Lord Over the Sabbath
Topic: Covenant/New Covenant Passage: Matthew 12:1–14
Last Sunday, we finished on the note of Jesus inviting us to rest. You and I were made for rest with the Creator, whose presence makes everything whole. But on this side of Adam’s sin we enter a world of unrest. A world where evil unsettles us and bodies are broken. A world wearied by sin and its consequences. So, it resonates with us when Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
But there are some who think Jesus isn’t about rest. In Matthew 12, the Pharisees see Jesus as a compromiser of God’s rest. In their eyes, he desecrates the day of rest, known as the Sabbath. But they are wrong. They are wrong because they miss God’s purpose of mercy in Christ. Jesus’ disciples are hungry. There’s a man with a withered hand. And both become opportunities for Jesus to reveal himself as Lord of the Sabbath, the one who gives rest to the hungry and the broken. Are you hungry? Are you broken? Do you find yourself in need of true rest? There is good news for you here. 12:1…
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” 9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Verse 1 begins with Jesus traveling with his disciples. They make their way through some grainfields and encounter some Pharisees. It’s around the same time that Jesus contrasts his kind yoke with the heavy yoke of the Pharisees. Matthew 23:4 speaks of the Pharisees tying up heavy burdens, laying them on people’s shoulders, but with no willingness to help. That’s exactly what we find the Pharisees doing here: laying heavy burdens on the disciples, because they have not considered the mercy found in Jesus.
Now, roads weren’t like many of ours in the city. They ran straight through fields of grain. It was nothing to reach over and pluck some grain. There were even provisions in the Law, like Deuteronomy 23:25, where you could take some grain when passing by your neighbor’s field. That’s all the disciples are doing here. They’re hungry.
The issue for the Pharisees is that they’re doing it on the Sabbath. “Look,” they say to Jesus, “your disciples are doing what’s not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Now, any Jew would’ve been able to recite the law: “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 to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that’s in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy”—Exodus 20:8-11.
Sabbath was central to Israel’s identity as a covenant nation. Unlike the rest of the nations, Israel shut down on Saturday to rest. God even put severe consequences in place for those who ignored the Sabbath. Question is, were the Pharisees applying the Sabbath law rightly? Were they right to accuse Jesus and the disciples?
It might be harder for us to grasp why they had such a problem. After all, the disciples aren’t doing more than grabbing a light snack. But the traditions of the Pharisees often went beyond the Scriptures. They built strict hedges around the law to make sure no one erred. They would’ve likened this to harvesting, maybe even preparing food. For the Pharisees, this was work and therefore compromising.
But Jesus disagrees. Jesus says the disciples are guiltless. Why is that? What are the Pharisees missing? They’re missing how the Scriptures themselves anticipated God’s mercy in the person and work of Jesus. Let’s walk through a few things they miss.
The Pattern in David’s Life
One, they miss the pattern in David’s life anticipating someone greater. The Pharisees viewed themselves as authorities on God’s Law. But you can see from verses 3 and 5 that Jesus questions that authority. Twice he says, “Have you not read?” His question assumes, “Yes, they have read. But they’ve missed it.” What did they miss?
Jesus first draws from Israel’s history—a unique story about David found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. He says, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” According to the Law, there were twelve special loaves set before the Lord in the tabernacle. It was a food offering to the Lord. Only the priests were allowed to eat the bread of the Presence once it was time to swap it out.
But in verse 3, Jesus recalls a time when David and his men ate this bread. It seems that God made a special exception for a special person entrusted with a unique mission. David had entered the house of the Lord. We also know from 1 Samuel 22:15 that Ahimelech the priest had inquired of the Lord on David’s behalf. David isn’t just doing his own thing, in other words. He’s seeking the Lord’s will.
David is also the anointed King (1 Sam 16). His followers are engaged in a holy mission to establish God’s kingdom—I gather that from a comment David makes about his men being holy in 1 Samuel 21:5. Also, 2 Samuel 7:11 later explains that it was through David that God was bringing rest to the land. So, what’s the pattern? God makes merciful provision through an anointed king who seeks God’s will in bringing rest for God’s people. And that special occasion warrants the use of the bread.
What’s Jesus’ point? His point is that the account with David should give them pause. Those judging Jesus don’t realize that they too have encountered a special king. Jesus is the greater David. There were patterns in David’s life pointing to God’s future work in Jesus. If David and his men, on this occasion, could eat the bread of the Presence without Scripture condemning him, how much more could Jesus. He’s the greater David. He’s the anointed King—Matthew 3. He seeks to do God’s will perfectly—Matthew 4. He’s engaged in a holy mission to bring rest for God’s people, and not just a temporary rest in the land but a true rest in God’s presence by taking away our sins.
