The Expository Files




The Facts Lead Us To The Truth

(No Situation Ethics In Jesus’ Words)

Matthew 12:1-8


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At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:  how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it 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 how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  And 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 of the Sabbath.”  - Matt. 12:1-8

One interesting feature of this text is, not only was this event used to criticize Jesus back then when it happened; it is also used to criticize Jesus today, as modern readers often turn this into something it isn’t: seeking permission to violate God’s law.

So, it becomes our duty to study this carefully, observing all the pertinent information in the immediate context and factoring into our study – all other relevant passages.

It is useful to begin with this absolute: Jesus never sinned, nor did He ever recommend or encourage anyone to violate the law of Moses. We can all go into this passage knowing this. It is a certainty. We are told over and over in the New Testament that Jesus was sinless. He was born a Jew, born under the law, obligated to be a keeper of the law – which He did, without any evidence of failure. Jesus never sinned, nor did He ever

recommend or encourage anyone to violate the law of Moses; no good reason was ever given for disobedience.

To that we can add, Jesus was not inclined to offer up or endorse any situational exceptions or loop holes. It was not in His attitude – to look for some way to avoid obedience to God’s law, or to illustrate how a loop hole might be found. Jesus had no tolerance for this (see Matt. 5:19; 7:21).

So, if you ever hear anyone citing this passage, and then upholding the idea of situational exceptions or loop holes – YOU SHOULD IMMEDIATELY KNOW THAT SPIN ON THIS TEXT IS NOT CORRECT. You know that because you know Jesus was not One to give people excuses or situations to set aside obedience. Look at the facts in Matthew 12.

Fact #1 – Meet The Accusers, the Pharisees (v.2).

These were men who had no genuine and consistent loyalty to the Scriptures. I think they knew what the Old Testament said. But they twisted and perverted Scripture to seem like it supported the religious empire they built. And, they were not objective students of Jesus Christ. They were opposed to Jesus Christ. (See their history/attitude, as stated by the Lord – Matt. 3:7-10; 6:1ff; 9:3,4; 12:14, etc.).

Therefore, we cannot read this passage as if the accusers were objective students or scholars of Scripture, or even innocent learners. These were men with a dogmatic agenda of hostility toward Jesus. The accusation came from men determined to find fault in Him.

Fact #2 – There was no violation of Old Testament law in this event!

It says, “His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.” Luke’s account says – they “plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands.”

This was not a violation of anything in the Old Testament. They ate a meal and this was permitted on the Sabbath. This wasn’t harvest work, which was prohibited. There is no evidence of extensive preparations of a meal, which was forbidden. It was simply a matter of these men eating, and this wasn’t a violation of Old Testament law.

Add to this – Jesus’ comment in verse 7, that the Pharisees were condemning the guiltless. There was no disobedience, no sin, no violation of Scripture – in what Jesus’ disciples were doing. We know that.

Fact #3 - Jesus Implies, the Pharisees were inconsistent – they showed partiality – in making accusations.

David – in the incident cited by Jesus, from 1 Sam. 21 – DID SIN, yet the Pharisees never condemned him. Jesus gives this example of what David did,  and Jesus’ point is – Verse 4 – “It was not lawful.”

Be careful here – Jesus is not arguing that His disciples are following the lead of David in doing something unlawful. Jesus implies – the Pharisees found no fault in David, WHO DID WHAT WAS NOT LAWFUL, yet they found fault in Jesus’ disciples – who were “guiltless.” That’s the point.

Fact #4 - Jesus’ reference to the priests shows, IF THE PHARISEES WERE CONSISTENT IN THEIR HUMAN TRADITION ABOUT THE SABBATH – even the priests would have been guilty.

See, the Pharisees took what the Old Testament actually said about the Sabbath – and wrote their own set of rules about it, saying far more than what God had said. They didn’t consistently apply their man-made rules to David or the Priests – but when Jesus’ disciples ate a meal on the Sabbath – their militant, self-righteous spirit was provoked, and they found another reason to oppose Jesus.

