The longer the people watched Jesus, the more he surprised them. Most did not understand why Jesus ate and drank with notorious sinners. What shocked the people the most was not who Jesus befriended, but who he condemned. Everyone expected Jesus to go after the bad guys. No one expected him to go after the good guys. But Jesus spends more time condemning the Pharisees than anyone else. The Pharisees were the good guys. They were the conservatives, the people of high moral values, the people zealous for God and his laws.
Now it wasn’t as if the wicked people were off the hook with God. The Bible says the wrath of God is already on all sinners. That declaration of judgment had already been pronounced in the Garden of Eden. Jesus did not come to execute that judgment; he came to show mercy to many under that wrath; to pluck them out of the coming fire.
But nobody fought against the ministry of Christ more than the legalists of Christ’s day, the Pharisees. A legalist is someone who deep down disagrees with God’s assessment of him. Let me say that again. A legalist is someone who deep down disagrees with God’s assessment of him. God says all are sinners; all have the potential for terrible wickedness. Deep down the legalist believes he is not quite that bad. I say deep down because if you ask a legalist if he believes all men are sinners, he will answer yes; if he is in the church he knows the right Sunday School answer. But down in his gut he really does not believe that he is like other sinners.
The problem is that legalists think way too lightly of sin. We are accustomed to thinking that legalists take sin very seriously, but actually they take sin too lightly. If legalists really understood God’s bar of justice they would not seek to exalt themselves. God’s bar of justice sees lust as adultery, hate as murder, selfishness as idolatry, and pride as an abomination. If legalists believed what God said about sin they would not be legalists anymore.
When you think of someone that is an abomination to God, whom do you think of? I know what disgusts me. When I see a gay pride parade and men in leather flaunting their homosexuality I am disgusted. I have to turn off the television. It is easy for me to see how that is an abomination to God.
But listen to our Lord from Luke 16:15. Jesus says to the Pharisees; “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” You mean to say that as disgusted as I am at that flaunting of homosexuality, God is disgusted with the man who is faithful to his wife and pays his taxes, yet in his heart exalts himself in the sight of God? That man is as much an abomination to God as the most vile of sinners? God’s word says yes.
In our passage the legalists are on the warpath. This is the first time in Matthew they confront Jesus head on. In two instances in this passage they seek to accuse Christ of breaking the Sabbath laws. In the first case Jesus is walking through the grain fields with his disciples on the Sabbath. The disciples are hungry so they begin picking heads of grain and eating them. When you stop and think about it, this is quite a beautiful picture. Here is God in the flesh taking a leisurely walk with his disciples. God walked with Adam in the Garden before the fall. Here in the grain field we have a beautiful picture of restored fellowship between God and man.
It is worth noting that the disciples were not concerned that their actions were breaking the Sabbath. The Old Testament does forbid reaping on the Sabbath Day and technically they were reaping. And though the disciples were hungry, they were not starving. The point is that there was something about Christ that caused the disciples to relax; they knew he was not impressed with a strict obedience to the Sabbath laws.
But this was driving the legalists crazy. They were watching Christ, waiting for an opportunity to accuse him. They were offended by the disciples’ blatant disregard for the Mosaic Law. How dare these lawbreakers think they can be in good standing with God! Jesus, tell your disciples to stop breaking the Sabbath. Legalists are only happy when they can point out how unspiritual others are.
Now, there were many rival interpretations in their day of what exactly Jews could or couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Jesus does not argue about which interpretation is accurate. By allowing his disciples to pluck the grain Christ admits breaking the Sabbath. Christ counters their accusation by giving two examples of people in the Old Testament who broke the Mosaic Law but were considered innocent.
When David was on the run from Saul, he and his men were starving, so they asked the priest at the temple for bread. The only bread available was the holy bread placed in the inner temple. Only the priests were allowed to eat that bread. David and his men were not priests. Yet David and his men were allowed to eat that bread. Also, every Sabbath the priests are working hard in the temple, thus in a sense violating the law of the Sabbath not to work.
