Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

39. Sabbath Controversy (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5)

The next collision between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding the sabbath took place, according to Luke, on “the second-first sabbath”. The expression is a strange one, and nobody knows for certain what it means. Here are some of the guesses that have been made:

  1. The first sabbath in the second month (but if this, what is the special reason for mentioning the fact?).
  2. The first sabbath in the second year of a septennial, or maybe of a jubilee, cycle.
  3. The Jewish year had two beginnings -- the civil year began on the first day of Tisri, and the religious year six months later on the first day of Nisan. So the “second-first sabbath” may have been the first sabbath after this second beginning.
  4. The special Pentecost sabbath (the Passover sabbath being the first-first sabbath”).
  5. The sabbath which concluded the Feast of in Unleavened Bread, one week after the Passover sabbath (Lev. 23:8).
If this unusual expression implies a different kind of sabbath, then it would be almost conclusive in shutting up the present interpretation to a sabbath additional to the ordinary seven-day cycle, and therefore associated with one of the Feasts (4 or 5).

Also in this catalogue, suggestions 2 and 3 appear to be ruled out by the fact that no harvesting ever began until the wave sheaf of first-fruits barley had been cut on the Passover sabbath. The disciples' plucking of the ears of corn was sure to be interpreted by the Pharisees as reaping, and if the incident had taken place before Passover the ground of their criticism would certainly have been infringement of the law concerning Passover.

So the last suggestion on the list appears to be the most likely, though it has been urged against it that in that case the corn would be barley which, being bearded, would be difficult to rub clean by mere use of the fingers.

Mark's record provides a difficulty of a different kind. Literally translated, his version reads: “His disciples began to make their way, plucking the ears of corn.” Taken at its face value this would seem to mean that the narrow path through the cornfield was overgrown, so the disciples opened it up, at the same time plucking some of the stalks that were in their way. They were evidently so famished (having been too busy that day in the Lord's work to stop for a meal)that they were glad to stave off the pangs of hunger by chewing the barley kernels. Of course they were aware of Pharisee extremism about the sabbath, so presumably Jesus tacitly encouraged them in this.


The Pharisees, who now had Jesus and his followers continually under surveillance, were immediately aware of this, and forthwith went into action. Here Luke, with his phrase “certain of the Pharisees”, may provide the first hint that two differing attitudes towards Jesus were beginning to crystallize out in the ranks of that sect. Only the more fanatical and hostile were involved in this incident.

The criticism was levelled at the disciples, but was addressed to Jesus. Similarly, when Jesus was being found fault with for eating with publicans, that stricture had been expressed to the disciples (Mt. 9:11). It was an obvious disruptive technique.

The Pharisees were not disapproving the plucking of ears of corn. That was explicitly permitted by the Law: “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour's standing corn” (Dt. 23:25). Their censure was because this was done on the sabbath. By their casuistic interpretation, to pluck an ear of corn was reaping, and to rub it in one's hand was threshing. These disciples, staving off the pangs of hunger in this way, were breaking the sabbath!

David and the Shewbread

Jesus was ready with more than adequate defence of their action. When the attack had been against himself, he had roundly declared: “My Father worketh hitherto, and 1 work” (Jn. 5:17). But now his disciples were under fire. So with what may well have been an ironic allusion to the synagogue Bible reading that morning, he countered: “Did ye not read, what David did when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread...?”

This had happened in one of the less creditable periods of David's life when, scared of the mounting persecution of Saul, he went for his life, and was not deterred from misrepresenting to the high-priest at Nob that he was on a secret mission from the king. There, desperate for food, he and the handful of followers with him were accepted as “clean” by Ahimelech and given the shewbread which that very day (the sabbath! Lev. 24:8) had been
changed in the sanctuary (1 Sam. 21 :1-6). Normally this was to be eaten by priests only (Lev. 24:9). Nevertheless the high priest, choosing between a technical infraction of the shewbread commandment and his moral responsibility to help in time of need one whom he knew to be the Lord's anointed, took David into the priest's quarters and gave him the holy bread.

