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Matthew 12:1-8

Jesus had rebuked some Galilean cities where most of His mighty works were done, because they refused
to repent. They hardened their hearts to this abundant, potent testimony to Jesus as the Messiah, because
they were not willing to submit to Him - they didn’t want God to have the say over their lives.

Jesus warned them that their judgment would be more severe than that for some of the wickedest Gentile
cities known to the Jews. Why? Because of the greater light these Jewish cities had received. The rejection
of greater light will bring greater judgment.

Jesus then issued an invitation to the crowd - for the Jews to come to Him, individually; personally. Jesus
would relieve them of the heavy burden their religious teachers had put upon them - to keep the Law as a
means of being righteous - not to mention all of the traditions that the teachers had added, to the Law - a
crushing load.

For every Jew who would come to Jesus, believing on Him, Jesus would free him from the Law, and give
him rest - from trying to make himself righteous, so God would accept him. Instead, the Jew would receive
the righteousness of God, through his faith.

United to Jesus, joined to Him in the Spirit, the believing Jew could now live the righteousness, that Jesus
had given him - walking step by step in obedience to Jesus, following the leading of the Holy Spirit within
In this way, the peace of God would rule over his heart - and he would find soul-rest, in his life. What a
contrast the light and easy yoke of Jesus was, compared to the crushing yoke of the Law!

As we go on now into chapter 12, we will continue to observe the keeping of the Law at issue with simple
faith in Jesus. But in this case, there will be active opposition to the rest that Jesus is offering the Jews -
and a challenge to His authority.

[Matthew 12:1-8]

So Matthew records this account of a confrontation raised by some Pharisees with Jesus over keeping the
Sabbath. The confrontation over the Sabbath goes on in the subsequent account, as well (v. 9-14), which
we’ll look at next time.

Through them, Matthew provides an excellent illustration of the difference between trying to keep the Law
to become righteous, compared to trusting in Jesus to receive His righteousness - and following Him to live

Verse 1 is introduced with “At that time”. This is the same phrase that introduced verse 25, telling us that
the rebuke of the cities, the invitation to the Jews, and this confrontation over the Sabbath all happened in
fairly close progression.

This means that since the disciples of Jesus are with Him now (almost certainly referring to the Twelve),
they were probably present with Him for the rebuke and the invitation; most likely, they had returned from
their short-term preaching mission a little before that.

These were the ones who had already received Jesus’ invitation, to come to Him, and received the
righteousness of God from Him. These had taken on the yoke of Jesus, and were learning from Him - to
live that righteousness.
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Although verse 1 follows closely after the discourse from chapter 11, it would seem that the location has
changed. Jesus was now with His disciples - and they are walking through some fields of grain - but these
fields would have been near to where Jesus lived in Capernaum. Notice Matthew specifically points out
that it was the Sabbath.

Now, what is the Sabbath? This word is transliterated into the English and the Greek from the Hebrew,
shabath. Do you remember what the word means? It means rest. The Sabbath was the subject of one of
the ten commandments given to Moses for the nation of Israel. We’re going to take a look at that, back in
Exodus chapter 20.

After the LORD delivered the children of Israel from Egypt, He brought them to Himself in the wilderness.
The LORD’s presence was manifest on mount Sinai, and through Moses the LORD invited Israel to become
the people of His possession - His own special people - on the basis of the eternal covenant, through Christ.
Israel was to obey Jehovah’s voice, and keep His covenant - like a wife with her Husband, in fidelity to
their marriage contract.

Now in reality, the children of Israel had no desire for such a close relationship with Jehovah. They
preferred to remain afar off from Him - and to do works for Jehovah at a distance that would allow them to
still do what they wanted.

But Jehovah isn’t that kind of god. Jehovah is the true and living God - not like their false, lifeless gods,
back in Egypt. Jehovah is holy, and cannot accept anything less than absolute, perfect obedience to His
will - whether close or far.

