Matthew 12:1-8 ESV

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.”

  • What does lordship over the Sabbath entail?

  • Was Jesus abolishing the Sabbath? Was he redefining it?

(If the former, was he simply doing away with the Sabbath or did he replace it or fulfill it in some way? If the latter, what are we to see in the redefinition [i.e. before / after]?)


4 Answers 4


Jesus states He is the Lord of the Sabbath. Thayer’s meaning of Lord κύριος: “he to whom a person or thing belongs, about which he has the power of deciding; master, lord; used a. universally, of the possessor and disposer of a thing, the owner.”

When Jesus claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath He was stating that He was owner of the Sabbath; it was His possession; He has the power of deciding and disposing of the Sabbath.

In Matthew 12:1-8 there is nothing to indicate that He was abolishing or redefining the Sabbath.

First, Jesus cites the time in David’s life where he entered the House of God and Ahimelech the priest gave him the bread of the presence:

So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the LORD, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away. (1 Samuel 21:6 NKJV)

David received bread which is replaced every Sabbath:

Every Sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the offerings of the LORD made by fire, by a perpetual statute.” (Leviticus 24:8-9 NKJV)

Ahimelech believed the bread he was giving David was to feed David’s men:

So David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you.’ And I have directed my young men to such and such a place. Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.” (1 Samuel 21:2-3 NKJV)

When Jesus is seen as King, the example may be taken such that Jesus is drawing a comparison of Himself to King David: the disciples ate grain on the Sabbath and David received bread on the Sabbath to feed his men. In reality David was alone; the bread was for him. When the example is seen in this light Jesus is comparing Himself to the priest who gave the bread to David. Just as Ahimelech gave away (on the Sabbath) bread that belonged to the priests, Jesus permitted His disciples to eat grain on the Sabbath.

The connection as priest is the point of the next example Jesus gives:

Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:5-8 ESV)

Jesus rebukes the Pharisee’s for condemning the guiltless. In the example Jesus gives it is the priests who work to maintain the Temple who are “guiltless.” In other words, Jesus understands the Pharisee’s saw Him at fault for allowing His disciples to break the Sabbath. He responded by citing two Old Testament examples. The first is a specific one-time event; the second is a general every Sabbath occurrence. Both connect the priest's actions to the Sabbath.

There is a general lack of understanding of the Sabbath among Christians and that leads to a failure to see the significance of what the New Testament actually says:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath (σάββασιν) … (12:1)

The correct translation is Sabbaths plural not Sabbath singular. Jesus went through the grainfields (plural) on the Sabbaths (plural). While the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees took place on a Sabbath, Matthew begins by saying Jesus was going through grainfields on Sabbaths, just as the priests work in the Temple on the Sabbaths. The plural use in 12:1 means Jesus permitted His disciples to do this on more than one occasion.

Immediately after rebuking the Pharisees Matthew states:

Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—that they might accuse Him. (Matthew 12:9-10 NKJV) [Note Sabbath is plural σάββασιν]

After stating He was the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus went to the synagogue as was the custom for the Jewish people to do on the Sabbath.

What Jesus does makes it difficult (if not impossible) to see His confrontation with the Pharisees as abolishing or redefining the Sabbath. In fact it would seem that by going to the synagogue after He states He is the Lord of the Sabbath, He is showing the Pharisees the proper way to observe the Sabbath, a point He makes in the synagogue:

Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12 NKJV) [Note Sabbath is the plural σάββασιν]

Jesus continues to use the plural Sabbaths. This is additional evidence that He is not changing the Sabbath. He heals a man on a Sabbath while stating it is lawful to heal on the Sabbaths. Jesus is making a statement that applies to future Sabbaths. The conclusion I reach is that what should take place in the future is consistent with what Jesus has done Himself in the past: observe the Sabbath on the Sabbaths.


The Law (Ex. 20:8-11)

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

What we must remember is at the beginning of this Chapter(vss 1-2)

And God spake all these words, saying, 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

These words were spoken in the hearing of All Israel who were at Mt. Sinai; the words following were those that God spoke to Moses. Also, if that weren't enough, God wrote these 10 Sayings on the 2 tablets of stone that Moses brought up the mountain with him:(Ex. 34:1)

And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.

So He wrote them twice, lest they forgot the 1st time.

One must be very clear when understanding this commandment:(Num. 23:19)

God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

God both spoke and wrote this commandment with His own finger, and He intended this commandment to be obeyed the same as "Thou shalt not kill(do no murder)", and "Thou shalt not steal". His intention was for All Men to obey this commandment, as well as the other 9 commandments.

Lord of the Sabbath

(Matt. 12:8)

κύριος γάρ ἐστιν καί τοῦ σαββάτου ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου(Lord indeed is of the Sabbath the son of the man-Interlinear/TR Stephanus).

To properly understand this phrase, it's necessary to understand "שַׁבָּ֥ת הִוא֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה"(sabbath of the Lord-Lev. 23:3). Lev: 23:3 says,

Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings.

It is: 1) A Day of Rest from one's occupational labor.

