CRISIS (Matthew 12:1-50)
In Matthew 12:1-50 we read the history of a series of crucial events in the life of Jesus. In every man's life there are decisive moments, times and events on which the whole of his life hinges. This chapter presents us with the story of such a period in the life of Jesus. In it we see the orthodox Jewish religious leaders of the day coming to their final decision regarding Jesus--and that was rejection. It was not only rejection in the sense that they would have nothing to do with him; it was rejection in the sense that they came to the conclusion that nothing less than his complete elimination would be enough.
Here in this chapter we see the first definite steps, the end of which could be nothing other than the Cross. The characters are painted clear before us. On the one hand there are the Scribes and the Pharisees, the representatives of orthodox religion. We can see four stages in their increasing attitude of malignant hostility to Jesus.
(i) In Matthew 12:1-8, the story of how the disciples plucked the ears of corn on the Sabbath day, we see growing suspicion. The Scribes and Pharisees regarded with growing suspicion a teacher who was prepared to allow his followers to disregard the minutia of the Sabbath Law. This was the kind of thing which could not be allowed to spread unchecked.
(ii) In Matthew 12:9-14, the story of the healing of the man with the paralysed hand on the Sabbath day, we see active and hostile investigation. It was not by chance that the Scribes and Pharisees were in the synagogue on that Sabbath. Luke says they were there to watch Jesus (Luke 6:7). From that time on Jesus would have to work always under the malignant eye of the orthodox leaders. They would do his steps, like private detectives, seeking the evidence on which they could level a charge against him.
(iii) In Matthew 12:22-32, the story of how the orthodox leaders charged Jesus with healing by the power of the devil, and of how he spoke to them of the sin which has no forgiveness, we see the story of deliberate and prejudiced blindness. From that time on nothing Jesus could ever do would be right in the eyes of these men. They had so shut their eyes to God that they were completely incapable of ever seeing his beauty and his truth. Their prejudiced blindness had launched them on a path from which they were quite incapable of ever turning back.
(iv) In Matthew 12:14 we see evil determination. The orthodox were not now content to watch and criticize; they were preparing to act. They had gone into council to find a way to put an end to this disturbing Galilaean. Suspicion, investigation, blindness were on the way to open action.
In face of all this the answer of Jesus is clearly delineated. We can see five ways in which he met this growing opposition.
(i) He met it with courageous defiance. In the story of the healing of the man with the paralysed hand (Matthew 12:9-14) we see him deliberately defying the Scribes and Pharisees. This thing was not done in a corner; it was done in a crowded synagogue. It was not done in their absence; it was done when they were there with deliberate intent to formulate a charge against him. So far from evading the challenge, Jesus is about to meet it head on.
(ii) He met it with warning. In Matthew 12:22-32 we see Jesus giving the most terrible of warnings. He is warning those men that, if they persist in shutting their eyes to the truth of God, they are on the way to a situation where, by their own act, they will have shut themselves out from the grace of God. Here Jesus is not so much on the defence as on the attack. He makes quite clear where their attitude is taking them.
(iii) He met it with a staggering series of claims. He is greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6), and the Temple was the most sacred place in all the world. He is greater than Jonah, and no preacher ever produced repentance so amazingly as Jonah did (Matthew 12:41). He is greater than Solomon, and Solomon was the very acme of wisdom (Matthew 12:42). His claim is that there is nothing in spiritual history than which he is not greater. There are no apologies here; there is the statement of the claims of Christ at their highest.
(iv) He met it with the statement that his teaching is essential. The point of the strange parable of the Empty House (Matthew 12:43-45) is that the Law may negatively empty a man of evil, but only the gospel can fill him with good. The Law therefore simply leaves a man an empty invitation for all evil to take up its residence within his heart; the gospel so fills him with positive goodness that evil cannot enter in. Here is Jesus, claim that the gospel can do for men what the Law can never do.
(v) Finally, he met it with an invitation. Matthew 12:46-50 are in essence an invitation to enter into kinship with him. These verses are not so much a disowning of Jesus' own kith and kin as an invitation to all men to enter into kinship with him, through the acceptance of the will of God, as that will has come to men in him. They are an invitation to abandon our own prejudices and self-will and to accept Jesus Christ as Master and Lord. If we refuse, we drift farther away from God; if we accept, we enter into the very family and heart of God.
Breaking The Sabbath Law (Matthew 12:1-8)
12:1-8 At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the Sabbath day. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, "Look you, your disciples are doing that which it is not permitted to do on the Sabbath day." He said to them, "Have you not read what David and his friends did, when he was hungry--how he went into the house of God and ate the shewbread, which it was not permissible for him, nor for his friends to eat, but which the priests alone may eat? Or, have you not read in the Law that the priests profane the Sabbath, and yet remain blameless? I tell you that something greater than the Temple is here. But, if you had known the meaning of the saying, 'It is mercy that I wish, and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned those who are blameless. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
(The last phrase should perhaps be translated: "For man is master of the Sabbath.")
In Palestine in the time of Jesus the cornfields and the cultivated lands were laid out in long narrow strips; and the ground between the strips was always a right of way. It was on one of these strips between the cornfields that the disciples and Jesus were walking when this incident happened.
There is no suggestion that the disciples were stealing. The Law expressly laid it down that the hungry traveller was entitled to do just what the disciples were doing, so long as he only used his hands to pluck the ears of corn, and did not use a sickle: "When you go into your neighbours standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbours standing grain" (Deuteronomy 23:25). W. M. Thomson in The Land and the Book tells how, when he was travelling in Palestine, the same custom still existed. One of the favourite evening dishes for the traveller is parched corn. "When travelling in harvest time," Thomson writes, "my muleteers have very often prepared parched corn in the evenings after the tent has been pitched. Nor is the gathering of these green ears for parching ever regarded as stealing.... So, also, I have seen my muleteers, as we passed along the wheat fields, pluck off the ears, rub them in their hands, and eat the grains unroasted, just as the apostles are said to have done."
In the eyes of the Scribes and Pharisees, the fault of the disciples was not that they had plucked and eaten the grains of corn, but that they had done so on the Sabbath. The Sabbath Law was very complicated and very detailed. The commandment forbids work on the Sabbath day; but the interpreters of the Law were not satisfied with that simple prohibition. Work had to be defined. So thirty-nine basic actions were laid down, which were forbidden on the Sabbath, and amongst them were reaping, winnowing and threshing, and preparing a meal. The interpreters were not even prepared to leave the matter there. Each item in the list of forbidden works had to be carefully defined. For instance, it was forbidden to carry a burden. But what is a burden? A burden is anything which weighs as much as two dried figs. Even the suggestion of work was forbidden; even anything which might symbolically be regarded as work was prohibited. Later the great Jewish teacher, Maimonides, was to say, "To pluck ears is a kind of reaping." By their conduct the disciples were guilty of far more than one breach of the Law. By plucking the corn they were guilty of reaping; by rubbing it in their hands they were guilty of threshing; by separating the grain and the chaff they were guilty of winnowing; and by the whole process they were guilty of preparing a meal on the Sabbath day, for everything which was to be eaten on the Sabbath had to be prepared the day before.
