Greater than the Temple: How Jesus Challenges Our Pride and Reorders Our Expectations (Lord of the Sabbath Pt 3)

At that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”

He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry — how he entered the house of God, and they ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here!

If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1–8)

When the Pharisees used this occasion to judge and accuse Jesus and his disciples, Jesus quickly turned the conversation around, using the story of David to cast an uncomfortable light on the Pharisees’ own hearts.

By inviting them to judge David’s actions, he forced them to confront their own hard-heartedness and even their own uncertainty about the will of God in certain situations.

From everything we know about the Pharisees, they can’t have enjoyed this experience at all. If they disliked anything, it was uncertainty. They were supposed to be the ones with all the answers, with a sure way forward, with a clear call to follow God without wavering.

And now Jesus had the gall to make the ground beneath them feel shaky. He questioned their certainty and challenged their pride.

And he forced them to ask themselves the question: If Jesus is the Son of David, who are we? If we are persecuting the one God has chosen and sent, who does that make us in the cosmic story of redemption?

Of course, whether they actually asked themselves that question was up to them. It would have been enormously difficult to do, but the answers could have prompted repentance and sudden enlightenment as to God’s actual plans in the world.

Jesus gave the Pharisees a gift in this confrontation, just as he gives us gifts every time he calls our favourite narratives into question.

Having used the story of David to do all that, Jesus went on to his next point. Remember, as we saw two weeks ago, Jesus’s disciples really weren’t breaking the law by any reasonable interpretation. It seems like now would be a good time for Jesus to point that out. Unlike David, they weren’t violating any clear command.

But instead, Jesus drew back to a higher vantage point again, this time pointing to a situation where a higher law clearly did provide an exception to a lower one — in contrast to the David story, where the higher law may be implicit but wasn’t clear.

This time, Jesus’s point is easy to understand: Although the law forbade the Israelites in general from engaging in their occupations on the sabbath, the same law commanded certain Israelites — the Levitical priests, who served in the tabernacle and later the temple — to do exactly that.

In fact, their occupation included special offerings and duties that were specific to the sabbath. Their temple service actually required them to work on the day of rest — but they were not therefore guilty of sabbath breaking. As Jesus said, the priests in the temple “violate the Sabbath and are innocent.”

So far, so clear — but what’s actually Jesus’s point here? Was he admitting that his disciples were breaking the sabbath? No, not at all. In his response to the Pharisees in this passage, Jesus never once directly engaged with their accusation of sabbath breaking. He didn’t even bother to respond to it.

Instead, in both the David story and this reference to the law, Jesus focused the conversation on its real centerpoint: his identity.

After demonstrating that the temple, with its sacred space and obligations, freed the priests from the ordinary law of the sabbath, he made the astonishing claim: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here!”

Remember, the overall theme of Matthew 11–25 is one pressing message: This is the time of your visitation. In this confrontation, just as everywhere else in Matthew, Jesus was inviting the Pharisees to look deeper than appearances and see what God was truly doing in him. Indeed, he was inviting them to see who he truly was.

“Greater than the temple” — this is an incredible claim! The temple was the center of Jewish religion. God himself commanded that all public worship and sacrifice were to take place there, through the ministry of the priests. The presence of God dwelt in the midst of Israel in the temple. Covenant faithfulness was expressed in the temple, both on the human side and the divine side.

For Jesus to say he was greater than the temple meant that God was present in him. It meant that people could access the presence of God through him. It meant that he was the actual center of God’s presence in the world, and that — as he said elsewhere — he was “the Way” to the Father (John 14:6). It meant that covenant faithfulness could be expressed through him — God’s faithfulness to his people, and his people’s faithfulness to God.

In Jesus’s day, the Jewish people expected their Messiah to purify the temple and increase Israel’s devotion to God, in temple worship and otherwise. They did not expect him to be “greater than” the temple. The very idea was almost impossible to grasp.

David certainly never made such a claim. Solomon built and consecrated the temple — and trembled at the glory of God that came to fill it. Moses and Aaron certainly never claimed to be greater than the tabernacle, where the presence of God dwelt in their day. Throughout Israelite history, kings were judged and even dethroned for failing to honor the temple.

“I tell you, one greater than the temple is here.” For the Pharisees to accept such a claim, they would have to abandon all their old certainties. They would have to accept the implicit rebuke of their own pride and repent of persecuting God’s chosen ones in their day. They would have to reorder all their expectations, become like children — ignorant, simple, open and curious — and plead with the Father to show them what he was doing.

So for us. We are so often confident that we know exactly what God is doing, and how. That we know where he is to be found, and where he is not. That we are qualified to judge and to parse the Scriptures correctly.

And we’re not necessarily wrong. But — this is the day of our visitation. Jesus still declares himself greater than the temple, higher than the law, the locus of God’s presence, the Way to the Father. He still challenges our pride. He still asks whether we really feel qualified to judge. He still asks whether we really know him.

And he still invites us to come — to take up his yoke, to follow him, to let him reveal God to us. He still invites us to know him. It isn’t hard. But it does require that we lay down our own expectations and understanding, and that we instead ask him to lead, to speak, and to reveal himself to us.

The cost of acceptance is our pride and our certainty. But the reward is the true knowledge of God, through One who is greater than the temple.

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This is Part 205 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

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Photo by Ben Kelsey on Unsplash

I am an author, blogger, speaker, and disciple of Jesus Christ. I blog on the kingdom of God at rachelstarrthomson.com.