There is a great temptation that exists when it comes to religion and godliness. There becomes a great temptation to just give me a set of rules. Just tell me what I need to do. Just give me the rules so that I know where I stand. We want the rules. It is easy for us to fall into such thinking. We ask questions that start with these words, “Do I have to….” “Do I have to” questions always are triggered from wanting to know what the minimum rules are to keep. In fact, over the last hundred years there have been attempts to try to boil down following Jesus into sets of rules. We can talk about the five steps of salvation. We might have heard about five acts of worship. We might hear about belonging to a church that has a certain set of characteristics. Now you might wonder what the problem is. The problem that can arise is that we focus on the rules and miss the reasoning and purpose. We can miss the intention of worship and just focus on doing five things. We can miss the purpose of salvation and only focus on certain actions. This is where the Pharisees are in the days of Jesus. They have paid attention to rules and missed the reasoning and purpose. We are going to see this problem and why it is so important in Matthew 12.
The Problem (12:1-2)
The problem arises in the first two verses of Matthew 12. The disciples are going through the grain fields on the Sabbath and plucking the grain to eat. Now the problem is not that they were plucking grain from other people’s fields. The Law of Moses gave allowances for doing this (cf. Deuteronomy 23:24-25). The problem is that Jesus’ disciples are doing this on the Sabbath. The Pharisees believed that this was a violation of the Sabbath because it was doing work. The Pharisees had come up with myriads of rules to define what was work and thus a violation of the Sabbath.
I decided I would do a little research to see if those rules are still in effect today, about 2000 years later. So I went to some Jewish websites to see what they taught about what violated the Sabbath today. The chabad.org website reads:
Let’s start with some basic activities from which we refrain on Shabbat: writing, erasing, and tearing; business transactions; driving or riding in cars or other vehicles; shopping; using the telephone; turning on or off anything which uses electricity, including lights, radios, television, computer, air-conditioners and alarm clocks; cooking, baking or kindling a fire; gardening and grass-mowing; doing laundry.
The website goes further to explain that you are not allowed to carry things or move things. You are not allowed to move things indirectly with another object. You can only move an object if it is needed for an activity permitted on the Sabbath and nothing else can perform the task or the place the object occupies is needed. Now I am not bringing this up to poke fun at this teaching but to ask an important question. Was this the intention of the Sabbath law? Is this what God wanted and was expecting from his people when he commanded the Sabbath? The answer to this question drives exactly toward what Jesus is going to try to explain to the Pharisees in Matthew 12 who are declaring that his disciples are breaking the Sabbath.
Two Examples (12:3-5)
Jesus uses two examples to show that their thinking about the Sabbath is incorrect. In verses 3-4 Jesus uses David as his first example. The example of David comes from 1 Samuel 21 where David and his companions are running for their lives from King Saul and they are hungry. Jesus says in verse 4 that they entered the house of God and ate the holy bread which was not lawful for them to eat. That bread was to only be eaten by the priests. Jesus first uses an example of extreme need. David and his companions were hungry and the bread that was reserved only for the priests according to the Law was given for David and his men to eat. Now it is important to catch that Jesus is validating what Jesus did. Jesus is not saying that David was wrong but that David was justified. You will see that Jesus calls the actions of his disciples and these examples “guiltless” or “innocent” (12:5,7). We will have to wait a moment to see what Jesus says what David and his men did was not a violation of the Law though it was unlawful for them to eat it. But Jesus moves to his next example in verse 5. Jesus asks if they have considered the priests who are working on the Sabbath in the temple. Every Sabbath the priests are working in the temple, violating the Sabbath law also (cf. Numbers 28:9-10). The point is that there is work that is acceptably performed on the Sabbath.
The Teaching (12:6-8)
So what is Jesus teaching through these two examples? Jesus says three things to explain the purpose and intentions of the Law. Look at Matthew 12:6-8. Jesus proclaims that something greater than the temple is here in verse 6. It is interesting to consider that Jesus does not say that someone greater is here but something greater is here. Think about the temple’s importance in their lives. The temple was the place of worship, atonement, and forgiveness. The temple was the place of God’s presence, where God met his people.
