Harmony of the Gospels

 Harmony of the Gospels

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En Route to Galilee
(13) Plucked Corn Precipitates Sabbath Controversy
(Deuteronomy 5:14) Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5


Throughout His ministry, Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath laws, and it is true that He broke them.  They were part of the old covenant that God made with Israel.  He had come to bring a new covenant based on grace.  He broke the Sabbath laws and the disciples followed His example.  He healed on the Sabbath and He worked and traveled on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath debate still rages today.  There is disagreement over which day should be observed, Saturday or Sunday, and what activities should and should not be done.  I, for one, am put-off by theological discussions, and sermons.  I believe that they take away from the simplicity of the Gospel.  The word of God is very simple, because God has made the important issues easy to understand.  I find that too many people spend too much time discussing doctrine and too little time giving out the Gospel.

The event that we are going to look at here occurred on the Sabbath.  Again, Jesus brought the anger of the religious rulers to bear on Himself, and His disciples, because they broke the Sabbath laws.  This will be a good place to look at those laws and at the New Testament scriptures dealing with the Sabbath.  I have already expressed my opinion concerning the Sabbath, so I will present those scriptures that support my beliefs.

Matthew, Mark and Luke report this event.


From this point, there will be open conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus.  In the beginning they were friendly with Him, but now they break with Him over the issue of the Sabbath.  Satan is on the side line, urging the Pharisees on.  The Kingdom of God is now waging a relentless war against Satan.  Satan does not keep the Sabbath, so neither does Jesus.

At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. (Matthew 12:1)

Notice that it was the disciples that were breaking the Sabbath laws.  But why were they doing it?  They were hungry.  And why were they hungry?  It was because they were following Jesus.  This is another sign of the poverty of Jesus.  Remember what He said to the young man who wanted to follow Him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)  Jesus must defend His disciple’s actions, and this is where the break with the religious rulers occurs.

But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. (Matthew 12:2)

The Pharisees confronted Jesus and blamed Him for His disciples breaking the Sabbath.

But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; (Matthew 12:3)

Jesus’ reply takes the Pharisees to the scriptures and back into their own history.  The event that is referred to is recorded 1 Samuel 21:1-5, “Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David, and said unto him, Why art thou alone, and no man with thee?  And David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business, and hath said unto me, Let no man know any thing of the business whereabout I send thee, and what I have commanded thee: and I have appointed my servants to such and such a place.  Now therefore what is under thine hand? give me five loaves of bread in mine hand, or what there is present.  And the priest answered David, and said, There is no common bread under mine hand, but there is hallowed bread; if the young men have kept themselves at least from women.  And David answered the priest, and said unto him, Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days, since I came out, and the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in a manner common, yea, though it were sanctified this day in the vessel.”  It was during the days when David had been rejected as king and while Saul was still reining.  In a similar manner, Jesus was being rejected as king, because His claim to be the Messiah had not been acknowledged.  David took care of His men, although it meant breaking the Mosaic Law, and now Jesus will take care of His men regardless of the Sabbath restrictions.

How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?  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? (Matthew 12:4-5)

He presented a technical point here.  He said that the priests worked on the Sabbath day.  But the temple service could not be carried out unless the priests worked on the Sabbath.  For that reason, they are exempted from the Sabbath restrictions. 

The fourth commandment is the one concerning the Sabbath.  Moses had this to say about this commandment in Deuteronomy, “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, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.” (Deuteronomy 5:14)  When the Jews were given the Ten Commandments, this particular commandment was looking into their future.  At that time they did not have any servants, and they had few animals and possessions.  These things would wait 40 years, until after they had entered into the Promised Land.  It is clear, however, that God had declared that there should be no work of any kind done on the Sabbath day.

It is interesting to note that all of the commandments are repeated in the New Testament, with the exception of the one pertaining to the Sabbath day.  Why?  It is because the Sabbath was not given to the church.  The church has always met on the first day of the week, because that is the day that Christ rose from the dead.  We are saved by Christ’s blood and death, but they had a covenant with God, though it did not save, it covered over their sin, and it was based on keeping the law and making the proper sacrifices.  They were also saved by Christ’s blood and death.  The Sabbath has always had a peculiar relation to the nation Israel.  In the book of Exodus God said, “Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.” (Exodus 31:13)  The Sabbath was given to Israel.

In Exodus 20, the children of Israel were told to observe the Sabbath, because in six days God had created heaven and earth.  Here in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is meant to show a particular relationship between God and the Israelites.  So why was the Israelite to keep the Sabbath day?  Because he had been a slave in Egypt and God brought him out by great power.

In Luke 13:15 it says, “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?”  Jesus knew men and He could see into their hearts.  These men who claimed to keep the Sabbath and made that such an important issue, were in reality hypocrites, because they did not keep the Sabbath either.  What Jesus would say latter is “If a beast can be released from confinement on the Sabbath to be watered, how much more can a man be delivered from the bondage of evil?”  He would also remind them that any one of them would rescue their ox, if it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath.  His accusers did not keep the Sabbath, so He called them hypocrites.

