Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath: Matthew 12:1-13

Many of us at one time or another have struggled with how to apply the Fourth Commandment to our lives: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” There are a number of problems. One problem is that, strictly speaking, the Sabbath Day is the seventh day of the week, not the first. So there is the question of whether or not Christians should keep Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday. There are many Christians, even to this day, who are emphatic that you are violating the Sabbath if you do not rest from all work on Saturday. Others uphold what they call the Christian Sabbath and argue that Christians should observe the Sabbath Day on the first day of the week, since that is the day on which Jesus was raised, and it is pretty clear that it was on that day that the early church regularly got together to worship (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).

Then there is the question of how to observe the Sabbath Day. Are Christians supposed to rest entirely from all work on that day? Others say that the Sabbath Day has been fulfilled in Christ and that we are no longer under the obligation to literal, physical rest one day a week. They would claim that the Sabbath regulations hold the same sway over Christians as do the ceremonial regulations of the law. In fact, many would put them in the same category.

Of course, the whole problem boils down to the fact that the Fourth Commandment is, well, the Fourth Commandment. Since it is pretty clear that all the other nine commandments are still in force, why would the Fourth Commandment be any exception? The argument is that though the ceremonial law is no longer in force, the moral law is. And the moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. Just as the prohibition to commit murder transcends covenantal discontinuities, so also does the prohibition to violate the Sabbath Day. Or does it?

Looking at passages such as the one before us is incredibly helpful in getting a proper perspective on the Sabbath Day. Remember that the context is the increasing opposition to Jesus, his disciples, and their ministry. Here, the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath (ver. 2). Our Lord’s response is instructive to the current debate, because he answers on two levels. On one level, he argues convincingly from the Law that his disciples had in fact not violated the Sabbath. So the accusation was false for that reason alone. But Jesus makes another argument, one which I think sheds much light on the issue of Sabbath observance. He argues that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. I think it is important for us to understand exactly what he means by that in order to really come to grips with our place in Sabbath observance. In effect, he is arguing that he is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, as he is of the whole Law. The Law is to be interpreted in reference to Christ, to whom the Law points.

I don’t think it is coincidental that this passage comes on the heels of Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus invites the weary to find rest in him. Essentially, in that passage our Lord is telling people that he is the one in which the Sabbath finds its ultimate fulfillment. The Sabbath pointed through physical rest to the rest that we find in God. We see the same thing going on in Hebrews. When the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to enter into rest, he is obviously referring to finding rest in Christ (Heb. 4:1). But then he goes on to interpret this rest in terms of the Sabbath, of entering into God’s rest (Heb. 4:4). After explaining that this rest should not be interpreted in terms of the inheritance of the land of Canaan (Heb. 4:5-8), he concludes that “there remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (Heb. 4:9-11). To fail to believe is to copy the example of the unbelieving Israelites who did not enter into the land of Canaan (Heb. 3:19). But in this context, it is not a failure to believe the promises to enter into the land of Canaan, but a failure to “hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Heb. 3:6), a hope that is centered in Christ as the Apostle and High Priest of our profession (Heb. 3:1, cf. 3:14). To keep the Sabbath, according to the author of Hebrews, is to firmly trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, to find one’s rest in him.

I think Matthew juxtaposes these two passages because he wants us to see that the Pharisees didn’t see this. The problem is deeper here than misinterpreting a passage of Scripture. The problem is their failure to recognize the Messiah for who he was. This was the fundamental problem. But it inevitably led to other problems, including misinterpreting the Sabbath observance. In fact, they had replaced even the physical rest that the Sabbath had promised for the good of man with burdensome regulations. These regulations did not come from God’s law but had accrued over the years as men added to God’s simple command. Carson notes that “the Jewish rules of conduct about Sabbath were extremely detailed; and it was wryly admitted that ‘the rules of conduct about Sabbath . . . are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many’.”1 Far from giving people rest, they made men weary and heavy laden. R. C. Sproul explains: “Where God has left people free, the rabbis had put them in chains. They had multiplied prohibitions for the Sabbath to an astonishing degree. For example, in trying to define what it meant to go beyond necessary labor on the Sabbath, they decreed that it was a sin to untie a knot on the Sabbath. If someone accidentally knotted his sandal laces, he had to leave them knotted until the Sabbath was over because untying them would be unnecessary work. In another example, they said that if a person tore a garment, he was allowed to sew one stitch, but no more.”2

You can see this in the accusation that they put to our Lord. As the disciple go through the corn fields, and found themselves hungry, they “began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat” (12:1). This offended the Pharisees: “But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath day” (12:2). They saw the actions of the disciples as a violation of the Sabbath commandment. But what was really wrong with this? There is nothing in the Fourth Commandment that forbids people who are hungry with picking up something to eat, whether from the field or from the cupboard. What it forbad was regular work and the carrying on of a trade. It’s important to note that one of the reasons given for the commandment in Deut. 5:14 was so that “thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.” One can see the stupidity of the reasoning of the Pharisees in that picking a head of corn would hardly have been considered as work and wearisome labor to such servants!

