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R. T. France: Three areas of controversy stand out in this chapter:

  1. Jesus’ attitude to the sabbath (vv. 1–14),
  2. his exorcisms (vv. 22–37), and
  3. the basis of his authority as it is challenged in the demand for an authenticating “sign” (vv. 38–45).

At each point we meet people in positions of religious leadership who confront Jesus and challenge his authority to act as he has been doing, “the Pharisees” in vv. 2, 14 and 24 and “some of the scribes and Pharisees” in v. 38. For them Jesus is a law-breaker (vv. 1–14), an agent of Satan (vv. 24–32) and a self-appointed “teacher” with no proper authorization (vv. 38–42). As a result already at this relatively early point in the story we hear of a formulated plan to eliminate Jesus (12:14), even though it will not in fact be in Galilee and under Pharisaic auspices that Jesus will eventually be executed, but under the priestly régime of Jerusalem. Matthew will have more to say of Galilean opposition to Jesus in 13:53 – 14:2; 15:1–20; 16:1–4, but already by the end of ch. 12 the main lines have been laid down. .

Jesus’ disagreement with this Pharisaic approach centers on two considerations.

  1. The first (which is in view in 3–6 and 8) is that of authority: who has the right to declare what is and is not forbidden on the sabbath? For the christological implications of Jesus’ claim to such authority see introductory comments on 12:1–45 above.
  2. The second (developed in 11–12, and cf. v. 7) is the issue of priorities: as in 5:21–48, Jesus is concerned to get behind the regulations to the original spirit and intention of God’s law.

Jesus’ key pronouncements on these two issues are

  1. 8, “The Son of Man is the Lord of the sabbath” and
  2. 12b, “It is permissible to do good on the sabbath.”

The effect of these two positive principles together is to call in question the whole scribal industry of sabbath-regulation; no wonder they wanted to get rid of him.

John Nolland: Here we see the disciples operating under the yoke of Jesus, who declares them guiltless when they satisfy their hunger on the sabbath in a manner deemed contrary to the Law by the Pharisees. But with its fresh introduction of conflict with the Pharisees, this unit also looks forward: conflict with the Pharisees will be the unifying motif of chap. 12.

Daniel Doriani: In the present passage, two contrasting views of Sabbath law become the catalyst for conflict between Jesus and some Pharisees. The Pharisees act like parents with excessively rigid rules. Jesus uses the occasion to teach two important lessons. First, he is Lord of the Sabbath. As its Lord, he designs it as a day for worship and service, for love of God and neighbor. Second, Jesus uses the dispute to teach us something about his identity and character. .

When the Pharisees charged Jesus with doing something illegal on the Sabbath, it was no friendly comment. They thought they caught him red-handed in serious sin. Their accusation, and Jesus’ answer, lead to several lessons. First, God designed the law to promote mercy and love, not to be an end in itself. When people view the law as an end in itself, it can become their god. Second, Jesus is Lord and Master of the Sabbath. While he accepts the traditional view that the Sabbath is for worship and rest, he adds that it is also a good day for acts of kindness.

Stanley Saunders: The primary focus throughout these episodes is on Jesus’ identity, the congruence of his words, actions, and mission, and the irony that his manifestation of God’s mercy generates such resolute and violent resistance.


A.  (:1-2) Accusation by the Pharisees

  1. (:1)  The Circumstances – Hungry Disciples Plucking Grain on the Sabbath

At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields,

and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.

Grant Osborne: As in 11:25, “at that time” (ἐν ἐκείνῳ τῷ καιρῷ) provides a transition from one event to the other. . .   Galilee had particularly fertile land and contained many farms, with wealthy people buying large tracts of land and breaking it up into tenant farms . . .   The σπορίμων were the “grain fields” and στάχυας the heads of wheat, which came ripe in March/April. Unlike today, when roads go around properties, in the ancient world roads went right through the fields, so that grain was growing right up to the walkway on both sides.

John Nolland: Though it is the behaviour of the disciples which will come under scrutiny, it is Jesus who heads into the grainfields; and he will take responsibility for the subsequent action of the disciples.

Craig Blomberg: The ripening of the grain suggests springtime, perhaps a few weeks after Passover.  Matthew does not explain why the group was out traveling on a Sabbath, where they were going, or why they were hungry, merely that Jesus’ disciples pluck some grain to satisfy their appetites.

Charles Swindoll: Definition given by Charles Ryrie for legalism: “a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.”  The code is man-made, often part of a system of traditional practices going back several generations. . .

The strangest thing about this account, though, is that the Pharisees were watching. Think about how close they had to be to see those tiny kernels going from the disciples’ hands to their mouths.  They were spying on Jesus, just longing for a glimpse of even a minor infraction of their man-made laws!  As soon as they saw the disciples snacking, they pounced: “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath” (Matt. 12:2).  The way the statement is phrased in Greek gives the impression that they were standing right there, pointing at something the disciples were doing at that very instant.  How bizarre!  But how typical of legalists.

It is interesting that the disciples didn’t even think twice about what they were doing.  They didn’t ask permission from Jesus, nor did Jesus give any indication that the disciples might want to refrain from snacking so as not to offend the sensitive Pharisees.  The disciples had been around Jesus long enough and had heard enough of his teachings to know the difference between the Mosaic Law and man-made traditions.

  1. (:2)  The Charge = Breaking the Sabbath Laws

But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him,

‘Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.’

Grant Osborne: The OT only stipulated that the Sabbath was to be holy and a day of rest from work (Exod 20:8–11 = Deut 5:12–15), but the Jewish people needed directions on what constituted work on the Sabbath, so the Mishnah developed thirty-nine rules on what could or could not be done then (m. Šabb. 7:2).7 They were strict enough that a mishnaic tract said, “The rules for the Sabbath are like mountains hanging by a hair, for Scripture is scanty and the rules many (m. Ḥag. 1:8).”

Leon Morris: Plucking the grain was reaping, rubbing it to separate the grain from the husks (Luke tells us that they did this) was threshing, blowing away the husks may well have been interpreted as winnowing, and for good measure they may have seen the whole as preparation of food, which they also regarded as prohibited (all food eaten on the Sabbath had to be prepared on the previous day).

B.  (:3-5) Two OT Examples of Mitigating Circumstances

  1. (:3-4)  Example #1 – David Eating Showbread Intended for the Priests

But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; 4 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?’

Grant Osborne: The story comes from 1 Sam 21:1–6, when David was fleeing from Saul and was hungry.  This occurred at Nob just a couple miles south of Jerusalem. . .

Jesus is making another qal wahomer argument (from the lesser to the greater; see those at 6:25–26 and 10:29–30): If David and his men could break the Torah for the sake of hunger, how much more could Jesus and his disciples?

Daniel Doriani: David told them he left the king in such haste that he had no food. David asked what they could give him (1 Sam. 21:1–7). The priests said they had nothing but “the consecrated bread.” That bread came from the grain offerings of the people. From their gifts, the priests offered twelve loaves of bread to God to represent the gifts of the twelve tribes of Israel. Whenever the priests removed the bread, the law required that a priest eat that bread.

The priests faced a decision. The bread belonged to the priests, yet it also belonged to God, and David was God’s anointed servant. The priests deliberated, then gave the bread to David, to keep the Lord’s anointed king from going hungry. Technically speaking, everyone knew this was illegal. The law clearly stipulated that none but a priest could eat the consecrated bread. But the priests understood the true purpose of the law: to lead the people to love and worship God.

As the Lord’s anointed, David led the people in their spiritual service. He was God’s agent, just as the priests were. Which was better: to feed God’s anointed servant or observe a rule about priests and bread while sending the hope of Israel away hungry? The priests gave David the bread; Jesus approved and drew a lesson from the event. Just as the needs of God’s king and his servants outweighed sacrificial regulations in David’s day, so the needs of King Jesus and his servants outweigh Sabbath regulations. The needs of God’s ordained leaders take precedence over ritual law. The king’s men have a right to eat, whether those men belong to David or to Jesus. Jesus says the Pharisees should have seen this as they read the Old Testament and considered Jesus’ work as Israel’s true king.

Craig Blomberg: Jesus’ point is not that analogous circumstances exist to warrant exceptional practices but that “one greater than the temple is here” (v. 6). By implication the point of v. 4 is therefore also that “one greater than David is here” (cf. 22:41-45).  It is not, therefore, the particular situation in which Jesus finds himself that justifies his disciples’ behavior but his very nature and authority which can transcend the law and make permissible for his disciples what once was forbidden.

S. Lewis Johnson: In other words, our Lord refers to the incident, points out that even in the Scriptures themselves, we have indications of the relative significance of the ceremonial and cultic laws as over against the laws of right and wrong: mercy, things of necessity for the preservation of life. And in addition, if we remember that David the King is a type of our Lord Jesus – he is in rejection; he is seeking food; and he is fed by the priesthood – all of this has application to our Lord who is in rejection with his disciples, hungry and seeking food, on a secret mission from heaven.

  1. (:5)  Example #2 – Priests Performing Work on the Sabbath

Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath

the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent?

