The Lord of the Sabbath – Matthew 12:1-4

Pastor Scott L. Harris
August 8, 1993

The Lord of the Sabbath
Matthew 12:1-4

What does it take to be a Christian? Last week we saw in Matthew 11:25-30 the Lord Jesus Christ’s wonderful call for all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him and He would give them rest. We noted that in order to take advantage of the rest that Jesus is offering, a person has to first be humble and believe the revelation of truth that Jesus gives to them (Matthew 11:25-27). It is only then that a person will be able and willing to heed the call to come to Jesus, for coming to Jesus means that you admit your sinfulness, God’s holiness, Jesus’ righteousness, ask Him to forgive you of your sins, and to lead you in a different manner of life. When you come to Him you take upon yourself His yoke, which is easy and light, and learn of Him and the way He wants you to live. The reward is that you enter His rest.  (See: Jesus’ Offer of Rest)

And what a wonderful rest it is. No more labor in trying to attain salvation, for it is given. Being fixed and settled in your eternal destiny of being with God because of our confident trust in His love for us which is proven in Jesus Christ. A freedom from the fear that grips the world because God will provide for us, and He can and does use all things for good for those that love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). The tribulation that comes into our lives makes us more mature. We do not even fear death because that enemy has been conquered by Jesus.

But not everyone who claims to be followers of the Lord God, creator of Heaven and Earth, knows the rest that Jesus offers. Many at that time and many today are still heavy laden carrying around their heavy burdens and calling those very burdens righteousness. They are still trying to attain for themselves salvation from sin and its results. They are still trying to please God by their own means and methods rather than according to God’s directions. These are the legalists who take the Scriptures, interpret them by their own standards, and make out of them a detailed system of what can and cannot be done. They declare that those who follow their rules are righteous, and that those who do not are unrighteous sinners.

We still have people around that define righteousness in terms of the number of church services you attend every week, the style of clothes you wear, the way you cut your hair, that you cross your theological “T’s” and dot your theological “I’s” the same way they do, and that you limit your freedom in Christ to their standards. That is not to say that there are not valid concerns involved in some of the standards they set. We do need to be careful when it comes to issues such as drinking, dancing, smoking, playing cards, and even our dress should reflect the fact that we are coming to worship the Lord. (See: The Holy & Free Sermon Series) The problem comes when those standards become the definition of righteousness, i.e. who is and who is not a “good Christian.” They replace the standards of the Scriptures with the standards of men. In the New Testament, the most prominent legalists were the Pharisees.

Pharisaical Legalism

This morning we are going to see that the antagonism between Jesus and the Pharisees reach the point of blasphemy as the Pharisees try to get Jesus to conform to their legalism and Jesus corrects them. Turn to Matthew 12:1-14 where we will see that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath.

Remember that there was already antagonism between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus. In Matthew 11, we saw that they falsely accused John the Baptist of being demonized because of his austere manner of life and strong message of repentance (Matthew 11:18). John had been direct with then even calling them a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7), and they did not care for the truth to be told. They called Jesus a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners because Jesus associated with the common people and those in the most desperate need to hear his message of hope (Matthew 11:19). Jesus in turn had said that they were acting like children who cannot be satisfied regardless of what game is being played. They were being childish (Matthew 11:16, 17). (See: The Critical & The Apathetic).

Now we find the Pharisees criticizing Jesus again, but this time it is because He is not leading His disciples according to their traditions. Look at Matthew 12:1-3. “At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields, and his disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.”

Now we do not know exactly when or where this occurred other than it was sometime between April, when the Barley ripened in the lower Jordan valley, and August, when the wheat is harvested in the Trans-Jordan east of the Sea of Galilee. The exact time and location are not important to Matthew’s point that the Pharisees were against Jesus because He would not follow their custom. What custom? Specifically here it is picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. Notice that it is not the picking and eating of grain as they walk through a field that has them upset, it is the fact that this is being done on the Sabbath.

The Mosaic Law specifically allowed a person to pick and eat what he wanted as he traveled through his neighbor’s fields. Deuteronomy 23:24, 25 says, “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but you shall not put any in your basket. When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.” That may seem a little strange to us, but it made a lot of sense to the agrarian society of ancient Israel. The means of travel was by foot or animal which would limit what a person could carry. Most roads were narrow with the farmers’ crops planted to the edge of the road. There were no McDonald’s, Burger King’s or KFC’s around to get something to eat, so this was a provision for travelers. It did not allow theft, but did allow a person to satisfy their hunger as they traveled.

The problem the Pharisees had was not that the disciples of Jesus were satisfying their hunger, but that they were doing so on the Sabbath. They considered that to be breaking the Sabbath, which is why they said it was not a lawful thing to do. Their conclusion was that Jesus could not be a godly leader if He was allowing His followers to do something that was against the law, and they believed that Jesus was allowing His disciples to break the Sabbath.

