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Bible Commentaries

Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Matthew 12

Verse 1

Matthew 12:1-8. The account contained in these verses is also recorded in Mark 2:23-28, and Luke 6:1-5.

At that time - Luke Luke 6:1 fixes the time more particularly. He says that it was “the second Sabbath after the first.” To understand this, it is proper to remark that the “Passover” was observed during the month “Abib,” or Nisan, answering to the latter part of March and the first of April. The feast was held seven days, commencing on the fourteenth day of the month Exodus 12:1-28; Exodus 23:15, on the “second” day of the paschal week. The law required that a sheaf of “barley” should be offered up as the first-fruits of the harvest, Leviticus 23:10-11. From this day was reckoned seven weeks to the feast of “Pentecost” Leviticus 23:15-16, called also the feast of weeks Deuteronomy 16:10, and the feast of the harvest, Exodus 23:16. This second day in the feast of the Passover, or of unleavened bread, was the beginning, therefore, from which they reckoned toward the Pentecost. The Sabbath in the week following would be the “second Sabbath” after this first one in the reckoning, and this was doubtless the time mentioned when Christ went through the fields. It should be further mentioned, that in Judea the barley harvest commences about the beginning of May, and both that and the wheat harvest are over by the twentieth. Barley is in full ear in the beginning of April. There is no improbability, therefore, in this narrative on account of the season of the year. This feast was always held at Jerusalem.

Through the corn - Through the “barley,” or “wheat.” The word “corn,” as used in our translation of the Bible, has no reference to “maize,” or “Indian corn,” as it has with us. Indian corn was unknown until the discovery of America, and it is scarcely probable that the translators knew anything about it. The word “corn” was applied, as it is still in England, to wheat, rye, oats, and barley. This explains the circumstance that they “rubbed it in their hands” Luke 6:1 to separate the grain from the chaff.

Verse 2

Upon the Sabbath day - The Pharisees, doubtless desirous of finding fault with Christ, said that in plucking the grain on the “Sabbath day” they had violated the commandment. Moses had commanded the Hebrews to abstain from all servile work on the Sabbath, Exodus 20:10; Exodus 35:2-3; Numbers 15:32-36. On any other day this would have been clearly lawful, for it was permitted, Deuteronomy 23:25.

Verse 3

But he said unto them ... - To vindicate his disciples, he referred them to a similar case, recorded in the Old Testament, and therefore one with which they ought to have been acquainted. This was the case of David. The law commanded that twelve loaves of bread should be laid on the table in the holy place in the tabernacle, to remain a week, and then to be eaten by the “priests only.” Their place was then supplied by fresh “bread.” This was called the “showbread,” Leviticus 24:5-9. David, fleeing before Saul, weary and hungry, had come to Ahimelech the priest; had found only this bread; had asked it of him, and had eaten it contrary to the “letter” of the law, 1 Samuel 21:1-7. David, among the Jews, had high authority. This act had passed uncondemned. It proved that in “cases of necessity the laws did not bind a man” - a principle which all laws admit. So the “necessity” of the disciples justified them in doing on the Sabbath what would have been otherwise unlawful.

Verses 4-5

How he entered into the house of God - That is, the “tabernacle,” the temple not being then built.

Have ye not read in the law? - In the law, or in the books of Moses.

Profane the Sabbath - He referred them to the conduct of the priests also. On the Sabbath days they were engaged, as well as on other days, in killing beasts for sacrifice, Numbers 28:9-10. Two lambs were killed on the Sabbath, in addition to the daily sacrifice. The priests must be engaged in killing them, and making fires to burn them in sacrifice, whereas to kindle a fire was expressly forbidden the Jews on the Sabbath, Exodus 35:3. They did that which, for other persons to do, would have been “profaning” the Sabbath. Yet they were blameless. They did what was necessary and commanded. This was done in the very temple, too, the place of holiness, where the law should be most strictly observed.

Verses 6-7

One greater than the temple - Here the Saviour refers to himself, and to his own dignity and power. “I have power over the laws; I can grant to my disciples a dispensation from those laws. An act which I command or permit them to do is therefore right.” This proves that he was divine. None but God can authorize people to do a thing contrary to the divine laws. He refers them again Matthew 12:7 to a passage he had before quoted (See the notes at Matthew 9:13), showing that God preferred acts of righteousness, rather than a precise observance of a ceremonial law.

