Matthew 12:9-21

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Matthew 12

9 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.”

There is an interesting old debate among theologians that has to do with two Latin expressions: ipsissima vox (the very voice) and ipsissima verba (the very words). Basically, those who argue for the ipsissima verba position say that in the New Testament what we have are the exact literal words of Jesus precisely as He said them. Those who argue for the ipsissima vox position argue that what we have in the New Testament is the very meaning of what Jesus’ actual words meant whether or not the New Testament writers actually recorded his very words exactly as He said them.[1]

My point is not to enter into that debate as it relates to the writing of the New Testament. My purpose in mentioning it is because it seems to me that this ipsissima verba/ipsissima vox distinction can help us understand what was happening between Jesus and the religious authorities when it came to His performing miracles on the Sabbath. Simply put, I would like to argue that the Pharisees focused so much on the very word “sabbath” that they detached it from and therefore missed the very voice of God concerning the Sabbath!

Patrick Miller points out that the word for “rest” is “sabat” which literally means “stop.”[2] This is where we get the word Sabbath. The Pharisees were absolutely obsessed with that word “stop.” They were so focused on that word that that they allowed it to deafen them to and then distort the voice behind it. All they knew was you were supposed to rest, that is, “stop,” on this day and they loaded that one basket with all of their eggs! And, to enforce the ipsissima verba of the Sabbath they made rules upon rules! Stop doing this! Stop doing that! Stop! Stop! Stop!

Then Jesus comes along and does works of mercy and compassion on the Sabbath. Those works violated their understanding of the word. Jesus had not stopped as they thought He should! But Jesus seems, time and time again, to be pointing them to the ipsissima vox, the voice that gave the word, and to be saying to them that they had missed the voice in their fixation on the word.

Jesus’ Intentionally Provocates for the Kingdom

We move to what is the second Sabbath controversy reported in Matthew 12, the first involving Jesus’ disciples eating the heads of grain as they walked on the Sabbath. This next controversy is even more intense, as we will see by the Pharisees’ reaction.

9 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.

We note the heightening of the tension in the facts that Jesus healed (a) on the Sabbath, (b) in a synagogue, and (c) a man whose injuries were not necessarily life-threatening or time-sensitive. On this last point, Craig Blomberg writes:

The handicapped man in question has a “shriveled hand,” a disability that had probably not occurred recently and that in no way threatened the man’s life or health. If Jesus wished to help the man, he could obviously wait one day until the Sabbath had passed. The situation did not require immediate action.[3]

Why, then, does Jesus provocate? Why does He do this miracle on this day in this place without waiting? It is because Jesus had a point that needed to be made that was far bigger than the man’s shriveled hand. The point had to do with just how much the tunnel vision of the legalistic Pharisees had distorted the Sabbath. The HCSB Study Bible observes:

Many rabbis permitted healing on the Sabbath only when a life was at risk (m. Yoma 8:6). Otherwise, it was illegal to tie a bandage, set a broken bone, or administer medicine. Some rabbis even banned prayer for the sick on the Sabbath.[4]

This is really amazing! One could not set a bone on the Sabbath? One could not give medicine? One could not pray for the sick, in some cases?!

There are times when the disease of legalism so threatens the people of God in their understanding and worship of God and in their exercise of love for one another that it simply needs to be rooted out and destroyed right then and there! This was one such time. This needed to happen on the Sabbath not only because Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath but also because their perversions of the Sabbath was distorting worship and love itself. It was time for the whole rotten edifice of the Pharisees’ arrogance to be dealt with. And this is what Jesus did.

Jesus pointed out to them that if they could pull a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath surely they could pull a human being out of his or her despair on the Sabbath. What an absurd position that they had fallen into where they could rightly care for an animal but not a human being! Sadly, the Essenes, a strict Jewish sect, handled this discrepancy…by making it illegal to help a sheep either! Whereas they could have adjusted their understanding to widen the tent of love to include humanity and sheep, they rather closed it all down so that the faithful could not show mercy to either.

How strange. How sad. Such is the nature of self-righteousness and legalism. This is what happens when we add to God’s Word.

The Pharisees Rightly Understand the Threat of Jesus

The response of the Pharisees is chilling.

