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Matthew 12:1-14 by Robert Dean
When the religious leaders of Israel “played the flute” they expected Jesus to dance to their tune. Listen to this lesson to find out how the Pharisees developed a visceral hatred for Jesus as He challenged their interpretation of the Mosaic Law. Understand why His seeming disregard for the Sabbath intensified their anger. Gain a comprehensive overview of the Sabbath, its origin, significance, and how it represents rest and trust in God. See that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and that by application, we can set aside time to concentrate on all God has done for us.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:53 mins 26 secs

Two Sabbath Controversies
Matthew 12:1–14
Matthew Lesson #074
April 19, 2015

We are starting a new chapter. But it is not really a new section: it comes out of the previous section, out of what has been going on in Matthew 11. It was at the beginning of chapter eleven that we really saw a dramatic shift take place in the Gospel. Matthew 11 starts to build this opposition to Jesus and His claims to be the Messiah. If we are going to understand the ministry of Jesus Christ, then we have to understand Matthew chapter twelve. It is critical to understanding the chronological flow in the life of Christ.

The Gospels are not just snapshots of things that happened in the life of Jesus. It appears that way to some people. If we read Matthew, and it is not arranged necessarily with everything in chronological order, it appears that he is just taking these snapshots. Sections are that way, but not the totality. Others think that what we have in the Gospels are just sound bites of Jesus; but the Gospels are not dealing with the sound bites of Jesus. They are giving us the divinely inspired understanding and interpretation of the life of Christ. As John wrote in his Gospel, if everything that Jesus said and did was written, there wouldn’t be enough books in the world to tell. It was enormous. And many times Jesus repeated Himself in different contexts and situations, so a lot of that is left out. What we have is that which is essential to understand the person and the works of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each Gospel is generally organized chronologically. Only two Gospels start with the birth of Christ—Matthew and Luke. After that, like the other Gospels, the next thing that we see is the forerunner, John the Baptist. We see the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry; and then we see a period of time in Jesus’ ministry when He is reaching out primarily to the Jews. He is offering the kingdom to the Jews, and this probably took place over the first two years of His ministry. But as we read insightfully in the Gospels, we start to see little hints, foreshadowings, that are stated by the writers of Scripture, where we see a little bit of opposition here and a little bit of opposition there. But we don’t get a sense of any foreboding such as the Cross or the death of Christ, or any of that; it is a focus upon Jesus’ ministry to Israel offering the kingdom, which is clearly understood in terms of what was prophesied and what was promised in the Old Testament.

Then there is a turning point, a crisis point, where everything pivots. And instead of there being acceptance of Jesus and His ministry, there is not only an increased opposition, but a hardening of that opposition, especially from the religious leaders, but also from a somewhat higher percentage of the people. And it culminates in a formal rejection of Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah, the promised Davidic King, to fulfill all of those Old Testament prophesies. It is at this turning point that the Cross is first alluded to, the first hint of the death and destruction that is coming. And it is at that point that there is a shift that occurs in Jesus’ ministry. He shifts the focus to the Gentiles and to a more private ministry. It is not public. He shifts His focus away from announcing the kingdom of God – “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” – we don’t find that any more.

There is a significant shift that is the result of this Jewish rejection of Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah and to offer the kingdom. What we will see from this is that God will use that rejection also to fulfill prophecy, to fulfill those prophetic passages from the Old Testament that depict the suffering and death of the Messiah. When we look at Old Testament prophecies, there are two categories: those which focus on the suffering and death of the Messiah, and those that focus on His glorious reign. What happened in second temple Judaism was that the suffering Messiah passages were being ignored, and the focus was on the political reign of the Messiah. And they focused on this in terms of the deliverance of Israel from the oppression of Rome. And as a result of that, they had formed a skewed view of the role of the Messiah in both His spiritual sense, (because He would come as a Pharisee and would cooperate and work with the Pharisees in continuing to develop the oral Law and the regulations of the Pharisees), but He would also be instrumental in throwing off the reign and the oppression of the Romans.

