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Condemnation of the Enemies of the Kingdom, Part 1: The Lord of the Sabbath

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 8, 1998

Matthew 12:1-14

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If you have your Bibles,  I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 12. We recently completed our study of Matthew chapter 11 and we had commented on the fact that after Matthew 10, which reports Christ's instructions to the disciples before they went out on their first mission, you might have expected Matthew chapter 11 to be a report back to Christ from the apostles of their activities and the results of their evangelism.And yet, we found that chapter 11 focuses on Christ. It focuses on His majesty as the Messiah. It shows Him in various scenes - in the encounter with the john the Baptist, and offering blessings unto those who are weary and heavy laden. In each of the scenes of Matthew chapter 11 Christ's majesty as the Messiah is the theme and the focus.

Today, we turn to Matthew chapter 12 and to a new study. But  I want you to see that there is a link between Matthew 12 and Matthew 11. First of all, in verse 1, you'll notice the words "at this time," or "now at this time," indicating that the events of Matthew chapter 12 were close in proximity to the things that happened in Matthew chapter 11. So you have a link in timing. But there is also a link in content, because at the very end of Matthew chapter 11 the Lord Jesus Christ had called all those to come to Him who are weary and heavy laden, and He promised to them that His yoke was easy and His burden was light. In other words, in contrast to the religious legalism of the Pharisees of His day, He was offering a way of holiness that was not filled and encumbered with the inventions and traditions of man-made law. And so He called those who were burdened with this kind of man-made legalism to follow Him and take upon them His yoke which was light and His burden which was easy.

And here we have in the first 14 verses of Matthew chapter 12 an illustration of that very principle as the Lord Jesus sets forth the true meaning of the fourth commandment in contrast to the perversion of that commandment by the legalistic teaching of the Pharisees in His day. Let's look then at God's holy word in Matthew chapter 12 beginning in verse 1. 

“At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grain fields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, 'behold, 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.' And departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they questioned Him, saying, 'is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'— in order that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, 'what man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will He not take hold of it, and lift it out? Of how much more value 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!'  And he stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. But the Pharisees went out, and counseled together against Him, as to how they might destroy Him."  

Matthew 12:1-14
 

Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's look to Him again in prayer.  

Our Father, we bow before You honoring this word, because it is Your word. It comes from Your own lips. We would ask that You would apply it to our own hearts in our own circumstances as You please. Search out secret sins in our hearts in this area. Grow us in grace towards a more perfect practice of holiness in these areas. Teach us, we pray, by the spirit. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.  

This passage is a very, very hard passage for us to even begin to understand today. Because of all the tendencies of our generation, rigorous sabbatarianism is not one of them. None of us have ever met a rigorous Sabbatarian,  I suspect. We have a hard time even conceiving the mind set of the Pharisees. Let me share with you just briefly where some of their rigor may have come from. You will remember that the book of Chronicles and the book of Jeremiah tell us that the reason, or one of the reasons, why the children of Israel were sent into exile, into captivity, is that they had not observed the Sabbath. And when Israel came back out of captivity, it is very apparent that the rabbis and teachers were determined that Israel was not going to make that mistake twice. And so, over a period of 400 or 500 years, an entire tradition had accrued of how one was to keep the Sabbath,with hundreds and hundreds of laws and hair-splitting distinctions. Furthermore, the keeping of the Sabbath was considered to be an outward mark of great piety.

That's very different from our culture. Most Christians in America don't even believe in the Sabbath.  I well remember my first experiences in Scotland. In Scotland, probably the closest place on earth today to the mindset of the ancient Pharisees might be found on an island called Lewis, where those who are truly spiritual don't shave on the Lord's Day, because that would not be a necessary work.  I well remember the first Sunday  I attended a particular church at Edinburgh.  I won't mention the name.  I heard some excellent evening preaching by an evangelist named Achille Blaise, and we had sung some wonderful psalms and tunes, and as  I was walking up the stairs out of the church hall after the evening fellowship, on the way back to my room,  I was so energized by the worship and by the singing that  I was whistling a psalm tune. A great highland hand found its way to my right shoulder, and  I turned around to see one of the ruling elders standing there. And he said to me, "Son, the Lord's Day is no'a day for whistling."  I was so excited about that that  I called Duncan Rankin back at RTS, and said, "Duncan, you'll never believe it;  I was rebuked for whistling on the Lord's Day.”  That was really a special experience. We have no idea of the mindset that Jesus was facing in His own day. So we need to do a little extra work to understand what was going on in this exchange.

