“Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And 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 of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:5-8, ESV).
The question of rules and laws is difficult. Without laws societies break down and survival often becomes a matter of strength and ruthlessness. But the rule of law may result in a rigid system which is void of mercy and compassion. Legalism values rules above human needs. Situation ethics and similar moral systems often lead to the suspension of law based only on subjective feelings or opinions. What is sufficient reason to “break” a rule is different for each one who faces difficulties. Is there not a reliable standard which may be enforced in all circumstances?
Jesus responded to the criticism of the Jewish authorities with such a standard. His system is simple and clear. The Lawgiver can make exceptions to the Law which he established. God’s law does not enslave God. The One who made the Law is not subject to the Law. This principle is manifest in Hebrews 3:3-4,
“For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses – as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.)”
The thing made is subservient (or inferior) to the one who made it. God created the Law therefore he can make exceptions or modifications to it as He deems fit.
As the Son of God, thus himself divine, Jesus possessed that same authority (see Mark 2:10-11 for an example). Jesus understood perfectly the purpose and nature of the Law under which he lived. When details of the Law conflicted with higher principles he made exceptions (Mark 2:27).
The key is our understanding that Jesus possessed divine attributes and authority. He was Lord of the Sabbath. It does not follow that we are able to make such exceptions based on our imperfect judgment. We may however apply those exceptions which Jesus made to analogous situations with confidence.
More importantly, we can understand God’s use of Law. It has never been intended to enslave man or oppress him. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God’s children are more valuable to him than mere rules. Law was not given arbitrarily or without compassion.
When we apply rules in hurtful ways we are compelled to ask, “Is that really what God intended?” A study of Jesus’ application of Law may lead us to an understanding that mirrors his own. Jesus kept the law perfectly (Hebrews 4:15). He did not always abide by the legalistic interpretations of the contemporary authorities however. Let us seek to understand God’s laws from his perspective, not those of some human authority. As Paul wrote, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8).