Lord of the Sabbath

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

INTRODUCTION: We are continuing our series on Mission and Conflict in Matthew 10-12, and today’s passage highlights the growing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, particularly the group known as the Pharisees. All that comes to a head today, as we look at two conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees, both having to do with the Sabbath day.

At the end of Matthew 11, Jesus just spoke about coming to him and finding rest. The Sabbath day is all about rest, and here at the beginning of Matthew 12, he addresses the Pharisees and their misguided notions of the Sabbath. This just brings more conflict, and by the end of today’s passage, we find that Jesus’ enemies are actually plotting murder. (Read Matthew 12:1-2 and pray.)


Life is full of rules and laws. We have tax laws, property laws, traffic laws, laws relating to marriage and family. Schools have their codes of conduct, and every major corporation has pages of policy.

When God created us, he also gave us laws and commandments that we should learn, follow and obey. But we need to be careful that we don’t twist his laws into something they were never meant to be. And that is where today’s passage in Matthew is so helpful.

Jesus came to teach us God’s law and to fulfill God’s law perfectly for us. And that is the main conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees in this passage. The Pharisees had one idea of the Sabbath, but Jesus had another. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, so guess who wins? But the Pharisees are not going to be too happy about it.

Today’s passage teaches us three important truths we need to know about God’s laws. First of all, God’s laws are made for your good. Secondly, it is always lawful to do good. And thirdly, legalism is the enemy of grace.

I. God’s laws are meant for your good (1-8)

So, let’s begin with the first truth. God’s laws are made for your good.

   A. The Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples (1-2)
      – Exodus 34:21; Deuteronomy 23:24-25

Look at Matthew 12:1-2:

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.” (Matthew 12:1-2)

Now it is important to understand what the Pharisees were upset about here. They were not accusing the disciples of stealing. God had set up the property laws in Israel such that it was okay to eat out of your neighbor’s garden as long as you didn’t put any of it in a basket or put a sickle to the grain. If you were hungry it was okay to grab a few grapes for the road or to eat some kernels of grain along the way. (Deuteronomy 23:24-25) So, the disciples were not doing anything wrong simply by picking grain from this person’s field.

What the Pharisees were upset about is that the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath day. Observing the Sabbath was extremely important to the Jews of Jesus’ time, and it was especially important to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on keeping the law right down to the last detail.

Now keeping the Sabbath was God’s idea, but the rabbis of Jesus’ time had added all sorts of rules and regulations to those found in the Old Testament. They listed out 39 main types of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath, and they organized those into six sub-categories. And number three on their master list was “reaping”: no reaping allowed on the Sabbath.

Now they had some biblical basis for this one. Exodus 34:21 said: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” (Exodus 34:21) And so, yes, it would have been unlawful for a farmer to go out on the Sabbath day and harvest his crops as if it were any other day of the week.

But it was quite a stretch to call what the disciples were doing “reaping” or any other type of work. They were hungry; they were eating. It was that simple. They didn’t break God’s law. They just broke one of the Pharisees’ extra rules.

   B. Jesus responds to the Pharisees (3-7)

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t even get into a debate with the Pharisees about whether what the disciples were doing was lawful or not. Instead, he gives them three statements in response.

      1) David and his friends ate the consecrated bread (1 Samuel 21:1-6)

First, he gives them an example from the Old Testament of something that clearly was unlawful. Look at verses 3-4:

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.” (Matthew 12:3-4)

“Haven’t you read …?” Wow, that must have stung. Jesus takes them right back to the Scriptures that they were supposedly the experts in, and he gives them the example of David and the consecrated bread.

Here is the background to the story. (1 Samuel 21:1-6) This incident took place before David became king, when he was still on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him. David and his men were hungry, so David went to the tabernacle and requested bread for him and his men. Unfortunately, there was no ordinary bread left but only the consecrated bread.

