The Pharisees and the Sabbath

1At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath."

3He answered, "Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

9Going on from that place, He went into their synagogue, 10and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked Him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"

11He said to them, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

13Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.

14But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

In chapters 11 and 12 of his Gospel, Matthew presents some episodes in which Jesus asserts His authority as the Son of God. These episodes give us an understanding of why the religious leadership turned against Him, despite His early popularity (which was a result of His miraculous works). Jesus told the truth. When the Pharisees were wrong in their teaching, He let them know, convincingly and authoritatively. "In the first days of His ministry it is plain that Jesus won a wide measure of acceptance. He did works of mercy and was a popular preacher. But in the course of time the Jewish establishment came to see that what He was doing and what He was teaching were incompatible with an acceptance of their essential position. So they came to oppose Him, and that with a virulence that would eventually lead to His death" [Morris, 298].

In this section, Jesus debunks the Pharisees’ understanding of Sabbath day observance, and proclaims authority to do so as the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus’ teaching is prompted by a challenge by the Pharisees: "At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath’" (vs. 1-2). (Incidentally, one thing we learn from this episode is that Jesus and His disciples were poor in things of this world. Here, they apparently could not afford a meal, but had to glean what they could from the fields. "He who fed the multitudes did not use His miraculous power to feed His own followers, but left them till they did what poor men are forced to do to supply a little stay for their stomachs. Our Lord bribes none into following Him: they may be His apostles, and yet be hungry on a Sabbath" [Spurgeon, 145].)

The Pharisees try to deny the disciples their meager sustenance, citing violation of the Sabbath law. Apparently, their interpretation of the Sabbath law held that gleaning for one’s meal on the Sabbath constituted forbidden work. "Plucking was reaping, rubbing the grain from the husk was threshing, to their hypercritical minds" [Spurgeon, 145]. The Sabbath day, by definition, is a day of rest: a day to honor God, and rest from one’s work. The religious leaders had turned the Sabbath day into a day of burden: a day on which the people had to be constantly monitoring their own behavior to make sure that they did not break any of the Pharasaical regulations concerning the Sabbath. The Lord, in the Old Testament, stated the law concerning the Sabbath very simply: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God" (Ex. 20:9-10). The Sabbath "was a day for refreshing people, for meeting their need. But for the Pharisees it was primarily a day for keeping the regulations that expressed their desire to honor God" [Morris, 300]. "It is not even clear how [the disciples] were breaking any OT law, where commandments about the Sabbbath were aimed primarily at regular work. The disciples were not farmers trying to do some illicit work, but they were itinerant preachers casually picking some heads of grain" [Carson, 281].

Jesus does not merely respond to the Pharisees with a reason why this particular act of His disciples was permissible, but He goes further and lets the Pharisees know that their whole understanding of the Sabbath law is incorrect. He begins by citing an episode in David’s life: "He answered, ‘Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests’" (vss. 3-4). Though this episode in David’s life did not concern Sabbath observance, it applies to the case of the disciples because it describes an event where the injunctions to care for those in need superseded the ritualistic laws. "And if the law about the hallowed bread might be set aside by necessity, so might the law about the hallowed day" [Broadus, 259]. Rather than criticize the disciples for satisfying their hunger, the Pharisees would have done much better to invite Jesus and the disciples over for a Sabbath meal.

Next, Jesus points out that there is work that is permissible, according to the law, on the Sabbath: "Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent?" (vs. 5). The gist of these two last responses that Jesus gave the Pharisees is that there are times that two laws conflict. And when two laws conflict, proper discernment concerning the spirit of the Laws is required. In David’s case, the law of love (concern for those who were hungry) conflicted with the laws concerning the consecrated bread. In the case of the priests, the laws that detailed the work the priests were to perform on the Sabbath, conflicted with the laws prohibiting work on the Sabbath. The work that the priests did "was right, because the temple with its sacrifices was of higher importance than the Sabbath, and would override the requirements of its sanctity" [Broadus, 259]. The eating of the consecrated bread was permissible because the law of love is the greatest commandment.

Jesus points out the precedence that the law of love takes over the ritualistic laws, by citing a prophet in the Old Testament: "If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent" (vs. 7). The central emphasis of the religions of those in the lands around the children of Israel was sacrifice to their false idols. "It is the practice of compassion that should distinguish the people of God rather than the punctilious observance of outward regulations" [Morris, 304]. In this statement, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice", is a great principle in discerning the correct behavior when any regulations of the law seem to conflict with each other: "No ordinance of God is to be pressed so far as to make us neglect the plain duties of charity" [Ryle, 123].

To conclude His response to the Pharisees, Jesus asserts His authority to give such definitive answers concerning questions of the law: "I tell you that one greater than the temple is here… For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (vss. 6, 8). "If rulings about Sabbath observance are to be made, it is not the Pharisees but ‘the Son of Man,’ as ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ who has authority to say how to observe properly the day of rest" [Filson, in Morris, 302]. Even if what the disciples were doing was prohibited by the rules of the Pharisees, "acting under their Master’s authority, they had a right to do what would not usually be proper on the Sabbath, for Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath" [Broadus, 260].

The guidance that Jesus gives concerning the Sabbath reflects that our God is a reasonable God, not interested in us showing our devotion through meaningless ritualistic exercises. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus has interpreted the Sabbath, "not with license, but with a sweet reasonableness which the more rigid of religionists do not exhibit" [Spurgeon, 147]. There is a great danger when anyone adds to God’s perfect law. They run the risk of misrepresenting God, thus skewing people’s understanding about the nature and personality of God. We have a loving God, a caring God, and a reasonable God. The teachings of the Pharisee’s did not reflect that. Thank God that He sent His Son to represent Him perfectly, that we may know, through the character of Jesus Christ, the true nature of God.

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