Donald Hagner: Technically the priests desecrate (βεβηλοῦσιν, a particularly strong word) the sabbath commandment, yet they remain ἀναίτιοι, “guiltless” (John 7:23 gives a similar instance). This is yet another special instance. The priests are about the work of God and thus are not bound by the normal regulations concerning the sabbath. So too it is implied by an a fortiori argument (or in rabbinic idiom, qal wāḥômer) that Jesus and his disciples constitute a special instance and thus are not bound. They preeminently are about the work of God. Although this point is implicit and not explicit, the next saying depends on just such a conclusion.

C.  (:6-8) Justification Provided by Jesus – Don’t Fight against the Supremacy of Jesus

  1. (:6)  Superior Access to the Presence of God

But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here.

Grant Osborne: Jesus points to himself as not just “greater” than the priests but even “greater” than the temple (note the emphatic position of “the temple” [τοῦ ἱεροῦ])! The neuter (rather than masculine) “greater” (μεῖζον) is significant, pointing to the kingdom ministry and messianic office of Jesus and not just his person.  The point is that if the temple service took precedence over the Sabbath, then Jesus and his ministry have even greater authority over the Sabbath, for he supercedes the temple.

  1. (:7)  Superior Understanding of the Intent of God’s Law

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Grant Osborne: Jesus is saying that mercy rather than legal observance is the heart of God’s will and that he has correctly exemplified this with respect to his disciples, who are thereby “guiltless” before God.

Yang: (Jesus and the Sabbath) — By quoting Hos 6:6 in v. 7, Jesus shows what God’s original intention for the sabbath was—that is, the sabbath was instituted for the benefit of the people and was presented not as a burden but as an expression of mercy; that intention is now fulfilled by Jesus himself, the merciful one, under whose authority the disciples are guiltless because they rightly understood and behaved according to the true meaning and intention of the sabbath.

Daniel Doriani: Jesus cites the priests because they work hard on the Sabbath. They teach, pray, slaughter animals, and drag them to altars for sacrifice. It is hard work, physically and mentally. If the true meaning of the Sabbath is “You shall never work,” the priests work so hard that we can only call it desecration. But, of course, the law itself requires the priests to work on the Sabbath.

Clearly then, the law knows priorities. David’s case shows that human need supersedes Sabbath regulations. The priests show that worship and service to the Lord do too. Jesus continues, “Something greater than the temple is here” (12:6 ESV). That is, if priests may work to serve God in the temple, the space that represents the presence of God, then the disciples may work to assist Jesus, for he is the presence of God. . .

The temple merely represents the presence of God. Jesus is greater than the temple because he is the presence of God with us. Again, the temple represents the sacrifices that reconcile us to God, whereas Jesus is the sacrifice that reconciles us to God. The disciples are free to reap on the Sabbath, because, like the priests in the temple, they must be free to serve him.

D. A. Carson: Jesus’ argument, then, provides an instance from the law itself in which the Sabbath restrictions were superseded by the priests because their cultic responsibilities took precedence: the temple, as it were, was greater than the Sabbath. But now, Jesus claims, “something” greater than the temple is here. And that, too, takes precedence over the Sabbath. This solution is entirely consistent with what we have perceived to be Jesus’ attitude to the law in this gospel. The law points to him and finds its fulfillment in him (see comments at 5:17–48). Not only, then, have the Pharisees mishandled the law by their halakah (vv.3–4), but they have failed to perceive who Jesus is. The authority of the temple laws shielded the priests from guilt; the authority of Jesus shields his disciples from guilt. It is not a matter of comparing Jesus’ action with the action of the priests; nor is it likely that Jesus is suggesting that all his disciples are priests (contra Lohmeyer). “Rather, it is a question of contrasting [new emphasis] [Jesus’] authority with the authority of the priests” (Carson, “Jesus and the Sabbath,” 67).

  1. (:8)  Superior Authority of the Son of Man

For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

Grant Osborne: Everything said thus far has moved to this point.  The “for” (γάρ) establishes both the reason for vv. 7–8 and the conclusion to all that has happened. The “Lord” (κύριος) is in the emphatic position and stresses the fact that Jesus has absolute authority over the Sabbath as cosmic Lord and the final interpreter of Torah (see on v. 6). “The Sabbath” (τοῦ σαββάτου) is an objective genitive, meaning that Jesus exhibits supreme lordship/authority over the Sabbath and its regulations. The use of the title “Son of Man” centers on the “one like a son of man” who is the glorified Lord of the universe in Dan 7:13–14.

