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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 12

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

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Verses 1-50

Plucking Corn on the Sabbath. Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost

1-8. Plucking the corn on the sabbath (Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1). This chapter begins the period of active conflict with the Pharisees. It is characteristic of the pedantry of the Pharisees that their opposition turned more upon minute points of legal observance than upon broad principles. The Fourth Gospel agrees with the synoptists in making the sabbath controversy of leading importance in the development of hostility to Christ (John 5:9; John 7:22; John 9:14). St. Matthew’s account of this incident is the fullest.

1. At that time] RV ’season.’ This is one of the few events that can be accurately dated. The corn is in the ear, but not yet quite ripe for reaping. The time is therefore about May (perhaps April), and St. Matthew is therefore correct in placing the event soon after the return of the Twelve at Passover-time: see on Matthew 11:1, Matthew 11:25. But there is no attempt at strict chronological order; e.g. all the synoptists place this event before the feeding of the five thousand, which really preceded it. On the sabbath day] Lk ’on the second sabbath after the first’: see on Luke 6:1. Were an hungered] Why? Some think they had been engaged with Jesus in some arduous spiritual labours. More probably they were coming home from a long synagogue service tired and hungry. Jewish custom allowed no food whatever to be eaten on the sabbath (except by the sick) until after morning service.

2. That which is not lawful] Maimonides says: ’He that reaps on the sabbath, though never so little, is guilty. And to pluck the ears of corn is a kind of reaping.’

3. Have ye not read] Jesus might have defended His disciples on purely technical grounds, maintaining that they had broken not the Law, but the interpretation which certain rabbis placed upon it. But instead of this, He laid down the principle that even the Divine Law itself, so far as it is purely ceremonial, is subservient to human needs, and can be broken without sin, for adequate cause. He took first the case of David, who together with his compardons ate the shewbread. David’s act, which was sanctioned by the high priest, who at the time was the authorised interpreter of the Law, involved three distinct breaches of the divine Law, (1) the entering into the holy place, (2) the eating of the shewbread, (3) the breach of the sabbath, for such the day seems to have been.

Our Lord’s statement of the case shows careful study of the OT. narrative (1 Samuel 21:1): e.g. it is not said in the OT. that David entered into the tabernacle, but it is inferred from Matthew 12:7, where he is seen by Doeg, who was ’detained before the Lord.’ It is not said that David’s attendants ate the shewbread, but it is inferred from Matthew 12:5. Nor is it said that the day was the sabbath. This is inferred from it being the day for the changing of the loaves (Matthew 12:6), which was the sabbath (Leviticus 24:8). As to the name of the high priest at this time (a well-known difficulty), see on Mark 2:26.

5 Or have ye not read?] see Numbers 28:9. They had read it, but not understood the principle which it implied. Our Lord alluded to a recognised Jewish practice. The rabbis said, ’There is no keeping of the sabbath in the temple.’ ’The servile work which is done in the holy things is not servile.’

6. One greater than the temple] lit. ’a greater thing.’ He means Himself. If the servants of the Temple, doing the Temple’s work, may break the sabbath, much more may the servants of Christ, who is greater and holier than the Temple.

7. I will have mercy] Hosea 6:6, quoted also Matthew 9:13. Here the meaning is that God is satisfied if men keep the sabbath in the right spirit, i.e. as a day of holy rest. He does not demand obedience to an irksome code of sabbath observance. ’The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).

8. The authority of the Son of man (the Messiah) extends to the abrogation of the whole Law, and therefore of the Law of the sabbath. Observe that Jesus rests the final vindication of His disciples upon His own inherent authority, which extends to the abrogation even of the divine Law: cp. Matthew 5:21; Matthew 9:6.

Some understand the ’son of man’ here to be not Jesus, but a personification of the human race, so that the meaning is, ’The human race may adapt the sabbath day to its needs.’ This sense would suit the context, but it lacks authority, there being no clear and unambiguous passage where the phrase ’the son of man’ means anything but our Lord.

9-21. Another sabbath controversy. The man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1; Luke 6:6). The sequence is the same in all the evangelists. St. Luke mentions that this took place on another sabbath.

