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Sermon Message


"It Is Lawful To Do Good"

Matthew 12:9-14
Theme: When it comes to a life that is truly pleasing to God, a spirit of “genuine mercy” takes precedence over an outward show of “religious ritual”.

(Delivered Sunday, June 4, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

We have been studying together from the portion of Matthew's Gospel in which a fight was started. It was a fight the religious leaders of Jesus' day had with Him over the subject of the Sabbath.

The fight really began to take shape when Jesus and His disciples were passing through a grainfield. The disciples walked along with Him; and because they were hungry, they reached out their hands, picked the heads of grain off the stalks, rubbed the grain in their hands, blew off the husks, and munched on the kernels. This caused the Pharisees—who apparently were following along and watching them—to have a 'holy' cow. They said, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (Matthew 12:2).

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, the disciples were breaking the law of God by working on the Sabbath day. In the strict interpretation of the Pharisees, the disciples were 'harvesting', and 'grinding', and 'threshing', and 'preparing a meal'—and all on the day in which they were supposed to rest from any and all forms of labor.

Jesus, however, answered their accusation wisely; and in such a way as to turn their attention to the real, decisive issue—that is, Himself. He said to them;

“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 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? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:3-8).

The key to understanding that story was the affirmation Jesus made about Himself in it. He said that, “in this place there is One greater than the temple”; and affirmed, “(f)or the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”. It was a remarkable assertion. He was saying that the reason for His freedom to do as He did—as well as the freedom of those who followed Him—was found in who He Himself is. He is the One that the temple served. He is the One to whom the Sabbath law pointed. The commanded “rest” of God had its ultimate fulfillment in Him. As the book of Hebrews says, those who believe on Him “do enter that rest” (Hebrews 3:4).

Well; this morning, we come to yet another story about the Pharisees' controversy with Jesus over the Sabbath. The Holy Spirit led Matthew to immediately follow up that first story with a second one. As we have found in our study of Matthew's Gospel, the opposition against our blessed Savior grew stronger as the story progressed. And now, with this passage, that opposition takes a deadly turn. Matthew tells us;

Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. 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. 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? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him (Matthew 12:9-14).

Whereas that first story has the Pharisees merely confronting Jesus with a criticism, the second story has them openly seeking to trap Him so they can accuse Him of sin. And whereas that first story has Jesus making an assertion about who He is in relationship to the Sabbath, this second story has Him proving it before His accusers in a bold, public demonstration of His divine power on the Sabbath. And finally, whereas the first story ends with the Pharisees frustrated and humiliated by Jesus' rebuke, the second story ends with them plotting together to kill Him.

And what a great spiritual principle it teaches us! It's a principle that—more than anyone else—people who consider themselves to be “religious” need continually to be reminded of. That principle is suggested to us in those very important words of our Lord: “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” It the principle that God counts acts of genuine mercy and goodness toward people higher than mere practices of religious ritual and ceremony.

* * * * * * * * * *

There was something that happened to me very early in my ministry in this church that, as I look back on it, was very formative. I believe it was used by God to established how I must understand my ministry and the work of our church.

Since I was a new pastor, I wanted to establish a sense in the church of the seriousness of our worship times together. I believed very strongly then—and still do—that the office of pastor/teacher is a very high and worthy calling; and that the handling of the word of God is a task of the greatest possible importance. As I stood before the people of God from behind 'the sacred desk'; I sought diligently to bring the people entrusted to my pastoral care into the presence of the Lord in a dignified and reverent way. I wanted our worship to worthy of the Lord; and I believed that the preaching was a crucial part of that. To stand before the people of God, in the presence of God, with the word of God in hand, was to me then—and I promise you, still is today—a thing of profound importance, not to be trifled with.

And one Sunday morning, as I was standing before God's people—preaching the words of eternal life—it happened that right in the middle of my sermon, a little tiny girl broke away from her mother and father in the pew, and came toddling up to the pulpit. Here I was, Bible in hand, fulfilling with all my energies the sacred prophetic office that was my call from God; and this little toddler came right up to the pulpit with all eyes upon her. She threw her little chubby legs up on to the steps and crawled on to the platform. And there she stood, next to me—just staring at me as she worked a pacifier in her little mouth.

I was frozen in preaching stance. My Bible was in one hand, my finger was pointing upward authoritatively in the other, and my mouth was open with something very profound about to come out of it. And yet, the two of us—this little girl and I—just stared at each other. The whole church was dead quiet. From the corner of my eye, I could see some very embarrassed parents shifting uneasily in their pew. There was also a pastor shifting uneasily in the pulpit! I wasn't quite sure what to do in a situation like this. They didn't cover this in seminary.

And then, the little girl pulled out her pacifier and—in the hearing of everyone—heaved this very loud, very tired, very exasperated 'sigh'; and laid down at my feet and began to take a nap. Now; I don't know what you'd do in a situation like that, but I believe God blessed me with a little presence of mind. I lowered my preaching finger, pointed to her instead, and said, “I'll bet the rest of you wish you could do that!”

Well; so much for all the dignity and order I was trying to bring to the Sunday morning service! Clearly, God had something else in mind for His people that day.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now, that's a silly story, of course. But that experience forced me to think carefully about what is important to our Lord in the gathering of His people. There's no doubt that the preaching of His word is important to Him. He would never accept His word being handled before His people in a careless and flippant way. And he would never accept His worship being conducted in an anything but an honorable and orderly manner. But do you know what else is important to Him? People. The preaching of His word is meant for people—and not the other way around. The fact that a tiny little girl could feel comfortable and free enough in God's house to wander up right in the middle of the worship service, lay down on the floor next to the preacher, and make herself at home, is something that is precious to our Savior.

Now; could I have felt inconvenienced? Sure I could. Could I have gotten mad because someone didn't watch their child? Sure I could. Could I have gotten upset that the sacred mood of the morning was disturbed? Sure I could. But would Jesus have felt that way? I honestly believe not. He loves people—and He particularly loves little children. And it may just have been that, in a way, the Lord was letting me know that I'm not as important as I sometimes think I am; and that the “dignity” and “propriety” that I tried to bring about in the worship service isn't as important to Him as that little girl was.

When that happened, I thought of another story about little children interrupting a great Preacher. Later on in Matthew's Gospel, we're told;

Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there (Matthew 19:13-15).

I think I understand what the disciples where trying to do. I believe that they that were trying to protect the dignity of the moment. What could be more dignified that the Son of God teaching the truths of the kingdom to His followers? And frankly, no one has a way of interrupting a feeling of man-made religious dignity like a little child. I'll bet those little children were noisy and distracting. Some of them were probably messy. Some of them had their little fingers up their noses. Others were playing with bugs they caught. And they all wanted to crawl on Jesus and sit on His lap as He taught the people. And yet, He welcomed all the little children, and loved them, and insisted that they be permitted to come to Him whenever they wanted to. Let propriety go by the wayside! And this is because people—even little people—and the mercy that they need shown to them, are far more important to our Savior than rituals or programs or religious ceremonies. In fact, rituals and programs and religious ceremonies are meant to serve people's needs; and not the other way around.

This is a lesson that, it seems to me, is deliberately repeated in this section of Matthew's Gospel. We had just been given one version of it; and now we're being given another. Perhaps it's because it's something we “church-going” people need to constantly be reminded of. What's important to Jesus is not that we perform our religious rituals in such a way that protects the dignity of the ritual at all costs. What's important to Him is not that people be put second and religious ceremonies be put first. Rather, what's important to Him is that the spirit of genuine grace and mercy—which is always a part of the true worship of the Lord Jesus Christ—takes precedence over mere outward rituals and religious observances.

* * * * * * * * * *

This was a principle that, when expressed by our Lord, infuriated the Pharisees and religious leaders of His day. It may even infuriate people today who are committed to religious ritual. But it is, I believe, the truth that is being illustrated to us in this morning's passage.

Please look with me at what it tells us. First, notice . . .

1. THE TRAP THAT WAS SET (vv. 9-10).

Our Lord and His disciples had departed from the “Sabbath in the grainfield” situation and had moved on. Luke, in his Gospel account, says, “Now it happened on another Sabbath also, that He entered the synagogue and taught” (Luke 6:6).

I have to pause for a moment and point just a couple of things out to you. Precious truths about our Savior are expressed in the details. Do you notice that, in our passage, it says that “He went into their synagogue” (v. 9)? It is specifically called “theirs”; and the “they” that are being referred to is the very Pharisees who had just confronted Him in the grainfield. I see a wonderful truth about our Lord in this. He had no fear of confronting those who opposed Him. He only withdrew from them when it became clear that they plotted His death (v. 14). But He not only did not hide from them. He even went to the very place where they were—into, as it were, “their” territory and into the very place where those who opposed Him would be found. Here, we see our Lord's confident courage.

And another thing I notice is that He was His faithfulness to the duty of worship on the Sabbath. There was absolutely nothing that the Son of God could have ever learned by attending services in the place of worship. But He set the example for us by faithfully gathering with the people of God in the place of spiritual instruction when it was time to do so.

* * * * * * * * * *

So; Jesus went to the synagogue. And we're told that there—in that place of worship—was found a man who had a whithered hand”. It was crippled and deformed in some way—perhaps by birth, perhaps by accident, or perhaps by illness. Luke tells us that it was his “right hand” (Luke 6:6)—a very important and needful hand.

The Pharisees were also there—watching the Lord, to see what He would do. And we're told that they saw, in the presence of this poor man, an opportunity to trap our Lord in such a way as to bring an accusation against Him. The word that Matthew uses was one that referred to speaking against someone in a court of law; and so, it may be that they were even hoping to use this opportunity, at a later date, to bring formal charges against Him as a Sabbath breaker. And so, sizing up the situation, they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

There was some legal precedent that stood behind their question. The Rabbis had studied the law of God given by Moses, and had attempted to give some definition as to what sort of work of healing could be allowed on the Sabbath. Much of what they said is rather complicated; but in general, they taught that medical care was allowed on the Sabbath in situations that involved the actual danger of life. But that certainly wasn't the case with this man. His hand was crippled; and his livelihood was probably impacted. But his life certainly wasn't in danger.

And think of their question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” If Jesus had simply said “yes”, then He would have positioned Himself to be against rabbinical law in the eyes of the people. But if He simply said “no”, then he would have appeared unmerciful and uncaring. And all of this simply underscores the deep-seated cruelty of the Pharisees with respect to this poor, crippled man. Their concern was not for him. They weren't interested in showing mercy to him at all. Their only concern was how they could use this poor man's disability to trap Jesus and gain the advantage over Him; and thus maintain the authority of their stance with regard to the Sabbath.

In other words, they were seeking to make this poor man serve the cause of the Sabbath; rather than seeking to serve the man on the Sabbath. That, I believe, is why we're told in other Gospel accounts that Jesus “knew their thoughts” (Luke 6:8), and “looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts” (Mark 3:5). What an evil thing it is when people place the emphasis on the rituals and ceremonies; and make other people suffer in order to serve the cause of religion!

* * * * * * * * * *

Now, before we go any further, do you notice how—perhaps unwittingly—they were making some very remarkable affirmations about our Lord? They were seeking to trap Him; but they tried to do so by putting this poor, crippled man before Him knowing, first, that if the Lord saw the man, He would surely show mercy to Him on the Sabbath. This was the whole basis of their trap! They knew that He would not leave the man unhealed. And second, they clearly knew that it was in the power of our Lord to actually heal the man!

What wonderful things they were saying about our Lord, in spite of themselves! How remarkable it is that our Lord can make even the opposition of His enemies resound to His own glory! Surely, even the wrath of men shall praise Him (Psalm 76:10)!

This leads us, then, to notice . . .


Have you ever noticed how often Jesus answered the questions of His accusers by asking them a question? Jesus often did this to get the issue back on what is important. They asked about a particular fine-point of the law in order to catch Him in His words and accuse Him. And He responded by asking them a question that made them look into the mirror and measure themselves against the higher principle of mercy.

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?” And here, He suggests a situation in which a man has one sheep. Perhaps it is his only sheep—a very valuable piece of property. And it fell into a pit. It cannot get out by itself. To leave it overnight would be to subject it to the possibility of being eaten by a predator. And the sheep itself would be struggling to climb out of the pit—perhaps injuring itself or even killing itself in the process. The Sabbath commandment states that it is to be a day of rest, not only for a man, but also for his animals (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14); and it certainly wouldn't be a restful day for the sheep!

Even if the owner wouldn't be motivated by mercy on the animal, he'd certainly be motivated by the desire to protect his property. And so, such a man wouldn't even think twice. He'd get a rope, lower himself down, lay hold of the sheep, and lift it out of the pit on the Sabbath. Then he, and the sheep, would have a true day of rest!

Every one of those Pharisees who were trying to trap our Lord would have done the same. Mercy—to say nothing of common sense—would demand it. They knew the answer to Jesus' first question, and it rebuked their hypocrisy. And so, Jesus follows it up with another question—one that argues from the lessor to the greater: “Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep?”

I like to think that Jesus answered the question the way a farmer would have answered it—not the way a theologian would have answered it. Sometimes a farmer can make better sense of the fine points of practical theology than a theologian.

* * * * * * * * * *

It's fascinating to think of how often this sort of thing came up in Jesus' dealings with the leaders of the Jewish people. Luke, in his Gospel account, tells us;

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him (Luke 13:10-17).

And a little later, Luke tells us of another story very much like the one we're studying this morning. Only this time, the Lord didn't wait to be asked the question. He asked it Himself! Luke writes;

Now it happened, as He went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath, that they watched Him closely. And behold, there was a certain man before Him who had dropsy. And Jesus, answering, spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” But they kept silent. And He took him and healed him, and let him go. Then He answered them, saying, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” And they could not answer Him regarding these things (Luke 14:1-6).

The fact that the Lord had to deal with this kind of hypocrisy several times causes me to wonder if it's not more prevalent among 'people of religion' that we tend to think. And before I become too quick to condemn the Pharisees, I have to wonder if it isn't found also in me. Are there ways in which I place religious ceremony and purity over the needs of the people around me? Are there times when I would be more upset with the fact that my ideal of what a worship service should be is interrupted, than I am glad for the fact that a tiny little girl feels comfortable in the house of God?

* * * * * * * * * *

This leads us, then, to consider . . .

3. THE TRUTH THAT WAS TAUGHT (vv. 12b-13).

Now remember that the healing of the man's hand on the Sabbath day was not necessary to save his life. Jesus could have told the man to go home, and then to come back the next day so He could heal him. But it's very important to notice the truth that Jesus was teaching in all of this. As He clearly affirmed before all, “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” There was no breaking of the Sabbath in acting in mercy toward the poor man. It was, in fact, in perfect keeping with the intention of the Sabbath day. It would have been the keeping of the true spirit of that day, rather than the keeping the strict letter of the law.

Think of what that Sabbath day was supposed to be about. When God gave His good commandment regarding the Sabbath, it was to reflect His own pleasure over His rest from the work of Creation. He saw it all, and rendered the verdict that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31); and so, on the sixth day, He rested and took pleasure in His work (2:2-3). And so, in that spirit—that is, in the spirit of taking rest and enjoying that which is “good”—God commanded that His people also rest. He said;

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8-11).

It's not a day that was meant to be a burdensome thing. It was meant to be a blessing—for the good of people and for the creatures that serve them. God Himself, through the prophet Isaiah, has already spoken authoritatively about His true intention for His Sabbath. He said;

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,
From doing your pleasure on My holy day,
And call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the LORD honorable,
And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,
Nor finding your own pleasure,
Nor speaking your own words,
Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD;
And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,
And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.
The mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

And so, acts and works of mercy and of doing good were absolutely in keeping with the observance of the Sabbath—the most significant day of ceremonial worship and ritual of the Jewish people.

And this just, once again, reminds us that God places mercy over ceremony. He places people over programs. He places the doing of good over the protection of ritual.

* * * * * * * * * *

And look at what Jesus then did. He acted in a very public way. As it tells us in the other Gospels, He actually called the man forward (Mark 3:3); and made him stand before all (Luke 6:9). Then, He commanded the man to stretch out his hand—and the word used indicates a very very visible act. And when the man stretched it out, it was found to be as whole as the other.

Well; all of this was a threat to the position of the Jewish leaders. It would mean that their authority was being undercut. It would mean that they no longer had control over the practices of the people. It would mean that their “holiness” was mere outward conformity to a religious ritual, and that they were not “more holy” than everyone else after all. It meant that people would look less and less to them, and more and more to Jesus.

And so, finally, we see . . .


Three things happened that revealed the hypocritical nature of the Pharisees. First, in Luke 6:11, we're told that they were “filled with rage”. Imagine that! This man was healed before their very eyes; and yet, these Pharisees—who presume to be the defenders of God's law—were deeply unhappy about this wondrous display of mercy from God. Instead, they were furious at what God did through His Son! They were outraged that the true spirit of the Sabbath was kept—and that they were shown to be on the wrong side of it.

Second, we're told in Mark 3:6, that they went out and conspired with the Herodians. The Herodians was a political group that stood behind the reign of King Herod Agrippa and that was pro-Roman. The Pharisees and the Herodians were not naturally friends; but they were joined together in their hatred for Jesus.

And third, we're told in our passage this morning that they “went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him” (v. 14). How ridiculous they were! Jesus had performed a great miracle, but they were offended that He broke their rules of the Sabbath in the way He did it. He healed; and they responded by seeking to kill.

May God keep us from such foolishness and narrowness!

* * * * * * * * * *

I believe that God sought to teach me long ago, through that little girl, not to fret so much about whether or not I keep things dignified and honorable when it comes to His worship. He has seen fit to include people in this great task of worshiping Him; and the needs of people makes it all a bit messy at times. But He doesn't seem to mind.

And here in this story, we are given a reminder of what is truly important to our Lord Jesus. He desires that genuine grace and mercy toward people be placed over mere outward rituals and religious observances. We must remember that, in His worship, it is always lawful to do good.

Perhaps a good way to apply this passage to our lives—and to genuinely keep His day of rest in a manner that pleases Him—is to keep our eyes open to someone in need, and to meet that need in genuine love today.

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