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Commentary on Matthew (6)

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

The Messiah, And One Who Is More Than the Messiah, Has Come, Overcoming the Powers of Satan, And While Rejected By The Many He Is Revealing Himself And Being Accepted By Babes And By The Meek and Lowly And Those Who Do The Will Of His Father Who Form His New Household (11.2-12.50).

Central to this whole section is Matthew’s declaration of Jesus as the One Who has come ‘fulfilling’ the Isaianic prophecy concerning the Servant of YHWH (12.17-21). For justification of this statement see the chiasmus below. As such He comes as the One Who is pleasing to God, and has God’s Spirit upon Him, bringing hope to the Gentiles and a ministry of restoration to His own people, as He triumphantly establishes righteousness and truth. And it is around this, and men’s response to it, that the whole section is constructed.

Indeed if we compare the passages before and after 12.17-21 we see a distinct difference in their emphases. Prior to the declaration concerning the coming Servant the emphasis is on Jesus as:

  • The Coming One Who is fulfilling the Scriptures concerning Himself (11.3-6), and revealing His authority (12.1-16), and His essential Oneness with the Father (11.25-27).
  • The pressing forwards against all opposition of the Kingly Rule of Heaven which is now present among them, and for which John, the greatest of the prophets, had prepared the way (11.7-15), which is manifested by the work of the Spirit of God (12.28).

Thus while the people as a whole may have expressed their dissatisfaction with John and Himself (11.16-19), and have ignored the signs which reveal Who He is (‘if the works which have been done in you’), something which could only result in their final judgment (11.20-24), and while the Pharisees may have turned against Him (12.2, 14), there were those who were religiously speaking babes, but who had been enlightened by His Father, and had come to see the truth about Him (11.25-27). To them He has revealed the Father, so that they may walk in oneness with Himself as the One Who is meek and lowly (11.28-30).

However, once the declaration of Him as the Spirit anointed and beloved Servant of YHWH has been made (12.17-21), we are suddenly faced with what lies behind all this opposition, the activities of the powers of evil (12.22-32, 43-45). These are seen to be what is responsible for the unresponsiveness of the Jews, although only because their hearts are evil (12.33-37). And this is accompanied by an assurance that these evil powers will be defeated by the power of the Spirit Whose presence in Him reveals that the Kingly Rule of God has come upon them as God’s prospective people (12.28). Nevertheless many will sadly fail to respond and will therefore discover that their position becomes seven times worse than before (12.43-45). The section then ends with Jesus introducing His new family (12.46-50), His new ‘household’, the ones who have been delivered from the ‘despoiled’ household of Satan (12.29). These are seen as forming a new ‘household’ which again demonstrates that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is being established. Indeed we could see as lying behind this section the words spoken to Paul by God in Acts 26.18, ‘to turn them from darkness to light (11.25-30), and from the power of Satan to God (12.28-29)’.

We can summarise this as follows:

  • The Promised One has come, has established His identity by His activities, and is establishing the Kingly Rule of God (11.1-12.16).
  • He is present as the Spirit anointed Servant of YHWH to bring hope to the nations (12.17-21).
  • By His presence He is undermining the rule of Satan and bringing him under control with regard to all who are in that Kingly Rule of God (12.22-50).

But there are also a number of other themes in the section. The first is the theme of the misunderstanding of His ministry. The section opens with the puzzlement of John, the one who has announced Him (11.2-6). It continues with the puzzlement of the people who can understand neither John nor Him (11.16-19), nor His signs (11.20-24). And that is followed by the puzzlement of the Pharisees (12.1-15). But with that puzzlement comes Jesus’ assurance that the ones whom His Father have blessed will see and understand (11.6, 25-30). Thus John will be blessed in this way in 11.6, and all Jesus’ disciples will be blessed in this way in 11.25-30. For they will come to see that He is the Servant of YHWH promised by Isaiah, and has come as the chosen and beloved of YHWH, Who will have His Spirit upon Him, and will accomplish His purpose in meekness and lowliness, finally restoring and bringing to a flame all God’s true people, which will also include the nations as a whole (12.17-21). Satan will be put to flight and the eyes of the blind will be opened and their tongues released (12.21-32) so that they will do and say what is true (12.33-37), thus being revealed as His Messianic family (12.46-50).

Another theme is that of Who Jesus is (a constant theme in the Gospel):

  • He is the Christ, the Messiah (11.2), the One Who has been announced by the new Elijah (11.9, 14).
  • He is the Son of Man (11.19; 12.8, 32, 40).
  • He is the chosen and beloved Servant of YHWH (12.18).
  • He is the Son of David (12.23).
  • He is the Spirit anointed One (12.18, 28, 32).
  • He is the One Whose Messianic signs should bring forth repentance (11.20-24).
  • He is the One Who is greater than Jonah or Solomon (12.41-42).

In direct contrast are those who fail to respond to Him. They are an ‘(evil) generation’ (11.16, 39; 12.45); they behave like spoiled children (11.16-19); they refuse to repent (11.20-24); they criticise His actions (12.2, 10); they include Scribes and Pharisees (12.2, 14, 24, 38), who are active against Him; and yet they think of themselves as ‘wise and understanding’ (11.25; compare 11.19).

A further theme is the presence of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. It has been manifested by signs (11.5), prepared for by John the Baptiser (11.10, 14), is coming in forcefully (11.12), and is manifested by the Son of Man’s Lordship over the Sabbath (12.8), and by the Spirit’s working (12.28) which evidences the fact that ‘the Kingly Rule of God has come upon them’.

And finally there is the theme of judgment. For although He has come to save, His very presence is a guarantee of coming judgment (John 3.19-21; 12.47-48). It will come on those who see His signs and refuse to repent (11.20-24); on those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit at work through Him (12.32); on those who refuse to respond to His preaching (12.41-42); and on those whose repentance has only been half-hearted (12.45).

The Whole Section Can Be Analysed As Follows

  • a He is questioned as to whether He is the Coming one, and replies, ‘Tell John what you see’, that is, the Messianic signs. He then stresses to the crowds the greatness of John the Baptist, but points out that the coming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven transcends John, and that it is now coming forcefully - the new age is here (11.2-15).
  • b This generation, who have come to see John and Jesus, have declared that they do not fit in with what they want, for on the one hand they criticise John for being an Ascetic, and on the other they criticise Jesus for being a Winebibber. They are like children playing games. Wisdom is justified by her works (what she produces) (11.16-19).
  • c Diatribe against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, who are contrasted with Tyre, Sidon and Sodom (Gentile cities). They are condemned because they have rejected what they have seen. It will thus be worse for the cities of Israel in the Day of Judgment than for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom (11.20-24).
  • d On the other hand what is hidden from the wise is revealed to babes. Only the Father truly knows the Son, and only the Son truly knows and reveals the Father, and those to whom He has chosen to reveal Him - (what is in the heart of God is being revealed through His sent One, His Word) (11.25-27).
  • e Jesus calls His disciples to “Come to Me - receive My yoke - I am meek and lowly in heart - My yoke is easy, My burden light” - and His people will be known by what they are (11.28-30).
  • f Challenge in the cornfield - Jesus gives the example of what David did and of what the priests do in the Temple - but now One greater than the Temple is here, and One greater than David, for He is the Son of Man, Lord of the Sabbath (12.1-8).
  • g He heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, symptomatic of Israel’s state - but the Pharisees being blind plan to destroy Him - Jesus withdraws and continues His healing signs, but urges the crowds to silence concerning them (12.9-16).
  • h By all this Jesus is fulfilling the Isaianic prophecy of the Servant of YHWH. Behold My Servant - My Spirit is on Him - He will gently restore His people and in Him will the Gentiles hope (12.17-21).
  • g He heals a demon possessed, blind and dumb man, symptomatic of Israel’s state - “is not this the Son of David?” (12.22-23).
  • f The Beelzeboul controversy - one greater than Satan is here to spoil Satan’s goods and reveal by His casting out of evil spirits by the power of the Spirit that the Kingly Rule of God has come upon them (12.22-30).
  • e The unforgivable sin is to reject the Spirit’s testimony to Him manifested through the openly revealed power of God. If a tree is good its fruit is good - if it is not good its fruit will not be good - a tree is known by its fruit (12.31-33).
  • d What is in the heart comes from the mouth revealing the truth about men - they are justified or condemned by their words (12.34-37).
  • c Scribes and Pharisees seek a sign - but only the sign of the prophet Jonah will be given - it is the sign of the resurrection - Nineveh and Sheba (Gentiles) will rise in judgment against them because they have not repented, because a greater than Jonah, and a greater than Solomon is here (12.38-42).
  • b An unclean spirit leaves and returns with seven worse than himself, so that the last state worse is than the first - so it will be with this generation (12.43-45).
  • a His natural mother and brothers are replaced by the Messiah’s new family, those who do the will of His Father in Heaven. The new community is founded, the new age is here (12.46-50).

Note that in ‘a’ the emphasis is on the fact that the new age is here and is revealed by a new attitude, and the same applies in the parallel. In ‘b’ the present generation come out to seek John and Jesus and are dissatisfied with both, for opposing reasons, and thus receive neither to their hearts - wisdom is evidenced by what it produces, and in the parallel we see the other side of the picture, the evil spirit leaves them alone for a time, but when they remain empty (because they have not responded to either John or Jesus), the evil spirit returns and takes possession with seven other worse spirits. This is what is happening to this generation. In ‘c’ comparison is made between the cities of Israel and their rejection of Jesus’ revelation of Himself, which will reveal them to be in a worse state than the cities of the Gentiles, and in the parallel comparison is made between the response of Israel to Jesus, and the response of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba (representing Gentile cities) to Jonah and Solomon, which will count against Israel in the judgment. In ‘d’ we have a vivid description of the truth of God dawning in men’s hearts and being revealed through Jesus (through Whom God is speaking, revealing the heart of God) Who knows God and makes Him known, and in the parallel this is compared and contrasted with what comes from men’s hearts and is revealed through their words. In ‘e’ those who are His will reveal themselves by what they are as a result of coming to Him, and in the parallel a tree is known by its fruit, revealing what it is. In ‘f’ Jesus as the Son of David is greater than David the King (1.6) and is greater than the Temple, and as the Son of Man He is Lord of the Sabbath (demonstrating the presence of the Kingly Rule of God), and in the parallel He is greater than Beelzeboul the prince of devils, and in casting out devils by the Spirit of God is demonstrating that the Kingly Rule of God has come on them. In ‘g’ Jesus heals the man with the withered hand (symptomatic of Israel) on the Sabbath but the Pharisees prove themselves blind (see 23.16, 17, 19, 24, 26), while the crowd whom He heals are commanded to be dumb, and in the parallel He heals a man possessed by an evil spirit that makes a man blind and dumb, (symptomatic of Israel,) being thus recognised as the Son of David by the crowds while the Pharisees are blind. Centrally in ‘h’ He is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies as the Servant of YHWH, Who will bring justice and truth to the Gentiles, and Who will deal gently with His people, restoring the broken reed and bringing to flame the smoking flax (compare 11.25, 28-30), until He victoriously brings in justice and truth. In His Name will the Gentiles hope (compare 12.41-42).

The section opens with Jesus sending to John the Baptist in prison the evidence that He is the Coming One (11.2-6), which He follows up by informing the crowds of the greatness of John, and of the even greater thing that has happened in the coming in Him of the Kingly Rule of Heaven which is forcing its way on men against all opposition (or is being forcefully entered by men) (11.7-15). He then upbraids them for their inconsistency (11.16-19), and warns the cities where He has preached the most, of the judgment that awaits them because of their failure to respond in repentance, which makes them worse than the Gentiles (11.20-24).

In contrast with this He commends to His Father those who have had revealed to them the truth about Him, and reveals his own relationship to the Father as the Son Who alone knows the Father, and Who as such will reveal the Father to the disciples (11.25-27), something which He then connects with an appeal for His followers to become meek and lowly like Himself (11.28-30). We have in this an echo of the beatitudes (5.3-9) in which the blessing of God has resulted in His people being meek and lowly, and an echo of the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount in which He has given His revelation of the Father (5.44-7.21).

We should note the way in which this is presented. From 11.2-24 His words are spoken out to those who are outside the Kingly Rule of Heaven, but when He begins to deal with questions concerning those who are within the Kingly Rule of Heaven, His words go upwards. They are a colony of Heaven (Philippians 3.20). Two incidents are then described (12.1-16) which reveal His Messianic right to determine what shall be done on the Sabbath. In these incidents, as the Son of Man, He is revealed as Lord over the Sabbath (12.8), and brings out the blindness and hard-heartedness of the Pharisees.

Up to this point then the emphasis has been on the rejection by the many of the revelation of God given in the light of His Messianic works, an indication that they walk the broad way to destruction (11.16-24; 12.1-16), and on the comparatively few who have seen the truth about Him, and whom He calls to walk in His ways in the narrow way (11.25-30). And it is at this point that Matthew introduces the quotation from Isaiah 42.1-4, which he sees as being ‘fulfilled’ in Jesus. In this he emphasises that Jesus is among them as God’s chosen and beloved Servant (compare 3.17), who is totally pleasing to Him in what He is doing (11.26) and Who, empowered by the Spirit (3.11-12, 16; 12.28), will bring righteous truth to the Gentiles (11.21; 12.41-42). By His patient working, among those who will respond, as the One Who is meek and lowly in heart (11.28-30), He will send forth righteous truth until total success is achieved. And all this is in promises which include hope for the Gentiles (as indicated in 11.20-24; 12.41-42). So there is in Matthew no thought of doubt or fear in what might seem outward failure, for God’s mighty spiritual warrior is at work bringing salvation and deliverance.

Following this Old Testament revelation concerning Jesus’ ministry there then comes a change in emphasis. Previously all has been about declaration, response, scepticism and opposition. But now the atmosphere changes and it is as though Jesus lifts up the stone of the world in order to reveal what is happening in the darkness beneath it. The forces of evil are shown to be at work in Israel behind the scenes.

They are first emphasised in that they are seen as causing blindness and dumbness, for Jesus now casts out a blind and deaf and dumb spirit (12.22-23), just as a blind and deaf and dumb Spirit needs to be cast out of Israel. He then explains in more depth that He is present by the Spirit of God to cast out the powers of evil and ‘spoil’ Satan’s household revealing the presence of the Kingly Rule of God (12.28-29 compare 12.18). Teaching is then given connected with this which looks below the surface to the heart of man, and reveals what is beneath, teaching concerning the fact that what men are in their hearts will inevitably be revealed by what they say, by which also they will be judged (12.33-37); and He follows it with a warning that He will give no spectacular signs (other than those presented in His ministry as described to John the Baptist) apart from one already given by God, a fore-presentation of His coming resurrection as the Son of Man (12.40), as illustrated by what happened to the prophet Jonah (12.39-40).

This leads on to a comparison between the Gentiles who responded to Jonah and Solomon, and the present generation of Jews. The acceptance by the Gentiles of the messages of Jonah and Solomon are contrasted with the Jews’ lack of response to a greater than Jonah and Solomon Who is now here (12.41-42), an attitude which He then illustrates by the parable of the spirit who left a man, but who in the end, because the man’s heart remained empty and unresponsive towards God, returned to the man with seven spirits worse than himself (12.43-45). And this is specifically said to represent ‘this evil generation’ (verse 45). So the point behind all this is that Jesus, having come by the power of the Spirit as God’s chosen One, is putting the spirit world of evil to flight in Israel, but that a Judaism that fails to respond to His coming and to His words, can only expect to end up in a much worse condition than they were before He came, with their minds darkened by the powers of evil.

The coming of the new age is then finally illustrated by Jesus’ own attitude towards His earthly family and His heavenly family (12.46-50). The earthly has been replaced by the heavenly. Those are now His brother, sister and mother who do the will of His Father Who is in Heaven (12.50).

The Coming One Has Been Revealed As What He Is By His Activity, But The People Are Cynically Blind, Failing To Respond To His ‘Signs’, And Thus Only Face Judgment, Whilst Those Who Have Seen The Truth About Him Will Reveal It In Their Lives (11.1-30).

Having surveyed the whole we must now examine the section verse by verse, commencing with chapter 11. It will be noted that chapter 11 also falls into a pattern:

  • a The Coming One and the Kingly Rule of Heaven are revealed to those who see the signs of the Messiah (11.2-15).
  • b In contrast are those who refuse to see and respond either to John or to Jesus because they are like children playing games (11.16-19).
  • b This is followed by His condemnation of those who fail to read the signs that have been given by Jesus and whose future is therefore bleak (11.20-24).
  • a This is then followed by an indication of His special relationship with those who do read the signs, hear His words and follow Him (11.25-30).

Jesus Assures John That He, Jesus, Is The Expected Coming One For Whom John Was Preparing The Way (11.2-6).

John, languishing in a dungeon in the Fortress of Machaerus, east of Jordan, (compare 4.12; 14.3-5), was clearly puzzled. He had come to prepare the way for the Coming One Who was promised, the One Who was to succeed him. And he had expected to hear of wonderful things happening. He had expected to hear of an even greater response of people than he himself had seen, with a powerful work of the Spirit of God taking place on them (3.11-12), which would result in the triumph of God’s true people and in fiery judgment being carried out on the ungodly (3.7, 12). This, in his mind, would include judgment on the king who had thrust him into this dungeon, and the introducing of God’s Kingly Rule (3.11-12).

But from the information that had reached him all was not well. Nothing highly unusual appeared to be happening at all. There did not seem to be any ominous stirrings. There appeared to be no sign of a righteous uprising like that spoken of at Qumran and by the Essenes. Everything just seemed to be going on almost as normal. He did not lose his faith in God’s promises. He was just perplexed, and wondered whether he had misinterpreted things. Perhaps he had been wrong in thinking that Jesus was the Coming One. Perhaps He was not the Coming One after all, and he must wait patiently for someone else? So he sent his disciples to Jesus to make enquiries.

In those days access to prisoners by close friends and relatives was allowed so that they could supply them with food and necessities (compare 25.36), and John appears to have been no exception. In his case his closest disciples had the courage to visit him and seek to sustain him, and it was these brave men who came to Jesus with John’s questions.

Analysis.

  • a Now when John heard in the prison the works of the Christ, he sent by his disciples, and said to him, “Are you he who is coming, or should we look for another?” (2-3).
  • b And Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear” (4a)
  • c “And see” (4).
  • c “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up (5a).
  • b And the poor have good tidings preached to them” (5b).
  • a “And blessed is he, whoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me” (6).

Note that in ‘a’ comes John’s question and in the parallel is Jesus’ assurance. In ‘b’ is reference to what John’s disciples hear, and in the parallel the poor hear in the proclamation of the Good News. In ‘c’ is reference to what they see, and in the parallel is a description of what they see.

11.2-3 ‘Now when John heard in the prison the works of the Christ (the Messiah), he sent by his disciples, and said to him, “Are you he who is coming, or should we look for another?” ’

In his prison John heard of ‘the kind of works that the Messiah was doing’, but what he heard did not fit in with his conception of the Messiah. That Jesus was the Messiah has already been stated in 1.1, 16, 17. Thus ‘the works of the Messiah’ may be just Matthew’s interpretive comment, showing that he feels that he has by now quite definitely demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah, and expects his readers to appreciate the fact. But it is quite possible that he wants us to know that that was also how John thought of Him, for John certainly saw Him as an ‘end day’ (apocalyptic) figure, ‘the Coming One’ (3.11; compare 21.9; 23.39; John 6.14; 11.27). However, that was the point. John could not in that case quite understand what He was doing. (This was not the first time that John had been taken by surprise by Jesus (3.14), revealing that he continually did not completely comprehend what the Coming One would be all about, and was required to respond in faith). So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus about Himself. Was He the Coming One, or should they be looking for someone else? That was the question. Could he expect instant action or had he to wait for another who was of a different kind from Jesus? He was not offended with Jesus. He just wanted to know. Perhaps he had been mistaken in his assumptions?

‘Another.’ The word indicates another of a different kind. What Jesus was doing did not quite fit in with his expectations.

What then was causing John’s difficulty? Perhaps it arose because he felt that it was time that Jesus commenced recruiting followers out of the great crowds that followed Him, so as to establish His Kingly Rule, something that He appeared not to be doing. On the other hand he himself had not even prepared in that way, which is against that suggestion. Even more possibly there may be a hint of what was in his thoughts when we consider what Jesus said later about the crowd’s view of Him, that he was an ascetic. Jesus had previously joined him in the wilderness. Perhaps John found it difficult to understand a prophetic figure Who now seemingly ate and drank with outcasts and sinners, appeared to hold lightly to ritual (John was a priest from a priestly family), and discouraged His disciples from fasting. He had had no opportunity of discussing this with Him and it may well all have appeared to him very strange, for Judaism was a religion that took such things very seriously, and none more seriously than he had himself. Could such behaviour really reveal God’s Coming One? Perhaps there was even a hint in his words that he felt that Jesus should consider whether He was behaving quite as He should.

All this may have played a part, but Jesus’ reply suggests that He knew that his main problem lay in his misunderstanding of His ways. Thus Jesus knew that the way in which to satisfy him was to show him that, while not perhaps doing what John had expected, He was fulfilling what the Scriptures had promised, and what was more, Scriptures which were also connected with judgment.

‘He Who is coming.’ By this John may have meant the Messiah; or the Prophet of Deuteronomy 18.15 or Isaiah 61.1-3; or the coming Elijah (Malachi 4.5-6); all of whom were expected figures (see John 1.20, 25). Or he may have had in mind some other expected figure. Some have traced the idea to Habakkuk 2.3 which speaks of something or someone who ‘will surely come’, and that ‘at the appointed time’. Others have thought of Genesis 49.10 and the ‘coming of Shiloh’ to gather the people, or of the Coming One of Psalm 118.26 Who will come in the name of the Lord. And still others of the Redeemer Who would come to Zion to turn away transgression from Jacob (Isaiah 59.20), which would tie in with the earlier citation of Isaiah 40.3 (see 3.3). But the fact that he expected the Coming One to pour out ‘Spirit and fire’ seems to point either to the Messiah (which could include some or all of the above), or alternatively to another, but more powerful, Elijah (compare 2 Kings 2.9-10, 15; 1.10, 12, and see also Revelation 11.5). He may indeed have combined the two ideas in the light of Malachi’s prophecies (Malachi 3.1b, 2; 4.5-6), and even have included some of the other concepts. For while Jesus saw John as the coming Elijah (verse 14), it was not how John saw himself (John 1.21), although we should remember that that was a reply to people who were thinking literally of Elijah returning (something which Jesus did not believe either). He saw himself as the one who was sent to prepare the way for God to act (3.3; John 1.23; compare Malachi 3.1a), with a Greater yet to come. And Matthew will shortly make clear to his readers precisely Who that Coming One is (12.17-21).

We should note that, contrary to popular opinion, Jesus was already ‘drenching’ His Apostles in Holy Spirit as is evidenced by His giving to them the power to heal, cleanse lepers, raise the dead and cast out evil spirits (10.8), which they could not have done without the Holy Spirit (12.28). But John might not have appreciated that, and he probably felt that the fire just did not appear to be on the horizon at all.

