Summary: The LORD requires compassion rater than ritualism.


Matthew 12:1-21.

This is an account of a controversy which arose from the actions of Jesus’ disciples one Sabbath when they were physically hungry (Matthew 12:1).

The ever-vigilant Pharisees had been self-appointed guardians of the old laws and traditions for two or three hundred years by this time. They were looking for some excuse to challenge Jesus - and finding nothing in Him (cf. John 14:30), they sought to bring charges against His disciples. This still sometimes happens, so we need to be diligent.

There is no doubt that the Sabbath law is Biblical. It is both a Creation ordinance (cf. Exodus 20:8-11), and an ordinance of Redemption (cf. Deuteronomy 5:12-15). However, what was not so Biblical was the thirty-nine man-made regulations with which the Rabbis had sought to hedge in the Sabbath.

The disciples were accused of doing “that which is not lawful on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:2). Jesus’ answered the Pharisees in much the same way as He overcame the tempter in the wilderness (cf. Matthew 4:1-11) - with Scripture. In order for us to be armed and ready for the spiritual battles which we will face, we must take up ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God’ (cf. Ephesians 6:17).

“Have you not read what David did…?” (Matthew 12:3-4). So what did David do? The fugitive David fed his men when they were hungry with the ‘show-bread’ (cf. 1 Samuel 21:3-6). According to God’s law (and not just by man’s tradition), this was only lawful for the priests to eat (cf. Leviticus 24:5-9).

In a further illustration, Jesus reminded the Pharisees how the priests in the Temple were permitted to “profane” the Sabbath when they offered sacrifice and went about their other duties on that day. Yet, said Jesus, “a greater than the Temple is here” (Matthew 12:5-6).

No doubt the Pharisees felt that Jesus’ disciples were being unpatriotic by not keeping Israel’s law: but what they were forgetting was that the Sabbath was not an end in itself (Matthew 12:7-8). It pointed forward to the redemption to come (cf. Hebrews 4:9) - and they refused to recognise the Redeemer in their midst!

Furthermore, Jesus was - like David in the passage which He quoted - a king-in-waiting. Jesus is here identified with the Messianic motif of “Son of man” (cf. Daniel 7:13-14): and as such He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

From the fields, they came into “their” synagogue (Matthew 12:9). This is not now a controversy, but a courtroom. But who is on trial: Jesus or the Pharisees?

There was a man there with a withered hand. Withering speaks to me of thirst, in a dry parched land (cf. Psalm 63:1). Yet the LORD pours water upon the spiritually thirsty, and His Spirit upon our offspring (cf. Isaiah 44:3). “They” (Matthew 12:10) who are “the Pharisees” (Matthew 12:14) watched Jesus to see if He would break another petty regulation designed to hedge in the Sabbath.

Jesus challenged His would-be accusers, asking if any of them would not rescue their one sheep if it had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath? “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep?” (Matthew 12:11-12). Jesus restored the man’s hand, whole as the other (Matthew 12:13).

Here is the irony. Jesus brings life, and healing. The Pharisees plot (on their precious Sabbath!) to murder an innocent man (Matthew 12:14). The LORD requires that which is good: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God (cf. Micah 6:8). Not just on the Sabbath, but every day.

Jesus, for His part, withdrew. However, the multitudes followed Him - “and He healed them all. Yet He warned them not to make Him known” (Matthew 12:15-16.) According to Matthew 12:17, this was in fulfilment of Isaiah 42:1-4. Thus the New Testament identifies the Servant in this song as Jesus.

“Behold my Servant,” says the LORD (Matthew 12:18). He is chosen, beloved, in whom the LORD is well pleased (cf. Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). The Spirit of the LORD is upon Him without measure (cf. John 3:34), and His mission to “declare justice to the nations” (Matthew 12:18) will not fail. To that end, ‘All power’ has been given into Jesus’ hand (Matthew 28:18).

Yet the Servant comes first of all without show (Matthew 12:19), pleading with people to keep the Messianic secret until the time is right (Matthew 12:16). Then there is a tenderness about Jesus’ ministry, as quoted in the figurative language of Matthew 12:20; and as demonstrated in the fact that of all who came to Him, He turned none away, but “healed them all” (Matthew 12:15).

“And in His Name shall the Gentiles trust” (Matthew 12:21).

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