Jesus Teaches concerning the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8)
The events recorded in Matthew 12 bring us to the close of the first great division of this Gospel in which the King and the kingdom were presented to Israel and deliberately rejected by the leaders of the nation.
In the first eight verses we have a most interesting and instructive incident recorded. Here Jesus declares Himself to be Lord of the sabbath, again attesting to His deity. The sabbath was Jehovah’s witness to His power in creation (Exodus 20:10-11) and to the redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). It was distinctively “the sabbath of Jehovah.” The Jehovah of the Old Testament is the Jesus of the New, and He is Lord of the sabbath, as of all else.
Walking quietly in the country, the Lord and His disciples passed through a cornfield. The hungry disciples began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat. This was quite in keeping with the provision made in the law, for in Deuteronomy 23:25 we read, “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour’s standing corn.” This incident occurred on the sabbath day however, and the Pharisees immediately took exception to it, exclaiming, “Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.” There was absolutely no prohibition in the law of Moses in regard to this, but in the traditions of the elders there were many added laws and regulations that made it at times almost impossible for the ordinary man to know whether he was violating one of them or not. Among these rules was the prohibition to gather fruit or grain of any kind on the sabbath day. Even to rub it out in the hand as the disciples were doing seemed to these Pharisees a violation of that which they regarded as sacred.
The Lord defended His followers, however, by pointing out that the meeting of man’s need means far more to God than the obedience to legal restrictions. He cited the case of David and his men who were hungry. They asked the high priest if they might be permitted to eat the shewbread that had been taken from the holy table before the Lord. Under ordinary circumstances it was not lawful for anyone but the priests themselves to eat this bread. But when God’s anointed king was rejected and his followers were in distress, their need was paramount to any legal prohibition.
The Lord also reminded His critics that the priests in the temple work on the sabbath day and, therefore, might be said to profane it, but they were blameless in so doing.
He then added the remarkable declaration: “In this place is one greater than the temple.” How little the Pharisees understood His words. Everything in that temple, as far as it was arranged according to the Word of God, spoke of Jesus and His redemptive work. But though He had come in person to what He called His Father’s house, people failed to realize who it was who walked among them. His words were not simply an announcement of His deity, however. Rightly understood this declaration should have made it clear to the Pharisees that man himself means more to God than any building, no matter how holy, and more than any rules and regulations, no matter how well-authenticated. Hosea 6:6 says, “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Had the critics but pondered these words of the prophet Hosea they would have understood the value God gives to man and would not have condemned the disciples for doing that which in itself was perfectly innocent.
“The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.” This remarkable assertion of Jesus can mean nothing less than that He claimed to be God incarnate. No mere human would have the right to use such language as this. Jesus was the One to whom all the sabbaths of the law pointed, and He had absolute authority over them.
Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-21)
Entering into a village synagogue Jesus saw a man with a withered hand. A test question arose among those who were gathered there. They asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?” In the Gospels of Mark and Luke we read that Jesus turned the question back to those who posed it. For them to say no would indicate that they were utterly indifferent to human sufferings; to reply in the affirmative would be to accuse themselves. So they did not answer, (see Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9).
Jesus then asked another question—one that would go home to many of them. Possibly they had rescued sheep on the sabbath on numerous occasions. Sheep to them constituted property, and property must be cared for even on the sabbath day.
Without waiting for an answer, Jesus replied to His own questions by pointing out that a man is much better than a sheep, and it is always lawful to do good on the sabbath day. He turned to the man who was expectantly looking toward Him, and commanded him to stretch out his hand. In an instant new life came into that withered hand and it was restored whole like the other. One would think that surely this miracle would have convinced even the most prejudiced Pharisees that God’s King was with them. But so bigoted were they that they went out and held a council against Him, endeavoring to devise some means by which they might destroy Him.
Jesus knew what was in their minds, and therefore withdrew Himself and went elsewhere. Great multitudes of the common people followed after Him. Many of them were sick, and we are told that He healed them all. But He charged them not to spread abroad the report of His marvelous power. He had not come, as we have noticed in an earlier chapter, to create astonishment in the minds of men by His wonder-working ability. He had come to reveal that meekness and lowliness which the prophet Isaiah predicted would be seen in Messiah when He appeared. The quotation given in Matthew 12:18-21 is from Isaiah 42:1-4.
Jesus Confirms His Authority Is from God (Matthew 12:22-30)
A crisis is reached in connection with the King’s presentation of Himself to Israel. He had given evidence after evidence of His messiahship, but those who should have been the first to recognize Him were determined not to do so. Now once more He demonstrated His power over the unseen world by casting out a demon who had made the wretched man in whom he resided to be both blind and dumb. When Jesus cast out the evil spirit, the man both spoke and saw. The crowds that thronged about the Lord were amazed and cried out, “Is not this the son of David?” They saw in the miracle the proof that Jesus was the King of David’s line who had come to redeem Israel. But they were silenced by the Pharisees who exclaimed, “This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.” This was the second time that the leaders of the nation deliberately rejected Jesus by ascribing all His works of power to Beelzebub. Only in this way could they account for the great miracles Jesus performed and refuse to see in them His credentials as the promised King. It was evident now that there would be no repentance. These religious leaders were bent upon the destruction of Him whom the people had just acclaimed “the Son of David.”
Jesus knew the thoughts of the Pharisees and did not need any man to tell Him what was in their minds. He observed that “if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?”
Jesus continued, “If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?” He was referring to the disciples, who had also been empowered by the Lord to cast out demons. Afraid of offending the relatives of the disciples, the Pharisees did not want to say of the disciples what had been said of Jesus.
It was clear that Jesus was either revealing the mighty power of God, or deceiving the people by Satanic influence. They must decide which they would believe. He challenged them to recognize the true condition of affairs by saying, “If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God [which of course He did], then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” It was this that Jesus wanted the people to understand: the King was there and the little group of His disciples were His acknowledged subjects. Thus the kingdom in embryo was actually in the midst of the Israelites. Would they receive it, or spurn the privilege of entering into it?
No one could enter a strong man’s house and spoil his goods unless he were able to overcome the owner. Jesus had met the strong man, Satan, in the wilderness and overcome him. Ever since He had gone about through the land of Israel spoiling his goods. Now the time had come for those who heard Him to take a definite stand. They must be either for Him or against Him; neutrality would not do. Those who were not with Him, who did not proclaim themselves on His side, were really against Him; for all who would not gather with Him were but scattering abroad.
Jesus Warns of the Unpardonable Sin (Matthew 12:31-37)
Matthew 12:31-32 has troubled many people. If rightly understood, these verses ought to trouble no one except those who are determined to refuse the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The sin of which Jesus spoke was a dispensational sin, and definitely cannot be committed, at least in exactly the same way, by individuals today. Jesus had come in the power of the Holy Spirit, presenting Himself to Israel as their rightful King. His mighty works, as we have seen, accredited His testimony. The only way in which men could refuse to own His grace and yet recognize His power was by attributing all His mighty works to the devil. Those who did this gave evidence that they had sinned until their consciences were seared as with a hot iron. They had gone beyond the redemption point, not because God would not have been merciful to them if they had repented, but because they had so persisted in their sin that there was on their part no evidence of nor desire for repentance. Had they simply spoken against the Son of man, Jesus said they would have been forgiven. But He solemnly added, “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world [age], neither in the world [age] to come.”
Jesus was not intimating, as the Roman Catholics tell us, that there is forgiveness for some in another world, though they leave this world with sin still upon their souls. The Lord was speaking of two ages: the age that was just closing, and the age to come, which is, properly speaking, the millennium. The present age was hidden at that time in the mind of God. Yet we can apply His words to our own day also, for those who deliberately refuse the testimony of the Holy Ghost concerning Christ could not be forgiven in the Jewish age, nor in this or any other age to follow.
Many dear souls have tormented themselves, or have been tormented by the devil, with the awful thought that they are guilty of the sin here described. Yet deep in their hearts they fully recognize the deity of the Lord Jesus and have no thought of attributing to the devil the power that Jesus displayed.
In Matthew 12:33-37 Jesus used perhaps the strongest language recorded of Him, as He addressed these hypocritical religious leaders who determined to persist in their rejection of Him, no matter what the cost. He calls for a clean-cut distinction between evil and good. Every tree is known by its fruit. His life of holiness was the testimony to the reality of His claim. Their evil lives were the evidence of their corrupt hearts.
“O generation of vipers”! These hypocrites were the brood of the serpent, and they manifested the nature of that old serpent, the devil, in their attitude toward Christ. Out of the abundance of their hearts their mouths spoke.
Thus our words indicate the condition of the inward man. A good man, made good by grace, speaks from the treasure of his heart words that are good. An inherently evil man reveals his wickedness by the words that fall from his lips. In the day of judgment God will deal with men according to what they themselves have spoken. Account will have to be given for every word, and by these words we will be either justified or condemned.
Jesus Condemns the Jews’ Unbelief (Matthew 12:38-45)
A number of the scribes and Pharisees added insult to injury, we might say, by coming to the Lord and asking for a sign, which He refused to give. He directed their attention to events of the past which would only make their condemnation the greater in the day when they would have to give an account to God.
One would think that their own self-respect would have kept the scribes and Pharisees from asking for another sign, after they had seen so many and rejected them all. In answer to their demand Jesus replied that it was an evil and adulterous generation that was seeking a sign. No sign should be given to such a generation except the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jesus also referred to His resurrection from the dead that was soon to take place, but as we know failed to convince these men of the folly and wickedness of their course.
Whatever others may say, Jesus had no doubts regarding the authenticity of the records of the book of Jonah, and He was God incarnate, who knew all things. He said that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea-monster. Through this experience Jonah became a sign of the Son of man who was to be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth—that is, the grave. Moreover, our Lord authenticated the repentance of Nineveh. He declared that in the judgment the Ninevites would condemn the generation who refused His testimony, because the Ninevites had repented at the preaching of Jonah, and He was greater far than Jonah.
Jesus brought forth also another witness from the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba, whom He calls the queen of the south. She came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, because she had learned that he could reveal to her precious things concerning the name of the Lord, which her soul longed to understand. She did not consider a journey of perhaps a thousand miles too great in order to hear the wisdom of Solomon. But these deniers of the truth were unmoved, though Solomon’s Lord Himself was in their midst. When at last they shall stand trembling in their sins before the bar of God, the queen of the south will appear to upbraid them because of their willful rejection of light. She followed the gleam from the very ends of the earth in order that that light might be hers forevermore.
Jesus then told a remarkable parable of unbelieving Israel’s past, present, and future state. The unclean spirit in the parable is the spirit of idolatry that was cast out of the nation of the Jews as a result of the Babylonian captivity. Since their return from Babylon they had been like an empty house swept and garnished. They were free from idolatry; but on the other hand, they had not received the Lord Himself to dwell among them. In a coming day this evil spirit of idolatry will take with himself seven other spirits even more wicked than he, and they will enter and dwell in the apostate nation. This will result in the recognition of the antichrist, the willfull king, as the messiah, and so their last state will be worse than the first. The wicked generation that rejected Jesus will still be evident in that hour of tribulation.
Jesus Introduces a New Family (Matthew 12:46-50)
Whether His mother failed in measure to comprehend the mystery of her Son we cannot say, but we do know that His brothers did not believe in Him until after His resurrection. They interrupted His preaching by sending one to announce their presence, evidently with the suggestion that He should cease ministering and come to them. But He stretched forth His hand toward those who were ready to learn from Him and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren!” And He added that all who did the will of the Father in Heaven are His brother, sister, and mother. It was the renunciation of all fleshly ties. The break with Israel was practically complete. He was looking forward to an altogether new order of things.