Mark adds Mark 2:27 “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” That is, the Sabbath was intended for the welfare of man; it was designed to promote his happiness, and not to produce misery by harsh, unfeeling requirements. It is not to be so interpreted as to produce suffering by making the necessary supply of wants unlawful. Man was not made for the Sabbath. Man was created first, and then the Sabbath was appointed for his happiness, Genesis 2:1-3. His necessities, his real comforts and needs, are not to be made to bend to that which was made “for him.” The laws are to be interpreted favorably to his real wants and comforts. This authorizes works only of real necessity, not of imaginary wants, or amusements, or common business and worldly employments.

Verse 8

For the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath day - To crown all, Christ says that he was Lord of the Sabbath. He had a right to direct the manner of its observance - undoubted proof that he is divine.

Verses 9-13

Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand - This was a remarkable commandment.

The man might have said that he had no strength - that it was a thing which he could not do. Yet, “being commanded,” it was his duty to obey. He did so, and was healed. So the sinner. It is his duty to obey whatever God commands. He will give strength to those who endeavor to do his will. It is not right to plead, when God commands us to do a thing, that we have no strength. He will give us strength, if there is a disposition to obey. At the same time, however, this passage should not be applied to the sinner as if it proved that he has no more strength or ability than the man who had the withered hand. It proves no such thing: it has no reference to any such case. It may be used to prove that man should instantly obey the commands of God, without pausing to examine the question about his ability, and especially without saying “that he can do nothing.” What would the Saviour have said to this man if he had objected that he could not stretch out his hand?

It was restored whole - Christ had before claimed divine authority and power Matthew 12:6-9, he now showed that he possessed it. By his “own power” he healed him, thus evincing by a miracle that his claim of being Lord of the Sabbath was well founded.

These two cases determine what may be done on the Sabbath. The one was a case of “necessity,” the other of “mercy.” The example of the Saviour, and his explanations, show that these are a part of the proper duties of that holy day. Beyond an “honest” and “conscientious” discharge of these two duties, people may not devote the Sabbath to any secular purpose. If they do, they do it at their peril. They go beyond what His authority authorizes them to do. They do what he claimed the special right of doing, as being Lord of the Sabbath. They usurp His place, and act and legislate where God only has a right to act land legislate. People may as well trample down any other law of the Bible as that respecting the Sabbath.

Verses 14-21

And in his name ... - The Hebrew in Isaiah is, “And the isles shall wait for his law.” The idea is, however, the same.

The “isles” denote the Gentiles, or a part of the Gentiles - those out of Judea. The meaning is, that the gospel should be preached to the Gentiles, and that they should receive it. See the notes at Isaiah 41:1 for an explanation of the word “islands,” as it is used in the Bible.

Verses 22-30

But when the Pharisees heard it ... - It was necessary for the Pharisees, who had determined to reject Jesus of Nazareth, to account in “some” way for the miracles he had performed.

Here was a manifest miracle, an exertion of power unquestionably superior to what people could put forth. The common people were fast drawing the proper inference from it, and coming into the belief that this was the Messiah. The authority and power of the Pharisees were declining. Unless, therefore, some way should be devised of accounting for these facts, their influence would be at an end. Whatever way of accounting for them was adopted, it was necessary that they should acknowledge that there was “superhuman power.” The people were fully persuaded of this, and no man could deny it. They therefore ascribed it to the prince of the devils - to Beelzebub. In this they had two objects:

  1. To concede to the people that here was a “miracle,” or a work above mere human power.
  2. To throw all possible contempt on Jesus. Beelzebub, or Beelzebul, as it is in the Greek, and correctly rendered in the margin, was an opprobrious name given to the leader of the devils as an expression of supreme contempt. See the notes at Matthew 10:25.

Matthew 12:25, Matthew 12:26

He that is not with me ... - In addition to his other arguments, Jesus urges this general principle, that there can be but two parties in the universe.

If anyone did not act with him, he was against him. If he gathered not with him, he scattered. This is taken from the practice of persons in harvest. He that did not gather with him, or “aid” him, scattered abroad, or opposed him. The application of this was, “As I have not united with Satan, but opposed him, there can be no league between us.” The charge, therefore, is a false one.

Verses 31-32

In this place, and in Mark 3:28-30, Jesus states the awful nature of the sin of which they had been guilty. That sin was the sin against the Holy Spirit. It consisted in charging him with being in league with the devil, or accusing him of working his miracles, not by the “spirit” or “power” of God, but by the aid of the prince of the devils. It was therefore a direct insult, abuse, or evil speaking against the Holy Spirit - the spirit by which Jesus worked his miracles. That this was what he intended by this sin, at that time, is clear from Mark 3:30, “because they said he had an unclean spirit.” All other sins - all speaking against the Saviour himself - might be remitted. But this sin was clearly against the Holy One; it was alleging that the highest displays of God’s mercy and power were the work of the devil; and it argued, therefore, the deepest depravity of mind. The sin of which he speaks is therefore clearly stated. It was accusing him of working miracles by the aid of the devil, thus dishonoring the Holy Spirit.

