by John Calvin
Gospel: St. Mark 2: 23 - 28; Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5
Matthew 12:1. Jesus was walking on the Sabbath It was the design of the Evangelists, in this history, to show partly what a malicious disposition the Pharisees had, and partly how superstitiously they were attached to outward and slight matters, so as to make holiness to consist in them entirely. They blame the disciples of Christ for plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath, during their journey, when they were pressed with hunger, as if, by so doing, they were violating the Sabbath. The keeping of the Sabbath was, indeed, a holy thing, but not such a manner of keeping it as they imagined, so that one could scarcely move a finger without making the conscience to tremble. "Avec tremblement et incertitude de conscience;" — "with trembling and uncertainty of conscience." It was hypocrisy, therefore, that made them so exact in trifling matters, while they spared themselves in gross superstitions; as Christ elsewhere upbraids them with paying tithe of mint and anise, and neglecting the important matters of the Law, (Matthew 23:23.)
It is the invariable practice of hypocrites to allow themselves liberty in matters of the greatest consequence, and to pay close attention to ceremonial observances. Another reason why they demand that outward rites should be more rigorously observed is, that they wish to make their duty toward God to consist only in carnal worship. But it was malevolence and envy, still more than superstition, that led them to this act of censure; for towards others they would not have been equally stern. It is proper for us to observe the feelings by which they were animated, lest any one should be distressed by the fact, that the very Doctors of the Law were so hostile to Christ.
Luke 6:1. On the second-first Sabbath It is beyond all question that this Sabbath belonged to some one of the festival-days which the Law enjoined to be observed once every year. Some have thought that there were two festival-days in immediate succession; but as the Jews had arranged their festival-days after the Babylonish captivity so that one day always intervened between them, that opinion is set aside. Others maintain with greater probability, that it was the last day of the solemnity, which was as numerously attended as the first. I am more inclined to favor those who understand by it the second festivity in the year; and this agrees exceedingly well with the name given to it, the second-first Sabbath, because, among the great Sabbaths which were annually observed, it was the second in the order of time. Now the first was the Passover, and it is therefore probable that this was the feast of first-fruits, (Exodus 23:15, 16.)
Mark 2:24. Why do they on the Sabbath what is not lawful? The Pharisees do not blame the disciples of Christ for plucking ears of corn from a field that was not their own, but for violating the Sabbath; as if there had been a precept to this effect, that famishing men ought rather to die than to satisfy their hunger. Now the only reason for keeping the Sabbath was, that the people, by sanctifying themselves to God, might be employed in true and spiritual worship; and next, that, being free from all worldly occupations, they might be more at liberty to attend the holy assemblies. The lawful observation of it, therefore, must have a reference to this object; for the Law ought to be interpreted according to the design of the Legislator. But this shows clearly the malicious and implacable nature of superstition, and particularly the proud and cruel dispositions of hypocrites, when ambition is joined to hatred of the person. It was not the mere affectation of pretended holiness, as I have said, that made the Pharisees so stern and rigorous; but as they expressly wished to carp at every thing that Christ said or did, they could not do otherwise than put a wrong meaning in cases where there was nothing to blame, as usually happens with prejudiced interpreters. The accusation was brought—according to Matthew and Mark—against our Lord, and—according to Luke—against his disciples. But there is no inconsistency here; for the disciples were in all probability so harassed, that the charge was directed chiefly against the Master himself. It is even possible that the Pharisees first wrangled with the disciples, and afterwards with Christ, and that, in the rage of their malice, they blamed him for remaining silent, and permitting his disciples to break the Sabbath.
Matthew 12:3. Have you not read what David did?
Christ employs five arguments to refute their calumny.
First, he apologizes for his disciples by pleading the example of David, (1 Samuel 21:6.) While David was fleeing from the rage of Saul, he applied for provisions to the high-priest Ahimelech; and there being no ordinary food at hand, he succeeded in obtaining a part of the holy bread. If David’s necessity excused him, the same argument ought to be admitted in the case of others. Hence it follows, that the ceremonies of the Law are not violated where there is no infringement of godliness. "Quand on ne derogue rien a la reverence deue, a Dieu;" — "when nothing is taken away from the reverence that is due to God." Now Christ takes for granted, that David was free from blame, because the Holy Spirit bestows commendation on the priest who allowed him to partake of the holy bread. When he says, that it was not lawful to eat that bread but for the priests alone, we must understand him to refer to the ordinary law:
they shall eat those things wherewith the atonement was made,
to consecrate and to sanctify them; but a stranger shall not
eat thereof, because they are holy, (Exodus 29:33.)
If David had attempted to do what was contrary to law, it would have been in vain for Christ to plead his example; for what had been prohibited for a particular end no necessity could make lawful.
