Matthew 12:9-21

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

            18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; 20a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; 21and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” [1]

When I say the phrase “powerful ruler” what sort of person do you imagine? Perhaps world leaders like Alexander the Great, Ceasar Augustus, Herod the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hirohito, Hitler, Pol Pot, or Mao Tse-tung come to mind – all of them mighty men with absolute rule over particular countries or regions or empires. All of them happened to be notoriously wicked. When I think of a powerful ruler, I tend to think of people infamous for their injustices and lack of mercy.

Perhaps when you think of a powerful ruler the names of biblical kings came to mind, like Solomon or Hezekiah or Uzziah. Good for you, you are thinking biblically. But even those kings are a mix of good and bad, spiritual, and unspiritual qualities. There had to be good rulers, right? Perhaps, whoever they are, you are thinking of them right now. But for me, the only ones I can think of fit the famous saying from Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Scripture certainly seems to bear out Lord Acton ‘s observation. Merciless, unjust leaders still make the front page of the world’s daily newspapers. Powerful leaders tend to be or become unjust and merciless simply because they can. It’s not the power that corrupts, it’s the sin nature with which we are all born. Only one man in the entire history of the world, has ever been born without a sin nature. Only one man cannot be corrupted by the absolute power of sin: Messiah Jesus!

Throughout his Gospel, Matthew has been arguing that Jesus is the absolute sovereign, the most powerful king. We saw this in our last section. Jesus is greater than King David. Jesus is greater than the temple. Jesus is the Son of Man. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. And we are moving toward the climax where we will read that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth (28:18). Here in 12:9-21 we learned that this powerful king is unlike any other ruler in that he is merciful (9 -14) and just (15-21).

MERCIFUL (12:9-14)

First, Jesus is the merciful king. Verses 9, 10 say that Jesus kept walking until he entered the city’s synagogue. Inside, there was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees didn’t ask him whether or not it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. They already knew the answer. According to their law it was unlawful to set broken bones or straighten a deformed body on the Sabbath.

Verse 10 tells us they asked so that they could accuse him of being a Sabbath breaker. They knew the odds were high that Jesus would be at odds with them, and they would have grounds to accuse him. In the first eight verses, Jesus used scripture to define Sabbath conduct. Mark makes it clear that this event happened at a separate time. Matthew puts it here in his story because it fits the theme of Sabbath.

Here Jesus exhorts them to use their heads and hearts: “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? (v. 11). The answer is obvious. Of course the Pharisees would do that. In fact, according to one of their rules, it was permissible to rescue an animal on the Sabbath.[2] That may be the reason why Jesus uses this illustration.

Having established that a sheep is worthy of saving on the Sabbath, Jesus then makes his point: “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” Biologically speaking, all creatures are equal, right? Save the whales, save the baby seals, save the sheep. But Jesus says we are not all equal. Jesus assumes that even the most animal-loving person would save a drowning child over a drowning sheep. Jesus’ analogies tackle some of the tough issues of our day. People are more important than the animals.

If a human being is more valuable than a sheep, and if any normal human being would save a sheep that has fallen into a pit (work on the Sabbath), then it is lawful to do good things for people on the Sabbath (12:12). God is best worshipped on the Sabbath when love for animals and people is shown. It is lawful not only to love God but to love one’s neighbor on the Sabbath.

We could think of John’s argument in 1 John 4:20, 21 where we are asked how we can love God whom we have not seen if we cannot love our fellow believers whom we have seen? Love for one’s neighbor trump’s Sabbath law. Except, that’s not quite right. Love of one’s neighbor is Sabbath law. It is lawful to love. Healing another person on Saturday or Sunday or any day of the week is an act of love. It’s OK. It is worshipful.

That is Jesus’ brief lecture on mercy. Remember, he is the merciful King. Next, he demonstrates that mercy. He tells the man with the deformity to stretch out his hand. Luke 6: 6 tells us it was the man’s right hand. Even today, it would be hard to earn a living with a deformed right hand. The man stretched out his hand and found it restored, healthy like any other hand (12:13). What an amazing miracle! Simply by the power of his word, this poor man is a mediately healed. That is not something any of us sees every day.

Notice Jesus did not move. He did not lift a finger. He didn’t touch the man. One wonders if he even blinked. He simply spoke a few words. That is amazing power. But it is also very difficult to categorize as work. After all, he only spoke 4 words. The Pharisees said eight words in verse 10. Does that mean the Pharisees were working on this Sabbath?

