Is Working on the Sabbath a Sin?

Working on the Sabbath is not necessarily a sin.

Jesus said so himself.

Photo Credit: Alexander Baxevanis (creative commons)

In response to criticism of His disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath He says:

Haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? Matthew 12:5

How can this be? I thought that priests were holy. How did they desecrate the Sabbath?

The short answer is, they worked.

The priests’ job was to offer sacrifices on the Sabbath, therefore they desecrate it by doing work. Just like a modern day minister, a priest’s main duties take place on the Sabbath. So what Jesus is saying here is that some necessarily (and in the case of the priests, by law) work on the Sabbath, yet they are innocent of guilt. 

Jesus points out an apparent contradiction; the law instructs us not to work on the Sabbath, yet Numbers 28:9-10 reads:

On the Sabbath day, make an offering of two lambs a year old without defect, together with its drink offering and a grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with olive oil. This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.

I have never butchered a lamb, but I have a feeling that it is a laborious and bloody task. The priests were required to do this work on the Sabbath in order to provide the offerings.

Jesus’ aim is not to point out flaws in the law but that God cares more about the "why" than the "what."

He cares more about the heart.

This is why He says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13 quoting Hos. 6:6). Mercy speaks to our intentions; it deals with our hearts and not with a clearly definable set of actions.

If we think about this statement from Jesus in the context of the greatest commandments, then it makes sense. 
Mercy involves how we treat others—loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So it may seem odd at first that Jesus quotes the Hosea passage, but not if you understand that all of the law hinges on those two commandments.

Sacrifices, on the other hand, can be strictly of the flesh, that is they have no kingdom impact. One can make a sacrifice but still have his heart in the wrong place. This is the condition of the people in Amos 8:5. They asked themselves:

When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?

They were sacrificing profit by not selling wheat on the Sabbath. Nevertheless all they could think about was money.

Therefore one can work on the Sabbath and be innocent of sin. Likewise one can abstain from work on the Sabbath yet still violate the Fourth Commandment. These things are for God to judge, not man. Read the words of the apostle Paul:

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. 1 Corinthians 4:4-5

Rather than asking, "Are we working on the Sabbath?" We should be asking, "Why am I working on the Sabbath?"

What are the motives of our hearts?


Be sure to grab your free copy of my guide to the Old Testament. Godspeed!


  1. Thank you!
    This explanation is exactly what I was looking for!
    May the Lord bless you abundantly Brother!