Matthew 12:1-8 is the account of the Pharisees accusing the disciples of breaking the Sabbath by picking grain to eat as they walked through the grain fields and Jesus reminding them of the example of David eating the showbread when he was hungry.
There are lessons here about how we should exercise authority and how we will exercise authority in the millennium and white throne judgment.
"At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, 'Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!' But He said to them, 'Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath' " (Matthew 12:1-8). See also Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5.
Was Jesus saying that it was ok for David to break God's law because he was hungry, and therefore it was ok for the disciples to violate the fourth commandment because they were hungry? If that is what Jesus was saying, then that raises the question, if it is ok to break the fourth commandment to satisfy our hunger, then is it also ok to break the eighth commandment to satisfy our hunger?
I do not think that is what Jesus was saying.
Before covering the Sabbath issue, let me first say that the disciples were not stealing even if the grain field belonged to none of them. That is because God's law at that time allowed one to eat food from his neighbor's crop as long as he did not harvest the food and save it in a container to eat later (Deuteronomy 23:24-25).
The issue was whether, by plucking the heads and rubbing them in their hands to remove the husk before eating them, they were "working" contrary to the fourth commandment not to work on the Sabbath.
The Jews understood that it was lawful to serve oneself food to eat on the Sabbath. The question was one of interpretation of the law - was plucking the grains and rubbing the grains in their hands to remove the husks a kind of "work" that the fourth commandment prohibits or was it just a form of minimum preparation of food required to eat a meal, which was allowed on the Sabbath?
The Pharisees interpreted the law to say that it was work and therefore prohibited. Not all Jewish authorities agreed with the interpretation of the Pharisees, according to an article by Mr. Dexter Wakefield (see link below). But the Pharisees regarded themselves as an authority to interpret God's law.
The Pharisees did have some authority. "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers' " (Matthew 23:1-4). But they used their authority in a wrong manner. They neglected the weightier matters of the law, which includes mercy (Matthew 23:23).
They should have used their authority to interpret the law in a merciful manner, realizing that some men might be hungry and may need to do this on the Sabbath. But they did not. They used their authority to interpret the law in a harsh manner, which was not God's intent. By doing this, they made the Sabbath a burden, which also was never God's intent.
There are lessons about government, about law, about authority, and about mercy in this passage.
God's government is hierarchical. I am not saying that to make a point about governance in the Church of God. I am pointing out a fact about the kingdom of God and how we will be part of a governmental structure during the millennium and for eternity in the kingdom of God, and we will have those above us in authority and those under us in authority. There will be a chain of command. Authority will start at the top with God the Father, then flow to Jesus Christ, then branch out from there. It is important to understand how that authority will work and how we should make decisions within that governmental structure. We have to learn in this life two basic principles: obedience to authority of God above us and mercy towards those under our authority.
At each level in the structure, decisions are made in finer detail. This is true in any organization. Major decisions are made at the top. Those who have the responsibility to implement those decisions work out the details.
Here is an example of what I am talking about. Suppose you are put in charge of five cities in the millennium. Perhaps Peter is your boss in charge of an entire tribe in Israel, and you are given authority over five cities in that tribe. David will be king over all twelve tribes, so David will have authority over Peter. Christ will rule the earth, all nations, not just Israel, so He has authority over David, and God the Father has authority over Christ. Perhaps you will have five leaders, spirit-born saints in the first resurrection, over the five cities you rule. So when you want something done in those cities, you give the instruction to the five leaders and each one carries out your instructions in the city he rules, and you rule over all five. Perhaps I will have authority over one of those cities, so you will be my boss. I might have district leaders over different neighborhoods in my city if it is a large city.
So Christ makes a decision for all nations. David, as king of Israel, receives the command from Christ and implements it for Israel. He does this by giving instructions to the twelve apostles who rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. If you have five cities in the tribe Peter rules, he gives you instructions, and if I have one of those cities, you tell me what to do. But at each level, the instructions become more detailed. Each leader takes what he has been commanded, and fills in the details as needed for his particular responsibility. Thus we have to exercise judgment and wisdom.
We can see that process in the Church of God. Headquarters can decide the format of the services. Perhaps headquarters gives the field ministry instructions that sermons should be no shorter than 50 minutes and no longer than an hour and 15 minutes. Every pastor must stick to those limits. But it is up to the pastor what to speak about. Headquarters does not give him a script. Even if headquarters sets limits on what the pastor may say, the pastor has to think out and prepare what he will actually say.
Headquarters may give guidelines and rules for handling various situations with members, but it is up to the pastor to implement those rules in dealing with actual situations, and he has to decide certain details as he goes.
Headquarters may tell the field ministers to train qualified members for leadership responsibility and to delegate the giving of announcements, sermonettes, and song leading, but it is up to the pastor to decide who will do each of those things locally.
This is where the two lessons come in. If we are to operate effectively within that structure, we must learn these two lessons now. The first is obedience. We have to build the habit of doing what we are told to do by higher authority. We have to obey God. When God tells us what to do, we should not think of it as a option or suggestion.
