Matthew 12 Commentary

Matthew 12:1-14

When Jesus’ disciples plucked the heads of grain for a meal, they broke a local rabbinic tradition that touched off a firestorm between Jesus and the local authorities. According to this Jewish sect, Jews were not permitted to gather food by any means on the Sabbath, and reaching out to pluck a few grain stalks for a morning meal apparently constituted breaking the sacred command to rest on the Sabbath.

But these teachers knew that plucking the heads of grain was permissible under the Law. In fact, it was perfectly acceptable for the disciples to pluck grain as they walked. This was the result of the Law’s mercy and the also Law instructed Israel to give liberally to the poor and made provisions for travelers to gather leftover scraps from any field as they passed by (Deuteronomy 24:19). So there was no violation of the Law for gathering the grain, and there is no stipulation in the Law that suggested that travelers could not gather leftover scraps as they passed by on the Sabbath.

But the charge was that Jesus’ disciples had violated the Law but had violated the rabbinic teachings that had been elevated to the authority of Old Testament Law. So Jesus’ reply included notable exceptions in preeminent Old Testament Scripture that demonstrated that not only were his disciples innocent, but also that the Pharisees did not understand the very Law their traditions rested upon.

The Lord Jesus also pointed out that there are no distinctions to be made between the hard letter and spirit of the Law. He reminded these elites that God had already given permission for the priests to “violate” the law when they performed their sacrifices on the Sabbath.  Butchering oxen and rams was grueling, back-breaking work, and here Jesus also shows the stark hypocrisy between these religious professional’s willingness to overlook Sabbath sacrifices in order to condemn him and his disciples. For even under the most generous of considerations, the disciples plucking a few heads of grain and rubbing their hands together in order to separate the chaff from the kernels, required far less effort than spending the entire day heaving large carcasses around and carving them up in accordance with God‘s instructions.

The greater lesson that Jesus teaches here is that it is not merely the letter of the Law that is important, but the heart and intent behind it.

The ensuing escalation between Jesus and the religious elites is predictable. Offended by Jesus’ reply, the Pharisees continue their harassment by laying a trap for him at a local synagogue and they set their trap with a simple question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” The Pharisees knew Jesus’ compassion for the sick and so should Jesus he the man they could immediately accuse him as a law breaker.  But should he not heal the man, they could then accuse him of being a hypocrite.

As was often the case, Jesus answered the Pharisee’s questions with a question of his own: “Would any of you rescue one of your sheep if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath?” The answer is obvious, as each of them had probably performed such a rescue many times before or had given their consent when a family member or townsman had done so. And again, such a rescue begs the question: How much more work is it to lug a hundred pound sheep out of a eight foot ravine than plucking heads of grain?  How much more work is pulling sheep out of a hole than to simply command a man to stretch his hand so that he could find it healed?

Catching them in their own trap, Jesus asks the man with a shriveled hand to stretch it out and obeying the man finds it fully restored.  And note carefully that Jesus neither touched the man, nor did the healed man violate rabbinic law by simply stretching his arm out.

The disabled man found mercy, and the religious elite received a valuable lesson. But instead of embracing the miracle as confirmation that Jesus was right and that God was with him, the elites went on to commit the worst of all Sabbath violations. Instead of repentance and the acknowledgement that God is merciful, the religious professionals began plotting the Lord’s death.  Jesus sought to give a man the mercy of God, while the elites sought to put a man to death for showing such mercy.

Matthew 12:15-21

Sensing the Pharisees plot to kill him, Jesus withdraws to a safe place. But even in seclusion the needy still find him. At this point, Jesus is forced to warn them not to tell other about him. The Gospel is growing, and with its growth so comes the world’s hostility.  It was not time for Jesus to reveal himself and so he needed the people to temper their desire to share what Jesus had done for them.

On one hand, the spread of Jesus’ fame could not be contained. Healings are being performed in spectacular fashion.  Demons are being cast out and the dead are being raised. Liberated and joy-filled hearts cannot restrain their appreciation for what Jesus has done. On the other hand, the spread of Jesus’ fame must be tempered.  His success kindles and enflames the jealousy of the religious professionals. His new teaching is radical and is considered to be subversive by the religious authorities who are now seeking to kill him.

At first the religious establishment did not think much of Jesus.  They thought they could contain him by refusing to endorse his ministry, and when that didn’t work they attempted to shame him and discredit him by setting up traps and hoping to catch him in a contradiction or a lie.  When that also failed, they threatened him. And when their threats failed to stop him, they sought to kill him. Yet with Jesus’ rise, the elites have begun to panic. Jesus has not merely stolen their thunder.  He has introduced new teaching that threatens to bring an entire paradigm shift to centuries of entrenched and established rabbinic traditions that by this time have been raised above the authority of Old Testament Scripture.

The Pharisees have also begun to realize that there is no weakness in Jesus.  Here is a rabbi the ruling class finds uncontrollable, yet unshakably holy. He performs miracles, but without an agenda or demanding glory. Jesus is so outside the box of the religious authorities’ conventions that they simply have no answer for him.

