Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. He heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. He is God’s Chosen Servant. He warns against blasphemy of the Spirit. He says a tree is known by its fruit. He promises an evil generation the sign of his burial and resurrection. He explains how Satan counterattacks with seven more spirits. Finally, he declares that the ones who do his Father’s will are his mother and brothers.
As I write in the introduction to every chapter:
This translation and commentary is offered for free, gratis, across the worldwide web to Christians in oppressive (persecuting) or developing countries, who cannot afford printed commentaries or Study Bibles, though everyone can use the commentary and entire website, of course.
The commentary has a practical application (GrowApp) at the end of each section, for discipleship.
The Greek terms with brief definitions can be looked up at biblehub.com. However, I hope to bring different nuances to the few words I focus on. A pronunciation guide is also offered. But I keep things nontechnical.
The translation is mine. I do not offer it in competition with the excellent published ones or because I think mine is better or necessary. I wrote it to learn what the Greek text really says. The translation tends to be literal, but complete literalism and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
Links are provided for further study.
Plucking Grain on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8)
1 At that time, Jesus was going through a grain field on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pluck the heads of grain and eat. 2 The Pharisees saw and said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath! 3 But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he was hungry and those with him, 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the Bread of Presentation, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for those with him, except the priests alone? 5 And haven’t you read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests profane the Sabbath and are blameless? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you knew what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ [Hos. 6:6] you would not have condemned the innocent men, 8 for the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Matthew 12 is all about conflict with the Pharisees and the demands of the oral tradition or law (Osborne, p. 448).
The law allowed for a man to walk through his neighbor’s grain field and pluck the heads with his hands for a little food, but not with a sickle (Deut. 23:25). But the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath. Apparently, the Pharisees strictly interpreted the Sabbath to exclude this activity even on the Sabbath. Jesus was more concerned about humanity than about the rules and rituals, while the Pharisees were focused on oral traditions that piled up over the centuries.
The Sabbath is the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8-11 and Deut. 5:12-15), but those verses do not describe how to keep it. In Num. 15:32-38, people found a man gathering wood, and Moses ordered them to stone him to death. So what kind of interpretations can come from that illegal act and punishment? Was plucking heads of grain the same thing? But the disciples (not Jesus, incidentally) were eating them, so does ingesting the grain excuse them, since they were saving their own lives (if we stretch things)? Apparently not, because healing on the Sabbath was questionable behavior, too. In the next passage, maybe the man with the withered hand was not in a life-or-death situation, while the disciples were.
Here are the Mishnah’s thirty-nine categories of work that were not allowed. This comes from the second century, but it does reflect the times of Jesus:
- Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking.
- Shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, the making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying [knotting] and untying, sewing two stitches, and tearing in order to sew two stitches.
- Capturing a deer, slaughtering, or flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping it [of its hair], cutting it up, writing two letters, and erasing in order to write two letters [over the erasure].
- Building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, and carrying out from one domain to another.
These are the forty primary labors, minus one.
The rest of the tractate goes on to define the parameters more precisely.
As for healing on the Sabbath, France writes:
Healing in itself was not included among the thirty-nine forbidden acts and was less easy to associate with one of them, especially as Jesus’s method of usually involved little or no physical action, and in this case was simply a word of command. But Mishnaic discussions assume, as do the scribes and Pharisees in the gospel stories, that healing is not allowed on the sabbath and simply discuss when a exception might be permitted. This was normally only where there was imminent danger of death (m. Yoma 8:8), assistance in childbirth was also permitted (m. Sabb. 18:3), presumably because it could not be postponed until the next day (p. 464).
Religious teachers debated these issues endlessly. In effect, these strict teachers of the law said it was better that people should virtually do nothing on the Sabbath. It is better to be safe than sorry, to be severe and austere than risk too much questionable behavior before a holy God. The religious leaders’ motives may have been honorable because the Torah does not define the Sabbath clearly (except not gathering wood), so they built a fence around this particular law (and many others) so people would not break it, officially, in their ignorance. And plucking and rubbing and eating and walking on the Sabbath was just too risky, as if the disciples were harvesting, like the executed man had been gathering wood (Num. 15:32-36). Jesus and his crew were walking on the tightrope between breaking the Sabbath and breaking the interpretations of the religious leaders. Today we could perhaps argue over whether Jesus’s disciples really did break it from a human point of view, but not from a divine one, because he was Lord of the Sabbath.
“disciples”: the noun is mathētēs (singular and pronounced mah-they-tayss), and it is used 261 times in the NT, though many of them are duplicates in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative Greek lexicon of the NT, and it says of the noun (1) “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice”; (2) “one who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views, disciple, adherent.”
Apparently, the Pharisees were following Jesus’s company around, or maybe the Pharisees saw them at the edge of the grainfield and were waiting for them to come out. Stalking, anyone?
“Look!” this translates the older “behold.” It signals the reader to pay attention or to observe a new development. Here the Pharisees are asking Jesus to pay attention to what his disciples are doing.
“Pharisees”: You can learn about them at this link:
They were the Watchdogs of Theology and Behavior (David E. Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Zondervan, 2011], p. 243). The problem which Jesus had with them can be summed up in Eccl. 7:16: “Be not overly righteous.” He did not quote that verse, but to him they were much too enamored with the finer points of the law, while neglecting its spirit (Luke 11:37-52; Matt. 23:1-36). Instead, he quoted this verse from Hos. 6:6: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). Overdoing righteousness, believe it or not, can damage one’s relationship with God and others. Too self-focused.
“Sabbath”: it is in the plural, but most translators just have it in the singular, “Sabbath.” We should not interpret the plural to mean he regularly tweaked the traditions of the Pharisees on all the Sabbath days.
“As these Pharisees well knew, a challenge to the behavior of the disciples was a challenge to the teacher who was responsible to train them in proper behavior … Disciples’ behavior reflected on their teachers” (Keener, p. 355).
Just for your information, Jesus is about to draw principles from a story, this interpretation is called haggadic, an argument based on story. In v. 5, he will draw a lesson from the law and the priests working in the temples, so this method is halachic (halakhic) or an argument from a precept of law.
On the consecrated bread, see Lev. 24:5-9 and my post:
Death Penalty in Leviticus 24 from a NT Perspective (the chapter is not only about the death penalty)
It was the bread of the Presence (of the Lord). Twelve loaves were stacked up in two stacks of six, put out fresh each Sabbath. Indeed, only the priests were allowed to eat it.
The story of David and his men doing this is found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and 22:9-10. In the first passage, David is not shown to have entered the tabernacle, but neither is he said to stand outside. Jesus is paraphrasing the scene in the OT. David did break the rule. The logic is obvious: David was the greatest king, and the Pharisees were much less than he, so they should stop judging Jesus and his disciples. If you condemn the disciples, you should condemn the greatest king. Jesus is greater than his accusers. It was David as David who took action, and now Jesus places his own authority on the same level as David’s. Jesus is acting outside of religious tradition, and the leaders of this tradition resented it. In Jerusalem, Jesus will say that he is greater than David (Matt. 22:41-46). Jesus had to go—be killed, eliminated.
In an extra-strict religious environment, like Jerusalem, this is a remarkable statement. In these few words, first he says that he is greater than David, because in 1 Sam. 21:1-6 David submitted to the priest Ahimelek and asked for food. Ahimelek gave the bread to David, who did not refuse it, even though he knew it was consecrated. However, David never said that he was the Lord of the consecrated bread and of Lev. 24:5-9. Second, Jesus proclaimed that he was the Lord of the Sabbath, when that sacred day is listed in the mighty Ten Commandments. He owned the Sabbath; it did not own him. He stood above the Sabbath, it did not hang over his head like the sword of Damocles.
“Jesus appeals instead [of an explicit legal text] to inspired narrative to show how God expected the legal statements to be qualified in practice, ‘a precedent for allowing hunger to override the law’” (Keener, p. 355, quoting from E. P. Sanders).
“Something”: it is neuter (Greek has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter). So what does this neuter word refer to? Jesus and his whole message and miracles and person and calling and manifestation of the kingdom—the whole “megillah”—is greater than the temple.