But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. (Matthew 12:6)

Jesus wanted them to understand that He is the Son of God and that God lived in Him even more fully than He lived in the temple.  By this He claimed superiority over the temple, which was to them the holy center of their religious life.  As far as the Pharisees were concerned, this was blasphemy.  He not only broke the Sabbath, but now He had blasphemed.

But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:7)

When Jesus said, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice”, He was quoting from Hosea 6:6, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  Men are saved because God is merciful, not because they do good works, or because they make sacrifices or because they live by the Sermon on the Mount.  He is giving them a new ethic to think about.  If they want to be saved, they will have to turn to Him in faith and receive His mercy.

Our Lord now defends His men by saying that they did not break the Sabbath day.  Why? 

For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day. (Matthew 12:8)

I don’t believe that He could have said anything that would have angered the Pharisees more.  This was their most sacred day and they loved to keep the Sabbath laws.  They had added many rules and regulations to keep people from breaking the Sabbath.  This was an affront that they could not overlook.  Now He must be stopped.


And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. (Mark 2:23)

If it was not corn fields that they were in, then they were probably walking through grain fields, and it may have been barley or wheat that they were plucking and eating.  The Pharisees accused them of harvesting grain and threshing it on the Sabbath.  In Deuteronomy 23:24-25, the law allowed people to pull the grain, “When thou comest into thy neighbour's vineyard, then thou mayest eat grapes thy fill at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel.  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.”  This was God’s welfare system.  It was legal to pick grain and eat it, but you couldn’t sack it up and take any home with you.  So the disciples were following the law, because they picked the grain by hand, and did not use a sickle to cut it down.  However, the Pharisees put their own interpretation on this, and accused them of breaking the law.

And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?  And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? (Mark 2:24-25)

Jesus refused to argue with them about whether or not His disciples broke the law.  Instead, He refers them to an incident in the life of David, where he had definitely broken the Mosaic Law, and was justified.  You see, the letter of the law was not to be imposed on a servant of God, if it would cause a hardship for him.

How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?  And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath. (Mark 2:26-28)

Jesus stated two great principles here.  The first is that the law was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.  The second is that He is Lord of the Sabbath.  Actually, when we worship on Sunday it should be called the Lord’s Day, not the Sabbath.  Remember, we are not under the Mosaic system concerning the Sabbath, because it was a part of the covenant between the nation Israel and God.  “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,  Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.  Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.  Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.  Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.  It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. (Exodus31:12-17)


And it came to pass on the second sabbath after the first, that he went through the corn fields; and his disciples plucked the ears of corn, and did eat, rubbing them in their hands.  And certain of the Pharisees said unto them, Why do ye that which is not lawful to do on the sabbath days?  And Jesus answering them said, Have ye not read so much as this, what David did, when himself was an hungred, and they which were with him; How he went into the house of God, and did take and eat the shewbread, and gave also to them that were with him; which it is not lawful to eat but for the priests alone?  And he said unto them, That the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath. (Luke 6:1-5)

At least six times in the Gospels, He was criticized by the Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath laws.  It was not God’s commandment that they were concerned about, it was the added laws and regulations that the Pharisees used to interpret the Sabbath commandment.  It was these kinds of regulations that irritated Jesus.  He felt that the detailed laws that were added to the commandment actually nullified the reason why God gave it.  So our Lord said that it was legitimate to do certain necessary acts of mercy on the Sabbath day.

If Christians were expected to observe the Sabbath as outlined in the Old Testament it is strange that nowhere does Paul mention such a mandate in his epistles.  Surely, among all the churches that he wrote to, there would have been one that would have had some believers who were Sabbath breakers.  But instead of commanding people to keep it, he actually does the opposite: in several passages Paul explicitly states that no person should judge another by their response to the Sabbath.  For example, in Colossians 2:16 it says, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:”  He thought that no Christian should judge another by whether or not they keep the feasts and Sabbath days.  And in Romans 14:5, he wrote, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”  By this he is saying that every believer should make up his own mind about this issue.  However, he should look to God’s word and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit before deciding.

The early church took a day of rest and reflection, and to it they added the third purpose, and that is rejoicing.  This was a time to commemorate what Christ had done; it was a time of blessing and the coming together of God’s people.

The regulations of the Old Testament Sabbath are not transferred to Sunday.  For example, “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3)  The teaching here is that there is to be no fire lit on the Sabbath.  That would be very difficult to carry out in Western cultures.  But there were other regulations as well: they could not gather manna, “Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.” (Exodus 16:26); they could only travel a certain distance, “See, for that the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” (Exodus 16:29); etc.  These could not be transferred to us today.  With regard to the Sabbath, Paul’s response would be that we should not judge each other in this matter.

It is our responsibility to remember the “Lord’s Day”.  And what should characterize it?  It should be a time of worship and rest, but also a time of rejoicing.  It’s that time when we gather together as God’s people to celebrate our Lord’s victory on the cross.  This type of day is a spiritual and physical necessity.


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