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In Matthew 12:1-14 Jesus and His disciples were traveling about, as they often did in their preaching work. This day was the Sabbath, and they were traveling through grain fields. The disciples were hungry so they plucked grain and ate. This was not stealing but was expressly permitted by the law, as long as one did so only to meet an immediate need, not to carry it home and keep it for future consumption (Deuteronomy 23:24f).
The Pharisees criticized the act, not as stealing, but as a violation of the Sabbath. This was the first of a whole series of conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees about the Sabbath. Two things must be remembered. (1) The Pharisees, as they had done with other things (Matthew 15:1-14), had added a whole complex system of traditions about Sabbath observance. Much of this was intricate and detailed; but above all it was based on their own ideas, not on what God's law really said. (2) They were motivated in their criticisms, not by sincere concern for the Sabbath, but by a desire to trap Jesus (v10).
Jesus did not disobey God's Sabbath law: not here or anyplace else, nor did He defend anyone else in violating it. Note V7 -- Jesus expressly stated that the disciples, in what they did here, were "guiltless." Jesus did, however, here and elsewhere, resist and oppose the Pharisees' traditions which were not taught in God's law, and which they bound as essential on others. The current situation is an example of this. The Pharisees said Jesus' disciples did what was "not lawful." Jesus defended the action and showed why the disciples were "guiltless."
Some people use this passage to try to prove that Jesus did not believe in strict observance of God's law. Such efforts are false and futile. In many Scriptures, Jesus taught, and inspired His apostles to teach, the need for obedience. Jesus' arguments on verses 5-14 clearly show that what He did was permitted by the Sabbath law and was not a violation of it.
Jesus lived under the Mosaic law (Matthew 5:17-20). It remained in effect till He died. The Sabbath was part of that law, included even in the 10 Commands (Exodus 20:8-11; 16:22-30; 23:12; 31:12-17; 34:21; 35:2,3; cf. 22:16; Numbers 15:32-36; etc.) Jesus obeyed the law without sin (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:21ff; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Sin is transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). Jesus' sinlessness was essential to His being a sinless sacrifice for us (see previous verses). If Jesus had transgressed or violated the Sabbath law or any other Divine law, He would not have been sinless and could not have been the sacrifice to take away our sins! To claim, as some do, that Jesus violated the Sabbath law, is to spiritually condemn all men to eternal torment, for it leaves us without a sinless sacrifice for our sins! Furthermore, Jesus set a perfect example for us to follow (see the above verses). If He violated God's laws, what kind of example would that set?
Jesus brings up the example of David for the Pharisees to consider (cf. 1 Samuel 21:6). Some people say this means that, due to unusual circumstances, David was justified in doing what would otherwise have been sinful, and this is parallel to what Jesus' disciples were doing. But Jesus says that David did what was "not lawful," whereas he said his disciples were "guiltless," so why would He parallel the two? Jesus had fasted 40 days (4:2) and even then He refused to justify disobedience to God's law in order to satisfy hunger. Why would He justify David's act? (cf. Matthew 16:24; 6:33; Romans 12:1; etc.)
Another explanation is that David's act really was a sin, but the Pharisees justified him for that. But now they wanted to condemn Jesus' disciples for something that was NOT a sin! Jesus must have known that the Pharisees would justify David, else the argument would be worthless (the Pharisees would jump on the parallel and say, "Yes, David sinned and likewise your disciples have sinned"). Jesus is here pointing out the inconsistency of the Pharisees. How could they justify David's act, yet condemn Jesus' disciples, who had not even sinned? Such argument would not prove Jesus' disciples were right, but it would point out the inconsistency, hypocrisy, and improper motives of the Pharisees.
Having pointed out the inconsistency of the Pharisees, Jesus then proceeded to show why the disciples were not even wrong.
Jesus pointed out that acts of spiritual service in worship and service to God were not a violation of the Sabbath law. The priests offered sacrifices and did other acts on the Sabbath in order to carry out their temple duties. These acts constituted physical labor, which might normally constitute a violation of the Sabbath. But in doing this work for the temple service, they were "blameless" (note the contrast to what was said about David). It was not a sin for them to do it, and everyone would realize this to be the case, including the Pharisees.
Likewise, the disciples had done what they did, because they were traveling with Jesus in His work of preaching the gospel and preparing men for salvation. This was service to Jesus, who was greater in spiritual service than even the temple service. Surely if the priests' service allowed things that would otherwise be a violation of the Sabbath, then the disciples' service to Jesus would likewise allow them to do things that otherwise should not be done on the Sabbath. Hence, Jesus affirmed them to be "guiltless" (V7). (Note that here, as in Matthew 4:7, Jesus applies the principle of taking all things the Bible says in order to reach a conclusion. The priests' service and His disciples' service constituted inspired exceptions to a Divine law.)