His declaration must have stunned the Pharisees to silence. It is hard to overestimate the shock that this pronouncement made on the religious leaders. Nothing could be greater than the temple and its religious system, instituted by God in Exodus and practiced by Aaron and his sons in Leviticus. Something greater than the temple is here, so Jesus himself gives his disciples permission to pluck grain on the Sabbath.
“I tell you”: this clause denotes a solemn and authoritative pronouncement that may surprise his listeners and make them uncomfortable.
Jesus quotes this verse from Hosea 6:6 because the Pharisees were so enmeshed and bogged down in the finer points of the law.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”: This is the Semitic way of saying “mercy rather than sacrifice.” “A rather than B” or “A is much more important than B.” The negation (“not”) is not absolute (Carson). In Hosea’s cultural context, he was not absolutely denying sacrifice, just its over-emphasis. And so it goes with the righteous (in their own eyes). Jesus would like to reach them too. And many priests (different from Pharisees) converted to their Messiah (Acts 6:7). Saul the Pharisee also converted (Acts 9:3-9). Generalization always have exceptions.
Jesus’ point is not that analogous circumstances exist to warrant exceptional practices but that “one greater than the temple is here” (v. 6). By implication the point of v. 4 is therefore also that “one greater than David is here” (cf. 22:41–45). It is not, therefore, the particular situation in which Jesus finds himself that justifies his disciples’ behavior but his very nature and authority which can transcend the law and make permissible for his disciples what once was forbidden. Thus the passage displays the same logic as 5:17–48. Verse 8 brings the dialogue to its logical climax. Jesus’ sovereign authority will determine how the Sabbath is now fulfilled in the kingdom age. (comment on 12:3-8)
“Son of Man”: it both means the powerful, divine Son of man (Dan. 7:13-14) and the human son of man—Ezekiel himself—in the book of Ezekiel (numerous references). Jesus was and still is in heaven both divine and human.
Let’s discuss this verbal sparring match between Jesus and these religious leaders on a cultural level.
As I noted in other chapters, first-century Israel was an honor-and-shame society. Verbal and active confrontations happened often. By active is meant actions. Here the confrontation is both verbal and acted out. Jesus won the actual confrontation, and this victory opened the door to his verbal victory with religious leaders who were binding people up with traditions. They needed to be loosed from them. Jesus shamed the leaders to silence. He won. It may seem strange to us that Jesus would confront human opponents, because we are not used to doing this in our own lives, and we have heard that Jesus was meek and silent.
More relevantly, for many years now there has been a teaching going around the Body of Christ that says when Christians are challenged, they are supposed to slink away or not reply. This teaching may come from the time of Jesus’s trial when it is said he was as silent as a sheep (Acts 8:32). No. He spoke up then, as well (Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:32; Luke 23:71; John 18:19-23; 32-38; 19:11). Therefore, “silence” means submission to the will of God without resisting or fighting back. But here he replied to the religious leaders and defeated them and their inadequate theology. Get into a discussion and debate with your challengers. Stand toe to toe with them. In short, fight like Jesus!
Of course, caution is needed. The original context is a life-and-death struggle between the kingdom of God and religious traditions. Get the original context, first, before you fight someone in a verbal sparring match. This was a clash of worldviews. Don’t pick fights or be rude to your spouse or baristas or clerks in the service industry. Discuss things with him or her. But here Jesus was justified in replying sharply to these oppressive religious leaders.
GrowApp for Matt. 12:1-8
A.. Have you ever broken down religious traditions to follow Jesus?
Jesus Heals a Man with a Withered Hand (Matt. 12:9-14)
9 Then he moved on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And look! A man having a withered! And they inquired of him, saying, “Is it really lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They asked so that they could accuse him. 11 But he said to them, “Which one of you is there who shall have one sheep and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable therefore is a person than a sheep! And so it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees left and took counsel against him, in order to destroy him.
“their”: And here we have another instance of their (see 4:23; 7:29; 8:34; 9:35; 10:17; 13:54; 22:7; 22:16). Why does Matthew keep saying “their synagogue or their city or their teachers of the law? My opinion: his community has moved well past Judaism and must distinguish between the newly formed Christian community and the Jewish community—the Jews who believe in the Messiah, King Jesus, the Lord.
The rabbis allowed healing to be done on the Sabbath, but only when a life was in danger, a baby was being born, or circumcision on the eighth day. This man’s disability fit none of those exceptions.
“they”: they are the Pharisees (v. 2 and 14).
“heal”: the verb is therapeuō (pronounced thair-ah-pew-oh, our word therapy is related to it), and it means to “make whole, restore, heal, cure, care for.” Here the healing is instant.
“on the Sabbath”: see the comments on vv. 1-2.
“accuse”: the verb is katēgoreō (pronounced kah-tay-gor-eh-oh), and it combines the prefix kata– (down) and the verb agoreuō (pronounced ah-go-rew-oh), which speaks of the public forum, so the context is in public. The verb agoreuō means “to speak in the assembly, harangue … speak ill of someone” (Liddell and Scott). Combine it with the prefix and you get “speak down to” or just “accuse.” The Pharisees and teachers of the law (scribes) were tagging along, inspecting Jesus’s every move.
“The Pharisees and most Jewish people accepted the necessity of rescuing an animal on the Sabbath” (Keener, p. 358). Jesus uses a little object lesson to teach the Pharisees a lesson. Of course they would rescue a sheep. It’s a valuable asset. Jesus reasons from the lesser (sheep) to the greater (man).
“one”: it can literally read “man.” it is the Greek noun anthrōpos (pronounced ahn-throw-poss), and even in the plural some interpreters say that it means only “men.” However, throughout the Greek written before and during the NT, in the plural it means people in general, including womankind (except rare cases). In the singular it can mean person, depending on the context (Matt. 4:4; 10:36; 12:11, 12; 12:43, 45; 15:11, 18). So a “person” or “people” or “men and women” (and so on) is almost always the most accurate translation, despite what more conservative translations say. So I chose “one,” but I could have chosen “person.”
The same is true of the word “person” in v. 12.
Jesus was supremely confident in his and his Father’s and the Spirit’s ability to heal, and that’s why he told the man to stand in the middle of them. He was the Anointed One.
I have watched a healing ministry up close, and such ministries generally can get very “messy.” It has to be done right.
Jesus is about to do good on the Sabbath. A third option was to do nothing, or so it seems, but then this is the same as not saving a life, and subsequently letting the life go away and gradually destroy itself. “Therefore, everything that you want people to do to you, in the same way you also do to them.” (Matt. 7:12; see Luke 6:31). This is more commonly known as “Do unto others and you want them to do to you.” The law and prophets are summed up on that counsel. Be active in doing good to others.
“healthy”: It could also be translated “sound” “physically well” or “free” from your affliction (Mark 5:34). It can be translated as “undamaged” (BDAG). His hand was made perfectly undamaged and sound.
The Pharisees react badly. They huddle together and hatch a plot. Apparently, they saw Jesus’s growing popularity and his disagreement with them as ruining their stranglehold on their power.
“destroy”: it comes from the verb apollumi (pronounced ah-poh-loo-mee), and it means, depending on the context: (1) “to cause or experience destruction (active voice) ruin, destroy”; (middle voice) “perish, be ruined”; (2) “to fail to obtain what one expects or anticipates, lose out on, lose”; (3) “to lose something that one already has or be separated from a normal connection, lose, be lost” (BDAG). The Shorter Lexicon adds “die.” Here they wanted to crush him. All memory of him would be lost.
“In fact, for them [the Pharisees] Jesus’ power and growing popularity simply make him all the more dangerous (cf. 12:23-24; Jn 11:48; 12:9-11). In contrast to the predominantly Sadducean aristocracy, the Pharisees were populists, like Jesus; they lacked sufficient political power even to enforce their desire for Jesus’ death. That Jesus appeals to the same popular constituency that traditionally followed them probably threatens the sense of religious security and power they would never admitted they had” (Keener, p. 359).
GrowApp for Matt. 12:9-14
A.. Once again Jesus breaks away from religious demands. Have you put traditions and rules above people? How did you correct this? Or has this happened to you? How did you overcome it?
