Discussing God and Spiritual Matters (7) The Danger of “Condemning the Guiltless” Matt 12:7b

by Steven Chan

  1. One consequence of not having the right attitude and an accurate understanding of the Scriptures is that of “condemning the guiltless”. When one condemns another for being guilty of contravening God’s Word when in fact, such a one was not guilty of being in breach of God’s instructions, one would be “binding where God has not bound” and we would not be pleasing to God.
  2. The apostle Paul noted that “the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.” (1 Thess 2:14-15)

Why did the Jewish people (God’s chosen people of the Old Testament) reject Jesus and persecute the Christians? Paul explained: “because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath.” (Acts 13:27). One could read the Scriptures regularly “every week” on the Sabbath and still not know God nor His Will! Let’s be careful not to fall into the same situation as the Jewish people.

  1. Let’s consider one instance when the Pharisees (who were teachers of the Law; “the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat” – Matt 23:2) condemned the disciples of Jesus for allegedly breaking the law concerning the observance of the Sabbath:

“At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” (Matt 12:1-2)

  1. The Law of Moses forbade doing “any work” on the Sabbath day (Ex 20:10; 35:2-3) and those who disobeyed or failed to observe this law were punished (Num 15:32-36). The Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus of breaking the law on Sabbath when the disciples plucked heads of grains to eat. They had construed that the disciples had “worked” on the Sabbath.
  2. Two very important questions deserve our careful consideration: –
    a). Did the disciples break the law concerning the Sabbath?
    b). Was Jesus defending/justifying the “unlawful” action of the disciples?
  3. The Bible says: “we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.” (1 Tim 1:8). The problem with the Pharisees was their “self-righteous attitude, hypocrisy and inconsistencies” in applying the Law.

    a). They were self-righteous: Luke 18:9-14: “He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others”

    b). Jesus charged them with hypocrisy in Matt 23:13: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Also in Luke 12:1: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”

    c). The Pharisees were also inconsistent in their application of the Law as evidenced by their attempt to have Jesus stoned the woman whom they had caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) but they did not also bring the man who had committed the adultery with her. They themselves were guilty of sin for failing to keep the Law but they were determined to condemn the woman for sinning. Jesus pointed out their self-righteous attitude and inconsistencies when He said to them: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” (John 8:7). Paul accused them thus: “You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?” (Rom 2:23).

It is important to note that Jesus did not justify the action of the woman in committing adultery. He extended mercy to her: “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

    • d). The Pharisees also bind their own man-made teachings or commandments on the people. They condemned those who failed to keep their man-made traditions – their own interpretations of the Law. Jesus said to them: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?… you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites!… in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matt 15:1-9)

7. With the benefit of the afore-mentioned background of the Pharisees, one would have the proper context to understand what Jesus meant when He responded to the allegation of the Pharisees that His disciples were “doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” (Matt 12:2).

Jesus reminded the Pharisees of the action of David who “ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat” (Matt 12:4; Lev 24:5-9; 1 Sam 21:1-7). The Jews held King David in very high regard even though David had done an unlawful act.

Just as in the case with the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11), Jesus was again highlighting their hypocrisy and inconsistencies by impliedly asking them why they did not condemn David’s action (which Jesus said was “unlawful”) but were very intent on condemning His disciples’ action (which was in fact “not unlawful”)?

  1. The Proper understanding of the Passage in the Immediate and Total Context of the Scriptures showed that unlike the case of King David (whom the Jews revered), neither Jesus nor the Disciples broke the Sabbath law – contrary to the allegation of the Pharisees. The mere plucking of the heads of grains to eat could not possibly be considered as prohibited “work” – Jesus explained it in the following manner: –

    a). Not all works on the Sabbath were prohibited – the priests worked on the Sabbath as they went about doing their priestly duties but were guiltless (Matt 12:5);

    b). The Jews themselves did not consider urgent and necessary actions such as saving a sheep which fell into the pit (Matt 12:11) or loosening an ox and taking it to the waters (Luke 13:15-17) as being “unlawful” actions on the Sabbath;

    c). Jesus said that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt 12:12): “the Sabbath was made for (the benefit) of men” – Mark 2:27

It was implied from the above that works of a secular nature (or employment) or not constituting necessary good work were prohibited. Not ALL works were prohibited on the Sabbath day – as was wrongly understood by the inconsistent Pharisees. If the Pharisees had correctly understood the law concerning the keeping of the Sabbath, they “would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt 12:6) – the disciples were not guilty.

We should be careful not to bind requirements or restrict liberty of actions where God has not bound or restricted our freedom by His Scriptures (Rom 14; Gal 5:1).

  1. Given that the disciples were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath law, one should not use this passage of Scriptures to allege that Jesus justified the “unlawful” action of His disciples, or that David was justified in his unlawful action.

    a). One should be careful not to misunderstand this passage of Scriptures. It does not approve of the idea that “the end justifies the means”. Or that of “situational ethics”: “what is the most loving and merciful thing to do” in any given situation is more important than what is the “right” thing to do.“Who determines what is the most loving action?” Doesn’t that make man (and not God) the ultimate judge of what is an acceptable action?

    b). It does not teach Jesus justified the breaking of the Law on the ground of necessity and that “personal need for food/survival” trumps compliance with the Law of God.

If the “unlawful” action of David was “justified” on the basis of “personal survival” then those who died for their faith died needlessly as they could have saved themselves from death by doing whatever was necessary to save themselves including denying the Lord (Heb 11:35-37). Similarly, if that were true then it would have been justified for Jesus to command the stones to turn into bread and eat it because He was hungry after fasting for 40 days (Matt 4: 1-3)

    c). If Jesus actually supported the breaking of the Law of God then He could not possibly be “sinless” and His sacrifice would not be effectual for our salvation; but the scriptures said that He was intent to keep/fulfill the Law, He was obedient unto death and He was sinless (Matt 5:17; Phil 2:8; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:22). “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19)

10. Jesus said to the Pharisees: “if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless – the disciples” (Matt 12:7). 1 Sam 15:22: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice”. God desires obedience and mercy more than sacrifice.

We should be careful that we do not condemn the guiltless.  Saul condemned the guiltless when he dragged believers into prison and endorsed the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1-3) He did it in ignorance of the truth but later received the mercy of God (Acts 22:3-5; 1 Tim 1:13)

In interpreting and applying the Law of God, the Pharisees were not merciful – thinking that having a censorious self-righteous attitude was more important than having a heart of mercy, love and forgiveness.

We should be careful not to be hypocritical or self-righteous or inconsistent in our walk with God. We need to show mercy – an important attribute of God – towards sinners without condoning their sinful actions. “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:36). “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” (Gal 6:1)