Jesus and the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14)

The previous chapter had closed with Jesus making a contrast between his yoke and the yokes that other teachers placed on their followers. In the two incidents about the Sabbath we see examples of how his method was very different from what the Pharisees did or expected from others. The first example concerns what Jesus prioritised and the second concerns works of mercy.

When we think of the Sabbath, what ideas should come to mind? The first one is that it is a creation ordinance along with work and marriage. So it is not a Jewish practice. Second, the Sabbath originally was God’s rest when he chose to delight in all that he had done in the first week of time. So it was not designed to be drudgery. Third, it is part of the moral law, one of the ten commandments, which means that it is not something that passed away with the passing of the ceremonial law. Fourth, it was a day for showing mercy as we can see from Isaiah 58. Fifth, it was the day when God’s people gathered together to worship him. Sixth, the day was changed from the seventh day to the first day after the resurrection of Jesus. Seventh, additional Sabbaths found in the ceremonial law are no longer to be observed.

The priority of Jesus

The problem that the Pharisees imagined that they had identified was based on their notion that what the disciples did was the equivalent of threshing the grain and so they regarded the action as working (one of about forty such ideas about forbidden work on the Sabbath), and so a breach of the fourth commandment occurred. The concern of the Pharisees was not connected to the possibility that the disciples were stealing the grain. Deuteronomy 23:25 allowed them to take the grain: ‘If you go into your neighbour’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbour’s standing grain.’

I suppose we need to ask why the disciples did this. It is very likely that they knew what the Pharisees believed. Were the disciples beginning to grasp that the demands of the Pharisees, which were nothing more than human traditions, were irrelevant?

Then we need to ask why Jesus responded to the Pharisees in the way he did. He could have decided to ignore what they had accused his disciples of doing. But if he had responded in that way, it would mean that he had kept silent about an aspect of God’s truth, which he would not do in any circumstances.

His response contains three arguments, each of which is connected to the Old Testament. First, he refers to an incident when David ate some of the special bread that usually only priests could eat. Moreover, this bread was only changed on the Sabbath, which implies that the incident involving David took place on a Sabbath. Yet, since David and his men were hungry, the priest in charge gave them the special bread which had been replaced and would have been eaten by the priests. It is perhaps interesting that while other Gospels refer to the incident, only Matthew says that the disciples were hungry, which could be a reminder of a detail that he recalled about the incident. The point is obvious – since hunger takes priority over God-given rituals, how much more would it have priority over man-made requirements.

Second, Jesus points out that Sabbath laws were desecrated every week by the priests because of the work they engaged in at the temple. We have already mentioned one of their activities, that of changing the special bread (Lev. 24:8). Another was the double burnt offering mentioned in Numbers 28:9-10. Both these activities involved work, but the priests could engage in that work because the highest authority (God) instructed them to do so. By implication, we can ask, ‘Who informed the disciples that they could eat the grain?’ And by deduction, we can reply, ‘Only God could give them that permission.’ It looks as if Jesus is saying that he gave the disciples permission to eat the grain, and in doing so was claiming to be divine.

Third, Jesus challenges the Pharisees about their knowledge of the character of God when he cites a verse from the prophecy of Hosea where God says that desires mercy and not sacrifice. The Pharisees would have been shocked by this application because in Hosea those being accused by God were the idolatrous and sinful Israelites. Jesus was telling them that in his estimation the Pharisees were like those unfaithful Israelites. Yet we have to remember that David told lies to the priest when he arrived at the tabernacle. The fact that he was given food was because of mercy. The priests broke the Sabbath as they worked in the temple, yet they were not punished because God is merciful.

We are not told where Jesus and his disciples were going as they walked through the field. But we are told what they needed, which was mercy because they were hungry. Mercy is always appropriate and it is not a sin to avail oneself of the opportunity. The Pharisees made it clear by their criticism that they had no idea who God is or what he is like. If they had been like God, they would not have had such a critical spirit.

Jesus calls himself the Son of Man who is the ‘lord of the Sabbath’. As we have noted before, the title Son of Man is taken from the Book of Daniel where it describes One who receives universal authority from God. It is a title that identifies Jesus as the promised Messiah. Yet here he is saying something more when he says that he is lord of the Sabbath. He is claiming to be the sovereign God. But he is also saying that as the sovereign God he desires to show mercy to sinners.

The man with the withered hand

Matthew then mentions an incident that involved Jesus performing a miracle of healing on a Sabbath. We could infer from Matthew’s account that it followed on from the previous incident, but Luke tells us that they took place on different Sabbaths. Matthew has the incident together because they stress the same matters.

Once again, we see the increasing hostility of the Pharisees towards Jesus. What makes their questioning most serious is that it took place in a setting of worship. They were claiming to worship the true God, yet here they were critiquing the One who had been sent by God to be the Saviour. Malice, we can say, had made them mad.

They did not realise that Jesus knew their thoughts. In reply to their question, he reminded them of the dignity of humans when he compared their concern for a sheep who falls into a pit on the Sabbath with what could be done for the man. They did what they could for the sheep and Jesus was going to do what he could for the man whose arm was damaged. It was obvious that it was right to do good on the Sabbath. We can deduce that it is appropriate to help any of God’s creatures who are in need on the Sabbath, which is why we take care of animals on that day. It is also a day for taking care of humans, which Isaiah says in Isaiah 58. We don’t keep the Sabbath if we don’t show kindness to those in need when they cross our path.

The occasion was an opportunity for Jesus to reveal his power as the great Creator when he healed the man’s arm. But I suppose we could ask what would have happened if the man had not stretched out his hand. The answer to that question is obvious. No one would have known in the synagogue that Jesus had healed him. The way of healing the man points to Jesus wanting people to know that he had power to help them. But the way for them to see it was by observing what he had done in this man’s life. So if the man had not stretched out his arm, he would have prevented the glory of Jesus from being revealed.

Moreover, we could say that if the man had refused to obey Jesus when told to stretch out his arm he would have denied for himself the blessing of assurance. The only way he would know that his arm had been healed at that time was by obedience to the command of Jesus. And it is always true that the path of assurance always involves obedience to the instructions of Jesus. A disobedient Christian cannot have assurance. He has grieved the Spirit and until he repents he will not receive such a spiritual blessing.

At the same time, we can see that the way the man showed his faith was by his obedience to the instruction of Jesus. James writes about the difference between a true faith and a false faith – the difference is seen in our works. We are not saved by our works, but our works reveal whether we have been saved. In that synagogue, the unnamed man recognised the authority of Jesus and just did what his new Master told him to do.

We see the response of the Pharisees was very different from that of the man whose arm was healed. Instead of rejoicing at this amazing miracle they were hardened in heart and resolved to destroy Jesus. The actions of the God of love did not melt their hard hearts. We would say that a terrible sin had taken place when people despise the evidence of grace. Yet that is what happened here, and the Pharisees continued to depart from the living God.

Three lessons

First, we can observe the approach of Jesus towards his opponents, which was to ask them simple questions. Their outlook was complex and involved the combination of a range of requirements. Sometimes the best way to deal with something is just to ask a few straightforward questions about the topic.

Second, the answer of Jesus for his opponents was that they should get to know God. A religion, even a very strict one like what the Pharisees practised, is of no value for one’s spiritual state. The God the Pharisees worshipped was not the God of the Bible, even although in many ways they were regarded as orthodox. This can be seen in their failure to grasp that God was merciful.

Third, the natural man does not like grace. We see this in response to what happened with the man with the restored arm. One would imagine that the Pharisees would have wanted to rejoice with him. Instead, they created an attitude of hostility towards Jesus and his amazing displays of grace.

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