Jesus then quotes Hosea 6:6: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Later, in v11 under a similar circumstance, Jesus gives an illustration that explains His point. Anyone would have pulled a sheep out of a pit, even if it were done on a Sabbath day. This would definitely constitute work. Normally it would be forbidden. But everyone would agree it could be done under these emergency circumstances. What makes it acceptable? What verse justifies it? Hosea 6:6 - mercy, not sacrifice.
Note that Jesus' own example shows He recognized the principle as an emergency exception. He was not justifying disobeying the Sabbath or any other law for the sake of personal desire or convenience of ourselves or others. The act was not a violation of the law; it was an approved exception to the law.
Works of mercy, done to help people in time of need, take precedence over works done as sacrifice of worship to God, and especially over such laws as the Sabbath, which was given to benefit people by giving them a day of rest. To use this as an excuse to not preach to people nor to help someone in need would be a total perversion of the purpose. This would be like seeing a dying man, but saying, "Sorry, I can't help you, because today is the Sabbath and I have to rest." Or like knowing a man is lost in sin, and saying, "Sorry I can't come preach to you, because it's the Sabbath and I have to rest."
Apparently Jesus' point here is that the disciples were not traveling for the sake of their own pleasure, convenience, or that of others. They were traveling to help Him spread the gospel and save souls. Men needed this message to save their souls. This was a work of mercy on people, just like His healing sick people (vv 9ff) was a work of mercy. To refuse to travel and stay somewhere where they could eat otherwise, would have hindered this work of mercy on the souls of men. Hence, the act of mercy they were performing constituted a Divinely recognized exception which took precedence over the Sabbath restrictions.
Modern applications of this principle include: (1) Rather than attend worship services, we stay to care for someone who is really sick and must have someone there to care for them. (2) We are driving to services and see someone hurt in a wreck. We don't go on and say, "I can't stop to help you because I'm on my way to worship." (3) Someone has a heart attack in the middle of worship assembly, we don't say, "We can't do anything about it because we're worshiping."
All these are examples of works of mercy due to emergency, mitigating circumstances. None of them justifies staying home from worship just to please ourselves, for convenience, to please our family, etc. The issue is: which is a more necessary use of my time at the moment: showing mercy by helping this needy person, or doing some other act of worship and service to God? The point is that such acts of mercy constitute a Divinely approved exception to laws that would otherwise require us to act differently.
Note that people sometimes pervert Jesus' teaching by claiming that "mercy" here means we should not speak out against acts of disobedience to God's law. "Be more merciful. We are saved by grace. Don't condemn people just because they sin." This is not what Jesus said here. No one came down harder on sin than did Jesus and His apostles. His reference to "mercy" was a reference to the needy circumstance of the people He and His disciples were serving -- they needed preaching and they needed healing (as in the case beginning in v9). These were acts of "mercy" on needy men, hence the work was not a violation of the Sabbath -- no sin occurred here at all. Nothing here says "mercy" means you don't speak out when people disobey God's laws.
Jesus further explained: "For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." Again, this is not meant, as some think, to say that because of who He was, Jesus had the right to violate the Sabbath. He did not sin, as already shown.
The point is that, as Lord of the Sabbath, He knew what the Sabbath law meant. He had the right, not to break it, but to authoritatively explain what it meant. In the next few verses, having confronted their misconceptions of the Sabbath law, He performed a great healing on the Sabbath. What was the purpose of miracles? To prove the messenger was speaking God's will. How could Jesus do a miracle, if He had just preached error about the Sabbath or had justified people who violated it? Had the Pharisees recognized His Lordship and authority, on the basis of His miracles, how could they have condemned His explanation of the Sabbath law? Surely the fact Jesus could do miracles proved Him to be Lord. Surely then His explanation of the Sabbath must be correct. And the cause of the conflict was not Jesus' conduct, but rather the Pharisees' traditions and refusal to accept what God had really said about the Sabbath law.
And finally, the fact that Jesus kept the Sabbath does not in any way prove that the Sabbath is still in effect today. The Law of Moses was in effect till Jesus' died (Col. 2:14), so Jesus was born and lived under the Law (Galatians 4:4). He kept the Sabbath for the same reasons that He kept the laws of animal sacrifice. But when He died, He removed the Old Law and instituted the gospel (Hebrews 10:9,10). The New Testament nowhere requires resting on the seventh day of the week, as did the Old Testament. For more information, please see our article on the Old Law and the Sabbath for today at our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 12/2006
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.