   2) A Day of Assembly-Israel came together for worship, prayer, and the
      reading and expounding of the Law.                                        

Indicated in the reading of Ex. 20:8 is the Blessing of the Lord is on the Sabbath, therefore, His Special Blessing is on those who honor it. In Mark 2:22, the parallel passage, Jesus says in vs 27,

And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:

The Sabbath was intended by the Lord to be a blessing to man; not only were his needs to be met(Israel had a double portion of manna the day before the Sabbath-Ex. 16:29), but he was to meet in assembly with the Lord. This is the True Rest of the Sabbath; Paul makes this point in Heb. 4:8-11,

For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day. 9 There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. 10 For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. 11 Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.

So, from this passage we can see that the pattern of Sabbath rest was meant to be continued, it was not abolished when Jesus came.

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

From the previous passages quoted, it is clear Jesus was not abolishing the Sabbath, nor was He 're-defining it' to make it palatable to future generations. It has and will always remain:

1) A day in which we cease from our labors(Heb. 4:10)

2) A day in which we assemble to worship(Heb. 10:25, Acts 1:4, 2:42, 20:7)

What Jesus is making clear for the scribes and Pharisees is, "What is work". Jesus, in John 5:17,

But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.

Jesus healed a man by the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath day; the Pharisees, seeing the man carrying his bed, accused him of violating the Sabbath, then finding out that Jesus told him to "...take up your bed and walk", were even more furious with Him, wanting to kill Him. So when Jesus says,"...My Father works and I work", it is clear that "work" doesn't mean the same thing to Jesus(and the Father) that it does to the scribes and Pharisees. Healing a man on the Sabbath, does not constitute 'work' outlined in the Law, nor does "doing good". Mark 3:4 says,

“And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace.”

He says even further,(Luke 13:15)

"The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering?

And again(Luke 14:5),

And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?

The scribes and Pharisees themselves were hypocritical in observing the Sabbath, for while they accused the disciples of picking corn and wheat and feeding themselves on the Sabbath, they themselves would feed and water their animals and even pull one out of a pit on the Sabbath. Jesus didn't 'bend the Law' to accomodate His disciples; rather, the scribes and Pharisees "condemned the guiltless", by accusing His disciples of feeding themselves.

If therefore, to do good and not evil is the intended purpose of the Sabbath, and Jesus(the son of man) is the Lord of the Sabbath, then therefore to obey Jesus is honoring the Sabbath. This is an important understanding to have; in the Old Testament, the exceptions were spelled out(priests in their ministering duties, care for the sick, children, etc). The Sabbath was meant to "give life", and to "enter into His rest(Heb. 4:11)" is to enter fully into the life of God. The Gentile believers were free from the observances of the Law of Moses(not the 10 commandments-everyone is)(Acts 15), therefore all the admonitions of what constituted properly obeying the Sabbath in the Old Testament(doing of housework, cutting wood, preparation of meals, etc) are non-binding for the Gentile believer.

What is important for all is obeying the spirit of the commandment. Jesus says in Matt. 5:20,

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

He then goes on to describe that the sin of murder(Thou shalt not kill) even includes calling your brother a fool; and adultry(Thou shalt not commit adultry) includes looking upon a woman to lust. Therefore, mere outward observance of the Sabbath is insuficient, a "striving to enter the rest of the Lord(Heb. 4:11)" in which spirit, soul and body are participating is what is meant in keeping the Lord's Sabbath. Since Jesus is "Lord of the Sabbath", our focus is no longer fulfilling an obligational requirement, but "abiding in Him"(John 15:4). Charles H. Spurgeon says,

Living near to Jesus, thou art covered with the wings of God, and underneath thee are the everlasting arms. Let nothing keep thee from that hallowed intercourse, which is the choice privilege of a soul wedded to THE WELL-BELOVED. Be not content with an interview now and then, but seek always to retain His company, for only in His presence hast thou either comfort or safety. Jesus should not be unto us a friend who calls upon us now and then, but one with whom we walk evermore. - See more at: http://jasonkallen.com/2013/08/lords-day-meditations-abide-in-me-by-charles-h-spurgeon/#sthash.aCyIwbK3.dpuf

Jesus fully expects that we take our "rest" in Him; assembling with the saints on the Lord's Day(Heb. 10:25),

Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching,

and abiding in Him,(Matt. 11:28)

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

We were meant to cease from OUR labor:(Heb. 4:10)

For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his,

and yet DO the works Christ,(John 6:29)

Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

This is not a mere mental assent; He preached, healed, cast out demons, fed the multitudes, and exorted His disciples to do likewise(John 14:12),

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

We are "free" from the legalistic requirements of the Law(Saturday-sundown to sundown, and the various prohibitions described in the Law) so that we can "keep the Sabbath" as it was Originally Intended: A day where we "cease" from our labor so we can more fully enter into the rest of Christ. This is what Jesus meant when He said,"I am the Lord of the Sabbath".


So, to answer the OP's questions, 1) Jesus never abolished the Sabbath, nor did He re-define it. He explained what "work" meant, and what it didn't mean. 2) By saying "I am the Lord of the Sabbath", everything about the Sabbath is in deference to Him. The object of the Sabbath is to enter into His rest, and do His works. To abstain from our own labor is but one element of keeping the Sabbath, the other is "Abiding in Him", doing those things that bring life to ourselves and those around us.