Jesus knows what he’s doing here. He is intentionally provoking the Pharisees. Think about it. This man was not in mortal danger. His withered hand wasn’t going to kill him on this day or anytime soon. Perhaps he had lived with this condition for years. Perhaps since birth. His restoration could have waited for a Sunday or a Monday. Why not wait until then? Why not wait at least until the synagogue service was over and then healed the man quietly and secretly?

Why perform this miracle when Jesus wasn’t even asked to perform a miracle? The man with the withered hand didn’t beg him for divine physical therapy. No one asked Jesus to heal anybody. No stretcher was lowered through the open tiles of the ceiling. No desperate voice pleaded for help. There are only three miracle stories in all the Gospel accounts when Jesus took the initiative. Mark’s account adds that Jesus asked the man to stand up and to stand front and center. But why? Why did Jesus do this miracle then and there?

He did it because his mission was the cross. And we see the shadow of his own stretched-out hands begin to form in verse 14 with the Pharisees’ response to Jesus’ miraculous mercy. “14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” The conversation of the cross begins to form in the back of the room, and now in Matthew’s Gospel the action intensifies as the clash of authorities gets louder and louder. Soon even the crowds, who now stand amazed at Jesus, will join the stirred-up chant, “Let him be crucified!” (27:22, 23).

Verses 9-14 are not simply a record of another Sabbath controversy. This text is not primarily about his interpretation of the Sabbath. The Pharisees have it wrong. He has it right. He corrects them first in Word and then in deed. But there is more to it than that. This is a passage about Jesus as the merciful King. He is Lord of the Sabbath, and he uses that Lordship to do good, to show God’s mercy in healing a man, and he shows mercy by taking the sins of the world upon his own hands and feet and side. We are healed by his wounds (Isaiah 53:5).

JUSTICE (12:15-21)

Right after Matthew recalls and writes about the Pharisees response to this miracle, the beginning of Isaiah’s servant song (Isaiah 42-53) comes to his mind. He quotes Isaiah 42:1-4. There is a natural progression from Matthew 12:14 to verses 15-21. You can picture it this way: Jesus demonstrates mercy in verses 9 through 14. In verses 15 through 21 Jesus embodies mercy. We can outline the whole passage this way:

  1. Jesus is the powerful King.
  2. But unlike most powerful kings he brings mercy (12: 9-14), and in his merciful life and substitutionary death he brings justice (12:15-21).

Listen again to verses 15-21 and take note of the word “justice.”

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

            18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; 20 a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; 21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Jesus withdraws from a heated debate. The Pharisees want him dead. But it’s not the right time for him to be captured and killed. Timing is everything in Christ’s mission and in God’s plan. Jesus came in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4). Jesus came into the world at the right time, and he would leave it at the right time. That explains why he leaves that situation in the synagogue and why he commands those he healed “not to make him known” (12:16).

Jesus’ behavior here reminds Matthew of this text in Isaiah. Matthew is often reminded of the book of Isaiah. He is already quoted it four times in this Gospel. Now, 1/3 through his gospel account, Matthew now quotes Isaiah 42:1-4, 9 – his longest Old Testament quotation. Matthew sees that Jesus is the powerful King spoken of in Isaiah 7, 9. But Jesus has not come to start a political war. He has not come to make a big deal of himself. Instead he will retreat behind the cameras. He will do his work, as important as it is, but he’ll do it without dramatic flair. He will do it with purpose and perfect timing.

With the love of God in him and God’s Spirit upon him, God’s servant will serve. He will serve the weak, those people who are like bruised reeds. A reed is a symbol of weakness. No one would name their sports franchise The Bruised Reeds. A bruised reed is a picture of something completely useless, something that looks beyond repair. He will serve people who are like bruised reeds and smoldering wicks (picture of flickering candle about to go out, something that has very little life left in it).

The Suffering Servant will serve people who look like they are about to be snapped off or snuffed out. He has come to serve the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. He will serve those kinds of people from among the gentiles and the Jews. He will serve those who keep breaking man-made Sabbath rules because the laws are so burdensome. He comes not only with rest but also with justice. He comes to judge those who will not believe, but also those who will believe and trust into his work and they alone will be judged worthy.

Jesus is not just Lord of the Sabbath or Lord of the nations but the Lord. The noun “Lord” tells us who Jesus is. The other noun here in verse 18, “servant,” tells us how Jesus is or how he rules. He rules in humility for the humble. He rules from a cross upon which are tacked the words in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin (John 19:20), “King of the Jews.” It is written for all the known world to read. Jesus is a King, a King who rules in humility for the humble, a King who dies naked on a cross in front of a mocking and jeering crowd.

Have you ever heard of such upside-down behavior? Would Alexander the Great have allowed bruised reeds and smoldering wicks as his soldiers? Would Hitler have allowed his soldiers to go without rigorous training, discipline, skill, and courage? And yet those kingdoms and many others have all come to an end. Other kingdoms will soon come to an end. But the Kingdom of God, with its smoldering wicks and bruised reeds, marches on.

The truth is that Jesus came to bring justice to nobodies, to those who could find it nowhere else. He brings a justice that will come finally, ultimately, eschatologically with the final judgment. Although Matthew’s quote of Isaiah 42 emphasizes what the suffering servant does not do, it ends with the one thing he will do: bring justice. He will never rest until his nonviolent zeal brings God’s great verdict of perfect justice and righteous judgment to earth.

He is quiet but not quietistic, nonviolent but not uninvolved, gentle but so passionate for God’s truth that he will one day bring to victory. This victory is won at his awful cross, is proclaimed at his triumphant resurrection, is worked out in history in his reign at God’s right hand and will be consummated at his glorious judgment. Stepping away from the dark cloud of verse 14, these verses from Isaiah are like a gentle warm rain. Jesus will die, but in his death, justice begins to “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24), the earth is slowly being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14), and soon the entire earth will be flooded with hope.


What is the main point of this sermon? Hopefully, the main point is that of the biblical text itself. What is our bottom line? One person might say the bottom line is that people are willing to cheerfully and completely do evil to protect their man-made religious conviction. That is certainly true and worthwhile to note. The Pharisees’ priorities became so twisted that they accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath for healing a man, while they, on the Sabbath, were plotting to murder an innocent man, thus breaking the great commandment to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).

That’s an excellent point and a wonderful application. But is it really the bottom line? Another person may share her opinion. She may say this text is about the Sabbath and how the church has lost the sense of its sacredness. We should not waste time on the Lord’s day watching sports or doing anything we feel like doing. It is a day for works of worship and mercy. We must give God our Sundays!

It is certainly good and proper to take a break from our regular activities and gather for worship with God’s people, to stir one another up to love and good deeds. Certainly, Christians are to spend ourselves on others and their needs. That is resting in Christ, working for him on the Sabbath. But the Sabbath issue here is not the bottom line. Neither our texts this morning nor our text last time is about the Sabbath. The Sabbath is merely the setting for this story. It is a dramatic setting as all the characters are balancing on the tightrope talking theology. But the tightrope is not the takeaway.

Some might say the bottom line is not the inward focus but the outward focus. It’s not about religious hypocrisy and how Christians shouldn’t be like the Pharisees, it’s not about what we should or should not do on Sundays. It is clearly about the church’s mission to the world. There is much to learn about missions and evangelism from Christ’s method and his target audience. His method was not merely some PR campaign. American evangelicals love power and publicity: electing the proper politicians, making sure Jesus gets some face time on the news or in public schools. But his method was always calculatedly quiet, and his power was perfected in weakness. It’s high time the church stopped looking to be fashionable and started acting like Jesus.

Jesus sought out the broken reeds and smoldering wicks, not the rich, not the famous, not the religiously pristine. Therefore it’s time for the church to go out and bring in the lowlifes and losers. These are all excellent points and great applications of this passage. But they are not the bottom line. The bottom line is not inward or outward but upward. This passage is about Jesus and his identity. In fact, the identity of Jesus is at the heart of every passage in every Gospel. Our story this morning is telling us who Jesus is. He is the powerful King. He is the powerful but merciful King! He is the powerful-but- just King.

He is the powerful, merciful, just King who holds out his arms to the wretched and the unremarkable. He has come to bring even you and me life and rest and hope. And he calls out to all who have ears to hear to repent of their self-made religions and to rest in his perfectly-lived life and sacrificial, blood-shedding death. He calls out for us to trust him with our lives. He is a servant and yet a king. He is the all-powerful King and yet full of mercy and justice.

Jesus is the bottom line. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus!

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven….[3]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 12:9–21.

[2] b. Sabb. 128b.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Col 1:15–23.