The Chosen Servant (Matt. 12:15-21)
15 When Jesus was aware, he withdrew from there. Many people followed him, and he healed everyone of them. 16 Then he warned them that they should not make him known, 17 so that the word through Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled, saying:
18 Look! My servant whom I have chosen,
My beloved in whom my soul is well pleased.
I shall put my Spirit on him,
And he shall declare justice to the Gentiles.
19 He shall not quarrel, nor cry out,
Nor shall anyone hear his voice in the streets.
20 He shall not break a worn-out reed,
And a smoldering wick he shall not snuff out,
Until he thrusts forth justice to victory.
21 And in his name Gentiles shall hope. [Is. 42:1-4]
Jesus withdrew when opposition arose (Matt. 4:12; 14:13; 15:21; 16:5), because he could not be arrested before his time. Often discretion by a strategic withdrawal is the best course of action.
He healed everyone. Healing: the verb is therapeuō (pronounced thair-ah-pew-oh, our word therapy is related to it), and it means to “make whole, restore, heal, cure, care for.”
This statement about healing is another summary. As I noted in my commentary on 9:35, part and parcel of the kingdom coming and being manifested is healing. Jesus was ushering it in. Renewalists (Pentecostals and Charismatics and Neo-Charismatics) believe that they too, by the power and authority of Jesus, can see healings and deliverances from demons. They too can pray for the sick and demonized, and they shall recover.
However, this verse is a summary or generalization. We already read that many people did not repent, even after they saw the miracles. Capernaum, his adopted hometown, was particularly pointed out as stubborn (11:23-24). Nazareth, Joseph’s hometown and where Jesus grew up, will also reject him, even though they saw the mighty works he did (13:53-58). Mark reports that his mighty works were minimal because of the hometown’s unbelief; all he could do is heal a few sick people (Mark 6:5). He marveled at their unbelief (Mark 6:6).
We should therefore be careful about over-interpreting these summary verses. On the other hand, let’s not discount them either. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that sometimes people just are not healed down here on earth, so let’s not freak out when the healing doesn’t happen. But let’s seek God for healing every time it is needed and people ask for it.
Then we leave the results up to God.
He warned them not to make him known, because he had to fulfill the word spoken through Isaiah about the Chosen Servant of Yahweh. (John 6:15 says they intended to make him king after the miraculous feeding of five thousand men.) Those next verses from Isaiah say he will not hire an advertising firm (so to speak) to improve his brand. His brothers, who had not yet believed in him, said he must go down to Judea (southern Israel), so that he would make himself known (John 7:4-5). Jesus said no. He would not let his brothers dictate terms. Sometimes good ideas are not “God ideas.” The same goes here. He did not want to produce an infomercial about himself.
The Chosen Servant can be interpreted as Israel, but his nation failed (Is. 42:18-25), so now the promise is being fulfilled in Jesus.
One more time the Father called Jesus his beloved (see Matt. 3:17; 17:5). God was going to anoint him with his Spirit, and this happened at his baptism (Matt. 3:16). We need to highlight the Spirit’s power. He worked his miracles by the Spirit. This Spirit-empowerment that brought healing and demon expulsion was the token or sign that the kingdom was coming in power (see v. 28).
Once again, he was not going to sell informercials about himself.
“He shall not quarrel”: He won’t bicker and prove himself to be the Messiah by clever, extended debates. “Hey! Now you listen to me, you Pharisees and teachers of the law! I’m the Messiah! You hear me? Me! If you don’t believe me, I shall call down fire from heaven right now!” That’s the opposite of what he was doing.
“nor cry out”: He won’t behave like this: “Hey! Look at me! Look at me!” Look at me!” I now identify myself before you as the Messiah! Look at my miracles!”
“Nor shall anyone hear his voice in the streets”: This clause means the same thing, as above. “Extra! Extra! My good news is that I’m the loud and attention-seeking Messiah!” He did not do that, either.
Why won’t he launch a series of first-century infomercials? The kingdom of God at this stage in its growth is to be subtle. It is only for the hungry and desperate and anyone who is not weighted down by tradition and religious rules. Its subtlety and quiet invasion is designed to produce irony. This word means that people who think they know (e.g. the religious hierarchy) actually do not know very much or they don’t know the right things. They therefore live in irony. In contrast, those who don’t know very much and know that they don’t know very much are the perfect candidates for the kingdom of God and Jesus’s Messiahship.
A hypothetical example in your life: Let’s imagine that you study for an exam at school. You boast that no one is smarter than you. You will ace the exam. You take it and you still boast that you nailed it. However, the results are in. You failed it. You are now the victim of irony. You believed you knew more than you actually did. Your boasting made your humbling all the more intense. Application one more time: The religious hierarchy believed they knew all there was about the law and tradition—and they in fact knew a lot from the legalistic point of view. But they did not grasp the spirit of the law. They are failing, in God’s sight, the most important perspective of all.
Yes, he does miracles, and the ordinary people are beginning to catch on (v. 23), while the Pharisees miss the warning signs (v. 24).
The Greek word depicts a reed (a plant) as “broken,” “bent,” “shattered,” “crushed” or “worn out.” All those descriptors are alternative translations. He was going to repair and heal the reed. He wants to repair you too, if your life looks like those adjectives.
Jesus was not going to walk up to a smoldering wick, moisten his index finger and thumb, and snuff out the faintest orange glow on the tip of the wick. He was going to light it up again. He’ll do that to your life too, if it is nothing but a smoldering wick, with a thin stream of smoke going up.
“thrust forth”: it is a strong translation of the verb ekballō (pronounced ek-bahl-loh). The ball-stem means, basically, to throw, but the word has developed all sorts of nuances, depending on the context. You can look it up at biblehub by the Interlinear tab. His goal is to thrust forth justice to victory. His effort towards justice is not passive or half-hearted. He is doing this gradually right now, around the globe, for the greatest justice for everyone is salvation. He shall win, people of God!
We can trust in and hope in his name.
“name”: Let’s explore this word more generically, to get an idea how it applies here. This noun stands in for the person—a living, real person. You carry your earthly father’s name. If he is dysfunctional, his name is a disadvantage. If he is functional and impacting society for the better, then his name is an advantage. The Father has the highest status in the universe, before and above the entire universe, which he created. His character is perfection itself. And therefore, we can hope in his name, which stands in for Jesus’s person and character.
“But it is not hard to see how Matthew interprets Isaiah 42; despite the skepticism of some of his modern critics, Matthew read the larger context. God’s servant Israel failed in its mission (42:18-19), so God chose one person within Israel to restore the rest of the people (49:5-7); this one would bear the punishment (cf. 40:2) rightly due his people (52:13-53:12)” (Keener, p. 360).
Blomberg is right:
In some of the suffering servant passages of Isaiah, the prophet explicitly identifies God’s servant as Israel (Isa 44:1; 45:4; 49:3). In other places an individual seems more likely in view (esp. in 52:13–53:12). In Isa 42:1–2 “servant” may signify the nation Israel or the Messiah or the Messiah as the fulfillment of God’s plans for Israel (a popular theme in Matthew; see comments under 2:13–15). Jewish interpretation varied, but already in the [Targum] Isa 42:1, this text was taken as messianic. Matthew’s use of Isaiah thus falls squarely within the already established range of interpretive options. The text form is quite different from the LXX, while retaining a few agreements with the LXX as over against the MT. (comment on 12:15-21)
GrowApp for Matt. 12:15-21
A.. How has Jesus fanned the orange glow of your smoldering wick, so that you now burn with a strong flame? Or, if you are a worn-out reed, how has he brought you new life?
Jesus Conquers Beelzebub (Matt. 12:22-30)
22 Then at that time a demonized blind and mute man was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. 23 All the crowds were amazed and were saying, “Is this man, perhaps, the son of David?” 24 But the Pharisees, when they heard, said, “This man does not expel demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons!” 25 But knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and every town or household divided against itself shall not stand. 26 And so if Satan is expelling Satan, he has become divided against himself. How then shall his kingdom stand? 27 But if I expel demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers expel them? For this reason, they themselves shall be your judges. 28 But if by the Spirit of God I expel demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
29 Or how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he shall plunder his house. 30 Anyone who is not with me is against me, and anyone who does not gather with me scatters.”
Don’t be afraid to stand toe to toe with deceived people who are falsely accusing you in public. Don’t slink away. See v. 24 for more discussion.
“demonized”: the one verb is translated simply. There are two main ways in the Greek NT to express demonic attacks to varying degrees, from full possession to just attacks: “have a demon” and “demonized.” The latter term is used often in Matthew: 4:24; 8:16, 28, 35; 9:32; 12:22; 15:22, but only once in Luke (8:36), and Mark four times (1:32; 5:15, 16, 18). John uses the term once (10:21). In Luke 8:26-39, Luke uses both “have a demon” and “demonized,” so he sees the terms synonymously. “Demonized” comes from the verb daimonizomai (pronounced dy-mo-nee-zo-my), which just adds the suffix –iz to the noun daimōn (pronounced dy-moan). It is a very convenient quality about Greek (English has this ability too: modern to modernize). Just add this suffix to a noun, and it turns into a verb. So it looks like “have a demon” and “be demonized” are synonyms. The context determines how severe the possession was.
“healed”: see v. 15 for more details.
Once again, the crowds marvel or are amazed at the miracles Jesus did for the benefit of humanity. They are just now beginning to wake up. Could this man, perhaps, be the son of David? (Thanks to Grammarian Olmstead for his insights on this translation. Excellent.) But the Pharisees were victims of irony (see v. 19 for more information about that word).
“Son of David” was a popular Messianic title; it reflects the future age when the eyes of the blind would be opened and the ears of the deaf would be unstopped and the lame would leap like a deer (Is. 35:5:5-6). Jesus was ushering it in right now, in part. Later in his ministry he will correct the popular view and say that if the Messiah really was David’s son, then why does David call him Lord (Matt. 22:41-46)?
“Pharisees”: see v. 2 for more information about them.
Don’t slink away from a public conflict. First-century Israel was an honor-and-shame society. Verbal and active confrontations happened often. See vv. 6-8 for more comments.
“expel”: it is the verb ekballō (pronounced ehk-bahl-loh), and it literally means to “throw out.” It is the same verb throughout this pericope (pronounced peh-RIH-coh-pea) or section. Be sure to use your authority in Christ to throw out a demon from a person where the evil spirit does not belong.
See my post deliverance:
The false accusation reflects the meanness of soul, a shriveled mind. “Let me think about it! How could a man who was obviously not from God expel demons? I got it! By the ruler or prince of demons!” Wrong. And Jesus is about to show, by intelligent reasoning, why they are wrong.
“ruler of demons”: these are the words of his critics, so are the words reliable? Is Satan really the ruler of demons? Yes. He heads up the demonic kingdom that is invisible to our eyes, but which manifests itself in cases like the mute man.
“Beelzebub”: This is another name for Satan (v. 18). It probably comes from the Canaanite deity Baal-Zebub (2 Kings 1:2, 3, 6, 16), or it may refer to dwelling of Baal, the Hebrew word zebul, meaning “residence” or “palace.” So it means “lord of the high abode” or “prince Baal.” Matt. 9:34 calls him prince or ruler of demons. Jesus called him the prince of this world (John 14:30). Paul calls him the god of this word or age (2 Cor. 4:4).
For a developed theology–systematic theology–of Satan and demons, see my posts:
Jesus could read their thoughts or motives and perceive what they were seeking: a contest of honor and shame.
First, he speaks of a general principle. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Nor can a household divided against itself stand. Self-division is destructive, while unity and a common purpose is constructive.
Rome was powerful and feared no army, but they did fear civil war. Then devastation would reign.
Now Jesus applies the general principle. If Satan expels Satan, then his kingdom would be divided against himself and itself. That’s too dysfunctional and self-destructive even for Satan. Even he himself can figure that out. But not Jesus’ critics, for they were too obtuse to make such calculations about the authority and purpose of Jesus. Once again, they had shriveled and even evil minds.
We learn from this passage that Satan has a kingdom that corresponds to countless numbers of worldly kingdoms run by humans (v. 17). So there are three kingdoms (1) God’s, (2) Satan’s, (3) and humanity’s (many of them are kingdoms; others Republics). God wants to guide—as distinct from theocratically ruling over—the third kingdoms towards righteousness and justice and light, so he gave them moral law, which is figured out by reason and conscience. The best path for worldly kingdoms is for reason and conscience to then implement moral law by legislation, so they will have no more injustice, like slavery or joblessness, because the economy booms with liberty and life. The problem is that Satan wants to rule over the third kingdoms and absolutely control them. He does this by blinding leaders with all sorts of human vices, like greed and oppression and extermination. Any society that practices extermination is on the side of Satan. Any nation that practices slavery—or used to practice slavery—was listening to Satan within that singular policy (but not entirely wrongheaded about other issues, like liberty and freedom of the press and freedom of religion and so on). However, the third, human-ruled kingdoms have enough evil people in them that Satan does not need to work very hard to implement his evil oppression. All he has to do is nudge people.
The best news is that eventually, when God sees that the time is right, he will send his Son a second time, and he will sweep aside all worldly kingdoms and set up his lasting kingdom. But right now, we his followers have to fight for truth and righteousness and most of all for the salvation of people’s souls and hearts.
If he, hypothetically, were to expel demons by Beelzebub, then by whom do the critics’ followers (literally “sons”) expel them? The honest answer is that the followers of the critics do not expel them by Beelzebub; therefore, Jesus does not expel them by Beelzebub, either. The critics’ followers will be the judges of his critics.
“Exorcisms in the first century was a thriving business, both in pagan and Jewish societies. Those performing it would employ complex incantations (which they said came from Solomon), magical charms, and even visual effects … so Jesus is saying that their practices would be endangered as well. There is an implicit contrast between Jesus (‘I’) and the ‘sons’ of the Pharisees, for Jesus needed only an authoritative word. Jesus’ deeds are superior to theirs, as seen in 9:33 when the crowd said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ If Jesus’ superior power comes from Satan, how much more their inferior authority” (Osborne, comment on 12:27). But Jesus’s unprecedented authority came from God.
However, if Jesus expels demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon them. So one must have the fulness of the Spirit to watch the finger of God expel demons.
Here are some of my posts on a more formal doctrine of the Spirit (systematic theology):
The word “come” is phthanō (pronounced phth-ah-noh, and be sure to pronounce the -ph- and -th- together, as if you have a lisp!). It speaks of immediacy or imminence. The kingdom has arrived with the advent of the son of David (Olmstead, p. 290). But the kingdom of God has not come in its full manifestation and power, which will shatter the entire earth (so to speak), at his Second Coming.
“Although many Pharisees apparently rejected miracles as proof of truth …, Jesus summons them to consider an alternative explanation for his miracles, namely, that the promised time of the Spirit and the kingdom have come on the scene. Indeed the Greek construction here might be bettered rendered, ‘since I drive out demons by the Spirit, the kingdom has come on the scene’” (Keener, p. 364).
“kingdom”: As noted in other verses that mention the kingdom in this commentary, the kingdom is God’s power, authority, rule, reign and sovereignty. He exerts all those things over all the universe but more specifically over the lives of people. It is his invisible realm, and throughout the Gospels Jesus is explaining and demonstrating what it looks like before their very eyes and ears. It is gradually being manifested from the realm of faith to the visible realm, but it is not political in the human sense. It is a secret kingdom because it does not enter humanity with trumpets blaring and full power and glory. This grand display will happen when Jesus comes back. In his first coming, it woos people to surrender to it. We can enter God’s kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), by repenting (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:5), by having the faith of children (Matt. 18:4; Mark 10:14-15), by being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom God loves (Col. 1:13), and by seeing their own poverty and need for the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; Jas. 2:5). The kingdom has already come in part at his First Coming, but not yet with full manifestation and glory and power until his Second Coming.