It is clear throughout this exchange in the first 14 verses, that these men, these Pharisees were not ultimately concerned too much for the Law. Get that straight. The problem with Pharisees is not that they care too much about the Law. It's not that they're too nitpicky. It's that they think that they care a great deal about the law when, in fact,they don't care about it all in their hearts.

And understand that Jesus' response to these people gave Him the opportunity to do three things simultaneously. First of all, He was able to respond to their formalism, their tendency to have outward spirituality. A form of spirituality without inward godliness. So He was responding to their formalism. Their ritualism. Their religious legalism. Secondly, the Lord Jesus conveys in this passage a true Christian approach to the fourth commandment. We'll talk about that in just a few moments. And then thirdly, He manifests in this passage His own divine authority by calling Himself the Lord of the Sabbath.  

I. A divinely appointed religions institution can be misused.
Let's look at this passage then together. It breaks into four parts, and  I'd like you to see in the first part, in verses 1 and 2, this truth. Even a divinely appointed religious institution, even a divinely appointed religious institution can be misused. In this passage, Jesus and His disciples are walking through the grain fields. It is a Lord's day. It is a Saturday. It is a Sabbath day. And they're walking through the grain fields on the way tosynagogue and on the way to do works of mercy. And as they do so the disciples become hungry, and so they begin to pick heads of grain from the grain itself and rub it between their palms and eat it for food. And the Pharisees see this and they take that as an opportunity to accuse Christ of having mistaught His disciples and of having led them into a less than pious behavior.

The disciples, however, were not breaking the commandments. Let me just remind you that Jesus Himself, in verse 7, says to the Pharisees that they were innocent of breaking the 4th commandment. So let's just realize from the start that the disciples were not breaking the 4th commandment. If Jesus had broken the 4th commandment, and encouraged His disciples to break the 4th commandment, you and  I would still be in our sins, because He had to live perfectly under the law of God in order that we might be justified freely by His grace. So the Lord Jesus isn't encouraging His disciples in the breaking of the 4th commandment. He says they are innocent.

By the way, the disciples weren't stealing either. You may be asking yourself, “What were these people doing walking through somebody else's grain field and picking the grain?” We see in Deuteronomy 23:25, that God had made a provision for people just like the disciples. For those who were poor, they were allowed to go into another's grain field, and they were allowed to pick with their hands the grain. They were not allowed to take the scythe to the grain. They were not allowed to reap a large harvest. But they were allowed to pick with their hands the grain in order to assuage their hunger. And the disciples were apparently in that circumstance. They were hungry, and so according to the law, they picked some of the grain and ate it.

But the Pharisees were there looking for an opportunity to attack Jesus' teaching and His practices. It's clear from the very beginning of this passage, that these men's intentions were evil. These folks were not looking to uphold God's law, they were looking to tear down the messiah. And so we learn from this passage that even divinely appointed religious means, like the Lord's day, like the Sabbath, can be misused. Evil men can hold to the outward form, and yet miss the whole point, the inner spirit of the law. And so their attack gives Jesus an opportunity to respond to their formalism. He accuses them of misunderstanding and of misusing the law of God later in this passage. And passage, this attack, gives Him the opportunity to convey His positive teaching about the Lord's Day, and even to make a singular manifestation of His own divine authority.

Isn't God's providence amazing? They had designed an ambush, and the Lord Jesus used it to teach His disciples, and us, something very important about the heart of a disciple.  

