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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 12

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

"At that time" does not mean immediately after that but at approximately that time (cf. Matthew 9:3; Matthew 9:11; Matthew 9:14; Matthew 9:34; Matthew 10:25; Matthew 11:19). The Mosaic Law permitted the Israelites to do what the disciples did, namely, pluck a few ears of grain as they passed through a field (Deuteronomy 23:25).

Verses 1-8

The Sabbath and legal observance 12:1-8 (cf. Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5)

The immediate connection between this section and what precedes is twofold. The first is the theme of rising opposition (Matthew 11:2 to Matthew 13:53), and the second is the heavy yoke of Pharisaic tradition that made the Israelites weary and heavy laden (Matthew 11:28-30). The aim of the Sabbath was to provide rest, which Jesus said those who took His yoke upon themselves would find. It was not to provide a burden, which the Pharisees had made it by their traditions.

Matthew recorded that Pharisaic opposition began when Jesus forgave sins (Matthew 9:1-8). It increased when Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:9-13). Now it boiled over because Jesus did not observe the Pharisees’ legalistic traditions. [Note: Morgan, p. 124.]

". . . the leaders (Pharisees), in charging the disciples with breaking the law by plucking grain on the sabbath and hence working, do what they heretofore have not done: they engage Jesus himself in direct debate (Matthew 12:1-8)." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 73.]

Verses 1-21

1. Conflict over Sabbath observance 12:1-21

The first two instances of conflict that Matthew recorded arose over Sabbath observance. Sabbath observance was very important to the Jews. [Note: See Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:777-87, for discussion of the ordinances and law of the Sabbath as laid down in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud.] It was a uniquely Israelite institution that commemorated the creation of the cosmos and the creation of Israel. Jewish rules of conduct concerning the Sabbath had become very detailed by Jesus’ day.

Verses 1-50

B. Specific instances of Israel’s rejection of Jesus ch. 12

Matthew has shown that opposition to Jesus came from two main sources: the animosity of the religious leaders, and the indifference of the common Israelites. In this chapter he presented five instances in which opposition manifested itself and increased. In each situation the approach to Jesus was negative, but Jesus responded positively. [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 158.]

"Central to the plot of Matthew’s story is the element of conflict. The principal conflict pits Israel against Jesus, and the death of Jesus constitutes the primary resolution of this conflict. On another level, Jesus also struggles with the disciples. Here the conflict is to bring them to understanding, or to enable them to overcome their ’little faith,’ or to invite them to avail themselves of the great authority Jesus has given them, or, above all, to lead them to comprehend that the essence of discipleship is servanthood." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 9.]

Verse 2

The Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for doing what was unlawful under Pharisaic tradition, namely, "reaping" on the Sabbath. [Note: Mishnah Shabbath 7:2.] The Mishnah listed 39 categories of activity that qualified as work on the Sabbath.

"The Mishnah includes Sabbath-desecration among those most heinous crimes for which a man was to be stoned." [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:52. Mishnah Shabbath 7:4.]

Verses 3-4

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question with another, in common rabbinic style (cf. Matthew 12:5; Matthew 19:4; Matthew 21:16; Matthew 21:42; Matthew 22:31). The record of the incident He cited is in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, and the law governing the use of consecrated bread is in Exodus 25:30 and Leviticus 24:5-9. The house of God that David entered was the tabernacle that then stood at Nob. David and his men ate consecrated bread that only the priests had a right to eat.

The event to which Jesus referred may have occurred on a Sabbath day, though that is not certain (cf. 1 Samuel 21:5-6). That factor is inconsequential as is the fact that David ate after lying to the priests. Another inconsequential feature is that David’s men were very hungry, but Jesus’ disciples were evidently not. Jesus drew this illustration from a time in David’s life when Israel’s leadership was rejecting him. The Son of David was now experiencing similar rejection.

David ate even though it was unlawful for him to do so, yet the Old Testament did not condemn him for his act. Therefore the Pharisees should not condemn Jesus’ disciples for doing something Scripture did not condemn David’s men for doing. Jesus was arguing for His authority to override the Law more than their view of the Sabbath.

Jesus’ disciples were not breaking any Old Testament command concerning Sabbath observance. These laws aimed primarily at prohibiting regular work on the Sabbath. The Old Testament set aside a regulation in the Law for David and his men in the sense that it did not condemn them for what they did (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:18-20). Who David was was the important factor in this concession. He was the Lord’s anointed who occupied a special place in Israel. If anyone had a right to do what David did, David did. Could not Jesus then set aside a Pharisaic law that had no basis in the Old Testament for Himself and His men? By arguing this way Jesus was claiming that He was at least as important as David was. The parallels between David and Jesus make Jesus’ veiled claim to being the Son of David obvious.

Verses 5-6

Jesus’ second argument came from Numbers 28:9-10. Technically the priests broke the Sabbath every week by changing the consecrated bread and by offering the burnt offerings the Law specified for that day. However the Law considered the priests guiltless for doing this "work" on the Sabbath.

Jesus claimed that something greater than the temple was present. He used the neuter "something" to refer to His authority because He wanted to stress a quality about the temple, its authority, that He as an individual shared with the temple. [Note: Turner, p. 21.] What is greater than the temple as a symbol of authority is Messiah, a superior authority. Another point of comparison was that God came to meet with His people in the temple and in Immanuel.

In Jesus’ argument the temple was greater than the Sabbath. However, now something greater than the temple was there, namely, Messiah, and specifically, His authority. Consequently Messiah takes precedence over the Sabbath. The Pharisees not only mishandled the Law, but they also failed to perceive who Jesus was. As the temple’s authority shielded the priests from guilt, so Jesus’ authority as Messiah shielded His disciples from guilt. Jesus was not comparing but contrasting the priests’ authority and His authority.

"In truth, the reason why David was blameless in eating the shew-bread was the same as that which made the Sabbath-labour of the priests lawful. The Sabbath-Law was not one merely of rest, but of rest for worship. The Service of the Lord was the object in view. The priests worked on the Sabbath, because this service was the object of the Sabbath; and David was allowed to eat of the shew-bread, not because there was danger to life from starvation, but because he pleaded that he was on the service of the Lord and needed this provision. The disciples, when following the Lord, were similarly on the service of the Lord; ministering to Him was more than ministering in the Temple, for He was greater than the Temple." [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:58.]

Verses 7-8

Jesus again criticized the Pharisees for failing to understand the Scriptures (cf. Matthew 12:3), and He quoted Hosea 6:6 again (cf. Matthew 9:13). Previously Jesus had cited this verse to show the Pharisees that they failed to recognize their own need. Now He used it to show them that they failed to recognize Him. The Jews in Hosea’s day relied on mere ritual to satisfy God. The Pharisees were doing the same thing. They had not grasped the real significance of the Law, as their criticism of Jesus’ disciples demonstrated. Jesus accused the accusers and declared the disciples innocent.

"Note that Jesus appealed to prophet [Matthew 12:3-4], priest [Matthew 12:5-6], and king [Matthew 12:7]; for He is Prophet, Priest, and King. Note too the three ’greater’ statements that He made: as the Priest, He is ’greater than the temple’ (Matthew 12:6); as Prophet, He is ’greater than Jonah’ (Matthew 12:41); and as King, He is ’greater than Solomon’ (Matthew 12:42)." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:42.]

As Son of Man, "this man," Jesus was Lord of the Sabbath. That is, His authority was greater than the authority that God had given the Sabbath over His people. Jesus had the authority to do anything He wished with the Sabbath. Significantly, He abolished its observance when He terminated the whole Mosaic Code even as the temple effectively abolished it for the priests within the Mosaic system.

"We are free while we are doing anything for Christ; God loves mercy, and demands not sacrifice; His sacrifice is the service of Christ, in heart, and life, and work. We are not free to do anything we please; but we are free to do anything needful or helpful, while we are doing any service to Christ." [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:59.]

Verses 9-10

The Pharisees believed that it was permissible to give medical assistance on the Sabbath only if a sick person’s life was in danger. [Note: Mishnah Yoma 8:6.] They also permitted midwifery and circumcision on the Sabbath. [Note: Mishnah Shabbath 18:3; 19:2.]

Verses 9-14

The healing of a man with a withered hand 12:9-14 (cf. Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11)

In the previous encounter Jesus appealed to Scripture, but in this one He did not. In that one His disciples were the targets of Pharisaic criticism, but in this one He was.

Verses 11-13

This is the third time in Matthew that Jesus argued for the superiority of human life over animal life (cf. Matthew 6:26; Matthew 10:31). His argument presupposed the special creation of man (Genesis 1-2). Jesus assumed, apparently with good reason, that the Pharisees would lift a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath. His argument was again qal wahomer (from the light to the heavy, cf. Matthew 12:5-6). Neither the sheep in the illustration nor the man in the synagogue was in mortal danger. Jesus cut through the Pharisaic distinctions about how much help one could give to the more basic issue of doing good.

