Tom Wells’ book on the Sabbath: Chapter Three (III)

by | May 19, 2011 | Biblical Theology, Book Reviews, Books, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Old Testament, Systematic Theology

Tom Wells’ book on the Sabbath: Chapter Three (II)

Matthew 12:1-14  

Wells references Matt. 12:1-14 several times in chapter 3[1] but offers no exposition of the passage.[2] I will offer a brief exposition.

In Matt. 12, we are told that “Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat” (Matt. 12:1). The Pharisees replied, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (Matt. 12:2). Jesus then offers two examples from the OT; “…David… and those who were with him” (Matt. 12:3) and “the priests in the temple” (Matt. 12:5).[3] Concerning the priests, he says, “Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?” (Matt. 12:5). Whatever the priests were doing, the Pharisees’ logic implied it was a violation of the Sabbath. Their logic taught that the priests, David, and Christ’s disciples were profaning the Sabbath. But Jesus says the priests “…are blameless” (Matt. 12:5). Then he quotes Hos. 6:6. He says, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt. 12:7).[4] He pronounces his disciples “guiltless” by referencing two OT examples. In the next section of Matt. 12, the Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt. 12:10). Jesus concludes in v. 12, “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” This clearly teaches that healing on the Sabbath was lawful as was preserving the life of a sheep (vv. 10-12). His disciples ate because eating is necessary to sustain human life. All of these actions, according to Christ, were lawful on the Sabbath according to OT law. Jesus was correcting faulty thinking about the Sabbath by consulting prior revelation.

Someone might want to offer Matt. 12 as an example of Jesus abrogating the Sabbath (cf. Mk. 2:23-28 and Lk. 6:1-11).[5] They might claim that Jesus advocates Sabbath-breaking thereby proving that he was abolishing it. But does this text bear this out? Did Jesus, in fact, advocate Sabbath-breaking during his earthly ministry? We have just examined Matt. 12:1-14 and seen Christ justifying works of necessity and mercy and concluding in v. 12, “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” The “good” in the context of Matt. 12 involved not only what his disciples did and what he did, but what David and those with him and the old covenant priests did. The supposed violation of the Sabbath in this passage (and others) is actually an upholding of the Sabbath and in accordance with OT revelation. Jesus never advocated Sabbath-breaking during his earthly ministry. Jesus’ teaching upholds existing Sabbath law.

Those who offer this objection may claim that when Jesus says, “But I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple” (v. 6) and “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 8), Jesus is claiming authority to abolish the Sabbath as he abolished the temple. In once sense, Christ did abolish the Sabbath. He abolished it in its various functions under the old covenant. And, in one sense, Christ abolished the temple. He did not, however, abolish the temple in all senses. His church is now God’s temple, where spiritual sacrifices are offered (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pt. 2:4-5). What does Jesus mean, when he says, “But I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple” (Mt. 12:6) and “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; cf. Mk. 2:28)? Fairbairn offers this explanation:

The Temple, He had said, has claims of service, which it was no proper desecration of the Sabbath, but the reverse, to satisfy; and ‘a greater than the Temple was there.’ ‘The Temple yields to Christ, the Sabbath yields to the Temple, therefore the Sabbath yields to Christ’–so the sentiment is syllogistically expressed by Bengel; but yields, it must be observed, in both cases alike, only for the performance of works not antagonistic, but homogeneous, to its nature. … He is Lord of the Sabbath, and, as such, has a right to order everything concerning it, so as to make it, in the fullest sense, a day of blessing for man–a right, therefore, if He should see fit, to transfer its observance from the last day of the week to the first, that it might be associated with the consummation of His redemptive work, and to make it, in accordance with the impulsive life and energy thereby brought in, more than in the past, a day of active and hallowed employment for the good of men.[6]

Just as the temple yields to Christ and is transformed to fit the redemptive-historical circumstances brought in by his death and resurrection/exaltation, so the Sabbath yields to Christ and is transformed to fit the redemptive-historical circumstances brought in by his death and resurrection/exaltation. The new covenant has both a temple and a Sabbath. This connects Christ’s teaching on the temple and the Sabbath with subsequent revelation.

Instead of Matt. 12 proving that Christ abolished the Sabbath, it actually argues that he upheld it and sought to correct the Pharisees’ faulty interpretation of Sabbath law. Fairbairn says, “Jesus grasped, as usual, the real spirit of the institution; for we are to remember, He is explaining the law of the Sabbath as it then stood, not superseding it by another.”[7] Christ upheld the Sabbath, cleared it of Pharisaic encumbrances, and set the stage for further revelation about it.

This objection assumes that the Sabbath in all senses was temporary, ceremonial law. Ceremonial laws are temporary laws for old covenant Israel and were a shadow of things to come (Col. 2:16-17). They were all abrogated by the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-18; Gal. 3-4; Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:16; and Heb. 8-10 [cf. esp. 8:6-7, 13; 9:9-10, 15; 10:1, 9, 15-18]). If the Sabbath is ceremonial law in all senses, then it has been abrogated. But the Sabbath is not ceremonial law in all senses, as we have seen (cf. Gen. 2:2-3; Ex. 20:8-11; Is. 56:2, 4, 6; and Mk. 2:27). And if Jesus considered it as ceremonial only, one would think he would treat it like he did other ceremonial laws. Beckwith and Stott comment:

But if Jesus regarded the sabbath as purely ceremonial and purely temporary, it is remarkable that he gives so much attention to it in his teaching, and also that in all he teaches about it he never mentions its temporary character. This is even more remarkable when one remembers that he emphasizes the temporary character of other parts of the Old Testament ceremonial–the laws of purity in Mark 7:14-23 and Luke 11:39-41, and the temple (with its sacrifices) in Mark 13:2 and John 4:21. By contrast, …he seems…to speak of the sabbath as one of the unchanging ordinances for all mankind.[8]

Jesus neither abrogated the Sabbath in all senses in his earthly ministry nor did he predict its soon demise. He upheld it and gave evidence that it would continue under his lordship as the Son of Man (Mk. 2:27-28).

We will look at Mk. 2:27-28 in our next post.


[1] I counted 10.

[2] In fact, the book contains little exegesis. Wells cites many texts and makes many observations; but he does little exegesis or exposition of passages. There was much proof-texting surrounded by observations that put the reader in an interpretive strait-jacket. I found his theological-interpretive method not very sound.

[3] Notice that Jesus is referring to previous revelation.

[4] Here is another reference to previous revelation.

[5] I am not assuming Wells does this.

[6] Patrick Fairbairn, The Revelation of Law in Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 1996), 238.

[7] Fairbairn, Revelation of Law, 237.

[8] Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott, This is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday in its Jewish and Early Christian Setting (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1978), 26.

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