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2) Matt 12:1–8: By setting apart a holy day every week, God provides us with rest from our normal daily activities.[1]

When we observe the Sabbath, we not only obey the Lord’s command, we behave as he did. In this passage, Jesus described God’s motive in mandating a day of rest.[2]

The Lord never intended the Sabbath to become a burden but a day of delighting in his provision and blessing (Exod 20:8–11; Isa 56:4–7).

Religious Jews recognized that the exile had occurred due to their failure to observe the Mosaic law faithfully (Deut 30:1–10; Neh 9:26–31). By the time of Christ, Sabbath observance separated the Jewish people from other religious groups.

However, various sects within Judaism debated over what constituted work. Therefore, the Pharisees developed an extensive set of stipulations as a guide for people to follow.[3]



Two major sections of the Mishnah (m. Shabbat and m. Erubin) spell out these guidelines in thirty-four chapters of excruciating detail.

By putting “a fence around the law” (m. Avot 1:1) , the Pharisees sought to prevent people from violating the actual command. They left nothing to private interpretation,[4] banning these thirty-nine categories of work on the Sabbath:

To sow, to plough, to mow, to gather into sheaves, to thrash, to winnow, to sift [corn], to grind, to sieve, to knead, to bake, to shear wool, to wash wool, to card, to dye, to spin, to warp, to shoot two threads, to weave two threads, to cut and tie two threads, to tie, to untie, to sew two stitches, to tear thread with intent to sew two stitches, to catch a stag [game], to slaughter it, to skin, to salt [cure] a hide, to singe a hide, to tan, to cut up a skin, to write two letters, to erase with intent to write two letters, to build, to demolish, to extinguish fire, to kindle fire, to hammer, to carry [or convey] from one [place] into another (m. Shabbat 7.2).[5]



Christ disparaged these types of onerous regulations in Matt 12 and elsewhere in the gospels, not the Sabbath itself. He focused upon the intent of God’s commandment to observe a day of rest.[6]

In fact, shortly before this confrontation Christ invited people to come to him to receive true rest (Matt 11:28–30).[7]

The rabbinic additions to the law made the Sabbath a burden, not a blessing.[8]

When religious practices become rigid codes of conduct, they often contradict the purpose of God by failing to express love and concern for the needs of others.[9]

Since Jesus censured the Pharisees’ entire industry of making new rules, and thereby drew away their followers, the leaders of that Jewish sect wanted to dispose of him.[10]



This passage begins with Jesus and his disciples taking a Sabbath’s day stroll along a path through a field. The law permitted those who were hungry to eat from other people’s crops. It even stated that farmers should not reap the edges of a field to provide food for the poor (Deut. 23:24–25; Deut 24:19–22).[11]

However, the Pharisees considered picking grain equivalent to harvesting (Exod 34:21). To make the grain edible, the disciples rubbed it between their hands. That constituted threshing, according to these opponents of Christ (Luke 6:1–2).[12]

One Pharisee wrote, “Whoever carries out [any article of] food equal to [the size of] a dried fig is guilty. And victuals may be computed together, as the legal quantity is the same for all; excepting peels, [shells], kernels, and stalks; [likewise] bran, fine or coarse” (m. Shabbat 7.4).[13]

That Pharisees loitered around a Galilean wheat field on the Sabbath seems quite unusual.[14] Due to increasing tensions over Jesus’s ministry, they were almost certainly waiting for an opportunity to accuse him of violating the law.

Matthew wrote, “When the Pharisees saw [this], they said ‘Behold! Your disciples are doing what is not authorized to do on the Sabbath.’”

In their view, “what is authorized” applied to both explicit Old Testament (OT) commands and the Mishnah.[15]

Although it appears that Jesus was not participating in this activity,[16] the Pharisees addressed him because a teacher was responsible for the behavior of his disciples.[17]

They regarded this as Jesus’s failure to properly train his devotees.[18]



Instead of discussing the dietary requirements of his followers, Christ replied based upon his authority to interpret the law.[19]

Jesus did not chide his disciples. In fact, he used two analogies to defend them against the charge of lawlessness.[20]

Matthew reported, “But he said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he hungered and those with him, how he entered into the house of God, and the bread of presentation they ate, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but only for the priests?’” (1 Sam 21:1–6).

In that culture—which focused upon maintaining honor and avoiding shame—Jesus highly insulted the experts by asking whether they had read the OT.[21]

Initially, it seems that David’s actions had no relation to the seventh day of the week.[22] However, the priests ate and replaced the twelve loaves of consecrated bread on every Sabbath (Lev 24:5–9).[23]

Jesus also noted that David entered the sanctuary, a location strictly forbidden to anyone but a Levite (Num 3:5–10).[24] Although they both acted unlawfully, the OT condemned neither David nor the priest.[25] Abimelech recognized David as a man anointed by God who needed his help.[26]

Therefore, Christ asserted that the law exists to serve God’s people, not for God’s people to serve the law.[27]

Jesus then delivered another analogy, “Or have you not read in the law that, ‘On the Sabbath, the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and are innocent’?”