In the OT God is master of the Sabbath, and here Jesus has that authority, continuing the high Christology of Matthew. Jesus is greater than the temple (that had precedence over the Sabbath) and thus is also Lord over the Sabbath. The Sabbath rest is embodied in Jesus, who offers “rest for your souls” in 11:28–30. As in 5:17–20 Jesus has not abolished the Sabbath but has fulfilled it and now provides the true parameters for the people of God to experience the Sabbath rest.

D. A. Carson: The Sabbath conflicts are not the cause of the plotting but its occasion. Therefore, Sabbath disputes were not mentioned at Jesus’ trials; in themselves they were never as much an issue as Jesus’ claim to be Sabbath’s Lord.

Donald Hagner: As the promised one, the Messiah, Jesus is the authoritative and definitive interpreter of the Torah. Thus the demands of the sabbath commandment, however they be construed, must give way to the presence and purpose of Jesus, and not vice versa.


A.  (:9-10) Accusation by the Pharisees

  1. (:9)  Home Turf for the Religious Leaders

And departing from there, He went into their synagogue.

Daniel Doriani: The Pharisees had an array of detailed laws about the right way to observe the Sabbath. Although their laws were extrabiblical, the Pharisees put them on the same plane as the written law of God. Their tradition said:

  • No one can travel more than eleven hundred paces on a Sabbath.
  • It is illegal to spit on the ground on the Sabbath. If the moisture dents the soil, the spitter is guilty of plowing. If a seed should be there, he is also guilty of sowing.
  • It is permitted to write a short word on the Sabbath, but not a long one.

Among the Pharisees’ laws, one said healing is permitted only in life- and-death situations. If someone is merely sick, the healing must wait until the day after the Sabbath. This law soon led to another conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

  1. (:10a)  Huge Opportunity for a Dramatic Showdown

And behold, there was a man with a withered hand.

Grant Osborne: Luke 6:6 tells us it was the right hand, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation. ξηράν means “dried up” and could be either shriveled or paralyzed. The main thing is the sad condition of the man; since in that world everyone worked with their hands, he would have been especially handicapped.

  1. (:10b)  Healing Is Not the Issue on the Minds of the Pharisees

And they questioned Him, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’—

in order that they might accuse Him.

Grant Osborne: The issue here is the real meaning and purpose of the Sabbath. The Pharisees had removed the joy and rest from the Sabbath by their detailed regulations; Jesus wants to return its true essence by doing good on it. The Sabbath is a time for healing and saving, not for hating and plotting. . .

By now the leaders have already made up their minds that Jesus is a false prophet who is dangerous to their cause. So they are not testing him but rather gathering evidence to be used against (“accuse”) him in a court of law (note how unconcerned they are with the situation of the man, in contrast to Jesus in vv. 12–13).

Donald Hagner: It is quite clear that the Pharisees did not believe it was lawful to heal on the sabbath, except in extreme cases of life or death (see m. Yoma 8:6: “Every case where life is in danger supersedes the sabbath”; cf. Mek. Exod. 22:2; 23:13). From their point of view, a man who had had a withered hand for some time could surely have waited one day more to be healed.

B. (:11-12) Common Sense Illustration of Mitigating Circumstances

  1. (:11)  What Would You Do?

And He said to them, ‘What man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out?’

  1. (:12a)  What Do You Value More?

Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep!

  1. (:12b)  What Is Your Conclusion?

So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Grant Osborne: Jesus’ point is that the “good” must benefit people, not the religious establishment and its legal structure. It is the individual person that is of supreme value to God, so when a law allows an afflicted situation to continue, it is an inadequate law. As Mark 2:27 says, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” So Jesus was not breaking the law but fulfilling it (Matt 5:17) and allowing it to be an expression of God’s love rather than legalistic requirements.

D. A. Carson: Was the Sabbath a day for maleficent activity—such as their evil intentions in questioning him—or for beneficent action, such as the healing about to be done?

R. T. France: The corollary that “it is permissible to do good on the sabbath” goes far beyond the specific issue under discussion. Its very lack of specificity is in striking contrast to the rabbinic desire to leave nothing to individual judgment. As a guide to sabbath observance it could result in widely divergent practice, and it lends itself to use as a convenient self-justification for any chosen course of action. What especially distinguishes it from the rabbinic rulings, and indeed from most of the OT laws themselves, is that it is positive rather than prohibitive. Like Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule (7:12) it puts the onus on the individual to decide what is “good” and how it may or may not be squared with the equally “good” aim of the sabbath law, to provide a day of holiness and rest.

C.  (:13-14) Confrontational Healing

  1. (:13) Performing the Healing by the Mercy of Jesus

Then He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand!’

And he stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other.