5. That on the Sabbaths the priests profane the Sabbath. This is the second argument by which Christ proves that the violation of the Sabbath, of which the Pharisees complained, was free from all blame; because on the Sabbaths it is lawful to slay beasts for sacrifice, to circumcise infants, and to do other things relating to the worship of God. Hence it follows, that the duties of piety are in no degree inconsistent with each other. "Que les exercices de piete ne sont point contraires les uns aux autres, mais s’accordent bien ensemble;" — "that the exercises of godliness are not opposed to each other, but agree well together." But if the temple sanctifies manual operations connected with sacrifices, and with the whole of the outward service, the holiness of the true and spiritual temple has greater efficacy, in exempting its worshippers from all blame, while they are discharging the duties of godliness. "Quand ils s’employent a oeuvres qui tendent a l’honneur de Dieu;" — "when they are employed in works which tend to the honor of God." Now the object which the disciples had in view was, to present to God souls which were consecrated by the Gospel.
Matthew alone glances at this argument. When Christ says, that the priests Profane the Sabbath, the expression is not strictly accurate, and is accommodated to his hearers; for when the Law enjoins men to abstain from their employments, it does not forbid them to perform the services of religion. But Christ admits that to be true which might appear to be so in the eye of ignorant persons, 8080 "Ainsi Christ accorde estre vray, ce qui ne l’est pas de faict, mais qui pourroit sembler l’estre en apparence a gens qui ne scavent pas bien iuger et discerner les choses;" — "thus Christ admits that to be true which is not so in reality, but which might appear to be so to persons who do not know how to judge and distinguish matters properly." and rests satisfied with proving, that the labors performed in the temple are not offensive to God.
7. But if you knew This Third argument is also mentioned by Matthew alone. Christ conveys an indirect reproof to the Pharisees, for not considering why ceremonies were appointed, and to what object they are directed. This has been a common fault in almost every age; and therefore the prophet Hosea (6:6) exclaims against the men of his own age for being too much attached to ceremonies, and caring little about the duties of kindness. But God declares aloud, that he sets a higher value on mercy than on sacrifice, employing the word mercy, by a figure of speech, for offices of kindness, as sacrifices include the outward service of the Law. This statement Christ applies to his own time, and charges the Pharisees with wickedly torturing the Law of God out of its true meaning, with disregarding the second table, and being entirely occupied with ceremonies.
But a question arises: Why does God declare that he is indifferent about ceremonies, when he strictly enjoined in his Law that they should be observed? The answer is easy. External rites are of no value in themselves, and are demanded by God in so far only as they are directed to their proper object. Besides, God does not absolutely reject them, but, by a comparison with deeds of kindness, pronounces that they are inferior to the latter in actual value. Nor is it inconsistent with this to say, that in the perfection of righteousness the highest rank belongs to the worship of God, and the duties which men owe to each other occupy the second rank. For, though piety is justly reckoned to be as much superior to charity as God is higher than men, yet as believers, by practicing justice towards each other, prove that their service of God is sincere, it is not without reason that this subject is brought under the notice of hypocrites, who imitate piety by outward signs, and yet pervert it by confining their laborious efforts to the carnal worship alone. "Et cependant neantmoins la renversent et falsifient, s’arrestans au seul service charnel, auquel ils prenent grande peine;" — "and yet nevertheless overthrow and falsify it, confining themselves to the carnal service alone, on which they bestow great pains." From the testimony of the Prophet, Christ justly infers that no blame attaches to his disciples; for while God trained his people in the rudiments of the Law, it was far from being his design to kill wretched men with famine.
8. For the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath. Some connect this sentence with a preceding statement, that one greater than the temple is in this place, (ver. 6;) but I look upon them as different. In the former case, Christ, by an allusion to the temple, affirmed that whatever was connected with his personal holiness was not a transgression of the Law; but now, he declares that he has received authority to exempt his followers from the necessity of observing the Sabbath. The Son of man, (he says,) in the exercise of his authority, can relax the Sabbath in the same manner as other legal ceremonies. And certainly out of Christ the bondage of the Law is wretched, from which he alone delivers those on whom he bestows the free Spirit of adoption, "Ausquels il donne l’Esprit d’adoption, qui est l’Esprit de la liberte;" — "to whom he gives the Spirit of adoption which is the Spirit of liberty." (Romans 8:15.)
Mark 2:27. The Sabbath was made for man. This Fifth argument is related by Mark alone. The general meaning is, that those persons judge amiss who turn to man’s destruction, 8383 "Lesquels convertissent au dommage et a la ruine de l’homme;"— "who turn to the injury and to the ruin of man." the Sabbath which God appointed for his benefit. The Pharisees saw the disciples of Christ employed in a holy work; they saw them worn out with the fatigue of the journey, and partly with want of food; and yet are offended that, when they are hungry, they take a few grains of corn for the support of their wearied bodies. Is not this a foolish attempt to overturn the purpose of God, when they demand to the injury of men that observation of the Sabbath which he intended to be advantageous? But they are mistaken, I think, who suppose that in this passage the Sabbath is entirely abolished; for Christ simply informs us what is the proper use of it. Though he asserted, a little before, that he is Lord of the Sabbath, yet the full time for its abolition 8484 "La vraye saison et le temps opportun de l’abolissement d’iceluy;"— "the true season and appropriate time for the abolition of it." was not yet come, because the veil of the temple was not yet rent, (Matthew 27:51.)
Source: Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke - Volume 2
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