II. Works of necessity are lawful on the Lord’s Day.
The second part of this passage is found in verses 3-5. And we learn there that Jesus teaches that works of necessity are lawful and appropriate on the Lord's day. Notice His words there. As the Pharisees accuse Jesus' disciples of breaking the 4th commandment, Jesus goes to two Old Testament examples to show that they were not breaking the commandment. He argues, first of all, that strict observation of the ceremonial law is no excusefor ignoring neighbor love. In other words, you cannot ignore the love of your neighbor under the pretense of being so concerned about the observation of God's ceremonial law that you don't have time to love your neighbor. And He goes to two passages to prove it.

First, in verses 3 and 4, He tells us the story of David and the show bread, or David and the bread of presence, David and the consecrated bread. You remember there was bread that was put in the temple that was consecrated to be before the Lord. It was even numbered. And it was to represent the Lord's provision for His people, and it was to represent the presence of the people before the Lord, and the Lord's presence with them.That bread, after it had finished its time in the temple, was given to the priests, and to the priests alone. Only the priests could eat that bread. But in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, David and his men were having to flee from persecution.They were in the wilderness. They'd had to leave hastily and so they had no provisions. They showed up at the tabernacle, and the priest, Ahimelech, let them in and gave them the show bread to eat. He gave them the consecrated bread. And the Lord Jesus is saying, now look, in the Old Testament that consecrated bread wasn't to be eaten by anybody, even the king, only the priests. And yet, in a time of necessity it was lawful for the priest to give that bread to David and his men, because they were in need. In other words, the law of neighbor love dictated that even that ceremonial ordinance that God had appointed could be forgone in order to show neighbor love. Jesus is arguing this if it was lawful for a divinely ordained ceremonial provision to be set aside in order to meet the needs of David's men, then surely, it is acceptable for the Son of God, Himself, to set aside the Pharisees man-made lists of Sabbath rules in order for His own men to eat food. The Lord Jesus is arguing on the basis of the Old Testament that His disciples have not broken the Sabbath.

And then in verse 5, He goes on to give another Old Testament argument. He asks, what about the priests? If merely cessation from work is the thrust of the Sabbath, if the ultimate goal of the Sabbath is to get people notto do certain things, that is, if the Sabbath is ultimately primarily negative, then how do you reconcile the priests’ work in the temple? He says in the Old Testament the priests worked on the Sabbath. They had to prepare theservices. They had to administer the services. They had to distribute the incense. They had a lot of work to do. The priests and levites worked on the Lord's Day. And so, He argues, that if the priests of the temple worked lawfully on the Lord's Day, then what about someone working for necessity with the Lord Jesus Christ.

He's poking fun at them about 2 things. First of all, He's suggesting that they really don't understand their Old Testament that well. These were men who prided themselves on scriptural knowledge. And He's poking at them. He's saying, why is it that you don't know these things? Haven't you read your bibles? It's like saying to someone with a Ph.D in theology, “Have you ever read your Bible before?”  And secondly, in a few moments,He's going to claim that He's greater than the temple. And He's going to argue if the priests could work in the temple on the Lord's Day, cannot the disciples of the Lord Jesus do deeds of necessity when someone greater than the temple is present?

Jesus is teaching that religious obedience is never an excuse to ignore human need. Let me put that in another way. He is saying that our first table responsibilities to love God are never an excuse to ignore our second table responsibilities to love man. The first table of the law, the first four commandments, are all about loving God. The second table of the law, the last six commandments, are about loving our neighbor. And the Lord Jesus is saying you can never use loving God as an excuse for ignoring to love your neighbor.

Jesus is exposing the hearts of these men. Their problem is not that they care too much about the law. Their problem is that they care only about parts of the law, and they have missed the whole spirit of the law.  

III. Jesus asserts His divine authority as the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system.
In the third section of this passage in verses 6-8 we learn another truth. Not only that even divinely appointed religious means can be abused, not only that deeds of necessity are lawful on the Lord's day, but we learn in verses 6-8 that Jesus asserts His divine authority as the fulfillment of the Old Testament ceremonial system and as the Lord of the Old Testament ceremonial system. Jesus asserts His divine authority in this passage.

Notice three things that He says in 6-8. First of all, He says, “but  I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.” Christ is standing before these men and He is saying,  “I am greater than the temple.” What did the temple symbolize in the Old Testament? The temple symbolized the presence of God with His people. Christ is saying, “I am greater than the temple for in me God is with you.” And He is saying, “By the way, if it was lawful for the priests in the temple because the temple symbolized that central truth of the presence of God with His people, if it was lawful for those priests to work on the Lord's day, then surely it is lawful for My disciples to do deeds of necessity and mercy on the Lord's Day when  I, who am greater than the temple, am present.” The Lord Jesus is reminding us of His lordship. He fulfills the meaning of the temple. And so if the priests worked, so also can His disciples.

Secondly, in verse 7, He says, “If you had known what it means,  ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Jesus is saying in that passage that the Pharisees don't even understand the law. The thing that they are the proudest about is that they are masters of the law, they are great interpreters of the law, that they know the law up one side and down the other, and Jesus is saying, “You know, your problem is that you don't understand the law. You've missed the whole point. You've missed the whole spirit of the law.” And He quotes to them Hosea 6:6. By the way that's a passage that Matthew has quoted before.But He goes to Hosea 6:6 and He says, if you had understood this, “I desire compassion and not sacrifice,” then they would have understood that observance of the law is not just something that is external. It's not just something that is outward. It's something that proceeds from the heart. And furthermore, the ceremonial law cannot be used as an excuse for failing to be  compassionate and for failing to be loving. Once again, you cannot use the first table of the law as an excuse to ignore the second table of the law. Jesus is attacking their formalism here.

And then in verse 8 He says, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Christ is saying that He is the Lord and the master of the Sabbath Day. It is His day. And He is the one who determines what is lawful to do on that day. Again, Jesus is assaulting the formality, the formalism of the Pharisees. Far from exalting the law, they are making a mockery of it. They try and make an outward show of being godly, but in their hearts they haveno compassion.

And  I want to say in passing that Jesus' lordship over the Sabbath Day, and Jesus' lordship period, is the very foundation of true Christian freedom. We do not feel a burden by what God commands us to do, because Christ has freed us to obey that which God has called us to obey. Christ has not freed us to obey the doctrines and commandments of men. He has freed us from the doctrines and commandments of men. And so we can rejoice that it is never burdensome to keep the Lord's commandments and it is always burdensome to feel bound to keep the inventions of men.  The Lord Jesus has given us freedom, and He has made His day a glorious day for us, for we obey His word and not the inventions of men.      

IV. Works of mercy and lawful and appropriate on the Lord’s Day.
And that leads us to the fourth section of the passage in verses 9-14. There we learn that Jesus teaches that works of mercy are lawful and appropriate on the Lord's day. In this passage, Jesus both speaks to deeds of necessity and deeds of mercy, and He shows that they are lawful on His day. Isn't it interesting the contrast in verses 9-14 between Jesus and the Pharisees. He goes into a synagogue, and He sees a man with a withered hand,a hand which was non-functional, and immediately His heart of compassion is moved, and He wants to see that man restored. The Pharisees at the same time, want to do two things and two things only: they want to find out if He holds to the traditions of the rabbis, and they want to know how they can catch Him in something they can accuse Him of that will cause Him to lose face in front of people. Isn't that amazing? Here is a man with a withered hand and arm, and Jesus has compassion for Him.  While these men, these supposedly godly men, all they can think about is not that man and His need but criticizing the Messiah and accusing Him in such a way to discredit Him.

So, you immediately see who cares more about God's law. Is it the Pharisees? Do they care more about God's law than Jesus? Oh no. Oh no. Jesus demonstrates the spirit of the law in His attitude towards that man with the withered hand. The Pharisees are only concerned about how to catch Him. The Pharisees have a warped scale of values. And that becomes so apparent in the story that Jesus says in verses 11 and 12, “If one of you had an animal that fell into a pit, on the Lord's Day, you'd pull him out, but won't you help this man.” They had provisions whereby you could help a distressed animal, and yet, they had no place for helping a human being.

There were apparently very prevalent traditions of the rabbis in Jesus' times which said, if there was a person who was in danger of dying, well then you could give that person medical attention on the Sabbath. But if the person wasn't in danger of dying, you couldn't give him medical attention on the Sabbath. You had to wait until the next day. And these Pharisees wanted to know if Jesus went along with that. And He says to them, you would care for animals better than you would care for this human. And so the Lord Jesus Christ rebukes them. They show no love in their hearts towards this needy man. They have no compassion. Jesus contrasts for us their heart and His. We see an ultimate contrast between the heart of Jesus and the heart of the Pharisees here. Jesus is healing while they are conspiring to destroy Him. Who loves the law more? Jesus or the Pharisees? There's no contest there. Jesus is the one who loves God's law.

Jesus teaches us in this passage that showing mercy is always right. We must never allow our concern for religious duties to make us think that we do not have responsibility to show mercy. "Ethical conduct is ever far more important than ceremonial obedience," William Hendrikson says. We must never use religion as an excuse to avoid showing mercy.

Isn't that the story isn't that one of the things behind the story of the Good Samaritan? Jesus knows that if that priest and that levite who passed that Samaritan were to get near a dead body they would be ceremonially defiled and they would not be able to do their duty in the temple. That's what God had said in the Old Testament. And Jesus intimates in the story of the Good Samaritan, that that is precisely what that priest and the levite should have done. They should have allowed themselves to be defiled because of their mercy and compassion for that man on the roadside. Yes, God said, if you get near a dead body you are ceremonially defiled and you'll have to go through a cleansing process before you can come back into the temple. And the Lord Jesus is saying that is precisely what you ought to have done.

What would we have done if the Lord Jesus had decided that He was not going to get near to defiled sinners? Jesus said the demands of mercy always outweigh even the ceremonial ordinances that God has appointed,because they are of the heart of the law.

There's so much truth for us to learn here today we can't encapsulate it all, but let me just say in passing, the Lord Jesus is not assaulting the Lord's Day. He's not saying, there's no longer any weekly Sabbath for my Christian followers. If Jesus had wanted to say that this would have been the perfect opportunity for Him to say it, and He didn't. He didn't say to His disciples, now, disciples, you hear those Old Testament Pharisees, they just don't understand that the 4th commandment doesn't apply anymore. That's not what Jesus says. Jesus corrects their misunderstanding of the law, but He does not attack God's law. Listen to the wise words of J.C. Ryle. "Our Lord does not do away with the observance of a weekly Sabbath. He neither does so here, nor elsewhere in the four gospels. Thousands have rushed to the hasty conclusion that Christians have nothing to do with the 4th commandment and that it is no more binding on us than the mosaic laws about sacrifices. There is nothing in the New Testament to justify any such conclusion. The plain truth is that our Lord did not abolish the law of a weekly Sabbath. He only freed it from the incorrect interpretations and purified it from man-made additions. He did not tear out of the Decalogue the 4th commandment, He only stripped off the miserable traditions with which the Pharisees had encrusted that day and by which they had made it not a blessing, but a burden. He left the 4th commandment where He found it; a part of the eternal law of God of which no jot or tittle was ever to pass away." 

May we never forget this. Jesus did not abolish the 4th command, but this He did say, our love to God must not merely be outward and formal it must be love from the heart which has captured the whole of our being and love for God from the heart will always manifest itself in mercy and compassion towards others. And that cuts me to the quick, my friends. And  I think that if you'll think about that you'll see how far we have to go in this area. Will we truly show mercy and compassion the way our Lord showed mercy and compassion? Let us look to Him in prayer.

Our Lord and our God, we stand under Your word and it's uncomfortable to see ourselves in its light. And yet by grace You have saved us and by grace You will sanctify us. Help us to love Your word, to search it out,and by grace, O Lord, conform us to it. We ask it in Jesus name. Amen.

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