A Good Deed or a Capital Offense? Matthew 12:8-14
“8) For the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath. 9) Departing from there, He went into their synagogue. 10) And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse Him. 11) And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? 12) How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13) Then He *said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. 14) But the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.” Matthew‬ ‭12‬:‭9‬-‭14‬
Do not minimize the significance of these verses. With this story, a trap was being set against Jesus. An obscure story in Numbers 15:32-36 became the basis of the Pharisees strategy to destroy Jesus.
It related to a man caught breaking the Sabbath by gathering wood. He was put in custody until his fate was decided for intensionally breaking the Sabbath. It was decided that he had committed a capital crime. He was led outside the camp and stoned by the congregation.
So what does that have to do with this story in Matthew 12:8-14? If the Pharisees could make the case that intensional healing on the Sabbath was equivalent to gathering wood, they could convict Jesus of a capital crime.
Like the men who conspired to destroy Daniel, the Pharisees realized they needed a charge against Jesus related to His service of God. They settled on making the case that healing on the Sabbath was a capital offense.
They used this occasion in the synagogue to set what they viewed as the perfect trap. It was the Sabbath. There was a man present with a withered hand. They knew Jesus was full of compassion and had the power to heal. With every eye focused and every ear listening, they asked Jesus the crucial question; “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They were looking for the basis of accusing Him of a capital crime.
Jesus uses the occasion to turn their own rules and regulations against them. Over time, the elders of Israel had developed certain exceptions to actions on the a Sabbath that were deemed as needed intervention… so not in violation of the spirit of the Sabbath.
One related to the rescue of an only a sheep that fell into a pit, most likely a well on the Sabbath. Without immediate intervention… it would quickly drown. This “exception” was not mentioned in the Law, but became accepted as a justifiable action of compassion on a Sabbath.
Jesus affirmed it was ok to do good on the Sabbath, but He raised the stakes in the argument. He asked, “Which is more valuable, a man or a sheep?” Jesus was making the case that the legalism of the Pharisees was heartless and filled with hypocrisy! Jesus viewed people as having innate value.
But there was another issue at stake. In Matthew 12:8, Jesus proclaimed; “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” What Jesus did by healing on the Sabbath punctuated His claim of Deity. He was operating out of His office as the Great Physician. This was Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah. He would heal His people.
If they pursued their case, they were officially rejecting Jesus as Messiah. Was Jesus was setting a counter trap? Peter laid this charge against the leaders of Israel during his first sermon on the day of Pentecost. (See Acts 2:22-24). Peter made it clear that the leaders had no excuse for missing the signs and wonders performed by Jesus.
Back to the story, so how did the people respond to this debate between Jesus and the Pharisees? Luke 13:17 records a similar encounter. The writer concludes that the reasoning of Jesus humiliated His opponents. Jesus made the Pharisees look foolish. But while the people were connecting the dots, the Pharisees were turning the dots into stones of condemnation.
His opponents were now blind to the signs and wonders He was performing. They had already decided His fate… they were bent on destroying Him.
Tragically, Jesus was about to face a similar fate to the man condemned for gathering wood. Jesus was about to be led outside of the city to be crucified.
The argument was weak, but the trap was closing around Him. Make no mistake, this charge became the best case the religious leaders could level against Jesus… and it was backed up by an Old Testament precedence of Capital Punishment. As you can now see, this story had monumental significance in the Pharisees plot to destroy Jesus.
Daily Bible Commentary By Terry Baxter: Cofounder of GoServ Global