10. A man] In the so-called Gospel of the Hebrews (65-100 a.d.) the man with the withered hand is described as a mason, who begged help from Jesus, saying, ’I was a mason earning my living with my hands. I pray Thee, Jesus, restore me my health, that I may not disgracefully beg my bread.’

Is it lawful] Only malice could call healing by a word, without labour or medicine, a breach of the sabbath. Even the use of medical assistance was not forbidden in all cases on the sabbath. The rabbis said, ’All danger of life or limb abrogates the sabbath,’ and this was interpreted to mean even possible danger.

11. If it fall into a pit] The schools of Hillel and Shammai differed on this point, but it is clear from our Lord’s way of referring to the practice that it was generally allowed.

12. How much then] a striking saying on the value of human life and health. The literal meaning does not exclude the more spiritual interpretation that a man is of more value than a sheep as possessing an immortal soul.

14. Held a council] RV ’took counsel.’ St. Mark adds, ’with the Herodians.’

15-17. Cp. Mark 3:7-12, where a fuller account is given. St. Mark mentions that the multitudes came from Idumæa, and from beyond Jordan, and from Tyre and Sidon. This explains the references to the Gentiles (Matthew 12:18, Matthew 12:21), who were probably among those who were healed.

16. Charged them] In St. Mark He charges the unclean spirits. The design of Jesus was to repress the dangerous popular enthusiasm which might lead to an outbreak.

17. Esaias] i.e. Isaiah. The quotation is from Isaiah 42:1-4. It is a free translation from the Heb., with occasional correspondences with the LXX. It curiously omits the words, ’He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till He have set judgment in the earth,’ which would have been very applicable to our Lord in connexion with the discouragements which had just begun.

18. My servant] i.e. ’the Messiah.’ Jesus is so called frequently in the Acts (Acts 3:13, Acts 3:26 RV; Acts 4:27, Acts 4:30 RV), also in the ’Didache.’ He is hardly ever so called in later writings.

19. He shall not court popularity.

20. The bruised reed and the smoking flax (or, rather, ’dimly burning wick’) in this connexion are the persons weak in body whom Jesus healed, and those weak in faith, whose faith He strengthened. The idea is that Jesus is tender and loving, not harsh, towards human weakness. Judgment is here the Christian religion.

22-37. The Pharisees accuse Jesus of being in league with Beelzebub (Mark 3:22 cp. Luke 11:17-23; Matthew 9:32-34). The ridiculous charge of the Pharisees is strong evidence of the genuineness of Christ’s miracles. They would have denied them if they could (see John 9:18), but this was impossible, so numerous and notorious were they. So they started the flimsy theory that Christ was in league with the devil, not really believing it, but out of malice.

The later Jews said that Jesus learnt how to work His miracles from an Egyptian juggler, and the heathen Celsus (170 a.d.) repeated their calumny with some improvements of his own. The Jewish Talmudists said, ’The son of the adulteress’ (i.e. of the Virgin Mary) ’brought magic out of Egypt, by cuttings which he had made in his flesh.’ ’Jesus practised magic and deceived, and drove Israel to idolatry.’ It is interesting to notice that Mahomet indignantly repudiated these Jewish calumnies.

23. The Son of David] the popular title of the Messiah: Matthew 9:27; Matthew 15:22; Matthew 20:30; Matthew 21:9; Matthew 22:42; John 7:42. See on Matthew 1:1.

24. By Beelzebub] see on Matthew 10:25.

26. Satan] The original Heb. word of which diabolos (’devil’) is the Gk. translation. It means ’accuser,’ ’calumniator,’ ’adversary.’

27. Your children] i.e. ’your disciples.’ Famous rabbis and their disciples professed to cast out devils by magic and exorcism, and their success was attributed to the power of God. Why then, asked Jesus, are My miracles, which are much more striking than theirs, and are not worked by magic, but by a mere word, not regarded as coming from God, and why do I not receive from you the same honour as your own exorcists? Josephus (born 37 a.d.) writes: ’I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian and his sons and his captains. He put a ring to the nostrils of the demoniac, and drew out the demon through his nostrils.. making mention of Solomon and reciting the incantations which he composed.’ See also Acts 19:13; Tobit 8:2.

