“Lord of the Sabbath”

Matthew 12:1-14

We are reading through the Gospel of Matthew and today’s Scripture continues with the religious leaders rejecting Jesus. It seems the religious leaders were vigilant at finding things they could use against Jesus to confirm that He was not the Messiah. They followed Him everywhere. 

Jesus and His disciples were traveling from town to town sharing the Good News, the Kingdom was here. They happened to be walking through a grain field on the Sabbath and were hungry. So they plucked the heads of grain that were there and ate them. Notice the Pharisees saw this. Good grief. It’s not like they were downtown where anyone could see them. They were out in a grainfield. 

Even so, they confronted Jesus with their accusation of His disciples doing what was not lawful to do on the Sabbath. 

What was the “unlawful” part of eating in a grainfield on the Sabbath? They weren’t stealing the grain, the law of Israel in Deuteronomy 23:25 allowed people traveling through  an area to glean for a small meal from fields. Farmers were actually commanded not to completely harvest their crops but to leave a little behind for the sake of travelers and the poor. What a concept!

Incidentally, this incident reveals that Jesus and His disciples were following the rule of not taking anything with them, including money as they were doing what poor people did in order to eat. 

The issue the Pharisees had with Jesus and His disciples was not what they did, but when they did it. At this time in history, the rabbis had created an elaborate list of “dos” and “don’ts” in regards to what one could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Their actions happened to violate several items on their list. 

Last week we read how Jesus offers us an easy yoke and a light burden. In contrast to today’s story of the heavy burdens and hard yokes the religious leaders had put on the people. Check this out. When the disciples began to pluck the heads of grain, according to the rules set forth by the rabbis, they were guilty of: 

  • Reaping
  • Threshing
  • Winnowing
  • And Preparing Food 

Four violations of the Sabbath, in each mouthful. 

The rabbis must have had a lot of time on their hands because over centuries they had created elaborate rituals related to the Sabbath. For example, a man could not carry something in his right hand or in his left hand, across his chest or on his shoulder; but he could carry something with the back of his hand, with his food, elbow or in the ear, on the hair, in the hem of his shirt, or in his shoe or sandal. 

Another rule, on the Sabbath one was forbidden to tie a knot – except a woman could tie a knot in her girdle. So if a bucket of water had to be raised from the well, one could not tie a rope to the bucket, but a woman could tie her girdle to the bucket and then to the rope. 

As a side note, Jesus never violated God’s commands in regards to the Sabbath or approved of His disciples to violate God’s Sabbath commands. He did however break man’s legalistic additions to God’s laws and sometimes chose to do so deliberately. 

Ironically, the very act of the Pharisees keeping watch over Jesus and His disciples was a violation of their Sabbath rules. 

Jesus doesn’t take the Pharisee’s criticism lying down. Instead He defends His disciples’ actions with three principles. 

First, He presents the example of David in 1 Samuel 21. David was traveling with his men and they were hungry and they ate the bread from inside the Temple. There was a direct correlation:

  • It was a case of eating.
  • It probably happened on the Sabbath as well.
  • It concerned not only David but also his followers. 

Jesus was reminding them that human need is more important than observing ceremonial rituals. 

The second principle Jesus presented was that of the priests themselves breaking the Sabbath all the time. The Pharisees were constantly using their traditions to justify lifting principles of sacrifice above principles of mercy. When God declares He would have them do just the opposite in Hosea 6:6, 

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,

    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”


The third principle Jesus used was based on who He is, the Son of Man. 

Jesus is greater than the temple and capable of determining whether His disciples had broken the Sabbath law because He was Lord of the Sabbath. 

Those listening to Jesus would have thought this to be a shocking statement. The temple during the time of Jesus was considered the most holy place because even though it did not have the ark of the covenant it did contain the holy of holies, where God’s presence existed. Jesus was claiming He was the demonstration of God’s presence, He was God made flesh! Greater than the temple.

Yet, even so, we read in the next section, verses 9-14, that when Jesus and His disciples left this conversation, they went directly to the synagogue. Jesus made a point to attend public worship as it was right and good to meet for worship of God on His own day.  He certainly wasn’t going in order to learn something. Instead, we discover He may have gone in order to minister to someone. 

Of course the religious leaders were there and saw a man with a withered hand as an interesting test case. Jesus however, saw the man through the eyes of compassion. The interesting fact is that these men knew that Jesus would do something to help this man in need. 

Which shows they had more faith than many of us. 

We sometimes doubt that Jesus wants to really or miraculously meet the needs of others. 

Their trap didn’t work. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy by showing they had greater concern for their possessions than for a man in need. Jesus argued persuasively that healing and doing good on the Sabbath can’t be wrong. Not only does He win the argument He tells the man to, “Stretch out your hand.” Something impossible for him to do in his current condition. Jesus gave the command and the ability to fulfill the command. The man put forth the effort and was healed. 

The results, 

another person healed and 

the Pharisees leave and plot how to destroy Jesus. 


Talk about hardened hearts. Jesus provided a display of compassion, power and wisdom and instead of reverent worship and submission, the Pharisees plot murder. At first they were seeking to find fault in Jesus, now they were planning against His life.

In Luke 6:11 we read that the critics against Jesus were “filled with rage”  when Jesus healed this man. Stop and think for a moment. Which action is breaking the Sabbath?

  • Jesus healing a man
  • Hate-filled men plotting to murder a godly Man who never sinned against anybody?

Before we begin to think we are better than the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, I would like us to consider our own Sabbath rules. 

What does it mean to you to “Keep the Sabbath”

It is #4 of the Ten Commandments. 

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.

When I read this, the law talks about not working on the Sabbath. Did you notice there is nothing about having to “worship” on the Sabbath? 

This leads me to more questions. 

If Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, what does that mean? What is Sabbath anyway? 

As Christians, are we disobeying the 4th Commandment if we work on the Sabbath? 

Are we disobeying if we don’t worship on the Sabbath? 

Here’s where humans have again stepped in and provided their additions to God’s laws. I don’t know about you, but growing up in a Christian church whether it was stated or understood, there was always a sense that “Good” Christians went to church every Sunday. Like it was commanded. As we just noted, it wasn’t commanded by God. 

What about working on Sunday? That is clearly stated in Exodus 20. But let’s take a look at Colossians 2:16-17, 

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Christ is Lord of the Sabbath.

Paul must have come up against this conflict in Rome as well because in Romans 5 he wrote, 

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 

These Scriptures make it clear that, for the Christian, Sabbath-keeping is a matter of spiritual freedom, not a command from God. Sabbath-keeping is an issue on which God’s Word instructs us not to judge each other. Sabbath-keeping is a matter about which each Christian needs to be fully convinced in his/her own mind.

When the Apostles met in the Jerusalem council, in Acts 15,  to discuss what laws were necessary in order to make sure the Gentile believers were welcomed and not overburdened with rules and regulations here is what was decided, Acts 15: 19-20,

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”

Nothing about Sabbath. 

So when did the early Christians meet for worship? 

Acts 2:46-47 reads, 

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Sounds to me like they worshiped God every day of the week! Sounds like a great idea to me!

If there was a regular day of the week they would meet it would have been the first day of the week, our Sunday. That was the day seen as the day of resurrection, a day of celebration and worship. 

How many of us are having to re-think Sabbath? 

Re-think worship?

This brings me back to the answer Jesus gave to the young man who asked Him, [Mark 12:29-31],

“Of all the commandments, which is the most important? “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Let’s pray.