Hello. It’s so encouraging to read through God’s word together. I pray you are inspired and lifted up by the life and words of Jesus in Matthew. Today we read as Jesus teaches about the Sabbath, about Satan and blasphemy against the Holy Spirt and about Jesus prediction of his resurrection.
THE DISCIPLES PICK WHEAT ON THE SABBATH / 12:1-8
At this point, Matthew returned to an order of events matching Mark’s Gospel. The sections included in 9:18-11:30 are out of order chronologically, but placed thematically according to Matthew’s focus on Jesus’ teachings. Matthew 12:1-14 contrasts with 11:25-30 by comparing the yoke of the Law and the rest Jesus brings. To the Jews, “rest” meant observing the Sabbath.
12:1-2 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”NKJV Jesus and his disciples, still in Galilee (most likely outside of Capernaum, 9:1), went out walking through the grainfields. The fields were not fenced off but separated by stones set at intervals (Deuteronomy 19:14). Roads often went right though the fields, so this scene is not unusual. What made it of special mention was that this stroll and the subsequent actions of the disciples occurred on the Sabbath. The disciples were hungry, so they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. On any other day, this would have been acceptable. They were not stealing grain; God’s law called for this kind of sharing among his people (Deuteronomy 23:25). Reaping grain was forbidden on the Sabbath (Exodus 34:21). The disciples, however, were picking grain because they were hungry, not because they wanted to harvest the grain for a profit. Thus, they were not breaking God’s law. The Pharisees, however, had established thirty-nine categories of actions forbidden on the Sabbath, based on their own interpretations of God’s law and on Jewish customs. According to the religious leaders, the disciples were technically “harvesting,” because they were picking wheat and rubbing it in their hands. The Pharisees were determined to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing. They even followed him around on the Sabbath in order to do so!
12:3-4 He answered, “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.”NIV Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees (12:3-8) contains four arguments explaining why his disciples’ actions were lawful to do on the Sabbath (12:2): (1) David’s example (12:3-4), (2) the priests’ example (12:5-6), (3) proof from the prophets (12:7), and (4) proof from who he was (12:8).
First, Jesus reminded the Pharisees of an example from the life of David. This story is recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. Each week twelve consecrated loaves of bread, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, were placed on a table in the house of God, here meaning the tabernacle. (This bread was called the bread of the Presence or showbread.) After its use in the temple, it was to be eaten only by priests. On one occasion, when fleeing from Saul, David and his men had been given this consecrated bread to eat by Abiathar, the high priest. The loaves given to David were the old loaves that had just been replaced with fresh ones. Although the priests were the only ones allowed to eat this bread, God did not punish David because his need for food was more important than the priestly regulations. Need alone, however, would not normally supersede the law because only danger of death could override Sabbath regulations. The people involved made the difference: David could break the law because he was David; Jesus could break the law because he was the Messiah, in authority over the law. While the story in 1 Samuel does not relate to the question of the Sabbath, the principle is the same. Jesus was explaining that if the high priest, David, and his followers could break a law, how much more could the Son of David—the Messiah.
The Pharisees knew the Scriptures thoroughly, yet Jesus’ question “Haven’t you read?” reveals their ignorance of the true meaning of the Scriptures. Yes, they had read this story many times, but they had obviously not discerned or applied its meaning. Jesus justified his disciples’ action on the grounds that his authority superseded the requirement of ceremonial law. When Jesus compared himself and his disciples to David and his men, Jesus was saying, in effect, “If you condemn me, you must also condemn David.” Jesus was not condoning disobedience to God’s laws. Instead, he was emphasizing discernment and compassion in enforcing the ceremonial laws, something the self-righteous Pharisees did not comprehend.
12:5 “Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?”NRSV Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ accusation with a second answer, using an example from the priests who served in the temple. Jesus again repeated the question “Have you not read in the law?” to show these self-righteous Pharisees that while they had the law memorized, they really didn’t understand it. The Ten Commandments prohibit work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). That was the “letter” of the law. But because the purpose of the Sabbath is to rest and to worship God, the priests had to perform sacrifices and conduct worship services—in short, they had to “work.” Their “Sabbath work” was serving and worshiping God, which God allowed. Thus, even though they technically break the sabbath, God holds them guiltless. Jesus always emphasized the intent of the law, the meaning behind the letter. The Pharisees had lost the spirit of the law and were rigidly demanding that the letter (and their interpretation of it) be obeyed.
|LIFE APPLICATION – READING THE BIBLE|
|A casual reader of the Bible can find evidence for almost any argument there. Just take a verse out of context, just isolate a passage, just make a story into an edict, and you can make the Bible say anything. The Pharisees, for example, were about to use the Bible (Old Testament) to make Jesus an ally of the devil.|
|The Bible must be read correctly, from the vantage point of faith, with a hunger to find in it the truth of God as revealed in Jesus. To aid your reading, find faithful Christian friends (and a trustworthy church) who can guide your understanding. Read your Bible as if it were a conversation between you and God. Then begin to live what you’re learning.|
12:6 “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.”NRSV The use of the neuter gender (something greater) indicates that Jesus may have been referring to the kingdom. Yet to refer to the supremacy of the kingdom highlights the supremacy of Jesus. Just as the priestly duties in the temple surpass Sabbath regulations about work, so Jesus’ ministry transcends the temple.