Jesus again healed with a word (Matthew 9:1-8). The healing confirmed the power of His word, a power that God demonstrated in creation and that marked Jesus as God’s agent. This miracle confirmed again Jesus’ lordship over the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8) and His authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8). Notice that Matthew made no reference to the healed man’s faith. It may have played no part in this miracle, or Matthew simply may have made no mention of it. Matthew wanted to focus attention on Jesus and the Pharisees, not on the man.

Verse 14

The Pharisees would not have put someone to death simply because he broke one of their traditional laws. They wanted to kill Jesus because they understood Him to be making messianic claims that they rejected. "Counseled together" (NASB) or "plotted" (NIV, Gr. sumboulion elabon) means the Pharisees had reached a definite decision.

"The phrase means to come to a conclusion, rather than to deliberate whether or not." [Note: Plummer, p. 175.]

This verse takes the official rejection of Messiah farther than it has gone before in Matthew. It is "the culminating point of the opposition of the Jewish religious authorities." [Note: M’Neile, p. 171.]

"Given this narrative comment, the reader knows that the leaders’ repudiation of Jesus has now become irreversible." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 73.]

Verses 15-17

Jesus withdrew when opposition became intense before His time to go to the cross had arrived (cf. Matthew 4:12; Matthew 14:13; Matthew 15:21).

"This is the pattern of His ministry until His final and open rejection in chapters twenty-one to twenty-seven-opposition, withdrawal, and continued ministry." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 161.]

He had instructed His disciples to follow a similar procedure (Matthew 10:11-14; Matthew 10:23-24). He withdrew specifically to avoid open conflict with the Pharisees. [Note: John Henry Bennetch, "Matthew: An Apologetic," Bibliotheca Sacra 103 (October 1946):480.] His extensive ministry continued (cf. Matthew 4:23; Matthew 8:16; Matthew 9:35), as did His encouragements to those He healed to keep quiet about what had happened to them but with no greater cooperation (cf. Matthew 8:4; Matthew 9:30). His conduct fulfilled Scripture.

Verses 15-21

Scriptural vindication of Jesus’ ministry 12:15-21 (cf. Mark 3:7-12)

Matthew concluded the two accounts of the Pharisees’ conflict with Jesus over Sabbath observance. He did so with a summary of His ministry that shows He fulfilled messianic prophecy. Jesus’ tranquility and gentleness in this pericope contrast with the Pharisees’ hatred in the former one.

Verses 18-21

Matthew recently selected material that presented Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, and God Himself. Now he pointed out again that Jesus’ conduct proved Him to be the prophesied Suffering Servant of the Lord. The citation is from Isaiah 42:1-4. This is the longest Old Testament quotation in the first Gospel.

". . . by inserting this quotation here Matthew helps his readers to put the confrontation in context: it is not of the Messiah’s choosing." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., pp. 468-69.]

The Greek word pais translated "servant" can also mean "son." However the Hebrew word that it translates means "servant." Matthew recorded "whom I have chosen" rather than "whom I uphold" in Isaiah 42:1 evidently to stress God’s election and love of Jesus (cf. Matthew 3:16-17; Matthew 17:5). Jesus performed His miracles with the power of the Spirit whom the Father had poured out upon Him. These miracles extended even to Gentiles. Note the presence of the Trinity in this Old Testament passage.

Isaiah predicted that Messiah would minister with gentleness and humility (Matthew 12:19). He would not present Himself arrogantly or brashly. He would be very compassionate (Matthew 12:20). He would not advance His own program by stepping on others. He would bring salvation finally to the harassed and helpless (Matthew 9:36) as well as to the weary and burdened (Matthew 11:28) without crushing the weak. [Note: Carson, "Matthew," pp. 286-87.] This concept of Messiah was much more gentle than the one Jesus’ contemporaries held. They expected Him to crush all opposition. He would, however, bring justice to pass. In Matthew "justice" (Gr. krisis) means fast approaching judgment, not just justice as opposed to injustice. [Note: M’Neile, p. 172.] Justice in the kingdom is in view. Consequently the Gentiles would put their trust in Him (Matthew 12:21).

"In the face of rejection by the nation of Israel Matthew, by Messianic prophecies, prepares his Jewish reader for the proclamation of a universal Savior." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 161.]