All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven - That is, only on condition that people repent and believe. If they continue in this sin they cannot be forgiven, Mark 16:16; Romans 2:6-9.

Blasphemy - Injurious or evil speaking of God. See the notes at Matthew 9:3.

A word against the Son of man - The Jews were offended at the humble life and appearance of the Saviour. They reproached him as being a Nazarene - sprung from Nazareth, a place from which no good was expected to proceed; with being a Galilean, from Galilee, a place from which no prophet came, John 7:52. Jesus says that reproaches of this kind could be pardoned. Reflections on his poverty, on his humble birth, and on the lowliness of his human nature might be forgiven; but for those which affected his divine nature, accusing him of being in league with the devil, denying his divinity, and attributing the power which manifestly implied divinity to the prince of fallen spirits, there could be no pardon. This sin was a very different thing from what is now often supposed to be the sin against the Holy Spirit. It was a wanton and blasphemous attack on the divine power and nature of Christ. Such a sin God would not forgive.

Speaketh against the Holy Ghost - The word “ghost” means “spirit,” and probably refers here to the “divine nature” of Christ - the power by which he performed his miracles. There is no evidence that it refers to the third person of the Trinity; and the meaning of the whole passage may be: “He that speaks against me as a man of Nazareth - that speaks contemptuously of my humble birth, etc., may be pardoned; but he that reproaches my divine nature, charging me with being in league with Satan, and blaspheming the power of God manifestly displayed “by me,” can never obtain forgiveness.”

Neither in this world, nor in that which is to come - That is, as Mark expresses it, “hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” This fixes the meaning of the phrase. It means, then, not the future age or dispensation, known among the Jews as the world to come, but it means that the guilt will be unpardoned forever; that such is the purpose of God that he will not forgive a sin so direct, presumptuous, and awful. It cannot be inferred from this that any sins will be forgiven in hell. The Saviour meant simply to say that there were “no possible circumstances” in which the offender could obtain forgiveness. He certainly did “not” say that any sin unpardoned here would be pardoned hereafter.

Verse 33

Either make ... - The fact asserted in this verse is, that a tree is known, not by its leaves, or bark, or form, but by its fruit. The application to the argument is this: “You are to judge of man’s being in league with Satan by his works. If my doctrines and works be properly the works of Satan, then I am corrupt; if not, then your charge is blasphemy. So, on the other hand, if, notwithstanding your professions, your works are the works of the devil, and your doctrines are such as he would teach, it would prove respecting you that which you charge on me.” In this indirect but powerful manner he advances to the charge against them, which he urges in the following verses.

Verses 34-35

O generation of vipers! - Christ here applies the argument which he had suggested in the previous verse. They were a wicked race; like poisonous reptiles, with a corrupt and evil nature. They could not be expected to speak good things - that is, to speak favorably of him and his works. As the bad fruit of a tree was the proper effect of its “nature,” so were their words about him and his works the proper effect of their nature. The “abundance” or fullness of the “heart” produced the words of the lips. “Vipers” are a poisonous kind of serpents, not often a yard long, and about an inch thick, having a flat head. The males have two large teeth, through which a most deadly poison is thrown into the wound made by the bite. They are an emblem of malignity and mischief. These were strong expressions to be used by the meek and lowly Jesus; but they were not the effect of anger and malice; they were a declaration of the true character of the people with whom he was conversing - a declaration most justly deserved. See the notes at Matthew 3:7.

Verse 36

But I say unto you ... - Christ closes this address to his malignant and wicked hearers by a solemn declaration that for these things God would bring them into judgment. Therefore. They who had spoken so malignantly against him, could not escape.

Idle word - This literally means a vain, thoughtless, useless word; a word that accomplishes no good. Here it means, evidently, “wicked, injurious, false, malicious, for such” were the words which they had spoken.

Verse 37

By thy words thou shalt be justified ... - That is, “words” are the indication of the true principles of the heart; by “words” the heart shall be known, as the tree is by its fruit. If they are true, proper, chaste, instructive, pious, they will prove that the heart is right. If false, envious, malignant, and impious, they will prove that the heart is wrong, and will therefore be among the causes of condemnation. It is not meant that words will be the only thing that will condemn man, but that they will be an important part of the things for which he shall be condemned. See James 3:3-12.

Verses 38-42

Sheba was probably a city of Arabia, situated to the south of Judea. Compare the notes at Isaiah 60:6.

