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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Matthew 12

 

 

Verses 1-50

Chapter 10

The Shadow of the Cross - Matthew 11:1-30; Matthew 12:1-50

I-DISCOURAGEMENTS. [Matthew 11:1-30]

HITHERTO almost everything has been hopeful and encouraging in our Evangelist’s record of the Saviour’s ministry. It began like daybreak on the shores of the sea of Galilee. Great multitudes followed Him wherever He went; and those whom He called to be with Him cheerfully responded to the summons. When He preached the Gospel of the kingdom, the people were astonished at His doctrine, and recognised that He "taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." His works of healing were warmly welcomed, and to a large extent appreciated by the people generally, though already it was apparent that those whose selfish interests were touched by the progress of the truth were ready to cavil and complain. Notwithstanding this, the work has grown upon Him so that He has found it necessary to arm His twelve disciples with powers like His own, and send them forth as heralds of His kingdom through the land.

But the path of the King is not to be a triumphal progress. It is to be a via dolorosa, leading to a cross and a grave. Many prophecies had been already fulfilled, as our Evangelist has shown again and again: but there are others of a different sort which can as little fail of their fulfilment, -like that which speaks of the Messiah as "despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." It is not at all to be wondered at, then, that the Evangelist should now give his readers some idea of the discouragements which met the King in the setting up of His kingdom on the earth. The first of these which he mentions comes from a quarter from which least of all it might have been expected.

1. John in doubt. [Matthew 11:1-15]

It was, indeed, not at all unnatural that John should be in doubt. Think of his character: stern, uncompromising, severe, and bold to rashness. Think of his circumstances: languishing in prison for the truth’s sake, without any prospect of rescue; -after all, was Jesus King, or Herod? Remember, too, in what terms he had predicted the coming One: "Now also the axe is laid unto the roots of the trees"; "He that cometh after me is mightier than I"; "Whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Did not this betoken a work which would be swift, severe, thorough, -very different from anything of which he could hear in his prison cell? The coming of the kingdom was too gentle and too slow for the stern, impatient Baptist. Accordingly, "offended" (see Matthew 11:6, R.V: "finding occasion of stumbling") in his Master, he sends this message, in the hope possibly that it may constrain Him to avow Himself and to bring matters to a crisis: "Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?"

Though it was natural enough that John should doubt, it was none the less trying to Jesus. The disciples were only children yet. Not one of them could enter into full sympathy with Him. John, the forerunner, was the one strong man, on whom He had reason thoroughly to rely, who had been tried again and again, and always found brave and true. Yet it is he who sends the doubting message. What a shock it must have been to the sensitive heart, what a trial to the faith, of the Man Christ Jesus!

The message must have been a very disturbing and disconcerting one, and fitted, if widely known, to neutralise to a large degree in the minds of the people the witness John had borne to Jesus. It is the last thing the Evangelist would have thought of mentioning, if he had been actuated in the selection of his material by motives of policy; and the fact that this incident is published in two of the Gospels is a striking illustration of what is manifest throughout-the perfect simplicity and candour of the sacred historians.

Have we not reason to be most thankful that they did record it? To the truly thoughtful mind it is no weakening of the testimony of John; while it is full of comfort for the honest doubter, giving him the assurance that even when the most serious questions trouble him-even though the very foundations of his faith seem to be shaken-"there hath no temptation taken" him "but such as is common to man," such as even a brave and true soul like John had to face; full of encouragement also to do just as he did, -go straight to the Master Himself with the doubts, and let Him deal with them-wisely, faithfully, tenderly-as He does here.

