Jesus and His Rescuing of The Sabbath
St. Matthew 11: 25 to 12: 14
Jesus was a devout orthodox practising Jew for the whole of his life on earth. Among the many things Jesus loved about His spiritual heritage as a Jew, there is one blessing He treasured above all others. Nothing surpassed its importance for Him. In it He saw the embodiment of all He taught.
He upheld it and focused on it probably more than any other aspect of His faith.
We are talking about the Sabbath. It is a pity that so many Christian writers seem to interpret His relationship with the Sabbath in a negative way. Unless we abandon such bias and look carefully at how it figures in His teaching, we could miss the valuable revelation He offers to those prepared to listen honestly and openly to Him.
Matthew 11: 25 and 26 — Jesus’ Prayer
At that time Jesus said in reply, “I give praise to you,
Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have
hidden these things from the wise and the learned you
have revealed them to the childlike.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.”
Jesus has experienced increasingly, rejection by certain authorities who saw themselves as the fount of wisdom on the Holy Scriptures. His message in the main, has been taken to heart by a few disciples drawn from the peasant and working classes.
So, we open with a valuable glimpse of Jesus at prayer — Verse 25 — 26. Here He affirms God’s choice to reveal spiritual truth to “little children.”
He is not referring to the young as distinct from the old. Rather He is distinguishing between those who think they know enough and those who see themselves always seeking and benefiting from more understanding.
A Little More Detail — 1
Our Lord is not praising the Father for hiding the understanding of His teaching from the learned and scholarly. This is a very Semitic manner of writing (See Isaiah 12: 1) which emphasises the revealing of His message to the humble (which includes His chosen disciples). Our Lord has proclaimed the reign of God and its unfolding in the lives of His listeners. We would surely all agree that the Good News of Yeshua HaMashiach — Jesus Messiah — is not grasped by human wisdom and intellectual pursuits alone, but rather by revelation: and by those humble enough to be open to receiving it. Among those “humble” are both highly educated as well as lowly people with little rabbinic training. The charge that Jewish learning and scholarship hindered educated Jews from understanding Our Lord and His message, is misapplied frequently and indiscriminately. Such critics focus especially on the Torah — which they almost always label, “the Law”.
The Torah, the first five books of the Bible (term actually referring often to the whole Old Testament), is the Hebrew term for the “Teaching” of God. It does include His Laws, or Commandments, but is more than these two terms convey. It is God’s chosen and expressed description of His love for His people, and in fact, for His Creation. Some of the most brilliant rabbis in Our Lord’s time gave His teaching their full attention — and in fact became His most ardent followers. Thus knowledge of Torah was not, in itself, in any way, an obstacle to hearing and understanding the Teaching of Our Lord, and His unfolding of the Kingdom of God. Some even go so far as to talk of the Messiah’s Teaching “superceding” the Law. Sadly they use the term crudely and miss the point the Lord is making.
Just as it is not human knowledge which brings understanding of Rabbi Yeshua’s Teaching, so it is not human wisdom which necessarily gets in the way. Our Lord is clear, concise and utterly emphatic: He is talking, not about facts and intellectual knowledge, but about humility, openness of heart, a strong desire to learn from Him, and a desire for a close, loving and personal relationship with God. These are what allow understanding of His message. It is the absence of these — in Our Lord’s days on earth as well as in our times — which result in our becoming spiritually distant, dull and dead. We are well aware, of course, that many senior Scribes and Pharisees in Our Lord’s time were totally deaf and blind to His message: not because of their knowledge of Torah, but as Jesus later pointed out, their lack of true knowledge and love of God’s Teaching revealed in His Sacred Scriptures! They reveled in the false opinion that their chosen manner of observing of God’s Commandments was all they needed to worry about! That ‘mindset’ is alive and well in the world today, and will always be a danger for religious people of any culture.
Our Lord proclaimed Himself the Way, the Truth and the Life. The example above is one aspect of what He meant by
“I am the Truth”.
