IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 21, July 19 to July 25, 1999

Matthew 12:1-14

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    1. The Disciples and the Pharisees. 12:1-2.

      The Pharisees do not object to the plucking as such (see Deut 23:25), but to the fact that it is done on the Sabbath (see Ex 34:21). "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath" (v. 2b); the question of Mk and Lk is heightened into an accusation in Mt (Gundry, 222).

    2. Jesus and the Pharisees.

      1. Jesus' reference to David, 12:3-4. Both here and in vv. 5 and 7, Jesus appeals to the OT, his antagonists' prime authority (note the ouk anegnote, vv. 3, 5). For the story of David and his men, see 1 Sam 21:1-6. Jesus makes nothing of the fact that the bread in question "had been removed from before the LORD and replaced by hot bread on the day it was taken away" (21:6b), nor of the Midrashic tradition that the episode occurred on the Sabbath (cf. Gundry, 223). He simply identifies the bread as "consecrated" and thus unlawful for any but priests to eat (12:4; cf. Lev 24:9a, "It belongs to Aaron and his sons"; 1 Sam 21:6a, "So the priest gave him the consecrated bread"). Jesus affirms the correctness of what David did, and thus upholds the OT (cf. 5:17).

      2. Laws moral and ceremonial. Jesus, moreover, affirms the superiority of the Moral Law over the Ceremonial. The Sabbath Law itself belongs to the former. Certain ceremonial laws were added on the basis of the Fourth Commandment, to stipulate practical ways of honoring the day and protecting it from profanation. Yet significantly "the Decalogue ...does not include rules for the offering of sacrifices" (F. I. Andersen and D. N. Freedman, Hosea, AB, 430). Moreover, David's action upholds the Sixth Commandment, which calls for the sustaining of human life. David honors this commandment by acting to relieve his and his men's physical needs ("what David did when he and his companions were hungry?" 12:3), needs likely to have been far more acute than usual, since David and his men were fugitives. The disciples too are honoring the Sixth Commandment by plucking grain to satisfy their hunger.

      3. Jesus' reference to the priests, v. 5. As Gundry notes (223), the argument of v. 5 is an halachic addition to the haggadic argument of vv. 3-4. Jesus refers to the priests' habit of changing the shewbread on the Sabbath (Lev 24:8; 1 Sam 21:6b), and of doubling the burnt offering on the Sabbath (Num 28:9-10). Thus by the standard of the Fourth Commandment the priests "desecrate the day" (12:5b). Yet they are "innocent" (v. 5c), because their actions are stipulated by the Mosaic Law itself (cf. Carson, 281).

      4. Jesus' argument from the lesser to the greater (qal wahomer), vv. 6-8.

        1. The "something greater." In v. 6 Jesus declares that "something greater [for the neuter meizon] than the temple is here." Interpreted strictly as a neuter (NIV mg.), the coming of the kingdom itself is meant. But "the neuter gender may refer to a person...provided that the emphasis is less on the individual than on some outstanding general quality..." (Nigel Turner, A Grammar of NT Greek, 3: 21). In this case Jesus might be referring to himself as the One who ushers in the kingdom, the One on whose account it comes. Thus NIV renders, "one greater than the temple."

        2. The quotation from Hos 6:6. Having referred to the Former Prophets (vv. 3-4) and to the Pentateuch (v. 5), Jesus now quotes from the Latter Prophets (and for the second time from Hos 6:6; see comments on Mt 9:13). Hos 6:6a states in an arresting way (as needed in the face of Israel's excessive dependence on the cult) the supremacy of hesed (covenant-keeping love and loyalty) over sacrifice, not hesed's exclusion of the cult (thus also Andersen and Freedman, 430). Cf. 1 Sam 15:22 (which Hosea had in mind), "Does Yahweh delight in offerings and sacrifices/ As much as in obedience to the voice of Yahweh?" (translated in ibid., 431). Moreover, the parallel statement of Hos 6:6b ("and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings") makes it clear that the hesed begins with love and loyalty to God (cf. Hos 4:1b). Thus, in quoting Hos 6:6 Jesus declares that the Pharisees' hostile response to the disciples' action proceeds from a concern for religious ritual which has been divorced from the right relationship to God. I believe that Jesus is implying something more: namely, that had the Pharisees been rightly related to God based on the right reading of the OT, they would have been recognized Immanuel when he came. Indeed the recognition of who Jesus really is, is essential if a person (whether a Pharisee or someone else) is to accept the contention that "something greater than the temple is here," or that the disciples are indeed "innocent."

