Matthew chapter 12 is our study this morning – Matthew chapter 12. Take your Bible if you will or a Bible that is handy there in the pew, and I trust that God will bless you as richly as He has me in the preparation of our study for this morning. The twelfth chapter of Matthew is one that brings before us the full manifestation of the hatred of the leaders of Israel against our Lord. Matthew 12, in many ways, is a milestone chapter in the gospel of Matthew. It focuses on the rejection of the Messiah. In many ways, this chapter is a turning point; the mounting, growing unbelief of Israel crystallizes in this chapter with rejection. And really in the first 21 verses you have rejection of Christ. And then in the latter half of the chapter, you have the blasphemy that follows their rejection.
And then as you come to chapter 13, our Lord begins to speak of an assembly of saints beyond the nation Israel. He turns away from them to another people. So this is a climactic chapter in Matthew’s gospel. The King has been presented. The King has been rejected. And so in chapter 13, there is a turning to something new apart from the nation Israel. The kingdom will press on without them, and this becomes the theme of chapter 13.
Now we could see the rejection and the blasphemy coming, ultimately. As we’ve moved through the gospel of Matthew, I think it’s been apparent to all of us that this has been a mounting thing. We knew, really, at the very beginning, when Jesus Christ was born and Herod moved to destroy Him, that He would not be accepted. We saw it when His forerunner, in chapter 3, John the Baptist, confronted the Pharisees and the Sadducees and called them a generation of vipers and warned them to flee from the wrath to come. We saw it in chapter 5 when the Lord confronted them and said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter My kingdom.” And then He proceeded in chapters 5, 6, and the first part of chapter 7 to destroy their confidence in their religion. He attacked them and in turn they attacked Him.
And finally in chapter 9, we begin to see the movement. They accused Him of blasphemy in chapter 3 – or verse 3 of chapter 9. In verse 11 they accused Him of spending His time with tax collectors and sinners, and in verse 34 of chapter 9, they said He was demon possessed. Jesus confronted them, first of all, about their sin. They were unwilling to respond to His message of sin and salvation; they stayed hardened in their sin, and pretty soon they hardened into total rejection, and finally blasphemy.
Now as we’ve seen also in chapter 11, there were several moving phases in their reaction toward Christ. First we discussed their reaction of doubt. And then from doubt, we went to criticism and from criticism to indifference. And now we come to open rejection and ultimately to blasphemy. Emmanuel, God with us, has been in their midst, but they have remained coldly critical and indifferent, and now they are filled with rage and fury and anger and hatred. And as we approach this chapter and look at verse 14, they begin to plot His murder. So this is a milestone chapter. The storm that ultimately leads to Calvary’s cross is gathering on the horizon.
Now as this chapter begins by recording for us the crystallizing of their rejection, it does so by relating to us a very particular incident, and the key is in verse 1. “At that time, Jesus went on the Sabbath Day,” and you can stop at that point. This is a Sabbath Day issue. The crystallizing of their rejection of Christ occurred because He violated their Sabbath; that was the last straw. Because the Sabbath Day, to them, was the absolute epitome of their legalistic system. Everything in their legalistic system ultimately focused in on that one day, and when He violated their rabbinical traditions on the Sabbath, He was striking a blow at the heart of their system. And that becomes the final straw that brakes the camel’s back, as it were.
Now the word Sabbath is just a very simple word, sabbaton. It basically means to cease, and when you have a double beta – it’s S-A-B-B-A as it is in English. It’s the same in Greek – or you have a double B or a double beta, there is an intensifying of the word. So it means a complete cessation, a stopping of something. And their Sabbath, then, was the day they stopped doing what they did on the other days. You’ll remember when God created the world it says, “On the seventh day, He rested.” And He ordained that that day would be a day of ceasing for Israel. In Exodus chapter 20, God said to them, “Take the seventh day” – the Sabbath, the day of ceasing – “and keep it holy.”
Now although God – and this is an important point – although God rested on the seventh day, God did not command men prior to the Mosaic Law to rest on the seventh day. That was in the Mosaic Law that that requirement was first articulated. Then it became, in the Mosaic Law, a special covenantal sign between God and Israel. Now listen carefully, because many misunderstand this. The Sabbath commandment is one of the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20; it is the only one that is a non-moral one. It is the only one that is a ceremonial one. It is the one of the Ten Commandments that uniquely was between God and Israel as a ceremonial rule. All the other nine are moral absolutes. And the reason we know this for sure is because when you come into the New Testament, every other command is repeated in the New Testament. Every one of the Ten Commandments is repeated except the one regarding the Sabbath. It is not repeated in the New Testament, because it was a unique covenantal sign, much like circumcision was, between God and Israel.
But at the time of Jesus and His disciples, the Sabbath was in fact the ceremonial law of God. It is not a binding law for the church, but it was for Israel. And so the Lord would honor the Sabbath, as would His disciples, insofar as God intended it to be honored. But the Pharisees had added so many things, so many ridiculous things to the Sabbath that they would not honor. That even in truly honoring the Sabbath, they were in violation of some Pharisaic traditions, and this they could not tolerate. The Sabbath was the focus of all of their religious activity and they had added so much stuff to the Sabbath that instead of it being a day of ceasing, instead of it being a day of rest, it was a day of incredible burden.
