Did Jesus & His Disciples Break the Sabbath Law?

Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.

He says similiarly in vs. 19, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This is a bold statement since Matthew 12 records that Jesus’ disciples plucked and ate heads of grains on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, upon seeing this, exclaimed that this was “not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (vv. 1-2). They referred to the Law of Moses which prohibited all servile work on the Sabbath (see Exo 20:10, Exo 35:2-3, Num 15:32-36).

Jesus, however, defended His disciples’ actions in this particular incident (Matt 12:3-8). So did Jesus contradict Himself by so doing? Since He had said in Matthew 5:17 that He did not come to “destroy the Law or the Prophets.

There is no contradiction here. Jesus kept the Law PERFECTLY, not once did He break the same. In His lifetime, He permitted the Levitical offerings, and He also attended & celebrated the Jewish feasts (see Matt 8:4, John 7:10, Matt 26:19). The disciples had not broken the Law by eating grain on the Sabbath. However, they had broken the PHARISEES’ Law.

The Pharisees had interpolated a lot of their own interpretation into the Law of Moses. Their rabbinical writings (which gave interpretations to the Law) were common in 1st Century Israel. Jesus oftentimes warned them against imputing their own traditions into God’s Word (Matt 15:1-9). The Pharisees had taken the Sabbath Law to an extreme, prohibiting every form of work on the Sabbath (even eating, bathing etc). This was their own interpretation of Moses’ edicts, and they were wrong!

Although the Law prohibited work on the Sabbath, acts of mercy and necessity were permitted (i.e. there were certain circumstances in which deviating from some laws was allowed). Jesus says justice and mercy were “weightier matters” of the Law (Matt 23:23). This is why Jesus could heal on the Sabbath (Matt 12:9-14, Mark 3:1-5). Any act was permitted (by the Law) which promoted the good of others.

The Pharisees had left these weightier matters (of mercy and justice) and were overly concerned with relatively insignificant issues. Note that the disciples were not harvesting grain (in Matthew 12). That would have been a transgression of Moses’ Law. They simply ate handfuls required for their sustenance (necessity), as they passed through the field. This was permitted under Moses’ Law (see Deut 23:24-25).

Mark’s account of this event includes Jesus saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In Matthew 12, He always says, “…the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (vs. 8).

Jesus’ point is this—the Sabbath Law, though absolute, gave room for acts of kindness and unavoidable situations. Working on the Sabbath was allowed if it meant doing good (such as healing the sick, helping someone who fell in a pit etc) or work which was ABSOLUTELY necessary (such as eating, bathing etc). Therefore, neither Jesus nor His disciples had broken the Sabbath Law.


© Josh Banks Ministries. 2022.


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