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The events recorded in this chapter bring us to the close of the first great division of this gospel, in which the King and the kingdom were offered or presented to Israel. Here we find the leaders of the nation deliberately rejecting Jesus and definitely ascribing all His works of power to Beelzebub. Only in this way could they account for the great miracles Jesus wrought and yet refuse to see in them His credentials as the promised King.
In the first eight verses we have a most interesting and instructive incident recorded. Here Jesus declares Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, by which He again attested His consciousness of Deity, for the Sabbath was Jehovah’s witness to His creatorial power (Exodus 20:10-11) and to the redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). It was distinctively “the Sabbath of Jehovah.” The Jehovah of the Old Testament is the Jesus of the New, and He is Lord of the Sabbath, as of all else.
At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and His disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto Him, Behold, Thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But He said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you. That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day. (vv. 1-8)
“Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn.” Walking quietly in the country, the Lord and His disciples passed through a cornfield. We are told that the disciples, being hungry, began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat. This was quite in keeping with the provision made in the law, for in Deuteronomy 23:25 we read, “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour’s standing corn.” This incident occurred on the Sabbath day, however, and the Pharisees immediately took exception to it, exclaiming, “Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.” There was absolutely no prohibition in the law of Moses in regard to this, but in the traditions of the elders there were many added laws and regulations that made it at times almost impossible for the ordinary man to know whether he was violating one of them or not. Among these rules was the prohibition to gather fruit or grain of any kind upon the Sabbath day, and even to rub it out in the hand as the disciples were doing seemed to these Pharisees a violation of that which they regarded as sacred.
The Lord defended His followers, however, by pointing out that the meeting of man’s need means far more to God than the obedience to legal restrictions. He cited the case of David and his men who were hungry, and they asked the high priest if they might be permitted to eat the showbread that had been taken from the holy table before the Lord. Under ordinary circumstances, it was not lawful for anyone to eat of this bread but the priests themselves. But when God’s anointed king was rejected and his followers in distress, their need was paramount to any legal prohibition.
The Lord also reminded His critics that the priests in the temple work on the Sabbath day and, therefore, might be said to profane it, but they were blameless in so doing.
He then added the remarkable declaration: “In this place is one greater than the temple.” How little they understood His words. Everything in that temple, as far as it was arranged according to the Word of God, spoke of Him and His redemptive work. But though He had come in person to what He Himself called His Father’s house, they failed to realize who it was who walked among them. His words were not simply an announcement of His Deity, however, but rightly understood they should have made it clear to the Pharisees that man himself means more to God than any building, no matter how holy, or rules and regulations, no matter how well authenticated. Had they but pondered the words of the prophet Hosea (6:6), “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings,” they would have understood this and not have condemned the disciples for doing that which, in itself, was perfectly innocent.
The remarkable asseveration of Jesus, as given in verse 8, can mean nothing less than that He claimed to be God incarnate. He said, “The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.” No merely human person would have the right to use such language as this. But He who stood in their midst that day was One to whom all the Sabbaths of the law pointed, and He had absolute authority over them.
When we consider the next section, we find our Lord again acting contrary to the prejudices of His enemies concerning the Sabbath.
And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue: and, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, 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? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other. Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him. (vv. 9-14)
Entering into a village synagogue Jesus beheld a man with a withered hand. A test question arose among those who were gathered there, leaving it to Him to answer. They asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?” He turned the question back upon them. To say “No” would seem to indicate that they were utterly indifferent to human sufferings; to reply in the affirmative would be to accuse themselves; so they did not answer (see Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9).
He then put another question-one that would go home to many of them. “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?” Possibly many of them had done this very thing on numerous occasions. Sheep to them constituted property, and property must be cared for even on the Sabbath day.
Without waiting for an answer, Jesus replied to His own questions by pointing out that a man is much better than a sheep, and it is lawful always to do good on the Sabbath days. He turned, therefore, to the man who was expectantly looking toward Him and commanded him to stretch forth his hand. In an instant new life came into that withered member, and the hand was restored whole like as the other. One would think that surely this would have convinced even the most prejudiced Pharisees that God’s King was in their midst. But instead of that, so bigoted were they that they went out and held a council against Him, endeavoring to devise some means by which they might destroy Him.