        3. Jesus' argument. Having looked at some particulars of vv. 6-7, we can now see how vv. 6-8 climax the argument that Jesus began in vv. 3-5.

          1. The Temple is greater than the Sabbath, as shown by the fact that, within the OT context, the demand for priestly work in the temple overrode the Sabbath law, v. 5.

          2. The Son of Man is greater than the Temple, v. 6.

          3. Therefore he is greater than the Sabbath as well. Indeed, he is "Lord of the Sabbath" (v. 8).

          4. As the Lord of the Sabbath - which means as Yahweh, the God who revealed the Mosaic Law, including the Decalogue - Jesus has the right to say whatever he chooses about the Sabbath. Moreover, he has the supreme and unique right to expound the Sabbath Law in the light of, and on the basis of, the dawn of the New Age - just as he did in the case of other OT laws in 5:21-48. There are two aspects to his present treatment of Sabbath Law. On the one hand, Jesus abrogates existing Sabbath ceremonial. In defending his disciples' action and declaring them "innocent" (the opening "for," gar, of v. 8 links this pronouncement with v. 7), Jesus forecasts the end of OT ceremonial. The prohibition of "harvesting" no longer applies (cf. below on 15:1-20). On the other hand, Jesus upholds the Fourth Commandment. His very declaration that he is "Lord of the Sabbath," affirms the ongoing reality and validity of the Sabbath Day. The abrogation of the ceremonial prescriptions recalls attention to the foundational law in the Decalogue, and thus reminds the people of God that the Sabbath is his good gift (not something he does to us but something he provides for us), an expression of his own hesed, designed to foster a deepened relationship with him (which is the essence of the covenant). The effect of God's initiative is an answering hesed from man, both to God (praise and worship) and to man (beneficent actions bringing blessing both to oneself, v. 1, and to others, v. 12b, "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath"; cf. II. below). Precisely how one keeps the Sabbath will be governed by love of God and of neighbor (22:34-40; cf. Rom 13:8-10; chs. 14-15).


    1. The Pharisees' Opposition.

      The conflict is now heightened between Jesus and the Pharisees ("they," v. 10, = "the Pharisees," v. 14), because of Jesus' pronouncements in vv. 3-8, and because in the present episode Jesus himself is guilty of a Sabbath infraction (which accords with the enemy's design, v. 10b). The Pharisees of course did not object to healing per se, but to such a healing on the Sabbath. "Rabbinic law allowed medical help on the Sabbath where life was immediately endangered.... Obviously, the healing of a withered hand could wait a day" (Gundry, 226). Cf. Lk 13:14, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."

    2. Jesus' Response.

      1. His words. Jesus again uses a qal wahomer argument. There is no OT sanction for the act described in v. 11; but rabbinic law permitted rescuing animals on the Sabbath (Gundry, 227). "How much more valuable is a man than a sheep!" says Jesus, a statement the Pharisees could not question, given its validation in the OT (starting with Gen 1-2). There is an eschatological factor too: as the Sabbath crowned God's creative activity, so the dawn of the Kingdom of God was the great Sabbath of Israel's expectation (cf. Heb). Implicit in Jesus' argument, and especially in his affirmation that "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (v. 12b), is that with the dawn of the New Age it is especially appropriate for Messiah to do such gracious acts on the Sabbath - a vivid way to signal the arrival of the Sabbath Age. NB Lk 13:16.

      2. His action. In concert with the pronouncement of v. 12, Jesus heals the man, v. 13. The account of the actual healing is short, even by Matthean standards. All that Matthew has affirmed in chs. 8-9 about Jesus' authority to heal, is presupposed here. It is noteworthy that Mt reflects no one particular pattern or method of healing for Jesus; in this episode there is no direct reference to Jesus' words or actions, or to the man's faith. It is enough for Matthew to record the complete healing of the hand. In stark contrast to this complete restoration, is the Pharisees' plot to destroy Jesus (apollymi, v. 14b; NIV's "kill" is inadequate).

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