Is It Lawful?

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one 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? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21     and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” – Matthew 12:9-21 ESV

The Pharisees have just accused Jesus’ disciples of violating the laws against reaping on the Sabbath because they had picked a few heads of grain to satisfy their hunger. And Jesus responded by claiming Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath. This tense exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel was just the beginning of what would become a growing battle over authority and control. As members of the Pharisees, these men held sway over the people of Israel, acting as a kind of religious oversight board, with the self-appointed responsibility of managing the spiritual affairs of the people. They were a religious sect and not members of the priestly order ordained by God.

The name, Pharisee, comes from a Hebrew word meaning, “separate,” and it reflects a belief that they were somehow set apart and separated from the common and less-fortunate people of Israel. The Pharisees were comprised of middle-class businessmen for whom membership served as a kind of social club. It provided them with prestige and honor and allowed them to influence the affairs of the nation. Their primary point of influence had to do with the Mosaic law. But they were strict adherents to the oral law as well, deeming it to have equal weight and authority over the lives of the people. In fact, at the time of Jesus, they stringently enforced the more than 600 laws found in the Torah, many of which were man-made and not God-ordained.

In keeping with his thematic style, Matthew records that immediately after Jesus had His confrontation with the Pharisees over His disciples’ Sabbath violation, Jesus made His way to the synagogue – on the Sabbath. This whole scene appears to be a set-up by the Pharisees. They had prepared for this occasion and had one purpose behind their plans: To accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath. They were looking for ammunition to use against Him. If they could get Him to break the established laws concerning the Sabbath, including their oral regulations, they could dismiss and discredit Him.

It seems obvious that the scene which Matthew describes was all preplanned by the Pharisees and designed to place Jesus in a difficult situation. As soon as He arrived in the synagogue, he found Himself facing a man with a withered hand. The very fact that this man was in the synagogue would have been odd and unexpected because the Jews tended to view people with disabilities and diseases as cursed by God. The Jewish sages taught that anyone with a disability or visible blemish was to be excluded from communal gatherings in the synagogue so that they would not be a distraction to the rest of the congregants. So, the very fact that Jesus stood facing a man with a withered or paralyzed hand would have been unexpected and unusual.

And Matthew points out that the Pharisees immediately asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10 ESV). This had all been a staged affair. The man with the paralyzed hand was nothing more than a prop, a helpless tool in their efforts to frame Jesus. But Jesus was not fooled by their efforts. He knew exactly what they were up to and seemingly plays along with their little ploy.

Rather than answer their question directly, Jesus responded with a question of His own. He turned the tables, placing the onus on them to answer their own question. He asked them, “Which one 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?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). His question was rhetorical in nature, requiring no answer. The Pharisees were businessmen who knew the value of livestock and would do whatever it took to protect their investment. Knowing this, Jesus pointed out that a man, even one with a withered hand, has far more value than a sheep. So, if they believed the rescue of a sheep was lawful on the Sabbath, then His healing of a man with a withered hand was as well. And with that said, Jesus healed the man.

And the Pharisees were furious. Not just because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, but because He had duped them. He had turned the tables on them and had made them appear like fools. And Matthew points out that they “went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matthew 12:14 ESV). This was war. And they were not interested in a long-term, drawn-out affair. Their intentions were immediate and driven by an unwavering commitment to destroy Jesus as soon as possible. This is why Matthew reports, “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there” (Matthew 12:15 ESV).

But Jesus was anything but scared. He was not running for His life or going into hiding. In fact, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus continued to heal others, even though it remained the Sabbath. But in each case, He commanded those whom He healed to “not to make him known” (Matthew 12:16 ESV). Jesus was not interested in building His reputation or manufacturing larger crowds of followers. He was on a God-ordained mission, and there was a divine timeline in play. He knew that each and every time He healed someone, the focus of the people would fall on the nature of the miracle performed. And with each miracle, Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker would be further reinforced in the minds of the people. But He had come to be their Messiah. His real mission was to bring healing of a spiritual nature, not physical. But the more that people heard about the blind having their sight restored, the crippled being able to walk, and the demon-possessed being set free, the greater the chance that they would miss the real purpose behind Jesus’ coming.

And Matthew, quoting from the writings of the prophet, Isaiah, lets us know that Jesus had not come seeking publicity and popularity. He was not some grandstanding miracle worker in search of a reputation and in need of recognition. No, He was the chosen Servant of God, destined to bring hope to a lost and dying world, mired in sin, and living under divine condemnation.

“Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen.
    He is my Beloved, who pleases me.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not fight or shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    Finally he will cause justice to be victorious.
And his name will be the hope
    of all the world.” – Matthew 12:18-21 NLT

Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42:1-4, an Old Testament passage that speaks of the coming Messiah, but in terms of His role as the suffering servant. Jesus had not come to crush the opposition, but to be crushed and to serve as the payment for the sins of mankind. And it should not be missed that Isaiah describes the Messiah as “the hope of all the world.”

The Hebrew word Isaiah used refers to the inhabitants of the earth. This would have included all people, of all nations, tribes, and tongues. And Matthew, when translating this passage into Greek, used the word ethnos, which means “Gentiles.” Jesus was coming to offer hope to all – not just to the Jews, but to the entire world. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the universal nature of Christ’s redeeming work.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:22-26 ESV

The Pharisees were looking for a way to bring Jesus to justice. They were searching for an excuse to put Him to death for what they deemed to be His blatant disregard for the laws of God. But Jesus had been sent by God to fulfill the law. He would provide a means by which God could remain just, holding sinful men responsible for their rebellion against Him, while at the same time justifying all those who placed their faith in the sacrificial death of His Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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