R. T. France: As in several other healing stories (8:5–13; 9:1–8; 15:21–28), the actual cure is related quite briefly; the focus of interest is on the dialogue which leads up to it rather than on the healing in itself—or, to use the terms of traditional form-criticism, this is a pronouncement-story rather than a miracle story. But the dialogue has set up a dramatic tension, and Jesus’ decisive command resolves that tension in favor of “doing good” over against the Pharisaic rules. The healing, as usual with Jesus, is instantaneous. It is also purely verbal, so that no visible “work” is involved. It results from the man’s obedience to Jesus’ command. How far that obedience is a sign of faith depends on the nature and extent of the paralysis: if it was the whole arm that was paralyzed, Jesus has told him to do something impossible in stretching it out, but if it was only the hand the stretching out was not in itself remarkable. Matthew does not satisfy our curiosity on this point.

S. Lewis Johnson: We affirm man has a will, but he does not respond until God gives him power to respond. He does make the decision, but it’s a decision initiated by God – that’s the important thing. There is no such thing as human volition of itself, able to make a decision for God. Nobody’s will ever makes a decision for Jesus Christ, until God, as Dr. Barnhouse used to say, “Jiggles the willer.”  . . .

Someone says, well why preach to the dead? They are dead in sin, they are totally unable – why preach to them at all? If someone ever asked me that, I would say, well, don’t do it. It’s obvious if you believe that way, God has not called you to preach. God does not say because men are dead in their sins, and because they are unable, we should not preach the gospel to them. He says because men are dead in sins, and because they are unable, we must preach the gospel to them. And he works as the word is preached.

Charles Swindoll: The Pharisees had their opinion of the right interpretation of the Law.  Jesus had His opinion.  The Pharisees claimed higher authority as trained experts in the law.  Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath. They couldn’t both be right.  But there they stood in that synagogue, face-to-face, toe-to-toe, in a sort of stalemate . . . until Jesus turned the theoretical into the practical.  He turned to the man with the withered hand and said, “Stretch out your hand!”  Instantly the man’s hand was restored (12:13).

Think about it.  With those four words, Jesus won the debate.  The legalistic quibbling about the Sabbath that had spanned generations was tossed to the trash heap when the Lord of the Sabbath proved that He and he alone had the final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.  The rabbis could reason their way into condemning anybody who disagreed with them and could claim to be enforcing God’s laws, but when the Author of Scripture Himself stepped into history and corrected their flawed interpretation, all arguments were over.

  1. (:14) Plotting to Kill Jesus by the Hatred of the Pharisees

But the Pharisees went out, and counseled together against Him,

as to how they might destroy Him.

Grant Osborne: This is a shocking conclusion after the miracle and is meant to climax the growing theme of rejection (cf. 8:10–12; 9:3–4, 11, 14, 34; 10:17–19, 21–22, 28, 34–36; 11:11–12, 18–19, 20–24, 25; 12:2, 10)—a terrible reaction that will increase to the passion itself (12:24; 15:2; 21:23; 22:15; 26:4). . .

The Jewish leaders were threatened by his popularity and repulsed by his messianic authority.  It is not that there was little basis for their conclusion; rather, their hardness of heart is the emphasis. Jesus’ mercy is in complete contrast with their lack of it.

S. Lewis Johnson: Now as a result of this we read that they sought the death of the Lord Jesus. You see the result of unbelief is that it leads to a kind of callous ceremonialism. Incidentally, the reason that frigidity leads to formalism is that the cooler we become to the things of the Lord, the more we like to cover it up. And so, if we can cover up the fact that we do not have a vital relationship to the Lord Jesus by ceremony and ritual, by the repetition of prayers or other means by which we make our service appealing to the eye, if we do that, then we cover up the fact that we don’t really have that right relationship with the Lord. That is usually – I do not say always – but usually the origin of ceremonialism and ritualism, and particularly in our churches today. And this incident reveals the fact that this frigidity, which leads to formalism, provokes the fury of Jesus Christ.

Donald Hagner: The authority of Jesus thus supplants the authority of the scribal tradition of the Pharisees. But since the debate comes down finally to the person of Jesus, the Pharisees know intuitively that he must be removed if their system is to remain intact. The tragedy is not the failure to accept Jesus’ argument but the failure to be receptive to Jesus as the one who brings the kingdom.

R. T. France: They are determined to silence him, to put an end to his influence on the people, but how that might be achieved would probably not yet be clear, though the intention to “bring a charge against” Jesus (v. 10) indicates one possible way forward. When eventually Jesus is “got rid of” in ch. 27, it will not be by these particular enemies, though their reports to their colleagues in Jerusalem may have helped to start the process.