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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
Matthew 12



Verse 8


‘The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.’

Matthew 12:8

The one great subject which stands out prominently in the opening verses of this chapter is the Sabbath Day. It is a subject on which strange opinions prevailed among the Jews in our Lord’s time; it is a subject on which divers opinions have often been held in the Churches of Christ, and wide differences exist among men at the present time. Let us see what we may learn about it from our Lord’s teaching.

I. The Lord did not abrogate the observance of a weekly Sabbath Day.—He only freed it from incorrect interpretations, and purified it from man-made additions. He did not tear out of the decalogue the fourth commandment: He only stripped off the miserable traditions with which the Pharisees had incrusted the day, and by which they had made it, not a blessing, but a burden. He left the fourth commandment where he found it,—a part of the eternal law of God, of which no jot or tittle was ever to pass away. May we never forget this!

II. The Lord allows all work of real necessity and mercy.—This is a principle which is abundantly established. We find our Lord justifying His disciples for plucking the ears of corn on a Sabbath: it was an act permitted in Scripture (Deuteronomy 23:25). We find Him maintaining the lawfulness of healing a sick man on the Sabbath Day (Matthew 5:10). We ought never to rest from doing good.

III. Why?—The arguments by which our Lord supports the lawfulness of any work of necessity and mercy on the Sabbath, are striking and unanswerable. He reminds the Pharisees, who charge Him and His disciples with breaking the law, how David and his men, for want of other food, had eaten the holy shew-bread out of the tabernacle. Above all, He lays down the great principle that no ordinance of God is to be pressed so far as to make us neglect the plain duties of charity. ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice.’

IV. Avoid low views of the sanctity of the Christian Sabbath.—Let us not abuse the liberty which He has so clearly marked out for us, and pretend that we do things on the Sabbath from ‘necessity and mercy,’ which in reality we do for our own selfish gratification. There is great reason for warning people on this point. The Pharisee pretended to add to the holiness of the day; the Christian is too often disposed to take away from that holiness, and to keep the day in an idle, profane, irreverent manner. To give the Sabbath to idleness, pleasure-seeking, or the world, is utterly unlawful.

—Bishop J. C. Ryle.


‘Lord Macaulay, in a speech on the Factory Acts, illustrates the value of a day of rest: “Man, man is the great instrument that produces wealth. The natural difference between Campania and Spitsbergen is trifling when compared with the difference between a country inhabited by men full of bodily and mental vigour and a country inhabited by men sunk in bodily and mental decrepitude. Therefore it is that we are not poorer, but richer, because we have, through many ages, rested from our labour one day in seven. That day is not lost. While industry is suspended, while the plough lies in the furrow, while the exchange is silent, while no smoke ascends from the factory, a process is going on quite as important to the wealth of nations as any process which is performed in more busy days. Man, the machine of machines … is repairing and winding up, so that he returns to his labours on Monday with clearer intellect, with livelier spirits, with renewed corporal vigour.”’

Verse 13


‘Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth.’

Matthew 12:13

A man with a withered hand is a man who knows his own powerlessness.

I. Christ’s method.—This is the man to whom Christ said, ‘Stretch forth thine hand.’ It was the very thing which the man could not do. It was the very last thing the world would have expected the man to do; but it was the first thing which Jesus Christ bade him do. How different is Christ’s method from the world’s. Where the world despairs, Jesus Christ acts. Where the world is silent, Jesus Christ speaks. The world abuses the failures; Jesus Christ quietly helps them. Where the world turns its back upon the withered and helpless, Jesus Christ speaks the word of encouraging command, ‘Stretch forth thine hand.’

II. Help for the helpless.—The one thing which those who are persuaded of their powerlessness need to learn in this—viz., that there is much more within their power than they think. It is so hard to help those who will not help themselves. The world is very full of these helpless folk—the people with withered hands. ‘Stretch forth thine hand’ was the word spoken by Christ. It is the fitting word for the feeble, effortless folk we have in view. It is not argument that such people want, but help; it is not expostulation, but co-operation—the co-operative sympathy, or, better still, the sympathetic co-operation of the strong will with the weak; the kind, firm, strong, subduing, and persuasive voice, ‘Stretch forth thine hand.’

III. Christ which strengtheneth.—The man who finds no strength in himself may find it in another. He is not able, but the other is strong. He cannot achieve, but with the Strong One at his side the situation changes. What seemed beyond his power begins to seem simple and natural. This is what St. Paul found. Here is his view of himself: ‘I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.’ Here is His view when he realises Christ at his side. ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’

—Bishop W. Boyd Carpenter.

Verses 14-20


‘Then the Pharisees went out … till He send forth judgment unto victory.’

Matthew 12:14-20

There are numbers of people who want far less words of reproof than words of sympathy and tenderness.

What shall we learn from such a text as this?

I. Where there is life there is hope.—First, it implies that wherever there is so much as a spark of life left in the conscience, there is always the possibility of an entire conversion to God. I am not speaking of what is easy, nor what is common; I am speaking of what is possible. If you could know the stories and histories of those who have been rescued from our streets and enter the shelter of godly homes, you would know it was because the faint feeble recollections of better days has been reached and recalled, and they have come back with tears of sorrow to the God they had forsaken.

II. The possibility of death-bed repentance.—It throws great light upon a death-bed repentance. Not to encourage us to trifle with our best interests upon the possibility of our being in possession of our faculties then; but rather than deny possibilities of salvation we believe in the possibility of a death-bed repentance.

III. No limits can be set.—It throws some light upon a subject that has been a good deal discussed of late years, and that is, Can a criminal sentenced to die for the crime of murder, and given three weeks’ grace, possibly in those three weeks find himself acceptable to God? We say, if we believe in the virtue of Christ’s blood, and in the power of the Holy Ghost, we can set no limits; and wherever there is a lingering remainder of grace, or at least a lingering contrition, there must be the hope of perfect repentance and ultimate sanctity.

IV. Lost without hope.—A sinner out of hope is lost. Many and many a suicide is the suicide of despair; if hope is taken from men and women it is the last thing left to us, and there is nothing more perilous nor repressive, in certain crises of mental feeling, than harsh words.

—Dean Pigou.


(1) ‘Such is the nature of the blood of Christ, and such is the power of the Holy Ghost, that we can quite believe if our sins were like scarlet they may be made as white as snow. Why do we say scarlet, and not green, or yellow, or blue? Because the Tyrian die of scarlet is that which you cannot erase from what is dyed; you may dip it over and over again in the vat, you simply destroy the face, you cannot extricate the crimson; and therefore in order to describe the extent of the virtue of the healing blood of Christ, they used that expression in the Bible.’

(2) ‘An artist was once asked, “Where did you get your models for your beautiful angels in your frescoes?” “I picked up a poor little girl out of the streets of Florence,” he said, “with rags and disordered hair and unwashed face, but I saw underneath all these the possibility of saintliness and she was my model for my saints and my angels.”’

Verse 24


‘This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.’

Matthew 12:24

There are many difficulties associated with the interpretation of this chapter, yet not a few lessons stand out clearly.

I. Opponents of religion.—There is nothing too blasphemous for hardened and prejudiced men to say against religion. Our Lord casts out a devil; and at once the Pharisees declare that He does it ‘by the prince of the devils.’ This was an absurd charge. Our Lord shows that it was unreasonable to suppose that the devil would help to pull down his own kingdom, and ‘Satan cast out Satan.’ But there is nothing too absurd and unreasonable for men to say when they are thoroughly set against religion. The Pharisees are not the only people who have lost sight of logic, good sense, and temper, when they have attacked the Gospel of Christ.

II. The servant not above his master.—Strange as this charge may sound, it is one that has often been made against the servants of God. Their enemies have been obliged to confess that they are doing a work, and producing an effect on the world. The results of Christian labour stare them in the face: they cannot deny them. What then shall they say? They say the very thing that the Pharisees said of our Lord, ‘It is the devil.’ Such things will be said as long as the world stands. We must never be surprised to hear of dreadful charges being made against the best of men without cause. ‘If they called the Master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of His household?’ It is an old device.

III. A plea for patience.—When the Christian’s arguments cannot be answered, and the Christian’s works cannot be denied, the last resource of the wicked is to try to blacken the Christian’s character. If this be our lot, let us bear it patiently: having Christ and a good conscience, we may be content; false charges will not keep us out of heaven. Our character will be cleared at the last day.

—Bishop J. C. Ryle.

Verse 30


‘He that is not with Me is against Me; and he that gathereth not with Me, scattereth abroad.’

Matthew 12:30

There are many persons in every age of the Church who need to have this lesson pressed upon them.

I. The best of both worlds.—They endeavour to steer a middle course in religion: they are not so bad as many sinners, but still they are not saints. They feel the truth of Christ’s Gospel, when it is brought before them; but they are afraid to confess what they feel. Because they have these feelings, they flatter themselves they are not so bad as others; and yet they shrink from the standard of faith and practice which the Lord Jesus sets up. They are not boldly fighting on Christ’s side, and yet they are not openly against Him.

II. The danger of the position.—Our Lord warns all such that they are in a dangerous position. There are only two parties in religious matters: there are only two camps: there are only two sides. Are we with Christ, and working in His cause? If not, we are against Him. Are we doing good in the world? If not, we are doing harm.

III. The principle.—The principle here laid down is one which it concerns us all to remember. Let us settle it in our minds that we shall never have peace and do good to others unless we are thorough-going and decided in our Christianity. The way of Gamaliel never yet brought happiness and usefulness to any one, and never will.

—Bishop J. C. Ryle.

Verse 32


‘Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.’

Matthew 12:32

In God’s view, words are always treated as the index of the heart. Thus they will be the chief evidences in the day of judgment. The ‘speaking,’ or ‘blaspheming against the Holy Ghost,’ is therefore the sign of a very rancorous and very violent spirit of dislike in the heart against Him.

We have in the Bible four separate ‘sins against the Holy Ghost,’ laid out in a certain order and progression.

I. ‘Grieving.’—There is ‘grieving’ the Holy Ghost. This occurs when you allow something in your heart and life, which impedes and weakens the Spirit’s inward work. Then He is ‘grieved.’ A blessed word! which so shows you how He loves us—for no one is ever ‘grieved’ with us, who does not love us!

II. ‘Resisting.’—Next, in the downward course, comes ‘resisting’ the Holy Ghost. And that is when, with great resolution, you set yourself positively to act contrary to the known and declared will and precepts of the Spirit.

III. ‘Quenching.’—From this, it is an easy step to the other—to ‘quench’ Him; when, being vexed and annoyed at influences which restrain you, or by voices which condemn you within, you endeavour to put it out, as by water put on fire.

IV. The unpardonable sin.—But there is a fourth stage, when the mind, through a long course of sin, proceeds to such a violent dislike and abhorrence of the Spirit of God, that all infidel thoughts and horrid imaginations come into the mind. They are entertained; they are indulged; they become habitual. They begin to be spoken of more and more shamelessly with the lips. God is outraged and profaned. The mind is full of obscene and diabolical suggestions. It flings out contempt against the very truth which once it professed. The very being of the Holy Ghost is maligned. The man obstructs and withstands the Kingdom of Christ everywhere. He braves His power. He would crush, as far as he can, the name of Christ. And that is ‘the unpardonable sin.’ This ‘sin against the Holy Ghost’ is a general state of mind, induced by long and sinful resistance to the calls and convictions of God.

Why is that sin unpardonable? Could not the blood of Christ cleanse it? Could not the blood of Christ cleanse any sin? Yes,—to the penitent. But here lies the misery and the horror of that state, that it is a state that cannot repent. It cannot make one move towards God.

—The Rev. C. J. Vaughan.


(1) The often misunderstood expression ‘it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world,’ etc., is a direct application of a Jewish phrase, in allusion to a Jewish error, and will not bear the inferences so often extorted from it.… Our Lord used the phrase to imply that ‘blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven; neither before death, nor, as you vainly dream, by means of death.’

(2) ‘This sin can never be pardoned because good itself has become the food and fuel of its wickedness. The sin is rather indomitable than unpardonable: it has become part of the sinner’s personality; it is incurable, an eternal sin. No penitent has ever yet been rejected for this guilt, for no penitent has ever been thus guilty. And this being so, here is the strongest possible encouragement for all who desire mercy.’

Verse 37


‘By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.’

Matthew 12:37

Consider our responsibility for the gift of speech. It is to God that we have to answer for our speech, and every misuse of this gift is an offence against Him.

I. Words of beauty.—A man ought to see to it that he does nothing with his tongue which will break the harmony of this world’s prayers or insult the God of beauty, to Whom the homage of creation is unceasingly offered. Think of that magnificent hymn, the Benedicite, in which we call upon all God’s works to praise Him with endless praise. And yet where does the discord come in, in this the hymn of Creation? Is it not from man, who ought to be the very leader of the choir? Surely when there are so many spasmodic efforts being made to add to the beauty of the world it is somewhat ironical that there should be so very little care for beauty in language. No one can walk many yards in one of the crowded thoroughfares of a city, or even in a country village, for all that, without hearing words apparently chosen simply because they are vile and ugly.

