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Matthew

Lord of the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1-21

Lesson audio

It is tempting to skip over many of the arguments with the Pharisees. After all, they are long since gone; the temple worship was abolished forcibly in AD 70 when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The value in these arguments is not in studying the Law, nor because we need to deal with Pharisees – but in seeing just who Jesus really is.

The Authority and Person of Christ

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath." 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? "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. "But if you had known what this means, 'I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,' you would not have condemned the innocent. "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." Departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"--so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, "What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? "How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Then He *said to the man, "Stretch out your hand!" He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

(Mat 12:1-14 NASB)

Mercy, not sacrifice

(Most translations use “mercy” where the NASB uses compassion). Do you not see what Christ is saying? He tells the religious leaders of His day, the right wing fundamentalists of the time, that they missed the point completely.

  • “If you had known” – this carries with it some powerful implications. First, it implies that you could know. The matter is not buried under layers of ceremonial law; it’s in front of your face.
  • The implication is that if you had just searched for it, you would have found it. It is a teacher’s frustration; people will not search the Scriptures for what may be known. This, when there is limitless power, mercy and understanding in a few short pages.
  • From which we may also deduce that such meaning is hidden from the hypocrite. Isn’t the hypocrite the one who wants the reputation of a Godly man – but doesn’t want the humility that goes with it? In pride we judge the Scriptures; in humility they judge us.

The result of failure is evident: the Pharisees condemn the innocent. They have read (indeed, written) the fine print, and missed the point.

But there is one other thing you may note: Christ talks quite calmly to this bunch of Pharisees. Indeed, it appears that they have no answer to His argument. The Pharisees, who consider themselves better than anyone else, take this rebuke in apparent calm – it seems that they recognize the personal authority of the man. Over and again we see Christ walking through crowds who would stone Him; there is something of that here.

Something greater than the Temple

To understand what a claim to authority and power this is, you must first know what the Temple meant to the Jews. Five hundred years before it was first built, the Jew was commanded to present his sacrifices there – at “the place where God shall place His Name.” Solomon built the first one, later destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again, to be rebuilt again by Herod the Great. The attitude of the Jews can still be seen by observing the crowds at the Wailing Wall.

It is the most sacred place on earth. Abraham went to this spot to sacrifice Isaac; David stayed the plague meeting the angel on this spot. To those who study prophecy, it is genuinely that: the most sacred spot on earth.

Christ claims to be greater. Indeed, how could He not? Who pointed the Jew to the one spot? Who stopped Abraham mid-sacrifice? Who commanded that the Temple be built?

Lord of the Sabbath

Christ makes this claim almost in passing. But see its significance to the Jews: the Sabbath distinguishes them from all other people. What they do – or rather, don’t do – on Saturday is unique to the Jews (at this time; Seventh Day Adventists come rather later). How can Christ claim to be superior to it?

  • He is superior by right of creation. On the seventh day God rested, and hallowed the Sabbath thereby.[1]
  • He is superior to it as Law-Giver. From Him come the Law and the Prophets; therefore, as the One who ordains the Sabbath, He is superior to it.
  • He is superior by right of Resurrection. He stayed in the tomb over the Sabbath – and rose on what we now refer to as the Lord’s Day. The old law is done; grace arrives.

The Limitless Demand of God

Easy to please, hard to satisfy

It seems that God is indeed easy to please – but impossible to satisfy. Consider some of the demands He makes on us:

  • We are to be perfect – just like He is.[2]
  • If we break even one of God’s laws, we are guilty of shattering them all.[3]
  • And – even if you kept every last tiny regulation, you would still find that something is lacking – for animal sacrifices cannot make real atonement.[4]

It is therefore a great blessing that we are no longer under the Law.

The Law points to the Christ

It is important to realize that God did not give the Law just to inflate His own ego. He gave it because we needed it. The principles shown in the Law are given for the blessing of His people, not to shackle them.

The Law, indeed, is said to be our schoolmaster.[5] This is one reason we study the Old Testament even today; it is a window on the mind of God. By searching it we can see what He thought necessary for the ancients – and translate that into our own time.

Indeed, the Law was given to “hold the fort” until the time was right for the coming of the Christ.[6] The animal sacrifices point us to Christ and the Atonement; the laws of conduct are still fruitful today.

The Law and the Spirit

The logical among us might notice that Christ brings forth as his defense for the disciples a precedent – a precedent in which David the King asks for, and gets, bread which the Law forbids him. It is likely enough that the Pharisees might have replied that it is no defense to bring another sinner forward to compare; both are to be condemned.