Jesus speaks of himself as something greater than the temple. Considering the examples Jesus used, Jesus is revealing that the importance of the temple took precedence over the Sabbath. This is the definitive point from the second example in verse 5. The priests do their work in violation of the Sabbath because the temple is more important than the Sabbath. Then Jesus says that something greater than the temple is here. Jesus is the greater temple. Jesus’ situation is greater than David’s situation and greater than the priests’ situation. Something greater than the temple is here and his work as the temple is greater than the Sabbath.
But Jesus is not done. In verse 7 he tells the Pharisees that they do not know what Hosea 6:6 means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Jesus says that if they had known this scripture properly, they would not have condemned the guiltless. Jesus quoted this scripture earlier in Matthew 9:13. When we studied that earlier we drew three conclusions from the meaning of Hosea 6:6. First, Jesus wants people who want him and do not merely pretend to have a relationship. Second, Jesus wants people who have a lasting devotion to him. Third, Jesus wants a people who are ready to show mercy because they care for people like God does. The Pharisees are not caring about the disciples’ needs in this moment. Verse 1 says that the disciples are hungry.
Finally, Jesus says in verse 8 that he is lord of the Sabbath. Now this is quite a declaration. No mere human can say that they are above the law. No mere human can say that they are master and lord of a law that God gave through Moses unless he was God.
In summary, Jesus is combining three important concepts about God’s law. First, his disciples are right to pluck grain on the Sabbath because the situation dictating it. His disciples were hungry and the purpose of God’s Sabbath law was not starvation. Second, if the religious leaders knew the scriptures they would have cared about his disciples’ needs at that moment, rather than condemning them. Third, Jesus can make this correct explanation of the Sabbath law because his is lord of the Sabbath, that is, the giver of the Sabbath law. Jesus is God and knows the purpose of the Sabbath law and why he gave it.
The Teaching Exemplified (12:9-14)
Now Jesus is going to prove this teaching in verses 9-14. Jesus enters the synagogue and inside there is a man with a withered hand. It is still the Sabbath day. Look at the what the Pharisees do in verse 10. They ask Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Now we read about how the Jewish leaders taught what can be done on the Sabbath. It is still taught to this very day. You cannot even turn on a light switch. You cannot move an object or carry something in your house. Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?
Jesus has just answered this with his teaching in verses 6-8. Jesus is the greater temple and his work is greater than the Sabbath, just like the priests. Jesus desires mercy and not sacrifice, meaning these leaders should care of this man’s withered hand and his possible healing. Jesus is the giver of the Sabbath law. He knows the right application of the law and it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.
But Jesus is going to show them how wrong they are with their present interpretation of the Sabbath. Jesus asks in verse 11 if you have a sheep fall into a pit on the Sabbath if they will take hold of that sheep and lift it out. From what we can tell from the Jewish writings that exist from that time, this question seems to be debated among the rabbis. Some said you could feed the animal but not lift it from the pit. Of course this would mean carrying food to the animal. Some said you could help the animal out of the pit. Either way, there was a consideration that the animal’s welfare was greater than the Sabbath law.
So Jesus says in verse 12 that a person have far greater value than an animal. Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. This now is the key summary of everything Jesus is trying to teach in these verses. God’s law did not have the purpose of preventing people from doing good, loving God, and loving others. The Sabbath did not prevent people from loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is always lawful to do good. God’s law was not to prevent his people from doing good or doing what is necessary. It was necessary for David and his men to eat. It was good for the priest to give David that food. It was necessary for the priests to work in the temple on the Sabbath. It was good that those priests performed those offerings for the people. It was necessary for his disciples to pluck grain and eat on the Sabbath and the Pharisees should have seen the good being done in that work. They should also have had such a love for God and people that they were overjoyed to see a man healed rather than conspiring to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
So what are the messages that we need to learn from Jesus regarding how we look at God, look at his laws, and how to obey him. First, none of God’s laws are random. What I mean by this is that God did not give rules and laws just to see if we would do them or not. God’s laws are not nonsensical but purposeful. God cannot be boiled down to a mere set of rules. In fact, we are completely missing what God is doing for us and in the world if we just boil him down to a bunch of rules to follow. This is what Jesus is challenging the Pharisees over. They simply boiled God down to rules. Therefore, the Pharisees said that the disciples are breaking the rules. Jesus says that if you knew God and his ways you would not have condemned the guiltless (12:7).