II. Words of truth.—Our words are uttered not only in the presence of the God of beauty, they are uttered in the hearing of the God of truth. We ought to think most earnestly about this division of the subject, because there must be a deep-seated tendency in human nature to abuse this gift of language, to use it in the service of untruthfulness. We are startled from time to time by revelations of gigantic frauds and wholesale impostures built up by lies. Coming nearer home, are we not obliged to make a wide distinction between things which we hear and things which we see? Why are not we more aggressive? Why do not we take up weapons for Christ? This religious shyness is so very indigenous to the English people. In our hatred of hypocrisy we have gone to the other extreme. The man who makes no secret of his principles is the man who in the end suffers the least persecution and is not tempted really so much to deny his Lord.

III. Words of comfort.—Our words are uttered also in the face of Him Who is called the God of all comfort. How much can be done by words to help and cheer and advise. How much can be done to pull down, damage, and destroy. As we think of our ordinary conversation, what are we to think of these idle, those do-nothing words? Do they help the wayfarer into the way of life? Wit and humour and merriment and brightness have all their part, and a very great part they have in contributing to the fulness of life and making its burden easier; but how very rare wit is, and how dismal are some of the attempts at humour! Any fool can make a joke out of Scripture. Nothing is easier, and few things are more wrong. Frivolous conversation, as it has no solid background of support, speedily lapses into the mere abuse of speech.

Surely we ought to do something for the recognition of a greater sense of responsibility as regards our words.

—Canon Newbolt.


‘We scatter seeds with careless hand,

And dream we ne’er shall see them more;

But for a thousand years,

Their fruit appears

In seeds that mar the land,

Or healthful store.

‘The deeds we do, the words we say,

Into thin air they seem to fleet,

We count them ever past,

But they shall last—

In the dread Judgment they

And we shall meet.’

Verse 41


‘The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.’

Matthew 12:41

Jonah’s entrance into Nineveh was the greatest and most successful ‘Mission’ which the world has ever seen. There is no parallel in all history of such preaching,—such reformation,—and such results!

I. Consider the city.—The people were, undoubtedly, greatly debased. ‘Their wickedness had come up before God,’ and His righteous anger was kindled against them. But is the picture drawn of Nineveh a darker picture than might be drawn of some of our English cities? ‘The wickedness is gone up before God.’ There were different degrees of sinners. Some were comparatively respectable, while others were utterly degraded and licentious! But God regarded them collectively. God regards us collectively, at the same time that He sees us in the closest individuality; and each one who sins must bear His own burden. Still, as a family, or as a household, or as a church, or as a nation, or as a town, God does see us and deal with us as a whole.

II. Consider the man.—Jonah was a religious man. Christ made him both His type and His witness. He had right and clear views of the character of God,—views far before his age. Still, he had deep falls, and for them very heavy punishment. But saved by Providence, and restored by grace, he received a second call to his solemn ‘Mission’! In all this he was being trained and fitted for the work.

III. The power of Jonah’s preaching.—It was perfectly astounding! What is all the strength of all preaching? Not the words; not the power of the speaker; but the grace which God is pleased to add. And so it was when at that man’s lips the whole town listened, believed, repented, fasted. And why should we lower our standard now, or set before us an inferior mark? According as our faith is, it will be with us; and the degree of the expectation of the future is always the measure of the memory of the past. Why should Nineveh be more blessed than we are? Why should the ‘Mission’ preaching now tell less than Jonah’s? ‘Behold, a greater than Jonas is here!’

—The Rev. James Vaughan.

Verses 43-45


‘When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man … the last state of that man is worse than the first.’

Matthew 12:43-45

When the unclean spirit is gone out, Christ tells what takes place if the heart be left empty. When the unclean spirit is gone out, is not this the thing we wish? The man is possessed by an evil spirit; he is avaricious; he is ill-tempered; he is sensual; he is discontented. Suppose that we can banish the evil spirit. What, then? Man’s heart is unoccupied. What a dull, monotonous existence we have doomed him to! We see the force of the parable.

I. Religion positive, not negative.—Religion must not come with prohibitions only; she must put before men what will appeal to some of the real and active powers of their being. Religion, then, in its highest form does not limit herself to prohibition, to the task of rebuking the pleasant vice which is so interesting to its victim. Religion in its highest form seeks to create new interests; it does not deal in prohibitions merely; it knows that the heart of man must be interested in something, and it presents to the heart all that is worthy of love and all that appeals to the higher affections of men.