How, then, does He deal with them? By a miracle, opening the prison doors, and so making it perfectly plain to him that not Herod, but Jesus, is King? By a sudden outburst of vengeance, destroying hosts of unrepentant sinners and alarming all the country side, and so satisfying the sternest thoughts of the Baptist in his cell? Not at all. He deals with them as He intends to deal with doubters always: points him quietly to the many tokens of His Divine mission-not in the way of judgment wrought on sinners nor of any grand demonstration which will astonish the nation, but in the quiet progress of His helpful, healing, comforting work: "Go, and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." Then He encourages him to hold fast the beginning of his confidence firm unto the end, by adding the significant words, "Blessed is he, whosoever shall find none occasion of stumbling in Me" (R.V). It was far better for John himself that he should be allowed to rally, than that anything special should be done to meet his doubts. He did rally; he did secure the blessing his Master set before him; he was satisfied without any open demonstration, satisfied to wait on and suffer in faith and patience, till at last he sealed the testimony of his magnificent life by a martyr’s death.

Those are in some respects to be envied who in childlike simplicity believe without doubt or question; but there is a special blessing for those who by the very force of their nature must wrestle with doubt:, yet in the trying hour find no occasion of stumbling in Him. They come out of the conflict more than conquerors through Him that loved them.

The answer sent to John was kind; but there was no flattery in it-not even a word of commendation of his heroic endurance. The Master knew the strength of His disciple, and He dealt with him accordingly. But as soon as the messengers are gone He tells the people what He thinks of him. He in effect deprecates the thought of judging John by a message sent in an hour of weakness and despondency. "Do not imagine for a moment," He seems to say, "that the man you went out into the wilderness to see is feeble as a reed, or soft as a courtier. He is all, and more than all, you took him to be. He is a prophet indeed; and much more, for He is a herald of the heavenly King. Among them that are born of woman there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist; and though he has not the advantages of even the little ones in the kingdom of heaven, inasmuch as he belongs to the old dispensation, yet, as herald of the new, he occupies a peculiarly honoured place-he stands between the old and the new; for all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; while from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is preached, and men are pressing into it. He is, in fact, if only you had ears to hear, if only your minds were open to read the Scriptures according to the spirit of them, that very Elijah whose coming your prophet has taught you to expect" [Matthew 11:7-14].

So far we have followed what seems to be the drift of our Saviour’s words in regard to John; but there is more than this in them. He is contrasting the feebleness and fickleness of the multitude with the strength and stability of John. There is before His mind, throughout, the thought of the transcendent importance of the events of the time as compared with the thoughtlessness of the people of the time. The question "What went ye out for to see?" was intended not merely to bring into relief the greatness of John, but to search their hearts. The important events of the time had circled first around John the Baptist, then around Himself. The people had not the least idea of the transcendent greatness of John and still less of the infinite greatness Of Him to Whom he had borne witness. Jesus did not wish as yet fully to assert His own claims, yet He desired to bring the inconsiderate multitudes to some conception of the things which their eyes saw, to rebuke and, if possible, to correct their thoughtlessness and indifference.

It is to the presence of this underlying thought that some forms of expression are due which otherwise are difficult to understand. This applies in particular to

2. The Unreasonableness of the People. [Matthew 11:16-19]

Unable to recognise the true significance of the events of the time, with deaf ears to the heavenly message which first the herald and then the King had brought them, they fastened their attention on that which was merely incidental: the asceticism of John, the social friendliness of Jesus. Of the first they complained, because it was not like the second; of the second they complained, because it was not like the first. Any excuse for a complaint; no ear to hear nor soul to appreciate the message of either. To what can He liken them? To a set of children, sitting in the market-place indeed, but with no thought of business in their heads: they are there only to amuse themselves: and even in their games they are as unreasonable as they can be. One set proposes to play a wedding, and the rest say, "No, we want a funeral"; then, when the others take it up and start the game of funeral, they change their tune, and say, "No, we prefer a wedding." Nothing will please those who have no intention to be satisfied. Caring nothing for the kingdom which John heralded, the multitude only noticed the peculiarity of his garb, and the stern solitariness of his life, and said he must be a lunatic. When the King Himself comes with no such peculiarity, but mingling on familiar and friendly terms with the people, still caring nothing for the kingdom which He preached, they and fault with Him for the very qualities the absence of which they deprecated in John. If they had acted, not as foolish children, but as wise men, they would have recognised that both were right, inasmuch as each was true to himself and to the position he filled. It was right and fitting that the last of the old prophets should be rugged and stern and solitary, even as the great Elijah, in whose spirit and power he came. It was no less right and fit that the Saviour-King of men should set out on new lines and introduce the new dispensation in a manner suited to its distinctive features of freedom and familiar friendliness. Thus, in the one case, and in the other, "wisdom is justified of her children."