The orthodox Jews took this Sabbath Law with intense seriousness. The Book of Jubilee has a chapter (chapter 50) about the keeping of the Sabbath. Whoever lies with his wife, or plans to do anything on the Sabbath, or plans to set out on a journey (even the contemplation of work is forbidden), or plans to buy or sell, or draws water, or lifts a burden is condemned. Any man who does any work on the Sabbath (whether the work is in his house or in any other place), or goes a journey, or tills a farm, any man who lights a fire or rides any beast, or travels by ship at sea, any man who strikes or kills anything, any man who catches an animal, a bird, or a fish, any man who fasts or who makes war on a Sabbath--the man who does these things shall die. To keep these commandments was to keep the Law of God; to break them was to break the Law of God.
There is no doubt whatever that, from their own point of view, the Scribes and Pharisees were entirely justified in finding fault with the disciples for breaking the Law, and with Jesus for allowing them, if not encouraging them, to do so.
The Claim Of Human Need (Matthew 12:1-8 Continued)
To meet the criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees Jesus put forward three arguments.
(i) He quoted the action of David (1 Samuel 21:1-6) on the occasion when David and his young men were so hungry that they went into the tabernacle--not the Temple, because this happened in the days before the Temple was built--and ate the shewbread, which only the priests could eat. The shewbread is described in Leviticus 24:5-9. It consisted of twelve loaves of bread, which were placed every week in two rows of six in the Holy Place. No doubt they were a symbolic offering in which God was thanked for his gift of sustaining food. These loaves were changed every week, and the old loaves became the perquisite of the priests and could only be eaten by them. On this occasion, in their hunger, David and his young men took and ate those sacred loaves, and no blame attached to them. The claims of human need took precedence over any ritual custom.
(ii) He quoted the Sabbath work of the Temple. The Temple ritual always involved work--the kindling of fires, the slaughter and the preparation of animals, the lifting of them on to the altar, and a host of other things. This work was actually doubled on the Sabbath, for on the Sabbath the offerings were doubled (compare e.g. Numbers 28:9). Any one of these actions would have been illegal for any ordinary person to perform on the Sabbath day. To light a fire, to slaughter an animal, to lift it up on to the altar would have been to break the Law, and hence to profane the Sabbath. But for the priests it was perfectly legal to do these things, for the Temple worship must go on. That is to say, worship offered to God took precedence of an the Sabbath rules and regulations.
(iii) He quoted God's word to Hosea the prophet: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). What God desires far more than ritual sacrifice is kindness, the spirit which knows no law other than that it must answer the call of human need.
In this incident Jesus lays it down that the claim of human need must take precedence of all other claims. The claims of worship, the claims of ritual, the claims of liturgy are important but prior to any of them is the claim of human need.
One of the modern saints of God is Father George Potter who, out of the derelict Church of St. Chrysostom's in Peckham, made a shining light of Christian worship and Christian service. To further the work he founded the Brotherhood of the Order of the Holy Cross, whose badge was the towel which Jesus Christ wore when he washed his disciples' feet. There was no service too menial for the brothers to render; their work for the outcast and for homeless boys with a criminal record or criminal potentialities is beyond all praise. Father Potter held the highest possible ideas of worship; and yet when he is explaining the work of the Brotherhood he writes of anyone who wishes to enter into its triple vow of poverty, chastity and obedience: "He mustn't sulk if he cannot get to Vespers on the Feast of St. Thermogene. He may be sitting in a police court waiting for a 'client'. . . . He mustn't be the type who goes into the kitchen and sobs just because we run short of incense. . . . We put prayer and sacraments first. We know we cannot do our best otherwise, but the fact is that we have to spend more time at the bottom of the Mount of Transfiguration than at the top." He tells about one candidate who arrived, when he was just about to give his boys a cup of cocoa and put them to bed. "So I said, 'Just clean round the bath will you while it's wet?' He stood aghast and stuttered, 'I didn't expect to clean up after dirty boys!' Well, well! His life of devoted service to the Blessed Master lasted about seven minutes. He did not unpack." Florence Allshorn, the great principal of a women's missionary college, tells of the problem of the candidate who always discovers that her time for quiet prayer has come just when there are greasy dishes to be washed in not very warm water.
Jesus insisted that the greatest ritual service is the service of human need. It is an odd thing to think that, with the possible exception of that day in the synagogue at Nazareth, we have no evidence that Jesus ever conducted a church service in all his life on earth, but we have abundant evidence that he fed the hungry and comforted the sad and cared for the sick. Christian service is not the service of any liturgy or ritual; it is the service of human need. Christian service is not monastic retiral; it is involvement in all the tragedies and problems and demands of the human situation. Whittier had it rightly:
"O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother!
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
For he whom Jesus loved hath truly spoken;
The holier worship which he deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless.
Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father's temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude."
That is what we mean--or ought to mean--when we say, "Let us worship God!"
Master Of The Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8 Continued)
There remains in this passage one difficulty which it is not possible to solve with absolute certainty. The difficulty lies in the last phrase, "For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath." This phrase can have two meanings.
(i) It may mean that Jesus is claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, in the sense that he is entitled to use the Sabbath as he thinks fit. We have seen that the sanctity of the work of the Temple surpassed and over-rode the Sabbath rules and regulations; Jesus has just claimed that something greater than the Temple is here in him; therefore he has the right to dispense with the Sabbath regulations and to do as he thinks best on the Sabbath day. That may be said to be the traditional interpretation of this sentence, but there are real difficulties in it.
(ii) On this occasion Jesus is not defending himself for anything that he did on the Sabbath; he is defending his disciples; and the authority which he is stressing here is not so much his own authority as the authority of human need. And it is to be noted that when Mark tells of this incident he introduces another saying of Jesus as part of the climax of it: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).
To this we must add the fact that in Hebrew and Aramaic the phrase son of man is not a title at all, but simply a way of saying a man. When the Rabbis began a parable, they often began it: "There was a son of man who..."; when we would simply say, "There was a man who . . ." The Psalmist writes, "What is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou dost care for him?" (Psalms 8:4). Again and again the Ezekiel God addresses Ezekiel as son of man. "And he said to me: 'Son of man, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you'" (Ezekiel 2:1; compare Ezekiel 2:6; Ezekiel 2:8; Ezekiel 3:1; Ezekiel 3:4; Ezekiel 3:17; Ezekiel 3:25). In all these cases son of man, spelled without the capital letters, simply means man.
In the (early and best) Greek manuscripts of the New Testament all the words were written completely in capital letters. In these manuscripts (called uncials) it would not be possible to tell where special capitals are necessary. Therefore, in Matthew 12:8, it may well be that son of man should be written without capital letters, and that the phrase does not refer to Jesus but simply to man.