This Old Testament quotation helps the reader see how many of the characteristics of Jesus and His ministry that Matthew has presented fit the pattern of messianic prophecy. It also sets the stage for other things that Matthew recorded that demonstrated Jesus’ messiahship.

Verse 22

"Then" (Gr. tote) does not demand a close chronological connection with what precedes (cf. Matthew 2:7; Matthew 11:20). The Greek text describes the man’s afflictions in terms that show that his demon possession produced his blindness and dumbness. The miracle itself did not interest Matthew as much as the confrontation that it produced.

Verses 22-24

Jesus’ miracle and the response 12:22-24

Verses 22-37

2. Conflict over Jesus’ power 12:22-37 (cf. Mark 3:19-30; Luke 11:14-26)

The Pharisees moved beyond debate to personal abuse and character assassination in this pericope.

Verses 23-24

The astonishment of the crowd prompted their question. It expected a negative answer. Literally they said, "This cannot be the Son of David, can it?" They raised the faint possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah, but primarily their question reflected their amazed unbelief. The Jews expected Messiah to perform miracles (Matthew 12:38), but other things about Jesus, for example His servant characteristics, led them to conclude that He was not the Son of David.

The Pharisees again attributed Jesus’ power to Satan (cf. Matthew 10:25). This time their accusation created an open breach between themselves and Jesus.

"Three times before Matthew 12 the kingdom was said to be near (Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17; Matthew 10:7). Then after Jesus’ opponents accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:24-32; Mark 3:22-30; Luke 11:14-26), the nearness of the kingdom is never mentioned again in the Gospels." [Note: Idem, and Jay A. Quine, "No, Not Yet: The Contingency of God’s Promised Kingdom," Bibliotheca Sacra 164:654 (April-June 2007):138.]

John’s Gospel, by the way, makes no reference to the nearness of God’s kingdom. By the time John wrote, probably late in the first century A.D., it was clear that the messianic kingdom had been postponed.

Verses 25-26

Probably Jesus’ knew His critics’ thoughts as anyone else who had suffered such an attack would (cf. Matthew 9:4). Alternatively this may be a statement of Jesus’ omniscience. Any kingdom, city, or household that experiences internal conflict will destroy itself eventually if the strife continues. This holds true for the domain over which Satan rules as well. For Satan to cast out demons would amount to his casting out himself since the demons do his work.

Verses 25-37

Jesus’ reply in view of the response 12:25-37

Verse 27

The Pharisees’ "sons" cast out demons occasionally. These "sons" were probably their disciples or less likely the Jews more generally. In either case some Jews in Jesus’ day could cast out demons (cf. Acts 19:13). If the Pharisees asserted that Jesus cast out demons by Satan’s power, they would have to admit that their sons did so by the same power, something they would have denied.

Verse 28

The Spirit of God stands in stark contrast to Beelzebul. Matthew probably used "kingdom of God" here rather than "kingdom of heaven" to connect the kingdom with the Spirit.

"References to the Spirit occur only twelve times altogether in Matthew’s gospel, with one-third of them in chapter 12. As might be expected in a gospel concerned to interpret the significance of the life and ministry of Jesus, most of the references describe the work of the Spirit in relation to Him." [Note: Lowery, pp. 31-32.]

Jesus was claiming that He received His power from God’s Spirit (cf. Matthew 12:18), a clear messianic claim. [Note: See Mark R. Saucy, "Miracles and Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:611 (July-September 1996):281-307.] The kingdom was imminent because the King was present.

"Upon" you does not mean the kingdom had somehow entered the Jews or overtaken them and they were then in it. Jesus was addressing the Pharisees, and He did not mean the kingdom had come on them of all people. Moreover Jesus’ concept of the kingdom was an earthly physical one. Furthermore everywhere else Jesus spoke of people entering the kingdom, not the kingdom entering them. [Note: H. D. A. Major, T. W. Manson, and C. J. Wright, The Mission and Message of Jesus, p. 596.]

Verse 29

Jesus encouraged the Pharisees to look at the same issue another way. Only a stronger person can bind a homeowner and ransack his house (cf. Isaiah 49:24-25). On a deeper level Jesus was speaking of Himself binding Satan and spoiling his house by casting out demons (cf. Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21-22). Thus Jesus was claiming power superior to Satan that could only be divine. Jesus will really bind Satan for 1,000 years when the kingdom begins (Revelation 20:2). Jewish pseudepigraphal literature predicted that Messiah would do this (Assumption of Moses Matthew 10:1). The pseudepigrapha (lit. false writings) is a large body of Jewish writings that are not in the Old Testatment or what Protestants refer to as the Apocrapha. These books date from ca. 200 B.C. to ca. A.D. 100.

Verse 30

Jesus’ point in this statement was that there can be no neutrality in one’s relationship to Him. Those who do not side with Jesus side with Satan. This put the Pharisees in undesirable company. The Old Testament viewed man’s judgment as a harvest that God would conduct. Jesus claimed that He would be the harvesting Judge. Jesus’ statement here would have rebuked the Pharisees and warned the undecided in the crowd. Apparently they were not only refusing to come to Jesus themselves but were even scattering the disciples that Jesus was gathering.

Verses 31-32

Jesus followed up His statement about the impossibility of being neutral (Matthew 12:30) with this further warning. The "therefore" (Gr. dia touto) indicates this relationship. Blasphemy involves extreme slander (cf. Matthew 9:3). God would forgive any sin, including extreme slander of Jesus, when a person trusted in Jesus. However, He would not forgive blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, in view of the context (Matthew 12:24-28), involved attributing Jesus’ works to Satan rather than to the Spirit. The sin was not a matter of speech; the words spoken simply reflected the attitude of the heart. God would not forgive this sin because the person who committed it in Jesus’ day was thereby strongly rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. Even today the only sin one can commit that God will not forgive and that will result in his or her eternal damnation is rejection of Jesus Christ (cf. John 3:18). Attributing Jesus’ works to Satan was blasphemy of the Spirit in Jesus’ day and this resulted in damnation.

Can a person commit this sin today? One can reject Jesus Christ, but one cannot blaspheme the Spirit in the same sense in which Jesus’ contemporaries could. To do so one would have to observe Jesus doing His works and attribute them to Satan. [Note: Cf. Barbieri, p. 46.] One could say therefore that blasphemy against the Spirit was an unforgivable sin during Jesus’ earthly ministry. The unforgivable sin at any time since Jesus began His earthly ministry to the present day is rejection of Jesus Christ.

Speaking a word against is the same as blasphemy. Extreme slander of Jesus was forgivable in His day provided it did not go as far as attributing His works to Satan. That constituted blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gave this warning to the professedly neutral person who might attribute His works to Satan (Matthew 12:30). Such a person needed to realize that even though he or she was not speaking against Jesus that one was doing something with much graver consequences.

"Given Matthew’s christological interests and the unique and central position held by Jesus throughout the Gospel, one may understandably be surprised that Matthew has not said the reverse of what stands in the text, i.e., that blasphemy against the Spirit is forgivable but not that against the Son of Man. The gravity of the blasphemy against the Spirit, however, depends upon the Holy Spirit as the fundamental dynamic that stands behind and makes possible the entire messianic ministry of Jesus itself . . ." [Note: Hagner, p. 348.]

Verse 33

Jesus proceeded to point out that conduct typically reflects character (Matthew 12:33-37; cf. Matthew 7:16-19). To have good fruit one must make the tree good, for example by cultivating, grafting, fertilizing, etc. If one makes a tree rotten by neglect and abuse, for example, one will get bad fruit. A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree yields bad fruit. Jesus’ works were good, so He must be good.

Verses 34-35

Everywhere else in Matthew where the "brood of vipers" figure occurs it refers to the Pharisees and other religious leaders (Matthew 3:7; Matthew 23:33). That is undoubtedly whom Jesus addressed here too. The figure pictures deadly antagonists. Jesus’ point was that a person’s character determines what he or she says and does. The mouth usually reveals what is in the heart. The Pharisees’ extreme slander of Jesus revealed their rejection of Him. They needed a change of attitude toward Him, not just a change in their speech about Him.

It is going beyond what Jesus said to interpret this statement as meaning that no true believer will ever say or do what is contrary to the nature of a believer to say or do. All good people say and do some things that are good and some things that are bad. Likewise all bad people say and do some things that are good and some things that are bad. We are not exactly like the trees in this illustration.

Verses 36-37

Jesus did not want His critics to gain any satisfaction from what He had just said. Their externally righteous appearance did not excuse them from speaking as they did. Rather people’s words are what God will use to judge them eventually. The "careless" word is the word spoken without deliberation. One might think it insignificant except that it reveals character. Every word spoken reflects the heart’s overflow, and God knows about it. Therefore words are very important (cf. Ephesians 5:3-4; Ephesians 5:12; Colossians 3:17; James 1:19; James 3:1-12).