Jesus knew what was in their minds, and therefore withdrew Himself and went elsewhere
But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all; and charged them that they should not make him known: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, 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, (vv. 15-21)
Great multitudes of the common people followed after Him. Many of them were sick, and we are told that He healed them all. But He charged them not to spread abroad the report of His marvelous power. He had not come, as we have noticed in an earlier chapter, to create astonishment in the minds of men by His wonder-working ability; He had come to manifest that meekness and lowliness that the prophet Isaiah predicted would be seen in Messiah when He appeared. The quotation given in verses 18-21 is from Isaiah 42:1-4.
Following these incidents we find our Lord manifesting once more His authority over demons.
Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the Son of David? But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. .And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: and if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you. Or else how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad, (vv. 22-30)
A crises is reached in connection with the King’s presentation of Himself to Israel. He had given evidence after evidence of His messiahship, but those who should have been the first to recognize Him were determined not to do so. Now once more He manifested His power over the unseen world by casting out a demon who had made the wretched man in whom he dwelled to be both blind and dumb. When Jesus cast out the evil spirit, the man both spoke and saw. The crowds that thronged about the Lord were amazed and cried out, “Is not this the Son of David?” They saw in the miracle the proof that Jesus was the King of David’s line who had come to redeem Israel. But they were silenced by the Pharisees who exclaimed, “This fellow doth not cast out demons, but by Beelzebub the prince of the demons.” This was the second time that such a charge had been made. It was evident now, however, that there would be no repentance. These religious leaders were bent upon the destruction of Him whom the people had just acclaimed “the Son of David.”
Jesus, who knew their thoughts and did not need that any man should tell Him what was in their minds, turned to them and said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Now Satan is at the head of a great kingdom of evil. So the Lord made the application that if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself. He put the question, “How shall then his kingdom stand?” There were those in that crowd related to some of the disciples, who had also been empowered by the Lord to cast out demons. So Jesus asked, “If I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your children cast them out?” They did not want to say of these what had been said of Him, but they themselves had made it clear that Jesus was either manifesting the mighty power of God, or deceiving the people by satanic influence. They must decide which they would believe.
He challenges them to recognize the true condition of affairs by saying, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God [which, of course, He did], then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” It was this that He would have them understand: the King was there, and the little group of His disciples were His acknowledged subjects, thus the kingdom in embryo was actually in their midst. Would they receive it or spurn the privilege of entering into it?
No one could enter a strong man’s house and spoil his goods unless he were able to overcome the owner. Jesus had met the strong man, Satan, in the wilderness and overcome him. Ever since, He had gone about through the land of Israel spoiling his goods. Now the time had come for those who heard Him to take a definite stand: they must be either for Him or against Him-neutrality would not do. Those who were not with Him, who did not proclaim themselves on His side, were really against Him; for all who would not gather with Him were out scattering abroad.
In the next two verses we have something that has troubled a great many people, and yet, if rightly understood, it ought to trouble no one except those who are determined to refuse the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. (vv. 31-32)
This was a dispensational sin, and we may say definitely cannot be committed, at least in exactly the same way, by individuals today. Jesus had come in the power of the Holy Spirit, presenting Himself to Israel as their rightful King. His mighty works, as we have seen, accredited His testimony. The only way in which men could refuse to own His grace and yet recognize His power was by attributing all His mighty works to the Devil. Those who did this gave evidence that they had sinned until their consciences were seared as with a hot iron. They had gone beyond Redemption Point, if I may use a well-known figure, not because God would not have been merciful to them if they had repented, but because they had so persisted in their sin that there was on their part no evidence of, nor desire for, repentance. Had they simply spoken against the Son of Man, Jesus said it would have been forgiven them. But He solemnly added, “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven, neither in this age, nor in that which is to come.”
He was not intimating, as the Roman Catholics tell us, that there is forgiveness for some in another world, though they leave this scene with sin still upon their souls, but the Lord was speaking of two ages: the age that was just closing, and the age to come, which is, properly speaking, the Millennium. The present age was hidden at that time in the mind of God. But even so one might apply His words to this age also, for those who deliberately refuse the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning Christ could be forgiven neither in the Jewish age nor in this or any other age to follow.