28. By the Spirit of God] Luke 11:20; ’by the finger of God.’ Then the kingdom of God is come unto you] This is shown not by the mere fact of Jesus working miracles (the exorcists were supposed to work them too), but by the extraordinary character, number, and variety of His miracles, which fully fulfilled what the prophets had spoken of the wonders of the Messianic age: see on Matthew 11:2-6.

29. The argument is, ’No man can carry away the furniture from a strong man’s house until he has overpowered and bound the strong man. So I could not remove the inferior devils out of the bodies of men, unless I had first conquered and bound their master, Satan himself.’

30. He that is not with me is against me] Jesus refers to the Pharisees. Since they do not take His side in His warfare against Satan, they are on Satan’s side. Since they do not help Him to gather the sheaves of the spiritual harvest, they scatter them and prevent them from being gathered into God’s garner: see Matthew 3:12.

Some think that ’he that is not with me’ and ’that gathereth not with me’ is Satan. This also makes good sense.

31. The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost (Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10). What this sin was is not really doubtful. St. Matthew intimates that the Pharisees had come very near to committing it. St. Mark states exactly what their sin was. It lay in their malignant slander that Jesus was possessed by an unclean spirit. They regarded the spirit of holiness, which showed itself in the acts and miracles of Jesus, as diabolical. They called good evil and evil good, having become like Satan himself, dead to every impression of true holiness, and unable to recognise it when they saw it. The sin is not a sin against the Holy Spirit considered as a divine person, but against the Spirit, as manifested in the perfect life of Christ, whose acts so evidently reflected God’s own benevolence and holiness, that to ascribe them to the devil, was a sin of the most deadly character. This, and not blasphemy against Christ in general, or denial of His claims, or active opposition to Him, or even putting Him to death, is the unpardonable sin.

It is a significant fact that even the most exacting modern critics of Christ repudiate the Pharisaic position. Men like Renan and Strauss, who reject His divine claims, and find many faults with His career, yet recognise Him as one in whom the Spirit of God dwelt, and as one of the greatest religious heroes of mankind. And those who think thus are not far from the kingdom of God: cp. Luke 12:10 see further on Hebrews 6:4; Hebrews 10:26; 1 John 5:16.

32. The world to come] This phrase has two meanings among the Jews, (1) the age of the Messiah which begins with the resurrection of the dead, (2) the state of souls after death. E.g. they say, ’The world to come is, when a man is departed out of this world.’ The second meaning is to be adopted. Jesus declares the sin against the Spirit to be unpardonable either before or after death. The punishment is eternal, because, as St. Mark says, the sin itself is eternal, a token of a nature so far gone in depravity that repentance is impossible, and recovery hopeless. It is this hardened and vitiated character, not the isolated sin, that God punishes.

This passage has frequently been regarded as containing a hint of the possibility of pardon beyond the grave. St. Augustine says, ’For it would not be truly affirmed of certain persons that they are not pardoned in this world or the next, unless there were some who though not pardoned in this, yet are pardoned in the world to come.’ Plumptre says, ’If one sin only is thus excluded from forgiveness in that “coming age,” other sins cannot stand on the same level, and the darkness behind the veil is lit up with at least a gleam of hope.’ Stier speaks of ’the demonstrable inference that other sins are forgiven also in the world to come.’ Olshausen infers ’that all other sins can be forgiven in the world to come, of course under the general presuppositions of repentance and faith.’ The view that pardon beyond the grave is impossible, is learnedly maintained by J. Lightfoot, who is followed by A. B. Bruce. Many commentators leave the question open, but there is a tendency in modern times to admit the possibility. With this question is closely connected that of prayer for the dead. Both the belief in the terminable nature of future punishment and the practice of prayer for the dead were familiar to our Lord’s contemporaries.

33-36. Cp. Luke 6:43-45.

33. ’Pharisees, be logical. You say that to cast out devils is good, but that I who do it, am corrupt. That is as if you said, The fruit of this tree is good, but the tree itself is corrupt. Make up your minds which way you will have it. Either say that My works are good, and therefore that I am good also, or else that My works are corrupt, and that therefore I am corrupt also. You cannot separate a tree from its fruit, for a tree is known by its fruit. Nor can you separate a man from his works, for he is known by them.’

