Lord of the Sabbath
12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick heads of wheat and eat them. 12:2 But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.” 12:3 He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry—12:4 how he entered the house of God and they ate the sacred bread, which was against the law for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? 12:5 Or have you not read in the law that the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are not guilty? 12:6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 12:7 If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 12:8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
To the Pharisees, Jesus was a dangerous radical, who they thought undermined what was central to their religion, namely, the law.
“Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” – ‘The simple OT command to ‘keep the seventh day holy’ had been hedged about with a mass of subsidiary legislation to determine just what was and was not permissible on the Sabbath. Forbidden acts included reaping and healing where there was no immediate threat to life. The stories focus on Jesus’ failure to observe these specific regulations; there is no suggestion that he was opposed to the Sabbath principle as such. The issue was how it should be interpreted and who had the right to interpret it.’ (NBC)
The consecrated bread – The Bread of the Presence. Twelve cakes, made of fine flour, were placed in the Holy Place in the Tabernacle each day on the table that stood opposite the candlestick. The old bread was eaten by the priests. It was this bread that David requested of Ahimelech, the priest, for himself and his men.’ (Ryrie)
Jesus bases his case on his own personal authority. If David and the priests had the right to set regulations aside, then so did he. His authority is at least as great as David’s, and certainly greater than the temple’s. He is, therefore, ‘Lord of the Sabbath’.
12:9 Then Jesus left that place and entered their synagogue. 12:10 A man was there who had a withered hand. And they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” so that they could accuse him. 12:11 He said to them, “Would not any one of you, if he had one sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, take hold of it and lift it out? 12:12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 12:13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and it was restored, as healthy as the other. 12:14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted against him, as to how they could assassinate him.
v11 – ‘This was an argumentum ad hominem. The Jews held that such things were lawful on the sabbath day, and our Saviour very properly appealed to their canons in vindication of his intention to heal the distressed man.’ (TSK)
God’s Special Servant
12:15 Now when Jesus learned of this, he went away from there. Great crowds followed him, and he healed them all. 12:16 But he sternly warned them not to make him known. 12:17 This fulfilled what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet:
12:18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I take great delight.
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
12:19 He will not quarrel or cry out,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
12:20 He will not break a bruised reed or extinguish a smoldering wick,
until he brings justice to victory.
12:21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
v18ff The quotation is from Isa 42:1-4.
Jesus and Beelzebul
12:22 Then they brought to him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. Jesus healed him so that he could speak and see. 12:23 All the crowds were amazed and said, “Could this one be the Son of David?”
12:24 But when the Pharisees heard this they said, “He does not cast out demons except by the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons!” 12:25 Now when Jesus realized what they were thinking, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, and no town or house divided against itself will stand. 12:26 So if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 12:27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. 12:28 But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you. 12:29 How else can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can thoroughly plunder the house.
‘Beelzebul, ‘Lord of flies’, was originally the name of a Canaanite God (2 Ki. 1:2). By Jesus’ time it had come to be used, in the form Beelzebub, as a name for the chief of demons, or Satan.’ (NBC)
When the Evangelist says that Jesus knew their thoughts, ‘he may be ascribing supernatural knowledge to the Lord or he may mean that Jesus had the normal human capacity for penetrating to some extent into what others have in mind (people sometimes say, “I know what you’re thinking!”).’ (Morris, Pillar)
The first part of Jesus’ response is to say what a silly idea this is: a general does not attack his own troops! (NBC)
According to N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God), the exorcisms of Jesus (Mk. 1:23–7/Lk. 4:33–5; Mt. 4:24/Mk. 1:39; Mt. 8:28–33/Mk. 5:1–14/Lk. 8:26–34; Mt. 9:32–4; Lk. 8:1–3; Lk. 11:14–15; Mt. 12:22–32/Mk. 3:20–30/Lk. 11:14–23, cf. Mt. 10:25; Mt. 15:21–8/Mk. 7:24–30; Mt. 17:14–18/Mk. 9:14–27/Lk. 9:37–43; Lk. 13:10–17 (cf. v. 16) ‘signalled something far deeper that was going on, namely, the real battle of the ministry, which was not a round of fierce debates with the keepers of orthodoxy, but head-on war with the satan…The exorcisms are especially interesting, in that they formed a part neither of the regular Old Testament predictions, nor of first-century Jewish expectations, concerning healing and deliverance associated with the coming of the kingdom; nor were they a major focus of the life and work of the early church. They therefore stand out, by the criterion of dissimilarity, as being part of a battle in which Jesus alone was engaged. He seems to have seen himself as fighting a battle with the real enemy, and to have regarded the exorcisms—or healings of those whose condition was attributed to the work of the satan—as a sign that he was winning the battle, though it had not yet reached its height. ‘If I by the finger of god cast out demons, then the kingdom of god has come upon you.’
