Lord of the Sabbath, 1-14

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.

Mt 12:1–8 = Mk 2:23–28; Lk 6:1–5

“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)

Comparing Muslim and Christian views of law

Ida Glaser writes: ‘Matthew 12 is an excellent place to compare Muslim and Christian views of law: What is its purpose? Is it necessary or contingent? How do we decide between apparently conflicting commandments? And between following the details of a law and carrying out its intention? What is the place of the history of the interpretation and practice of the law by the believing community? Current Muslim discussions about such issues in relation to shari’ah rulings can help Christians to understand the concerns of the Pharisees in Matthew 12, and therefore better to understand the impact of Jesus’ teaching and actions. For example, Islamic discussions about exemptions from fasting during Ramadan weigh danger to the health of the faster or to other people against the clear command to fast. Matthew 12:1-8 could make a useful contribution to those discussions, and the discussions could make a helpful introduction to a sermon on Matthew 12.’

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)

“Something greater than the temple is here” – ‘According to Alan Cole, the only fact that can suitably explain this startling claim is that “God’s presence is more manifest in him than in the Temple.”‘ (Campbell, in Exploring Exodus, eds Rosner & Williamson)

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’.

Mt 12:9–14 = Mk 3:1–6; Lk 6:6–11
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, 15-21

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.  It represents Jesus as meek and gentle (cf. Mt 11:28-30), yet ultimately victorious.  That victory will, remarkably, extend to the Gentile nations (notwithstanding the temporary prohibition of Mt 10:5f.)

‘As the first lines of the Isaiah quotation review the beginning of the Gospel (Matt 1–7), so the middle lines of the quotation preview the great heart of the Gospel through the cross (Matt 8–27). And now the final lines promise the Gospel denouement—the resurrection, the Great Commission, and the Final Judgment (Matt 28 as well as Matt 24–25).’ (Bruner)

“My servant” – The word used is pais – ‘young person’, ‘boy’, ‘child’, ‘servant’, ‘slave’.  The corresponding word in Isa 41:1 is ‘ebed (‘slave’, ‘servant’, ‘subject’, ‘worshiper [of God]’ – so DJG 2nd ed.)  The meaning in both cases, then, is ‘servant’ (as in Lk 1:54, 69).

“The one I love”Cf. Mt 3:17; 17:5.

“He will not quarrel or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets” – He will not brawl, or try to shout his opponents down.  He will not fight back at those who oppose him.  However, we only need to read the rest of this chapter (esp. vv25-45) to be reminded of his forthrightness.  How many politicians and leaders (sometimes within the church) try to win arguments by shouting louder and anyone else, or by abusive words?

“He will not break a bruised reed or extinguish a smoldering wick” – These expressions should be understood as litotes, where ‘a positive truth is conveyed by the negation of its opposite’ (Hendriksen)

‘He will heal the sick (Mt 4:23–25; 9:35; 11:5; 12:15), seek and save tax-collectors and sinners (9:9, 10), comfort mourners (Mt 5:4), cheer the fearful (Mt 14:13–21), reassure doubters (Mt 11:2–6), feed the famished (Mt 14:13–21), and grant pardon to those who repent of their sins (Mt 9:2).’ (Hendriksen)

He will tenderly care for the outcasts, the weak, the lepers, the demonised, the abused, the harrassed, the helpless, the weary and the burdened.  Jesus is the great encourager.

‘The Holy Ghost is here describing persons whose grace is at present weak, whose repentance is feeble, and whose faith is small. Towards such persons the Lord Jesus Christ will be very tender and compassionate. Weak as the broken reed is, it shall not be broken. Small as the spark of fire may be within the smoking flax, it shall not be quenched. It is a standing truth in the kingdom of grace, that weak grace, weak faith, and weak repentance, are all precious in our Lord’s sight. Mighty as He is, “He despiseth not any.” (Job 36:5.)’ (Ryle)

“Until he brings justice to victory” – ‘The Servant is quiet but not quietistic, nonviolent but not noninvolved, gentle but passionate for God’s truth—a truth, we are promised, that he shall one day bring successfully to victory.’ (Bruner)

‘This victory is won at Jesus’ awful cross, is proclaimed at his triumphant resurrection, is worked out in history in his reign at God’s right hand, and will be consummated at his glorious judgment. “That it is precisely the nonviolent Jesus, who in the Temptations rejected world lordship, who will be, in God’s name, the one who will execute final judgment over the world is nothing less than a complete miracle”.’ (Bruner, quoting Luz)

“In his name the Gentiles will hope” – ‘Concern for the Gentiles thus emerges again (cf. Mt 1:1, 2:1–12; 3:9; 4:15–16; et al.) in anticipation of the Great Commission (Mt 28:18–20).’ (Carson)

This quotation ‘points to what Matthew will have Jesus make increasingly clear: his cross must precede his crown. He comes first to suffer before returning in splendor. His disciples must often follow a similar path (Mt 16:24). Still, Christians are not called to quietism and inaction in the face of injustice but to patience, prayer, and a prophetic voice that denounces evil. But they await ultimate vindication from God, to whom alone belongs vengeance and the ability fully to right the wrongs of this world (cf. Jas 5:1–11).’ (Blomberg)


Are you a struggling Christian (or, indeed, a struggling would-be believer)?  Harassed on all sides, Jesus might well have doubted his own mission, or lashed out at his enemies, or given up completely.  Here we have a Trinitarian confirmation that he has a special mission to the weak, the downtrodden, the outcasts, the doubting.  Don’t think that he is repelled by your neediness: on the contrary, feeling your neediness is the only qualification you need to come to him.  Come!


Are you tempted to think that the Christian faith, relying as it does on the meekness of its Founder and his followers, is doomed to failure?  Silenced by this world’s more strident voices?  Buried under the weight of more immediately attractive lifestyles and ideologies?  But meekness is not weakness.  The sovereign Lord has put his Spirit on his Chosen One, and justice will be proclaimed and will finally be victorious.  Rejoice!

Christian and Muslim teaching on Jesus as Messiah

According to Ida Glaser, ‘”Messiah” is a frequent title of Jesus in the Qur’an, and most Muslims know Him as ‘isa al-masih (Jesus the Messiah). However, the Qur’an gives no indication of what this title means, apart from linking it to the Jews – Jesus was the Jews’ Messiah (Surah 4:156-7). There is a tradition of discussion about the meaning of ‘messiah’ amongst qur’anic commentators, but most Muslims today simply think of it as a name. Matthew 12:15-21 opens up the title, using another qur’anic title for Jesus: servant (‘abd) (Surah 4:172; 19:30). It goes on to speak of God’s Spirit being on Jesus: again, this is echoed in the Qur’an: We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. (Surah 2: 87) The Qur’an goes further, and says that Jesus is ‘a spirit from God’ (4:171), and the most popular title for Jesus amongst many Muslims is ruhullah – “Spirit of God”.

Glaser continues: ‘A common Muslim idea is that Jesus was a prophet for the Jews, and that it was Paul who then took the Gospel and changed it and took it to the Gentiles. Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah makes it clear that the purpose of Jesus was to take God’s hope to the Gentiles.’

Jesus and Beelzebul, 22-32

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?”
Mt 12:22-37 = Mk. 3:22–30; Lk. 11:14–23; 12:10; 6:43–45
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)

Mt 12:25–29 = Mk 3:23–27; Lk 11:17–22

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.’


Has the kingdom already 'come'?
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.

v29 ‘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.

“Whoever is not with me is against me”Cf. Mk 9:40 – ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’

Finding contradictions where there are none

Matthew 12:30 – “Whoever is not with me is against me.” (Also Luke 11:23)

Mark 9:40 – “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Bart Ehrman (Jesus, Interrupted) asks: ‘Did [Jesus] say both things? Could he mean both things? How can both be true at once? Or is it possible that one of the Gospel writers got things switched around?’

Ehrman has failed to notice that these are not two versions of the same saying, but rather two distinct sayings uttered in different circumstances and for different purposes.  As Mounce comments: ‘The saying does not contradict Mark 9:40 (“For whoever is not against us is for us”), which was Jesus’ response to his disciples concerning a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name. In that case, it can be properly said that those who do mighty works in Jesus’ name are not able afterwards to speak evil against him (Mark 9:39). In the situation referred to in Matthew the religious opponents of Jesus are guilty of blasphemy (Mt 12:30–32).’

France notes that the two sayings are ‘superficially similar’.  He adds that ‘in Mark 9:40 the subject is an exorcist who honored Jesus by using his name, even though not a recognized disciple, but here it is his most bitter opponents, who have questioned his God-given authority. The two sayings are not incompatible (Luke includes both); it is their different contexts which demand the sharply different tone.’

According to Edwards, ‘one possible resolution rests on the difference between the plural pronoun in Mark (i.e., Jesus and the disciples) and the singular pronoun in Matthew and Luke (i.e., Jesus alone). Thus, whereas there can be no neutrality with regard to the person of Jesus, the disciples must be tolerant of those who differ from them.’

