Did Jesus Condone Law-breaking?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
The Pharisees certainly did not think that the Son of God was beyond reproach. Following Jesus’ feeding of the four thousand, they came “testing” Him, asking Him to show them a sign from heaven (Matthew 16:1). Later in the gospel of Matthew (19:3ff.), the writer recorded how “the Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ ” It was their aim on this occasion, as on numerous other occasions, to entangle Jesus in His teachings by asking Him a potentially entrapping question—one that, if answered in a way that the Pharisees had anticipated, might bring upon Jesus the wrath of Herod Antipas (cf. Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29) and/or some of His fellow Jews (e.g., the school of Hillel, or the school of Shammai). A third time the Pharisees sought to “entangle Him in His talk” (Matthew 22:15) as they asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (22:17). The jealous and hypocritical Pharisees were so relentless in their efforts to destroy the Lord’s influence that on one occasion they even accused Jesus’ disciples of breaking the law as they “went through the grainfields on the Sabbath…were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat” (Matthew 12:1ff.). [NOTE: “Their knowledge of so trifling an incident shows how minutely they observed all his deeds” (Coffman, 1984, p. 165). The microscopic scrutiny under which Jesus lived, likely was even more relentless than what some “stars” experience today. In one sense, the Pharisees could be considered the “paparazzi” of Jesus’ day.] Allegedly, what the disciples were doing on this particular Sabbath was considered “work,” which the Law of Moses forbade (Matthew 12:2; cf. Exodus 20:9-10; 34:21).
Jesus responded to the criticism of the Pharisees by giving the truth of the matter, and at the same time revealing the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. As was somewhat customary for Jesus when being tested by His enemies (cf. Matthew 12:11-12; 15:3; 21:24-25; etc.), He responded to the Pharisees’ accusation with two questions. First, He asked: “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” (12:3-4). Jesus reminded the Pharisees of an event in the life of David (recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1ff.), where he and others, while fleeing from king Saul, ate of the showbread, which divine law restricted to the priests (Leviticus 24:5-9). Some commentators have unjustifiably concluded that Jesus was implying innocence on the part of David (and that God’s laws are subservient to human needs—cf. Zerr, 1952, 5:41; Dummelow, 1937, p. 666), and thus He was defending His disciples “lawless” actions with the same reasoning. Actually, however, just the opposite is true. Jesus explicitly stated that what David did was wrong (“not lawful”—12:4), and that what His disciples did was right—they were “guiltless” (12:7). Furthermore, as J.W. McGarvey observed: “If Christians may violate law when its observance would involve hardship or suffering, then there is an end to suffering for the name of Christ, and an end even of self-denial” (1875, p. 104). The disciples were not permitted by Jesus to break the law on this occasion (or any other) just because it was convenient (cf. Matthew 5:17-19). The Pharisees simply were wrong in their accusations. The only “law” Jesus’ disciples broke was the Pharisaical interpretation of the law (which seems to have been more sacred to the Pharisees than the law itself). In response to such hyper-legalism, Burton Coffman forcefully stated:
In the Pharisees’ view, the disciples were guilty of threshing wheat! Such pedantry, nit-picking, and magnification of trifles would also have made them guilty of irrigating land, if they had chanced to knock off a few drops of dew while passing through the fields! The Pharisees were out to “get” Jesus; and any charge was better than none (1984, p. 165, emp. added).
Jesus used the instruction of 1 Samuel 21 to get the Pharisees to recognize their insincerity, and to justify His disciples. David, a man about whom the Jews ever boasted, blatantly violated God’s law by eating the showbread, and yet the Pharisees justified him. On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples merely plucked some grain on the Sabbath while walking through a field, an act that the law did not forbid, and yet the Pharisees condemned them. Had the Pharisees not approved of David’s conduct, they could have responded by saying, “You judge yourself. You’re all sinners.” Their reaction to Jesus’ question, however, was that of hypocrites who had been exposed—silence.
Jesus then asked a second question, saying, “Have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?” (Matthew 12:5). Here, Jesus wanted the Pharisees to acknowledge that even the law itself condoned some work on the Sabbath day. Although the Pharisees acted as if all work was banned on this day, it was actually the busiest day of the week for priests.
They baked and changed the showbread; they performed sabbatical sacrifices (Num. xxviii. 9), and two lambs were killed on the sabbath in addition to the daily sacrifice. This involved the killing, skinning, and cleaning of the animals, and the building of the fire to consume the sacrifice. They also trimmed the gold lamps, burned incense, and performed various other duties (McGarvey, n.d., pp. 211-212).
One of those “other duties” would have been to circumcise young baby boys when the child’s eighth day fell on a Sabbath. The purpose of Jesus citing these “profane” priestly works was to prove that the Sabbath prohibition was not unconditional. [NOTE: Jesus used the term “profane,” not because there was a real desecration of the temple by the priests as they worked, but “to express what was true according to the mistaken notions of the Pharisees as to manual works performed on the Sabbath” (Bullinger, 1898, p. 676).] The truth is, the Sabbath law “did not forbid work absolutely, but labor for worldly gain. Activity in the work of God was both allowed and commanded” (McGarvey, n.d., p. 212). Coffman thus concluded: “Just as the priests served the temple on the Sabbath day and were guiltless, his [Jesus’—EL] disciples might also serve Christ, the Greater Temple, without incurring guilt” (p. 167). Just as the priests who served God in the temple on the Sabbath were totally within the law, so likewise were Jesus’ disciples as they served the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8), Whose holiness was greater than that of the temple (12:6).
Bullinger, E.W. (1898), Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968 reprint).
Coffman, Burton (1984), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Dummelow, J.R. (1937), One Volume Commentary (New York: MacMillan).
McGarvey, J.W. (n.d.), The Fourfold Gospel (Cincinnati, OH: Standard).
McGarvey, J.W. (1875), Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight AR: Gospel Light).
Zerr, E.M. (1952), Bible Commentary (Raytown, MO: Reprint Publications).