At a minimum, Jesus’ use of 1 Samuel 21 accounts for an exception in the Scriptures that the Pharisees haven’t accounted for. But far more is how that same story established a pattern, an expectation for how God would make merciful provision in Jesus, his obedient, anointed King. The Pharisees miss both dynamics at play. So, they’re quick to accuse Jesus. They should’ve become like the disciples. The disciples are serving in God’s presence and enjoying his provision? Isn’t that the point of Sabbath?
The Priority of the Temple
Jesus teaches again in verse 5, but this time from the Law. They have also missed the priority of the temple anticipating something greater. “Or have you not read,” he says, “in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” When Jesus says they profane the Sabbath, that doesn’t mean he believes they’re profaning the Sabbath. It seems like irony. The law forbids any work on the Sabbath. But the law also required priests to perform sacrifices on the Sabbath—Leviticus 28:9. If we approach matters like the Pharisees, then the priests would be “profaning” the Sabbath by working. But Jesus says they’re guiltless.
Why are they guiltless? Because without God choosing to dwell with us through sacrifice, there would be no rest in his presence. The whole point of Sabbath was rest in God’s presence. But a sinful people cannot find rest in God’s presence unless he makes a way. God is holy and he will not tolerate sin. We must approach on his terms alone; and in mercy God chose to make a way provisionally through the sacrifices in the temple. Blood had to cover the people if God was to dwell with them. The temple was a picture of God’s merciful provision in sacrifice to enable rest in his presence.
That gives the temple a higher priority, which also means the priests who work on the Sabbath are guiltless. The Pharisees are so fixed on guarding the Sabbath, they miss the priority of God’s merciful provision in the temple. Without God choosing to dwell with us through sacrifice, there is no true Sabbath. But Jesus isn’t finished.
He says in verse 6, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” “Something” could mean the new age he’s bringing, the kingdom. It could mean himself. Either way, what an outlandish claim! The temple was central to Jewish identity. For centuries the temple stood as the center of their relationship with God. Yet Jesus doesn’t hesitate to say, “I’ve brought something greater.”
Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s merciful provision. The pictures of God’s mercy in the temple were always pointing forward. Jesus will spill his blood at the cross to provide entry into God’s presence. But his sacrifice will be once-for-all-time. His death will be sufficient to end the temple system altogether. People knew him to say things like, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days,” speaking about the temple of his body (John 2). Jesus had come to replace the temple and all that goes with it. It’s through Jesus’ blood that God opens the way to rest in his presence.
But the Pharisees don’t see it. They try to use the Law against Jesus without realizing how the Law itself was pointing to Jesus the whole time.
The Purpose of God’s Mercy
Three, the Pharisees also miss the purpose of God’s mercy over mere ritual. Jesus has pulled from Israel’s history, Israel’s Law. Now in verse 7, he pulls from the latter prophets, Hosea. He says, “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
That’s from Hosea 6:6. He’s quoted it before. In Matthew 9:13, some Pharisees were offended that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. So, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” If some of these Pharisees were present before, it seems they still haven’t learned what it means.
In Hosea 6, the Lord rebukes Israel for their fickle love that fades quickly with each day (Hos 6:4). God’s word of judgment slays them like a sword and exposes them like a light (Hos 6:5). “Because,” it says, “the Lord desires steadfast love [or “mercy”] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6). Why does God rebuke Israel? Because Israel is going through the rituals of the covenant apart from knowing the God of the covenant. They want God’s favor without loving God’s mercy.
Sacrifices were designed to cover sin, not to become an end in themselves. The end-goal was mercy in the people, but they made it all about the ritual. The Pharisees are doing the same. They’ve so concerned themselves with guarding the Sabbath as ritual they’ve missed God’s purpose in mercy. The whole point of the sacrifices, Sabbath, temple—it was all pointing to God’s mercy, mercy that would not deal with us according to our iniquities, mercy that would provide a permanent covering for our sins, mercy that would satisfy justice completely, mercy that would separate our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, mercy that found it’s truest embodiment in Jesus Christ.
When you miss God’s mercy, you become like the Pharisees heaping burdens on others, condemning the innocent. But Jesus knows. He has authority over the Sabbath. He is Lord of the Sabbath. Some will say that Jesus never calls himself God. But the claim Jesus makes here couldn’t be clearer. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. He owns it. It belongs to him. The Sabbath serves Jesus. He knows what it’s about. He has authority to interpret Sabbath; and according to his interpretation, the disciples are innocent.