Jonathan McLatchie writes: ‘An examination of the contexts of these two texts (Matthew 12:30 and Mark 9:40), however, reveals that these refer to two completely different episodes. In Matthew, the preceding context is that Jesus has just been accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan. This is paralleled in Mark 3:22-30, so Mark 9:40 cannot possibly be describing the same circumstance. In Mark 9:40, the context of the saying is that John the son of Zebedee has said to Jesus, Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us,” (Mark 9:38). Given that two statements appear in completely different episodes, it is not at all apparent that the two accounts contradict one another. Furthermore, the two statements (that “whoever is not with me is against me” and “whoever is not against us is for us”) are perfectly compatible. Where, then, is the problem?’

“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; 1 Jn 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).’ (Bulleting added)

‘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 unforgivable: ‘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, 33-37

See Mt 7:15-20.

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.”

“A tree” – ‘A tree is to its fruit what a person’s heart is to his or her speech.’ (Blomberg)

“Every worthless word” – These are words that would have been better left unspoken.

‘Offhand remarks serve the purpose of judgment in that they are better indicators of character than carefully designed statements.’ (Mounce)

Consider this: The Lord’s Prayer contains 56 words; the Gettysburg Address, 266; the Ten Commandments, 297; the Declaration of Independence, 300; and a recent U.S. government order setting the price of cabbage, 26,911. It’s not how long we talk, it’s what we say that is so important.

(Source unknown)

“By your words you will be justified” – They are part of the fruit that determines, and will determine, whether a ‘tree’ was good or bad (cf. v33).

‘Out of our own mouths will come the words that condemn or acquit us.’ (Mounce)

‘To be sure, a man is saved by grace alone, through faith, apart from any works considered as if they have earning power. Nevertheless, his works—this includes his words—supply the needed evidence showing whether or not he was and is a child of God.’ (Hendriksen)

‘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, 38-42

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!
Muslim apologists often appeal to ‘the sign of Jonah’ as proof that Jesus did not die on the cross.  Here’s Mike Licona’s response.

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 12:39–42 = Lk 11:29–32
Mt 12:43–45 = Lk 11:24–26

Asks – better, ‘insists’ (Mounce).

“An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” – ‘It’s wicked to demand a sign because it implies that what God has already provided is not enough. And it’s wicked to demand a sign because you’re telling God what to do. You’re demanding that the Lord of all should act as your personal servant.’  (Chester, Tim. Do Miracles Happen Today? Page 39)

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)

“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”

Jonah: history or fiction?

Is the book of Jonah historical narrative or fictional narrative?  Are we really expected to believe that a man was swallowed by a large fish, survived for three days, and was then spewed out alive?

Does it matter?

For some, the historicity of Jonah is closely tied in to the doctrine of inspiration.  Allen quotes F.A. Maloney:

If the book of Jonah is history, it is part of the evidence for the most important truth imaginable, namely that the Almighty God seeks to bring men to repentance and will pardon those who truly repent.  But if the book is not historical, then it is only the opinion of some singularly broadminded Jew that God ought to pardon even Gentiles if they truly repent.

But this polarisation between ‘historical = the infallible word of God’ and ‘fictional = the fallible opinion of man’ is simplistic and misleading.  It is patently true that God can and does inspire fiction as well as historiography as the case of the parables demonstrates.

Stuart (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets) suggests that the book would effectively convey its message regardless of whether it was regarded as historical or fictional.  After all, the parables of Jesus convey their truths without asking the hears and readers to ask, ‘Did this really happen?’.  Nevertheless, says Stuart, the historicity of the story of Jonah does have implications: people’s response is heightened when a story is regarded as true in practice and not merely true in theory.

Study of Jonah has been skewed because discussion of it as a story has commonly focused on whether it is historical or fictional/parabolic. But God likes both history and parable, as the Gospels show, and Jonah is inspired and authoritative either way. Telling the difference is actually really hard.  I do think that the prominence of irony and humor and hyperbole suggests that the Jonah scroll is an imaginative short story. But fortunately it’s not important whether Jonah is history or parable. The insight, importance, truthfulness, and reliability of Jonah are the same either way.

(John Goldingay)

The real questions have to do with genre of the book, and the internal and evidence pertaining to historical or fictional character.

Widder (Lexham Research Commentary) summarises the dilemma:

The main character is known from one of the historical books of the Bible (2 Kgs 14:25), and the locations mentioned in the story are all real places, suggesting the writer intended to ground the story in reality and was not fabricating a fantastic tale. On the other hand, the story is filled with absurdities, hyperbole, and irony that suggest the writer may not have intended the story to be taken fully at face value.