II. Live with Christ.—We are not to be daunted by difficulties. It is easier, no doubt, to build an embankment than it is to divert a stream; but it is not impossible to divert a stream—it is not impossible to cultivate the love of the better instead of the love of the baser. Live with noble thoughts; read only what elevates the taste; keep before you the best ideals. By degrees the taste for what is low will pass from you. The man who lives with Christ, thinks the thoughts of Christ, drinks of the Spirit of Christ, will hardly tolerate the presence of a selfish spirit.

Bishop W. Boyd Carpenter.



I. A negative religion is an imperfect one.

(a) It is good so far as it goes. When a man has been the victim of an ‘unclean spirit,’ it cannot but be a distinct advantage and spiritual advance for him to be rid, if it be even for a while, of his foul visitor.

(b) But such an experience is useful chiefly as preparing for something higher. Its whole value and significance is prospective. ‘Ceasing to do evil’ is a step, but just a step, towards ‘learning to do well.’

II. A negative religion is a dangerous one.

(a) Because it may be made the substitute for a positive one. The Jews had come to look upon the requirements of the law as fulfilling all righteousness. They gloried in it, and made their boast of it. Anything higher or more spiritual was indignantly repudiated. For them, therefore, there was no beauty in Jesus that they should desire Him.

(b) Because it leaves the soul unoccupied. It is ‘empty, swept, and garnished,’ but the door is left open, or at least, the avenues of return are not strongly enough barred. Human nature cannot long remain a blank; as a matter of fact, it is never a mere blank.

(c) Because it lacks the supporting principle of spiritual life. Such pure desires and impulses are due not to the ‘natural man’ within us, but to the Spirit of God.

III. A negative religion is a disastrous one.

(a) Because it does not save. Where the law exercised a saving power it was through the Spirit of God and the hope of Messiah.

(b) Because when it fails to save it the more effectually destroys. The description of the process in the passage is very striking. Sins are not abstractions. They imply demoniacal possession. The demon is represented as ‘walking through dry places, seeking rest, and finding none.’ Such a conception suggests the fatal affinity which sin has for the nature in which it once has lodged, and how certain it is to return if there be any ‘unguarded place.’ And when it does return, it returns with sevenfold power. It develops fresh vitality, and multiplies its spiritual force: ‘the last state of that man is worse than the first.’


‘The worse state, of which Christ speaks, is the state in which a man sins, as we say, with his eyes open; then he is one who is ready to enlist in his service a spirit of wilful blindness. He resolves to fill his heart with evil, knowing it to be evil; he knows that it brings a sort of pleasure, in so far as it stimulates some passion into activity, but he knows that it is evil, and yet he does it. It is the step by which a man commits himself to a course which he well knows to lie fatal; in doing so, he deliberately weakens the forces of good and strengthens the forces of evil: he resigns himself into the guidance of the evil. How much lower his condition is than that of the young, thoughtless, and pleasure-loving man, who finds himself immersed in wrong when he only meant to enjoy himself a little!’

Verse 50


‘For whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother.’

Matthew 12:50

God has a will. This thought, familiar as it is to us, was a thought to which man by searching could not attain. God is no mere personification or idealisation of accident or destiny. God is t no mechanical setter in motion or preserver in motion of the wheel of nature or the world of being.

I. God’s will concerning us.—God has a will concerning each one of us.

(a) Concerning our condition. The will of God is that we should become a new creation by means of the work of the Holy Ghost.

(b) Concerning our conduct. ‘It is the will of God that ye stand perfect and complete.’ Can any lot be abject, can any life be trivial, can any day or hour be without its glory if the eye of God is upon it, and if the mind of God is exercised upon its being this or that?

(c) Concerning our destiny. The words are His own. He will have all men to be saved. He would have you for one of those vessels of mercy which He hath before prepared unto glory.

II. Christ’s relations.—‘The same is My brother and sister and mother.’ There is a higher than any natural relationship into which he enters who has drunk Christ’s Spirit. He that doeth the will of God is Christ’s brother. Not connected with Him by home or parentage, he shall have a dearer and a closer tie still; he shall have the same spirit; he shall be nearer to Him for ever than the dearest son of His mother could have been to Him for one moment below; he shall have Christ to dwell in his heart by faith, and he who so dwells shall be not more his God than his brother.

Dean Vaughan.


Copyright Statement
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Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 12:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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Friday, May 29th, 2020
the Seventh Week after Easter
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