And I really believe that back in chapter 11 when He says, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,” the clearest illustration of that would have been the Sabbath observance. When they came to the seventh day of the week – or Saturday as we know it – the laws and the rules and the routines they had to keep made it more difficult to rest than it was to work the other six days. There was more work trying to rest than there was work trying to work. Let me show you what I mean. On the Sabbath Day – and I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many laws there are. I mean, we don’t have the time in our lifetime, probably. And if you don’t think that’s true, just listen to this. In the Talmud – in one section of the Talmud, and there are at least two such sections, but in one of them, there are 24 chapters listing all the Sabbath laws. One rabbi spent two and a half years trying to understand one of those chapters. If you just extrapolate that out, you have a lifetime of one man just trying to figure out the stuff he was supposed to do on the Sabbath.
For example, you couldn’t travel more than 3,000 feet from your house unless on Friday you had planted some food 3,000 feet away. Then, when you got there and had food there, that would become “a home” because there was food there, and you could go another 3,000 feet. Wherever there was a narrow street or an alley, if you just put a rope across from the dwelling on this side to the dwelling on this side – a rope or a wire or a board – you created an entrance. And therefore you turned that street into a home and you could go another 3,000 feet. And that’s only two of more than I could count little ways that you could go another 3,000 feet.
Things could be lifted up or put down only from and to certain places. You could lift up something in a public place and put it down in a private place or lift it up in a private place and put it down in a public place, or you could lift it up in a wide place and put it in a legally free place or lift it in a legally free place and put it down in a wide place. And rabbis for years tried to figure out what a wide place was and what a legally free place was. You could never carry a burden that weighed more than a dried fig, or you could carry something that weighed half a dried fig twice.
Forbidden food – there was a long list of things you couldn’t eat on the Sabbath, and forbidden food on that list could be consumed no larger than an olive. If you put half an olive in your mouth and you found out that it was rotten and spit it out, you couldn’t put another half in because your mouth had tasted it as if it was a whole olive. And since your mouth can’t see anyway, you could not put in another good olive half.
If you threw an object in the air and caught it with your other hand, it was a violation of the Sabbath; if you caught it with the same hand, it was okay. If it was right near the Sabbath and you reached out for your food and the Sabbath overtook you, you had to drop your food before you drew your arm back or you’d be carrying a burden on the Sabbath. A tailor, on the Sabbath, couldn’t carry a needle lest he would be tempted to sew something that ripped. A scribe could not carry his pen because he might write. A pupil couldn’t carry his books because he might read. And you couldn’t examine anybody’s clothing, because you might find an insect there and kill it. Wool could not be dyed, nothing could be sold, nothing could be bought, nothing could be washed, a letter could not be sent even if you put it in the hand of a heathen for delivery. No fire could be lit, and that’s why today even conservative and Orthodox Jews have a time switch on their lighting systems so that the lights go on automatically on the Sabbath. No fire could be lit. Cold water could be poured on warm, but warm water couldn’t be poured on cold. An egg could not be boiled, even by laying it in the sun in the sand, which they did commonly.
You couldn’t take a bath for fear it would spill ontot he floor and wash the floor as it fell off you. If there was a lit candle, you couldn’t blow it out. Chairs couldn’t be moved because they tended to drag ruts across the ground and that was a violation. A woman couldn’t look in a glass, because she might see a gray hair and pluck it out. And you couldn’t wear jewelry because jewelry weighed more than a dried fig. I suppose you could wear a dried fig, but that wouldn’t be too attractive.
When it came to grain and food, the laws – I’m telling you, they go on and on. You couldn’t put any more grain – you couldn’t carry any more grain in your hand than that which would fit into a lamb’s mouth. You could not leave a radish in salt because it would become a pickle. And this is just a little of it – 24 chapters. The law goes on endlessly about wine, about honey, about milk, about spitting. You could only spit into a rag; you couldn’t spit on the ground, on the Sabbath. Who knows why all these things came to pass? Laws about writing, about getting the dirt off your clothes – very intricate about how to get the dirt off your clothes without violating the Sabbath. You could only carry ink enough for two letters - not two letters to people, but two alphabetical letters. And wax enough only to fill a tiny hole. You could have a wad in your ear if you had an earache, but you couldn’t have a false tooth in, because that was carrying a burden.
Here are the following 39 things that were commonly forbidden: Sewing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sifting, grinding, sifting with a sieve, kneading, baking, shearing the wool, washing it, beating it, dying it, spinning, putting it in the weaver’s beam, making two threads, weaving two threads, separating two threads, making a knot, undoing a knot, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, catching deer, killing, skinning, salting it, preparing its skin, scraping off its hair, cutting it up, writing two letters, scraping in order to write two letters, building, pulling down, extinguishing fire, lighting fire, beating with a hammer, carrying from one possession to another, and it goes on and on.