This was known as the bread of the Presence. (Exodus 25:30) Every Sabbath Day the priest baked twelve loaves of bread and laid them out in two rows of six on the table of pure gold before the Lord in the sanctuary. At the end of each week the bread was removed and replaced with twelve new loaves. The loaves that were removed were to be eaten only by the priest and his sons in a holy place. (Leviticus 24:5-9)

So, although it was not technically lawful for David and his friends to eat the consecrated bread, because they were hungry and in need, Jesus says it was okay. You see, God’s laws are meant for your good. God doesn’t give us his laws to make us miserable or to take away our enjoyment of life. God’s laws are designed for your good.

So, back to Jesus and his disciples in the grainfield. Even if what the disciples were doing was breaking the Sabbath, and it wasn’t, Jesus was saying that human need still trumps ceremonial law. Why? Because God’s laws are made for your good!

      2) The priests serve in the temple on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:9)

Next, Jesus applies a similar principle to the priests in the Old Testament. Look at verses 5-6:

“Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:5-6)

Here’s an interesting example. The law says you’re not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. And yet the same law also told the priests they had to do work on the Sabbath. In fact, the priests not only worked on the Sabbath, they had a double load of work on the Sabbath. They made double the number of sacrifices on the Sabbath day! (Numbers 28:9)

So, why was it okay for the priests to work on the Sabbath? Because they were working in the temple. And the temple was greater than the Sabbath. Once again, God’s laws are made for your good. Does a pastor displease God when he preaches on a Sunday? I hope not! If so, I’m in big trouble!

Jesus goes on to say, “One greater than the temple is here.” We’ll come back to that in a moment when we look at Jesus’ authority.

      3) God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6)

But first let’s look at the third example. Jesus has given an example from Old Testament history, he has given an example from Old Testament law, and now he gives an example from the prophets. For this third example, Jesus quotes from the prophet Hosea. Look at verse 7:

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

Jesus is quoting from Hosea 6:6 here. Jesus quoted from this same verse to the Pharisees back in Matthew 9:13, too, when they complained about him eating with tax collectors and sinners.

Yes, sacrifice is important. Obedience to God’s commands is important. But if you don’t do it with love and mercy in your heart, you’re not doing it right. God doesn’t want mercy instead of sacrifice and obedience. Rather he wants mercy along with sacrifice and obedience.

Jesus is saying that because God is merciful towards us, we also out to be merciful to each other. We should show mercy every day of the week and especially on the Sabbath! God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

   C. Jesus asserts his authority (6,8)

And so next, Jesus asserts his authority to the Pharisees. Look at verses 6 and 8:

“I tell you that one greater than the temple is here…. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:6,8)

Jesus tells the Pharisees, “One greater than the temple is here.” We’ve already seen that the temple is greater than the Sabbath. Well, Jesus is greater than the temple. If the temple was greater than the Sabbath, then certainly the one the temple pointed forward to is greater than the Sabbath also.

Jesus goes on to say, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus wasn’t saying he could break the Sabbath because he is Lord of the Sabbath. No, Jesus is saying because he is Lord of the Sabbath, therefore he can tell us what the Sabbath really means and how we may observe it properly.

God in his goodness set aside one day a week for you to worship and rest. The Jewish people in the Old Testament observed their Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. The Christian church from its earliest days has always gathered for worship on Sunday, the first day of the week. Sunday is also known as the Lord’s Day, the day Jesus rose from the dead.

But whatever day you may set aside as a Sabbath, realize that God made the Sabbath for you. God doesn’t want you to work non-stop, seven days a week without ever taking a break. And he doesn’t want you to miss out on worship with the body of Christ. So, he gave you the Sabbath so you could slow down, rest from your work, and gather with God’s people to worship and pray. The Sabbath, as with all God’s laws, was meant for your good.

The Pharisees were questioning Jesus’ judgment in allowing his disciples to pick and eat grain on the Sabbath. But Jesus is the Son of Man. He is Lord of all, and he is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the one who gave us the Sabbath command to begin with. And as with all his laws, God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit. That is the first truth we need to know about God’s laws. God’s laws are made for your good.

II. It is always lawful to do good (9-13)

Here is the second truth. It is always lawful to do good. We see this in the next section in Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees over the man with the shriveled hand. Here we move from the grainfield to the synagogue.

   A. The Pharisees look for a reason to accuse Jesus (9-10)

Look at verses 9-10:

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 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?” (Matthew 12:9-10)

This scene is just wrong on so many levels. First of all, when you go to synagogue, you are supposed to be worshiping, but the Pharisees are there trying to trap Jesus instead. And then secondly, they don’t really care about the man with the shriveled hand. They are just looking for a reason to accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath.

You see, according to their self-made book of rules and regulations, they said you could only help or heal a person on the Sabbath in life-threatening situations. Otherwise, to quote a certain synagogue ruler from the gospel of Luke, they would say: “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” (Luke 13:14) Well, this man’s life wasn’t in danger, so they determined it would be unlawful for Jesus to heal him on the Sabbath.

   B. Jesus responds to the Pharisees (11-12)

Well, what does Jesus have to say about that? Look at Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in verses 11-12:

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.” (Matthew 12:11-12)

Any of the Pharisees if one their sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, they would get it out. Yes, it would involve some work on their part, but they realized the sheep’s welfare was more important than the Sabbath at that point. Well, Jesus says, how much more valuable is a man than a sheep!

As opposed to the detailed laws and codes of the Pharisees as to what was lawful or not, Jesus had one simple rule: it is always lawful to do good. In fact, the Bible says it is wrong not to do good. James 4:17 says, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” (James 4:17) We do not honor God by withholding good but by doing good. It is always lawful to do good.

   C. Jesus demonstrates his authority (13)

Earlier Jesus asserted his authority to the Pharisees. Now he demonstrates his authority. Look at verse 13:

Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. (Matthew 12:13)

And so, Jesus chooses to do good on the Sabbath. He heals the man on the Sabbath in front of everyone. And in so doing Jesus demonstrated his authority to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus really was the Lord of the Sabbath! And he showed us that it is always lawful to do good.

III. Legalism is the enemy of grace (14)

And then finally we come to the third important truth about God’s laws in this passage: legalism is the enemy of grace. Look at verse 14:

But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus. (Matthew 12:14)

The hostility of the Pharisees towards Jesus has been building up over the last few chapters, and now it finally comes to a head. The Pharisees are ready to kill Jesus because of his actions and his teachings.

The conflict actually began back in chapter 9 with the healing of the paralytic when Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins. Now with the healing of the man in the synagogue, he claims authority over the Sabbath. Back in Matthew 9 when the Pharisees experienced conflict with Jesus, they called him names. (Matthew 9:34) Now here in Matthew 12 they are plotting murder. That escalated quickly!

Jesus came from the Father full of grace and truth, and the Pharisees hated him for it. You see, legalism is the enemy of grace. Legalism wants to dictate and control. God is not like that. God offers you freedom and grace. God offers you forgiveness for your sins through his Son, Jesus. And he offers you the freedom to live a life of loving God and loving your neighbor through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As a church we must always reject legalism and choose grace. You can’t have both. One is the enemy of the other. When you separate love from the law, you get legalism. That’s what the Pharisees did, and Jesus took them to task for it.

CONCLUSION: Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. The law is meant for your good, and human need always comes before ceremonial law.

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. It is okay to do good on the Sabbath, because it is always lawful to do good.

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. When we separate the law from Jesus, we become legalistic and hostile to God’s grace given us in Jesus his Son.

In conclusion let me leave you with three thoughts this morning.

1) First of all, think good thoughts of God. So often people think that God made up all these laws and commandments just to weigh us down and make our lives miserable. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s laws are meant for your good. When you follow in God’s way, your life will be sweeter, not worse.

2) Secondly, receive the Sabbath as a gift from God. The Sabbath is an opportunity to rest from your work and to join with others to worship God. We shouldn’t think of the Sabbath as a burden, or an imposition, or some type of interruption to our week, but rather we should look forward to this day that has been set apart for us by God. We should call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable. (Isaiah 58:13)

3) And then thirdly, be people of grace. Love God; love your family; love your neighbor. “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:14) God is a God of grace. Let us be people of grace.

© Ray Fowler

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