Matthew 12:37 sounds as though it may have been proverbial, or perhaps Jesus made it a proverb here. The context clarifies that the justification and condemnation in view deal with God passing judgment on everyone. Obviously Jesus did not mean that if a person was able to say all the right words he or she could deceive God and win salvation by clever speech. The basis of justification and condemnation is character, but words reveal character and so become the instruments by which God judges.

Jesus’ critics thought they were assessing Him when they said He did His works by Satan’s power (Matthew 12:24). Jesus pointed out that they were really assessing themselves. They thought they were judging Him with their words, but really God would judge them with their words.

The break between Jesus and the religious leaders was now final.

"It is worth noting that in Mt. the breach between Jesus and the authorities is not definite until the Beelzebub charge." [Note: M. Kiddle, "The Conflict Between the Disciples, the Jews, and the Gentiles in St. Matthew’s Gospel," The Journal of Theological Studies 36 (January 1935):37.]

Verse 38

Matthew’s connective again was weak. This incident was not a continuation of the preceding controversy chronologically but thematically. Some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus to perform a sign, not just a miracle. He had performed many miracles, and they had concluded that they were satanic (Matthew 12:24). A sign was an immediate tangible assurance that something prophesied would surely happen. They requested a particular type of miracle. Evidently they believed Jesus could not produce one and that His failure would discredit Him.

Verses 38-45

3. Conflict over Jesus’ sign 12:38-45

The fourth incident and the third type of conflict concerned a sign that Jesus’ critics requested.

Verses 39-40

The evil and adulterous generation was the larger group of unbelieving Jews that the scribes and Pharisees represented. Adultery is a common Old Testament metaphor for spiritual apostasy, departure from God (Isaiah 50:1; Isaiah 57:3; Jeremiah 3:8; Jeremiah 13:27; Jeremiah 31:32; Ezekiel 16:15; Ezekiel 16:32; Ezekiel 16:35-42; Hosea 2:1-7; Hosea 3:1; Hosea 7:13-16). God had granted signs in the past to strengthen the weak faith of believers such as Abraham, Joshua, and Gideon. Jesus refused to give His critics one since they wanted a sign to trap Him rather than to bolster weak faith.

The sign of Jonah was not a sign for the scribes and Pharisees. It became a sign to believers in Him later. The sign of Jonah means the sign that Jonah was to the Ninevites. He signified one whom God had delivered from certain death. [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "The Sign of Jonah," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23 (1980):23-30.] Jesus’ use of "Son of Man" stressed His suffering role (cf. Matthew 8:20). The "heart" of the earth may recall Jonah 2:3 (cf. Psalms 46:2). This is a reference to Jesus’ burial. Jesus was saying that His deliverance from death in the grave, which would be similar to Jonah’s deliverance, only greater, would prove His claims. As the Jews reckoned time, three days and three nights meant three full days or any parts of three days. [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 296.] Jesus was in the grave for parts of three days.

Verse 41

The Pharisees believed correctly that judgment followed resurrection. [Note: F. W. Green, ed., The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in the Revised Version, p. 183.] Jesus followed His comments about resurrection in Matthew 12:40 with instruction about judgment in Matthew 12:41.

His critics’ condemnation would be greater than that of the Ninevites because the Ninevites repented at Jonah’s preaching, but the scribes and Pharisees would not repent at Jesus’ preaching. Jesus did not mean that the believing Ninevites and the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day would appear before God at the same time. That is clear because the Ninevites would not condemn the Jews, but God would. Jesus meant that the believing Ninevites could testify against the unbelieving Jews when each group appeared before God for judgment.

The something greater than Jonah was again the authority of Messiah. The sign Jesus promised did not meet His critics’ demand since they did not need weak faith strengthened. It was a sign that He provided for His own disciples. By refusing to respond to Jesus’ message the scribes and Pharisees showed themselves to be worse sinners than the Gentile Ninevites.

