Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Devotional: LORD of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:1-14

In chapter 12 Matthew continues to contrast Jesus’ approach to Torah with that of the Jewish religious leaders and law scholars. First, and most important, Jesus taught with a higher authority than the Pharisees. For example, he does not just interpret Torah passages about the Sabbath, He shows himself to be the LORD who created the Sabbath and thus gives the authoritative interpretation of its meaning and purpose. The Sabbath is just one of the issues that Matthew uses to show that Jesus has fulfilled Torah. The purpose of Torah was to point to Jesus, and, now that the messiah was there, allegiance to him had replaced allegiance to the Torah. Jesus, as the ultimate revelation of God embodied the goal, purpose and meaning of Torah so there was no contradiction between its stipulations and Jesus’ teachings. Jesus was bringing out the underlying meaning that was already present in the Old Testament. His point was that the heart attitude toward God and others was more important than just keeping the rules. Even the regulations themselves taught that there were exceptions when human need or ministry necessitated. The key was to make allegiance to God, which to Matthew means allegiance to Jesus, more important than anything, including one's own family. In 12:1-14 Matthew uses two conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees about the Sabbath to make this point.

The first conflict concerned Sabbath laws about preparing food. (12:1-4) The disciples were going through a grain field, plucking the heads of grain, and rubbing them together to get to the edible kernels. The Pharisees accused Jesus that his disciples were breaking the law by doing the work of food preparation on the Sabbath. This was a stretch, even by the way the Pharisees normally interpreted the law. Jesus counters their charge, not by the details of the law, but by two illustrations of the way the law was applied in the Old Testament narratives. First, he uses the example of David and his troops eating the bread presented to God in the tabernacle. This bread could only be eaten by the priests, but because of the hunger of David and his men, an exception was made. Jesus’ point is that human need took priority over the regulations in the scriptures. The Pharisees were using the scriptures to place legalistic burdens on the people. They had missed God’s kindness and desire to meet genuine human need. They were interpreting Torah in a way that made them less like God instead of reflecting his image.

The second argument that Jesus uses against this charge is that the law permits the priests to work in the temple on the Sabbath. (12:5-8) If the priests were given an exception to the stipulation to do temple work on the Sabbath, how much more should the one who is the ultimate revelation of God and “greater than the temple” be working on the Sabbath to minister to the people? Jesus then quotes Hosea to focus on the underlying purpose of the temple service and protocol. Again it is the heart attitude, “mercy,” not the symbolic action, “sacrifice,” that is important. Jesus has used all three sections of the Old Testament, Torah, prophets and writings, to show that purpose of the law was to change hearts rather than burden God’s people with ritual or rules.

The Sabbath healing of the man with the withered hand (12:9-14) provides the evidence that Jesus had the authority he claimed. The conflict in the grain field may have been a set-up by the Pharisees, but Jesus is definitely trapping them here. Before he heals the man he asks them “is it lawful to heal a man on the Sabbath.” When they accuse him, he responds that it is lawful to rescue an animal. Since people are more valuable, it must be lawful to heal a man too. He then heals the man with just a word. Only God is working here through Jesus. He could not be doing this without God’s approval. His claim to be the one who brings God’s kingdom and the one who provides God’s rest must be considered.

Jesus is the LORD of the Sabbath who calls us into his rest. It is a call to absolute commitment and sacrifice, but it is the call of the one who loves us and bears our burdens with us. It is not about debates over words. It’s all about genuine relationship with God and pleasing him by serving others. Do we reflect God’s kindness or do we place burdens on others? 

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