Matthew 12:1-21 Part 4

As Jesus moves, with some of His apostles, through the towns and cities of Israel, He’s accomplishing these two major things which we’ve seen in some detail already.  By preaching the Word of the Kingdom, the lost sheep – the remnant of Israel – are being found and restored to the fold.  And these are the ones who will be spewed out and form the Church in the Gentile nations.

In addition, by that same preaching Jesus is prosecuting the Covenantal Lawsuit against the apostate nation of Israel, fulfilling the prophecy of the Old Testament messengers who were maimed, humiliated and killed for preaching repentance.  The Covenant sanctions which were so carefully laid out by Moses in such places as Leviticus twenty-six and Deuteronomy twenty-eight are being carried out by the Son of Man – the second Adam.

While there is mourning and poverty of spirit and repentance from some, there is a furious gnashing of teeth by many.  And while there is healing and restoration for some, there is condemnation and separation for many.

The Son of Man has come.  And this Suffering Servant of God is moving inexorably toward the triumph of the Cross and the culmination of the “Day of the Lord.”  Decreation of “Heaven and Earth” is taking place – the fury of which hasn’t been seen on earth since the flood; and “Heaven and Earth will be recreated in its place.  It’s called the new heavens and the new earth.

So far He’s done such things as “shake heaven and earth”; cast out demons from Gentile cities and send them “under”; cleanse the unclean, make the blind to see and the deaf to hear and the lame to walk; He’s perfectly obeyed His Father; demonstrated the mercy inherent in the Law of which He, Himself, is the fullness; as the greater Joshua He’s abandoned the cities of Israel to carry out the commands of God.  And He’s made it clear that He alone is the “rest” which is foreshadowed in the Sabbath and the sacrificial and ceremonial system and the temple.  He is the “place of rest” for those who are laboring and burdened down under the weight of their human depravity and iniquity.  And He is the One Who reveals the Father to Whom He wills – supplanting (or shadowing) the priestly system with the reality!

So what we have here is the Word of the Kingdom – the Gospel of God – The Prophet, Priest and King Who has come to claim all that His Father has delivered over to Him – the Lamb of God, full of wrath toward the covenant breakers and full of grace and truth and mercy toward all those who humbly seek a place of refuge and rest.

These encounters with the Pharisees in which Jesus exposes their man-centered religion are actual occurrences of conflict and antithesis between the Christ of God and all that can be called “anti-Christ.”  They, like the miracles Jesus did, are real, concrete events.  And, at the same time, they also are figures, microcosms, of the hostility of the world order to the decrees and purpose of God.  Man at cross-purposes with God.   Man antagonistic to the rule of God.  Man – self-centered, self-concerned, self-motivated, self-determined, self-loved.

And every time there is an encounter, the antithesis grows more fierce.  And by the time the events here at the beginning of chapter twelve occur, the Scribes and Pharisees were watching every move Jesus made and listening to every word He said in order to slander Him.  They had to catch Him in some idolatrous error so that they could legally put Him to death; slander Him among the people so that they would put no stock in Him – wouldn’t listen to Him and trust Him (and then destroy Him).

And it’s so very obvious that they were blind in the full brightness of His Light!  And deaf and lame and unclean and dead!  The Person of God had taken on the flesh of men in order that the uncleanness of human flesh might once again be acceptable before the throne of God.  The very Word of God was made flesh in order that His flesh might take the mighty blows of wrath for men!  The express image of God was humiliated with the sin of men so that humanity might be spared that uncleanness.  The fullness of the Law and the prophets, the Wisdom of God, incarnate, the One without Whom nothing was made that was made – came and dwelt among us.  And they knew Him not, for they were in darkness.  They did not see the light of His glorious countenance!  He was among them, opposing them each time they approached Him.  Separating them out; doing what remained to do that the curses of the covenant be carried out in full.

In the case of what we’ve already learned here in chapter twelve, the leadership of Israel had manipulated the Law of the Sabbath so that they could oppress the people for their own self glory!  There was no mercy in the Sabbath under their ecclesiastical and civil leadership.  And the “rest” inherent in its meaning had been abrogated.  Therefore the Messiah of God had been abrogated, since He is the fullness of the Law of the Sabbath!

And everything Jesus has said to them has served to illustrate that.  He turned the Scriptures themselves on the Pharisees and crushed their occultic practices with the Word itself.

And, as verse nine says, He then went away from there and entered their synagogues.  And it is perfectly obvious that He did that in order to continue that process!

Now in order to get the full impact of this we have to know a little bit about the synagogue.  This is an institution that came into being during the Babylonian captivity almost six hundred years before Christ was born.  The Jews had been carried away to Babylon by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar.  Hundreds of thousands of them were marched into what in now known as Iraq – to be workers and servants to the Chaldeans.  And, naturally, they carried their culture and religion with them.

The temple had been destroyed, along with almost everything else in Israel, and worship was, by necessity, no longer centered around the temple and its sacrifices.  So another system was put in its place for the seventy or so years of the captivity.  And that system came to be known as the synagogues.  The word simply means “gathering.”  The people gathered together in smaller groups all over the Babylonian empire in order to fellowship and carry on their religion.  It’s very interesting that the foreshadowings of the Church scattered among the nations is here seen in this system, for this is precisely the meaning of the Greek term “koinonia” – fellowship, or gathering.