Jesus brought a Gospel that preaches salvation by faith, not a merit system that earns favor in order to barter salvation with God. It was this message of salvation by sheer, unearned grace that completely uprooted the centuries of Jewish traditional understanding of how salvation is earned and given.

It’s also important to note that Jesus’ enemies have cashed in on their traditions. They have each devoted years of their life to constant study and practice.  They have invested everything into and have sacrificed a great deal in order to obtain positions of authority and power. But suddenly a young, obscure rabbi rises and threatens to destroy their way of life.  His message and miracles are starting to steal hearts, and with each miracle the religious authorities grow more worried that Jesus might lead a cultural and social revolution that would marginalize them or even overthrow them.  In their eyes, Jesus had to be stopped or they would stopped.  Jesus had to be removed or they would be removed.

Matthew states that Jesus’ warning to the crowd was to fulfill a passage in Isaiah 42.  Specifically, the inspired author notes that “no one will hear his voice in the streets.”  Jesus needed seclusion until the time was right to return to the cities and to eventually reveal himself in Jerusalem.  His mission was not gain popularity or fame, but to follow his Father’s meticulous plan.

Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah ends with a promise: “In his name the nations will put their hope.” Here the disciple is reminding us to not to focus on the current results of Jesus’ ministry, but to be mindful of the glories to come. Our Lord ended his earthly career with a mere 120 disciples who barely believed in him.  Yet in only a few months following his resurrection these 120 suddenly grew to thousands. And these thousands would soon grow to tens of thousands in only a few years, and then thousands would give way to millions who would go on to change the face of the known world.

The fruit of Jesus’ ministry came after his resurrection, but here Matthew is pointing to the seeds the Savior is now planting for later – even as he retreats and refuses to engage the religious professionals in public debates or to gather huge crowds to himself.  Rather, Jesus entrusted himself to his Father’s plan.  And in the end, that plan gathered an unimaginable amount of glory for his Father.

Matthew 12:22-32

The Pharisees demonstrated the true depth of their unbelief by comparing Jesus’ work with Satan’s. Seeing Jesus perform yet another miracle, they again leveled the charge that Jesus cast out demons by the power of the devil. But this time, Jesus reduces their charge to ashes.

First, he turns the tables on their claim by asking how it is he can launch a full scale assault on the devil’s kingdom without doing irreparable harm to it. After all, if the devil is sanctioning Jesus’ work, then he is undercutting his kingdom and putting its very survival at risk.  And it’s not as if Jesus was performing a few miracles here and there in order to masquerade as a demonic sorcerer.  Jesus was repeatedly performing exorcisms that were bringing glory to God, while he was taking no glory for himself.  This is hardly the work of the devil that always bring glory back to the person who is committing the evil in order to see to it that they self-destruct.

Second, Jesus asks the Pharisees that if he is casting out demons by the devil’s power, then by what power are they casting out demons? Who’s authorizing their exorcisms if his are unauthorized? But if the Pharisees are exorcising demons by the finger of God, then for what reason can Jesus be condemned? How can it be assumed that he’s not casting demons out by the same power?

Third, Jesus warns the Pharisees with the most frightening of warnings. Their accusation was not necessarily the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit itself, but it a sign that, at the very least, they were very near the point of no return.

Jesus’ warning should cause us to shudder. The sin of becoming unable to repent and return to God is the most fearful warning in the Bible. The good news of the Gospel is that by faith in Jesus all sins and blasphemies will be forgiven, but one.  The sin of unbelief will never be forgiven. For there is a point where a portfolio of unrepentant sins hardens a heart to a state where it cannot turn to Jesus. Unbelief is the great sin by which all others find their roots, and the Pharisees had tread so very near to this point of perfecting the unbelief to total and final state.

Only by faith can we escape the great sin, and this is why the New Testament repeatedly urges us to fight unbelief (which manifests itself in every sin) with every ounce of our being. Our God is exceedingly patient, merciful and kind, but we should never presume that we can willfully go on sinning in the light of the Gospel.  God’s kindness and willingness to overlook our sins, to give us time to turn to him for forgiveness, will not be extended to us forever.  Unbelief sneaks up on us like old age.  It is as silent a killer as cancer or heart disease.

And belief in Christ is the only remedy to the spiritually fatal consequences of rejecting Jesus.

Matthew 12:33-37

Character matters to us. The trust we place in the hands of physicians, psychologists and financial advisors is a trust that hinges upon the indispensible qualities of integrity, honesty and humility. But discerning a good character takes time and wisdom.

A wise king once wrote: “As water reflects the face, so a man’s heart reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19). It is the history of a heart of a person what we call character, and a good character always aligns itself with good hearts.  Just as a bad character is reflected by a bad heart and the evil things that bad hearts do, a good heart is reflected by the good things he never ceases to do.

But how do we measure a heart? Should we measure it by outward appearances? No. Some of the most outwardly beautiful people who have ever lived have been some of the most evil to ever live. Jezebel was beautiful, as was Delilah. Do we measure a heart by good works? It’s true that good hearts do good works, but even here there are some who do good works to support an evil agenda. Hitler was very interested in social justice early on in his career and he even built a military empire with the intention of making honest, social reforms.  But the evil he ended up committing for the sake of his pride and selfish ambitions far overshadowed any good intentions.