Jesus didn’t dance to that tune. John the Baptist didn’t dance to that tune. That was the point in that little section back in Matthew 11 when Jesus said He would liken this generation to children sitting in the market place who would call out to other children and say, we played the flute for you and you didn’t dance and we mourned and you didn’t mourn. The point He was making there was: they said they tried to get Him to dance to their tune and He wouldn’t do it. So that hardened their opposition.

So in chapter eleven we begin to see the development of this split as Jesus the good Shepherd is coming and confronting the evil shepherds, the Pharisees, who have led the people astray. Jesus then is calling out to the afflicted of Israel who have been oppressed by the legalism of the Pharisees, and this hardens them in chapter twelve. In the last set of verses we looked at in Matthew 11, Jesus offers this to the lowly of Israel: “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest …” And we saw that the concept of taking a yoke is putting one’s self under the authority of a teacher. Jesus is contrasting His yoke, which is easy and light, with the heavy yoke of the legalism and the burdens that had been developed by the Pharisees. He is clearly contrasting Himself to that of the Pharisees. “You will find rest for your souls.”

The picture of rest in the Torah is the Sabbath day, the day of rest. So this sets the stage for two Sabbath controversies with the Pharisees that will crystallize and focus the opposition, because what we will see is when we come to the end of these two episodes and get down to verse 14, the Pharisees go off and conspire how they can destroy Jesus. That is the focal point. They want Him out of there because He is “upsetting their apple cart”. He is challenging their authority, challenging their interpretation and understanding of the Law. And now they see that He is dangerous because of the way that He is influencing people.

Often today we hear these interpretations of the life of Jesus as some sort of political revolutionary. That is skewed. If anything, He is a religious revolutionary because He is starting a “Back to the Bible” movement. He wants to get back to the Torah as it was written, not as it had been interpreted by the Pharisees. He will announce by the time that we get to the end of this section, that because of the rejection of the Pharisees, He is not going to force things. He was the perfect gentleman. He is not going to force them to accept Him. He is going to say, “If you don’t want Me, I’ll go to the Gentiles; they will accept Me.” And this is what we see when we get to Matthew 12:21 NASB “And in His name the Gentiles will hope.” 

This also fulfills prophecy from the Torah in Deuteronomy 32:21 NASB “They have made Me jealous with [what] is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with [those who] are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.” This is an indictment of much of the history of Israel. They rejected Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and they worshipped idols. Idols don’t just have to be of stone and metal and wood. They can be idols of the mind, tradition, money, and status symbols. These all come under the category of idolatry. “I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.” He is going to take the Word and go to the Gentiles.

Just as a side note here, the very next verse in Deuteronomy 32:22 NASB “For a fire is kindled in My anger, And burns to the lowest part of Sheol …” We saw recently the degrees of punishment in the Lake of Fire, and here is an example of that in this verse: the lowest part of Sheol, indicating different levels, different degrees of punishment.               

And so we come to this confrontation with the Pharisees here, and the focus is on two events that surround a Sabbath controversy. In both of these there is a controversy over the purpose and the function of the Sabbath. The first event is described in Matthew 12:1–8 where there is a Sabbath controversy related to Jesus working and allowing His disciples to work on the Sabbath. As they walked through the fields of grain, they were plucking the grain, and that was viewed by the Pharisaic oral law as a violation of the Torah. The second incident is covered in Matthew 12:9–14 when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand in the synagogue, and once again it is seen as a violation of the Sabbath.

So to begin with, we have to understand the significance of the Sabbath in the Old Testament and why and how it came to be reinterpreted under the oral law that was established by the Pharisees. We have to understand a little bit about the history of Israel after the exile when they returned. First of all, the term shabbath is related to the Hebrew word for seven, and it is also related to the Hebrew word for rest. When you read seven, you think of shabbath; when you think of shabbath you think of rest, and all of this ties together. It is interesting that the very first reference to the Sabbath, to Sabbath observance, doesn’t come in Genesis, and it doesn’t come in the early part of Exodus. It comes in Exodus 16 when the Israelites complained about the lack of food, and God says He is going to provide for them, and it is going to be this miracle bread that is going to appear like dew every single morning. He provided just enough for that day, and they were supposed to go out and gather just enough for their needs for that day and no more. And if they got more than they needed, it was going to rot by the next morning. God was teaching them to live day-by-day and to rest in His provision. He would take care of it.