The conservative approach

According to Allen, most of the Church Fathers admitted the historicity of Jonah, even though they tended to use it symbolically.  Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) and Theophylact (11th century) were among the minority who doubted the historicity of the book.

In 1927 Ambrose John Wilson published a paper in the Princeton Theological Review entitled ‘The Sign of the Prophet Jonah and its Modern Confirmations’.  He mentions the case of a sailor who had been lost overboard, and was later found – alive- in the stomach of a large sperm whale.  This case is passed on, without critical comment, in Hard Sayings of the Bible.  But I have to say that the physiological claims made by Wilson (on behalf both of the whale and its dinner) are implausible.  (For example, he says that a sperm whale must have air in its stomach in order for it to achieve buoyancy, but any gas in its stomach would be methane, not air).  For more on this fishy tale, see here.

The historicity of Jonah continues to be maintained by a number of scholars.  Positively, such scholars point to Jon 1:1, where the author appears to be identified as an historical figure (cf. 2 Kings 14:25).  Negatively, it is suggested that nothing within the book is inconsistent with an historical understanding of the narrative.  Decisive for most conservatives is the teaching of Jesus:

It is clear from Mt 12:40-41 that Jesus himself regard the story of Jonah as historical; therefore it is denial of his authority for us to claim otherwise. ‘If one denies the facts of the story of Jonah, he (or she) must then assume ignorance or deception on the part of Jesus, who believed its authenticity. This would, in effect, destroy his claim to being God.

(McDowell, Answers to Tough Questions)

Frank Page (NAC) argues for the historicity of the narrative on the following grounds:

  1. ancient tradition regarded the book as historical
  2. its historicity has been regularly questioned by biblical scholars only since the 19th century.
  3. the opening verses are just what we would expect from a historical narrative
  4. Jesus appears to assume and affirm the historicity of the narrative in Mt 12:40f.

Geisler and Howe (When Critics Ask) suspect that the tendency to deny the historicity of Jonah arises from an anti-supernatural stance.

Archer (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties) defends the historicity of the Jonah story on the basis of Jesus’ teaching:

In speaking of His approaching death and resurrection, Jesus affirmed in Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (NIV). Apart from a theory-protecting bias, it is impossible to draw from this statement any other conclusion than that Jesus regarded the experience of Jonah as a type (or at the very least, a clear analogy) pointing to His own approaching experience between the hour of His death on the cross and His bodily resurrection from the tomb on Easter morning.

If the Resurrection was to be historically factual, and if it was to be antitypical of Jonah’s three-day sojourn in the stomach of the huge fish, then it follows that the type itself must have been historically factual — regardless of modern skepticism on this point.

The facticity of the Jonah narrative is further confirmed by Matthew 12:41: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (NIV) — namely, Jesus Himself. Jesus implies that the inhabitants of Nineveh actually did respond to Jonah’s stern warning and denunciation with self-abasing humility and fear — precisely as recorded in Jonah 3. Jesus declares that those raw, untaught pagans were less guilty before God than the Christ-rejecting Jews of His own generation. Such a judgment clearly presupposes that the Ninevites did precisely what Jonah says they did.

This means that Jesus did not take that book to be a mere piece of fiction or allegory, as some would-be Evangelicals have suggested. Adherence to such a view is tantamount to a rejection of Christ’s inerrancy and therefore of His deity.

Alexander (TOTC) puts the case for historicity in a more nuanced way.  He emphasises the didactic nature of the text, but maintains that the message ‘derives from actual historical events and that these form the basis of his account’.

Nick Cady underscores the ‘key literary device’ used in the Book of Jonah – satire:

The story of Jonah is a fantastical story about a rebellious prophet who runs away from his calling, then tries to kill himself and gets swallowed by a giant fish who transports him back to where he started and barfs him up on the beach. Then he walks into a large city, preaches the worst sermon ever, and the whole city repents – much to Jonah’s dismay.

If, for this reason, Jonah were to be understood as allegorical, then

Jonah represents Israel: a nation who has not shared the heart of God for lost people and has run away from their calling to be God’s light to the nations. The fish would represent Israel’s (at that present time: current) captivity, which would mean that the calling to go to Nineveh represents the implied proper behavior or response that Israel should have once their captivity is over.

Nevertheless, Cody adduces the following reasons why ‘most scholars’ consider Jonah to be historical and not allegorical:

  1. Jonah is a historical figure, 2 Kings 14:25
  2. There are specific historical and geographical details within the book that we would not expect to find in an allegorical story.  See Jonah 1:1-3; 3:2-10; 4:11.
  3. There is no strong evidence against its historical nature, providing we accept the possibility of miracles.  Given the nature of historical record-keeping, there is no reason for insisting that any secular account should have been retained of Nineveh’s repentance.
  4. Jesus spoke of the story as being historical, Mt 12:40f.

