Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 12:1-8

Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath

12 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.”


According to the three-year Lectionary schedule, the corresponding reading of Mark 2:23-28 is to be read on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B. However, I checked the Vanderbilt University Lectionary site as well as those for the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for 2014. That reading was not among those listed. The number of Sundays after Pentecost may depend on when Easter falls, with readings adjusted accordingly.

Before I go into a verse-by-verse study, this episode in Christ’s ministry is important for churchgoers to understand. John MacArthur makes an interesting point on Sabbath observance (emphases mine):

Although God rested on the seventh day, God did not command men prior to the Mosaic Law to rest on the seventh day; it was in the Mosaic Law that the requirement was first articulated. Then it became, in the Mosaic Law, a special, covenantal sign between God and Israel. Listen carefully, because many misunderstand this. The Sabbath commandment is one of the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20; it is the only commandment that is a non-moral one, the only one that is a ceremonial command. It is the one of the Ten Commandments that was uniquely between God and Israel as a ceremonial rule; all the other nine are moral absolutes. The reason we know this for sure is because when you get to the New Testament, every other command is repeated. Every one of the Ten Commandments is repeated except the one regarding the Sabbath. It is not repeated in the New Testament because it was a unique covenantal sign, much like circumcision was, between God and Israel.

At the time of Jesus and His disciples, the Sabbath was in fact the ceremonial law of God. It is not a binding law for the church, but it was for Israel. So the Lord would honor the Sabbath, as would His disciples, insofar as God intended it to be honored.


Romans 14 says, “Some people want to keep the Sabbath and some don’t. It’s no big deal; if they want to, it’s because the are doing it traditionally from their Judaism, don’t offend them, let them go. If you don’t want to do it, don’t worry about it.” That’s why Paul says in Galatians 4 and Colossians 2, “Don’t let anyone impose upon you days or Sabbaths.” We have the reality; the shadow is gone. Christ fulfilled it.

That’s why He rose on the first day of the week. The disciples met together on the first day of the week (Acts 2:1), regularly breaking bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), and they were to collect their offerings when they came together on the first day of the week (I Corinthians 16:1). Why? Because that was the day that commemorated and celebrated the resurrection. That’s why we meet today, because it’s resurrection day! It’s the new covenant.

Now onto the text. I wrote about the parallel account — Luke 6:1-5 — in 2013. That post gives all the background to what is otherwise a puzzling reading for those who are not well acquainted with the Old Testament.

Matthew 12 begins with this story. MacArthur says Matthew might well have wanted to draw a connection between it and the preceding chapter’s final verses (Matthew 11:28-30):

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In Matthew 12:1, Jesus and His disciples were walking through grain fields on the Sabbath. Hungry, the disciples began picking grains and eating them. They would have rubbed off the chaff and eaten the inner portion, which would have been a bit of a snack. MacArthur says:

They did this commonly. Some of you have lived on a farm and done this; maybe you’ll take the head of the wheat or barley and roll it in your hands to clear the kernel out, then you throw it in the air and the chaff is blown away, and then, as if eating nuts, you eat the grain.

Students of the King James Version will say that these were cornfields. MacArthur tells us why later versions refer to grain:

Some Bibles say ‘corn fields’ but they were probably wheat and barley fields. The grain was likely ripening because of what occurs in the incident in verse 1. If they were there in Galilee, in the Jordan Valley, that would mean that it was around April, nearing Passover season, perhaps, because that’s when grain usually ripens there: in the spring. As you go east from there, the farther east you go, the later it is, until finally, at the eastern parts of that area, it doesn’t ripen until August. But in the Jordan Valley, it would be around April. The harvest must have been very near.

The Pharisees voiced their objections to Jesus (verse 2). Removing chaff from grain was not allowed in their many burdensome Sabbath laws. However, Mosaic law, which God revealed to Moses, said that, in case of hunger, people were allowed to pick, but not harvest, grain on the Sabbath:

The Lord had made a wonderful provision for the traveler in Israel in Deuteronomy 23:25. It says, “When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor’s standing grain.” In other words, there weren’t any restaurants or truck stops or McDonald’s anywhere, so as you were moving along, you would get hungry. So the Lord provided, in Deuteronomy 23:25, within the nation of Israel, that you could take your hands and pluck some of the grain.