Now you want to know what the Sabbath was? A pain in the neck. I mean it was impossible to rest. You couldn’t do anything. No wonder they were laboring and heavy-laden. No wonder they were sick to death of the system that had been imposed on them by the legalists. The Sabbath was the focus of everything. Edersheim says if a woman were to roll wheat to take away the husk, she would be guilty of sifting. If she were rubbing the ends of the stalk, she would be guilty of threshing. If she were cleaning what adheres to the side of a stalk, she would be guilty of sifting. If she was bruising the stalk, she would be guilty of grinding. If she was throwing it up in her hands, she would be guilty of winnowing. And the people were under this incredible burden. Now do you understand what it meant when Jesus said, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest”? That’s what the Sabbath was supposed to be, but as far as rest was concerned, it was a joke. And so Jesus came along and paid absolutely no attention to any of that stuff, and it infuriated the religious leaders. This became the final act that crystallized their rejection.
Let’s look at the incident in verse 1, “At that time” – and that means that season, the same season as the rest of this text, in our Lord’s Galilean ministry period. The time when He was moving through the villages of Galilee, healing, casting out demons, preaching the gospel of the kingdom. At that time, at the time of the Galilean ministry. It doesn’t necessarily identify a day. It’s the word kairos, which means a season. “At
that time Jesus went on the Sabbath Day through the grain fields.” Now you’ve got a problem to begin with, because Jesus shouldn’t be going places on the Sabbath. You couldn’t go more than 3,000 feet. But He and His disciples are moving along. God’s law didn’t say that, but the rabbinical law did, and they’re in violation of the Sabbath because they’re traveling. And they’re traveling – literally it means through the fields that are sewn, through the grain fields. Some Bibles say corn fields, but they were probably wheat and barley fields.
The grain was likely ripening because of what occurs in the incident in verse 1. And if they were there in Galilee, in the Jordan Valley, that would mean that it was around April, nearing Passover season, perhaps, because that’s when grain usually ripens there, in the spring. And as you go east from there, the farther east you go, the later it is, until finally, at the eastern parts of that area, it doesn’t ripen until August. But in the Jordan Valley, it would be around April. The harvest must have been very near. The fields were just everywhere. There weren’t any roads really. There were only paths through fields. The grain was put in great long strips, and you actually walked down through the strips as you traveled on your journey. And so as you would be walking along, there would be grain on both sides of you. And so the Lord and His Twelve are walking along.
Now the Lord had made a wonderful provision for the traveler in Israel in Deuteronomy 23:25. It says this, “When thou comest into the standing grain of thy neighbor, then thou mayest pluck the ears of grain with thine hand. But thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbor’s standing grain.” In other words, there weren’t any restaurants and there weren’t any truck stops and there weren’t any McDonald’s anywhere, and as you were moving along, you would become hungry. And so the Lord provided, in Deuteronomy 23:25, within the nation of Israel, that you could take your hands and pluck some of the grain. And this they common did. Some of you who’ve lived on a farm have done this. And maybe you’ll take the head of the barley or the wheat and you roll it in your hands to clear the kernel out, and then you throw it in the air and the chaff is blown away, and then as if someone were eating nuts or something, you just eat the grain. And the Lord made that provision in Deuteronomy 23:25.
So the disciples are moving along, and they began to be hungry, it says. And they began to pluck the ears of grain and to eat, and that is exactly what Deuteronomy 23:25 said they had a right to do. They’re not in violation of the Word of God at all. They were poor. They had left their livelihood to follow Jesus Christ, and they lived by faith. They carried really nothing. They had to depend upon the laws of the land, which permitted that, and the kindness and generosity of people who fed them and cared for them. And Jesus didn’t restrain them, because they were in line with the Old Testament Scripture. Now Luke expands the thought a little bit of verse 1, and he says, “His disciples began picking and eating the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands.” So they were going through that very process: You pick it, you rub it in your hands, separating it, throw it in the air, the chaff is blown away, and you have what remains.
Now in Exodus 34:21, the Old Testament forbids reaping on the Sabbath, but obviously this is not reaping. Reaping is moving into your field and doing the whole business of reaping. But the Pharisees had taken this concept of not reaping on the Sabbath and they had brought it down to that fine point. You couldn’t even pull a handful of grain off. So this became the incident that triggered their fury, because it occurred on the Sabbath. Now they said a man could eat on the Sabbath if he were starving to death, and they had a hard time determining who was starving to death, because you actually had to be starving to death. I mean, that would be pretty arbitrary to determine, wouldn’t it? I mean, “How long is this guy going to live?” Well, no, he’s definitely going to die today if we don’t give him some food. “Well, no, I think he can last an extra day, so let’s hold up.” And they even said, when a man was ill, you can stop him from dying but cannot help him to get any better. They also said you could put a band-aid or a bandage on a man, but not a medicated one. In other words, you could keep the guy from dying but you certainly couldn’t make him any better on the Sabbath. Now that’s a fine line you’d have a difficult time fooling with too.
And so they had determined that this was reaping, and the Talmud says this, “If a person rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is sifting; if he rubs the heads of wheat, it is threshing; if he cleans off the side-adherence, it is sifting; if he bruises the ears, it is grinding; and if he throws it up in his hand, it is winnowing.” So they made it a violation to do what they were doing, but that wasn’t the spirit in which God had intended the reaping command in Exodus 34:21. That’s the incident.
Now let’s go to the indictment in verse 2, and watch what happens. Quess who is dogging Jesus’ footsteps? They were taking a trip through a field someplace and hiding behind the grain are the Pharisees, just looking for something with which to accuse Him. And they saw it. “And they said to Him, ‘Behold’” – oh, lo, they said. We’ve got it now. “Thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the Sabbath day.” We saw it. Hair-splitting legalism, absolute asininity, with no purpose. They had buried God’s law so deeply under a pile of legislative tradition that it was unbearable. It was unbearable. God intended the Sabbath to be rest, not to be excruciating hardship. These people had nothing. They traveled and lived by faith. They took a handful of grain. They didn’t violate the heart of God. That’s why Peter says in Acts 15:10 they bind burdens on people that are impossible for them to bear. That’s why Jesus said in Matthew 23:4 that they have laws that are burdensome. No wonder they sought rest. No wonder when Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light,” they understood what He meant.
Listen, some people think that the Lord asks a lot. You ought to try Pharisaic Judaism. Now that’s a heavy yoke. The yoke of Christ, even with the standards that He has, even with all that His Lordship implies, isn’t anything like this. So they indicted the Lord with their non-Mosaic traditions and distorted the intention and motive of God’s giving of the Sabbath.
We move from the incident to the indictment to the instruction in verse 3. Listen to the Lord’s answer. Oh, this is so good. The Master responds. “But He said unto them” – and I love this – “Have you not read” – oh, I like that. Haven’t you read? Sarcasm. Verse 5 He says, “Haven’t you read the law?” Haven’t we read the law? Are you kidding. That’s sarcasm, see. And then in verse 7, He says, “If you had known what this means.” You see, He says, “You’re just blockheads, is what you are.” Didn’t you read this? Haven’t you read the law. Don’t you know what it means? Of course the implication is they don’t know at all what it means, and the Lord then instructs them, and He uses three biblical texts or incidents or principles to show the true meaning of the Sabbath.
Sabbath law, He says, first of all, was never intended to restrict deeds of necessity. Secondly, it was never meant to restrict service to God. And thirdly, it was never meant to restrict acts of mercy. The Sabbath was to bring rest, not hardship. The Sabbath was to reflect what the other nine commandments reflected: Love toward God and love toward your fellow man. And that’s what the Ten Commandments are all about. The first of the commandments talk about our love to God through loyalty, faithfulness, reverence, and holiness. The second group in the Ten Commandments talks about love toward our fellow man through respect and purity and unselfishness, truthfulness, and contentment.
And that is why the whole of the Ten Commandments is summed up in this: That thou shalt – what? Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, strength, and thy neighbor as thyself. It is love to God, and it is love to man, and that is what Paul says in Romans 13:8-10, that the love is the fulfilling of the law. But the Pharisees didn’t have a clue about love. They would just suppress people, intimidate them, piled burdens on them. They were legalistic functionaries, loveless. But the law of God was to permit God and man to have an ongoing love relationship and to permit man and man to have an ongoing love relationship.Therefore, first of all, law could never stand in the way of meeting people’s needs. That’s a very basic point. And look at His illustration in verse 3, “He said unto them, ‘Have you not read what David did?’” And you know, when He picks David out, He’s really got them, because David is their hero. I mean, David was it. He was number one in all popularity polls in Israel. David was it. “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry and the ones who were with him?” You remember the story when David was hungry. Have you not read that.
You see, David was fleeing. He had been rejected by his people as king, and he was fleeing for his life, and he was fleeing south to Gibeah. First Samuel 21 tells about it. And Saul was after him. He came to the land of Nob, just north of Jerusalem, where the tabernacle was. And he didn’t have any food and he was really hungry and so were his men. And so he went into the place to talk Ahimelech, who was ministering in the place of Abiathar, the high priest, and he told him he was hungry. He even told him a lie about what mission he was on, but he nonetheless told him he was hungry. And you know what they gave him to eat? The showbread from off the table in the tabernacle.
You say, what’s the showbread? Every week they baked 12 loaves of bread and each loaf was baked with – get this ladies – six and a half pounds of flour. Heavy bread, right? That’s a big loaf – big, big loaves. And they were put in two rows or two piles of six each, and they represented the 12 tribes of Israel, and they were placed on this table. Every Sabbath the loaves would be taken away and new loaves put down, and when the loaves were taken away, according to Leviticus 24:5-9, they were to be eaten by the priests, and they were to be eaten by no one else. The word showbread really literally means the bread of presence or the continual bread, and it was the representation of God’s perpetual relationship to His people, and it was to be eaten only by the priests. It was sacred, never to touch the lips of a common person, even a person like David, because he wasn’t a priest.