Many dear souls have tormented themselves, or have been tormented by the Devil, with the awful thought that they are guilty of the sin here described, whereas deep in their hearts they fully recognize the deity of the Lord Jesus and have no thought of attributing to the Devil the power that wrought in Him.
In the next section, Jesus uses perhaps the strongest language recorded of Him, as He addresses these hypocritical religious leaders who have determined to persist in their rejection of Him, no matter what the cost.
Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shall be condemned, (vv. 33-37)
He calls for a clean-cut distinction between evil and good. Every tree is known by its fruit. His life of holiness was the testimony to the reality of His claim. Their evil lives were the evidence of their corrupt hearts.
“O generation of vipers!” They were the brood of the serpent, and they manifested the nature of that old serpent, which is the Devil, in their attitude toward the Christ of God. Out of the abundance of their hearts their mouths spoke.
Thus our words indicate the condition of the inward man: a good man, made good by grace, brings forth from the treasure of his heart words that are good; an inherently evil man manifests his wickedness by the words that fall from his lips. In the day of judgment God will deal with men according to what they themselves have spoken. Account will have to be given for every word, and by these words they will be either justified or condemned.
A number of the scribes and Pharisees added insult to injury, we might say, by coming to the Lord and asking for a sign, which He refused to give. He directed their attention to events of the past which would only make their condemnation the greater in the day when they would have to give an account to God.
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. (vv. 38-42)
One would think that their own self-respect would have kept the scribes and Pharisees from asking for another sign, after they had seen so many and rejected them all. In answer to their demand, Jesus replied that it was an evil and adulterous generation which was seeking a sign. To such a generation no sign should be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jesus referred to His resurrection from the dead, which was soon to take place, but which, as we know, failed to convince these men of the folly and wickedness of their course.
Whatever others may say, Jesus had no doubts regarding the authenticity of the records of the book of Jonah, and He was God incarnate, who knew all things. He says that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, and in this he becomes a sign of the Son of Man who was to be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth-that is, the grave. Moreover, our Lord authenticated the repentance of Nineveh. He declared that these men should rise up in the judgment with that wicked generation who refused His testimony and should condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and a greater far than Jonah stood before them.
He brought forth also another witness from the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba, whom He calls the Queen of the South. She came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, because she had learned that he could reveal to her precious things concerning the name of the Lord, which her soul longed to understand. She did not consider a journey of perhaps a thousand miles too great in order to hear the wisdom of Solomon. But these deniers of the truth were unmoved, though Solomon’s Lord Himself was in their midst. When at last they shall stand trembling in their sins before the bar of God, the Queen of the South will appear to upbraid them because of their willful rejection of light; whereas, she followed the gleam from the very ends of the earth in order that that light might be hers forevermore.
We next have a remarkable parable of unbelieving Israel’s past, present, and future state.
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation, (vv. 43-45)
The unclean spirit pictured here is the spirit of idolatry that was cast out of the nation of the Jews as a result of the Babylonian captivity. Since their return from Babylon, they had been like an empty house swept and garnished. They were free from idolatry; on the other hand, they had not received the Lord Himself to dwell among them. In a coming day, this evil spirit of idolatry will take with himself seven other spirits even more wicked than he, and they will enter and dwell in the apostate nation. This will result in the recognition of the Antichrist, the Willful King, as the Messiah, and so their last state will be worse than the first. The wicked generation that rejected Jesus will still be evident in that hour of tribulation.
As the chapter closes, we see the mother and brethren of the Lord drawing near as He was speaking to the people. A messenger was sent to tell Him of this, and we note His answer:
While he yet talketh to the people, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, 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, (vv. 46-50)
Whether His mother failed in measure to comprehend the mystery of her Son we cannot say, but we do know that His brethren did not believe in Him until after His resurrection. They interrupted His preaching by sending one to announce their presence, evidently with the suggestion that He should cease ministering and come to them. But He stretched forth His hand toward those who were ready to learn from His lips and said to them, “Behold my mother and my brethren!” And He added that all who did the will of the Father in heaven are His brethren, sister, and mother. It was the renunciation of all ties after the flesh. The break with Israel was practically complete; He was looking forward to an altogether new order of things.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Matthew 12". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany