Jesus, having been confronted by the Pharisees about His disciples’ behavior in gathering and eating grain on the Sabbath, said, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.”
The Pharisees would have immediately thought about that episode in 1Samuel 21. David, having been warned by Jonathan that King Saul was after him with murderous intention, took his men and left town. Their lives in danger and a journey ahead of them, David went to Ahimelech the priest and demanded bread. Ahimelech had only the consecrated bread, of which God had said, “This bread is to be set out before the Lord regularly, Sabbath after Sabbath, on behalf of the Israelites, as a lasting covenant. It belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in a holy place, because it is a most holy part of their regular share of the offerings made to the Lord by fire.” In spite of God’s clear instructions to the priests, the book of Samuel records, “So the priest gave him the consecrated bread, since there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence that had been removed from before the Lord and replaced by hot bread on the day it was taken away.”
The principle at work is one of priority. David’s overwhelming immediate and urgent need clearly mandated extraordinary behavior. That’s exactly the same situation that Jesus had found Himself in with his disciples. Consequently, He effectively did just as Ahimelech the priest had done.
Jesus notes that the Pharisees error is thinking that God’s ceremonial law has the same priority as God’s moral law. Ceremonial law is there to light the way to normative righteous living. When unusual circumstances arise, the normal way of living must be sacrificed for the greater good. You don’t claim your bread is special and only for you when the King is standing in front of you and asking on account of his hunger. To do so would be to attempt to honor God by dishonoring the very one God sent to save you.
The Pharisees prided themselves on living in strict obedience to the written code. In order to do so they studied the written Word of God on a regular basis – so we know they would’ve read of David’s appropriation of the consecrated bread repeatedly – and each time with margin and motive to study it thoroughly. Subsequently, they had no excuse to not have understood how David avoided the judgment of God on account of his actions, except to have grasped the very concept Jesus now throws back at them.
To this point He prefaces His example with, “Haven’t you read…?” Jesus knows that the value of reading God’s Word is not just that we know the text and so can live it out legalisticly. It is that we know God. That we grasp His character, His ways and His worldview. It is that we know the text, but also look beyond the text to ask ourselves WHY God put it in His Word to start with.
And this much we know: Everything we read in Scripture is there to reveal something of God to us. Not just to educate us about Him, but to inspire, motivate and encourage us to enjoin Him in His mission of reconciliation and restoration.
Legalistic obedience says you had better keep every rule or you’re finished. Gracious obedience says if God sees in your heart a spirit of grace; if He sees a sincere and loving and humble willingness to obey; if He sees a positive response to His Word, even though there are times when we fail, then He counts us as obedient because that’s the spirit in our hearts. Even though our gracious obedience may be filled with defects, it’s the proper attitude that God is after.John MacArthur
God concerns Himself primarily with our maturing in Him. So too must we have more grace for those around us.