Jesus instructs us to watch a mouth to know the heart, and this makes perfect sense. We humans are addicted to praise. We cannot help but praise the things we love, and we love to talk about the things we praise. We can only hold in so much joy before we must release it, and the same is true with misery.  A heart filled with joy or grief cannot be silent.

And it’s not just the things we say that tell about our hearts, but how we say them. It’s hard to convince someone that Jesus is your greatest love with a scowl on your face. It’s hard for others to see the worth of Christ in your life if you appear to be bored with him or in love with something else.

The Pharisees could not contain their jealousy and rage when it came to Jesus. And what came out from their hearts was a torrent of blasphemies that Jesus turned into jewels. The religious elite uttered careless words and with them they brought the worst of evil insults.  But then Jesus did something extraordinary.  He bent their insults back on them to show us how the Light of the Gospel can overcome any charge and expose the true motives of men’s hearts.

The tongue is the true window to the soul (James 3:2-6). By it we will be condemned as it reveals our unbelief, or vindicated as it reveals our joy in Jesus. What Jesus said about his accusers is an inescapable truth. Our mouths will reveal the overflow of our heart and demonstrate to the world whether our motives are good or evil, and whether our outward acts align with our words.  Our mouths will signify whether we have faith in the Lord Jesus or whether we are just pretending.

Matthew 12:38-45

If Charles Dickens were a late first-century Jewish theologian, he would undoubtedly write:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In spiritual terms, this was the case in Jerusalem. With the arrival of Jesus, the best of times had come. The Messiah had arrived and brought justice with him. Jesus had come and had given her people the opportunity to find freedom from the greatest oppressors of all: sin, hell and death.

But though the Light came, the darkness rose up to meet him. Unbelief that manifested itself in every kind of evil was exposed and fought back. Jerusalem appeared to at first open her arms to Messiah and then just as quickly killed him in the most painful and humiliating way.

And here on the eve of Christ’s greatest work, the religious elites were asking him to give them a sign of authenticity. Though he had just rebuked them for their extreme unbelief that had touched the fires of hell, they were now back at it again, demonstrating through their demands  that they did not believe him.  For what they wanted was a show.  They wanted Jesus to show them a greater miracle than the ones they’d already seen him perform. They wanted a sign of his power. They wanted what Moses had on Sinai or what Isaiah had experienced in the throne room of God.  They wanted a sign to feed their pride and lay claim to Moses’ credentials.

Jesus refused to oblige them. But he refused the Pharisee’s demands in such a way that we again see his greatness. Jesus answered that no sign would be given to their evil generation but the sign of Jonah. Oh, is that all? The greatest sign that could ever be conceived, the Godman self-rising from the dead, would be given to them.

You can just imagine just how confused the Pharisees were when they heard Jesus say that like Jonah he would spend three days in the heart of the earth, not realizing this would be representative of his death and a grave.

More likely, the Pharisees grew incensed when Jesus informed them that the once depraved souls of Nineveh and a Gentile Queen would condemn them one day.  They also probably became enraged when Jesus predicted that their generation would become seven times worse than it was presently, indicating that their perfect rejection of him and final state of their spiritual condition was far worse for rejecting his coming. The Pharisees unbelief blinded their hearts and mind from seeing the Sign of Jonah that revealed that Jesus was the Messiah and their eventual rejection of this sign left them with nothing to hope for.  For the Messiah came and they killed him.  The Great Promise had been offered and passed them by when they rejected him.

But not all Jews would suffer as the Pharisees.  Some would find eternal life in Jesus and some would taste the joys of heaven. Though many found their religious identity shattered with the coming of Roman General Titus nearly 40 years after they killed Jesus, God did not forsake his people forever.

Here Jesus predicted that the entire Jewish system would end. The temple would soon be gone.  The sacrifices would cease. The peace would be broken and the Jewish authorities who enjoyed power and prestige among their people would either find chains or the grave on account of their unbridled ambitions.

Matthew 12:46-49

It’s unclear why Jesus’ mothers and brothers went to see him. Some have suggested that the Pharisees’ slanderous reports had reached his family’s ears and that his family had come to collect him. Whatever the reason, Jesus’ family did not come to hear him. His family stood outside the group, not within. His family stood at a distance, not drawing close, but waiting to speak with him once he had finished.

Someone from the crowd noticed Jesus’ family and soon their request was passed along to Jesus. In this age, it would have been customary for Jesus to cease his teaching and immediately go to his family. But Jesus put them off and he subverted centuries of social tradition for a greater reason.

Jesus was on a mission. He put the Gospel first in every situation and circumstance. With the coming of his Kingdom and his need to continue the work, traditional rules and social protocols had to be put aside.

And Jesus true family was the Kingdom family. His real mothers, sisters and brothers were those who heard his Father’s will and did it. Kingdom people are those who draw near now. They are those who do not stand outside the group waiting to rebuke him, but come inside the group to hear his teaching and put it into practice.

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