1 At that time Jesus passed through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. 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, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry— 4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? 6 But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here! 7 If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice , you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
Matthew 12 drops us in the middle of a controversial period in the first Gospel. Chapters 11-12 outline the opposition that Jesus faced in His ministry, specifically from the Pharisees. In today’s passage, Jesus and His disciples are passing through the grain fields on the Sabbath. This seems to be an innocent enough trip, but without warning Jesus and the disciples stumble into mistake #1. The Pharisees of that time, in an attempt to define the laws, added to them by saying that anyone who traveled more than 3,000 feet on the Sabbath was sinning.
Furthermore, while Jesus and the disciples were walking they got hungry and began to pick and eat the heads of grain – mistake #2. The rabbinic law specifically prohibited picking, threshing and winnowing on the Sabbath. So, true to character, the Pharisees observed and called out Jesus and His disciples for their perceived violations.
Verses 3-7 document Jesus’ response, where He pointed His accusers back to the written Word of God—citing David’s story from 1 Samuel 21:6, the evidence from the law in Numbers 28:9-10, and a word from a prophet, Hosea 6:6—to illustrate their improper interpretation of the Sabbath. By responding to the Pharisees in this way, Jesus was not pridefully attempting to illustrate His superior knowledge of the Scriptures. The Pharisees surely knew the texts He referenced.
Rather, as David Platt notes, Jesus was highlighting three extraordinary things about Himself.
- He is greater than the tabernacle (vs. 4)
- He is greater than the temple (vs. 7)
- He is Lord of the Sabbath (vs. 8).
The overriding point of this section of Scripture highlights that Jesus is God, and that He is and forever will be the source of rest and peace for humanity (Matt. 11:28-30). So as you read this section, do not miss the forest for the trees. Jesus is making powerful claims about who He is. These claims have eternal ramifications for us and for all who encounter Jesus.
A secondary theme in this text has implications for how we read the Bible, by illustrating the Pharisees’ improper treatment of God’s Word.
- They added to the requirements of the law
- They ignored important exceptions to the law
- They missed the heart and compassion of the law.
We too run the risk of falling into a trap like the Pharisees did. It’s easy for us to come to the Word of God and immediately begin applying what it says to our life. At first glance you might think, “Well, Brian, that’s a good thing, right?” Yes, of course. Applying what the Word says is vital to our Christian growth.
However, if I immediately to how a text applies to my life without considering what the author meant when he wrote it in the original context, I run the risk of applying Phil. 4:12 to an athletic endeavor rather than understanding the meaning of contentment.
In today’s text, the Pharisees looked at Jesus and His disciples and immediately filtered their response through their traditions and the meaning they had imposed on the Law. Jesus exposed this and called them to consider the whole counsel of Scripture and to apply it properly.
When you and I sit down to read the Word, we need to recognize that we are highly prone to make the Bible about us. We are tempted to read the Bible through the lens of our circumstances, traditions, families, etc. To a certain degree, all of these will play a part in how we read the Bible. Ultimately, however, we have to realize that the Bible is God’s Word. It is about Him, His work and how we can be reconciled to Him through Jesus.
If we start our time in His Word with a right perspective on who He is, we will not need to search for ways to add to or change its meaning. Instead, we can read the Word, recognize the meaning that the original author (as inspired and led by the Holy Spirit) intended, and work to apply that in our lives.
Don’t allow your thoughts or feelings to stand over what you read. Don’t ignore parts of Scripture that are tough to understand. Most importantly, don’t miss the heart of the message, the Gospel. Instead, come to the Scripture with an open, humble and prayerful heart. In doing so, you will find Jesus and rest for your soul.
- Read Matthew 11:28–12:14. Why would Jesus’ actions in these verses incite the Pharisees to murderous plotting?
- Re-read vs. 3-8. What does this passage teach us about Jesus’ understanding of Scripture?
- As you read through this passage, consider using a study Bible or talking with your discipleship minister about a good commentary to reference. Learn to study the Scripture by learning more about the original context and meaning.