Matthew 12:12
How much then is a man better than a sheep? Why it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
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12:9-13 Christ shows that works of mercy are lawful and proper to be done on the Lord's day. There are more ways of doing well upon sabbath days, than by the duties of worship: attending the sick, relieving the poor, helping those who need speedy relief, teaching the young to care for their souls; these are doing good: and these must be done from love and charity, with humility and self-denial, and shall be accepted, Ge 4:7. This, like other cures which Christ wrought, had a spiritual meaning. By nature our hands are withered, and we are unable of ourselves to do any thing that is good. Christ only, by the power of his grace, cures us; he heals the withered hand by putting life into the dead soul, works in us both to will and to do: for, with the command, there is a promise of grace given by the word.How much, then, is a man better than a sheep? - Of more consequence or value.

If you would show an act of kindness to a brute beast on the Sabbath, how much more important is it to evince similar kindness to one made in the image of God!

It is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days - This was universally allowed by the Jews in the abstract; and Jesus only showed them that the principle on which they acted in other things applied with more force to the case before him, and that the act which he was about to perform was, by their own confession, lawful.

12. How much then is a man better than a sheep?—Resistless appeal! "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast" (Pr 12:10), and would instinctively rescue it from death or suffering on the sabbath day; how much more his nobler fellow man! But the reasoning, as given in the other two Gospels, is singularly striking: "But He knew their thoughts, and said to the man which had the withered hand, Rise up, and stand forth in the midst. And he arose and stood forth. Then said Jesus unto them, I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life or to destroy it?" (Lu 6:8, 9), or as in Mark (Mr 3:4), "to kill?" He thus shuts them up to this startling alternative: "Not to do good, when it is in the power of our hand to do it, is to do evil; not to save life, when we can, is to kill"—and must the letter of the sabbath rest be kept at this expense? This unexpected thrust shut their mouths. By this great ethical principle our Lord, we see, held Himself bound, as man. But here we must turn to Mark, whose graphic details make the second Gospel so exceedingly precious. "When He had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, He saith unto the man" (Mr 3:5). This is one of the very few passages in the Gospel history which reveal our Lord's feelings. How holy this anger was appears from the "grief" which mingled with it at "the hardness of their hearts."Ver. 11,12. Mark saith, Mark 3:3-5, And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. Luke reports it thus, Luke 6:8,9, But he knew their thoughts, and said to the man which had the withered hand, Rise up, and stand forth in the midst. And he arose and stood forth. Then said Jesus unto them, I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? To save life, or to destroy it? Christ knew their thoughts; he needed not that any man should tell him what was in the heart of men; he knew their design in coming, and propounding this question. He calls this man with the withered hand to stand forth, that all men might see, and take notice of him. Then he argues the case with the Pharisees, telling them, that they themselves would grant, that if a man had a sheep fallen into a pit on the sabbath day, they might labour so far as to take it out; so, it seemeth, in Christ’s time they did expound the law. They also knew that the life or good of a man was to be preferred before the life of a beast. In their reproving him, therefore, they condemned themselves in a thing which they allowed. Then he propounds a question to them, which Matthew hath not, but it is mentioned both by Mark and Luke. He asketh them whether it was lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? To save life, or to destroy it? The argument is this, Whatsoever is good to save the life of man may be done on the sabbath day; but this is a good action; if I should not lend him my help when it is in my power, I should, in the sense of God’s law, kill him. How much then is a man better than a sheep?.... As a rational creature must be better, and more excellent, than an irrational one, more care is to be taken of, and more mercy shown unto, the one, than the other: even the health of a man is preferable to the life of a beast; and if it is lawful to give food to a beast, and make use of means for its relief, and for the lifting it up out of a ditch, when fallen into it on the sabbath day, "wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days", to men; to do acts of beneficence and humanity to them, among which must be reckoned healing of diseases and infirmities: and particularly, if it is lawful to take a sheep out of a ditch on the sabbath day, it must be right to restore to a man the use of his hand on such a day; and especially to one that gets his bread by his hand labour, as it is very likely this man did. This was such a strong way of arguing, that the Jews could not well object to it; and it appears, that they were confounded and put to silence; for, as Mark observes, "they held their peace": and indeed they allow of everything to be done where life is in danger, though not otherwise: they say (h),

"they may take care of the preservation of life on the sabbath; and if he is prepared for it, lo! this is praiseworthy, and there is no need to take a licence from the sanhedrim: as when a man sees a child fallen into the sea, he may spread a net, and bring him out; and if he is prepared for it, lo! this is praiseworthy, and there is no need to take a licence from the sanhedrim, though he was fishing: if he sees a child fallen into a ditch, he may rake into the mud and bring him out; and if he is prepared for it, lo! this is praiseworthy, and there is no need to take a licence from the sanhedrim, though he had set a ladder ready.''

It is said of Hillell (i), that

"he sat by a window to hear the words of the living God, from the mouth of Shemaia and Abtalion; and they say that that day was the evening of the sabbath, and the winter solstice, and the snow descended from heaven; and when the pillar of the morning ascended, (when it was daylight,) Shemaia said to Abtalion, brother Abtalion, all other days the house is light, but today it is dark, perhaps it is a cloudy day: they lift up their eyes, and saw the form of a man at the window; they went up, and found upon him snow the height of three cubits; they broke through and delivered him; and they washed him, and anointed him, and set him over against his dwelling, and said, very worthy is this man , "to profane the sabbath for him".''

And if it was lawful to dig a man out of the snow, and do these several things for him on the sabbath day, why not cure a man of a withered hand, and especially when done by a word speaking, and without any labour?

(h) T. Bab. Yoma, fol. 84. 2.((i) T. Bab. Yoma, fol. 35. 2.

How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
Matthew 12:12. Οὖν] Inference founded on the value which, according to Matthew 12:11, is no doubt set upon an animal in such circumstances, notwithstanding the laws of Sabbath observance: Of how much greater consequence, then, is a man than a sheep? The answer is already involved in the question itself (is of far more consequence, and so on); but the final conclusion is: therefore it is allowable to do what is right on the Sabbath. By means of the general expression καλῶς ποιεῖν, which does not mean to be beneficent (Kuinoel, de Wette, Bleek), but recte agere (Acts 10:33; 1 Corinthians 7:38 f.; Php 4:14; Jam 2:8; Jam 2:19; 2 Peter 1:19; 3 John 1:6), the θεραπεύειν is ranked under the category of duty, and the moral absurdity of the question in Matthew 12:10 is thereby exposed. So, by this adroit handling of the argument, the inference of Jesus is secured against all contradiction; de Wette’s objection, to the effect that it might have been asked whether the healing did not admit of delay, is founded on a misunderstanding of the καλῶς ποιεῖν. This latter is the moral rule by which resting or working on the Sabbath is to be determined.Matthew 12:12. πόσῳ οὖν διαφέρει, etc. This is another of those simple yet far-reaching utterances by which Christ suggested rather than formulated His doctrine of the infinite worth of man. By how much does a human being differ from a sheep? That is the question which Christian civilisation has not even yet adequately answered. This illustration from common life is not in Mark and Luke. Luke has something similar in the Sabbath cure, reported in Matthew 14:1-6. Some critics think that Matthew combines the two incidents, drawing from his two sources, Mark and the Logia.—ὥστε, therefore, and so introducing here rather an independent sentence than a dependent clause expressive of result.—καλῶς ποιεῖν: in effect, to do good = εὖ ποιεῖν, i.e., in the present case to heal, θεραπεύειν, though in Acts 10:33, 1 Corinthians 7:37, the phrase seems to mean to do the morally right, in which sense Meyer and Weiss take it here also. Elsner, and after him Fritzsche, take it as = præclare agere, pointing to the ensuing miracle. By this brief prophetic utterance, Jesus sweeps away legal pedantries and casuistries, and goes straight to the heart of the matter. Beneficent action never unseasonable, of the essence of the Kingdom of God; therefore as permissible and incumbent on Sabbath as on other days. Spoken out of the depths of His religious consciousness, and a direct corollary from His benignant conception of God (vide Holtz., H. C., p. 91).12. How much then is a man better than a sheep?] Cp. “ye are of more value than many sparrows,” ch. Matthew 10:31.Matthew 12:12. Τοῖς σάββασι, on the Sabbaths) For a good deed is not to be procrastinated.—καλῶς ποιεῖν, to do well) sc. to either a man or a sheep, nay, to a man much more than to a sheep.[556] We must not on the Sabbath-day perform daily wonted tasks for hire, although we may do those things which time and place suggest to us for the good of our neighbour and all other living creatures, and especially for the honour of God.[557]

[556] Some one may think that there was danger in delay as regards the sheep, but that a man affected with a bodily infirmity for such a length of time, might easily be put off for once from one day to another day. But the answer is, it was the fitting time that the relief should be given, when the patient met the physician. A larger crowd of men was assembled together on the Sabbath, who were thus enabled to be spectators of the miracle, and to be profited (won over) by it.—V. g.

[557] Matthew 12:14. οἱ δὲ Φαρισαὶοι) It was not with the same laborious exertion as is needed in order to pluck ears of corn, and to draw out a sheep from a pit, that Jesus had effected the cure, but by mere words spoken. It was a pure undiluted benefit conferred without difficulty (pains): and yet blind men, notwithstanding, were regarding His act as if the Sabbath were profaned by it.—V. g.Verse 12. - How much then is a man better than a sheep? (Matthew 6:26; Matthew 10:31). Wherefore it is lawful to do well (to do good, Revised Version) on the sabbath days. He answers their question about healing (ver. 10) by enunciating a general principle which would cover more. "Doing good" (perhaps merely "well-doing," Acts 10:33; 1 Corinthians 7:37; but probably "doing good to" another, cf. Luke 6:26, 27; and the parallel passages here, ἀγαθοποιῆσαι η}' κακοποιῆσαι) is to be one test by which the duty of resting or of working on the sabbath is to be determined.
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