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Study Notes:

Matthew 12:1-21
When Can I Break The Rules?

Summary: Jesus is accused of not keeping the religious laws and responds by appealing to the heart behind the law.

In our last study in Matthew we found Jesus saying:

Matthew 11:28 “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

I suggested those of you with an artistic bent in any media might want to take that on as source of inspiration and produce something related this promise. We’ve already had two pieces come in and you can view them on the table in the entryway. I hope there are more coming.

This morning, we pick things up in the very next verse – and we find there was quite a bit of contrast between the light and easy yoke of Jesus and the strict religious rules that people were living by.

Matthew 12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”

It’s the Sabbath, the Jewish day of worship, like our Sunday. Jesus and His disciples are most likely on their way to the synagogue, the Jewish version of a church. Some of them are hungry, and since there are no fast-food restaurants they just grab a few heads of grain off the plants that are growing in the fields as they walk by.

The Pharisees, members of a religious denomination that take rules very seriously complain to Jesus about it. They say, “Your people are breaking the religious rules!”

But here’s the deal – the disciples weren’t breaking God’s rules, they were breaking rules made by religious people. God said, in the Ten Commandments, that you were to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Later, people came up with all kinds of ideas about how to do that. And one of their ideas was that plucking heads of grain – even just a few – was like doing the work of a whole day’s harvesting, so it wasn’t allowed.

They took their rules very seriously and made life uncomfortable and weird for everyone else in the process, so Jesus talks to them about what they’ve done.

3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? 6 Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. 7 But 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 even of the Sabbath.”

Notice what Jesus does here – He appeals to Scripture to make His case. This event with their beloved King David and the regular work of the priests also violate the rules they have made. Yet God says David and the priests are blameless. What do you do about that? If they had really done something wrong, couldn’t God have struck them dead right then and there as an example to everyone?

And then, Jesus makes this incredible claim – that He is even greater than the Temple and He’s right here with the disciples as they’re doing what they’re doing. If plucking grain was that big of deal, He could reprimand them Himself. But there was no need for a reprimand, either for David, or for the priests, or for the disciples today, because even though they were breaking the rules of men, they were not breaking any rules of God.

Now, having said that, did you know it’s also possible to do the opposite? To keep the rules of men and break the rules of God?

State and federal governments have made all sorts of things legal that are an abomination in the sight of God. Never assume something is OK just because there is no law against it on earth. The laws of heaven and earth are not always in sync because the hearts of humanity and the mind of God are not always in sync.

Jesus says the people who made and enforce these particular rules about picking grain don’t understand God. And because they don’t understand that He desires mercy over sacrifice, they are condemning people who God calls guiltless. Think about that – people may say you’re guilty, but God says you’re guiltless. And the opposite could be true – people could say you’re guiltless while God sees you as condemned. How much do you want to rely on the opinion of others, especially others who do not truly know God?

Well, the Pharisees didn’t quite get the point and things come to a head once again.

9 Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—that they might accuse Him.

They’re looking for a setup. They wanted something they could accuse him with.

Have you ever had to live through something like this? Where people were always out to get you, or perhaps where you were always looking for a way to get them? There’s a LOT of this kind of behavior in our city, isn’t there?

But friends, it can happen in daily life too. You can find yourself in an adversarial relationship with someone or some group around you, where one side is always looking get the other. If that’s you – if you’re the one they’re always trying to trap, always waiting for you to do or say something wrong, can I help you find a counselor you can talk to? Someone who will listen and understand? Someone who knows exactly what you’re talking about?

His name is Jesus. God called Him our Wonderful Counselor. He has no intake forms, no insurance co-pays, and He’s always got an opening for your next appointment. Friends, take your burdens to Jesus. Didn’t He just say:

“Come to Me … and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Jesus knows what it is like to live in a hostile environment. He knows what it’s like to try very, very hard to do good things, or simply to do your job and find people who enjoy frustrating you or just flat out don’t care. But, He also knows how to get through the obstacles and objections they put up.

11 Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Jesus makes the point – it’s OK to bend the rules, especially man’s rules, when the rules get in the way of doing good.

But most of the time, people want to bend or break the rules for their own personal benefit.

Speeding down the road because you like going fast is one thing. Speeding down the road because your wife is going into labor is another. Hitting someone because they insulted you is one thing, hitting them to make them stop hitting someone else is another. If you want to know if it’s OK to break or bend a rule you’re facing, ask yourself two questions: is this God’s rule or man’s rule, and then ask: who benefits from what I’m about to do?

Jesus saw no problem breaking the rules of men in order to do good for someone else. He asked the question: does it glorify God to continue to let this man suffer? And of course, the answer was no, so He took action.

13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other.

Now, this is a small detail, but it’s also a big thing in my book – notice: “it was restored as whole as the other.” I love that, there was no partial healing. If Jesus is going to do something, He’s going to do it well.

But how did the Pharisees react? Were they amazed? Were their minds blown by the miracle they just seen? Did they fall down and worship God? No.

14 Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.