3. The Unbelief of the Cities. [Matthew 11:20-24]

Though the multitudes which had flocked to hear John might be fickle and thoughtless, surely better things might be expected of those favoured towns by the lake of Galilee, where the signs of the kingdom had been so abundantly exhibited and the truth of the kingdom so earnestly and frequently preached. But no: even they "repented not." They would bring their sick in crowds to get them healed; but they hid as it were their faces from Him. They had not indeed treated Him as the people of Nazareth had done; for Nazareth had cast Him out, and Capernaum had taken Him in. Yet His lamentation is not over Nazareth, but over Capernaum. We can readily see why. What He suffered at Nazareth was a personal indignity. He was so summarily ejected that He had not time or opportunity to set before them the signs of the kingdom. But in Capernaum the time and opportunity had been ample. The truth had been fully told; the signs had been fully wrought. The people had seemed to listen; and all betokened a happy issue. We can imagine the Saviour waiting and hoping and longing (for again, let it be remembered that He was very man, and that this experience discouraged Him as it would discourage any of us), and then tasting all the bitterness of hope deferred, ending in crushing disappointment.

For a long time He continues silent, bearing the heavy burden in His heart, till the fountain of grief could be pent up no longer: "Then began He to upbraid the cities wherein most of His mighty works were done, because they repented not." The words He speaks are very awful; but it is in the last resort. Love and mercy have been His theme from day to day; and it is only because these are obstinately rejected that wrath and judgment must now find a voice. It is not a wrathful voice: there are tears in it. What must it have cost Him to speak these awful words about Capernaum’s impending doom! To think that those who were nearest His heart of all, to whom He devoted the freshness of His first days of service, the dew of His youth, so to speak-that they would have none of Him, but preferred to remain in sin with all the woe it necessarily entailed, -oh! it must have been torture to that loving heart. And we may be sure there was no less pathos in this last appeal to Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum, than there was in the later lamentation over the city of the South.

How does the Saviour bear Himself under these repeated discouragements? The passage which follows will show [Matthew 11:25-30]. Some have found a difficulty in the word "answered," because there appears no question with which it is connected. But did not these discouragements require an answer? As we read, first of the doubts of John, then of the thoughtlessness of the multitudes, and then of the impenitence of the favoured cities by the lake, is there not a question in our hearts, becoming more and more urgent as each new discouragement appears, What will He say to this? What can He answer? Thus our minds are well prepared for that which immediately follows: "At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank Thee, O Father." Is it to be a thanksgiving, then, after such a series of disappointments and vexations? Even so. As He has looked to the cities of the plain, His voice has been a wail; now that He looks up to His Father, wailing ceases, and thanksgiving takes its place. So will it always be to faith which is genuine and deep enough. It is only when we look below and around that we are depressed. When we look up we are strong. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord Who made heaven and earth." Was it the remembrance of this passage at the time of need which suggested the form of His thanksgiving: "I thank Thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth"?

Surely we have here the living original of that grand apostolic word. "In everything give thanks"; for if "at that season" (R.V) the Saviour of men found occasion for thanksgiving, we may well believe that at any season, however dark, we may find something to stir our hearts to gratitude; and the very exercise of thanksgiving will bring a deep spiritual joy to set against the bitterest sorrow, even as it was with our Lord, Who. as St. Luke informs us, "rejoiced in spirit" as He lifted up His soul in thanks to God that day.