How does our Lord answer these accusations? He answers them with two examples from Scripture and a quotation from Hosea 6:6 (which he has already used against the Pharisees in Mat. 9:13). In each of these examples, our Lord does more than just answer his accusers; he tells us something about himself. But he also tells them about themselves. In particular, the Pharisees went wrong with the Sabbath because they had three things wrong: they had a wrong attitude toward the Law, a wrong view of Christ, and a wrong approach to people.

The Example from David (3-4): A Wrong Attitude toward the Law

Our Lord’s reference to David comes from 1 Sam 21, which tells the story of David’s flight from King Saul. As he was fleeing, he came to the house of God, at that time located in the tabernacle at Nob. Having left in haste, having no time to carry provisions with him, he asked for bread. But there was no bread, except the Bread of the Presence. The problem was that this was holy bread, meant only for the priests to eat (Lev. 24:5-9). Unless you were a priest, you weren’t supposed to have it. In fact, our Lord acknowledges this when he says that David “entered into the house of God, and did eat the showbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which with him, but only for the priests” (4).

Now it’s important to follow our Lord’s argument here. The Pharisees had accused him of breaking the Sabbath, of breaking the Law of God. But the fact of the matter was, so did David. He broke the letter of the Law by eating the sacred bread. However, the Scriptures do not cast aspersions upon David for so doing. In fact, the priest himself evidently saw no problem with David and his companions eating the bread, since it was the only bread there. Our Lord’s argument seems to be: if David broke the Law and got away with it, why can’t he? In other words, if the Pharisees were consistent, they would have to condemn David along with Jesus. This example, therefore, was meant to point out to them the fact that their whole approach to the Law had to be wrong.

What was there approach? I think one of the reasons they had gone wrong was that they had made the Law an end in itself. The Law no longer became a mirror which pointed to greater realities. Instead, as the apostle Paul put it, the Law became a veil upon their heart (2 Cor. 3:13-15). They didn’t see the Sabbath as an invitation to God’s rest; rather, they saw the Sabbath as another thing to do to improve their spiritual resume. And if you turn religious duties into entries in a resume, you are going to start trying to make each duty look more impressive. And that’s where a lot of extra-biblical practices come from. There is a lesson here for all of us. The Pharisees haven’t been the only ones to get caught in this trap. There are many practices in the lives of a lot of believers that have no real root in Scripture, and yet they have been elevated to the level of Scriptural authority because these believers have become focused on building a spiritual resume instead of pleasing our Lord and seeking to walk in fellowship with him. It is so easy to miss the Master for the means.

Incidentally, the current controversies about the Sabbath are no different. Regardless where you come down on the issue, it is possible to miss the whole point by missing the main point. The main point of the Sabbath laws was to point people through physical rest to rest in Christ. Whether you believe that a person should literally physically rest one day of the week, or whether you believe the commandment is no longer binding in a literal sense, if you are more concerned about building a spiritual resume than you are with resting in Christ, you have already lost, even if you have the right position. Getting the Sabbath right does no one any good if they are not seeking the presence of the Lord. What are you doing? Are you trying to build a spiritual resume or are you seeking to please the Lord?

The Example of the Temple Priests (5-6): A Wrong View of Christ

The second example our Lord refers to the work the temple priests had to perform on the Sabbath. They obviously had to carry on their own work, including offering sacrifices, which was a lot of hard labor (5). And yet the priests remained blameless. The Law itself therefore provided for exceptions. The lesson: the Sabbath commandment was not meant to be absolute.

However, our Lord’s point is more than that there are exceptions to every rule. He goes on in verse 6 to say, “But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.” What he is saying here? He is referring to himself, and he is basically saying that since temple service superseded the Sabbath laws, and since he [the Christ] is greater than the temple, he has the right to set aside the Sabbath laws as well. Carson writes, “The authority of the temple laws shielded the priests from guilt; the authority of Jesus shields his disciples from guilt.”3

His first argument is that the Pharisees had indeed misinterpreted the Sabbath commandment. The disciples are innocent (7) because they had in fact not broken the law at all. But the second argument goes further and says that even if the disciples, like the priests in the temple on the Sabbath, have broken the law, they are still not guilty because our Lord’s authority has precedence over the authority of the Sabbath regulations. He has the right to set it aside because he is the Christ.

Now this does not mean that Jesus is revoking his previous statement in the Sermon on the Mount to the effect that he had not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill (Mt. 5:17). For our Lord’s claim to have the right to set aside the Sabbath laws rests in his role as the one who fulfills the law. Sabbath observance can no longer hold the same place in the life of the church now that Christ has come.

