A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 17, 2019.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him (Matthew 12:1–14).
Jesus’ earthly ministry was a mobile ministry: He walked from place to place and town to town. On one Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, He and His disciples were walking through fields of grain. Being hungry, His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain and eat them. According to the civil law this was not stealing: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:9-10). So, according to the provision of the law, Jesus’ disciples ate. The problem, however, was not with their eating or how they ate but that they worked to eat on this specific day, the Sabbath.
Ever-looking for Jesus’ faults (of which there were none), the Pharisees said, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” What did the Pharisees mean by their accusation, and were Jesus’ disciples breaking the Sabbath? The Fourth Commandment states, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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” (Exodus 20:8–11). As a creation ordinance, the Sabbath was given to all of mankind, but to Israel it set them apart as a defining characteristic of their worship.
Keeping the Sabbath became a defining characteristic of what it meant to be a child of Israel. It also served as a bellwether of the spiritual condition of the nation. The Prophet Jeremiah called Israel back to obedience declaring from the Lord, “Take care for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers” (Jer. 17:21-22). Similarly, Nehemiah, upon seeing the people of Judah working and trading on the Sabbath, confronted the elders and said, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath” (Neh. 13:17-18). Remembering and keeping the Sabbath was no small matter to a child of Israel.
If profaning the Sabbath by working or trading brings the wrath of God, what might you do to protect the nation? The Pharisees believed the best course of action was to add to God’s law with rules and regulations, specifically thirty-nine categories of what constituted “work.” So detailed was this list that it covered writing letters and erasing, yet it was so broad to include carrying anything from one place to another. So burdensome were these extensive rules and regulations that the Pharisees had to concoct ways to flex without breaking their standards.
In defense of the “religious right” of their day, their intent was seemingly to obey the law of God and protect His people. Their fault was not their intent but their application. They elevated their created rules and regulations equal to God’s Word and inserted themselves as the compliance police. Nowhere in God’s Word will you find plucking and eating grain as disobeying the Sabbath, but it disobeyed the Pharisaical standards, which was interpreted as breaking the Sabbath law.
Rather than disregarding the Pharisees’ accusation, Jesus confronts them and their arbitrary standards. What He reveals to them is that acts of necessity and mercy are part of remembering and keeping the Sabbath, not violations of it. By confronting the error of their authority, Jesus also reveals something divinely important about Himself. And, He reveals the vital importance of the Sabbath not only to His disciples and the Pharisees but to us today.
Sabbath Necessity and Mercy
The Pharisees charge Jesus: “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” But, rather than engage in the minutiae of the Pharisaical standards, Jesus takes them to the Scriptures asking two penetrating questions. First, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” Second, “Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” By referencing examples in God’s Word, Jesus skillfully demonstrates a problem with the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath.
In the twenty-first chapter of 1 Samuel, we read the account of David’s flee from the wrath of his father-in-law King Saul. Arriving in Nob, David asks Ahimelech the priest for the ceremonial bread placed in the temple sanctuary in keeping with the law. Presumably, fresh bread had just been placed in the sanctuary on the Sabbath. Jesus reveals that David went into the sanctuary, a holy room entered only by ordained priests, and took the bread, reserved ceremonially for God. What would lead the anointed servant of God and future king to be so brash? He and his soldiers were hungry and in desperate need of food. However, it was not just David’s necessity that allowed His actions, and the priest’s permission, but it was David, the anointed future king of Israel. Anointed necessity trumped the ceremonial law of Sabbath and sanctuary. Following a similar logic, Jesus submits the priestly service on the Sabbath. For example, according to the twenty-fourth chapter of Leviticus, every Sabbath day the priest should arrange the ceremonial bread “before the LORD regularly” as a sign of the covenant (Lev. 24:8). This is the work of the priests in the temple, work conducted every Sabbath day.