If we consider that what Jesus is pressing is the claims of human need; if we remember that it is not himself but his disciples that he is defending; if we remember that Mark tells us that he said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath; then we may well conclude that what Jesus said here is: "Man is not the slave of the Sabbath; he is the master of it, to use it for his own good." Jesus may well be rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees for enslaving themselves and their fellow-men with a host of tyrannical regulations; and he may well be here laying down the great principle of Christian freedom, which applies to the Sabbath as it does to all other things in life.
Love And Law (Matthew 12:9-14)
12:9-14 He left there and went into their synagogue. And, look you, there was a man there with a withered hand. So they asked him, "Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath?" They asked this question in order that they might find an accusation against him. "What man will there be of you," he said, "who will have a sheep, and, if the sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, will not take a grip of it, and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep? So, then, it is permitted to do a good thing on the Sabbath day." Then he said to the man, "Stretch forth your hand!" He stretched it out, and it was restored, sound as the other. So the Pharisees went away and conferred against him, to find a way to destroy him.
This incident is a crucial moment in the life of Jesus. He deliberately and publicly broke the Sabbath Law; and the result was a conference of the orthodox leaders to search out a way to eliminate him.
We will not understand the attitude of the orthodox unless we understand the amazing seriousness with which they took the Sabbath Law. That Law forbade all work on the Sabbath day, and so the orthodox Jews would literally die rather than break it.
In the time of the rising under Judas Maccabaeus certain Jews sought refuge in the caves in the wilderness. Antiochus sent a detachment of men to attack them; the attack was made on the Sabbath day; and these insurgent Jews died without even a gesture of defiance or defence, because to fight would have been to break the Sabbath. 1Maccabees tells how the forces of Antiochus "gave them battle with all speed. Howbeit they answered them not, neither cast they a stone at them, nor stopped the places where they lay hid; but said: 'Let us die in our innocency: heaven and earth shall testify for us, that ye put us to death wrongfully.' So they rose up against them in battle on the Sabbath, and they slew them with their wives and children and cattle, to the number of a thousand people" (1 Maccabees 2:31-38). Even in a national crisis, even to save their lives, even to protect their nearest and their dearest, the Jews would not fight on the Sabbath.
It was because the Jews insisted on keeping the Sabbath Law that Pompey was able to take Jerusalem. In ancient warfare it was the custom for the attacker to erect a huge mound which overlooked the battlements of the besieged city and from the height of the mound to bombard the defences. Pompey built his mound on the Sabbath days when the Jews simply looked on and refused to lift a hand to stop him. Josephus says, "And had it not been for the practice, from the days of our forefathers, to rest on the seventh day, this bank could never have been perfected, by reason of the opposition the Jews would have made; for though our Law gave us leave then to defend ourselves against those that begin to fight with us and assault us (this was a concession), yet it does not permit us to meddle with our enemies while they do anything else" (Josephus: Antiquities, 14. 4. 2.).
Josephus recalls the amazement of the Greek historian Agatharchides at the way in which Ptolemy Lagos was allowed to capture Jerusalem. Agatharchides wrote: "There are a people called Jews, who dwell in a city the strongest of an cities, which the inhabitants call Jerusalem, and are accustomed to rest on every seventh day; at which time they make no use of their arms, nor meddle with husbandry, nor take care of any of the affairs of life, but spread out their hands in their holy places, and pray till evening time. Now it came to pass that when Ptolemy the son of Lagos came into this city with his army, these men, in observing this mad custom of theirs, instead of guarding the city, suffered their country to submit itself to a bitter lord; and their Law was openly proved to have commanded a foolish practice. This accident taught an other men but the Jews to disregard such dreams as these were, and not to follow the like idle suggestions delivered as a Law, when in such uncertainty of human reasonings they are at a loss what they should do" (Josephus: Against Apion, 1: 22). The rigorous Jewish observance of the Sabbath seemed to other nations nothing short of insanity, since it could lead to such amazing national defeats and disasters.
It was that absolutely immovable frame of mind that Jesus was up against. The Law quite definitely forbade healing on the Sabbath. It was true that the Law clearly laid it down that "every case when life is in danger supersedes the Sabbath Law." This was particularly the case in diseases of the ear, the nose, the throat and the eyes. But even then it was equally clearly laid down that steps could be taken to keep a man from getting worse, but not to make him better. So a plain bandage might be put on a wound, but not a medicated bandage, and so on.
In this case there was no question of the paralysed man's life being in danger; as far as danger went, he would be in no worse condition the next day. Jesus knew the Law; he knew what he was doing; he knew that the Pharisees were waiting and watching; and yet he healed the man. Jesus would accept no law which insisted that a man should suffer, even without danger to life, one moment longer than necessary. His love for humanity far surpassed his respect for ritual Law.
The Challenge Accepted (Matthew 12:9-14 Continued)
Jesus went into the synagogue, and in it was a man with a paralysed hand. Our gospels tell us nothing more about this man, but the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was one of the early gospels which did not succeed in gaining an entry to the New Testament, tells us that he came to Jesus with the appeal: "I was a stone mason, seeking my living with my hands. I pray you, Jesus, to give me back my health, so that I shall not need to beg for food in shame."
But the Scribes and Pharisees were there, too. They were not concerned with the man with the paralysed hand; they were concerned only with the minutiae of their rules and regulations. So they asked Jesus: "Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath day?" Jesus knew the answer to that question perfectly well; he knew that, as we have seen, unless there was actual danger to life, healing was forbidden, because it was regarded as an act of work.
But Jesus was wise. If they wished to argue about the Law, he had the skill to meet them on their own ground. "Tell me," he said, "suppose a man has a sheep, and that sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not go and haul the sheep out of the pit?" That was, in fact, a case for which the Law provided. If an animal fell into a pit on the Sabbath, then it was within the Law to carry food to it, which in any other case would have been a burden, and to render it all assistance. "So," said Jesus, "it is permitted to do a good thing on the Sabbath; and, if it is permitted to do a good thing to a sheep, how much more must it be lawful to do it for a man, who is of so much more value than any animal."
Jesus reversed the argument. "If," he argued, "it is right to do good on the Sabbath, then to refuse to do good is evil." It was Jesus' basic principle that there is no time so sacred that it cannot be used for helping a fellow-man who is in need. We will not be judged by the number of church services we have attended, or by the number of chapters of the Bible we have read, or even by the number of the hours we have spent in prayer, but by the number of people we have helped, when their need came crying to us. To this, at the moment, the Scribes and Pharisees had nothing to answer, for their argument had recoiled on their own head.
So Jesus healed this man, and in healing him gave him three things.