Butchering animals and replacing ceremonial loaves of bread both constitute “work” (Num 28:1–2, 9–10). The Babylonian Talmud asserts that sacrificial service supersedes the Sabbath (b. Shabbat, 132b). Since the law requires the priests’ activity, they remain guiltless, just as with circumcision (John 7:23–24).[28]



At this point, Jesus employed a traditional form of Jewish debate known as a “how much more” argument.[29] “But I say to you” drew attention to his imminent declaration and asserted his authority.[30]

Overstating how shocking Christ’s words were to his original audience would be difficult.[31] He proclaimed, “But I say to you, than the temple, something greater is here.”[32]

For Israel, the temple was much more than a place of worship. God met with his people there, and it was a powerful symbol of their national identity. Under Roman rule, its priestly administration was the only form of self-government the Jewish people possessed. They considered threatening the temple treason (Matt 26:59–62).[33]

Although the word “something” could refer to Jesus himself, Christ was likely speaking of his presence and ministry with his disciples. They were ushering in a new era in the kingdom of God (Matt 1:23; 1 Cor 3:16–17; 1 Pet 2:5–6). Since the Lord permitted David and his men to do what was unlawful, he allowed the actions of the Son of David and his disciples as well (Matt 22:41–46).[34]



Jesus then quoted the Greek translation of Hosea 6:6 in a way which implied that the Pharisees knew the verse.

He said, “But if you had known what this means, ‘Mercy I desire and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

By declaring his disciples “innocent,” Jesus asserted that the Pharisees erroneously interpreted the law. They found fault where God saw none (Matt 9:10–13), for mercy takes precedence over conformity to external regulations (Mark 2:27; Matt 23:23).[35]

Indeed, God’s mercy prevented him from striking dead the priests who served on the Sabbath.[36]

Christ concluded with another startling announcement which conveyed his authority and his identity.[37] He asserted, “For Lord of the Sabbath is the Son of Man.”

The title “Son of Man” alludes to Dan 7:13–14. Therefore, Jesus affirmed that the Father had given him authority over all people. Since he was already Lord,[38] he determined how to adhere to the Sabbath (Matt 5:17). God intended the seventh day to bring rest and rejoicing. Thus, his disciples did not violate it by satisfying their hunger.[39]



So, do we as people living under the new covenant of freedom from the law have to observe the Sabbath (Rom 7:4–6)? [40]

Paul clarified that whether and how one keeps the Sabbath depends upon individual conscience (Col 2:16; Rom 14:5–6).[41] The time which God set apart as holy serves as his gift to his representatives on earth, not as a burden.[42]

Just as he designed the rest of creation for humanity’s sake, so he made the Sabbath.[43] Despite the many benefits of Sabbath observance, no one should be coerced into keeping it.[44]

Even in rest, the Lord continues to create (John 5:15–17).[45] Since creation naturally flows from him, he never intended for us to do absolutely nothing on one day of the week.

While gathering for worship is a great idea, we can do even more to express our appreciation for all that God has done for us (Heb 10:23–25; Heb 13:15–16). This enables us to creatively observe the Sabbath, reflecting our love and reverence for the Lord, and extending his kingdom throughout the earth.[46]

For Christians, the Sabbath comprises many things. It is a day of rest; a day of victory; a day of worship; and a day of hope, as we anticipate our ultimate rest in the Lord’s presence. In a sense, God created all the other days of the week to usher in the seventh day.[47]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Matt 12:1–8. Why were the Pharisees’ interpretation of Sabbath regulations in error? What made Christ’s statements so provocative? Why did God institute the Sabbath? How do you think we should observe it?





Go to Entering God’s Rest (Heb 4:1–13)

[Related posts include God Completes the Heavens and the Earth (Gen 2:1–2); The Lord Blesses the Seventh Day (Gen 2:3); Entering God’s Rest (Heb 4:1–13); Ancient Literature; and Greek Translation of the Old Testament]

[Click here to go to Chapter 4: The Sabbath Rest of God (Genesis 2:1–3)]


[1]John I. Durham, Exodus (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1998), 289.

[2]Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 438.

[3] Wilkins, Matthew, 438.

[4]R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 455–6.

[5]D. A. Sola and M. J. Raphall, trans., Eighteen Treatises from the Mishna (London: Sherwood, Golbert, and Piper, 1843), m. Shabbat 7.2,

[6] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 456.

[7] Wilkins, Matthew, 438.

[8] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 454–5.

[9]Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1998), 331.

[10] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 456.

[11] Wilkins, Matthew, 439.

[12] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 457.

[13]Sola and Raphall, trans., Eighteen Treatises from the Mishna, Shabbat 7.4,

[14]Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 351.

[15] Wilkins, Matthew, 439.

[16] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 328.

[17] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 457–8.

[18] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 355.

[19] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 457.

[20] Wilkins, Matthew, 439.

[21] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 355.

[22] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 329.

[23] Wilkins, Matthew, 439–40.

[24] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 458.

[25] Wilkins, Matthew, 440.

[26] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 459.

[27] Wilkins, Matthew, 440.

[28] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 459–60.

[29] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 356.

[30]Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 299.

[31] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 460.

[32] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 329–30.

[33] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 460.

[34] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 329–30.

[35] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 461–2.

[36] Wilkins, Matthew, 441.

[37] Wilkins, Matthew, 441.

[38] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 462.

[39] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 330–1.

[40] Walton, Genesis, 158.

[41] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 72.

[42] Walton, Genesis, 158.

[43] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 38.

[44] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 72.

[45] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, 69.

[46] Walton, Genesis, 159.

[47] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, 70.