Greater than the Temple

Warren Henderson

Matthew chapter 12 verses 1-6

While venturing through ripened grain fields on the Sabbath Day, the Lord’s hungry disciples plucked and ate a few heads of grain. Their actions were abruptly challenged by the Pharisees who said, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!’ Matt. 12. 2. The Pharisees’ accusation gave the Lord Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate to them the blinding effect of religious pride, for they still did not comprehend who He really was. He was not the son of a fornicator, or a Samaritan, or a man possessed by demons; He was their Messiah – the Son of God. The Lord’s rebuttal contained one historical illustration and a reference to priestly temple service.

First, the Lord Jesus reminded them of what David and his men had done to alleviate their hunger; they entered the House of God and ate the showbread. Only the priests were allowed into the house of God and only the priests could eat the twelve unleavened cakes, and then only on the Sabbath Day. Yet, David and his men were not punished by God for their actions. Why? It was because David was a righteous man, God’s chosen man, who had been rejected by the nation under King Saul’s reign. Given their dire and unjust situation, their necessary action was permitted – it would never have occurred if David had been treated properly by Saul. This historical example was chosen for its direct correlation between David and his men and the Lord and His disciples. Just as David’s leadership had been rejected by the nation under Saul’s reign, the Pharisees had prompted the people to reject Jesus Christ as Messiah. If the Pharisees had received Jesus as their Messiah, His disciples would not have been scavenging for food.

Next, the Lord asked the Pharisees to consider the priests who laboured every day, including the Sabbath, in the temple, v. 5. Even though they profane the Sabbath by killing animals and preparing sacrifices, they were blameless before God. Why? God expected them to work on the Sabbath in order to offer Him worship on behalf of the nation. Their Sabbath service did not desecrate the temple. Why, then, should the Pharisees criticize the disciples, who were labouring on the Sabbath while in the presence of ‘one greater than the temple’, v. 6?

What did the Lord mean by this statement? The tabernacle and the temple were merely a heavenly pattern of good things to come, ‘But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building’, Heb. 9. 11. The kingdom of God had come to the Jews in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and they were rejecting it, that is, its spiritual aspects and its King.

The Lord then addressed the key matter, ‘But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless’, v. 7 NKJV. God is not heartless; He values mercy, compassion, and kindness much more than mechanical rituals and pious traditions. The Pharisees had become uncaring; they valued cold religious forms more than pursuing the heart of God and making Him rightly known among the people as a good and generous God. The Lord emphasized this point by declaring Himself as the Lord of the Sabbath, v. 8. Since He was the One who had instituted the Sabbath, He was the best One to declare its meaning. In both an authoritative and a practical sense, He was doing what the Pharisees had failed to do – display the full merciful and gracious character of God. Yes, there was One standing before them who was greater than the temple – He was the Lord of the Sabbath and the rightful heir to the throne of David.

Is it possible for believers today to fall into the same religious snare which hindered the Pharisees from knowing God? Though Christians understand that the Lord Jesus is their Saviour, they may still suffer from pharisaical pride and misrepresent His character to others. Before leaving the house one afternoon, I told our very literal-thinking ten-yearold, ‘Kelsi, your mother and I will be gone for a little while and we would like you to stay in the house with the doors locked until we return’. She replied, ‘OK, Dad’. I continued, ‘Kelsi, if our home caught on fire while we were gone would you leave the house?’ After a few moments of serious contemplation she said, ‘Yes, I think I would’. I said, ‘Yes, that is the right answer. We would want you to ignore our instructions, if there were an emergency – we love you and would not want you to burn up with the house’.

Unfortunately, some Christians value symbolic truth and church order to the extent that commonsense would not rule their actions in unusual situations. In the normative sense, symbolic truth, scriptural principles, and God-ordained order should be followed, but in some circumstances there may be weightier matters to consider than form. For example, if a sister noticed that one end of the church building was on fire, there would be nothing wrong with her blurting out a public alarm during a church meeting, although normally she would not be permitted to speak publicly, 1 Cor. 14. 34. If a blight destroyed all the grape vines in a particular area but left ample cherries, would not the church still gather for the Lord’s Supper and pass a cup filled with cherry juice instead of the grape juice, Luke 22. 18? Would we expect a local church to disband because there was only one recognized elder remaining in the assembly, Titus 1. 5? Would a man with a bandaged head be prohibited from praying, 1 Cor. 11. 4? In these situations, which is more important? Is not religious form less important than saving the lives of believers, remembering the Lord through the breaking of bread, gathering in His name, and praying to God? However, a Pharisee would value sacred form over all else – no exceptions! We should follow what scripture teaches, but let us not neglect to display God’s gracious character to others when unusual circumstances do arise – in so doing we demonstrate to others that we know more about the Lord than just His name and His teachings.