From the uttermost parts of the earth - This means simply from the most distant parts of the habitable world “then known.” See a similar expression in Deuteronomy 28:49. As the knowledge of geography was limited, the place was, “in fact,” by no means in the extreme parts of the earth. It means that she came from a remote country; and she would condemn that generation, for she came “a great distance” to hear the wisdom of Solomon, but the Jews of that age would not listen to the wisdom of one “much greater” than Solomon, though present with them.

Verses 43-45

Then goeth he ... - Seeing the state of the man; dissatisfied with a lonely dwelling in the desert where he could do no evil; envious of the happiness of the individual, and supremely bent on wickedness, he resolved to increase his power of malignant influences and to return.

He is therefore represented as taking seven other spirits still worse than himself, and returning to his former habitation. Seven denotes a large but indefinite number. It was a favorite number with the Jews, and was used to denote “completeness” or “perfection,” or any “finished” or “complete” number. See 1 Samuel 2:5. Compare Revelation 1:4. Here it means a sufficient number completely to occupy and harass his soul.

Even so shall it be with this generations - This shows the scope and design of this illustration. The state of that man was a representation of that generation of people. Much might be done to cure their unbelief, much to reform them externally; but such was the firm hold which the principles of infidelity and wickedness had taken of their minds “as their proper habitation,” that they would return, after all the means used to reform them, and they would be worse and worse. And this was literally accomplished. After all the instructions and miracles of the Saviour and his apostles; after all that had been done for them by holy people and prophets, and by the judgments and mercies of God; and after all their external temporary reformations - like the temporary departure of an evil spirit from a man possessed - yet such was their love of wickedness that the nation became worse and worse. They increased in crime, like the seven-fold misery and wretchedness of the man into whose bosom the seven additional evil spirits came. They rejected God’s messengers, abused his mercies, crucified his Son, and God gave their temple, and capital, and nation into the hands of the Romans. and thousands of the people to destruction.

It is not “proved” by this passage that evil spirits actually “dwell” in deserts It is proved only that such was the opinion of the Jews; that that opinion was drawn from some expressions in the Bible; and that “such expressions were sufficiently clear to justify the Saviour in drawing an argument from them to confound those who firmly believed that such was the case.” Nor is there any absurdity in the opinion; for,

  1. There are evil spirits. See the notes at Matthew 8:33.
  2. They must exist in “some place.”
  3. There is as much propriety that they should be located about our earth as anywhere.
  4. The clear doctrine of the Bible is, that many of them have much to do with our world.
  5. It is as reasonable that they should dwell commonly in desolate and uninhabited regions as anywhere else.



Verses 46-50

1. Our Saviour has taught us the right use of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:1-13. His conduct was an explanation of the meaning of the fourth commandment. By his example we may learn what may be done. He himself performed only those works on the Sabbath which were strictly necessary for life, and those which tended to benefit the poor, the afflicted, and needy. Whatever work is done on the Sabbath that is not for these ends must be wrong. All labor that can as well be done on another day all which is not for the support of life, or to aid the ignorant, poor, and sick. must be wrong. This example justifies teaching the ignorant, supplying the wants of the poor, instructing children in the precepts of religion, teaching those to read in Sunday schools who have no other opportunity for learning, and visiting the sick, when we go not for formality, or “to save time on some other day,” but to do them good.

2. The Sabbath is of vast service to mankind. It was made for man - not for man to violate or profane, or to be a day of mere idleness, but to improve to his spiritual and eternal good. Where people are employed through “six” days in worldly occupations, it is kind toward them to give them one day particularly to prepare for eternity. Where there is no Sabbath there is no religion. This truth, from the history of the world, will bear to be recorded in letters of gold - “that true religion will exist among men only when they strictly observe the Sabbath.” They, therefore, who do most to promote the observance of the Sabbath, are doing most for religion and the welfare of man. In this respect Sunday school teachers may do more, perhaps, than all the world besides for the best interests of the world.

3. In the conduct of Christ Matthew 12:14-15 we have an illustration of the nature of Christian prudence. He did not throw himself needlessly into danger. He did not remain to provoke opposition. He felt that his time was not come, and that his life, by a prudent course, should be preserved. He therefore withdrew. Religion requires us to sacrifice our lives rather than deny the Saviour. To throw our lives away when, with good conscience, they might be preserved, is self-murder.