34. ’The same argument applies to words. A man is known by his words. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” Your evil and venomous words, declaring that I have an evil spirit, and work My miracles by Beelzebub, prove you to be really the “off-spring of vipers,” as John has already rightly called you (Matthew 3:7). Such men as you cannot, even if you would, speak good words.’

36. Every idle word] i.e. every idle word that expresses the true inward character of the man. These will pronounce judgment upon him.

38-45. A sign demanded. Astounding impudence after they had just ascribed His miracles to Beelzebub, and declared Him possessed with an unclean spirit. It was the practice of Jesus to work signs for those who sought them in a right spirit. He worked many for the disciples of John (John 11:4). He raised Lazarus ’that they may believe that Thou didst send Me’ (John 11:42). Signs, however, were for honest enquirers, not for malignant enemies like the Pharisees. Moreover, the sign which they asked was not of the kind which Christ was willing to work. They wanted a mere portent which appealed to the sense of wonder, and had no spiritual or moral significance. Such signs Jesus always refused. Yet in refusing, He promised a future sign so remarkable as to startle believers and unbelievers alike, His own Resurrection.

38. Luke 11:16: cp. Matthew 16:1; Mark 8:11. A sign] Lk ’a sign from heaven’: something startling, unlike the healing of the sick to which they were accustomed. Let Him repeat the miracle of Moses, and call down manna from the skies, as the Messiah was expected to do (John 6:30).

39-42. Luke 11:29-36.

39. Adulterous] True religion was represented by the prophets as marriage with Jehovah, so that apostasy from Him was called adultery or fornication (Isaiah 57:3, etc.).

The sign of the prophet Jonas] RV ’Jonah.’ ’The sign of the prophet Jonah,’ which is mentioned here and in Matthew 16:4 as the only sign to be vouchsafed to unbelievers, is understood by some to be our Lord’s Resurrection, and by others His preaching. The question turns upon the authenticity of Matthew 12:40. If this is authentic, the sign is certainly the Resurrection; if it is not authentic, the sign is probably our Lord’s preaching, which is expressly compared to Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:32). The question is a difficult one. Against the authenticity of the v. may be pleaded its omission by St. Luke and the nature of the context, which speaks of the preaching of Solomon and Jonah. In favour of the authenticity may be pleaded the fact that the v. shows clear traces of an Aramaic origin, and therefore presumably formed part of Matthew’s Hebrew ’logia’; also that it contains an historic difficulty (the statement that our Lord’s body lay for three nights in the grave) which would easily account for its omission by St. Luke. The present writer holds Matthew 12:40, to be an authentic part of the Matthæan ’logia,’ and therefore ’the sign of Jonah’ to be the Resurrection: cp. Matthew 27:63; John 2:19.

40. Three days and three nights] The difficulty is that our Lord only lay in the grave two nights. The expression resembles the Jewish inclusive way of reckoning (’on the third day,’ etc.), but goes beyond it. The most plausible explanation is that of J. Lightfoot. He supposes that Jesus, speaking in Aramaic, said, ’The son of man shall be three ’onahs in the heart of the earth.’ ’Onak meant a day and a night, and a part of an ’onah was reckoned as a whole, so that the Gk. translator not quite accurately rendered the expression, ’three days and three nights.’ The heart (i.e. ’centre’) of the earth] Not the grave, which is on the surface, but Hades, which popular imagination placed in the centre of the earth.

Our Lord’s use of the story of Jonah and the whale, to illustrate His Resurrection, need not imply that He regarded it as literal history. The book of Jonah is probably a symbolical or allegorical narrative (see Intro. to Jonah).

42. The queen] see on 1 Kings 10:1.

43-45. The return of the unclean spirit (Luke 11:24-26). The connexion in St. Matthew is preferable.

The expulsion of the evil spirit represents the submission of the nation to the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance. The sweeping and garnishing of the house represents the superficial but fairly general acceptance of Christ’s teaching during the early part of His ministry, to which the Gospels bear witness. The return of the evil spirit with seven other spirits more wicked than himself represents the obstinate and final rejection of Christ by the nation, which was soon to follow, and of which the blasphemy of the Pharisees and their unbelieving demand for a sign were already an earnest.