And when they came to the seventh day He said, “On the sixth day you will gather a double portion”—enough for the sixth day and enough for the seventh day—“On that day and that day alone the manna will continue to be fresh for the next day.” God was demonstrating day in and day out that He was providing for the needs of Israel. So part of the purpose of Shabbath was rest – not just resting from physical labor, but resting in God.

It is a picture of trust in God. That is part of its significance. It was ordained by God in Exodus 20. Here is the command in the Decalogue, which is the prelude to the Torah. The Torah is comprised of 613 commandments. It is an integral and integrated body of law. You don’t just pick and choose. It is not divided into parts and you can’t take one part and not the other part – it is an integrated whole. It is a single document, a single law, always referred to as Torah, which is a singular collective noun, not as a plural. It is never referred to as the laws; it is referred to as the Law of Moses. The command is to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy; that is, to keep it distinct, separate. Every other day you can do things, but on Shabbath, you live differently. Exodus 20:9 NASB “Six days you shall labor and do all your work…” That is a command. They were to work for six days. That was not an option. They were not going to sit on their rear ends for six days and take in a welfare check. As Paul says in the New Testament in 2 Thessalonians, if you don’t work you don’t eat. That is God’s welfare plan! That is not socialism. The Torah and the New Testament do not allow for communism, socialism, or any other form that doesn’t recognize the importance and centrality of personal responsibility, which is manifested in labor. So before you rest, you work. That is the principle.

Exodus 20:10 NASB “but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; [in it] you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.” That was their prohibition. It doesn’t really define a lot here about what work is. It is a little more defined, and there are examples given later in the Torah, but not that many. It is more of a general recognition; you know when you are working and when you are not.

Exodus 20:11 NASB “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”

Some observations here: According to modern rabbinical Judaism, why does a Jew observe Shabbath? They observe Shabbath according to rabbinical theology because God made Israel for Shabbath. That comes out of Pharisaical theology. But that is not what we see here. The principle that Jesus restates is that the Sabbath was made for Israel, not Israel for the Sabbath. It is a sign of the Mosaic covenant that God made with the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Why do they observe Sabbath? What does the text say? The text says you do this because of what God did. God set the pattern. God worked for six days, and He ceased His labor on the seventh day.

A question I’ve thrown out to a couple of my Jewish friends who are little more conservative: If you believe that the Torah is divinely inspired, then you have to wrestle with this. God says, “Here is the pattern; I worked for six days.” How long were those days? Go back to Genesis 1. We all know there is a big controversy over how long those days were, and until you get to the point of the late 1800s and early 1900s with the influence of historical geology and the influence of Darwinism, most of western civilization believed that the earth was created around 4000–5000 BC. It is only with the introduction of historical geology and evolutionary theory that these time periods began to be pushed out and expanded and people began to say they had to fit the Bible to their experience.

There is always a problem when you try to fit the Bible to your experience. The Bible tells you how to interpret your experience, how to interpret the fossils. What the Scripture says here is that if you are Jewish and the Scripture says observe Shabbath every seven days, then the pattern is what God did. Let the Bible interpret what day means – don’t impose it. The Bible always tells us what words mean and how to interpret those words. If “day” in Genesis 1 means a historical geological age, if it means thousands or tens of thousands of years, then the way to properly understand Exodus 20:11 would be, “For in 600,000 years the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and rested on the 700,000th year.” If that is the command and you are Jewish, then that means you can work every single day, because you don’t have to rest until the 700,000th year, and you are not going to be here then.