Beloved, if we don’t grasp the depth of God’s mercy, we will find ourselves in a state like these Pharisees, quick to condemn the innocent, ready to heap burdens on people, and finding ourselves opposing the Lord God himself.
The Proof of God Fulfilling Sabbath Hopes
Finally, they miss the proof of God fulfilling Sabbath hopes in Jesus. We see this in the second encounter Jesus has on the Sabbath. In the first encounter, Jesus grants rest to the hungry. Here he grants rest to the broken. Jesus enters a synagogue in verse 9. There’s a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” You see, according to their traditions, healing on the Sabbath was only permissible when someone’s life was on the line. But that’s not the case with this man. So they attempt to trap Jesus. Verse 10 explains their intent: they were purposing to accuse Jesus. Pharisees: they heap burdens on the hungry and exploit the broken.
But Jesus answers this way in verse 11: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” The Pharisees focus on what to avoid on the Sabbath. Jesus focuses on doing good. It fits his character throughout the Gospel. He’s filled with compassion for the broken.
He turns to the man in verse 13 and says, “‘Stretch out your hand.’ And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.” You know, Scripture elsewhere gives us glimpses of what God’s rest includes. Take the land of Canaan, for example. Israel never obtained the fullness of rest due to their sin. But ideally, the land of rest involved freedom from oppressors. It involved the land producing bountiful food and wine. But at the very heart of Canaan was the presence of God resting among his people, making everything whole and filling his people with joy.
Another glimpse comes with the Sabbath itself. Exodus 31:14 describes it as a day of refreshment. Every six-day week concluded with Israel observing a day of rest. They did it again and again to anticipate the day of refreshment that would never end.
And now we find Jesus healing a man with a withered hand. He comes to undo what sin has destroyed. He comes not only to satisfy the hungry in God’s presence but to heal the broken in God’s presence. By healing the man’s hand, he proves that access to God’s rest comes through him. He embodies God’s mercy to helpless sinners.
But the Pharisees miss this proof. Verse 14 says, they “went out and conspired against Jesus, how to destroy him.” Who are the real Sabbath breakers? It’s not Jesus who fulfills the Law and fills the land with deeds of mercy. It’s not the disciples who enjoy serving in the presence of the Lord of Sabbath. It’s those who lay heavy burdens on people, those who seek to destroy those doing good. It’s those who make it all about the ritual without any consideration of God’s mercy in the cross.
The Sabbath was made to enjoy rest in God’s presence. Jesus brings rest in God’s presence. He brings God’s rest to the hungry and the broken.
What, then, should we take from this? First, stay humble and keep a teachable spirit. Consider the Pharisees. Known for searching the Scriptures. Revered as authorities on the Law. Well-read in the traditions of their forefathers. Yet Jesus must say to them, “Have you not read…” “If you had known what this means…”
You too can have a knowledge of the Scriptures. You can be sincere in your beliefs. But due to the traditions you’ve inherited or due to pride that wants to protect yourself or your group, you can be wrong. That’s why we need each other in the church. That’s why we need pastors skilled in sound doctrine. That’s why we need a willingness to be corrected, an heart that opens itself up to Jesus and says, “Teach me! Show me the way, Jesus. Guides us into all truth by your Spirit.” Thank God for other committed Christians who curb our excesses and correct our errors. So, stay humble.
But secondly, keep Jesus central and learn from Jesus. After all, Jesus is our Lord, and he understands the Scriptures better than all of us. He wrote them. Committed people get the Scriptures really wrong when Jesus isn’t central. Again and again, that’s the problem with the Pharisees. Recall that moment in John 5:39 when Jesus tells the Jewish leaders, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” That’s why the Pharisees get the Sabbath wrong here in Matthew 12. They don’t see how it all relates to Jesus.
If you read the Scriptures apart from Jesus being the center, the whole goal of God’s purpose in grace, you will get them wrong as well. You will find yourself laboring under a yoke impossible to bear. You will place burdens on others that they can’t bear. It’s possible that you might even wind up condemning the innocent. Be careful.
Learn from Jesus. Jesus teaches us right here. His assumption is that we’re already reading the Scriptures, right? “Have you not read?” So hopefully we’re all forming good reading habits. But notice too how he helps us put the pieces together. He interprets the parts in light of the whole. It’s not simply the Sabbath commandment, but how the Law relates to David in 1 Samuel 21, and how the Sabbath relates to the temple, and how God’s purpose in mercy shapes the goal of all of it. When you read the Bible, do the same. You can’t divorce any one passage from where it stands in the grand sweep of redemptive-history. Jesus must be central, and he binds the whole together.