But you know what happened? David ate the showbread. I mean, I can’t think of a parallel unless you went into the Catholic church and drank all the holy water because you were thirsty. I mean, they might get upset at you for that. Right? But David at the showbread and his men. Verse 4. “He entered the house of God and ate the showbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them who were with him, but only for” – whom? – “for the priests.” You say, well, how come God let him do this? Because God never invented any law that was intended to overrule human need. And ceremony takes a backseat to the meeting of need. God not only allows necessity to overrule ritual, but the ritual in David’s time and in our Lord’s time had lost its meaning anyway, because the people were so unholy. Listen, God will even violate one of His own ceremonies – we’re not talking about moral laws at this point. God will even violate a ceremonial law if He has to to meet a need, because God is all about loving men and meeting their needs. And you see, the Pharisees didn’t understand this. They didn’t understand what Mark adds, “The Sabbath was made for man” – so he could rest and have his needs met – “not man for the Sabbath.” David violated the ceremonial law to fulfill the heart of God, and the heart of God is to meet needs.
You know, I think about that in the Old Testament in the case of divorce. God says, “If you commit adultery, you die.” That’s My law. And adultery was the only legitimate grounds for breaking up a marriage, because when you committed adultery, you died and that broke up a marriage. I mean, that did it. But God was gracious, and so God eased off the penalty of death and permitted – what? – divorce so that one person wasn’t stuck with an incessantly adulterous partner corrupting and violating their relationship. God permitted divorce but only on the grounds of adultery. Jesus made that very clear, Matthew 5. But you know, you go back to Deuteronomy 24 and Moses gave them a bill of divorcement for something less than adultery. That’s right, for something less, for uncleanness, and it’s the word for excrement, for doing stuff that’s just foul, dirty stuff. Jesus says from the beginning, that was never God’s intention to have divorce at all. And it was certainly never God’s intention to have divorce for less than adultery, but because of the hardness of your hearts – what? – He permitted it. Why? Because it is the heart of God, if need be – listen to me – to overrule legislation if it takes that to meet need. This is something you have to think about.
You come to 1 Corinthians chapter 7 and Paul says, yes, I’m going to add something else. If you have an unbelieving partner, and that partner leaves, let him leave. You’re not in bondage. You say, I thought the only cause for divorce was adultery. Yes, but God is adding to that this and saying, “Well, I want to go beyond that, and if an unbeliever doesn’t want to live with you, let him go. You are free. Why, God? Because I want you to experience – what? – peace. That’s the heart of God. And see, legislation has to fit into God’s heart attitude, and the rules for the showbread had a reason, but the reason was not to prevent a man who was hungry from having anything to eat. And the law of reaping had a reason, but it certainly wasn’t to prevent some hungry disciples and their Lord from taking a handful of grain. And so our Lord is saying to him, “Look, if David – if David can violate a divine law, then can one greater than David violate a rabbinic tradition to express the heart of God in meeting need?”
Let’s look at the second illustration in verse 5, “Or have you not read in the law how that on the Sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are blameless?” You say, well what does that mean? The priests are profaning the Sabbath? Oh, yeah. Every Sabbath they profaned it. Every Sabbath. What do you mean? All the priests functioning on the Sabbath profaned the Sabbath every Sabbath. Why? Because they worked. They priests worked. You know what they did? They lit fires. That’s right. It’s very hard to have a sacrifice if you don’t have a fire. They also killed animals. That’s very difficult to, if you try to keep a live animal on an altar without a fire. They had to light a fire; they had to kill an animal. You know what they did when they killed the animal? Had to lift it up and put it on the altar, and the animals weighed more than a dried fig. They profaned the Sabbath all the time. And you know what it says in Leviticus 24:8-9 and Numbers 28:9-10? That they had to do this. And you know something? The sacrifices on the Sabbath were double sacrifices.
You know, I remember as a little kid when we lived in Philadelphia, in the days when people still thought Sunday was the Sabbath, we couldn’t watch TV; we couldn’t play catch in the yard; we couldn’t read the paper. We had to come home and sit in our Little Lord Fauntleroy suits all day in a chair. Couldn’t read a book, couldn’t do anything. We had to be “holy.” You know? And we’d just sit there. And you dot so you didn’t look forward to it. But we just would sit there and nothing really would ever happen. Everyone was supposed to – you couldn’t go out of the house. Everybody was supposed to be very sedate. It was a day of rest and so forth and so forth.
And the little dear lady we lived with, Bowlie Keller, worked herself to a frazzle all day Saturday and half of Sunday to put dinner on. And the people at the church were working in the Sunday School Department and the preacher was preaching his heart out all day long. They were working as hard as they could, and no one ever said, “You shouldn’t be doing that on the Sabbath,” because we wanted to eat while we rested, so we didn’t mind her making the meal, and we knew somebody had to do the work to preach and teach. So that’s really what He’s saying here. There was a service to God that actually violated the whole ceremonial law. The point is that God doesn’t make rules that force themselves to be applied as over against that which is a higher priority, and that is serving God. I mean, I work on Sunday. Do you know that? I work every Sunday, and I’ve never yet been accused of violating the Lord’s Day. Now maybe somebody having heard this will accuse me of that.