Elders were elected from among the group, and certain of them were given the duties of ruling and reading and expounding the writings when they were gathered together on the Sabbath.  And when a dignitary, such as a member of a priestly order, happened to be present at a gathering, he was always given the honor of reading and teaching in place of the elected local representatives.

Well, this whole system was very well developed, apparently, while the two generations of Jews labored in Babylon.  And when, seventy years later, after the Persians had taken dominion from the Chaldeans, the Jews were allowed to return to Israel, they brought the system with them!  Even though they were permitted to rebuild the temple, and the priesthood and sacrificial system were reestablished, they still retained the synagogue as an institution!

And it grew in importance for the next five hundred years.  In fact, one could probably say that the synagogue came to define Judaism, since the national character of the nation was molded by and interpreted through this institution!  And it was the synagogue structure that was carried over to the Christian Church as it was established in the nations.

But it is still left to say, here, that, as the synagogue was developing, so, too, was the final apostasy.  And the synagogue, with all of its vast importance to Jewish culture, provided a place of heretical theology, manipulation of God’s Law, and oppressive, cultic control of the population.  Mystery religions with all their occultic practices had engendered themselves into Jewish thought.  And between that and the egocentric, mercenary, self-serving practices of the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, the entire synagogue institution had turned into what Christ called “synagogues of Satan,” in Revelation chapter two.

And this is the institution into which Christ entered, as Matthew states here in verse nine.  Exactly where this one in the text was, it doesn’t say.  And it’s unimportant.  He went in one of them.  He went in a lot of them!

It was the practice of that system that allowed, as I said before, dignitaries to speak.  It also was the case that anyone could ask permission to teach.  And if given that permission, they could read and expound the text, or teach on all the other writings that had developed – including the words of the Scribes and Pharisees!  And when Jesus went into a synagogue He usually ended up teaching!  Of course it was the elders’ and Pharisees’ purpose to trap Him into saying something against their teachings so they could discredit Him and punish Him!  If judged to be a heretic, the teacher could be scourged or even stoned for speaking heresy!

But on this occasion, as we see in verse ten, the Pharisees were there, following Him around to entrap Him.  And they asked Him about the work of healing on the Sabbath.  Matthew writes, “and, lo, a man having a withered hand.  And they questioned Him saying, ‘is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath?’ that they might accuse him.”

Remember, the Pharisees had stripped the Law of the mercy inherent in it, and they had added over six hundred laws and examples to God’s Law which emptied God’s Word of its content and its intent!  And which were used to control the populace, and serve their own needs.  Apparently it was against Pharisaical law for doctors and health care workers to practice on the Sabbath!  And they knew that Jesus had healed others on Sabbath days.  So if Jesus said, “no, it isn’t permitted to heal on the Sabbath,” then they could accuse Him of doing what He had already done a number of times.  They could catch Him being inconsistent!  But if Jesus said that it was permitted to heal on the Sabbath, then they could accuse Him of breaking their law – and they could punish Him!  See the trap?

Matthew records Jesus’ answer to them in verses eleven and twelve.  Let’s listen to it again: 


“But He said to them, ‘what man is there among you who shall have one sheep, and if this one should fall into a pit on the Sabbath, shall not lay hold of it and lift it out?  By how much, then, does a man differ from a sheep?  Consequently it is permitted to do good on the Sabbath.’”


Now, as you can see, His answer has a number of very important aspects.  But right on the surface is the answer to their question, “is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath.”  And Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater.  If it’s permitted to show mercy to animals, certainly men are to be recipients of that same mercy, since men are so much greater than animals!

Apparently this and the other Gospel records of this incident are quite clear about it.  This shut down the Pharisees’ attempts to catch Him.  His incisive knowledge and understanding of the Law closed the mouths of His enemies and left them standing in embarrassed impotence.  Would a great Pharisee break the Law of God and leave a sheep in a pit to die simply because it was the Sabbath?  No?  Well, then, do these Pharisees see men as less than animals?  No?  Well then, it is permissible to heal men on the Sabbath!

And, as you can see, there is no attempt to defend their law against extending mercy on the Sabbath.  It’s been destroyed.  Mercy, and “the good” as Jesus says, (that which is morally right) have been reestablished as intrinsic to God’s Holy Law.

Okay, let’s go back into our “systematics” mode again and see what we have with respect to the Sabbath.  The “rest” which is in Christ is here signified by men ceasing from labor, in accordance with the Father’s pattern and Christ’s pattern.  And inherent in that “rest” – not exceptions to it, but inherent in it – are the necessary things in life such as preparing food and eating; and deeds of mercy (health care, for example); and worship with all its preparations and duties.  And those are the things that our Westminster forefathers saw in the text.

One of the other aspects of Jesus’ answer which comes out, especially when doing all of the Old Testament reading corresponding to it, is the great sensitivity to other living things in God’s Law.  Although there was a great deal of killing of food animals – not only for eating, but for sacrifice – in the Old Testament (none of which was to cause pain of conscience), God’s Law prescribed dominion, mercy and kindness toward the animal world!