(i) He gave him back his health. Jesus is vitally interested in the bodies of men. Paul Tournier, in his book A Doctor's Case Book, has some great things to pass on about healing and God. Professor Courvoisier writes that the vocation of medicine is "a service to which those are called, who, through their studies and the natural gifts with which the Creator has endowed them specially fitted to tend the sick and to heal them. Whether or not they are aware of it, whether or not they are believers, this is from the Christian point of view fundamental, that doctors are, by their profession, fellow-workers with God." "Sickness and healing," said Dr. Pouyanne, "are acts of grace." "The doctor is an instrument of God's patience," writes Pastor Alain Perrot. "Medicine is a dispensation of the grace of God, who in his goodness takes pity on men and provides remedies for the evil consequences of their sin." Calvin described medicine as a gift from God. He who heals men is helping God. The cure of men's bodies is just as much a God-given task as the cure of men's souls; and the doctor in his practice is just as much a servant of God as the minister in his parish.
(ii) Because Jesus gave this man back his health, he also gave him back his work. Without work to do a man is half a man; it is in his work that he finds himself and his satisfaction. Over the years idleness can be harder than pain to bear; and, if there is work to do, even sorrow loses at least something of its bitterness. One of the greatest things that any human being can do for any other is to give him work to do.
(iii) Because Jesus gave this man back his health and his work, he gave him back his self-respect. We might well add a new beatitude: Blessed are those who give us back our self respect. A man becomes a man again when, on his two feet and with his own two hands, he can face life and with independence provide for his own needs and for the needs of those dependent on him.
We have already said that this incident was crisis. At the end of it the Scribes and Pharisees began to plot the death of Jesus. In a sense the highest compliment you can pay a man is to persecute him. It shows that he is regarded not only as dangerous but as effective. The action of the Scribes and Pharisees is the measure of the power of Jesus Christ. True Christianity may be hated, but it can never be disregarded.
The Characteristics Of The Servant Of The Lord (Matthew 12:15-21)
12:15-21 Because Jesus knew this, he withdrew from there: and many followed him and he healed them all; and he strictly enjoined them not to surround him with publicity. All this happened that there might be fulfilled the word which came through Isaiah and which says: "Look you, my servant, whom I have chosen! My beloved one in whom my soul finds delight! I wig put my Spirit upon him, and he will tell the nations what justice is. He will not strive, nor will he cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break the crushed reed, and he will not quench the smoking wick, till he sends forth his conquering judgment, and in his name shall the Gentiles hope."
Two things here about Jesus show that he never confounded recklessness with courage. First, for the time being, he withdrew. The time for the head-on clash had not yet come. He had work to do before the Cross took him to its arms. Second, he forbade men to surround him with publicity. He knew only too well how many false Messiahs had arisen; he knew only too well how inflammable the people were. If the idea got around that someone with marvellous powers had emerged, then certainly a political rebellion would have arisen and lives would have been needlessly lost. He had to teach men that Messiahship meant not crushing power but sacrificial service, not a throne but a cross, before they could spread his story abroad.
The question which Matthew uses to sum up the work of Jesus is from Isaiah 42:1-4. In a sense it is a curious quotation, because in the first instance it referred to Cyrus, the Persian king (compare Isaiah 45:1). The original point of the quotation was this. Cyrus was sweeping onwards in his conquests; and the prophet saw those conquests as within the deliberate and definite plan of God. Although he did not know it, Cyrus, the Persian, was the instrument of God. Further, the prophet saw Cyrus as the gentile conqueror, as indeed he was. But although the original words referred to Cyrus, the complete fulfilment of the prophecy undoubtedly came in Jesus Christ. In his day the Persian king mastered the eastern world, but the true Master of all the world is Jesus Christ. Let us then see how wonderfully Jesus satisfied this forecast of Isaiah.
(i) He will tell the nations what justice is. Jesus came to bring men justice. The Greeks defined justice as giving to God and to men that which is their due. Jesus showed men how to live in such a way that both God and men receive their proper place in our lives. He showed us how to behave both towards God and towards men.
(ii) He will not strive, nor cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. The word that is used for to cry aloud is the word that is used for the barking of a dog, the croaking of a raven, the bawling of a drunken man, the uproar of a discontented audience in a theatre. It means that Jesus would not brawl with men. We know all about the quarrels of conflicting parties, in which each tries to shout the other down. The hatred of theologians, the odium theoligicum is one of the tragedies of the Christian Church. We know all about the oppositions of politicians and of ideologies. In Jesus there is the quiet, strong serenity of one who seeks to conquer by love, and not by strife of words.
(iii) He will not break the crushed reed nor quench the smoking wick. The reed may be bruised and hardly able to stand erect; the wick may be weak and the light may be but a flicker. A man's witness may be shaky and weak; the light of his life may be but a flicker and not a flame; but Jesus did not come to discourage, but to encourage. He did not come to treat the weak with contempt, but with understanding; he did not come to extinguish the weak flame, but to nurse it back to a clearer and a stronger light. The most precious thing about Jesus is the fact that he is not the great discourager, but the great encourager.
(iv) In him the Gentiles will hope. With Jesus there came into the world the invitation, not to a nation but to all men, to share in and to accept the love of God. In him God was reaching out to every one with the offer of his love.
Satan's Defences Are Breached (Matthew 12:22-29)
12:22-29 Then there was brought to him a man possessed by a devil, blind and dumb; and he cured him, so that the dumb man spoke and saw. The crowds were beside themselves with amazement. "Surely," they said, "this cannot be the Son of David?" But, when they heard it, the Pharisees said, "The only way in which this fellow casts out devils, is by the help of Beelzeboul, the prince of the devils." When he saw what they were thinking, Jesus said to them, "Every kingdom which has reached a state of division against itself is laid waste; and any city or region which has reached a state of division against itself will not stand. If Satan is casting out Satan, he is in a state of division against himself. How then shall his kingdom stand? Further, if I cast out devils by the power of Beelzeboul, by whose power do your sons cast them out? They do cast them out, and therefore they convict you of hypocrisy in the charge which you level against me. But, if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. Or, how can anyone enter into the house of a strong man, and seize his goods, unless he first bind the strong man? Then he will be able to seize his house."
In the eastern world it was not only mental and psychological illness which was ascribed to the influence of demons and devils; all illness was ascribed to their malignant power. Exorcism was therefore very commonly practised; and was in fact frequently completely effective.
There is nothing in that to be surprised at. When people believe in demon-possession, it is easy to convince themselves that they are so possessed; when they come under that delusion, the symptoms of demon-possession immediately arise. Even amongst ourselves anyone can think himself into having a headache, or can convince himself that he has the symptoms of an illness. When a person under such a delusion was confronted with an exorcist in whom he had confidence, often the delusion was dispelled and a cure resulted. In such cases if a man was convinced he was cured, he was cured.