The people could not obey Jehovah’s will, on their own. They could only do that through a vital
relationship with Jehovah - they must draw near to Him, by faith - coming to Him, through the covenant

The ten commandments contain the standard of righteousness of Jehovah. The first four showed the people
how to be right with God; and the last six, how to be right with each other. The commandment concerning
the Sabbath is the last of the four commands directed Godward.

We’ll begin in verse 8.

[Exodus 20:8-11]

v. 8 “Holy” means consecrated; set apart to God, for His purposes.

v. 9-10 So the Sabbath of the LORD is the seventh day. What does the number seven symbolize, in the
Scriptures? Completion, or perfection. We see the idea for what was completed in the explanation given in
the next verse.

v. 11 Now, did the LORD rest because He was exhausted? No; why did He rest? Because His work was
completed; He had finished the work of creation.

As the LORD’s people, the children of Israel were having this rest extended to them, by the LORD. This was
something the LORD was sharing with His people, to partake of on the basis of their relationship with Him.
It was intended to be a blessing and a privilege them - a day set apart to the LORD - to rest with Him.
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But the Sabbath did not originate as part of the ten commandments. We find Moses instructing the children
of Israel concerning it, earlier in the wilderness experience (Ex 16:23-30).

But the root of this “rest” goes further back still. Do you remember how far back? All the way to the
beginning. Turn to Genesis chapter 2. At the end of the sixth day, God had finished creating the heavens
and the earth - forming and filling it.

[Genesis 2:1-3] So God rested the seventh day, from His finished work of creation - and then He blessed
and sanctified the seventh day - same word as in Exodus 20:8 - holy. He set that day apart to Himself, as a
kind of commemoration of the work He had completed.

Although it is not in the record, it may be that this rest was intended for God’s creation of mankind, from
the beginning - that they would rest with God in what He had accomplished.

But what does it mean, to rest? Well, we saw in the commandment to Israel that rest meant to “do no
work” (Ex 20:10). So what is “work”?

Well, the LORD gave some definition of this, in the Scriptures - for example, the children of Israel were not
to gather the manna on the seventh day (Ex 16:23-30). Later, Israel was told they were not to plow or
harvest (Ex 34:21); to gather firewood (Num 15:32-36) or kindle a fire (Ex 35:3); they were not to trade
(Neh 10:31, 13:15-22, Amos 8:5) or to carry loads (Jer 17:19-27).

It was rest from work in the obvious sense - from one’s daily occupations in life. The Sabbath was not
intended as an imposition or a hardship; but instead to replenish and restore - and to create time to pursue
one’s relationship with the LORD - in resting with Him, and in recognizing what He has accomplished.

Now turn to Exodus chapter 31. The inclusion of the Sabbath in the ten commandments given to Israel
brings out that this was an essential requirement, for them. So what would happen if they did do work on
the Sabbath? This is what the LORD shared with Moses, for the children of Israel, regarding that.

[Exodus 31:12-17]

v. 12-13 So the Sabbaths were to be a sign between the LORD and Israel - generation after generation.

v. 14-15 Anyone who worked on the Sabbath was to be put to death. One man later became an example to
the nation, of profaning the Sabbath. The LORD had the congregation stone him to death (Num 15:32-36).

v. 16-17 The LORD again mentions that the Sabbath was a sign, between Himself and Israel. A sign is a
prophetic indicator; it pictures of a future person or event. So what did the Sabbath signify?

Back in verse 13, it was a sign that Israel might know the LORD is the One who sanctifies them - same word
again, meaning the LORD sets them apart; He makes them holy; a holy people.

How is the Sabbath a sign of this? The Sabbath commemorates the LORD’s finished work. It looks back
upon the six days in which the LORD made the heavens and the earth - creation; but the Sabbath also looks
forward, to a future work, that will be finished. What work is that? The work of redemption - which Jesus
will accomplish on the cross - for a new creation.
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The Sabbath pictures resting in the finished work of God - which is what faith does. Israel will keep the
Sabbath by resting in the LORD’s work on their behalf - believing in the One whom He would send, to
redeem them from sin and death. For Israel to work on the Sabbath is to refuse to enter into God’s rest -
which shows a lack of faith, in Him.

What happens to those who profane the Sabbath - who break it? They are put to death; and forever cut off
from the people of God.

Those who refuse the work of God in Christ will experience the Second Death; they are forever cut off,
from the holy, sanctified people of God - the born-again sons, of God’s kingdom. Simply put, the Sabbath
therefore pictures coming to the LORD by faith - works apart.

Let’s take these thoughts back to Matthew now.

[Return to Matthew 12]

In verse 1, we read that Jesus and His disciples were passing through fields of grain. And Matthew says,
His disciples were hungry; so they began to break off the heads of the ripened grain and to eat them.

Now to do that, people back then used to rub the grain between the palms of their hands. The friction
would break apart the grain head and cause the fibrous chaff to be stripped away from the nutritious grain,
beneath it; and then the good grain could just be eaten. Luke brings out that the disciples were doing this
(Lk 6:1).

As we get to verse 2, we see that Jesus and the disciples were not the only ones in the grain field. Who else
is there? Some Pharisees. And there was probably a crowd following Jesus, as usual.

Now you remember that along with the scribes, the Pharisees were the teachers of the people in that day.
They were a religious sect which had formed in response to widespread corruption among the priests and
Levites. This was after the Jews’ return to the land from captivity.

The Pharisees opposed the prevailing Greek influence on Jewish society. They sought to keep themselves -
and all who followed them - separate from that influence. The word Pharisee actually means “separated
one”. And the Pharisees sought ceremonial purity - by which they considered themselves as separated to

The Pharisees viewed the rigorous observance of the Law as their means of separation. But as self-
appointed teachers, they interpreted the Law among themselves, as to how it was to be observed. In their
religious zeal, they also added oral traditions to the Law; as well as rabbinical writings, to it. I’m sure they
saw this as helping God out (!)

The Pharisees had religious and social prominence by the time of Jesus, and much influence over the
people, many of whom regarded them as their teachers.

Now, the Pharisees in our passage must have been following Jesus and His disciples, who were walking
through a grain field; the Pharisees wouldn’t have just been there. And we might think at first that these
Pharisees were interested in Jesus, having seen His mighty works, and heard His wise teaching. We might
even think that maybe they were responding to Jesus’ call to come to Him (11:28).
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But if we were thinking that, we should think again - based on what the Pharisees said, to Jesus. The
“Look” in verse 2 is a calling attention to something: “Lo and behold!” The Pharisees were pointedly
exposing the disciples of Jesus - presumably before a crowd - as doing something that is not permissible on
the Sabbath, according to the Law of Moses.

A teacher was considered responsible for the actions of His disciples. The Pharisees were following Jesus,
looking for something of which to accuse Him - and they thought they had found it.

Now, what was it that the Pharisees thought was unlawful? There was nothing unlawful about eating on
the Sabbath. Yet this clearly has something to do with eating, based on the response of Jesus. Could it be
that taking a few heads of grain from a field was considered stealing? No; in fact, the Law made provision
for exactly that. Turn to Deuteronomy chapter 23.

[Deuteronomy 23:25] Why do you think it says you are not to use a sickle on the grain? Because that
shows your intent is to take more than what would satisfy your immediate need. That would be stealing.
But plucking a few heads of grain was a merciful provision by the LORD, to satisfy His people with what He
Himself had given.

[Return to Matthew 12]

So taking the grain was not unlawful. But according to the Pharisees, to do so on the Sabbath was
unlawful; they interpreted it as work.

In fact, there were 39 categories of activities that had been determined by rabbinic scholars to be
considered work and were therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had extended “harvesting” to
include plucking even one head of grain. And rubbing it between the palms of the hands was work, too;
that they considered “threshing”, another violation - according to them.

But was it? Was this what the LORD meant when He said, “Do no work” on the Sabbath? The Pharisees
taught that it was. But Jesus refutes this teaching. Let’s read that again, beginning in verse 3.

v. 3-4 “Have you not read”? - Of course the Pharisees had read. But they didn’t understand what they read,
so Jesus seeks to reeducate them.

Jesus gave the Pharisees two examples from Scriptures, which demonstrated that a higher authority may
rightly create exceptions to the Law.

The first example Jesus cited was an account of David and His men - when he was on the run from Saul.
We’re going to review this account, in First Samuel chapter 21.

[First Samuel 21:1-6]

v. 1 Nob was the city where the Tabernacle was temporarily situated, near Jerusalem. Most likely,
Ahimelech was afraid because the trouble between Saul and David was known by this time. You can see
Ahimelech is wondering why David doesn’t have an army of men with him. The sense is that Ahimelech
doesn’t want to run afoul of Saul; he’s being very careful.
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v. 2-3 The record does not show Saul to have sent David anywhere; he was searching for David. David
covered up the truth - that he was fleeing from Saul - with an elaborate lie, which it would seem Ahimelech
believed. In his fear, David was clearly not trusting in the LORD. Sadly, this lie will later result in the
slaying of the priests and the people at Nob by Saul, including Ahimelech.

Feigning a mission from Saul, David then requested provisions, from Ahimelech.

v. 4-6 The priest had no regular provisions. On hand. All that was available was the showbread, from the

Twelve unleavened loaves were placed before the LORD in the Tabernacle, representing the twelve tribes of
Israel. After a week, the showbread was replaced with fresh loaves, and the former bread placed in a
basket - what David called a vessel here. This bread was to then be food for priests, to be eaten in the holy
place - as recorded in the ceremonial Law, given to Israel (Lev 24:5-9).

Ahimelech said that David and his young men could eat the holy bread - if they were at least ceremonially
clean. David indicated they were.

Then David likened the bread being consumed and taken into their vessels - that is, their ceremonially clean
bodies - like the bread being placed in the vessel - the basket - for the priests. Having been removed from
the presence of the LORD, that bread was now common, in a sense - it was fit for food, to sustain men’s
physical needs.

Well, I personally think that was rather creative of David! But we have to ask, did it make this permissible?
Was it lawful?

David’s creative reasoning didn’t make it so. But if we were to look into the next chapter, where
Ahimelech is explaining to Saul what he did, we discover that Ahimelech inquired of the LORD for David,
before he gave him provisions (1 Sam 22:10).

It was the LORD Himself, then, who authorized David and his men to be given the bread. We can know that
the LORD did not consider this unlawful - how? Because David and his men were not smitten by the LORD
when they ate it! They ate the holy bread, that was technically unlawful for them to eat - and they were

So the LORD, who gave the Law, has the authority to make exceptions to His Law. Of course He does! It’s
His Law! And we can see that the exception in this case was a matter of the LORD extending His mercy to
David, to preserve him; because David was to be the LORD’s anointed King over Israel.

[Return to Matthew 12]

Now, how does the example of Jesus apply to the situation here? David and his men were on a mission,
according to the will of the LORD - to flee from Saul, until such time as the LORD lifted up David as king (1
Sam 20:22). The men were hungry, and the LORD made provision for them.

Is that not true here? Jesus and His disciples are on a mission, according to the will of God - to reconcile
men to God. The disciples are hungry - and Jesus makes provision for them. But this is different; this is
the Sabbath, and they’re doing work! Well, who decides what work is, on the Sabbath? The LORD does;
Jesus does. What is Jesus implying here; that He is….?
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But He doesn’t say yet; instead, He gives another example.

v. 5-6 Once again, of course the Pharisees have read this; but they never thought it through - what did it
really mean? This example pertains to the Sabbath directly; we find it in Numbers chapter 28.

