Thoughts from Matthew 12…
We celebrated the Fourth of July recently, complete with picnicking and fireworks. Through all the excitement and the fun, this national tradition helps us to remember the price that was paid for our nation’s freedom.
We also have other traditions which help us to remember what is important. There are many traditions in the church, from major events such as Christmas or Easter, to smaller events such as Sunday worship or the Lord’s Supper.
We all also have family traditions. Our family has a favorite vacation spot to visit every year. Other families have a favorite restaurant or a special way to celebrate accomplishments. The traditions make the events special.
But sometimes, our traditions can get in the way. They are important, but some things are even more important.
Matthew 12 is a crucial turning point in the ministry of Jesus Christ. He has been traveling through Galilee with His disciples, teaching and healing, and proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand (see here). He has offered the kingdom to the Israelite people and this chapter (Mathew 12) is their response.
Starting first with the leaders, then with the people, they all reject Him! Hereafter, Jesus will change His focus from gathering the crowds to teaching His own disciples.
This first part of this chapter shows three scenes of conflict with the religious leaders. They have been following and challenging Him (see here and here), but their conflict now moves to outright hostility. And the cause of their conflict is over one of their most precious of the Ten Commandments — the Sabbath Day!
The Sabbath was one of the most most treasured days by the Jewish people. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day, thereby giving us the pattern to keep the seventh (“sabbath”) day holy. This was one of the Ten Commandments, to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
The Jewish people showed their love for God and His law by faithfully keeping this commandment. The rabbis went further, giving specific rules for how to honor God on His Sabbath. By the first century, these traditions had grown into an elaborate system of rules and regulations governing what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.a
But Jesus was different on the Sabbath day. Because He did not follow their traditions, he must not be honoring their law and their day that they so treasured. They started out by questioning Him, then went to overtly challenging Him, and finally to conspiring to destroy Him.
Yet through all of this, Jesus answered all of their challenges. He never violated the Sabbath commandment, nor did He criticize their traditions. However, He did challenge their understanding of their own laws, their own history, and their inconsistency in trying to uphold the Sabbath. There are some things which are more important than traditions.
Scene One: In the Fields
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. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “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? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
We don’t know all that happened on that Sabbath day, but this scene was very simple. Jesus and His disciples were walking through the fields when His hungry disciples picked and ate some of the heads of the grain. These actions immediately alerted the watching Pharisees, as the disciples had violated two of their Sabbath laws. They picked the grain, considered by the Pharisees to be the unlawful act of harvesting, and they then rubbed off the chaff on their hands, considered to be the unlawful act of threshing the grain.
But God’s law taught only to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The Ten Commandments never stipulated how to keep the Sabbath holy — this was left to the traditions of the Pharisees. On the contrary, the Law allowed travelers to pick grain in the fields as they passed (see Deuteronomy 23:25).
The Pharisees brought their complaints to Jesus, yet He answered them with two illustrations from their History:
First, He recalled a scene from the life of David. When David was fleeing from King Saul, He sought help from the priests, and they gave Him the “bread of the Presence” (1 Samuel 21:1-6). This was the consecrated bread which was only to be eaten by the priests (Exodus 25:23-30, Leviticus 24:5-9).b Jesus’ point was that these ceremonial laws were set aside for the men who were in need. Furthermore, these men were in service to the king, and so they were allowed access to the consecrated bread.
“The meeting of man’s need means far more to God than the obedience to legal restrictions” — H.A. Ironside2
Secondly, Jesus reminded them that the priests were required to do their temple duties, even on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:9-10). If they stopped serving, there could be no temple worship. His point is that work in the Lord’s service does not violate the Sabbath.
But something greater than the temple — the Kingdom of God — is here!c Therefore, they are not violating the Sabbath when they are working towards His Kingdom!