1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)
The strong man is Satan, and the stronger man is Jesus (the stronger man is implied; cf. Luke 11:22). Jesus invades the domain of Satan and overpowers and conquers him. Now what does the conquering Lord do? He plunders or robs and distributes his plunder or spoils of war. What are Satan’s spoils? One commentator says things like salvation and the Holy Spirit, but this is impossible, since they are not Satan’s possessions. So what is the plunder? You and me. He rescues us and takes us out of Satan’s domains. Now Jesus distributes us where he wills in the new kingdom of God. Yes, Satan is strong, so never underestimate his power and authority to make people’s lives miserable. However, never underestimate Jesus’s victory over him now and ultimately over his entire house or kingdom. Demon expulsion is the key sign in Jesus’s ministry that Satan was losing his grip and power. Jesus’s kingdom is forcefully advancing (11:12).
21 On that day the Lord will punish
the host of heaven, in heaven,
and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
22 They will be gathered together
as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
and after many days they will be punished. (Is. 24:21-22, ESV)
“That day” typically refers to the wrap-up of the entire age, the final day. The host of heaven may refer to elemental principles that have a life of their own, in a spiritual sense—evil invisible beings.
Can plunder be taken from warriors,
or captives be rescued from the fierce?
25 But this is what the Lord says:
“Yes, captives will be taken from warriors,
and plunder retrieved from the fierce;
I will contend with those who contend with you,
and your children I will save. (Is. 49:24-25, NIV)
The NT clarifies them as satanic (Eph. 6:12).
12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12, ESV)
Right now, before the last day, we have victory over them because of Christ’s work on the cross:
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Col. 2:13-15, ESV)
Verse 15 is the important one for us here. On the cross, he disarmed the invisible rulers and authorities. We now have victory over the strong man, by Jesus’s death, and in his name.
“In establishing the first stage of his kingdom Jesus had already defeated the devil and had delegated his authority over evil spirits to those who were truly his followers, those submitted to his reign (Mt 10:8). The final ‘binding’ of Satan in early Jewish and Christian eschatology awaits the devil’s future defeat (cf. 13:30; Rev. 20:2 … ), perhaps suggesting that his binding before the end of the age may have caught him by surprise (cf. 8:29)” (Keener, p. 365).
Now is the time for choosing. If you don’t follow him right now, you won’t do it later. If you are not with him, you oppose him. It’s cut and dry, right now. And if you don’t gather with him right now, you will scatter and run away. And in your life now, when you don’t have a personal and deep and submitted relationship with him, then you will run away from him when times get tough.
GrowApp for Matt. 12:22-30
A.. Have you ever been badly misunderstood? How did you handle it? Or have you ever badly misunderstood someone else? How did you make things right?
B.. How did you gather with Jesus after you had scattered? What is your story?
Blasphemy of the Spirit and a Tree and Its Fruit (Matt. 12:31-37)
31 For this reason, I tell that every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven of people, but the blasphemy of the Spirit of God shall not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man shall be forgiven of him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven of him, neither in this age, nor in the one to come.
33 Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree rotten and its fruit rotten, for by its fruit a tree is known. 34 You offspring of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 A good person from his good treasure brings forth good things. And the evil person from his evil treasure brings forth evil things. 36 And I tell you that every careless word which people shall speak, they shall return an account for it on the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you shall be vindicated, or by your words you shall be condemned.
These two pericopes or sections or units follow from the previous one about Satan. So the blasphemy of the Spirit must be interpreted in light of the previous one and the one that follows about the good and bad trees at their roots. Don’t separate them.
“son of Man”: see v. 8 for more comment.
“people”: see v. 11-12 for more comments.
“him”: Matthew switches to the masculine singular pronoun. It could be translated generically as “him or her,” but I left it as “him” only for readability.
“a word”: as I note in many places in this commentary, it is the Greek noun logos (pronounced loh-goss and is used 330 times in the NT). Since it is so important, let’s explore the noun more deeply.
It is rich and full of meaning. It always has built into it rationality and reason. It has spawned all sorts of English words that end in –log-, like theology or biology, or have the log– stem in them, like logic.
Though certain Renewalists (Pentecostals, Charismatics and Neo-Charismatics) may not like to hear it, there is a rational side to the Word of God, and a moment’s thought proves it. The words you’re reading right now are placed in meaningful and logical and rational order. The Bible is also written in that way. If it weren’t, then it would be nonsense and confusing, and we couldn’t understand the gibberish. (Even your prophecies have to make logical and rational sense on some level.) Your Bible studies and Sunday morning sermons have to make sense, also. Jesus’s words also have Bible-based logic and rational argumentation built into it. People need to be ministered to in this way. God gave us minds and brains and expects us to use them. Your preaching cannot always be flashy and shrieky and so outlandishly entertaining that people are not fed in the long term. Movements like that don’t last over the years without the Word. I have observed this from firsthand experience in certain sectors of the Renewal Movement.
People have the deepest need to receive solid teaching. Never become so outlandishly supernatural and entertaining that you neglect the reasonable and rational and logical side of preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible.
On the other side of the word logos, people get so intellectual that they build up an exclusive Christian caste of intelligentsia that believe they alone can teach and understand the Word. Not true. Just study Scripture with Bible helps and walk in the Spirit, as they did in Acts. Combining Word and Spirit is the balanced life.
Here the religious leaders had a bad theology all worked out. It could be translated as “a logical message” against the son of Man, and in Greek we could supply the word logos, as follows: but whoever speaks a message against the Holy Spirit.”
These verses are often misunderstood and therefore over-applied. If someone you meet is nervous that he may have committed this sin, then he did not, because it speaks of being so far gone that no one who truly commits is upset about it. He’s oblivious to it.
“this age and the age to come”: Jesus divides the entire existence of the world in two: this age and the age to come.
For more information, please click on Matthew 13 and scroll down to vv. 36-43:
The first punchline is in v. 33. Each tree is known by its own fruit.
“is known”: the verb is ginōskō (pronounced gee-noh-skoh, and the “g” is hard, as in “get”). It is so common that it is used 222 times in the NT. (Its cognate epiginōskō, pronounced eh-pea-gee-noh-skoh is used 44 times). BDAG has numerous definitions of the verb, depending on the context: (1) “to arrive at a knowledge of someone or something, know, know about, make acquaintance of”; (2) “to acquire information through some means, learn (of), ascertain, find out”; (3) “grasp the significance or meaning of something, understand, comprehend”; (4) “to be aware of something, perceive, notice, realize”; (5) to have sexual intercourse with, sex / marital relations with”; (6) “to have come to the knowledge of, have come to know, know.” (7) “to indicate that one does know, acknowledge, recognize.” So we can know a person, a thing, a fact, an abstract thing like math. We can even know God personally or know about him from a distance, like a theological truth. It is best to know him personally. We can know all these things deeply or shallowly. In this verse, the best translation is the first definition or perhaps the third.
“by its own”: this means that we should not overgeneralize about the whole orchard, just because one tree is unhealthy. As the modern saying goes, “One bad apple does not spoil the whole barrel of apples” (or words to that effect). Take each person on his own terms.
It is implied that the bad person from the (heart’s bad treasure) produces the bad.
Here is the main point to this whole pericope or section. It is possible for a man to have basic goodness. We observe it all the time. Rich atheists with a bankrupt personal life give away millions to charities. The theologians who emphasize man’s evil must not exaggerate. No, this does not deny original sin. No, a man’s goodness is not sufficient for him to strut into God’s eternal and holy presence (see Is. 6). He needs grace and to be invited through his Son. But here it is a moral truth about Jesus’s disciples and humanity in general. In the kingdom community, look for men and women who speak words of blessing and edification. In business endeavors, look for men and women who do the same. The ones who consistently and characteristically speak good words have good hearts and can be trusted. It’s a general principle.
“I tell you” see v. 6 for more comments, but the words indicate solemnity and authority. Pay attention!
These two verses put the fear of God in me. I do pay attention to them. I write my commentary and translation prayerfully and carefully. Unless I hear differently, I don’t plan to publish it in a book. In addition to being too expensive, I may need to revise things, and I can do this online much more easily. I call myself, accurately, a perpetual student or learner, which means I am a perpetual disciple. I am willing to change my viewpoint when convinced. I write my commentary and translation to learn.