Now, you can imagine what the Pharisees’ response would be. Jesus, you have cited two unique situations. You are talking about King David here, the most important king in the Old Testament. Because he was David he was granted an exception. And we are talking about temple work here. The temple was God’s dwelling place. Because of the importance of the temple, the priests were granted an exception to obeying the Sabbath.
Jesus now reveals his identity. Yes, David was so important that he was given an exemption from the temple law, but someone greater than David is here. The temple was so important that those who worked in it received an exemption of following the Sabbath laws, but something greater than the temple is here. Christ is the everlasting king David pictured; Jesus is God’s eternal temple that the OT temple pictured. The legalists failed to believe Jesus was who he said he was. Christ further rebukes them; “and if you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” In the Old Testament God called for his people to have mercy on their fellow man’s condition.
If you believed all mankind is fallen in Adam then you would be merciful towards your fellow human beings under the dominion of sin. If you believed that you are truly sinners you would not think that anyone could please God by an exact obedience to the law. If you had compassion for the disciples you would not be so quick to call the innocent guilty.
But Jesus, how are the disciples guiltless? They are breaking the Sabbath laws. Those laws came from God. Christ’s answer; the disciples are innocent of breaking the Sabbath because the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Christ gave the Law, and as the Lord he has the authority to declare that law fulfilled. The Pharisees understood that by claiming authority over the Sabbath laws, he was claiming to be God, so they begin to plot his death. In the second story Jesus reveals the hearts of the legalists even further. A week or two later Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and a man with a paralyzed hand was there. The Pharisees used that occasion to trap Jesus. They ask him, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?
Healing would be considered medical work, and medical work was only allowed in the case of life or death. This was not life or death; Jesus could wait until the next day to perform the healing. But the Lord was going to heal people regardless of what the legalists thought. Jesus asks the Pharisees; which of you, who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?
Now we see the legalists exposed. Legalists are in the core of their being selfish. The Pharisees would find a way around the Sabbath laws if it were for their own well being. If they needed to rescue one of their sheep, they would. But others were not allowed such exemptions. The Pharisees were so selfish that they were willing to put the welfare of their animals over the welfare of other human beings.
In the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus works on the Sabbath to help a sinner. Like all legalists, the Pharisees completely missed the joy of what was occurring before them. In both these stories, Jesus demonstrates the power and blessings of his kingdom. Christ walks and fellowship with his disciples, and they are not burdened by the conditions of law-keeping in order to have communion with him. That is the blessing of the gospel.
And Christ demonstrates the power of his kingdom by restoring a withering hand. If Christ can restored a hand as good as dead, he can my restore my heart dead in sin. This healing is a picture of the healing of the sinful soul, as well as a picture of the restoration of the body when Christ returns.
Two glorious demonstrations of the blessings of Christ’s kingdom, and the legalists completely miss it. When you fail to see your own sinful nature you will not recognize the glory of Christ’s kingdom. You will not enjoy the fellowship of Christ’s people; you will not know the joy of a relationship with God based upon grace and not works. You will completely miss what is before your eyes, as the Pharisees missed the demonstration of the kingdom right in front of them. In these two stories Jesus is demonstrating how he would fulfill the Sabbath laws. The Sabbath laws called for a physical rest, but Israel’s weekly rest only pictured the eternal rest we needed from the burden of our sins. Here the Lord of the Sabbath demonstrates how he will fulfill the Sabbath laws; as the Pharisees plot his death, Jesus will use such plotting to die for his people to forgive their sin and give them eternal rest. The legalists could not humble themselves to admit they needed relief and rest from sin. Thus they lived in ignorance, zealous for God’s law, yet not knowing God, living in constant judgment, instead of showing mercy.
God hates all kinds of sin, but when you read the gospels, legalism is extremely offensive to God. The answer to legalism is to believe what God says about you, and to receive the rest Christ provides through the pure grace of the gospel. Then have mercy on your fellow man that has fallen in Adam. Amen