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The Life of Jesus - Series 3: Episode 14

Arguments about the Sabbath day

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 12:1-14
Luke 6:1-11
Mark 2:23-3:6

Controversy is building about Jesus keeping the Law of Moses or not. Both he and his disciples are accused of working on the Sabbath. Mercy rather than rule-keeping is Jesus' way.

Controversy is building about Jesus keeping the Law of Moses or not. Both he and his disciples are accused of working on the Sabbath. Mercy rather than rule-keeping is Jesus' way.


Hello and welcome to Series 3, Episode 14, and it's entitled ‘Arguments About the Sabbath Day.’ The passage we're going to look at is  Matthew 12: 1 - 14.

Introduction and Recap

Before we read the passage, let's think of where we've been in the study just recently. The last two episodes, for those of you who have followed, were situated and based on an event in Jerusalem when Jesus healed the man at the Pool of Bethesda - a man who'd been an invalid for 38 years - and this provoked considerable controversy with the Jewish religious authorities and a long discussion in which Jesus made a statement about who he was, what his mission was, his relationship to his Father, and spoke about the various different witnesses to him that were available to the religious leaders. That was the last two episodes, which covered material in John 5.

That particular controversy, was sparked off by the fact that Jesus healed on the Sabbath day and this created opposition and resistance from the religious leaders, particularly, when they noticed that the man who'd been healed was carrying his mat, that he'd laid on for many years, in the Temple on the Sabbath day - something that their tradition said was carrying a weight and doing work that shouldn't be done on the Sabbath day. That was the two episodes that we've just looked at in Jerusalem, but we're now back in Galilee. We're back at the centre of Jesus' ministry and we've seen in recent episodes the immense popularity of Jesus, the huge number of miracles he performed, the vast crowds that came from far and wide from many different districts and regions and nations. His popularity is very considerable but there is a rather sinister strand to the story and that is an ever more decisive opposition from the religious leaders. They're now beginning to challenge him; there's been a controversy in Jerusalem surrounding a healing but, even before then, there were some signs of conflict developing and this is going to become a very clear conflict in this episode. It's all going to come very clearly to the surface.

Building Controversy

You will remember, if you've been with us on previous episodes, that when Jesus healed the leper, he sent him to the priests in Jerusalem to verify the healing - that would have alerted them to Jesus' ministry. You'll remember that when Jesus healed the paralysed man who was let down through the roof, there was a group of Pharisees and religious teachers there who had gathered from all sorts of different places and were observing Jesus. They were trying to evaluate him. Then we had an episode where we were talking about the issue of fasting, both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist were questioning Jesus about why his disciples didn't fast. There's been a number of controversies going on with the authorities and one of the issues that is coming to the forefront in this controversy, is this sensitive and complex issue of the Jewish Sabbath day. We've discussed this several times already, in early episodes, but I do want to repeat some of the essential points about this because this issue is at the heart of this particular episode that we're talking about, the controversy and the challenge that the Pharisees brought to Jesus.

Sabbath Day in Ten Commandments

Before I read the passage, let me remind you of the background. In the Jewish Law, the centrepiece was the Ten Commandments (which are recorded for us twice: in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5) and the fourth commandment, as recorded in Exodus 20: 8 -11, is about the Sabbath and this is what it says. We need to remember this because this is the background to what's going to take place in the episode we're looking at:

‘“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, (and) the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”’

Exodus 20:8-11, NIV

This is the foundational command for the people of Israel. As I mentioned in a previous episode, this pattern of working six days and resting one day, probably originated with the Jewish people and has become a general pattern across all sorts of cultures in our world. If it originated with the Jewish people, it originated with this Commandment which set the Jews aside from people in neighbouring societies because the Sabbath commandment was something that you could actually see being worked out. If you were travelling in Israel and you happened to be travelling on the Sabbath day, it felt completely different. Everyone was out of the fields; they were not cultivating; they were not developing agriculture; they weren't in their workshops; they weren't in their marketplaces; and they weren't travelling on the road with goods to be marketed. They were at home, they were worshiping, they were with their families and they were resting - that was the general reality. Not everyone obeyed this perfectly, but you could see a difference when you travelled in Ancient Israel. This Sabbath command was like a covenant sign; it was something public that demonstrated the relationship between God and Israel - so was a very important issue.  But you can see, the command is rather general, just ‘don't do any work.’ What exactly do we mean by work? (because things still need to be done on the Sabbath day, practical things need to be done, people need to eat, children need to be looked after, animals need to be fed, and many other things) So what's a legitimate form of activity, or work, on the Sabbath day? What's a legitimate form of travel on the Sabbath day? These were questions that exercised the minds of Jews for hundreds of years and they gradually developed all sorts of rules and regulations, and they got more and more complex as time went on. By the time of Jesus, it was a very complex set of rules that were basically defining what this law in Exodus 20 meant - trying to pin down the details so that nobody could make a mistake and do the wrong thing (and if they did the wrong thing they could be criticised for it). These rules and regulations weren't in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures; they were in the traditions of the religious leaders. One of the big issues that Jesus tackled all the way through his ministry, was the distinction between what God had specifically said in the Old Testament - which he respected and obeyed - and the things that people had added in - which he did not respect and did not obey - and that's exactly what we're going to find happening in this episode today.

Let's turn to Matthew 12. There are two incidents described here; they're linked together, they probably happened on the same day, and that day was a Sabbath day. It starts out with Jesus walking through the countryside with his disciples. Matthew 12: 1 - 14:

‘At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? (They) entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven't you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the Temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the Temple is here. (For) if you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.’

Matthew 12:1-14, NIV
Controversy About Working on the Sabbath

Two stories, two situations, one theme: the Sabbath and the controversy over the Sabbath. Let's look at this first story and set the context. It's quite interesting, isn't it? Jesus is in the countryside, he's walking along, his disciples are with him and, within a short distance are some Pharisees. Let's think about why this is happening. Jesus spent an awful lot of time walking from place to place because he's involved in a travelling ministry. He goes from town to town and village to village - we know that from earlier episodes, from earlier stories in the Gospels; he's going all the way around Galilee. It's not surprising then that he's travelling from place to place and he's doing it on the Sabbath. His disciples, when travelling with him, were hungry. Now, is that a surprise? It's not much of a surprise to me because Jesus' itinerary could be very punishing. There could be large crowds and there could be a lot of travel to go from place to place. We've seen examples of Jesus being under pressure with the crowds, and he might be walking quickly through the fields to get away from one crowd and to get to another place. We don't know all the details, but the fact that they were hungry isn't a surprise; they're not just looking for a tiny little snack or something very small - they're actually hungry. They'd been walking a long time; they'd been travelling with Jesus; they've had a busy day; and they might have a long way to go - so we should have some sympathy with the disciples. They were genuinely hungry.

But what are the Pharisees doing? Why are they there? They're following him around - wherever he goes. They're going, with a purpose. We've already stated there's a controversy building up; there's accusation building up. There's been discussions in Jerusalem, there's been a recent incident in Jerusalem around the healing of the man (the invalid from the Pool of Bethesda in John 5) where there was a major debate between Jesus and the religious leaders and he made some very strong statements to them about his identity, his mission, his purpose, his deity and his authority over life and death. The agitation and concern amongst the religious leaders is quite high. They don't like what Jesus is doing; he's upsetting the status quo and they're looking for ways of accusing him - and one of the best ways of accusing Jesus, is to accuse him of breaking the Law of Moses. This is something that would definitely reduce his reputation amongst the people because people respected the Law of Moses. It was the law of the nation, the law of the land; it was the law that governed the national life of Israel. If Jesus was seen to be a lawbreaker, in that sense, his reputation could be shattered and that's really what they were aiming at.

As I said earlier, they have in their minds not just what was written in the Law of Moses but their traditions, which they elevated to such an extent they said that they had the same authority; they're as God-given, as the written laws - and Jesus, of course, denied that completely on many occasions. He wouldn't accept any of these human traditions. It's actually quite a common thing in human society for us to develop rules and regulations about how we do things and then give them divine status and say they come from God - it's quite a common thing for us to do and that's exactly what they were doing there. What the Pharisees, in particular, were concerned about was that the disciples, by plucking the grains of corn, were breaking a law against harvesting, and this law was in Exodus 34: 21. Let's read it quickly: ‘“Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh ... you shall rest; even during the plowing season and (the) harvest you must rest.”’ That's just a further definition of the fourth commandment in the Ten Commandments, which is basically saying, “don't get involved in agricultural labour,” particularly. Even in harvest, when of course, normally, people will want to work seven days a week because they want to get the harvest in quickly but the Law of Moses says no, rest on the Sabbath; trust God and work hard on those six days. The Pharisees were accusing the disciples of harvesting the corn on the Sabbath, breaking this command. This command is about general work, not about eating in order to deal with real hunger. There isn't a real application of this law; they're not breaking the Law of God - they're not breaking the Law of Moses at all - they're not disobeying it but what they are doing is disobeying the traditions which defined it in much more detail and made lots of prohibitions and things that you couldn't do.

As the accusation comes, Jesus himself uses examples from the Old Testament to say that the Law of Moses is more flexible than you think it is. For example, he mentions the time when David and his companions go to the priest. They're hungry, they're in need of food and the only food available that the priest had, in that particular story, was consecrated bread - in other words, bread that was dedicated to God, that could only be used by the priests - that was the law. However, there was no law against the priest sharing that bread with other Israelites who were ceremonially clean. Jesus describes an example of something which the Pharisees probably would disapprove of, which was written in the Old Testament, which wasn't really breaking the Law of Moses at all because the Law of Moses was more flexible than they were - and that's the point that he was making when he challenged them. The conclusion to that first incident is that no, the Old Testament Law was not broken by Jesus, or his disciples. It's only the religious traditions of the leaders that were being challenged.

Healing on the Sabbath

The second incident takes place shortly afterwards, on the Sabbath, when Jesus went to the synagogue, in whichever place he was  (which isn't named), there was a man who had one arm that was not functioning properly. It was withered; the muscles weren't functioning and it wasn't a fully usable arm. The Pharisees provoke him, Jesus hasn't even done anything but they said, ‘“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”’ They're basically saying, “You're not allowed to do anything for this man,” and Jesus, of course, does the opposite. He says, ‘“Stretch out your hand,”’ and the man is healed. He points out to the Pharisees that they would take action to help somebody in need; they'd take action to help even an animal in need. Even if they had a sheep and it fell into a pit, they'd rescue it - that involves work, that involves effort and Jesus is saying, “That doesn't disobey the Law, neither does doing good on the Sabbath and healing the sick, disobey the Law.” So the man was completely healed. This episode has a very sinister end, ‘the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.’ This is amazing! We're only in the first period of Jesus' ministry - maybe the first six months or the first year - and already the authorities are really turning against him. Can you see the strength of their opposition to him? And that is building up. We've seen a gradual build-up of opposition over the last few episodes, as different things have happened.


What can we learn from a passage like this? It might seem a little obscure to you that such a debate should be going on about various religious traditions and law; but it was very important at the time and some very significant things are revealed through this passage. First of all, in Matthew 12: 7, Jesus goes back to quoting an important phrase, or statement, from the Old Testament prophet Hosea (in Hosea 6: 6) where God says, ‘“I desire mercy not sacrifice”’ and Jesus says, in verse 7, ‘“If (you'd) known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”’ We looked at this, very closely, when we saw that Jesus quoted the same passage at the time when Matthew became a disciple and during the celebration meal that Matthew called in his own house, where lots of tax collectors and shady business dealers were gathering together, and the Pharisees criticised him for socialising with them. Jesus quoted this passage and said, “You need to find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’” and we discovered at the time, that God is more interested in right heart attitudes - particularly merciful attitudes towards other people - than he is in doing the right thing in terms of religious rules and laws. We tend to put a lot of weight on those things and we admire people who show outward religious life, but Jesus said, “It's the inner life that really matters, what's going on in the heart.” God said, through the prophet Hosea to the Israelites, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” It's not that sacrifice was unimportant, that religious duties are unimportant; it's that they don't have any real value unless something has changed within and, in this case, the change required was a merciful, gracious, kind attitude towards other people. The Pharisees lacked that merciful, kind and gracious attitude towards the disciples who were hungry. There was no compassion for their hunger; they were just looking through their traditions and finding a way of condemning them for their action, trying to pick them out as lawbreakers. They failed to do that in terms of the Law of Moses and Jesus said their heart attitude wasn't right.

