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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 12

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Verses 1-8


The glory of the Lord Jesus as the Son of God is seen especially in the Gospel according to John. But that glory also has an important place in this Gospel. We see that in this chapter. Against the dark background of hatred, contempt and rejection His perfections shine in the brightest way. Here is
1. the Son the Man Who reveals the Father (Matthew 11:27),
2. the Messiah Who is greater than the temple in connection with Israel (Matthew 12:6),
3. the Son of Man Who is Lord of the Sabbath in connection with mankind ( Matthew 12:8),
4. He Who is greater than Jonah in resurrection power (Matthew 12:41) and
5. He Who is greater than Solomon in connection with all the glories of the kingdom (Matthew 12:42).

Picking Heads of Grain on the Sabbath

This chapter is a turning point. A phase is closed. The hearts of the leaders here are becoming completely revealed. The chapter begins with two stories that take place on a Sabbath that makes clear what the leaders are all about. They have laden the commandment of the Sabbath with their own commandments and laws. God intended the Sabbath to be a day of blessing, of rest, of stopping working for one day. But legalistic people have no eye for the blessing. They deny the disciples the enjoyment of what God has given.

It does not matter to the Pharisees that the disciples act entirely in accordance with the law (Deuteronomy 23:25). Pharisees are people for whom it is only important that the appearance looks good. And if they have prescribed anything for that appearance, then people must abide by it. They address the Lord about the conduct of His disciples. The Lord stands up for His disciples. He grants them God’s blessing.

His answer is not only a reference to what God has allowed in the law, where He has made no exception for the Sabbath. The Lord gives the Pharisees a deep lesson. In His answer he asks them about something David does when he is hungry, and those who are with him (1 Samuel 21:1-Joshua :). On that occasion David does something that he is not allowed to do, because eating the showbread is only permitted for the priests (Leviticus 24:5-1 Samuel :). However, he is not blamed for it. David is the anointed king, but he is on the run from Saul. He is not recognized as king by his people. That is the position of the Lord Jesus at that moment.

When God’s anointed king David is on the run from his own people, the foundation of God’s people is taken away. What the loaves represent has lost its meaning. They no longer represent God’s people according to the meaning it has for God. To then hold on to an outward ritual and to let God’s anointed die of hunger for its benefit would be pure formalism. That is not what God meant by His institution of the showbread. When His anointed king is persecuted, the showbread become ordinary loaves of bread and can be consumed by those who need them.

In this example the Lord shows the sin and total decline of Israel. The true king, David, is despised and persecuted because of the king who the people themselves wanted. It is like this again. The sin of Israel deconsecrates the holy bread. God does not want to accept anything as holy from a people living in sin. If the disciples of the true King are hungry just like the men of David, they may eat lawfully of what God offers, even on the Sabbath.

The Lord Jesus presents another example that completely sets aside their reasoning about profaning the Sabbath. He points to the priests who do the much-needed work in the temple on the Sabbath day. This includes at least the sacrifice prescribed for the Sabbath (Numbers 28:9-2 Samuel :) and also the daily burnt offering, which cannot be skipped on the Sabbath (Exodus 29:38). These sacrifices are necessary so that God can continue to dwell among a sinful people. On the Sabbath the priests have to work even harder than on other days. They have no rest on the Sabbath.

God does not act according to strict rules. The priests are allowed to do a lot of this work on the Sabbath, because it is related to the service of God. The Sabbath is the centerpiece of the old covenant, there is nothing so characteristic as the Sabbath.

Both examples make it clear that Israel is made up of sinners. In one case, it is apparent by the persecution of the anointed king, through which the showbread become common loaves of bread. In the other case, it is apparent by the sacrifices that must necessarily take place, even if it is Sabbath.

After the Lord has shown that God will not be bound by His precepts when His people have left Him, He points to Himself as greater than the temple. He is not only the Anointed of God Whom they persecute. He is God Himself, Who determines the service in the temple. He determines how God should be served and not the formalistic Pharisees. With formalistic people it is only about the outward appearance, with God it is first and foremost about what is inward.

The Pharisees have condemned the innocent disciples because they know nothing about mercy. Legalistic people are never merciful, but oppress the poor and impose burdens on others. They only look at the sacrifice and not at the heart. Mercy comes from the heart and that’s what God looks at.

Just as the Lord is greater than the temple, so He is also Lord of the Sabbath. This means that the Sabbath has no binding power over Him. He is its Master and can dispose of it as He pleases. He established the Sabbath and is therefore not subject to it. The Sabbath is a picture of the kingdom of peace. Then He will reign over all the earth as the great King. Then it will be seen that He is, as the Son of Man, Lord of all the earth.

Verses 9-14

Healing a Withered Hand

After his journey through the fields, the Lord enters their synagogue and another story on the Sabbath follows. The previous one concerns His Person and the authority He has over the Sabbath. This is about His work, the work of mercy, for which the Sabbath is particularly suitable. He shows that the Sabbath is a day of blessing.

In their synagogue is a man with a withered hand. The poor man can’t pick any ears of corn and rub them in his hands because of his withered hand. He cannot make use the blessing of the Sabbath. The man does not ask to be healed, but the Lord knows his unspoken question.

The Pharisees are also present in the synagogue. They are keen observers. They see someone with a handicap and they see Someone Who they know as the Merciful One. In their malicious perceptiveness they rightly assume that the Lord wants to heal the man. In their foolish consideration they believe that this is an excellent opportunity to ask Him a trick question. The Lord lets them ask their question. It gives Him the opportunity to demonstrate His glory and their hypocrisy. In this way they themselves fall into the trap they have set for Him.

They ask Him whether it is lawful to do good and bless on the Sabbath. What a question! The question alone makes it clear how narrow and legalistic they think. This is made even clearer by the example the Lord presents them. It shows that they do not suffer from their conscience on the Sabbath when it is to their own advantage. Then they will make an exception. Healing on the Sabbath, however, does not occur in their thinking and in their rules. They have no rules for it, that is why it is not allowed.

The Lord exposes the folly of legalistic thinking. His conclusion must have been razor-sharp to their ears. Then He turns to the man. He himself has to do something. He must stretch out his hand toward the Lord and take the blessing. He does what the Lord says, and the blessing flows into him. Neither the clear word of the Lord nor His act of healing bring the Pharisees to repentance. On the contrary. The proof of grace makes them go out. They can no longer remain in the presence of so much grace and truth.

When they are outside, outside of the atmosphere where grace is displayed, they start plotting plans of murder. Those who consciously withdraw from the presence of Christ will increasingly reveal themselves as adversaries. What the Pharisees have just heard and seen, they have experienced as a defeat. It is. But instead of accepting it, they feel all the more threatened that they will lose their status among the people. And they absolutely don’t want to lose that. In order to preserve themselves, they seek ways to get rid of God revealed in goodness!

Can hatred go beyond the desire to limit the hand of God, that is stretched out in goodness to men, to a statute and to kill the Son of God for doing good? When the Lord has healed the withered hand, they deliberate about how they can destroy Him. He seeks life, they seek death.

Verses 15-21

Behold, My Servant

The secret deliberations of the Pharisees are known to the Omniscient. That is why He departs from there. His departure does not go unnoticed. Many crowds follow Him. Toward them, He continues to act in grace and heals all who need healing. He warns them that they will not tell Who He is. He doesn’t want, through His deeds, to win the popularity of the people that Pharisees love so much.

He is always busy before the eye of His Father Who sees in secret. He does not seek honor from people. By acting in this way He fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah who has announced Him as such. The LORD, Yahweh, spoke to Isaiah about His chosen Servant (Isaiah 42:1-Numbers :), that is the Lord Jesus. He even calls this Servant “My Beloved”. Between Yahweh and the Servant there is not only a relationship of obedience, but also of love.

The Lord Jesus knows the love the Father has for Him. This makes His service for Him a true joy, even though it is also met with murder plans among the leaders and incomprehension among the crowds. He knows the pleasure that Yahweh has found in Him through His life, which is fully devoted to Him. This has been clear from the outset. Therefore Yahweh put His Spirit upon Him (Matthew 3:16).

Here we see the joy of the triune God: the Father puts His Spirit upon His Son. On the basis of this pleasure and the Spirit which the Father has given him, Christ has the right to proclaim judgment, not only over Israel but over all nations. It points to His dominion over all nations as a result of the rejection by His people.

As far as his conduct at the moment is concerned, it is completely different. He is now still the Man in humiliation. He goes His way in humility, without wanting to cause a stir. He is not crying for attention. It is completely different. He has paid attention to all those who are at the point of breaking or extinguishing.

There is nothing of value in “a battered reed” (Isaiah 36:6). “A battered reed” is reminiscent of the broken heart that has been trampled underfoot by rough handling. But from this battered reed he is able to make a musical instrument or a yardstick for the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:15). He has come for those who are broken-hearted (Isaiah 61:1). He imposes no iron rod upon them, but grants them the golden scepter of His grace. He Himself is broken or battered (Isaiah 53:5; Isaiah 53:10; Genesis 3:15).

“A smoldering wick” hardly gives any light or warmth and is no longer able to light another wick. Often the love in our hearts burns so weakly that only He Who knows all things also knows that there is still a glimmer of love present (John 21:17).

Here we see His loving care for us now and that may encourage us. If we sometimes feel like a battered reed, only suitable to be completely broken, or we feel that our light is so poorly lit, let us think of His desires for us. We may go to Him to be renewed in grace and restored in strength.

Only when He has fully accomplished His work of humiliation will He not only proclaim the judgment, but also execute it. A perfect victory will be the glorious and perfect result of His work in humiliation. The nations who are spared will hope in His Name. Both the remnant of Israel and the spared nations will recognize that all blessing depends on Him and on their attitude toward Him. This situation will arise when He comes to earth for the second time. Then He does not come in humiliation as the first time, but in power and majesty.

Verses 22-27

The Lord Jesus and Beelzebul

The man brought to the Lord is miserable. He is demon-possessed. This demon has him in his power to the extent that he sees nothing and cannot say anything. He does not know where he is and cannot call for help. Fortunately, the Lord is there with His mercy, and there are people who bring the man to Him. He answers their faith with healing. In this man we can see a picture of the situation in which Israel finds itself. As a whole, the nation is blind to the glory of Christ and does not come to Him to confess Him as their Messiah.

The crowds are deeply impressed by this healing. They even express the suspicion that He may be the Son of David. They don’t go any further, their hearts haven’t truly been touched. When the Pharisees hear this statement, they want to prevent the crowds from even thinking in that direction. They want to nip this suspicion in the bud and accuse the Lord in the most blasphemous way possible.

There is no coarser and more offensive accusation imaginable than to accuse Him of performing His miracles of grace in the power of the ruler of demons, that is satan himself. At the same time it makes clear the complete unwillingness of the Pharisees to see anything of God in Him. It is impossible to deny that God is at work in Christ among His people in goodness and grace. For them it is not a matter of error, but the denial of the undeniable. They resist against their better judgment. Knowingly and willingly they reject Him.

The Lord has not responded to a similar, previous blasphemy (Matthew 9:34). Now he deals with it. With an example from daily life He appeals to the sober mind and thus proves the total absurdity of their statement. He shows with His argument that they have no understanding. Every right-minded person knows that it is impossible to maintain something that is internally divided, regardless of whether it is a kingdom or a house. Inner division means downfall and no success. The conclusion is clear. It is impossible for Him to drive out the demons through Beelzebul.

He gives a second argument for their nonsensical claim. He states that argument as a question. Their sons are busy casting out demons. If they are consistent, they should say that their sons also do it through satan. Of course they will never want to say that. Well, says the Lord, then your sons will be your judges. The conduct of their sons will denounce their blasphemy, and will be a witness that they have blasphemed Him.

Verses 28-32

Blasphemy Against the Spirit

The Lord tells them the true origin of His actions. He acts through the Spirit of God. This means that the kingdom of God has come to them. Of course they do not want to acknowledge that, but the fact remains. In Christ God is busy establishing His kingdom. Therefore He goes into the house of the strong, that is the devil, and robs him of his household goods, that is people who find themselves in his power. The Lord bound the strong man when He defeated him in the wilderness with God’s Word (Matthew 4:1-1 Kings :). Then He went through the land, doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38). On the cross He will bruise the devil’s head.

With regard to His performance against the kingdom of satan and the plunder of his house, one can only be a follower or an opponent. Neutrality is impossible. He who does not put himself unambiguously by His side, is against Him. He is busy gathering for the kingdom of heaven. He who is not engaged with Him in this, is engaged in the opposite, the scattering, and reveals himself as an opponent of the kingdom.

The seriousness of the sin of the Pharisees is so great because they know that the Lord is good and works through the Holy Spirit, but despite all the evidence attribute His work to satan. They are thus guilty of the unforgivable sin of “the blasphemy against the Spirit”. This sin is different from any other sin. For any other sin, forgiveness is possible. Even those who resist the Lord Jesus as the Son of Man can count on forgiveness if that sin is confessed.

Every sin that a man does is a sin against the triune God, so against the Father as well as against the Son and the Holy Spirit. What makes the blasphemy against the Spirit so special? This sin is special because it is about the expression of the Spirit in the Person of Christ on earth. It is impossible to inadvertently attribute something Christ does to satan. Whoever says of the Holy Spirit, Who is expressed perfectly in Christ, He is satan, does so consciously.

What Christ does is always perfect through the Spirit. He is the Sinless One. In His whole life and His whole being there is nothing of sin or the sinful flesh present. Everything is pure by the Spirit. Someone can be blind to the glory of the Lord Jesus. But if anyone consciously attributes His actions, which He does through the Spirit, to satan there is a hardening of a heart that lives in rebellion against Him and that absolutely does not want to bow before Him.

The fact that the blasphemy against the Spirit is specifically to do with Christ, and then also with His personal presence on earth, is apparent from the words that this sin is not forgiven “either in this age or in the [age] to come”. In both cases, this age and the age to come, it is a period that Christ is on earth. This is so at His first coming and His second coming. Therefore it is not possible to commit this sin now, in the present time when the Lord Jesus is not on earth.

Verses 33-37

The Tree and Its Fruit

The Lord takes an example from nature. Everyone knows that a good tree only produces good fruit. But if a tree is bad, it cannot produce good fruit, but only bad fruit. The tree produces fruit in accordance with its nature. The Pharisees are a bad tree. They are a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34; Matthew 3:7; Matthew 23:33), that is, they are bred by satan. They are children of the devil; the devil is their father (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8). It is therefore impossible for them to speak good things. They bring forth bad fruit, in accordance with the bad tree that they are. In their hearts is an abundance of corruption and that comes out of their mouths.

The Lord further applies the general principle of the tree and its fruit to man. The good man is the man who through repentance and faith has new life and in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. That good man brings forth good things from the treasure of new life and the Holy Spirit, such as life and peace (Romans 8:6). The evil man is full of the flesh and of himself. He brings forth from the evil treasure of the flesh the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-Ecclesiastes :).

Words are not value-free, because they are connected to the heart. Words express what is in man. The Lord Jesus is the Word of God, that is, the perfect expression of Who God is. He has always only spoken what the Father told Him to speak (John 12:50). He has never spoken a meaningless word. Believers sometimes speak meaningless words, words without use and meaning. This is particularly true for what is called speaking in tongues. That shows how we are inside. We must also confess that.

Unbelievers do not at all wonder what God wants them to say. They speak meaningless words. They will have to account for this in the day of judgment, before the great white throne, before Him Who sits on the throne, that is Christ (Revelation 20:11-2 Kings :). They will not be able to avoid it by saying, for example, that they meant it all slightly differently, because He perfectly knows the motives that governed the heart when those words were spoken.

The words of the mouth reveal the condition of the heart. Words give expression to feelings and show us who someone is, just as their behavior shows it in a different way. Words are so important that every human being will be justified or condemned on the basis of his words (cf. Romans 10:9-2 Samuel :). The Lord will make a complete statement about the use of words because He knows the source from which they come.

