“Jesus and the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:1-14)

“Jesus and the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:1-14)

In high school and college I learned to do the bare minimum to get the grade I was seeking. If I knew I could get an “A” by skipping the reading and focusing on the writing, I didn’t bother reading. I like to think I was being efficient, but laziness is a better word for it.

The Sabbath was not instituted so that men would have an excuse to be lazy. As much as that sounds like a great way to spend the Lord’s Day, we should recognize the intricate connection between work and rest. In fact, in order to properly fight laziness, we need a better understanding of Sabbath rest.

It is important to recognize the value of work that is explicitly mentioned in the fourth commandment. In Exodus 20:9 we read, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work.” Although this emphasis of the command is the rest that defines the seventh day, this verse should not be so quickly glossed over. Work was a creation mandate. Adam and Eve had duties to perform those six days. 

It is an active six days of work that makes the rest and worship of the seventh day that much more rewarding. We will not properly value rest if we have not properly valued work. Both aspects of our weekly responsibilities combine to provide purpose and fulfillment.

Paul Maxwell Under the tyranny of today, laziness is simply the most meaningful reality we can conceive. Under the loving hand of God’s Sabbath rest, though, the unrelenting tyrant of laziness loses its power — day by day, Sabbath by Sabbath, inch by inch. Then, life and work will be filled with more meaning, relief, and fruitfulness.

This is the third of four sermons on the fourth commandment. We began by recognizing that the origin of Sabbath observance takes us back to the creation account (Genesis 2:1-3). Then we considered the observance of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11):

  1. Remember the Sabbath Day – Implies prior knowledge, not forgetting, observing, and celebrating.
  2. Keep it Holy – Set apart. Not common.
  3. Do Not Do Any Work – Not inactivity.
  4. Do Not Employ Others

We are to observe the Sabbath day because it is a creation ordinance as well as a response to God’s deliverance of his people. Finally, a few weeks ago we considered the purpose of the Sabbath which was to delight in a day of rest and worship (Isaiah 58:13-14).

This morning I want to turn to the New Testament and spend most of our time looking at the teaching of Jesus regarding Sabbath observance. How did Jesus remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy? Some have argued that his teaching loosened the restrictions. But, his corrections of the scribes and Pharisees actually served to return his people to an accurate view of the day. Jesus grew up honoring the Sabbath and that carried into his ministry pattern (Luke 4:16). He spoke against the Pharisees abuse of the Sabbath commandment, as he did with many of the other commandments.

Read Matthew 12:1-14

I. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

Jesus had just given a great promise of rest (Matthew 11:28-30) before correcting the Pharisees for their false teaching on the Sabbath. In particular, this passage focuses upon two of their errors. The Pharisees taught that it was wrong to pluck and eat the grain as the disciples had done (Matthew 12:1-2). They also understood that it was unlawful to heal on the Sabbath, so Jesus heals a man right in front of them (Matthew 12:9-10). 

The Pharisees had the false notion that Sabbath rest was best defined as inactivity. They invented additional rules for Sabbath-keeping such as: how much weight could be lifted and how far one could walk. The modern equivalent would be the outlaw of drinking altogether to ensure no one accidentally gets drunk.

Jesus rebukes this practice of the Pharisees because their man-made laws became more important than God’s actual law (Mark 7:8). The Talmud, which is a collection of ancient Jewish commentary, includes 24 chapters on Sabbath observance. 39 different occupations were outlawed on the Sabbath.

The law of God forbid work on the Sabbath even during the planting and harvest season (Exod. 34:21). However, the law also allowed the poor to gather “gleanings” from the edge or corners of the field. So as Jesus and the disciples were hungry it was perfectly lawful for them to grab some of the heads of grain and eat it. 

The Talmud went further than God’s Word to forbid picking grain (harvesting) and rubbing it between your fingers (threshing). Jesus, as “Lord of the Sabbath”, had every right to tear down the fence the Jews had setup.

In Matthew 12:1-14, we see that Jesus advocated for three kinds of activity on the Sabbath:

  1. Works of Piety If pure rest were the goal, then the priests would be the worst Sabbath-breakers of all because the Sabbath was the busiest day of the week for them (5). Now that Christ is present, he can argue from the lesser to the greater (6). The Lord of the Sabbath (9) desires mercy rather than sacrifice. Had they understood this, they would not have been so quick to condemn Jesus and his disciples (7). Their heartless ritualistic observance of the Sabbath obscured the works of piety that were expected to take place on that day. The priests were required to circumcise if the 8th day fell on a Sabbath (John 7:22-23; Lev. 12:3). So they would acknowledge their duty to perform that work, but they wanted to regard the healing ministry of Jesus as a violation of the Sabbath.
  2. Works of Necessity To neglect to satisfy their hunger would have had a negative impact upon their ability to worship. If David could violate a ceremonial law in order to graciously provide food to his hungry men, then surely Jesus could violate the man-made law of the Pharisees in order to preserve the lives of his disciples (3). This seems to clarify that certain occupations cannot take the day off. The military cannot rest, neither can law enforcement officers or firefighters. But this list oftentimes gets expanded by those who would say it really doesn’t matter what their job is, they must work because they need a paycheck. I don’t really want to get into each specific situation, but it is worth taking some time to consider whether your job is something that must be done on the Lord’s Day.
  3. Works of Mercy Jesus often healed on the Sabbath (9-14; John 5:1-18; 9:1-14; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6). The Pharisees reveal that they cared more for their animals than the people. It is lawful to do good (12). Pipa, “Failure to do good is to do harm and the failure to save a life, when in one’s power, is to destroy.” The opposite of what is commanded is forbidden, and the opposite of what is forbidden is commanded (WLC 99). That means you should be willing to show mercy on the Lord’s Day, and you should refrain from doing anything that places an undue hardship upon others. In another instance, the ruler of the synagogue complained that the person who had come for healing could be healed on any of the other days of the week (Luke 13:10-17).For instance, hospitals should be open to care for the sick. But doctors are perfectly within their right to limit the performance of elective surgeries to weekdays. We could easily think of examples where a plumber may be needed to deal with an emergency, but other cases where they could wait to come out the following day.It would be easy to fall into error on either extreme. On the one hand, we could get out of opportunities to help a neighbor. On the other hand, we could abuse the principle suggesting that every household chore represents an, “ox in the ditch” situation.

We might benefit by asking: Does this activity promote the purposes of the day? Rather than: Does this violate the day? The former question encourages works of piety, necessity, and mercy. Jesus provides the model for us to follow. He had no qualms about doing work on the Sabbath that honored the purpose of the day. He performed them perfectly.

Mark 2:27-28 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

“Made” is a reference to God’s creation ordinance, once again, indicating it’s universal application. The fact that it was “for man” means that it was not for the Jews only. It is a blessing for everyone to rest from their labors. Lord of the Sabbath, not to abolish it, but to fulfill it. We enjoy the rest that God provides and celebrate his work in creation and redemption.

Chantry The sense given by those who claim that Jesus removed the Sabbath institution is as follows: “Since from the very time of creation God made the Sabbath to be a blessing for all mankind, therefore the Son of Man will become Lord of this blessing to demolish it.”

It is needless to say that this turns the concept of fulfillment on its head. If Jesus is indeed the Lord of the Sabbath, then we must submit to his lordship over that area in our lives. It means that the day belongs to Him.

Even after all of the escalated encounters with the Pharisees, who went beyond merely questioning him to attempting to trap him, Jesus continued to honor the day. As much as they wanted to prove that he was unrighteous on the Sabbath, his actions remained perfectly aligned with the law of God. He could confidently correct their overreach.


II. Jesus Fulfilled the Sabbath

Jesus’ view of the moral law is made clear in Matthew 5:17-22. What does Jesus mean that he came to ‘fulfill’ the law. In context it is opposite ‘destroy’. But, typically when we consider something fulfilled, we think of satisfaction or complete. What is predicted by the prophets is fulfilled in history. In what sense has Jesus fulfilled the Law? 

  1. He came to obey the moral law perfectly, thus securing a saving righteousness for his people.
  2. He came to suffer the curse of the moral law in the place of his people, thus securing the forgiveness of our sins.
  3. He came to realize the prophetic types of the ceremonial law.
  4. He came to establish the kingdom to which the civil law pointed.
  5. And he came to call his New Covenant people to walk by the properly interpreted moral law of God on the narrow way that leads to life.

What follows is the application and correction of abuses of the moral law. Jesus did not abolish the law (Matt. 5:17-19), rather he repealed the Pharisaical interpretation of the law (Matt. 5:21-22).

Campbell Faith, which rests alone on Christ for salvation, nevertheless evidences itself not by judging the commandments to see which are relevant and which are not, but by letting the commandments judge us, and willingly submitting to them as the rule of our life and practice.

By our own efforts at law-keeping, we could never be freed, pardoned or justified (Acts 13:38-39). We do not keep the law in order to be saved, but because we already are saved.

No longer under the guardian of the law, we now serve as sons desiring to fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 3:24). The New Testament never abandons the moral law, although the administration of the Sabbath under Jesus is different than that of Moses (i.e., no civil judgment for Sabbath-breaking). Jews never had the fullness of revelation (3:23-25), nor the fullness of the Spirit (4:6-7) that Christians have received.


The Lord of the Sabbath corrects any abuse of the day while He also calls us to enter into His rest. Do you have a pattern of resting from your weekly labors in order to enjoy true rest on Sundays? We must enter into that rest by faith. The Christian Sabbath is a day that has been set apart every week to remind us of our dependence upon the grace of God.

Our celebration of the Christian Sabbath also testifies to the world that we trust in God for our provision. Our activities throughout the day ought to point to the Lord whose perfect obedience secured our eternal rest! He is worthy to receive our faith-filled reading of His word, our undivided attention in prayer, our wholehearted devotion in song, our joyful engagement in fellowship, and our sacrificial service of others in His name. Let us ask the Lord to continue to enable us to fill our day with such activity!