Jesus also demonstrates how later revelation informs the way we understand and apply earlier revelation. Jesus is God’s greater revelation. “Something greater than the temple is here,” he says. If he’s greater than the temple, then he’s greater than the whole system that goes with it, including the Sabbath.
Listen to the way Paul puts it in Colossians 2:16-17. “…let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath [or Sabbath days]. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Yes, we gather on Sunday. But not because Sunday is the new Sabbath. But because that’s when our Lord Jesus rose from the dead. Every Sunday is a celebration that God has brought our rest in Jesus.
I realize other Christians will push back here, arguing that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance. And to that I would say, yes, the Sabbath does recall the rest that God himself entered on the seventh day. But it does so only as a way of anticipating the greater work in Christ to bring us into the rest God has already entered. We fulfill the Sabbath when we come to Christ and begin centering ourselves around him. The full experience of that rest will come at the resurrection. But by coming to Jesus, our souls can know some of that rest starting now.
Which is why, thirdly, I want to reiterate a point from last Sunday: come to Jesus and find rest for your soul. Some of you may feel like you must get things together before coming to Jesus. Like there’s a spiritual level you must reach, or an amount of faith you must have, or the perfect quiet time, or a sorting out of all your sins. If you’re anxious, you might feel like you can’t come in your state of panic.
But listen to this again. In 11:28, Jesus invited all who labor and are heavy laden. In today’s passage, he stands by the hungry. He speaks healing for the broken. What’s the point? He came for the weak. He came for the weary. Jesus came for the sick. Jesus came for sinners, not to call the righteous. So come as you are, with all your burdens. They will not overwhelm him. As Christopher Wright once put it, “God has broad enough shoulders to cry on and a big enough chest to beat against.”[i] Bury your head in his chest and make your burdens known.
Where do you catch yourself trying to find rest for your soul? In your works, your performance? Listen, it will never be enough. But Jesus’ works are enough. His works pleased the Father. His works included a perfect life on your behalf and then dying on the cross in place of your sins. Because of his works, God has opened the way for you and you are accepted before God in Christ.
Are you trying to find rest in your hobbies, your getaways, your leisure? These are good gifts from the Lord. He can use these blessings to refresh you physically, mentally. But they have an expiration date. Jesus doesn’t. He is risen and reigning forever, always alive to give you what you need. Also, those other gifts aren’t always available. But Jesus is. We can find comfort in his presence every moment.
Are you seeking rest in getting all your circumstances just right, your kids to behave just as you want them to behave, your spouse to do just what they’re supposed to do? “If they would just do ____, then and only then will I have rest.” Is that you? People and circumstances will disappoint you. Jesus will never disappoint. He is the faithful one. He is trustworthy in everything. Wherever you are, whatever burden you carry in relationships, lay it at the feet of Jesus. Learn from him. He will give rest for your soul.
Finally, never forget God’s purpose of mercy in Jesus. The Pharisees didn’t just get the Scriptures wrong. They got people wrong—not seeing their value as image bearers. They got God’s gifts wrong—unable to enjoy the good things the Lord wanted to bless them with. The institutions God ordained to bless them—they got those wrong and turned them into mere rituals without relationship. They got Jesus wrong. All because they missed God’s purpose of mercy in Christ.
Brothers and sisters, we are just as vulnerable. If you forget God’s purpose of mercy in Christ, you too will get the Scriptures wrong. You will get the Lord’s institutions wrong. Your Bible reading, church gatherings, the Lord’s Supper, giving—all of it will become mere ritual with no relationship. Without mercy we will become a church that looks down their noses at others, that lays burdens on people too heavy to bear. Our gatherings won’t bring refreshment to the soul, they will breed legalism and joyless duty and hypocrisy and callous hearts toward the hungry and the broken.
Instead, let us remember God’s purpose of mercy in Christ. Let us recall every morning how much we don’t deserve, and yet our God lavishes kindness on us. Those who are forgiven much, love much. Pray that the Lord would so work his mercy into us that we become like our Savior, getting down with the weary and heavy laden to lift their burdens. Pray that he make our church a haven for the hungry and the broken to come—come as you are with all your weariness—to find rest in the Lord Jesus.
We have opportunity to grow in this right now. The worship team will first lead us in a song, “Jesus I Come.” Then we will come to the Lord’s Supper and feast once again on God’s purpose of mercy in Christ…
[i]Wright, Lamentations, 78.