In verses 3 and 4 Jesus countered the Pharisees by reminding them of what David and his companions did when they were fleeing for their lives, became hungry and approached the priest in the tabernacle for something to eat. The priest in charge gave them the showbread which only the priests were allowed to consume. The story is in 1 Samuel 21. MacArthur summarises it:

He had been rejected by his people as king, and he was fleeing for his life. He was going south to Gibeah, as it says in I Samuel 21, and Saul was after him. He came to the land of Nob, just north of Jerusalem, where the tabernacle was. He didn’t have any food and he and his men were very hungry. So he went in to Ahimelech, who was ministering in the place of Abiathar, the high priest, and told him that he was hungry. David even told a lie about what mission he was on, but he nonetheless told him that he was hungry. You know what they gave him to eat? The showbread from off the table in the tabernacle.

What was that? Every week, they baked 12 loaves of bread and each loaf was baked with six and a half pounds of flour; these were big, big loaves. They were put in two piles of six each, and represented the 12 tribes of Israel, and placed on the table. Every Sabbath, the loaves would be taken away and new ones put down. When the loaves were taken away, according to Leviticus 24:5-9, they were to be eaten by the priests and no one else. The word ‘showbread’ literally means ‘the bread of presence,’ or ‘the continual bread,’ and it was the representation of God’s perpetual relationship to His people, and it was to be eaten only by the priests. It was sacred, never to touch the lips of a common person, even a person like David, because he wasn’t a priest.

Still, David ate the showbread

Why did God let him do this? Because God never invented any law that was intended to overrule human need. Ceremony takes a backseat to the meeting of a need. God not only allows necessity to overrule ritual, but the ritual in David’s time, and in our Lord’s time, had lost its meaning anyway, because the people were so unholy. God will even violate one of His own ceremonies, not moral laws, but ceremonial law if He has to to meet a need, because God is all about loving men and meeting their needs. The Pharisees didn’t understand this, “That the Sabbath was made for man,” so he could rest and have his needs met. Not man for the Sabbath. David violated the ceremonial law to meet the heart of God, which is to meet needs.

Jesus then went on to ask how priests in the temple could get away with working — e.g. lighting fires for the animal sacrifices — and not be declared guilty of breaking Sabbath law (verse 5).

Jesus said that this concerned something greater than the temple (verse 6), which the Jews highly venerated. At that moment, the field was much more sacred because He was standing in it.  The Pharisees would never understand that, as the events of Matthew 12 and 13 make clear.

Our Lord sharply reminded them that God prefers mercy to sacrifice (verse 7). Hosea 6:6, which Jesus quoted, says:

6For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

He ended His rebuke by telling the Pharisees that the Lord of the Sabbath — the Son of Man — was in their very presence (verse 8). He would make the rules, not they.

As we will read next week, Jesus and His disciples were on their way to the synagogue.

Matthew Henry concludes:

This intimates, that those labours are lawful on the sabbath day which are necessary, not only to the support of life, but to the service of the day as tolling a bell to call the congregation together, travelling to church, and the like. Sabbath rest is to promote, not to hinder, sabbath worship

That law, as all the rest, is put into the hand of Christ, to be altered, enforced, or dispensed with, as he sees good. It was by the Son that God made the world, and by him he instituted the sabbath in innocency by him he gave the ten commandments at mount Sinai, and as Mediator he is entrusted with the institution of ordinances, and to make what changes he thought fit and particularly, as being Lord of the sabbath, he was authorized to make such an alteration of that day, as that it should become the Lord’s day, the Lord Christ’s day. And if Christ be the Lord of the sabbath, it is fit the day and all the work of it should be dedicated to him. By virtue of this power Christ here enacts, that works of necessity, if they be really such, and not a pretended and self-created necessity, are lawful on the sabbath day and this explication of the law plainly shows that it was to be perpetual ...

Some Protestant denominations still make Sunday a day of restrictions, possibly more than necessary. They have that freedom as long as they do not impose it on others or criticise others for being less observant than they.

Next time: Matthew 12:9-14