Notes Matthew chapter 12
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
Plucking Ears on the Sabbath 12:1-8
12:1. At that time: see 11:25. We do not know where this happened, only that they were on their way to the synagogue (v.9).
His disciples … began to pick some ears of corn. The disciples became hungry and therefore began to pluck the ears. This must have happened at the beginning of the barley harvest (just before the Passover) or at the beginning of the wheat harvest (just after the Passover), i.e., about a year before Jesus’ death.
2. Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. It was permitted in the Law (Deut 23:25) to pluck ears by the wayside. But according to Jewish custom this was forbidden on the Sabbath. It was considered as a part of harvesting or preparing a meal, both of which were forbidden. Violating the Sabbath was punishable by death (Exod 31:14-15; cf. Num 15:32-36). For this reason the Pharisees come to Jesus, whom they consider responsible for the disciples’ behaviour.
3. Jesus first responds with two counter-questions, referring to two examples from Scripture. The core of these questions is: Do you not know (they could have known) that there are regulations in the law which can be infringed without penalty?
Haven’t you read what David did. In vv.3-4 Jesus points to David’s behaviour in I Sam 21: 2-7. There were indeed some points of agreement between what David had done and what the disciples were now doing: being hungry, eating on the Sabbath, breaking the law. If the Pharisees were unwilling to condemn David (which they certainly did not want to do), it was inconsistent to condemn the disciples for something far less serious.
4. He and his companions ate the consecrated bread. The shewbread (a sacrificial offering before the Lord) lay in two rows of six on a table of pure gold in the Holy Place. They must be changed on every Sabbath and the old loaves might only be eaten by the priests (Lev 24:5-9). On the Sabbath David came to the priest Ahimelech in Nob (I Sam 21:6). At that time the Tabernacle stood there because the Temple had not yet been built. It was hunger (the law of necessity to maintain life, cf. vv. 10-11) which justified the breaking of the ceremonial law in both the case of David and in that of the disciples.
5. On the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent. It was always busy in the Temple and on the Sabbath special offerings had to be made (Lev 24:8-9; Num 28:9-10). Circumcision was also performed on the Sabbath (John 7:23). The Law of keeping the sabbath was broken by the priests in the Temple. This does not imply, however, that religious duties conflicted with each other, but rather that the higher command of the Temple cult (the positive Thou Shalt) rendered the lower command (the negative Thou Shalt Not) of the inviolability of the Sabbath inoperative.
6. One greater than the temple is here. If the Temple can abolish the law of the Sabbath rest for its servants, how much more can the Messiah do for His disciples. He is much more than the Temple, i.e., God now dwells in a higher, richer way in Jesus than He dwelt in the Temple in the old dispensation (cf. 26:61; 27:40; John 2:19-22). Just as there was formerly no rest for the priests on the Sabbath, so is there now no rest for the disciples.
7. I desire mercy. The Pharisees not only lack the correct interpretation of the law (vv. 3-4) and a proper understanding of the person of Jesus (i.e., that He is the Messiah, v.6), but they also lack compassionate love. Again (cf. 9:13) Jesus directs them to Hos 6:6, where it is written that God attaches more value to merciful love (the ethical) than to ceremonies (the ritual). The Pharisees did the exact opposite. Now this leads to their condemnation of the disciples who are guiltless, and will lead shortly to the condemnation of the Guiltless One.
8. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. The stress of the sentence is on the word Lord, placed first in the Greek sentence, and not on Son of Man. Hence the point of concern is not the opposition Son of Man/other men (the Israelites), but on the master-slave contrast. The Sabbath was originally intended as a gift, a benefit for Israel, and not as an end in itself (Deut 5:14; Mark 2:27). What was valid for Israel, i.e., that it was not a slave to the Sabbath, but must see it as a means, as a master regards his own property, – this was valid in unlimited measure for the Son of Man, the true Israel (cf. also vv. 5-6).
Jesus Heals a Withered Hand on the Sabbath 12:9-14
9. We gain the impression that this occurred on the same day as the plucking of the ears (vv. 1-8). But we read in Mark (3:1) and Luke (6:6) that this incident occurred on another Sabbath day. In this verse Matthew simply passes from one story to the other.
Their synagogue indicates that the same Pharisees are involved as in the previous conflict. Apparently the synagogue in Capernaum is meant.
10. Near the synagogue Jesus met someone with a withered hand. Here a specific sort of muscle atrophy or paralysis is meant.
Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? After their defeat in the previous conflict (vv. 1-8) the Pharisees returned to complain at Him in what was for them a more favourable situation. They expected that Jesus would not be able to pass by someone in need without helping him, while for them it was rigidly laid down that healing on the Sabbath was forbidden. Medical assistance on the Sabbath, they said, might only be forthcoming when life was in danger, of which there can be no mention in a chronic disorder, as here (SB I, 623).
11. Jesus asks them a counter-question and points to their own practice with regard to animals. We see here that the Pharisees belong to the less extreme side, if they will pull an animal out of the pit into which it has fallen on the Sabbath. There was also a stronger concept, which taught that an animal might indeed be fed but not pulled out of a pit on the Sabbath (SB I, 629).
12. Jesus shows them their inconsistency in paying more attention to an animal than to a man, for the man is indeed high above the animals.
Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. After His conclusion, that it is permitted to heal a sick man on the Sabbath, Jesus concludes the discussion with a general statement, a principle (cf. 12:28): it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days. Had this been forbidden, it would have been an evil day. For if one does not do good when one has the opportunity, that is in itself an evil deed (cf. Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9). And to do evil is the greatest desecration of this day.
13. Jesus prevents any further discussion by healing the man’s hand.
Stretch out your hand. The hand was withered and could not be stretched out. But Jesus demanded an act of faith. And the man stretched out his hand, demonstrating that he had faith in Him and in His power to heal. And his hand was restored.
14. The Pharisees … plotted how they might kill Jesus. This is the first time that we read of the Pharisees’ plans to murder Him. They were furious with Jesus (Luke 6:11) and had even plotted with the Herodians (Mark 3:6), the political agents of Herod Antipas, with whom they normally had very strained relations. Till now they had contented themselves with expressing their criticism of Him. But now they planned to get rid of Him. In their eyes, to heal someone on the Sabbath was a deadly sin (Sabbath-breaking carried the death penalty, Exod 31:14), but making plans to kill someone was obviously not wrong.
Healings; Fulfilment of the Prophecy 12:15-21
15. Jesus withdrew from that place. Jesus could have performed a miracle to save His life, but He preferred to trust Himself to our limitations, and therefore retired. He did so because he had not yet come (as the Messianic king) to be honoured by the people and because He wished to avoid difficulties and quarrels with the people He had come to save (cf. Isa 42:2). Jesus withdrew from arguments, but not from needs. The sick followed Him and He healed them all.
16. Warning them not to tell who he was. This is the third time in Matthew’s gospel that these words have been spoken (8:4; 9:30; cf. 17:9). The time had not yet dawned for Jesus to reveal Himself with the praise and glory of the Messianic king. Therefore He never sought renown and had no wish to be known as a so-called miracle-worker.
17. To fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah. Matthew quotes here a prophecy from Isaiah (42:1-4), which announces Jesus’ coming. In Isa 42:1-4 it is said, among other things, that the Servant of the Lord will not quarrel, will renounce being honoured (will not lift up his voice) and will deal gently with people neglected by their leaders (will not break a bruised reed etc.). The prophecies about the Servant of the Lord are fulfilled in Jesus (cf. 3:17; 8:17). In this Matthew follows Jesus Himself (see 11:5).
18. Here is my servant. ‘Servant’ (Greek pais) has here the same connotation as son (Matt 3:17). For Christ as the servant of God see Phil 2:7-8. V.18a was fulfilled by Jesus’ baptism (3:16-17). He will proclaim justice. The Greek krisis (justice) is a translation of the Hebrew mishpt, and here means right and points to that divine right which will rule in the new world-order.