14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

What was behind this? Surely it was their belief that Jesus’ teachings and actions threatened all that they stood for, threatened their power, threatened their assumptions about scripture and God, threatened their elevated traditions, and threatened their control over the minds and hearts of God’s people.

And I want to say something very clearly about this: the Pharisees were absolutely correct in their assessment. Consider Jesus’ language about wine and wineskins in Mark 2:

22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

The new wine of the Kingdom did not threaten to distress the old wineskin of the Pharisaical traditions. That is not the word Jesus used. No, the new wine of the Kingdom destroyed the old wineskins.

The Pharisees saw this.

The Pharisees understood this.

The Pharisees were right to tremble.

Jesus threatens man-made, man-controlled, man-defined religion. He had, in essence, publicly shown that the Pharisees did not understand scripture, did not understand love, and did not understand the heart of God. I have been around a lot of preachers. I am one! Preachers do not like to be corrected on such things, much less shown to be completely missing the point of their calling and the God they profess to understand. Jesus threatened the entire 1st century Jewish “religious industrial complex,” if you will.

So the conclusion, for the Pharisees, was clear enough: Jesus had to go. They therefore plot to rid themselves and the world of Him once and for all!

The Hope of the Nations Rested in Jesus’ Actions

That is how the Pharisees saw Jesus. But our text concludes with another view, a view from above. Here is how the Lord God sees Jesus.

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, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reveals that Jesus’ actions showed Him to be the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecies, particularly of Isaiah 42:1-4. This means that Jesus:

  • Is God’s servant.
  • Is God’s chosen and beloved.
  • Pleases the soul of the Father.
  • Has the Spirit of the Father.
  • Proclaims justice to the nations.
  • Will have a reign and rule that will never end.
  • Will give hope to the nations.

The cross is alluded to in Isaiah’s words that Matthew tells us Jesus fulfills. Page Kelly observes of the phrase “He will not…cry aloud” that “‘cry out’ (tsa’aq)…is most often used of the weak crying to the strong for help. In most instances it describes the oppressed crying out to God for relief…” He concludes, on this basis, that “it becomes clear that the prophet is describing not the manner in which the servant will accomplish his mission, but, rather, the wonderful relief that the Lord will provide for him, thus forever banishing from his lips the cry of distress.”[5] This suggests that the coming Servant will suffer but will not face ultimate defeat.

Jesus will suffer on the cross but Jesus will not taste eternal death. He will rise again.

But notice too how twice Isaiah speaks of the Gentiles: in verse 18 (“and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles”) and in verse 21 (“in his name the Gentiles will hope.”). It is fascinating that Matthew chose to point to Jesus’ fulfillment of this text from Isaiah immediately after Jesus’ Sabbath controversies. It is as if Matthew is saying, “The hope of the nations rested in Jesus’ overthrow of the old Pharisaical view of religion.”

And this makes sense. It makes sense because Jesus needed the Jews to understand the merciful and loving heart of God over and against the self-serving and self-righteous religiosity of the Pharisees so that, in time, they could understand that God’s mercy applies not only to a Jewish man with a withered hand in a synagogue but also to the Gentiles outside of the synagogue, indeed, to the entire world!

Jesus was, from one point of view, bringing the missionary heart of God into deliberate conflict with the closed-system hearts of the Pharisees. He was bursting the old wineskins. He was attacking the very foundation of any and every system that purports to communicate the heart of God but that, in actuality, completely misses it.

That is why what happened in this synagogue was truly happening on a world stage, for nothing less than the eventual proclamation of the gospel to the nations was at stake.

So let us thank God for Jesus healing that man’s hand on that day! Let us thank God for His loving and merciful heart!

[1] https://www.theopedia.com/ipsissima-vox

[2] Miller, Patrick D. (2009-08-06). The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (p. 122). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition

[3] Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew (The New American Commentary) (pp. 197-198). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Holman Bible Editorial Staff, Holman Bible Editorial Staff. HCSB Study Bible (Kindle Locations 134084-134086). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] Page H. Kelley, Isaiah. The Broadman Holman Bible Commentary. Gen. Ed. Clifton J. Allen. 5 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1971), p.306-307.

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