Open Matthew 12:8.
A couple of centuries before Jesus, Israel was under Greek rulers who demanded they give up their distinctives and blend in with the empire. They launched an attack on a Saturday, forcing zealous Jews to choose whether they would give up their Sabbath and fight. They refused, running for the hills and hiding in caves. It was a massacre.
The Jewish leaders changed their minds: “So they made this decision that day: ‘Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding places’” (1 Maccabees 2:41).
200 years later, Israel still didn’t have a king to make that kind of decision and lead them in their battles. Then Jesus rose to fame in Galilee, claiming to be the Lord’s anointed, talking about restoring God’s kingdom.
Daniel had spoken of Israel’s oppression by a succession of empires, inhuman rulers that tore humans apart like beasts in their lust for power. When would it end? The moment comes in Daniel 7 when the eternal sovereign (the ancient of days) took authority away from the beasts and gave it to someone who was human-like (one like a son of man).
Jesus believed he was that person, the one who had authority to decide what needed to be done to restore God’s rest to his world. As the son of man to whom heaven has entrusted the kingdom, he was lord over the issue of how Sabbath rest is to be restored to creation:
For the son of man is lord of the Sabbath.
How would Jesus do this? Would he gather an army to fight the empire (Rome) as Davidic kings had done in previous times? He publicly denounced the path of violence. Unlike previous leaders, Jesus did not train his followers to kill their enemies. His agenda was much more radical, and dangerous: “Love your enemies and pray for your oppressors. How else can they experience your Father?” (5:44-45 paraphrased).
Jesus doesn’t kill their enemies; he heals instead (12:13).
For the rulers of the Galilean towns, killing would have been okay on the Sabbath, but healing wasn’t. These Pharisees refuse to accept Jesus’ kingship. They will not acknowledge him as the son of man to whom Heaven has given the kingdom. They will not accept him as lord of the Sabbath.
The real issue here is not interpretation of the Law; it’s Jesus’ authority. Jesus claimed to be God’s anointed ruler, with authority to make decisions like King David (12:4). Jesus claimed to be God’s servant, like the priests who work in the temple on the Sabbath (12:5). Jesus claimed to be God’s presence in a way the temple could not be (12:6). Lord of the Sabbath (12:8). Jesus claimed authority to work on the Sabbath, not to kill but to restore (12:13).
These are kingship claims. The Gospel writers insist that Jesus is the ruler appointed by heaven to restore creation under God’s reign. He has authority to work in the present to restore rest to creation.
In Genesis 2, God rested on the seventh day because he had set up creation as he intended and it was very good. But God isn’t resting now: he is working to bring creation back under his management. That’s the picture Jesus painted when the Jerusalem rulers asked him to justify why he healed on the Sabbath: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17).
Jesus is the person (the son of man) who is lord of the Sabbath. He wasn’t enforcing obedience to Sabbath laws on Israel. He was restoring the blessing of Sabbath rest to creation. Only under the yoke of his kingship can the world find rest. “Come to me, everyone worn down and weighed down. I will give you rest” (11:28).
What others are saying
Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 454:
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.
David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 311:
As Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8), Jesus provides the ultimate interpretation of its role in the life of God’s people (cf. 5:17–48). His approach to the Sabbath is a clear example of how his promise of rest, an easy yoke, and a light burden (11:29–30) is fulfilled. But Jesus’s interpretive prowess is due to his supreme position as one greater than David, the temple, and the Sabbath. Davidic promises, priestly activities, and Sabbath rest all find fulfillment in him.
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