The Lord of the Sabbath
Brother Dee Keith
It was the Sabbath day. The day began not unlike most other Sabbath days for Jesus and the disciples who were traveling somewhere through Galilee in the vicinity of Capernaum. But this day would turn eventful and ultimately lead to an event that would help change the course of history for both the Jewish people and the Gentiles. As they walked, the twelve passed through a cornfield and hunger overcame them. The disciples did what most hungry people would do, they plucked ears of corn, shucked them, and ate. This was allowable according to the Mosaic Law. The problem was, today was not just another day; it was the Sabbath. But, according to the strict interpretation of the Pharisees, Jesus and His men were in violation of the law. And because they were sticklers of the law, they quickly brought this error to the attention of the popular Rabbi.
This wasn’t the first run-in between Jesus and the Pharisees. It would be, however, one key event of many that would eventually have the Pharisees collaborate with the Sadducees and Herodians to have Jesus murdered. They feared Him. They feared His popularity among the people. They feared His implausible and inexplicable power to heal the sick, to free the demonized, and to raise the dead. They couldn’t refute His power. He had done it all and a number of the Pharisees had witnessed them. So amazing were these feats that some of their own rank had broken rank and become believers and followers of Him.
They feared Him. They hated Him. This wouldn’t be the last of the run-ins either. Other run-ins would be even stronger and more contentious. Jesus of Nazareth was one of those people that you either loved or hated. If you knew anything about Him, you either loved Him or hated Him, worshiped Him or loathed Him.
There was no neutrality, no middle ground of feelings, no straddling the fence. Sometimes it seemed as if Jesus picked a fight with the Pharisees; but He didn’t. He used occasions like this Sabbath day to expose the errors of Pharisaism, their traditions and rituals, to teach and explain the true spiritual intent of the law and the prophets and God’s given truth. In this instance, it was about the Sabbath day and on it.
In recounting this event, Matthew first showed the great misunderstanding that focused on Him. Some Pharisees were traveling alongside of the Lord and His disciples when they passed through the cornfield and the disciples became hungry and, being hungry, they plucked some ears of corn, pulled off the husks and began to eat. The Pharisees immediately took exception to their action and said to Jesus, “Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day” (2). The misunderstanding wasn’t on the part of the disciples and Jesus, but by the Pharisees who believed they knew the law but did not. The Law of Moses said, “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbor, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbor’s standing corn” (Dt. 23:25).
H. A. Ironside wrote in his commentary, “There was absolutely no prohibition in the law of Moses in regard to this, but in the traditions of the elders there were many added laws and regulations that made it at times almost impossible for the ordinary man to know whether he was violating one of them or not. Among these rules was the prohibition to gather fruit or grain of any kind upon the Sabbath day, and even to rub it out in the hand as the disciples were doing seemed to these Pharisees a violation of that which they regarded as sacred.” To demonstrate the flawed teaching and tradition of the Pharisees regarding their interpretation of the Sabbath and the law, the Lord cited an incident from the life of David when he and his men entered the house of God and ate the “shewbread that was not lawful to eat” except for the priests (1 Sa. 21:5-6). David ate even though it was ‘unlawful’ for him to do so, yet the Old Testament did not condemn him for his act. Therefore, the Pharisees should not condemn Jesus’ disciples for doing something Scripture did not condemn David’s men for doing. Jesus was arguing that His authority should override the Law more than their view of the Sabbath should. Furthermore, if they wanted to be strict interpreters of the law, technically, the priests broke the Sabbath law every week when changing the consecrated bread and offering the burnt offerings the Law specified for the week (5). Were they violating their law? They were not. The Law considered the priests guiltless (innocent) for doing this ‘work’ on the Sabbath. The point in these two illustrations is that “even a divine prohibition, if it relates to mere ceremonial matter, melts, like wax, before even bodily necessities” (Alexander MacLaren). Mark summed up this point with the words of the Lord Jesus, when He said, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27-28).
Apparently on the same Sabbath day, maybe just a few hours after the first incident, Jesus and the disciples entered the synagogue where the next confrontation occurred. The Pharisees were waiting and a man with a withered hand was in attendance. It’s within the realm of possibility that this was a staged event by the Pharisees who planted the man and hoped to entrap the Master. Jesus had just declared to these infidels that he was the Lord of the Sabbath, now He would demonstrate it to them in the great mercy that flowed from Him. The Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him” (10). Answering them, Jesus said, “What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep?
Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days” (11-12). The malice of the Pharisees was countered with the mercy of the Physician, and Jesus said, “Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.” To these legalists, ritualism was more important than restoration. Ceremony was more important than compassion. Their cause (the law) was of greater importance than a cured man. Their darkened heart revealed their deep hatred of Christ as “the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him” (14). Spiros Zodhiates said on this, “They actually thought that preserving the law of the Sabbath and even killing someone for breaking it was more important than showing mercy to a suffering person. In contrast, Jesus did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17).” In seeking to destroy Jesus, however, they damned their own soul.
Knowing the thoughts and intents of the Pharisees, Jesus withdrew Himself and left. When He departed from there, so did many others. Matthew was impressed with the great multitude that followed Him for he said, “great multitudes followed him”. This isn’t just an incidental (secondary) note, nor is it insignificant. The unnumbered many were watched everything Jesus did and listened intently to the exchange that took place between the Pharisees and Him. The significance of this truth is formed in the verb followed. Where His works and words were rejected by Israel’s spiritual leaders, they were received by the ordinary man and woman. Some who followed Him were insincere and uncommitted at this point. Many, many others, however, were now inquisitive and sincere followers. One writer has commented that followed can be interpreted to mean that they had become believers and were now His disciples.
Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. The question really is, is He the Lord of you?