In this instance Jesus cured a man who was deaf and dumb and whose infirmity was attributed to demon-possession. The people were amazed. They began to wonder if this Jesus could be the Son of David, so long promised and so long expected, the great Saviour and Liberator. Their doubt was due to the fact that Jesus was so unlike the picture of the Son of David in which they had been brought up to believe. Here was no glorious prince with pomp and circumstance; here was no rattle of swords nor army with banners; here was no fiery cross calling men to war; here was a simple carpenter from Galilee, in whose words was wisdom gentle and serene, in whose eyes was compassion, and in whose hands was mysterious power.
All the time the Scribes and Pharisees were looking grimly on. They had their own solution of the problem. Jesus was casting out devils because he was in league with the prince of devils. Jesus had three unanswerable replies to that charge.
(i) If he was casting out devils by the help of the prince of devils, it could only mean that in the demonic kingdom there was schism. If the prince of devils was actually lending his power to the destruction of his own demonic agents, then there was civil war in the kingdom of evil, and that kingdom was doomed. Neither a house nor a city nor a district can remain strong when it is divided against itself. Dissension within is the end of power. Even if the Scribes and Pharisees were right, Satan's days were numbered.
(ii) We take Jesus' third argument second, because there is so much to be said about the second that we wish to take it separately. Jesus said, "If I am casting out devils--and that you do not, and cannot, deny--it means that I have invaded the territory of Satan, and that I am actually like a burglar despoiling his house. Clearly no one can get into a strong man's house until the strong man is bound and rendered helpless. Therefore the very fact that I have been able so successfully to invade Satan's territory is proof that he is bound and powerless to resist." The picture of the binding of the strong man is taken from Isaiah 49:24-26.
There is one question which this argument makes us wish to ask. When was the strong man bound? When was the prince of the devils fettered in such a way that Jesus could make this breach in his defences? Maybe there is no answer to that question; but if there is, it is that Satan was bound during Jesus' temptations in the wilderness.
It sometimes happens that, although an army is not completely put out of action, it suffers such a defeat that its fighting potential is never quite the same again. Its losses are so great, its confidence is so shaken, that it is never again the force it was. When Jesus faced the Tempter in the wilderness and conquered him, something happened. For the first time Satan found someone whom not all his wiles could seduce, and whom not all his attacks could conquer. From that time the power of Satan has never been quite the same. He is no longer the all-conquering power of darkness; he is the defeated power of sin. The defences are breached; the enemy is not yet conquered; but his power can never be the same again and Jesus can help others win the victory he himself won.
The Jewish Exorcists (Matthew 12:22-29 Continued)
(iii) Jesus' second argument, to which we now come, was that the Jews themselves practised exorcism; there were Jews who expelled demons and wrought cures. If he was practising exorcism by the power of the prince of devils, then they must be doing the same, for they were dealing with the same diseases and they had at least sometimes the same effect. Let us then look at the customs and the methods of the Jewish exorcists, for they were a remarkable contrast to the methods of Jesus.
Josephus, a perfectly reputable historian, says that the power to cast out demons was part of the wisdom of Solomon, and he describes a case which he himself saw (Josephus: Antiquities 8. 2. 5.): "God also enabled Solomon to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and health-bringing to men. He composed such incantations also, by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him also the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons so that they never return, and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people who were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this. He put a ring that had a root which was one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon in the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he adjured the demon to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man; and when this was done, the skill and wisdom of Solomon was shown very manifestly." Here was the Jewish method; here was the whole paraphernalia of magic. How different the serene word of power which Jesus uttered!
Josephus has further information about how the Jewish exorcists worked. A certain root was much used in exorcism. Josephus tells about it: "In the valley of Macherus there is a certain root called by the same name. Its colour is like to that of flame, and towards evening it sends out a certain ray like lightning. It is not easily taken by such as would do so, but recedes from their hands, nor will it yield itself to be taken quietly until either the urine of a woman, or her menstrual blood, be poured upon it; nay, even then it is certain death to those who touch it, unless anyone take and hang the root itself down from his hand, and so carry it away. It may also be taken another way without danger, which is this: they dig a trench all round about it, till the hidden part of the root be very small; they then tie a dog to it, and when the dog tries hard to follow him that tied him, this root is easily plucked up, but the dog dies immediately, as if it were instead of the man that would take the plant away; nor after this need anyone be afraid of taking it into their hands. Yet after all these pains in getting it, it is only valuable on account of one virtue which it possesses, that if it be brought to sick persons, it drives away those called demons" (Josephus: Wars of the Jews 7. 6. 3.). What a difference between Jesus' word of power, and this witch-doctoring which the Jewish exorcist used!
We may add one more illustration of Jewish exorcism. It comes from the apocryphal book of Tobit. Tobit is told by the angel that he is to marry Sara, the daughter of Raguel. She is a beautiful maiden with a great dowry, and she herself is good. She has been in turn married to seven different men, all of whom perished on their wedding night, because Sara was loved by a wicked demon, who would allow none to approach her. Tobit is afraid, but the angel tells him, "On the night when thou shalt come into the marriage chamber, thou shalt take the ashes of perfume, and shalt lay them upon some of the heart and liver of the fish, and shalt make a smoke with it; and the devil shall smell it and flee away, and never come again any more" (Tobit 6:16). So Tobit did and the devil was banished for ever (Tobit 8:1-4).
These were the things the Jewish exorcists did, and, as so often, they were a symbol. Men sought their deliverance from the evils and the sorrows of humanity in their magic and their incantations. Maybe even these things for a little while, in the mercy of God, brought some relief; but in Jesus there came the word of God with its serene power to bring to men the perfect deliverance which they had wistfully and even desperately sought, and which, until he came, they had never been able to find.
One of the most interesting things in the whole passage is Jesus' saying, "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matthew 12:28). It is significant to note that the sign of the coming of the Kingdom was not full churches and great revival meetings, but the defeat of pain.
The Impossibility Of Neutrality (Matthew 12:30)
12:30 "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad."
The picture of gathering and scattering may come from either of two backgrounds. It may come from harvesting; he who is not sharing in gathering the harvest is scattering the grain abroad, and is therefore losing it to the wind. It may come from shepherding; he who is not helping to keep the flock safe by bringing it into the fold is driving it out to the dangers of the hills.
In this one piercing sentence Jesus lays down the impossibility of neutrality. W. C. Allen writes: "In this war against Satan's strongholds there are only two sides, for Christ or against him, gathering with him or scattering with Satan." We may take a very simple analogy. We may apply this saying to ourselves and to the Church. If our presence does not strengthen the Church, then our absence is weakening it. There is no halfway house. In all things a man has to choose his side; abstention from choice, suspended action, is no way out, because the refusal to give one side assistance is in fact the giving of support to the other.
There are three things which make a man seek this impossible neutrality.
(i) There is the sheer inertia of human nature. It is true of so many people that the only thing they desire is to be left alone. They automatically shrink away from anything which is disturbing, and even choice is a disturbance.