The Pharisees were so concerned about religious rituals that they missed the whole purpose of the temple—to bring people to God. And because Jesus Christ is even greater than the temple, how much better can he bring people to God. Our love and worship of God are far more important than the created instruments of worship. If we become more concerned with the means and methods of worship than with the one we worship, we will miss the true purpose for worship—to glorify God.
12:7 “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”NIV Third, Jesus used proof from the Old Testament prophets to answer the Pharisees. Jesus repeated to the Pharisees words the Jewish people had heard time and again throughout their history (1 Samuel 15:22-23; Psalm 40:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-17; Jeremiah 7:21-23; Hosea 6:6). He had also used this same example in 9:13 when the Pharisees had criticized the people with whom he was spending time (“tax collectors and sinners”). The Old Testament statement “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means that rituals and obedience to the law are valuable only if carried out with an attitude of love for God. If a person’s heart is far from God, ritual and law keeping are no more than empty mockery. God did not want the Israelites’ rituals; he wanted their hearts. Jesus challenged the Pharisees to apply the prophets’ words to themselves. The Pharisees’ rigid guidelines had caused them to be unable to see beyond the letter of the law. So in condemning Jesus and his disciples, they had condemned the innocent. The disciples were no more guilty of breaking the law than priests who did their duty on the Sabbath. The disciples were doing “priestly work” by spreading the Good News of the kingdom on the Sabbath.
God’s mercy takes precedence over legal restrictions. If only the Pharisees had known and had understood the words of the prophets, they would have understood the love and compassion behind God’s laws. Their condemnation would then have been only to those who deserved it, not to those who were truly innocent of disobedience.
|LIFE APPLICATION – CHOOSING A CHURCH|
|Jesus amazed his listeners when he told them that he, the carpenter’s son, was supreme over biblical law—in fact, the only sure authority on biblical law. The point is clear: If Jesus is at the center, all is well; but if anything else becomes the focus of worship (even keeping biblical laws with rigor and diligence), then something is wrong.|
|When you’re choosing a church, be sure that the church keeps Jesus at the center. When you’re reading the Bible (or hearing it taught), be sure of the same. Lots of other authorities compete for our attention, but no other authority will do.|
12:8 “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”NIV Jesus’ fourth answer to the Pharisees’ accusation (12:2) focused on who he was. When Jesus said that he (again, calling himself Son of Man) was Lord of the Sabbath, he was claiming to be greater than the law and above the law. To the Pharisees, this was heresy. They did not realize that Jesus, the divine Son of God, had created the Sabbath. The Creator is always greater than the creation; thus, Jesus had the authority to overrule their traditions and regulations. Jesus claimed the authority to correctly interpret the meaning of the Sabbath and all the laws pertaining to it. Who created the Sabbath? God did. Therefore, because Jesus, the Son of Man, is God’s Son, given authority and power by God himself, then he is also Lord of the Sabbath.
JESUS HEALS A MAN’S HAND ON THE SABBATH / 12:9-14
As if to illustrate that the commandment to love takes precedence over the law, Jesus went to the synagogue where he healed a man with a shriveled hand.
12:9-10 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”NIV It was the Sabbath (12:1), and according to his regular custom, Jesus went to the synagogue. This may have been any synagogue in Galilee although it was most likely in Capernaum. In the synagogue, there was a man with a shriveled hand. He had been born with this defect or had acquired it by an accident or disease. The hand was useless. Luke adds the detail that it was the man’s right hand (Luke 6:6).
Jesus’ reputation for healing (even on the Sabbath, see Mark 1:21-26) had preceded him, but would he dare heal on the Sabbath with Pharisees watching? (Most likely, the Pharisees had followed him from the grainfield; 12:1-2). God’s law prohibited work on the seventh day of the week (Exodus 31:14-17); thus, the religious leaders allowed no healing to be done on the Sabbath unless a person’s life was in danger. Healing, they argued, was practicing medicine, and they had a law that a person could not practice this profession on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees did not regard the man’s need; instead, they seized the opportunity to accuse Jesus as a Sabbath breaker. As they pointed to the man with the shriveled hand, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus by asking him if it was lawful (legal) to heal on the Sabbath. Their motive, however, was not to gain information; they were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. Their Sabbath rules said that people could be helped on the Sabbath only if their lives were in danger. Jesus healed on the Sabbath several times, and none of those healings were in response to emergencies. If Jesus had waited until another day, he would have been submitting to the Pharisees’ authority, showing that their petty rules were equal to God’s law. If he healed the man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees could claim that because Jesus broke their rules, his power was not from God. But Jesus made it clear how ridiculous and petty their rules were. God is a God of people, not rules. The best time to reach out to someone is when he or she needs help.
|LIFE APPLICATION – RULE KEEPING|
|The Pharisees placed their laws above human need. They were so concerned about Jesus breaking one of their rules that they did not care about the man’s shriveled hand. What is your attitude toward others? If your convictions don’t allow you to help certain people, those convictions may not be in tune with God’s Word. Don’t allow rule keeping to blind you to human need.|
12:11-12 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”NRSV Instead of answering the Pharisees’ question, Jesus responded with an illustration and a question of his own. A sheep that had fallen into a pit was in danger. If this occurred on the Sabbath, the sheep’s owner was allowed to lay hold of it and lift it out, even though this constituted work. If it is acceptable to do good to a sheep on the Sabbath, doesn’t it also follow that people can do good for other people on the Sabbath? Because people are more valuable than sheep, they are even more worthy of help.
Mark recorded that Jesus asked a rhetorical question: “‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they [the Pharisees] remained silent” (Mark 3:4 niv). The Pharisees knew that giving an answer would have left them without an accusation to pin on Jesus. Their own laws allowed people to do good and to save life on the Sabbath—the farmer who could rescue his only lamb from a pit on the Sabbath knew that. So Jesus made the pronouncement: So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath. Doing good fulfills Sabbath intentions.
12:13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.NRSV Jesus refused to play by the Pharisees’ rules. After pronouncing that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (12:12), Jesus did exactly that. He told the man to stretch out his hand. In response to Jesus’ command and with all eyes focused on him, the man stretched his hand out in front of him. The moment he did so, it was restored, as sound as the other. “Restored” means that it became like it had been before. As with the leper (8:3) and the paralytic (9:6-7), Jesus gave this man his life back. The man could work again, and he no longer had to face the embarrassment of his deformity.
No particular action of Jesus is recorded; he told the man to move, and with that movement, healing arrived. Jesus did nothing that could be called “work,” but the Pharisees would not be swayed from their purpose. Jesus had embarrassed them. He had overruled their authority (Luke 6:11) and had exposed their evil attitudes in front of the entire crowd in the synagogue, showing that the Pharisees were more loyal to their religious system than to God. That was enough to cause them to get on with their mission of destruction (see 12:14).
|LIFE APPLICATION – CARING FOR PEOPLE|
|Jesus said that if a lost animal is worth saving, people are worth more. Jesus puts a priority on the care of people. Better to err (against rule keeping) by caring for people than to err by a stringent interpretation of biblical law (while people suffer).|
|Where are your loyalties? Are you able to use Christian judgment in cases of a conflict between human need and law keeping? Ask your Bible study group to take up some hypothetical situations, and try together to discern how Jesus would respond.|
12:14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.NIV The Pharisees were outraged. Jesus had openly confronted their authority and had placed himself above them. Their curiosity about Jesus turned to hatred because he had challenged and exposed their proud attitudes and dishonorable motives. In their fury, the only option they saw was to kill Jesus. Ironically, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of breaking their law about healing on the Sabbath, yet they were planning (on the Sabbath) to kill him. Their hatred, combined with their zeal for the law, drove them to plot murder—an act that was clearly against the law.
Mark records that the Pharisees plotted with the Herodians (Mark 3:6). This was an unlikely alliance. The Herodians were a Jewish political party that hoped to restore Herod the Great’s line to the throne. Thus, their support of Rome’s leadership over Palestine brought them into direct conflict with the Jewish religious leaders. The Pharisees and Herodians had little in common—until Jesus posed a threat to them both. Jesus threatened the Pharisees’ authority over the people; Jesus threatened the Herodians’ political ambitions because his talk of a “kingdom” caused them to think that this popular and powerful man was planning to set himself up as a ruler. This would jeopardize their authority derived from Herod’s power. To get rid of Jesus, the Pharisees needed the support of people with some influence with the secular leaders. Thus, the Pharisees and Herodians, normally enemies, joined forces to discuss how to get rid of Jesus.
The way Jesus kept the Sabbath irritated his critics to the point of fury. To us, their reaction seems overstated. We must remember that the religious leaders, by imposing a bewildering system of Sabbath laws, had in fact made themselves lords of the Sabbath and thus lords over the people. By claiming the title of Lord of the Sabbath (12:8), Jesus was stating his own divinity, and this claim was an affront to the position of the religious leaders. His remaking the Sabbath into a day of refreshment, worship, and healing pried open the tight-fisted control the Pharisees held on the people. No wonder Jesus’ approach to the Sabbath led his enemies to plot his death.
|LIFE APPLICATION – HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE|
|Dale Carnegie’s famous book by this title taught a generation of people how to get one’s way and be friendly at the same time. Carnegie, no doubt, would have counseled Jesus to “take it easy” on the Pharisees. Today we might say, “Lighten up!”|
|But some conflict must be faced head-on. In Jesus’ time and ours, people become angry when told that sin requires a special savior—in fact, the only savior. Don’t placate people by conceding that any savior will do or that decent people are OK before God on their own. Tell the truth with compassion, even when it generates conflict.|
LARGE CROWDS FOLLOW JESUS / 12:15-21
12:15-16 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place.NIV Jesus, aware that the religious leaders were plotting to kill him (12:14), withdrew from that place (presumably Capernaum). Jesus was not afraid of the religious leaders. Up to this point, Jesus had been aggressively confronting the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. At this point in time, however, he decided to withdraw from the synagogue before a major confrontation developed. Jesus did this because it was not time for him to die. He still had many lessons to teach his disciples and the people.
Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was.NIV Despite his withdrawal, Jesus could not escape the crowds. Many continued to follow him, and Jesus had compassion on those who were sick, and he healed them; however, he also gave them a warning . . . not to tell who he was. Jesus did not want those he healed to tell others about his miracles because he didn’t want people coming to him for the wrong reasons. A popular following of miracle seekers would hinder his teaching ministry and arouse false hopes about an earthly kingdom (see also 8:4; 9:30). But the news of Jesus’ miracles spread, and many came to see for themselves (see Mark 3:7-8).
12:17-21 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah.NRSV In the following verses, Matthew gets to the focus of this chapter—Jesus as the one who fulfilled prophecy. The people expected the Messiah to be a king. This quotation from Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 42:1-4) showed that the Messiah was indeed a king, but it illustrated the kind of king he would be—a quiet, gentle ruler who brings justice to the nations. Like many in Jesus’ day, we may want Christ to rule as a king and bring great and visible victories in our lives. But often his work is quiet, and it happens according to his perfect timing, not ours.
This is the longest Old Testament quotation in Matthew. The words don’t match exactly any existing Old Testament text from the time, indicating that Matthew may have paraphrased the words for emphasis.
Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight.NIV The word for “servant” (pais) can also mean “son.” The word “chosen” may have also been picked up from Isaiah 43:10 or 44:1 to focus on this “chosen” one as the Messiah. The phrase “the one I love, in whom I delight” echoes words spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (3:17; 17:5).
I will put my Spirit on him.NIV The coming of the Spirit was a sign of the messianic age. These words also echo Isaiah 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18. After reading the words aloud, Jesus had said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 niv).
And he will proclaim justice to the nations.NIV “Proclaim justice” refers to restoring justice and order and bringing judgment on sinners. The Messiah would offer justice to all nations, not just to the Jews (some versions use the word “Gentiles”).
He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.NIV The Messiah pictured in these words differs dramatically from the person the Jews expected—a military leader calling the nation to battle against the Roman foe. Instead, this man will not quarrel or cry out. These words follow Matthew’s report of Jesus’ withdrawal from conflict with the Pharisees (12:15). The Messiah will not be silent (he will “proclaim” justice, see above), but neither will he publicize himself and seek attention. These words suggest gentleness and humility (see 11:29; see also Isaiah 53:7).
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.NIV The “bruised reed” refers to the fragile lives of the “little ones” to whom the Servant ministers. He will not break (or destroy) them. The “smoldering wick” pictures a strip of linen cloth with little oil left in the lamp. The wick smolders, on the verge of going out, but the Servant will not snuff out the little wick. These words suggest a Savior who comes to heal, not to destroy. The phrase “till he leads justice to victory” seems to paraphrase parts of Isaiah 42:4 and 44:3-4 (see also Habakkuk 1:4). Justice will finally triumph when the Servant-Messiah comes. He may be gentle and meek, kindly healing the sick and teaching those who want to understand, but one day he will bring complete justice.
In his name the nations will put their hope.NIV In the nrsv, the word ethne (“the nations”) is translated “Gentiles.” People from all nations, not just Jews, will one day put their hope in the name of Jesus. “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11 niv). Jesus pointed out his universal mission; he wanted his message to reach all nations. It is a further indication of his messianic role that would culminate in the Great Commission (28:19-20). God would ultimately rescue the oppressed and bring salvation to all who trust him.
|LIFE APPLICATION – THE LITTLE GUYS|
|Jesus cares a lot about people who don’t have a Ph.D., don’t own golf clubs, and don’t drive a late model car. Jesus cares about the boring people in your town, the sick and the mentally retarded, and the people on welfare. Because he cares about them, they—and not merely the upwardly mobile types—are the truly important people of this world.|
|Do you ever wonder if you matter? Does your nondescript life make a difference to anyone? Do your modest talents count for anything? If so, you’re exactly the kind of person Jesus wants to know, his favorite kind of friend. Trust him with your life. He deals gently with those who come to him in need.|
RELIGIOUS LEADERS ACCUSE JESUS OF BEING UNDER SATAN’S POWER / 12:22-37
Leaving the chronology in these verses, Matthew gives an example of the intensifying conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. (See the Harmony of the Gospels at the back of this commentary; Mark records this incident early, in Mark 3:22.) The religious leaders had already decided that they wanted to kill him (12:14), so they began looking for any opportunity to accuse him.
12:22 Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw.NKJV Matthew downplayed this miracle in order to highlight the confrontation that followed. A man who was demon-possessed, blind and mute was brought to Jesus for healing. The Greek wording suggests that the blindness and inability to speak were a direct result of demon possession. Jesus healed the man, casting out the demon and restoring his ability to speak and see.
12:23 All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”NRSV The crowds were amazed when they saw the man healed. This is the only time that the word existanto (also translated “astonished”) is used in Matthew’s Gospel (although it occurs often in Mark and Luke). The word conveys intense wonder and amazement. The Greek construction of their question expects a negative answer although it allows for the possibility of a positive response: “This couldn’t be the Son of David, could it?” The title “Son of David” is another name for the Messiah. The Jews understood that the promised Messiah would be a son (descendant) of King David (see Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5-6). “Could this man be the one?” they wondered. They were puzzled because, despite all his miracles, Jesus just did not seem to be the Messiah they were expecting.
