The Issue of Authority
The two primary uses of κύριος, kyrios, rendered Lord, describe possession and authority:
❶ one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner
❷ one who is a position of authority, lord, master
The kyrios has possession of and authority over the Sabbath. If there still is Lord of the Sabbath, then it is only because the Sabbath still exists. Due to its nature, if that Lord broke or ended the Sabbath, then He who was, no longer is, Lord of the Sabbath.
This issue of authority is at the heart of the accusation the Pharisees bring to Jesus:
1 At that time did Jesus go on the sabbaths through the corn, and his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears, and to eat, 2 and the Pharisees having seen, said to him, `Lo, thy disciples do that which it is not lawful to do on a sabbath.' (Matthew 12 YLT)
The Pharisees bringing to Jesus a claim of unlawful acts by His disciples indicates an accusation centered on authority: Jesus should rebuke and act to prevent the disciples' unlawful actions.
The accusation comes on a particular Sabbath, yet Matthew begins by stating the actions of Jesus and His disciples were done on the plural Sabbaths. This literary device implies the actions were permitted to happen on more than one Sabbath. Perhaps the Pharisees did not speak up or see other occurrences, but Matthew knows they were repeated. In this way, the severity of the issue is magnified. Jesus, as the rabbi leading the disciples not only did not correct His disciples; He permitted them to repeat their actions.
Regardless of any previous actions, a situation in which the Pharisees bypass the disciples and bring their accusation to their rabbi leader points to an issue of authority required in keeping the Sabbath holy:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20 ESV)
At the time this Commandment was given, the Israelites were gathering manna, and had already started to observe the Sabbath (cf. Exodus 16).
3Sabbath instructions based on the manna could be narrowly understood as applying only to an individual. This new command formally codifies a "corporate" responsibility. For example, now a father is violating the Sabbath if someone else in their house tried to gather manna. The disciples were neither sons, daughters, or servants, but the accusation speaks to the intent of corporate responsibility implicit in the commandment, and when Jesus claims to be Lord of the Sabbath, He effectively acknowledges His responsibility.
But first, Jesus responded by citing two examples both which speak to the issue of authority:
3 And he said to them, Did ye not read what David did, when he was hungry, himself and those with him -- 4 how he went into the house of God, and the loaves of the presentation did eat, which it is not lawful to him to eat, nor to those with him, except to the priests alone? 5 `Or did ye not read in the Law, that on the sabbaths the priests in the temple do profane the sabbath, and are blameless? (Matthew 12 YLT)
It was the High Priest who broke the Levitical Law (cf. Leviticus 24:5-9), not the Sabbath by giving David the Bread of the Presence. By citing this example Jesus implies He has authority to allow the disciples to satisfy their hunger as did the High Priest who believed the bread would feed those who were hungry.
Jesus also claims the disciples picking grains to satisfy their hunger is no different from priests who are required to offer sacrifices (cf. Numbers 28:9-10) which profane, βεβηλόω the Sabbath. βεβηλόω is "to cause something highly revered to become identified with the commonplace."
5Eating is also present in this example since the priests receive a portion of the sacrifices. In other words, the Law allows the Sabbath to become "common place" when the priests' will satisfy their hunger by working in the Temple.
It is at this point Jesus makes the Lord of the Sabbath statement:
6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12 ESV)
Jesus cites the Greek understanding of Hosea 6:6 which is the Scriptural answer to the Pharisees accusations. They allege Jesus did not uphold the intent of the Law regarding the Sabbath. If the prophets are considered Law, Jesus upheld the Law by showing mercy. The disciples were hungry; allowing them to eat was an act of mercy. The same type of exception the High Priest made with David, and the same exception the LORD makes by giving the priests a portion of a sacrifice.
Given the issue of authority inherent to the Pharisees accusation, there are two other Sabbath related commands in the Mosaic Law to consider:
12 And the LORD said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31 ESV)
“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:12 ESV)
Just as the LORD was "refreshed" on the seventh day, the Sabbath is to allow others to be "refreshed" נָפַשׁ. Someone who must go hungry is not refreshed, and Jesus, who did not pick grains Himself, was upholding the Mosaic Law on the Sabbath which calls for others to be refreshed. Moreover, it is the "corporate" responsibility to ensure others are refreshed.
Therefore, the Lord of Sabbath is neither breaking the Sabbath or altering it. Regardless of the Pharisees intent, Matthew presents Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath with the authority to settle a question of the relative importance of two potentially conflicting laws: should acts of mercy take precedence even on the Sabbath?
The Exercise of Authority
The Sabbath day in question continues by describing Jesus exercising His authority:
9 And having departed thence, he went to their synagogue, 10 and lo, there was a man having the hand withered, and they questioned him, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbaths?" that they might accuse him. 11 And he said to them, "What man shall be of you, who shall have one sheep, and if this may fall on the sabbaths into a ditch, will not lay hold on it and raise [it]? 12 How much better, therefore, is a man than a sheep? -- so that it is lawful on the sabbaths to do good." 13 Then saith he to the man, `Stretch forth thy hand,' and he stretched [it] forth, and it was restored whole as the other. (Matthew 12 YLT)
It is important not to overlook how Matthew is purposeful to describe actions which demonstrate Jesus observed the Levitical Law regarding the Sabbath:
“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places. (Leviticus 23:3 ESV)
Observing the Sabbath requires a holy convocation, מִקְרָא. Abstaining from work but failing to attend the מִקְרָא would be unlawful, and Jesus ensured He and His disciples were in the synagogue on the Sabbath. In terms of practical instruction, Leviticus could be understood: do no work on the Sabbath so you are able to join in the holy convocation. There is no mention of corporate responsibility, but it would be reasonable to assert that is intended. That is, Matthew describes Jesus upholding both the letter and the spirit of the Levitical Law.
As with the introduction, the plural Sabbaths was used. Here it is spoken by Jesus meaning He is giving instruction which has both immediate and future application:
Introduction: Sabbaths, meaning this and previous Sabbaths
Accusation: Made on this particular Sabbath
Synagogue: Sabbaths, meaning this and all future Sabbaths
As the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus could simply repeat His earlier defense applying kal v’chomer to the "mercy exception." After all, if it is merciful to allow someone to satisfy their hunger, how much more merciful to heal? However, Jesus takes a different approach by reasoning from the oral tradition. Tractate Shabbat 117b, 5-6 discusses saving an animal which fell into a pit. In this discussion between the rabbis, some discuss the issue of suffering of living beings; some say it cannot be rescued if it can be fed; some say it can be rescued if it is to be sacrificed. Those knowledgeable of the oral law and of the earlier accusation would recognize Jesus is both answering the Pharisees question while continuing to respond to the earlier accusation.
The oral tradition agrees suffering of any living being must be considered. It also argues rescue should wait if the animal may be fed, and an animal may be rescued on the Sabbath in order to be sacrificed. These are the same type of examples Jesus used to respond to the Pharisees accusation. In addition, the oral tradition acknowledges the existence of baraitas, oral traditions which fall outside the Mishnah. Effectively Jesus agrees with the oral tradition on a "macro" level but implies there are two issues with the Pharisees. The first is their hypocrisy; they understand and apply the "mercy exception" to animals, but first accuse and then question Him on the Sabbath use of mercy. The second is their failure to apply the Mosaic Law which is to ensure others are refreshed. If getting off of work brings refreshment, how much more is the man who is healed refreshed?
Jesus demonstrated the type of authority Lord of the Sabbath has. He showed a perfect understanding of, and issues which arise when attempting to adhere to the Law. Jesus did not break the Sabbath, which, as others note, would have been a sin. Nor did Jesus eliminate or change the Sabbath, for to do so would strip Him of His title of Lord of the Sabbath and render His teachings on future Sabbaths void.
A claim to be Lord of the Sabbath, is tantamount to a claim of divinity. If the Lord of the Sabbath has the authority to determine what is and is not permitted when He is present on the earth, then the Lord of the Sabbath must be the one who originally gave the various Laws concerning the Sabbath. He is the one who required rest and outlawed gathering manna; He is the one who required a father to take responsibility for others; He is the one who wanted others to be refreshed; He is the one who required a holy convocation.
He is the one who decreed mercy had legal precedence over sacrifice.
1. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 577
2. The lord of anything ceases to be lord if that which he was lord over no longer exists. For example, there is no longer lord of the Roman Empire (i.e. Caesar) since the Roman Empire came to an end.
3. The events with the manna begin on the 15th day of the second month (cf. Exodus 16:1). The Israelites arrived at Sinai in the 3rd month (cf. Exodus 19:1) which means they had observed at least 2 Sabbaths before receiving the Ten Commandments.
4. The specific day on which David received the Bread is not stated. Since the Bread of the Presence was changed on the Sabbath, the implication is event took place on the Sabbath. In this case the High Priest exercised his authority on the Sabbath.
5. Danker, p. 173
6. This would mean Jesus lied when He said His words would not pass away (cf. Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33)