What, then, does He find to be thankful for? First, He discovers a cause for gratitude in the very limitation which occasions His sorest disappointments: "I thank Thee, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." There is of course the cheering thought that amid the general unbelief and rejection there are some childlike souls who have welcomed the truth. Some are fain to make this the sole cause of thankfulness, as if He meant to say, "I thank Thee, that though Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, Thou hast revealed them unto babes." But there is no authority for introducing this little word. The Saviour gives thanks, not merely in spite of this hiding, but because of it. It is true, indeed, that He uses the language of resignation, "Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight," which makes it evident that the fact that so many of the wise and intelligent rejected His gospel presented a real difficulty to His mind, as it has done to earnest souls in all ages. But while it was no doubt enough for Him to feel sure that it was right in the sight of God, we are not without indication in what follows, that His faith not only led to resignation, but enabled Him to see for Himself that it was wisely ordered. For what is the great object of the Gospel? Is it not to dethrone itself and enthrone God in the hearts of men? It is clear, then, that, if it had in any way appealed to pride and self-sufficiency, it would have defeated its own end. Suppose the revealing of things had been to the wise and prudent as such, what would have been the result? The kingdom of heaven would have become a mere scholarship prize. And however good a thing scholarship may be, and however important that it be encouraged, this is not the work of the Christ of God. His Gospel is for all; so it is addressed not to the great in intellect, which would confine it to the few, but to the lowly in heart, which brings it within reach of all, -for the very wisest and greatest in intellect may be, and ought to be, meek and lowly in heart.

Indeed, is it not to the meek and lowly heart that even the truths of science are disclosed? A man who approaches nature with a preconceived theory, about which his mind is already made up, is sure to miss the mark. To enter into its secrets, prejudices and prepossessions must be laid aside, and things observed with open mind and simple receptiveness. In this connection one sees the special appropriateness of the reference to "the Lord of heaven and earth." The principle is one which is not restricted in its range: it runs all through nature. Still more appropriate is the appeal to the fatherhood of God. It is not for the Father to be partial to his clever children, and leave the less favoured ones to shift for themselves. To Him they are all "babes"; and to them He must be not examiner, nor prize-giver, but above all Father, if they would understand and feel His love. So the more one thinks of it, the more in every point of view does it seem good and necessary that these things should not be made known to the "wise and understanding" (R.V) as such, but should be revealed to "babes," and to those of childlike spirit. It is well. The wisest and most learned may join in the thanksgiving, for it is far better for them to take their places with the rest, as many happily do, and receive the same loving welcome; and those of us who cannot call ourselves wise and learned should surely be most devoutly thankful that, however impossible it may be to compete with these highly favoured ones in Obtaining the prizes of earth, we are at no disadvantage in striving for "the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."

The next great thought which comes to the relief of the Saviour in His discouragement is that, while there are barriers in the heart of man, there is no barrier in the heart of God, no limit whatever to the outpouring of Divine love and grace: "All things are delivered unto Me of My Father." Even at the time when it is borne in upon Him that men will have none of Him, He exults in the thought that He has everything for them. If only they could see it! If only they knew the boundless treasure there was for them in God! If only they knew that God had put all within their reach by sending them His Son! But the Son is unknown except to the Father, who sent Him; and the Father is unknown except to the Son, Who has come to reveal Him. But He has come to reveal Him; and with the revealing the way will be opened for all good things to follow. As He thinks of it His heart yearns over the orphaned children of men, and He exults in the thought that He has for them the revelation of the Father’s heart and home, with enough and to spare for all His children. [Matthew 11:27]

Then follows such an outpouring of heart as there never has been before. He knows that only in the Father can the children of men find rest, and so He says "Come unto Me," and I will lead you to the Father, Who alone knows Me, as I alone know Him; and you, finding Him in Me, shall know Him too, and your hearts shall be at rest.

It is beautiful and most touching to observe how our Lord is, as it were, compelled to make His appeal more personal than He has ever done before. We look in vain through His previous utterances as reported in this Gospel for such reduplication of the personal pronouns as there is here. What is the reason of it? We can see it when we read between the lines. Hitherto His great subject has been the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom He has been preaching through all the country-side, setting forth its purity and blessedness, unfolding its unspeakable riches, and entreating all to enter in by the strait gate, which He has thrown open to receive them. But they will not enter. These things, in spite of all He can say, are hid from them. Well He knows what is the difficulty: it is the hardness of their hearts. If He could only get at these hearts! How can He do it? It can only be by the opening out of all His heart to them; so He will make His pleading, a personal entreaty now. Hence the peculiarly winning form His invitation now assumes. It is no longer "Enter ye in at the strait gate"; it is not even, "I have come to call sinners to repentance"; it is the cry of a loving, yearning heart, "Come unto Me." And how tenderly He thinks of them!-no more upbraiding now, no more reproof. He will try to reach the conscience through the heart, and so He does not even think of them as sinners now-He forgets everything but their weariness and woe: "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will rest you."

We shall not, however, dwell on the precious words with which this chapter ends. They are as rich and suggestive as they are simple and heart-thrilling; but for this very reason we must not attempt to do more than place them in their setting, which is often missed, for the words themselves have attracted so much attention, and so filled the minds and hearts of those who have looked at them that too little has been made of their surroundings. Observe only how nobly the Son of Man comes out of this ordeal of disappointment and discouragement. See the grandeur of His faith. "At that season," when we should expect to see Him in the depths, He rises to the very height of His dignity and majesty. This passage above all others has been cited as an example of the self-assertion of Jesus-say rather His sublime consciousness of Divine dignity, prerogative, and power; yet so entirely natural and unassuming is it all, that in the very same breath He can say, without conveying to the most thoughtful mind the least feeling of incongruity: "I am meek and lowly in heart." Then behold what manner of love! These chilling blasts of doubt, indifference, and unbelief only fan it into a warmer, steadier flame. The sweetest of all His invitations, the most touching of all His appeals, comes from a heart which has just been wounded in its tenderest place, and has tasted the bitterness of cruel disappointment. Who can measure the patient love which "at that season" finds such utterance?

II-THE CONTRADICTION OF SINNERS. [Matthew 12:1-50]

The darkness deepens on the Saviour’s path. He has now to encounter direct antagonism. There have been, indeed, signs of opposition before. When the man sick of the palsy was forgiven, "certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth"; [Matthew 9:3] but it was only "within themselves," they did not venture to speak out. Again, after the feast in the house of Levi, the Pharisees complained, but not to Christ Himself; "they said unto His disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" [Matthew 9:11] And when the dumb demoniac was cured, the Pharisees muttered, "He casteth out devils through the prince of the devils," [Matthew 9:34] but did not yet say it to His face. But now they are emboldened to attack Him directly. Possibly they saw as clearly as any the discouraging aspect of affairs for the new kingdom. They had, in all probability, heard of the doubts of John, had taken note of the fault-findings of the people (if, indeed, these had not been first suggested by themselves), had observed that even "the cities where most of His mighty works were done repented not"; [Matthew 11:20] and having therefore less occasion to fear consequences, they might think it safe to attack one who stood for a rapidly failing cause.

1. Observe, first, 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: "This man doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils." [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 loam 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 worm word to that tender heart.

Now "consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself." [Hebrews 12:3] 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; My Beloved, in Whom My soul is well pleased: I will put My spirit upon Him, and He shall show judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear His voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench, till He send forth judgment unto victory. And in His name shall the Gentiles trust" [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? Does it not give new significance to the tender words which linger in our ears from the chapter of discouragement before: "Learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls"?

2. It would have been a great thing if our Lord had only borne in dignified silence these repeated provocations; but He is too good and kind to leave these misguided people to their own devices without an effort to enlighten their dark minds and arouse their sleeping consciences. How patiently He reasons with them! We may glance at each attack in succession as an illustration of this.

