Jesus Broke The Rules

Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of Heaven. He has opposed legalism. He has invited those who are burdened by legalistic religion or expectations and their inability to keep the Law into His rest. After Matthew mentions Christ’s rest, he records Jesus’s teachings about the Sabbath, or the official day of rest according to Mosaic Law.

Matthew 12:1-8

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.

But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.”

But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

The accusation (v. 1-2)

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.

“At that time,” at the time Jesus has denounced the Galilean cities for rejecting His Gospel, praised the Father for hiding and revealing the Gospel according to His own will, and invited those who are weary and burdened by the world’s legalism into His rest, Jesus goes through the grainfields on the Sabbath, the day of rest. He and His disciples are eating from the gainfields because they are hungry.

But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.”

The Pharisees take the opportunity to accuse Jesus of teaching His disciples to break God’s Law. We remember that Jesus has declared His dedication to the Law and instructed His disciples to be as dedicated (5:13-17). Jesus has also come to fulfill all righteousness on behalf of His people (3:15). If Jesus breaks the Law at any point, He has failed His mission. If He teaches others to break the Law, He has failed to uphold God’s Law. Jesus has condemned legalism. Jesus came eating grapes and drinking wine and strong drink (11:18-19). The Pharisees are now taking Jesus’s teaching against legalism, His use of Christian liberty, and accusing Him of discarding the Law, of being antinomian. People offer the same accusations against Christians who practice their liberties in Christ today. They accuse those who practice Christian liberty as being too much like the world and not practicing good enough abstinence. The Pharisees accuse Jesus similarly in this passage.

Is there any credence to the Pharisees’ accusation? Does Jesus transgress the Father’s Law by taking all the liberties He has? While the Jews taught that all sowing and reaping, along with every other activity required for making bread, was unlawful on the Sabbath (Mishnah, Tractate 7, Chapter 2), the Law does not restrict any activities that do not relate to a person’s profession (see Exodus 20:8-11, Numbers 15:32-41). Jesus has already addressed the Jews’ tendency to interpret the Law legalistically by mocking their additions to the Law in the Talmud (see notes on Matthew 5:29-30). This is the second time Jesus must engage the way the Pharisees and scribes have been adding to God’s Law. Jesus is not breaking the Law. He is breaking the extra legalistic rules that human people have added since the intertestamental period. 

Breaking the Sabbath (v. 3-5)

But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?”

Even though Jesus is not, in fact, breaking the Law, He does not respond by defending His liberty, which He could do by alluding to Numbers 23:24-25. Human tendency is to defend the liberties we take, but not Jesus. Instead, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the Scriptures beginning with 1 Samuel 21:1-6,

Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest; and Ahimelech came trembling to meet David and said to him, “Why are you alone and no one with you?”

David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has commissioned me with a matter and has said to me, ‘Let no one know anything about the matter on which I am sending you and with which I have commissioned you; and I have directed the young men to a certain place.’ Now therefore, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever can be found.”

The priest answered David and said, “There is no ordinary bread on hand, but there is consecrated bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women.”

David answered the priest and said to him, “Surely women have been kept from us as previously when I set out and the vessels of the young men were holy, though it was an ordinary journey; how much more then today will their vessels be holy?

So the priest gave him consecrated bread; for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence which was removed from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place when it was taken away.

In this story, the priest sinned by offering the consecrated bread to David. David broke God’s Law by lying to the priest about having been sent by the king and by partaking of the consecrated bread. Not being with women was a condition the priest required, but it didn’t make the eating of the bread lawful. Even Jesus teaches that it was not lawful for David or his men to eat the bread reserved for the priest. When we read Leviticus 24:8, we see that the consecrated bread is to be preserved by and for the priests and replaced every Sabbath. So, David was not only working but, also, breaking God’s explicit Law on the Sabbath. God neither punished David nor reprimanded him for breaking the Law.

“Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?”

After alluding to one priest, Ahimelech, who broke the Law, Jesus describes how the Law actually requires all priests to break the Sabbath according to the Talmudic standards His accusers have. According to Leviticus 24:8, the priests must make bread on the Sabbath, which is against the added rules in Mishnah Tractate 7, Chapter 2. If Jesus is breaking the Law, so is every single priest on every single Sabbath day. The legalistic addition in the Talmud contradicted God’s Law, rendering the Pharisees’ legalism unlawful, not Jesus’s use of liberty.

Jesus isn’t saying, “I’m simply doing what David did.” He is comparing the oral Mishnah to Scripture to show that the added legalistic rules are contrary to Scripture. Jesus is within the bounds of God’s Law and the Pharisees are revealed to be corrupt in their knowledge and religious practice because they have added to God’s Law. Any teacher who adds to or takes away from God’s perfect Law is a false teacher. Jesus proves He is more qualified to teach the Law than the Pharisees who accuse Him. Jesus doesn’t defend His own liberty; He defends the purity and sufficiency of God’s word. Jesus was not antinomian after all. The Pharisees, in their legalism, are also antinomians. They are the one’s who disregard the intention and boundaries of God’s Law. 

The Lord of the Sabbath (v. 6-8)

“But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

Jesus now quotes from 1 Samuel 15:22. God desires obedience rather than sacrifice. In context, Saul has rejected God’s word because he has not done what God wanted him to do. Saul was focussed on ritual. He was trying to gain from the Lord by doing stuff that he saw in the Law. We can’t put religiosity under our pillows and expect it to be replaced with blessing when we wake up. This is why Jesus accuses the Jews in John’s Gospel,

And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life (John 5:37-40).

People seem to think, through the ages, that they can do certain things to gain life. Christians idolize the Scripture, thinking that life or victory or success is found in keeping the rules. Buddhists, by emptying the mind. Muslims, by submitting to Allah. Mystics, by practicing the arts or witchcraft. Animists, by worshipping the ancestors. Cults, by fitting in under a certain leader because he or she provides for them in some way. Life, though, is not found in ritual, power, overcoming addiction, trying to rid self of all sin or vice, conjuring up some supernatural advantage, or any other type of merit. Life is only found in Christ and the Scriptures are meant to be a witness about Him. Contrary to the popular saying, the Bible is not our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth—it is Christ’s testimony of Himself. God delights in us when His word abides in us—when by it we know Him, which is vastly different from trying to gain for ourselves by doing something listed in Scripture or by any religious means. 

Do you sense the struggle? How can God care more about obedience than sacrifice in a way which obedience is not works-based or ritualistic? The obedience God desires is obedience of the heart, not the sacrifices of ritual—it’s loyalty, devotion, love.

If the Pharisees, who added to God’s Law and used their own additions to accuse people of breaking God’s Law, knew God as a result of reading His Law, they would not have condemned people who weren’t actually breaking the Law. What are some things legalistic people, especially in the organized church, condemn people for today that isn’t actually condemned in Scripture? Here are some I thought of:

  1. Having a drink,
  2. smoking,
  3. listening to secular music,
  4. dancing,
  5. seeing a counselor,
  6. getting medical help,
  7. using medicine,
  8. not dressing up for church,
  9. women dressing up, wearing earrings, or braiding their hair,
  10. doing anything on the Sabbath other than strictly rest or doing church, and
  11. any other legalistic expectations people have.

Jesus teaches that people who condemn others because they have broken the Law, especially adding to the Law what isn’t there and condemning others based on their additions to God’s Law, neither have God’s word abiding in them nor really believe Christ. Jesus has, again, unmasked legalism and given us the purpose of the Law—not that we might be burdened by rules but, instead, know Christ through the Law. He is the one who fulfills God’s perfect Law, not us. Because of that, we have liberty. We do not stand condemned.

“For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Jesus concludes His answer to the Pharisees by claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath. On the sixth day of creation, God instructed people to work. On the seventh day, God rested. The creation story shows us that by human striving we are incomplete. Jesus is, here, claiming to be the God who rested on the seventh day. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. He is our rest, just as He insinuated in Chapter 11, verse 28. Again, those who are tired of legalistic, human-centered religion or expectations are invited into Christ’s rest. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He does not pile on the expectations and legalistic rules. In Christ, we have liberty. The more we know Christ, the more His Law is written on our hearts, and we yearn to honor Him. God desires compassion, our love, rather than sacrifice. When we come to love Christ, we desire His righteousness. That’s the only way liberty works.

Here is what we’ve learned about the kingdom of Heaven in this section of Matthew’s Gospel:

Kingdom of HeavenKingdom of This World
Kingdom of priestsKingdom of consumers
Kingdom of prestige even for the leastKingdom of comparison and contrast
Kingdom of judgment even for the greatest
Exists throughout time—even before Christ’s incarnation
A people not a physical locationDefined by visible structures and conquests
Kingdom of suffering in the midst of this worldKingdom of force
Able to hear and understand Christ’s teachingUnable to hear and understand Christ’s teaching
Kingdom of wisdomKingdom of faultfinding
Kingdom of repentanceKingdom of pride
Chosen and built by God’s will aloneRejected by God’s will alone
Kingdom of restKingdom of merit
Kingdom of libertyKingdom of restriction
Kingdom of willing purityKingdom of unwilling rule-keeping

Questions:

  1. Was Jesus against the Law?
  2. Why do the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being unlawful?
  3. How does the truth that Christ fulfills all righteousness inform the way we treat others concerning any expectations or rules?
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