19. He will not quarrel or cry out. The Servant of the Lord will not strive nor cry out. This agrees with the fact that Jesus withdrew from the arguments with the Pharisees (v.15) and that He declared the truth with gentleness (cf. 11:29). The word ‘cry’ (Gk. kraugaz) was used for example of the barking of a dog, the croaking of a raven, the ramblings of a drunkard and the howl of a mab, in a theatre.
No-one will hear his voice in the streets. That his voice will not be heard in the streets tells of his lack of desire for fame, which we see fulfilled in the returning plea for silence which Jesus laid on people (v.16).
20. A bruised reed he will not break. The reed is a picture of weakness (Ezek 29:6-7), and bruised means half- broken, cf. Is 36:6). The smoldering wick indicates a fire that is almost out. The people, who resemble a bruised reed and smoldering wick, will be treated with love by the Servant of the Lord. We see this fulfilled in Jesus, who has mercy on what is weak. He calls to Himself those who are weary and heavy laden (11:28-30), He ate with tax-collectors and sinners (9:11), He had mercy on neglected people (9:36), He healed the sick (12:15) and preached the gospel to the poor (11:15).
He leads justice to victory. Justice, divine order (Gk. krisis, v.18) will triumph through His power. In v.20b Matthew summarises vv.3b and 4a from Isa 42.
21. In his name the nations will put their hope. Cf. V.18b. Jesus will not only restore divine order for neglected Israel (10:6; 15:24), but also enlighten the heathen (Isa 42:6 ff; 51:5; Matt 8:11; 28:19) who trust in His name (Isa 42:4b).
Jesus and Beelzebul 12:22-30
22. Then they brought him a demon-possessed man. The word ’then’ (Gk tote) must not be understood in the sense of ‘immediately after’ but may better be translated with ‘once’. This is the way in which Matthew brings together two stories. The strife between Jesus and the Pharisees gathers strength. The healing of a possessed man is the signal for a new attack on Jesus.
This healing is not the same as in 9:32-34. This man is not only dumb but also blind.
23. Could this be the Son of David? The reaction of the people is different from that in 9:33. The interrogative Greek particle meti (= question mark:?) does not require a negative answer here but is neutral: ‘is this perhaps the Son of David?’ (BDR 427,2).
‘Son of David’ is the popular name for the Messiah (cf. Matt 9:27).
24. It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons. The Pharisees, who Mark says have come from Jerusalem (Mark 3:22) react to the peoples’ opinion (v.23b). For ‘Beelzebul’ see 10:25.
We see here that the Pharisees believed in an organised demonic kingdom, i.e., that there were ranks in the demon-world, there are masters and servants. The prince of the devilish kingdom is here called ‘Beelzebub’. If Jesus performs such mighty works of power, the Pharisees are able to give but one explanation, that He has made a compact with the chief of the devils. It was the practice of Jewish exorcists to cast out evil spirits by all manner of means, especially by incantations in which a spirit of a higher rank was summoned as ally in the strife with a lower-ranking spirit.
25-26. Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined. The Pharisees said nothing to Jesus, but He knows their thoughts even when He does not hear them (Mark 2:8). From Jesus’ answer it appears that He confirms the existence of an organised demonic kingdom. He compares the world of Satan to a kingdom, a city and a house, i.e., this world is an organised society with a common goal and a will, the will of Satan. From this common conviction Jesus proves to the Pharisees that it is impossible for Him to drive out demons in the power of Beelzebub, for inward divisions indicate the end of every kingdom, of every society. Although Jesus confirms the existence of an organised satanic kingdom, in contrast to the Pharisees He calls both the prince and the devils Satan. For Him there is but one Satan, one adversary, the tempter, the evil one, the enemy of God.
27. By whom do your people drive them out? As a second argument Jesus points to them that it is inconsistent to ascribe His works of power to Satan, and not so to ascribe those of the Jewish exorcists. Josephus (Ant. VIII, ii, 5) tells about Jewish exorcists who travelled through the land. We read this too in Acts 19:13. By ‘your people’ Jesus means these conjurers. It does not mean sons according to the flesh, but people belonging to the Pharisees (or, to the Jewish people).
They will be your judges. Jesus then says that these conjurers will judge the Pharisees. This means that the Pharisees’ judgment of Jesus and His works is in fact a judgment of themselves, for they practise and tolerate the same works (cf. Rom 2:1). This condemnation will occur at the Great Judgment (cf. 12:41-42).
28. If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God. If Jesus in this way had disproved the contention that He does His works in the power of Satan, the logical conclusion is that He drives out demons in the power of God. Luke speaks here of the finger of God instead of the Spirit of God (Luke 11:20, cf. Exod 8:19). In the OT both expressions are identical and mean ’the power of God’.
The kingdom of God has come upon you. Matthew usually uses the expression ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. When he speaks of the Kingdom of God here he means the same thing (heaven is a periphrasis of the divine Name, such as Father, Wisdom, Power, Name). He does so only five times in all (6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31; 21:43). The Greek for ‘has come’ (ephthasen) is a tenseless aorist. It does not mean explicitly a coming in the past or in the future. It simply indicates the presence of the Kingdom of God (cf. the coming of John and Jesus, 11:18-19). The miracles of Jesus and the disciples prove the presence of the Kingdom of God.
29. Jesus strengthens His conclusion in v.28 with a parable. He compares Satan to the master of a house (cf. 10:25) and the possessed persons to household goods, i.e., instruments without a will of their own. From the common conviction that Satan is a powerful spirit and can only be driven out by a stronger spirit, Jesus demands recognition from the Pharisees of the fact that He does not work in the power of Satan, but that He has taken that one captive, defeated him, when He drives out demons.
The destruction of Satan’s lordship is equal to setting up the Kingdom, the rule of God. We read the complete fulfilment of this in Rev 20:2,10. The difference between Matt 12:29 and Rev 20:2 is the difference between D-Day and V-Day.
30. He who is not with me is against me. It is impossible to be neutral. There is no middle way. Either you follow Jesus and resist the devil, or you follow the devil and resist Jesus. Here Jesus pronounces a severe sentence on the so-called critical neutrality of the Pharisees.
Gathering and scattering is an image from the shepherd’s life: whoever does not guard the flock scatters it.
The Sin against the Holy Spirit 12:31-37
31. And so: refers back to the previous verses. Because it is impossible to remain neutral (v.30) Jesus warns them (the Pharisees) of the serious consequences of their neutral attitude, so-called.
The blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Blaspheming the Spirit is extremely serious, so serious that there is no forgiveness for it. We see here a contrast between all sinful actions (including sins against the Son of Man, v.32) and the sin against the Holy Ghost. For this reason this sin is not a very grave action but an attitude of life, a second anti-God nature (cf. vv.34-35). In Greek the word ‘blasphemy’ is a strong expression. It is a deliberate and godless rejection of the saving power and grace of God. The Pharisees were well on the way to falling into this sin when they claimed that Jesus was allied to the devil.
The reason the sin against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven is not that the Lord cannot or will not do so, but that the people who persist in this godless attitude of life are obdurate and have no repentance. They do not want to receive forgiveness, but continue their calumny. So if anyone is afraid that he has committed this sin, it is certain that he has not!
32. The sin against the Son of Man, against Jesus, is indeed forgiven. For he who does not recognise the divine worthiness of Him who concealed Himself in a humble guise as a man may be excused. But there are no conditions on which someone who is hardened (see commentary on v. 31) can be forgiven, such as repentance, conversion and belief. There is no possibility of forgiveness for someone who has reached this stage.
Either in this age or in the age to come. ‘This age’ is the present world in all its aspects and forms before the coming of the Messiah. The ‘age to come’ is the new time of the Kingdom of peace which dawns with the coming of the Son of Man, the power of which is already at work in the disciples of Jesus (Heb 6:5).
For ‘sin unto death’ see also I John 5:16-17; Heb 6:4-8; 10:26-31.
