Topic: Expository Scripture: Matthew 12:1–12:50
Synopsis: Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. He was particularly interested in tracing the reaction of the Jewish leaders and the nation to Jesus’ Messianic claims. In Matthew 12, Jesus makes some dramatic claims. In this sermon entitled Something Greater… we explore those claims and the Jews’ response to them. As we do so, we are challenged to examine our own reaction to the claims of the Messiah.
I can still remember when I was in high school and the news came out that a doctor in South Africa had transplanted a heart from a legally dead person, into the chest of a man whose own heart was damaged beyond repair. During the days that followed, there were daily reports in the newspaper on the patient’s progress. One thing that was discussed in great detail was the danger of rejection – that the rest of the body might reject the new heart. It was a fatal danger, because if the body did reject the new heart, it was not simply rejecting a few ounces of tissue. It was rejecting life itself.
In a similar manner, we might compare Jesus, the Messiah to the new heart which God was offering the nation of Israel. A new heart, and with it, the offer of new life. But as with the heart patient, there was the danger of rejection. After all, this Messiah was different, disturbing, revolutionary. He didn’t fit their preconceived ideas of what their King should look like or act like. And so the destiny of the nation of Israel hung in the balance. Would they embrace their King? Or would they reject him? And the consequences of their choice were every bit as vital and final as the response of that man’s body to his transplanted heart. For the nation of Israel, to reject their King was to reject the Kingdom and therefore to reject the offer of life itself.
This is the scenario that is playing out in Matthew 12. Chapter 12 is a pivotal chapter in the development of Matthew’s gospel.Remember, Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. So he is particularly interested in portraying the interaction between Jesus and the Jewish leaders and the nation as a whole.In that unfolding story, this chapter represents a turning point and a significant change in Jesus’ ministry, all based on the growing rejection which was setting in against Jesus and his ministry.
This rejection erupted around the issue of the Sabbath. It is hard for us to grasp and impossible for us to overemphasize the importance that the Jews in general, and the Pharisees in particular, placed on the Sabbath and the issue of Sabbath-keeping. On no other point of the law had the Jews departed further from God’s intended purpose. It had become the cornerstone of their entire religious code of observance. Their teaching on the subject was painfully minute. The original commands in the Torah, the Law of God, were actually rather simple. Every seventh day was to be a day of rest. This was a sign to set Israel apart as unique among the nations. Even during busy times like harvesting and plowing, on the seventh day they were to rest from their work.
But what exactly constituted work? Here the rabbinic writings excelled in taking a simple principle and concocting hundreds of minute laws. They defined a “Sabbath day’s journey”, the distance one could travel on the Sabbath without violating the law as 2000 cubits (about half a mile). One couldn’t carry burdens from one room to another. But how heavy was a burden? The answer: anything over the weight of a dried fig. So if a person was standing in a doorway with one arm holding a burden when the Sabbath started, he was to lay it down, lest by moving it inside the room, he broke the Sabbath. We could go on and on.
It was just such a detailed rule that Jesus’ disciples fell afoul of one Sabbath as they walked through a field of standing grain. They were hungry, so they plucked handfuls of grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate the grain from the stalk, and ate it. Apparently, their journey was not a long one, for they were not accused of violating the principle of the Sabbath day’s journey. Nor was the taking of the grain against the law, for it fell within the rights of “gleaning” as spelled out the law. But the plucking – that was harvesting, and constituted work. And the rubbing of the grain between the palms of their hands – that was threshing, and that was work.
The Pharisees witnessed this and were quick to pounce. They challenged Jesus. “Look. Your disciples are breaking the Sabbath.”
In his response, Jesus not only takes issue with their interpretation of the law, but he makes a stunning and dramatic claim.
He said to them,
“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
What Jesus is saying is that there are things more important than the minutiae of Sabbath observance, or other legal technicalities. He points out that in their own legal reasoning, they make exceptions – for David and the Show bread; for priests working in the temple on the Sabbath, yet they remain guiltless. But most dramatic of all are his claims. By implication, he places himself on a standing equal to or greater than King David. But even more than that; Something greater than the temple is here – referring to himself. And then claims for himself the right to interpret the true intention of God’s Sabbath. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. Surely, only God is Lord of the Sabbath! And this is what Jesus is claiming for himself.
The battle immediately escalates in the synagogue. There is a man there with a withered hand. He may even have been there by prior arrangement of the Pharisees to force the issue. We are told that they are looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” they ask. Jesus does not shy away from the challenge. Using their own Sabbath practices for helping animals on the Sabbath, he teaches that doing good is permitted on the Sabbath and proceeds to heal the man. In a fury, the Pharisees go away and begin laying plans for destroying him. Jesus refused to conform to their expectations. As Lord of the Sabbath, he took to himself the right to interpret the Lawgiver’s intention and heart in giving the commandment. It was a new heart in an old body, and the rejection was becoming more severe and life threatening.
There now occurs a significant shift in Jesus’ public ministry. In verses 15- 21 we read:
15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
What is changing? For one thing, Jesus withdrew. He changed his venue. We are not told exactly where he went. He may just have left Capernaum. He did not want a physical confrontation. But even more significant, it seems he now is dialing down his public ministry. He is still healing people, but he is commanding those he healed to keep quiet and not to make him known.
Here Matthew introduces another of his prophetic fulfillment remarks. He quotes from a messianic passage, one of Isaiah’s Servant songs. This particular quotation serves several purposes. They are somewhat obscure at this point but will become clearer as Jesus’ ministry unfolds.
For one thing, this quotation highlights the character of the Servant, as meek and gentle and non-confrontational. “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.” Jesus withdrew. He did not fight back or provoke a confrontation.
I believe there is also an early hint here that distinguishes between the first and second coming of the Messiah. This was a mystery not yet made known, but there is a hint of it here. In his first coming, he was gentle, not even breaking a bruised reed or snuffing out a smoldering wick. But there is a hint that that is not all there is to the story; “until he brings justice to victory.” Messiah will come again in triumph to bring justice. But not just yet. And also hidden in this text is a promise for the Gentiles; a promise that will grow, in a sense, out of the Jews’ rejection of Messiah.He will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. And, in his name, the Gentiles will hope.
As I said, these are just hints, but Matthew is already forecasting the plan of God which was about to unfold.
The depths of the Pharisees’ hatred and rejection of Jesus is now revealed in the verses that follow. They accuse Jesus of being in league with the Devil:
22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.29 Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
In his response to the Pharisees’ accusation, Jesus does several things. First, he points out the illogical nature of their accusation. Why would Satan go to war against himself? Secondly, he points out a more logical explanation for his miracles of deliverance. That one who is greater and stronger than Satan has appeared and is plundering Satan’s kingdom by setting free his captives. Thirdly, he calls for the undecided to make up their minds. The time for neutrality is over. “Whoever is not with me is against me.”
The final two verses of the paragraph are puzzling ones. What is this “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” which cannot be forgiven? There is a range of opinions on the subject. We must keep the context in mind. Jesus claims that he was casting out demons “by the Spirit of God,” and that this evidence of divine power in the spiritual realm was proof that the kingdom of God had come upon them. The Pharisees, in an act of arrogant rejection, were denying that this was the work of the Spirit of God. Instead they called it the work of the Devil. This was the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
But why was it more serious than speaking against Jesus himself? And when does it become unforgivable? I believe we can answer the first of these questions. I am not so sure about the second.
Why is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit more serious than speaking out against Jesus himself? Let us allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In John 15:26, Jesus describes the primary ministry of the Holy Spirit this way: But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.
This is followed by these words in John 16:13: When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Then look at this description of the Spirit’s ministry in John 16:8-11: And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
If we put all that together, what we find is this. The Spirit’s ministry is to reveal and glorify Jesus and to convict the world. When an individual or a group (like the Pharisees) reject the Spirit’s ministry, they are turning out the spiritual light, the only path of revelation to the Son of God and Messiah, who is the only path to the Father. And when this opposition hardens to the extent that they actually attribute the Spirit’s work to the Devil, there comes a point of no return. They have missed the last exit from the freeway that will take them to their preferred destination and there is no turning back. That is why this act of supreme rejection of the Spirit and his witness is unforgivable. It is a final rejection of the only path to eternal life.
At what point does a resistance to the Spirit’s ministry become unforgivable? I do not know how to answer that question. I know the Pharisees had crossed that line only because Jesus announced that they had. Did they know in their hearts that they had crossed a line and made an irrevocable decision? I don’t know. Can an individual today know where that line is, and that he or she is in danger of crossing it? Again, I don’t know. But I think it is important to recognize from Jesus’ words that such a line does exist. And it is a line that you do not want to cross. This is why Jesus called on his audience that day to make a decision – that a position of neutrality cannot be maintained forever. “Whoever is not with me is against me.”