Further, these two verses have to be very sobering for chatterboxes on youtube and in the comment sections in social media. Every word, spoken or written, will be judged by God at the Final Judgment. I plead with everyone: Make your words few and valuable. Your words should be few because you may not know what you are talking about. I see this all the time with the heresy hunters who set themselves up as teachers, but God has not called them. How do I know? They do sloppy research and don’t understand their opponents. They are not generous towards mistakes that all of us make. Further, many of them also have controversial theology, like Limited Atonement or double predestination (God predestined some for heaven and others for hell) or cessationism (the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 12:7-11 have ceased). They need to look long and deeply into their own mirror and stop badly misinterpreting Scripture. They themselves may be mistaken.
Everyone who has set himself up on youtube may know how to edit their videos with clever effects and interesting theme music, but by my observation, God has not sent them. They don’t stay close to a community of teachers in commentaries but interpret Scriptures in odd ways. They like the fact that they have developed a little or large following. However, they don’t seem to realize that they will be judged more severely or more strictly precisely because they are teachers (Jas. 3:1).
Others should stop writing comments without studying the issues. Some doctrines are not as clear as they think, like punishment in the afterlife or interpreting Bible prophecy. They don’t put in the hard work to understand the complex matters. Yet they pop off according to what they have been taught–and taught deficiently and badly.
Finally, every careless word shall be judged, in private conversation, not just doctrinal disputes. Let your words be few and edifying.
When words are many, sin is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Prov. 10:19, ESV)
Now let’s explore two Greek nouns for word.
“word”: The noun in v. 36 is rhēma (pronounced ray-mah), and the rhē– stem is related to speaking, and the –ma suffix means “the result of.” So combined, the noun means a “spoken word” (though it does not always mean that in every context, or it is sometimes synonymous with logos). Here it means your spoken word and is synonymous with the next noun meaning word.
“word”: in v. 37 it is the noun logos (pronounced lo-goss). As I note in many places in this commentary, it is the Greek noun logos (pronounced loh-goss and is used 330 times in the NT). Since it is so important, let’s explore the noun more deeply.
It is rich and full of meaning. It always has built into it rationality and reason. It has spawned all sorts of English words that end in –log-, like theology or biology, or have the log– stem in them, like logic.
See vv. 31-32 for more comments on the need for rational discourse and teaching in the Renewal Movement.
“people”: it is the Greek noun anthrōpos (pronounced ahn-throw-poss), and see vv. 11-12 for more comments. I chose generic “people.”
GrowApp for Matt. 12:31-37
A.. Read Gal. 5:22-24. How do you ensure that the Spirit produces good fruit in you?
Demand for a Sign (Matt. 12:38-42)
38 Then at that moment some of the teachers of the law and Pharisees replied, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you!” 39 But he answered back and said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah, 40 for just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so also the Son of Man will be in the belly of the earth for three days and three nights. 41 The men of Nineveh shall be raised up at judgment with this generation and condemn it because they repented at Jonah’s preaching. And look! Something greater than Jonah is right here. 42 The Queen of the South shall be raised up at judgment with this generation and condemn it because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and look! Something greater than Solomon is right here.”
Some more restrictive Bible interpreters, referring to this passage, say that we should not seek for signs and wonders after we preach the gospel. But they take this passage out of context. It is perfectly legitimate to look for healings and demon expulsion, which are different from a sign like Elijah produced or Moses performed, as my comments at v. 38 explains.
“teachers of the law”:
You can learn about them here at this link:
See v. 2 for how they were the Watchdogs of Theology and Behavior.
Now about the sign these religious men were demanding. Recall that in v. 14, they took counsel together to find out how they might destroy him. Now they were demanding that he perform some sign, on their terms. A sign is “a special divine proof (as in John, the term refers to a symbolic wonder that points to the reality of the person performing it). They seek a heaven-sent spectacle (cf. 16:1, ‘sign from heaven’) like the exodus signs that forced the Hebrews to believe (Exod 4:8, 30-31 …)” (Osborne, comment on 12:38)
What sign? Here are some possibilities.
Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal and called down fire from heaven, which consumed the drenched sacrifices (1 Kings 18:20-40). He ordered the false prophets to be put to the sword. Would Jesus call down fire on the Romans?
Then Elijah also called down fire to consume the soldiers from king Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:1-16), exactly in the passage where the god of Ekron, Baal-Zebub, is mentioned. Jesus’s critics must have taunted him to call down fire on the pagan Romans. Would he do it? Recall his response to James and John, when they asked permission to call down fire on the Samaritans who rejected them (Luke 9:51-55). He wheeled on them and told them no. He rebuked them. Or maybe they tested him to do some other sign, like God making the shadow go backwards, as a sign to king Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:9-11; Is. 17:14-20).
Moses commanded the sky to go dark (Exod. 10:21-29) and other nine plagues. Could Jesus do that to deliver Israel from Rome or prove he was the Messiah?
Whatever the demanded signs were, he rejected their games. He would not produce a sign in the heavens or skies to dazzle the crowds. He was going to be a different kind of sign (see vv. 29-32).
Miracles of God, particularly the ones Jesus performed to usher in the kingdom of God, are purposed to help people, to set them free from natural deformities and diseases and spiritual, demonic afflictions, and falsehoods with the truth—all the abnormalities of a world gone haywire, a fallen world. In Elijah’s case, the fire from heaven flashing down on the sacrifices helped the small nation of Israel to come out from under the false gods. But Jesus could foresee that the kingdom of God would not be restricted to Israel. The kingdom would go far outside its borders to all nations (Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:47). So there is no need to call down fire to protect an old Sinai covenant, for such terrifying displays of instant judgment is not how God works to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in the New Covenant to the entire globe.
Nowadays he works by (just) government authorities to express his judgment-wrath (Rom. 13:1-5). And during and in spite of this governmental wrath, the gospel goes forth.
Be careful! God is still a judge, and those living outside the New Covenant are susceptible to his judgment in the afterlife, if not in the here and now. And people in the New Covenant are vulnerable to God’s judgment, as well, beginning right now (Heb. 12:5-11; 1 Pet. 4:17).
No, the sign that shall be given to Jesus’s generation was his preaching with great power and wisdom and the people’s refusal to repent. Jonah and the Ninevites did not have the benefits or the light that Jesus brought. Yet the Ninevites repented. Now what about the Jews of Jesus’s generation?
God’s wrath is judicial.
It is not like this:
But like this:
That is a picture of God in judgment.
So there will no sign in the heaven like Moses performed. No need. Jesus wanted to shield his identity as the Messiah so people would have to dig deep for it. Were they hungry? Would they connect the dots by faith? Would they understand Is. 53 and the Suffering Servant? Or did they want the Mighty Messiah (Dan. 7)? Would they miss the boat and reject their true, humble Messiah, so the larger world far outside Israel (even you and me) could welcome him as the Messiah?
Here are the signs of the Messiah, which Jesus told to John the Baptist’s disciples, while John was in prison, doubting:
2 When John heard in prison of the works of Christ and sent word through his disciples, 3 he said to Jesus: “Are you the Coming One, or should we expect someone else?” 4 In reply, Jesus said to them: Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5 the blind see again and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised and the poor have the good news preached to them. (Matt. 11:2-5)
Go back to Matthew 11:4-5 for more comments on these signs. They are all people-centered and on their real needs in body and soul. This is the kind of Messiah he was. Those are the signs he did.
“three days and three nights”: Some people take this to mean that since Jonah literally spent seventy-two hours in the depths of the sea, (Jnh. 1:17), so Jesus must also spend seventy-two hours in the grave. But we over-read the intent here. The sign of Jonah was his coming out of the depths of the belly and the sea, and then he came out of the fish, which was a type of the resurrection. Let’s not over-analyze it. Jesus was crucified and died on Friday; he spent Saturday in the grave—or his body did—and his spirit and soul and body were raised from the dead early on Sunday morning: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—three days. They don’t have to be seventy-two hours.