12:24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”NIV Apparently another delegation of Pharisees had come from Jerusalem. The people were “amazed,” but . . . the Pharisees refused to believe that Jesus’ power was from God. They could not deny the reality of Jesus’ miracles and supernatural power, for he had indeed been driving out demons. So in an attempt to undermine Jesus’ authority and popularity among the people, the Pharisees accused him of having power from Satan.
The name “Beelzebub” occurs only in the New Testament (in 10:25 and Luke 11:15) and not in other Jewish literature. In Greek, the term is beelzeboul. The Vulgate and Syriac versions tried to clarify the term by changing it to beelzebub, the god of Ekron (see 2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16). The religious authorities may have invented the term by combining two Hebrew words: baʾal (“lord,” Hosea 2:16-17) which stood for the local Canaanite fertility god; and zebul (“exalted house,” 1 Kings 8:13 nrsv) to call Jesus “the lord of heaven.” Everyone would have understood this term as referring to Satan, the prince (or leader) of demons.
12:25-26 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?”NRSV Jesus knew what the Pharisees were thinking. In the Incarnation, Jesus gave up the complete and unlimited use of his supernatural abilities, but he still had profound insight into human nature (see 9:4). His discernment stopped the religious leaders’ attempts to trick him.
Jesus responded to them in a parable—a simple example from life that would reveal the absurdity of their charge that he was in league with Satan. Following the obvious conclusion of the accusation—that Satan was driving himself out of people—Jesus indicated that if that were true, it would then mean that there was civil war in the kingdom of evil. No king would throw his own soldiers out of his kingdom; neither would Satan throw his soldiers out because his kingdom would then be divided against itself. Such a kingdom would be laid waste. In the same way, people in a city or house, divided about their goals and working against one another, will not be successful. Jesus implied that it would be impossible for Satan to cast out himself (or his demons).
Obviously Satan is still very powerful and active; thus, his end had not come—not in Jesus’ day, nor in ours. So Satan is not opposing himself, nor is he divided. The teachers’ charge that Jesus was driving out demons by Satan’s power was obviously false. But Jesus wasn’t finished.
|LIFE APPLICATION – DRIVING WEDGES|
|The worst kind of sin involves driving a wedge between Jesus and the people whom he wants to reach. Pharisees sought to do that by accusing Jesus of partnership with the devil. Today we see it happen when learned professors cynically dismiss religion, when talk-show hosts smirk about religious hypocrites, and when pastors take their sermon cues from psychology instead of the Bible.|
|Give no encouragement to people who try to undermine Jesus. They are in great danger, and spoiled faith rides in their wake.|
12:27 “And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.”NIV Jesus was not the first person in that area to exorcise demons. In the first century, exorcism was a thriving business, both in pagan and Jewish societies (Mark 9:38; Acts 19:13-14). Some were effective and some were frauds. Exorcists would employ complex incantations, magical charms, and even visual effects. (Jewish exorcists came only from the Pharisees because the Sadducees denied the existence of spirit beings.) Jesus, however, needed only his authoritative word. His constant success, the ease with which he cast out demons, and the reactions of the demons made Jesus’ exorcisms notable. Jesus was saying, “If it takes Satan’s power to drive out demons, then those of your own group who claim to drive out demons must also be demon-possessed.” The Pharisees who had cast out demons would “judge” these other Pharisees for implying that being able to exorcise demons meant being in league with Satan.
12:28 “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”NRSV The word “if” means “since.” There is no question that it is by the Spirit of God that Jesus cast out demons. Luke’s version of this account says “finger of God” (Luke 11:20). Both mean the same, focusing on the power of God. That the kingdom of God has come to you shows that Jesus’ exorcisms were specific evidence of the presence of kingdom power.
The kingdom of God came not with a mighty military leader, but with a gentle and compassionate Servant. The real enemy to be conquered was not the Romans but Satan. That Jesus was powerfully casting out demons and plundering Satan’s kingdom revealed that the kingdom of God had begun.
|LIFE APPLICATION – GET REAL|
|If the kingdom of God has come, take a reality check. If you live your days without much reference to God, with a few passing words of prayer, your mind consumed with earning and buying, your eyes dashing from one advertisement to another, your heart longing for one more nice purchase—then wake up!|
|There’s a reality you haven’t seen or paid much attention to. It’s the kingdom of God, right here, and it’s very, very important to you. Unless you check in, life will be a dash—and then gone. But people of the kingdom live forever in God’s peace and love. Take time today, right now. Live one day regarding your life as being in God’s kingdom and yourself as his true servant.|
12:29 “Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered.”NRSV This picture reflects a situation in the ancient world where wealthy people’s homes were virtual fortresses, and their servants could form a small army. Jesus called Satan a strong man in this parable. His house is the realm of evil where there is sickness, demon possession, and death (it also refers to a possessed individual in whom Satan’s demons live). Satan’s property are the demons—those beings through whom he carries out his work in the world. The only way his property could be “plundered” would be for someone to first tie up the strong man; the only way for the demons to be cast out is for someone to first overpower Satan. Jesus’ advent into the world did just that (1 John 3:8). Jesus’ actions reveal that Satan can never overcome him.