But the Old Testament does not condemn David. That lack of condemnation implies that here is an exception to the Law. What is not condemned becomes a precedent. The Pharisees, from their lack of reaction, probably got this point too.

The reaction of the Pharisees is indeed rather interesting here. Sabbath breaking produced a mild interrogation; healing on the Sabbath drives them to a murderous conspiracy. Why? The former is a debating point; the latter is a point of authority – and pride.

Christ is the divider.[7] To those who accept Him, He is love, joy and peace. To those who reject Him, there comes a spirit of anger, jealousy and murder. By their fruits you will know them.

The Meekness of Christ

But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, and He healed them all, and warned them not to tell who He was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: "BEHOLD, MY SERVANT WHOM I HAVE CHOSEN; MY BELOVED IN WHOM MY SOUL is WELL-PLEASED; I WILL PUT MY SPIRIT UPON HIM, AND HE SHALL PROCLAIM JUSTICE TO THE GENTILES. "HE WILL NOT QUARREL, NOR CRY OUT; NOR WILL ANYONE HEAR HIS VOICE IN THE STREETS. "A BATTERED REED HE WILL NOT BREAK OFF, AND A SMOLDERING WICK HE WILL NOT PUT OUT, UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY. "AND IN HIS NAME THE GENTILES WILL HOPE."

(Mat 12:15-21 NASB)

Don’t tell

May we take up a minor mystery here? Why does Jesus send them away with instructions not to tell anyone?

  • It’s clear that the healing is bound to be noticed. By prohibiting them from telling others, he impels the others to find out.
  • It is also so that they don’t mention it – and therefore give pride no opportunity.
  • Most of all, this is the fulfillment of prophecy.
Gentle Jesus

Glory is to God what style is to an artist. It is the Glory of God in the flesh to conduct Himself in humility. Here the prophecy tells us what that means:

  • He will not quarrel. Do you notice how His encounters with the Pharisees rather resemble a one-punch fight? He does not debate with them; He answers them. Sometimes with a miracle, sometimes with a precedent – but always with humility and gentleness.
  • He will not cry out. Christ is not a one-man circus. There is no sense here of a public relations machine. The sinner must come to Him.
  • He will not raise His voice in the streets. The relationship is personal, not one which depends upon great moments in preaching.

In this, we see the humility of the Christ, and an example to each of us.

Until

Just what is this “battered reed?” We may understand it this way: for those whose faith is weak and hesitant, Christ does not condemn them. Rather, he keeps knocking at the door, waiting to be asked in. You may hear the Gospel but once in your life, but from then on there is a knocking at the door.

Just what is this “smoldering wick?” Oil is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The smoldering wick is the lamp running out of oil. To those who desire to flame, He gives the Spirit without measure.

The Gentiles

Do remember that the Jewish attitude towards Gentiles was (and often still is) that they are fit only as fodder for the fires of hell. (One of them explained this to me during an elevator ride at college. He seemed quite sincere and very pleased with the concept[8].)

Quoting again from the Prophets, Christ tells us of His work with the Gentiles:

  • First, that justice will be proclaimed among the Gentiles. Has this happened? What is the purpose of the Holy Spirit, but to convict the world of sin and of judgment?
  • Second, that He will lead judgment to triumph. Is this not the spread of the Gospel to the entire world?
  • Finally, it is in His Name the Gentiles (that’s us) will hope. The Light of the World is Jesus; in Him we have our hope.

Lord of All

The Lordship of Christ is seldom taught these days. If a woman no longer need obey her husband, but merely respect him, how then can we say the church should obey her Lord? Indeed, we still seek a Savior – but a Lord is inconvenient. But Lord He is:

  • He is Lord by right of creation. All things were created by Him; in Him all things have their being. Lordship is His right.
  • He is Lord by choice – you named the Name and claimed His promises, being baptized in that Name. You chose Him, and you must take Him upon His own terms.
  • He is Lord of eternity. He holds the keys of hell and death; He alone is alpha and omega, beginning and end. If you will not make Him Lord in your life here, then what?

[1] Exodus 20:11

[2] Matthew 5:48

[3] James 2:10

[4] Hebrews 10:1-4

[5] Galatians 3:24-25

[6] Luke 16:16

[7] Matthew 10:35-36

[8] But see Deuteronomy 7:7ff

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