‘The disciples of John.’ We know almost nothing about the ‘disciples of John’. We do know that they fasted, and especially so because of what had happened to their leader (9.14). It would appear therefore that they formed a recognised grouping similar to that of the Pharisees (and of the Essenes), loose but definite. And they possibly sought to pass on the teaching of John, and even to preach that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was coming. Of course those who like John the Baptist himself had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah would transfer their allegiance to Jesus, as Peter, James, John and Andrew had done, although these particular ones who now came to Jesus may have been waiting to see first what would happen their leader. But there would be many disciples of John who had responded to his message when they had come to Jerusalem for the feasts, and who were now scattered around the world, and back in their own homes. And many of them probably continued to look ahead and hope for what John had promised, without necessarily believing that Jesus was the fulfilment of what John had taught, or indeed knowing much about Jesus (for many of them Palestine was far away). Certainly there appear to have been largish numbers of disciples of John around the world with whom the later church came into contact (e.g. Acts 19.1-6).

11.4 ‘And Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see,” ’

Jesus responds to their request by telling them to take a message from Him to John. They were to spell out the detail of what was happening. They were to tell John what they heard and saw, and He gives them the message word for word, for He knows that John will hear and understand, for he is one who is blessed by God.

‘Hearing and seeing’ is very important in Matthew. It has in mind hearts that are responsive to the truth (verse 15; 13.9, 17), or, in the negative, hearts that are not responsive (13.14-15; 5.8; 10.27). And Jesus knows that John will hear and see.

11.5 “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good tidings preached to them.”

We have already noted how all these ‘signs’ have been fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus as outlined in 8.1-9.35. See introduction to 8.1. Jesus is here thus recounting to John the details of His ministry. They are also the signs that His Apostles will perform, something which stresses their importance in the Messianic ministry (10.8). And He words His reply so as to make clear that it has in mind the prophecies of Isaiah, and are also a reminder of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. For ‘the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, --- and the deaf hear’ we can compare Isaiah 35.5-6, ‘the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped, then will the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will sing.’ We can also note Isaiah 29.18-19, ‘and in that day shall the deaf hear --- and the eyes of the blind will see --’, where he is speaking of spiritual truth, the verbal similarity thus being a direct hint to John that like those of whom Isaiah was speaking he is to see and understand. And these were events which were to take place at the time of the restoration of Israel, and would accompany the fact that God would also judge His people (Isaiah 35.4). They were therefore very relevant to John’s view of the Coming One, This connection between these Isaianic promises and the Messiah is also found at Qumran. Note also in Jesus’ words ‘the dead are raised up’ which echoes Isaiah 26.19 ‘your dead shall live’.

This healing ministry of Jesus again looks back to 8.17 where ‘He bore our afflictions and carried our sicknesses’. But we may also compare it with 12.17-20 where He cares for the bruised reed and the smoking flax. It is swallowed up between the two, stressing the Servanthood of Jesus

However, ‘the lepers are cleansed --- and the dead are raised up’ was probably also intended to indicate that a greater than Elijah and Elisha was here. The remarkable healing of a leper by Elisha (although in his case indirectly - 2 Kings 5), and the raising of the dead by both Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17.17-24; 2 Kings 4.32-37), were seen as outstanding and memorable miracles which demonstrated their uniqueness, for they were the only examples of such miracles. So to heal lepers and raise the dead in the plural was to be greater than Elijah and Elisha. And that Jesus in other ways fulfilled even more abundantly what they had begun will later come out in the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand, for which compare the feeding of one hundred in 2 Kings 4.42-44. And they too were men of the Spirit (2 Kings 2.9, 15), another connection with 12.17-20. So Jesus is certainly depicting Himself as greater than Elijah and Elisha combined. He sums up in Himself all the wonders of the prophets.

‘And the poor have good tidings preached to them.” This is an echo of Isaiah 61.1, thus identifying Jesus with the anointed Prophet in a passage which is also accompanied by a warning of coming judgment (Isaiah 61.2), which is again a point of contact with 12.17-20. Thus Jesus’ words were to be recognised by John as indicating that Jesus really was the Coming One in three aspects, the Coming One of Isaiah, the Coming One Who was greater than Elijah, and the Coming Prophet and bearer of Good News, and their contexts would confirm to John that the judgment that he was expecting would indeed at some stage inevitably follow (notice Jesus’ certainty concerning John’s knowledge of the Scriptures).

Note how the six items are split into two pairs of healings, followed by the raising of the dead and the proclamation of Good News, each of the last two standing on its own (the split distinguished by the use of ‘and’ (kai)). He is thus the overall healer and cleanser, the raiser of the dead and the proclaimer of the Good News.

11.6 “And blessed is he, whoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me.”

And then He adds a rider to what He has said so as to remind John that although he may not understand, he must trust and believe. He must not stumble over the fact that Jesus is not exactly what he was expecting, for great prophet that he was, even his understanding was limited by his background and expectations. This reference to Jesus being a possible stumbling block links Him with Isaiah 8.24-25 where God Himself is the stumbling block.

Yet this is more than a rider, it is a reply to John’s question. By accepting Jesus for what He is and truly believing, he will prove that he has been greatly blessed by God, and will continue to be blessed (note the echo of the beatitudes in 5.3-9). As in 5.3-9 ‘blessed’ means ‘blessed by God’. That is why He knows that John will take His words to heart and be comforted, because it will result from God acting in blessing on him (as in 11.25.

Jesus Expresses His Full Appreciation of John But Points Out That Now Something Even Greater Has Come, The Coming In Force Of The Kingly Rule of Heaven (11.7-15).

Having sent His assurance to John Jesus now turns to the crowds, both in order to vindicate John and also to bring out an even more important fact, that what John had pointed to was now here. He declares that John is the greatest of all the prophets, because he has introduced what other prophets could only look forward to. As the introducer of the Coming One he is thus set in status above them all. He is the one promised in the Scriptures, the preparer of the way (3.3; compare Isaiah 40.3), the coming Elijah (verse 14 compare Malachi 4.5).

But now what he had come to introduce is blossoming into fruition. The Kingly Rule of Heaven is forcefully coming in (verse 12) in a way in which it never has before. And all who enter that Kingly Rule will be greater than John, for they will enjoy a status that he as the introducer could not have. They will be directly servants of the King. And to be such a servant is to be the greatest in the Kingly Rule of Heaven (20.26; 23.11). Precisely how forcefully His Kingly Rule will come in will shortly be revealed in 12.22-32. And the point is that it is coming in through Jesus (12.28) in His manifestation of His power through the Spirit over all the forces of darkness.

Thus John was being superseded. To many of His hearers that idea would have been astounding. Their whole emphasis was on John and his teaching, and on the expected result that the Romans would be overthrown and an independent Palestine established. As with John what Jesus was doing did not appear to tie in with their expectations. For the Kingly Rule of God was not being established by force of arms, which was what they had expected, but by the spreading of the word of God.

Analysis.

  • a And as these went their way, Jesus began to say to the crowds concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in delicate clothing? Behold, those who wear delicate clothing are in kings’ houses” (7-8).
  • b “But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and much more than a prophet” (9).
  • c “This is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, Who will prepare your way before you’ ” (10).
  • d “Truly I say to you, Among those who are born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist. Yet he who is least in the Kingly Rule of heaven is greater than he” (11).
  • c “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingly rule of heaven has been forcefully advancing (or ‘suffers violence’), and men of violence take it by force” (12).
  • b “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (13).
  • a “And if you are willing to receive it, this is Elijah, who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (14-15).

Not that in ‘a’ the question is as to what is basic about John, and in the parallel we discover it is that he is the coming Elijah. In ‘b the question is whether he is a prophet, and in the parallel mention is made of all the prophets. In ‘c’ he is to prepare the way for the coming king, and in the parallel the kingly rule of the king advances. Centrally in ‘d’ is the ‘greatness’ of all who are under the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

11.7 ‘And as these went their way, Jesus began to say to the crowds concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” ’

Jesus begins to impress on the crowds the greatness of John. He questions them as to what it was about John that caused them to flock to see him. What made them go into the wilderness? Certainly not just a reed (or a reed bed) shaking in the wind. That was too common a sight. Or was it the weakness and frailty of the reed that Jesus had in mind? A reed was helpless before the wind, and vulnerable (1 Kings 14.15), but possibly Jesus wants them to acknowledge that John was not like that. Note the connection with the later quotation from Isaiah in 12.20. There the Servant will deal tenderly with the broken reed. He has not come only for such as John.

11.8 “But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” Note how well the pictures fit together, on the one hand the humble reed, on the other the mighty courtier. The one is found in the wilderness, but is hardly worth gong out to see, the other might be worth going out to see, but is not found in the wilderness. John was, however, neither and both. He was both worth going out to see, and was in the wilderness. For he was a prophet of God. He was not a thing to be blown about, nor an arrogant man of earthly authority and power, living at ease and in luxury. He was a true prophet of a kind that Israel had been waiting for.

11.9 “But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and much more than a prophet.”

Why then did they go out into the wilderness? Was it to see a prophet? Yes, it was. And indeed it was to see more than a prophet, it was to see the special prophet whom God had sent to prepare the way for Him to finally act to bring about the consummation.

11.10 “This is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, Who will prepare your way before you.’ ”

‘It is written.’ This always signifies words which have the authority of God because they come from the Scripture. What is so written is God’s truth.

And what was written? That the prophet that they had gone out to see was the one announced beforehand by Scripture, the very messenger of God, who was sent by Him to announce the coming of His Chosen One. The words are taken from Malachi 3.1 as affected by Exodus 23.20, and are as found in both Mark and Luke. But they are slightly different from LXX. For while LXX has God sending a messenger to prepare the way for Himself, here the messenger is sent to prepare the way for His Messiah, that is, for Jesus. This application of verses which speak of God to Jesus is common in the New Testament. It is interpretive translation. But for Jesus to so casually apply it to Himself brings out the unique status that He claimed as ‘the Son’ (verse 27).

11.11 “Truly I say to you, Among those who are born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist. Yet he who is least in the Kingly Rule of heaven is greater than he.”

And then Jesus makes clear that in Himself a new age has begun. It is the time of consummation (even if it will last for two thousand years and more). The Kingly Rule of Heaven is now being established on earth (it has always been established in Heaven - Psalm 22.28; 103.19; 93.1, etc). And the one who is least in the Kingly Rule of Heaven is greater than John, for John is a figure of the old age, preparatory to the Kingly Rule, but not under it. Indeed he is the greatest of all born in that age. For of men born of women none has arisen who was greater than John the Baptist. And what this statement is telling us is not that he is greater than Moses, and Elijah, and David per se, (such comparisons would be odious), but that he is greater than them all because he is the Introducer of Jesus. He has a higher office than all the others, and it is that which gives him his greatness, that he is the one appointed to prepare the way for Jesus, and declared to be such in Scripture. And let us consider what that tells us about the greatness of Jesus. It tells us that He towers above them all, and that all point to Him.

And yet, and here is the remarkable thing, even the one who is least under the Kingly Rule of Heaven is ‘greater than John’. That must make us pause. How can that be? And the reply is that John, and all who came before him pointed ahead to the day when the King would come. But they had no place in the Kingly Rule of Heaven on earth, for the King had not yet come. But now all who come under the Kingly Rule of Heaven on earth, by responding to and submitting to Jesus the King, are becoming His servants by being the light of the world (5.14-16), and are bringing men and women into His Kingly Rule. They are members of His Kingly Rule, and there is no greater status than that.

Some have seen ‘he that is least (or youngest)’ as applying to Jesus, so that it is He Who is greater than John the Baptist. But that would not have needed to be said. It was intrinsic in the fact that John had prepared the way for Him. What was startling was that a new age had begun in which all who served God had a unique greatness, the greatness of personal service to the King (20.25-28; Luke 22.24-27; Mark 9.34-37) and of being involved in the new salvation. The greatness lay in their status, just as John’s greatness lay in his status. It is telling us that all true status in the world is to be measured against the position of men in the light of Jesus.

But we must note what being in the Kingly Rule of Heaven involves. It is not the same thing as being a member of the Christian church (although it is the same thing as being a living member of Christ’s body). Being in the Kingly Rule of Heaven involves being in genuine submission to the King. Many outwardly appear to be in the Kingly Rule of Heaven who are in fact ‘sons of the Evil One’ (13.38). But it is only the ‘sons of the Kingly Rule’ (13.38) who are really within the sphere of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, for they alone truly serve the King.

Of course it is important to remember here that greatness in the Kingly Rule of Heaven is not to be measured by earthly standards. True greatness in the Kingly Rule of God is evidenced by unflagging and totally unselfish service (20.25-28). It is found in self-denial, in the taking up of the cross to follow Jesus. It is found in being ‘the least’, the one who serves (Mark 9.35; Luke 22.24-27). And once a man truly does that, he is truly great with a greatness that is unsurpassed. It is the greatness of privilege. He has a status beyond all others.

It may be asked, does this mean then that John was not included in the Kingly Rule of Heaven? And the answer is that in his office as the preparer of the way, he was not included in the Kingly Rule of Heaven on earth. For it was Jesus Who brought in the Kingly Rule of Heaven on earth after John was imprisoned. He was announced as King after His baptism, but He did not begin to take on the role until John was put in prison. It was true evidence of His graciousness that while John was still preaching Jesus played a subordinate role to him. He preached alongside him and was concerned when more began to seek to Him rather than to John (John 3.22-24; 4.1-3). It was only when John was imprisoned that Jesus began to introduce the Kingly Rule of Heaven (Mark 1.14-15), as revealed in His mighty works, consolidating what John and He had begun, and revealing the Kingly Rule as now present (12.28). John could never as a prophet be a part of the Kingly Rule on earth (even though his followers possibly could - 21.31-32), for he was pointing towards it, and for him to enter under the Kingly Rule of Heaven would have involved him becoming officially subordinate to Jesus. And that was something that Jesus in His graciousness would not allow. He was, however, along with all the prophets, certainly an inheritor of the Kingly Rule in Heaven (Luke 13.28).

11.12 “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingly rule of heaven is forcefully advancing (or ‘suffers violence’), and men of violence are taking it by force.”

A number of questions are immediately raised by this verse, although the problems of exact interpretation do not take away from its central meaning, which is that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is ‘now’ manifested on earth, and is either 1). forcefully advancing in the face of all opposition, or 2). is being forcefully entered by those who are becoming Jesus’ disciples, or 3). is being subjected to the violence of its opponents. This fact of the present existence of the Kingly Rule of Heaven must not be lost sight of in the discussion that follows.

The probable meaning of this is that the triumphant establishment of God’s Kingly Rule (the word means not His Kingdom but His Kingship) on earth has begun, being advanced each time someone genuinely becomes a disciple, that is, ‘comes to Christ’, and is taken up and appropriated by His saving power (or in other terms is ‘truly converted’). It will not finally result in the world becoming ‘the Kingdom of God’. Rather the Kingly Rule of God is among them or ‘within them’ (Luke 17.21). The world as a whole will continue in rebellion (Jesus made that clear from the start - 7.13-27. He never thought that all the Jews would accept His Kingly Rule). And when the King calls the world into judgment, it is then that those who are His will enter ‘the life of the age to come’ in Heaven (25.46), while those who have refused to respond will enter into everlasting punishment.

With regard to the three main alternatives suggested the idea that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is being violently attacked by opponents does not fit the context. While it is true that John has suffered at the hands of Herod it was in fact a personal matter. John had rebuked Herod for stealing his brother’s wife. But it was not an actual attack, except indirectly, on the Kingly Rule of Heaven. It is true that such hostility is indicated in chapter 10, but while the disciples might well have suffered under it, why mention it here out of the blue, except possibly in 12b as an after-comment?

But what is rather true here is that in the process of vindicating John we have just been told of the one who is least in the Kingly Rule of Heaven who is greater than John. And we would then inevitably ask, why? Further information and explanation concerning its establishment therefore fits the context. Furthermore we would also expect some evidence in respect of the success of John’s ministry which accorded with the Scripture quoted in verse 10, an indication of what he had accomplished by his preparing of the way, as demonstrated by a comment on the advancement of the cause of the One for Whom he had prepared the way. That would therefore support either the meaning that that Kingly Rule is now ‘forcefully advancing’ or the idea that it is being ‘entered violently’ by those who are responding. This last idea is certainly supported by Luke 16.16, spoken on another occasion, but the problem with this is that there is no hint in Matthew of violence in relation to entry into the Kingly Rule, apart possibly from the description of the way as ‘afflicted’ in 7.14. The emphasis is more on meekness and lowliness. (But see the next paragraph below). However there is certainly a clear indication of the violent advancement of the Kingly Rule of God in 12.28-29 where Jesus speaks of Himself as defeating and binding the strong man Satan through the power of the Spirit so that He might release his captives (spoil his goods). This would suggest therefore that we should translate ‘forcefully advancing’, with that in mind.

And as well as these factors another factor has to be taken into account, and that is that the idea of the Kingly Rule being ‘forcefully advanced’ is found in Pharisaic teaching. They spoke of bringing in the end of the age ‘by force’ through fasting and study of the Law. Thus the idea of spiritually ‘violent’ methods bringing in God’s Kingly Rule is not limited to Jesus, and this might suggest that Jesus is here speaking of advancing the Kingly Rule of Heaven through His emphatic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the response to it by His disciples, fitting in with the idea in Luke 16.16. We might therefore see His words as referring to the Kingly Rule forcefully advancing through the ‘violent’ spiritual activity of Him and His disciples, both in His teaching and in their opposition to evil spirits.

‘From the days of John the Baptist until now.’ The phrase ‘the days of John the Baptist’ refers to the time of his preaching ministry. During that time he had proclaimed that ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand’ (3.2), and was calling men to repent in readiness for it. That had been the introductory phase. But to John the Kingly Rule of Heaven was still in the future. He saw it as something yet to happen. He did not see himself as establishing the Kingly Rule of Heaven, or his followers as coming under ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven’. That was to happen when the Coming One arrived Who would baptise men with Holy Spirit and fire, gathering the wheat into the barn, and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (3.11-12). He was thus in his own eyes the last of the prophets prior to the establishing of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. And that is why Jesus could say that the one who was least in the Kingly Rule of Heaven was ‘greater’ (in privilege and status) than he.

But Jesus probably did see the Kingly Rule of Heaven as having begun to be established while John was preaching. For He tells the chief priests and elders (and possibly the Pharisees - 21.45) that while they have delayed responding to the Kingly Rule of God, public servants and sinners ‘are going into the Kingly Rule of God before them’ because they believed the preaching of John. And they are doing it by responding to the commands of the Father and thus doing the will of the Father (21.28-31, compare 7.21). And then He points out that, in spite of this, the chief priests and elders, with the Pharisees, will still will not enter it (21.31-32). All this emphasises that entering under the Kingly Rule of Heaven was in His eyes for them a present experience. It was not something that awaited the future.

Whether Jesus meant by this that they actually entered the Kingly Rule of God under John’s ministry, or are entering it now under His own ministry as a result of having believed John’s message, is not made clear, although the overall impression in context is that they heard John, believed his words, and began to do the will of the Father and thus entered under the Kingly Rule of God. But either way Jesus saw them as entering the Kingly Rule of God at that time.

What is therefore certain is that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is being established now that John is in prison, for ‘from the days of John the Baptist until now’ the Kingly Rule had begun to forcibly advance. The forcible nature of the advance is explained in 12.28-29. The powers of darkness are being put to flight, and Jesus pictures it in terms of ‘spoiling’ Satan’s household, that is entering it and seizing some of his possessions. It was indeed only after John was imprisoned that we are told that Jesus advanced into Galilee and began to cast out evil spirits. On the other hand He had certainly performed some miracles earlier (John 2.11, 23; 3.2).

The question of whether the Kingly Rule of Heaven began to be established during John’s ministry or awaited Jesus’ sole ministry is a technicality, for without question John, who came ‘in the way of righteousness’, had a part to play in its establishment, whether in a preparatory way or more. But whichever way it was the important thing to recognise is that in one way or another the Kingly Rule of Heaven began with Jesus’ presence as God’s chosen and beloved One (3.17; 12.18) to Whom John pointed.

And along with that would come the forcefulness of men who eagerly pressed into it (Luke 16.16). The timing is similar in Luke 16.16, ‘the Law and the prophets were until John, since then the Kingly Rule of God is preached and every man presses into it (enters it violently)’. This division between ‘the Law and the Prophets’ and ‘the Kingly Rule of God indicates either that the Kingly Rule began to be preached by John, with men then pressing into it, or that it began after he had ceased preaching. It depends how we interpret ‘since’ (whether as inclusive or exclusive). But either way the present tenses indicate that it is ‘now’ happening. Note that to become a disciple here involves ‘violence’. The past has to be thrust aside, genuine repentance has to take place, life has to begin anew, the cross has to be taken up because the bearer has become a revolutionary against all that his old life stood for, and Jesus must be followed. That was why Paul could liken it to the journey through the wilderness, with gross sin needing to be thrust aside (1 Corinthians 10.1-13 in the context of 9.24-27).

‘Men of violence are taking it by force.’ Note the present tense. It was happening while Jesus was speaking. Unlike ‘forcefully advancing’ in the first part of the verse, which is elsewhere used in both good and bad senses, the words used here are regularly used elsewhere for indicating actions which are on the whole harmful. This probably therefore indicates the opposition that was building up as depicted in 12.2, 14, which results from its own forcible advancement, and may also have in mind the persecution that the disciples had suffered while out on their mission (10.16-23) and the imprisonment of John the Baptist (4.12; 11.2). Alternately it may like Luke 16.16 refer to the violence which was necessary on behalf of the disciples in order to put the past aside and follow Jesus, the words being seen as ‘purified’ by the context.

Note On Some Of The Interpretations Of 11.12.

As will be appreciated this verse has had many interpretations. This partly arises because it so clearly presents the picture of the Kingly Rule of Heaven as being presently established, which conflicts with various beliefs about the Kingly Rule still being in the future. We do not need to enter into that here, for any interpretation that avoids the sense of a present Kingly Rule here is forced. Whatever it means it clearly must refer to a present Kingly Rule of Heaven which in one way or another is being affected by present events. That is demanded by the present tenses (both here and in Luke 16.16), which while not necessarily conclusive are almost so, and even more by the context. For the context demands a present application.

The first problem, which we have already considered, is as to whether the timing of the commencement of the Kingly Rule was during the ministry of John, or only after it was completed. The fact that in verse 11 John is depicted as not being under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (because those who were, were greater) suggests that it commenced after John was imprisoned. Thus this suggests that when John proclaimed the Kingly Rule of Heaven as ‘at hand’ he was thinking of its arrival in the near future, not as it being ‘within reach’. But once Jesus began to preach it and cast out evil spirits after John was imprisoned, He certainly meant that it was within reach. It had ‘come upon them’ (12.28). Public servants and sinners were entering it by beginning to obey the will of the Father (21.28-32), while in spite of that the chief priests and the elders (and Pharisees) were refusing to enter it (21.32).

But like all transitional periods, especially when one is taking over from another, the point of changeover is not necessarily fixed (although the imprisonment of John was certainly one turning point). Preliminary battles take place before the moment arrives when kingship is spoken of as beginning to be established. And that is what happens here.

The huge distinction made here in chapter 11 between John as a member of the old age, and the coming in of the new age, unquestionably supports the exclusion of John from being in the present Kingly Rule of Heaven on earth, as does the fact that those within it are greater than he. On the other hand there can be no doubt that he played an important part in the preliminaries that led up to its establishment. His preaching in a sense commenced the movement that led up to the establishment of the initial group that formed the nucleus of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and those who believed his words certainly at some stage entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. So any disagreement on this point is marginal.

The next main problem is that in Greek both the middle and the passive tense can be represented by the same form of the verb. Thus here we can translate ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven is forcibly advancing’ (middle), or ‘the Kingly Rule of God is suffering violence’ (passive), depending on which we choose. And this latter can then refer either to the violent entry of those who enter it forcibly, or advance it forcibly, or to the activity of the enemy in attacking it. The Lucan ‘parallel in Luke 16.16 suggests that the activity of true converts is in mind, for there ‘the Kingly Rule of God is preached and everyone enters it violently’. But while the verse in Luke can be seen as ‘parallel’, it must not be seen as the same saying simply altered around (or vice versa). There is no genuine reason for doubting that it is a distinctive saying about a subject that Jesus no doubt emphasised a number of times, looking at it from a slightly different angle.

The decision must therefore be made in the light of the context, and the context is that of entering under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. ‘He who is least in the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ in the previous verse has undoubtedly entered it, while the idea of violent opposition to the Kingly Rule is totally absent from the near context. Furthermore Jesus’ words sent to John also point to men and women experiencing the power of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (11.5), and the assumption must be that many therefore enter it. And additionally to this the verse is enclosed within two descriptions of the activity of John the Baptist as preparing the way for the Coming One, as men prepare the way for a King (verse 10; compare Malachi 3.1), and as his being the coming Elijah of Malachi 4.5 (compare Luke 1.15-17) whose remarkable preaching would prepare the people’s hearts ready for the Lord’s coming, and this in a context of violent activity (Malachi 3.1-3, 11; 4.1-2). All this points to verse 12a as centrally indicating the ‘violent’ advancement of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, rather than its being under attack. That is not, however, to exclude the possibility that a counterattack follows as possibly depicted in 12b. Indeed Luke in the same context replaces verses 12-15 with, ‘when they heard this all the people and the public servants justified God having been baptised with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptised by him’ (Luke 7.29-30). That may well be Luke’s way of interpreting this difficult verse for Gentile readers indicating the forceful onward movement of God’s Kingly Rule of 12a by its result in terms of the response of the people and the public servants who press into it, and the negative counterattack of 12b in terms of the Scribes and Pharisees. This would give Luke’s support to the above interpretations.

On the other hand some would argue that Luke 16.16 is decisive, for that too refers to the ‘violent way’ in which men become disciples. It is true that the word used for violence here in 12b always elsewhere has a negative sense, and that the context nowhere else indicates violent activity on behalf of the disciples (indeed the opposite), but Jesus is well known for suddenly using unexpectedly exaggerated language in order to make His particular point (e.g. 5.22, 25-26; 29-30; 7.6), so that it must often be read taking its significance from the main idea without reading into it all the negative aspects that might be there.

One argument set up against this whole interpretation is that in the context the advance of the Kingly Rule of Heaven is not seen as violent. It is by healing, raising the dead and preaching the Good News (11.5). It is by bringing men under Jesus’ yoke as the One Who is meek and lowly in heart (11.28-30). And the Servant is depicted as acting in the way of gentleness and compassion in reaching out to the bruised reed and the smoking flax (12.19-20). But that is to overlook the wider context where actual active violence is described in the activity of the One Who, acting by the power of the Spirit, demonstrates that the Kingly Rule of Heaven has come by entering the strong man’s house and binding the strong man and then plundering his goods, that is, by despoiling the household of Satan and releasing his captives. Here is the Kingly Rule of Heaven advancing violently indeed.

We must also remember what we saw above about the fact that the idea of the Kingly Rule being ‘forcefully advanced’ is found in Pharisaic teaching. As we saw they spoke of bringing in the end of the age ‘by force’ through fasting and study of the Law. They saw these as powerful spiritual weapons for use in the establishing of their aims (compare Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10.4-5). Thus the idea of the use of spiritually ‘violent’ methods for bringing in God’s Kingly Rule is not limited to Jesus, and this might suggest that Jesus is here speaking of advancing the Kingly Rule of Heaven through His emphatic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the response to it by His disciples, fitting in with the idea in Luke 16.16, and through His attack on the evil spirits (12.28-31) who corrupt this evil generation (12.45).

This is surely what Jesus has in mind in 11.12a. It is especially so as Satan’s counterattack is then described in 12.43-45 as taking place on those who have benefited by Jesus’ activity but have not allowed His word to fill their empty hearts (12.41-42).

End of note.

11.13-14 “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to receive it, this is Elijah, who is to come.”

Again we have the emphasis on the fact that the new age has come. The prophets and the Law prophesied until John. That is, the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures led up to the time of John because he was the last of the prophets, the Elijah who was due to come. All were therefore in the end preparing for the coming of Jesus. The thought that the prophets and the Law were now achieving their end would have been quite startling to the Jews. To them the prophets and the Law were the basis of all their beliefs (at least theoretically). That somehow Jesus was now achieving what they were pointing to, and capping them off, would have huge significance. He was not destroying the Law or the prophets but fulfilling then (5.17).

Note that the prophets are unusually mentioned first (contrast Luke 16.16) because the emphasis is on the prophetic movement ending with John, but the Law is included (that is all the books of Moses) because it was an important part of that prophecy. It was indeed the basis and starting point from which the prophets themselves made their pronouncements. And now the long series is seen as having come to an end in John, the promised Elijah. What happens from now on is the fulfilment, as Matthew constantly makes clear.

‘Until John.’ The ‘until’ may be seen as including or excluding John. But it is doubtful if we can exclude John from being one of the prophets, even though the last and greatest. That would not, however, prevent John being the connecting link between the two ages, issuing out the old, and introducing, in a preliminary way, the new. What the doubt was about was whether they themselves would believe it, firstly because they were expecting Elijah’s literal return (he had not died but had been taken up into Heaven), and secondly because if they did accept it they would have no choice but to recognise in Jesus Himself, the Coming One. And certainly some did believe that John was the intended Elijah (as had been made clear at John’s birth), and some did enter under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. And when Paul first arrived in Rome the offer of the Kingly Rule of God was still being made, to both Jew and Gentile, an offer closely connected to their response to Jesus Christ (Acts 28.23-24, 31), an offer that was indeed made continually throughout Acts (1.3; 8.12; 14.22; 19.8; 20.25). So there is no way in which it can be said that the idea of the Kingly Rule of Heaven was set aside to await the future.

Some have argued that John could not be the fulfilment of Malachi 4.5 because he was not successful enough, but that is to underestimate John’s impact. ‘There went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem’ (Mark 1.5). Even granted the exaggeration, that is some impact, and it would have been even more so when people visited Jerusalem at the feasts. The widespread nature of his success comes out in the fact that for decades afterwards disciples of John were still found around the Roman world.

Nor is there anywhere any suggestion that Jesus did ever offer the Kingly Rule of Heaven to Israel in a way that could either be accepted or rejected as though it was a whole take it or leave it deal. Right from the start He offered the Kingly Rule of Heaven as being available to those who would respond, knowing full well that they would only be a minority (7.13-27). He never expected wholesale acceptance, even though He was grieved that the cities of Galilee that were closest to Him on the whole refused to repent. But that was because of His compassion and because His heart longed for them, not because He was really expecting them all to respond. The only change of tack that He would make was that He would offer it to others because those to whom it was first offered had not on the whole accepted it (21.42) (but that was in fact in accordance with His expectations as 7.13-27 demonstrates).

11.15 “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Jesus then finishes His words concerning these things by calling on all whose ears were open to take notice of what He was saying. This in itself confirms that He did not expect that all would hear and respond. He was always aware that the flock to whom the Kingly Rule was being given would be a small one (Luke 12.32). But it was important that all be urged to hear, with the inherent warning of the danger of not genuinely hearing. For this phrase see also 13.9, 43.

Jesus Charges The People Of His Generation With Not Taking John’s Or His Message Seriously, But Behaving Like Children At Play (11.16-19).

The sudden change of subject here is very vivid. He has been describing the great events towards which John’s ministry has been built up, and has indicated their successful advancement, and now He examines the response of His generation towards them. They have rejected both John and Himself. In spite of what was at first the huge popularity both of John (3.5, 7; Mark 1.5, 9) and of Jesus (4.23-25) and the general eager expectancy (Luke 3.15), the tide has begun to turn. Disillusionment has begun to set in. The first excitement is tapering off, although we must beware of too much gloom. And that situation is now depicted here. Note how in this the Gospels make quite clear the oneness between Jesus and John, although that having been done, all the attention turns on Jesus.

The solemn declaration of 11.10, of which he could say ‘it is written’ is replaced by a child’s song sang at play. (Like Nero these people are playing while ‘Rome’ burns). The greatness of John is now treated with mockery. John is seen as being even worse than a reed blown to and fro in the desert, he is a demon among the thorns and thistles (Isaiah 34.13-14), whilst Jesus is seen as living the life of men in soft clothing in His life of ‘luxury’.

Jesus here charges the people with inconsistency. They are not satisfied, however prophets behave. On the one hand John is criticised for being an ascetic, and on the other hand He Himself is criticised for being a good-time boy and a friend of the unworthy. Not all, of course, criticised both. Some hurled one criticism and some another. It was mainly the Scribes and Pharisees who criticised Jesus for eating with public servants and sinners (9.10-11), and interestingly all these parties are mentioned by Luke 7.30 in a similar context to this. Undoubtedly some more orthodox Jews also joined with them in their criticism. So here Jesus criticises the whole generation, apart from those who have responded to Him, for their careless attitude. This criticism of the whole generation also continues later in the section when He indicates their perilous situation (12.39, 45) which He links with the activities of the powers of darkness.

Some have expressed surprise that Matthew introduces this criticism of the people so unexpectedly when such antagonism, especially by the people, has hardly been previously mentioned (9.3, 24, 33;11.6,14) but that is only so if we ignore the clear indications in chapter 10 of towns rejecting them and even arranging for them to be brought before councils and synagogues. Once we accept that these words of Jesus in chapter 10 should be read as indicating that what was spoken of did actually then happen, which was often intended to be assumed when words were depicted as spoken in the Scriptures (see e.g. Exodus 17.3-7), the picture is very different. Note in this regard that Matthew certainly expects us to assume that the Apostles did go out, even though he does not tell us so. Why then should we not see him as expecting us to assume that the remainder also happened? In that case there is plenty of indication of persecution and poor treatment by the people.

Analysis.

    a “But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their fellows and say (16).
  • b “We piped to you, and you did not dance” (17a).
  • c “We wailed, and you did not mourn” (17b).
  • c “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’.” (18).
  • b “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of public servants and sinners!’ ” (19a)
  • a “And wisdom is justified by her works” (19b).

Note how in ‘a’ they are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to each other, and in the parallel their behaviour is what might be expected from their type of ‘wisdom’ (compare verse 25). In ‘b’ they called on John (or Jesus) to dance, and in the parallel call Jesus a winebibber and glutton because He did partake in life’s enjoyments. In ‘c’ they call on Jesus (or John) to mourn, and in the parallel see John as a demon because of his asceticism and fasting.

11.16 “But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their fellows and say,

We piped to you, and you did not dance,
We wailed, and you did not mourn.”

In verse 10 we had a quotation indicating what Jesus likened John the Baptist to. It was solemn and powerful. He was the preparer of the way, preparing the way for Jesus, the Coming One. Now we have a quotation showing how the people saw John the Baptist and Jesus. They were wanting them to play weddings and funerals. They were wanting them to dance to their tune. It is unbelievably weak and pathetic. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast.

It is regularly said that these words were probably part of well known children’s games, and that may be right, but there is little point in our trying to invent different types of game and then obtaining illustrations from them. We must rather take the words at face value, which no doubt Jesus intended us to do. What then is He saying? He is describing His generation, apart from those who had become, or were thinking of becoming, His disciples, and describing how they liked to pull people’s strings and then criticise them for not responding. The children are depicted as sitting in judgment on their fellows. In the same way the people are sitting in judgment on John and Jesus.

We are probably to see the call to dance as being directed at John. In other words they were ridiculing his asceticism. While those who flocked to him at least initially admired him, or were at least interested in him as a prophet, many of them would not like what he said, and then the criticisms would begin (in order to justify their rejection of his message), backed up by their leaders (compare John 5.35). So they were now seen as retaliating by telling him that he was a sobersides, and, because he lived in the desert and lived strangely, a demon. The desert was a place for demons (Isaiah 13.20-22; 34.13-14).

The call to mourn was probably directed at Jesus, as they considered that He was too frivolous. Once again the reasons would be similar. They wanted him to behave more like John had done, and more like their own pious Pharisees did. And when He did not they mocked Him for being given to much wine and being a glutton. They could not see outside the walls of their own built up ideas, and thus they were not satisfied whatever John and Jesus did, for the truth was that they were trying to find excuses for not listening to them.

‘This generation.’ This description is usually used of those of Jesus’ generation who refused to respond to His words. Compare 12.41-42, 45. They are always seeking signs (12.39). They are those who think themselves wise and understanding (compare 11.25), but are really foolish, and doomed to judgment (23.36; 24.34). They are blind leaders of the blind.

11.18 “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’.”

John lived a life of fasting and prayer. He drank no wine or strong drink because of his dedication to God (Luke 1.15-17). He dressed in goatskins or camel’s hair, and ate locusts and wild honey (3.4). Thus once people began to become disillusioned at his ‘excessive’ demands it was easy to find something to criticise in him. Having rejected his message they dismissed him as a demon of the desert.

11.19 “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of public servants and sinners!’ ”

Jesus on the other hand was willing to sit at table with public servants and sinners, and with the common people. Thus when people began to find His teaching too much for them they justified their consciences by accusing Him of being irreligious, and even greedy, and a keeper of bad company. Once they had convinced themselves of that they did not then have to worry about His teachings. They could ‘justifiably’ ignore them. It was all a sign of the hypocrisy of the human heart.

Note the reference to the ‘Son of Man’. The description of Him here contrasts with the description of Him as the Son of Man Who had nowhere to lay His head (8.20), and with the description of Him as the Son of Man Who was Lord of the Sabbath (12.8) and the forgiver of sins (9.6), thus their accusations were inexcusable.

These misrepresentations are in fact typical of people who are trying to avoid facing up to their consciences or who do not want to have to think too seriously. They do not arise from careful investigation, but from twisting the facts to suit themselves. They were not really puzzled, even though they expressed puzzlement. They were simply justifying themselves in their refusal to listen to them.

11.19b “And wisdom is justified by her works.”

In the only other reference to wisdom in the context it must be seen as referring to the ‘wisdom’ of those who saw themselves as wise, but were not enlightened by God (verse 25). Thus we are probably to read these words as referring to those who were unbelieving and who mocked. Their wisdom was revealed by their actions, by what they produced (therefore Luke says ‘by their children’). And by their words and thoughts of ‘wisdom’ they thought that they had justified themselves in their own eyes. As representing ‘Wisdom’ (wisdom was often personified) they were justified by their works (their behaviour and words) which they considered had now cleared them of all blame. You could not be expected to listen to a demon or a drunkard.

Of course the converse applied. Those who were truly wise and responded to the teaching of John and Jesus really would be justified by their actions. By their fruits they would be known.

Others, however, see this last verse as referring to Jesus and John, and therefore to their wisdom in behaving as they did which was justified by what they accomplished, or as Wisdom (God) being justified by their ‘works’ (verse 2). But in our view the first interpretation fits the context better.

Jesus Castigates His Local Towns For Their Failure To Repent In View Of The Fact That They Too Have Seen The Messianic Signs, But Without Responding (11.20-24).

In this chapter Jesus has already been faced with two examples of men’s attitudes towards Him, the puzzlement of John, whose heart was right towards God, and was genuine in its search for truth, even though he could not understand His ways, and the childishness of the people, whose hearts were not right towards anyone, whose attitude towards truth was casual, and who did not want to understand His ways. To the first He sent His gentle response, pointing to the Messianic signs that He had performed, knowing that John would respond in return. The second he dismissed with a proverb, in the same way as they had dismissed John and Himself. They would receive what they deserved.

But now Matthew wants to bring out and contrast the difference between all who were like John and all who were like the people, and that will take up the remainder of the chapter, and he does it in reverse order. He deals first with the people who have not responded to His works (verse 20-24), and he will then follow that with Jesus’ words about those who have truly heard His voice and followed Him (verses 25-30). The verdicts are in total contrast, and it will be noted that while having passed His verdict on the towns He makes no further appeal to them, as He had made no appeal to ‘this generation’ who sang their childish songs in verses 16-19, He does make an appeal to those who have had their eyes opened. They are called to join Him in His own relationship with God (verses 28-30), as John also had been called to trust Him (verse 6), in the case of John followed by his full vindication. Note the deliberate contrast of ‘blessed --’ in 11.6 with ‘woe’ in verse 21, which is a mini-picture of the blessings and woes of the Old Testament (e.g. Deuteronomy 28). Compare also 5.3-9 with chapter 23. John may have wondered why Jesus was not acting in judgment, but Jesus is making clear that one day He will.

It may also be that we are to see in these words spoken to His three local towns a parallel to the disciples shaking off the dust of the feet against unresponsive towns (10.14). That instruction too ended in a contrasting reference to Sodom. From now on His main ministry will not be in these towns. He is moving on. They have had their opportunity. So first Nazareth rejected Him (Luke 4.28-30), and now the area in which His family had taken up residence has rejected Him. He is being driven out to other places. (A similar thing is recorded in Acts where the Apostles are finally driven out of Jerusalem). But the idea is selective. This is not a rejection of Israel as a whole, but of unresponsive towns, and even then He will visit at least Capernaum again (17.24; compare Mark 9.33 which is after the visit to Caesarea Philippi). In a sense therefore the rejection is symbolic, but nevertheless serious for all that.

Analysis.

  • a Then he began to upbraid the cities in which most of his mighty works were done, because they did not repent (20).
  • b “Alas for you, Chorazin! Alas for you , Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (21).
  • c “ But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you” (22).
  • b “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades, for if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day” (23).
  • a “But I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you” (24).

As so often in Matthew we have here both a chiasmus and a sequence. Note that in ‘a’ the cities are upbraided because they did not repent, and in the parallel the warning is given of the judgment that will come. In ‘b’ and its parallel are two similarly worded condemnations. Centrally in ‘c’ is the certainty of judgment. But even more effective are the sequences. ‘b’ and ‘c’ are sequentially parallel with the following ‘b’ and ‘a’.

11.20 ‘Then he began to upbraid the cities in which most of his mighty works were done, because they did not repent.’

Note here the difference between His approach to John and His approach to these people. To the seeking heart of John He had pointed to His works with a promise of blessing (verses 5-6), but to these people whose hearts were hardened He pointed to His works with a promise of judgment. His words did, of course, still contain within them an offer of mercy. It was still not too late to repent. But He did not see much chance of many of them doing so.

The cities or towns mentioned here were on the north west corner of the Sea of Galilee, not far from each other. Capernaum was the place where Jesus’ family were now living, and which He had seemingly established as a kind of headquarters. The Bethsaida mentioned here was probably a different one from Bethsaida Julius. Chorazin is mentioned nowhere else. But necessarily in view of the prominence of Capernaum in His life these were the towns in which in His earlier days He operated most, and who had thus brought their sick to Him for healing in most abundance.

Thus these towns had also beheld in most abundance the mighty works which were evidence of His Messiahship (compare Luke 4.23). People often say, ‘If only I could see signs, I would believe.’ These towns give them the lie. They had seen signs in abundance, but they had still not repented and believed. They had accepted all that God would give them, but they had not genuinely responded. Many probably still admired Jesus, and they no doubt discussed Him with some awe, (although less as time went by), but what they had heard and seen had not sufficiently moved their hearts. They still went about their ordinary lives unchanged. So Jesus now turns and delivers His verdict on them. They have had their opportunity and now He will move on to others.

11.21 “Alas for you, Chorazin! Alas for you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

He contrasts His two local towns with the cities of Tyre and Sidon. They were Gentile cities, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea north of Carmel, and therefore despised by the Jews, and seen as deserving objects of God’s judgment. (Perhaps behind the choice was the fact that Tyre and Sidon were famous as ‘twin cities by the sea’, and Jesus saw Chorazin and Bethsaida in the same way). And knowing the heart of Jesus we may see in these words the hint that indeed one day His message will go to these Gentile cities, a hint that Matthew certainly takes up in 12.18, 21. They will see His works and have their opportunity (to some extent sooner than they think - 15.21). But for the moment they are taken as an object lesson. They were cities known for their past wealth and pride, and had regularly come under the judgment of God (see Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26-28; Joel 3.4; Amos 6.9-10; Zechariah 9.2-4). But Jesus now declares that their guilt was nowhere near that of the towns of Galilee. For they had not had manifested before them the ‘mighty works’ of God’s Sent One. Such a startling conception would have horrified Jesus’ hearers, but it does bring out the awareness of the uniqueness of His own status that Jesus had. Nothing was more heinous than the refusal to recognise Him and respond to Him.

Chorazin is probably what is now called Kirbet Karaze, two miles (three kilometres) north west of the site of Capernaum. Bethsaida was probably the home of Andrew, Peter and Philip (John 1.44; 12.21) and different from Bethsaida Julius which was on the north east shores of the Sea of Galilee. Like Chorazin it was probably near Capernaum. Its name meant ‘house of fish’ which might well be popular on the shores of a Sea famous for its fish.

‘Alas for you.’ The word can mean either ‘woe’ or ‘alas’. It is a word expressing strong feeling. Here it probably contains an element of both, but His aim is still to stir their hearts rather than just to condemn. Indeed as He will point out, that condemnation is reserved for the future. There is still time to repent. It is a potential ‘woe’, which is hanging over their heads, but it can be avoided, and their hardness of heart fills Him with sadness.

‘If the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’ Jesus probably has in mind here the repentance of Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3.5-9), although wanting to bring it closer to home. And He no doubt hoped that these Jewish towns would have that in mind as well. He is visualising Tyre and Sidon as behaving like Nineveh did. But we must not assume some divine insight whereby Jesus knew that an opportunity was there and was refusing to give Tyre and Sidon their opportunity. We must not take the statement too literally, for the idea was theoretical rather than literally true. His point in fact is based on ‘a long time ago’. It was thus simply a typically exaggerated and vivid way of making the Jews themselves recognise the depth of their failure and sinfulness. Jesus is saying rather dramatically that these Galilean towns are more hard hearted than the Gentiles. (Tyre and Sidon would later see such wonders, as did all to whom the earliest preachers went, but while some repented it was certainly not in huge numbers. We must remember that like all others they had still had the testimony of nature and conscience, and had rejected it (Roman 1.18-23)).

‘The mighty works --- which have been done in you.’ Here we have a clear indication of the widespread miracles and ministry of Jesus about which we are actually told very little. For in the end the aim of the Gospels was not to glory in the miraculous, but to point to Jesus.

‘Sackcloth and ashes.’ Sackcloth was a rough and ready fabric made from camel’s hair, and was worn as a sign of contrition or sorrow (2 Samuel 3.31; 1 Kings 21.27; 2 Kings 6.30; Isaiah 58.5; Joel 1.8; Jonah 3.5-9; Daniel 9.3). Ashes were symbols of deep mourning (2 Samuel 13.19; Esther 4.3; Job 42.6; Jeremiah 6.26; Lamentations 2.10; Micah 1.10).

11.22 “ But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.”

And the consequence of the failure of the Jews to respond to His Messianic works in repentance is that when they face the Day of Judgment, they will be found guilty of more heinous behaviour than the despised Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon will not be found guilty of so great a crime as they are guilty of, rejecting the testimony of God to His Son (compare John 3.16-21).

‘I say to you.’ These words always indicate the importance of the statement being made, for it demonstrates that it is made by Him on His own authority as the Chosen One of God. They contrast Him with the Rabbis who would always point men to some recognised authority. Jesus’ authority came from what He was in Himself. Their authority depended on the authority of the past.

11.23 “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades, for if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day.”

Capernaum is, if it were possible, even more guilty. She is here specifically compared with Sodom, the byword for sinfulness (10.14; Isaiah 1.10; Ezekiel 16.48). Sodom was so evil that it had been destroyed by a cataclysm because of its guilt. But Jesus claims that had they had the opportunities that Capernaum had had, they would certainly have made sufficient response to have enabled them to avoid being destroyed in that way. In other words, while Sodom was undoubtedly wicked, it was not as wicked as Capernaum. They at least had not had the opportunity of hearing the kind of teaching and seeing the kind of miracles that Capernaum had. Had they done so they would not have been quite so wicked. It is a warning that those who pride themselves on being better than others, even though it is simply because their circumstances in life have made it easier for them to be so, are really no better than those who behave far worse because their circumstances in life are more difficult.

We should note here that Jesus had previously informed His disciples of a similar fact, that the towns who turned them away would discover in the Day of Judgment that it was worse for them than for Sodom. This is a further indication of how closely He saw His disciples as representing Him. ‘He who receives you, receives Me’ (10.40). And the opposite is also true.

‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades.’ There is an allusion here to Isaiah 14.12-17, where the King of Babylon, that depiction of all that was arrogant and unworthy, had thought to exalt himself, and had instead found himself thrust down into Sheol (to some extent the Hebrew equivalent of Hades). See ‘I will ascend to Heaven --- you will be brought down to Sheol’ (Isaiah 14.13, 15). So Capernaum is being seen as worse than Babylon and Sodom combined, a dreadful combination.

It is probable that Jesus had loftily been told in Capernaum by some of their religious leaders that they considered that their place in Heaven was quite safe without their having to listen to Him. Well sadly they would one day discover the truth. Their exceeding sinfulness therefore lay not in that they actually behaved as badly as Babylon or Sodom, but in that God had greatly privileged them to see the full revelation of the mighty works that revealed His Messiahship and glory, and that they had refused to respond to it. The point that He is making is that there is no sin greater than that of avoiding the light when it shines (4.16). That in the end is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (12.31). Those who refuse the light will find that their lampstand goes out (Revelation 2.5).

11.24 “But I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

Note the solemn repetition of ‘I say to you’. Again the same principle applies. Even sinful Sodom will not be found to be as guilty as Capernaum in the Day of Judgment, that day which was considered by the Jews to be the time when ‘the wicked Gentiles’, and especially Sodom, received their due.

‘The land of Sodom.’ Sodom was, of course, long gone, but its land still bore the taint of its guilt, and was still liable to judgment. Or perhaps ‘land of’ is intended to signify all the cities of the plain combined.

Certain important theological lessons arise from these words, even though allowance must be made for the deliberately picturesque and exaggerated language. The first is that a time of judgment awaits all men when all will be called to account (25.31-46; John 5.29; Acts 17.31; 2 Thessalonians 1.7-9; Revelation 6.16-17; 14.14-20; 19.11-21; 20.11-15). The second is that there will be levels of guilt and punishment (12.41-42; 23.13; Luke 12.47-48). The third is that God is sovereign in the working out of His plan of salvation (e.g. Romans 8.28-30; Ephesians 1.3-14). And the fourth is the folly of people thinking that seeing mighty works might somehow make a difference to their response to God.

The Father Has Enlightened His True People And Has Delivered all Things To Jesus Who Alone Truly Knows His Father, Who Has Received all Things From His Father, And Who Alone Can Reveal His Father To Others (11.25-27).

This passage is connected to the previous one by ‘at that time (or season)’. The two passages are thus intended to be seen together. It explains from the divine side why the towns of Galilee have failed to respond to His mighty works. It is because, although they may think that they will be exalted to Heaven (verse 23) they have in fact not been enlightened by the Father. Thus they have not recognised the Son. Without that their hopes of such exaltation are nil. The passage also explains why John himself had not understood the full truth about Jesus (11.3-5). It was not possible until Jesus had made it known to him, and thereby revealed to him the Father (‘A blessed one (of Me and My Father) is he who does not stumble because of Me’ - 11.6). For in the end all who would come to God are dependent on God’s revelation of Himself through His Son and through His Spirit. The ‘wise’ yell out petulantly in the street like children, but it is God’s ‘babes’ who receive their milk directly from Him.

Having thus pointed out how this passage fits into the whole pattern of chapter 11, which begins with the one to whom Jesus makes known His truth (verses 5-6), and ends here with those to whom Jesus makes known His truth, with sandwiched in the middle two sets of examples of those who were not willing to receive His truth, we should now pause to consider the truth that is being revealed. Up to this point God has been ‘your Father’ or the equivalent when speaking of Jesus’ disciples (5.16, 45, 48; 6.1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32; 7.11; 10.20, 29). This is the relationship which has become theirs through participation in the Kingly Rule of Heaven. They have in a sense become ‘sons of God’ (5.9, 45). This is continually so except when His Fatherhood is related to Jesus’ position as the Judge of all men, or as the One Who must confess them to the Father (7.21; 10.32, 33).

But from now on God will be revealed almost solely as the Father of Jesus (12.50; 15.13; 16.17, 27; 18.10, 19, 35; 20.23; 24.36; 25.34; 26.29, 39, 42, 53; 28.19). And this will go along with the revelation of Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ in the deepest sense of the term. He is God’s ‘beloved One’ (12.18); it is by doing the will of His Father (12.50, compare 7.21) that they will become His very real spiritual family; through His manifestation of mastery over the sea they recognise Him in awe and worship as ‘the Son of God’ (14.33), and then by gradual realisation as ‘the Son of the living God’ (16.16); and God Himself declares of Him in His glory, ‘this is My beloved Son’ (17.5). As God’s Son He has the right not to pay the Temple tax (17.25-26). And this position is confirmed in the parable of the wicked tenants (21.37-38), ‘they will reverence My Son’. And it is all summed up in His declared co-equality with the Father in 28.20 when all are baptised into God’s Name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus from this point on the relationship of Father and Son is specific and unique Jesus is seen to be ‘on the divine side of reality’.

There are three possible exception to this change. The first is in 13.43 when the disciples learn that one day, as the righteous, they are to shine forth as the sun in the Kingly Rule of ‘their Father’. But that may in fact be seen as capping off the references in the Sermon on the Mount, thus describing their reward as a result of their having sought His Kingly Rule and His righteousness (6.33), preparatory to the second part of the Gospel. The second is in 18.14 where in fact B, Theta and f 13 have ‘My Father in Heaven’ (Aleph, W and f 1 have ‘your Father’). But if ‘your Father in Heaven’ is correct that is because He is specifically dealing there with their responsibility as ‘sons of God’ for young believers. (In 18.10 He uses ‘My Father’ because He is referring to Him as in Heaven, compare also 18.19). The third is 23.9 where He is simply demonstrating that they should call no man ‘father’ on earth. Thus the intention of a change in emphasis can be seen to be pretty solid.

We are thus being prepared here for 12.17-21, where we learn that among men has come the chosen and beloved one of God in Whom is the Spirit of God, Who will reveal God’s truth to all men (not only to the Jews). He will announce God’s justice and righteousness to the nations, and in Him all people will put their hope. Note how this follows on naturally from His rejection of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. The Jews as a whole are seen as having rejected their opportunity (as He had anticipated in 10.14-23).

In this remarkable passage we find in fact all the ideas that, were it not for this passage, might be seen as making John’s Gospel unique. It has been called ‘the bolt from the Johannine blue’. We have reference to ‘the Father’ and ‘the Son’ (but compare 24.36; Mark 13.32, and often in John), to the fact that all things have been delivered by His Father to Him as His Son (John 5.20, 21, 22, 26; 16.15), to the fact that no one knows the Son except the Father (John 10.15), and that no one knows the Father except the Son (John 6.46; 7.29; 8.19, 55; 10.15), and those to whom the Son will reveal Him (John 14.7, 17).

The idea of Jesus’ sonship from now on goes far beyond just a Messianic title. The idea was first expressed after Jesus had been baptised (3.17), and has been emphasised by Jesus’ clear distinction between ‘My Father’ and ‘Your Father’. It will be repeated at the Transfiguration (17.5) and in the incident of the Tribute money (17.26), and will finally be made very clear in the parable of the wicked tenants (21.37), and confirmed in 24.36, before Jesus is finally placed on a parallel as the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit (28.19).

But we must pause and notice here another remarkable emphasis. These are not words taught by Jesus to His disciples. They are Jesus’ prayer to His Father. In that loving relationship which He has with His Father, His heart is lifted up and He feels able to express the fullness of what is in His heart, saying in His prayer what He would not have said directly to His disciples, for they were truths that had to dawn on them. (It was different with the Scribes and Pharisees who thought more in these terms). No doubt His prayer was in the presence of His disciples, for they remembered it, and it may well be that it was in order to help them to understand His severe words to the towns of Israel that He prayed like this. They had probably thought that things were going quite well, and had probably been astounded at His words of judgment. He thus wanted them to know that they did not apply to them, and why they did not apply to them.

But why does Matthew bring this in here? The answer lies in the emphasis that he is giving to the words. Here is a small conclave of men and women who are within the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Thus when dealing with their understanding of things it is in a conversation between earth and Heaven. This contrasts with His words both to John and the people, neither of whom are within the Kingly Rule of Heaven at this stage. It is bringing out that here there is a colony of Heaven on earth (Philippians 3.20; Colossians 1.12-14). It can be compared with Isaiah 57.15 where those who are truly God’s dwell with Him in the high and holy place. Here too He will revive the spirit of the humble, and will revive the heart of the contrite ones by revealing to them the Father and bringing them under His own yoke (verses 27-30). These who do the will of His Father in Heaven are His brothers, His sisters and His mother (12.50). Here indeed is the very gateway to Heaven (Genesis 28.17; compare John 1.51), to the heavenly places where God blesses His people (Ephesians 1.3; 2.6).

Analysis.

  • At that time (season) Jesus answered and said, “I thank you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to babes” (25).
  • “Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight” (26).
  • “All things have been delivered to me of my Father (27a).
  • “And no one knows the Son, except the Father” (27b).
  • “Nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whoever the Son wills to reveal him” (27c).

Note that in ‘a’ the Father reveals ‘these things’ to babes, and in the parallel the Son reveals Him to those who come to know Him. In ‘b’ it was well pleasing to the Father to reveal ‘these things’, and in the parallel He is the only One Who can do so because He is the only One Who knows the Son. Central to all is the fact that all has been delivered to Jesus by His Father.

11.25 ‘At that time (season) Jesus answered and said, “I thank you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to babes.” ’

Note the vivid contrast between this and the previous passage. In the previous passage Jesus surveys the unresponsive towns and verbally passes sentence on them. It is an outward look, and He sees them as walking in the broad way that leads to destruction. Here He looks up to the Father and verbally acknowledges His goodness in revealing the truth to ‘babes’. It is an upward look, and these are they who are in the narrow way that leads to life. The thought of what He has experienced with respect to the spiritual blindness and unresponsiveness of the people of Galilee makes Him fully appreciate the wonder of what the Father is doing in revealing His truth. For He recognises that in the end it is not the fact that men are spiritually blind that is remarkable, it is the fact that some ‘see’. And they are those who are being blessed by God (compare 16.17; 5.3-9; 12.6). And He realises that when this happens it is due to His Father, Who is the Creator and Possessor and Controller of Heaven and earth, Whose power is such that He can even enlighten the hearts of men when they look to Him in confident faith and trust, without any thought of their own wisdom. The point He is making is not that God actually specifically hides things from the wise and understanding, but that by not unveiling their eyes they remain hidden. Indeed man in His wisdom sets up his own barrier against spiritual truth. He cannot ‘see’ because his eyes are focused on something else, on earthly wisdom which possesses his mind and his thoughts so that he thinks that he knows all. He does not see any need for repentance, nor any need for humility.

But to the ‘babe’, the one whose mind is uncluttered with his own wisdom, and who therefore looks to God for all his understanding (compare 18.3-4), God reveals His truth. In this case that truth is ‘these things’. And what are ‘these things’? They are the things that those who are wise, (that is, those who fail to see in Him and His mighty works, and in what they signify, the God-provided solution to the need of Israel and of the world), cannot see. They fail to see that He has come bearing their afflictions and carrying their diseases (8.17), that He has come bringing forgiveness from God (9.6), that He has come to cleanse all who come to Him (8.3), that He has come to heal and make whole (9.12), that He has come to bring men under the Kingly Rule of God (12.28).

‘At that time.’ A phrase linking this passage with the last one.

‘Jesus answered and said.’ At first sight ‘answered’ appears to be redundant. It is a favourite verb of Matthew’s (45 times), but usually indicating a direct response to a question. On the other hand comparison with 12.38; 17.4; 28.5 demonstrates that it can be used ‘redundantly’. However it is very possible that here Matthew wants us to see that what He is about to say is the answer to the problems raised by what has gone before. All earth’s problems find their answer in God, ‘the Lord of Heaven and earth’.

‘I thank (acknowledge with praise) you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth.’ The verb signifies that He acknowledges His Father for Who and What He is, He owns His worth, and therefore He praises Him. ‘O Father, Lord of heaven and earth.’ This is Jesus use of ‘Father’ as indicating His own Father, which as what follows reveals, is very different from when He speaks of God as the Father of the disciples. He is indicating the uniqueness of the relationship between them.

‘Lord of Heaven and earth.’ This title as such is not found in Scripture, although it is found (rarely) in Jewish literature, in Tobit 7.19 and in the Genesis Apocryphon at Qumran. But compare Genesis 14.19, 22, ‘God Most High, Possessor (or Maker) of Heaven and earth’, and Ezra 5.11, ‘the God of Heaven and earth’. The combination of Heaven and earth suggests the Creator and Possessor of all things (2 Kings 19.15; 1 Chronicles 29.11; 2 Chronicles 2.12; Jeremiah 23.24).

‘That you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to babes.’ In other words that God so created and sustains the world that those full of their own wisdom and understanding in fact remain spiritually blind, while those who with an open and honest heart seek Him will have spiritual truth revealed to them. A full ‘commentary’ on these words is found in 1 Corinthians 1.17-2.16. It is not a question of intellect (Paul was one of these ‘babes’), it is a question of humble submission and a willingness to receive truth from Him.

Elsewhere it is made clear that the failure of men to understand is also a spiritual one. It is that their hearts and minds are blinded by ‘the God of this world’ so that they need the veil drawn back in order to behold the glory of Christ, and see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4.4), it is that they need to have their eyes opened, and to be turned from darkness to light and the power of Satan to God (Acts 26.18), and that is what He will later stress that He has come to do (12.28-29, 43-45).

The selective revelation of God is also described in Psalm 147.19-20 but there it was to Israel and not the nations. Here the Father will reveal the truth to the ‘new nation’ who are being taken out of the old (16.18; 21.43). Yet this idea of selective revelation to the righteous comes out in the Psalms. ‘You will show me the path of life’ (Psalm 16.11); ‘show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths’ (Psalm 25.4); ‘teach me your way, O Lord’ (Psalm 27.11 - when he has been forsaken by those who should have guided him). And it is a part of what God’s righteousness, paralleled with deliverance, signifies in Isaiah (see Isaiah 51.4-5, 7). Through it all are to know Him, from the least to the greatest (Jeremiah 31.33-34).

11.26 “Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight.”

And in the end that is because it is what is pleasing to His Father, the Lord of Heaven and earth. That is how God has been pleased for men to come to know Him. He reveals Himself to those who have a broken and a contrite spirit, who are the ones whom He calls to share His holiness so that He might revive them and make them whole (Isaiah 57.15). That is why His chosen Servant please Him, because He brings men to God in that way (8.17-21).

11.27 “All things have been delivered to me of my Father, and no one knows the Son, except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and he to whoever the Son wills to reveal him.”

But how can such men come to know God? It is through the One Who has had all things delivered into His hands; it is through the One Who is so great and powerful and wonderful that only His Father really knows Him; it is through the One Who alone fully knows and fathoms to the very heights and depths His Father; it is through the One Who searches out and fathoms the ways of Him Who is ‘unsearchable and His ways past finding out’; it is through the Son. It is through Jesus. That is why He will later say, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). Only God could know God like that, but it would take some time for the disciples to fathom it out. To one it came at the moment of enlightenment as he stood in the Upper Room and saw the risen Christ, when all that Jesus had said suddenly came together (John 20.28).

‘No one knows the Son, except the Father.’ In these words is an indication that we are to look deeper than ‘titles’ (even Messianic titles) if we are to full appreciate Jesus, indeed a warning that we will never really fully appreciate the Son. What He is, is only known to the Father. The Father alone can appreciate His very essence. The Father alone can understand His very being. And that can only be because in His essence and His being He is one with the Father. Thus it is the Father Who gradually reveals what Jesus is to the disciples, something that cannot be learned from flesh and blood (16.17)

‘Nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son.’ The prophets had spoken of the Father. The Scribes and Pharisees thought that they knew the Father. But Jesus is here saying that none of them really understood His being and essence, for that was only known to the Son. They saw but the shadow, He beheld the full light.

‘And he to whoever the Son wills to reveal him.’ The Sermon on the Mount was packed full of revelation of the Father (5.9, 45, 48; 6.1, 4, 6, 8, 9-13, 14-15, 18, 26, 32; 7.11, 21 and see 10.29, 33), but even that was insufficient. There He was the Provider. But it was now Jesus purpose to manifest Him in a fuller form. He will reveal it by His power over creation (14.22-33), and by His glory in the Mountain (17.2, 5). He will also reveal it through His life (John 14.9) and make it known in their hearts. It had to be revealed by both Father and Son (11.25, 27). That was why no man could come to Him unless it was given them by His Father (John 6.65), and no one could know the Father except through the Son. It was a joint enterprise between two equal partners. For note that while the Father reveals His truth to babes (verse 25), it is only as a result of the will of the Son (verse 27). Thus only those who enter into a true relationship with the Son will really come to know the Father

Note On Sonship.

The fact that Jesus is ‘the Son’ puzzles many people. To them a son has been produced by his father, and arrives later in time, and is inferior to the father. Although, of course, as the father ages the situation may change, and the father can in many ways become inferior to the son. But none of this can apply to God for God does not change, nor can He be born.

However, the puzzle arises through overlooking the fact that by this terminology the Scriptures are trying to express divine things in human terms. God is not Father and Son in the same way as men are father and son. The terminology, which is only earthly terminology, is being used in a unique way (just as when we say the Son is ‘the heir’ we do not mean in God’s case that He will inherit on His Father’s death. The term is used in order to take advantage of part of its meaning) Before ever there was a creation the terms father and son were meaningless. They are not heavenly terms. There is no bearing of sons in Heaven. The angels neither marry nor are given in marriage (22.30), in other words they do not bear children.

But one day it became necessary for God to reveal His inter-personal Being to man, and we must ever remember that had God been a solitary individual then He would have been unable to be love, for until He had created there would have been no one to love. But He is eternally love, and He therefore loved within Himself because He is interpersonal. Yet He is not two beings, He is One.

But how could He reveal to man this unique and indescribable interpersonality, and especially so when part of what He is became man? How could He reveal that He and this Man were of one nature and being, even though the Man is not all that there is of God? There was terminology that could be used that men would understand, as long as it was used carefully, that of father and son. Of course it was not perfect. There were many things about an earthly father and son that would not the true of the Father and the Son. But the essential thing about a son born from his father is that he is unquestionably of the same nature with his father, and comes from his father. They share the same being. And this is what the terminology is expressing, although in a slightly different way when used of God, that Father and Son are of one nature and share the same Being while having an inter-personal distinctiveness. And this alone, is why their relationship can be described in terms of Father and Son. That is what must be grasped and the rest thrown away. And the further point is that this has been true from all eternity. That is why we speak of the Son as being ‘eternally begotten’. What we are saying by this is that they have shared the same Nature and Being from all eternity. And they work together equally in all things (John 5.19-20).

And yet when God began to act in Creation it was ‘the Son’ Who acted in the forefront as Creator, although the Father was also active in it. But the Father created through the Son (Colossians 1.16; Hebrews 1.2). And when God in His eternal counsels determined redemption, it was the Son Who would become the Redeemer (Galatians 4.4-5; 1 John 4.14), although again the Father is active in it. The Father redeems through the Son. For they do all things together. But the One Who walked on earth in a human body, no, as a true human, was the Son and not the Father. To this extent He had taken up by choice a subsidiary position to His Father. In His manhood He could say, ‘My Father is greater than I’ (John 14.28), because by becoming Man He had had taken up a lower status. Note that He said this prior to going back to His Father to enjoy with Him the glory that had been His before the world was (John 17.5). He as not going back to receive a greater glory. He was going back to what was His by right. He had laid aside His equality in order to become Man, and now He was once again to be declared as ‘LORD’, that is, YHWH (Philippians 2.6-11). That is why He could also say ‘I and My Father are One’ (John 10.30), because He and His Father were still One in Being and essence. All this is what Jesus is saying here in Matthew. That is why ‘they’ were unique in being able to know each other.

End of note.

A General Appeal To Men And Women (11.28-30).

This final general appeal to all who will hear confirms that in spite of His words to the towns, for those who will respond there is a way back to God. In the turmoil of a troubled world there is a place of rest, and it is under His yoke which will result in walking as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. So He calls on men and women to turn from the yoke of the Scribes and Pharisees and come under His yoke and walk with Him.

The yoke was a well known picture in Judaism of anything to which men committed themselves. (It is, of course, taken from the idea of the yoke that joined two oxen together when they were ploughing). The Scribes spoke of the yoke of the Law and of it as the yoke of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. The removal of this yoke as regards the Sabbath is found in 12.1-16 where the Scribes seek to bind the disciples and Jesus under the yoke of the traditions of the elders, only to find themselves confuted by the One Who is Lord of the Sabbath and can thus provide perfect rest.

Analysis.

  • a Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden (burdened).
  • b And I will give you rest (28).
  • c Take my yoke upon you,
  • d And learn of me,
  • c For I am meek and lowly in heart.
  • b And you will find rest to your souls.”
  • a For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (30).

Note that in ‘a’ the people to whom Jesus is speaking labour and are heavy laden, and in the parallel those who take Jesus’ yoke on them find it easy and light. In ‘b’ Jesus will give them rest, and in the parallel they find rest. In ‘c’ He calls them to take His yoke on them, and in the parallel that yoke is one of meekness and lowliness of heart. Centrally in ‘d’ they must learn of Jesus.

11.28 “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

The call ‘come (deute) to Me’ made to those who are labouring can be compared with Isaiah 55.3, where it is God Who speaks, and the aim there is that men might enjoy the life of the new age by entering into the everlasting Davidic covenant with Him. Here then is a call to men by the son of David to enter into covenant with Him, the covenant concerning which more detail will be given later (26.28). But here it goes further for we have already been told that it is Jesus who makes known to those who come to Him the truth about the Father (verse 27). Thus He is calling men to come and learn from Him.

This is similar to His words in John 7.37, ‘if any man thirst, let Him come to Me and drink’ where the idea is of drinking of the Spirit. For the idea of ‘coming to Him’ compare John 6.37, ‘all whom the Father gives to Me will come to Me’, tying in with the idea that they will come because the Father has revealed to them His truth (verse 25).

‘Those who labour and are heavy laden.’ This may well refer to those who are labouring (or weary) and heavy laden under the requirements and the burden of the Law, the yoke of the Law (contrast verse 27). For elsewhere we are told that heavy burdens are laid on men by the Scribes (23.4; Luke 11.46), who in Jewish tradition are said to put on men the yoke of the Law. Compare Ecclesiasticus 51.26 which says, ‘Put your neck under the yoke, and let your soul receive instruction’ (here it is the yoke of the Torah. Compare Acts 15.10; Galatians 5.1 where the same thing was being done by the Judaisers). In chapter 12 these burdens are illustrated in two ways. Notice the double reference to ‘it is not lawful’ (12.2, 10). Regularly in his life a Jew seeking to live rightly would hear the stern words, ‘it is not lawful’, and would discover yet another commandment that he had not known about. It was spoken as a warning. If he breached that warning he would be punished, But we need not limit Jesus’ words to that kind of burden. For Jesus has the solution to all men’s heavy weights and burdens of whatever kind (compare Galatians 6.2 where Christians are to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the Law of Christ).

‘I will give you rest (anapauso).’ Jesus may here have in mind creation, when God rested (katapauso) from His work, as expanded in the rest offered to all men through the Sabbath (from weary labour) when He said ‘you shall do no manner of work’ (Exodus 20.10). The Sabbath (rest) was often translated as ‘anapausis’ (see e.g. Exodus 16.23; 23.12 LXX). Such a rest was a theme in Isaiah (28.12; 30.15) where the idea was of resting on the faithfulness of God which would bring them through to lives of peace and rest. In Isaiah 11.10 the nations will look to the root of Jesse (David’s father) and he will offer glorious rest (LXX anapausis). In Isaiah 32.17 it is righteousness deliverance that brings rest. In contrast the wicked who are like the troubled sea find no rest (Isaiah 57.20).

In Hebrews 3-4 Israel in the wilderness wanderings are seen as an example of those who did not find rest (katapausis). They were unable to enter into his rest (into Canaan) because of unbelief (Hebrews 3.19 compare Psalm 95.11 - katapausis in LXX). But those who believe enter into rest (Hebrews 4.2) which is connected with God’s rest in creation, ‘there remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God’ (Hebrews 4.9). And the one who enters into that rest (katapausis) has himself rested from his works as God did from His (Hebrews 4.10).

Thus Jesus may well here be indicating entering into a spiritual Sabbath rest, a rest from labour and being heavy laden. This again ties in with 12.1-16 where Jesus relieves the burden of the Law by reversing the edicts of the traditions of the elders, and making the Sabbath a more genuine rest without it being a burden.

11.29 “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest to your souls.”

The yoke of Jesus is not based on submitting to His instruction but on learning from Jesus Himself what it meant to be meek and lowly in heart, and walking in submission to Him. It is the yoke of the Kingly Rule of God. In general a yoke is a wooden instrument that joins two animals so that it makes it easier for them, acting together, to pull a heavy load. The idea may well be that Jesus was, as it were, in the yoke, and that those who came to Him joined Him in the yoke and as it were walked with Him as He walked in meekness and lowliness (compare Galatians 2.20). Thus did they learn from Him (compare Isaiah 30.21 where we have the words of the yoke-master). How else could it be made easy? This ties in with the attitude which was required of His disciples in the beatitudes as a result of God’s blessing of them (5.3-9).

‘Meek and lowly in heart.’ The idea behind meekness is not that of being afraid to stand up and be counted, but of not being continually concerned with one’s own interests. The meek person never gets het up about selfish concerns, for in cases like this his concern is only to please God and look after God’s interests. That is why Moses was able to be described as ‘meek’ (Numbers 12.3). Lowliness of heart goes with meekness. Compare ‘poor in spirit’ (5.3). There is no thought of exalting self. Note how this connects with the activity of the Servant in 12.19-20, and with the continual emphasis on the fact that true greatness is found in being lowly (20.25-28).

‘And you will find rest to your souls.’ Compare Jeremiah 6.16 where the rest is found by walking in the old paths, ‘the good way’. So the good way was to be found by walking as He walked. Note that in Jeremiah the failure to listen to what God was saying resulted in the exile. Here the One Who representing Israel has come out of exile (2.15) offers the opportunity to them to ‘return from (spiritual) exile’ and find rest. But this is the rest of quietness and confidence. ‘In returning and rest you will be saved, in quietness and in confidence will be your strength’ (Isaiah 30.15)

11.30 “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The word translated ‘easy’ means ‘good, kind’. The point is that the yoke fits well and makes life easy so as to enable the task to be done quicker and better. It is not a recipe for idleness. As a carpenter Jesus had known what it meant to make a yoke fit the particular team that it was intended for so as to make life for the oxen as easy as possible. And that is what He is saying here, that the yoke that He gives us will be designed just for us, and will fit comfortably. Of course it will require being meek and lowly in heart, it will mean walking alongside Him without chafing, it will involve putting in full effort, but it will make whatever burden we have to bear a light one. We will declare, ‘this is no burden. This is what Jesus wants me to help Him to carry’.

Controversy With The Pharisees About The Sabbath. The Son of Man Is Lord Of The Sabbath (12.1-16).

In the last passage Matthew has depicted words of Jesus concerning the heavy burden of the Law and the way to finding rest from it. Here we now have two clear illustrations of what He was saying, depicting the heavy yoke of the Law, and the way in which Jesus would make it ‘easier’. It also demonstrates that the Pharisees were on the watch for Him, trying to catch Him out. The opposition is growing (note previously 9.11, 34) until in verse 14 it reaches fever pitch. But this must not just be seen as an argument on the minutiae of the Law in the face of two different opinions. Jesus rather challenges the basic attitudes that lie behind the Scribes’ interpretation of the Law, and especially their right to challenge the disciples of the Son of Man on such a matter, for that is an implied criticism of Him. And He is Lord of the Sabbath.

The first challenge arises as a result of a walk through a grainfield on the Sabbath Day, when the disciples pluck ears of grain, and roll it in their hands and eat it because they are hungry. The disciples are then faced up with the accusation of transgressing the Law because they have technically reaped and threshed grain on the Sabbath. Jesus is warned that what they have done ‘is not lawful’. This may well have been an official warning, (one warning on matters of interpretation of the Law had to be given to ‘the ignorant’) in which case not to heed it would involve being in danger of being brought before the synagogue courts for punishment. Jesus’ confutes it both on the grounds of precedence, and on the grounds that as the Son of Man, and greater than the Temple, He has the right to declare what is right on the Sabbath.

Then again in the synagogue Jesus Himself is challenged as to whether ‘it is lawful’ to heal on the Sabbath when a life is not at stake (verse 10). It should be noted that in neither case does Jesus reply that the Sabbath need not be observed. What He does speak of is the kind of thing that must not be forbidden on the Sabbath simply because of the declaration of the Scribes. This is when it involves the genuine good of man, and cases of genuine need. By it He indicates that as the Son of Man He is the Lord of the Sabbath. That was a huge claim to make, for the Sabbath was God’s ordinance and not man’s. He was claiming to be able to unveil the mind of God (compare 11.27) and to be able to set aside tradition on a subject of great importance to the Jews.

The importance of the Sabbath to the Jews cannot be overstressed. They rejoiced in it for they saw it as marking them off as God’s people. No one else had such a symbol which every seven days revealed that like God at creation they worked in accordance with His pattern.

So Jesus’ reply is not that the Sabbath does not matter, but that their interpretation is wrong because they have not considered all the facts. He then points out that the Scriptures allow the breaking of the Sabbath Rule of ‘you shall do no manner of work’ in certain circumstances, and He stresses that what they have especially overlooked is God’s concern for mercy. Thus both the hungry poor (which includes His disciples) who need to eat on the Sabbath, and the doing of genuine good, are factors that, within reason, overrule the Sabbath prohibition, just as the Temple requirements do. In making this point He also stresses that One is now here Who is greater than the Temple and is Lord of the Sabbath. It is He Who has the right to say what is lawful on the Sabbath Day, and He makes clear that He declares His disciples innocent.

This theme of ‘greater than’ will continue on through the chapter. He is greater than the Temple (verse 6), He is greater than Satan (verse 29), He is greater than Jonah (verse 41), He is greater than the great King Solomon (verse 42), just as previously He was greater than John the greatest of all the Prophets (11.11, 13-14). For He is the Spirit Anointed and beloved Servant of YHWH (12.18).

The Incident In The Grainfields (12.1-8).

The first incident arises when Jesus and His disciples are walking through some grainfields. Being hungry they pluck some of the grain, and eat it (something allowed by the Law). This is then picked up by the Pharisees who basically claim that by doing so they are reaping and threshing the grain, an activity which was ‘work’, and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.

Analysis.

  • a At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the grainfields, and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears and to eat (1).
  • b But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, “Behold, your disciples do what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath” (2).
  • c But he said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him, how he entered into the house of God, and ate the showbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” (3-4).
  • d “Or have you not read in the law, that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?” (5).
  • c “But I say to you, that one greater than the temple is here” (6).
  • b “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless” (7).
  • a “For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”

Note that in ‘a’ the disciples break the traditions of the elders concerning the Sabbath and in the parallel Jesus declares that as Son of Man He is lord of the Sabbath. In ‘b’ the declaration is that they have done what was not lawful, and in the parallel Jesus accuses them of condemning the guiltless. In ‘c’ David’s behaviour in connection with God’s house is declared, and in the parallel Jesus points out that He is greater than God’s house. In ‘d’ and centrally He makes the point that the priest can break the Sabbath rules and yet remain guiltless, thus there are some things that do genuinely override the Sabbath.

12.1 ‘At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the grainfields, and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears and to eat.’

‘At that time.’ This is again a phrase that connects with what has gone before without being too specific. Matthew wants us to connect what he is about to say with what Jesus has just been saying about the heavy burden laid on men by the traditions of the elders (11.26).

On this particular Sabbath Jesus was walking through a grainfield with His disciples, possibly after attending the synagogue. The Law of Moses allowed anyone walking through a grainfield to partake of the grain for his own needs if he was hungry, but not to put in a sickle (Deuteronomy 23.25). This was intended to be of especial benefit to the poor. Thus in that respect the disciples were within their rights in what they were doing. They were plucking the grain, rubbing it between their hands in order to rid it of the husk, and then eating it. But as they, with many Jews, were not used to being too ultra-strict about Sabbath Day observance, they had failed to recognise that this might cause offence.

For the ‘Elders’ had laid down the principle that just as reaping and threshing were not allowed on the Sabbath because they were ‘work’, so was anything forbidden that could be seen as reaping and threshing. Jesus would not have disagreed with their main principle. Where the controversy came in as far as He was concerned was in interpreting what the disciples had been doing as ‘reaping and threshing’, and the speed at which they leapt in to condemn it. He would have been able to point out that had they really been reaping and threshing someone else’s field, then that would also have been frowned on as breaking the Law, for they must not put in the sickle. Thus it was clear that the Law allowed what His disciples were doing as not ‘putting in the sickle’. It was not seen by the Law as reaping and threshing.

The Pharisees saw it otherwise, and the synagogue elders would probably have backed them on it, for it was something on which they considered the Scribes had made a declaration. (Under later interpretation the disciples would have been able to do what they did to amounts less than ‘the size of a dried fig’, so pedantic had things become, and then it would have been a matter of whether each disciple had eaten more than the equivalent of a dried fig, although also at a later stage what the disciples did actually became ‘legal’, possibly influenced by this well known incident). So Jesus will not only refute it but will advance other arguments which will also emphasise His own authority.

‘Were hungry.’ It may well be that we are to see that they were going through a lean period as far as food was concerned. The Father’s provision does not always arrive just when we want it. Perhaps they had not eaten for some time. Indeed this may have been the reason why they went to the grainfields, taking advantage of the regulations concerning the poor. This may suggest that the customary Sabbath hospitality had not been offered to Jesus and His disciples at this time.

12.2 ‘But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said to him, “Behold, your disciples do what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” ’

Some of the Pharisees became aware of what His disciples were doing. It may be that they had been walking with the disciples, professing interest in Jesus’ message, while carefully watching for any failures in the behaviour of His disciples, or it may be that it had simply been reported to them by people who saw it, bringing them hurriedly to the scene. Either way they pointed out that He and His disciples (as their Master He could be accounted responsible) were doing what was not lawful on the Sabbath Day.

‘What is not lawful to do.’ We should note that this is probably not just a comment, but an official warning. Proceedings could not be taken under the Law against ‘the untaught’ at the first offence. The culprits had first to be warned so as to ensure that they did know what the Law was. If the warning was then ignored, proceedings could be taken (compare Acts 4.18 with 5.17). Thus Jesus and His disciples were being warned that if it happened again proceedings would be taken. The opposition was hardening.

It should be noted that this was not a question of whether the Sabbath should be observed. All would have been agreed on that. It was a question of what should be interpreted as work, and who had the authority to determine it. On the whole the Jews delighted in the Sabbath and rejoiced in it. It set them apart as God’s people, and as behaving as God had behaved. But Pharisaic interpretation was strict (in the Qumran community they were even stricter). Jesus’ argument is that it is a matter of compassion, and is based on the fact that One Was here Who could authoritatively declare what was allowed on the grounds of compassion.

12.3-4 ‘But he said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him, how he entered into the house of God, and they ate the showbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” ’

Jesus replied from a well known passage concerning David (1 Samuel 21.1-9). There David and his companions had, ‘because they were hungry’, persuaded the High Priest of the day to let him and his men have the old showbread which had been taken from the Table of Showbread in the Tabernacle when, as was the custom, it had been replaced. This was ‘holy’ and could only be eaten by the priests. But David had pleaded special circumstances and that his men were in a state of consecration, and his plea had been allowed even though ‘it was not lawful’. No one, not even the Scribes, had ever criticised David for this, or even did so now, because he was seen as having been God’s anointed. So one of Jesus’ points will be that as the Greater than David as ‘the Son of Man’, He has an even better right to determine Sabbath law. What David could lawfully do for himself and his men, He could lawfully do for Himself and His men. He could interpret the Law in their favour.

Another point that may have been in Jesus’ mind was that David had claimed the right because he was on the king’s business (even though in David’s case it was a lie). This, connected with Jesus statement that as Son of Man He was Lord of the Sabbath, may signify that He considered that His disciples were ‘on the King’s business’, that is, serving the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Jesus seems very much to have seen He and His men as parallel with David and his men.

Note here that David ‘went into the house of God’ (singular) while his men who ‘ate’ (plural) did not. Thus he was demonstrating some kind of right to enter the house of God. This may be intended to lead on to Jesus claim to be greater than the Temple.

12.5 “Or have you not read in the law, that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?”

But he also has a second argument (which is not mentioned in Mark and Luke), and that is that the priests in performing their functions of worship are constantly technically breaking the Sabbath by carrying things, slaying sacrifices, and so on. And yet they are looked on as guiltless because the authority of the Temple overrides the Sabbath Law. His point therefore is partly that everything is not just a matter of ‘black and white’. There are various shades of grey. And so each case needs to be examined on its merits.

We can understand why Mark and Luke omit this verse. To most of the people to whom they were writing the Temple ordinances were unimportant and not significant. To Jews and Jewish Christians, however, they would be of great importance, especially before the Temple was destroyed.

12.6 “But I say to you, that one greater than the temple is here.”

But Jesus now takes the opportunity of making a second point so as to bring home to them His claims. He points out that ‘One greater than the Temple is here’. Note His emphatic ‘I say to you’. He is speaking from a position of unique authority. The words are carefully chosen. He did not precisely say that He was the One Who was greater than the Temple. He left it to be implied. But again the claim is huge. He is indicating that He is greater than the Temple, that His importance outranks the importance of the Temple, and that He thus has the right to interpret the Law as it applies to His followers, just as the Temple could interpret the Law for its ministrants. Indeed as the Temple is the repository for the Law, it has authority over the Law. So as greater than the Temple He has more right to interpret the Law than any other living person. It was in fact to be one of the duties of the Messianic King to interpret the Law so as to ensure that he and the nation lived by it (Deuteronomy 17.19-20).

‘One greater than the Temple.’ ‘One’ is neuter, but in Greek this can signify a person when a quality is being stressed rather than the person himself (compare the similar use in verses 41-42). Alternately what is greater than the Temple might be the Kingly Rule of God, but that would then include the King (12.28).

‘Is here.’ In other words let them note that the time has come. For long centuries the Temple has represented God on earth. But now it has been superseded as God’s primary means of being revealed to His people, by Another, the One Who can reveal the Father to whomever He will (11.27), or alternately by the presence of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and the One Who represents it. Thus the Tabernacle and the Temple as the place around which God’s ‘congregation’ would gather is being replaced by Another around which a new congregation will gather.

Jesus comparison of Himself with the Temple comes out elsewhere. See 26.61; John 2.19-21. Just as within the Temple was the symbol of the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH (not the Ark itself but something that represented it) so within the body of Jesus was the living God Himself.

12. 7 “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

Having laid His claim Jesus now appeals to the conscience. Had the Pharisees known the meaning of Hosea 6.6 (compare here 9.3), they would have recognised that God put compassion before ritual. They would in that case have interpreted the Law compassionately and not harshly, and would have allowed the hungry poor to gather for their own need on the Sabbath. They would not have condemned those who in fact had done no wrong. It is a reminder that when we read the Scriptures we have a tendency to see what we want to see. The Pharisees saw prohibitions. Jesus saw compassion. Note the fact that Jesus did not see His disciples as having committed a minor sin, He considered that they had actually had the right to do what they had done, thus specifically setting Himself against the ideas of the Pharisees.

12.8 “For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.”

Jesus then makes clear the basis of His authority. As Son of Man He is lord of the Sabbath. That is, as God’s appointed King elect (Daniel 7.13-14) He has the right to lay down what the Sabbath requirements really are. The Sabbath is subject to Him.

The Man With The Withered Hand (12.9-16).

Having described the rejection of Himself and John by the general people, the rejection of His Messianic signs by the local towns, and the hostility of the Pharisees, the story of the man with the withered hand fits in aptly. It is a reminder of the condition of Israel. They too are like a man with a withered hand.

Once again the idea of ‘it is not lawful’ enters in. The yoke of the Law is once more stressed, and the One Who eases that yoke (11.30) is described. And once again He is at loggerheads with the Pharisees, who are this time so infuriated that they go away in order to plot how they can get rid of Him. In a sense they are the unhealed withered hand of Israel. But central to the account is that Jesus has come to lift men out of the pit and restore them (compare 9.12-13). And He will do it for the man with the withered hand, and indeed for all those whose lives are withered.

Analysis.

  • a And he departed from there and went into their synagogue (9).
  • b And behold, a man having a withered hand. And they asked him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?” so that they might accuse him’ (10).
  • c And he said to them, “What man will there be of you, who will have one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” (11).
  • d “How much then is a man of more value than a sheep!” (12a).
  • c “For which reason it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day” (12b).
  • b Then he says to the man, “Stretch forth your hand.” And he stretched it forth, and it was restored whole, as the other (13).
  • a But the Pharisees went out, and took counsel against him, how they might destroy him (14).

Note how in ‘a’ Jesus went into the synagogue in order to heal, and in the parallel the Pharisees went out of the synagogue in order to destroy. In ‘b’ they asked, ‘is it lawful to heal’, and in the parallel Jesus healed. In ‘c’ He provides His illustration of why it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath, and in the parallel He states that it is so. Centrally in ‘d’ is the declaration of man’s value to God.

12.9 ‘And he departed from there and went into their synagogue,’

All three synoptic Gospels place this incident after the incident of the grainfields for similar reasons, because they deal with what is not lawful on the Sabbath, and because they reveal the condition of Israel. Luke tells us that this incident was on another Sabbath. Matthew’s connection is a typically ‘loose’ one. He is not saying that He immediately went to the synagogue. ‘Their’ synagogue may in this case be pointing at the Pharisees. In which case it is indicating that Jesus was, as it were, walking into the lion’s den. Or it may simply be the usual use in this Gospel. As previously mentioned each town had ‘its’ synagogue or synagogues, and Matthew (as a former tax-collector) would not feel closely connected with the synagogue. But the ring of sadness lies in the fact that in the very place where men were meant to worship God, they would attack His Son.

12.10 ‘And behold, a man having a withered hand. And they asked him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?” so that they might accuse him.’

As usual Matthew sticks to the bare facts. There was a man with a withered hand there and they challenged Him as to whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath day. Note their assumption that He could do it, which underlines their hypocrisy. They knew what He could do and they still opposed Him. They were even more unforgivable than the towns (11.20-24) for they had had the opportunity to think deeply about it. And here their sole aim was to accuse Him. He might have wriggled rather unsatisfactorily out of the previous challenge, but this time if He healed they had got Him. The interpreters of the Law were quite clear on the fact that it was not right to heal on the Sabbath except when life was in danger, and then only to the minimum amount required to preserve life.

12.11 ‘And he said to them, “What man will there be of you, who will have one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” ’

Jesus replies by posing a question, a typical Rabbinic method. What man among them would not take hold of a sheep and lift it out of a pit into which it had fallen on the Sabbath, even though its life was not in danger? That was permitted. Let them think about it. Reference to a sheep has significance in Matthew for he has likened the ‘lost’ in Israel to sheep (9.36; 10.6). Thus the move on to the greater value of a man is to be expected.

12.12 “How much then is a man of more value than a sheep! For which reason it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day.”

But is a man not more valuable than a sheep? Thus it is certainly lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath day, and that includes the restoration of a man whose state was worse than being in a pit. Did they really think that a God of mercy would do otherwise? Note that Matthew’s emphasis is on the value of men, and on their need to be restored. That is the lesson that he wants to get over.

12.13 ‘Then he says to the man, “Stretch forth your hand.” And he stretched it forth, and it was restored whole, as the other.’

Then he turned to the man with a withered hand and said to him, “Stretch forth your hand.” And when he obediently did so his hand was wholly restored, just like his other hand which was whole. It was a symbol of what Jesus had come to do for Israel. It should be noted that Jesus did nothing apart from giving a command. It should have been apparent to the Pharisees that this could only be God’s work. But they did not give the wonder of the miracle a second thought. They did not consider the remarkable fact that Jesus had simply healed the man with a thought (He did not even appeal to His Father).

12.14 ‘But the Pharisees went out, and took counsel against him, how they might destroy him.’

But the Pharisees were furious. Jesus was flouting their regulations, and not only so, but He had held them up to ridicule. Furthermore they recognised in His bold action confirmation of His claim to be Lord of the Sabbath. And so they entered into discussions as to how He could be destroyed. He had had His warning and He had not listened. We are told in Mark that their discussions included courtiers from Herod’s court. This had to be done officially and properly so that the crowds would not be aroused by their actions. But Matthew does not bring that in. He wants concentration to be on the opposition of the Pharisees, which he sees as slowly building up (compare verse 24). As always he leaves out any details not in line with what he wants to say.

There is nothing unlikely in infuriated men discussing how Jesus could be got rid of, especially men who considered that all that they believed in was at stake. It does not take long for men to work themselves up into a fury, especially men who believe that they are right. Anyone who thinks that it could not have happened so quickly just does not know men. Their problem of course lay in doing it legitimately. They could find no way in which to bring it about, without harming themselves, which was why, humanly speaking, Jesus still lived.

Jesus Is The Servant of YHWH As Promised By Isaiah (12.15-21).

Matthew now sums up Jesus’ ministry in terms of the Servant of YHWH in Isaiah 42.1-4. His quotation from Isaiah in this passage is the central point in the chiasmus of this whole section from 11.1-12.50 (as shown above). It is also a turning point in the Gospel. Jesus having ministered among Israel as the Servant of YHWH, and having been on the whole rejected in that Israel has not repented (11.20-24), will now begin to look further afield. What will now follow is but the working out of these words of Isaiah, together with the idea of the Servant that lies behind them (8.17; 20.28).

Thus, having demonstrated the Satanic influence on Israel, making them in the main unreceptive (12.22-32, 43-45), and having further condemned Israel’s lack of repentance (12.41-42), and having rejected the importance of all human relationships in favour of the relationship between the new people of God (12.46-50), He will reveal in parables a ministry that is to reach out to the whole world (13.32, 38, 48-49), and this because Israel has refused to see and hear (13.14-15) as prophesied by Isaiah. He will now proclaim justice to the nations.

In consequence, rejected even by His own home town (13.53-58), and in order to escape Herod (14.1-13), He once again goes into the wilderness (compare 2.15; 4.1-11) where He gathers together His new congregation and feeds them with bread from Heaven in a covenant meal (14.13-21), which foreshadows His final covenant meal (26.26-29). He in turn has rejected Israel apart from the remnant who are faithful to Him.

After this, citing Isaiah again by name, He will draw attention to the continuing unresponsiveness of Israel (15.8-9), and will go into Gentile territory, where He will make clear the terms on which He will offer mercy to the Gentiles (15.21-28). He there continues on in Gentile territory and parallels the previous feeding of His new congregation (15.29-39), among a crowd which must have included many Gentiles, before returning to Magadan in Galilee. Note the emphasis on the fact that in Gentile territory they ‘glorified the God of Israel’ (Matthew 15.31). Compare here Mark 7.31-8.10). Back in Galilee He warns against the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. Then He returns again to Gentile territory at Caesarea Philippi where His Messiahship is declared by Peter and He declares that He is forming a new congregation of the people of God (16.13-20), at which point He reveals His coming suffering at the hands of the Jews (16.21). This is then followed by the manifestation of His glory on Gentile territory (17.1-8).

Returning to Galilee it is only in order to stress His coming death and resurrection (17.22-23) and His rejected kingship (17.24-27), before laying down the principles on which the new congregation is to operate (18.1-19.1), and at this point He leaves Galilee for Jerusalem on His way to His death (20.17-18), where He will fulfil the Servant’s destiny (20.19-20). However, from this point on His actions will no longer be those of the Servant but of the King (21.5). In Jerusalem He will symbolically cleanse the Temple, giving it its final opportunity (21.12-17), before declaring it cursed in His withering of the fig tree (21.18-22). Challenged by His enemies He will reveal His sonship and the expectations that He has of what His destiny will be as the Son (21.33-39), before declaring what is to happen to those who rid themselves of Him (21.40-42). As a consequence the Kingly Rule is to be taken away from them and given to a new nation which will produce its fruits (21.43). In the light of the whole picture this can only be inclusive of the Gentiles.

He will then teach a parable making clear the rejection of God’s offer by Israel, and the judgment that will result, leaving the way open for those who are from the highways and byways, the outcasts, who will be provided with a wedding garment, which is the wedding garment of His saving righteousness (5.6; 6.33; 7.7-11; 13.43; 25.37, 46) and forgiveness (6.12; 9.6; 18.21-35), the uniform of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Only those who wear it will be safe at the judgment (25.31-46). They, like the Servant, are the chosen (22.14), who will be gathered to Him in the final day (24.31).

He will then be tested by His enemies (22.15-33) before declaring the foundation principles of the new community (22.34-40) and His own great superiority to David as David’s LORD (22.41-46). After this He will declare the final judgment of God on the Scribes and Pharisees (23) and on Jerusalem (24-25) prior to His coming in glory for His own. This will then lead on to His cross and resurrection, after which He will make clear His enthronement in triumph and His mission, which will be to all nations through His Apostles, who are to be baptised in the Name of the Father (6-7; 10.20, 29, 33; 11.25-28), and of the Son (3.17; 11.25-28; 17.5; 21.37; 22.2) and of the Holy Spirit (3.11; 10.20; 12.28-31). They will thus enjoy all the blessing brought by the King and Servant (28.18-20). ‘In His Name will the Gentiles hope’ (12.21).

As we have seen earlier (see especially introductory article on ‘that it might be fulfilled), the prophecies of Isaiah lie latent below the whole of this central section of Matthew’s Gospel from 3.3 to 20.28. Only in this section are his prophecies cited by name. And the emphasis in these prophecies is on Jesus, firstly as the One Who has had the way prepared before Him (3.3); then as the light Who has shone from darkness resulting in the coming King of Isaiah 9.6-7 (4.14-16) ; then as the Servant of YHWH Who has come bearing their afflictions and carrying their sicknesses (8.17); and now as the Servant and Beloved of YHWH Who by His Spirit will reach out to both Jew and Gentile, working patiently and quietly until He has achieved righteous victory. See also 15.7-9; 20.28.

This quotation from Isaiah is widely reflected in the wider context:

  • For ‘Behold My Servant Whom I have chosen, My beloved’ see 3.17; 17.5.
  • For ‘in Whom My soul is well pleased’, see 3.17; 11.26.
  • For ‘I will put My Spirit upon Him’ see 3.11, 16; 12.28.
  • For ‘He will declare judgment (righteous truth) to the nations’ see 8.11; 21.43; 22.9-10; 24.14; 28.19; also potentially in 11.21; 12.41-42.
  • For ‘He will not strive, nor cry aloud, nor will any one hear His voice in the streets’ see 6.5; 11.16; 12.16.
  • For ‘a bruised reed will He not break’ see 11.7; for ‘smoking flax will He not quench’ see 11.28-30.
  • For ‘until He sends forth judgment (righteous truth) unto victory’ see 13.30, 41-43; 19.28; 24.30-31; 25.31-46; 26.64; 28.18-20.
  • For ‘and in His name will the nations hope’ see 2.1-2; 8.11; 13.32; 15.27, 31; 24.14; 28.19.

The quotation is mainly based on Isaiah 42.1-4, but it is (as often in New Testament quotations) supplemented by other references in Isaiah. In order to demonstrate this let us consider Matthew’s text side by side with the Hebrew text (MT) and Greek Septuagint (LXX).

--------MATTHEW---------------------MT-------------------------------LXX------------

Behold, my servant-------------Behold my servant------------- My servant Jacob,
whom I have chosen,----------whom I uphold----------------- I will help him
My beloved in whom----------My chosen in whom----------- My chosen one, Israel,
my soul is well pleased.-------my soul delights.--------------- my soul has accepted him;
I will put my Spirit------------I have put my Spirit---------- I have put my Spirit
upon him,------------------------upon him------------------------upon him
And he will declare------------he will bring forth------------ he will bring forth
judgment to the Gentiles.-----judgment to the Gentiles.--- judgment to the Gentiles.
He will not strive,---------------he will not cry,---------------- He will not cry
nor cry aloud,--------------------nor lift up,--------------------- nor lift up his voice,
Nor will any one hear----------nor cause to be heard-------- nor shall be heard
his voice in the streets.---------his voice in the streets.------- his voice without.
A bruised reed-------------------A bruised reed----------------- A bruised reed
he will not break, ---------------he will not break--------------he will not break,
And smoking flax---------------and the smoking flax--------- and smoking flax
he will not quench,--------------he will not quench------------ he will not quench;
Until he send forth--------------he will bring forth------------ but he shall bring forth
judgment unto victory.---------judgment in truth.------------ judgment to truth.
and in his name------------------and the isles will wait--------- and in his name
will the Gentiles hope.----------for his law.----------------------will the Gentiles hope.

It will be noted that on the whole the three are parallel, with only small divergences in translation, until the final verse. In that verse Matthew and LXX have ‘and in his name will the Gentiles hope’, whereas the MT has ‘and the isles will wait for His law’. The former is probably based on Isaiah 51.5 (see below).

The Small Divergences.

In line 2 Matthew has ‘chosen’ instead of ‘uphold’. He will in fact replace ‘chosen’ with ‘beloved’ in line 3, so he now takes the opportunity of incorporating it here. Alternatively it may have been incorporated from Isaiah 43.10 or 44.1 where the Servant is described as God’s chosen one. It is a standard description of the Servant.

In line 3 Matthew has ‘my beloved’ instead of ‘my chosen’. The idea of the beloved may have been incorporated from Isaiah 41.8 so as to connect with Abraham, or it may be that Matthew wished to connect with the idea of the beloved Son in 3.17.

In line 7 Matthew translates as ‘declare’ instead of ‘bring forth’, possibly, on the basis of Isaiah 12.4; 42.9; 45.19, wishing by it to emphasise the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles.

In line 9 Matthew translates as ‘he will not strive’ instead of ‘he will not cry’, possibly to take into account Jesus’ striving by voice with the Jews in the previous passage.

In line 17 Matthew translates as ‘until he send forth’ instead of ‘he will bring forth’, again emphasising the mission of the Apostles.

In line 18 Matthew has ‘judgment unto victory’ instead of ‘judgment in (to) truth’, possibly on the basis of a version of Isaiah 25.8 as cited by Paul (1 Corinthians 15.54), so as to incorporate Jesus’ victory over death, the final truth. But, of course, the final victory will indicate the success of truth.

The Final Verse.

In lines 19 and 20 Matthew is parallel to LXX, saying ‘and in His name will the Gentiles hope’. MT has ‘and the isles will wait for His law’. As ‘the isles’ speaks of the Gentiles, and as ‘hoping in His Name’ is the equivalent of ‘waiting for His law’ (living in expectation of His instruction), the ideas are not dissimilar.

Both wordings connect with Isaiah 51.5 LXX where ‘in My arm will the Gentiles hope’ (MT - ‘on my arm will they hope/trust’) actually parallels ‘the isles will wait for me’, possibly being seen as combined with Isaiah 12.4 where we have ‘call upon His Name’ (note how 12.4 also probably affected line 7). It may be that Matthew has brought together these ideas in Isaiah in his quotation so as to emphasise particular points. This bringing together of different Scriptures and combining them was a regular feature of those days. We can compare how Paul brought together a miscellany of verses in Romans 3.10-18, whilst Mark incorporates two citations into one in Mark 1.2-3. This was done on the grounds that all are Scripture and can therefore be fused together as Scripture. Or it is possible that he took the quotation from a text or compendium of quotations which had done the same. Note how ‘my beloved in whom I am well pleased’ parallels 3.17. It is clear that Matthew did not usually use the LXX (he only does so when he is also paralleling Mark). So either his quotation is a free translation of the original as seen in the light of other Scriptures, or it is from an unknown source.

Analysis of 12.15-21.

  • a And Jesus perceiving it withdrew from there (15a).
  • b And many followed Him, and He healed them all (15b).
  • c And He charged them that they should not make Him known (16).
  • d That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, “Behold, My servant whom I have chosen” (18a).
  • e My beloved in whom My soul is well pleased (18b).
  • d I will put My Spirit upon Him, and he will declare righteous truth to the nations (18d).
  • c He will not strive, nor cry aloud, nor will any one hear His voice in the streets (19).
  • b A bruised reed will He not break, and smoking flax will He not quench, until He sends forth righteous truth unto victory (20).
  • a And in His name will the nations hope (21).
.

Note how in ‘a’ Jesus withdraws from the Jews, and in the parallel is the thought that eventually He will reach out to the Gentiles, or better, the nations. In ‘b’ many follow Him and He heals them all, and in the parallel he restores the bruised reed and the smoking flax. In ‘c He charges the crowds not to make Him known, and in the parallel He too goes quietly around His work. In ‘d’ the Spirit inspired Isaiah speaks of God’s chosen Servant, and in the parallel the Spirit inspires the Servant to declare righteous truth to the nations, which is a recognised ministry of the Servant (42.6; 49.6). Centrally in ‘e’ attention is focused on the Beloved in Whom God is well pleased.

12.15-16 ‘And Jesus perceiving it withdrew from there, and many followed him, and he healed them all, and charged them that they should not make him known.’

Jesus, perceiving the attitude of the Pharisees, withdrew from that place. But the crowds continued to follow Him and He ‘healed them all’, in both body and spirit. Then He charged them not to make a great fuss about it. He did not want to arouse attention. He wanted His ministry to go forward quietly (compare verses 19-20) benefiting those who sought Him, without drawing the attention of those who were not interested, and even antagonistic.

Note the way in which this introduction in verses 15-16 (which is possibly an abbreviation of Mark 3.7-12) thoroughly prepares for the quotation that follows. It summarises what has preceded it, describes the new change of direction that is coming, and outlines what will follow. The quotation from Isaiah, which comes after it, then also does the same demonstrating that what He is doing is in fulfilment of Scripture. We can analyse verses 15-16 as follows:

  • (1). Jesus withdraws from the Jews of the area. This continues Jesus’ estrangement from the Jews, which as we have seen has been emphasised, which will eventually lead towards His later ministry in Gentile territory (where however there would be many Jews), a ministry now being prepared for in the quotation. See verses 18, 21. The failure of the Jews to respond will result in His going out to the nations (see below).
  • (2). Many ‘follow’ Him because He is the successful Servant of YHWH (verse 20). The lost sheep of the house of Israel (9.36; 10.6) are gathering to Him.
  • (3). He heals all who come to Him because as the Servant (verse 18) He is the One Who bears their afflictions and carries their diseases (8.17). The ‘all’ indicates that even those who do not need bodily healing, find healing in Jesus (9.12).
  • (4). But He desires no publicity, for His ministry is to be quietly conducted, as in the quotation in verse 19. He has come for those whom His Father has given Him (John 6.37; 10.29).

And as we have seen above what now follows looks back to the beginning of His ministry, outlines His present ministry, and then looks forward to what lies ahead, especially His movement to preaching in Gentile territories.

12.17 ‘That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying,’

The whole of Jesus’ ministry (from 3.3 to 20.28) is at this point seen by Matthew to be a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, leading up to 20.28. In this section he continually and distinctively cites Isaiah’s prophecies by name, while outside this cluster he only mentions the name of Jeremiah (even when citing Isaiah anonymously), who, as the one who was called from the womb (Jeremiah 1.5), and was famed as the weeping prophet (Jeremiah 9.1), was most suitable to connect with the commencement and end of the life of Jesus (12.17; 27.9). See introduction.

It will be noted that this particular citation from Isaiah covers the points made in the above summary. It is also a summary of all that is to follow.

12.18

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen;
My beloved in whom my soul is well pleased.”

The quotation tells us first to consider the One of Whom it speaks. He is the chosen Servant of YHWH, the One Who as the Servant has borne their afflictions and carried their diseases (8.17), the One on Whom YHWH has set His purposes, establishing Him as His own personal Representative, and Who is now sent by Him with a ministry to the nations. Such a ministry has already been hinted at from the very beginning of Matthew. Thus:

  • The names of Gentile women are contained in Jesus’ genealogy in chapter 1.
  • As a small child He was visited by the Magi who hailed Him as King of the Jews and who financed His exile in chapter 2.
  • Satan offered Him the Kingship of the whole world in chapter 4.8-9
  • In 8.10-12 He expresses His admiration for the faith of the Gentile centurion.
  • Testimony is expressly to be made to the Gentiles in 10.18.
  • The Gentiles would have been more willing to respond to His mighty works (11.20-24).

And all this is to come to fruition in 15.27 onwards, for while He had at first had to concentrate on the lost sheep of the house of Israel (9.36; 10.6), His ministry will from then on become more widely inclusive, as is made clear in the parables of His Kingly Rule in chapter 13.

Note the emphasis in this title on lowliness. He is the lowly, but honoured, Servant, and He ministers in Israel as the Servant. This is especially brought out at this juncture by Matthew’s pattern as revealed in his Gospel, for in this section, from 8-20, the main emphasis is on His role as the Servant (8.17; 12.18; 20.28).

In chapters 1 to 3 Jesus was clearly revealed as the King, and given all royal honour, until, in 3.17, His position as the Servant was also manifested. In 4.1-11 He had to choose whether He would be the King in splendour (although debased) or the Servant King. And from then on He is revealed as the Servant (although still a King for He is introducing the Kingly Rule of God and is called the Son of David). And this depiction of Jesus as the Servant King is then emphasised continually until 20.28, where His final destiny as the Servant is declared. He is to give His life ‘a ransom for many’.

From then on, being welcomed into Jerusalem as the Son of David (20.29-34; 21.9) He establishes His kingly authority, even though still in lowliness (21.5), and makes quite clear that He is the King, both by His responses to the leaders of Israel and by specific citation from Scripture (22.42-45). Compare 21.42-44 where the rejected Servant and Son turns the tables and establishes a new Kingly Rule. It is as King (as well as Servant - 20.28) that He is crucified. And in the end it is His Kingship that is established in Heaven (28.18). The lowliness of the Servant will especially be brought out in 20.25-28, and will even be emphasised of Jesus in His Kingship (21.5). While the distinctions must not be overpressed, for He is ever both Servant and King, the pattern is nevertheless clear.

And because He is His chosen Servant, He is the Beloved One of YHWH in Whom YHWH is well pleased, as testified to after His baptism in 3.17, Who does always what is pleasing to Him (3.17; 11.26), and will be revealed again as the Beloved and well pleasing Son in His transfiguration (17.5). He is rejected as the Son by men (22.37-38) but after enthronement (28.18), is finally united as ‘the Son’ with His Father in the giving of blessing to His people (28.19).

We should perhaps note here His alignment by this with Abraham. In 1.1-17 it was emphasised that He was the son of Abraham, and in the whole Servant context in Isaiah it was Abraham who was especially the beloved of YHWH (Isaiah 41.8, ‘Abraham whom I have loved’; 51.2). Indeed there it was because of Abraham that YHWH had chosen Israel as His Servant. Now the greater than Abraham was here.

12.18b “I will put my Spirit upon him, And he will declare judgment to the nations (Gentiles).”

This emphasises that He is the One on Whom the Spirit has come in accordance with 3.11, as witnessed to in 3.16, being led by the Spirit from then on (4.1). But this is no ordinary anointing, for, as we learned in 3.11, by it He became the One Who could dispense the Spirit. (Thus those who hear Him and respond will be born of the Spirit - John 3.1-7). The Spirit will work in accordance with His will. And by casting out evil spirits by that same Spirit He has demonstrated that the Kingly Rule of God has now come (12.28). Thus do we learn that the ability of the Apostles to cast out evil spirits (10.1) has come through the work of the Spirit on them, as promised in 3.11. And as a result He will declare righteous truth to the nations (as described in the comments on verse 18a).

The word ‘judgment’ includes both the thought of bringing righteous truth to the nations, and also judgment (but still as righteous truth) for those who are under condemnation (11.20-24; 12.41-42). This will finally result in His sending out of His Apostles to the nations (24.14; 28.19).

12.19 “He will not strive, nor cry aloud, nor will any one hear his voice in the streets.”

His ministry will be neither strident nor publicity seeking. Not for Him the standing on street corners of 6.5, or the sitting in the streets mocking of 11.17, or the seeking of fame through His miracles (8.4; 9.30; 12.16). Nor will He strive with those whose hearts are hardened (10.13-14; 11.20-24; 12.15; 15.21). Rather He will be meek and lowly in heart (11.29).

This is in contrast with earthly rulers, who are renowned for their bluster (compare 20.25), and was in contrast with how most people would have seen the Messiah, although we must remember that there were those who saw the Messiah as coming as a great Teacher. Matthew wants it to be clear that Jesus is not on earth to stir up unnecessary trouble 21.5), even though His presence will necessarily cause dissension (10.21-22, 35-36).

12.20a “A bruised reed he will he not break, and smoking flax he will not quench.”

John was not a reed shaken with the wind (11.7), although he was a slightly bending one (11.2-3), but there would be many such, reeds that were bruised and battered, and out in the wilderness. And Jesus would patiently tend and restore them, whether their affliction be through disease (8.17), or through being on the afflicted way (7.13), and He would bring them to His rest (11.28-30).

The ‘smoking flax’ would be the wick of a lamp which was smoking either through shortage of oil or because it was nearly spent. Normally it would be tossed away and replaced. But Jesus would not take the kind of person represented by this wick and toss them away. Rather He would tend and care for them until His flame shone brightly through them once again (5.14-16). This gentle restoration of men and women will continue on through the Gospel, and will include the Canaanite woman in 15.21-28, the children in 19.13-14, and all who were physically suffering (14.35-36; 15.29-31). Indeed it will very much include His disciples who will have to be tenderly cared for on the way to the cross.

12.20b “Until he send forth (thrust forth) judgment (righteous truth) unto victory.”

For the Servant the victory is assured. He will send forth His righteous truth until He is finally triumphant. Nothing will be able to prevent His success, for God is with Him and His all-prevailing Spirit is upon Him. For some the righteous truth will result in eternal life, for others it will result in everlasting punishment (25.46). There may here be a connection to a reading of Isaiah 25.8, as cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.54, where ‘death is swallowed up in victory’. That swallowing up of death in victory will be the final triumph. For His greatest act of thrusting forth judgment unto victory would be the cross, where justice was satisfied, the Enemy was defeated (Colossians 2.15) and true righteousness became available to men (2 Corinthians 5.21).

In 9.38 the disciples were to pray that labourers be ‘thrust forth’ into the harvest fields. Perhaps they are to be seen as involved in His ‘thrusting forth’ of righteous truth here.

12.21 “And in his name will the nations (Gentiles) hope.”

These words are cited from LXX. As we have suggested above this latter citation is connected with Isaiah 51.5 LXX where we find ‘in My arm will the Gentiles hope’ (MT - ‘on my arm will they hope/trust’), a phrase which in Isaiah 51.5 parallels ‘the isles will wait for me’. The latter is similar to the MT reading which parallels 12.21. But Matthew did not want attention focused on the Law, he wanted it focused on Jesus.

The ‘arm of the Lord’ always indicates His personal intervention, and that is also included in the thought of His Name being there. They hope in His Name because they are in anticipation of His activity on their behalf. (Compare 1 Kings 8.42; Psalm 118.10; Isaiah 30.27 with 30). The Ark which went before Israel (Numbers 10.35-36) was also closely connected with His Name (1 Chronicles 13.6)). It is His Name which will act powerfully among the nations (28.19). There is possibly here a bringing in of Isaiah 12.4 where we have the command to ‘call upon His Name’. But what is important is that the Servant will bring hope to all nations, including the Gentiles. This is building up towards His ministry in Gentile territories which we will discover shortly, and the final sending out of the Apostles to the nations (28.19) to take to them the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as described and taught by Jesus in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit Triumphs Over The Evil Spirit World Establishing the Kingly Rule of God For All Who Will Hear And Respond (12.22-32).