Although Satan still works in our world, God is in control. Jesus, as God, has “tied up” Satan in one sense; Satan’s ultimate doom is sure, and his power over death was broken at Christ’s resurrection. Jesus and his disciples were able to drive out demons and end their terrible work in people’s lives. As such, every exorcism was a binding of Satan; one day Satan will be bound forever (Revelation 20:10). Jesus was not in league with Satan, as the Pharisees tried to claim; rather, he had overpowered Satan by refusing his temptations and by constantly freeing people held in Satan’s grasp—either through demon possession or through the power of sin.
12:30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”NRSV It is impossible to know about Christ and remain neutral indefinitely. Anyone who is not actively following him has chosen to be against him. Any person who tries to remain neutral in the struggle of good against evil is choosing to be separated from God, who alone is good. “Gathering” and “scattering” are Old Testament pictures of faithful and apostate people, respectively. To refuse to follow Christ is to choose to follow Satan.
|LIFE APPLICATION – THE NEUTRAL ZONE|
|Separating North Vietnam from South during more than a decade of battle was the demilitarized zone, a kind of no-man’s-land, burned over and barren. Rivers, mountains, and man-made walls have served the same purpose—neutral, open space where both sides watch and neither stakes out a claim. No such space exists in the spiritual battle waged between God and Satan.|
|Get over to God’s side if you’re wandering in the middle. Stay on God’s side when you’re curious about life on the edge. Take your part in the struggle on the front lines, where witnessing hurts and few Christians are strong enough to support a church. But don’t be fooled about finding a neutral zone claimed by no side at all.|
12:31 “Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy.”NRSV “Therefore I tell you” (also translated, “Wherefore I say unto you” in kjv, “And so I tell you” in niv, and “Therefore I say to you” in nkjv) is a recurring phrase used by Jesus only prior to a solemn warning or pronouncement. It is like the Old Testament statement, “Thus saith the Lord.” The words are divinely self-authenticating and guarantee the truth and importance of what Jesus would say next. Jesus would no longer reason with his accusers; he was giving them a solemn warning. Jesus had just been accused of being in league with Satan and had soundly refuted those charges. Here he had a few words for these so-called teachers of the law, the Jewish leaders.
First, he made the reassuring promise, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy. Too often people miss this promise and worry about the warning that follows. But the fact is, those who believe in Jesus will be forgiven of all sins (evil acts, wrong actions, good actions not done, evil thoughts, evil motives, etc.) and of all blasphemies (evil words said against God). When there is confession and repentance, no sin is beyond God’s forgiveness.
“But blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”NRSV There is one sin that cannot be forgiven—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. “Blasphemy against the Spirit” refers not so much to a single action or word as to an attitude. Those who defiantly deny Jesus’ power and persistently refuse to believe that he is the Messiah are blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Jesus was not talking about rejecting him, but of rejecting the power behind him.
Jesus’ words were addressed directly to the Pharisees. They had blasphemed the Spirit by attributing the power by which Christ did miracles to Satan instead of to the Holy Spirit. This is the unforgivable sin—the deliberate refusal to acknowledge God’s power in Christ. It indicates an irreversible hardness of heart. Deliberate, ongoing rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit is blasphemy because it rejects God himself. The Pharisees’ stubborn refusal to believe demonstrated an impenetrable hardness of heart; thus, forgiveness would not be possible because it never would be sought. The religious leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy (see Luke 5:21; John 10:33-36), but ironically they were the guilty ones because they looked Jesus in the face and accused him of being possessed by Satan.
|LIFE APPLICATION – UNFORGIVABLE?|
|Jesus said that one sin could not be forgiven. Sometimes believers worry that they have accidentally committed this unforgivable sin. But only those who have turned their back on God and rejected all faith have any need to worry. If you are worried about this sin, realize that your worry is your strongest evidence that you have not made this tragic mistake. Use this prompting from the Spirit to repent and turn to Jesus.|
12:32 “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”NRSV These words may mean that speaking against the person of Jesus can be forgiven because the insult may be based in ignorance of who he is (at that time not even Jesus’ disciples completely understood who he was). But speaking against the Holy Spirit—to deny the power behind Jesus’ ministry—is unforgivable. (Some versions use the word “blasphemy,” meaning extreme slander.) The rejection of a messenger (even of the Son himself) can be forgiven, but not the rejection of God himself through the Holy Spirit. The mighty works done by the Spirit were unmistakable announcements that the kingdom had arrived. Those who dared to attribute these works to Satan were not ignorant; instead, they had made up their minds not to believe.
|Jesus said that those who slander the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven—not because their sin is worse than any other, but because they will never ask for forgiveness.||The only sin that God is unable to forgive is the unwillingness to accept forgiveness.
Robert H. Mounce
Whoever rejects the prompting of the Holy Spirit removes himself or herself from the only force that can lead anyone to repentance and restoration with God. Those who have seen the light and yet prefer the darkness are blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This sin cannot be forgiven in this age or in the age to come because its consequences are eternal.
12:33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.”NIV Just as a good tree bears good fruit and a diseased (or bad) tree bears inedible fruit, so the fruits of a person’s life will show the quality of his or her character. Fruit is a comprehensive word, referring to teaching, character, and action. (See also 7:16-18.) Our character is revealed by our conduct.
12:34-35 “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”NIV Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers (see also 3:7; 23:33), rebuking them for their hypocritical accusation against him (12:24). Jesus called them evil; their nature and character were completely evil as seen by their words (their “fruit,” 12:33). Because they were evil, how could they possibly say anything good (or wise or truthful)? The words “out of the overflow of the heart” indicate that a person’s words reveal his or her character (“heart” referring to the inner person). The Pharisees could not hide their evil behind their status, robes, and position; their words betrayed their true character.
Restating this same principle, Jesus continued: “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.”NRSV The word “treasure” is another metaphor for the “heart”—that is, the inner person. (See also 6:19-21.)
12:36-37 “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.”NRSV These verses are found only in Matthew. Jesus explained that words matter—each person will have to give an account for every careless word. The word “careless” refers to words that we might consider insignificant or innocuous. “Careless” means inactive, idle, worthless. This refers not to mindless small talk or carefree jokes, but to broken promises, unkept commitments, and unpaid vows. Such words are better indicators of a person’s true character than his or her carefully planned and prepared statements and speeches. No word is insignificant to God, because every spoken word reveals what is in the heart. Because God knows our hearts, our words are vitally important to him. Words will be a basis for judgment because words reveal who a person truly is: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”NIV
RELIGIOUS LEADERS ASK JESUS FOR A MIRACLE / 12:38-45
12:38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”NRSV Apparently some scribes joined the Pharisees. They asked Jesus for a sign—that is, some miracle proving that he was the Messiah. But they were not sincerely seeking to know Jesus. Jesus knew they had already seen enough miraculous proof to convince them that he was the Messiah if they would just open their hearts. But they had already decided not to believe in him, and more miracles would not change their minds. The Pharisees (here joined by the scribes) wanted Jesus to authenticate by a sign the special relationship he claimed to have with God. In a separate incident recorded in 16:1-4, the Pharisees and Sadducees would ask Jesus for “a sign from heaven.” Jesus responded to both requests in the same way.
|LIFE APPLICATION – STUDY THE EVIDENCE|
|Many people have said, “If I could just see a real miracle, then I could really believe in God.” But Jesus’ response to the Pharisees applies to us. We have plenty of evidence—Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, and centuries of his work in believers around the world. Instead of looking for additional evidence or miracles, accept what God has already given and move forward. He may use your life as evidence to reach another person.|
12:39-40 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it . . .”NIV Jesus refused to give the scribes and Pharisees a sign as they requested. Instead, he gave them an answer, explaining that a sign would come in his timing and that the sign would be unmistakable. Jesus had already called the religious leaders “evil” (12:34); the words “wicked” and “adulterous” are synonyms for evil. “Adulterous” applies to the apostasy of Israel. Marriage and adultery are images used in the Old Testament for God’s love and the nation’s unfaithfulness. By these words Jesus was showing that the religious leaders were not alone in their rejection of Jesus. Instead, they were representative of most of the nation who had chosen to reject him, just as the nation had chosen to reject God’s guidance and love in the past.
“. . . except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”NIV No sign would be given to them except the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jonah was a prophet sent to the Assyrian city of Nineveh (see the book of Jonah). Because Assyria was such a cruel and warlike nation, Jonah tried to run from his assignment and ended up spending three days in the belly of a huge fish. When Jonah got out, he grudgingly went to Nineveh, preached God’s message, and saw the city repent.
There are two possible meanings for this “sign of Jonah”:
- This may refer to a sign of judgment. God will not grant the religious leaders the miracle they asked for but will only point to their rejection of the message. In Jonah’s day, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and it was as powerful as it was evil (Jonah 1:2). The extremely wicked city of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching; by contrast, when Jesus came to his people, they refused to repent.
- The “sign” granted to them may refer to the Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection would prove that he is the Messiah. Three days after his death Jesus would come back to life, just as Jonah had been “brought back” to life after spending three days in the fish. Both had been delivered from death. Jonah’s presence was a sign to the people of Nineveh; they repented at his teaching. Jesus’ return to his people after his death will also be a sign to the people of his generation. Some will repent; many will not. Because of the strong emphasis on the Resurrection as a “sign” in the early church (Acts 2:22-36; 4:10-11), most likely the church took Jesus’ words to mean his resurrection. So this is the preferable meaning.
Some have been troubled with the statement “three days and three nights” because it seems to contradict the fact that Jesus died on Friday and was raised on Sunday. In Jewish reckoning, the inclusive days make the time span from death to resurrection three days, but not three nights. But such questioning is unnecessary. The Jews would have taken “three days and three nights” as an idiom for “three days” and would have seen no contradiction.
12:41 “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”NRSV The people of Nineveh will condemn those of Jesus’ generation at the judgment. The pagans repented at the preaching of Jonah, but the Jews and their religious leaders refused to repent at Jesus’ preaching. “Something greater than Jonah is here” refers to Jesus himself and his proclamation of the kingdom’s arrival (compare to 12:6, “something greater than the temple is here”). Jesus was their promised Messiah. The Jews should have recognized him. The religious leaders who knew prophecy should have been the first to proclaim Jesus as God’s Son. Instead, they rejected him; thus, they will face condemnation for their refusal to believe. (See also 11:21-24.)