Verse 27 — Jesus’ First Declaration
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the
Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to
Here Jesus reveals His unity with the Father. We can sense the cosmic vastness. There are no secrets between them. The Father has handed all gifts to His Son to dispense.
Verses 28 — 30 — Jesus’ Second Declaration
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and
humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Here Jesus openly repeats the promise of God to His disciple Moses. (Exodus 33: 14). Strap yourself to the Living Word, says Our Lord; bind yourself to me. Enrol as my disciples. Learn from me as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 55: 2 and 3).
Then, as Jeremiah prophesied, you will find rest for your soul. (Jeremiah 6: 16) Here Jesus is clearly, and forthrightly claiming his full role as dispenser of God’s gifts of love and mercy.
In Psalm 62 we read: “In God alone is my soul at rest.”
In our passage Jesus is claiming that for His disciples, “In Me alone is your soul at rest”.
Make no mistake about it — Jesus’ listeners were well aware of the implications of this bold statement about Him, giving them ‘Sabbath rest’.
A Little More Detail — 2
These three verses are sometimes referred to as, “The Great Appeal”. A correct understanding of this passage will help us understand better what St. John wrote in (John 1: 14), “….. and the Word became flesh …..”. Our Lord is, indeed, appealing to His listeners to listen to Him, to learn from and about Him, and find rest in Him. He is laying the foundation of a new understanding of Torah — God’s Teaching, and how His followers are to relate to it. They will eventually come to see that God’s Teaching, His Law, is literally embodied in His Son. Jesus Messiah is the Law, the Torah to which they should be attached. This passage is therefore an extremely important one to understand and teach correctly.
The leading Scribes and Pharisees had so encrusted the Torah with legal application and sub-rules. It had become an impossible burden for the average person. Much of the old rabbinic interpretation had been genuine and well-intended. Our Lord did not so much react against this Oral Law as against those who used all the minute conditions to exert power over people. He had come to give the people a new “Halakhah”, a new, living and loving moral code of teaching. It would exist, in the first instance, in Him as Messiah and all whom He commissioned to pass on His Teaching; and only then in written records. So, when people bound themselves to His Halakhah, i.e. took up His yoke, they became, in fact, bound to Him in a loving, life-giving union.
Discipleship, being yoked to Yeshua Messiah, does not dispense with meticulous discipline. On the contrary, He will demand far more than anyone had before Him. But it would result from a bonding of love and would radiate His living presence and be manifest in gentleness, humble service, and reflect a sense of completeness and deep restfulness.
This is a fulfillment of the Prophet Jeremiah’s words (in Jeremiah 6:16.) where He teaches that the rabbis should be upholding by word and example the paths of the Patriarchs and Moses, avoiding novelty and unnecessary complication in religious practice.
Matthew 12: 1 — 8 — Jesus’ Third Declaration
At that time Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath.
His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain
and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples
are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to them, “Have you not read what
David did when he and his companions were hungry,
how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering,
which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could
Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests
serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent?
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”
Let’s check that we have taken in the full impact of this event. To begin with here is a brief overview.
One Sabbath day, when Jesus was teaching, no one invited Him or his friends to a Sabbath meal. So they went for a walk through a cornfield. The disciples were hungry and picked some corn. Jesus didn’t but the disciples did. Some authorities, who quoted Scripture endlessly but never actually listened to what it said, protested:
“That is against the Torah!” (Law)
Jesus replies, in effect, “Well, if that’s what you think, then you haven’t read the Torah properly! If you had, you would know that God wants to be known above all else, as the one who dispenses Mercy!”
Having sorted out his critics on this matter, Jesus then goes on in verse 8 to make a most amazing statement. He declares, in effect, “I am Lord of the Sabbath”. In other words:
“I dispense the blessings of God’s Sabbath rest.”
A Little More Detail — 3
Although this particular incident may have occurred sometime after the previous account in chapter 11, St Matthew shows Our Lord to be building up to a major proclamation. However, it is preceded by His effective handling of pitiful opposition from a band of self-righteous (so-called) teachers of Torah. We will look at this in a little bit more detail as it concerns the heart of our Hebrew Catholic culture and apostolate.
In verses 1 and 2, we can summarise the situation by saying that in Jewish Halakhah (Law) the disciples definitely did not contravene any of God’s Laws in the Torah. The Pharisees present (one wonders why they were there, of all places) represented a school of thought which defined every little movement one makes on the Sabbath. According to this “oral law” the disciples had offended. Our Lord refuses to get enmeshed in their endless counter-arguments but nevertheless uses their petty frame of mind to advantage in the following phase of the unfolding drama.
In verses 3 and 4, Our Lord, in true rabbinic, i.e. Biblical style, confronts His critics with the incident in 1 Kings 21: 1— 6; (1 Samuel 21: 1 — 6). In the account, David had fled from Saul to where the Tabernacle then stood. David and those who accompanied him, were extremely hungry and exhausted. There was nothing close at hand for them to eat and he asked the High-Priest Abimelech if they could eat the 12 loaves of ‘show-bread before the Lord’ — so named as they lay in God’s presence in the sanctuary.
For those who do not know the religious significance of what was occurring we give the excellent summary from the Haydock Commentary:
These loaves were twelve, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. They were set six plus six, one upon another, at each end of the table. Upon the uppermost loaf of each heap, stood a vessel, smoking with the sweetest incense. These loaves, at the weeks end were, according to God’s order, eaten by the priests only, when they were replaced by twelve fresh ones, made like them, with the finest flour, tempered with oil. The offering of the ‘show-bread before the Lord’ was a continual sacrifice, as the holy Fathers observe and a figure of a more excellent kind of show-bread, namely Jesus Christ Himself in the Holy Eucharist.
When confronted by David and his famished company, after making a few appropriate enquiries regarding personal purity, the High Priest permitted God’s regulation to be waived on the grounds of sheer necessity. To state the matter formally, “In the concurrence of two incompatible precepts, we must give the preference to that which is the end (purpose) and object of the other. In this case, we must prefer the preservation of life to the observance of the Sabbath.
Our Lord, having stated the example, does not enter into debate or discussion. It was a step towards His goal.
In verses 5 and 6, Jesus adds more weight to the force of His argument dealing with this absolutely crucial factor of Sabbath in Judaism. Take the example of the Temple Priests serving God on the Sabbath. Their actions are physical work and, in themselves, violate the Sabbath. However, says Our Lord, we all know they are innocent — but on what grounds? The Presence of God (and therefore the honours and service this entails) is greater even than the Sabbath.
Our Lord then immediately applies the same principle. By implication, something greater than the Temple is here and now present before you. And this presence, therefore, provides grounds for moving beyond the Sabbath restrictions: it is a presence of fulfilment of all that the Torah, the Temple and the Sabbath have so beautifully pointed towards.
In verse 7, Jesus momentarily sums up His case against those who can quote Scripture to their advantage but refuse to understand what it really means. The Pharisees stand indicted; the disciples are declared innocent.
Then comes the crowning declaration”
“The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Lord of the Sabbath
We have taken a fairly close look at twenty verses in St. Matthew’s Gospel (11: 25 to 12: 14). This passage is of exquisite beauty. It opens with Our Lord in prayer (verses 25 and 26) which in the company of His close disciples merges naturally into conversation with them (verses 27 to 30). He reinforces His teaching by dwelling on the spiritual intimacy shared by members of God’s Household in which they are included. It is one of the priceless treasures of the New Testament.
Then, some time later (if not the same occasion) He goes for a walk after Sabbath morning service only to have the relaxed and peaceful occasion shattered by accusations of some Pharisees against His disciples (chapter 12: 1 — 8). The official teachers of Israel had (verse 2) laid a serious charge against the disciples: breach of Sabbath Law in the Torah. Jesus demonstrated in classic and impressive Rabbinic style that they were being petty, self-righteous, and spiritually, in serious error.
