6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
As a parent, I often have known ahead of time when my kids were about to make a bad decision. I’m not here thinking about a harmful bad decision, but simply a wrong choice. As an example, I have been with my kids at a restaurant specializing in wonderful burgers fresh off the grill only to watch a little one ask for chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese. Don’t get me wrong, chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese are yummy things. Just, in comparison to a place that specializes in better food, these things feel like a wrong choice.
If you know what I’m talking about here, you also know the parental frustration that comes with watching your kids choose something lesser when something better is available. They Pick frozen chicken nuggets when steak is at hand. They choose the weird emo of anime when a solid show is available in its place. When they get older, they choose to eat next to nothing for dinner and then forage for a snack at bedtime. They choose to listen to any modern music over things produced decades earlier—music that is obviously superior since, decades earlier, at least musicians played actual instruments.
In Matthew 12, we see that there is a lesser and greater differentiation happening as Jesus speaks with the Jewish religious leaders. These men are in conflict with our Savior, trying to find ways to accuse him related to allowing his disciples simply to pluck and eat handfuls of grain on the Sabbath. Interestingly, instead of pointing out to them the rules in Scripture related to gleaning, Jesus reminds the religious of the fact that priests in the temple have to work on the Sabbath, and it is completely allowable. He reminds them that David, when his men were hungry, in a time of great need, ate ceremonial bread that was off-limits for them, and God did not condemn them.
Then in verse 6, Jesus says a thing that, had they understood it, would have rocked the world of the religious teachers. Jesus tells them that something greater than the temple had arrived. Stop and consider the incredulity that the religious men must have faced. What could be greater than the temple? The temple was the center of Jewish life. The temple was the place where God lived among his people. The temple was the place where atonement was made for the sins of the nation. What could possibly be greater than the temple.
Then, in the following verses, Jesus reminded the religious that God is big into mercy, including in his Sabbath commands. Perhaps a solid and faithful religious teacher would have remembered that, when God gave the Sabbath command in Exodus, he explained it as a memorial of his acts in creation. However, in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath command includes an explanation of its purpose as an act of kindness for the servants in your household. Either way, Jesus would have knocked their socks off again by telling them that he is in fact Lord over the Sabbath. Jesus is the God who made the Sabbath, not someone subject to it or in need of it.
Tie those two statements together. Something greater than the temple is here. The Lord of the Sabbath is here. These are the Savior talking about himself. What does he mean? Both the temple and the Sabbath are parts of the Jewish religious experience which are signs that point to Jesus. The temple is a shadow of the work that Jesus would come to accomplish. The Sabbath is a shadow of the true rest that Christ will give all who are his.
In the temple, a priest enters a little mini picture of the throne room of God with blood to offer to God as an offering to ask him to forgive the people and not to destroy the nation. That is a little picture, a foreshadowing, of the real plan of God. Jesus, God the Son, would soon enter the true heavenly throne room with his own blood to make real, total, final atonement for the sins of all he forgives. Jesus did not need an earthly model of the mercy seat. Jesus would atone for us on the true, heavenly, mercy seat of God. Jesus did not enter with the blood of an animal, but with the infinitely worthy blood of the Son of God. Jesus is greater than the temple. Jesus is the purpose toward which the temple pointed.
Similarly, Jesus is Lord over the Sabbath. On the one hand, this reminds us that the Sabbath also points toward something greater. If mankind was left to ourselves, we would somehow have to live out true and total perfection to earn our way to God. This, of course, is an impossibility since our representative head already failed on our behalf and we too all have failed in Adam and in our own lives. We cannot work perfection, no matter how hard we try. Sabbath reminds us of a rest to come, a resting from that fruitless effort, as God grants us salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ. Sabbath also foreshadows heaven, the true and final rest we have in the presence of God forever if we have his forgiveness. And, just as amazing, Jesus claims to be Lord of the Sabbath. Only God is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus claims to be greater than the Sabbath by letting us know he is the God who gave the command—which is far greater than the command itself.
Something greater is here. Something greater than the temple and greater than the Sabbath is here. Do not miss it. Do not make a wrong choice. This is way worse than picking frozen chicken nuggets at a steakhouse. To turn away from Jesus to try to embrace anything less is an eternal, soul-destroying error. But to hear Jesus, to understand that he is the substance toward which the shadows point, to realize that he, in his mercy, invites you to be under his atonement and to receive his eternal rest, this is glorious. He is the greatest greater there is. To turn from him is infinite folly. To receive him is infinite joy.