It is a troubling passage. It unsettles us. But I believe it is better to be troubled and unsettled now than in eternity.
I believe the next paragraph is a continuation along the same theme:
33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
In these verses, Jesus is telling us that words matter. The particular words Jesus has in mind were the words of the Pharisees when they accused Jesus of being in league with the Devil. Words will ultimately reveal the heart. Out of their evil hearts, the Pharisees had brought forth words of rejection and blasphemy. This was no accident. This was no slip of the tongue, spoken in the impulse of the moment. This was what was in their heart. That is why Jesus calls them a “brood of vipers.” Their own words had condemned them.
The spiritual battle and confrontation continued:
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
Jesus continues to make these stunning claims about himself. He has already told them that he is greater than David, greater than the temple itself, greater than the Sabbath. Now he announces that he is greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon. He is the new heart in the body of Judaism; not only new but greater than all that had gone before. But the body of formal Jewish legalism would have none of him. They rejected this new heart and in in rejecting the King, they rejected the Kingdom and incurred the judgment of the King. When they asked for a sign, the only sign Jesus offered was an obscure reference to Jonah and a prophecy of his own resurrection. Isn’t it ironic that when Jesus did rise from the dead on the third day, the religious hierarchy of the nation conspired to cover up the evidence, confirming the hardness of their hearts and sealing their own judgment?
Jesus then told them a parable. It is a parable that illustrates the spiritual condition of the nation:
43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
As I said, this is a parable about the nation; the generation of Jews who were even then in the process of rejecting their Messiah. Putting this together with the earlier paragraph, Jesus is the powerful One who has come and bound the “strong man”, the Devil, and plundered his house. Jesus has demonstrated his power by casting out demons and doing a “spiritual house cleaning” for the nation. But if the nation persists in rejecting their King, if they fail to invite him in to take up residence, the spiritual forces of evil will return like the unclean spirit in the parable. He will return with reinforcements, and the last state of the person will be worse than before.
This has been a gloomy chapter, filled with conflict and tension and the pronouncement of coming judgment. As I said in the introduction, it is a pivotal chapter in Matthew’s account as he describes the increasing rejection of the Messiah and his ministry. So it is with a sense of relief that we come to the contrasting final paragraph. Jesus’ ministry was not all gloom and doom.
46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Rejected by the nation of Israel, Jesus the Messiah is in the process of creating an alternative kingdom; an alternative family. It is a family, not formed by ties of blood, but by bonds of faith, loyalty and obedience. To those who will come to Jesus as Messiah and Savior, and take his yoke; the yoke of obedience and submission to the Father’s will, Jesus makes this incredible offer. “You will be my new family. You will be my brother, my sister, my mother.”
This passage we have looked at today is a chapter in the history of Israel. But the issues it raises remain very relevant to all of us today. There is a choice to be made; the same choice that faced the Jewish nation. Jesus made some remarkable claims; greater than David, greater than the temple, greater than the Sabbath, greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, unique Son of the Father, and the prophesied King of the Jews. Either his claims are true or they are false. Every one of us must ultimately make up our minds on that question. Will we reject him as the Jewish nation did? Or will we accept his invitation to come to him by faith, take his yoke upon our shoulders, and become members of his spiritual family?
- Read Matthew 12 together.
- The Pharisees had become enmeshed in the legal minutiae of Sabbath keeping and so missed the “Lord of the Sabbath” when he appeared among them. Can you think of any equivalent issues that might cause “official Christianity” or “traditional Christianity” (especially your tradition!) to miss Jesus if he were to appear today?
- Discuss the meaning of verse 7. In what arenas does the church need to heed this admonition today?
- What is the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”? (verse 31-32) Do you think it is possible to commit this sin today? Why or why not? Can a Christian commit this sin? (Remember, this is a difficult passages, and has yielded a variety of opinions among Bible students. You may end up having to agree to disagree!)
- What are the implications of verses 33-37? (Keep the context in mind!)
- Why do you think Jesus refused the Pharisees’ request for a sign? (verse 38)
- In introducing verses 43-45, Pastor Cam called this a “parable about Israel.” Why do you think he said that? How does it help us understand the passage (and the history of Israel)?
- Do you think Jesus was rude and unkind to his mother and brothers (in verses 46-50)? What was Jesus trying to communicate? What can we learn from this passage?