(ii) There is the sheer cowardice of human nature. Many a man refuses the way of Christ because he is afraid to take the stand which Christianity demands. The basic thing that stops him is the thought of what other people will say. The voice of his neighbours is louder in his ears than the voice of God.
(iii) There is the sheer flabbiness of human nature. Most people would rather have security than adventure, and the older they grow the more that is so. A challenge always involves adventure; Christ comes to us with a challenge, and often we would rather have the comfort of selfish inaction than the adventure of action for Christ.
The saying of Jesus--"He who is not with me is against me"--presents us with a problem, for both Mark and Luke have a saying which is the very reverse, "He that is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50). But they are not so contradictory as they seem. It is to be noted that Jesus spoke the second of them when his disciples came and told him that they had sought to stop a man from casting out devils in his name, because he was not one of their company. So a wise suggestion has been made. "He that is not with me is against me," is a test that we ought to apply to ourselves. Am I truly on the Lord's side, or, am I trying to shuffle through life in a state of cowardly neutrality? "He that is not against us is for us," is a test that we ought to apply to others. Am I given to condemning everyone who does not speak with my theology and worship with my liturgy and share my ideas? Am I limiting the Kingdom of God to those who think as I do?
The saying in this present passage is a test to apply to ourselves; the saying in Mark and Luke is a test to apply to others; for we must ever judge ourselves with sternness and other people with tolerance.
The Sin Beyond Forgiveness (Matthew 12:31-33)
12:31-33 "That is why I tell you that every sin and every blasphemy will be forgiven to men; but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. If anyone speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this world or in the world to come. Either assume that the tree is good and the fruit is good, or assume that the tree is rotten and the fruit is rotten. For the tree is known by its fruits."
It is startling to find words about an unforgivable sin on the lips of Jesus the Saviour of men. So startling is this that some wish to take away the sharp definiteness of the meaning. They argue that this is only another example of that vivid Eastern way of saying things, as, for example, when Jesus said that a man must hate father and mother truly to be his disciple, and that it is not to be understood in all its awful literalness, but simply means that the sin against the Holy Spirit is supremely terrible.
In support certain Old Testament passages are quoted. "But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken his commandment, that person shall be entirely cut off" (Numbers 15:30-31). "Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever" (1 Samuel 3:14). "The Lord of hosts has revealed himself in my ears. 'Surely this iniquity will not be forgiven you till you die,' says the Lord God of hosts" (Isaiah 22:14).
It is claimed that these texts say much the same as Jesus said, and that they are only insisting on the grave nature of the sin in question. We can only say that these Old Testament texts do not have the same air nor do they produce the same impression. There is something very much more alarming in hearing words about a sin which has no forgiveness from the lips of him who was the incarnate love of God.
There is one section in this saying which is undoubtedly puzzling. In the Revised Standard Version Jesus is made to say that a sin against the Son of man is forgivable, whereas a sin against the Holy Spirit is not forgivable. If that is to be taken as it stands, it is indeed a hard saying. Matthew has already said that Jesus is the touchstone of all truth (Matthew 10:32-33); and it is difficult to see what the difference between the two sins is.
But it may well be that at the back of this there is a misunderstanding of what Jesus said. We have already seen (compare notes on Matthew 12:1-8) that the Hebrew phrase a son of man means simply a man, and that the Jews used this phrase when they desired to speak of any man. When we would say, "There was a man. . .," the Jewish Rabbi would say, "There was a son of man...." It may well be that what Jesus said was this: "If any man speaks a word against a man, it will be forgiven; but if any man speaks a word against the Holy Spirit it will not be forgiven."
It is quite possible that we may misunderstand a merely human messenger from God; but we cannot misunderstand--except deliberately--when God speaks to us through his own Holy Spirit. A human messenger is always open to misconstruction; but the divine messenger speaks so plainly that he can only be wilfully misunderstood. It certainly makes this passage easier to understand, if we regard the difference between the two sins as a sin against God's human messenger, which is serious, but not unforgivable, and a sin against God's divine messenger, which is completely wilful, and which, as we shall see, can end by becoming unforgivable.
The Lost Awareness (Matthew 12:31-33 Continued)
Let us then try to understand what Jesus meant by the sin against the Holy Spirit. One thing is necessary. We must grasp the fact that Jesus was not speaking about the Holy Spirit in the full Christian sense of the term. He could not have been, for Pentecost had to come before the Holy Spirit came upon men in all his power and light and fulness. This must be interpreted in light of the Jewish conception of the Holy Spirit.
According to Jewish teaching the Holy Spirit had two supreme functions. First, the Holy Spirit brought God's truth to men; second, the Holy Spirit enabled men to recognize and to understand that truth when they saw it. So then a man, as the Jews saw it, needed the Holy Spirit, both to receive and to recognise God's truth. We may express this in another way. There is in man a Spirit-given faculty which enables him to recognize goodness and truth when he sees them.
Now we must take the next step in our attempt to understand what Jesus meant. A man can lose any faculty if he refuses to use it. This is true in any sphere of life. It is true physically; if a man ceases to use certain muscles, they will atrophy. It is true mentally; many a man at school or in his youth has acquired some slight knowledge of, for example, French or Latin or music; but that knowledge is long since gone because he did not exercise it. It is true of all kinds of perception. A man may lose all appreciation of good music, if he listens to nothing but cheap music; he may lose the ability to read a great book, if he reads nothing but ephemeral productions; he may lose the faculty of enjoying clean and healthy pleasure, if he for long enough finds his pleasure in things which are degraded and soiled.
Therefore a man can lose the ability to recognize goodness and truth when he sees them. If he for long enough shuts his eyes and ears to God's way, if he for long enough turns his back upon the messages which God is sending him, if he for long enough prefers his own ideas to the ideas which God is seeking to put into his mind, in the end he comes to a stage when he cannot recognize God's truth and God's beauty and God's goodness when he sees them. He comes to a stage when his own evil seems to him good, and when God's good seems to him evil.
That is the stage to which these Scribes and Pharisees had come. They had so long been blind and deaf to the guidance of God's hand and the promptings of God's Spirit, they had insisted on their own way so long, that they had come to a stage when they could not recognize God's truth and goodness when they saw them. They were able to look on incarnate goodness and call it incarnate evil; they were able to look on the Son of God and call him the ally of the devil. The sin against the Holy Spirit is the sin of so often and so consistently refusing God's will that in the end it cannot be recognized when it comes even full-displayed.
Why should that sin be unforgivable? What differentiates it so terribly from all other sins? The answer is simple. When a man reaches that stage, repentance is impossible. If a man cannot recognize the good when he sees it, he cannot desire it. If a man does not recognize evil as evil, he cannot be sorry for it, and wish to depart from it. And if he cannot, in spite of failures, love the good and hate the evil, then he cannot repent; and if he cannot repent, he cannot be forgiven, for repentance is the only condition of forgiveness. It would save much heartbreak if people would realize that the one man who cannot have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit is the man who fears he has, for the sin against the Holy Spirit can be truly described as the loss of all sense of sin.