"Jesus is greater than Jonah in many ways. He is greater in His person, for Jonah was a mere man. He was greater in His obedience, for Jonah disobeyed God and was chastened. Jesus actually died, while Jonah’s ’grave’ was in the belly of the great fish. Jesus arose from the dead under His own power. Jonah ministered only to one city [according to the Book of Jonah], while Jesus gave His life for the whole world. Certainly Jesus was greater in His love, for Jonah did not love the people of Nineveh-he wanted them to die. Jonah’s message saved Nineveh from judgment; he was a messenger of the wrath of God. Jesus’ message was that of grace and salvation." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:43.]

Verse 42

By referring to Jonah the same way He referred to the Queen of the South, Jesus strongly supported the view that Jonah was a historical person. The Queen of the South was the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13). She came from the Arabian Peninsula that for the Jews was the end of the earth (cf. Jeremiah 6:20; Joel 3:8). She visited Jerusalem because of reports about Solomon’s great wisdom that had reached her ears. The something greater than Solomon was Messiah, the embodiment of divine wisdom. The queen would join the Ninevites in condemning the unbelievers of Jesus’ day because they failed to acknowledge one with greater wisdom than Solomon, as well as one with a greater message than Jonah. Jesus was greater than Solomon in His wisdom, wealth, and works.

In both of Jesus’ comparisons Gentiles responded, and Jews did not. Such had been the case in Jesus’ ministry so far, and this would continue. The proud scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly resented Jesus comparing them unfavorably with Gentiles.

"It is a tragic feature in the history of Israel that the nation rejected their deliverers the first time, but accepted them the second time. This was true with Joseph, Moses, David, the prophets (Matthew 23:29), and Jesus Christ." [Note: Ibid., 1:44.]

"Temple and priesthood, prophet, king, and wise man-something greater is now here." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 493.]

Verses 43-45

The point of these verses that describe demon possession goes back to Jesus’ warning about the peril of being neutral toward Him (Matthew 12:30). A demon cast out of a person initially goes through arid places seeking rest. This statement affirms the Jewish belief that demons prefer dry places (Tobit 8:3; cf. Revelation 18:2). [Note: Cf. Tasker, p. 133. See Edersheim, 2:748-63, and 2:770-76, for the Jewish views of angels and demons.] Eventually they seek to inhabit human bodies through which they can do more damage.

Jesus implied the possibility of demonic repossession (Matthew 12:44). The demon’s house is a human body in Jesus’ story. The demon returns to the person it had left discovering that he or she is still receptive to the demon’s presence because no superior power occupies that person. Consequently the demon invites seven other demons, a full complement, and they take up residence in the person.

Jesus compared the unbelieving Jews of His day to the demon-possessed person. John the Baptist and Jesus had purified the lives of many in Galilee by calling them to repentance, but not all of them had embraced Jesus in faith. Jesus had cast demons out of many people, but they did not all believe that He was the Messiah. This neutral condition left them vulnerable to an even worse invasion from Satan to say nothing about judgment from God. These neutral individuals represented the nation as a whole.

Many Christians believe that Jesus’ teaching here gives evidence that demons cannot possess a true believer. That may be so, but demons can afflict believers greatly. Believers are no more immune against attack from Satan and his demons than we are from attacks from the world and the flesh. The line between demon possession and demon affliction is a thin one that is very hard to identify.

Verses 46-47

Jesus’ brothers were evidently his physical brothers, the sons of Mary. Some Roman Catholics desiring to maintain their perpetual virginity of Mary doctrine have argued that they were Jesus’ brothers but the sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. [Note: E.g., John McHugh, The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament, pp. 200-202.] If they were, the oldest of these brothers would have been the legal heir to David’s throne.

Verses 46-50

4. Conflict over Jesus’ kin 12:46-50 (cf. Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21)

A very subtle form of opposition arose from Jesus’ physical family members. It provided an opportunity for Jesus to explain true relationship to Messiah and to affirm His disciples.

Verses 48-50

Jesus’ question did not depreciate His physical mother and brothers. His answer showed that He simply gave priority to His heavenly Father and doing His will (cf. Matthew 10:37). Spiritual relationship takes precedence over physical relationship (cf. Matthew 8:18-23). This underlines the importance of believing in Jesus and giving Him first place. Jesus’ disciples become His true family. Note that the word "whoever," referring to those who do the will of God by believing on His Son, left the possibility of salvation open to anyone (cf. Matthew 11:28-30).

These verses have strong Christological implications. They also reveal more about the spiritual family that was forming around Jesus. In spite of rising opposition, God’s purposes through Messiah were advancing (cf. Matthew 12:18; Matthew 12:20).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/matthew-12.html. 2012.
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