Biblical Perspective: Something Greater Than the Temple Is Here!

“If you had known what these words mean…you would not have condemned the innocent” –Matthew 12:7.

Biblical Perspective: “Something Greater Than the Temple Is Here!” — By Professor Paul Anderson

Jesus ran into trouble in a number of ways during His ministry. He disrupted the temple money-changing and animal-selling schemes, declaring that God’s house was a house of prayer—open to all people, not just those who could afford it. He dined with and shared table fellowship with tax collectors, Pharisees, and “sinners”—even before they repented. He also broke Sabbath laws by healing on the Sabbath and by plucking grains of wheat to eat as He and His disciple strode through the fields—His disciples were hungry. 

Were these infractions accidental, or were they intentional? Jesus also countered legalistic approaches to keeping the Law of Moses by going to the heart of things (Matthew 5:17-48). It’s not simply a matter of not killing people; it’s hatred in the heart. It’s not simply a matter of not committing adultery; it’s inward unfaithfulness that the commandment was addressing… etc. Jesus went to the heart of things—the core, the root, the center—inviting inward faithfulness to the ways of God, not simply outward compliance. 

Jesus was thus a radical teacher, inviting others to radical faithfulness to God’s ways. In Latin, radix means “root”—radicality is not extremism; it involves centeredness. So, Jesus invites his followers then and now to be centered followers of God’s ways, embracing the One in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This theme presents itself in an interesting way in Matthew 12:1-8, where Jesus and his disciples are judged by the Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath, plucking heads of wheat as they strode through the grain-fields.

In countering the objection, Jesus referenced David and his men eating the bread of the Presence in the temple, which would normally have been unlawful—they were hungry (1 Samuel 21:1-6). He also noted the work that the temple priests perform on the Sabbath; are they guiltless for breaking Sabbath laws? Then, Jesus makes a striking statement (vv. 6-8):

“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But 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.”

A legalistic approach to God’s laws and ways, even the best of intentions, misses the main point at the heart of things. God’s laws and ways are given out of love for humanity. God wants His children to live healthy, flourishing lives, and embracing God’s ways leads to the most abundant lives possible (John 10:10). Just as the Hebrew prophets challenged sacrificial practices in their day, here Jesus cites Hosea 6:6 in addressing misguided rigor in his day: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Again, the Prophets were emphasizing the heart of the Law—God’s love—rather than its outward observances, and Jesus simply follows their lead.

A similar confrontation happens in John 5, where Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath by healing the lame man by the Pool of Bethzatha. In their searching the Scriptures, they failed to note that Moses wrote of Jesus (John 5:39; Deuteronomy 18:15-22), who would speak God’s truth, not simply his own ideas. The key here is verse 42, where the religious leaders missed the good in what Jesus was doing because they did not have God’s love living within them. 

So, something greater than the Law and greater than the Temple is here, declared Jesus; it is the law of love, which He embodied and proclaimed. As we seek to follow God’s teachings and ways, the radical question remains: How do our understandings of what God wants cohere with God’s love for His beloved children? That’s what Jesus was after, and embracing the principle helps us contextualize the prescription. Indeed, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, and in the way and ministry of Jesus, something greater than even the temple is here. 

Written by Paul Anderson — Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies at George Fox University