“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.”
In Matthew 11, Jesus receives word from John the Baptist asking if He is truly the One sent from God. It is unthinkable in some ways that John would ask Jesus this question on account of his own historical record of preaching Jesus before He even began His ministry on Earth. He is the one, as Jesus proclaimed, that came preparing the way for the Messiah to come. When we consider John’s situation, however, it makes more sense. John is in prison for the sake of the gospel and preaching God’s Word, and not too long after he sent his message to Jesus, he is going to die for that same cause.
After Jesus sends a message back to John about the sick being healed and the poor being helped, Jesus questions the crowd around him about their own experience with John. He made sure they knew when they heard John speak, they were not listening to a rich king who had everything that he wanted and preached things they wanted to hear. No. He preached what spoken in the Prophets concerning Himself. John spoke nothing new, except that the Messiah was coming, and that He indeed did come and was among them in their day.
Jesus then goes on a spiritual tirade about the unrepentant cities in Israel that did only for themselves and wanted to hear only the things that tickled their fancy. It is interesting that the cities Jesus mentioned in His scouring speech are the same cities that He performed some of His own greatest works (Matt 11:20). After his scouring, Jesus gives a prayer thanking God for revealing His Son and His Salvation to those who are like children willing to receive the good news from the Father according to His will.
The chapter ends with a famous passage. Jesus calls for are who have been laboring in religion, under the Roman occupation, and under the thumb of the religious leaders to come to Him. While they the felt oppressed and rejected from all sides, God would not reject anyone coming to Him in faith and humility. Instead of putting to shame and working them to their spiritual death, Jesus would give them rest. Jesus would be the place where sinners could find hope, find peace, and find absolute, eternal spiritual rest. In Matthew 12, we see Jesus doing exactly what He said He would do. He is giving, and being, rest for His followers.
After all the running around from city to city preaching, teaching, healing, debating, and after all the bad news about John who preached and paved the way for Jesus to come, and after the scathing remarks about the cities that saw Jesus’s greatest works and still not repenting, Jesus and His disciples found themselves being physically tired. So, Jesus leads them into a grain field to rest and enjoy some food. The Pharisees did not like this, because they were picking grain on the Sabbath, the day set aside as holy and for rest.
A Royal Historical Record of “Breaking” the Law
The Pharisees were known for being overly strict about the Law. They mapped out ways to keep from getting close to breaking the Law. To them, even getting near breaking the Law was breaking the Law. The Sabbath was a very important day to the Jews, and it had some very important Laws. One of the rules was nobody was supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. So, naturally, when the Pharisees saw Jesus and His disciples picking grain, they considered it labor on the Sabbath. This whole scenario happened right after Jesus just spoke about giving His followers rest. Surely, this man is a hypocrite!
Jesus, however, understands the Law better than anyone else. He also understands the Scriptures better than anyone else. He reminded them about the time Davide “broke” the Law for the sake of taking care of himself when it was most needed. In 1 Samuel 21:1-6, David and his men are hungry. They need something to eat. Having nothing else, David goes to the priest and receives some of the holy bread that is intended for the Lord. The only caveat the priest has for David is the men kept themselves holy before the Lord by not profaning themselves with women while they were on the expedition, which David explains he always takes care to keep women from himself and his men when they are on expedition. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of this story. What the Pharisees were looking for was ritual holiness. There is nothing wrong with that inherently, but they forgot to consider personal holiness and mercy, especially for the guiltless.
A Royal Mistake of Accusation by the Pharisees
If the Pharisees had studied the Scriptures and asked God for guidance before condemning Jesus and His followers for picking and eating on the Sabbath when they needed food and rest, the Pharisees would have understood they were indeed innocent of the charges levied against them. Instead, they came right out the gates and accused them of breaking the Law and being hypocrites against the Law. By being hasty to find something wrong with Jesus, however, they made themselves look like the odd sheep out.
In Esther 7, Haman built gallows to hang all the Jews in his genocidal rage. He had close connections with the king. He had the power to do so, if he could finagle his way through his filthy plot. Esther, the king’s beautiful wife was Jewish. This might have posed a problem for Haman, and in God’s providence, it did pose a serious problem for him. Esther made a feast for the king, and Haman was invited. At the feast, Esther disclosed the information regarding Haman’s plot to the king. In Haman’s poor excuse for begging for mercy from Queen Esther, he fell over where the queen was sitting. The king saw this and thought Haman was trying to do harm to his beloved wife in his presence and his palace. What arrogance this man had to harm the queen in the presence of the king in the very palace where they stayed! In the end, Haman the Hangman was hung by order of the king on his own gallows. Much the same way, the Pharisees were prideful, arrogant, and hasty in their plans to pull the rug out from under Jesus. Though the Scriptures were not the product of the Pharisees, their interpretations of the Scriptures came from themselves. They constructed an entirely new religion around the Scriptures for their own benefit. In this case, however, they met the King of kings, and they were outmatched. The very Scriptures the Pharisees used to oppress their own people were used by Jesus to hang them out to dry!
A Royal Desire for More than the Sabbath
The Pharisees missed the Scriptures. They missed the mercy over sacrifice. They also missed something far more important than paper, ink, stale rituals, vain religion, and burned dead animals. They missed the Lord Himself. God called for sacrifice, indeed. He called for mercy, indeed. Being consistent with His own teachings of living out the Scriptures, Jesus lived out mercy and justice in ways no man ever could, especially at the cross. In their inconsistency with the Scriptures, the Pharisees missed the Lamb of God Who came by God’s mercy and grace to be the Sacrifice for all sinners for all times. They were focused on the Sabbath, and in so doing, they missed the Lord of the Sabbath. That word “Lord” that Jesus used is a key word in the passage. Jesus did not intend it to simply mean “sir” or someone who has some authority. The Greek word, kyrios, reflects Jesus as the Lord God Himself. It is noticeable that Jesus’s opponents never refer to Him as Lord, kyrios, because they just cannot stand the thought of Jesus, the One Who truly seeks for mercy and justice, as being their God. He cannot be God in the flesh, because the true God is not representative of their own manmade religion with Abraham as a mask and Judaism as a costume. They would call Jesus “rabbi,” which means “teacher.” In this story, however, Jesus leaves these religious workaholics no quarters when He defined Himself as not only Lord and God in the flesh, but He also is Lord and God over the Sabbath, Laws, and precepts the Pharisees pretended to care so much about. They cared for the Law, but only so far as it made them look good in front of other people and about themselves. Otherwise, they would have studied the Scriptures and had mercy on Jesus and his followers for picking grain and eating when they were hungry and needing rest, even on the Sabbath.
Christ Jesus came to do more than just keep the Law; He came to execute justice and mercy at the same time through His own sacrifice for weary sinners in need of rest that goes beyond the physical. The sacrifices of the Old Testament system and the Temple were never enough to save. Keeping the Law could never get anyone in a right-standing relationship with God, because no matter how much we would do and do and do, we are all still sinners before God. Instead working so hard to try to get to God when He knows we cannot, God looked to bring mercy to His people through His own sacrifice of His own Son, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures speak about Christ and the rest that He would bring His people. The Sabbath is but a day in the week. It is not that Jesus saw the Sabbath as unimportant; He just understood that He is the true Sabbath that gives sinners rest from their weary travels. As we study the Scriptures, we should be ready to look for ways Jesus gives us rest from our self-made religion, our sins, our heartaches, and all the stresses of life. The Bible is full of ways that God, through Jesus Christ, truly gives us rest, especially through His own sacrifice for us. Truly, Jesus is our Sabbath.
 Patrick Schreiner, The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 78.
 David B. Capes, The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 10-11.