1 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. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 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? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Legalism—the adding of man-made rules and restrictions to the commandments of God—inevitably misses the heart of God. More than that, it usually ends up becoming a parody of itself. Richard John Neuhaus gives one amusing example of this:
Many years ago an evangelical publisher brought out a book by C. S. Lewis with his picture on the back of the dustjacket. He was holding his hand in an odd way, as though there was something in it, but there was nothing there. Around his head was a large cloud. It was, of course, a cloud of pipe smoke, but the publisher, in order not to offend, had brushed out the pipe, with the result that Lewis’ head was surrounded by this numinous nimbus. My classmates and I referred to him as See Shekinah Lewis.
So there you have it. It is an amusing example and, in truth, a metaphor for all legalism. You have (1) a man-made law (i.e., no pipes), (2) an earnest effort to obey this man-made law (i.e., airbrushing out the pipe), and (3) a confusing and slightly amusing result (i.e., What is that cloud of smoke hanging over Lewis’ head?!).
Of course, legalism is not always amusing. Oftentimes it is downright deadly. It is always dangerous. Jesus confronted the religious leaders about their legalism more than once in the New Testament. Matthew 12 gives us one such example.
The clash between the traditions of man and the heart of God.
As with many of Jesus’ clashes with the religious establishment, this one happened on the Sabbath, the sacred day of rest.
1 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. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
The sabbath was, of course, to be “remembered” and “kept holy” (Exodus 20:8). This commandment is good and this is from God. This is to be a day of rest. The problem is that the religious leaders felt compelled to step in and define exactly and precisely (and is not legalism always exact and precise?) what “rest” meant. As it turns out, the disciples plucking and eating heads of grain on the sabbath violated some of the rabbinic scriptures concerning the sabbath. The IVP Bible Background Commentary notes that “rabbinic law specifically designated this as one of thirty-nine kinds of work forbidden on the sabbath.” David Platt offers more details concerning these traditions and rules.
As legalists, the Pharisees were in serious error in at least three different ways. First, they added to the requirements of the law. For example, the law said you couldn’t travel on the Sabbath (Exod 16:29), which leads us to ask, What is considered traveling? Can you travel around your house? Can you travel to someone else’s house? If you travel beyond someone else’s house, how far can you go? The Pharisees answered such questions by saying that someone was permitted to travel up to three thousand feet from their house, a permissible Sabbath day’s journey. That is, unless you have some food that is within 3,000 feet of your house, and if that’s the case, then that food is an extension of your house, thus allowing you to journey another 3,000 feet. If you went any further than that, it was sin (MacArthur, Matthew 8–15, 282).
Another example of the Pharisees’ approach to the law concerned God’s command not to carry a load on the Sabbath (Exod 20:8-11; Jer 17:21-22). The question naturally arose, What constitutes a load? For instance, are your clothes a load? The Pharisees said no, not if your clothes are worn; only if you are carrying your clothes are they considered a load. So it would be okay to wear a jacket on the Sabbath, but it would be a sin to carry a jacket. John MacArthur describes the absurdity of it all:
Tailors did not carry a needle with them on the Sabbath for fear they might be tempted to mend a garment and thereby perform work. Nothing could be bought or sold, and clothing could not be dyed or washed. A letter could not be dispatched, even if by the hand of a Gentile. No fire could be lit or extinguished—including fire for a lamp—although a fire already lit could be used within certain limits. For that reason, some orthodox Jews today use automatic timers to turn on lights in their homes well before the Sabbath begins. Otherwise they might forget to turn them on in time and have to spend the night in the dark. Baths could not be taken for fear some of the water might spill onto the floor and “wash” it. Chairs could not be moved because dragging them might make a furrow in the ground, and a woman was not to look in a mirror lest she see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it out. (MacArthur, Matthew 8–15, 282)
Do you see the absurdity of all of this? Not content to let the law of God simply stand, they rushed in with piles and piles of traditions and interpretations that, in effect, became synonymous with the law they attached themselves to. But here is a crucial point: traditional additions to the law of God are not the law of God. Rather, they are interpretations of the law. Now, they may be good interpretations or bad interpretations, but the voices of men must never be confused with the voice of God. What we find in our text and this episode is a clash, then, between the traditions of man, as exemplified in the Pharisees, and the heart of God, as made manifest in Jesus.
Jesus turns on them and their assertion of wrongdoing and show them how muddled their understanding is. He does this by pointing to two biblical exceptions to the kind of strict sabbath-keeping they were requiring.
Exception #1: David and the bread of the Presence
First, Jesus points to David.
3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 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?
What Jesus is referencing can be found in 1 Samuel 21.
1 Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David, trembling, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” 2 And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. 3 Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” 4 And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” 5 And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” 6 So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
Jesus’ point in alluding to this scene is clear: if David and his men did not sin by eating the bread which, by law, was only to be consumed by priests, then neither did His disciples sin. On a deeper level Jesus is pointing to the fact that it is possible to hold to a wooden view of the law that misses the heart of God behind it. The question is this: did Ahimelech sin or do rightly by seeing the need of David and his men and giving them the bread? Clearly he did not sin. Rather, Ahimelech got the heart of God behind the law by valuing kindness and mercy over wooden, strict adherence. So too, Jesus was demonstrating the heart of the Father by allowing His disciples to pluck and eat the heads of grain.
Exception #2: The temple priests
But there was another exception Jesus appealed to and it was an even more obvious one.
5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?
This was a truth that was staring the Pharisees right in their faces: the priests violated the sabbath all of the time by performing their temple duties on the sabbath! But clearly nobody thought the priests were sinning.
In other words, in the examples of David and the temple priests Jesus was demonstrating the hypocrisy of the Pharisees as well as the emptiness of their extra rules and traditions. “At the very least,” writes Craig Blomberg, “Jesus shows that he feels free to disregard the oral laws that had grown up around the Sabbath.”
The church father John Chrysostom argued that Jesus’ point was not that since David sinned He could sin too! Perish the thought! Rather, Chrysostom said:
Jesus was not satisfied with such reasoning. Instead, he concludes something more decisive: the deed itself in this case is no sin at all! This more than anything was the sign of a glorious victory: For here the Giver of the law was overriding the law [i.e., The Lawgiver was overriding a particular interpretation of the law.].”
That is right: Jesus was arguing that these Pharisees were simply wrong about what they were calling a sin. Violations of their traditions were not sins. Violations of the law are sins. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Keep the commandments. Break the conventions.” That is a nice summary of what is happening here.
Christian, be careful what you call a sin! There are more than enough actual sins without you making up your own. Beware of elevating your own understanding to the level of divine! That was the fatal error of the Pharisees. They had apparently come to feel that their interpretations were as authoritative as the laws they sought to interpret! But this assumes that interpretations are never wrong. In this case, their interpretations clearly were.
The supremacy of the Son.
It was likely offensive enough when Jesus corrected the Pharisees by appealing to scripture and common sense, but what He said next was truly amazing. Next we see Jesus say two things about Himself that were beyond incendiary but that are critical to our understanding of His person and work.
6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Here are the two statements:
- Jesus is “greater than the temple.”
- Jesus is “lord of the Sabbath.”
Craig Keener is likely correct when he makes the interesting observation that “Jesus’ self-claim was veiled enough to prevent legal charges of blasphemy but obvious enough to enrage his opponents…” In other words, Jesus does not explicitly say “I am greater than the temple” and “I am lord of the Sabbath.” Instead, He says, “something greater than the temple is here” and “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Thus Keener’s observation that the worlds were somewhat “veiled” though they were also “obvious enough.” I agree. The upshot of what Jesus was saying was clear enough: He was talking about Himself.
The first statement was shocking in its implications. Jesus pronounces Himself “greater than the temple.” In John 2 Jesus likened His body to the temple.
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Here, in Matthew 12, Jesus says He is greater than the temple! For a first century Jew, the temple represented the abiding presence of God in their midst. It was where the sacrifices were offered. It was where the Holy of Holies was! It was where the great high priest would stand before the Lord of heaven and earth. And Jesus said that He was greater than the temple! We cannot think that we understand the full sting of these words simply because we have a sanctuary that we feel connected to. No, a first century Jew would have viewed the temple in a way that was much deeper than the way we view our sanctuary.
The implication of Jesus’ words were clear: He is God, for only God is greater than the temple. It is hard to imagine the physical reaction this would have caused in the hearts and minds and stomachs of these Pharisees. What an unbelievably audacious thing for this Jesus to say!
But there was more: “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Lord of the Sabbath?! Here again, the implication was clear: Jesus is Lord and God.
In the immediate context what Jesus was saying is that it is patently absurd for these religious leaders to question Him about the sabbath since He is both Lord of the sabbath and greater than the temple. It is like a reader trying to correct an author about what his own book is about. It is like an observer trying to tell a master painter that he doesn’t understand what is on the canvas that he himself painted! The sheer audacity of the Pharisaical complaints now comes into focus. How dare they question Jesus the Lord!
But in saying these things surely the Pharisees’ minds must have quickly dropped the whole concern about heads of grain and the sabbath, for Jesus had now just opened up a whole new can of worms for this. He had now asserted in terms that they would have clearly understood, even if somewhat veiled, that Jesus was claiming divinity, claiming to be God. How else could His words have been taken?
Jesus is God.
These men were questioning and daring to correct God-in-flesh. Unbelievable! Amazing!
Here we see the supremacy of Christ on full display. He is God-with-us, God-among-us, God-come-to-His-people.
“To look upon the carpenter of Nazareth is to discover God in totality,” writes Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. Indeed!
Liberal Bishop John Shelby Spong was asked, “Do you believe Jesus is God?” He responded, “No…I do believe something of him was perfectly transparent to God.” Leaving aside what on earth this possibly means, we can safely say that this is not enough. To claim to be Lord of the Sabbath is not to claim that “something” of you is “perfectly transparent to God.” It is rather to claim to be God! Let us be clear on this point: no Pharisee hearing those words from Jesus would have thought that Jesus was saying anything less than that He was God.
Church, see the glory and supremacy of Jesus Christ! How amazing He is! He is greater than all human traditions and greater than all human religious authorities and greater indeed than whatever it is that humanity means by “religion.” He is God!
Do not conceal the glory of Christ by legalisms or libertinisms. Fall rather at His feet and worship Him for who He is: Lord and God!
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. October 2001.
 Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background New Testament, New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.78.
 Platt, David. Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) . B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew (The New American Commentary) (pp. 195-196). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary On The Scriptures. Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. New Testament, Vol. 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.235n9.
 Craig S. Keener, Matthew. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ser. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Cons. Eds., D. Stuart Briscoe and Haddon Robinson. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.226.
 Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus Manifesto (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p.3/6
 Richard John Neuhaus. “While We’re At It.” First Things. December 1994.