1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 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.” – Matthew 12:1-8 ESV
From this point forward in his gospel, Matthew will reveal an increasing and palpable tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Their disdain for Jesus will grow as His popularity among the people spreads. This obscure rabbi from Nazareth was rocking their religious world by openly contradicting their authority and establishing Himself as some kind of savior of the people. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a charlatan and the next in a long line of would-be Messiahs, attempting to garner His 15-minutes of prominence in the national spotlight.
One of the central themes that will arise in this conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders will be that of authority. In their minds, they were the sole arbiters of religious rules and decorum. They viewed themselves as the spiritual police force, with responsibility for maintaining a tight reign on the ethical and moral behavior of the people. They were the self-appointed enforcers of the law, and they took their job seriously. These pride-filled men were religious elitists, who looked down their noses at the common people, viewing them as law-breakers and the cause of all the nation’s problems.
It is important to remember what Matthew recorded at the end of chapter 11. He recounted Jesus’ offer of rest to those “who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). And now, Matthew reports a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, all centered around the supposed violation of the laws regarding the Sabbath. For the Jews, the Sabbath, or seventh day of the week, was considered sacred. The ongoing observation of this day had been decreed by God as part of the Ten Commandments.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” – Exodus 20:8-11 ESV
The Sabbath was to be a day of rest and was intended to be a sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.
“Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” – Exodus 31:13 ESV
But over time, God’s laws concerning the Sabbath had been heavily appended by the religious leaders, as they added a litany of man-made rules and regulations that made the keeping of the Sabbath onerous and burdensome. According to the Talmud, there were 39 categories of prohibitions tied to the keeping of the Sabbath. The first 11 categories featured restrictions associated with the baking of bread. The next 13 categories detailed rules concerning the making of a garment. Another 9 categories are restricted activities associated with the making of leather. And the final 6 categories were concerned with rules concerning the construction of any building.
In this passage, the disciples of Jesus are accused by the Pharisees as having violated the Sabbath restriction concerning reaping. They were caught picking the heads of grain and eating them. And in their self-righteous fervor, they confront Jesus for having allowed this egregious act to have happened.
“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:2 ESV
But rather than admit any guilt or apologize on behalf of His disciples, Jesus gave the Pharisees a history lesson. He reminded them of a story concerning David that was recorded by the prophet, Samuel. David, who had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel, was running for his life. The current king, Saul, was out to kill him. So, David and his men came to Ahimelech, the priest in Nob, and requested that he provide them with bread. But all that Ahimelech had available was consecrated bread or the bread of the Presence. This was bread that was set out every Sabbath as an offering to God and, according to the book of Leviticus, was only to be eaten by the priests. But on this occasion, Ahimelech made an exception and gave the bread to David and his men.
This story, which would have been very familiar to the Pharisees, must have caught them off guard. It must have also infuriated them that Jesus was comparing He and His disciples to David and his men. After all, David had been the greatest King Israel ever had. Who was Jesus to place Himself on the same level as the one whom God had deemed “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 ESV)?
And Jesus made it clear that David and his men were in violation of the Sabbath law when they had taken the bread and eaten it.
“…it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” – Matthew 12:4 ESV
David was the God-appointed and prophet-anointed king of Israel. He had been deemed by God to be Saul’s replacement, but the leadership of Israel had rejected him. David was the rightful ruler of Israel but had been relegated to living as a fugitive and an outcast. His followers were left to beg for assistance from the priest of God, who willingly broke with the accepted religious protocol in order to satisfy their hunger.
But the Pharisees were not about to bend the rules or make any concessions to Jesus and His followers. They were looking for any and every opportunity to expose Jesus as a Sabbath-breaker and serial violator of the law.
Next, Jesus used the priests themselves as examples of those who violate God’s law in order to keep it. In order to fulfill God’s commands concerning the Sabbath sacrifices, the priests must do work.
“‘On the Sabbath day, you must offer two unblemished lambs a year old, and two-tenths of an ephah of finely ground flour as a grain offering, mixed with olive oil, along with its drink offering. This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the continual burnt offering and its drink offering.’” – Numbers 28:9-10 NET
And Jesus pointed out this seeming discrepancy.
“…on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” – Matthew 12:5 ESV
In keeping one command of God, they appear to in violation of another. But they were doing exactly what God had instructed them to do. God had the authority to deem the priests as guiltless when it came to violating the Sabbath because they were obeying His commands.
And then, Jesus makes an intriguing observation that must have left the Pharisees shocked and appalled.
“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” – Matthew 12:6 ESV
With this shift from discussing law-keeping to the temple, Jesus was indicating that the temple or house of God operated under a different set of standards. In the temple, the priests were allowed to do things that, for others, would be restricted and in violation of God’s law. The temple provided the priests who worked within it with a dispensation of grace. It allowed them to operate in seeming violation of God’s law while actually fulfilling His divine commands.
And Jesus announced that He was greater than the temple. As the Son of God, He operated under a divine mandate that granted He and His followers with authority to accomplish God’s will with immunity and impunity. That is why Jesus had no qualms about healing on the Sabbath, which He did regularly and, it seems, deliberately.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of having “condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7 ESV) because they failed to understand His divine nature and God-appointed mission. The temple was where God had promised to dwell with and appear to His people. But now, in Jesus, God had come to dwell among men. The glory of God was no longer restricted to the Holy of Holies but had left the recesses of the temple and entered into the daily lives of the people. Jesus deemed Himself to be the Son of Man and “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8 ESV). And, as such, He had the authority to grant special dispensations to His followers. They could pick grain on the Sabbath. They could even heal and cast out demons on the Sabbath. Why? Because, in doing so, they would be doing the will of God.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of being ignorant of the very will of God as expressed in their own Scriptures. He paraphrased the words of God found in the writings of the prophet Hosea.
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6 ESV
The Pharisees were all about law-keeping. They cared nothing for Jesus or His disciples. In their minds, adherence to the law had taken precedence and priority over people. Obeying the commands of God had become more important than knowing God Himself. And their obsession with rules had prevented them from recognizing the Son of God standing in their midst. They loved their laws more than they loved God. And they loved their status as the religious elite more than they loved God’s people. But law-keeping without love is worthless. And elevating the Sabbath over the Lord of the Sabbath makes an idol out of the Sabbath.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.