Matthew 12: 1-8 Exegetical Study. Mercy & the Sabbath.

I enjoyed doing this brief exegetical 1,200 word outline for Matthew 12:1-8 (ESV). I hope it blesses someone.

Matthew 12: 1-8 Themes:

A) Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.

B) The Lord made the Sabbath for man. He is to do good by showing mercy and also by receiving mercy.

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. [B]

Introductory Statement

Based on Matthew 10-11, Jesus’ 12 disciples (recently appointed out of his many disciples) had just been sent out on their first evangelistic mission to proclaim the good news of the kingdom with signs and wonders.[1] There they relied on charity for sustenance because the Master had stated that the laborer is deserving of his food.[2] These 12 men were truly in need of sabot (Hebrew for repose or rest[3]).

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.”


Plucking grain was considered work by these Pharisees, but according to the Talmud, so was walking over 2,000 paces.[4] These Pharisees had most likely exceeded their pace limit by following Jesus around. Note that the Pharisees made the statement “Look [!]”, they did not question why. It would seem that enforcing the outward keeping of their own contextualization of tradition was more important than seeking to understand Jesus’ disciples’ motives.

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? [B]


Jesus finds familiar and common ground with his opposition in David. Jesus did not come breaking the written Torah’s commandments or disregarding the prophets or OT wisdom. He will freely and unapologetically quote Moses, David, or any other person the Pharisees hold dear because he ministers and moves in the same principles. The Pharisees taking offense to Jesus’ ministry shows how far removed from the principles behind the law they had become.

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.  [A] [B]

“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.”[5]

If the requirements of the temple take precedence over the observance of the Sabbath, surely Jesus’ ministry takes precedence as well. Yet Jesus is not just defending himself, but his disciples. Perhaps Jesus is alluding to the upcoming priesthood of all saints, not just the few of the house of Levi. If the priests could work on the Sabbath as ministers of God, Jesus, as our high priest, had even more of a right to work; and not Jesus only, but all those who carry the temple of God in them. Ordinary men—both Jew and Gentile—would be priests of the most high God through Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.

7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. [B]


This is Christ’s second warning that they should understand this phrase, the first being Matt 9:13. No other gospel includes these two phrases. Matthew’s third and final warning to practice mercy comes in chapter 23 during the 8 woes.

The law’s principles takes precedence over its rituals.[6] The Sabbath was an act of mercy for both man and beast. It gave them much needed rest each week. [7] The disciples had spent much of their time extending mercy in the form of kingdom preaching. Could they not satisfy their hunger? Is the laborer not worthy of his wages?[8] “Any religious law that is contrary to mercy and the care of nature should be looked on with suspicion.”[9] When mercy is removed from the life of a Christian, vain sacrifice, penance and accusations can take its place. Moses exhorts Israel to keep the Sabbath because they were slaves in the land of Egypt.[10] The Sabbath is truly a time for man to give mercy and receive God’s mercy.

8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” [A]

Jesus affirms equality with God, for God had established the Sabbath.[11] This is a reminder to everyone then and now that everything Jesus did and said is fully backed by God. Any rule or regulation that would hinder imitating what Christ did when he walked this earth must be discarded.

Life Application

How seemingly easy to fall into the trap of religious works separated from the Godly principles from which they originated. Looking at these Pharisees, I can see that one’s mercy, compassion and love may diminish while their zeal maintains. Scripture says that we labor to enter into God’s rest, but that does not mean we are not to rest in God’s presence while we labor. Perhaps it is in taking time out to remember how much I desperately need God’s mercy while thankfully receiving it that I acquire the perspective I need to go forth and show mercy to others. Have I condemned the guiltless because I was looking at their methods instead of the principles behind their methods? Have I dismissed Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath by not learning from him? May I always remember to receive and practice mercy.




[1]. Matt 10:5-8 (ESV).

[2]. Matt 10:10 (ESV).

[3]. Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 41.

[4]. Robert James Utley, The First Christian Primer: Matthew, vol. Volume 9, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2000), 106.

[5]. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 39–40.

[6]. Craig S. Keener, Matthew, vol. 1, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Mt 12:3.

[7]. Wiersbe, 42.

[8]. 1 Tim 5:18 (New American Standard Version).

[9]. Wiersbe, 42.

[10]. Deut 5:15 (NASB).

[11]. Wiersbe, 42.



Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Keener, Craig S. Matthew, vol. 1, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Utley, Robert James. The First Christian Primer: Matthew, vol. Volume 9, Study Guide Commentary Series. Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2000.

Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996.