This verse (and its parallel in Lk 11:20) has featured prominently in scholarly discussion about the kingdom of God. If ephthasen is correctly translated as ‘has come’, as most scholars think, then the kingdom was to be regarded, in at least some important senses, as present. The miracles of Jesus, and especially his power over demons, speaks of the arrival of God’s kingdom, even if its consummation is yet future.
Mounce says that ‘it is best to take it to mean that the kingdom has arrived but not necessarily in its fullness.’
C.C. Caragouinis (DJG), however, observes that this (and its parallel) is the only text in the Gospels where the kingdom is said to have already come. It is more usual for the kingdom to be said to be ‘at hand’ (e.g. Mt 3:2). There is a well-attested usage of the aorist tense to emphasise the certainty of an event that had not yet occurred (something similar crops up in modern colloquial English). If this applies here, then the sense is that the kingdom of God, already close, has been brought even closer by Jesus’ miracles. The expression eph˒ hymas (‘upon you’) then takes on the force of a warning: the miracles of Jesus show that the forces of the kingdom of God are at this very moment beginning to be arrayed against those of the kingdom of Satan.
‘The “strong man” is Satan, and Jesus had bound him, probably at the time of his triumph over him in the temptation in the wilderness, Mt 4:1-11. During his earthly ministry, Jesus had entered the strong man’s “house” (the world of unbelievers who are under the bondage of Satan), and he was plundering his house, that is, freeing people from satanic bondage and bringing them into the joy of the kingdom of God. It was “by the Spirit of God” that Jesus did this; the new power of the Holy Spirit working to triumph over demons was evidence that in the ministry of Jesus “the kingdom of God has come upon you.”’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 418)
12:30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 12:31 For this reason I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 12:32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
“Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man” – ‘As Peter did through infirmity, Paul through ignorance’. (Trapp)
“Anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” – ‘And why? Not because it is greater than God’s mercy, or Christ’s merits; but first by a just judgment of God upon such sinners, for their hateful unthankfulness in despising his Spirit; whence follows an impossibility of repentance, Heb 6:6, and so of remission, Lk 13:3. Secondly, such a desperate fury invadeth these men, that they maliciously resist and repudiate the price of repentance, Act 5:31, and the matter of remission, 1 Jn 1:7, viz. the precious blood of Jesus Christ, whereby if they might have mercy, yet they would not, but continue raving and raging against both medicine and physician, to their unavoidable ruth and ruin.’ (Trapp)
The difference between speaking ‘against the Son of Man’ and speaking ‘against the Holy Spirit’ is, according to France, ‘between failure to recognize the light and deliberate rejection of it once recognized.’
Carson remarks that this saying is all the more remarkable, given the emphasis throughout Scripture on God’s grace and mercy (e.g., Ps 130:3–4; Isa 1:18; Mic 7:19; 1Jn 1:7).
Hendriksen says: ‘As to other sins, no matter how grievous or gruesome, there is pardon for them. There is forgiveness for David’s sin of adultery, dishonesty, and murder (2 Sam 12:13; Ps. 51; cf. Ps. 32); for the “many” sins of the woman of Luke 7; for the prodigal son’s “riotous living” (Lk 15:13, Lk 15:21-24; ); for Simon Peter’s triple denial accompanied by profanity (Mt 26:74-75; Lk 22:31-32; Jn 18:15-18, Jn 18:25-27; Jn 21:15-17); and for Paul’s pre-conversion merciless persecution of Christians (Act 9:1; Act 22:4; Act 26:9-11; 1 Cor 15:9; Eph 3:8; Php 3:6).’
‘It is important to read the terrible vs 31–32 in their context. Insensitive application of these words to situations which bear no resemblance to the Pharisees’ deliberate perversion of the truth has caused distress to many vulnerable people. Jesus was speaking not of a temporary lapse but of a settled decision to oppose the work of God.’ (NBC)
Mounce: ‘Jesus is saying to his antagonists that to attribute to Satan that which has been accomplished by the power and Spirit of God is to demonstrate a moral vision so distorted that there is no longer any hope of recovery. It would be possible to speak against the Son of Man and be forgiven because at that time in Jesus’ ministry there was a hiddenness about his person. Not so with the mighty works wrought by the Spirit. They were clear demonstrations that the kingdom (power and reign) of God was present in the world. Denial of this was not the result of ignorance but of a willful refusal to believe. Therefore it is unforgivable. The only sin that God is unable to forgive is the unwillingness to accept forgiveness. Thus the “unforgivable sin” is a state of moral insensitivity caused by continuous refusal to respond to the overtures of the Spirit of God.’
Evans, similarly: ‘Jesus does not dismiss the importance of blasphemy against himself, but he recognizes that to speak against him implies that a person does not know his full identity. Through greater revelation and understanding, that deficiency can be overcome: the person can repent, and the person can then find forgiveness of sin. By yielding to the Spirit’s evidential and convicting work, a person can be led to that point. The only true “unpardonable sin” is when a person consciously, willfully rejects the operation of the Spirit bearing witness to the reality of Jesus as the Savior, and rejects the convicting power of the Spirit in his or her life.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)
Morris: ‘When a person takes up a position like that of the Pharisees, when, not by way of misunderstanding but through hostility to what is good, that person calls good evil and, on the other hand, makes evil his good, then that person has put himself in a state that prevents forgiveness. It is not that God refuses to forgive; it is that the person who sees good as evil and evil as good is quite unable to repent and thus to come humbly to God for forgiveness.’ (Pillar)
Hendriksen draws attention to the process by which a person might render himself permanently impenitent, and therefore unforgiveable: ‘The blasphemy against the Spirit is the result of gradual progress in sin. Grieving the Spirit (Eph 4:30), if unrepented of, leads to resisting the Spirit (Act 7:51), which, if persisted in, develops into quenching the Spirit (1 Th 5:19).’
Barnes offers an unusual interpretation: ‘The word ghost means spirit, and probably refers here to the divine nature of Christ—the power by which he wrought his miracles. There is no evidence that it refers to the third person of the Trinity; and the meaning of the whole passage may be: “He that speaks against me as a man of Nazareth—that speaks contemptuously of my humble birth, &c., may be pardoned; but he that reproaches my divine nature, charging me with being in league with Satan, and blaspheming the power of God manifestly displayed by me, can never obtain forgiveness.”’
“Either in this age or in the age to come” – an idiomatic way of saying ‘never’. Contrary to the claims of Roman Catholics, the doctrine of Purgatory cannot be supported from this verse.
Trees and Their Fruit
12:33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is known by its fruit. 12:34 Offspring of vipers! How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from what fills the heart. 12:35 The good person brings good things out of his good treasury, and the evil person brings evil things out of his evil treasury. 12:36 I tell you that on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every worthless word they speak. 12:37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
“Every careless word” –
‘Jesus is not, of course, saying that in the end the only thing that matters will be our words, that our deeds do not matter in comparison with what we say. That is completely false. What Jesus is saying is that at the judgment what we are is what matters, and that our words, especially those to which we give no particular thought, reveal what we are. The other side of this particular coin is, of course, that where our words do not lead to our justification they lead to our condemnation (cf. Luke 19:22, “Out of your own mouth will I condemn you”; cf. Prov. 18:21).’ (Morris)
The Sign of Jonah
12:38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 12:39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 12:40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 12:41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here! 12:42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon—and now, something greater than Solomon is here!
See 1 Cor 1:22. Considering the miracles that have just been recorded (Mt 12:13. 22f), this was evidently an insincere request, designed to test Jesus.
Mt 12:43–45 = Lk 11:24–26
Asks – better, ‘insists’ (Mounce).
The sign of the prophet Jonah – Jonah himself was the sign, not simply the bringer of the sign. This implies (Carson explains) that the Ninevites knew what had happened to Jonah and how he reached their city. ‘As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so the Son of Man will be buried three days and three nights in the earth. That is to say, Jesus’ preaching will be attested by a deliverance like Jonah’s, only greater; therefore, there will be greater condemnation for those who reject the significance of Jesus’ deliverance. Note that this explanation rightly assumes that Jesus knew long in advance about his death, burial, and resurrection, and saw his life moving toward that climax (see Mt 16:21).’
‘Christ himself deliberately staked his whole claim to the credit of men upon his resurrection. When asked for a sign he pointed to this sign as his single and sufficient credential.’ (Warfield)
Three days and three nights –
The Queen of the South = The Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1–13).
The Return of the Unclean Spirit
12:43 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a person, it passes through waterless places looking for rest but does not find it. 12:44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the home I left.’ When it returns, it finds the house empty, swept clean, and put in order. 12:45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there, so the last state of that person is worse than the first. It will be that way for this evil generation as well!”
Jesus’ True Family
12:46 While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and brothers came and stood outside, asking to speak to him. 12:47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside wanting to speak to you.” 12:48 To the one who had said this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” 12:49 And pointing toward his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 12:50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
His mother and brothers – Joseph is never mentioned after the nativity narratives, and it is usually assumed that he had died. See also Jn 19:27, where the dying Jesus commends his mother to the care of John.
‘It is almost certain that Joseph was not alive during the ministry of Jesus. There is no direct mention of him, and it is hard to explain otherwise the word to John from the cross (Jn 19:26-27) and the reference to Mary and his brothers seeking Jesus. (Mt 12:46; Mk 3:31; Lk 8:19) It is natural to assume that the brothers of Jesus were subsequent children of Joseph and Mary.’ (NBD)
English (BST on Mark) asks why Mary, with her unforgettable experiences, as recorded in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, demonstrated such little insight into Jesus’ ministry and mission. However (suggests English), once we set aside the church’s presuppositions about Mary, and accept that she was a relatively unschooled Hebrew maiden who had been embraced by God’s grace, then the difficulty diminishes: ‘How could she understand all that was involved? Why should she not have shared the view of those around her about who Jesus was, and be equally upset at the unexpected turn of events, with such crowds and teaching and healings and exorcisms, and the pretentious claims implied—and occasionally blurted out at the height of excitement or controversy—about who he was? How could she have known that he would be in opposition, as it seemed clear he now was, to the religious leaders of the day whom she regarded with deep respect and awe? And if Joseph was now gone, how much more anxious about Jesus she would be. (If only his father had been here!) This attitude, of itself, neither detracts from the authenticity of belief in a virgin birth, nor shows Mary as in any sense unworthy or out of character in her behaviour. Many mothers can no doubt identify with her, if at a lesser level, in the anxiety and disappointment when a son’s life does not go as expected.’
Wanting to speak to him – We are not told what they wanted to talk to him about. However, We are informed in Mt 13:54 that Jesus returned to him homeland, and it is possible that his mother prompted him to do so.
As English (BST on Mark) remarks, there are no grounds whatsoever here for the practice of some cults in taking children away from their parents. ‘That,’ he says, ‘is unscriptural, since God placed human beings into families, and there is much New Testament teaching on the importance of the family unit. It is also inhuman and contrary to God’s creative purposes.’ But, English adds, ‘it is a warning that even so deep, precious, and basic a relationship as that of human family is superseded by the fellowship of the new family of God, which will continue into eternity.’