It was to that stage the Scribes and Pharisees had come. They had so long been deliberately blind and deliberately deaf to God that they had lost the faculty of recognizing him when they were confronted with him. It was not God who had banished them beyond the pale of forgiveness; they had shut themselves out. Years of resistance to God had made them what they were.
There is a dreadful warning here. We must so heed God all our days that our sensitivity is never blunted, our awareness is never dimmed, our spiritual hearing never becomes spiritual deafness. It is a law of life that we will hear only what we are listening for and only what we have fitted ourselves to hear.
There is a story of a country man who was in the office of a city friend, with the roar of the traffic coming through the windows. Suddenly he said, "Listen!" "What is it?" asked the city man. "A grasshopper," said the country man. Years of listening to the country sounds had attuned his ears to the country sounds, sounds that a city man's ear could not hear at all. On the other hand, let a silver coin drop, and the chink of the silver would have immediately reached the ears of the money-maker, while the country man might never have heard it at all. Only the expert, the man who has made himself able to hear it, will pick out the note of each individual bird in the chorus of the birds. Only the expert, the man who has made himself able to hear it, will distinguish the different instruments in the orchestra and catch a lonely wrong note from the second violins.
It is the law of life that we hear what we have trained ourselves to hear; day by day we must listen to God, so that day by day God's voice may become, not fainter and fainter until we cannot hear it at all, but clearer and clearer until it becomes the one sound to which above an our ears are attuned.
So Jesus finishes with the challenge: "If I have done a good deed, you must admit that I am a good man; if I have done a bad deed, then you may think me a bad man. You can only tell a tree's quality by its fruits, and a man's character by his deeds." But what if a man has become so blind to God that he cannot recognize goodness when he sees it?
Hearts And Words (Matthew 12:34-37)
12:34-37 "You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil speak good things? For it is from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. The good man brings out good things from his good treasure house; and the evil man brings out evil things out of his evil treasure house. I tell you that every idle word which men shall speak, of that word shall they render accounts in the day of judgment; for by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."
It is little wonder that Jesus chose to speak here about the awful responsibility of words. The Scribes and Pharisees had just spoken the most terrible words. They had looked on the Son of God and called him the ally of the devil. Such words were dreadful words indeed. So Jesus laid down two laws.
(i) The state of a man's heart can be seen through the words he speaks. Long ago Menander the Greek dramatist said: "A man's character can be known from his words." That which is in the heart can come to the surface only through the lips; a man can produce through his lips only what he has in his heart. There is nothing so revealing as words. We do not need to talk to a man long before we discover whether he has a mind that is wholesome or a mind that is dirty; we do not need to listen to him long before we discover whether he has a mind that is kind or a mind that is cruel; we do not need to listen for long to a man who is preaching or teaching or lecturing to find out whether his mind is clear or whether it is muddled. We are continually revealing what we are by what we say.
(ii) Jesus laid it down that a man would specially render account for his idle words. The word that it used for idle is aergos (Greek #692); ergon (Greek #2041)is the Greek for a deed; and the prefix "a"--means "without"; aergos (Greek #692) described that which was not meant to produce anything. It is used, for instance of a barren tree, of fallow land, of the Sabbath day when no work could be done, of an idle man. Jesus was saying something which is profoundly true. There are in fact two great truths here.
(a) It is the words which a man speaks without thinking, the words which he utters when the conventional restraints are removed, which really show what he is like. As Plummer puts it, "The carefully spoken words may be a calculated hypocrisy." When a man is consciously on his guard, he will be careful what he says and how he says it; but when he is off his guard, his words reveal his character. It is quite possible for a man's public utterances to be fine and noble, and for his private conversation to be coarse and salacious. In public he carefully chooses what he says; in private he takes the sentinels away, and any word leaves the gateway of his lips. It is so with anger; a man will say in anger what he really thinks and what he has often wanted to say, but which the cool control of prudence has kept him from saying. Many a man is a model of charm and courtesy in public, when he knows he is being watched and is deliberately careful about his words; while in his own house he is a dreadful example of irritability, sarcasm, temper, criticism, querulous complaint because there is no one to hear and to see. It is a humbling thing--and a warning thing--to remember that the words which show what we are are the words we speak when our guard is down.
(b) It is often these words which cause the greatest damage. A man may say in anger things he would never have said if he was in control of himself He may say afterwards that he never meant what he said; but that does not free him from the responsibility of having said it; and the fact that he has said it often leaves a wound that nothing will cure, and erects a barrier that nothing will take away. A man may say in his relaxed moment a coarse and questionable thing that he would never have said in public--and that very thing may lodge in someone's memory and stay there unforgotten. Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, said, "Choose rather to fling a chance stone than to speak a chance word." Once the hurting word or the soiling word is spoken nothing will bring it back; and it pursues a course of damage wherever it goes.
Let a man examine himself. Let him examine his words that he may discover the state of his heart. And let him remember that God does not judge him by the words he speaks with care and deliberation, but by the words he speaks when the conventional restraints are gone and the real feelings of his heart come bubbling to the surface.
The Only Sign (Matthew 12:38-42)
12:38-42 Then the Scribes and Pharisees answered him: "Teacher," they said, "we wish to see a sign from you." He answered, "It is an evil and apostate generation which seeks a sign. No sign will be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet. For, as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will be witnesses against this generation, and they will condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and, look you, something more than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise in judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon and, look you, something more than Solomon is here!"
"The Jews," said Paul, "demand signs" (1 Corinthians 1:22). It was characteristic of the Jews that they asked signs and wonders from those who claimed to be the messengers of God. It was as if they said, "Prove your claims by doing something extraordinary." Edersheim quotes a passage from the Rabbinic stories to illustrate the kind of thing that popular opinion expected from the Messiah: "When a certain Rabbi was asked by his disciples about the time of the Messiah's coming, he said, 'I am afraid you will also ask me for a sign.' When they promised that they would not do so, he told them that the gate of Rome would fall and be rebuilt, and fall again, when there would not be time to restore it before the Son of David came. On this they pressed him in spite of his remonstrance for a sign. A sign was given them, that the waters which issued from the cave of Banias were turned into blood.
"Again, when the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer was challenged, he appealed to certain signs. First, a locust bean tree moved at his bidding, one hundred, or according to some, four hundred cubits. Next the channels of water were made to flow backwards. The walls of the academy leaned forward, and were only arrested at the bidding of another Rabbi. Lastly Eliezer exclaimed: 'If the Law is as I teach, let it be proved from heaven.' A voice came from the sky saying, 'What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer, for the instruction is as he teaches?'"
That is the kind of sign that the Jews desired. They did so because they were guilty of one fundamental mistake. They desired to see God in the abnormal; they forgot that we are never nearer God, and God never shows himself to us so much and so continually as in the ordinary things of every day.