Keeping the Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Sabbath simply means, “rest.” Exodus 20:8 says this, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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.” Several other passages repeat this injunction such as Exodus 23:12 which adds that it is so that they “may refresh themselves.” Exodus 31:12-17 adds that it is a sign between Israel and the LORD God throughout their generations and that a person who did work would be cut off from the people and a person who profaned it would be liable for the death penalty.

With this in mind, we can understand the concern of the ancient Rabbis in instructing the people to be careful so they would not break the Sabbath. However, the endless debates that had taken place about what was and was not work had over time developed into a very complex series of rules about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. The Mishna and the Talmud, codified teachings of the ancient Rabbis, devoted whole sections just to keeping the Sabbath. One of the six sections of the Mishna is on just the Sabbath and it contains twelve chapters. The Talmud devotes twenty-four chapters to it.

Among the things set down as law within the rabbinic tradition are the following. A person could walk in his dwelling place freely and travel a Sabbath day’s journey which was limited to 2,000 cubits, about 970 yards, from his dwelling place. However, a person’s dwelling place could be extended if prior to the Sabbath they placed food for two meals somewhere else or ran a rope to where they wanted to go.

You could not pick up anything heavier than the weight of a dried fig, but there were further restrictions on that. For example, an object thrown into the air and caught with the same hand would break the Sabbath, though there was debate about whether it would be sin to catch it with the other hand. However, if you caught it in your mouth, it was not sin because the object ceased to exist once you swallowed it. False teeth could not be worn because if they fell out and you put them back in, that would be work (No, I am not making this up!).

You could do nothing to improve the condition of anything. Medical care was limited to keeping the person in the same condition. You could not do anything to improve your condition, so an ointment could be used only if its purpose was to prevent the injury from getting worse, but it could not be used if it promoted healing of the injury. Regulations allowed bathing, but care had to be taken that no water splashed on the floor otherwise work would have to be done in cleaning the floor.

A fire could neither be kindled nor put out. This resulted in a lot of regulations concerning how food could be kept warm on the Sabbath and what could be done if a fire spread in your home. In modern Orthodox Judaism, this has resulted in the use of a lot of electric timers so that the pious Jew would not be guilty of doing work by turning something on or off.

There were specific regulations concerning what did or did not constitute labor in farming, animal husbandry, homemaking, manufacturing, and even studying. You could not drag a chair because it might create a rut in the dirt, an agricultural practice, but you could move one that had wheels because that would only compress the dirt.

The disciples were in trouble over the regulations concerning harvesting. It was declared that rubbing the ends of grain stalks together would be threshing. Bruising the stalk would be grinding. Throwing the grains into the air and catching them would be winnowing and rolling the grains together to remove the husks would be sifting. The disciples in picking the grain heads and rubbing them together were guilty, according to the Pharisees, of harvesting, threshing, and sifting on the Sabbath. Of course, you have to wonder what the Pharisees were doing out in the fields on the Sabbath watching Jesus and the disciples? Maybe they had special privileges to break the Sabbath themselves since they were PC – piety cops.

Pharisaical legalism had turned what was fitting and proper under the Mosaic Law into something which was illegal. The rule of God was exchanged for the rule of man. The word of man superseded the Word of God. No wonder it was seen by many of the rabbis to be more important to study the Mishna and Talmud than to study the Scriptures themselves. Does not the same exist today in the church among those that put more importance on studying traditions or the thoughts of teachers and theologians than on what the Scriptures themselves say?

Jesus responds to their accusations by giving three arguments why the disciples were innocent and then seals those arguments with a declaration about Himself. 1) The Law could be breached. 2) The Law had exceptions. 3) The Law was meant for man. 4) Jesus Ruled over the Sabbath.

The Law Could Be Breached

Matthew 12:3-4, But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?” Jesus’ first statement, “have you not read,” was a strong rebuke to these people who were supposed to be the upholders of the law. In effect Jesus is saying, “You pride yourself in your knowledge of the Law, yet you don’t even remember this.” Jesus’ reference is to the story recorded in 1 Samuel 21 of David and his men fleeing from King Saul who wanted to murder them. When they arrived in Nob where the Tabernacle was at the time, David asked Ahimelech the high priest for food. There was nothing there except the twelve loaves of Bread of Presence that was in the Tabernacle. These loaves, each one representing one of the tribes of Israel, was replaced with fresh loaves each Sabbath. The old loaves were to only be eaten by the priests (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:9). Ahimelech told David he could have the bread if the men had kept themselves pure, which they had, so he gave David the bread. The high priest saw no problem in breaching the ceremonial law concerning the bread in order to meet God’s higher law of loving one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), and in this case providing for the anointed king of Israel. It is as recorded in the parallel passage in Mark 2 where Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” If there were times when the ceremonial law could be breached to uphold the moral law, then there are certainly times to breach man’s traditions.

The Law Had Exceptions

Matthew 12:5 states Jesus’ next argument, “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent. But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here.” Again the opening phrase is a rebuke to them. This example they certainly should have known since some of them lived by that provision of the Law. The priests were very busy on the Sabbath. In fact, they had twice as much work to do on that day because sacrifices made on the Sabbath were to be double sacrifices. Even those that want to make Sunday into sort of a Christian Sabbath (which it is not) understand that there is no restriction on the work of ministry done on that day by the preacher and teachers and ushers and singers and the congregation in worshipping God. There are exceptions to the law.

