Christ's comments in Mathew 12:5-6 allude to the instructions contained in Leviticus 24:5-9:
And you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it. Two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. [This is the showbread (I Samuel 21), the subject under discussion in Matthew 12.] You shall set them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure gold table before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, an offering made by fire to the LORD. Every Sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in the holy place; for it is most holy to him from the offerings of the LORD made by fire, by a perpetual statute.
These five verses together with I Samuel 21 explain that, not only did the priests put the bread in the sanctuary, but they also baked it on the Sabbath. Thus, it was hot when they put it in the Holy Place on the Sabbath—right out of the oven. Was it lawful for a woman, in the ordinary course of her household responsibilities, to bake twelve loaves of bread on the Sabbath? It was not. This is the illustration that Jesus utilizes in Matthew 12.
"The priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless." They not only did these things, they were also made sacrifices on that day, which consisted of a great deal of labor. Why, then, were they "blameless"? For the same reason that Jesus justified healing on the Sabbath (in John 5) and the same reason that the priests were blameless for circumcising on the Sabbath: They were doing the work of God, the work of salvation. They were fulfilling a purpose on the Sabbath that somebody had to do. This is the issue throughout John 5, 7, and 9.
Christ is greater than the Temple. He is the Head of God's spiritual Temple. He is its High Priest, and the disciples are His priests in training, His agents! Thus, their Sabbath ministry intensifies, even as Jesus' does. Were they justified, then, in eating on the Sabbath? Absolutely! They were justified because of the circumstances and the offices they were now holding in God's spiritual Temple!
So, the circumstances dictated a "profaning of the Sabbath" because of their involvement in the work of God. Loving service is greater than ritual fulfillment. What loving services were Jesus and His disciples performing on the Sabbath? They were teaching God's way. They were healing people. Now, what is mercy? Mercy is doing helpful acts: acts of love, aid, comfort, pity, and sympathy for other's distress. All these works help relieve a person of a burden.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 3)
Jesus truly knew God's law and that other concerns (mercy, in this case; verse 7) may sometimes override the strict letter-of-the-law approach the Pharisees used. The Pharisees no doubt thought Jesus a flaming liberal, but to Jesus, He was simply working within the liberty God's law allows (see Psalm 119:45; John 8:31-32; II Corinthians 3:17; James 1:25; I Peter 2:16).
David F. Maas
Righteousness from Inside-Out
Matthew 12:1-8 adds yet another example of Sabbath encounters Jesus had with the Pharisees. According to the Pharisees, the disciples reaped, threshed, and winnowed the grain; they were guilty of preparing a meal. What was the disciples' motivation? They were traveling, hungry, and had no place to prepare a meal. They were young and strong and could have fasted without harm, but because it was a Sabbath, Jesus drew attention to one of the Sabbath's main purposes. It is a day of mercy.
Christ draws His justification from I Samuel 21:1-6. He reasons that, if David under unusual circumstances could allay his hunger by eating bread consecrated for holy use, then the disciples could also legitimately provide for their needs in unusual circumstances. The emphasis here is on "unusual." How many times did David flee for his life and find himself hungry near the Tabernacle? It happened at least once, but even for a man of war like David, such situations occurred only rarely.
The overall lesson is that God does not intend His law to deprive but to ensure life. If the need arises, we should not feel conscience-stricken to use the Sabbath in a way that would not normally be lawful. Christ admits David's actions were not normally lawful, and neither were the disciples'—except for the circumstances. In this case, they were blameless BECAUSE A LARGER OBLIGATION OVERRULED THE LETTER OF THE LAW. In this circumstance, mercy is more important than sacrificing a meal. Holy bread or holy time can be used exceptionally to sustain life and serve God.
Christ takes advantage of the situation to teach another connected lesson. He draws attention to the extent of the priests' Sabbath labors in the Temple. Their work actually doubled on the Sabbath because of the number of sacrifices God required, yet they were guiltless. Why? They were involved in God's creative, redemptive work, as Christ explains in John 5, 7, and 9. They fulfilled a purpose of the Sabbath that someone had to do.
Because of the disciple's involvement in the work of God, circumstances dictated a profaning of the Sabbath. From this, we can understand that LOVING SERVICE IS GREATER THAN RITUAL FULFILLMENT. What is mercy? It is a helpful act where and when it is needed. It is an act of loving encouragement, comfort, pity, and sympathy for the distressed. It is the relieving of a burden.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part Two): Christ's Attitude Toward the Sabbath
As the Creator of the Sabbath (John 1:1-3, 14; Colossians 1:16-18), Jesus is "Lord of the Sabbath." As a man, He showed us the intent of this commandment in numerous accounts recorded in the four gospels. Jesus gave His church an example of how the whole Christian way of life is to be lived (I John 2:6). We are to do as Christ did (I Peter 2:21-22).
Martin G. Collins
The Fourth Commandment
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 12:5: