Matthew 12:1-8

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. 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, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 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? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And 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.” [1]

For the last two chapters of Matthew’s gospel, he has been telegraphing to us the opposition that is beginning to develop in Israel after Jesus’ early Galilean ministry. So far, the opposition has been only an undercurrent in the story. John the Baptizer’s doubt was not really opposition, and the unbelief of the Galileans was more indifferent than outright rejection. But now the situation changes as the fierce opposition of the Jewish leaders begins to organize.

Chief among the opposition were the Pharisees, and it is this elite body of religious practitioners that Matthew places before us in chapter 12. He refers to them explicitly in verses 2, 14, 24, and 38. They are either speaking, conniving, or being addressed or directly rebuked by Jesus in most of the verses of this chapter. We have seen the preliminary stages of their opposition in 9:3, 11, 14, 34; 10:25; 11:19, but now, in chapter 12, their rejection erupts into open hatred, and they scheme together to have this meddlesome self-proclaimed rabbi put to death.


In our text this morning, the immediate cause of opposition from the Pharisees was Jesus’ disregard of their detailed rules for how to keep the Sabbath, rules that were difficult to follow and a burden for anyone to bear. We know Matthew is suggesting this because these first few verses follow directly after Jesus’ invitation to follow him. He promised, “My yoke is kind, and my burden is light” (11:30). And yet, in the very next verse, we read that Jesus and his disciples were going through the grain fields on the Sabbath. Any Jew who read this would immediately think of the burdensome Sabbath regulations.

There was justification for the leaders to be properly concerned for the Sabbath. The command to keep the Sabbath is the 4th and longest of the 10 commandments. No command of God can ever be treated lightly. The decalogue commands:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 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. 11 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. [2]

The solemnity of this command should challenge us, even today, concerning how we use our Sundays, our Christian day of worship. But that is not the point of this passage. Matthew did not write this text to be a launchpad for small group discussion on why or how we should use the gift of the Lord’s day. Rather, he writes to teach us more about who Messiah is.

Israel’s religious leaders could not forget that one of the reasons given for the Babylonian exile was that they had not kept the Sabbath, and the exile lasted until the missed Sabbaths had been made-up. We read in 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 that King Cyrus “took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.[3]

Jeremiah warned the nation of Judah, “if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortress” (Jeremiah 17:27). God did exactly what he promised, and the Pharisees did not want to suffer that terrible destruction and deportation again. They were determined that no Israelite should ever come close to breaking God’s holy Law. In order to prevent that, Jewish scholars spent centuries adding human rules and regulations to the already-perfect Covenant of Works.

Many Jews no doubt kept the Sabbath in the right spirit, just as some Christians keep a strict observance of the Lord’s day today – out of love for God and the desire to set aside at least one day in devotion to spiritual matters. So what was the problem then? The problem was they added human regulations to God’s law, reducing a right observance of the Sabbath to the most terrible forms of legalism. Listen to just a few examples:

  1. The law said that one was not to travel on the Sabbath (Exod. 16:29). Fair enough! “But what constitutes traveling?” the Pharisees asked. As an answer, they developed the concept of a Sabbath day’s journey, roughly one thousand yards. A man could walk that far on the Sabbath, but if he went farther, it was sin. However, if a rope were tied across the end of a street, the whole street technically became one dwelling place, and in that case a person could walk one thousand yards beyond the rope. Or if he deposited some food at a given place on Friday night, on the next day he could walk to it, eat his meal (thereby technically establishing a new home), then could go one thousand yards beyond that. I suppose that if he were clever enough, a determined man could walk halfway across Palestine.
  2. The law forbade the carrying of a load (Jer. 17:21–27). But what was “a load?” Was a piece of clothing a load? The Pharisees answered that if it was worn as clothing it was not, but if it was carried it was. So the way to get a jacket from one room of the house to another was obviously to put it on, walk to the second room, and take it off.
  3. The law forbade work. The same logic worked this way. A man is out walking. He spits. Is that work? Answer: It depends on what happens to the spit. If it goes into the dirt and makes a slight furrow, then it is plowing, which is work. If it hits a rock, no work is done. Under this system, being a devout Jew seemed to depend in part on where one spit on Saturdays.[4]

In total, the Mishna (a written compilation of rabbinical oral tradition) established 39 categories of work that was prohibited on the Sabbath, and reaping, gathering grain, which became the chief bone of contention in this conflict with Jesus, was one of them.[5]


Picture the scene set in 12:1. It is a happy Saturday morning in early spring. Jesus, his disciples, and the entourage following rise at dawn and start into the city, heading for the synagogue to catch the early service. Christ’s disciples were born and raised in this region, so they lead the way, walking a few paces ahead of Jesus, who seems to be striding side by side with the Pharisees following after the group.