So if you are going to be consistent, you recognize that what is being said in Exodus 20:11 is that you work six 24-hour consecutive days, and you rest on the seventh 24-hour day because that is how God did it. If God didn’t do it that way in Genesis 1 and Genesis 1 is not talking about 24-hour consecutive days, then you have destroyed the law of Shabbath – it is wiped out hermeneutically. The day here has to be the same as the day in Genesis, or language becomes meaningless. If you are conservative and you believe that language means what language means, then you can’t go changing the terms later on just because it doesn’t quite fit your worldview.

Shabbath was important and significant because God had given it to Israel as a sign of the Mosaic covenant. And in the Mosaic covenant in Leviticus 26, God says, “If you don’t obey me, then I’m going to give you various national spankings.” There are five stages or cycles of discipline that are described in Leviticus 26. At the end of those we come to the fifth cycle of discipline, which said, “If you continue to be so disobedient to Me that you don’t listen to Me, then I am going to take you out of this land that I have given you. You don’t deserve it.” Leviticus 26:33 NASB “You, however, I will scatter among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste.” This happened in 586 BC and it happened in AD 70. Verse 34: “Then the land will enjoy its sabbaths all the days of the desolation, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths.” So apparently part of that divine discipline was because they were ignoring the Law, and they weren’t observing the sabbatical year. Every seventh day they took a day off. Every seventh year, they took a year off. And at the end of 49 years (seven times seven), they had the fiftieth year, which was the year of jubilee, and they didn’t work that year either. They rested in God; they rested in His provision. Leviticus 26:35: “All the days of [its] desolation it will observe the rest which it did not observe on your sabbaths, while you were living on it.”

This is restated in 2 Chronicles 36:20 NASB “Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, [21] to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.”

Jeremiah 29:10 NASB “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.’ ” God made it clear to Jeremiah that the exile would last for seventy years to make up for these sabbatical years that had not been observed over a period of 490 years. We don’t know which years they didn’t observe. They obviously observed the sabbatical years for a period of time, and they may have observed them at later times under David and under Josiah. But during the period from the conquest to the exile, there were seventy sabbatical years within a period of 490 years that were not observed, and so the Lord says, “Because you didn’t pay Me what was due, you didn’t take those years off, we are going to have an enforced period of payment, you are leaving the land and the land is now going to rest for those seventy years you did not fulfill when you were in the land.”

This is such a significant thing. This just brought a crisis into the psyche of the Jews because they did not like being ripped out of their land and taken into captivity in Babylon at the beginning of the diaspora. When they came back, though, they had a short memory. That is not unique to the Jews, by the way. Every one of us when we get disciplined by God has very short memories. We have a tendency to, as Peter puts it, return like a dog to its vomit. We just go back to all the disobedience and carnality thinking that somehow it won’t happen the next time. It is sort of like this generation that is running this country. It has been demonstrated time and time again that socialism and communism just don’t work, but in the arrogance of this nation we are going to try it again because we are so smart now and we have such technology we can make it work. No, it will never work. It is always going to be self-destructive.

Nehemiah faced this problem. There were at least three major returns of Jews from Babylon. The first came under Zerubbabel at the time in 538 BC, and then there were a couple of returns under Ezra and Nehemiah. By the time we get to around 444 BC, Nehemiah brings another group back, and they are going to finish rebuilding the fortifications around Jerusalem. They rebuilt the wall in a remarkable amount of time. It was an engineering feat that is unparalleled. And then Nehemiah went back to Persia. Then he returned, and when he came back, he found that the people had forgotten the Law. They were ignoring God again and were violating Shabbath again. Nehemiah 13:17 NASB “Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? [18] Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.’ ” This was the problem.