According to the primary meaning of the parable, the possessed man represents the Jewish nation. But the Christian preacher is quite within his rights when he proceeds to apply it to the individual soul, and to urge the necessity of full and complete repentance, the deceitfulness of merely formal religion, and the danger of relapse. The details of the habits of demons are not to be pressed. Christ adopts the popular phraseology about them as part of the machinery of the parable, without necessarily endorsing it in all respects.

43. A man] i.e. the Jewish nation.

Dry places] or deserts, were supposed to be the favourite abode of demons (Tobit 8:3; Baruch 4:35; Isaiah 13:21; Isaiah 34:14). These pictorial details must not be pressed as if they were dogmatic statements.

44. My house] i.e. the man himself; here, the nation. Empty] Though the evil has been temporarily expelled, nothing good has been put in its place, so that the demon can return. If our Lord had been admitted, the return would have been impossible. The ’sweeping’ and ’garnishing’ is that empty show of faith and repentance and good works, which only invites a more terrible fall.

45. Seven] Symbolical for completeness. As many as the house will hold. Mary of Magdala had seven devils (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2).

46-50. His mother and brethren (Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19). Jesus here, as on other occasions, declares Himself independent of family ties, and united by spiritual kinship to all who do God’s will.

The Brethren of Jesus

Our Lord had four ’brethren,’ James, Joseph (Joses), Simon, Judas; and at least three sisters (Matthew 13:55). What their exact relationship to Him was, is not certain. There are three main views—(1) that of St. Jerome, hence called the Hieronymian view, that they were our Lord’s cousins, being sons of Mary the Virgin’s sister and of Clopas (see John 19:25 RV). Most supporters of this view think that three of the brethren were apostles. Jerome’s theory, until recently the predominant one in England, is now held by very few. (2) The Epiphanian view, so called from its advocacy by St. Epiphanius, that they were sons of Joseph by a former wife. This is the theory of the Eastern Church, and has been learnedly supported in England by Lightfoot. (3) The Helvidian view, advocated in ancient times by Helvidius, that they were children of Joseph and Mary born after Jesus. Prof. Mayor is the chief recent exponent of this view.

The arguments for the last two views are nearly evenly balanced, and it is difficult to decide which is right.

The following points seem certain from the NT.:—

1. That the ’brethren’ did not live with ’Mary of Clopas,’ but with the Virgin Mary, and were regarded as members of her family (Matthew 12:46; Matthew 13:55; John 2:12; John 7:3).

2. That they were jealous of Jesus, and up to the Resurrection disbelieved His claims (Mark 3:21; Mark 6:4; John 7:5.).

3. And that consequently none of the brethren were included among the Twelve Apostles.

4. That they were converted after the Resurrection by the appearance to James (1 Corinthians 15:7), and henceforth associated themselves with the disciples (Acts 1:14).

The chief arguments in favour of the Epiphanian view are:—

1. That it represents the most ancient tradition, being already current in Palestine in the 2nd century.

2. That if the Virgin had had a large family, some of the members of which, like James the bishop of Jerusalem, attained to prominent positions in the Church, the (practically) unanimous tradition that she remained always a virgin, could never have arisen.

3. That it is more reverent to suppose that our Lord’s mother never had any other children.

4. That Luke 1:26-38 implies that already before the birth of Jesus, she had devoted herself (with her betrothed’s consent) to a life of virginity.

5. That our Lord upon the cross would not have committed the care of His mother to St. John, if she had had four living sons to support her.

The chief arguments in favour of the Helvidian view are:—

1. That the high esteem for virginity generally prevalent in the early Church made Christians unwilling to think of Mary as the mother of other children, and consequently the Epiphanian theory was invented.

2. That Luke 2:7 implies that Mary had other children.

3. That Matthew 1:18-25 imply that the connubial relations of Joseph and Mary after the birth of Jesus were of the usual kind.

4. That ’brother,’ when used without further explanation, naturally means a full brother, and not a half brother, or foster brother.

In the opinion of the present writer the arguments for the Epiphanian view slightly preponderate.

Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcb/matthew-12.html. 1909.
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