On the charge of Sabbath-breaking He endeavours to set them right by citing appropriate scriptures [Matthew 12:3-4]; appealing to the law itself; [Matthew 12:5] furnishing them with a great principle laid down by one of the prophets, the key of the whole position; [Matthew 12:7] and concludes by an illustrative act, accompanied by a simple and telling argument, which appeals to the universal conscience and heart [Matthew 12:9-13]. Again, how patiently He answers the malicious charge of collusion with Satan, showing them in the clearest manner, and with amazing power, how far they are astray, and what a dangerous path they are treading [Matthew 12:25-37]. So, too, in meeting the third attack: though He cannot but sternly rebuke the hypocritical application for "a sign," He yet does it in such a way as to prepare for them in due time, when perhaps they may be ready to appreciate it, a new sign-His death and resurrection-overcoming the difficulty arising from the fact that He could not yet speak of it in plain terms (for it was at a later period than this that He began to speak plainly of it even to His disciples) by veiling it under the figure of "the sign of the prophet Jonas": a way of putting it which had the advantage of being memorable, and at the same time enigmatical enough to veil its meaning till the event should lighten it all up, and bring out its deep suggestiveness; and while thus preparing them for the new sign when it should come, He warns them against that evil state of mind and heart which threatened to render even it of no avail [Matthew 12:38-45]). And then, with what marvellous readiness does He use the painful interruption with which the chapter ends for the teaching of truth of the highest and purest and tenderest quality! What patience, what long-suffering, what meekness of wisdom, what faithfulness, what strength and tenderness! Every line of the likeness drawn by the inspired hand of the old master is more than justified [Matthew 12:46-50].

3. Observe, further, that in all His dealings with His bitterest foes He never in the least degree lowers His dignity, but rather asserts it in the boldest and strongest terms. It may be questioned, indeed, if there is any chapter in all the history in which this is more marked. This, again: may be illustrated from all the four occasions.

In the argument on the Sabbath question hear Him as He draws Himself up, in presence of His accusers, and says: "In this place is One greater than the temple"; [Matthew 12:6] and again: "The Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath day." [Matthew 12:8] Must there not have been something heavenly majestic in His look and bearing when words like these were allowed to pass unchallenged by such men? This consciousness of dignity appears no less in the argument by which the second charge is met. In proof of this we may point to verses 28 and 30 [Matthew 12:28; Matthew 12:30]; and the same impression is produced by the solemnly repeated "I say unto you" [Matthew 12:31; Matthew 12:36], in each case introducing one of those declarations of judgment to which reference is made in the passage quoted from the prophet [Matthew 12:18-20]. Quite as conspicuous is the same feature in the third remonstrance, in which He asserts His superiority to the great ones of the old covenant in language which acquires, from the connection in which it occurs, a strength far beyond the mere terms employed: "Behold, a greater than Jonas, behold, a greater than Solomon, is here" [Matthew 12:41-42]. And in the last of the four sad encounters the same lofty consciousness of peerless dignity is manifest. Son of Mary is He? brother of James and Joses? See Him lift His eyes to heaven, and speak of "My Father," and look down the ages, and out to the uttermost bounds of earth, and say, "Whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother." [Matthew 12:50]

4. We have seen how kindly and patiently the Saviour deals with these cavillers, so as to give them every opportunity of seeing their folly and wickedness, and the beauty and excellence of the truth they are resisting. But He does much more than this. He speaks not only so as to meet their objections, and give them the opportunity of being set right, but so as to provide instruction, warning, and encouragement for all succeeding ages. To show in any satisfactory way how this is done would require separate treatment for each of the four instances; but it may be possible in a very brief way to suggest it.

The first attack gave Him the opportunity of speaking on the Sabbath law. As we have seen, He began to treat the subject from the strictly Jewish standpoint, using the example of David and the ritual of the Temple to correct the misapprehensions and misrepresentations of those with whom in the first instance He had to do. But He does not leave it as a mere Jewish question; He broadens His view, and shows that the day of rest is for humanity at large-not, however, as a burden, but as a blessing, the principle which underlies it being "mercy, and not sacrifice." Thus, out of this conflict there has come to us the Magna Charta of the people’s Sabbath, the full text of which is given in the corresponding passage of the second gospel: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man For the Sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath." Here we have, on the one hand, the vindication of our rights against those who would deprive us of the day of rest, as if the privilege had been intended only for the Jews, and was abolished when the dispensation closed; and, on the other, the assertion of our liberty against those who, by their petty regulations and restrictions, would make God’s precious gift a burden instead of a blessing. And how wisely and beautifully does He confirm to us our privileges by following the charter with an argument which, though coming still under the head of the great principle ("Mercy, and not sacrifice"), is no mere repetition, but illustrates the wider aspect just unfolded, by its freedom from Jewish colour, and its appeal to the conscience and heart of mankind at large: "What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much, then, is a man better than a sheep?" [Matthew 12:11-12].

The second attack gave Him the opportunity of bringing out with great distinctness and vividness the witness of the Spirit of God to His work as Saviour of mankind. These Pharisees regarded His miracles as mere displays of power, apart altogether from the spirit of purity, mercy, and grace so manifest in them all. It was only this narrowness of view that made it possible for them to imagine that the Spirit of evil, to whom of course no one could deny a certain measure of mere power, was behind them. How completely He answers their blasphemous suggestion by showing that the works He did, judged, not by the mere power they displayed, but by their whole spirit and tendency, were at the very opposite pole from the works of Satan, we plainly see; but the point now is the permanent value of His reasoning. At first sight it may seem to be quite out of date. Whoever dreams now of disposing Of the works of Christ by attributing them to Satan? Let us not be over-hasty, however, in concluding that old objections are out of date. If we look closely at those regarded as the newest, we may find that they are but old ones in a new dress. What of the position taken by some intelligent men in our day, who candidly admit the power of Christianity to elevate and sanctify men, and yet set it down as false?

As an illustration of this, we cannot do better than refer to a recent production of the Agnostic School, in which there is the most emphatic testimony to the blessed power of Christianity in particular instances, followed by these most candid and generous words: "What needs admitting, or rather proclaiming, by agnostics who would be just, is that the Christian doctrine has the power of elevating and developing saintliness, which has had no equal in any other creed or philosophy." Yet the book in which that sentence occurs assumes throughout that this doctrine, which has had no equal in producing saintliness-a quality which in another place is described as "so lofty, so pure, so attractive, that it ravishes men’s souls"-is untrue! Is, then, the argument of our Lord out of date? and is it too late to ask the old question, "Can Satan cast out Satan?"

It does not always follow, of course, that that which is good in its effects in particular cases, is thereby proved to be true. Truth and falsehood are to be determined fundamentally on other grounds than those of proved utility-this applies alike to truth and duty; there is an absolute truth and falsehood quite irrespective of utility, and there is an absolute right and wrong quite irrespective of utility, -but though we cannot in particular cases prove that to be true which appears to be beneficial, yet we cannot but believe that in the end, the true, the good, and the beautiful will be found to coincide; and we maintain that, seeing the effects of genuine Christianity on human character have been tested for nearly two thousand years, and have been found to "make for righteousness," nobility, purity, all that is good and gracious, high and holy, it is too late in the day to set it down to the father of lies. We may be mistaken in our passing judgments, may be misled into accepting as eternally true and right some measure or doctrine which has not yet had time to develop its real nature and character, which may produce good results at first, and then by degrees develop other results of quite a contrary kind-take the history of Monasticism as a case in point; but when there have been ample time and opportunity for testing the fruits of a system, as there has been in the case of Christianity; when we observe that the gospel of Christ has had these wonderful effects through eighteen successive centuries among all ranks and classes, nations and races of men-it ought surely to require something stronger than Agnosticism (which at the worst can only say, "I do not know") to make us believe the outrageously improbable supposition that it is false, and therefore presumably of the kingdom of lies and of unclean things. There have been too many devils cast out of human hearts to make it at all doubtful that in very deed "the kingdom of God has come" among us. [Matthew 12:28] There has been too much spoiling of "the strong man’s goods" to make it at all doubtful that "a stronger than he" has mastered him and is spoiling his house. "The Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil"; [1 John 3:8] and wherever He has been admitted into human hearts He has done it, setting up His kingdom of "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost." The argument is as fresh to-day as the day it was propounded; and it has now all the added strength of centuries of confirmation.

