Matthew 12:1-14: “Work” on the Sabbath

Read: Matthew 12:1-14

Right after Jesus gives the great invitation to those who are weary, he illustrates his point by “working” on the Sabbath, an act that would be considered unlawful by the Pharisees. They say that his disciples are doing something unlawful because they picked grain on the Sabbath. There was no explicit command in the law that forbade anyone from doing this. Rather, what the Pharisees were doing is layer on additional burdens on top of what was commanded concerning the Sabbath, which was a general command not to work (Exodus 35:2-3, Deuteronomy 5:13-15), so the question here is whether or not what Jesus and his disciples were doing actually constituted work.

In his defense, Jesus gives two objections. The first is an illustration from the Old Testament wherein David eats the showbread at the temple (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The law required however that the bread be eaten by Aaron and his sons who were the priestly line (Leviticus 24:5–9). What the priests points out here though is interesting in 1 Samuel. He allows them to eat it if they had “kept themselves from women”. In other words, he was asking if they were ceremonial clean. Jesus is nuancing here why the showbread was for the priest based on the text – it had to with the bread being consecrated bread to be consumed in a holy way. The letter of the law does this by making it available to the priest who should have been that way while serving God. The second illustration Jesus gives more context to the actual alleged offense though. He says that the priests themselves who offer sacrifices on the Sabbath, thereby profaning the Sabbath because of their “work” on the day. In other words, Jesus is saying that what the Pharisees consider “work” is not what the law considered “work”, because if it was even the priests in the temple would be guilty which they clearly weren’t.

The next episode that the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus on is another accusation of “working” on the Sabbath by posing a question, asking if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. This time, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. Jesus in his defense on this one makes an argument to the stronger alluding to a law found in Deuteronomy 22:4. Here, the law says that if a bother’s donkey or ox is fallen on the road, you should help lift the ox or donkey rather than ignore it. Naturally, if such an incident was to happen on the Sabbath it would seem that there would be a conflict there. But Jesus says argues that it is even more imperative when it’s a person in need, not merely an animal, and such an action is not “work”.

Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). In other words, the Sabbath was never intended to be a burden for man as the Pharisees had made it, but rather a day of rest from burdens. When Jesus declares that the “Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” in a way drives this point home. Jesus often used this phrase to appeal to his humanity. As Lord, he is the one who instituted the Sabbath, and as a man he is the one who benefits from the Sabbath. In both respects, any regulations or otherwise are to make the Sabbath serve man’s need for rest, not add unnecessary laws on top it.

Christians today do well to take a Sabbath day of rest, but at the same time should not become so legalistic about it. The purpose is to set aside time to worship God and rest for one’s job day to day tasks.

Lord, you are Lord of the Sabbath

Help me to find my much-needed rest!

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