Jesus presented the Pharisees with the regal example of David’s necessity, and yet before them stood someone greater than David. Jesus presented the Pharisees with the priestly example of the necessity of temple worship, and yet before them stood someone greater than the temple. While in their hardened hearts they would not believe in Him, before them stood both Priest and King, ministering to the needs of His people. In their zeal to protect the law they had missed its essence: the mercy of God in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Consider the case study of the man with the withered hand. Rather than learn from Jesus about the Sabbath, the Pharisees sought to entrap Him, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Consider how callous a question this is. On this Sabbath day in their synagogue stood a man with a withered hand longing to be healed. Note carefully that it was not a question of whether Jesus could miraculously heal this man. They could not see the sign of Jesus’ miracles because of their legalism-induced blindness. Blinded by their legalism they cared nothing for the man and far less for the Lord.
Listen to what Jesus asks them before He heals the man: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” Sheep are dependent creatures. They cannot survive without care. To show mercy to animals (especially yours!) is right. Yet, compared to another person the animal does not compare, “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep,” indeed.
The rhetorical question, we might assume, would lead to repentance, or at least empathy, but it did not. Because the Pharisees did not have eyes to see or ears to hear, Jesus made it crystal clear, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Such an incredibly simple statement, but it was anathema to the Pharisaical heart. So, Jesus healed the man right before their unbelieving eyes. They did not rejoice; they could not rejoice, but instead lamented their broken rules with hatred for Jesus. Considering their Sabbath standards to have authority over man, they could not see that Jesus, the Son of Man, is Lord of the Sabbath.
Referencing Himself in third-person as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel, Jesus states clearly His Kingly authority: “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” The Pharisees and their standards do not have divine authority over the Sabbath. God is the One who established the Sabbath at creation. He is the One who gave the command to His people. He is the One who integrated the Sabbath worship practices as a sign of His covenant with Israel. There is only One who could refer to it as “my Sabbath” (Ex. 31:13), and He has boldly revealed Himself on it. The Son of Man, the Son of God, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made” is the Lord of all, including the Sabbath! It is His Sabbath, because He is Lord.
Because this is the case, in what ways is Jesus Lord of the Sabbath? Consider these four ways. First, because all things were created by Him, through Him, and for Him (Col. 1:16), Jesus is the founder of the Sabbath. He is not a good teacher engaged in a scholarly argument with teachers of the law. He is Lord of the Sabbath, because He created it. Second, because He is the Word of God, He has expressly revealed to us how His day is to be kept, not according to rules of man but according to God’s Word. Sola Scriptura is the Sabbath standard. Third, because He established the Sabbath at creation on the seventh day, by virtue of His resurrection He re-established the Sabbath on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. From creation to re-creation, He is the Lord of the Sabbath. Fourth, because “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), we are given one day in seven to worship and rest in our Lord, because we were created to worship.
While there is a common grace blessing that may be found in resting one day in seven, a secular sabbath, the Sabbath exists as a recurring gospel testimony of our rest in Christ, a form of worship of our Redeemer. We rest and worship on the Lord’s Day, because it is a testimony of the finished work of Christ and our redemption through it. As we gather for worship every Sunday, we are preaching the gospel to ourselves and others, a testimony of our Sabbath rest in Christ alone.
The Fourth Commandment is restated from Exodus in the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy but provides not the analogy of creation but redemption: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Israel was taught to look back to creation and remember and keep the Sabbath that God had given; and to look back to the exodus, the redemption from slavery, and remember and keep the Sabbath that God had given.
Yet, that which was a shadow to the Old Covenant saints has been revealed in Christ. By God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone, just as Israel was redeemed from the land of slavery, so we have been redeemed from slavery to sin and death. We do not work for Christ to rest in Him on the seventh day. Rather, through His sinless life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection on the first day of the week, we find our Sabbath rest in Him alone. Do not miss the gospel of Sunday worship: We do not work six days for God, to earn our seventh day rest; Christ worked for us, securing our rest on the first day, that we might rest obediently in Him forever.
He who established the Sabbath has given us an eternal Sabbath rest in Him. As the writer of Hebrews explains it, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10). Therefore, every Lord’s Day, on the Christian Sabbath, as we assemble in worship, we get a taste of heaven, our eternal rest. We sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs to the glory of the Lord of the Sabbath. The reading and preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayers are the means of grace of the Lord of the Sabbath. Even in our fellowship, we rejoice especially on this Sabbath Day, to be worshiping our Lord. As we worship Him today, let us rest in His finished work, indwelling presence, and future hope, for our Sabbath rest is in Christ, and Christ alone.