I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. … For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:6, 8)
As chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel concluded with Jesus’ promise of ‘rest’ for the weary laborer, it should not surprise us that next on the author’s mind is ‘the Sabbath.’ For the Jewish person, rest was embodied in a Day – the seventh day of the week, instituted in Exodus 34:21; “six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest.” In chapter 12, as the Gospel writer continues to deal with the increasing hostility against Jesus, Matthew deals with one of the main sources of contention between Jesus and Judaism – the Sabbath. Perhaps more than any other matter, the manner in which Jesus understood and kept the Sabbath proposed a severe threat to Judaism’s traditional point of view.
While the Law of Moses was not very specific as to what may or may not constitute work that was prohibited on the Sabbath, over time, Jewish tradition and oral law developed a precise code specifically prohibiting 39 different kinds of activity on the Sabbath. From the perspective of the religious leaders, as Jesus’ disciples plucked grain and ate it, they were violating rabbinical laws against reaping, winnowing, and threshing, and thus “working” on God’s Holy Day. Consider the rabbi’s point of view for a moment: The most exalted part of God’s breathed holy Word – the Ten Commandments – clearly commands, “on the Sabbath day, you shall not to any work.” And here are these Jewish folks following a self-styled “rabbi,” doing on the Sabbath what other laborers do six days a week. As guardians of the Law, who else could put a stop to this most damning practice? You can see how the activity of Jesus’ disciples in the grain fields that Saturday would raise a genuine concern on the part of those who were anxious to protect God’s truth.
In response, Jesus drives his dissenters back to Bible: “Have you not read what David did …” (vs. 3); “have you not read in the Law …” (vs. 5) “And if you had known what this [verse] means …” (vs. 7). Drawing from the entire Tanakh (the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets), Jesus audaciously argues from Scripture, ultimately exalting Himself above the three most beloved entities of Judaism – the Sabbath, the Temple and the Law! Indeed, as Jesus would say later, “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” And it was fulfilled in He who was greater than David, greater than the Temple and Lord of the Sabbath.