OK, with hindsight, this is crazy, isn’t it? Jesus just healed a man – there was physical proof of a real miracle right in front of their eyes, and they reacted to it by just getting more upset. That doesn’t make sense to a detached observer, does it?

It doesn’t make sense to go looking for a way to destroy the One who did just did something supernatural.

But, let me ask: how do you react when Jesus says you’re wrong? What do you do when there’s a conflict between what God says and what you feel, or what you want, or how you see things? It is not uncommon for people to ignore, resist, or even actively fight against God because He doesn’t line up with their preferences, feelings, or opinions.

This is how you can have individual Christians or even whole churches doing something that makes sense to the culture but makes no sense to God or to those looking on years later. This is how you can have churches doing things like allowing slavery or encouraging a range of sexual identities and practices – they aligned more with the culture of their own day than with the kingdom of God. And so too, these religious leaders, these very devout and spiritual people called Pharisees thought it was OK to plot and plan how to destroy a man (who was actually God) in God’s name.

My friends, the point is: we can be very sincere and be sincerely wrong. Don’t measure the truthfulness of your opinions and feelings simply by the weight with which you feel them. You can hold ideas that will lead you to actively resist God while He is actively working for your benefit. Again, you can be sincere and be sincerely wrong.

Could that be true for you today? Is there an area in your life where you are actively resisting God? It could be just one thing, or it could be your entire life, but are there areas that you know need to change but you keep holding on to, clinging to, because you like them, you enjoy them, you feel this way or that, and even though you have a reason to question it from time to time you keep coming back to what makes the most sense to you?

Are you sure you’re not resisting God in the process? Who do you best identify with in the things we’re seeing this morning – the Pharisees, or Jesus?

Well, let’s look at how Jesus responds to it all:

15 But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all.

Jesus knows they’re out to get Him, but He also knows what He has been called to do by God and so He leaves town, but He stays on task, He stays on mission, He keeps doing the same things.

Now, I love the language here “when Jesus knew it” because it reminds me of another story that you who read your Bible will know well – Daniel chapter 6. Daniel 6 is the famous account of the events where Daniel was thrown into the den of lions. But do you remember why that happened? It was because Daniel was doing such a good job serving the government of the nation that had taken him hostage in his youth that the government was actually considering promoting him to the number two position in the land.

That potential promotion bothered some people though, so they got the king to sign a law saying that anyone who prayed to anyone other than him for 30 days should be thrown into the lions’ den. And what did Daniel do?

Daniel 6:10 Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.

And of course, that eventually got him thrown into the den of lions, but God saved him.

Peter and John had the same attitude when, after Jesus’ resurrection, they were preaching in the Temple and they were arrested and brought before the religious leaders who told them to knock it off and what did they say?

Acts 4:19 … “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. 20 For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

Friends, at times we are all faced with the decision: should we have greater loyalty to the people around us, or the God above us? Should we go with the flow, go with the crowd, or follow Christ regardless of the cost? It’s not always an easy choice to make. I’m not pretending it is. But I’m telling you, I’m grateful that my Savior was not bullied into compliance, but instead went ahead with the mission God had given Him so that a Gentile like me might be saved.

Matthew 12:16 Yet He warned them not to make Him known, 17 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:

18 “Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;
21 And in His name Gentiles will trust.”

Jesus didn’t go looking for a fight, either verbally or physically. You didn’t hear Him quarreling in the streets with the people who opposed Him, you saw Him seeking out the bruised reeds and the barely burning flax – the weak and the hurt, the lost and the lonely and He called them into the kingdom of God.

In order to extend that invitation He didn’t make a long list of rules to obey – He boiled it down to one: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. If you make that the goal of your life, everything else will fall in place.

Of course, the problem is, though that is a simple rule, it’s impossible to keep at all times under all circumstance, your entire life long. So what we do about those who break the rules? Typically, there are consequences for breaking the rules. And it’s no different with God. But we can’t handle His consequences, we can’t endure them.

So Jesus said, I’ll handle them for you. That’s what happened on the cross – Jesus suffered the consequences for all the times we break God’s one big rule and all of it’s lesser statutes. It was a tremendous display of love for all the times that we are so unloving.

This morning we remember what He has done by receiving communion. We receive a cracker that has been broken to remind us of what happened to His body in the process of crucifixion, and we receive a cup of grape juice which reminds us of the blood that He shed. They are tokens to remind us of the significance and the cost of what happened when God Himself took care of the consequences for the rules we break.

We all do it – we all break God’s rules, and sometimes, we’re just like the Pharisees, resisting the good things Jesus is trying to do around us, or the things He is calling us to be a part of. Can I encourage you to stop that this morning? Can I encourage you to stop resisting God? Can I encourage you to listen to what He’s saying about what rules you should be following and what things you should walk away from?

And can I encourage those of you who are suffering from the scheming of others to share your pain with Jesus and find comfort, counsel, hope, and healing from Him? Friends, Jesus really is the answer to all of your questions, to all of your concerns. He really is calling you to come to Him, and asking you to take up His easy load. Will you do that today?

Let’s pray

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