This is part of the ceremonial Law, specifying the offerings that were to be made to the LORD. This
included a daily burnt sacrifice, offered morning and evening, and also a specific offering made on every

[Numbers 28:9-10] So the priests would have to sacrifice the animals, measure out the flour, oil, and wine,
prepare the offering and offer it up to the LORD, on behalf of the people.

This would certainly be considered the priests’ regular occupation, their work in life; and they were to do
this work on the Sabbath. Wasn’t that unlawful? Not for the priests.

In His authority, the LORD made an exception for the priests; they crossed the line, and worked on the
Sabbath, yet were blameless.

The LORD made an exception with the priests on the Sabbath in order for the people to see - through these
constant burnt offerings, made every day - the continual efficacy of the work that their Messiah would do
on their behalf, by which they would be accepted, in the Beloved Son (Eph 1:6). The exception, then, was
in order for the LORD to show His graciousness to His people.

[Return to Matthew 12]

So how does this example of Jesus speak to what His disciples were doing? The priests profane the
Sabbath in the temple, working on the prescribed rest day, in order to show the LORD’s grace to the people.

Well, the disciples were like those priests. They were working continually to reconcile the Jews to God,
through Jesus - and that need of the people created exceptions to ceremonial rules.

Then Jesus said something which would have enraged the Pharisees: that in this place was One greater
than the temple. In a grain field? The Pharisees had to know that Jesus was referring to Himself.

To pious Jews, the temple was the center of their religious life; the symbol of God’s presence, dwelling
among them. Yet all the way back in the days of Ezekiel, the glory of the LORD was seen by the prophet to
depart from the temple (Eze 9:3; 10:4, 18-19; 11:23). And when the Jews were conquered by the
Babylonians and taken into captivity, the temple had been destroyed.

But here before them, in that field of grain, was the One who was the true temple of God - God
tabernacling in a body of flesh (Jn 1:14). And this One was greater than the temple - even Solomon’s
temple, which was built according to the pattern the LORD had given to David.

How was this One greater? Because this One was the reality of what the temple could only picture - here
was God, dwelling in the midst of His people. Did they have eyes to see Him?

Jesus then showed the Pharisees where they went wrong.

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v. 7-8 You may remember that Matthew recorded Jesus quoting this verse on a previous occasion. Jesus
spoke it, also to some Pharisees, when they were judging Him for eating with tax collectors and sinners
(Mat 9:13). I’m sure Jesus did say it on more than one occasion; but I also think that Matthew the former
tax collector must have held it dear, to his heart.

We had looked at the context of this verse before, which is from Hosea 6:6. The Hebrew word for “mercy”,
chesed, is there speaking of Israel’s covenant relationship with Jehovah.

The idea in this verse is that the LORD desires a real relationship of mutual love with His people; not for
them to just offer up some ritualistic sacrifices.

Jesus was saying here that if the Pharisees really understood what the LORD desires of His people - for them
to trust in Him, and live by Him, like the disciples did - they would understand that their religious legalism
holds no merit with Him - and their judgments, based on this false concept of God, will cause them to go
wrong, time after time.

For the disciples in fact were guiltless; what they were doing was not a violation of the Sabbath at all.

The statement that Jesus makes in verse 8 is intended as an explanation and conclusion to His argument.
Jesus has been showing from the Scriptures that the LORD has the authority over His own Sabbath - and
therefore, His people can go to Him, and learn what it means to rest. But further, Jesus is now showing
Himself - the Son of Man, God in human flesh - to be that self-same Lord; Lord of the Sabbath.

It is another claim of Deity, on the part of Jesus. The Pharisees can continue to burden men under the
crushing yoke of the Law, with their 39 added definitions of what qualifies as work, on the Sabbath. Or
they can open their eyes to see God, dwelling right in the midst of them - ready to give His Sabbath rest - to
all who are willing to come to Him (Mt 11:28).

Reading: Matthew 12:9-21; Mark 3:1-7; Luke 6:6-11; Isaiah 42