4. The rejection of the gospel in one place is often the occasion of its being received elsewhere, Matthew 12:15. People may reject it to their own destruction; but somewhere it “will” be preached, and will be the power of God unto salvation. The wicked cannot drive it out of the world. They only secure their own ruin, and, against their will, benefit and save others. To reject it is like turning a beautiful and fertilizing stream from a man’s own land. He does not, he cannot dry it up. “It will flow somewhere else.” He injures himself and perhaps benefits multitudes. People never commit so great foolishness and wickedness, and so completely fail in what they aim at, as in rejecting the gospel. A man, hating the light of the sun, might get into a cave or dungeon, and be in total darkness; but the sun will continue to shine, and millions, in spite of him, will be benefited by it. So it is with the gospel.

5. Christ was mild, quiet, retiring not clamorous or noisy, Matthew 12:19. So is all religion. There is no piety in noise; if there was, then thunder and artillery would be piety. Confusion and discord are not religion. Loud words and shouting are not religion. Religion is love, reverence, fear, holiness, a deep and awful regard for the presence of God, profound apprehensions of the solemnities of eternity, imitation of the Saviour. It is still. It is full of awe - an awe too great to strive, or cry, or lift up the voice in the streets. If people ever should be overawed and filled with emotions “repressing” noise and clamor, it should be when they approach “the great God.”

6. The feeble may trust to Jesus, Matthew 12:20. A child of any age, an ignorant person, the poorest man, may come, and he shall in nowise be east out. It is a sense of our weakness that Jesus seeks. Where that is “he” will strengthen us, and we shall not fail.

7. Grace will not be extinguished, Matthew 12:20. Jesus, where he finds it in the feeblest degree, will not destroy it. He will cherish it. He will kindle it to a flame. It will burn brighter and brighter, until it “glows like that of the pure spirits above.”

8. People are greatly prone to ascribe all religion to the devil, Matthew 12:24. Anything that is unusual, anything that confounds them, anything that troubles their consciences, they ascribe to fanaticism, overheated zeal, and Satan. It has always been so. It is sometimes an easy way to stifle their own convictions, and to bring religion into contempt. “Somehow or other,” like the Pharisees, infidels must account for revivals of religion, for striking instances of conversion, and for the great and undeniable effects which the gospel produces. How easy to say that it is “delusions,” and that it is the work of the devil! How easy to show at once the terrible opposition of their own hearts to God, and to boast themselves in their own wisdom, in having found a cause so simple for all the effects which religion produces in the world! How much pains, also, men will take to secure their own perdition, rather than to admit it to be possible that Christianity is true!

9. We see the danger of blasphemy - the danger of trifling with the influences of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 12:31-32. Even if we do not commit the unpardonable sin, yet we see that all trifling with the Holy Spirit is a sin very near to God, and attended with infinite danger. He that “laughs away” the thoughts of death and eternity; he that seeks the society of the frivolous and trifling, or of the sensual and profane, for the express purpose of driving away these thoughts; and he that struggles directly against his convictions, and is resolved that he will not submit to God, may be, for aught he knows, making his damnation sure. Why should God “ever” return when a man has “once” rejected the gospel? Who would be to blame if the sinner is then lost? Assuredly not God. None but himself. Children sometimes do this. Then is the time, the very time, when they should begin to love God and Jesus Christ. Then the Spirit also strives. Many “have then” given their hearts to him and become Christians. Many more might have done so, if they had not grieved away the Spirit of God.

10. We see the danger of rejecting Christ, Matthew 12:38-42. All past ages, all the wicked and the good, the foolish and the wise, will rise up in the day of judgment, and condemn us, if we do not believe the gospel. No people, heretofore, have seen so much light as we do in this age. And no people can be so awfully condemned as those who, in a land of light, of Sundays and Sunday schools, reject Christ and go to hell. Among the 120,000 children of Nineveh Jonah 4:11 there was not one single Sunday school. There was no one to tell them of God and the Saviour. They have died and gone to judgment. Children now living will die also, and go to meet them in the day of judgment. How will they condemn the children of this age, if they do not love the Lord Jesus Christ!

11. Sinners, when awakened, if they grieve away the Spirit of God, become worse than before, Matthew 12:43-45. They are never as they were before. Their hearts are harder, their consciences are more seared, they have a more bitter hatred of religious people, and they plunge deeper and deeper into sin. Seven devils often dwell where one did, and God gives the man over to blindness of mind and hardness of heart. This shows, also, the great guilt and danger of grieving the Holy Spirit.

12. We see the love of Christ for his followers, Matthew 12:46-50. Much as he loved his mother, yet he loved his disciples more. He still loves them. He will always love them. His heart is full of affection for them. And though poor, and despised, and unknown to the rich and mighty, yet to Jesus they are dearer than mother, and sisters, and brothers.

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Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnn/matthew-12.html. 1870.