Jesus calls them an evil and adulterous generation. The word adulterous is not to be taken literally; it means apostate. Behind it there is a favourite Old Testament prophetic picture. The relationship between Israel and God was conceived of as a marriage bond with God the husband and Israel the bride. When therefore Israel was unfaithful and gave her love to other gods, the nation was said to be adulterous and to go a-whoring after strange gods. Jeremiah 3:6-11 is a typical passage. There the nation is said to have gone up into every high mountain, and under every green tree, and to have played the harlot. Even when Israel had been put away for infidelity by God, Judah did not take the warning and still played the harlot. Her whoredoms defiled the land, and she committed adultery with stone and tree. The word describes something worse than physical adultery; it describes that infidelity to God from which all sin, physical and spiritual, springs.
Jesus says that the only sign which will be given to this nation is the sign of Jonah the prophet. Here we have a problem. Matthew says that the sign is that, as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. It is to be noted that these are not the words of Jesus, but the explanation of Matthew. When Luke reports this incident (Luke 11:29-32) he makes no mention at all of Jonah being in the belly of the whale. He simply says that Jesus said, "For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation" (Luke 11:30).
The fact is that Matthew understood wrongly the point of what Jesus said; and in so doing he made a strange mistake for Jesus was not in the heart of the earth for three nights, but only for two. He was laid in the earth on the night of the first Good Friday and rose on the morning of the first Easter Sunday. The point is that to the Ninevites Jonah himself was God's sign, and Jonah's words were God's message.
Jesus is saying, "You are asking for a sign--I am God's sign. You have failed to recognize me. The Ninevites recognized God's warning in Jonah; the Queen of Sheba recognized God's wisdom in Solomon. In me there has come to you a greater wisdom than Solomon ever had, and a greater message than Jonah ever brought--but you are so blind that you cannot see the truth and so deaf that you cannot hear the warning. And for that very reason the day will come when these people of old time who recognized God when they saw him will be witnesses against you, who had so much better a chance, and failed to recognize God because you refused to do so."
Here is a tremendous truth--Jesus is Gods sign, just as Jonah was God's message to the Ninevites and Solomon God's wisdom to the Queen of Sheba. The one real question in life is: "What is our reaction when we are confronted with God in Jesus Christ?" Is that reaction bleak hostility, as it was in the case of the Scribes and Pharisees? Or, is it humble acceptance of God's warning and God's truth as it was in the case of the people of Nineveh, and of the Queen of Sheba? The all-important question is: "What do you think of the Christ?"
The Peril Of The Empty Heart (Matthew 12:43-45)
12:43-45 "When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, it goes through waterless places, seeking for rest, and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will go back to my house, from which I came out,' and when it comes, it finds it empty, swept and in perfect order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and take up their residence there. So the last state of that man becomes worse than the first; so it will be with this evil generation."
There is a whole world of the most practical truth in this compact and eerie little parable about the haunted house.
(i) The evil spirit is banished from the man, not destroyed. That is to say that, in this present age, evil can be conquered, driven away--but it cannot be destroyed. It is always looking for the opportunity to counter-attack and regain the ground that is lost. Evil is a force which may be at bay but is never eliminated.
(ii) That is bound to mean that a negative religion can never be enough. A religion which consists in thou shalt nots will end in failure. The trouble about such a religion is that it may be able to cleanse a man by prohibiting all his evil actions, but it cannot keep him cleansed.
Let us think of this in actual practice. A drunkard may be reformed; he may decide that he will no longer spend his time in the public house; but he must find something else to do; he must find something to fill up his now empty time, or he will simply slip back into his evil ways. A man whose constant pursuit has been pleasure, may decide that he must stop; but he must find something else to do to fill up his time, or he will simply, through the very emptiness of his life, drift back to his old pursuits. A man's life must not only be sterilized from evil; it must be fructified to good. It will always remain true that "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do." And if one kind of action is banished from life, another kind must be substituted for it, for life cannot remain empty.
(iii) It therefore follows that the only permanent cure for evil action is Christian action. Any teaching which stops at telling a man what he must not do is bound to be a failure; it must go on to tell him what he must do. The one fatal disease is idleness; even a sterilized idleness will soon be infected. The easiest way to conquer the weeds in a garden is to fill the garden with useful things. The easiest way to keep a life from sin is to fill it with healthy action.
To put it quite simply, the Church will most easily keep her converts when she gives them Christian work to do. Our aim is not the mere negative absence of evil action; it is the positive presence of work for Christ. If we are finding the temptations of evil very threatening, one of the best ways to conquer them is to plunge into activity for God and for our fellow-men.
True Kinship (Matthew 12:46-50)
12:46-50 While he was still speaking to the crowds, look you, his mother and his brothers stood outside, for they were seeking an opportunity to speak to him. Someone said to him: "Look you, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, seeking an opportunity to speak to you." He answered the man who had spoken to him: "Who is my mother? And who are my brothers?" And he stretched out his hand towards his disciples. "See," he said, "my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
It was one of the great human tragedies of Jesus' life that, during his lifetime, his nearest and dearest never understood him. "For even his brothers," says John, "did not believe in him" (John 7:5). Mark tells us that when Jesus set out on his public mission, his friends tried to restrain him, for they said that he was mad (Mark 3:21). He seemed to them to be busily engaged in throwing his life away in a kind of insanity.
It has often been the case that, when a man embarked on the way of Jesus Christ, his nearest and dearest could not understand him, and were even hostile to him. "A Christian's only relatives," said one of the early martyrs, "are the saints." Many of the early Quakers had this bitter experience. When Edward Burrough was moved to the new way, "his parents resenting his 'fanatical spirit' drove him forth from his home." He pleaded humbly with his father: "Let me stay and be your servant. I will do the work of the hired lad for thee. Let me stay!" But, as his biographer says, "His father was adamant, and much as the boy loved his home and its familiar surroundings, he was to know it no more."
True friendship and true love are founded on certain things without which they cannot exist.
(i) Friendship is founded on a common ideal. People who are very different in their background, their mental equipment, and even their methods, can be firm friends, if they have a common ideal, for which they work, and towards which they press.
(ii) Friendship is founded on a common experience, and on the memories which come from it. It is when two people have together passed through some great experience and when they can together look back on it, that real friendship begins.
(iii) True love is founded on obedience. "You are my friends," said Jesus, "if you do what I command you" (John 15:14). There is no way of showing the reality of love unless by the spirit of obedience.
For all these reasons true kinship is not always a matter of a flesh and blood relationship. It remains true that blood is a tie that nothing can break and that many a man finds his delight and his peace in the circle of his family. But it is also true that sometimes a man's nearest and dearest are the people who understand him least, and that he finds his true fellowship with those who work for a common ideal and who share a common experience. This certainly is true--even if a Christian finds that those who should be closest to him are those who are most out of sympathy with him, there remains for him the fellowship of Jesus Christ and the friendship of all who love the Lord.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany