Matthew 12:1–5—Did Jesus’ disciples break the Jewish Sabbath law?

Problem: Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Yet Jesus’ disciples deliberately and knowingly picked grain on the Sabbath, thus arousing the ire of the Pharisees by doing “what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:2).

Solution: Jesus kept the OT law perfectly (see comments on Matt. 5:17–18). By eating grain on the Sabbath when hungry, Jesus’ disciples did not break God’s law. However, it did violate the Pharisees’ law. Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for adding their “traditions” (cf. Matt. 5:43 and 15:6) to God’s laws. Deeds of mercy and necessity were permitted on the OT Sabbath. Jesus’ disciples were not harvesting bushels full of grain on the Sabbath. They were merely eating handfuls of it as they passed through the field, which was permitted by OT law (see Deut. 23:25).

Further, as Jesus noted on this occasion, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). He also pointed out that “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). In short, the Sabbath law was not the highest law, for there were “weightier matters” (cf. Matt. 23:23), such as justice and mercy. Jesus, as the Messiah and the Son of God, was not the servant of the Sabbath—He was Lord of it. He made it! And He could (and later did) change it, if He so desired (see comments on Matt. 5:17–18).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.