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Pharisees and False Accusations #1 (Matthew 12)


Scribes, Pharisees and False Accusations #1

Text Matthew 12:1
In Matthew 12 Jesus comes under sustained attack from the Pharisees. In this first episode, they’re actually walking through a cornfield, on the Sabbath Day, watching in case some minute sub-clause of a Law is infringed, so that they can build up their case against Christ. And here it is… At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. Were the disciples not stealing the grain? See Deuteronomy 23:25 So, the charge against the disciples, and by extension against Jesus was that his disciples were working on the Sabbath.

1 The Charge is Put. V2
Now what do they mean by ‘Not Lawful?’ Read Exodus 20:8 The restriction, the command is that we should do no work on the Sabbath. Now note that when the Pharisees were accusing the disciples…

They were going outside the actual law. The Sabbath restrictions forbid work on the Sabbath, but they do not prevent you eating when you are hungry. But the Scribes had long decided that in order to prevent someone unwittingly breaking the law, they would, like good lawyers do, define the law. So they had made a list of 39 work activities that were forbidden on the Sabbath, and every one of those activities had its own sub-list. Forbidden activities included:

  • REAPING. The disciples were breaking this sub-Law, by reaching out their hands and plucking the ears of grain.
  • THRESHING. to eat the grain, they would have to roll it that the husk was removed, to eat the heart of the grain.
  • COOKING A MEAL. The disciples broke this sub-command too, in that they completed multiple tasks in the preparation of their meal, thus ‘cooking’ food on the Sabbath.

The disciples weren’t working. And yet the real issue here is that disciples were not actually working! Lifting food and stripping it of its skin and putting it into your mouth isn’t work, or else we’d better ban bananas on a Sunday!

So the false accusation of illegality has been made. Now, there are two rebuttals of their accusations put to them by Jesus. In his defence he calls as witnesses three of their revered prophets and leaders.

2 The Witnesses are Called. V3-7
Jesus frequently quoted the Bible and he does so again here and he invites them to put their views on the Sabbath into perspective.

  • The testimony of David. V3  The showbread was 12 loaves, laid out each week in the tent of worship, in two rows of six. The bread remained in the tent until it was replaced by another 12 loaves, and at that point the old bread became food for the priests, and for them alone. Read Lev 24:5-9. David had been anointed king of Israel, and Saul was seeking to kill him, and now he was fleeing from Saul and he and his men were starving. His necessity superseded the Sabbath rules, for the law is given to bless people, not to starve them to death. ‘Hadn’t the Pharisees read this story’, asks Jesus. 1 Samuel 21:1 It was an act of NECESSITY!
  • The testimony of Moses. 5 Read Numbers 28:9. If we are strictly talking about work, then the very people who profane the sabbath most would be the priest – think of the work that went into the worship of the tabernacle! When the priests worked on the Sabbath they desecrated it. Yet because the work of the priests in the tabernacle on the Sabbath was in God’s service, in facilitating the worship of God, they are without blame. It was an act of PIETY.
  • The testimony of Hosea.  v7 Read Hosea 6:6  The Pharisees were scrupulous in observing the laws, and attending to sacrifices and outward shows of religion, yet Hosea had reminded them that God is not much interested in outward religion if the soul is not right before God. It was much more preferable to have a personal knowledge of God. To be merciful to others as Christ was merciful to us. J.M. Boice compares this with Paul’s passage in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3  Could the Pharisees not see that the disciples were hungry, and have mercy on them? It was an act of MERCY.

Now, there we have our three simple witness statements. The OT Law was clear, that on the Sabbath Day we do no work, but there are some important exceptions. They are NECESSITY, PIETY and MERCY.

3 The Verdict is Given. V6 & 8
The words that Jesus used here will infuriate the Jews, yet they simply point to Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament.

  • He fulfilled the OT system of worship. 6 Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. The Temple is the greatest building in the whole world for a Pharisee, – it was the place where God dwelt! Now Jesus is telling them that He is greater than the Temple!
  • He fulfilled the OT law. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Paul later wrote about this in Galatians, when he argues that whole point of the law is to make us realise that we can never keep it, so that we run to Christ and cast urselves upon Him for mercy and forgiveness. Galatians 3:24

Everything in the OT points to Christ and in every aspect of the OT Christ is the fulfilment. Read Matthew 5:17
Now you can see why this would make the Scribes, the lawyers, and the Pharisees mad! If Jesus is the fulfilment of the law and the sacrificial system, if he is the One to whom the whole of the OT points, the Messiah, then he is God! What a claim!

A word of caution. Jesus, in this passage is not attacking or removing the principle of Sabbath rest – but the Jewish legalistic treatment of it. J C Ryle wrote: ‘…Let us beware that we are never tempted to take low views of the sanctity of the Christian Sabbath. Let us take care that we do not make our gracious Lord’s teaching an excuse for Sabbath profanation. Let us not abuse the liberty which he has so clearly marked out for us, and present that we do things on the Sabbath from ‘necessity and mercy’ which in reality we do for our own selfish gratification*.’

© BobMcEvoy January 2019

* Ryle, JC. Matthew Expository Thoughts on the Gospels – Matthew and Mark. P123, James Clarke, Cambridge

The Heidelberg Catechism
Lord’s Day 38

Q103. What does God require in the fourth commandment?

A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained and that, especially on the day of rest, I diligently attend the church of God, to hear God’s Word, to use the sacraments,  to call publicly upon the LORD, and to give Christian offerings for the poor.

Second, that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, let the LORD work in me through his Holy Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.

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