Another Sabbath Controversy

Written by Pastor James Dorman

Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28 & Luke 6:1-5

1. Thoughts from Matthew, Mark and Luke:

Matthew 12:1–8 (NIV84)   “At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Mark 2:23–28 (NIV84)  “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Luke 6:1–5 (NIV84)   “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. 2 Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

3 Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 5 Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” 

2. Passage Outline

Keep the Sabbath Holy?

Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28 & Luke 6:1-5

I. Disciples Glean the Fields on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1; Mk. 2:23; Lk. 6:1)

II. Pharisees Attack this Action (Matt. 12:2; Mk. 2:24; Lk. 6:2)

III. Jesus’ Defense (Matt. 12:3-5; Mk. 2:25-26; Lk. 6:3-4)

a. The Example of David (Matt. 12:3-4; Mk. 2:25-26; Lk. 6:3-4)
b. The Example of the Priests (Mt. 12:5)
c. The New Master & Law of the Sabbath Established (Mt. 12:6-8; Mk. 2:27-28; Lk. 6:5)

3. Information to Consider

II. Commentary – The Savior’s Call to Faith (Part II)

MAIN IDEA: Faith follows evidences of divine power and authority, not human traditions and institutions.

 a. The Authority to Follow: Lord of the Sabbath (6:1–5)

SUPPORTING IDEA: Jesus has God’s power and authority over all human institutions and traditions.

6:1. Ever on the move, Jesus and his followers trudged through a grainfield one day. Almost subconsciously, the disciples began picking off a few grains, rubbing them in their hands to remove the husks, and snacking on the kernels.

6:2. The Pharisees made no allowance for subconscious acts. They held you responsible for anything you did that related to their law in any way. And what would not relate to the voluminous oral interpretations they collected and enforced? The shameful disciples were reaping, threshing, and preparing food, all on the holy day of rest.

6:3–4. The disciples acted; Jesus took responsibility. Following his pattern of response, he found scriptural proof for his defense in 1 Samuel 21:6. David satisfied the needs of his hungry army with bread that only priests were supposed to eat (note Lev. 24:5–9). Perhaps one could see David as the Lord’s anointed qualified to be the nation’s religious leader, but he also gave some to his companions. The Book of Samuel defends this action on grounds that they were entering holy-war battle and had sanctified themselves, but still they were not priests in the line of Aaron. David simply put human need above ritual law. God’s priest cooperated with him.

6:5. Jesus’ pronouncement gave the reason for telling this story. Scriptural precedent shows that human need ranks above ritual law in God’s sight. If this is true for common soldiers, how much more for the Son of Man? Jesus is Lord or Master of the Sabbath. What implications were behind such a statement? The Pharisees surely did not miss this point. Only God could make such a claim. Jesus, the Son of Man, identified himself also as Son of God with divine authority. Such an authority makes the law and cannot be accused of breaking it. Such an authority forces people to choose: follow pharisaic interpretations of the law or follow the Lord of the Sabbath.”[1]

 4. Questions to Ponder

a. Were the Disciples stealing the grain? (Mt. 12:1; cf Dt. 23:25)

b. Was Abiathar the High Priest at that time? (Mk. 2:26; cf 1 Sam. 21:1-6

c. State and explain the four points of defense of harvesting the grain on the Sabbath.

5. Author’s Comments

                 I grew up in a military home and often spent time in a military environment.  These experiences imprinted an approach to life where rules and structure is where I often go over needs, personal emotions and desires.  So, when I read through these type of passages, I realize my first approach to these types of situations would be more like the Pharisees rather than Jesus.

Over the years of growing as a Christian and serving as a Pastor to our people, I have found myself having to learn a better approach to situations like these as they come up in my life and ministry.

The principle Jesus reveals in this passage is:  human needs are more important than ceremonial law and cultural expectations.  In other words, when participation in sin is not involved, personal needs and relationships are to be valued above adherence to Christian culture or ceremonial laws.

Over the years this has not been easy for me and I still find it to be a struggle to overcome my initial responses, but as God has guided me to pursue the principle revealed to us by His Son, I have been able to grow in my ability to honor relationships over rules and regulations.  A pathway I pray God allows you to pursue, as well!    

6. Closing Prayer


Thank You for the guidance You have provided us through Your Word, our Christian Heritage, and our Christian Culture.  They are vital to our understanding and comprehension of the Christian life we are actively pursuing.

As we pursue this great adventure, may we treasure the relationships so essential to our lives.  Allow us to pursue our Christian endeavor with grace and respect for those we love.

In Jesus’ Name,


7. Answers to “Questions to Ponder”

a. The Pharisees were not objecting to the gleaning of the grain, but were upset about its being harvested on the Sabbath.  The gleaning of the grain was allowed by the Law and still practiced by hungry travelers making their way through Palestine.

b. He was the High Priest recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1-6.  The transcribers may have confused Abiathar with Alimelech.  The action sighted was not by Alimelech, but David.

c. (1) The Example of David – This was a clear case of need. This type of behavior had justification in the precepts of the Rabbi’s that “danger to life” superseded the Sabbath Law and all other obligations. (2) The Example of the Priests – Ceremonial Law was put aside under certain conditions.  The priests were profaning the Law of the Sabbath but were considered guiltless. (3) The Prophets – Hosea 6:6 … God desires kindness and good will in men rather than punctilious observance of traditional rules. (4) The Original Purpose of the Sabbath – The Sabbath was made by God for man and the institution of the Sabbath was not to take precedence over the Godly creation of man.


[1] Butler, T. C. (2000). Luke (Vol. 3, p. 90). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.