But when we make decisions to carry out what God tells us to do, we have many details to decide. Some of those details affect other people. We should decide the details based on certain principles, including mercy. That is the second lesson.
So God teaches us two things in this life that will help prepare us to make right decisions in the kingdom of God. He teaches us obedience towards Him in the things He tells us to do, such as, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work" (Exodus 20:9). But He also teaches us general principles that should guide our decisions in working out the details of what he tells us to do, such as, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
So in the kingdom of God, when Christ tells us to do something with our cities and our responsibilities, we will faithfully carry out everything He tells us. And when we work out the details of how to implement those commands for our particular area, we will do so guided by love and compassion for the people our decisions will affect.
But the Pharisees missed the mark!
They felt they had authority to interpret how God's command to rest on the Sabbath should be carried out, and to a certain extent they did. "Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do...' " (Matthew 23:1-3). "And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you. Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die" (Deuteronomy 17:9-12).
Their problem was, in interpreting God's law, in this case the Sabbath, in trying to make decisions about how the people were to "rest" on the Sabbath, what constituted "work", they were not guided by mercy and love in their decisions. They acted harshly. They did not consider that some poor people would have to eat grain from grain fields on the Sabbath because they had no other source of food, or go hungry. The Pharisees did not have to go hungry because they had money to buy food ahead of time. "For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matthew 23:4). "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23). "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matthew 12:7).
Yes, they did have authority to make certain binding decisions. But they misused their authority because they did not follow God's principles and guidelines (love, mercy, truth, justice, faith) in making those decisions. How could Christ trust them to rule cities in the millennium? He can't. They would take the decisions Christ made for the whole world, then administer them harshly, not in love, in the cities they ruled. Christ will not have that. "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matthew 21:43).
God does not give any man authority to abolish His law and commandments. We have to do what He says. But in interpreting how to put God's laws into effect, we should base our decisions on godly principles, the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23).
I always wondered about something in the account in Matthew 12:1-8. After describing the incident of David eating the showbread, Christ said, "For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath". I always wondered what the connection was between Christ being Lord of the Sabbath and the example of David eating the showbread. Now I think I understand.
Christ was asserting His authority, greater than the authority of the Pharisees, to interpret the Sabbath law, and He interpreted it the way God intended it to be interpreted - with mercy.
Let's go back to the example of David eating the showbread. Christ gave this example to show how the law should be interpreted, with mercy, as the priest in David's day did. This example is more about the decision of the priest than it is about David. I learned some things about this from a sermon and article by Mr. Dexter Wakefield of Living Church of God.
"So David said to Ahimelech the priest, 'The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, "Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you." And I have directed my young men to such and such a place. Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.' And the priest answered David and said, 'There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.' Then David answered the priest, and said to him, 'Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out' " (1 Samuel 21:2-4). What does being kept from women have to do with this? The priest used the precedent of Exodus 19:14 just before God gave the ten commandments on Mount Sinai: "So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and sanctified the people, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, 'Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives' ". The priest interpreted this as a precedent that allowed him to consider David and his men ceremonially clean and therefore able to eat the showbread.
Was this a stretch? The point Christ was making is that the priest took every opportunity, within the law, to make a ruling that showed mercy to David and his men. No doubt the Pharisees would have said to David, "Sorry, you are not a priest so I can't give you the bread." But the priest in David's day understood the importance of mercy. He found a way, within the law as he saw it, to administer the law based on mercy. In referring to this example, Christ is commending the priest's desire to show mercy to David and his men, and He is saying that if the Pharisees understood the importance of mercy, they would not have condemned the disciples for doing something that Christ ruled, as Lord of the Sabbath, was lawful: eating grain from the grain fields on the Sabbath.
David was not guilty of breaking the law because the priest who gave him the showbread had the authority to make the ruling, and the priest ruled that it was ok for David and his men to eat the showbread. Likewise, the disciples were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath by plucking and rubbing grains in their hands to eat on the Sabbath because Christ, as Lord of the Sabbath, with authority from God to teach the law, ruled that they could do so, or else He would have stopped them. In effect, Christ ruled that plucking grains and rubbing them in their hands to eat them as they were walking was not "work".
Nothing in this example indicates it is ok to break the law based on mercy, or as some might put it, that mercy overrides the law. If that were the case, we could steal to show mercy on our children to feed them. We could lie to show mercy to someone to not hurt their feelings. We could take a job on the Sabbath to show mercy to our family to support them. That is not the case. We must obey the law. But in the details of how to obey the law, where those details are not spelled out by God, we have to make decisions and apply the intent of the law to the circumstances we find ourselves in, and when that occurs, we should base our decisions on the broad principles of God's way of life, the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. The priest in David's day understood this, but the Pharisees in Christ's day did not.
This is how we will administer God's law in the millennium. We will obey and carry out the commands and instructions that come to us from above. And when we have to decide details of how to administer those instructions for our particular area, we will base our decisions on the principle of love.
Here is a link to a related sermon by Mr. Dexter Wakefield (LCG):
Here is a link to the September-October 2000 issue of the Living Church News in pdf format with a related article by Mr Wakefield. Look for the article titled, "Did Jesus Profane the Sabbath?", starting on page 14: