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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Matthew 12

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Verse 1

‘At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the grainfields, and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears and to eat.’

‘At that time.’ This is again a phrase that connects with what has gone before without being too specific. Matthew wants us to connect what he is about to say with what Jesus has just been saying about the heavy burden laid on men by the traditions of the elders (Matthew 11:26).

On this particular Sabbath Jesus was walking through a grainfield with His disciples, possibly after attending the synagogue. The Law of Moses allowed anyone walking through a grainfield to partake of the grain for his own needs if he was hungry, but not to put in a sickle (Deuteronomy 23:25). This was intended to be of especial benefit to the poor. Thus in that respect the disciples were within their rights in what they were doing. They were plucking the grain, rubbing it between their hands in order to rid it of the husk, and then eating it. But as they, with many Jews, were not used to being too ultra-strict about Sabbath Day observance, they had failed to recognise that this might cause offence.

For the ‘Elders’ had laid down the principle that just as reaping and threshing were not allowed on the Sabbath because they were ‘work’, so was anything that could be seen as reaping and threshing was forbidden. Jesus would not have disagreed with their main principle. Where the controversy came in as far as He was concerned was in interpreting what the disciples had been doing as ‘reaping and threshing’, and the speed at which they leapt in to condemn it. He would have been able to point out that had they really been reaping and threshing someone else’s field, then that would also have been frowned on as breaking the Law, for they must not put in the sickle. Thus it was clear that the Law allowed what His disciples were doing as not ‘putting in the sickle’. It was not seen by the Law as reaping and threshing.

The Pharisees saw it otherwise, and the synagogue elders would probably have backed them on it, for it was something on which they considered the Scribes had made a declaration. (Under later interpretation the disciples would have been able to do what they did to amounts less than ‘the size of a dried fig’, so pedantic had things become, and then it would have been a matter of whether each disciple had eaten more than the equivalent of a dried fig, although also at a later stage what the disciples did actually became ‘legal’, possibly influenced by this well known incident). So Jesus will not only refute it but will advance other arguments which will also emphasise His own authority.

‘Were hungry.’ It may well be that we are to see that they were going through a lean period as far as food was concerned. The Father’s provision does not always arrive just when we want it. Perhaps they had not eaten for some time. Indeed this may have been the reason why they went to the grainfields, taking advantage of the regulations concerning the poor. This may suggest that the customary Sabbath hospitality had not been offered to Jesus and His disciples at this time.

Verses 1-8

The Incident In The Grainfields (12:1-8).

The first incident arises when Jesus and His disciples are walking through some grainfields. Being hungry they pluck some of the grain, and eat it. This is then picked up by the Pharisees who basically claim that by doing so they are reaping and threshing the grain, an activity which was ‘work’, and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.


a At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the grainfields, and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears and to eat (Matthew 12:1).

b But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, “Behold, your disciples do what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath” (Matthew 12:2).

c But he said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him, how he entered into the house of God, and ate the showbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” (Matthew 12:3-4).

d “Or have you not read in the law, that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?” (Matthew 12:5).

c “But I say to you, that one greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6).

b “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

a “For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”

Note that in ‘a’ the disciples break the traditions of the elders concerning the Sabbath and in the parallel Jesus declares that as Son of Man He is lord of the Sabbath. In ‘b’ the declaration is that they have done what was not lawful, and in the parallel Jesus accuses them of condemning the guiltless. In ‘c’ David’s behaviour in connection with God’s house is declared, and in the parallel Jesus points out that He is greater than God’s house. In ‘d’ and centrally He makes the point that the priest can break the Sabbath rules and yet remain guiltless, thus there are some things that do genuinely override the Sabbath.

Verses 1-16

Controversy With The Pharisees About The Sabbath. The Son of Man Is Lord Of The Sabbath (12:1-16).

In the last passage Matthew has depicted words of Jesus concerning the heavy burden of the Law and the way to finding rest from it. Here we now have two clear illustrations of what He was saying, depicting the heavy yoke of the Law, and the way in which Jesus would make it ‘easier’. It also demonstrates that the Pharisees were on the watch for Him, trying to catch Him out. The opposition is growing until in Matthew 12:14 it reaches fever pitch. But this must not just be seen as an argument on the minutiae of the Law in the face of two different opinions. Jesus rather challenges the basic attitudes that lie behind the Scribes’ interpretation of the Law, and especially their right to challenge the disciples of the Son of Man on such a matter, for that is an implied criticism of Him. And He is Lord of the Sabbath.

The first challenge arises as a result of a walk through a grainfield on the Sabbath Day, when they pluck ears of grain, and roll it in their hands and eat it because they are hungry. The disciples are then faced up with the accusation of transgressing the Law because they have technically reaped and threshed grain on the Sabbath. Jesus is warned that what they have done ‘is not lawful’. This may well have been an official warning, (one warning on matters of interpretation of the Law had to be given to ‘the ignorant’) in which case not to heed it would involve being in danger of being brought before the synagogue courts for punishment. Jesus’ confutes it both on the grounds of precedence, and on the grounds that as the Son of Man, and greater than the Temple, He has the right to declare what is right on the Sabbath.

Then again in the synagogue Jesus Himself is challenged as to whether ‘it is lawful’ to heal on the Sabbath when a life is not at stake. It should be noted that in neither case does Jesus reply that the Sabbath need not be observed. What He does speak of is the kind of thing that must not be forbidden on the Sabbath simply because of the declaration of the Scribes. This is when it involves the genuine good of man, and cases of genuine need. By it He indicates that as the Son of Man He is the Lord of the Sabbath. That was a huge claim to make, for the Sabbath was God’s ordinance and not man’s. He was claiming to be able to unveil the mind of God (compare Matthew 11:27) and to be able to set aside tradition on a subject of great importance to the Jews.

The importance of the Sabbath to the Jews cannot be overstressed. They rejoiced in it for they saw it as marking them off as God’s people. No one else had such a symbol which every seven days revealed that like God at creation they worked in accordance with His pattern.

So Jesus’ reply is not that the Sabbath does not matter, but that their interpretation is wrong because they have not considered all the facts. He then points out that the Scriptures allow the breaking of the Sabbath Rule of ‘you shall do no manner of work’ in certain circumstances, and He stresses that what they have especially overlooked is God’s concern for mercy. Thus both the hungry poor (which includes His disciples) who need to eat on the Sabbath, and the doing of genuine good, are factors that, within reason, overrule the Sabbath prohibition, just as the Temple requirements do. In making this point He also stresses that One is now here Who is greater than the Temple and is Lord of the Sabbath. It is He Who has the right to say what is lawful on the Sabbath Day, and He makes clear that He declares His disciples innocent.

This theme of ‘greater than’ will continue on through the chapter. He is greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6), He is greater than Satan (Matthew 12:29), He is greater than Jonah (Matthew 12:41), He is greater than the great King Solomon (Matthew 12:42), just as previously He was greater than John the greatest of all the Prophets (Matthew 11:11; Matthew 11:13-14). For He is the Spirit Anointed and beloved Servant of YHWH (Matthew 12:18).

Verse 2

‘But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, “Behold, your disciples do what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” ’

Some of the Pharisees became aware of what His disciples were doing. It may be that they had been walking with the disciples, professing interest in Jesus’ message, while carefully watching for any failures in the behaviour of His disciples, or it may be that it had simply been reported to them by people who saw it, bringing them hurriedly to the scene. Either way they pointed out that He and His disciples (as their Master He could be accounted responsible) were doing what was not lawful on the Sabbath Day.

‘What is not lawful to do.’ We should note that this is probably not just a comment, but an official warning. Proceedings could not be taken under the Law against ‘the untaught’ at the first offence. The culprits had first to be warned so as to ensure that they did know what the Law was. If the warning was then ignored, proceedings could be taken (compare Acts 4:18 with Matthew 5:17). Thus Jesus and His disciples were being warned that if it happened again proceedings would be taken. The opposition was hardening.

It should be noted that this was not a question of whether the Sabbath should be observed. All would have been agreed on that. It was a question of what should be interpreted as work, and who had the authority to determine it. On the whole the Jews delighted in the Sabbath and rejoiced in it. It set them apart as God’s people, and as behaving as God had behaved. But Pharisaic interpretation was strict (in the Qumran community they were even stricter). Jesus’ argument is that it is a matter of compassion, and the fact that One Was here Who could authoritatively declare what was allowed on the grounds of compassion.

Verses 3-4

‘But he said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him, how he entered into the house of God, and they ate the showbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” ’

Jesus replied from a well known passage concerning David (1 Samuel 21:1-9). There David and his companions had, ‘because they were hungry’, persuaded the High Priest of the day to let him and his men have the old showbread which had been taken from the Table of Showbread in the Tabernacle when, as was the custom, it had been replaced. This was ‘holy’ and could only be eaten by the priests. But David had pleaded special circumstances and that his men were in a state of consecration, and his plea had been allowed even though ‘it was not lawful’. No one, not even the Scribes, had ever criticised David for this, or even did so now, because he was seen as having been God’s anointed. So one of Jesus’ points will be that as the Greater than David as ‘the Son of Man’, He has an even better right to determine Sabbath law. What David could lawfully do for himself and his men, He could lawfully do for Himself and His men. He could interpret the Law in their favour.

Another point that may have been in Jesus’ mind was that David had claimed the right because he was on the king’s business (even though in David’s case it was a lie). This, connected with Jesus statement that as Son of Man He was Lord of the Sabbath, may signify that He considered that His disciples were ‘on the King’s business’, that is, serving the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Jesus seems very much to have seen He and His men as parallel with David and his men.

Note here that David ‘went into the house of God’ (singular) while his men who ‘ate’ (plural) did not. Thus he was demonstrating some kind of right to enter the house of God. This may be intended to lead on to Jesus claim to be greater than the Temple.

Verse 5

“Or have you not read in the law, that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?”

But he also has a second argument (which is not mentioned in Mark and Luke), and that is that the priests in performing their functions of worship are constantly technically breaking the Sabbath by carrying things, slaying sacrifices, and so on. And yet they are looked on as guiltless because the authority of the Temple overrides the Sabbath Law. His point therefore is partly that everything is not just a matter of ‘black and white’. There are various shades of grey. And so each case needs to be examined on its merits.

We can understand why Mark and Luke omit this section. To most of the people to whom they were writing the Temple ordinances were unimportant and not significant. To Jews and Jewish Christians, however, they would be of great importance, especially before the Temple was destroyed.

Verse 6

“But I say to you, that one greater than the temple is here.”

But Jesus now takes the opportunity of making a second point so as to bring home to them His claims. He points out that ‘One greater than the Temple is here’. Note His emphatic ‘I say to you’. He is speaking from a position of unique authority. The words are carefully chosen. He did not precisely say that He was the One Who was greater than the Temple. He left it to be implied. But again the claim is huge. He is indicating that He is greater than the Temple, that His importance outranks the importance of the Temple, and that He thus has the right to interpret the Law as it applies to His followers, just as the Temple could interpret the Law for its ministrants. Indeed as the Temple is the repository for the Law, it has authority over the Law. So as greater than the Temple He has more right to interpret the Law than any other living person. It was in fact to be one of the duties of the Messianic King to interpret the Law so as to ensure that he and the nation lived by it (Deuteronomy 17:19-20).

‘One greater than the Temple.’ ‘One’ is neuter, but in Greek this can signify a person when a quality is being stressed rather than the person himself (compare the similar use in Matthew 12:41-42). Alternately what is greater than the Temple might be the Kingly Rule of God, but that would then include the King (Matthew 12:28).

‘Is here.’ In other words let them note that the time has come. For long centuries the Temple has represented God on earth. But now it has been superseded as God’s primary means of being revealed to His people, by Another, the One Who can reveal the Father to whom He will (Matthew 11:27), or alternately by the presence of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and the One Who represents it. Thus the Tabernacle and the Temple as the place around which God’s ‘congregation’ would gather is being replaced by Another around which a new congregation will gather.

Jesus comparison of Himself with the Temple comes out elsewhere. See Matthew 26:61; John 2:19-21. Just as within the Temple was the symbol of the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH (not the Ark itself but something that represented it) so within the body of Jesus was the living God Himself.

Verse 7

“And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

Having laid His claim Jesus now appeals to the conscience. Had the Pharisees known the meaning of Hosea 6:6 (compare here Matthew 9:3), they would have recognised that God put compassion before ritual. They would in that case have interpreted the Law compassionately and not harshly, and would have allowed the hungry poor to gather for their own need on the Sabbath. They would not have condemned those who in fact had done no wrong. It is a reminder that when we read the Scriptures we have a tendency to see what we want to see. The Pharisees saw prohibitions. Jesus saw compassion. Note the fact that Jesus did not see His disciples as having committed a minor sin, He considered that they had actually had the right to do what they had done, thus specifically setting Himself against the ideas of the Pharisees.

Verse 8

“For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”

Jesus then makes clear the basis of His authority. As Son of Man He is lord of the Sabbath. That is, as God’s appointed King elect (Daniel 7:13-14) He has the right to lay down what the Sabbath requirements really are. The Sabbath is subject to Him.

Verse 9

‘And he departed from there and went into their synagogue,’

All three synoptic Gospels place this incident after the incident of the grainfields for similar reasons, because they deal with what is not lawful on the Sabbath, and because they reveal the condition of Israel. Luke tells us that this incident was on another Sabbath. Matthew’s connection is a typically ‘loose’ one. He is not saying that He immediately went to the synagogue. ‘Their’ synagogue may in this case be pointing at the Pharisees. In which case it is indicating that Jesus was, as it were, walking into the lion’s den. Or it may simply be the usual use in this Gospel. As previously mentioned each town had ‘its’ synagogue or synagogues, and Matthew would not feel closely connected with the synagogue. But the ring of sadness lies in the fact that in the very place where men were meant to worship God, they would attack His Son.

Verses 9-16

The Man With The Withered Hand (12:9-16).

Having described the rejection of Himself and John by the general people, the rejection of His Messianic signs by the local towns, and the hostility of the Pharisees, the story of the man with the withered hand fits in aptly. It is a reminder of the condition of Israel. They too are like a man with a withered hand.

Once again the idea of ‘it is not lawful’ enters in. The yoke of the Law is once more stressed, and the One Who eases that yoke (Matthew 11:30) is described. And once again He is at loggerheads with the Pharisees, who are this time so infuriated that they go away in order to plot how they can get rid of Him. In a sense they are the unhealed withered hand of Israel. But central to the account is that Jesus has come to lift men out of the pit and restore them (compare Matthew 9:12-13). And He will do it for the man with the withered hand, and indeed for all whose lives are withered.


a And he departed from there and went into their synagogue (Matthew 12:9).

b And behold, a man having a withered hand. And they asked him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?” so that they might accuse him’ (Matthew 12:10).

c And he said to them, “What man will there be of you, who will have one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11).

d “How much then is a man of more value than a sheep!” (Matthew 12:12 a).

c “For which reason it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day” (Matthew 12:12 b).

b Then he says to the man, “Stretch forth your hand.” And he stretched it forth, and it was restored whole, as the other (Matthew 12:13).

a But the Pharisees went out, and took counsel against him, how they might destroy him (Matthew 12:14).

Note how in ‘a’ Jesus went into the synagogue in order to heal, and in the parallel the Pharisees went out of the synagogue in order to destroy. In ‘b’ they asked, ‘is it lawful to heal’, and in the parallel Jesus healed. In ‘c’ He provides His illustration of why it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, and in the parallel He states that it is so. Centrally in ‘d’ is the declaration of man’s value to God.

Verse 10

‘And behold, a man having a withered hand. And they asked him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?” so that they might accuse him.’

As usual Matthew sticks to the bare facts. There was a man with a withered hand there and they challenged Him as to whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath day. Note their assumption that He could do it, which underlines their hypocrisy. They knew what He could do and they still opposed Him. They were even more unforgivable than the towns (Matthew 11:20-24) for they had had the opportunity to think deeply about it. And here their sole aim was to accuse Him. He might have wriggled rather unsatisfactorily out of the previous challenge, but this time if He healed they had got Him. The interpreters of the Law were quite clear on the fact that it was not right to heal on the Sabbath except when life was in danger, and then only to the minimum amount required to preserve life.

Verse 11

‘And he said to them, “What man will there be of you, who will have one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” ’

Jesus replies by posing a question, a typical Rabbinic method. What man among them would not take hold of a sheep and lift it out of a pit into which it had fallen on the Sabbath, even though its life was not in danger? That was permitted. Let them think about it. Reference to a sheep has significance in Matthew for he has likened the ‘lost’ in Israel to sheep (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 10:6). Thus the move on to the greater value of a man is to be expected.

Verse 12

‘And he says to him, “Friend, how did you come in here not having a wedding-garment?” And he was speechless.’

So the king speaks gently bit firmly to the offending man. He begins by calling him, ‘Friend’. In Matthew this is always said with a heavy heart. Compare Matthew 20:13; Matthew 26:50. It indicates someone being addressed who is in the wrong, but is being approached with thought and consideration. And then he questions him as to why he has come to the marriage-feast not wearing a wedding-garment.

The speechlessness of the man is intended to indicate his guilt. Had he had good reason he would have spoken out. But he could hardly tell the king that he had done it because he was contemptuous of the king and his son. And yet that could be the only real reason for doing it. But he had probably not expected the king to come in among such ‘common’ company.

Verse 13

‘Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him out into the outer darkness. There will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” ’

The king then orders ‘his attendants’ (not his slaves, and therefore here probably the angels. Men never help in this kind of judgment) to bind the man hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. He is excluded from the circle of the well lit feast, and the rejoicing and gladness of both this world and the next (Matthew 19:29), and despatched to where it is for ever dark (in direct contrast to Colossians 1:13). And in that place there is weeping and gnashing of teeth because all who are there recognise what they have lost. It pictures the time of man’s final loss of hope.

Compare for this description Matthew 8:12, where it happens to the professing ‘sons of the Kingly Rule’ (those who should have received it, but rejected it), and Matthew 25:30 where it happens to the man who failed to respond to his lord’s requirement for faithful service. The future for all who reject the King’s Son and fail to respond to His will is bleak.

Verse 14

‘For many are called, but few chosen.’

The parable then ends with a maxim. Many are called to respond to the King’s invitation, but only comparatively few are ‘chosen’, that is, are His elect (compare Matthew 24:31), that is, are those who are fully responsive to Him because of His effective call (John 6:44).

Verses 15-16

‘And Jesus perceiving it withdrew from there, and many followed him, and he healed them all, and charged them that they should not make him known.’

Jesus, perceiving the attitude of the Pharisees, withdrew from that place. But the crowds continued to follow Him and He ‘healed them all’, in both body and spirit. Then He charged them not to make a great fuss about it. He did not want to arouse attention. He wanted His ministry to go forward quietly (compare Matthew 12:19-20) benefiting those who sought Him, without drawing the attention of those who were not interested, and even antagonistic.

Note the way in which this introduction (which is possibly an abbreviation of Mark 3:7-12) thoroughly prepares for the quotation that follows. It summarises what has preceded it, describes the new change of direction that is coming, and outlines what will follow. The quotation from Isaiah, which comes after it, then also does the same demonstrating that what He is doing is in fulfilment of Scripture.

(Matthew 12:1). Jesus withdraws from the Jews of the area. This continues Jesus’ estrangement from the Jews, which as we have seen has been emphasised, which will eventually lead towards His later Gentile ministry, a ministry now being prepared for in the quotation. See Matthew 12:18; Matthew 12:21. The failure of the Jews to respond will result in His going out to the nations (see below). (Matthew 12:2). Many ‘follow’ Him because He is the successful Servant of YHWH (Matthew 12:20). The lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 10:6) are gathering to Him. (Matthew 12:3). He heals all who come to Him because as the Servant (Matthew 12:18) He is the One Who bears their afflictions and carries their diseases (Matthew 8:17). The ‘all’ indicates that even those who do not need bodily healing, find healing in Jesus (Matthew 9:12). (Matthew 12:4). But He desires no publicity, for His ministry is to be quietly conducted, as in the quotation in Matthew 12:19. He has come for those whom His Father has given Him (John 6:37; John 10:29).

And as we have seen above what now follows looks back to the beginning of His ministry, outlines His present ministry, and then looks forward to what lies ahead, especially His movement to preaching in Gentile territories.

Verses 15-21

Jesus Is The Servant of YHWH As Promised By Isaiah (12:15-21).

The quotation from Isaiah in this passage is the central point in the chiasmus of this whole section from Matthew 11:1 to Matthew 12:50 (as shown above). It is also a turning point in the Gospel. Now that the Jews are turning away from Him He will begin to look further afield. What will now follow is but the working out of these words of Isaiah, together with the idea of the Servant that lies behind them (Matthew 8:17; Matthew 20:28).

Thus, having demonstrated the Satanic influence on Israel (Matthew 12:22-32; Matthew 12:43-45), and having further condemned Israel’s unreceptiveness (Matthew 12:41-42), and having rejected all human relationships in favour of those with the new people of God (Matthew 12:46-50), He will reveal in parables a ministry that is to reach to the whole world (Matthew 13:32; Matthew 13:38; Matthew 13:48-49) because Israel has refused to see and hear (Matthew 13:14-15) as prophesied by Isaiah. Rejected even by His own home town (Matthew 13:53-58), and in order to escape Herod (Matthew 14:1-13), He goes into the wilderness (compare Matthew 2:15; Matthew 4:1-11) where He gathers together His new congregation and feeds them with bread from Heaven in a covenant meal (Matthew 14:13-21), which foreshadows His final covenant meal (Matthew 26:26-29). Then citing Isaiah, again by name, He draws attention to the unresponsiveness of Israel (Matthew 15:8-9), and goes into Gentile territory, where He makes clear the terms on which He will offer mercy to the Gentiles (Matthew 15:21-28). He continues on in Gentile territory and parallels there the previous feeding of His new congregation (Matthew 15:29-39), before returning to Magadan in Galilee. Back in Galilee He warns against the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. Then He returns again to Gentile territory at Caesarea Philippi where His Messiahship is declared by Peter and He declares that He is forming a new congregation of the people of God (Matthew 16:13-20), and reveals His coming suffering at the hands of the Jews (Matthew 16:21). This is then followed by the manifestation of His glory on Gentile territory (Matthew 17:1-8).

Returning to Galilee it is only in order to stress His coming death and resurrection (Matthew 17:22-23) and His rejected kingship (Matthew 17:24-27), before laying down the principles on which the new congregation is to operate (Matthew 18:1 to Matthew 19:1), and at this point He leaves Galilee for Jerusalem on His way to His death (Matthew 20:17-18), where He will fulfil the Servant’s destiny (Matthew 20:19-20). However, from now on His actions are no longer those of the Servant but of the King (Matthew 21:5). Here He will symbolically cleanse the Temple, giving it its final opportunity (Matthew 21:12-17), before declaring it cursed in His withering of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22). Challenged by His enemies He reveals His sonship and the expectations that He has of what His destiny will be as the Son (Matthew 21:33-39), before declaring what is to happen to those who rid themselves of Him (Matthew 21:40-42). As a result the Kingly Rule is to be taken away from them and given to a new nation which will produce its fruits (Matthew 21:43). In the light of the whole picture this can only be inclusive of the Gentiles.

He then teaches a parable making clear the rejection of God’s offer by Israel, and the judgment that will result, leaving the way open for those who are from the highways and byways, the outcasts, who will be provided with a wedding garment, the wedding garment of His saving righteousness (Matthew 5:6; Matthew 6:33; Matthew 7:7-11; Matthew 13:43; Matthew 25:37; Matthew 25:46) and forgiveness (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 9:6; Matthew 18:21-35), the uniform of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Only those who wear it will be safe at the judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). They, like the Servant, are the chosen (Matthew 22:14), who will be gathered to Him in the final day (Matthew 24:31).

He is tested by His enemies (Matthew 22:15-33) before declaring the foundation principles of the new community (Matthew 22:34-40) and His own great superiority to David as David’s LORD (Matthew 22:41-46). Then He declares the final judgment of God on the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 12:23) and on Jerusalem (Matthew 12:24-25) prior to His coming in glory for His own. This then leads on to His cross and resurrection, after which He makes clear His enthronement in triumph and His mission to the nations through His Apostles, who will be baptised in the Name of the Father (6-7; Matthew 10:20; Matthew 10:29; Matthew 10:33; Matthew 11:25-28), and of the Son (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 11:25-28; Matthew 17:5; Matthew 21:37; Matthew 22:2) and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; Matthew 10:20; Matthew 12:28-31). They will thus enjoy all the blessing brought by the King and Servant (Matthew 28:18-20). ‘In His Name will the Gentiles hope’ (Matthew 12:21).

As we have seen earlier (see especially introductory article on ‘that it might be fulfilled), the prophecy of Isaiah lies latent below the whole of this central section of Matthew’s Gospel from Matthew 3:3 to Matthew 20:28. Only in this section are his prophecies cited by name. And emphasis in these prophecies is on Jesus, firstly as the One Who has had the way prepared before Him (Matthew 3:3); then as the light Who has shone from darkness resulting in the coming King of Isaiah 9:6-7 (Matthew 4:14-16) ; then as the Servant of YHWH Who has come bearing their afflictions and carrying their sicknesses (Matthew 8:17); and now as the Servant and Beloved of YHWH Who by His Spirit will reach out to both Jew and Gentile, working patiently and quietly until He has achieved righteous victory. See also Matthew 15:7-9; Matthew 20:28.

This quotation from Isaiah is widely reflected in the wider context. For ‘Behold My Servant Whom I have chosen, My beloved’ see Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5. For ‘in Whom My soul is well pleased’, see Matthew 3:17; Matthew 11:26. For ‘I will put My Spirit upon Him’ see Matthew 3:11; Matthew 3:16; Matthew 12:28. For ‘He will declare judgment (righteous truth) to the nations’ see Matthew 8:11; Matthew 21:43; Matthew 22:9-10; Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19; also potentially in Matthew 11:21; Matthew 12:41-42. For ‘He will not strive, nor cry aloud, nor will any one hear His voice in the streets’ see Matthew 6:5; Matthew 11:16; Matthew 12:16. For ‘a bruised reed will He not break’ see Matthew 11:7; for ‘smoking flax will He not quench’ see Matthew 11:28-30. For ‘until He sends forth judgment (righteous truth) unto victory’ see Matthew 13:30; Matthew 13:41-43; Matthew 19:28; Matthew 24:30-31; Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 26:64; Matthew 28:18-20. For ‘and in His name will the nations hope’ see Matthew 2:1-2; Matthew 8:11; Matthew 13:32; Matthew 15:27; Matthew 15:31; Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19.

The quotation is mainly based on Isaiah 42:1-4, but as supplemented by other references in Isaiah. First let us consider Matthew’s text side by side with the Hebrew text (MT) and Greek Septuagint (LXX).

MATTHEW MT LXX Behold, my servant Behold my servant My servant Jacob, whom I have chosen, whom I uphold I will help him My beloved in whom My chosen in whom My chosen one, Israel, my soul is well pleased. my soul delights. my soul has accepted him; I will put my Spirit I have put my Spirit I have put my Spirit upon him, upon him upon him And he will declare he will bring forth he will bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. judgment to the Gentiles. judgment to the Gentiles. He will not strive, he will not cry, He will not cry nor cry aloud, nor lift up, nor lift up his voice, Nor will any one hear nor cause to be heard nor shall be heard his voice in the streets. his voice in the streets. his voice without. A bruised reed A bruised reed A bruised reed he will not break, he will not break he will not break, And smoking flax and the smoking flax and smoking flax he will not quench, he will not quench he will not quench; Until he send forth he will bring forth but he shall bring forth judgment unto victory. judgment in truth. judgment to truth. and in his name and the isles will wait and in his name will the Gentiles hope. for his law. will the Gentiles hope. In line 2 Matthew has ‘chosen’ instead of ‘uphold’. He will replace ‘chosen’ with ‘beloved’ in line 3 so now takes the opportunity of incorporating it here. Alternatively it may have been incorporated from Isaiah 43:10 or Isaiah 44:1 where the Servant is described as God’s chosen one. It is a standard description of the Servant. In line 3 Matthew has ‘my beloved’ instead of ‘my chosen’. The idea of the beloved may have been incorporated from Isaiah 41:8 so as to connect with Abraham, or it may be that Matthew wished to connect with the idea of the beloved Son in Matthew 3:17. In line 7 Matthew translates as ‘declare’ instead of ‘bring forth’, possibly, on the basis of Isaiah 12:4; Isaiah 42:9; Isaiah 45:19, wishing by it to emphasise the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles. In line 9 Matthew translates as ‘he will not strive’ instead of ‘he will not cry’, possibly to take into account Jesus’ striving by voice with the Jews in the previous passage. In line 17 Matthew translates as ‘until he send forth’ instead of ‘he will bring forth’, again emphasising the mission of the Apostles. In line 18 Matthew has ‘judgment unto victory’ instead of ‘judgment in (to) truth’, possibly on the basis of a version of Isaiah 25:8 as cited by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:54), so as to incorporate Jesus’ victory over death, the final truth. But, of course, the final victory will indicate the success of truth. In lines 19 and 20 Matthew is parallel to LXX. This latter is probably connected with Isaiah 51:5 LXX where ‘in My arm will the Gentiles hope’ (MT - ‘on my arm will they hope/trust’) parallels ‘the isles will wait for me’, possibly being combined with Isaiah 12:4 where we have ‘call upon His Name’ (note how Matthew 12:4 also probably affected line 7). It may be that Matthew has brought together these ideas in Isaiah in his quotation so as to emphasise particular points. We can compare how Paul brings together various verses in Romans 3:10-18, and Mark incorporates two citations into one in Mark 1:2-3, on the grounds that all are Scripture and can therefore be fused together as Scripture. Or it is possible that he took the quotation from a text or compendium of quotations which had done the same. Note how ‘my beloved in whom I am well pleased’ parallels Matthew 3:17. It is clear that Matthew did not use LXX (he only does so when he is also paralleling Mark). So either his quotation is a free translation of the original as seen in the light of other Scriptures, or it is from an unknown source.

Analysis of Matthew 12:15-21 .

a And Jesus perceiving it withdrew from there (Matthew 12:15 a).

b And many followed Him, and He healed them all (Matthew 12:15 b).

c And He charged them that they should not make Him known (Matthew 12:16).

d That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, “Behold, My servant whom I have chosen” (Matthew 12:18 a).

e My beloved in whom My soul is well pleased (Matthew 12:18 b).

d I will put My Spirit upon Him, and he will declare righteous truth to the nations (18d).

c He will not strive, nor cry aloud, nor will any one hear His voice in the streets (Matthew 12:19).

b A bruised reed will He not break, and smoking flax will He not quench, until He sends forth righteous truth unto victory (Matthew 12:20).

a And in His name will the nations hope (Matthew 12:21).


Note how in ‘a’ Jesus withdraws from the Jews, and in the parallel is the thought that eventually He will reach out to the Gentiles, or better, the nations. In ‘b’ many follow Him and He heals them all, and in the parallel he restores the bruised reed and the smoking flax. In ‘c He charges the crowds not to make Him known, and in the parallel He too goes quietly around His work. In ‘d’ the Spirit inspired Isaiah speaks of God’s chosen Servant, and in the parallel the Spirit inspires the Servant to declare righteous truth to the nations, which is a recognised ministry of the Servant (Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6). Centrally in ‘e’ attention is focused on the Beloved in Whom God is well pleased.

Verse 17

‘That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying,’

The whole of Jesus’ ministry (from Matthew 3:3 to Matthew 20:28) is at this point seen by Matthew to be a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, leading up to Matthew 20:28. He continually and distinctively cites Isaiah’s prophecies by name, while outside this cluster he only mentions Jeremiah (even when citing Isaiah), who, as the one who was called from the womb (Jeremiah 1:5), and was famed as the weeping prophet (Jeremiah 9:1), was most suitable to connect with the commencement and end of the life of Jesus (Matthew 12:17; Matthew 27:9). See introduction. This particular quotation from Isaiah covers the points made in the above summary. It is also a summary of all that is to follow.

Verse 18

“I will put my Spirit upon him, And he will declare judgment to the nations (Gentiles).”

He is the One on Whom the Spirit has come in accordance with Matthew 3:11, as witnessed to in Matthew 3:16, being led by the Spirit from then on (Matthew 4:1). But this is no ordinary anointing, for, as we learned in Matthew 3:11, by it He became the One Who could dispense the Spirit. The Spirit will work in accordance with His will. And by casting out evil spirits by that same Spirit He has demonstrated that the Kingly Rule of God has now come (Matthew 12:28). Thus do we learn that the ability of the Apostles to cast out evil spirits (Matthew 10:1) has come through the work of the Spirit on them, as promised in Matthew 3:11. And as a result He will declare righteous truth to the nations (as described in the comments on Matthew 12:18 a).

The word ‘judgment’ includes both the thought of bringing righteous truth to the nations, and also judgment (but still as righteous truth) for those who are under condemnation (Matthew 11:20-24; Matthew 12:41-42). This will finally result in His sending out of His Apostles to the nations (Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19).

Verse 19

“He will not strive, nor cry aloud, nor will any one hear his voice in the streets.”

His ministry will be neither strident nor publicity seeking. Not for Him the standing on street corners of Matthew 6:5, or the sitting in the streets mocking of Matthew 11:17, or the seeking of fame through His miracles (Matthew 8:4; Matthew 9:30; Matthew 12:16). Nor will He strive with those whose hearts are hardened (Matthew 10:13-14; Matthew 11:20-24; Matthew 12:15; Matthew 15:21). Rather He will be meek and lowly in heart (Matthew 11:29).

This was in contrast with earthly rulers, who are renowned for their bluster (compare Matthew 20:25), and was in contrast with how most people would have seen the Messiah, although we must remember that there were those who saw Him as coming as a great Teacher. Matthew wants it to be clear that Jesus is not on earth to stir up unnecessary trouble Matthew 21:5), even though His presence will necessarily cause dissension (Matthew 10:21-22; Matthew 10:35-36).

Verse 20

“Until he send forth (thrust forth) judgment (righteous truth) unto victory.”

For the Servant the victory is assured. He will send forth His righteous truth until He is finally triumphant. Nothing will be able to prevent His success, for God is with Him and His all-prevailing Spirit is upon Him. For some the righteous truth will result in eternal life, for others it will result in everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46). There may here be a connection to a reading of Isaiah 25:8, as cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54, where ‘death is swallowed up in victory’. That will be the final triumph. For His greatest act of thrusting forth judgment unto victory would be the cross, where justice was satisfied, the Enemy was defeated (Colossians 2:15) and true righteousness became available to men (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In Matthew 9:38 the disciples were to pray that labourers be ‘thrust forth’ into the harvest fields. Perhaps they are to be seen as involved in His ‘thrusting forth’ of righteous truth here.

Verse 21

“And in his name will the nations (Gentiles) hope.”

The words are cited from LXX. As we have suggested above this latter is probably connected with Isaiah 51:5 LXX where we find ‘in My arm will the Gentiles hope’ (MT - ‘on my arm will they hope/trust’) which in Isaiah 51:5 parallels ‘the isles will wait for me’. The latter is similar to the MT reading which parallels Matthew 12:21. But Matthew did not want attention focused on the Law, he wanted it focused on Jesus.

The ‘arm of the Lord’ always indicates His personal intervention, and that is also included in the thought of His Name being there. (Compare 1 Kings 8:42; Psalms 118:10; Isaiah 30:27 with 30). The Ark which went before Israel (Numbers 10:35-36) was also closely connected with His Name (1 Chronicles 13:6)). For His Name would act powerfully among the nations (Matthew 28:19). There is possibly here a bringing in of Isaiah 12:4 where we have the command to ‘call upon His Name’. But what is important is that the Servant will bring hope to all nations, including the Gentiles. This is building up towards His ministry in Gentile territories which we will discover shortly, and the final sending out of the Apostles to the nations (Matthew 28:19) to take to them the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as described and taught by Jesus in the Gospel.

Verse 22

‘Then was brought to him one who was possessed with a demon, blind and dumb, and he healed him, in so much that the dumb man spoke and saw.’

Matthew now introduces an example of someone who needs the power of the Spirit of God exercised on his behalf. He is possessed by a demon which makes him both blind, and deaf and dumb. The word used for ‘dumb’ regularly includes deafness. It is no coincidence that these are the spiritual problems of Israel (Matthew 13:14-15), and Matthew has that in mind. The people of Israel are blind and cannot recognise Who Jesus is, they are deaf and dumb and do not testify to His Name. But once Jesus had healed the man he both spoke and saw. (Notice the minor chiasmus - ‘blind - dumb - spoke - saw’). So it could be for Israel if they would only look to Him. They would be able to ‘see God’ (Matthew 5:8) and be able to testify of Him (Matthew 10:32).

Note that the man is described as ‘healed’ which is unusual for the casting out of demons (but compare Matthew 15:28). It may well be that Jesus wants to connect it with the overall ‘healing’ of Israel in Matthew 12:15. Normally a demon is spoken of as being cast out by a word (Jesus is never said to lay hands on a demon-possessed person).

Verses 22-32

The Holy Spirit Triumphs Over The Evil Spirit World Establishing the Kingly Rule of God For All Who Will Hear And Respond (12:22-32).

Following on this emphasis on the coming of the Servant of YHWH with the Holy Spirit upon Him we are now to learn something of His activity against the powers of evil. Prior to this mention has been made of the casting out of evil spirits Matthew 4:24; Matthew 8:16; Matthew 8:28-34; Matthew 9:32-34; Matthew 10:1; Matthew 10:8 (although interestingly not as a sign of the Coming One - Matthew 11:5), and even of the accusation that it was by the prince of demons that Jesus cast them out (Matthew 9:34). But now we are to be introduced to the implications of this situation. The reason that He can cast out evil spirits by a word is because the Spirit of God is now active in Israel through Him. The Servant has come in the full power of the Spirit of God and the forces of evil are in retreat. In this section there is a powerful emphasis on the activity of evil spirits, and Jesus’ response to it. For not only does He signify that His activity in casting out evil spirits by the Spirit of God has revealed that Satan has been bound and that the Kingly Rule of God has come to Israel (Matthew 12:28) in power, but He also indicates that Israel as a whole is like a demon possessed man who has been freed from an evil spirit, only for it to return with seven other worse spirits, because he had not responded from his heart to God, so that his position is even worse than before (Matthew 12:43-45). This picture He applies directly to Israel (Matthew 12:45). He is binding Satan on their behalf. But if they fail to respond to the new Rule that He now offers, the Kingly Rule of God, they must expect something seven times worse.

The very detail with which Matthew goes into this passage demonstrates how important he saw the detail to be, for normally he abbreviates and only states the basically important points. Here all the points are clearly seen as basically important.

First, however, we are brought face to face with the reality of the situation in a blind and deaf/dumb spirit which is possessing a man. This is blindness and deafness is a picture of Israel (Matthew 13:14-15). And Jesus heals the man so that he can both see and speak, just as He would do to Israel if it would turn to Him. That we are to interpret it in that way comes out in Matthew 12:43-45.

Prior to the quotation of the prophecy of Isaiah, Matthew had shown us an Israel that was dumb in response to Jesus works (Matthew 11:20-24), and blind to His message (Matthew 11:17), and even blinder Pharisees who were out to bring Him down (Matthew 12:1-14). Now here after the quotation pointing to the Servant, new hope springs up for at least some of the blind, and deaf and dumb, of Israel. But for the hardened among the Pharisees there is still seen to be little hope, because they are deliberately closing their minds. Notice that Matthew constantly introduces the Pharisees where the other Gospels are less emphatic. It is clear that he particularly saw them as being against Jesus. This would tie in with he himself being an ex-public servant and thus especially looked down on by the Pharisees.


a Then was brought to him one who was possessed with a demon, blind and dumb (Matthew 12:22 a).

b And he healed him, in so much that the dumb man spoke and saw (Matthew 12:22).

c And all the crowds were amazed, and said, “Can this be the son of David?” (Matthew 12:23).

d But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “This man does not cast out demons, except by Beelzeboul, the prince of the demons” (Matthew 12:24).

e And knowing their thoughts he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand, and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:25-26).

d “And if I by Beelzeboul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges” (Matthew 12:27).

c “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the Kingly Rule of God come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).

b “Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house” (Matthew 12:29).

a “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters”

Note that in ‘a’ the man is blind and dumb, and in the parallel the one who is not with Him is against Him, and the one who does not gather with Him, scatters. In ‘b’ Jesus binds the strong man and enters his house, for He arranges the healing of a demon possessed man, and in the parallel the point is made that no one can enter the strong man’s house and free his goods unless He first bind the strong man. Then he may spoil his house. In ‘c’ the crowds ask if this is the Son of David, and in the parallel the answer is that the Kingly Rule of God (to be introduced by David’s seed) is upon them. In ‘d’ the Pharisees say that He casts out spirits by the prince of demons, and in the parallel Jesus asks how, if that is so, there own sons cast them out. Centrally in ‘e’ is the concept that if Satan fights against himself his kingdom will collapse. Thus it cannot be true. (It is only men who do stupid things like that).

Verse 23

‘And all the crowds were amazed, and said, “Can this be the son of David?”

When the crowds saw it their thoughts were half positive. They ‘saw’, at least to some extent, and testified well. They were amazed at what they had seen, and their thought was, “Can this be the son of David?” The way the question is expressed suggests both doubt and hope, just as Israel are split into those who are more positive, and those who are more negative.

There appears to be fairly strong evidence in Matthew that he links the title Son of David to the casting out of evil spirits and the healing of the blind (Matthew 9:27; Matthew 15:22; Matthew 20:30; Matthew 21:9; Matthew 21:15 with 14). This may well have arisen from the fact that Solomon the son of David was famed (even if only in legend) for teaching methods of casting out evil spirits, something which is explained in Josephus. Possibly blindness was linked to this although Josephus does not say so. Thus they may well have seen what Jesus was doing as confirming His relationship to Solomon, the son of David, and therefore to David himself, thus evidencing Matthew 1:1. This would then lead on to the thought of the Messiah. ‘Son of David’ is in fact found in the Psalms of Solomon as a description of the Messiah. So at least a part of the crowd are beginning to recognise a prince of Heaven.

Verse 24

‘But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “This one does not cast out demons, except by Beelzeboul, the prince of the demons.”

Note the contemptuous ‘this one’. In direct contrast to the crowds the Pharisees in effect said, ‘Is not this the son of Beelzeboul?’, but in their case they had no doubts. They were truly spiritually blind, and spiritually dumb. They had had to acknowledge that Jesus did cast out evil spirits. That could not be denied. Thus if He had taught the same things as them, there would have been no problem. They would undoubtedly have hailed it as a sign that God’s hand was with Him. However, when He opposed them on so much, they were put into a position where they had to find something bad to say about Him, and involvement with demons was a sure way to do that. It was always a safe bet in those superstitious days to accuse someone who disagreed with you, and could do things that you could not do, of ‘the black arts’. They thus claimed that it was on the authority of the prince of demons that He cast out evil spirits. But that was in fact inconsistent with their normal teaching, and they were denying the Kingly Rule of God as openly revealed (Matthew 12:28), simply because of their own prejudice.

This clear disagreement between the crowds and the Pharisees may well be intended to draw out to his readers that here was a ‘divided kingdom’ of the kind Jesus would now speak about. It would therefore contain within itself the indication that Israel too was heading for destruction.

‘Beelzeboul.’ Compare Matthew 10:25; Luke 11:15. Different manuscripts and versions present the full name differently It is given as ‘Beelzebub’ in the Syriac and Vulgate versions - probably as taken from the name of the oracular god in 2 Kings 1:2-3, and as ‘Beelzeboul’ in most manuscripts. It is given as ‘Beezeboul’ in only a few manuscripts, but these include weighty ones (Aleph, B). The latter may, however, simply have dropped the ‘l’ because ‘lz’ was difficult to Greek speakers.

The correct name may well thus be Beelzeboul. ‘Zeboul’ may represent ‘zebel’ (dung) or ‘zebul’ (dwelling). Thus the name may mean ‘lord of the house (or dwelling)’ (see Matthew 12:25 b which seems to confirm this). Or it may be ‘lord of dung’ as an insulting name for Satan. The former would explain the stress on ‘house’ in Jesus’ repudiation (Matthew 12:25; Matthew 12:28). The name Zbl is also found in a Ugaritic text, linked with baal, where it may be a proper name or mean ‘prince’, and thus ‘Prince Baal’ (but why is it then changed to ‘zeboul’?). Matthew 12:25 b thus suggests that Beelzeboul is seen as master over a household of demons (compare its meaning as ‘Lord of the house’). The thought was horrific. Jesus being compared to the Prince of Demons, and His household therefore a household of demons (which is later seen as absurd when we learn that His household in fact consists of those who do the will of His Father - Matthew 12:50). But it was clearly set policy for His opponents (Matthew 9:34; Matthew 10:25). They had to have some explanation for the wonders that they saw in front of their eyes and could not explain away. As the narrative goes on we learn that this is a synonym for Satan, as we would gather from him being the prince of the demons.

Verses 25-26

‘And knowing their thoughts he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand, and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?”

Jesus replies by showing up their false logic. Kingdoms where civil war is continually in progress always collapse. Households which are always at loggerheads do the same. Thus if Satan actually casts out Satan, he is in a similar state, and therefore his kingdom also will collapse. But everyone knew that Satan’s kingdom was in fact to grow stronger towards the end, not weaker. How then could that be if it was subject to civil war? And besides, Satan had too much common sense for that. Thus it was quite clear that their assertions must be untrue.

Note the thought that Satan’s kingdom is one kingdom made up of all the kingdoms of the world (see Matthew 4:8). The idea is that whole world lies in the evil one (1 John 5:19), apart from those in the Kingly Rule of God (compare Colossians 1:13).

Verse 27

“And if I by Beelzeboul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges.”

Furthermore let them consider another factor. If Jesus cast out demons by Beelzeboul, how did their own exorcisers cast them out? ‘Your sons’ indicates those of whom the Pharisees approved. Or it may mean just ‘true Jews’ in their eyes. But either way they accepted that their work, if successful, was of God. Any who were seen as ‘good Jews’ who cast out evil spirits were seen as doing so by the power of God. And in that case they could be their judges as to the fact that demons only responded to God’s power. For it was no different in His case.

There certainly were exorcisers around Galilee at that time, and in many parts of the world. Jews were famed for exorcism. And there was widespread belief in evil spirits, not all of which was concerned with genuine phenomena, and these men made claims to deliver men from evil spirits (compare Acts 19:13, which would, however, appear to have been a genuine case). Josephus speaks of having witnessed such an exorcism which he saw as genuine, and links it with the abilities of Solomon in the field. But it does not matter here whether they were genuine or not. The argument still stood.

It is sometimes said that Jesus could not have used this argument as it would have suggested that these men also brought in the Kingly Rule of God. But that is not so at all. All that He is claiming here is that their ability, combined with their acceptability to the Pharisees, proves that the Pharisees accepted in their case that what they did was being done by the power of God. Thus it should also demonstrate that He too does it by the power of God. But the difference lies in the fact that these exorcisers did not make any special claims for themselves for God to be displeased about. So their exorcisms simply revealed the power of God through godly men. But in His case it was different In His case He is casting out evil spirits while claiming to be the Coming one. So His following argument is now also based on the fact of Who He is claiming to be. It is when it is done by Him that it demonstrates that the Kingly Rule of God is here, because the very fact that God acts through Him demonstrates that God does not see His particular claims about the presence of the Kingly Rule of God in Him as false, but is well pleased with Him.

Verse 28

“But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the Kingly Rule of God come upon you.”

So having demonstrated that He (emphatic) cast out demons by the Spirit of God, that has really demonstrated that the Kingly Rule of God has truly come upon them. It could no longer be doubted. And this was because in His case He was doing it as the son of David. It demonstrated quite conclusively that the Kingly Rule of God was therefore now here and present among them. By this Jesus connects the Kingly Rule of God with present activity of the Spirit. This also demonstrates that all who are in the Kingly Rule of God are enjoying the blessing of the Spirit well prior to Pentecost. It also demonstrates the presence of the Kingly Rule of God, not as something temporary, but as something permanent. It is here all the while that the Spirit is at work among men.

Note the use of the rarer (in Matthew) ‘Kingly Rule of God ’. This links it directly with the Spirit ‘of God’ and avoids any idea that God is not Himself totally involved in this. It brings out the living God’s direct opposition to Satan in Jesus.

The link between the Holy Spirit, and the coming Kingly Rule of God and renewing of the true Israel, was common in the prophets, and described in various ways. See for example Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:1-5; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Joel 2:28-29. It was confirmed by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2 with 11). So Jesus was now giving a mighty visible evidence of the fact that the Kingly Rule of God was present among them.

Verse 29

“Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house.”

The thought now moves to a household. Jesus is not only invading the kingdom of the strong man, he is entering his very palace. Satan is routed. Let them consider what that means about Him. The only one who can enter a strong man’s house and spoil his goods in this way, is One Who is stronger than he, One Who can bind him. Then He will be able to ‘despoil’ his house. Thus Jesus is by this claiming to be greater than Satan (contrast Jude 1:9). The binding of the strong man is depicted vividly in Revelation 20:2-3 where it is to take place during the ‘thousand years’ (God’s perfect but immeasurable length of time) which comes before the final judgment. So the ‘thousand years’ has already begun here and will continue on until the consummation (compare 2 Peter 3:8-9 where it is also the period during which men can repent).

By this Jesus is emphasising that He is stronger than Satan (which even Michael the Archangel dared not do - Jude 1:9) and that He is now here to bind the strong man. The despoiling of his house speaks of all those whom Jesus is delivering from His power (Acts 26:18), and especially demon-possessed people. Being delivered from his household, they will enter the household of the Kingly Rule of God (Matthew 12:49-50), for if they do not their last state may be worse than their first (Matthew 12:45).

This ‘binding of Satan’ prevents him from interfering in Jesus’ deliverance of all who believe in Him. But it does not prevent many of his other activities against God’s people (Ephesians 6:10-18). It does, however, mean that they are strictly controlled. He is not, for example, allowed to tempt God’s people beyond what they can cope with (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Verse 30

“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”

Jesus finalises His words with a conclusion. This is so important a matter that he who is not with Him in this must be counted as against Him. Either men are for the Kingly Rule of God over their lives or they are against it. Men cannot claim to be on His side unless they are with Him and are themselves gathering men into the Kingly Rule of God. All must be involved. And if men are not gathering with Him (into the new congregation) then they are ‘scattering’. This probably has in mind the scattering of the sheep as found in Matthew 9:36. In other words not to be one with Jesus in His ministry is to outside the Kingly Rule of God, and is to become a false shepherd and to harm the sheep.

We should note that when He in contrast said ‘he that is not against you is for you’, He was speaking of those who while not accompanying them were still in alignment with Him and demonstrated by their success that they were under the Kingly Rule of God (Luke 9:49-50).

Verse 31

“Therefore I say to you, All sin and blasphemy will be forgiven to men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Here Jesus directly challenges the Pharisees. So wonderful and so startling is the revelation of the power of the Spirit of God at work in the world, and therefore of the presence of the Kingly Rule of God, that to actually turn against it is to turn from God. And if the heart persists in such an attitude, it will become hardened. Then forgiveness will not be possible. Not because God withholds a forgiveness that is sought for, but because such men harden themselves against ever seeking it.

Jesus’ words here are both an encouragement and a warning. They are an encouragement in that they declare that all kinds of sin and blasphemy may be forgiven man. There is nothing that puts us beyond God’s forgiveness if we truly repent, if we acknowledge our sin and are changed in heart and mind in relation to it. They are thus an assurance that for all of us, however sinful we may have become, there is a way back to God.

But they are also a warning that there is one sin which will not be forgiven to any man, and that is to ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit’. In context this has in mind that the Spirit’s work has been openly manifested before the Pharisees in such a way and in such an atmosphere of the presence of the Spirit of God, that it cannot be denied except by a perverse heart. Here the Spirit was openly and manifestly at work, and testifying to Jesus in every heart which was open to receive it. They could see it in what was happening all around them (as also had the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum had seen it - Matthew 11:20-24). And of such things, when performed by what they saw as ‘good Jews’, they had always spoken highly. So if they now closed their hearts to this work of the Spirit, and against all the evidence, because of their own obstinacy, imputed it to Satan, then they were closing their hearts to the only power that could save them. They were deliberately ‘calling good, evil’ (Isaiah 5:20). But doing that involved the danger of establishing a permanent mindset. And once their hearts had become set in that way there would then be no way in which they could be saved. All hope of forgiveness would have gone. This would not be because God’s forgiveness was not available. That is always available to those who seek it through Jesus. It would be because they would have set their own hearts against any chance of repentance. For every time we resist the working of the Holy Spirit, we add to the barrier in our own hearts against His working, until in the end we make it impossible for us even to think of repentance. True deathbed conversions are rare.

It should be noted in this regard that the sure sign that a person has not yet committed this sin is that they are troubled about it. For the person who has committed this sin will never be troubled about it. His heart will have become so unyielding that he no longer considers the matter any more. He is perfectly satisfied with his ways. But let the person who is troubled then make sure that he repents. For if he does not his opportunity may slip away, and may simply contribute towards his hardening.

Verses 31-37

Men Are Especially Known By Their Words (12:31-37).

Having put right the Pharisees’ wrong conception about Him He now warns them to beware what they say. For what they say will reveal the truth about them, and they will have to give an account of their very words and what they signify at the Day of Judgment. They will be known by their fruit. ‘You offspring of vipers’ indicates that the Pharisees are still directly in mind, compare Matthew 3:7.

The passage continues in a series of contrasts, blasphemy as a whole as contrasted with the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; speaking a word against the Son of Man in contrast with speaking a word against the Holy Spirit; that such will not be forgiven either in this world/age, or in that which is to come; that the tree and its fruit is either good or is corrupt; that that which is evil cannot speak good things; that a good man brings forth good things, and an evil man brings forth evil things; that by their words men will be justified, or by them will be condemned. In the presence of Jesus men are at a crisis point, and to continually reject His words will be catastrophic (Matthew 12:41-45).


a “Therefore I say to you, Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven to men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31).

b “And whoever will speak a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him, but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in that which is to come” (Matthew 12:32).

c “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

d “You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

c “The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matthew 12:35).

b “And I say to you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they will give account of them in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).

a “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37).

Note that in ‘a’ the blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven, and in the parallel men will be condemned by their very words. In ‘b’ speaking against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come, while in the parallel men will have to give account for every idle word in the Day of Judgment. In ‘c’ the tree is known by its fruit and in the parallel a man is known by the good or evil treasure that comes from his heart. Centrally in ‘d’ the Pharisees are shown up as evil by their words.

Verse 32

“And whoever will speak a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him, but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in that which is to come.”

Jesus then takes the extremest of sins as a comparison, blasphemy against the One sent from God, the Son of Man. Though He is great beyond measure, yet blasphemy against Him can be forgiven, for men may have difficulty with the concept, or in appreciating Him, because of the dullness of their understanding. But continually speaking against the Holy Spirit and His work openly manifested and brought home to men and women, and resisting it, is something which can so harden someone that one day it will become impossible for their heart ever to soften again. For that is not difficult to understand. That is openly manifested before their eyes.

We can compare here what happened to Pharaoh in Exodus. First Pharaoh hardened his own heart in the face of the mighty works of God. Then he continued to harden his own heart, and he did it in the face of such incontrovertible evidence that he himself admitted that he was wrong. And then he continued doing it. And each time he had the opportunity to repent. But one day he had reached a position where repentance was impossible, for every act of God had resulted in his heart hardening more, until he could repent no longer. In a sense it was now God Who was hardening his heart by continually challenging him. He was now so hardened that repentance had become impossible.

‘Neither in this world (or age), or in that which is to come.’ What we do and are in this world, or in this age, will affect what we are for eternity. Every one of us is at this moment shaping our eternal destiny. And how we respond to God and His Holy Spirit now will therefore shape our eternal destiny in the world and age to come.

Verse 33

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt, for the tree is known by its fruit.”

The alternative is then put in another way. It is a choice between making the tree good and or making it corrupt. As agriculturalists they would know that this was dependent on how it was tended and looked after, and whether it was in the hands of the right gardener. By responding to Jesus and His words they can ‘make the tree good’, for He is the Master gardener. They can experience God’s working in their hearts to ‘bless’ them (Matthew 5:3-9). They can be ‘saved’. They can come under the Kingly Rule of God which has come upon them. They can become ‘trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord’ (Isaiah (Isaiah 61:3, contrast verse 13) The alternative is to turn away from God’s mercy, and to neglect His forgiveness, and the offer of His Holy Spirit. Then the tree will become corrupt. It will go beyond the point of no return. And the result will be that it will produce corrupt fruit, fruit that is unwanted and unwelcome and inedible. And in the end, like any tree, each will be known by its fruit.

Later in Matthew 15:13 Jesus will refer to the Pharisees as plants which His heavenly Father had not planted, which would be rooted up. There too they were known by their fruits.

Verse 34

“You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

‘You, being evil.’ Jesus was under no illusions about men. He had said a similar thing to His disciples (Matthew 7:11). That did not render them unsavable. Indeed it explained why they needed to be made whole. But the difference was that the Pharisees wanted to go on being evil. And they revealed it continually by what they said. Furthermore by resisting the work of the Holy Spirit they were making themselves even more evil.

For these Pharisees who are so hardened against Him, and are falsely accusing Him (this is not all Pharisees), are revealing their corruptness by their evil words, and confirming it within them. In their subtlety and their reaction to His goodness they are revealing themselves to be like vipers, which lie in the way and bite all who disturb them (compare Genesis 49:17). They are revealing that they are evil. ‘They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent, the poison of vipers is under their lips’ (Psalms 140:3). How then can they speak good things? For the mouth speaks what is in the heart. It reveals what is within.

Verse 35

“The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil things.”

So a good man will speak what is in his heart and will produce good things. That is because his heart is filled with good treasure. The idea of treasure is that it has been stored up by choice (Matthew 6:19-20). And good treasure stands the test. It is pure and righteous and compassionate and merciful. It is filled with love (Matthew 5:44-48). In the words of Paul it ‘suffers long and is kind, it does not envy, or exalt itself, or be puffed up, it does not behave itself in an unseemly way, it is not easily provoked. It does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Thus it will bring forth good things, and in context, good words from the mouth. And this will be true both in public and in private. But the man who is evil has an evil treasure within, a treasure that is false, and that also is what will issue from his mouth.

Verse 36

“And I say to you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they will give account of them in the day of judgment.”

So men should beware. Let them just listen to their own words. For every word let slip when they are unguarded reveals what is in their hearts. A man can and will be judged by his words, especially those that he thinks are ‘off the record’. The ‘idle word’ is not simply the word used in casual conversation, it is the word which is what it ought not to be, the word which would be better unspoken, the word spoken carelessly and thereby revealing what is really within. Thus at the judgment everything that a person has said will be brought into account in judging that person’s heart. Let the Pharisees now take heed to their words, for by them they are revealing what they are in their hearts, and that is what they will be judged by. And the same is true for us all.

Verse 37

“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

For in the end our words will be what justify and condemn us. Not the careful words we prepare in order to justify ourselves (compare Luke 18:11-12 where the Pharisee thought that he was putting up a good case, and God was cringing), or to put on our tombstones. But the words that come out in the dark and secret places, and in the unguarded moment. The word that we speak when taken unawares. The word that really reveals what is truly in our hearts. The word spoken ‘off the record’. For a careful sifting of a man’s words will always in the end show what he is. Thus we will be either accounted as in the right, or will be condemned on the basis of all that we have said.

‘By your words you will be justified.’ This is not conflicting with Paul. No one was more dogmatic than Paul that a man was known by his fruits. ‘How shall we who are dead to sin, live any longer in it?’ (Romans 6:2). Before the all searching eye of a righteous and holy God we must be justified through the blood of Christ (Romans 3:24), which has resulted in cleansing and forgiveness, but before the tribunal of God which is open to all creation that will be evidenced by what our words have been. For faith without works is dead. The Bride will be clothed with the righteousnesses of God’s people (Revelation 19:8), otherwise she is not the true Bride.

The Response of The Scribes and Pharisees Is To Seek A Sign From Heaven.

The Scribes and Pharisees now came seeking a sign from Heaven. Like the towns of Galilee in Matthew 11:20-24 they have failed to take note of His mighty works, and will be equally exposed by the Gentile nations at the Day of Judgment. The addition here of the Scribes may suggest an official enquiry, or at least a calling in of reinforcements. They had come to test Him. He was making these great claims and now they wanted proof. It seems almost incredible that with all Jesus’ healings and casting out of evil spirits they should ask about signs, but they may well not have personally observed too many of them, and even when they had it had been with prejudiced eyes. Mainly they were going from hearsay. But even had it been otherwise they would have wanted special signs. For that was what Moses had given. That was what Elijah had given. That was what, in their view, the Messiah would give. What they wanted Him to do was something spectacular like the burning up from Heaven of Elijah’s sacrifice (1 Kings 18:38). The Jews had a firm belief that when God began His final work such signs would be given. They loved the spectacular (compare 1 Corinthians 1:22).

But Jesus never performed signs for His own benefit or in order to justify Himself. Even His healings were performed out of compassion, not as evidences of Who He was, which was why He commanded silence about them. He had been faced during His temptations with the idea of winning men through the spectacular and had recognised that it was displeasing to God (Matthew 4:5-7). He and His Father wanted men to respond to Him because they recognised the truth of His words and as evidence of what was in their hearts. Those who really desired to do His will would know whether the teaching were true or not (John 7:17)

Jesus replies by giving them two signs. The first is in the form of a promise. It was similar to Isaiah’s sign in Isaiah 7:14 and to the sign given to Moses in Exodus 3:12, a sign that would become a reality in he future. It was that just as Jonah had spent three days in the body of a large fish, miraculously coming from certain death by a miracle, so would He as the Son of Man spend three days in the body of the earth, coming out of His grave after being buried. This would be a unique sign indeed, for the Son of Man was not expected to go into the grave, but to enter straight into the presence of God on the clouds of Heaven to receive His kingship (Daniel 7:13-14). The second, although only secondary, was that if they thought about it they would realise that His preaching had had a greater impact than that of both Jonah and Solomon. Jonah was partly chosen as an example (as well as the reason above) because, of all the prophets, his success as a preacher had been most publicly portrayed, Solomon was chosen because he was a great wise man, renowned for his wisdom, and a son of David. He was chosen because a greater son of David was now being revealed as here, and possibly also because Jesus’ miracles were being compared to the legendary works of Solomon.


a Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we would see a sign from you” (Matthew 12:38).

b But he answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given to it apart from the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Matthew 12:39).

c “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the large fish, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

b “The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).

a “ The queen of the south will rise up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42).

Note that in ‘a’ some of the Scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus as the Teacher asking for a sign, and in the parallel Jesus provides a sign in that He is a greater Teacher than the wise Solomon. In ‘b’ that ‘evil and adulterous generation’ seek a sign and will only be given one in the prophet Jonah and in the parallel ‘this generation’ receive one in the prophet Jonah in the prophet Jonah and his success. Centrally in ‘c’ is that what will happen to the Son of Man, who is portrayed as coming in triumph on clouds to the throne of God (Daniel 7:13), is that like Jonah He will spend three days and nights entombed. Thus what is to happen to Jesus will itself confirm this sign to all who will receive it.

Verse 38

‘Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we would see a sign from you.”

‘Then’ is a connecting word (compare Matthew 12:22) and, like most connecting words in the Gospels, must not be overpressed. It indicates a loose connection to give some indication of continuity, without being specific.

‘Certain of the Scribes and Pharisees’ may indicate an official deputation, or may simply indicate that not all Scribes and Pharisees were to be seen as involved. Not all Scribes and Pharisees behaved wrongly towards Jesus.

“Teacher, we would see a sign from you.” They came seeking a sign, something typical of Jewish thinking (compare Matthew 16:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:22). Their Scriptures had taught them to expect the spectacular. Later Rabbinic writings would speak of Rabbis proving themselves on request by turning water into blood, or moving trees some distance, or making a river move backwards. Compare Moses (Exodus 4:9) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:8). They were, of course, legends, but they demonstrated the kind of things that the Rabbis saw as a sign. They would have loved the one suggested by Satan (not a good source for suggestions) that He throw Himself off the roof of the Temple. But of what would they have been convinced? It would not have changed their attitudes towards Jesus’ teaching. It would not have changed their hearts. The children of Israel who saw all the signs of Moses still had to perish in the wilderness because of unbelief and disobedience.

‘Teacher.’ A regular address to Jesus by Scribes, Pharisees, and others seeking to be polite. In each case they were those who would see themselves as at least on a level with Him in status (Matthew 8:19; Matthew 9:11; Matthew 17:24; Matthew 19:16; Matthew 22:16, Matthew 24:36). And it was even used by Jesus speaking of Himself (Matthew 26:18). It therefore here ranks Jesus alongside other teachers, including Solomon in his capacity as a wisdom teacher.

Verse 39

‘But he answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given to it apart from the sign of Jonah the prophet,” ’

‘Answered and said.’ In Matthew ‘answered’ does not necessarily refer back to a particular question. It rather has in mind that Jesus’ words are a total answer to all who hear them, that Jesus is God’s answer to all men’s questions.

Jesus’ reply is that the only reason that the present generation, who had seen His works (Matthew 11:5; Matthew 11:20-23), could possibly want a sign was because they were ‘evil and adulterous’, that is, because they had made ritual their god and their hearts were set on anything but God, with the result that they were unable to truly judge and weigh up His moral teaching and His life, and recognise that both were from God. For had they but recognised it, His unique teaching was the greatest sign of all, a sign which has carried on through the ages, leaving all who have read it without excuse. Our present generation also will be judged by the fact that it has the teaching of Jesus in all its splendour, and yet have refused to acknowledge it in any significant way, and to respond to the One Who gave it. The principle, ‘If any man wills to do His will, He will know of the teaching, whether it be of God’ (John 7:17), still applies. Thus all men and women will be judged by their reaction to that teaching and to the One Who is its source.

They thus have all the proof that they need before their eyes. Nineveh had recognised such teaching, even from a lesser man, and so had the queen of the south, Gentiles all, and all had responded to it, but the Jews who now had something greater, had not because they were evil and adulterous. They had replaced God in their hearts by His own Law as interpreted by them, and had gone astray after ritual, while at the same time altering His Law to suit their own ideas. For such spiritual adultery see also Matthew 16:4: Mark 8:38; Isaiah 57:3; Ezekiel 16:32; Ezekiel 16:36; Ezekiel 23:37; Ezekiel 23:45; Hosea 1-3.

Furthermore it also signified that they were unbelieving and faithless, and that they had forsaken the true God in their hearts, judging Him only in unworthy ways, and refusing to believe unless He did things their way, and continually proved Himself. They wanted constant evidences, thereby underlining their unbelief. It is one of the ironies of history that the very people who always wanted to see the spectacular, had on the other hand taken God’s living Law and turned it into chains and manacles as a result of its formality and excessive restraint. They were like the adulterous wife of Hosea (Hosea 1:2), taken up with anyone and anything except faithfulness, except what represented the truth. Josephus later tells us that they were also evil and adulterous in practise, (‘that period had somehow become so prolific of crime of every description amongst the Jews, that no deed of iniquity was left unperpetrated, nor, had man’s wit been exercised to devise it, could he have discovered any new form of vice’ (not already being practised)) which was the kind of behaviour that went along with their spiritual attitude.

For their being ‘evil’ compare Matthew 12:34. There they had revealed their evil by how they had responded to His casting out of demons. Here it was by how they responded to Him and to His teaching.

So Jesus warns them that He will only give them one sign, the sign of the prophet Jonah, although, as Mark 8:11-12 brings out, it is not the kind of sign that they are looking for. That kind of sign He will not give them! Jonah was called by God to preach in godless Nineveh, but he tried to avoid the task and ended up within the insides of a large fish. Released from there after three days, through fervent prayer, he went and preached in Nineveh where there was instant revival, with the people repenting in sackcloth and ashes (a sign of their repentance). Jesus will use both these ideas for His signs.

Verse 40

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the large fish, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

His first sign is typical of Scripture, it is something that will happen in the future (compare Exodus 3:12; Isaiah 7:14). The future will prove the present (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). It does, however, require faith. In it He describes two things that were incongruous. The first was that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the insides of a large fish (citing Jonah 1:17 to Jonah 2:1), figuratively in the very depths of the grave (Jonah 2:2; Jonah 2:6). Here was a sign indeed, a sign of what happened to the disobedient. But it was also a sign of how God could deliver, even from the grave, and it cannot be doubted that this sign as recounted to the Ninevites played a great part in their response, along possibly with the unearthly pallor that had resulted from his sojourn in the fish and contact with its juices. Jonah had been to them a very sign from God. The second incongruous thing was that ‘the Son of Man’ would similarly spend three days and three nights in the body of the earth, prior to His coming to the throne of God. He too would be in the very depths of the grave. And when He arose He too would be altered (compare Matthew 17:2; Acts 7:55-56). So Jonah was a sign to his own generation and a foreshadowing of the greater Who was coming. But the second was incongruous because in Daniel 7:13-14, instead of going into the grave, the Son of Man was to come in the clouds of Heaven from earth to the throne of God. The Son of Man was not supposed to be buried. He was supposed to ascend in triumph. And therein lay the sign. What was deemed impossible would happen, and when it did happen let them take note. The One Who was to take the throne of Heaven would first of all be locked in the body of the earth for three days and three nights, before, like Jonah had, He came forth in triumph. The presumption behind this was that after three days and three nights He would somehow rise again, as Jonah had. Thus Jesus death, burial and resurrection would be the promised sign. And it would convince many. It even convinced Paul. See 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

‘Three days and three nights.’ To the Jews part of a day could be described as ‘a day and a night’ equally to a full day because they did not reckon scientifically. They saw the part as encapsulated within the whole. For example, in c 100 AD a well known Rabbi stated, “a day and a night make an ‘onah (twenty four hour day), and the portion of an ‘onah is reckoned as an ‘onah”. Thus in Jewish terminology Friday to Sunday would be ‘three days and three nights’. Some, however, do consider that Jesus died on a Wednesday, seeing it as being on the day of preparation of the Passover sabbath rather than that of preparation of the weekly sabbath. This, however, would not tie in with the women seeking to anoint Jesus’ body on the first day of the week, for had Jesus been crucified on the Wednesday they would have sought to anoint him when the festal Sabbath was over on the Friday. They would not have waited another two days until the body had putrefied.

Verse 41

“The men of Nineveh will arise in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.”

The second, but lesser, sign lay in Jonah’s evangelistic ministry. Jonah had gone to Nineveh and there had been a great revival with many repenting. But it was short and sweet. John had done the same thing in Judea but over a longer period, and bringing far more to repentance. Jesus, however, had outshone them both (see John 4:1). Thus it should have been clear to all that ‘a greater than Jonah’ was here. That is why the Gentile Ninevites will stand up or arise (anistemi - ‘rise’) at the judgment and pass judgment on Jesus’ generation, for even though they saw none of the signs and wonders that were now being seen, yet they had repented in their thousands. As resurrected saints they will not be able to credit how the Jews could have rejected Jesus, and will condemn them. Note that they will be there as those who are truly believers. They are not like the Tyre, Sidon and Sodom of the past.

‘A greater.’ Literally ‘something greater’. Jesus is not only a greater prophet, He is greater in an even more distinctive way. Compare Matthew 12:6.

Verse 42

“ The queen of the south will rise up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”

The same applies to the queen of the south. She too will rise up (egeiro) in the judgment, either along with this generation, or possibly in opposition to it, and she will condemn it. For while they have Jesus on their very doorstep, she took a long journey so as to hear the wisdom of Solomon (as the Canaanite woman will to some extent later - Matthew 15:22). And yet now a greater than Solomon is here, something that they can judge for themselves by comparing His teaching with Solomon’s. Solomon provided pithy wisdom, Jesus brings life-giving truth. Note that resurrection is inherent in the passage although nowhere emphasised. It is the fact that the Son of Man must die that is stressed. But the implication of His resurrection is undoubted, both in what happened to Jonah, and in what will occur at the resurrection of the Ninevites and the queen of the south.

For ‘from the ends of the earth’ compare 1 Kings 10:24. Both were Jewish idioms thinking in terms of the world of their day. See also Psalms 59:13.

It cannot be accidental that Jesus selects two Gentile responses as His examples. In Matthew 11:20-24 He had condemned the towns of Israel, in Matthew 12:17-21 He had made clear the Servant’s interest in ‘the nations’. Now He commends the Gentiles who had in the past responded to God. In contrast with unbelieving Israel, they will be confessed before His Father (Matthew 10:32-33). He is preparing His way for His Gentile ministry (as He had from the beginning - Luke 4:24-27).

It will be noted that in Luke 11:29-32, in an apparently later context, Luke reports sayings similar to this, but they are so differently presented that they must clearly be seen as Jesus’ summary of what He said here repeated to the crowds. His repetition to the crowds (who no doubt would also have loved signs) indicates how unreasonable He saw the attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees to be. See also Matthew 16:1-4.

Verse 43

‘But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it.’

In Matthew 10:11 the disciples were given power to cast out ‘unclean spirits’ (elsewhere in Matthew ‘demons’). Jesus now takes the example of a man out of whom an unclean spirit has been cast. The use of ‘unclean spirit’ is almost certainly intended to contrast with the Spirit of God, the ‘Holy’ Spirit.

Like the man in Matthew 12:22 this man has been ‘healed’. He has been made clean, at least as far as having an unclean spirit is concerned. But the spirit is not necessarily finished with. It goes off, wandering in waterless places. Demons were regularly seen as living in deserts (Isaiah 13:20-21; Isaiah 34:14). It is looking hopelessly for rest. Matthew probably intends us to contrast this with the rest that Jesus gives to those who are His (Matthew 11:28). But unclean spirits can find no rest, and it therefore does not find it. There is no peace to the wicked, they are like the troubled sea that finds no rest (Isaiah 57:20-21).

This journey of the unclean spirit is probably intended to be contrasted with the journey of God’s exiled people for whom in the coming days there will be water in the wilderness and springs in the desert (Isaiah 35:6; Isaiah 41:18; Isaiah 43:20). Even the screech owl may find rest in the wilderness (Isaiah 34:14), but not the unclean spirit.

Verses 43-45

The Sad Plight of This Generation (12:43-45).

This short illustration takes up the themes that have previously been presented and is firmly in context. Compare (Matthew 12:1) the being healed from an evil spirit (Matthew 12:22) which represents the inbreaking of the Kingly Rule of God (Matthew 12:28). (Matthew 12:2) The ‘evil generation’ which has rejected such signs (Matthew 12:34; Matthew 12:39; Matthew 12:41-42; Matthew 11:16, and compare Matthew 16:4; Matthew 17:17; Matthew 23:33; Matthew 23:36). (Matthew 12:3) The unwillingness of Israel to accept the Kingly Rule of God which results in the house still being empty because they have not received His messengers (compare Matthew 10:14) and do not do the will of His Father in Heaven (Matthew 12:50). (Matthew 12:4) The contrast with those who now are Jesus ‘family’, and therefore within His household (compare Matthew 10:25), and thus in an occupied ‘house’ (Matthew 12:46-50) safe from such intrusion.

The general idea behind the picture is made clear in Matthew 12:45. It applies to the evil generation among whom He is preaching. As previously revealed He has bound the strong man (Matthew 12:29) and put evil spirits to flight (Matthew 12:27) and their house is now empty. By His very preaching He has swept and furnished it (compare how often He compares the Kingly Rule of God to a household - Matthew 20:1; Matthew 21:33; Luke 12:42; Luke 13:25; Luke 14:21-23). But if they leave Him out of their house, and refuse to enter His household, because they are still playing in the streets regardless (Matthew 11:16-17), then they must expect the forces of darkness to regather themselves and re-enter their house with the result that they will be even worse off than before He came (Matthew 23:38), and Satan will have a firmer grip on them.

Note how the restlessness of the evil spirit is emphasised in contrast with the One Who has come to give rest (Matthew 11:28). If they do not receive His rest, they will receive the restless spirit who can find no rest, along with his companions. If they do not receive the cup of cold water as a believer (Matthew 10:42) and the One Who is a spring of water (John 4:1-14) they will receive those who come from waterless places.


a But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it (Matthew 12:43).

b Then he says, “I will return into my house from where I came out” (Matthew 12:44 a).

c And when he is come, he finds it empty, swept, and furnished (Matthew 12:44 b).

b Then he goes, and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there (Matthew 12:45 a).

a And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first, even so will it also be to this evil generation (Matthew 12:45 b).

Note that in ‘a’ the unclean spirit goes out relieving the man’s terrible state, and in the parallel the man’s state becomes worse than it originally was. In ‘b’ the spirit determines to return to the house and in the parallel he does so with seven other spirits. In ‘c’, and centrally, is the reason for the man’s fate. He has left the house fully ready for habitation, because his house having been cleansed and restored he has failed to receive the ‘Stronger than he’ (Luke 11:22) so that He might possess it.

Verse 44

‘Then he says, “I will return into my house from where I came out”, and when he is come, he finds it empty, swept, and furnished.’

So the spirit decides that it will try to repossess its house, and when it returns it finds it empty. The power of the Spirit which drove it out (Matthew 12:28) is no longer present in the house. It is, however, unsuitable for habitation by the likes of an unclean spirit, for it is swept and scrubbed, (or furnished). It is clean. So it recognises that it will need reinforcements.

Verse 45

‘Then he goes, and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there, and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. Even so will it also be to this evil generation.’

‘It finds it empty.’ Compare Matthew 10:13 where the house was emptied because of the rejection of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

So it goes off and finds seven other spirits worse than itself. Seven is the number of spiritual completeness and perfection. It thus represents all that it will require for the task. And together they enter the house and dwell there. And the result is that the man is worse off than if the spirit had not been turned out in the first place. We can compare here the state of the cities of Galilee in Matthew 11:20-24 which were worse off than the ancient cities of sin, because they had not accepted the One Who came. There is a stark warning here for any healed of possession to ensure that the Spirit Himself takes possession of them lest the same happen to them.

‘Even so will it also be to this evil generation.’ Jesus here allies the individual case with the whole of Israel. He has come in order to drive out the power of Satan, and many have been changed and have become ‘clean’. There has been an outward transformation. But the important question is whether they have received the Spirit by coming under the Kingly Rule of God. For if they are like the Pharisees and have not done so they will eventually discover that a worse state befalls them when Satan returns to take possession, as will, on the whole, happen to this evil generation. Their house will be reoccupied by something far worse.

Verse 46

‘ While he was yet speaking to the crowds, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, seeking to speak to him.’

Once again the connecting link is intended to connect the ideas, rather than to place the passage chronologically. While He is speaking to some crowds, the crowds that continually throng Him, His natural family are outside seeking Him. For as they have not responded to His teaching they are inevitably ‘outside’, like the previous man whose house was ‘empty’. They have no part in the Kingly Rule of God. There is only one way into the Kingly Rule of God, and it is not by ancestry, but by commitment Him and the doing of the will of His Father.

Verses 46-50

The True Household of God (12:46-50).

In contrast with the house of old one-time Israel is the household of the new Israel of God, the ‘household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19). In describing this episode Matthew, unlike the other Gospels, has only one interest and that is to reveal that those who have come to Him and are His disciples are now His true family, replacing the old, just as new Israel will replace the old (Matthew 21:43). And the test of this is that they do the will of His Father in Heaven.

These verses cap both the exposition from Matthew 5:1 onwards, by confirming the new family to whom Jesus spoke in chapters 5-7 (with His emphasis there on their heavenly Father), and the section from Matthew 11:1 onwards, so as to confirm that with all the failure of Israel to respond, a new family was coming into existence (compare Matthew 11:27). John’s fears in Matthew 11:3-4 had had no foundation, and in spite of the apathy of the crowds and the opposition of the Pharisees His cause was going forward. The Kingly Rule of Heaven was forcefully advancing, and the new congregation of Israel were being formed. Some might be ‘outside’, even His own natural family, but there were some who were definitely ‘inside’.

Verse 47

‘And one said to him, “Behold, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak to you.” ’

Someone comes and tells Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to speak to Him. According to Jewish custom this would be seen as a primary matter. Family loyalty was considered to be extremely important. The natural reading here is to see these as His younger brothers. (Had they been elder step-brothers it would have invalidated the claim in Matthew 1:1-17. It was only dogma that centuries later suggested otherwise. It is clear that neither Matthew nor the other Gospel writers had any problem with the thought of Jesus having brothers).

Verses 48-49

‘But he answered and said to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? and who are my brothers?” And he stretched out his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brothers!” ’

But in the new age everything is seen from a different perspective and Jesus asks, “Who is my mother? and who are my brothers?” And then He stretches out His hand towards the disciple and declares that it is they who are His mother and brothers. He is saying that in the Kingly Rule of God relationships are based on relationship to God, and evidenced by obedience to the Father’s will. Natural affinities are of secondary importance. It is the new open community who are His family, and who are to be theirs. They are all one in Him (Matthew 10:40; Matthew 11:27).

That a true household was one which was in a state of obedience to the father of the house was a concept that would have been acknowledged in Israel. So is it also with the household of God. Those who are living in allegiance to the Father are revealing themselves as being of the household of God.

‘Said to the one who told him.’ This appears to be a deliberate attempt to stress the fact that Jesus had no direct contact with His family at this point. The point is not that He is casting off His family, but that they have no right to come in order to interfere with His preaching and teaching, and His Messianic mission (compare John 7:1-9).

Verse 50

“For whoever will do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

The new household of God is made up of all who do the will of His Father, that is those who have heard His own words and are responding to His teaching because they have repented and entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (Matthew 7:21-27). It is they who are now His new relations, under their Father in Heaven Who is Father of them all. They are the community spoken to in the Sermon on the Mount where God’s Fatherhood of them was stressed. This is the basis of the new congregation of Israel under the Kingly Rule of God (Matthew 18:18; Matthew 21:43) The Messianic family prepared for in Matthew 11:1-6 is being established. The Kingly Rule of Heaven is forcefully advancing (Matthew 11:12), and its advance will now be openly portrayed in chapter 13.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/matthew-12.html. 2013.
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