12:42 “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.”NIV The Queen of the South (also called the Queen of Sheba) had traveled from southern Arabia to see Solomon, king of Israel, and to learn about his great wisdom (1 Kings 10:1-10). This unbelieving Gentile recognized the truth about God when it was presented to her, unlike the Jewish religious leaders who refused the truth even though it was staring them in the face. The Queen of the South, along with the people of Nineveh (12:41) will rise at the judgment and condemn those who refused to believe one greater than Solomon—the Messiah himself.
|LIFE APPLICATION – GOD WORKS IN STRANGE WAYS|
|Who would imagine that a caravan organized by an Arabian queen would become a symbol of God’s powerful Good News to millions of listeners and readers down through the ages? But it was, and the queen is rightly honored for her pursuit of God’s truth.|
|Don’t box God in. Wonderful things come from his often mysterious plan. Don’t box God’s purposes for your life. Surprises may come, turns in the road, odd moments you could not predict or plan. Take such events as opportunities, not problems. Regard the people in your life as willing listeners; treat each problem as an opportunity for prayer.|
12:43-44 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order.”NRSV To further describe how it will be with this evil generation (12:39, 45), Jesus told a parable focusing on the attitude of the nation of Israel and the religious leaders in particular. There is danger in attempting to be neutral about Jesus. Unfilled and complacent people are easy targets for Satan, as Jesus described in this parable. We cannot press the details of the parable as teaching doctrinal truth about demons (for example, the picture that demons liked to live in the desert was based on popular belief, not biblical fact). Jesus may have been only using popular beliefs in this parable to make his point.
The unclean spirit was not “cast out” but for some reason had gone out of a person. The desert (waterless regions) was believed to be the habitation of demons. Because demons need a resting place (that is, someone or something living that they can enter and torment), this demon returned to its former house when it could find nothing suitable in the desert. This sentence is probably conditional: “if” the demon decided to return. Demons do not always repossess people after they leave or are cast out. That would make exorcisms both worthless and an invitation to greater disaster (12:45). Jesus was making a point about the spiritual destiny of his listeners.
In its absence, the demon’s “house” had been cleaned up. But it was still empty. Therein lay the problem and the crux of Jesus’ teaching. The problem is not so much with the demons as it is with the condition of the “house.”
12:45 “Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”NRSV The nation had been “swept clean” by the teaching and preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Many had come to repent. But if the nation did not turn around, truly repenting from sin and turning to Jesus as their Messiah and Savior, they would be no better off than a clean but empty house. Into that house comes worse evil than before. Jesus pictured the demon finding seven others and returning to the clean house. But the “owner,” now filled with eight demons instead of one, is definitely worse off than before. So it will be also with this evil generation. God’s people, privileged with prophecy and promises, would be faced with horrible judgment for rejecting their Messiah.
JESUS DESCRIBES HIS TRUE FAMILY / 12:46-50
12:46-47 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”NIV Jesus’ mother was Mary (Luke 1:30-31), and his brothers were probably the other children Mary and Joseph had after Jesus (see also Mark 6:3-4). Some Christians believe the ancient tradition that Jesus was Mary’s only child. If this is true, the “brothers” were possibly cousins (often called brothers in those days). Some have offered yet another suggestion: When Joseph married Mary, he was a widower, and these were his children by his first marriage. Based on 13:55, these were Jesus’ half brothers, Mary and Joseph’s other children, because Jesus’ father was God, not Joseph.
Apparently Mary had gathered her family, and they had gone to find Jesus. Mark explained that “Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21 niv). Mary hoped to use her personal relationship with Jesus to influence him. She saw her son in a busy ministry that was taking its toll on him. Perhaps she hoped to get him to come home; maybe she brought the brothers along to drag Jesus away from the crowd if necessary.
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, the message from his family was relayed to him. Jesus’ family thought that because of their relationship with him, he would answer their request.
12:48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”NIV Instead of going outside to see what his family members wanted, Jesus looked at the crowd and asked an odd question, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus knew why his family had come, yet he used their visit as a lesson in discipleship. A relationship with Jesus was not limited to those in his immediate family. Jesus opened this relationship to all people. His question could be rendered, “Who are the types of people who can have a family relationship with me?”
12:49-50 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”NIV Jesus point[ed] to his disciples and answered his own question. The types of people who can have a relationship with him are those who do the Father’s will. They listen, learn, believe, and follow. Obedience is the key to discipleship. In these words, Jesus explained that in his spiritual family, the relationships are ultimately more important and longer lasting than those formed in his physical family.
Jesus was not denying his responsibility to his earthly family. On the contrary, he would criticize the religious leaders for not following the Old Testament command to honor their parents (Matthew 15:1-9). He would provide for his mother’s security as he hung on the cross (John 19:25-27). His mother and brothers would be present in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Instead, Jesus was pointing out that spiritual relationships are as binding as physical ones, and he was paving the way for a new community of believers to be formed as Jesus’ spiritual family. This family would be characterized by love; the members should desire to be together, work together, and share one another’s burdens.
Source: Life Application Bible Commentary – Matthew.