But now here-so Jesus implied-was one greater than David. And the work on which he and his men were engaged was more important than David's “errand”. Also, whereas in Ahimelech's case choice had to be made between an undoubted infraction of a formal precept of the Law and the higher moral duty of offering aid to the Lord's anointed, now it was only the tradition of the elders which was being disregarded-and this by deliberate decision of the High Priest!

But the essential principle behind both incidents was the same. When there is a situation in which the keeping of one commandment involves the breaking of another (and in ordinary life this happens oftener than is generally realised!), the fulfilling of the higher moral responsibility must be given priority.

Abiathar the high priest

Those alert for signs of human fallibility in the gospels, and indeed in Jesus himself, make much of the Lord's allusion to the “days of Abiathar the high priest” (Mk. 2:26), as though he (or Mark) had forgotten that Ahimelech was high priest at the time. Two simple observations constitute adequate reply. First, that the expression means “about the time of Abiathar”. A similar rather elastic usage of the same Greek form comes in Matthew 1:11 “And Josias begat Jeconias and his brethren about the time of the carrying away to Babylon”.

Second, since it is an evident New Testament mode of speech to speak of “David the king” (Mt. 1:6) by anticipation and of “Rahab the harlot” (Heb. 11:31) and “Matthew the publican” (Mt. 10:3) retrospectively at a time when none of these descriptions was strictly correct, so also Abiathar could be called “high priest” proleptically.

But the real reason for the mention of Abiathar rather than Ahimelech lies in the symbolism. Abiathar (“the remnant of my Father”) was the one who let go his loyalty to the sanctuary in order to become a wanderer and an outlaw with David. It was the Lord's way of telling the Pharisees that they were better to exchange their zeal for the temple for the less reputable discipleship of the peripatetic Son of David. However, the appeal was in vain. This was only the beginning of a sustained attack on Jesus, sabbath observance being the stick they used to beat him with.

Priests and the Sabbath

The argument from David, king of Israel, used to rebut the present charge, was now followed up with others from priest and prophet: “Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?”

Here, once again, was the problem of what to do when keeping one commandment involves infringement of another. For the priests on duty in the temple, the Law of Moses had already settled this question. So on the sabbath (with more work on their hands and not less) they went about their duties involving the offering of sacrifice (Num. 28:9) and the baking of the shewbread (1 Chron. 9:32), without any scruple of conscience.

Claims to Greatness

The cool assurance with which Jesus added: “And I say unto you, that in this place is something greater than the temple”, must have amazed and exasperated the Pharisees beyond measure, for the implication was that the work of his disciples that day was a more important activity than anything which went on in the temple.

Jesus could have said: “Here is a Person greater than the temple”, but he didn't. There is a strange variation here in the Lord's declarations regarding himself. At times, nothing could be more forthright than the way in which he asserted point-blank his own divine claims. He could say: “A greater than Jonah is here ... a greater than Solomon is here” (Mt. 12:41, 42), and “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him” (Mt. 11:27).

Yet, at other times: “Go, show John those things which ye do hear and see” (Mt. 11:4). “Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them” (Lk. 17:22). “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Lk. 4:21). “This day is salvation come to this house” (Lk. 19:9). “Messiah cometh ... I that speak unto thee am he” (Jn. 4:26), “The Son of God?...Thou hast seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee” (Jn. 9:37). This variation in emphasis on the importance of his own person is not easy to sort out.

Hosea's Witness

The argument with the Pharisees was rounded off with a scornful citation from the prophet Hosea: “But if ye had known (learned) what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (6:6). It is not that God at any time turned His back on the sincere pious offering of sacrifice. These Pharisees would understand the idiom, even though so many moderns misconstrue it. “I desire mercy rather than sacrifice.”

The historical background to this Hosea quotation is specially intriguing. In the reign of Pekah, the northern kingdom had won a great victory over Judah. The victors joyfully brought home numerous captives and much booty, only to be met by Oded the prophet who roundly denounced their rigour of war: 'These men are your brethren. You will treat them as such, showing all possible mercy.' And they did! All the captives were re-habilitated and escorted back to Jericho on the border of Judah (2 Chr. 28:6-15).

Not for nothing had God hewed wayward Israel by the prophets, demanding mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings. But their goodness proved to be as a morning cloud that goes early away. The added appeal that they “return unto the Lord” fell on deaf ears (Hos. 6:1, 4, 5, 6).