Jonah: Luke omits the three days and three nights in the belly of the sea-monster (the Shorter Lexicon suggests this translation), while Matthew has it. France points out that Jewish usage at this time was flexible. “Underlying this flexible usage is the Jewish tendency to speak of a period of twenty-four hours as a day and a night, so that Jesus’s time in the tomb can be said to embrace (parts of) three ‘day-nights’” (p. 491, n. 12). Go to biblegateway.com and type in “third day.” It is amazing how many times the phrase is very significant, in many contexts.
“Son of Man”: see v. 8 for more comments.
The sign that the evil generation will get is the burial and resurrection, not a sign in the sky. Very wise of Jesus to say this. His Father would not have endorsed it if his Son imitated one of the prophets by producing a sign in the sky, which would have helped no on in particular.
The men of Nineveh will rise in judgment against the generation to whom Jesus was ministering and speak condemnation over it. The Ninevites will compare their belief and repentance at Jonah’s preaching and this generation’s stubbornness. The Ninevites will rise up at the judgment, being reunited with their bodies, and judge the evil generation.
“something”: see v. 6 for more comments.
“repent”: it is the verb metanoeō (pronounced meh-tah-noh-eh-oh), and “to repent” literally means “changed mind.” And it goes deeper than mental assent or agreement. Another word for repent is the Greek stem streph– (including the prefixes ana-, epi-, and hupo-), which means physically “to turn” (see Luke 2:20, 43, 45). That reality-concept is all about new life. One turns around 180 degrees, going from the direction of death to the new direction of life.
The Queen of the South is Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chron. 9:1-12). She was truly impressed and overawed at Solomon’s wisdom. Now what about Jesus’s fellow Jews at his teaching with wisdom and great power? Would they receive it? Evidently some did, but others did not.
“will rise”: Every dead person will be reunited with their bodies, which lay buried in the ground or dissolved in the ocean. God can work this miracle.
It must be a humiliating thought to men for a woman to judge them (the Greek is unambiguously “men” and not the generic “persons”). She traveled a great distance to listen to Solomon in her generation, but to the first-century generation, God sent his very best. Jesus is the one who became an itinerant preacher, so they did not have to travel very far, but right outside their doors in the countryside. Or sometimes he went through their village.
“wisdom”: Let’s define it broadly and biblically. BDAG is considered the authoritative Greek lexicon, and it translates the noun sophia (pronounced soh-fee-ah and used 51 times) as “the capacity to understand and function accordingly—wisdom.”
So biblical wisdom is very practical. It is not like the wisdom of the Greek philosophers, which was very abstract. But let’s not make too much of the differences. In the classical Greek lexicon, sophia can also mean: “skill in handcraft and art … knowledge of, acquaintance with a thing … sound judgment, intelligence, practical wisdom.” In a bad sense it can mean “cunning, shrewdness, craft” (Liddell and Scott).
The adjective is sophos (pronounced soh-fohss and used 20 times) and according to BDAG it means (1) “pertaining to knowing how to do something in a skillful manner, clever, skillful, experienced”; (2) “pertaining to understanding that results in wise attitudes and conduct, wise.”
“at judgment”: Every person who ever lived will be judged before the great white throne, and so it seems Sheba will stand in the middle of this generation and be a living witness to it. She does not have to pronounce judgment on them, for her appearance will be sufficient. But if we read the verse literally, then she will actually be permitted by God to condemn them.
“something”: why didn’t Jesus say “someone”? See. v. 6 for further comments.
Before leaving this pericope or section, let’s talk about judgment in a little more detail.
Yes, Jesus is employing firm rhetoric—even harsh rhetoric—but there are theological truths here that explain the strong rhetoric. First, this “generation” stands in for individual people. It’s not clear (to me at least) how God through Christ will judge an entire generation as a collective, but he will. It may be based on the idea that generations seem to take on an ethos or character, probably because neighbors copy each other. It is easy to imagine, however, that a few people may have welcomed or would have welcomed the kingdom of God. If a few adults broke free from the crowd of unbelief, then God will judge them differently, like Lot and his family escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah. In other words, God distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked. Abraham asked God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25, ESV). The answer is yes.
Second, people are judged according to the light they have. The Ninevites had very little light other than moral law and Jonah’s message of repentance. Now imagine how the judgment will be on this entire generation in this pericope when they did not repent! They had a much brighter light than just moral law. They had the kingdom of God and the Messiah in their midst. If this generation could not accept them, then their judgment will be severe. With greater gifts and light come greater responsibility. If people reject God’s gifts and light, then their judgments will be severe.
Third, we don’t know how judgment and sentencing will be carried out. Three Bible-based theories are possible for Evangelicals. (1) Will there be eternal, conscious torment even for your grandmother who never got around to repenting and having faith in Jesus? (2) Or will everyone in hell / hades eventually be annihilated, including Satan, or removed from existence, so the new spiritual and physical realms are forever pure? (3) Or will God eventually reconcile everyone to himself, after they spend the right length of time in hell / hades?
Please see my three posts on the topic and the Scriptural support for each theory:
Whichever theory you land on, please don’t call the other theory heretical or heterodox. All three theories have enough Scriptural support to be plausible. We simply don’t know enough about the details of punishment and its intensity and kind to be arrogant name-callers. Don’t believe it? Then take some time to read all three posts. Start with the first one, because the verses that seem to support eternal, conscious torment are not really “slam dunks” after all.
Personally, I consider the doctrine of hell and punishment to be a secondary issue. The fact that Christians of equal intelligence and sincerity can hold to any one of them indicates that we do not have sufficient data to reach decisive conclusions and name-call each other. In that case, let’s apply this principle:
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity (love).”
GrowApp for Matt. 12:38-42
A.. The greatest sign in your life is your repentance, God’s acceptance of you and his transformation of your mind and life. Tell your story about this. Is there another sign God gave you, like a healing?
The Return of the Unclean Spirit (Matt. 12:43-45)
43 When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it passes through waterless places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then at that moment it says, “I shall return to my house where I came out of.” And it comes and finds it vacant, swept, and put in order. 45 Then at that moment it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and squat there. And the latter state of that person is worse than the first. And in this way it shall also be for this evil generation.
The point here is not waterless places, but regions where humans do not live. However, if a preacher wishes to spiritualize the water, as in baptism or the Holy Spirit, then he is free to do so. The point is that evil spirits consigned to the earthly realms and are disembodied from people do not find resting places outside of people. Demons need to occupy and harass humans.
Then we learn that demons have a certain measure of free will and self-interest and mental ability to spot their own needs, so that this one goes back to the house or soul it left (literally “from which I left”).
“person”: it is the Greek noun anthrōpos (pronounced ahn-throw-poss). See vv. 11-12 for more comments. I chose “person.”
“ordered”: it comes from the verb kosmeō (pronounced kohss-meh-oh), and we get our word cosmos from it, and it means “put in order.”
So what does it mean to have a soul vacant or empty and swept and ordered? It is clear or is it assumed that the person has been delivered by a Jesus follower? My interpretation: “Swept” and “ordered” mean his mind does not think an endless series of bad thoughts. They do not dominate him. His mind is being renewed. Also, his life is being ordered. He does not visit the old haunts where he did his drugs or drink his alcohol or visit unsavory places. He lives a clean life. The single demon cannot break through the cleaning and the ordering.
The only problem is that the person’s soul is vacant. It has nothing in there to keep the demons away.
“seven”: you can either take it numerically (a literal platoon of seven demons, plus the original one) or symbolically (seven is the number of completion, so it is a complete and powerful attack), or both literally and then symbolically. I take it literally and numerically and symbolically. It is the first demon plus seven others, totaling eight.
This passage teaches us that demons can communicate with each other and plan and strategize their attack. Next, they can spot your former weakness by which one demon had gained a foothold and go strong on the attack. Then they harass your soul with temptation to compel you to give in to your old weakness. Your mind reels. You lose your perspective. Your mind focusses back on your old sins that were disordered and piled up dust and debris in your mind. You can’t stop thinking about your old life. The demons attack and provoke your old desires. “I just gotta have that old drug!” “I just gotta have that drink!” “I just gotta go back and fornicate with my old boyfriend!” Then you give in. Now your end is worse than your beginning (literally “first”). Getting desire under the control of the Spirit is very important.