The case for non-historicity

As has been noted, a minority of early Christian writers doubted the historicity of Jonah.  According to Allen, Luther also view the story as non-historical.

Fretheim (Harper’s Bible Commentary), while noting that Jon 1:1 roots the book in history, suggests that the literary features (irony, satire, hyperbole, repetition, humour, and so on) indicate a nonhistorical purpose.  Others, finding a late Hebrew style and many Aramaisms in the text, postulate a post-exilic date for Jonah.

Achtemeier writes:

Arguments over the historicity of Jonah, especially as they center on the probability of the big fish swallowing Jonah, are…misguided. Like the parables of Jesus, the book of Jonah conveys its revelation of God in the form of a story. Brevard Childs has even described the story as “parable-like” (Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 421) while pointing out its differences from prophetic legend, midrash, and allegory (p. 422). I think it is quite sufficient, however, to term the book a “didactic story” as many commentators have done.

But does not our Lord’s teaching Mt 12:39-41 show that an historical understanding of Jonah is essential to an historical understanding of his resurrection?  The question is discussed in the 1st edition of ISBE:

G.A. Smith..necessity that, if the resurrection of Jesus was a physical fact, Jonah’s abode in the fish’s belly must also be just as historical. On this point also the saying, A greater than Jonah is here, holds good. But, on the other hand, how arbitrary it is to assert, with Reuss, that Jesus regarded Jonah’s history as a parable! On the contrary, Jesus saw in it a sign, a powerful evidence of the same Divine power which showed itself also in his dying in order to live again and triumph in the world. Whoever, therefore, feels the religious greatness of the book, and accepts as authoritative the attitude taken to its historical import by the Son of God himself, will be led to accept a great act of the God who brings down to Hades and brings up again, as an actual experience of Jonah in his flight from his Lord” (The Twelve Minor Prophets, 172, 3).

A number of recent scholars, including Allen, continue to support the point of view articulated by Smith.

Referring to the naming of Jonah in Jon 1:1 (cf. 2 Kings 14:25), some scholars think that this suggests an historical kernal to a story which has then been elaborated.  Others think that the link to an historical prophet is consistent with a non-historical understanding of the book as a whole.  Allen, for example, suggests that behind the parables of the Good Samaritan, of the pounds, and of Dives and Lazarus lie real historical events and persons: but the original hearers would nevertheless understood the parables themselves to be non-historical.

Three days and three nights?

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.”

If, as is usually thought, Jesus was crucified on Friday and raised on Sunday, then he was in the tomb for (part of) three days and two nights.

Some extreme literalists have revised the chronology of Holy Week accordingly, making the crucifixion on the Wednesday or Thursday.

Others suppose that there is a real discrepancy here.  So Hagner (WBC). Barclay (DSB) thinks that ‘Matthew understood wrongly the point of what Jesus said.’  Spong (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, p154) opines that ‘counting seems to have been a problem for Matthew’s Jesus.’  In this latter case, we judge the author to be as guilty of literalistic thinking as the ‘fundamentalists’ he so despises.

Many commentators, however, agree that in Semitic idiom, this is a ’rounded-up’ expression which is consistent with the fact that Jesus rose ‘on the third day’, Mt 16:21.  Cf. Gen 42:17–18; 1 Sam 30:12–13; Esth 4:16-5:1.  So Blomberg (NAC), Wilkins (HAC), Osborne (ZECNT) and others.  Carson says that ‘according to Jewish tradition, a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole. Thus, “three days and three nights” need mean no more than “three days” or the combination of any part of three days.’

Esther 4:16-5:1 is relevant here.  The young Queen asks for a fast to be held on her behalf, which will last for three whole days.  ‘Then we read that on the third day Esther put on her royal robes, signalling the end of the fast.  Only two nights had elapsed, but in Jewish thinking three days and three nights would have been crossed off the calendar.’ (Bewes, The Top 100 Questions, p258)

It is, of course, a minor problem anyway, except for some inerrantists and sceptics.  But we can, in the light of this idiomatic way of thinking, say with confidence that our Lord rose ‘on the third day’.

See this by Andreas Kostenberger.

The Queen of the South = The Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1–13).

The Return of the Unclean Spirit, 43-45

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, 46-50

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.”
Mt 12:46–50 = Mk 3:31–35; Lk 8:19–21

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.  This looks like an undesigned coincidence.

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.’