Now, by his Hosea quotation, Jesus was appealing to the Pharisees to see his disciples as brethren to be sustained, helped, and encouraged in their work, and not subjected to pettifogging persecution. Instead, in their infatuated blindness, these Pharisees “condemned the guiltless”. By this phrase Jesus set his disciples as on the level of priests doing service in the temple (Mt. 12:5 RV). Their work was every bit as important, and therefore their sabbath breaking just as licit before God.

Sabbath Principles

Afterwards (see the hint in Mark and Luke) Jesus reinforced this teaching to the disciples themselves: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” But judging from the first mention of it in Genesis 2:2, 3, the sabbath was made by and for God in the first instance. Then the point of this interpretative dictum is surely this, that on the seventh day God broke off His creative work-”rested”, in this sense -- in order that He might enjoy communion with the man and the woman whom He had made. Thus the sabbath was made for man. He was to use it to enjoy God. The seventh day was to be “a sabbath unto the Lord thy God.” It follows, therefore, that any activity furthering that end is permissible and well-pleasing before God.

The Lord's final word on this topic appears to be singularly inconclusive, so markedly inconclusive that some commentators have not hesitated to declare that this saying has got into the gospel in the wrong place: “Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.” Since the whole point of this discourse has been to establish the freedom of his disciples from the pernickety sabbath rules and regulations of the Pharisees, how is it helped by asserting his own superiority to them?

King James' translators have missed the temporal force of the genitive case here: “Lord; on the sabbath “ (see Notes).

The point of this saying is now crystal clear. On the sabbath, as on any other day, the. service of Christ is to be paramount. Even on this holy day, when “doing thine own ways, or! finding thine own pleasure, or speaking thine own words” (Is. 58:13) is an infringement of the commandment, anything that involves service to Christ is valid, for he is Lord on this day as on all the other six. In the early church when so many of the brethren were Jews reared under the Law, such a pronouncement as this was of tremendous importance. It enabled the Jewish Christian to discriminate between the things he could and could not do on the sabbath with a clear conscience. Even on the sabbath Christ was and is Lord, because he is the Son of man, the Messiah (Dan. 7:13).

Notes Matthew 12:1-8 (Mk. 2:23-28; Lk. 6:1-5)

His disciples were an hungred. So a man may be hungry (or otherwise afflicted), and yet not forsaken by Christ.

Ears of corn. Abib (Nisan) means “an ear of corn”.
Not lawful... upon the sabbath day. One rabbinic rule was: “Do not send a letter by a Gentile, lest he deliver it on a sabbath”. A certain rabbi resolved not to have his house repaired because he had fallen to thinking about it on a sabbath.
Have ye not read? Contrast how the Lord defended himself against the same charge: Jn. 5:16, 17. Note that whereas to the multitude he would say: “Ye have heard...” to these learned Pharisees: ‘Go home and read your Bible!’

They that were with him, as his disciples were now with the Son of David.
And did eat, thus implying that Jesus also munched corn with his disciples. Did the Pharisees note that as counterpart to their own hostility there was that of Doeg the Edomite who had evidently been pronounced unclean by the high priest?!

A classic example of conflicting commandments is to be seen in the four infringements of Mosaic law in Hezekiah's Passover (2 Chr. 30): (a) the law of the little Passover was “stretched” (v. 15; Num 9:10, 11); (b) the lambs were slain by Levites (v. 17); (c) the people were unclean (v. 18); (d) the feast was kept for two full weeks (v.23). All four were covered by v. 18- 20.

Which was not lawful. So the Lord is using no sleazy argument that David did that, so we can do this.
In mathematical notation:

Christ > temple (Jn 2:19-21) > sabbath.
And not sacrifice. For explanation of this idiom see Study 35.
Lord of the sabbath day. This AV reading is irrelevant to a defence of disciples. Why is it that so many modern translators also miss the point: “Lord on the sabbath”? Other passages with the same Greek construction: Mt. 24:20; 25:6; Lk. 18:7; 24:1; Jn. 19:39; Gal. 6:17.

Previous Index Next