Look at verse 6. Here is a statement that must have knocked them over. “And I say unto you that in this place is One greater than the temple.” Oh, man. He has just said, “Look, tabernacle rules were set aside. Temple rules are set aside. And I’m telling you, right here is someone greater than the temple.” Well, unless you were alive at that time, you could never understand what that meant to them. The temple was it. The temple was it. God dwelt in the temple. He’s saying, “I’m greater than the temple.” Now if in the tabernacle, David could eat the showbread because ceremony does not overrule meeting needs, and if in the temple the priests can violate and profane the Sabbath laws to do the service of God, if the tabernacle and the temple tolerate it, then I am allowed to do it as well because I’m greater than both of those things.
Now they knew the temple was greater than the tabernacle, but to hear somebody say that He is greater than the temple was absolutely shocking. And it’s really a claim to deity. What He is saying really is what it said in John 1:14, that we beheld His glory. You know? He became flesh. God became flesh, dwelt among us. He is the temple of God. God dwelt in a tabernacle. God dwelt in a temple. But now, greater than a tabernacle, greater than a temple, God dwells in the body of the living Lord Jesus Christ in their midst. Tremendous claim to deity. So if there are exceptions for the tabernacle and exceptions for the temple, there better be exceptions for the true incarnation of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is more sacred than any house that God has ever dwelt in. This is another one of those monumental claims to deity that Jesus makes.
And thirdly, He says the law cannot stand in the way of showing mercy. Verse 7, “If you had known what this meaneth, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” You’re condemning these disciples and they’re guiltless, and you wouldn’t have done it if you knew what God really wanted. If you knew that He wanted mercy, not ritual. The word sacrifice, I believe, embodies the whole ceremonial system. That ceremonial Sabbath system was only a shadow. It was only a shell. What God really wants is a merciful heart. And God is merciful, and if His people hunger, He wants them to be fed. It’s a beautiful, beautiful lesson the Lord gives, isn’t it? People think Christianity is rigid, hard. No. God has given us standards but does not want those standards to overrule meeting our needs, serving Him, showing mercy. Kindness, self-sacrifice, mercy, that’s what God wants.
Now listen, I believe – and I want you to listen very carefully. I believe that God sometimes sets aside His prior laws for the sake of mercy. If you don’t believe that, then ask yourself why you aren’t dead, because you’ve sinned. And when God said that you commit adultery, you die. You should be dead if you’ve ever done that. But God was – He overruled that because He loves and because He shows mercy. And there are times when, sure, God doesn’t want a divorce, but He lets an unbeliever leave because He wants you to have peace, because He wants to meet that need in your life. Mercifully, in the case of ceremonial law, God would set aside that law altogether to reveal His heart. After all, ceremonial law is only a shadow. In the case of God’s moral law, however, He would at times set aside only the immediate consequence of that law, again, to reveal His merciful heart. Now listen to me. I add this and this is the key. But only God has the right to exercise that prerogative when He sets aside His standard. You don’t, and neither do I, but He does.
God wants an obedient heart. The Pharisees were a million miles from that. He wanted mercy, but they hadn’t got a clue. But especially on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you think the Sabbath would be of all the days, the you would meet needs? Wouldn’t you think? Wouldn’t you think the Sabbath, of all days, would be the day to serve the Lord? Here they were, walking along serving the Lord, preaching the kingdom, reaching people, and they had to eat on the way. They were serving the Lord. Their needs had to be met. God wanted to be merciful to them. Wouldn’t you think the Sabbath would be the perfect time for that? The whole point is a shocking thing. They indicted Him, and when He was done with His instruction, He had indicted them as hard-hearted, external legalists who didn’t even know the heart of God. They were the violators of the Sabbath, because the Sabbath was for meeting needs, serving God, and showing mercy.
And then He says this – and if they weren’t already flat on their backs, this would do it. By the way, verse 8, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath day.” What a statement. “I initiate it and I will interpret it,” is what He is saying. What a claim. He is a blasphemer or He is God. And this must have goaded them to madness. He says, “You are not in charge of the Sabbath; I am in charge of the Sabbath.” Now that, frankly, crystallized the issue – loggerheads. He will tolerate no Pharisaical perversion of His intended purpose for the Sabbath. You see? The Sabbath was His. He wrote it, He would interpret it, and you want to know something else? He would fulfill it, wouldn’t He? He’d fulfill it. And He did fulfill the Sabbath.
You know why we don’t keep the Sabbath anymore? Because the Lord fulfilled it. In Hebrews chapter 4 it says that because of Christ, we have entered into rest. We’ve entered into rest. We’ve entered into rest. What does that mean? The Sabbath was a figure, a picture, a shadow of rest. This is how it’s going to be. There’s going to be a day of rest. You see the Pharisees – you see, God was trying to say by the Sabbath, “There’s coming a rest. There’s coming a rest. There’s coming a rest.” The Pharisees ruined that illustration, because if the kingdom of God was like the Sabbath they had invented, who wants it? Right? They had destroyed that. So the Lord came along and said, “Come over here on My side if you’re laboring and heavy-laden. My yoke is easy; My burden is light. You will find rest.” It’s a time of mercy and meeting needs and serving God. And Jesus came and fulfilled that Sabbath, and that’s why there’s no need for a shadow anymore. That’s why there’s no need for an illustration anymore, because we’ve entered into the reality. Right? That’s why the New Testament says nothing about keeping the Sabbath.