What happened after that? We have to understand this to understand the chapter. When the Israelites returned from exile, they had to teach the people the Law because the people were not knowledgeable of the Torah. Ezra established a school or training group of priests, and their responsibility was to teach the Jews the Law, the 613 commandments that make up the Law of Moses. And this group was called the Sopherim. A sopher was a scribe. Their responsibility was primarily to copy and record Scripture, to preserve Scripture, to watch over the scrolls. And if a scroll began to show wear, they would completely make a new copy and then destroy the old one so that it would not create problems later on. They kept everything fresh. Evidence of that is seen in the Dead Sea scrolls. Up to that point, the oldest copy of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, that we had dated about to about AD 950.  That is not very old considering that the last book of the Old Testament was written around 450–400 BC.

So there were about 1,300 years with no new Old Testament Scripture. So the liberals came along and said, well God never revealed anything, how do we know it is true? This was really written by people much later, and all the other things they come up with; and they said you couldn’t trust your Bible – it has changed a lot. Then they discovered the Dead Sea scrolls which included a lot of Scripture, and most of them were written between about 250 BC to the time of the birth of Christ. How many differences did they find to the ones of about AD 950? Hardly any. The differences they did find were usually updates in spelling, modernization of grammar, punctuation. Sometimes a word order switch, things like that which are standard copyist errors, but there were very few of significance. That tells us that the manuscript that lies behind the Old Testament is extremely trustworthy and reliable. It didn’t change over the years.

So the sopherim did a lot more than just copy. They taught the Law and instructed in the Law, and they had this original group of sopherim under Ezra that taught the 613 commandments in the Torah. But when that generation died off there was a second generation of sopherim that came along. And they thought, well, it is really good to make people understand the Law here because if they break the Law again, we are going to get kicked out – God is going to remove us from the land, and we don’t want to go through that again; so we want to do everything we possibly can to protect the 613 commandments of the Law so that we don’t violate them. So the best way to do that is to create a fence around the Law. They added about 1,000–1,200 additional commandments that would protect the Law.

One of the laws states that you won’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk. That is all the Law says. The background for that is something that would take place in ritual sacrifices among the pagans. So how do we keep from even accidentally coming to a place where somebody is going to boil or cook the calf in its mother’s milk? They said, let’s protect that and make sure that we don’t eat dairy and meat at the same time. Beyond that, let’s make sure that we don’t cook at the same time because there is a possibility that if this dish has been used to cook meat, and it is also used for dairy, then maybe there is an infinitesimal possibility that there is a relationship between the milk and the meat. Therefore we will have separate dishes. So in a kosher household, there are dairy dishes and there are meat dishes. This is the “fence,” all of the additional rules, which occurred between 450 BC and 30 BC.

Then there was another group that came along and said those commandments weren’t quite enough. What happens if you get a hole in that fence and then you break one of the 613 commandments? You are going to risk getting kicked out of the land again. So we have to create another fence. This group were the teachers, and they built another fence, none of which was written down from 30 BC to AD 220, at which time it was written down to be preserved, and that is what we call the Mishna.

What was their authority for doing this? How do we know that all of these oral regulations are accurate? When Moses went up to Mount Sinai, God gave him the written Law, the 613 commandments. He was there for forty days and forty nights. God had him memorize all of the additional laws. That is called the Oral Law. It was given at Mount Sinai.  And so they had all of these oral law regulations that they would appeal to. They would say that came from Moses also. It was not just the 613 commandments; it was all of these others as well. So there were all of these regulations that had been developed since Ezra that were not revealed by God at Mount Sinai. They were part of the Oral Law, and many of them surrounded the observance of the Sabbath. In fact, the Mishna lists 39 specific things that were prohibited on the Sabbath. And they get microscopic. For example, they were not supposed to work on the Sabbath. And so they would say that if you were walking through a grain field then you might just walk through the grass and there may be a stalk of wheat that is growing wild in that field of grass and you might inadvertently step on it and separate the wheat from its stalk. You would be guilty of reaping on the Sabbath day.