Sheep fallen in pits were to be lifted out, even on the Sabbath as we see in our text; and there are laws having to do with those animals having strayed away from their owners, and the requirement for neighbors to catch them and return them; and laws to mandate the unloading of any beast which had fallen under too heavy a load; and statutes protecting against the killing of young birds and animals along with their mothers.  There are fifty-four different species of animals, twenty-eight species of birds and eighteen species of insects mentioned in the Bible; and God feeds them and provides for their welfare.  And we as vice-regents under God are to imitate His concern for them by having a beneficent dominion over them – showing kindness and mercy to them as creatures brought into existence (not by some evolutionary accident) but, by the spoken Word of God!

Evolutionary theory, on the other hand (and evolutionists not only deny the text of Genesis one through three, but also they have to deny – by extension – the entire remainder of the text) evolutionary theory, since it embraces a chance concourse of events taking billions of years (the longer it takes, strangely enough, the more believed it is!) and since its belief system is built on a godless spontaneous generation of all things, tends to produce in its advocates some kind of holy awe for creatures!  And the thing created becomes, in their minds, a god!

The needless loss of a creature – especially a whole type of creature – is proclaimed as a loss of the “godness” and “worldness” of the planet!  For, they say, all is one and one is all!  And all is God!!  So, in the minds of environmentalists, animals are on the same level as humanity on the paradigm!  Some even place them above humanity!  And they will go to almost any political and activist lengths in order to protect the animals – even if humanity has to suffer!  But the pantheism – nature worship – of today’s evolutionary, naturalistic environmentalism is so very different from the Scriptural basis for environmental concern.  If the Law of God, and the mercy inherent in it, was the Law of the land, then the environmentally concerned would exhibit merciful and kind dominion over all life for the glory of Christ and His Father.  Paul said, in Romans eight, twenty-one,


“The creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the Children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now.” 


Pain and suffering and death was brought into the whole world by man when he sinned.  And only by salvation and restoration can the world be regenerated!  Christ came to save the world!  And that’s the only way that environmental deterioration can be stopped!  But, again, the environmental evolutionist, whose god is nature, will offer any theory of salvation except that which has already been paid for by Christ, Whose Law-Word is the very basis for the restoration of the world.  Environmental issues are best addressed by ways of God’s Word!  If addressed by way of idolatry, God will destroy rather than preserve and restore!

Now.  Let’s go back and pick up on the main content of this event.  As you can see, Matthew says, “lo, a man with a withered hand.”  We’ve seen already that when Matthew uses the word “lo”, he has something very important in mind.  “This is a significant event,” he says.  A figure is being used by Christ in order to further separate Israel from the Covenant.

The reason that He uses the withered hand and the sheep fallen into the pit in the same context, is a reference to a three chapter passage in Zechariah having to do with the worthless shepherds of Israel and the coming of the Lord’s Shepherd.  The leadership of Israel is supposed to be shepherding the flock of God, but they have abandoned mercy – even to the point of leaving a lost sheep in a dark abyss in order to cater to their own law system!

And in that context comes this verse at the end of chapter eleven in the book of Zechariah.  God speaks to the nation through the prophet Zechariah:  “Woe to the worthless shepherd who abandons the flock!  The Sword shall be against his arm and against his right eye.  His arm shall be totally withered, and his right eye shall be totally darkened.”

The man with the withered arm is the figure that all of the shepherds of Israel are unacceptable and worthless.  It’s a condition that applies to all of them – they can’t even lift one sheep from a pit!  But the Lord’s Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, has arrived; and He brings with Him the mercy inherent in and foreshadowed in the Law:  mercy to the deformed, bruised and scattered sheep of the house Israel.

So, on the one hand we see the epistemologically self-conscious Lamb of God Who actually identifies with true Israel, Who is not only the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, but Who, also, is the Good shepherd of the Sheep, Who proclaims the “right” on the Sabbath Day.  The lost sheep which are abandoned in the abyss of darkness – with only worthless shepherds who exhibit no mercy – are rescued and restored to the brightness of His holy rest.  The Lord’s Shepherd has a strong arm, and He is mighty to save.

On the other hand there is the antithetical synagogues who do not dispense the “right” to the people; who follow their own self-righteous course; whose arms, according to Zechariah, are withered and whose eyes are blind!  They scatter and bruise and abandon the sheep, and they leave them in hopeless condition.  And when it serves their ends, man-made law leaves them in the abyss of oppression and darkness.

Jesus’ reference to the prophecy of Zechariah, and the subsequent healing of the withered arm, were connected in the minds of the Pharisees.  And their rage burned in them, according to Matthew in verse fourteen.  But, as verse fifteen says, Jesus knew of their plot to destroy Him, and He went away.  And Mathew says the crowds continued to follow Him, and He healed them all.  The Good Shepherd brought mercy to the deformed, and to the bruised, and to the dejected, and to the abandoned.  They were brought up from the pit of darkness and brought into the presence of His glorious light.  And they were given rest from laboring under the great burden of their uncleanness.