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Sunday, June 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 12

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Verses 1-8


Matthew 12:1. Pluck the ears of corn.—See Deuteronomy 23:25.

Matthew 12:3. What David did.—David’s action was not an apparent contravention of the Sabbath-law, but an apparent contravention of the temple or tabernacle-law. But our Lord reasons from equals to equals, or, on the principle of equivalents. The temple and the Sabbath were equivalent or equal in sanctity (Morison).

Matthew 12:4. Did eat the shewbread.—The old bread that was removed on the Sabbath morning from the golden table to make way for the fresh loaves (Leviticus 24:5-9; 1 Samuel 21:6).

Matthew 12:5. Profane the Sabbath.—Viz. when they do the work of the temple; in removing, e.g. the old shewbread and replacing it with the “hot,” and in offering up the sacrificial lambs, etc. It was, indeed, one of the sayings of the Rabbins, “There is no Sabbath-keeping in the temple.” Thus, if all work on the Sabbath “profaned” the Sabbath, as the Pharisees maintained, the priests were guilty of continual profanation (Morison).

Matthew 12:7. I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.—Moral and not positive duties, these made up the true life of religion, and were alone acceptable to God. It was because they had inverted the right relation of the two that they had, in this instance, condemned those whom our Lord now declares to have been in this respect absolutely guiltless (Plumptre).

Matthew 12:8. Lord even of the Sabbath day.—A prophetic intimation cleared up by the event, that the law of the Sabbath would be changed, as it has now been under the gospel, not by any alteration in the proportion of time due to God, but in the position of the day; by the transfer of it from the seventh day of the week to the first, in memory of the resurrection of the Son of man (Wordsworth).


Sabbatical needs.—The strife and opposition of the last chapter seem to be continued in this. Animated probably by what we are told of there, certain Pharisees here come forward to make an attack in words on the Saviour of mankind. That attack itself, in the first place; the reply it received at the time; the instruction it afterwards led to, are the main features of the story which follows.

I. The attack itself.—The occasion of this was the action of the disciples when walking with their Master on one particular Sabbath-day through the “cornfields.” “Being hungered”—a point specially noted—they plucked a portion of the standing corn as they passed; and “rubbing it in their hands,” (Luke 6:1), ate the grain obtained in this way. Although such use of the corn was expressly sanctioned in Deuteronomy 23:25, the “plucking” and “rubbing” necessary for this purpose were considered by the Pharisees to be sufficiently near to “reaping” and “threshing” to constitute them “secondary” violations of the fourth commandment. They, therefore, accused His disciples unto Him of having so done (Matthew 12:2). Nothing is said of the fact that the disciples were hungry; nothing of the fact (for so it seems to have been) that the disciples only had thus partaken of corn; all the supposed blame of all done, is virtually charged upon Him. “Why is it that Thou dost thus permit Thy disciples to do what ought not to be done?”

II. The primary reply to this attack corresponded to it in every respect. It did so as to persons. Only the disciples had been avowedly blamed. Only the disciples are avowedly defended. It did so as to purport. What the question implied was that they had broken the law and were guilty. What the reply implied was that they were “guiltless” (end of Matthew 12:7), and had not broken the law. It did so, also, as to method of proof. The Pharisees had aimed at their point by appealing tacitly to a method of interpreting the law, which certain later Israelites among themselves had designed and invented. According to this way of interpretation, it was breaking the law even for a hungry man to do anything which could be considered even an approach to such things as “reaping” and “threshing” on the Sabbath day. The Saviour, in this reply, therefore, appealed in turn to other methods of understanding the law. Notably, on the one hand, to that adopted in one particular case, where one of the most pious and revered of their ancestors, David the king, with the full sanction of the priests of his day (1 Samuel 21:3-6), had done exactly as had been done now by the disciples of Christ, viz., set aside a strict ceremonial observance where it was necessary to do so for the preservation of life. Also, on the other hand, to the interpretation practically adopted in a whole collection of cases of a similar kind, as when the “priests in the temple, e.g. the acknowledged examples and guides of the people in the interpretation of the law, constantly did that in the discharge of their duties, under the law, which “profaned the Sabbath” in fact, and which yet, being necessary, was not considered to profane it in law. In all these, and that of David before, the obvious principle was that that is not to be regarded as rebellion which cannot be avoided. Exactly the same principle applied to—and cleared—the disciples.

III. The further instruction.—Although these most legitimate tu quoques had thus fully silenced the accusers of the disciples, they had not been equally successful in instructing the disciples themselves. They had only shown, as it were, the negative side, viz., that it was neither right nor necessary to insist rigorously on the absolute letter of the law. For the sake of His disciples, therefore, in the first instance—and not without an eye in all probability to many others in subsequent years—the Saviour adds what we may consider a few words in briefest outline, on the positive side of the matter. If not in the mere letter, how then were God’s ordinances to be observed? On this question He appears to give a short succession of rules. The first rule is to look upon it as a question of degree. The physical life of man is a greater thing in itself than the mere physical rest of the Sabbath. So also were the positive enactments of the temple service. “There was one”—there was “that” (R. V., both statements are true)—which was “greater” than these. They must carry that principle out. The question must be settled by reference to that “greatest” of all. The second rule was to look upon the point to be settled as being also a question of kind. How were they to determine the relative greatness of an appointment? By its relative capacity for effecting the good purpose of God. What God had in view in His ordinances about men was their welfare, not their injury; their profit, not their loss; increasing their happiness, not merely restricting their liberty; “showing mercy” towards them, rather than exacting “sacrifice” from them. Let them judge accordingly, therefore, in regard to all His ordinances on this question of “greater” and “less.” That was the truest method of observance which corresponded most truly to the merciful objects in view. Lastly, let them consider to whom both these principles would conduct them at last. Who was this “greater than” the “temple?” This greatest of all? Who but the Saviour Himself of whom and of whose work all these were but shadows and types? And why was He, in this way, the greatest of all? Because He was, in Himself and His work, the very embodiment, and secret, and seal of all God’s fullest purposes of mercy to the children of men—“Lord of the Sabbath” because Lord of all that was for the good of mankind.

From the points thus settled certain further points, having special reference to the two here specially mentioned types of the Sabbath and the temple, seem to arise, viz:—

1. That the types in question differ widely in character.—The one pointing forward only to that which has been long since accomplished by the Saviour (John 2:21). The other, apparently, pointing to that which He has yet to bring in (Hebrews 4:9).

2. That there is a corresponding difference in the language of the Saviour about them.—The Saviour deliberately saying that about the one in John 4:21 which He nowhere says about the other, not even in such circumstances as those described here.

3. That the spirit, therefore, of this latter symbol, should be observed by us still.—A type which has never been fulfilled, an observance which has never been abrogated, can hardly be obsolete yet.


Matthew 12:1-14. The Pharisees’ Sabbath and Christ’s.—This passage includes two Sabbath incidents, in the first of which the disciples are the transgressors of the Sabbatic tradition; in the second, Christ’s own action is brought into question. The scene of the first is in the fields, that of the second is the synagogue. In the one, Sabbath observance is set aside at the call of personal needs; in the other, at a call of another’s calamity. So the two correspond to the old Puritan principle that the Sabbath law allowed of “works of necessity and of mercy.”

I. The Sabbath and personal needs.—What a glimpse into the penury of their usual condition the quiet statement that the disciples were hungry gives us, especially if we remember that it is not likely that the Master had fared better than they! As soon as they “began” to eat, the eager Pharisees, who seem to have been at their heels, call Him to “behold” this dreadful crime. If they had had as sharp eyes for men’s necessities as for their faults they might have given them food which it was “lawful” to eat, and so obviated this frightful iniquity. But that is not the way of Pharisees. Moses had not forbidden such gleaning, but their casuistry decided that plucking the ears was of the nature of reaping, and reaping was work, and work was forbidden, etc. Our Lord accepts His questioners’ position for the time, and gives them a perfect answer on their own ground. He quotes two instances in which ceremonial obligations give way before higher law. “In this place” (He adds)—here among the growing corn, beneath the free heaven, far away from Jerusalem—“is One greater than the temple.” He is all that the temple symbolised. Where He stands is holy ground, and all work done with reference to Him is worship. These poor followers of His are priests; and if, for His sake, they had broken a hundred Sabbath regulations they are guiltless. So far our Lord has been answering His opponents; now He attacks. The quotation from Hosea is often on His lips. Here He uses it to unmask the real motives of His assailants. Their murmuring came not from more religion, but from less love.

II. The Sabbath and works of beneficence.—Matthew appears to have brought together here two incidents which were separated in time, according to Luke. Matthew tells us that they ask our Lord the question which Luke represents Him as asking them. Perhaps we may say that He gave voice to the question which they were asking in their hearts. The whole thing was an attempt to get Jesus within the meshes of the law. Again, as in the former case, it is the traditional, not the written law, which healing would have broken. It is a significant instance of the absurdity and cruelty which are possible when once religion has been made a matter of outward observance. Here Jesus appeals to the natural sense of compassion to confirm the principle that Sabbath observance must give way to the duty of relieving others. The form in which our Lord puts His conclusive answer to the Pharisees gives an unexpected turn to the reply. He does not say “It Is lawful to heal,” but “It is lawful to do well,” thus at once showing the true justification of healing, viz., that it was a beneficent act, and widening the scope of His answer to cover a whole class of cases. The principle is a wide one.—A. Maclaren, D.D.

Matthew 12:2. Pharisaism.—

1. It is no new thing to see men who are otherwise learned, and are in account for their holiness in the church, to be adversaries unto Christ and His disciples.
2. Christ’s disciples readily shall be mistaken and misconstrued, do what they please.
3. Hypocrites do urge ceremonies and external observations, more than the greater things of the law.—David Dickson.

Matthew 12:3-4. The sacredness of man’s needs.—I. This is the lesson which Christ intended to teach in His reference to this act of David. In general, it may be stated as the sacredness of mans needs, or the right of man in his healthy human wants to the holiest and best supply.—The picture is of a hungry man. Hunger is natural and healthy. Equally natural with hunger is the relief of hunger. The world is made not merely to produce the want, but the bread. The hungry man has a table at his side. The very field in which the farmer works until he is faint and weary brings forth corn which gives strength and refreshment. Here, in token of natural adjustment, is the sign of the Divine recognition of the certain right which hunger has to its supply. That right, indeed, is subject to, and sometimes held in abeyance and suspense by, a higher right. A hungry man must not put out his hand and steal a loaf because his unappeased hunger is unnatural and wrong. Nor may the sentinel on duty, on whose watchfulness the safety of the city depends, desert his post, and go and look for food because his heart is heavy for want of it. The laws of honesty and duty are above everything. But it is just a sign of the disorder and discordance of this world that in it natural rights seem sometimes to conflict, and natural necessities go unsupplied, because their supply would be a sacrifice of higher things. In a world of perfect order every hunger would instantly assert its right to food, and find that right recognised by every obedient energy back to the centre of all energy, which is God Himself. In all his ideal teachings Jesus represents this condition, in which every true want of man has a right to and claims an immediate supply from God. The claim of the human upon the Divine; how better can I describe the comprehensive meaning of the gospel? It appears in its widest presentation in the wonder of the Incarnation. Remembering that general law, as applied to this instance of which we have been speaking, will it not be the portion and duty of every man who knows himself to be a child of God to claim immediately the highest and Divinest of his Father’s helps for all his own most ordinary needs?

II. There is a distinction which we are always drawing between what we call things secular and what we call things sacred.—It is good to perpetually remind ourselves that the difference between things sacred and things profane is not that in things sacred God is present, and that from things secular God is absent. Yet there is a difference between the sacred and the secular. There is a difference between reading your Bible and reading your novel, between talking politics and saying your prayers, between going to the counting-house and going to church. One set of actions belongs distinctly to a lower region than the other. But notwithstanding this is so, nay, all the more because this is so, we need to recognise that the lower life is God’s, and that He cares for it, and that He uses it as truly as the higher. The secular is no less truly sacred than the sacred itself. There is no difference of quality between them; when you come down from the summit you do not come away from God. The great lesson, the great blessing that is pressing into men’s souls, seems to me to lie in the truth, that none of all the notes of life can sound truly except when they are sounded in the atmosphere of God. The mountain tops will glow more richly as the valleys are all filled with light and send up a reflection of the highest glory. The temple will be not less, but more sacred when the sacredness of the shock and the field and the home are cordially and thankfully acknowledged. The shewbread will be all the more holy when it is proved that it is not too holy to fill the hunger of a hungry man. The highest realms of religious speculation and religious rapture will reach higher still when religion has been claimed for the commonest duties and the more sordid sufferings of life as their only strength and help.—Phillips Brooks, D.D.

Interpreting the law.—

1. When the mind of the Law-giver, and the intent and end of the commandment are not contravened, the precept is not broken. This is the ground of Christ’s defence.
2. Not reading nor considering the Scripture whereby the meaning of the law may be understood, is the cause of error and mistaking of duties.—David Dickson.

Matthew 12:6. Christ greater than the temple.—

I. The temple exists but for Him.
II. It is but a place of assembly where men may meet with Him.
III. However splendid, it is nothing except He be there.
IV. However lowly, the presence of “the great King” makes of it a heavenly palace.
J. C. Gray.

Matthew 12:7. Knowing and judging.—

1. The true meaning of God’s word being known, will prevent rash judgment. “If ye had known.”
2. Condemning the guiltless doth draw the judge, being rash, under guilt. “Ye would not have condemned the guiltless.”
3. It is not every man, no, not every learned man, who is acquainted with the true meaning of the Scriptures, for, in saying, “If ye had known” He taxed both the Pharisees and scribes of ignorance.—David Dickson.

Why must we be merciful?

1. Because God will have us merciful, and His will must rule us.
2. Because charity is the sum of religion.
3. Because herein we imitate our Father who is a God of mercy.
4. Because we have obtained mercy from our Father.

5. Because otherwise we neither can be assured of mercy from God or men (Matthew 5:7; Matthew 7:2; James 2:13).—Richard Ward.

Mercy and sacrifice.—Archbishop Tillotson gave the most exemplary proof of his charity at the revocation of the edict of Nantes, when thousands of Huguenots were driven over to this country, many of whom settled at Canterbury, where their posterity still continue. The king having granted briefs to collect alms for their relief, Dr. T. was peculiarly active in promoting their success. Dr. Beveridge, one of the prebendaries of Canterbury, refusing to read the briefs as being contrary to the rubrics, he was silenced by Dr. Tillotson with this energetic reply, “Doctor, Doctor, charity is above rubrics.”—Biblical Museum.

Sabbath-service.—In the Sabbath of eternity we shall rest from evil, but doing good will be our Sabbath itself.—Bishop Wordsworth.

Matthew 12:7-8. Spirit not letter.—Although I think that the whole law is done away with, so far as it is the law given on Mount Sinai, yet, as far as it is the law of the Spirit, I hold it to be all binding; and believing that our need of a Lord’s day is as great as ever it was, and that, therefore, its observance is God’s will, and is likely, so far as we see, to be so to the end of time, I should think it mischievous to weaken the respect paid to it.—Dr. Arnold’s letter to Justice Coleridge.

Verses 9-13


Matthew 12:10. Hand withered.—Shrunk and dried by some kind of atrophy. Is it lawful, etc.—Talmudical scholars tell us that in later days the Rabbins differed on the point, but that the prevalent opinion was, that only sickness threatening immediate danger to life could lawfully be treated on the Sabbath (Maclaren). Accuse Him.—To the local judicatory.

Matthew 12:13. He stretched it forth.—By this act the restored man defied the authority of the Pharisees and acknowledged that of Christ. Hence it was a signal manifestation of faith, even as the cure, in the midst of such contradiction, was an instance of special power.—(Lange).


Sabbatical mercy.—In these verses we have a natural sequel—not improbably a very close sequel—to the verses before. “When Jesus departed from” the scene of the last story, He “went into their synagogue”—the synagogue, apparently, of the very persons with whom He had just had to do. If not so, the persons He found there were certainly of much the same kind; and were dealt with by Him, also, on the whole, in much the same way. It will be instructive to notice how far the two stories differ from each other:

1. As to the conduct of the opponents of Jesus.

2. As to the conduct of Jesus Himself.

I. The conduct of His opponents.—The first difference observable here is as to the manner of attack. Taught by experience, if they were the same persons as before—or else taught by report, if they were not—they did not as before proceed to ask a question which implied blame of itself. The previous result was not of a kind to invite the repetition of such tactics as that. They rather asked a question which they hoped might lead Him into giving them occasion of blame. There was a man there with a “withered hand.” They seem to have taken for granted that the Saviour was both able and willing to “heal” him. They would use this double virtue of His, if they could, to bring an “accusation” against Him. He had just justified the disciples for satisfying their hunger on the Sabbath. What does He now say in the same connection about healing the sick? (Matthew 12:10). There was a difference also as to the ground of attack. That other question was one of necessity. This turned on mercy alone. In all probability the burden under which this synagogue worshipper lay was one of some standing already. To wait for its removal till the Sabbath was over—in other words, till the “even was come” (cf. Matthew 8:16)—was not to wait very long. Would it not be better to wait until then? (cf. the reasoning to this very effect in Luke 13:14). In other words, starvation was one thing, mere relief was another. Even if He had taught that the letter of the Sabbath law might be infringed in that greater emergency, did He mean to teach the same of this minor one too? That was the point of their present question.

II. The conduct of the Saviour.—The Lord’s reply to this question, though like that given in the previous instance (Matthew 12:1-8) in being a virtual appeal to what was an acknowledgedly legitimate way of understanding the “commandment” in question, differed from it, the circumstances being different, in other respects. It did so, first, in regard to the scope of the illustration employed. In the previous case the question of necessity being that in hand, the illustrations chosen (those of the shewbread, Matthew 12:3; and of the temple services, Matthew 12:5) were such as dealt with this point. In the present instance, the chief question being rather that of mercy alone (as we have seen) the illustration selected is one that turns on that question alone. It was not an absolutely necessary action—it was only a kind action—to pull out “one sheep” from the “pit.” It differed, next, in regard to the character of the illustration employed. The other illustrations, being addressed chiefly to the “Pharisees” (Matthew 12:2), were drawn from sources with which they, as Pharisees, were supposed to be familiar. (Note “Have ye not read?” in Matthew 12:3.) This, on the contrary, being addressed to a congregation at large (cf. “What man shall there be of you?” Matthew 12:11), was specially suited to such. It touched only on such a matter as might happen to all. It spoke only of such an action as would be adopted by all. There was no man there who on the Sabbath day would not draw his sheep from the pit. And hence, perhaps, in the third place, the peculiar efficacy of this reply. In the previous case the question answered (Matthew 12:2) had been followed by another (Matthew 12:10). In this case the answer given is followed by silence. No one, apparently, says anything when the Saviour acts on His answers (Matthew 12:12-13). All they do is, when He has done so, to go out from the place (Matthew 12:14). A marked contrast, apparently, to what we read of before. After the first answer His enemies seem to follow Him in (Matthew 12:9). After this second answer they retire from His presence.

The great lesson they leave behind them is that of the true character of the Sabbath. Not only does it admit freely, as we saw before, of the supply of men’s needs. Not only does it even enjoin this as in perfect keeping with itself. It does exactly the same also—so we see here—with all that is really for his welfare. Nothing is more in keeping with it than to “do good.” To this proposition, in the way of demur, there is nothing to be said. “The Sabbath was made for man.” It is truly “keeping the Sabbath,” therefore, to do that on it which is, in the truest sense, for “his good”!


Matthew 12:9-12. Healing on the Sabbath.—

1. Christ went on to follow His calling, notwithstanding enemies and opposition, for after His disputation in the fields with the Pharisees, He goeth into the synagogue, where He might do good to the people.
2. Christ’s enemies, when they have no just quarrel against Him or His followers, they invent one; as, when they could find no sin at all in Him, they sought to accuse him for miraculous healing of men on the Sabbath.
3. Malice maketh men blind, reasonless, and absurd; they ask if it be lawful to heal a man miraculously on the Sabbath day, wherein there can be no apparent ground of doubting.

4. The more impudent Christ’s enemies be against Him, the more shame and confusion the Lord will bring on them; for our Lord refuteth His adversaries by their own confession, that it was lawful to do more on the Sabbath to a beast, than they did question Him for doing unto a man (Matthew 12:11-12).—David Dickson.

Matthew 12:12. Man better than a sheep.—There are few things in our Lord’s teaching more interesting to notice than the enormous value which He puts upon man. Notice a series of points in respect of which a man is better than a sheep:—

I. His physical form and beauty.—Are you going to take that noble and beautiful form, and make it the instrument of sin? Are you going to desecrate a temple so fair?

II. He is endowed with reason.—The true glory of man consists not in the speed with which he can run, nor the number of pounds’ weight he can lift, nor the strong wrestlers he can throw; for in these respects even the ostrich and the ass and the lion easily outmatch him. And yet what compensation intellect provides! There is no point in respect to which the brute excels us where reason does not enable us far to excel the brute.

III. He is endowed with a moral nature.—He is an accountable and responsible being. Even the fact that he has it in his power to do wrong proclaims his exalted place in creation.

IV. His capacity of progress.—In this respect he stands alone in creation, so far as it presents itself to our view.

V. His spiritual nature and his capacity for knowing God.
VI. He is possessed of immortality.
VII. Christ died for him.—
J. Thain Davidson, D.D.

The dignity of human nature.—The truth implied in this question is pre-eminently Scriptural and Christian. It is not a discovery, but a revelation. Look at:—

I. The state of the world.—Corresponding to differences in belief as to Biblical truth are differences in feeling and practice as to the point referred to in our text. Where the Bible is allowed to shine in its native lustre, there human life is regarded as very sacred and precious; where that lustre is dimmed and clouded by men’s fancies and additions, there the life of man is held cheap in comparison; and where the light of Scripture is practically invisible, there the life of man is as dross. In England a deliberate case of life-taking convulses the whole neighbourhood in which it occurs—sometimes the whole land. But in some continental countries such an occurrence is little more than an ordinary death amongst us. We may compare professing Christendom and heathendom in much the same way. As for Mohammedan nations, e.g. who approach Christianity the nearest and detest it the most, their indifference to life is sufficiently evidenced by the well-known alternative of Mohammed himself—the Koran or the sword. And as for pagan nations of all kinds, where will you find any one that shows any tenderness for man’s life? Not even amongst those supple worshippers of Brahma, to whom animal life is so dear. These, indeed, and some sects of Mohammedanism, are the farthest of all from our text. They respect every life, except man’s, even the life of positive vermin, as well as of sheep and cows.

II. The contents of God’s word.—Scripture references: “Ye are of more value than many sparrows.” “Doth God take care for oxen?” “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood,” etc. Positive injunction of Moses that “no satisfaction” should be taken for the life of a murderer (see also Genesis 1:0; Psalms 8:0). But man is much more than the highest creature on the animal ladder; he is the child of God, the image of His nature originally, as well as the work of His hands. All this lends a peculiar sanctity to the life of a man. But, further, while as the work of His hands, and as His “offspring,” we are precious to God, it is as the race which the Lord of glory died to redeem that human nature appears like a jewel in the hands of its God. If you value things by the price which is given for them, what can be of greater worth than a man? Let us beware, then, how we allow ourselves to despise any one of man’s race, whatever his position, kindred, character, or creed. Let us not despise ourselves either. Let a sinner be what he will, unless he casts himself away (which thousands do), he is too precious to be lost!—Mathematicus inHomilist.”

The dignity of man.—Humboldt travelled the world over, and saw everything; and he recorded in his diary at the last what sounds almost like an aphorism: “The finest fruit earth holds up to its Maker is a man!”—C. S. Robinson, D.D.

Doing well on the Sabbath-day.—Miss Ellice Hopkins said, in reference to her work among working men in Cambridge: “I trust I shall not have to meet any objection to writing being taught on the Sunday. As a grave mild-eyed Quaker replied to such a foolish Judaising objector, ‘Friend, does thee not think that pot-hooks are better than the pot-house on the Lord’s day?’ When a man has written six times down his copy-book with much labour of his horny palms, and much unwonted attitude of his whole person, ‘Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good;’ or, ‘No drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of heaven;’ there is not much fear of his forgetting that text.”

Matthew 12:13. Man’s power of volition.—

I. A recognised capability of volition.—The command implies that the diseased had the power of willing. Man can will.

II. The true law of volition.—The will of Christ, not circumstances.

III. The value of obedient volition.—He obeyed Christ, and his volition sent blood, life, and energy into his withered hand. Let us will what Christ commands, and mighty will be our achievements.—D. Thomas, D.D.

Achieving the impossible.—With every command given by Christ there comes the power to obey, and what is needed on our part is the endeavour of faith.

I. Many Christians are like this man with the withered hand.

1. They have life, but lack power; or:

2. They have life, but carry some dead limb of sinful habit, doubt, etc.; or:

3. There is some particular gift which they have lost the use of through their own neglect, and which now seems dead.

II. To such Christ comes with His commands, which seem impossible, unreasonable; as the command, “stretch forth,” to this man. He commands the weak to be strong, the indolent to be active, the sinful to be pure, the feeble to put forth power—to use the dead limb. Never so firm and so exacting a master as Christ. No moral standard so high as His. No religious leader ever demanded such complete self-surrender. Yet His commands not grievous. His yoke easy, etc., because with every command He gives adequate power to obey.

III. To achieve the impossible on our part there must be:

1. Desire;

2. Faith;

3. Volition, or the endeavour of the will—the acting upon our faith, or, rather, upon the word of Christ—the “stretching forth.’ These essential on our part, whether we seek power, holiness, restoration, or deliverance from besetting sin. Illustration: Ulysses and the sirens. He desired to escape, put forth endeavour. Beyond that, we have the Almighty power on which to depend. “He giveth power to the faint,” etc., so that “the lame take the prey.” Same truths apply to unconverted. Christ commands you to repent, believe, live. Have you the desire? If so, move Christward, in dependence on Him, and with the endeavour of faith. He will give the adequate power, and though dead, yet shall you live. His work complete—“whole as the other.”—W. H. Richards.

Matthew 12:1-14. The Pharisee-spirit.—The Pharisee is always blind as an owl to the light of God and true goodness; keen-sighted as a hawk for trivial breaches of his cobweb regulations, and cruel as a vulture, to tear with beak and claw. The race is not extinct. We all carry one inside, and need God’s help to cast him out.—A. Maclaren, D.D.

Verses 14-21


Matthew 12:18. Judgment.—The idea embodied in the prediction is that it would be the aim of the Messiah, as universal Judge, to put all things to rights among all nations. The judicial function is one of the most important elements in the office of a monarch. It is in virtue of it that differences between man and man are adjusted, while the rights of all the members of the community are vindicated, so that harmony and co-operation may be secured.—(Morison).

Matthew 12:20. Till He send forth judgment unto victory.—The idea is that the Messiah shall persevere in His own quiet, gentle, meek, unostentatious, unobstreperous way, healing heart after heart, and adjusting difference after difference, until He shall succeed in getting His gracious arbitrative action thrust in victoriously upon all the injustices and unrighteousnesses, that alienate man from man, and men from God (ibid.).


Avoiding strife.—The friction with the Pharisees, of which we have just read so much, could have only one end. To be so baffled, so eclipsed, so silenced by one like Jesus, in the presence of those for whose praise they lived (Matthew 23:5-7), must arouse deadly anger at last. So, accordingly, we find expressly stated in Matthew 12:14. The Evangelist proceeds to tell us, first, how the Saviour replied to this move; and secondly how His manner of doing so had been predicted of old. We shall find a striking picture in the first of these accounts, and a striking prophecy in the second.

I. A striking picture.—A picture, first, of very great power. What a sense of power was left behind by that which we read of Him last. Though “filled with madness” (as said of them in Luke 6:11, on the same or on an exceedingly similar occasion) all that His enemies can do now is to “go out” and begin “conspiring” against Him (Matthew 12:14). Such an attempt is, in itself, an acknowledgment of His power. It is only the “powers that be” that are ever “plotted against”! Also now, when away from them (Matthew 12:15), and with “multitudes” of the sick about Him instead, how manifest again is His power. He “heals them all,” it is said (Matthew 12:15). Nothing whatever in the way of sickness can contend against Him. The only limit is as to making known (Matthew 12:16) what He has done. A picture, secondly, of corresponding forbearance and meekness. Forbearance in refraining from meeting the known hostility of His enemies by any counter move of like kind. All we are told of Him is that He first “perceived” it, and then got out of its way (Matthew 12:15). Forbearance, also, in not wishing that anything done by Him should bring Him into conflict with them (Matthew 12:16). What He does, in short, is, so far, to beat a “retreat”; and to take special care, in doing so, that even the mercy shown by Him should not interfere with that object. Anything, just now, rather than enter on strife! A picture, lastly, of wonderful pity and love. Of “wonderful pity” because of the miracles of pity which we see wrought by His hands. Of more wonderful pity because of the circumstances in which that pity is shown. Even when He is perfectly aware that His enemies are seeking His life—even when He is, as it were, beating a retreat from their malignity, even in these chilling circumstances—He is a glowing centre of love.

II. A striking prophecy.—According to the Evangelist a far older pencil than his had drawn the same portrait as he. A certain passage from the prophet Isaiah which he now proceeds to quote, had long ago described, in all essential particulars, what has been described by him now. This he seems to point out to us in four principal ways. Has he, e.g. now presented Jesus to us as the chosen of God, even as one who could say of Himself as in Matthew 11:27? Did not Isaiah also speak, as quoted here (Matthew 12:18), of God’s chosen Servant—God’s best beloved Servant—God’s specially sanctified Servant? Has the Evangelist also just drawn our special attention to the “power” of the Saviour? Has not Isaiah also here, twice over, connected Him he speaks of with the administration of “judgment”? (Matthew 12:18; Matthew 12:20). And what is “judgment” with all its accompaniments—its sword and its robes; its throne and its bar—but an assertion of “power”? Has the Evangelist, again, given us here a special presentment of the forbearance and meekness of Christ? How closely, again, correspond to this those words of the prophet, “He shall not cry nor strive, neither shall His voice be heard in the streets” (Matthew 12:19). Finally, has the Evangelist here especially dwelt on the tenderness of His love? How admirably, once more, does the language of the prophet describe the same thing! Never was there before—never has there been since—a more gracious description! “A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench.” In other words, to the most afflicted, to the most infirm, shall it be His to give the most of His love. So much so, that the very farthest off, when they hear it, shall believe in His name. In that “name shall the Gentiles—even the Gentiles—trust.”

In this same thought, also, seems the one application of the whole of this passage. The whole passage is pre-eminently a lesson in trust. It is so, because:—

1. Of the characteristics it combines.—This power which has such complete power over itself; this courage which is not afraid, where need be, to “retreat”; this love of truth which loves peace as much; this dignity which can stoop to the lowest; this tenderness of love which is most at home with those who need it most and deserve it least—is a constellation of excellences to be trusted by us, if anything is! To be trusted by all of us, for it meets the case of us all!

2. Of the evidences it combines.—This incidental illustration of these various excellences does not stand by itself. We have seen something of it before (Matthew 9:10-13). We shall see more of it hereafter (Matthew 14:13). What we are to notice specially here is that it formed a definite part of the whole purpose of the kingdom. This was the kind of High Priest that “became” us (Hebrews 7:26). This, therefore, the kind of High Priest whom God sent into the world.


Matthew 12:15. Christ’s retirement from His enemies.—A solemn sign,

I. Not of fear or weakness.

II. But of power, of wisdom, of compassion and of judgmentLange.

Plotting and persevering.—

I. Pharisees plotting the destruction of Jesus.
II. Christ persevering in works of beneficence and salvation

III. One district suffers but another gains by the secret council of the wicked.J. G. Gray.

Matthew 12:18-20. The gentle Servant of Jehovah.—The Elect Servant is the Messiah, and Jesus is that Christ. Mark how He served:—

I. Unostentatiously.—All through His ministry Jesus avoided a mere glare of publicity, and in Galilee actually charged some whom He had healed not to make Him known. He knew that to attract a gaping multitude of followers would do very little to promote the spiritual ends of His ministry, if, indeed, it might not rather tend to hinder them. So little did He think of a “big crowd” that, when He saw it gathering under the influence of curiosity, or a desire for temporal advantage, He often said or did something to disperse the people, or to escape from them. Evidently He regarded it as a better use of His time and strength to attach to Himself a smaller number of disciples, so training them and imbuing them with His spirit, as to fit them to plead His cause, and plant His gospel after He had returned to His Father. It is not to be inferred, that preachers of the gospel are not to speak in the open air, or in chief “places of concourse.” Timidity and fastidiousness have no right to claim sanction from the unostentatiousness of Jesus. There is need of courage and enterprise; only one must not court personal notoriety, or glory in numbers. Ministry is weak when at any point it falls out of harmony with that of the Chosen Servant. One may draw a crowd, and yet gain very few disciples for the Lord.

II. Tenderly.—True, that the ministry of Jesus had a searching power, like that of a “refiner’s fire.” It was even scathing and terrible to hypocrites and vainglorious pedants of the law; but it was full of gentleness to the people, and had special consideration for the weary and heavy-laden. So “the common people heard Him gladly,” and mourners sought Him, and little children were not afraid to come at His call. As, after rigorous winter the breath of spring is doubly sweet, so after the hard prescriptions of the unfeeling scribes and Pharisees, the healing ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was felt, at least by some, to be doubly welcome. Meekness must not be confounded with feebleness, or gentleness with indecision. We know the kind of softness and quietness which belongs to persons of a timid nature, and of weak convictions, who are reluctant to look closely into serious questions, or to assume any resolute attitude involving responsibility. A gentleness which is born of fear or selfishness is not after Christ, for His was the kindness of a magnanimous spirit, the patience of a mind that saw clearly the insufficiency of man and the boundless love of God. Therefore His endurance of the “contradiction of sinners,” and His sweet encouragement of the timorous who sought His help. Therefore the light in His countenance, the grace in His lips, the meekness in His bearing, the compassion in His mien, which drew men out of themselves, to tell their wants to Him, and cast their cares upon Him.—D. Eraser, D.D.

Matthew 12:18-21. A lovely portrait in an unlovely frame.—Observe the spirit in which our Lord meets the repeated attacks of which the record is given in this chapter. There are four in close succession. The first is the charge of Sabbath-breaking made against the disciples, because they rubbed a few ears of corn in their hands as they passed through the fields on the Sabbath day; and following it, the entangling question put to the Master in the synagogue. Then there is the accusation founded on the healing of the blind and dumb demoniac (Matthew 12:24). The third attack is the hypocritical application, “Master, we would see a sign from Thee” (Matthew 12:38), the word “Master” being evidently used in mockery, and the request for “a sign” a scornful way of suggesting that all the signs He was giving were worth nothing. These three attacks were made by the Pharisees, and were most irritating and vexatious, each in its own way. The first was annoying on account of its pettiness, the second because of its bitter malice, while the third was a studied insult; and yet, galling as these repeated attacks must have been, we may well suppose that the keenest wound of all to the gentle spirit of the Son of man would be the last, inflicted by the members of His own family, who seemed at this time as unsympathetic and unbelieving as the Pharisees themselves; for the untimely interruption recorded at the close of the chapter was intended, as we learn from the account in the second Gospel, to put Him under restraint as a madman. This last interruption, in which even His mother joined, must have been gall and wormwood to that tender heart. How does He bear Himself through these storms of calumny and insult? He bears Himself so that out of this dark chapter of His history there comes to us one of the loveliest portraits of Him to be found anywhere. It had been sketched by one of the old masters as an ideal portrait, and is now at last matched in real life. “Behold, My servant whom I have chosen,” etc. (Matthew 12:18-21). What gentleness and tenderness, yet what strength and majesty!—for, though “He strives not,” nor lifts up His voice in angry altercation, while He will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, He will nevertheless declare judgment and secure victory, and make His name such a power in the earth, that the Gentiles shall hope in Him and the world go after Him. We can fancy the glow on the Evangelist’s face as He pauses in the midst of the sad record of these cruel assaults, to look at, and show to us that lovely portrait of the Son of man. And is it not all the lovelier that it shines out from such a background?—J. M. Gibson, D.D.

Matthew 12:20. Smoking flax.—“Smoking flax” may mean that which has fire smouldering among its fibres, which may yet break out into a flame. But probably we ought to prefer the marginal reading, “a dimly burning wick shall He not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

I. It suggests the faint beginnings of penitence and faith, and newness of life.—The wick is not trimmed, or does not draw sufficiently from the reservoir of oil, and therefore does not yield a steady flame.

II. Or it may illustrate some degree of spiritual declension, the lamp that once was bright now needing to be trimmed with care, and fed with fresh oil. The Lord Jesus does not disdain every disciple who is not “a burning and shining light.” He is willing to recognise and to foster what is defective and dim. He knows how to bring good results out of confused and hesitating beginnings. He does it by gentleness; and it cannot be done any otherwise. A strong wind will blow out a lamp which a gentle current of air will brighten. Violence has the fatal power of extinction. Severity irritates into defiance, or crushes into despondency; but kindliness can evolve happy results from unsatisfactory rudiments, and love is the supreme secret of success in Christ and all Christlike men.—D. Fraser, D.D.

Bruised reed and smoking flax.—President Davies says: “The imagery of the ‘bruised reed’ may be derived from the practice of the ancient shepherds, who were wont to amuse themselves with the music of a pipe of reed or straw; and when it was bruised they broke it, or threw it away as useless.” But the bruised reed shall not be broken by this Divine Shepherd of souls. By way of securing the practical applications of this view of our Saviour’s relations to His people, we will consider:—

I. Christ’s ways with bruised reeds, or humbled sinners.

1. Bruised reeds seem very fitly to represent such. The reed itself may properly stand for the sinner. It is so straight, so upright, and to all appearance so firm and strong; and yet it is one of the weakest things that grow. The storm will bend, and bruise, and spoil it. In mockery of the kingly claims of Jesus, they put a helpless reed, instead of a sceptre, into His hands, taunting thus the weakness both of His kingdom, and of Himself as King. There is much appearance of confidence and strength in the sinner, at least while life goes smoothly and easily with him. He would not wish you to take up the idea that he is only a reed. But let God but try his strength by buffeting him with some fierce storms, and you will soon see that poor reed bruised and bent, and hanging low. There is no strength in such reeds for the days of trouble that come round to every man, to try of what sort he is. Now it is God’s wise and gracious way of dealing to bruise such reeds.
2. How is He wont to deal with “bruised reeds,” humbled sinners? “He does not break.” Bruise He may, but break He never does, and never will.

II. Christ’s ways with smoking flax, or feeble believers.

1. Perhaps the best explanation of this metaphor is that flax was used in the East for the wicks of oil lamps; and these wicks, unless well-cut and constantly trimmed, would give but a flickering and smoky light. And this may effectively illustrate the feeble, struggling, often fainting Christian, whose life is a smoke rather than a fire; a spark rather than a flame; a glimmer rather than a glow; a name rather than a living reality and power.
2. How does Christ deal with such? “He does not quench.” Let Bunyan’s Interpreter show us the fire in the wall, on which the soul’s enemy is pouring the water-floods, but whose flames still rise high. There is a secret. Look behind! One stands there, like unto the Son of man, pouring in the oil of His grace, that makes the flames leap, and the fire glow.—Weekly Pulpit.

Verses 22-37


Matthew 12:23. Is not this the Son of David?—See “The Parallel New Testament” (1882). The “not” is omitted in both columns. It “was wisely omitted by King James’ translators. It is not found in the 1611 edition, the primary edition. Neither is it found in the four succeeding folio editions, those of the years 1613, 1617, 1634, 1640. But somehow or other it has got smuggled into our present copies” (Morison). The form of the question expresses bewilderment and hesitation; but hesitation, nevertheless, that inclined to a negative decision. The idea that the Wonder-worker was the Messiah, the Messianic son of David, was forced in upon their minds, but yet they could not entertain it (ibid.).

Matthew 12:24. Beelzebub.—See on Matthew 10:25. A like narrative has met us in Matthew 9:32, and it is probable enough that the charge was repeated as often as the occasion presented itself, and as often answered in identical or like words (Plumptre). The words appear to have been whispered by the Pharisees among the people. They were not addressed to Jesus (ibid.). Two things are here implied:

1. That the bitterest enemies of our Lord were unable to deny the reality of His miracles.

2. That they believed in an organised infernal kingdom of evil, under one chief. This belief would be of small consequence, had not our Lord set His seal to it; but this He immediately does (Matthew 12:25-26) (Brown).

Matthew 12:27. By whom do your children cast them out?—The “children” of the Pharisees are their disciples, and in this case, such as practised exorcism, like the sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13. The belief in demoniacal possession had as its natural accompaniment the claim, on the part of those who could control the disordered reason of the possessed person, of power to cast out the demon. We need not assume that such power was always a pretence, or rested on spells and incantations. Earnestness, prayer, fasting, faith—these are always mighty in intensifying the power of will, before which the frenzied soul bows in submission or yields in confidence, and these may well have been found among the better and truer Pharisees. Our Lord’s question, indeed, requires for its logical validity the admission that the “children” of the accusers did really cast out demons, and that not by Beelzebub (Plumptre).

Matthew 12:28. The kingdom of God.—The Destroyer of Satan is already in the midst of you, and that kingdom which is destined to supplant His, is already rising on its ruins (Brown). Come unto you.Upon you (R.V.). Literally, surprised you by coming, came upon you unawares (Carr).

Matthew 12:31. Blasphemy.—In general, the idea of a malicious attack upon a person, whose fame is calumniously injured, attaches to the term “blasphemy.” Hence, defamation of what is good, noble, and holy, on its appearance in the world, with malicious (lying and murderous) intent (Lange).

Matthew 12:32. Neither in this world, etc.—Just an extended way of saying “never.” Cf. Mark 3:29 (Morison).

Matthew 12:33. Either make the tree good, etc.—The meaning and connection are: “Be honest for once; represent the tree as good, and its fruit as good, or the tree as evil, and its fruit as evil; either say that I am evil, and that my works are evil, or, if you admit that My works are good, admit that I am good also and not in league with Beelzebub” (Carr).

Matthew 12:34. O generation of vipers, etc.—Ye offspring of vipers (R.V.). Here the law which had been pressed in its logical bearing in the preceding verse, is brought in to explain the bitter and evil words of the Pharisees (Plumptre). Out of the abundance of the heart, etc.—What is in the well will be in the bucket (Trapp).

Matthew 12:37. By thy words.—Words exhibit the righteousness or unrighteousness which is in the heart (Bengel).


Matthew 12:31-32. The sin against the Holy Ghost.—In “Exegetical Studies,” by the Rev. P. J. Gloag, D.D. (T. and T. Clark), there is an able exposition of this subject, in which the various opinions that have been held are stated. Dr. Gloag’s view is similar to that of Dr. David Brown, as given in the outline on p. 309. He says, “The sin, then, against which our Lord cautioned the Pharisees, supposing, as we think most probable, His words to be a caution and not a sentence, was the continuance in their opposition to Him and to His doctrine after the Holy Ghost was given. These blasphemies against Him were pardonable; their malicious disposition had not, as yet, placed them outside the pale of Divine mercy; if, however, they persevered in their opposition after the Holy Ghost was given, they would never have forgiveness, but be guilty of eternal sin. And from this we infer that it is probable that the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is no particular act of sin, but a malicious disposition; a perseverance in opposition to Christ in spite of the Spirit’s influences to overcome that opposition; an incurable, and therefore, an unpardonable, evil disposition; and this disposition is here called blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, because it consists in a continued resistance to His influences.” An article on the subject in the Evangelical Magazine, from the pen of the Rev. G. S. Barrett, B.A., called forth some valuable discussions and notes in the Expository Times, November 1891 to March 1892.


Encountering blasphemy.—The best way of dealing with some adversaries is to leave them alone. So, in our last, with those mentioned in Matthew 12:14. Here we read of some adopting a different line. An (apparently) most unusual case of demoniac dispossession had produced a corresponding effect on the people at large. “Is this,” they said—when the “blind and dumb” both “spake and saw”—is this indeed the Son of David? Stirred up by this question, the “Pharisees” fell back, as once before (Matthew 9:34), on counsels of despair. Having nothing better to say, they say as before: He casteth out devils “by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils” (Matthew 12:24). This time the Saviour, hearing their words, and “knowing their thoughts,” thinks it well to take up the accusation in question, and will be found, in doing so, to point out its extreme folly in the first place, and its extreme peril in the second. He also finally counsels men as to how best to avoid the extreme peril described.

I. The extreme folly involved.—The proposed solution was utterly foolish:—first, because it was not consistent with what was true about Satan. Had things been as they alleged, the “kingdom of Satan” would before now have come to its end (Mark 3:26). That is true of all kingdoms, and therefore of this. A king opposed is a king deposed—if opposed by himself. The very fact, therefore, that there still existed demoniacs to be healed, proved of itself that His way of healing them was not of this kind. The proffered solution, in the next place, was not consistent with what they believed of themselves. Besides the Saviour Himself there were those who were considered capable of effecting similar cures, and who, either because of their birth and extraction (as the Saviour’s own disciples, it may be), or else because of their extraction and faith (as some of their own disciples, it may possibly mean (Acts 19:13))—might be described as being their “children.” Anyway, whoever they were, it was to them He appealed. Let them deal with this charge (Matthew 12:27). Lastly, the explanation was foolish because it was not consistent with what was true about Christ. For, after all, in the instances before you, what is it you see? Do you not, in fact, see the “strong man” spoiled of his goods? And do you not, therefore, see that there is something present which is stronger than he? And what can that something be except that which we know of as the “kingdom of God’? Who, in a word, can cast out the spirit of evil except the “Spirit of God”? That is the solution—the only solution—of the miracles you behold (Matthew 12:28-29).

II. The extreme peril involved.—This the Saviour seems to point out by a succession of steps. To attribute works wrought in the way just described to the spirit of evil is fraught with danger of the extremest kind; first, because it is practically taking the wrong side on this question. If the “kingdom of God” has indeed “come” thus “upon you” (Matthew 12:28), you cannot safely, in this way, declare that it has not. If you are not “with Me” in acknowledging this, you are “against Me,” and, in fact, denying it (Matthew 12:30). And you are openly putting yourselves, therefore, in other words, against “the kingdom of God.” Also, next you are taking that side in a peculiarly deliberate way. For, to do as you are doing, is not only to sin against light, but against special light as it were. It is to do even worse. It is to turn that light, as it were, into darkness. It is to use the proofs of truth as supports of error. And so, not only to show contempt for the person of the Ambassador but for His very credentials as well. In other words, not only to sin against the “Son of man,” but against the “Spirit of God.” Lastly, you are on the way towards committing yourself to that wrong side in an irreversible manner. For there is a possibility in this direction of going so far as to make it impossible to come back. There is a blasphemy in this sort of blasphemy for which no remedy has been provided. Neither this world—nor yet the world to come—knows anything of the kind. This I say unto you because of that which ye have said now about Me (Mark 3:30).

III. The best way to escape.—It is like the Saviour to conclude this subject with a word on this point. It is like Him also to do so in the way that he does. Some would deliver us from the sin intended by attempting to define it. Of these we may say much as in Mark 14:59. The Master would deliver us from it by impressing on us not to go near. In two ways especially He here seems to impress this upon men. First of al He says to them, take care of thy heart. The sin in question, whatever its after developments, springs up in the heart. This is true of all sin, therefore most so of this. In no other case can a corrupt source produce a wholesome result (Matthew 12:33). Least of all, therefore, in the case of this sin of sins—the most “venomous” known (Matthew 12:34). Seek, therefore, if you would escape its outgrowth, to have none of its root in your heart. Rather seek to have there a perfect “treasure” of thoughts of the exactly opposite kind (Matthew 12:35). In the next place, take care of thy lips. Take care of thy lips lest they should unadvisedly utter any thoughts of this kind. Take care of thy lips because of the part which thy words are to play at the last. They are to provided much of the evidence by which is to be determined thy true state before God (Matthew 12:37). Even, therefore, the apparently “idlest” of them may have much weight in this way (Matthew 12:36). Also remember—so it seems to be meant—that of all evidence furnished in this way of the true state of the heart, none is more weighty than that furnished by suppression of speech. Evil expressed is evil approved of and brought to the birth (James 1:15). Evil suppressed is evil repented of before it is born. Let the evil within thee, therefore,—if there is to be any—be all of this sort. So shalt thou be safe from ever giving utterance to what is here meant! The only proper sequel to these solemn thoughts is in the language of prayer. “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Psalms 141:3).


Matthew 12:22. Blind and dumb.—

1. The fearful condition of men spiritually possessed by Satan may be seen in bodily possessions; and among the rest, in this man, on whom Satan shutteth all doors, that he can neither let in comfort, nor let forth the sense of his misery, for he maketh him blind and dumb, which dumbness is ordinarily accompanied with deafness also.
2. Such as Christ will deliver from Satan, albeit they cannot come of themselves to Him, yet He can furnish means to bring them to Him.
3. Christ is the powerful Physician of evils inflicted by the devil, as here He giveth evidence, in healing this man perfectly.—David Dickson.

Matthew 12:25-26. Sound reasoning.—

1. In pondering men’s sins the Lord looks much to the inward disposition, mind, and affection of sinners, whether they sin of infirmity or of presumption; of ignorance, or against their light. “Jesus knew their thoughts.”
2. The way to preserve all societies is union, and the way to ruin them is dissension.
3. Satan hath a kingdom among men, which by all means he goeth about to maintain, and will be loth, really and in effect, wholly to dispossess himself, both of the soul and body of any in whom he hath power and place.—Ibid.

Matthew 12:25. Thoughts.—

I. Thought, the seat of greatest sin.—Of sin that men dare not actually commit, or speak.

II. Thought, the seat of grandest wishes and holiest aspirations.Biblical Museum.

Matthew 12:28. The true evidence of Christianity.—The world is growing singularly impatient of institutions which cannot justify themselves by some practical work, by the test of some good effect. The Founder of our religion based His appeal on results. The Apostles took up the same ground. Whenever men seriously attempt to apply to Christian history and Christian experience the processes of scientific investigation, weighing and counting over the effects which the gospel has produced, then the church may calmly and with confidence await the verdict, for then the world will be nearer than it has been to the truth that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of mankind. For one reason, however, the force of this argument is less felt than it deserves to be. We expect from the gospel what it never professes to do, and because we are disappointed, we fancy that it has failed. It is only fair that the gospel should be tried upon its own pretensions.

I. Did Jesus speak as though on the advent of the gospel sin was to be abolished from society?—Did He ever dream of founding a perfect society which should contain no black sheep? On the contrary, the gospel shows that His eyes gauged more accurately than those of His friends the future of the world. He expected, indeed, His religion to fill the land and overshadow the earth. But for all that, the vision before His eyes was of a little company of saints, persecuted and almost crushed by evil, etc. The Apostles predicted schisms and false Christs inplenty, but they never encouraged the hope of a whole world turning to God.

II. What, then, did our Lord and His Apostles profess the gospel should effect?—This, that it could create peace with God for every human being, no matter how degraded, who believed the gospel in its entirety, and should follow the doctrines laid down therein.

III. Has the gospel established its claim by irrefutable facts?

1. Take all the most characteristic lives we know of such as have attained the character of Christians. These state that they have obtained, though with a struggle, peace of conscience and entered into happier relations with the Most High.
2. They all agree as to the value of Christianity in giving a fresh motive for virtue, more effectual than they possessed before.
3. They are equally at one in referring these happy changes to the power of the indwelling of the Holy Ghost; and while they constantly bemoan their failures, they as constantly blame for these failures only themselves.
4. This is the uniform testimony of Christians in every age.
5. And of every race. Thus,
(1) the gospel does accomplish what Christ promises;
(2) its proper work is limited only by a full and free out and out acceptance of it, and submission to its demands on the part of every human being.

IV. Practical inferences.

1. How completely it rests upon us to demonstrate the value of Christ’s gospel by our own lives.
2. To inquirers and hesitators—Christianity is in practice and in power. It offers you deliverance from evil; it asks nothing but implicit trust and self-surrender. If you doubt it, then it refers you to its success in others.
3. To those who pretend to be Christians, but do not in their lives show Christ’s work. The only test of being Christ’s is that His work upon us succeeds, and this work is to make us holy. The failure is in yourselves and not in the gospel.—New Outlines.

Matthew 12:30. The intolerance of the gospel.—Rejecting the idea that Satan was divided against himself, our Saviour added, that if Satan was not His accomplice, as the Pharisees supposed, it followed that he was His adversary. And why? Because with reference to Jesus Christ it is absolutely necessary to be one thing or another. Thus Jesus Christ took occasion from a particular fact, to proclaim a great truth. Who is the man that is against Jesus Christ? It must be sufficiently obvious to all, that, by this expression, our Saviour designs every man to whom the gospel is an object of aversion and hatred, whether he conceal his sentiments in his heart, or manifest them in his words and actions. Who, then, is the man that is not with or for Jesus Christ? The world is full of persons who are not for Him. We recognise them in all those members of the Christian church who belong to it only by birth, and by certain external usages, but whose whole life proves that the church inspires them with no interest. Religion is to them a matter of high propriety, an interesting fact, a social necessity, but nothing more. It is neither the rule of their life, nor one of their interests. We do not know a better way of establishing the truth of what the Saviour says in reference to such men than by showing the falseness of the contrary proposition, viz. “One may not be for Jesus, and yet not be against Him; he may be neither His friend nor His enemy; he may observe with respect to Him a species of neutrality.” Let us see if such neutrality is possible.

1. A real neutrality is one of the rarest things in the world.—Man is not made for indifference. Whatever affects him nearly, everything which exerts an influence upon his fortune, nay more, everything which he sees exciting general interest, becomes to him an object of some kind of sentiment.

2. This is specially so in the domain of religion.—If a religion is true, it follows that we ought to love it with all our heart, if false, to detest it with all our heart; for the question turns upon a matter of the highest excellence, or a criminal imposture; a work of God, or a work of the devil. Is neutrality, in such a case, possible?

3. If we had even remained indifferent, we would not the less have made, without willing it, a choice.—Because true religion, meriting nothing less than our whole love, not to devote ourselves to it is to be against it; and a false religion, not deserving anything but our deepest hatred, not to oppose it is to be for it.

4. To make this last truth more evident, suppose that God manifest in the flesh has descended to the earth, in the person of a being resembling you; that the character of that being is the ideal of perfection; His work, the salvation of the human race; His precepts, holiness itself; His feelings in reference to you, a boundless compassion. You acknowledge in Him all these attributes, and you say to Him, “Since Thou art the ideal of perfection, the rule of holiness, God Himself manifest in the flesh; since Thou hast shed Thy blood upon the cross for the salvation of my soul, I cannot be against Thee, but I will not be for Thee.” For whom then is that heart? The heart must attach itself to something.

5. The better to appreciate this neutrality, let us enter the heart of the indifferent, and give account of the feelings which reign there. He says he has no hatred. But are there in his heart love and obedience; love especially for Jesus Christ? Assuredly not, seeing he is not for Jesus Christ. Well, to refuse love to Jesus Christ, I affirm, is to do Him all the evil which an open enemy could, or at least, would do. He who loves not obeys not.

6. When circumstances will it, the indifferent becomes an enemy, positively, and in fact.—As long as it is not excited by circumstances, this enmity remains asleep; and, in some persons, it remains in this form, the most dangerous, perhaps, all their life long. But, in many others, unforeseen circumstances awaken it, and cause it to appear in its real character.

7. To hate Jesus Christsuch is the result in which neutrality and indifference eventually terminate.—A Vinet, D.D

Christian work.—We learn:—

I. That Christian work is constructive.—It is gathering together, collecting, saving, preserving. Worldly work is destructive, scattering, altering, tinkering.

II. That Christian work is collective.—It is in accordance with laws. It must follow the direction of Christ, the ways of Christ, the object of Christ, and it must promote the glory of Christ. Worldly work is undisciplined. Every man would be a master, and the scene would become a tower of Babel.—B. inHomilist.”

Matthew 12:32. Sin against the Son of man and against the Holy Ghost.—I. Observe, Christ speaks of Himself here as the Son of man, the Son of God in a disguise, as it were; God under the veil of human flesh. Can we wonder that He should look with a merciful and forgiving eye upon any of His brethren who, not suspecting His greatness, should rudely jostle against Him in the crowd? Suppose, for instance, a king were to assume for purposes of state the disguise of a subject, and to mingle with the simplest and rudest of his people, and suppose that while in such disguise he were to meet with an insult; would not a broad line of demarcation be drawn between an insult so offered and an act of avowed treason against the king upon his throne? A comparison of this kind will be of considerable help to us in understanding our subject. Even the murderers of Christ sinned against the Son of man, against Christ in His human nature; whereas, had they known who it was whom they crucified, many might possibly have been overwhelmed with shame, and have besought His forgiveness.

II. But in the case of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost no such plea can be set up.—Here we have a sin not against God in the guise of Jesus the Son of Joseph the carpenter, but against God in His essential Deity, God upon the throne of heaven, God who does good, and is the Author of all good both in heaven and earth. The sin of the Jews which our Lord rebuked partook of this character; for they had said that He was under the influence of, and in league with, an unclean spirit; to do good, to love mercy, and to perform acts which undeniably tended to overturn the kingdom of Satan and establish the kingdom of God—this, they said, was the work of the devil. Now unquestionably this was to put darkness for light and light for darkness, to confound all distinctions between good and evil, to confuse the works of Satan and those of the Most High God, as though they were not the exact opposites of each other. The person who does fully commit this sin places himself exactly in the position of the lost angels; the sin of Satan is that of deliberately worshipping evil and hating good, and on this account is unpardonable sin—unpardonable for this reason, if for no other, that it cannot be repented of.—Bishop Harvey Goodwin.

The sin against the Holy Ghost.—What, then, is this sin against the Holy Ghost, the unpardonable sin?

I. One thing is clear. Its unpardonableness cannot arise from anything in the nature of the sin itself; for that would be a naked contradiction to the emphatic declaration of Matthew 12:31, that all manner of sin is pardonable. And what is this, but the fundamental truth of the gospel?

II. Then, again, when it is said that to speak against or blaspheme the Son of man is pardonable, but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is not pardonable, it is not to be conceived that this arises from any greater sanctity in the one blessed Person than the other.—These remarks so narrow the question, that the true sense of our Lord’s words seems to disclose itself at once.

III. It is a contrast between slandering “the Son of man” in His veiled condition and unfinished work—which might be done “ignorantly, in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13), and slandering the same blessed Person after the blaze of glory which the Holy Ghost was soon to throw around His claims, and in the full knowledge of all that.—This would be to slander Him with eyes open, or to do it “presumptuously.” To blaspheme Christ in the former condition—when even the Apostles stumbled at many things—left them still open to conviction on fuller light; but to blaspheme Him in the latter condition would be to hate the light the clearer it became, and resolutely to shut it out; which, of course, precludes salvation. The Pharisees had not, as yet, done this; but they were bordering upon, and in spirit committing, the unpardonable sin.—D. Brown, D.D.

Matthew 12:36. The connection.—Our first rule in seeking to understand a passage of Scripture must always be to review it in connection with its context. The discourse, of which the words in question form a part, had its rise in the circumstance of the Pharisees attributing our Lord’s miracles (even those of them whose character presented most difficulty to such an explanation) to Satanic agency.… Now, at first sight, it is natural to suppose that by idle words are meant such as the Pharisees had just vented—words of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. And it is not difficult to perceive what kind of words those were. The Pharisees, like the multitude (Matthew 12:23), were internally convinced of the Messiahship of Jesus by the miracle which they had witnessed. But it would have been inconvenient to them to have acknowledged His claims. By doing so, they would have to retract their whole previous career—to place themselves after the fashion of Mary at His feet, as His disciples. This would have humbled the pride of those ecclesiastical rulers, and such a humiliation they could not brook. So, without honestly believing their own explanation, they attributed the cure of the blind and dumb man to the agency of Satan. It was a supernatural cure—that they admitted—but there are, said they, supernatural evil agencies, as well as supernatural good ones, and this particular miracle is due to the first of these causes. It might have occurred to them (probably it did occur to them in the deep of their hearts) that this was a flimsy and transparently false explanation—that, on no recognised principle of craft or policy, could the devil cast out his own agents. Yes, such an account would not serve the turn; it was a dishonest shuffle, and they knew it to be so, to avoid making a confession which was irresistibly forced upon their minds, but which would have involved them in consequences from which their pride and jealousy shrunk. And then came in the corrupt special pleading, so natural to the human mind under such circumstances: “After all, though I am giving an explanation which I do not believe—with which I am not satisfied myself—which finds no response whatever in my convictions—yet these are but words, the breath of the lips, lightly uttered and soon forgotten—my mind recognises the truth, though I cannot bring my tongue to confess it.” The eye of Him who knew what was in man detected this reasoning at the bottom of their hearts; and down came the lightning of His censure to crush and blast a fallacy so dangerous: “Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man” (without violating internal convictions, like Paul before his conversion, who spake many things against the Son of man, but spake them ignorantly in unbelief) “it shall be forgiven him—but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost” (violates those internal convictions of truth which are wrought in the mind by the Holy Spirit) “it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” As if the Lord had said: “Your language is not, as you vainly imagine, a separate and separable thing from your reason: it has a deep and living connection with your state of mind. Language and reason have their fibres twined up together—so that a corrupt language argues a corrupt reason. And then follows our passage, introduced by the formula, But I say unto you—“Every idle word,” etc.—E. M. Goulburn, D.D.

The idle word.—Now is the idle word to be explained simply and solely by the blasphemy preceding? If so, the warning—though still an awful one—will scarcely possess a general applicability; for the number of those is few, whose circumstances resemble the circumstances of the Pharisees. We think there are reasons for giving to these solemn words a far more extended applicability.

1. They are introduced by a formula, which will be found, I think, to indicate a transition from a more limited to a more extended application, the word translated “but” having the force of moreover, furthermore.

2. The same conclusion will follow from examining the word rendered “idle” (ἀργός). According to its derivation, this word means not working (ἀ-ἔργον). Now, the words of the Pharisees were not simply useless, unfruitful, unprofitable words; but far worse. They were false words; they counteracted conviction; their fault was not that of omission; they were positively bad, mischievous, and wicked words. They were a lie in the teeth of conviction, and they were calculated to do harm, to mislead the ignorant people who looked up to their authority. Hence we infer that when our Lord condemns idle words, He is going a step beyond that sin of blasphemy upon which His censure had, at the outset of the discourse, so heavily fallen; and that our text, rendered so as to exhibit the emphatic transition, would run thus: “Nay, I even say unto you, that every idle word” (not merely every false and blasphemous, but every idle word) that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” Nor is there anything which need surprise us, in this strictness of the Christian law on the subject of words. It is strictly in accordance with the general tenor of evangelical precept. We are often instructed that that precept cannot be satisfied by innocuousness—that we are required not merely to abstain from harm, but to do positive good. What the passage condemns is useless words, words conducive neither to instruction nor to innocent entertainment; words having no salt of wit or wisdom in them—flat, stale, dull, and unprofitable, thrown out to while away the time, to fill up a spare five minutes; words that are not consecrated by any seriousness of purpose whatever.—Ibid.

What are, and what are not, idle words.—Words are idle which do not fulfil the proper end of the existence of words. We may remark, in general, that what constitutes the excellence or virtue of anything, is that it should fulfil its proper end. What, then, is the proper function of words, the end for which they were given, by fulfilling which they become good, and escape the censure of being idle words?

1. The first, and perhaps (by comparison) the lowest end of words, is to carry on the business of life.

2. The second end which words should fulfil, and for which they were no doubt designed, is to refresh and entertain the mind.—Ibid.

Responsibility for idle words.—The Pharisees might have imagined that as they had but spoken, and had perpetrated no real act of enormity, no guilt was contracted. Christ disabuses them here of such an impression. “Every idle word.” There are three considerations which may serve to show us the responsibility that attaches to idle words.

I. Their reactive force.—“Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile the man.”

II. Their social influence.—Science affirms that every movement in the material creation propagates an influence to the remotest planet in the universe. Be this as it may, it seems morally certain that every word spoken on the ear will have influence lasting as eternity.

III. Their Divine recognition.—The great Judge knows every word we have spoken. “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee.”—Homilist.

Matthew 12:37. Condemning words.—Consider some of the ways by which words are used that minister to our condemnation.

I. At the head of this list we must put profane swearing.

II. Another way in which we expose ourselves to God’s displeasure is by what St. Paul calls “foolish talking.”

III. Another example of the improper use of the gift of speech is an indulgence in the petulant and complaining language which so often destroys the harmony of private life.

IV. A fourth illustration of our text is found in the case of misrepresentation and slander.

V. Angry words are another description of words by which we may endanger our everlasting salvation.—J. N. Norton.

Verses 38-45


Matthew 12:38. A sign.—See Luke 11:16. They wanted something of an immediate and decisive nature, to show, not that His miracles were real—that they seemed willing to concede—but that they were from above, not from beneath (Brown). Gerlach and Lisco suggest that these Pharisees were better inclined, and less opposed to Jesus, than the others. But in our opinion they were rather the worst among the bad (Lange).

Matthew 12:39. Adulterous.—Adultery, taken in a spiritual sense, according to the Old Testament idea, is equivalent to apostasy or idolatry (Isaiah 23:17). Jesus foreknew that the apostasy of the Pharisees would lead them even to an outward alliance with the heathen in the act of His crucifixion (Lange). No sign.—The words seem at first to place our Lord’s miracles of healing outside the category of signs, and yet it was to these that He referred the messengers of the Baptist as proof that the Christ had indeed come (Matthew 11:5), and appealed in John 5:36. They must, however, be interpreted by the context. One sign and only one, such as they demanded, differing from and transcending the miracles of healing, should be given to those for whom the other notes of Messiahship were insufficient, and that should be the sign of the prophet Jonas (Plumptre).

Matthew 12:40. Three days and three nights.I.e. three of the periods composed of a night and a day (νυχθήμερον) which was reckoned as one day. On the Jewish principle, that a part of any such period is as the whole, a whole day and part of two other days would be reckoned as three (Mansel). Whale.Sea-monster (R.V. margin). Heubner relates an instance of a sailor who was swallowed by a shark, and yet preserved. In the heart of the earth.—Some interpret simply in the grave; others in hades.

Matthew 12:41. Rise.Stand up (R.V.). The word “rise” is used not of the mere fact of resurrection, but of standing up as witnesses (Plumptre).

Matthew 12:42. The queen of the south.—Of Sheba, Southern Arabia (1 Kings 10:1). A greater than Solomon.—Solomon was wise, but here is Wisdom itself (Bengel).

Matthew 12:43. When the unclean spirit, etc.—The connection is not clearly marked. It seems to be this: Christ has been speaking of “this generation;” He now contrasts it with past generations. The Jews of former times were like a man possessed by a demon, the Jews of this day are like a man possessed by many demons (Carr). Dry places.Waterless (R.V.) The waterless desert uninhabited by man was regarded by the Jews as the especial abode of evil spirits (ibid.).

Matthew 12:44. Empty.—Properly, at leisure. To have cast out a sin does not make a man safe from sin; there must be no leisure in the Christian life (ibid.).


Pretended friends.—We have here yet another phase of opposition to Christ. “Certain” men amongst His opponents come to Him with a show of respect. Setting aside as unimportant all the “signs” He has hitherto shown, they come to Him as though persons only wanting a sufficient further “sign” to enable them to believe (cf. Mark 8:11, a “sign from heaven”). That the Saviour saw through the hollowness of this request is plain from His language (Matthew 12:39). Yet He was pleased to give their request, notwithstanding this, a certain amount of reply. We may regard this reply as consisting:

1. Of a mysterious promise.

2. Of a solemn warning.

3. Of a lamentable forecast.

I. A mysterious promise.—No “sign,” indeed, of the kind they meant should be granted to such as they were. What they asked for was not really what they desired. They were “evil” (Matthew 12:39). Nor would they use it, if granted to them, in the way they professed. They were adulterous (Matthew 12:39). It were a waste of power, therefore, as well as an encouragement of treachery, to do as they asked. Yet He did not intend, on that account, to leave them without further evidence of any description. In due course, rather, they should have a sign—a sign indeed—of His mission. This “sign” would be, on the one hand, like one already known to them all. The prophet Jonah had been a most remarkable sign to the men of his generation. Few things more extraordinary than his story—few more famous—few more effectual, had ever been known. The “sign” which He was now speaking of should be of like kind. It should be something fully worthy of being placed by its side. It should be like it even in that particular which was the most crucial part of the whole story of Jonah. Jonah was a space of “three days and nights” in the inside of the fish. The Son of man should be a similar time in the “heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). What that meant the event itself would fully explain. Meantime, it was in that event, whatever its nature, that they would ultimately be able to discover the “sign” that He meant. In due time, in a word, there would be no lack of proof—of abundant proof—of His mission.

II. A solemn warning.—Had they been right then, after all, in demanding a “sign”? If more evidence was thus to follow in time, did it mean that they had been right in supposing that they had not enough as it was? No, the Saviour replies in effect, that was far indeed from the truth. On the contrary, He points out, there were those who had believed on less evidence still. Two cases of this kind stood out in the past. There was the case of those to whom the prophet Jonah, already mentioned, was sent. Those people of Nineveh, in this matter of evidence, had no such advantages as they had. Jonah had not been in his day what Jesus was in the present. There had not been the same array of miracles (John 3:2), the same converging prophecies (Acts 10:43), the same manifest authority (Matthew 7:29), the same abounding love (Jonah 3:10; Jonah 4:1) in the case of that prophet. All that Jonah taught the Ninevites, was to believe it possible that God might repent if they did (Jonah 3:9). Yet they had repented and had believed in him, and that thoroughly, to a man (Jonah 3:5). On the other hand, there was the parallel case of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. There again present advantages were far “greater” than past. All she had heard of was the probability of learning the truth. They had its fulness in view. Both cases, therefore, were a contrast to them, and a lesson as well. If those earlier hearers, with their smaller light, used it so well, what would that say for these later ones, by whom such far greater light was despised? How could these later stand beside those earlier ones, when all things came to be judged?

III. A sad forecast.—What then, this was the next question, would be the end of such conduct? Even the same as always followed in similar cases. There was a fixed rule—a sad rule—an inevitable rule—in such matters. Where a measure of light is so dealt with as not to be allowed to do its full work—where it brings about, therefore, nothing more at best than a kind of outward reform, and so leaves, as it were, the actual source of life unenlightened thereby—the end of so doing is a measure of darkness even worse than at first. In other words, the evil spirit so cast out wanders about for a time, but finds no rest in so doing. Naturally, therefore, it desires to go back to the kind of rest which it had; and naturally also, in that “empty” house (Matthew 12:44), finds nothing to prevent this being done. At the same time, remembering well its former expulsion therefrom, it seeks to prevent the possible recurrence of anything of the kind by getting the company of other spirits still wickeder than itself. And thus it is, therefore, that in every way, the last state is the worst. There are more in number, they are worse in character, they have a more tenacious hold than before. Even so, therefore, was it to be expected of the “generation” before Him. The light that had been given them, not being truly welcomed by them, would end in greater obscurity still. Their partial delivery—being only partial—would be seven-fold bondage at last.

How sadly this forecast was verified in the case of that “generation” hardly needs to be told. The whole subsequent history of Israel is its fulfilment. Think of a time coming when it should be necessary to say of the chosen people that they were not all of them blind (Romans 11:5).

How solemnly this verification should tell upon all hardly needs to be told. Doubtless the principle involved accounts for most of the apostasy in the world, whether on the part of individual Christians or associated bodies of Christians. Doubtless, therefore, the warning applies to us all. Nothing is more dangerous than not making the best of the light that we have!


Matthew 12:38. Dictating to Christ.—

1. Christ was exercised with divers sorts of temptations by His adversaries, some openly blaspheming, some subtly insinuating, as if they would deal reasonably with Him. “Master” say these men, “we would see a sign”; as if they had never seen any of His miracles before; or as if upon the doing of some miracle, they minded to believe in Him.
2. Christ’s miracles were sufficient to show that He was the Messiah, for even His enemies can crave no more but to have a sign.
3. Obstinate believers will not be satisfied with any of God’s words or works, but still crave new ones.
4. Misbelievers are also limiters of the Holy One of Israel; nothing will satisfy these men, but a sign at their direction.—David Dickson.

Matthew 12:38-39. Sign-seeking.—Many men of blameless lives—of whom it would be a breach of charity to say that they loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil—nevertheless declare themselves unsatisfied with the signs of the Divine mission of Christ our Lord. Why is this? It is because they are infected with the spirit of the age, engrossed with the material, the sensible, the secular. Such persons not only cannot recognise the signs of the kingdom of heaven, but are in a state of heart and mind to which no sign can possibly be given. We are indebted to the fine candour of the late Mr. Darwin for a striking illustration of this. In his Life there is an interesting correspondence with Prof. Asa Gray, the great botanist, who, wondering how Darwin could remain unconvinced by the innumerable evidences of design in nature, took the liberty of asking him if he could think of any possible proof which he would consider sufficient. To this Mr. Darwin replied, “Your question, ‘what would convince me?’ is a poser. If I saw an angel come down to teach us so, and I was convinced, from others seeing him, that I was not mad, I should believe.” If he had left it there, it might have been pertinent to ask him whether Christ is not just such an angel come down from heaven to teach us, and whether a sufficient number of persons did not see Him in the flesh, to say nothing of the multitudes who know Him in the spirit, to convince us that we are not mad in believing it. He did not, however, leave it there, but went on to say: “If man was made of brass and iron, and in no way connected with any other organism which had ever lived, I should, perhaps, be convinced.” Nothing could be more candid, or more in keeping with the transparent honesty of this great man. But what an acknowledgment! Man must cease to be man and become a metal machine, and the universe must cease to be a harmonious whole before there can be evidence enough for so simple and elementary a principle as design in the universe: and then only a “perhaps”! If all this were done for me, “I should perhaps be convinced.” Is our Lord’s answer to the seekers after a sign out of date? “Verily, I say unto you, there shall no sign be given unto this generation” (Mark 8:12). How could there be?—J. M. Gibson, D.D.

Matthew 12:40. Jonas a sign.—

I. As affording a type of the resurrection.
II. As a preacher of righteousness
to a people who needed repentance as this generation needs it.—A. Carr, M.A.

Matthew 12:41. The Ninevites and the Jews.—What dissemblance or disparity was between the Ninevites and the Jews?

1. The Ninevites were strangers from the commonwealth of Israel and people of God; neither had they received His word before this; but the Jews had received the law from the Lord, and did boast therein, and yet would not hear Christ, who interpreted and explained the law unto them.
2. The Ninevites had but one preacher of the word, viz., Jonas, and yet they obeyed him; but although God had spoken unto the Jews by many prophets, and by John the Baptist, yea, by His own and only Son, yet they shamefully and reproachfully rejected them all.
3. The Ninevites having heard but only one sermon from Jonah, the servant of the Lord, repented, believed, and changed their lives; but the Jews had heard many sermons from the prophets in all ages, and at last heard those sermons repeated and confirmed by Christ, the Lord and Master of the prophets, and yet they would not repent and amend their lives.
4. The. Ninevites heard a stranger and believed him, although he came from a nation which they hated and envied; but the Jews despised Christ, who came of the fathers, according to the flesh, and was no stranger, but a child, and free-born, amongst them.
5. The Ninevites believed Jonas without any sign, content with this, that he had come unto them for their disobedience towards God; but the Jews daily saw many signs, i.e. miracles wrought by Christ, and yet persevered in their obstinacy, as though He had done nothing worthy of faith, or for which they had reason to believe in Him.

6. None had ever foretold the Ninevites anything concerning Jonas, and yet, when he came, they believed and obeyed him; but all the prophets had foretold the Jews of Christ’s coming, and they saw His words suit and agree with their predictions, and yet they would not believe Him, nor amend their lives.
7. The Ninevites patiently suffered Jonas, although he threatened the miserable destruction, both of their city and kingdom; but the Jews would not endure, or hear, or obey Christ, although He preached grace and salvation unto them, yea, did not prescribe any hard or harsh rules of living unto them, but declared remission of sins to every one who would repent, believe, and obey.
8. Jonas was not derided and mocked by the Ninevites, although he fled when God sent him unto them; but the Jews scoffed and taunted Christ, who refused not to undergo reproach, hatred, persecution, and death for them and their salvation.—Richard Ward.

Matthew 12:42. The example of the Queen of Sheba.—

1. She went, notwithstanding the distance of her residence.—She had a long journey to perform, with little of those facilities and accommodation for travelling which we enjoy. And yet she went all the way to Jerusalem that she might hear and witness the wisdom of Solomon. Will not this procedure on her part condemn those of us to whom God has brought nigh His word? You have His ordinances; His Sabbaths are every week enjoyed by you—His house opened for your reception—His word in a language you can understand.

2. She went, notwithstanding all the anxieties of her public station.—She might have pleaded, “I have so much to do, so many cares devolving upon me that I cannot go.” But she acted on different principles and was well rewarded for her labour. Can you, then, plead any cares, any anxieties, any occupations, as a reason why you should not make every effort, submit to every sacrifice, go through every necessary difficulty, in order to attend to the wisdom of the Son of God—in order to listen to the oracles of truth—in order to seek the things that belong to your everlasting peace?

3. She went though uninvited.—There was no offer, no appeal made to her. Mere report, general testimony that she heard, induced her to go. Can you say you are uninvited?

4. She went to hear the wisdom of a mortal, at best fallible, and who after all was guilty of sad and criminal defection. But you are invited to listen to, and receive the instructions of heavenly wisdom, of eternal life.—J. Fletcher, D.D.

Matthew 12:43-45. The spirit of evil.—The words have a twofold symbolism as representing:—

I. The state of the possessed man.

II. The state of the nation of which he is made the type. The latter belongs to the interpetation of the parable as a whole. The former portrays the state of the man who has been delivered from the wildness of frenzy, but has been left to the routine of common life and conventional morality, with no higher spiritual influence to protect and guard him.—E. H. Plumptre, D.D.

The Jewish people.—In applying the parable to the religious life of the Jewish people we have to ask—

1. What answers to the first possession and the expulsion of the evil spirit?

2. What to the seven other spirits joined with the first, and yet more evil?

3. What is the last state, yet future at the time our Lord spoke, which was to be worse than the first?—The answer to the first question lies on the surface of their history. Their besetting sin from the time of the Exodus to that of the Captivity had been idolatry and apostasy. The worship of other gods exercised a strange and horrible fascination over them—deprived them, as it were, of light, reason, and true freedom of will. They were enslaved and possessed by it. Then came the return from the exile in Babylon, when, not so much by the teaching of the prophets as by that of the scribes and Pharisees, idolatry seemed banished for ever. But the house was “empty, swept, and garnished.” There was no indwelling presence of the enthusiasm of a higher life, only an outward ceremonial religion and rigid precepts, and the show of piety. The hypocrisy of the scribes was the garnishing of the house. And then, the old evil came back in the form of mammon-worship, the covetousness which is idolatry, and with it bitterness and hate, and the licence of divorce, and self-righteousness, and want of sympathy, and that antagonism to good which had come so terribly near to “the sin against the Holy Ghost.” That state was bad enough as it was, but our Lord’s words point to a future that should be yet worse. We must turn to the picture drawn by the Jewish historian of the crimes, frenzies, insanities of the final struggle that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem, if we would take an adequate measure of the “last state” of that “wicked generation.” We note in 2 Peter 2:20 a striking reproduction of the thought by one who may have heard it as spoken by our Lord.—Ibid.

Verses 46-50


Matthew 12:46. His brethren.—See on Matthew 13:55. Desiring to speak with Him.—A motive is assigned (Mark 3:21). It would seem that the Pharisees, on the pretext that Jesus had a demon, had persuaded His friends to secure Him (Carr).


True kinsfolk.—What was thought of earthly kinship by the Saviour of all? We have some answer to this question in what is told us about Him as a citizen of the world. As an Israelite Himself He had a special regard for the Israelite people and faith. He even went so far on one occasion as to declare that His own personal ministry was almost exclusively for their good (Matthew 15:24). Yet we do not always find Him giving the first place to men of this race. Sometimes, on the contrary (as in Matthew 15:28), it is to a woman of Syrophœnicia. Sometimes (as in Luke 10:33) to a member of the mixed race and hybrid religion of the Samaritans. And sometimes (as in Matthew 8:10) to a Roman centurion; or even afterwards (in that chapter, Matthew 12:12), under certain circumstances, to those of any Gentile connection. Altogether, therefore, it is evident, that, in this broader sense, kinship was not the first thing in His eyes. The Israelite was only first when he did that which was best. Otherwise, any other man might take that place in his stead. In the present passage the same subject is dealt with again; only in a still closer degree. Family ties now, and not only national ones, are, as it were, in the arena; and we are bidden to see how Christ comported Himself with regard to their claims. We shall find that it was in a manner parallel to what we have noted already; and that both on the negative and positive side.

I. On the negative side.—Whilst engaged in teaching, the Saviour hears of some “without” (Matthew 12:46) who are desirous to see Him. From the point of view which is now before us theirs was a crucial case. It was so, in the first place, on account of what is told us of their natural relation to Him. They were His “mother and His brothers,” i.e. His very nearest of kin. This is true, whoever is meant exactly by the latter expression. According to the ties of earth there were none on earth nearer to Him. This was so, in the next place, on account of what is not told us of them in a higher respect. At one time we are told that His brethren did not believe in His work. We are not told whether or not this was so at this time. On one occasion we read that His “friends” thought He was “beside” Himself (Mark 3:21) because of His devotion to His work. Whether this was so of these “friends” now we are not informed. We are only told that when others were “within,” they were standing “without.” We are not told even that they wished to “hear” Him; only that they wished to “speak” to Him—without saying why. There is nothing before us, in fact, except the fact that they were His nearest of kin. Hence the importance, therefore, lastly of what the Saviour did not do when He heard of their presence. He did not stop His discourse, He only varied its tenor. He did not at once come out to meet them and hear their communication. Still less did He do as Solomon did on a certain very widely different, yet sufficiently parallel case (1 Kings 2:19). The inference is clear, though it must not be pushed into unbecoming regions of thought. Mere kinship, even of the very closest kind, was not supreme in His eyes. Thus much, we say, is quite clear, without disrespectfulness to any. Where all that He hears of is kinship alone, all that He does is to leave it alone.

II. On the positive side.—On this side we have everything different from what we found on the other. This is true, on the one hand, of the persons described. Much was said in the case of those others, of kinship to Christ. Nothing is said of it here. Nothing was said in the previous case of anything higher. Much is said of it here. Much acknowledged in the way of profession. The persons sitting there did so as disciples of Christ. Much implied, also, in the way of practice. Of some amongst them, at any rate, Jesus could see that they were doing the will of His Father in heaven. Just as different, therefore, on the other hand, is the treatment vouchsafed to them here. Instead of being left unnoticed, like those others, they are specially noticed and marked. “Jesus stretched forth His hand to them” as they sat at His feet. Instead of there being no word for them there is every word they could wish. “Behold My mother and My brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50). There we see what is supreme in the eyes of the Saviour, viz., identity of will in all things with His Father and Himself; and not the closest identity—even with Jesus Himself—in the things of this earth. There is no greater glory than that of being a true disciple of Christ! There is no surer test of it than that of sharing His mind!


Matthew 12:46-50. A distressing interruption wisely utilised.—What will He make of the distressing interruption caused by the interference of His mother and brethren? Knowing their motives and intentions as He did, He could not, for a moment, yield; and how was it possible to deal with them without a public rebuke, from which, seeing that His mother was involved in it, His heart would instinctively shrink?

1. It was a most painful position; and the more we think of it, and try to imagine possible ways of extrication, the more we must admire the wisdom and kindness shown in the way in which He confronted the difficulty. He makes use of the opportunity for giving a new and most winning view of the kingdom of heaven as a happy family, united each to Himself, and all to the Father by the holiest bonds; thus opening out the paradise of a perfect home to all who choose to enter it, taking the sacred ties involved in the sweet words “brother,” and “sister,” and “mother,” and giving them a range, a dignity, and a permanence they never had before.

2. In all this there was not a word of direct censure; yet the sadly mistaken conduct of His kindred did not pass without implied rebuke; for the effect of His words was to make it clear that, sacred as were, in His eyes, the ties of earth, their only hope of permanence was in alliance with the higher ties of heaven.

3. The course of events in later times has proved that the gentle rebuke involved in our Lord’s reception of the message from His mother was not only necessary at the time and for her, but for the ages to come as well. It certainly is no fault of Mary herself, whose name should ever be held in the highest respect by all who love the Lord, that a corrupt church, reversing all the teaching of the church’s Head, not only elevated the earthly relationship far above the spiritual, but in virtue of this relationship put the mother in the place of the Son, and taught an ignorant people to worship her and trust in her as a mediator. But the fact that this was done, and is persisted in to this day, shows that when our Lord set aside the mere earthly relationship as one that must be merged in the spiritual, He was correcting not only a pardonable error of Mary, but a most unpardonable error that afterwards, without any encouragement whatever from her, should be committed in her name.

4. How this gospel of the family of God rebukes all sectarianism! He “stretches out His hand towards His disciples,” and then to all the world by that word “whosoever.” No arm’s-length recognition there; He takes all true disciples to His heart.

5. Observe, moreover, the emphasis on doing, with which we are already familiar. In setting forth the gospel of the kingdom, our Lord was careful to warn His hearers, “not everyone,” etc. (Matthew 7:21); and now that He is setting forth the gospel of the family the emphasis is still in the same place. It is not, “Whosoever shall connect himself with this church or that church,” it is not “Whosoever shall be baptised and take the sacrament”; it is, “Whosoever shall do the will of My Father in heaven.” This emphasis on doing, in connection with these endearing relations, is most significant. There must be love among the members of the family. But how is love to be shown? How are we to distinguish it from mere sentiment? Our Saviour is careful to teach us; and never is He more careful than in those passages where tender feeling is most prominent; e.g. John 14:15; John 14:21.—J. M. Gibson, D.D.

Matthew 12:50 The kinsmanship of Christ.—

I. A few points of doctrinal importance.

1. Christ represents it as being a matter of great consequence that a man should be permitted to claim a kinsman’s interest in Him.—We never find Moses, or Isaiah, or Daniel, using it as a motive to serve God that if a man were faithful, he (Moses or Isaiah or Daniel) would honour him by calling him a brother; and as little do we find the Apostles imitating Christ in this respect. Learn another lesson of our Lord’s divinity as being the only begotten Son of God.

2. Liberal as Christ appears in our text in lavishing on His disciples the relations of an endeared kinsmanship, yet it is done with a marked exception.—It was with design that the father’s relationship was excluded. And what was the design? Evidently to protect the character of His Divine incarnation. Not even in a figurative sense will He permit any man to call himself by the name of His Father. That honour He preserved entire for God, in respect of His human as well as His Divine nature.

3. Observe how little importance comparatively Christ attaches to carnal descent and connection.—It is something, I admit, for a man to have been born of a pious mother, and it is something for a woman to be the mother of a pious son. But of itself, and by itself, it is nothing; and there must be something—even personal faith and well-doing—before it be even of the little profit of which it is possessed. Christ did not disesteem His mother; on the contrary, He set His disciples the example of being a most tender and dutiful son; but, as if in anticipation of the idolatry of Popish apostasy, He appears to have waited, in a manner, for opportunities to teach His disciples that she derived no very peculiar advantage from the circumstance of her being His earthly parent. See also Luke 11:27-28.

4. Observe what is the condition on which Christ will acknowledge the kinsman’s relation to any one.—Beautifully logical. First, He Himself is God’s Son; then if He see any man doing His Father’s will with zeal—“That must be a son of My Father,” He will say, “for who but a son would serve Him thus? and if he is a son, since I am a Son too, he must be My brother.” And again, as He looks, there is a youthful maiden—“Who could be so devoted to My Father,” He says, “but a daughter? She must, therefore be My sister,” etc.

II. Having thus directed your attention to what may be considered doctrinal in the passage, we are now prepared for the consideration of its sentiment and duty.

1. How great are both the folly and the sin of those who despise and reject this proferred kinsmanship of the Son of God.
(1) Their folly. There is no man’s happiness independent of a friend. Does not the folly amount to madness when anyone shall reject His proferred brotherhood?

(2) Their sin is greater than their folly; it is because their evil heart would rather have no friend at all than one as holy as the Son of God.

2. Turning now to the consideration of the case of those who have accepted of the proferred friendship, I call on them to cherish it with much endearment and confiding expectation. There are three classes:
(1) Those whom He salutes as brothers, and there may be distinguished the child, the young man, the middle-aged man, and the old man.

(2) Those whom He salutes as sisters. The personal ministry of our Lord was characterised by the manner in which it honoured the weaker sex, and wherever His religion has gone through the earth, it has been eminently a woman’s salvation.

(3) The maternal class. The matron’s lot is the heaviest for sorrow, but equally is it the richest for consolation.

3. Let us now consider what are the duties which flow from these various relationships. And,

(1) Let us emulate one another in the confidence with which we surrender ourselves to the protection and cherishing of His kinsman love. “I was vexed for Christ,” said Bunyan, “when I thought how my ingratitude must pain Him.”
(2) Let us beware of being ashamed of our heavenly kinsmanship. How wonderful that any of His professed saints should be ashamed to acknowledge Him!
(3) Let us take care that we do not discredit our heavenly Kinsman in the estimation of the world by the unworthiness of our conduct.
(4) “If ye love Me, keep My commandments.” I know of no case in the economy of human life in which obedience is more sweetly rendered than by a mother to a prudent, manly son.
(5) Let us consider one another as the brethren, the sisters, and the mothers of Christ.
(6) I call for a faith founded on good reasons, but equally for a faith of warm feelings.—Wm. Anderson, LL.D.

A character and a blessing.—

I. The character.—“Whosoever shall do the will of God.” So, then, God has a will. God has a will concerning:—

1. Our condition.—That we should become a new creation, etc.

2. Our conduct.

3. Our destiny.

II. The blessing.—“The same is My brother, and sister, and mother.”—C. J. Vaughan, D.D.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Matthew 12". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/matthew-12.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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