Sermon session

Lawful? Awful?

Session #085 Lawful? Awful?

Scripture Matthew 12:9-14

Summary Is it still lawful if lawful become awful? Matthew 12:9-14 is a continuation of that which started when Jesus invited all to take His yoke instead of the Pharisees’. From that invitation, followed by a confrontation, comes this demonstration by Jesus as He heals on the Sabbath. In this encounter with the religious leaders, we learn that legalism makes lawful awful, destroying ourselves and others.


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 (cf Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11)

Is it good to be lawful? What if in being lawful, it becomes awful. Is it then lawful to be lawful if it is awful?

Setting the Scene (Matthew 12:9-10)

On a Sabbath, as Jesus went into a synagogue, the Pharisees went in as well to trap Jesus, and not to worship. The Pharisees were in the synagogue to watch what Jesus would do rather than to worship God. Are we guilty of this too? Instead of worshipping God, we observe anything and everything in the service.

They are just looking for a reason to accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath. So they baited Jesus with the question so that they can take issue with the answer or action (work).

The Question: Is it Lawful to Heal on the Sabbath? (Matthew 12:10b)

According to their teaching, healing was permitted on the Sabbath, but only if the situation was life-threatening, or the patient was dying.

Sabbath-keeping was very strict in Maccabean times. When 1,000 observant Jews (plus women and children) were attacked by Macedonians on Sabbath, they refused to fight or defend themselves. All of them died.

Mattathias who was a priest and leader, father of the Maccabee brothers, then decreed that Jews could defend themselves on Sabbath. If not, enemies would always attack on Sabbath.

When it comes to preserving life, healing and medical work on Sabbath are permitted.

Samuel of Nehardeah used Leviticus 18:5 to explain and justify that “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” The hidden meaning as revealed by Samuel is that to be able to keep the Torah in one’s own life is only possible if one does not die. As such, healing and saving lives must be permitted on Sabbath so that they can continue to keep the Law.

One cannot help but wonder which is the more important, saving a life, or keeping the Law?

Sadly, as with legalistic interpretations, lawful became awful. It became narrow and restrictive. It was used to restrict, accuse and condemn others. In this case, it was used as a trap against Jesus.

“Is it Lawful to Heal on the Sabbath?” Yes or No, Jesus?

If Jesus had answered Yes, that would violate their interpretation of the law because a withered hand is not considered life-threatening.

If Jesus had answered No, Jesus would have supported their wrong and narrow interpretation, and if He still proceeded to heal on a Sabbath, that would give them cause to accuse Him.

Rabbinic Rhetoric (Matthew 12:11–12)

Jesus sees through their intent, “that they might accuse Him” (Matthew 12:10b) and “But He knew their thoughts…” (Luke 6:8). They were not looking for answers from Him but accusations against Him.

Jesus then redirects their focus, invites the man with the shrivelled hand to “step forward” (Mark 3:3). Jesus is reminding them what the Sabbath is for. It is about this man here with the withered hand. It is not for theological discussions and debates. Do not miss the point.

Jesus regains initiative by asking His questions and providing His answer. If one of the sheep of the Pharisees fell into a pit on the Sabbath, would they get it out? Yes, it would involve some work on their part, but they realized the sheep’s welfare was more important than the Sabbath at that point. Well, Jesus says, how much more valuable is a man than a sheep. If you would do it for a sheep, you would do it for a man.

Jesus expands the question of the Pharisees in Luke 6:8–9, “Then Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?”

As opposed to the detailed laws and codes of the Pharisees as to what was lawful or not, Jesus had one simple rule: it is always lawful to do good. James 4:17 says “Therefore to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” We honor God by doing good, and we dishonor God by withholding good. In conclusion, It is lawful to do good.

Jesus demonstrates the principle in Matthew 12:13 by healing the man. Once again demonstrating Hosea 6:6 to the Pharisees that God desires mercy, and not sacrifice. Jesus has mercy on this man,

why does he have to suffer for one more day just so tradition and religiosity can be kept?

Jesus does good work on the Sabbath, bringing rest, redemption, and reset. Rest as the man would have struggled with one hand only, Redemption as he is set free from sickness; and Reset so that the man could start afresh.

Jesus restores good and rightful work on the Sabbath.

Jesus proves that He is Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8)

The man could not have stretched forth his hand if God did not first stretch forth His. In the Jewish mind, only God can heal. But since it is the Sabbath, God would never do it. Or would He?

There is One greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6). Jesus instituted the temple and gave the Law, He is God.

In commanding the healing, Jesus shows that He is God. If He is God, then He is also the Creator who gives life. If He is the Creator, then He is the Lord of the Sabbath.

Legalism is Awful: The Danger of Missing the Point and the Spirit of the Law

Legalism destroys us, our hearts. Jesus allowed them to respond, “But they kept silent.” (Mark 3:4b). They refused to see and accept the point, wanting only to prove their point (Mark 3:5).

Jesus did not heal out of a spirit of rebellion and insubordination. That would have nullified whatever good He did. It was out of righteous anger and deep grief over the hardness of their hearts (Mark 3:5). Perhaps, to see a man set free from physical bondage might help soften their hearts, change their position and give glory to God? But sadly, no.

We cannot even see that we have missed the point when we have missed the point. That is what legalism and a judgmental spirit can do to us. Hearts can become cold and hard, blinded by pride and the need to be right, always.

Legalism kills others (Matthew 12:14; Luke 6:11). Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. When we separate the law from Jesus, we become legalistic and hostile to God’s grace given us in Jesus His Son.

Whilst Jesus responded with righteous anger, the Pharisees responded with resentful and revengeful anger. A legalistic, self-righteous person seeks to discredit, remove, destroy and kill others instead of “do good” on Sabbath, the Pharisees sought “to destroy” on Sabbath while keeping the Sabbath.


Paul the Pharisee was very lawful; but also very awful. He was zealous in the wrong ways, destroyed others. Paul missed the point until he had a personal encounter with Jesus, the Lawgiver, Lord of the Sabbath.

Paul experienced mercy and redemption. He entered into true rest and reset. Every day is Sabbath in Christ where rightful work is restored by the leading of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5–6).

The flesh wants to be right for himself. The Spirit wants what is right for others.

Are you lawful? Or are you awful? What’s the use of keeping the law but killing yourself and everyone around you? How do you know when you have become legalistic?

Do not miss the Spirit of the Law which brings life. The Pharisees and scribes have missed the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Learn from Jesus, take His easy yoke, His burden is light. Do good. Save lives.