Furthermore, if your foot came down and twisted the wheat just enough to where it separates the wheat from the chaff you would be guilty of threshing on the Sabbath. If you continued to walk and your garment caused just enough breeze to separate the chaff away from the wheat, then you are guilty of winnowing on the Sabbath day. And if a bird or a rodent comes along and sees that exposed piece of wheat and swallows it, then he is guilty of storing the wheat on the Sabbath day. Now you’ve been guilty of violating the Sabbath and working. 

That is what is going on here in this chapter in the first episode, and the second episode is defining the authority here and whether or not Jesus has the authority to do what He is going to do. It all goes back to this misunderstanding and this distortion actually of what went on in terms of the Sabbath. 

So what is the principle of the Sabbath? We have to understand this before we get into the text. The principle of Shabbath is to trust in God, to rest in His provision, so that man is not made for Shabbath. That is a yoke upon man. That is putting all of these excessive regulations on man, and it makes life more difficult. But God made the Sabbath for man so that we could relax and enjoy Him, and reflect on Him. So Shabbath became a day of rest for the purpose of resting from our labor in emulation of God, and to focus our attention upon God and God providing for us. As Jesus prayed in the disciples’ prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” going back to a reflection on God’s provision of manna.

We are not under the Law anymore. The Sabbatical Law from Exodus 20 is the only part of the Decalogue that is not repeated in the New Testament. Why is that? It is because Jesus, the Messiah, is the fulfillment of the rest prophecies. We rest in Him. The “rest” is in Him. And the ending of the Law in relation to Sabbath is found in passages such Colossians 2:16, 17 and Romans 14:5, 6. This day observance is ended; our rest is now in Jesus. So we rest in Him day in and day out. We constantly walk with the Lord and He is the source and sustenance of everything in our life.

There is a lesson, I think, and application from Shabbath. I have had the opportunity to have dinner with Jewish families—Shabbath dinner on Friday night—and there is an application that we can take from it. That is, the importance of rest; not just working 24/7. It is important for all of us to back off and to recreate and to relax and to trust in God. One of the things I am impressed with is what takes place in a Jewish household when they’re observing Shabbath. You can’t turn on any lights. So they turn them on before sundown and leave them on all night, or something else. But you can’t turn on your television, your computer, your cell phone. You can’t read your email; all of those electronic things are off. That limits the distractions. You come together as a family.

A particular friend of mine reared his sons this way. He would think of different topics of conversation related to current events. When the kids got older, he would have them start to debate one another on whether or not Israel was occupying Palestine, or whether they owned the land – all of these current events. So these kids 12, 13, 14, 15 years of age were really getting educated and taught critical thinking skills around the home, and they were taught to think about current events in terms of Torah.

There is an application for us as believers. This is family time. We have lost this in the church. There are people who abuse the Sabbath. The Puritans said that the Sabbath is the Christian Sunday, and there is no basis in the text for that. But there is a principle here, and that is the importance of rest, and the importance of using this as setting aside an observance on Sunday as a significant day, focusing on the Lord. Now this shouldn’t be taken legalistically – I don’t mean that. But in previous generations, we had at least the support of the culture, and most things weren’t open on Sunday. I’m against all the blue laws, but it meant that Christians didn’t get caught up in being called upon to work. There wasn’t a conflict between what went on during the rest of the week and Sunday morning.

There was the same problem under the Roman Empire. There wasn’t a weekend in the Roman Empire. And if you were a Christian in the first three centuries of Christianity, you had to work seven days a week. They had their Bible classes and worship services at night and not during the day. But once the Roman Empire went Christian, then Sunday was honored as a day of rest. So all I am saying is that as a family, use this as a family training time where parents sit around the table and have dinner and conversation. If you have younger kids, you can tell different Bible stories at that time and make up some basic questions to get them to think about what is going on in those events and what their significance is. As they get older you can expand those topics and get more sophisticated and more detailed, teaching them how to think about issues in their life related to the Word of God and in relation to a biblical worldview, so that you as a parent are fulfilling your responsibilities to train up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, as well as to teach them critical thinking skills to prepare them for adulthood. Those are just some principles of application.

The Sabbath doesn’t continue, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath; we rest in Him.