Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 17 2013 - Matthew 12:1-21 – Lord of the Sabbath

Yesterday we saw that Jesus promises rest to those who will come and follow him. Today we find that he and his followers are accused of scorning God's promised day of rest.

First we read that Jesus’ disciples were plucking grain as they walked through fields on the Sabbath day – no doubt making their way to the synagogue. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they were doing work rather than resting on the Sabbath day. Part of Jesus’ response to his accusers is a reminder that priests work in the Temple on the Sabbath and are held guiltless, for they are doing the will of God. “I tell you” says Jesus, “something greater than the Temple is here.” The Temple was intended as an enormous visual aid. At the dedication of the first Temple, Solomon declared that the living God could not possibly be confined to a building made by human hands; he did not literally live in the Temple. Rather, it was intended to act as sign and continual reminder to the Israelites that the God of Abraham had chosen to make them his people and that he delighted to dwell among them.

Jesus is far greater than the Temple; indeed, he is the reality to which the Temple had pointed. He is no mere visual aid; he is the living God come to dwell among his people. But the Jewish leaders remained blind to this wonderful reality and could only see that he seemed to have scant regard for their rules.

The plucking of ears of grain might have seemed a casual and careless transgression. But it is followed by a very deliberate act by Jesus. Having arrived at the synagogue Jesus saw a man with a withered and useless hand. The Pharisees were eager to find further cause to discredit Jesus and so challenged him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" (Matthew 12:10). Jesus' response exposed his inquisitors hypocrisy; "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." Jesus then told the man to stretch out his useless hand. Immediately he stretches it out and finds in so doing that he is healed.

Often in the Gospels we find that Jesus seems to take delight in healing people on the Sabbath day. For Jesus there could be no more fitting day for such action. On the first Sabbath of creation, God rested from all that he had made and saw that it was very good. More than that, he invited all that he had created to enter into his Sabbath and share with him the joy of a perfect creation. Jesus declares that he is Lord of the Sabbath. By his power he restores the sick to health and gives them rest. They enjoy the blessing of a renewed creation and enter into the finished work of the Son. Jesus works on the Sabbath day so that the broken and marred may be made complete and very good. It is through his good work that those he touches can enter into rest – enter into his rest.

Matthew concludes this story with a touch of terrible irony. Jesus has declared that it is lawful and fitting to do good on the Sabbath. In response to his actions, "the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus" (12:14). Jesus is the one who gives life, but his opponents will not rest in their evil determination to destroy life.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you will not rest until you have finished your new creation. Thank you that you do all things well. Help me both to labour with you in doing good and to enjoy the rest you give as Lord of the Sabbath.

Peter Misselbrook