That’s why Romans 14 says some people want to keep the Sabbath and some don’t. It’s no big deal. If they want to, it’s because they’re traditionally doing that from their Judaism. Don’t offend them. Let them go. If you don’t want to do it, don’t worry about it. And that’s why the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 4 and Colossians 2, “Don’t let anybody impose on you any days or any Sabbaths.” He says that. We have the reality; the shadow is gone. Christ fulfilled it.
And that’s why the Lord Jesus rose on the – what? – first day of the week. The disciples met together, Acts 2:1, on the first day of the week. They met together regularly breaking bread, Acts 20 verse 7, on the first day of the week, and they were to collect their offerings, 1 Corinthians 16:1, when they came together on the first day of the week. Why? Because that was the day that commemorated and celebrated – what? – the resurrection. That’s why we meet today. It’s Resurrection Day. It’s the new covenant.
He closes with an illustration in verses 9-13. I never thought I’d do this. Going to get through. But I got to give you the illustration, right? You got to have one good illustration in a sermon and the Lord’s got a great one here. “And when He was departed from there, He went into their synagogue.” I just love that. He is so confrontive. He doesn’t steal away and say, “Oh, I hope they don’t come” – He goes right into their synagogue just to – He’s going to illustrate the whole lesson He just gave. And He goes into the synagogue and there is a man in there who had a paralyzed hand. And they said to Him – by the way, this man didn’t mean anything to them until he became an opportunity to catch Jesus. So here’s this man, “And they said to Him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath days?’” Why did they say it? “That they might” – what? – “accuse Him.” Oh, the Sabbath for them was incredible.
Do you know in, the time under Judas Maccabeus, the time between the testaments, when the Greeks were sort of dominating the people of Israel, there was one incident when the forces of Antiochus – 1 Maccabees records it – came against the Jews. And the text of Maccabees says, “They answered them not, neither cast they a stone at them, nor stopped the places where they lay hid. But said, ‘Let us die all in our innocency. Heaven and earth shall testify for us, that you put us to death wrongfully.’ So they rose up against them in battle on the Sabbath, and they slew them with their wives and children and their cattle to the number of a thousand people.”
Here came Antiochus and his men against the Jews, and because it was the Sabbath, they would not lift a finger, and they just had a thousand people massacred. They wouldn’t defend themselves. They were really serious about the Sabbath. Well that’s ridiculous, of course, but that’s where they were. On another occasion, when Pompey took Jerusalem, they came in and they build these mounds, these siege mounds. And they did it on the Sabbath, because all the while on the Sabbath the Jews stood there and watched them and would not prevent anything, because it was the Sabbath. Now, I mean, it was a life and death deal to them. Because, you see, they believed that if they kept this stuff, they would earn their way to the kingdom. That’s right where the cults are. See? That’s why they’re so zealous.
And so the Lord just comes in the middle of their deal and horrifies their Sabbath. And here’s this man. And they said, “Is it lawful to heal this man?” Now you know what that tells me? First of all, they believed Jesus could heal. But that didn’t faze them. Isn’t that amazing how blind they were? They knew He could heal. Where did they think He got the power for that? We’ll find out as we get later in the chapter. They thought He got it from Satan. But they said, “Is it lawful to heal this man on the Sabbath.” And of course the reason they picked a man with a paralyzed hand is because that’s not a life and death issue. Right? And you could keep a guy from dying, but you couldn’t make him any better. But a guy with a paralyzed hand has had his paralyzed hand a long time. That’s not life and death.
Verse 11, “He said to them, ‘What man shall there be among you that has a sheep’ – one sheep, the one, the indefinite one, one out of a flock. Just one sheep. Not the only sheep you have, but one out of all kinds of sheep. But even that one sheep – ‘if he fall in a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it and lift it out?’” Now you say, wouldn’t that violate their Sabbath law? No, that was economics. And for many of them, they weren’t like the time of the Maccabees anymore. They weren’t going to die. There wasn’t quite the same heroism anymore. And they would figure out that if you got enough guys, each guy could lift the sheep a certain amount of distance. They’d get a way to get that thing out of there.
William Hendriksen says, “It is safe to infer, perhaps, that the question asked by Jesus at the moment indicates to us that there was a particular legislation permitting this.” Now we don’t know what rabbinical sources it came from, but it must have been the case because Jesus uses it as an illustration. Wouldn’t you rescue your sheep on the Sabbath? Verse 12, “How much then is a man better than a sheep?” Now that’s a simple question isn’t it? But you see sheep were better than men to them. Because men meant nothing to them. They were very much like the Hindus in India today. You know, they won’t kill a fly because the fly is a re-incarnation of somebody who’s trying to get out of that karma. They won’t kill a rat or a mouse. They won’t kill a cow. And did you know that two-thirds of their food supply are eaten by those things. That’s why they have starvation problems.
