Jesus and the Sabbath – Matthew 12:1-14


Jesus and the Sabbath – Matthew 12:1-14


taken from my forthcoming book by Founders Press, Getting the Garden Wrong: A Critique of New Covenant Theology on the Covenant of Works and the Sabbath

Copyright © 2016 Richard C. Barcellos. All rights reserved.



At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” 3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, 4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? 5 “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?  6 “But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 “But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” 9 Departing from there, He went into their synagogue. 10 And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse Him. 11 And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 “How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him. (Matt. 12:1-14)


In Matthew 12, we are told that “Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat” (Matt. 12:1). The Pharisees replied, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (Matt. 12:2). Jesus then offers two examples from the Old Testament: “. . . David . . . and those who were with him” (Matt. 12:3) and “the priests in the temple” (Matt. 12:5).[1] Concerning the priests, he says, “Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?” (Matt. 12:5). Whatever the priests were doing, the Pharisees’ logic implied it was a violation of the Sabbath. Their logic taught that the priests, David, and Christ’s disciples were profaning the Sabbath. But Jesus says the priests “. . . are blameless” (Matt. 12:5). Then he quotes Hosea 6:6. He says, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt. 12:7).[2] He pronounces his disciples “guiltless” by referencing two Old Testament examples.

Commenting of the account recorded in Matthew 12, D. A. Carson says:


This does not mean that Jesus here actually breaks the sabbath or overrides it, at least as far as Torah is concerned, but it does mean He claims authority to do so . . . In the apparent conflict between what Jesus and His disciples did and the Sabbath regulations, Jesus claimed the authority to supersede the sabbath without guilt. It is not a matter of comparing Jesus’ actions with those of the priests, nor is it likely that this is an explicit reference to Jesus as High Priest. Rather, it is a question of contrasting His authority with the authority of the priests.[3]


It is difficult to determine whether or not Carson is asserting that Jesus is claiming authority to break the Sabbath or not. His words could be understood that way. What is clear, however, is that the claim “It is not a matter of comparing Jesus’ actions with those of the priests” seems to be a very strained reading of the passage. This comparison is, in fact, exactly what Jesus did. He consulted previous revelation to proclaim his disciples guiltless. Rather than this being a mere display of Jesus’ authority to change the law or to display his authority over others, it is an illustration of his submission to and compliance with the Old Testament as it stood.

Schreiner holds a similar view to Carson. Discussing this Gospel account, he says:


What is the fundamental point of the account? It does not seem to be legal, where Jesus appeals to the OT to demonstrate that he and the disciples are innocent. Instead, the main truth of the story is Christological. Jesus is the new and final David, the King promised according to the covenant with David. Hence, those who belong to him have a right to eat on the Sabbath.[4]


Jesus did, in fact, appeal “to the OT to demonstrate that he and his disciples are innocent.” Though not denying its Christological thrust, it is at least an appeal to previous revelation to justify the conduct of his disciples. The way Jesus argues would give Pharisees the right to “pick the heads of grain and eat” on the Sabbath as well, provided that they were under the same conditions in which his disciples found themselves.

In the next section of Matthew 12, the Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt. 12:10). Jesus concludes in verse 12, “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” This clearly teaches that healing on the Sabbath was lawful, as was preserving the life of sheep (vv. 10-12). His disciples ate because eating is necessary to sustain human life, and what they did was not a violation of God’s law. All of these actions, according to Christ, were lawful on the Sabbath according to Old Testament revelation. They did not become lawful due to his pronouncement. Jesus was correcting faulty thinking about the Sabbath by consulting prior revelation, and interpreting and applying it correctly. As Roger T. Beckwith says:


. . . our Lord was not opening a new category of permitted actions. He was simply extending an existing category from cases where life was in danger to other cases also, so as to cover all acts of healing, and acts of mercy in general. As he pointed out, his hearers were accustomed to show mercy to animals on the sabbath, so how much more ought they to do the same to men? (Matt. 12:11f.; Luke 13:15f.; 14:5). Consistency required that they should treat men in the same merciful manner.[5]


Someone might want to offer Matthew 12 as an example of Jesus abrogating the Sabbath in all senses (see Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-11). They might claim that Jesus advocates Sabbath-breaking, thereby proving that he was abolishing it. But does this text (and others) bear this weight? Did Jesus, in fact, advocate Sabbath-breaking during his earthly ministry? We have just examined Matthew 12:1-14 and seen Christ justifying works of necessity and mercy, and concluding in verse 12, “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” The “good” in the context of Matthew 12 involved not only what his disciples did and what he did, but what David and those with him and the old covenant priests did. The supposed violation of the Sabbath in this passage (and others) is actually an upholding of the Sabbath in accordance with Old Testament revelation. Jesus never advocated Sabbath-breaking during his earthly ministry. His teaching and actions reflect existing Sabbath law.

Those who offer this objection may claim that, when Jesus says “But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6) and “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8), he is claiming authority to abolish the Sabbath as he abolished the temple. In one sense, Christ did abolish the Sabbath. He abolished it in its various functions under the old covenant. And, in one sense, Christ abolished the temple. He did not, however, abolish the temple in all senses. His church is now God’s temple, where spiritual sacrifices are offered (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-5). What does Jesus mean, when he says, “But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6) and “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; cf. Mark. 2:28)? Fairbairn offers this explanation:


The Temple, He had said, has claims of service, which it was no proper desecration of the Sabbath, but the reverse, to satisfy; and ‘a greater than the Temple was there.’ ‘The Temple yields to Christ, the Sabbath yields to the Temple, therefore the Sabbath yields to Christ’—so the sentiment is syllogistically expressed by Bengel; but yields, it must be observed, in both cases alike, only for the performance of works not antagonistic, but homogeneous, to its nature. . . . He is Lord of the Sabbath, and, as such, has a right to order everything concerning it, so as to make it, in the fullest sense, a day of blessing for man—a right, therefore, if He should see fit, to transfer its observance from the last day of the week to the first, that it might be associated with the consummation of His redemptive work, and to make it, in accordance with the impulsive life and energy thereby brought in, more than in the past, a day of active and hallowed employment for the good of men.[6]


Just as the temple yields to Christ and is transformed to fit the redemptive-historical circumstances brought in by his sufferings and glory, so the Sabbath yields to Christ and is transformed to fit the same redemptive-historical circumstances. The inaugurated new covenant has both a temple and a Sabbath. This connects Christ’s teaching on the temple and the Sabbath with subsequent revelation.

Instead of Matthew 12 proving that Christ abolished the Sabbath in all senses, it actually argues that he upheld it and sought to correct the Pharisees’ faulty interpretation of Sabbath law as it then stood. Fairbairn says, “Jesus grasped, as usual, the real spirit of the institution; for we are to remember, He is explaining the law of the Sabbath as it then stood, not superseding it by another.”[7] Christ upheld the Sabbath and cleared it of Pharisaic encumbrances, but also set the stage for further revelation about it.

The objection stated above assumes that the Sabbath in all senses was temporary, old covenant ceremonial law. Old covenant ceremonial laws are temporary positive laws for old covenant Israel and were a shadow of things to come (e.g., Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 10:1). They were all abrogated by the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-18; Gal. 3-4; Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:16; and Heb. 8-10 [see esp. 8:6-7, 13; 9:9-10, 15; 10:1, 9, 15-18]). If the Sabbath is old covenant ceremonial law in all senses (or absolutely), then it has been abrogated in all senses. But the Sabbath is not old covenant ceremonial law in all senses, as we have seen (see Gen. 2; Exod. 16 and 20; and Isa. 56; see also Mark 2:27 and Heb. 4:9-10 and the discussions below). And if Jesus considered it as absolutely ceremonial, exclusive to the Mosaic covenant alone, one would think he would treat it like he did other such temporary institutions. Beckwith comments:


But if Jesus regarded the sabbath as purely ceremonial and purely temporary, it is remarkable that he gives so much attention to it in his teaching, and also that in all he teaches about it he never mentions its temporary character. This is even more remarkable when one remembers that he emphasizes the temporary character of other parts of the Old Testament ceremonial—the laws of purity in Mark 7:14-23 and Luke 11:39-41, and the temple (with its sacrifices) in Mark 13:2 and John 4:21. By contrast, . . . he seems . . . to speak of the sabbath as one of the unchanging ordinances for all mankind.[8]


Jesus neither abrogated the Sabbath in all senses in his earthly ministry nor did he predict its soon demise in all senses. He upheld it and gave evidence that it would continue under his lordship as the Son of Man.

A detailed examination of all the passages in the Gospels where Christ discusses the issue of the Sabbath will show that he never predicted its absolute abolition, nor did he ever profane it. In fact, he could not profane it, nor advocate its profanation by others, without sinning. He was born under the law, not to profane it but to keep it (Gal. 4:4-5). If Christ violated the Sabbath then he sinned and would not be a suitable Savior for others. Instead, he advocated works of necessity (Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5), mercy (Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 4:31-41; 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:8-10; 7:23; 9:13-16), and piety (Matt. 12:9; Mark 6:2; Luke 4:16; 6:6; John 7:22-23) on the Sabbath by his teaching and example. Also, by his use of the Old Testament (as seen above), Jesus demonstrated that his attitude toward and conduct on the Sabbath was consistent with lawful Sabbath keeping. In other words, he did not demonstrate his authority by abrogating or changing what had already been sanctioned as lawful Sabbath keeping. He did not use his authority in order to supersede existing law to fit his particular needs. Our Lord never violated the Sabbath, advocated its violation by others, or prophesied its absolute demise.


[1] Notice that Jesus is referring to previous revelation.

[2] Here is another reference to previous revelation.

[3] Carson, “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 67.

[4] Schreiner, “Good-bye and Hello,” 172.

[5] Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott, This is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday in its Jewish and Early Christian Setting (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1978), 24. Beckwith wrote Part I of the book and Stott wrote Part II.

[6] Patrick Fairbairn, The Revelation of Law in Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 1996), 238.

[7] Fairbairn, Revelation of Law, 237.

[8] Beckwith and Stott, This is the Day, 26; emphasis original.