This is in fact the argument that the apostle Paul makes in his letter to the Colossians. Against the backdrop of our Lord’s triumph over evil upon the cross, he writes this warning to the believers there: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon or of the Sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). This is the passage that convinced me that the Sabbath observance is in the same category as the ceremonial laws which passed away with the coming of Christ; for this is exactly the way the apostle categorizes the Sabbath laws. Some people try to get around this by claiming that the “Sabbath days” under consideration here was not the weekly Sabbath, but other Sabbath observances. However, this does not hold up in this text. Note the progression: “holyday” – this is a reference to the yearly holy days, like Passover; “new moon” – this is a reference to the monthly holy days; finally, “Sabbath days” – this is a reference to the weekly holy days, the seventh day of every week. The apostle says that such days are shadows but Christ is the reality to which they faintly point. We have Christ the one in whom we find true rest, Paul says, so don’t let someone judge you about Sabbath observance.

Incidentally, I agree that the other nine commandments in the Decalogue remain binding upon all men. But this is not because these are in the Ten Commandments; it is because every single one of them are reinforced in the New Testament by our Lord and his apostles. I do believe that the moral norms of the law of God are binding; but the way we find out which laws belong to the category of unchanging moral norms and which belong to the category of the ceremonial which pass away is by allowing the New Testament to help us interpret the Old Testament. The New Testament tells us which commandments are binding upon the conscience, and which have passed away with the coming of Christ.

However, that being said, there is still a sense in which the Fourth Commandment is still binding upon men. It is not binding in the sense that it still requires us to literally rest one day a week. But it is binding in the sense that it calls us to find our rest in Jesus Christ. We keep Sabbath when we rest in Christ. And we are commanded to rest in him! This is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote, “There remaineth therefore a rest [sabbatismos, keeping of Sabbath] to the people of God” (4:9). He was not arguing that these Jewish Christians should keep the Sabbath Day holy (which they already did); he was arguing that they should find their rest in Jesus (from whom they were wavering). They can cease from their works, because Christ has worked for them (4:10). They are the new creation, complete in Jesus.

Jesus our Lord is greater than the temple because he is the one to whom the temple pointed. Just like the Sabbath. The tragedy was not so much that the Pharisees were legalistic with their Sabbath observance. The tragedy was that in their Sabbath observance they missed the one to whom it pointed, and in so doing took rest and turned it into work. We have to be careful that we don’t do the same thing.

The Hosea Passage (7-13): A Wrong Approach to People

Our Lord then quote the prophet Hosea: “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” Not only was the Pharisees’ approach to the Law wrong, not only was their view of Christ wrong, but their approach to people was wrong as well. This is in some sense inevitable, because if your view of Scripture is wrong and your view of Christ is wrong, it will affect the way you interact with people. It just goes to show that theology has inevitable practical consequences. Those who tell you that theology has no bearing upon life need to contemplate passages like this one.

The Pharisees got so bogged down in the details of the Law that they missed the big picture; that the Law was meant to train them to love the Lord their God above all things and then to love their neighbor as themselves. Hosea spoke to this truth in his day. In those dark and declining times, people went through the motions of religious service when their hearts were far from God and cold towards their fellow man. What Hosea and the other prophets pointed out was that no amount of religious service made up for their sins against others. Even so, our Lord tells his interlocutors that they should have been able to see that their view of the Sabbath was wrong because it was not in line with the priorities of Scripture itself. In the parallel passage in Mark, our Lord says, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). As Sproul puts it, “Jesus’ point in saying that the Sabbath was ‘made for man’ was that it is a gift from God to His people, a gift to keep them from wearing out their bodies, their animals, their servants, and their fields.”4 Instead, the Pharisees had made it into something that was a burden for people. Because they didn’t have a heart for people, their religion became a stumbling block for people instead of the help to them it was meant to be.

Our Lord’s response clearly outraged the Pharisees, because they went out and tried to find a way to trick Jesus into a situation in which it would be easy to level an accusation at him (10). They found this in the case of a man who had a withered hand. In general it was agreed by the rabbis that it was okay to heal on the Sabbath when one’s life was in danger. But this did not apply here, and so they felt that here they were on solid ground: it was clearly against the rules to heal this man.

But once again, the Pharisees were wrong because they didn’t keep the priority of mercy before their eyes. Our Lord argues that it is right to do well on the Sabbath (12). He gives an analogy between this man and sheep (11). Such was the hardness of heart that they accorded more pity to an animal than they would have to a man! As if to make his point, Jesus heals the man (13).


In verse 8, our Lord makes a shocking statement: “For the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath day.” At the end of the day, the reason why the Pharisees went wrong, and why so many go wrong today, is because they got Jesus wrong. They didn’t understand that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the one to whom the Sabbath points. He stands over the Sabbath. He is greater than the Sabbath ordinance, just as he is greater than the temple. And this does not just apply to disputes about the Sabbath day. It applies to everything. No matter how much else we get right, we will inevitably go wrong if we get Jesus Christ wrong.

1D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), page 279.
R. C. Sproul, Mark (St. Andrew’s Expos. Comm.), page. 52.
Carson, page 282.
Sproul, page 52.


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