Opposition to Jesus began to develop in Israel after His early ministry in Galilee. But so far it has not been too bad. John the Baptist’s doubt was not really opposition, and the unbelief of the Galileans was more a case of indifference than rejection. Now the situation changes as Matthew brings the fierce opposition of the Jewish leaders to the fore.

Chief among these leaders were the Pharisees, and it is this elite body of religious professionals that Matthew brings before us in chapter 12. These men are referred to explicitly in verses 2, 14, 24, and 38, but they are either speaking, maneuvering, or being addressed or directly rebuked by Jesus in most of the verses of this chapter. Matthew has already recorded the first stages of their opposition to Jesus (in 9:3, 11, 14, 34; 10:25; 11:19), but now their rejection erupts into open hatred, and they scheme together to have this meddlesome rabbi put to death.

The immediate cause of the Pharisees’ fierce opposition was Jesus’ disregard of their detailed rules for how to keep the Sabbath, rules that were difficult to follow and a burden for anyone to bear. Matthew suggests this by the way the first verse of chapter 12 follows significantly from the last verse of the preceding chapter. Jesus had invited the common people to follow Him, promising, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” But in the very next verse we read that Jesus and His disciples were going through the grainfields “on the Sabbath,” and everyone who read that would immediately think of the burdensome Sabbath regulations.

There was justification for the leaders’ proper concern for the Sabbath, of course. For one thing, the command to keep the Sabbath is the fourth (and longest) of the Ten Commandments, and no command of God can ever be treated lightly. The decalogue says:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy”

Exodus 20.8–11.

Even today the solemnity of this command should challenge us concerning what we do on Sunday.

Second, the leaders could not forget that one of the reasons given for the exile of the people to Babylon was that they had not kept the Sabbath, and the exile lasted until the missed Sabbaths had been made up. At the end of 2 Chronicles we read that Cyrus “carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. [So] the land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah” (II Ch.36.20-21).

What had Jeremiah said? He had warned, “If you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses” (Je.17.27). God did that, and the Pharisees did not want to suffer that terrible destruction and deportation again.

Many Jews undoubtedly kept the Sabbath in the right spirit, just as some Christians keep a strict observance of the Lord’s Day today – out of love for God and a desire to set aside at least one day wholly for spiritual matters. What was the problem then? The problem was that the Pharisees had added man’s regulations to God’s law, reducing a right observance of the Sabbath to the most terrible forms of legalism. Here are some examples:

One example says that one was not to travel on the Sabbath (Ex.16.29). Fair enough! “But what constitutes traveling?” the Pharisees asked. As an answer, they developed the concept of a Sabbath day’s journey, roughly one thousand yards. A man could walk that far on the Sabbath, but if he went farther, it was sin. However, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street technically became one dwelling place, and in that case a person could walk one thousand yards beyond the rope.

Another forbade the carrying of a load (Je.17.21-27). But what was a load? Was a piece of clothing a load? The Pharisees answered that if it was worn as clothing it was not, but if it was carried it was. So, the way to get a jacket from one room of the house to another was obviously to put it on, walk to the second room, and take it off.

Finally, the law forbade work. The same logic worked this way. A man is out walking. He spits. Is that work? Answer: It depends on what happens to the spit. If it goes into the dirt and makes a slight furrow, then it is plowing, which is work. If it hits a rock, no work is done. Under this system, being a devout Jew seemed to depend in part on where one spit on Saturdays.

In all, the Pharisees had established thirty-nine categories of work that was prohibited on the Sabbath, and “reaping,” which became the chief bone of contention in this conflict with Jesus, was one of them.

As you begin a new year, may your top priority be to love Christ more.