Jesus will continue to crystalize this idea throughout his ministry. Later we will see Jesus say that the greatest command is the love the Lord and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. But then Jesus will say that all the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments (Matthew 22:40). This means that all of God’s law have the purpose of curbing sin and promoting love for God and love for others. The Pharisees, by stripping away God’s purpose for his laws, ended up misapplying God’s law against Jesus’ disciples.
We must look at God’s laws as purposeful and reasoned from God’s wisdom. God’s laws about sexual sins are not random but are purposeful to curb sin and promote loving God and loving others. One reason this is so important for us to know is because we have the tendency to break laws that we do not think have any purpose. What is the purpose of needing to drive 30 mph down Okeechobee Blvd in Loxahatchee? It makes no sense so many do not follow it. God’s laws have purpose and reason. So we cannot break them because we think they are random laws without reasoning. All of God’s laws are purposeful so as to promote loving God and others. So God’s laws about sexual sins have purpose and reason and are not random to see if we will follow them or not. God’s laws about worship have purpose and reason and are not random. God’s laws about salvation and obedience are not have purpose and reason and are not random. God’s laws about sins of emotion like anger, hatred, malice, and self-control are not random but have purpose and reason.
This leads us to the second point which is that we need to seek to learn God’s purpose and reasonings in his law. We need to do what Jesus said and learn what it means that he desires mercy and not sacrifice. We need to consider how God’s rules are curbing sin and promoting love for God and love for others. We must understand our covenant obligations through this lens so that we do not misunderstand and misapply God’s commands. In other words, we need to have an accurate knowledge of God and his character to properly apply his commands in the circumstances of life. This is what Jesus is doing by quoting Hosea 6:6. If you knew the character of God then you would have understand the purpose of the Sabbath law. The purpose of the Sabbath was not to just keep people from working. There are circumstances where knowing God’s law and God’s character are absolutely critical.
We see examples of this like with the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 and Rahab in Joshua 2 who understand the character of God and made right application of God’s law. The Hebrew midwives broke the government law of the Egyptians by not killing the Hebrew boys and then lied to the authorities as to why they did not kill the Hebrew baby boys and were praised for doing so (Exodus 1:20). Rahab lied to the authorities about the spies who had come into the land and she is held up as a person of great faith in Hebrews 11. Jesus says that the priest who gave David and his men the holy bread was right in his application of the law even though under normal circumstances doing so would be unlawful. God’s law does not have the purpose of preventing us from doing good as God defines good, loving God and loving others as God defines love. There are reasons and purposes for God’s law and we must know God and his laws to be able to accurately follow him. The Pharisees thought they were being accurate and Jesus tells them that they condemned the guiltless. For a modern example, people will read the command to not murder and say that capital punishment is wrong. Was God’s purpose in the command to not murder to prevent the government from executing judgment on the guilty? The apostle Paul said no in Romans 13. So we must know God and his character if we are going to accurate apply God’s commands.
We started the lesson talking about the temptation to just think about the rules. Please do not merely be mindful of the rules. Please think about how God’s commands are propelling you to love God and love others. How can we use our singing to love God and love others? How can we exercise self-control to love God and love others? How can we flee sexual immorality for the love of God and love of others? How does the need for our repentance from sin express love for God and love for others? How does the need for baptism express our love for God and love for others? God has given us what we need to curb sin and to promote love from within our hearts. Please look at God’s word in this way. Something greater has come and we see this is Jesus, who reveals the Father to us so that we can be his people and live in a way that glorifies him.