Following on this emphasis on the coming of the Servant of YHWH with the Holy Spirit upon Him we are now to learn something of His activity against the powers of evil. Prior to this, mention has been made of the casting out of evil spirits 4.24; 8.16, 28-34; 9.32-34; 10.1, 8 (although interestingly not as a sign of the Coming One - 11.5), and even of the accusation that it was by the prince of demons that Jesus cast them out (9.34). But now we are to be introduced to the implications of this situation. The reason that He can cast out evil spirits by a word is because the Spirit of God is now active in Israel through Him. The Servant has come in the full power of the Spirit of God and the forces of evil are in retreat. In this section there is a powerful emphasis on the activity of evil spirits, and Jesus’ response to it. For not only does He signify that His activity in casting out evil spirits by the Spirit of God has revealed that Satan has been bound and that the Kingly Rule of God has come to Israel (12.28) in power, but He also indicates that Israel as a whole is like a demon possessed man who has been freed from an evil spirit, only for it to return with seven other worse spirits, because he had not responded from his heart to God, so that his position is even worse than before (12.43-45). This picture He applies directly to Israel (12.45). He is binding Satan on their behalf. But if they fail to respond to the new Rule that He now offers, the Kingly Rule of God, they must expect something seven times worse.

The very detail with which Matthew goes into this passage demonstrates how important he saw the detail to be, for normally he abbreviates and only states the basically important points. Here all the points are clearly seen as basically important.

First, however, we are brought face to face with the reality of the situation in a blind and deaf/dumb spirit which is possessing a man. This is blindness and deafness is a picture of Israel (13.14-15). And Jesus heals the man so that he can both see and speak, just as He would do to Israel if it would turn to Him. That we are to interpret it in that way comes out in 12.43-45.

Prior to the quotation of the prophecy of Isaiah, Matthew had shown us an Israel that was dumb in response to Jesus works (11.20-24), and blind to His message (11.17), and even blinder Pharisees who were out to bring Him down (12.1-14). Now here, after the quotation pointing to the Servant, new hope springs up for at least some of the blind, and deaf and dumb, of Israel. But for the hardened among the Pharisees there is still seen to be little hope, because they are deliberately closing their minds. Notice that Matthew constantly introduces the Pharisees where the other Gospels are less emphatic. It is clear that he particularly saw them as being against Jesus. This would tie in with he himself as being an ex-public servant and as thus especially looking down on by the Pharisees, who saw all such public servants as defiling themselves.

Analysis.

  • a Then was brought to him one who was possessed with a demon, blind and dumb (22a).
  • b And he healed him, in so much that the dumb man spoke and saw (22).
  • c And all the crowds were amazed, and said, “Can this be the son of David?” (23).
  • d But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “This man does not cast out demons, except by Beelzeboul, the prince of the demons” (24).
  • e And knowing their thoughts he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand, and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (25-26).
  • d “And if I by Beelzeboul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges” (27).
  • c “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the Kingly Rule of God come upon you” (28).
  • b “Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house” (29).
  • a “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters”

Note that in ‘a’ the man is blind and dumb, and in the parallel the one who is not with Him is against Him, and the one who does not gather with Him, scatters. In ‘b’ Jesus binds the strong man and enters his house, for He arranges the healing of a demon possessed man, and in the parallel the point is made that no one can enter the strong man’s house and free his goods unless He first bind the strong man. Then he may spoil his house. In ‘c’ the crowds ask if this is the Son of David, and in the parallel the answer is that the Kingly Rule of God (to be introduced by David’s seed) is upon them. In ‘d’ the Pharisees say that He casts out spirits by the prince of demons, and in the parallel Jesus asks how, if that is so, there own sons cast them out. Centrally in ‘e’ is the concept that if Satan fights against himself his kingdom will collapse. Thus it cannot be true. (It is only men who do stupid things like that).

12.22 ‘Then was brought to him one who was possessed with a demon, blind and dumb, and he healed him, in so much that the dumb man spoke and saw.’

Matthew now introduces an example of someone who needs the power of the Spirit of God exercised on his behalf. He is possessed by a demon which makes him both blind, and deaf and dumb. The word used for ‘dumb’ regularly includes deafness. It is no coincidence that these are the spiritual problems of Israel (13.14-15), and that Matthew has that in mind. The people of Israel are blind and cannot recognise Who Jesus is, they are deaf and dumb and do not testify to His Name. But once Jesus had healed the man he both spoke and saw. (Notice the minor chiasmus - ‘blind - dumb - spoke - saw’). So it could be for Israel if they would only look to Him. They would be able to ‘see God’ (5.8) and be able to testify of Him (10.32).

Note that the man is described as ‘healed’ which is unusual for the casting out of demons (but compare 15.28). It may well be that Jesus wants to connect it with the overall ‘healing’ of Israel in verse 15. Normally a demon is spoken of as being cast out by a word (Jesus is never said to lay hands on a demon-possessed person).

12.23 ‘And all the crowds were amazed, and said, “Can this be the son of David?”

When the crowds saw it their thoughts were half positive. They ‘saw’, at least to some extent, and testified well. They were amazed at what they had seen, and their thought was, “Can this be the son of David?” The way the question is expressed suggests both doubt and hope, just as Israel are split into those who are more positive, and those who are more negative.

There appears to be fairly strong evidence in Matthew that he links the title Son of David to the casting out of evil spirits and the healing of the blind (9.27; 15.22; 20.30; 21.9, 15 with 14). This may well have arisen from the fact that Solomon the son of David was famed (even if only in legend) for teaching methods of casting out evil spirits, something which is explained in Josephus. Possibly blindness was linked to this although Josephus does not say so. Thus they may well have seen what Jesus was doing as confirming His relationship to Solomon, the son of David, and therefore to David himself, thus evidencing 1.1. This would then lead on to the thought of the Messiah. ‘Son of David’ is in fact found in the Psalms of Solomon as a description of the Messiah. So at least a part of the crowd are beginning to recognise a prince of Heaven.

12.24 ‘But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “This one does not cast out demons, except by Beelzeboul, the prince of the demons.”

Note the contemptuous ‘this one’. In direct contrast to the crowds the Pharisees in effect said, ‘Is not this the son of Beelzeboul?’, but in their case they had no doubts. They were truly spiritually blind, and spiritually dumb. They had had to acknowledge that Jesus did cast out evil spirits. That could not be denied. Thus if He had taught the same things as them, there would have been no problem. They would undoubtedly have hailed it as a sign that God’s hand was with Him. However, when He opposed them on so much, they were put into a position where they had to find something bad to say about Him, and involvement with demons was a sure way to do that. It was always a safe bet in those superstitious days to accuse someone who disagreed with you, and could do things that you could not do, of ‘the black arts’. They thus claimed that it was on the authority of the prince of demons that He cast out evil spirits. But that was in fact inconsistent with their normal teaching, and they were denying the Kingly Rule of God as openly revealed (12.28), simply because of their own prejudice.

This clear disagreement between the crowds and the Pharisees may well be intended to draw out to his readers that here was a ‘divided kingdom’ of the kind Jesus would now speak about. It would therefore contain within itself the indication that Israel too was heading for destruction.

‘Beelzeboul.’ Compare 10.25; Luke 11.15. Different manuscripts and versions present the full name differently It is given as ‘Beelzebub’ in the Syriac and Vulgate versions - probably as taken from the name of the oracular god in 2 Kings 1.2-3, and as ‘Beelzeboul’ in most manuscripts. It is given as ‘Beezeboul’ in only a few manuscripts, but these include weighty ones (Aleph, B). The latter may, however, simply have dropped the ‘l’ because ‘lz’ was difficult to Greek speakers.

The correct name may well thus be Beelzeboul. ‘Zeboul’ may represent ‘zebel’ (dung) or ‘zebul’ (dwelling). Thus the name may mean ‘lord of the house (or dwelling)’ (see verse 25b which seems to confirm this). Or it may be ‘lord of dung’ as an insulting name for Satan. The former would explain the stress on ‘house’ in Jesus’ repudiation (verses 25, 28). The name Zbl is also found in a Ugaritic text, linked with baal, where it may be a proper name or mean ‘prince’, and thus ‘Prince Baal’ (but why is it then changed to ‘zeboul’?). Verse 25b thus suggests that Beelzeboul is seen as master over a household of demons (compare its meaning as ‘Lord of the house’). The thought was horrific. Jesus being compared to the Prince of Demons, and His household therefore a household of demons (which is later seen as absurd when we learn that His household in fact consists of those who do the will of His Father - verse 50). But it was clearly set policy for His opponents to describe Him like this (9.34; 10.25). They had to have some explanation for the wonders that they saw in front of their eyes and could not explain away. As the narrative goes on we learn that this description is a synonym for Satan, as we would gather from him being the prince of the demons.

12.25-26 ‘And knowing their thoughts he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand, and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?”

Jesus replies by showing up their false logic. He points out that kingdoms where civil war is continually in progress always collapse. Households which are always at loggerheads do the same. Thus if Satan actually casts out Satan, he is in a similar state, and therefore his kingdom also will collapse. But everyone knew that Satan’s kingdom was in fact to grow stronger towards the end, not weaker. How then could that be if it was subject to civil war? And besides, Satan had too much common sense for that. Thus it was quite clear that their assertions must be untrue.

Note the thought that Satan’s kingdom is one kingdom made up of all the kingdoms of the world (see 4.8). The idea is that the whole world lies in the evil one (1 John 5.19), apart from those in the Kingly Rule of God (compare Colossians 1.13).

12.27 “And if I by Beelzeboul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges.”

Furthermore let them consider another factor. If Jesus cast out demons by Beelzeboul, how did their own exorcisers cast them out? ‘Your sons’ indicates those of whom the Pharisees approved. Or it may mean just ‘true Jews’ in their eyes. But either way they accepted that their work, if successful, was of God. Any who were seen as ‘good Jews’ who cast out evil spirits were seen as doing so by the power of God. And in that case they could be their judges as to the fact that demons only responded to God’s power. For it was no different in His case.

There certainly were exorcisers around Galilee at that time, and in many parts of the world. Jews were famed for exorcism. And there was widespread belief in evil spirits, not all of which was concerned with genuine phenomena, and these men made claims to deliver men from evil spirits (compare Acts 19.13, which would, however, appear to have been a genuine case). Josephus speaks of having witnessed such an exorcism which he saw as genuine, and links it with the abilities of Solomon in the field. But it does not matter here whether they were genuine or not in the case of others. The argument still stood.

It is sometimes said that Jesus could not have used this argument as it would have suggested that these men also brought in the Kingly Rule of God. But it is nor necessary to see it in that way at all. All that He is claiming here is that their ability, combined with their acceptability to the Pharisees, proves that the Pharisees accepted in their case that what they did was being done by the power of God. Thus they should have recognised that He too did what He did by the power of God. The difference lay in the fact that these exorcisers did not make any special claims for themselves for God to be displeased about. Their exorcisms simply revealed the power of God through godly men. But in His case it was different In His case He was casting out evil spirits while claiming to be the Coming one. So His following argument is now also based on the fact of Who He is claiming to be. It is when it is done by Him that it demonstrates that the Kingly Rule of God is here, because the very fact that God acts through Him demonstrates that God does not see His particular claims about the presence of the Kingly Rule of God in Him as false, but is well pleased with Him.

12.28 “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the Kingly Rule of God come upon you.”

So having demonstrated that He (emphatic in the Greek) cast out demons by the Spirit of God, that should really have demonstrated that the Kingly Rule of God had truly come upon them. It could no longer be doubted. And this was because in His case He was doing it as the son of David. It demonstrated quite conclusively that the Kingly Rule of God was therefore now here and present among them. By this Jesus connects the Kingly Rule of God with present activity of the Spirit. This also demonstrates that all who were in the Kingly Rule of God were enjoying the blessing of the Spirit well prior to Pentecost. It also demonstrates the presence of the Kingly Rule of God, not as something temporary, but as something permanent. It is here all the while that the Spirit is at work among men.

Note the use of the rarer (in Matthew) ‘Kingly Rule of God’ (rather than ‘Heaven’). This links the Kingly Rule ‘of God’ directly with the Spirit ‘of God’ and avoids any idea that God is not Himself totally involved in this. It brings out the living God’s direct opposition to Satan in Jesus.

The link between the Holy Spirit, and the coming Kingly Rule of God and renewing of the true Israel, was common in the prophets, and described in various ways. See for example Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; Ezekiel 36.24-28; 37.1-14; Joel 2. 28-29. It was confirmed by John the Baptist (3.2 with 11). So Jesus was now giving a mighty visible evidence of the fact that the Kingly Rule of God was present among them.

12.29 “Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house.”

The thought now moves on to a household. Jesus is not only invading the kingdom of the strong man, he is entering his very palace. Satan is being routed. Let them consider what that means about Him. The only One who can enter a strong man’s house and spoil his goods in this way, is One Who is stronger than he, One Who can bind him. It is only then that He will be able to ‘despoil’ his house. Thus Jesus is by this claiming to be greater than Satan (contrast Jude 1.9). The binding of the strong man is depicted vividly in Revelation 20.2-3 where it is to take place during the ‘thousand years’ (God’s perfect but immeasurable length of time) which between Christ’s first coming and the final judgment. So the ‘thousand years’ has already begun here and will continue on until the consummation (compare 2 Peter 3.8-9 where it is also the period during which men can repent).

By this Jesus is emphasising that He is stronger than Satan (which even Michael the Archangel dared not do - Jude 1.9) and that He is now here to bind the strong man. The despoiling of his house speaks of all those whom Jesus is delivering from His power (Acts 26.18), and especially demon-possessed people. Being delivered from his household, they will enter the household of the Kingly Rule of God (12.49-50), for if they do not their last state may be worse than their first (12.45).

This ‘binding of Satan’ prevents Satan from interfering in Jesus’ deliverance of all who believe in Him. But it does not prevent many of his other activities against God’s people (Ephesians 6.10-18). It does, however, mean that they are strictly controlled. He is not, for example, allowed to tempt God’s people beyond what they can cope with (1 Corinthians 10.13).

12.30 “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”

Jesus finalises His words with a conclusion. This is so important a matter that he who is not with Him in this must be counted as against Him. Either men are for the Kingly Rule of God over their lives or they are against it. Men cannot claim to be on His side unless they are with Him and are themselves gathering men into the Kingly Rule of God. All must be involved. And if men are not gathering with Him (into the new congregation) then they are ‘scattering’. This probably has in mind the scattering of the sheep as found in 9.36. In other words not to be one with Jesus in His ministry is to be outside the Kingly Rule of God, and is to become a false shepherd and to harm the sheep.

We should note that when He in contrast said ‘he that is not against you is for you’, He was speaking of those who while not accompanying them were still in alignment with Him and demonstrated by their success that they were under the Kingly Rule of God (Luke 9.49-50).

Men Are Especially Known By Their Words (12.31-37).

Having put right the Pharisees’ wrong conception about Him He now warns them to beware what they say. For what they say will reveal the truth about them, and they will have to give an account of their very words, and what they signify, at the Day of Judgment. They will be known by their fruit. ‘You offspring of vipers’ indicates that the Pharisees are still directly in mind, compare 3.7. He uses the same description as John the Baptist.

The passage continues in a series of contrasts:

  • Blasphemy as a whole is contrasted with the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
  • Speaking a word against the Son of Man is represented as in contrast with speaking a word against the Holy Spirit.
  • Speaking against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this world/age, or in that which is to come.
  • The tree and its fruit is either good or is corrupt.
  • That that which is evil cannot speak good things.
  • A good man brings forth good things, and an evil man brings forth evil things.
  • By their words men will be justified, or by them will be condemned.

Thus in the presence of Jesus men are at a crisis point, and must choose the way in which they will go. And they are warned that to continually reject His words will be catastrophic (verses 41-45).

Analysis.

  • a “Therefore I say to you, Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven to men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (31).
  • b “And whoever will speak a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him, but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in that which is to come” (32).
  • c “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt, for the tree is known by its fruit” (33).
  • d “You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (34).
  • c “The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil things” (35).
  • b “And I say to you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they will give account of them in the day of judgment” (36).
  • a “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (37).

Note that in ‘a’ the blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven, and in the parallel men will be condemned by their very words. In ‘b’ speaking against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come, while in the parallel men will have to give account for every idle word in the Day of Judgment. In ‘c’ the tree is known by its fruit and in the parallel a man is known by the good or evil treasure that comes from his heart. Centrally in ‘d’ the Pharisees are shown up as evil by their words.

12.31 “Therefore I say to you, All sin and blasphemy will be forgiven to men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Here Jesus directly challenges the Pharisees. So wonderful and so startling is the revelation of the power of the Spirit of God at work in the world, and therefore of the presence of the Kingly Rule of God, that to actually turn against it is to turn from God. And if the heart persists in such an attitude, it will become hardened. Then forgiveness will not be possible. Not because God withholds a forgiveness that is sought for, but because such men harden themselves against ever seeking it.

Jesus’ words here are both an encouragement and a warning. They are an encouragement in that they declare that all kinds of sin and blasphemy may be forgiven man. There is nothing that puts us beyond God’s forgiveness if we truly repent, if we acknowledge our sin and are changed in heart and mind in relation to it. They are thus an assurance that for all of us, however sinful we may have become, there is a way back to God.

But they are also a warning that there is one sin which will not be forgiven to any man, and that is to ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit’. In context this has in mind that the Spirit’s work has been openly manifested before the Pharisees in such a way and in such an atmosphere of the presence of the Spirit of God, that it cannot be denied except by a perverse heart. Here the Spirit was openly and manifestly at work, and testifying to Jesus in every heart which was open to receive it. They could see it in what was happening all around them (as also the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum had seen it - 11.20-24). And He points out that of such things, when performed by what they saw as ‘good Jews’, they had always spoken highly. So, in consequence, if they now closed their hearts to this work of the Spirit, and against all the evidence, because of their own obstinacy, imputed it to Satan, then they were closing their hearts to the only power that could save them. They were deliberately ‘calling good, evil’ (Isaiah 5.20). But doing that involved the danger of establishing a permanent mindset. And once their hearts had become set in that way there would then be no way in which they could be saved. All hope of forgiveness would have gone. This would not be because God’s forgiveness was not available. That is always available to those who seek it through Jesus. It would be because they would have set their own hearts against any chance of repentance. For every time we resist the working of the Holy Spirit, we add to the barrier in our own hearts against His working, until in the end we make it impossible for us even to think of repentance. True deathbed conversions are rare.

It should be noted in this regard that the sure sign that a person has not yet committed this sin is that they are troubled about it. For the person who has committed this sin will never be troubled about it. His heart will have become so unyielding that he no longer considers the matter any more. He is perfectly satisfied with his ways. But let the person who is troubled then make sure that he repents. For if he does not his opportunity may slip away, and may simply contribute towards his hardening.

12.32 “And whoever will speak a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him, but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in that which is to come.”

Jesus then takes the extremest of sins as a comparison, blasphemy against the One sent from God, the Son of Man. Though He is great beyond measure, yet blasphemy against Him can be forgiven, for men may have difficulty with the concept, or in appreciating Him, because of the dullness of their understanding. But continually speaking against the Holy Spirit and His work openly manifested and brought home to men and women, and deliberately resisting and perverting it, is something which can so harden someone that one day it will become impossible for their heart ever to soften again. For that was not something difficult to understand. It was openly manifested before their eyes.

We can compare here what happened to Pharaoh in Exodus. First Pharaoh hardened his own heart in the face of the mighty works of God. Then he continued to harden his own heart, and he did it in the face of such incontrovertible evidence that he himself admitted that he was wrong. And then he continued doing it. And each time he had the opportunity to repent. But one day he had reached a position where repentance was impossible, for every act of God had resulted in his heart hardening more, until he could repent no longer. In a sense it was now God Who was hardening his heart by continually challenging him. He was now so hardened that repentance had become impossible.

‘Neither in this world (or age), or in that which is to come.’ What we do and are in this world, or in this age, will affect what we are for eternity. Every one of us is at this moment shaping our eternal destiny. And how we respond to God and His Holy Spirit now will therefore shape our eternal destiny in the world and age to come.

12.33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt, for the tree is known by its fruit.”

The alternative is then put in another way. It is a choice between making the tree good and or making it corrupt. As agriculturalists they would know that this was dependent on how it was tended and looked after, and whether it was in the hands of the right gardener. By responding to Jesus and His words they can ‘make the tree good’, for He is the Master gardener. They can experience God’s working in their hearts to ‘bless’ them (5.3-9). They can be ‘saved’. They can come under the Kingly Rule of God which has come upon them. They can become ‘trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord’ (Isaiah (61.3, contrast 15.13) The alternative is to turn away from God’s mercy, and to neglect His forgiveness, and the offer of His Holy Spirit. Then the tree will become corrupt. It will go beyond the point of no return. And the result will be that it will produce corrupt fruit, fruit that is unwanted and unwelcome and inedible. And in the end, like any tree, each will be known by its fruit.

Later in 15.13 Jesus will refer to the Pharisees as plants which His heavenly Father had not planted, which would be rooted up. There too they would be known by their fruits.

12.34 “You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

‘You, being evil.’ Jesus was under no illusions about men. He had said a similar thing to His disciples (7.11). That did not render them unsaveable. Indeed it explained why they needed to be made whole. But the difference was that the Pharisees wanted to go on being evil. And they revealed it continually by what they said. Furthermore by resisting the work of the Holy Spirit they were making themselves even more evil.

For these Pharisees who were so hardened against Him, and were falsely accusing Him (this is not all Pharisees), were revealing their corruptness by their evil words, and confirming it within them. In their subtlety and their reaction to His goodness they were revealing themselves to be like vipers, which lie in the way and bite all who disturb them (compare Genesis 49.17). They are revealing that they are evil. ‘They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent, the poison of vipers is under their lips’ (Psalm 140.3). How then can they speak good things? For the mouth speaks what is in the heart. It reveals what is within.

12.35 “The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil things.”

So a good man will speak what is in his heart and will produce good things. That is because his heart is filled with good treasure. The idea of treasure is that it has been stored up by choice (6.19-20). And good treasure stands the test. It is pure and righteous and compassionate and merciful. It is filled with love (5.44-48). In the words of Paul it ‘suffers long and is kind, it does not envy, or exalt itself, or be puffed up, it does not behave itself in an unseemly way, it is not easily provoked. It does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never fails’ (1 Corinthians 13.4-7). Thus it will bring forth good things, and in context, good words from the mouth. And this will be true both in public and in private. But the man who is evil has an evil treasure within, a treasure that is false, and that also is what will issue from his mouth.

12.36 “And I say to you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they will give account of them in the day of judgment.”

So men should beware. Let them just listen to their own words. For every word let slip when they are unguarded reveals what is in their hearts. A man can and will be judged by his words, especially those that he thinks are ‘off the record’. The ‘idle word’ is not simply the word used in casual conversation, it is the word which is what it ought not to be, the word which would be better unspoken, the word spoken carelessly and thereby revealing what is really within. Thus at the judgment everything that a person has said will be brought into account in judging that person’s heart. Let the Pharisees now take heed to their words, for by them they are revealing what they are in their hearts, and that is what they will be judged by. And the same is true for us all.

12.37 “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

For in the end our words will be what justify and condemn us. These are not the careful words we prepare in order to justify ourselves (compare Luke 18.11-12 where the Pharisee thought that he was putting up a good case, and God was cringing), or to put on our tombstones. They are the words that come out in the dark and secret places, and in the unguarded moment. They are the words that we speak when taken unawares. The words that really reveal what is truly in our hearts. The words spoken ‘off the record’. For a careful sifting of a man’s words will always in the end show what he is. Thus we will be either accounted as in the right, or will be condemned on the basis of all that we have said.

‘By your words you will be justified.’ This is not conflicting with Paul. Jesus was simply saying that what we speak reveals what we are. Our words and works bear testimony as to whether we are truly His. No one was more dogmatic than Paul that a man was known by his fruits. ‘How shall we who are dead to sin, live any longer in it?’ (Romans 6.2). Before the all searching eye of a righteous and holy God our justification must be through the blood of Christ (Romans 3.24), which has resulted in cleansing and forgiveness, but before the tribunal of God which is open to all creation that will be evidenced by what our words have been. For faith without works is dead. The Bride will turn out to be clothed with the righteousnesses of God’s people (Revelation 19.8), otherwise she is not the true Bride.

The Response of The Scribes and Pharisees Is To Seek A Sign From Heaven (12.38-42).

The Scribes and Pharisees now came seeking a sign from Heaven. Like the towns of Galilee in 11.20-24 they have failed to take note of His mighty works, and will be equally exposed by the Gentile nations at the Day of Judgment. The addition here of the Scribes may suggest an official enquiry, or at least a calling in of reinforcements. They had come to test Him. He was making these great claims and now they wanted proof. It seems almost incredible that with all Jesus’ healings and casting out of evil spirits they should ask about signs, but they may well not have personally observed too many of them, and even when they had it would have been with prejudiced eyes. Mainly they were going from hearsay. But even had it been otherwise they would have wanted special signs. For that was what Moses had given. That was what Elijah had given. That was what, in their view, the Messiah would give. What they wanted Him to do was something spectacular like the burning up from Heaven of Elijah’s sacrifice (1 Kings 18.38). The Jews had a firm belief that when God began His final work such signs would be given. They loved the spectacular (compare 1 Corinthians 1.22).

But Jesus never performed signs for His own benefit or in order to justify Himself. Even His healings were performed out of compassion, not as evidences of Who He was, which was why He commanded silence about them. He had been faced during His temptations with the idea of winning men through the spectacular and had recognised that it was displeasing to God (4.5-7). He and His Father wanted men to respond to Him because they recognised the truth of His words and as evidence of what was in their hearts. Those who really desired to do His will would know whether the teaching were true or not (John 7.17)

Jesus replies by giving them two signs. The first is in the form of a promise. It was similar to Isaiah’s sign in Isaiah 7.14 and to the sign given to Moses in Exodus 3.12, a sign that would become a reality in the future. It was that just as Jonah had spent three days in the body of a large fish, miraculously coming from certain death by a miracle, so would He as the Son of Man spend three days in the body of the earth, coming out of His grave after being buried. This would be a unique sign indeed, for the Son of Man was not expected to go into the grave, but to enter straight into the presence of God on the clouds of Heaven to receive His kingship (Daniel 7.13-14). The second, although only secondary, was that if they thought about it they would realise that His preaching had had a greater impact than that of both Jonah and Solomon. Jonah was partly chosen as an example (as well as the reason above) because, of all the prophets, his success as a preacher had been most publicly portrayed. Solomon was chosen because he was a great wise man, renowned for his wisdom, and a son of David. He was chosen because a greater son of David was now being revealed as here, and possibly also because Jesus’ miracles were being compared to the legendary works of Solomon.

Analysis.

  • a Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we would see a sign from you” (38).
  • b But he answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given to it apart from the sign of Jonah the prophet” (39).
  • c “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the large fish, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (40).
  • b “The men of Nineveh will stand up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here” (41).
  • a “ The queen of the south will rise up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here” (42).

Note that in ‘a’ some of the Scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus as the Teacher asking for a sign, and in the parallel Jesus provides a sign in that He is a greater Teacher than the wise Solomon. In ‘b’ that ‘evil and adulterous generation’ seek a sign and will only be given one in the prophet Jonah and in the parallel ‘this generation’ receive one in the prophet Jonah in the prophet Jonah and his success. Centrally in ‘c’ is that what will happen to the Son of Man, who is portrayed as coming in triumph on clouds to the throne of God (Daniel 7.13), is that like Jonah He will spend three days and nights entombed. Thus what is to happen to Jesus will itself confirm this sign to all who will receive it.

12.38 ‘Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we would see a sign from you.”

‘Then’ is a connecting word (compare verse 22) and, like most connecting words in the Gospels, must not be overpressed. It indicates a loose connection to give some indication of continuity, without being specific.

‘Certain of the Scribes and Pharisees’ may indicate an official deputation, or may simply indicate that not all Scribes and Pharisees were to be seen as involved. Not all Scribes and Pharisees behaved wrongly towards Jesus.

“Teacher, we would see a sign from you.” They came seeking a sign, something typical of Jewish thinking (compare 16.1.1-4; 1 Corinthians 1.22). Their Scriptures had taught them to expect the spectacular. Later Rabbinic writings would speak of Rabbis proving themselves on request by turning water into blood, or moving trees some distance, or making a river move backwards. Compare Moses (Exodus 4.9) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 38.8). They were, of course, legends, but they demonstrated the kind of things that the Rabbis saw as a sign. They would have loved the one suggested by Satan (not a good source for suggestions) that He throw Himself off the roof of the Temple. But of what would they have been convinced? It would not have changed their attitudes towards Jesus’ teaching. It would not have changed their hearts. The children of Israel who saw all the signs of Moses still had to perish in the wilderness because of unbelief and disobedience.

‘Teacher.’ A regular address to Jesus by Scribes, Pharisees, and others seeking to be polite. In each case they were those who would see themselves as at least on a level with Him in status (8.19; 9.11; 17.24; 19.16; 22.16, 24.36). And it was even used by Jesus speaking of Himself (26.18). It therefore here ranks Jesus alongside other teachers, including Solomon in his capacity as a wisdom teacher.

12.39 ‘But he answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given to it apart from the sign of Jonah the prophet,” ’

‘Answered and said.’ In Matthew ‘answered’ does not necessarily refer back to a particular question. It rather has in mind that Jesus’ words are a total answer to all who hear them, that Jesus is God’s answer to all men’s questions.

Jesus’ reply is that the only reason that the present generation, who had seen His works (11.5, 20-23), could possibly want a sign was because they were ‘evil and adulterous’, that is, because they had made ritual their god and their hearts were set on anything but God, with the result that they were unable to truly judge and weigh up His moral teaching and His life, and recognise that both were from God. For had they but recognised it, His unique teaching was the greatest sign of all, a sign which has carried on through the ages, leaving all who have read it without excuse. Our present generation also will be judged by the fact that it has the teaching of Jesus in all its splendour, and yet have refused to acknowledge it in any significant way, and to respond to the One Who gave it. The principle, ‘If any man wills to do His will, He will know of the teaching, whether it be of God’ (John 7.17), still applies. Thus all men and women will be judged by their reaction to that teaching and to the One Who is its source.

They thus have all the proof that they need before their eyes. Nineveh had recognised such teaching, even from a lesser man, and so had the queen of the south, Gentiles all, and all had responded to it, but the Jews who now had something greater, had not because they were evil and adulterous. They had replaced God in their hearts by His own Law as interpreted by them, and had gone astray after ritual, while at the same time altering His Law to suit their own ideas. For such spiritual adultery see also 16.4: Mark 8.38; Isaiah 57.3; Ezekiel 16.32, 36; 23.37, 45; Hosea 1-3.

Furthermore it also signified that they were unbelieving and faithless, and that they had forsaken the true God in their hearts, judging Him only in unworthy ways, and refusing to believe unless He did things their way, and continually proved Himself. They wanted constant evidences, thereby underlining their unbelief. It is one of the ironies of history that the very people who always wanted to see the spectacular, had on the other hand taken God’s living Law and turned it into chains and manacles as a result of its formality and excessive restraint. They were like the adulterous wife of Hosea (Hosea 1.2), taken up with anyone and anything except faithfulness, except what represented the truth. Josephus later tells us that they were also evil and adulterous in practise, (‘that period had somehow become so prolific of crime of every description amongst the Jews, that no deed of iniquity was left unperpetrated, nor, had man’s wit been exercised to devise it, could he have discovered any new form of vice’ (not already being practised)) which was the kind of behaviour that went along with their spiritual attitude.

For their being ‘evil’ compare verse 34. There they had revealed their evil by how they had responded to His casting out of demons. Here it was by how they responded to Him and to His teaching.

So Jesus warns them that He will only give them one sign, the sign of the prophet Jonah, although, as Mark 8.11-12 brings out, it is not the kind of sign that they are looking for. That kind of sign He will not give them! Jonah was called by God to preach in godless Nineveh, but he tried to avoid the task and ended up within the insides of a large fish. Released from there after three days, through fervent prayer, he went and preached in Nineveh where there was instant revival, with the people repenting in sackcloth and ashes (a sign of their repentance). Jesus will use both these ideas for His signs.

12.40 “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the large fish, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

His first sign is typical of Scripture, it is something that will happen in the future (compare Exodus 3.12; Isaiah 7.14). The future will prove the present (Deuteronomy 18.21-22). It does, however, require faith. In it He describes two things that were incongruous. The first was that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the insides of a large fish (citing Jonah 1.17-2.1), figuratively in the very depths of the grave (Jonah 2.2, 6). Here was a sign indeed, a sign of what happened to the disobedient. But it was also a sign of how God could deliver, even from the grave, and it cannot be doubted that this sign as recounted to the Ninevites played a great part in their response, along possibly with the unearthly pallor that had resulted from his sojourn in the fish and contact with its juices. Jonah had been to them a very sign from God. The second incongruous thing was that ‘the Son of Man’ would similarly spend three days and three nights in the body of the earth, prior to His coming to the throne of God. He too would be in the very depths of the grave. And when He arose He too would be altered (compare 17.2; Acts 7.55-56). So Jonah was a sign to his own generation and a foreshadowing of the greater Who was coming. The second sign, that concerning Himself, was incongruous because in Daniel 7.13-14, instead of going into the grave, the Son of Man was to come in the clouds of Heaven from earth to the throne of God. The Son of Man was not supposed to be buried. He was supposed to ascend in triumph. And therein lay the sign. What was deemed impossible would happen, and when it did happen let them take note. The One Who was to take the throne of Heaven would first of all be locked in the body of the earth for three days and three nights, before, like Jonah had, He came forth in triumph. The presumption behind this was that after three days and three nights He would somehow rise again, as Jonah had. Thus Jesus death, burial and resurrection would be the promised sign. And it would convince many. It even convinced Paul. See 1 Corinthians 15.3-8.

‘Three days and three nights.’ To the Jews part of a day could be described as ‘a day and a night’ equally to a full day because they did not reckon scientifically. They saw the part as encapsulated within the whole. For example, in c 100 AD a well known Rabbi stated, “a day and a night make an ‘onah (twenty four hour day), and the portion of an ‘onah is reckoned as an ‘onah”. Thus in Jewish terminology Friday to Sunday would be ‘three days and three nights’. Some, however, do consider that Jesus died on a Wednesday, seeing it as being on the day of preparation of the Passover sabbath rather than that of preparation of the weekly sabbath. This, however, would not tie in with the women seeking to anoint Jesus’ body on the first day of the week, for had Jesus been crucified on the Wednesday they would have sought to anoint him when the festal Sabbath was over on the Friday. They would not have waited another two days until the body had putrefied.

12.41 “The men of Nineveh will arise in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.”

The second, but lesser, sign lay in Jonah’s evangelistic ministry. Jonah had gone to Nineveh and there had been a great revival with many repenting. But it was short and sweet. John had done the same thing in Judea but over a longer period, and bringing far more to repentance. Jesus, however, had outshone them both (see John 4.1). Thus it should have been clear to all that ‘a greater than Jonah’ was here. That is why the Gentile Ninevites will stand up or arise (anistemi - ‘rise’) at the judgment and pass judgment on Jesus’ generation, for even though they saw none of the signs and wonders that were now being seen, yet they had repented in their thousands. As resurrected saints they will not be able to credit how the Jews could have rejected Jesus, and will condemn them. Note that they will be there as those who are truly believers. They are not like the Tyre, Sidon and Sodom of the past.

‘A greater.’ Literally ‘something greater’. Jesus is not only a greater prophet, He is greater in an even more distinctive way. Compare verse 6.

12.42 “ The queen of the south will rise up in the judgment with this generation, and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”

The same applies to the queen of the south. She too will rise up (egeiro) in the judgment, either along with this generation, or possibly in opposition to it, and she will condemn it. For while they have Jesus on their very doorstep, she took a long journey so as to hear the wisdom of Solomon (as the Canaanite woman will to some extent later - 15.22). And yet now a greater than Solomon is here, something that they can judge for themselves by comparing His teaching with Solomon’s. Solomon provided pithy wisdom, Jesus brings life-giving truth. Note that resurrection is inherent in the passage although nowhere emphasised. It is the fact that the Son of Man must die that is stressed. But the implication of His resurrection is undoubted, both in what happened to Jonah, and in what will occur at the resurrection of the Ninevites and the queen of the south.

For ‘from the ends of the earth’ compare 1 Kings 10.24. Both were Jewish idioms thinking in terms of the world of their day. See also Psalm 59.13.

It cannot be accidental that Jesus selects two Gentile responses as His examples. In 11.20-24 He had condemned the towns of Israel. In 12.17-21 He had made clear the Servant’s interest in ‘the nations’. Now He commends the Gentiles who had in the past responded to God. In contrast with unbelieving Israel, they will be confessed before His Father (10.32-33). He is preparing His way for His Gentile ministry (as He had from the beginning - Luke 4.24-27).

It will be noted that in Luke 11.29-32, in an apparently later context, Luke reports sayings similar to this, but they are so differently presented that they must clearly be seen as Jesus’ summary of what He had said here repeated to the crowds. His repetition to the crowds (who no doubt would also have loved signs) indicates how unreasonable He saw the attitude of the Scribes and Pharisees to be. See also 16.1-4.

The Sad Plight of This Generation (12.43-45).

This short illustration takes up the themes that have previously been presented and is firmly in context. It describes them as like a man who has had an evil spirit cast out of him, but does not then let God take possession of his life. As a consequence he will end up seven times worse off than he was before. This compares with:

  • Being healed from an evil spirit (verse 22) which represents the inbreaking of the Kingly Rule of God (verse 28). The coming of Jesus had delivered Israel from Satan’s interference.
  • (2) The ‘evil generation’ which has rejected such signs (12.34, 39, 41, 42; 11.16, and compare 16.4; 17.17; 23.33, 36). It does not want its house occupied by God.
  • (3) The unwillingness of Israel to accept the Kingly Rule of God which results in the house still being empty because they have not received His messengers (compare 10.14) and do not do the will of His Father in Heaven (verse 50).
  • (4) The contrast with those who now are Jesus ‘family’, and therefore within His household (compare 10.25), and thus in an occupied ‘house’ (verses 46-50) safe from such intrusion. They have not only been ‘swept and furnished’, but have been reoccupied by God.

The general idea behind the picture is made clear in verse 45. It applies to the evil generation among whom He is preaching. As previously revealed He has bound the strong man (verse 29) and put evil spirits to flight (verse 27) and their house is now empty. By His very preaching He has swept and furnished it (compare how often He compares the Kingly Rule of God to a household - 20.1; 21.33; Luke 12.42; 13.25; 14.21-23). But if they leave Him out of their house, and refuse to enter His household, because they are still playing in the streets regardless (11.16-17), then they must expect the forces of darkness to regather themselves and re-enter their house with the result that they will be even worse off than before He came (23.38), and Satan will have a firmer grip on them.

Note how the restlessness of the evil spirit is emphasised in contrast with the One Who has come to give rest (11.28). If they do not receive His rest, they will receive the restless spirit who can find no rest, along with his companions. If they do not receive the cup of cold water as a believer (10.42) and the One Who is a spring of water (John 4.1-14) they will receive those who come from waterless places.

Analysis.

  • a But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it (43).
  • b Then he says, “I will return into my house from where I came out” (44a).
  • c And when he is come, he finds it empty, swept, and furnished (44b).
  • b Then he goes, and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there (45a).
  • a And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first, even so will it also be to this evil generation (45b).

Note that in ‘a’ the unclean spirit goes out relieving the man’s terrible state, and in the parallel the man’s state becomes worse than it originally was. In ‘b’ the spirit determines to return to the house and in the parallel he does so with seven other spirits. In ‘c’, and centrally, is the reason for the man’s fate. He has left the house fully ready for habitation, because his house having been cleansed and restored he has failed to receive the ‘Stronger than he’ (Luke 11.22) so that He might possess it.

12.43 ‘But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it.’

In 10.11 the disciples were given power to cast out ‘unclean spirits’ (elsewhere in Matthew ‘demons’). Jesus now takes the example of a man out of whom an unclean spirit has been cast. The use of ‘unclean spirit’ is almost certainly intended to contrast with the Spirit of God, the ‘Holy’ Spirit.

Like the man in verse 22 this man has been ‘healed’. He has been made clean, at least as far as having an unclean spirit is concerned. But the spirit is not necessarily finished with. It goes off, wandering in waterless places. Demons were regularly seen as living in deserts (Isaiah 13.20-21; 34.14). It is looking hopelessly for rest. Matthew probably intends us to contrast this with the rest that Jesus gives to those who are His (11.28). But unclean spirits can find no rest, and it therefore does not find it. There is no peace to the wicked, they are like the troubled sea that finds no rest (Isaiah 57.20-21).

This journey of the unclean spirit is probably intended to be contrasted with the journey of God’s exiled people for whom in the coming days there will be water in the wilderness and springs in the desert (35.6; 41.18; 43.20). Even the screech owl may find rest in the wilderness (Isaiah 34.14), but not the unclean spirit.

12.44 ‘Then he says, “I will return into my house from where I came out”, and when he is come, he finds it empty, swept, and furnished.’

So the spirit decides that it will try to repossess its house, and when it returns it finds it empty. The power of the Spirit which drove it out (12.28) is no longer present in the house. It is, however, unsuitable for habitation by the likes of an unclean spirit, for it is swept and scrubbed, (or furnished). It is clean. So it recognises that it will need reinforcements.

12.45 ‘Then he goes, and takes with himself seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there, and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. Even so will it also be to this evil generation.’

‘He finds it empty.’ Compare 10.13 where the house was emptied because of the rejection of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

So it goes off and finds seven other spirits worse than itself. Seven is the number of spiritual completeness and perfection, or the opposite. It thus represents all that it will require for the task. And together they enter the house and dwell there. And the result is that the man is worse off than if the spirit had not been turned out in the first place. We can compare here the state of the cities of Galilee in 11.20-24 which were worse off than the ancient cities of sin, because they had not accepted the One Who came. There is a stark warning here for any healed of possession to ensure that the Spirit Himself takes possession of them lest the same happen to them.

‘Even so will it also be to this evil generation.’ Jesus here allies the individual case with the whole of Israel. He has come in order to drive out the power of Satan, and many have been changed and have become ‘clean’. There has been an outward transformation. But the important question is whether they have received the Spirit by coming under the Kingly Rule of God. For if they are like the Pharisees and have not done so they will eventually discover that a worse state befalls them when Satan returns to take possession, as will, on the whole, happen to this evil generation. Their house will be reoccupied by something far worse.

The True Household of God (12.46-50).

In contrast with the house of old one-time Israel, is the household of the new Israel of God, the ‘household of God’ (Ephesians 2.19). In describing this episode Matthew, unlike the other Gospels, has only one interest and that is to reveal that those who have come to Him and are His disciples are now His true family, replacing the old, just as the new Israel will replace the old (21.43). And the test of this is that they do the will of His Father in Heaven.

These verses cap both the exposition from 5.1 onwards, by confirming the new family to whom Jesus spoke in chapters 5-7 (with His emphasis there on their heavenly Father), and the section from 11.1 onwards, so as to confirm that with all the failure of Israel to respond, a new family was coming into existence (compare 11.27). John’s fears in 11.3-4 had had no foundation, and in spite of the apathy of the crowds and the opposition of the Pharisees His cause was going forward. The Kingly Rule of Heaven was forcefully advancing, and the new congregation of Israel were being formed. Some might be ‘outside’, even His own natural family, but there were some who were definitely ‘inside’.

12.46 ‘ While he was yet speaking to the crowds, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, seeking to speak to him.’

Once again the connecting link is intended to connect the ideas, rather than to place the passage chronologically. While He is speaking to some crowds, the crowds that continually throng Him, His natural family are outside seeking Him. For as they have not responded to His teaching they are inevitably ‘outside’, like the previous man whose house was ‘empty’. They have no part in the Kingly Rule of God. There is only one way into the Kingly Rule of God, and it is not by ancestry, but by commitment Him and the doing of the will of His Father.

12.47 ‘And one said to him, “Behold, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak to you.” ’

Someone comes and tells Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to speak to Him. According to Jewish custom this would be seen as a primary matter. Family loyalty was considered to be extremely important. The natural reading here is to see these as His younger brothers. (Had they been elder step-brothers it would have invalidated the claim in 1.1-17. It was only dogma that centuries later suggested otherwise. It is clear that neither Matthew nor the other Gospel writers had any problem with the thought of Jesus having brothers).

12.48-49 ‘But he answered and said to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? and who are my brothers?” And he stretched out his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brothers!” ’

But in the new age everything is seen from a different perspective and Jesus asks, “Who is my mother? and who are my brothers?” And then He stretches out His hand towards the disciple and declares that it is they who are His mother and brothers. He is saying that in the Kingly Rule of God relationships are based on relationship to God, and evidenced by obedience to the Father’s will. Natural affinities are of secondary importance. It is the new open community who are His family, and who are to be theirs. They are all one in Him (10.40; 11.27).

That a true household was one which was in a state of obedience to the father of the house was a concept that would have been acknowledged in Israel. So is it also with the household of God. Those who are living in allegiance to the Father are revealing themselves as being of the household of God.

‘Said to the one who told him.’ This appears to be a deliberate attempt to stress the fact that Jesus had no direct contact with His family at this point. The point is not that He is casting off His family, but that they have no right to come in order to interfere with His preaching and teaching, and His Messianic mission (compare John 7.1-9).

12.50 “For whoever will do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

The new household of God is made up of all who do the will of His Father, that is those who have heard His own words and are responding to His teaching because they have repented and entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (7.21-27). It is they who are now His new relations, under their Father in Heaven Who is Father of them all. They are the community spoken to in the Sermon on the Mount where God’s Fatherhood of them was stressed. This is the basis of the new congregation of Israel under the Kingly Rule of God (18.18; 21.43) The Messianic family prepared for in 11.1-6 is being established. The Kingly Rule of Heaven is forcefully advancing (11.12), and its advance will now be openly portrayed in chapter 13.

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