Lord of the Sabbath
Candidates for public office learn that their every word and action will be scrutinized, as will the actions of those closest to them: family, staff members, members of their social group. Many a promising candidate has seen their campaign derailed by something unfortunate that they have said or done. Our new president is learning that both his supporters and detractors pay close attention to everything he says. Whether it is an official proclamation or a tweet posted in the middle of the night, every move he makes will be scrutinized and may be used to either support him or attack him.
Jesus understood this principle. People watched everything he did and carefully listened to everything he said. Some of those people paid close attention because they wanted to learn from him, while others were hoping to find something they could use against him. Our passage this morning records two times when Jesus’ opponents thought they had finally found a way to take him down, but Jesus turned the tables on them. To some degree, these two accounts teach us about the Sabbath, but more importantly, they teach us about our Savior and what it means to be His follower.
We turn our attention today to Matthew 12:1-14. The events recorded in these verses are also recorded in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels and each account gives us a little bit more information, so as we go I’ll bring in some of those details as well.
In order to understand these stories we need some background. Up until the time of Jesus, the Sabbath was observed on Saturday. After Jesus rose from the grave (on Sunday), his disciples began to gather for worship on Sunday as well (called the Lord’s Day). Eventually, this became the regular day of worship for Christians as opposed to Saturday, so Sunday became the new “Sabbath day.” But at this time, when Matthew refers to the Sabbath, he means Saturday.
The Fourth Commandment was that the Sabbath was to be a day of rest (Exodus 20:8-11). We are told that just as God made the entire creation in 6 days and rested on the seventh, this was to be the pattern for us as well. We should work 6 days and rest on the seventh. This Sabbath day was to be a day of rest dedicated to the Lord.
The Jewish leaders saw a problem with this command, namely that it was too vague. There are lots of unanswered questions: What constitutes work? What can we do on the Sabbath? How much can we do before we are breaking God’s law?
So they came up with a list of rules to cover any possible question that might arise on the subject. They identified 39 different categories of work and then clarified what kinds of activities constituted work. These laws were not given by God—they were created by men, and many of the laws had come to the point of ridiculousness—even declaring that if a person spit on rocks it was ok, but if they spit on soil it was considered work and a violation of the Sabbath command.
Jews took the 4th Commandment very seriously, and so the claim that someone had violated it was a serious charge, one punishable by death (Exodus 31:14-15). Throughout history Jewish soldiers refused to fight on the Sabbath, some were massacred when they were attacked on a Sabbath Day because they would rather die than violate God’s law. So while this seems like a minor thing to us, it was a big deal to accuse someone of breaking the Sabbath laws.
The First Confrontation
In both of the confrontations in our text, that is the charge the Pharisees bring against Jesus—that he and his disciples were violating the Sabbath. We read about the first confrontation in verses 1-8.
At about that time Jesus was walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they began breaking off some heads of grain and eating them. 2 But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, “Look, your disciples are breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.”
3 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. 5 And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? 6 I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! 7 But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ 8 For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Matthew 12:1-8, NLT)
There was nothing in Scripture that said what the disciples were doing was wrong—as a matter of fact, the practice of picking grain from a farmer’s field and eating it while traveling was deemed acceptable by God! (Deuteronomy 23:25) The Pharisees’ argument was based on the laws they had created, not what God had said.
William Barclay summarizes the essence of their argument:
By plucking the [grain] they were guilty of reaping; by rubbing it in their hands they were guilty of threshing; by separating the grain and the chaff they were guilty of winnowing; and by the whole process they were guilty of preparing a meal on the Sabbath day, for everything which was to be eaten on the Sabbath had to be prepared the day before.
So, in the minds of the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples were breaking the Sabbath command in at least 4 different ways. But Jesus’ response silenced them completely.
He responded by asking, “Haven’t you read about what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” Jesus knew they had read this account, but He was making the point that although they knew the story, they had missed its significance.