It's interesting that this passage is quoted twice from Hosea 6: 6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” It's quoted twice by Jesus and there are three different contexts: one is in Matthew 9 and two of them are here in Matthew 12. What I want to do is put those three contexts together and see if we get a picture from this of what Jesus is trying to talk about. Jesus is encouraging a merciful attitude towards three different groups of people. In Matthew 9 it's the tax collectors and sinners, the shady business dealers, who were being criticised by the Pharisees and Jesus said, “You need to have a merciful attitude towards them.” In other words, we need mercy and kindness towards social outcasts - message number one from this verse. Message number two: we need mercy and kindness towards those with genuine physical needs, like hunger. The hunger of the disciples is exactly what is in view. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” - they're hungry, we should be concerned that they have what they need. Thirdly, healing - ‘mercy not sacrifice’ towards the man with the withered arm in the synagogue. It's all very well to go and worship in the synagogue, but if you can help that man and bring him healing, then that's what he needs - and so Jesus said we need to be merciful to the sick. Merciful to the social outcasts, merciful to the hungry, merciful to the sick. That's an interesting message, isn't it? Those are the three contexts in which this particular passage is applied by Jesus as a criticism of the religious authorities. Christianity represents a greater interest in what is going on in the heart, than what we do externally - the second is important, but the first is more important. We too, as Christians, should exercise that same mercy towards social outcasts, the hungry and those with physical needs and sicknesses, amongst others, but those are three outstanding examples and it's a challenge to us. Christianity represents a merciful attitude towards people in need and an offer of grace and help to them.

My next reflection is around the statement in verse 8, ‘“The Son of Man is Lord (over) the Sabbath.”’ Jesus didn't break the Old Testament Sabbath law, but in this statement he indicated that his Lordship might change the Sabbath and, in the long run, that's exactly what happens because in the New Covenant in the New Testament - after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in the beginning of the Church - the Sabbath commandment is not reissued for the Church because the Sabbath day was a covenant sign between God and Israel, not a covenant sign between God and the Church. The outward signs of the covenant relationship that we have with Jesus Christ (which is called the New Covenant by Jesus and others) is not Sabbath - it's baptism, believers baptism, and communion, the sacrament of breaking bread, or the Eucharist as it's sometimes known. These are the things that Jesus instituted as the outward signs of the covenant relationship of the New Covenant and so, the Sabbath is no longer a law for us. That fourth commandment was never re-enacted in the New Testament and Paul, in particular, warns people against going back to very detailed Sabbath observance. It was still in force in the time of Jesus and he obeyed it, as this story tells us, but it didn't continue into the New Covenant. However, the Sabbath principle is based on the fact that God made the heavens and the earth in six days and he rested on the seventh, as we read in Exodus 20. So the one in seven pattern of work and rest that was instituted in the Jewish Sabbath, is based on creation and not just on the relationship between Israel and God. Therefore, it is wise for us as Christians - even now the 21st century - to consider how we may balance work and rest and make suitable provision for rest. To rest on a pattern of one in seven days from the main work you do, is a good thing to do and something that I would encourage everyone to do, if at all possible. It no longer functions as a religious law with a defined day and defined duties; this is a principle that we can consider how we may apply suitably.

My final reflection is to say, this is a very good example of religious legalism. Human beings, in all societies, are very good at creating religious laws and attacking other people on the basis of those religious laws, dividing the world between those on the inside and those on the outside, the good and the bad. Jesus discourages this. He's much more interested in what's going on in the heart, because God says, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Think about people you admire. What is it about them that you admire - what they do, say, or what is their attitude? What is important to God?
    2. How important is having a ‘sabbath’ day in your culture? What do you think you should/should not do on a ‘sabbath’ / Sunday?
  • Discipleship
    1. Can you identify man-made laws that can creep into church life? How helpful are they?
    2. How can you show mercy to others?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Compare the idea of the Sabbath in the old and new covenants. Is the idea of the Sabbath as mentioned in the Creation story relevant in the new covenant?
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