He then quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” The Sabbath traditions are our gifts to God, but they are not as important as care for each other.d
And finally, He concluded with, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”e He is not simply yet another teacher — He is the God who created the Ten Commandments. He created the world and then rested. He created the Sabbath! Therefore, He alone can say what men can and cannot do on His day!
“No merely human person would have the right to use such language as this. But He who stood in their midst that day was One to whom all the Sabbaths of the law pointed, and He had absolute authority over them.” – H.A. Ironside2
“God wants mercy, not religious sacrifice. He wants love, not legalism.” – Warren Wiersbe4
Scene Two: In the Synagogue
He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 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. 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? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
On a Sabbath shortly afterward, Jesus entered the Synagogue and began to teach.f There, in the back of the crowd, was a man with a withered hand.g Although the man had real needs, the scribes and Pharisees used him as a trap for Jesus. The Sabbath traditions held that the only medical care allowed on the Sabbath was to save a life. Anything else needed to wait for the next day.
“In this they judged rightly: that Christ would not witness disease without removing it – or, as we might express it, that disease could not continue in the Presence of Him, Who was the Life.” – Alfred Edersheim7
They were trying to provoke a confrontation with Jesus by asking if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. If He said that it was not lawful to heal on the Sabbath, then He would be withholding mercy from the man in need, and confirming their accusations against Him. But if He said that it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath, then they would publicly accuse Him of abandoning their laws.
Instead, Jesus turned the question on them. Which of them would refuse to help their injured animals on the Sabbath? Yet this man is so much more valuable than any sheep! Why would it be against the law to do good on the Sabbath?
Therefore, Jesus showed that it is always lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
Luke’s account shows that the Pharisees were “filled with fury”! Jesus must now be destroyed! Therefore, they begin to plot with their political enemies, the Herodians, in order to get rid of Him.h i
“Our Lord’s defense in the field was based on the Old Testament Scriptures, but His defense in the synagogue was based on the nature of God’s Sabbath law. God gave that law to help people, not to hurt them.” – Warren Wiersbe6
Scene Three: On the Road
Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.
The opposition from the religious leaders had now galvanized into murderous outrage, so Jesus withdrew. This was not the time for a direct confrontation with His enemies, and He responded with humility. This is similar to His charge to His disciples in Matthew 10:23 (see here).
Matthew quotes Isaiah, saying that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:1-3). The shepherds would construct a reed pipe to play as a flute, and discard it once the reed was worn out (a bruised reed). The smoldering wick is the final, dying ember of a burnt out branch. This reference to Isaiah’s prophecy shows the gentleness of Jesus Christ. He will be kind to the broken and worn out, and not throw them away.11
But as He left, a great crowd followed Him. Not only were there natives from Galilee, but He also attracted crowds from Judea and the surrounding regions (this was similar to earlier in His ministry, see here). He healed all who came to Him, commanding them not to make Him known.j
It is easy to read the account of Jesus Christ, his confrontations with the Pharisees, and never think about how it may apply to us. But in this account, we see the end of His public ministry. He is no longer proclaiming the message of the kingdom to the Jewish people, but is instead healing those who come to Him, responding in gentleness and humility.
But this passage shows the major point of conflict between Jesus and the religious Jews. The Sabbath was a key point of their beloved law, and in their eyes, Jesus was not giving the Sabbath its reverence nor its due. They were so consumed with their many laws and traditions that they couldn’t fathom anyone who approached them differently. And when He challenged them, they sought to destroy Him!
But how do we approach our traditions? Our traditions are our sacrifice to God. It is a good thing to have these traditions, but some things are more important. Serving the Lord is more important than our traditions. We should never let our traditions impede others from serving Him, nor should we let anything keep us from serving Him ourselves. Care and mercy for others is also more important than our traditions. We need to show mercy to those who need it, and we cannot allow anything to stop us from helping those who are in need.
Our gifts to God are good, but they should never replace our care for others or our service to Him!
