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? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day. (Matthew 12:5-8, KJV)
Today we come to a commonly misunderstood passage in Scripture. It is commonly thought that Christ’s coming meant the abrogation of the Sabbath. He is the Lord of the Sabbath and he did that which was not lawful on the Sabbath. Therefore, he was showing that the Sabbath was only a temporary provision for Israel and not to observed in the New Covenant.
While that seems plausible at first glance, it is actually incorrect. Christ came to do away with the ceremonial sabbaths attached to the feast days and sacrifices for sure. However, the 4th commandment to set aside a day as holy has not been abrogated.
What then is happening in this passage?
Christ is showing us that there is more to Sabbath observance than just resting from work. And showing us that the Pharisees put burdens too great to bear upon the people by making acts of necessity and mercy “work”, rather than lawful Sabbath activities.
He does this by way of example. First, his own. He rubs the ears of corn to feed himself. This is hardly backbreaking labor in any sense and does not distract from the duties of Sabbath in any way (honoring God in corporate, family, private worship, and by meditating upon him throughout the day).
Second, the example of David and the showbread, eating that which was only to be eaten by priests (see 1 Sam. 21:1-15). Matthew Poole explains this masterfully, demonstrating that the law of nature and the moral law are of a higher order in such circumstances than a ceremonial law. He writes:
… that which our Saviour produces this for, was to prove a more general proposition, which being proved, the lawfulness of his disciples’ act would easily be inferred from it. That was this: That the letter of a ritual law is not to be insisted upon, where some eminent necessity urges the contrary, in the performance of some natural or moral duty.
The law of nature commandeth every man to feed himself when he is hungry. The moral law confirms this, as it is a means to the observation of the sixth commandment, and especially on the sabbath day, so far as may fit us for the best sanctification of it. The law concerning the shewbread was but a ritual law, and that part of it which restrained the use of it when taken off from the holy table was of lightest concern, as it commanded it should be eaten by the priests only, and by them in the holy place. Where the life, or necessary relief, of men was concerned, the obligation of the ritual law ceased, and that was lawful, both for David and the high priest, which in ordinary cases had not been lawful. Works necessary either for the upholding of our lives, or fitting us for sabbath services, are lawful upon the sabbath day. Though the law concerning the sabbath be a moral law, yet it is jus positivum, not a law natural, but positive, and must be so interpreted as not to destroy the law natural, which commands men to feed themselves; nor yet to destroy itself. The scope and end of it is to be considered, which is the keeping of a day as a day of holy and religious rest. What labour is necessary to such keeping of it is also lawful. The time of the sabbath is not more holy than the shewbread; and as David in a case of necessity might make a common use of that holy bread, so the disciples in a case of like necessity might make use of a little of that holy time, in such necessary servile work as might fit them for their sabbath service. Thus it was lawful by the law of God, and if the Pharisees had not been ignorant, or had understood what they had read, they would never have disputed this, the instance of holy David might have satisfied. So that this little kind of labour could only be a breach of one of their bylaws, by which they pretended to expound the law of God, in which he showeth they had given a false interpretation.
An old proverb goes: “Necessity knows no law.” That is, essentially, the law of nature. Poole is saying that those acts necessary for life and relief and to make the Sabbath fit for worship are lawful; no ceremonial law may “trump” that.
Thirdly, Christ gives the example of the priests in the temple. The priests, in a sense, “worked” throughout the Sabbath. The Jews had a saying that all activities in the temple were holy. But if work was being performed, how was the temple not profaned? Jesus asks this rhetorically, to demonstrates those activities that are lawful on the Sabbath. The priests were making the temple fit for religious worship.
With all of this in mind, consider your own Sabbath observance. Do you recognize it as your moral duty to honor the Lord’s Day? Do you make corporate worship, family worship, and private worship the priority? Do you spend your time on the holy meditation of God in his Word, by talking about the Word preached, by catechizing your children, by abstaining from worldly employment and recreation that distracts from the worship of God?
Finally, do not make the Lord’s Day a superstitious or legalistic observance. Your Sabbath observances, the quality of your family worship, the abstention from recreation, does not justify you to the Father. Only Christ does that. Honor him by showing the sincerity of your faith on your Sabbaths, joyfully setting aside the time for Him and proclaiming His glorious grace.
The world takes so much of our time. We ought to be able to give 1/7th of it as holy to the Lord. Indeed, that is what He asks of us.