Lord of the Sabbath: Jesus and the One Necessary Conversation (Lord of the Sabbath Pt 5)

Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here!

If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:5-8)

In his response to the Pharisees, Jesus consistently thwarted their desire to argue about the law — terms, doctrine, interpretive minutia — and instead grounded the entire conversation in himself. Instead of debating rules and interpretations, he issued invitation after invitation for them to recognize him for who he was, and once they’d recognized him, to respond.

As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, this declaration of Jesus’s identity formed the subtext of the entire interaction in Matthew 12:1-8.

Jesus invited comparison to David, God’s chosen king — and implied that he was the Messiah, the long-awaited Son of David, the chosen king of Israel. He declared himself greater than the temple, the place where God dwells.

And he invoked Hosea 6, which besides calling God’s people to loyal love, also opens with a promise of visitation from God — a promise that has particular resonance to anyone who knows the end of the gospel story:

Come, let us return to the LORD.
For He has torn us,
and He will heal us;
He has wounded us,
and He will bind up our wounds.

He will revive us after two days,
and on the third day He will raise us up
so we can live in His presence.

Let us strive to know the LORD.
His appearance is as sure as the dawn.
He will come to us like the rain,
like the spring showers that water the land.
(Hosea 6:1-3)

Finally and most dramatically of all, Jesus pushed past any remaining deafness on the Pharisees’ part and declared himself to be one with Yahweh, the God of Israel — for who else, in all of history and revelation, could possibly claim a title like the one Jesus assigned to himself?

If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:7-8)

The Only Lord of the Sabbath

We’ve encountered the title “Son of Man” before; it was Jesus’s favorite title for himself. As we’ve seen, it had strong messianic overtones, referring to Daniel’s vision of a divine figure who conquers all the kingdoms of the world before sitting down on a heavenly throne, having received an “everlasting dominion that will not pass away” (Daniel 7:14).

But the second title — “Lord of the Sabbath” — is new. It’s not found directly in the Old Testament or anywhere else. Yet its meaning is clear enough to anyone with ears to hear.

There has only ever been one Lord of the Sabbath.

Be careful to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy as the LORD your God has commanded you … the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 5:12, 14)

Work may be done for six days, but on the seventh day there must be a Sabbath of complete rest, dedicated to the LORD. (Exodus 31:15)

Work may be done for six days, but on the seventh day there must be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; it is a Sabbath to the LORD wherever you live. (Leviticus 23:3)

The Sabbath day was “sacred” — holy or consecrated — specifically because it was set apart for Yahweh, the all-capitals LORD, to commemorate his work in creation and liberation.

While Jesus made it clear that the Sabbath was created “for man” (Mark 2:27), as a gift from God, that certainly never gave man any claim of lordship over it. In Isaiah 58, God himself protested attitudes that failed to recognize that it was God, and not man, who presided over the Sabbath day:

“If you keep from desecrating the Sabbath,
from doing whatever you want on My holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight,
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
seeking your own pleasure, or talking too much;
then you will delight yourself in the LORD,
and I will make you ride over the heights of the land,
and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
(Isaiah 58:13-14)

The incredible title “Lord of the Sabbath” is not just a Messiah claim; it’s a Yahweh claim. No human being is greater than the temple, which is the dwelling place of Yahweh. No human being can claim lordship over the sabbath.

No human being, that is, except for Jesus.

Jesus and the Claim to Be Yahweh

The Greek word Kyrie, which Jesus used for “Lord,” is the same word used in the Greek Old Testament to translate Yahweh, just as we use the English word “LORD” (in all capitals) to translate it in our Bibles.

Since Kyrie, like the Hebrew word Adonai, can also refer to human lords or lesser divine beings, Jesus’s application of it to himself doesn’t necessarily mean he was calling himself Yahweh.

But the larger claim to be “Lord of the Sabbath” means exactly that. The Sabbaths were “Yahweh’s sabbaths”; the “holy day of Yahweh.” No human being — prophet, priest, or king — had ever dared identify so closely with the God of Israel.

Although he did declare his disciples “innocent” according to the law’s own terms in verse 7, in another sense, with this one startling declaration, it is as though Jesus swept the law aside on the grounds that the Law-Giver was present and, by his own unique authority and presence, was changing the terms of the sabbath itself.

Of course, the relationship of Mosaic law to the New Covenant brought by Jesus is more nuanced and complex than that, and I don’t have room to go deeply into it here, but it’s clear that Jesus did not simply argue Old Testament permissions and restrictions in this passage.

Instead, he declared himself to be the Giver of Rest, calling his people into a transcendent rest that is paradoxically connected to God’s new work. He declared himself to be the place of true worship and the center of God’s presence and activity in the world. He declared himself Lord of the Sabbath.

It’s All About Who He Is

In the gospel of Luke, we read the familiar story of Mary and Martha: two sisters who responded to Jesus’s coming, one by sitting at his feet to learn from him; the other by doing what was expected of her as a woman, responsible for hospitality and homemaking.

When Martha protested that she was left to do all the work, Jesus — the Lord of the Sabbath who came to give us rest — replied to her:

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; but only one thing is necessary; for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:41-42, NASB)

I hear echoes of that story in Matthew 12 as well, when Jesus called the Pharisees out of a doctrinal debate into the One Necessary Conversation — the question of who he is. He interrupted their attempts to use the law to justify themselves and condemn others and instead demanded that they recognize him.

In a sense, this is the real issue at hand in every theological or doctrinal debate.

Eugene Peterson in Eat This Book, quoting a rabbinical friend on the subject of Bible study, wrote, “If you don’t understand it rightly you will obey it wrongly and your obedience will be disobedience.”

There is wisdom in that idea; truth matters, even in its finer points, largely because obedience matters. We might all benefit from being a little more like the Pharisees in our commitment to studying the Word.

Yet we often run the risk of getting stuck in the weeds and failing to wrestle with a much bigger and more important fact: that Jesus, who is Yahweh Incarnate, is here before us and waiting for us to respond to him.

Even in our study and our wrestling with doctrine and practice, may our hearts seek God. May we leave off our attempts at self-justification and our comparisons with one another and instead ask Jesus to reveal himself to us so that we may love him, serve him, and agree with him.

While we try to parse the finer points of observation and practice, let us not overlook the person of God. He is calling us to return to him with mercy and faithful love; he summons us to know him.

Even as Hosea wrote: Let us strive to know the Lord, whose appearance is as sure as the dawn. For he will come to us like the rain, like the spring showers that water the land.


This is Part 207 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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One response to “Lord of the Sabbath: Jesus and the One Necessary Conversation (Lord of the Sabbath Pt 5)”

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