Verses 38-42

The Request for a Sign

The incorrigible wickedness and hardening of the religious leaders is apparent from their insolence in asking Him for a sign in response to what the Lord has said. As if they would then believe! In His answer, the Lord makes it clear to them what they are, and that they will therefore receive a special sign. He calls them an “evil and adulterous generation” or species. In their hearts, inwardly, they are “evil”. In their outward relationships they are “adulterous” because their whole behavior is worldly (cf. James 4:4). The only sign they receive from Him is “the sign of Jonah the prophet”. What happened to Jonah will happen to Him. He will also be in the tomb for three days, just as Jonah was in the water-tomb for three days.

Three times there is talk of a sign in connection with the Lord Jesus. The first sign is that of His birth (Luke 2:12). The third sign is that of the Son of Man Who comes in His glory (Matthew 24:30). Between these two events is this sign of Jonah that speaks of His death and resurrection. These are the three signs that must bring people to faith. If these are not enough for someone, they will not come to faith through a thousand other signs.

Then the Lord refers to the men of Nineveh. After his ‘resurrection’ Jonah went from the water-tomb to Nineveh and preached there. Thus, after His resurrection and ascension, the Lord Jesus will allow the gospel to be preached to all nations. This means that Israel loses its special position as God’s people. The pagan Ninevites repented at Jonah’s preaching, while God’s people rejected Him Who is more than Jonah.

The Lord adds another example. He points to the Queen of the South. She did not belong to God’s people. As someone from the nations she had heard of Solomon’s wisdom and had come to him from far away to hear his wisdom. What she did is in stark contrast to the religious leaders who want to kill Him Who is more than Solomon. Like the men of Nineveh, on the day of judgment she will condemn the generation that reject the Lord Jesus.

Verses 43-45

The Return of the Unclean Spirit

The Lord points to a situation in which a person is delivered from an unclean spirit. That unclean spirit seeks another dwelling place, but does not find it. In reality, He is talking about Israel and its future. The situation of Israel at the time of the Lord Jesus is not that the people as a whole turn to idols. There is no idolatry (Hosea 3:4), but there is also no life from God or with God present. Man, the house, has remained empty. This is why the unclean spirit, when it comes back, can take up residence again.

It is also a house that is not full of cobwebs, but that is swept and put in order. It’s not a ruin, it’s maintained to a very high standard. Yet it is empty. It speaks of the hollow religion with outward behavior and a beautiful appearance, but without life from and for God. In that house there is no place for the Holy Spirit.

Because there are no other inhabitants, the unclean spirit sees its chance to invite other spirits to come and live there. A fullness, “seven”, of wicked spirits of an even more corrupt nature than this unclean spirit comes along. This causes a situation in the house, in that person, which is worse than before.

Israel, which was free from idolatry, did not accept the Lord Jesus. This has left the people empty and they can become a place where the most wicked of spirits move in. This will happen when the antichrist reigns over “this evil generation” and determines the service in the temple (2 Thessalonians 2:3-Numbers :). He will put there the idolatrous image of the beast out of the sea, so that all who are on earth will worship the image of the beast (Revelation 13:14-Ezra :).

Also in every person’s life it is important that there is no vacuum. Otherwise the devil will come to fill the void. From a spiritual point of view, this can also be seen now. People who live without God, but want to be spiritually active, are an easy prey for all kinds of teachings of demons.

Verses 46-50

The Mother and Brothers of the Lord

While the Lord is engaged in His service, His mother and His brothers want to speak to Him. Why would they want to speak to Him? Would they say to Him that He ought not to speak such harsh words? His reaction shows that they did not come to express their support for His words.

Evidently his family cannot come to Him because he is surrounded by a crowd. Therefore, they pass their request on until someone close to Him can tell Him that His family wants to speak to Him. The Lord addresses the man who brings Him the request, and asks who His mother and His brothers are. With this question He indicates that the time of the natural bond between Him and His people, that is Israel according to the flesh, is over.

His real relatives are His disciples. They have joined Him and follow Him and learn from Him. The only family members He can recognize are those who do the will of His Father in heaven. He recognizes exclusively the bond that is formed by the Word of God that someone receives in the heart and subsequently obeys.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Matthew 12". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/matthew-12.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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