Matthew 12: 1-21: Keeping the Sabbath
It was a Sabbath day at Capernaum. That meant to the Jews, and especially to the strict Pharisees, a day to do no useful thing. They said that it was wrong to make a fire on the Sabbath, or to walk more than a very short way, or to carry any burden, or to take good care of the sick, even to set a broken bone. (See Edersheim's Jesus the Messiah, Appendix XVII.) But the Lord did not keep the Sabbath so; He taught the people on the Sabbath days and healed many who were sick. This Sabbath the Lord was walking with His disciples through the grain fields. There were no fences, and the ears of grain, probably wheat, were growing by the path on either side. As they walked and listened the disciples picked the ears and ate the grain as they rubbed them out in their hands. (Have you ever eaten wheat in this way? It is very sweet and good.) The Pharisees complained that the disciples were doing wrong, that they were doing work on the Sabbath; but the Lord said it was not wrong, and He reminded them of other things which were done in holy times, and holy places which were not wrong. Once David had come hungry to the tabernacle and had taken the holy bread for himself and the men that were with him; and the priests at the temple did their work each Sabbath in offering the sacrifices and the incense. They were not doing wrong; the disciples were not doing wrong. It was right for them to walk with the Lord on the Sabbath and listen to His teaching and grow stronger in soul and body as they went.
On another Sabbath they were in the synagogue. The synagogue was the church where the Jews gathered on the Sabbath and at other times to hear the Scriptures read and explained. There was the shrine where the sacred rolls were kept, and the platform where the reader stood to read and sat down to teach the people who sat before him on the floor. On this Sabbath in the synagogue there was a man whose right hand was withered so that it had no strength. The Pharisees would say that it was wrong to heal this poor man on the Sabbath, but the Lord showed that it was not wrong. He said, "It is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days." He told the man to stretch out his hand, and it was healed.
How would the Lord wish us to keep Sunday? It should be a happy day, but not just like other days. It is a holy day. On Sunday we can go to church and Sunday school, or hear a Bible story at home and learn about heaven and the Lord. We will not play rough and noisy plays on Sunday. Perhaps we can have some books and playthings especially for Sunday. If we walk in the fields or woods we can think that the Lord has made all the beautiful things and is taking care of them. And remembering how often the Lord healed the sick people on the Sabbath, we can try on Sunday to do kind things for people who are sick or in any trouble. These are ways to keep the Sabbath holy. Read verses 1-13.
Let us read the first part of our chapter one verse at a time. In the first verse what is meant by corn? The paths led through the grain fields, the seed often falling on the beaten path when the sower sowed. The law allowed a passer-by to pick what he wanted to eat of grapes or growing corn. (Deuteronomy 23:24, 25)
Verse 2 brings to mind the strict rules of the Pharisees about the keeping of the Sabbath. I have told the little children some of the rules, and mentioned a book where you may learn more about them. You cannot believe how external and trifling these rules of the Sabbath were.
Read verses 3 and 4. Who knows the story of David that is referred to? Find it in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. Do you know what the hallowed bread of the tabernacle was, and why it is spoken of as being "for the priests alone"? Look further back to Exodus 25:30, and Leviticus 24:5-9, to remind you of the table, and the showbread which was put fresh upon it every Sabbath, and when taken from the table was eaten by Aaron and his sons in the holy place. Read verse 5. What we have said about the showbread reminds you of one of the Sabbath duties of the priests in the temple. What other duties of the priests do you think of?
Who is the "one greater than the temple" referred to in verse 6? Compare John 2:19-22, where the Lord called Himself the temple. You see the meaning of this and the two following verses. The temple and its service had represented the Lord and His Divine life with men. The sacrifices and all the formal observances of the Jews had been holy only because they represented mercy and other forms of love to the Lord. (This had been often declared even in the old days. See Jeremiah 7:21-23; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Psalm 51:16, 17, and many other places.) Even the Sabbath and its rest were holy because they represented the Christian life of nearness to the Lord that was now beginning to be realized. The real thing had now come that had been pictured by the temple, the sacrifices, and the Sabbath; but the Pharisees hated it and set themselves against it. This hatred you see developing all through this chapter. See verses 14, 24, 31, 32.
Read verses 10-13. After learning about the rules of the Pharisees, which forbade almost every useful thing on the Sabbath, you may wonder at the Lord's words in verse 11 which imply that even the Pharisees would on the Sabbath lift out a sheep which had fallen into a pit. See also the lifting out of an ox or ass, and the loosing of ox and ass and leading them to watering, in Luke 14:5; 13:15. Points connected with the care of animals were much discussed by the Pharisees. Leading them to water was allowed, though not carrying water to them. It was allowed to let down food and drink to an animal fallen into a pit, and to provide means by which it could get out, or even in some cases to lift it out.
The Lord showed the absurdity of their position. If common humanity required such permissions in the care of animals, and if they were in keeping with the Divine spirit of the Sabbath, how unreasonable to suppose that it was against the spirit of the Sabbath to do works of mercy to human beings! One point we notice in this healing of the withered hand, the command to the man to stretch out his hand. As he obeyed his hand received new strength. This suggests that we must do our part if we would have the Lord help us. We must use what strength we have if we expect Him to bless our effort and give us more strength.
Read verses 14-16. The hatred and opposition of the Pharisees were becoming settled, but there were open-minded Gentile people more ready to receive the Lord, to whom He could now turn. It had been foretold that this would be so, and the prophecy had also told of the Lord's gentleness toward such simple-hearted people, and His care not to do violence to the least possible beginning of truth or goodness in their souls. Can you find the prophecy in Isaiah? With verse 16 compare Matthew 9:30. What did we think could be the reason for such a charge?
1. What is the Commandment about the Sabbath day? How did the Pharisees keep the Sabbath? How did the Lord keep it?
2. What happened one Sabbath in the grain field? One Sabbath in the synagogue?
3. What was the showbread? When did David eat it? What did the priests do in the temple?
4. Ought we on Sunday to do the same work, and play the same games, and make the day just like other days? What ought we to keep Sunday?
Notice that both here in Galilee and in Jerusalem (John 5:16; 9:16) the issue between the Pharisees and the Lord arose over the observance of the Sabbath. You see the reason of this. It was because the Sabbath was representative of heaven and of all things of religion and worship. With the Pharisees all these were mere forms filled with a selfish sanctity and pride. The Lord was showing the true spirit of heaven and of all things of religion, and it called out the hatred of the Pharisees. See T. 301-304; A. 10730, and many other numbers.
Can we see that the disciples eating the ears of corn as they walked with the Lord were not only "guiltless," but that this represented a part of the true keeping of the day? The grain is instruction in regard to the duties of life. The Lord was giving the disciples such food for their spirits as they walked; and not stale, formal teaching, but teaching fresh, like growing ears, from His own life's experience. Their rubbing with their hands represented earnest reception with effort to be doing what they learned. This ought to be a part of our keeping of the Sabbath. The disciples' eating of the grain shows the importance of Sunday instruction, and the spirit in which we should receive it. (T. 301; A. 5293, 5576)
The story of David at the tabernacle is referred to. Whom does he represent? What is represented by his eating the hallowed bread? And what by his giving it to his companions?
What is represented by the healing on the Sabbath day? The spirit of love and service that should characterize the Sabbath and all things of religion and heaven. Can you think how this man in the synagogue with the withered hand was representative of the Jews in their religion? It was lacking in the good works, which the hand represents (especially the right hand, Luke 6:6). The Pharisees forbade the doing of such works, and they were made angry by the healing of the withered hand. It was all expressive of their hatred of a spirit of mercy and of a religion of good works. (T. 301)
Consider verses 19, 20, a part of the prophecy which describes the Lord's ministry to the Gentiles, to those not learned but of simple, open heart. That He will not strive nor cry, suggests the gentleness of His teaching, adapted to feeble powers of understanding. Streets spiritually are truths that show us how to live. That is why here and elsewhere instruction is associated with the streets. (Luke 13:26; R. 501) "A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench," means that the Lord is very tender in saving and strengthening even the least beginnings of heavenly understanding and love. We saw that a reed meant weak, superficial understanding when the Lord asked if John the Baptist were a reed shaken with the wind; and we know that fire is a type of love. Read the beautiful explanation in E. 627.