Let me stress two statements from the narrative: What David did was “not lawful,” (v.4). What the disciples of Christ did was “guiltless,” (v.5). They were not “guiltless” because of the circumstance or situation – they were guiltless because no law of God was violated.

This saying quoted by Jesus, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” is widely misunderstood and misapplied. What it signifies is – obedience that is heartless is no good anyway. What God wants is obedience from a tender heart – a heart where mercy and sacrifice lives. It does not mean – that if you have mercy and sacrifice in your hearts – you can disobey God’s law. That’s inconsistent with everything the Bible tells us, about respect for God. {Never is there a case where a quality of God encourages, permits or leaves us open to disobey Him.}

So, Matthew 12:1-8 does not teach situation ethics and does not convey to us any approval of the common saying, that the end justifies the means.

Additional Notes –

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF VERSE 5? "Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?" The man-made rules of the Pharisees (in regard to the Sabbath) were so absolute; so rigid and restrictive ... an application of their rule would make it impossible for the priests to do what they had to do on that day! (See Mrk. 7:8).

WHAT IS THE POINT, in verses 6-8? The point is - the superiority of Jesus above the rules, regulations and interpretations of the Pharisees! Jesus fully understood what the Sabbath law actually said in the Old Testament, and He fully understood that the "weightier matters" of the law gave the rituals and sacrifices their validity.

Thus, there is nothing in Matthew 12 to endorse, justify or teach situation ethics. SITUATION ETHICS is just another man-made effort to circumvent the law of God, create loop holes and excuse disobedience.


You may not get caught ... it may be for a "good cause," ... other people may be doing things that are worse ... it may not bother your conscience ... the majority may approve of it ... it may be enjoyable ... the situation may be difficult ... but WRONG IS ALWAYS WRONG.

"O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps," (Jeremiah 10:23).


Situation Ethics amounts to this: setting aside the law of God or the obligation to comply with some part of it, because in the judgment of the individual, the law of God just won't work in some special situation. My objections are as follows:

1. SITUATION ETHICS IS AN INSULT TO GOD. There may be some people who have embraced this doctrine without any definite intention to insult God, but when you look at the essence of this doctrine - this is the effect: it is an insult to God.

This is so, for the moral law of God (given in the Bible) is a perfect law, given by a perfect God! "The law of the Lord is perfect," and in the New Testament we have "the perfect law of liberty," (Psa. 19:7; Jas. 1:25). The apostle Peter asserts that "His divine power hath granted unto us ALL THINGS that pertain unto life and godliness," (2 Pet. 1:3). Note: When we take this perfect body of law, this standard that is so well adapted to man - and decide that some part of it won't work in the situation we are in, we naturally reflect on the Giver of that law!

I would recommend - if we will study and learn the principles of the Bible; if we will completely devote ourselves to the wisdom, the rules, the warnings and prohibitions in this book --- there isn't any moral dilemma nor ethical question that can't be addressed! Even in those circumstances where we are not certain or ignorant, we can follow the course of safety. The Word of God is adequate to every human situation; His law is sufficient for whatever circumstance we find ourselves in.

Joseph Fletcher, and other advocates of situation ethics, are really implying that God's law is pretty good, but NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO HANDLE EVERY SITUATION. Situation ethics insults God.

2. SITUATION ETHICS OVER-ESTIMATES HUMAN WISDOM. There is great potential in the human intellect, and there are many very knowledgeable people in the world - but I deny that any person is smart enough to say that some part of God's law can be set aside in some special situation. If we practice situation ethics, we are really saying to the Father: "Lord, here is a situation your law doesn't cover; here is a circumstance I am in, and I've decided to disobey your law." Not only is that thinking an insult to God ... but I don't believe man is so smart, as to be qualified to set in judgment of God's law! "But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge," (Jas. 4:11b).

Situation ethics is one of many human theories which over-estimates human wisdom. It is "not in man" to direct his own steps (Jer. 10:23).

3. HE BIBLE REQUIRES OBEDIENCE. Man owes a debt of obedience to the Creator, and the Creator has not given us the right to suspend His law when we want to! "This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments!" (1 Jno. 5:3).

"O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps," (Jeremiah 10:23).

  By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 22.1; January 2015