33. A tree is recognised by its fruit. Jesus here repeats the principle He has previously stated in connection with false prophets (7:16 ff). The fruit of a tree has the same nature as the tree itself. Hence from the words and deeds of a man his heart, his nature can be seen. The fruits of Jesus’ life were good, but the fruits of the Pharisees (in this case their words, vv. 24, 34) were so evil that Jesus had to warn them against falling into the sin for which there is no forgiveness.
34. You brood of vipers. John the Baptist too called the Pharisees ‘you brood of vipers’ (3:7). A viper is dangerous and poisonous. The expression ‘brood of vipers’ or ‘children of snakes’ can also be an indication of the descendants of Satan, the ‘old serpent’ (Rev 12:9; 20:2).
Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. A man’s words are compared to the fruit of a tree. What one says has previously been thought, so that the words give a clear picture of the attitude of the heart (cf. James 3:11-12). The heart is a reservoir for thoughts. Spoken words are, as it were, the overflow from this reservoir. We see that this anti-god attitude (see commentary on v.31) is already clearly present in the Pharisees.
35. Jesus now likens the heart to a treasure chamber. Everyone collects what he finds valuable. Something from the treasure chamber is brought out to be used from time to time. But what is brought out must first have been taken in. In this way a good man always has something good to offer, but a bad man only something bad.
36. Men will have to give account … for every careless word. The Greek for ‘careless’ (argos) comes from a-ergos, which literally means ‘without work’. It can mean ‘worthless’, ‘useless’, in contrast to ‘constructive’. It can also mean ‘unconscious’, ’thoughtless’, in contrast to words meant consciously. In both cases the problem of the words does not lie with the tongue but in the heart.
Day of judgment: see Acts 17:31; Rev 20:11-15.
The meaning of this verse is clear: if even these words will be judged, how much more the Pharisees’ calumny (v.24).
37. It is not the words themselves which will count so heavily at the judgment, but words as a natural outpouring of the heart, which is good or bad (v.34; James 3:10-12; cf. Luke 19:22). We therefore see that judgment will be on the basis of a man’s inclination (from which guilt or innocence depends) and knowledge (which determines the degree of guilt and innocence).
The Sign of Jonah 12:38-42
38. We want to see a miraculous sign from you. This is the first of five occasions on which Jesus was asked for a sign (16:1; 24:3; John 2:18; 6:30). The Pharisees who now demand a sign from Jesus are not the same as in v.24 (see Luke 11:16). Apparently they have conspired with the party after the previous incident and then pushed some scribes forward to form a definite opinion of Jesus at a suitable moment (vv.24-36). They want to see a sign from Jesus. The miracles (Gk. dunameis) of Jesus were for them not a sign (Gk. smeion) from Heaven. Now they demand a convincing divine confirmation, ligitimation of His person and His message (cf. I Cor 1:22).
39. God is not unwilling to give a sign: see Judg 6:17 ff, Gideon; II Kings 20:8 ff, Hezekiah; Isa 7:10 ff, Ahaz, and others. But the problem was that the Pharisees were unwilling to believe the signs.
A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign. When Jesus answers, He addresses the whole generation of the Jews of his time and calls them evil and adulterous. They have departed from the way of the living God. This is why they do not recognise the Signs Jesus gives (vv. 24,28). Yet Jesus says they will receive the special sign they ask for, i.e., the sign of Jonah. This sign had long been known among the Jews: the miraculous saving from death by staying in the innermost part of the sea monster (3 Macc 6:8; TDNT III, 409).
40. The sign that will legitimate Jesus as the Messiah is His rising from the dead. This is the second time that Jesus has declared that He will rise again after His death (for the first time see John 2:19).
Three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. ‘Three days and three nights’ is a common expression for three days. It does not mean three times twenty-four hours, for three days have passed on the third day (cf. Esther 4:16 and 5:1). We also find this use of the term ‘day and night’ in the Jewish tradition (SB I, 649). The ‘heart of the earth’ is not the grave, but Hades, the kingdom of the dead (cf. ‘heart of the sea’, Jonah 2:2-3). Jesus descended to the realm of the dead after His death on the cross (I Peter 3:19).
41. The men of Nineveh. Nineveh was the mighty city of the Assyrians, which lay on the river Tigris. It was a city of world-wide importance in the days of Jonah, and the only foreign city to which a Jewish prophet was sent with a message from God.
Will stand up … with this generation and condemn it. The Jews justified Jonah’s flight because he would have known that the conversion of Nineveh would witness against the people of Israel (SB I, 643). But however this may be, the truth is that while these heathens were converted under the prophet’s preaching, the Jewish people now turn away from Him who is greater than Jonah. For this reason Jesus says that the Ninevites will condemn this generation of Jews at the Great Judgment after the resurrection from the dead. By this we must not understand that they will stand next to God as judges but that they provide a norm of comparison for the judgment of this generation of Jews (cf. 10:15; 11:22-24; 12:27).
42. The Queen of the South will rise … with this generation and condemn it. Jesus now compares this generation to the Queen of Sheba, who came from ’the ends othe f earth’, i.e., the then known earth, to listen to the wisdom of Solomon (I Kings 10:1-13). Apparently Sheba lay in the south- west of the Arabian peninsula (about modern Yemen). The sharp contrast between the generation of Jews of Jesus’ time of the Queen of Sheba becomes clear. While she made a long journey to listen to the limited wisdom of a foreign king, the Jews remain indifferent to the divine wisdom offered to them in their own country by the King promised to them.
For this reason, the Queen of the South will condemn this generation at the Judgment (cf. v.41).
The Return of the Evil Spirit 12:43-45
43. It appears from v.45b that verses 43-45a are a parable which Jesus tells about the Pharisees and their exorcists in particular and the Jewish people in general (vv.24, 27, 38-39, 45b; cf. Luke 11:14-26).
An evil spirit … goes through arid places seeking rest. Demons love death (cf. 8:28) and therefore inhabit dry chaotic regions where death reigns and where no man can live (Isa 13:21; 34:12-14; Rev 18:2). But because there are no people there in which the unclean spirit can dwell, he finds no peace there.
44. I will return to the house I left. Then he will return to his old dwelling and he finds this empty, clean and in order, i.e., ready for the festive reception of a guest. And because the Spirit of God has not yet indwelt this man the evil spirit comes back with reinforcements (v. 45).
45. To run less risk of being expelled again, he will summon seven other spirits worse than himself. And so the man’s last situation will be worse than the first.
That is how it will be with this wicked generation. In this parable Jesus wants to say that this generation, which is certainly concerned with driving out demons (v.27), withstanding the Evil One in its own way, but will not accept the power of the Kingdom of God (the Holy Spirit, v.28), which is present in Him, only will come into a far worse situation.
Jesus’ Mother and Brothers 12:46-50
46. His mother and brothers stood outside. The reason that Jesus’ mother and brothers come to Him is apparently the same as in Mark 3:21. They thought that He had lost His reason. John too writes that His brothers did not believe in Him (John 7:3 ff). It seems that even Mary thought He had gone too far (cf. Matt 10:34-37).
About brothers and sisters of Jesus, hence children of Joseph and Mary, we read also in Matt 13:55f. Of Joseph we hear nothing after the birth stories. Apparently he was already dead when Jesus began His public ministry.
47. Wanting to speak to you. Jesus’ family stood outside waiting for Him. They wanted to speak to Him personally, but this was impossible because of the press of the crowd (Luke 8:19). They really had to be in the house to listen to Him.
48. Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? There is no lack of respect in His words. He showed His love for everybody, including His family. It is incorrect, however, if they suppose this, that His work in the Kingdom of God has to give way to family relationships (cf. 10:37).
49. Pointing to his disciples. Jesus sees His family in every believer. His followers are closer to Him that His closest relatives. Yea more; His followers take the place of His earthly family.
50. Whoever does the will of my Father. The sign of this spiritual family is that they do the will of God (cf. Matt 7:21). It is emphasised that only those who do the will of the Father have the right to such a deep family relationship with Jesus. We are not concerned here with doing in contrast to hearing (cf. 7:24 ff), but with hearing that leads to actions (cf. Luke 8:21).