the latter.

Correlation with Scripture

We have already noted the passages in Samuel, and Exodus and Hosea that were brought into the discussion.

There are a number of other passages in the Gospels which record Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish leaders over the Sabbath day. It looks very much like He is pushing them on the matter, choosing to do things on the holy day that violated their rulings, but not the Law of God. These passages should be read and compared to get the whole picture of Christ is doing.

Perhaps the best New Testament passage that captures this passage’s message, and those other conflicts as well, is the one that comes in Jesus’ rebuke of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:23 he tells how legalistic they were in the way they tithed meticulously, but in so doing they had neglected the weightier matters of the Law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. It is one thing for people to try to live obediently to the word of God, but it is quite another if they pour all their energy into that and fail to do positive acts of justice, mercy and faithfulness. Jesus said that God desired mercy, and not sacrifice. Actually, He wants both, but the ritual without mercy misses the whole point.

And if the Sabbath day was designed as a day of mercy from God, a time of rest and restoration, of celebration and service for God, then feeding the hungry, rescuing a sheep, healing a man would all be harmonious with that day.


There are probably a number of applications that have begun to form in your mind already. Here are a few major ones to consider:

    1. Commitment to the authority of Christ. These passages are all designed to reveal the person and work of Jesus, here as Lord of Sabbath, i.e., the sovereign creator and sustainer of life. When studying these kinds of passages the believer should renew his or her own faith in Christ. It should be an inspiration to greater allegiance and greater faith, that is, to praise and adoration of Him, and to obedience and prayer to Him.

    2. Avoidance of legalism. Legalism is not simply keeping laws, but is a self-righteous attitude. The legalist thinks he is righteous, and so anyone who does not conform with his idea of what righteousness is must be a guilty sinner. Legalism usually plays out with interpretations of Scripture, not actual Scripture. For example, some legalists today define what worldliness is, although they list things that the Bible does not mention; and whoever does not abide by their understanding is in sin.

Now be careful here, because where the Bible is clear on a sin or particular sins the Christian is to try to avoid such things and is to warn others with love and concern. Obeying Scripture is not legalism. God demands it. But there will always be some libertarians who will call you a legalist if you remind them what Scripture says. But that is not what we mean here by self-righteous legalism (of course, that warning can be given with a self-righteous spirit, so be careful).

Here the Pharisees had a whole list of “laws” they had made based generally on Scripture. And those became the test or righteousness. Paul deals with this in a lot of his epistles--judging others with respect to holy days, eating various foods, and other practices. Christians are to try to live obediently to Christ; if they find others who are doing the same but take a different application from some Scripture, they must be careful to acknowledge their faith and convictions (again, I am not talking about another interpretation of Scripture that seeks to do away with a passage or redefine it in order to license sin--that is not the same).

    3. Doing acts of mercy. What a contrast: the Pharisees are there criticizing and challenging Jesus, and eventually plotting to kill Him. That is obviously a terrible religious state to be in, for it opposes what is good and merciful. The point that Jesus makes is that that attitude nullifies any sacrifice or ritual they had made. His instruction is from Hosea: God desires mercy. People should be looking for objects of mercy, not objects to criticize. If they were busy with that, the Church would be a much better place.

And if there is a doubtful thing, and you are not sure if you should or should not do something (it is a matter of personal conviction), say, for example, like helping someone move on a Sunday (which would be offensive to a lot of Christians), the guideline here seems to say it would be better to “err” (if that is what it looks like) on the side of mercy, not self-righteous legalism.

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