Matthew 12:1-21 Part 1

We’ve said this a number of times, but it’s always good to be reminded of it again because of our propensity for laxity, but we mustn’t allow the division of God’s Word into chapters to force us into artificially compartmentalizing the historical events which take place!

As you will see, this passage is an awfully good example with which to illustrate what I’m saying, because the ideas in Matthew’s text flow smoothly from the end of chapter eleven to the beginning of twelve.  And if the chapter division is allowed to do it, it will bias the reading of the text and cause the reader to make a clean break after eleven and begin something new at twelve!  And by doing so, the reader would be making a serious mistake!

You remember that there is a separation taking place here.  The leadership of Israel – the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees and others – and the ones who those leaders represented, were being separated out for judgment and condemnation.  A very sharp antithesis was being created by the Lord which conformed to the design of His Father to conceal all these things from the “wise and intelligent ones” and to reveal it all to “babes.”

The concept of the “wise and intelligent ones” is personalized in Israel’s leadership, and the “babes,” or “little ones” is personalized in the multitudes of dejected and oppressed poor – many of whom were, indeed, the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Where the leadership of Israel epitomized all those who strive for self-esteem and self-glory, the poor and oppressed represent those whose self-image had been destroyed and who were reduced to humble pleading for mercy!

And Jesus then commands all of those who are laboring under the burden of their own depravity and uncleanness – those who are crushed under the weight of the eternal curse of God’s wrath – to come to Him.  For all things have been given to Him by His Father, and He is the One Who reveals the Father to whom He wills.

This is all reminiscent of David’s words in Psalm thirty-two where he says that even his bones were being crushed by the terrible weight of his sin against God, and if he didn’t receive forgiveness he would perish!  This is the lack of pride and inflated ego that Christ requires of those who come to Him.  And all of those who are laboring under the extreme gravity of their condition are commanded to find relief from that burden in Him, for He provides a place of rest.

Now, once we have all that in mind, then it’s very easy to see what is happening as we begin reading chapter twelve!  It’s the antithesis to all He just said!  The judicial separation and condemnation of Israel’s leadership takes its form this time, here in chapter twelve, over the issue of the Sabbath – which means rest!  Do you see that?

First (in chapter eleven), we find that “rest” is irrevocably linked – eternally linked – to the person of Christ!  His “person” is the place of rest for those who know their worthlessness and who are tormented by their own sin.

But, as I said, in chapter twelve Matthew relates Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees to form the “antithesis.”  It is a judicial encounter designed to further separate them out.  And I don’t think that anyone could possibly lay enough stress on this issue so as to emphasize its importance.  There is no issue concerning man which is more important than the “rest” that is given to us in Christ!

And as we get deeply into the issues in this text we will avoid, as if it were worse than a plague, the idea that Jesus abrogates or even lessens the requirements for Sabbath observance for the New Testament Church!  He does not!  In fact, in the process of condemning the Pharisees, He corrects their aberrations and manipulations and misinterpretations of the Law, and, in doing so, He exposes their public display for what it really is – self-exaltation!  And that’s the exact opposite of what is required in order to enter the Sabbath (which is in Christ intrinsically)!

Now.  Let’s go to the words of the text.

Verse one says,


“During that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbaths, and His disciples did hunger, and began to pluck ears of corn and to eat….”


Matthew says, “during that time….”  This is a continuation of the times in which Jesus and His disciples were going from city to city preaching the Word of the Kingdom.  As these encounters with the Pharisees occur, it is probably springtime or early summer, since the corn is ripe for eating, and, more than likely, near Passover the year before the crucifixion.

And on one of these occasions Matthew relates that Jesus’ disciples got hungry and went out into a cornfield to pick some food and eat it!  Now, some might say, “How can they just go out into somebody’s property and feel free to take what they wanted?  Isn’t that theft and a violation of property rights?  Jesus’ own disciples are breaking the Commandment of God against stealing!”  And after making those kinds of comments, they probably go on and say that Jesus confirms the abrogation of the Old Testament in favor of the law of love!

Of course there’s nothing further from the truth.  Listen to the Law of God as Moses gives it again in Deuteronomy twenty-three, beginning at verse twenty-four: 


“When you come into your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes to your fill at your own pleasure; but you shall not put any in your vessel!  When you come into the standing corn of your neighbor, then you may pick the ears with your hand; but you shall not move a sickle unto your neighbor’s standing corn.”


In other words, the Law says that one who is hungry can go into somebody else’s field, in the open, and eat until he’s full!  This is before the field is harvested.  In another place the Law says for fields to be harvested with the corners left for those who are needy to go and glean.  In this case the poor then can harvest what’s left and take it home.

Looking at these laws from another perspective – that of the farmer – God says that it’s right – it’s  justice – for the fields to be open to those who are hungry so that they have something to eat.  And that justice is merciful!  If there were those who were hungry, then, and the fields were closed to the hungry, then they were victims!  There is no justice or mercy in that!  And the same is true in the case of leaving the corners of the fields to be gleaned by the poor!  A great illustration of that is the historical account of Ruth and her mother-in-law gleaning the corners of Boaz’ fields after the harvesting.  Boaz saw Ruth there and took her unto himself and married her.  And they became the forebears of David the King!

Now, I don’t see much time being spent on this since it isn’t critical to the text, but it does come up here, and I can’t avoid saying a few things about this whole issue of hunger and the state and the Law.

And the first thing to be noted here is that the Law of God is just and merciful.  It provides for all the people, and if it were instituted in the land there would be no hungry people!  In a hard-working and just society, there is food in super-abundant quantities!  And the hungry can eat until they’re full.  And then, after the harvesting, they can go in and harvest the corners and take it home with them to put it in store!

But, secondly, when the fields are guarded from intrusion, the poor are victimized!  They’re victims because God’s Law says the fields must be open to the hungry!  And some of the harvest must be left for them to take home!

Thirdly, when the state takes over the welfare of the poor, that subverts the whole Law of God!  1) Justice and mercy are denied to farmers;  2) the first-fruits of all the harvest are taken as taxes from all the people; and those first-fruits are given to the poor rather than to God!  The state then is guilty of robbing from God and giving it to the poor!  3) And, being taxed so heavily, the farmer further shuts up his fields so he won’t lose any more of his wealth.  4) So the state taxes some more, because the poor have learned to depend on the state and demand more and more.  5) And the equalization of incomes among all the producers shuts down entrepreneurship, wealth, and production to such a degree that, eventually, there’s not enough for producers or the poor.  And that’s called socialism.

And socialism is the opposite of God’s Law with regard to economics.  In fact, they are antithetical.  Socialism is neither just nor merciful.  It is opposed to God’s Law, and, therefore, will lead eventually to destruction of an economic system – such as that which is now taking place in the Soviet Union and other Soviet bloc countries, and which will happen here unless we repent and return to the Law of the King.  For wherever God’s Law is shunned and ignored there are terrible consequences to follow.

Now, I didn’t want to lose sight of the context by doing that, but I wanted to show you the economics of being permitted to eat in the fields, and to put to rest any nonsense about Jesus allowing His disciples to steal, or about the Law being obsolete!

But there is one very strong point to be made here about the Law with reference to this text; and that is that God’s Law is merciful!  It’s merciful to producers and to the hungry, and it is never to be set in opposition to mercy!

And I say that because of the very prominent idea that the Law was in effect until Christ, and now there is grace and mercy.  We all are aware of this very significant shift in today’s Church away from the Revelation of God in the Old Testament; and a wedge is being driven in between the two testaments.  And that wedge is a dichotomy, with love and mercy on the one hand – in the New Testament – and God’s Law on the other – in the Old Testament.  And the effect of that is that Jesus Christ is being redefined by the Church!  He is now being seen no longer as the LOGOS made flesh Who brings the Revelation of God to its fullness!  But now He’s seen as a new “divine spirit” of love and kindness Who has abrogated His Father’s Law-Word!

And it is a blasphemous and idolatrous concept that has given rise to a new interpretation of every passage of Scripture having to do with the prescriptive will of God for society!  God’s holy Law-Word is rarely understood as just and good and merciful – such as we see here in God’s Law for the poor and the hungry.

And that’s the very issue that brings me back to the text, because Jesus’ designed encounter with the Pharisees – designed for the purpose of separating them out – accentuates the antithesis between the gracious and merciful intent of God’s Law, and the power-producing, self-esteem producing manipulations of the Law by the Pharisees!

And in this text the very mercy of God in the sacrificial/ceremonial system, which was the foreshadowing of the “place of rest” in Christ Jesus the Lord, was being wielded as an oppressive rod by these leaders of Israel, who manipulated it to their own benefit!

And in verses two, three and four we see the first example of that.  And we also see the Lord absolutely destroy their whole way of life, as He so often did, causing them to react in a murderous rage.

They said to Him, when they saw His disciples picking and eating, “Lo, Your disciples are doing what is not permitted to do on a Sabbath.”  And He said to them, “Did you not read what David did when He did hunger and those with him?  How he entered into the house of God and ate the loaves of the showbread, it not being permitted to him to eat nor those with him, except to the priest alone?”

Now, the Law involved here was one which forbade harvesting on the Sabbath.  The Pharisees had added to that a whole list of things related to harvesting, and which convoluted the whole intent of the Law!  But Jesus didn’t just deal with whether picking and eating broke the Law – His full intent was to shatter and dismantle the entire perverted mind-set of these wolves.  They wanted to catch Him, or trick Him, breaking their law, so that they could accuse Him and punish Him.  They had to discredit Him or even kill Him, in order to preserve their elevated positions over the people!

They had added their own prescriptive devices to God’s Law, and they had omitted the mercy which was inherent in the Law, and which foreshadowed the “rest” in Christ which was prefigured!  And let me make it clear again that the Law did not have “provisions” added to it in order to make it merciful – it is inherently merciful and good and righteous.  And it is those things because God is merciful and good and righteous – it is His Law!

But these so-called shepherds of the sheep, the teachers and religious leaders of the people, those whose duty it was to lead the people with justice and mercy, and whose designed function was to lead the people of Israel into the “rest” promised in the Messiah – these men were using the Sabbath “rest” prefigured in the Law to malign and harass the people into strict obedience to their exalted self-image!  The merciful salvation of God in Christ Jesus the Messiah, which the Sabbath was instituted to portray, was fully perverted into demonic idolatry!  And the whole Pharisaical system was cultic and occultic!

But Jesus’ answer to these ghoulish pretenders is devastating!  He goes directly to David’s eating of the showbread in the tabernacle.  The history here is that David, before the temple was built, was fleeing from King Saul and his henchmen.  He may have two or three men with him.  And they were hungry from running and hiding in the desert.  And they came upon the tabernacle of God, which Jesus here calls the “house” of God, and which was temporarily set up somewhere between Jerusalem and the southern part of the Dead Sea.  The temple was not built yet.

David entered the tabernacle on the Sabbath, which was the day that the showbread was to be changed out – twelve loaves – and tricked the high priest into giving him and his men five loaves of the twelve.  Ultimately the priest gave him the bread out of mercy due to his hunger.

Now without going into too much detail about the showbread right now, this was a meal offering of the people to God so that God could look upon it all during the week.  And it was to be exchanged every seventh day on the Sabbath, as a continual offering from the people.  Then the priests ate the twelve loaves that were exchanged out for the new ones.  And as is the case with all things in the tabernacle, the showbread represented the Christ in a peculiar way.  But the ideas of mercy and rest in Him stand out as central figures!

So there is an intimate connection here between the truths foreshadowed in the tabernacle, the showbread and the Sabbath – on the one hand – and the “rest” that is ours covenantally in Him.  Merciful, refreshing rest from the labors and burden of our sin and depravity, as we learned in chapter eleven.

So when David entered the tabernacle and ate the showbread, he, even though deceptively, represented the Kingdom of Christ partaking of the body of its Savior, Who is the true Bread from heaven, and Who gives all His people a place of rest in Him.  Then we experience the refreshing, and mercifully cease from the laboring under the curse.  You see, the mercy of Christ is inherent in the Law.  And the priest was doing nothing more than exercising that mercy when he gave the only bread he had to David so that he could eat!  It did not contradict any law, but mercifully fulfilled the Law which was to be embodied in the Lamb of God!

And when Christ referred the Pharisees to that passage of Scripture in First Samuel, they knew what He was talking about!  And that drove them even further to fury!

And Christ fulfilled the judicial aspects of the covenant by cutting them off – and the nation called “heaven and earth.”  And He laid the foundation for the New Heavens and the New Earth – the Kingdom.  And it began with the Sabbath rest of the first day – the day of His resurrection.  As the old creation rest was broken by the entrance of sin and death, so the New Creation begins with the reestablishment of God’s creation rest!  And we celebrate it now because God is resting in the re-creative completed work of His Son.  We have been quickened in Him and seated with Him in heavenly places, cleansed and justified – new Creations!  And Hebrews chapter four now says,” there yet remains, therefore, a celebration of Sabbatism – a rest for the people of God.”  A full enjoyment of it.  “Behold I make all things new.”

Our catechism, at the point of its exposition of the fourth commandment, says that our duties on the Lord’s Day include works of mercy and necessity.  And the footnote to that exposition refers us here to Matthew chapter twelve.  God requires mercy from us as individuals, for mercy is intrinsic to the Law.  It is the nature of God!

All of the shadows of the tabernacle and the ceremonial system have been filled in by the reality which is Christ.  They all looked forward to Him.  The “rest” which is in Him has always been their intent.  And the Scriptures define that rest:  Praise and worship because of the refreshing cancellation of the curse; contemplation of Christ and His body, cessation of work, acts of mercy and necessity, and enjoyment of coming eternal Shabbat.

Those who refuse the Sabbath stand to join the Pharisees in their death-defying occultism.  But Christ says, “Come unto Me you who are laboring and have been burdened down, and I will give you rest.”