Jesus concludes this argument with a reference to the fact that He was greater than the temple. Undoubtedly this made the Pharisees mad, but it made His point clear. God made provision in the law so that the temple service could be carried out. Jesus is greater than the temple, and any work done by His servants, including feeding themselves, was excluded from the Sabbath restrictions just as the priest’s temple service was excluded.

The Law Was Meant for Man

Jesus’ third argument is based on the meaning of the Law. Matthew 12:7, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” In the parallel text in Mark 2, as already mentioned, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The meaning of the law was plain. It was for man’s benefit to point out his need for God’s grace and mercy, not a system by which to appease God and earn your way to heaven. As Paul said in Galatians 3:24, the Law was to be a tutor to bring us to Christ. It was never meant to be used in the manner of the Pharisees. But they did not understand this quote of Hosea 6:6. They were interested in fulfilling every nuance of their tradition in order to earn their righteousness so God would have to let them into heaven. They had no understanding of God’s compassion toward them or anyone else. The disciples were innocent because what they had done was in keeping with the meaning of the law.

Jesus Ruled over the Sabbath

Then in Matthew 12:8 Jesus seals His arguments with His declaration, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” What was implied by His earlier statement that “something greater than the temple is here” is now declared openly. Jesus is telling them directly that He is greater than God’s temple and greater than God’s Sabbath, and if there were any two things that the Pharisees held sacred, it was those two things. To them, only a person who actually believed he was God could have made such a statement. That is exactly what Jesus was telling them. There were times when the Law could be breached, there were exceptions to the Law, the Law was made for man’s benefit, and Jesus Himself ruled over what was right and wrong to do on the Sabbath. He was the final authority – not their traditions.

Proving the Point

In Matthew 12:9-14 Jesus proves this very point. “And departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they questioned Him saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ – in order that they might accuse Him.” Jesus does not wait for the Pharisees to respond, He continues on His way and goes into a Synagogue. In comes a man with a withered hand. Luke tells us it was the man’s right hand. The Pharisees are blinded by their hatred for Jesus, and instead of learning from the rebuke and teaching they had just received from Jesus, they only see an opportunity to trap Him. Remember, they taught that it was not lawful to improve the condition of someone on the Sabbath because that would be work. They regulated compassion to only keeping the person from getting worse. Here was a man with a medical condition that compassion would seek to heal, but one that could wait until the next day for a withered hand was not life threatening. If Jesus healed the man, it would be in direct violation of their Sabbath regulations.

Jesus knew what they were thinking and took the challenge directly. Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus at that point had the man with the withered hand come forward, and in so doing Jesus called everyone’s attention to the situation and the question. Jesus then rebuked the Pharisees with another pointed story. Matthew 12:11-12, “And He said to them, ‘What man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Jesus pointed out what they would do themselves on the Sabbath which was primarily economic. You would not want to let a sheep either die or injure itself in a pit, you would lift it out even though that would be work. Men are more valuable than sheep and since it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, then it is lawful to do good to a man on the Sabbath.

Matthew 12:13 records Jesus’ next action, “Then He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand!’ And he stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other.” Jesus did not touch the man or even command the hand to be healed, but simply healed it as the man was raising it. Jesus was the Lord of the Sabbath and He would not be restricted from doing good because of the legalistic restrictions of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees response is in Matthew 12:14, “But the Pharisees went out, and counseled together against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.” Mark tells us that they were so blind with hatred for Jesus and desire to kill Him that they counseled together with their very arch-enemies, the Herodians, the irreligious political supporters of King Herod, to plot Jesus’ death.

Legalism is a killer wherever it shows up. The ancient Rabbis developed a legalistic system that killed the very purpose of God’s law, which in turn killed the spirit of the people who were under its bondage. It also killed the moral fiber of the Pharisees as they became so blind to the truth that they would commit acts clearly against the Mosaic Law (plotting murder) because their traditions were not being upheld.

Legalism still poses a danger today. There are systems of religion that claim to be “Christian” that are built around it. Legalism is a barrier to salvation by grace through faith for it develops its own false system of salvation. Legalism also creeps into churches that proclaim salvation by God’s grace where it becomes a barrier to faithful Christian living. Regardless of how strongly you or I may feel about various issues including those that are clearly against God’s commands such as adultery, promiscuity, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc., or issues that are questionable such as drinking, dancing, going to movies, smoking, etc., we had better make sure that it is Jesus whom we follow and not the dictates of man. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. We are to approach our fellow man in keeping with New Testament law of speaking the truth in love and in compassion, calling the sinner to repentance in following Christ. We are not calling them to follow religious traditions or man-made rules. Jesus has freed us from the curse of the law that we might live by the Holy Spirit. Let us never return to the curse we have been freed from.

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