The third attack gave our Lord the opportunity of laying bare the root of unbelief, and setting forth the important truth that, when the heart is estranged from God, mere signs are unavailing. The signs He had given in abundance should have been enough, especially when’ the only way of evading their force the ingenuity of scepticism could devise had been closed by the powerful argument just delivered. Besides this there was the crowning sign of the resurrection still to come; yet He knew that even that would fail to satisfy-not for reasons intellectual, but because of the spirit of the age, as He points out in that striking and powerful parable (Matthew 12:43-45), and hints in the suggestive term, "an evil and adulterous generation," [Matthew 12:39] the word "adulterous" referring to the well-known, and at that time thoroughly understood, language of the Old Testament, according to which estrangement of heart from God is branded as spiritual adultery. {See Jeremiah 3:1-25, Hosea 1:1-11; Hosea 2:1-23., and many other passages.}

Herein we see a sufficient explanation of the widespread unbelief of the age in which we live. It is because the heart of this generation is so far estranged from God, so wedded to the earthly and material, so taken up with selfish aggrandisement and the multiplication of the luxuries of life. In many cases of unbelief the individual is not so much to blame as the spirit of the age of which he is the representative. Observe that the Lord does not say, "Ye evil Pharisees," but, "An evil and adulterous generation," thus making it evident that the spirit of scepticism was not peculiar to themselves, but a something diffused throughout society. Hence it comes that 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; while their hearts, "swept and garnished" though they be, are "empty" of God: "The god of this world hath blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, Who is the image of God, should not dawn upon them." {2 Corinthians 4:4, R.V}

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 Professor 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?

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? 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 Him, self, 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.

In all this there was no 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. He has come in the loving Father’s name to gather in His wandering children; and if His mother and brethren according to the flesh attempt to hinder Him, He cannot listen to them for a moment, but must steel His heart against their blind appeals, and that, not only for His works’ sake, but for theirs also. They are slow to believe; but the east likely way to bring them to faith would be to yield to their unbelief. He will prosecute the path of duty, though it involve the sacrifice of all that cheers and comforts His heart; He must set His face as a flint to finish the work His Father has given Him to do, and they will understand Him by-and-by. There is no doubt they would go home with sore hearts that day; but no very long time would elapse till they would all be most grateful that their foolish, however well-meant, interference had failed of its intent.

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. We have seen that, in each of the attacks recorded before, our Saviour replies in such a way that His words not only meet the objection of the moment, but continue of permanent value to meet similar objections and gainsayings in ages to come. So is it here. 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.

After all, however, it is not the setting aside of the claims of Mary and the lowering of the earthly relationship m comparison with the heavenly, which is the great thing in the passage; but the Gospel of the Family of God. We have had the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, and glad tidings it has been indeed; but have we not here something even better? It is much to be permitted to hail the Son of God as our King; is it not better still to be encouraged to hail Him as a Brother, to know that all that is sweetest and tenderest in the dear words "brother," "sister," "mother," can be imported into our relation to Him? How it endears the heavenly relationship, and hallows the earthly!

Again, how it rebukes all sectarianism! He "stretches out His hand towards His disciples," and then to all the world by that word "whosoever." And it is not the mere promise of salvation with which this "whosoever" is connected. There are Christians in the present day who can scarcely allow themselves to be sectarian enough to deny that there is salvation out of the Church to which they happen to belong: they are good enough to think that these people who do not follow with them may somehow or other be saved; but the idea of fraternising with them! that is quite another thing. Now listen to the Saviour Himself: "Whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven (no question) of what Church he belongs to, or anything of that sort, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother." No arm’s-length recognition there; He takes all true disciples to His heart.

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 every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father"; [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: and what else than love is the characteristic of the family ties? 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-as, for example, in His parting words in the upper room, where again and again He reminds His disciples that obedience is the only sure test of love: "If ye love Me, keep My commandments; He that hath My commandments, and keepeth them. he it is that loveth Me." [John 14:15; John 14:21] For the same reason obedience is here set forth as the only certain mark of the true disciple: "Whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Matthew 12:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/matthew-12.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, December 14th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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