Matthew 11 ended with the Lord’s invitation to the weary and burdened to come to him for rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, he said. And so, last week we thought about how the Pharisees and teachers of the law used to burden the people with all their man-made rules and regulations which went far beyond what God’s law requires. And the Lord frees us from all those man-made rules which God has not commanded us to keep. However, he doesn’t free us to do whatever we want, because he replaces their man-made yoke with his own yoke. He wants his people to walk in his ways and to do his will. And therefore he frees us from their rules in order to serve him. But his yoke is not burdensome, because it’s for our good.
That’s how chapter 11 ended. Chapter 12 begins by making clear the contrast between the Pharisees and the Lord Jesus over how we should observe the Sabbath Day. The Pharisees complained to the Lord because his disciples were breaking their man-made rules. But the Lord makes clear that he’s the Lord of the Sabbath and he knows what the Sabbath is for and how we should keep it.
Verses 1 to 8
And so, the chapter begins with Matthew telling us that the Lord was going through the cornfields on the Sabbath Day. His disciples are with him. And his disciples are feeling hungry. And so, they reached out their hands as they walked through the fields and began to pick and eat some of the ears of corn.
God’s law at that time permitted them to pick the corn like this. In Deuteronomy 23:25 it says that if you enter your neighbour’s cornfield, you may pick the ears of corn with your hands. You can’t put the sickle to the corn. In other words, you’re not to harvest your neighbour’s crop. But it’s okay to pick a few ears of corn by hand. The people weren’t to be stingy and mean, but generous towards one another. So, if you’re feeling hungry, help yourself to a little corn.
So, the Pharisees couldn’t complain about that. But what they complained about to the Lord is that his disciples were doing this on the Sabbath Day. They saw the disciples picking some ears of corn and in their judgment, they were reaping the corn. And that meant they were working on the Sabbath Day. It didn’t matter that they were picking only a few ears of corn, because according to their rules, anyone who reaps and grinds corn larger than the size of a dried fig — which is a tiny amount — is working. And the Pharisees complained to the Lord about this, because they regarded him as being responsible for what his disciples were doing.
Now God gave us the Sabbath Day as a blessing. After a busy week, it’s good to be able to rest on the Sabbath Day. But because of all their rules and regulations, they had turned the Sabbath Day into a burden for the people. Instead of delighting in the Sabbath Day, the people had to watch they didn’t break this rule and watch they didn’t break that rule and watch they didn’t break dozens of other rules. As their own book of rules said, the teaching of the Scripture about the Sabbath is scanty, but their rules are many.
So, the Pharisees brought their complaint to the Lord. And notice how he responded to them, because he turned their attention to the Bible. ‘Haven’t you read….’ he said in verse 3. And he said the same thing in verse 5: ‘Haven’t you read….’ He first reminds them of the story of David in 1 Samuel 21, where David and his companions were hungry. And so, they ate the consecrated bread which was kept in the tabernacle, which normally only the priests could eat. But the Scriptures do not condemn David for eating that bread. And then he reminds them of how the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath Day in the sense that the task of preparing animals for sacrifices was demanding and physical work with all that lifting and cutting and so on. It was hard work. And yet, even though the priests were working hard on the Sabbath Day, they were not condemned.
And having reminded the Pharisees of what the Scriptures say, he goes on to make three points of application. And we’ll take these in reverse order, beginning with the statement in verse 8 that he — the Son of Man — is Lord of the Sabbath. If he’s Lord of the Sabbath, then he has the right and authority to decide what’s lawful and what’s unlawful on the Sabbath Day. The Pharisees don’t have that authority, but he does, because he’s the Lord.
Secondly, God desires mercy and not sacrifice. He’s quoting Hosea 6:6, where God is telling his people that what he wants from them is not so much strict observance to the ceremonial law, but that they show mercy and kindness to one another. There’s no point offering the right sacrifices, when you’re hating one another. And how does that apply to this story? The Lord mentioned David who was allowed to eat the consecrated bread, because giving him the bread when he was hungry was an act of mercy. And God wants his people to be merciful to one another. The Lord also mentioned the priests, who are allowed to work on the Sabbath Day, because offering sacrifices to take away the guilt of the people was an act of mercy. And God wants his people to be merciful to one another. And his disciples can pick a few ears of corn on the Sabbath Day, because letting them satisfy their hunger is an act of mercy. And God wants his people to be merciful to one another.
And the Lord also said in verse 6 that ‘one greater than the temple is here’. He’s referring to himself. He’s saying that he’s greater than the temple. He presumably mentions the temple because he’s just referred to David and the priests and what they did in the tabernacle and temple. And when he says that he’s greater than the temple, he’s saying to the Pharisees that he is God, because the only one who is greater than the temple is the Lord God Almighty.
By saying he’s greater than the temple and by saying he’s Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord was saying to the Pharisees that he is God. He is God who has come in the flesh. And since he’s God, he’s able to make clear what the Sabbath is for and how we should keep it.
Verses 9 to 14
The Pharisees, of course, should have bowed down and worshipped him. But because of their sinful unbelief, they refused to bow down or to listen to him. And instead they began to look for a way to accuse him. Do you see that in verse 10? The Lord has gone into one of the synagogues, which is where the people gathered for worship and instruction on the Sabbath Day. And Matthew tells us that there was a man there with a shrivelled or withered hand. And the Lord’s enemies — presumably these are the Pharisees — asked him whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath Day? The teachers of the law permitted healing on the Sabbath Day if someone’s life was in danger. However, since this man’s life was not in any danger, then they would say that there was no reason to heal him that day. He should wait for the next day.
The Lord’s reply this time is not based on the Scriptures, but on their own practice. When one of their sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, don’t you take hold of it and lift it out? Don’t you go and save it? Well, how much more valuable is a man than a sheep? If you’re willing to show mercy to a sheep, you ought to show mercy to a human being as well. And he concludes his response to them by saying that it’s lawful to do good on the Sabbath. After all, God desires mercy, not sacrifice. He wants us to show mercy and kindness to one another and to help each other and to do good to one another.
So, the Sabbath is a day of rest. We work for six days and then we rest on the Sabbath Day. We take a break from our work so that we can rest our bodies and so that we can spend time in worship, giving thanks to God who made us and who has saved us and who promises us eternal rest in the life to come. However, as well as resting and worshipping, we’re to use the Sabbath Day for going good and showing mercy to others. This is how our church’s Shorter Catechism puts it:
The sabbath is to be kept holy by resting all the day from our work and recreations, and spending the whole time in public and private worship, except the time spent in works of necessity and mercy.
Works of necessity are things like cooking and eating, because we have to eat. Works of mercy are the good things we do to others, which pleases the Lord.
And after he finished answering his critics, the Lord healed the man. Matthew tells us that the man’s hand was completely restored: the withered hand became as sound as the other one. Like all of the Lord’s healing miracles, this one is a sign of what he will do for all his people when he comes again in glory and with power to raise the dead. At that time, he will recreate our bodies so that they will be perfect. Our present weaknesses will be gone and we’ll have a body which is perfectly suited for life in the new heavens and earth.
And having seen the Lord perform yet another miracle, you’d think the Pharisees would have fallen down and worshipped him. But because of their sinful unbelief, they refused to acknowledge him. And instead they went out and plotted how they might kill him.
And this shows us how unbelief blinds us from the truth. Though the truth is staring us in the face, we cannot acknowledge it in our natural state because of our sinful unbelief. But the Lord who brought light out of darkness in the beginning is able to change the hearts of sinners. He did it with us, didn’t he? He took away our darkness and he let his light shine in our hearts so that we were able to see the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If it were not for his mercy towards us, we would still be in the dark. And so, we ought to give thanks to him for his kindness to us, which we did not deserve. And since he was merciful to us, then we ought to be merciful to one another and to do good to each other.
Verses 15 to 21
But let’s move on, because according to verse 15, the Lord was aware of their plot to kill him. And so, he withdrew from that place. He withdrew because it was not the right time for him to die. Nevertheless many people still followed him and he healed all their sick. So, whatever the sickness, he was able to heal it. No case was too hard for him.
However, he also warned the people not to tell who he was. Do you see that in verse 16? Some of the commentators suggest that this was to avoid unwanted publicity which might have fuelled more opposition. Matthew sees in this a fulfilment of what we read in Isaiah. And so, he goes on to quote from Isaiah 42 and the first of Isaiah’s Servant Songs, which anticipate the coming of Christ as the Lord’s Special Servant.
In Isaiah 42 the Lord spoke about his beloved servant who will not quarrel or cry out and no one will hear his voice in the streets. In other words, he won’t make a fuss and he won’t create a noise. He’ll come quietly and won’t draw undue attention to himself. And so, when the Lord Jesus warned the people not to tell who he was, Matthew sees in that a fulfilment of Isaiah 42.
However, Isaiah 42 tells us even more about the Lord Jesus, doesn’t it? It tells us that he’s very gentle. He will not break a bruised reed and he will not snuff out a smouldering wick. Someone goes to pick a reed along the banks of a river to use it as a flute or a pen. But it bends slightly so that it’s no use. And in his frustration, he breaks it into two and throws it away. Someone sees that the wick of their lamp isn’t working right. Instead of lighting up, it only smoulders and produces smoke. So he tosses it away. Something is broken or something isn’t working right, and we toss it away. But the Servant of the Lord is not like that, because he won’t break a bruised reed and he won’t snuff out a smouldering wick. But, of course, Isaiah is not really talking about reeds and wicks, he’s talking about bruised and broken people. The Lord Jesus does not break people who are bruised and broken. He does not reject them. He welcomes them and he helps them, because he’s full of mercy.
And as well as that, he was filled with the Spirit of God and he proclaims justice to the nations and he leads justice to victory. So, evil will not triumph. Wickedness will not triumph. In the end, Christ will triumph over all that is evil and justice will be done when the wicked are punished and God’s people are saved. And so, people around the world in every nation will put their hope in him, because he’s the only Saviour of the world.