The Lord of the Sabbath


Matthew 12:1–8 (NLT) A Discussion about the Sabbath

At about that time Jesus was walking through some grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they began breaking off some heads of grain and eating them. But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, “Look, your disciples are breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.”

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath? I tell you, there is one here who is even greater than the Temple! But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’* For the Son of Man* is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

In this first controversy over the Sabbath, the Pharisees observe the disciples plucking some grains from the field as they walk along the road on the Sabbath.  Deut. 23:25 permitted this as long as they did not use a sickle to cut the grain.  However, the Pharisees had a stricter definition of work than the Law.  The issue is whether this “work” was permitted on the Sabbath.  Essentially the Pharisees are arguing that Jesus is a lawbreaker and a false teacher who leads others astray by teaching them to break the Law of Moses.

From the perspective of the Pharisees, the Law about keeping the Sabbath holy was one of the key symbols of their nation and religion.  The keeping of the Sabbath made Israel unique from all the nations around it by connecting Israel with the God who observed the Sabbath after completing His work of creation.  Failure to keep the Sabbath was one of the reasons Israel had been judged by God and taken into captivity (Jer. 17:27; Neh. 13:15-18)

Jesus response is to remind the Pharisees of 2 examples.  First, when David ate the showbread from before the tabernacle.  The showbread was the consecrated bread that was placed in front of the altar, which only the priests could eat.  David did something unlawful only to satisfy the hunger of his men.  And David as the type of Christ, when faced with an urgent need, was not condemned.  Secondly, the priests in the Temple break the Sabbath by working on the Sabbath every week, yet are innocent.  One greater than David was standing among them, and the One who is greater than the temple was in their presence.  The purpose of the Temple was to bring people into the presence of God.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was God in the flesh, God’s presence immediately before them.

The third response from Jesus appeals to Hosea 6:6:  I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  Jesus suggests that the Pharisees are in the same category as those to whom Hosea was speaking.  The word translated “mercy” in Greek LXX, translates the Hebrew word “chesed”.  Chesed is one of the key Hebrew words for God’s grace, mercy, steadfast love and loving kindness.  God’s desire is for mercy and grace rather than sacrifice.  In Hos. 6:6, God contrasts His mercy with sacrifice, and the knowledge of God with burnt offerings.  The Pharisees have missed the point of the Law of Moses.  God’s desire for grace is greater than His desire for ritual fulfillment.

The conclusion is that Jesus is “Lord even over the Sabbath.”  Jesus is superior to His ancestor David, to the Temple, and He reigns even over the Sabbath.  The word Lord could be a simple honorific as Mister or Master.  But it was also used to translate the Hebrew word Adonai, Lord.  In this case, Jesus is making a claim that only God could make.  Jesus claims the authority to create, direct, and use the Sabbath as He sees fit.  He claims authority greater than the Pharisees, who only interpreted the Law of Moses, and even greater than Moses who gave the Law to Israel.  He claims the authority of the One who wrote the Law on the tablets of stone.

Lord, even as Jesus taught us that He is Lord of the Sabbath.  As we begin our day, help us to remember You who are Lord over all our days.  You know the count of even the seconds of our lives.  Help us to live daily in the light of eternity, and so redeem the time.  Amen.

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