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 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 12:1-21, pages 157-162
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 12, The King’s Authority Denied
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 18, Jesus Rebukes Legality, Luke 6:1-11
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 12:1-21, pages 34-35
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 2:23-3:12, pages 96-97
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 6:1-11, pages 153-154
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXXV: THE TWO SABBATH-CONTROVERSIES, THE PLUCKING OF THE EARS OF CORN BY THE DISCIPLES, AND THE HEALING OF THE MAN WITH THE WITHERED HAND (St. Matthew 12:1-21; St. Mark 2:23-3:6; St. Luke 6:1-11.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxxv.html
 Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 8. https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/15-the-unpardonable-sin-and-a-shift-to-parables.html
 Stephen Davey, Splitting Hairs, Mark 2:18-3:6, 11/8/1987
 John MacArthur, The Lord of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:1-14, Oct 11, 1981
 John MacArthur, God’s Beloved Servant, Matthew 12:14-21, Oct 25, 1981
 MacArthur Study Bible, notes on Mark 2:23-3:12, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois
[a] In one section of the Jewish Talmud, there were 24 chapters which covered Sabbath regulations.10 Acts that were forbidden include building a fire, gathering fuel, carrying burdens, or transacting business.5 Some Jewish traditions became so far-fetched that they claimed the very tortures of hell were suspended during the Sabbath.7 Some rabbis also taught that the Messiah would not come until they had all perfectly kept the Sabbath.6
[b] Mark’s account says that this was during “the time of Abiathar the high priest”. The high priest at this time was actually Ahimelech, the father of Abiathar. The most common explanation for this difference is that Abiathar was the most famous of his family during that time. Abiathar would serve under David as one of the High Priests for all of his days. Therefore, Abiathar’s name references the time period, not the specific priest (Ahimelech) who fed David and his men.5
[c] “The neuter gender of ‘greater’ must not refer to Christ as a person but to His ministry.” – Toussaint1
[d] Jesus challenged the Pharisees with the words from Hosea 6:6 on an earlier occasion, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, see here). The earlier challenge in Matthew 9 was to look with mercy on those who need Him. The challenge here is to not let the Sabbath traditions get in the way of caring for each other.
[e] Mark 2:27 says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God declared the Sabbath day in order to institute a day of rest and blessing. But instead of being a blessing, the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into an impossible litany of rules and regulations.12
[f] Although Matthew and Mark’s accounts appear to show this on the same day as the challenge in the grainfields, Luke’s account shows that this clearly happened on another Sabbath. Some commentators (e.g. Edersheim7) believe that this was the following week.
[g] The Jewish tradition would have looked down on the man with the withered hand, believing that his injury was a punishment from God.9
[h] “The Pharisees try to assert their authority as the ‘keepers of the Law’ by getting Jesus to submit to their authority with regard to the Sabbath.” – Doug Bookman8
[i] Why did the Pharisees consult with the Herodians to destroy Jesus? The Herodians were the political faction that promoted the rule of Herod, the opposite of the ultra-moral Pharisees. But it appears that the Pharisees and the Herodians had formed an alliance during the time of John the Baptist. John had criticized both the Pharisees and the Sadducees (see here) and opposed Herod’s immoral marriage to Herodias.
Some commentators presume that the Pharisees were behind John’s arrest and murder. While we can only guess at the extent of the Pharisees’ involvement behind Herod’s actions, they had at least silenced the opposition from the people at Herod’s diabolical responses to John. Despite John’s popularity, there was no popular outcry when Herod had him murdered over a drunken promise. See here for more details about John’s murder.
This confrontation with the Pharisees likely happened around the time of John’s death, or shortly thereafter. Now that John has been silenced, the Pharisees want the Herodians to help them do the same to Jesus.
[j] Jesus is clearly not seeking publicity during this time that He withdrew from the hatred of the Pharisees. Therefore, the simplest explanation for His command for them to keep quiet is that He was seeking to avoid His accusers as He moved away from His public ministry.