Our Lord rounded off this debate with the glorious proclamation that He is Lord of the Sabbath, Sadly, the importance of this truth is usually overlaid by brief explanations that He is simply declaring He has power over even the Sabbath and can redefine people’s responsibilities as He wishes.
But Yeshua HaMashiach — Jesus Our Messiah, is Lord of the Sabbath because as God the Son, He created it! Like so many of His intimations recorded in the Gospels, the Church came to understand what they conveyed only after Pentecost. We have the privilege of studying the texts and “unpacking” the rich, spiritual content. For now, we will just pause for a moment to register what He intended to do here in this passage and in other similar circumstances.
As we will restate frequently, Jesus Messiah paid special attention to rescuing the Sabbath from being weighed down by endless, detailed and oppressive rules. Trying to obey those rules became harder than the work they were meant to prevent! They obscured the true meaning of Sabbath and became an effective tool of some unscrupulous Pharisees to give them power over humble, working class Jews. Our Lord liberated the Sabbath from these pedlars of man-made religious obligations, as well as the people who were in effect, enslaved by them.
Matthew 12: 9 — 13 — Jesus’ Fourth Declaration
But the story is unfinished. They stop their lunch and go into the local synagogue where Jesus is met by a man with a shrivelled hand. He heals it amidst cold, merciless debate.
Moving on from there, he went into their synagogue.
And behold, there was a man there who had a withered hand.
They questioned him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?”
so that they might accuse him.
He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls
into a pit on the sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out?
How much more valuable a person is than a sheep.
So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched it out, and it was restored as sound as the other.
In the mind of our Lord, it is indeed Torah, God’s holy will, to do good, to reveal God’s mercy and love, and to restore life on the Sabbath. He therefore boldly declared:
“It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.
But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him
to put him to death.
A Little More Detail 4
There is little more to add. Our Lord felt moved to do something good on the Sabbath —to heal a man’s withered hand. His critics seized the opportunity when He entered the synagogue — it was a chance to confront Jesus with a tough question. But they had the nerve to ask Him if it were lawful to heal this unfortunate man on the Sabbath (i.e. to do good) when they were planning to do evil.
In a way this showed how much venerable Jewish Torah instruction had deteriorated in Our Lord’s day. It was time to expose it and restore what God had set in place as a thing of great beauty — and to cleanse it from corruption. Just as God had created Sabbath by resting on the seventh day, so Jesus Messiah cleansed the Sabbath, i.e. healed it, by healing someone on Sabbath. The Lord of the Sabbath had indeed rescued it from the rigid enforcement of opportunists.
Many Christians will be more accustomed to a negative interpretation of our Lord’s claim to be “Lord of the Sabbath”. Many have grown up thinking that by these words He annulled the Sabbath, or claimed that He superseded it. A careful examination of the texts in the light of modern studies shows in fact a beautiful continuity of God’s creation blessing to us through Jesus Messiah and His ministry. So let us respond warmly to the Lord of Sabbath who has commended us:
“Come to Me, all you who labour and are burdened, and
I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28)
Other Scriptures worthy of note:
Exodus 33: 14
“I myself,” the LORD answered, “will go along, to give you rest.”
Isaiah 55: 2 — 3
Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare.
Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.
Jeremiah 6: 16
Thus says the LORD:
Stand beside the earliest roads, ask the pathways of old
Which is the way to good, and walk it; thus you will find rest for your souls.
But they said, “We will not walk it.”
New American Bible
Matthew 11: 25 — 12: 14
25 At that time Jesus said in reply, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.
26 Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Matthew 12: 1 — 14
1 At that time Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.
2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”
3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry,
4 how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat?
5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent?
6 I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
7 If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men.
8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”
9 Moving on from there, he went into their synagogue.
10 And behold, there was a man there who had a withered hand. They questioned him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.
11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out?
12 How much more valuable a person is than a sheep. So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”
13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored as sound as the other.
14 But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him to put him to death.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition (c) 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.