But they let people die all over the place and they don’t help people. You know why? Because it’s their karma. It’s their karma. They won’t give money to beggars. They won’t help people that are destitute, because they feel they’ve got to go through that suffering to earn their way to the next level. And so cows are worth more to them than people. Cows are sacred, for whatever reasons. And so it was in Judaism, only not quite so religiously defined that sheep were more important to them economically than people. Ethical conduct is the issue, and the Lord makes it very clear at the end of verse 12, is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days? Isn’t that a basic question. Is it lawful to do good? Let me as you that.
And by the way, all the time he’s talking, Mark and Luke tell us He’s brought this guy with a paralyzed hand out and set him right in front of the entire synagogue. And He’s got him standing there beside him, you know, with this withered arm – hand. It’s very dramatic. The man is standing there and He is confronting them and He’s saying, “You tell me. Now, you’d rescue a sheep. Would you rescue a man? Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” Well what can they say? If they say, “Yes, it’s lawful to do good,” they’re stuck. Because He’s going to say, “Well then it would be good to heal the man, wouldn’t it?” If they say, “No, it’s not lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” then what have they said? What other alternative do you have? Evil? So He says, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days?” They can’t say any – you know, they don’t want to say anything. So they don’t.
I think a chilling silence prevailed. Luke says, “The Lord read their thoughts and they were filled with fury.” Mark says, “Jesus was grieved at their hard hearts.” Always compassionate. They didn’t care if the man was healed. They were trapped. Verse 13, “Then saith He to the man, ‘Stretch forth thine hand.’ And he stretched it forth, and it was restored well like the other one.” Was that a good thing to do for that man? If there was any meaning ever in the world to the Sabbath, wouldn’t it be to do good on the Sabbath? Sure. And to know to do good and to have the ability to do good and to not do good is to do evil. Right? If ever there was a time for blessing, it was the Sabbath.
And so we go from the incident to the indictment to the instruction to the illustration to the insurrection. Verse 14 – stop right here. “Then the Pharisees went out and held a council against him how they might destroy Him.” Why? Because He was good and they were evil, that’s why. Jesus did this – now don’t leave your thinking here. Listen carefully. Jesus connected the Sabbath with the heart of God – benevolence, mercy, kindness, goodness. And that is the purpose of it all. Jesus came that we might enter into a relationship with God in which He pours out to us grace and goodness and mercy and kindness and peace and benevolence and tenderness. The Pharisees had absolutely obliterated that illustration in the Sabbath. Jesus’ lesson is very clear: We broke a ceremonial law to meet our need. That’s the heart of God. We broke a traditional law, not going more than so many feet to serve God. That’s the heart of God. Because God wants mercy to be shown, not ritual. The only function that ceremony ever has is as an illustration of a right attitude. And if you stop and corrupt the illustration and never get to the right attitude, you miss the whole purpose.
Now let me close with two lessons. What does this say to an unbeliever? Well basically there are people today who are caught in systems of religion where they are trying, by their own works, to do what the Pharisees did. Laws upon laws and rules upon rules. A Jewish man came to me last Sunday morning at the close of the service and he walked up to me and he says, “I’m Jewish. This is my first time here.” He said, “I am laboring and heavy-laden and I want rest.” I don’t know what system you’re in. If you’re trying to keep the law as a Jew, if you’re trying to keep the law of the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses or whatever other – you may be even trying to keep the laws and the rules and the regulations of Roman Catholicism that are supposed to get you into the kingdom of God. But if you know in your heart you’re not there and are tired of the toiling, why don’t you look to God who wants to give you rest? All these man-made systems do is bury the heart of God under a pile of legislation, and He wants to give you a yoke that is easy and a burden that’s light.
You who are Christians, I mean, isn’t there a lightness and a freedom in knowing Christ and walking in the power of His Spirit? Even though we commit ourselves to obedience to Him, it’s lightness, not heaviness.
Second lesson: Christians, why do you come here? Why do you worship? What’s your purpose? Are you here because it’s functional? Are you here because you think that’s your duty? Are you just cranking it out, having begun in the Spirit? All right, now you’re going to be perfected in the flesh? Are you defining true spirituality in terms of a bunch of little things you do or don’t do? Is your relationship to God function, rules, laws? Or do you realize that those are only things to assist us and they can never stand in the way of meeting needs, serving God, and showing mercy, because they violate the heart of God? You know, some Christians are so legalistic that they just literally alienate other believers. And the things they’re legalistic about aren’t even things that God talks about in Scripture. Where is your heart toward God? Are you trapped in a bunch of rules or do you know a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light? Well, let’s pray.
Lord, You are so good. We know what we deserve, and You are so good and so kind to pass by our transgressions, to set aside Your law at Your discretion for mercy’s sake. We know You have given us principles; we seek to obey those principles. Those principles are designed to reveal to us Your heart, never to stand in the way of its manifestation. Help us, Lord, to have the sensitivity to walk in the Spirit, to know how to respond to Your ordinances with a freedom and a liberty that truly represents Your merciful, kind heart toward us. And save, Lord, save people from systems that bury You under a pile of rules, for Christ’s sake, Amen.
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