The story he’s referring to is found in 1 Samuel 21. David had been anointed as the next king of Israel, but Saul continued to be the actual king. Saul wanted to kill David, so David was on the run, along with an army that was faithful to him. One day, after fleeing from Saul, David and his men were starving. They stopped at the tabernacle in a town called Nob and asked the priest for some bread. The only bread the priest had was the sacred bread which was only to be eaten by priests, but he gave it to David and his men.
Jesus’ argument was that David and the priest both understood that the needs of the hungry men superseded the ceremonial law about the sacred bread. Jesus was trying to show the Pharisees that they were missing the point of the Sabbath command. They were condemning hungry men because they ate food—and that certainly wasn’t the point of the 4th Commandment.
But He didn’t stop there. Jesus launched into another argument to make his point. This one centered on the priests whose job was to work in the temple on the Sabbath. By any measure, what the priests did would be considered work. They had to carry firewood into the temple and build fires, and they had to sacrifice animals, lift them onto the altar and roast them. Clearly, this would be a violation of the Sabbath command, but God said this work was allowed on the Sabbath. So contrary to what the Pharisees seemed to think, God clearly condoned some activities on the Sabbath. They were blindly following a set of self-imposed rules, but that’s not what God intended at all.
After giving these examples, Jesus makes three statements that were each very significant. First, he says that “One greater than the temple is here.” The priests could violate the Sabbath because they were serving in the temple. Jesus was saying that if serving in the temple is acceptable on the Sabbath, then why would it be any less acceptable to serve Him (the One greater than the temple)?
Second, he quotes from the book of Hosea and tells them that they didn’t understand the statement, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The Pharisees were focusing on adhering to religious ritual rather than the heart God wanted them to cultivate. If our hearts are not right, it doesn’t matter how many rules we follow. The Pharisees weren’t concerned with honoring God, they were concerned with wielding power. They were offering sacrifices to God, but not mercy. Jesus called them on their hypocrisy.
Third, He declares that He is the Lord of the Sabbath. All three of these statements would have ruffled their feathers, but this last one would have taken the cake. First of all, by declaring himself Lord of the Sabbath, He was saying that He was equal with God. That alone would have infuriated the Pharisees. But this statement also cut to the heart of the matter. The Pharisees acted like they were the lords of the Sabbath. Jesus was reminding them who was really in charge—and it wasn’t them. The Pharisees were looking for a way to discredit Jesus, but their plan backfired.
The Second Confrontation
We don’t know how much time passed between the first confrontation and the second one, but Luke tells us they happened on different Sabbath days, so at least a week (maybe even more) passed between these two events. The gospel writers put them together because they both teach us about the supremacy of Jesus and about the dangers of religious legalism. This second confrontation was again with the Pharisees, but this time it took place in the synagogue.
9 Then Jesus went over to their synagogue, 10 where he noticed a man with a deformed hand. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)
11 And he answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. 12 And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.”
13 Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one! 14 Then the Pharisees called a meeting to plot how to kill Jesus. (Matthew 12:9-14, NLT)
Jesus noticed a man with a deformed hand. He had compassion on the man, but before he could act, the Pharisees confronted him. They knew his heart—they knew He would have compassion on this man. They asked if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. They weren’t looking for clarification; they weren’t trying to understand why they should care for this man. They were looking for a way to trap Jesus and condemn Him. Jesus had compassion in his heart; the Pharisees had hatred in theirs.
Jesus didn’t answer their question directly; instead he asked what they would do if one of their sheep fell in a well. Certainly, they would save the sheep (and their laws permitted this!) Jesus makes the statement/rhetorical question, “how much more valuable is a person than a sheep!” He was showing them how messed up their priorities were—it’s ok to care for an animal but not a person? Then he gives a clear-cut answer: it is always ok to do good on the Sabbath—and healing this man was good.