“state”: it is implied in Greek, but it is not there literally.
“person”: see vv. 11-12 for more comments.
“squats”: it is a heavier verb than “lives” or “dwells,” but if you prefer the translation “lives” or “dwells,” you can certainly pick either of those verbs. But “squats” makes it seems like an illegal breaking-and-reentry. The demons don’t belong there in the person’s house or soul, now that it had been swept clean and ordered.
The last clause about this generation may refer to Jesus’s cleansing effect as he taught the kingdom and implemented it, and now the generation of his day has been swept and put in order, but it is still vacant. Their repentance is incomplete. So evil comes back seven times worse.
However, I prefer the pastoral interpretation. People who are delivered from the power and penalty of sin must get their house in order and full of God.
We have to combine preaching or proclaiming and then have signs and wonders. Just signs and wonders is done by street evangelists, and they miss the teaching element. Let’s hope that Matt. 12:43-45 and Luke 11:24-26 doesn’t take effect. After a demon is expelled he goes out and looks for seven more demons to repossess the body, and the latter condition is worse than before. People need to be filled with the Word and fellowship, after their deliverance.
Therefore, the good news is that you can be forgiven and restored, if you were to give in to these eight demons. But you do not have to give in even to one demons. You can stand on these five foundation stones, in order to keep you soul unvacant or unempty, but full of God:
(1). Prayer and intimacy with Christ in your walk with him.
(2). Get baptized in the Spirit. The single demon went to waterless places, which (as noted) speaks of the absence of the Spirit, since water symbolizes the Spirit (John 3:3-7; 7:37-39). But you don’t need to symbolize this passage to be filled with the Spirit.
(3). Get water baptized.
(4). Scripture: you need to get Scripture to saturate your mind. Recall that Jesus fought his big temptation with Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). Study it strategically—who God is, who Christ is, who the Spirit is. Find Scriptures that talk about your personalized weakness. Memorize them, so you can think about the verses when the temptation comes.
(5). You must fellowship with other believers at a Spirit-filled, Bible-teaching and Jesus-following church. Then the people of God can pray for you when you are being demonically attacked.
6.. You must live the surrendered life before God. James 3:7: “Submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
GrowApp for Matt. 12:43-45
A.. How do you fill your soul with God, so that you don’t come under domination by evil and sin and even literal demons?
The Mother and Brothers of Jesus (Matt. 12:46-50)
46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, look! His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak with him. 47 Some told him, “See, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, seeking to talk with you.” 48 But in reply, he said to the one who spoke to him, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” 49 And he stretched out his hand to his disciples and said, “Observe my mothers and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven—that person is my brother and sister and mother.”
These five verses can be looked at in the context of the Gospel of Mark, which places these two verses nearby:
20 “He came home, and again a crowd gathered together, so that they were unable even to eat a meal. 21 When his family heard this, they went out to take him into custody, for they were saying, ‘He was out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:20-21).
Jesus has to make a break with his family. In John 7:3-9 his unbelieving (v. 5) brothers tried to micro-manage Jesus’s ministry. They told him to go to Judea so that the disciples there could see the works he was doing. He replied that his time had not yet come, but their time was always here, because they belonged to the world, which does not hate them, but it hates him because he testifies that its works are evil. That passage cannot get any clearer. There was a deep misunderstanding and gulf between him and his brothers. However, the epistles of James and Jude were written by his two brothers (Jude is a variation on Judas). So they must have surrendered to his Lordship, after his resurrection.
In v. 49, Jesus pointed to his disciples. See v. 1 for further comments on what disciples are.
Sometimes making a clean break from your own family needs to be done.
A true disciple looks to do the will of the Father, not his own will. What is the will of the Father? Begin with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5, 6, 7). Then if you need to know more specific directions (e.g. whom to marry or where to work), spend time in prayer and surrender. It is easier for God to speak to a disciple who is surrendered and living righteously.
In Matt. 10:37 Jesus taught family division may arise, yet in 15:4-9 he upholds the OT command to honor one’s father and mother. So in comparison between the kingdom and the family, the kingdom comes first, but if the family supports the kingdom citizen or disciple, then we should be grateful. These are general rules, like Proverbs, which admit exceptions.
In Islamic and strict Jewish cultures, converting to Christ—becoming a Christian—is very offensive. Muslim girls who convert are especially vulnerable. They may be “honor-killed” in Islamic cultures. Jewish children may be disowned. But those who reject their own family for these decisions for Christ are not hearing and doing the word of God. Those who reject their own family members are outside of right standing with God. Judaism is incomplete, and Islam is off the tracks. Those are strong criticisms, but I believe, after much study, that the criticisms are right.
So the bottom line is that people are right to leave those two religions behind and follow Jesus. And people may have to leave a dysfunctional family behind. “Why are you doing this?” You’re weak!” When they leave, let’s gather them in our “church arms” and welcome them into their new family. But the best outcome is support from the families of the new converts.
Turner quotes two other scholars: “These words do not dissolve family bonds but rather relativizes them” (comment on 12:48-50). In other words, in comparison to one’s commitment to Jesus, one must put him first, even if the family resists.
GrowApp for Matt. 12:46-50
A.. Did you have to leave behind your family or part of your family? How did you find the courage to do this? Have you found a new church family?
Summary and Conclusion
We learned a lot about Jesus breaking down traditions and about Satan and his kingdom and their counterattacks against Jesus.
First, Jesus’s disciples plucked heads of grain in a field, and the Pharisees accused them before the Lord that they were breaking the rules. Jesus reminded them of Scriptural precedence of others who broke some rules, and they were fine. His disciples were the same. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath; that is, he stands on top of the Sabbath; the Sabbath does not hang over his head like the sword of Damocles. The Sabbath serves humankind; humankind does not serve the Sabbath as slaves.
Second, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, in a nonemergency situation, for the man was not going to die at any moment. This too broke the Sabbath rule, according to the religious leaders there. What I admire even more is how confident he was when he told the man to stretch out his hand. (Personally I would be nervous, if I was praying for the man with a withered hand). And the hand was healed.
Third, Jesus is God’s Chosen Servant, from Isaiah 42. Israel was supposed to be, but it failed. God put his Spirit on his Son, and that’s why he was able to work miracles (Acts 10:38). He was not going to quarrel about his Messiahship (though he did quarrel with the religious hierarchy when they tried to shut down his ministry to the people).
Fourth, now we move to the lessons about Satan. The Pharisees were so deceived that they claimed Jesus expelled demons by the ruler of demons. Jesus warned them not to blaspheme against the Spirit.
Fifth, Jesus adds to this warning an illustration about the tree and its fruit. A bad tree produces bad fruit. The religious accusers were bad trees-rotten to the core. He even called them an offspring of vipers.
Sixth, some teachers of the law and Pharisees set a trap for him; they wanted a sign, probably like the one that Elijah performed when he called down fire from heaven, or probably one of the ten plagues which Moses did during judgment on Egypt. Jesus did not fall in the trap. He did not stretch out a staff and say, “Darkness, appear!” Instead, he wisely pointed to Jonah, and applied his time in the great sea monster. Jesus’s resurrection is the most significant sign of all, because he is the firstfruits for us all. We too will have a resurrection body like his, which will live forever without disease. Turning the sky dark lasts for only a few hours. The resurrection will last forever. In this section of Scripture, Jesus says that one generation will receive a lighter sentence than his generation, on the final day of judgment. There are degrees of rewards and punishments.
Seventh, Jesus returns to the topic of demons. When one is kicked out of a host (a human soul), and the soul is vacant, but swept clean and put in order, the spirit gets seven more spirits, even worse than it is and reoccupies the house. The goal is to get the house occupied with the Spirit, the Scripture, and community life. Then the soul is no longer vacant.
Eighth and finally, Jesus expands his family beyond his mother and brothers to include everyone who does the will of God—you and me. We now belong to his family, and that is great news.
I refer to a community of Bible scholars. They are excellent but also very technical, as they squabble with each other. My goal is to simplify things. I also write from a Renewal perspective.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth and Helways, 2001).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).
Olmstead, Wesley G. Matthew 1-14: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).
Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008).