Matthew 12:1-8

By Ronny Milliner

What does fornication, murder, lying, abortion, adultery, instrumental music in worship to God, and church supported orphan homes have in common? There might be a number of things you might be able to think of, but one thing that these things have in common is an abuse of Matthew 12:1-8.

Individuals who believe that they can engage in the above practices have often used this passage of Scripture as a “proof text.” We want to examine their abuse and see exactly what is found in this passage.

Abuses By Modern False Teachers

Those who are familiar with situation ethics are probably aware of this passage being used to justify everything from murder to lying to fornication and more. Joseph Fletcher, author of Situation Ethics, wrote, “The plain fact is that love is an imperious law unto itself. It will not share its authority with any other laws, either natural or supernatural. Love is even capable of desecrating the Holy of Holies, the very tabernacle of the altar, if human hunger cries for help . . . . The periscope Matt. 12:1-8 . . . left no doubt about Jesus’ willingness to follow the radical decisions of love. He puts his stamp of approval on the translegality of David’s . . . act” (p. 85). Of course, Fletcher’s application is that anything could be permissible, depending on the situation in which one found himself.

An author associated with the Christian Church used this passage to ridicule our idea of the silence of the Scriptures. He wrote, “But this theory of . . . ‘law of prohibitive silence’ contradicts Jesus here, since God had not expressly stated anywhere that any others than priests could eat that bread and live, much less live and be justified by Jesus’ (sic). This is a case where not the letter but the real spirit behind the letter was observed in careful conformity to God’s intention and will” (Harold Fowler, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 610). If this argument be so, then there would be nothing wrong with playing instruments in worship to God. Plus, anything else that was not specifically prohibited would be permissible.

In an article entitled “The Exception-Making God,” brother Michael Hall writes, “The hunger of David and his men, the need of Jesus and His 12-member staff, the need of the physically maimed who sought to be healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:11-17), etc., are all examples of human need that necessitated an exception to some rule . . . . God is flexible about His rules because he does care about men. That’s why the Bible is not a legal document, but a book of principles . . . everything is not as cut and dry as you might think!” (Ensign, January 1978, pp. 14,13). So the conclusion could be made that due to the physical needs of orphans, that we can set aside any rule that might be found in the Bible dealing with the matter in order to meet the needs of the orphans. In other words, the situation sets aside any law of God.

The Allegations Against The Disciples

The Pharisees accused the Lord’s disciples of breaking the Sabbath law. The violation as viewed by these Jews was in the act of the disciples’ plucking the heads of grain. The Pharisees would have called this action harvesting, thus work.

But were the disciples really breaking God’s law or were they just violating one of the many traditions of the Jewish fathers? The Law of Moses certainly prohibited harvesting on the Sabbath (Ex. 34:21). But that same law made a distinction between harvesting with a sickle and the simple plucking of a few heads of grain by hand (Deut. 23:25).

Actually, the Pharisees seem to have had the same problem that our Baptist friends have concerning the word “work.” When the Law commanded no “work” on the Sabbath, was all work or just some types of work forbidden? A study of the passages on the following chart shows that not all “work” was forbidden.


1. Plowing and harvesting (Ex. 34; 21). 1. Holy convocation – worship to God (Lev. 23:3; Ezek. 46:3; Lk. 4:16-30.
2. Gathering sticks (Num. 15:32-36). 2. Afflict God’s punishment (Num. 15:32-36).
3. Kindling a home fire (Ex. 35:3). 3. Circumcision (Jn. 7:22-23).
4. Baking and boiling (Ex. 16:23). 4. Work of the Temple (Num. 28:9-10; Lev. 24:8; Mt. 12:5).
5. Treading, hauling and trading (Neh. 13:15-18). 5. Good works (Mt. 12:9-14).

Thus, the disciples had only violated the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law, not the Law itself. The Pharisees should “not have condemned the guiltless” (Mt. 12:7).

The Arguments Of Jesus

In answering the charge of the Pharisees, Jesus uses five arguments. His first argument is the case of David eating the shewbread. The Pharisees would not have wanted to condemn their great king David. Jesus, in appealing to this situation, does not justify or condemn David. He simply appeals to these Jews on their own ground. R.C. Foster, in his Studies in the Life of Christ, comments, “it is the ‘argumentum ad hominem’ – the argument based upon that which the opponent accepts. The Jews did not criticize David for eating the shewbread under such trying circumstances, why critize the disciples when they were but breaking the Pharisees interpretation of the Sabbath law?” (p. 457).

Jesus’ second argument concerned the work of the priests in the Temple. They had a number of duties in the Temple. For example, they were to double the daily sacrifices on the Sabbath. Would the Pharisees’ condemn the priests as violating the Law? Jesus adds, “But I tell you, there is something greater than the temple here!” (Mt. 12:6, Williams Translation). The priests worked in the service of the Temple, but the apostles worked in the greater service of Christ.

Argument number three was based on Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Actually this statement is a Hebraism called “the limited negative,” and could be translated, “I desire not only sacrifice but also mercy.” God was not saying He had no desire for sacrifices, for it was He who had commanded sacrifices. But He also commands mercy. The work of Jesus, and so the work of His apostles, was the work of mercy.

The fourth argument is found in Mark’s gospel of this account. Mark 2:27 reads, “And He said to them, The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was not made to be a burden on man. It was designed to give man a time to get away from his physical labors. He would thus have time to reflect on things spiritual and engage in the works of God. The Pharisees did not have the proper understanding of the Sabbath.

Finally Jesus shows this question is a matter of authority and that He “is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:8). J.W. McGarvey summarized this last argument when he wrote, “As Lord of the day Jesus had right to interpret it and to apply it, and to substitute the Lord’s day for it. In asserting his Lordship over it, Jesus takes the question outside the range of argument and brings it within the range of authority” (The Fourfold Gospel, p. 213).


If this view that the human need takes precedence over any law of God is correct, then there would be no need to suffer for Christ. Every martyr that died for His Lord died needlessly if this view is so. Another consequence of this doctrine is that the will of man would be above the will of God. What God stated could only be applied by the will and situation of man. Every one would have their own interpretation in their situation making the law of God meaningless.

Disobeying even so-called “ceremonial law” carried grave consequences. Ask Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2). Instead of teaching a setting aside of divine law, Jesus taught that even the least commandment must be obeyed (Mt. 5:17-20; 23:23). We leave these modem thinkers with this question: Would Jesus have been justified in obeying the Devil by turning stones into bread, because of the “human need” for food (Mt. 4:1-4)? We think not.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 17, pp. 527-528
September 6, 1984