The Bible doesn’t record any response from the Pharisees, likely because there wasn’t any response possible. I imagine a deafening silence came over the room as the people waited to see what Jesus would do next. In my mind, after a long pause Jesus simply told the man to hold out his hand, and it was completely restored. All he did was speak; there is no way anyone could have accused him of doing work on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees were incensed so they left to figure out how they could kill Jesus. This detail is important because it reveals their hearts. They weren’t concerned about God’s law at all. The fact that they got upset because Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath but thought nothing of leaving the synagogue to plot murder showed the condition of their hearts. They did not want to be close to God—they wanted to be gods.
This passage teaches us several things. First, Sabbath is important. In the parallel passage in Mark, Jesus adds these words,
The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27, NLT)
Jesus wasn’t saying that the idea of working six days and taking one day off for rest and worship was outmoded and no longer necessary. On the contrary, He says God told us to follow this pattern because we need rest. We need time that is quiet, time where we reflect on the Lord, time to be recharged and energized for the week to come.
We understand this, don’t we? Ask most people how they feel, and most will say they are tired. Our society says resting is weak or lazy, but it’s not. It’s wise. We need to take time each week to rest and worship the Lord. We need it—it’s how we were made.
Second, we must guard against legalism. Legalism is when you come up with a list of rules that you must keep in order to be acceptable to God. It’s what the Pharisees had done. They had told everyone that it was only by keeping their list of rules that they could be right with God. That’s not the message of the gospel. We aren’t justified by keeping a set of rules; we are justified by a relationship with Jesus Christ.
It’s far easier to invent a list of rules and focus on keeping them than it is to make Jesus Lord of our hearts. Legalism creates a sense of sinful pride—it imagines us as gods, the ones who make the rules. When we make the rules we will conclude that we are better than everyone else. The Pharisees followed a list of rules but their hearts were far from God. The gospel shouldn’t lead us to pride, but rather the humble recognition that we are wholly reliant on God’s grace. Legalism causes us to focus on ourselves; the gospel drives us to focus on Jesus.
Third, we must remember that Jesus is Lord. It’s tempting to look at these stories and fixate on commands about the Sabbath, but these two accounts don’t teach us about the Sabbath, they teach us about Jesus. Jesus shows himself to be greater than David and even greater than the priests or the temple. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, and the Lord of all! That is the point we should take away from these verses.
Practically speaking, this means that we should look to Jesus for guidance instead of the world. And when the two come into conflict, we choose to follow the Lord of all.
- It means that we strive to follow the Sabbath commands, even though the world says it’s foolish and outmoded.
- It means that we make decisions about what is right and wrong based on what God has said rather than the arguments of the world.
- It means that we show respect and kindness to everyone, because we see that God loves them just as He loves us.
- It means we choose to be generous rather than selfish.
- It means we look for ways to meet the needs we see in the world around us rather than hoping that someone else will do it.
- It means we extend grace to those who struggle instead of looking for ways to condemn them.
This isn’t a list of rules to follow—it’s the result of a heart that is seeking after Jesus. It’s what happens when we truly live like Jesus is Lord of all.
If you were hoping I’d answer all your questions about the specifics of keeping the Sabbath today, you are surely disappointed. God doesn’t give us answers to those questions—instead He tells us to simply seek after Him. When we recognize Jesus as Lord, we’ll find we do what is right, without needing a rulebook that tells us what to do in every situation.
The Pharisees were a lot like politicians. Politicians want to present the appearance of doing the right things. They kiss babies, they go to events, and they are nice to people in order to cultivate the image they think will get them elected. They play the role they think they are supposed to, regardless of what’s inside. That’s why we don’t trust politicians! God doesn’t want us to just play a role.
We can do all the things we think we are supposed to but never recognize Jesus as Lord. We can convince everyone else that we are holy and yet still be far from God. So look beyond the surface and examine your heart. Who are you living for? Do you recognize Jesus as Lord, or is your focus on something or someone else? These two accounts remind us that how we answer that question is of ultimate importance: it determines what we do, how we treat others, and how we make decisions. There can only be one who is Lord—so make sure you’re following the One who is Lord of the Sabbath…and Lord of all.
 Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001.
 Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew. Third Ed. The New Daily Study Bible. Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2001.