The Sabbath was the time of worship. The Temple was the place of worship. Both were pointers, milestones along the way, directing us to the eventual worship that is done in Spirit & truth (John 4).

Note that the passage starts with a question of the Sabbath, but Jesus cites first a violation of the Temple, and second the work of the Temple. Then he asserts that he is greater than the Temple, and finally, also Lord of the Sabbath.

He is intertwining Temple and Sabbath, the place and time of worship. These were symbols that pointed to his eventual fulfillment of the Law's true intent: the right worship of God.

And so worship is no longer restricted geographically, that is: we can worship in all places. And worship is no longer restricted chronologically, we can worship at all times. This is the Kingdom of God, authentic worship, in all places and at all times.

Much of my understanding of the Sabbath is informed by my study of the Pentateuch, and by N. T. Wright's teaching, particularly his chapter "Case Study: Sabbath" in his book Scripture and the Authority of God.

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The meaning of the "Lord of the Sabbath" saying is best understood by examining the response of the Pharisees and enemies of the Lord after He proclaimed His Lordship of that day.

But before we get that, let's summarize the events leading up to that proclamation. It will help us appreciate the depth of Christ's statement.

Beginning from Matthew 12:1: Jesus and His disciples are walking to the synagogue when the Pharisees begin to criticize Jesus for the conduct of his disciples. The Pharisees charged them with breaking the Sabbath by plucking heads of grain and eating them. The eating of grain was lawful according to Dt. 23:25.

Deut 23:25 When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the ears with your hand; but you shall not move a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.

The Pharisees were doctors in the commandments of man, not of the Word of God. There was nothing written in the law of Moses that forbade the disciples eating of grain. It was simply a smear campaign. Jesus later charged them with hypocrisy and making their own laws.

Mat 15:7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, Mat 15:8 ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. Mat 15:9 And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.’

In Matt 12:3 Jesus recalls to his listener's memory David's eating of the show-bread found in 1 Sam 21, and the priest's temple work done on the Sabbath per Num 28:9, Lev 24:5 (see also Jn 7:22-23). These two biblical examples of mercy and necessity reflect in the Lords statement that they did not understand the passage found in Hosea 6:6:

Hos 6:6 For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. .

In other words, the Law of Moses was not an end unto itself. The law's purpose was to bring man into rightful knowledge of God and the need of a savior. Consider King David, a type of the Lord Jesus, who made provisions to feed his famished men. And the temple priest who worked on the Sabbath sacrificing animals per the necessity of the law of God. Here's with the Lord of the Sabbath said in Mark 2:27:

Mar 2:27 He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

And consider the Lord's words on Sabbath work found in John 5:17-18:

Joh 5:17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, so I am working, too.” Joh 5:18 For this cause therefore the Jews sought all rhe more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

This proclamation of His deity must have stunned His critics.

Excuse my wordiness, but I think considering those verses helps in understanding one of the key verses in Chapter 12 (12:6), and it shed light in how we understand the Pharisees plot to accuse Jesus in 12:10.

In Matt 12:6, Jesus told the Pharisees that someone greater than the temple was in their presense. As you dwell on that, Please condider the notes on this verse found in the JFB Bible Commentary. It's outstanding.

But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple — or rather, according to the reading which is best supported, “something greater.” The argument stands thus: “The ordinary rules for the observance of the sabbath give way before the requirements of the temple; but there are rights here before which the temple itself must give way.” Thus indirectly, but not the less decidedly, does our Lord put in His own claims to consideration in this question - claims to be presently put in even more nakedly. (JFB Commenatary)

The requirements of the temple were not swayed by the laws of the Sabbath. Jesus, the true temple (Jn. 2:19), has the authority to do with the Law and the Sabbath as He pleases. He spoke with directness and authority with word's such as: "But I say unto you" as found in the Sermon on the Mount; and He's says in Matthew 28 "All authority has been given unto me in heaven and on earth."

The authoritative tone Jesus used in Matthew 12 caused the Pharisees to question Him healing a man with a withered hand (Matt 12:10). Again Jesus' argument rested on mercy and necessity.

In closing.

Matthew's gospel presents Jesus as the law giver better than Moses. In fact, the book's theme beginning with a ruler's attempt on His life, from calling out of Egypt, to the baptism and the wilderness and giving of law on the mount (Matt 5-7) was written to mirror the ministry and life of Moses. When Jesus said He is Lord of the Sabbath He meant he can do with the Sabbath's requirements as He sees fit. This is a right only God has, not unrighteous Pharisees. The Lord chose not to punish David when He partook of the show-bread reserved only for priests. Why? Necessity and mercy. It's very fitting that Jesus relates Himself to David because He is his greater Son. And Jesus highlighted the work of priests Sabbath work in the temple because of necessity and its pointing to the work done by the Lamb of God, the ultimate and final sacrifice.

The Sabbath required no redefining, although it was truly fulfilled in Christ. I hope this answer helps you in understanding how it was fulfilled.

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