As they walk, the disciples decide to partake of the original breakfast of champions, so they grab a few grains of wheat from the side of the field then begin to nibble as they walk. To them, what they are doing is completely innocent and legal, according to Leviticus 19:9 and Deuteronomy 23:25. Those passages instruct the farmer to leave the edges of his fields unharvested so the crops could be picked by the poor or by travelers. Picking heads of grain at the edge of a field was not considered stealing. Theft is not the issue here.

The Pharisees knew that law as well. They were experts in the Law of Moses. The issue for them is not what the disciples are doing but when they are doing it. They were “pluck[ing] heads of grain… on the Sabbath” (12:1). Jesus’ disciples were breaking one or more of the 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. If you are old enough to remember such things, we could say they were breaking the bluest of blue laws.

When we read the 4th commandment, you may have noticed that it does not define the word “work” or the phrase “not working.” It certainly implies not doing what you do for a living on the Sabbath day. In fact, in the whole of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, only one “work” activity was forbidden, kindling of fires (Exodus 35:3). In Numbers 15:32-36 there is a condemnation for gathering sticks, presumably for a fire.

Even if you venture outside the Torah, to the works of the prophets, there we find only a few more details regarding what constitutes work. In Jeremiah 17:21-7 you find some regulations about carrying burdens. Nehemiah 10:31 and 13:15-17, as well as Amos 8: 4, 5, forbid buying and selling on the Sabbath. Isaiah 58:13 instructs us to not engage in idle talk, or our own pleasure-seeking, but instead to delight in God on the Sabbath. That’s it! Those are all the regulations found in Old Testament scripture for the proper keeping of Shabbat.

Lawyers found this vagueness problematic. In our society, when we pass laws, the very first thing you will see are the definitions of important terms in the legislation. The Torah gives no definition for work. So the legal eagles of Israel believed that if God was not going to give more specific instructions, they needed to add their own clarifications of what constituted work. Over time, like the old blue laws in our country, many man-made commandments were created to answer every conceivable Sabbath question.

These invented and non-prophetic additions turned the Sabbath, which was intended to bring freedom and rest to men, into a day filled with literally thousands of petty rules and regulations that made much work out of not working. The law God gave was originally intended to serve as a sign of Israel’s unique role in the history of redemption and to honor the absolute holiness of YHWH, their Creator. But the day had transformed into something completely unscriptural, a monstrous mutation of Jewish religious and political pride.

The Mishna forbids many things we might expect, such as plowing, hunting, and butchering. But it also contains those things we would not expect, such as tying or losing knots, sewing more than one stitch, or writing more than one letter.[6] Some rulings bordered on the ridiculous. One rule stated that if a building fell down on the Sabbath only enough rubble could be removed to discover if any victims were dead or alive. The living could be rescued but corpses had to be left until sunset.

The disciples were not touching a dead body, which would clearly make them unclean. But to the Pharisees, touching the wheat was just as damning. Of the 39 classes of work detailed in the Mishna, four of these were reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal. “By plucking grain they were guilty of reaping. By rubbing it in their hands they were guilty of threshing. By blowing off the chaff they were guilty of winnowing. And by the total of those acts they were guilty of preparing a meal—all of which was forbidden.”[7] According to the Old Testament Law and Jewish tradition, breaking the Sabbath was a serious offense demanding the same sentence as capital murder (Exodus 31:14, 15; 35:2), it was originally a death sentence.


In some ways, Jesus the good Jew could not agree more with the idea of keeping Shabbat holy. It was, after all, a law he himself had written. The Law, to Jesus, was a matter of life and death. That is why he tried to correct their perception and practice of the Sabbath by answering their accusation the way he did, highlighting the spirit of the Law and the original and ultimate intention of the 4th commandment. I wonder if the Apostle John had the idea of this passage in mind when he wrote in his great sermon to his beloved church in Ephesus, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate [a defense attorney] with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.[8]

Jesus mounts a three-point defense from scripture. First, he gives an example from the former prophets (1 Samuel 21:1-6) about King David, then from the Torah (Numbers 28:9, 10), and finally from the latter prophets (Hosea 6:6, one of his favorite passages). Jesus takes scripture, the sword of the Spirit, and begins cutting off some of the ungodly traditions that have attached themselves to God’s holy Law.

His first point of defense comes in verses 3, 4, when he says, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 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?” This is as disrespectful as you or I asking a Shakespeare scholar if she has ever read Macbeth. Jesus mentions a story that would have been as familiar to them as the story of Christ’s birth is to us. Christ’s answer is bold, and it reminds us with whom we are dealing. This is no average carpenter’s son from some obscure village in ancient Palestine, but the Son of God, who decorated the world in which we live with the inexplicable splendor of thousands of unknown galaxies.

David and his starving band of fighters, pursued by King Saul, went on a Sabbath day to the Tabernacle to ask for food. The only food available was the Bread of Presence, the 12 consecrated loaves placed on a table each Sabbath, a meal only eaten by the priests. The priest chose common mercy and David’s authority as anointed king over sacred ritual. The priest broke the letter of the Law to uphold its spirit. The writer of 1 Samuel neither condemned nor approved the action. But Jesus certainly seems to have approved.

Jesus’ argument from legal precedent only works if Jesus is at least as special as David. In fact, Jesus will make just that argument in verses 6, 8. But now, for his second point of defense, he goes to Numbers 28:9, 10: “Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” Priests worked on Shabbat. Without their work, there would be no sacrifices in the temple. Temple work trumps Sabbath rest.

Slowly, it begins to dawn on his critics that Jesus has just claimed to be at least as great as King David and now he has associated himself with the priesthood and the temple. Now, Jesus is about to shake them to their tassels: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (12:6). Jesus is not merely greater than the priesthood. He is greater than the temple itself, the place where the priests work!

You can almost hear the religious scholars sizzling with rage. Perhaps we could have heard the word “blasphemy” being whispered among the crowd. Do you see how his argument holds together? If what King David did trump’s the temple, and if the temple trump’s Sabbath rest, then it follows logically that if someone greater than David (1:1) and greater than the temple is here, then the disciples can have a snack of wheat on Shabbat.

Jesus claims to be the fulfillment and embodiment of the Sabbath day, the sanctuary temple, and even of the Mosaic Law, the three realities dearest to Israel. So salvation comes not through keeping the Sabbath, perfect obedience to the Law (which is completely impossible!), or temple sacrifice, but only through faith in Christ. Salvation comes only to the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. It comes only to those who rest in Jesus, who come weary and heavily laden, seeking final Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4).

But Jesus isn’t finished with his argument. He goes to the later prophets and fishes out a quote (one he loves) from Hosea 6:6. “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” In other words, love for people is love for God no matter what day it is. If you step over the poor beggar on your way to the temple it matters not whether you have brought 10,000 first-born bulls for sacrifice. Divine devotion without human sympathy is ungodly. It is unbiblical. Above everything else God desires mercy. The Sabbath was made for man to show mercy to people.

We might expect Jesus at this point to simply sit down at the council’s table and rest his case. And yet he fires off one more heavy explosive round: “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus is greater than David. He is greater than the temple. Who does he think he is? Here is who he thinks he is: “the Son of Man.” That is not a reference to his humanity so much as it is a direct reference to Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 7. In language similar to the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:12, 13), and the beginning of the Great Commission (28:18), Daniel 7:14 reads:

And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.[9]

His claim to be Lord of the Sabbath is only eclipsed by this grander claim to be the Son of Man. That is a claim to universal kingship and eternal rule. The Sabbath is merely a subset of his unlimited authority. He possesses the same lordship over the Sabbath possessed by God the Father at creation. He has the authority to render all burdensome human superstitions invalid and to dictate whether or not his disciples’ actions were lawful or unlawful.


Greater than David. Greater than the temple. The Son of Man. The Lord of the Sabbath. Those are Jesus’ claims here in the first eight verses of Matthew chapter 12. In such a religiously-strict culture, such claims are enough to get a man killed.

In chapter 26, after Jesus had been accused of claiming to destroy the temple (an interesting charge in light of our text), Jesus is asked if he is “the Christ, the son of God” (26:63). He responds, “You have said so” (i.e., “I am the Christ, the Son of God”). But he doesn’t stop there. He adds, “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64). And how will the council react to all this—that he will destroy the temple, that he is the Son of Man? Verses 65, 66 of Matthew 26 tell us:

Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.”

This little Sabbath controversy here in Matthew 12 is no trivial matter. It is a matter of life and death, Christ’s life and death. This text is not about whether Christians should keep the Sabbath or how they are to keep the Sabbath. The point of this text is to tell us more about Jesus. What authority does he have? And what does it matter? Who is Jesus and what authority does he have over the days of the week, over kingdoms and nations, over absolutely every part of my life and my heart? St Author of Hebrews sums up the points of our text this morning:

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. [10]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 12:1–8.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ex 20:8–11.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Ch 36:20–21.

[4] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 205.

[5]  m. Sabbath 7:2.

[6] Id.

[7] Boice, 205–206.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Jn 2:1.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Da 7:14.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 9:11–15.