The Prevention of the Kingdom: Christ Rejected by Israel
Matthew 11 – 12
Matthew 11 – 12
Christ’s rejection by Israel. In Isa. 49:3-13 we find that all of the Lord’s efforts in sending out the messengers of the Kingdom was unsuccessful in turning Israel to the Lord; “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought”. As a result, Jehovah has replaced Israel with Christ, as the accomplisher of His purpose in the earth; “though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD.” He will eventually gather Israel through His shepherd-voice, but what we see in ch.11-12 is Israel refusing to be gathered. In ch.11 we see Him being rejected by the villagers to the north of the land, in ch.12 we see Him rejected by the rulers in Judea.
- John’s Doubts: the Significance of the Coming Dispensational Change (11:2-19)
- Judgment to fall on the Northern Towns because of Unbelief (11:20-24)
- A Faithful Remnant Preserved for the Father’s Delight (11:25-30)
- Rejection Concerning Jesus’ Authority over the Sabbath (12:1-21)
- Rejection Concerning the Source of Jesus’ Power: the Unpardonable Sin (12:22-37)
- The Final Testimony Rejected: Christ Heals the Possessed Man (vv.22-24)
- A House or Kingdom Divided Cannot Stand (vv.25-28)
- A Strong Man Bound (vv.29-30)
- Blasphemy Against the Holy Ghost (vv.31-32)
- Their Evil Heart was manifested by their Words (vv.33-37)
- Israel’s Unbelief would Result in Solemn Judgment (12:38-45)
- The Lord Cuts His Ties with Nature (12:46-50)
John’s Doubts: the Significance of the Coming Dispensational Change (11:2-19)
The significance of this section (vv.2-19) is that it marks the transition between what we have had up through ch.10, which is Messiah’s testimony to Israel, and what we will find presented in ch.13, a new dispensation. The greatness of the transition is shown by the deep angst felt by John, and expressed in his words. How could he – the herald – be in prison if the Messiah was here? That very question encapsulates the “mystery phase” of the Kingdom of Heaven. The day of “manifestation” has been postponed, and in the meantime the servants of God must suffer for righteousness’ sake.
The transfer of John’s disciples to the Lord is detailed in John’s gospel, chapter 1. John begins the “first day” with two disciples (John 1:35), and ends the day with none. He hands the two off to Jesus, and are joined by a third! John performed this transition seamlessly… except for one time when he has a moment of weakness in prison (Matt. 11). But even here Jesus declares him to be greatest of the prophets, nay more, the greatest born to women, because he selflessly handed over the fruits of his labor to the Christ at His coming, and inaugurated the Christian dispensation. And yet, so great was the new dispensation that the least in the kingdom would be greater than John!
John’s Question of Doubt Asked, then Answered by Jesus (vv.2-6)
¶ 2 But John, having heard in the prison the works of the Christ, sent by his disciples, 3 and said to him, Art “thou” the coming one? or are we to wait for another? vv.2-3 Now John was discouraged. He was set aside in prison, and yet heard news that the Lord’s ministry was flourishing. Turn to Matt. 14:3-4 to see why he was in prison. John knew the verse: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple.” Malachi 3:1 (see v.10). What John didn’t realize is that there would be a parenthesis of 2000 years between these two events! God’s purposes are sure, but He has His own timetable. We might say, “How could John question the Lord’s Messiahship? He was the forerunner; He had seen all the evidence.” The answer is, his heart was not prepared for what was coming, and the result was that he was discouraged. His heart still clung to Jewish hopes.
Discouragement is Satan’s most effective weapon. It is the tool he uses when no other tool will work on a believer. Discouragement comes from the disappointment of misplaced hopes. The result of discouragement in a soul is the doubt of God’s goodness and desire to bless. Unbelief is the root of every failure, and so Satan can then come in with his other strategies of lust, corruption, and the busyness of life. The Lord Jesus was the only man that was never discouraged (Isa. 42:4). Discouragement can come in when we see failure around us that we didn’t expect, or failure in our own lives that we feel helpless to correct. After seeing Jesus at His baptism, and hearing the voice from heaven, how could there be any doubt in His mind as to the authenticity of Christ’s Person. Yet time had passed, and all the while Satan’s assaults wore away the temporary shield of excitement. Alas, in a moment of weakness, John questions whether Jesus was the Messiah. He had the theory, he had the Word of God, but as time wore on and his circumstances failed to change, he became offended at the one whose shoe’s latchet he was not worthy to unloose. John said, speaking of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” But John had no idea when he said this how far he was going to have to decrease… eventually, to the executioner’s block.
4 And Jesus answering said to them, Go, report to John what ye hear and see. 5 Blind men see and lame walk; lepers are cleansed, and deaf hear; and dead are raised, and poor have glad tidings preached to them: 6 and blessed is whosoever shall not be offended in me. vv.4-6 The Lord’s answer is precious and gentle. In v.4 He gives two subjects for the messengers to take to John; (1) what they had heard, and (2) what they had seen. The first was most important, because it is the Word of God that addresses heart and conscience. The works are for an outward sign. The message had two parts:
- For John’s head (v.5). He reminds John of the proofs of His identity. Blind men see (John 9:1; Matt. 9:27; 12:22; 20:30). In fact, we never read of any blind eyes being opened in the Old Testament; that power was reserved for the Son of David (Isa. 35:5). Lame walk (Matt. 8:5; 9:2; John 5). Lepers are cleansed (Matt. 8:2; Luke 17:11). Deaf hear (Matt. 9:32; Mark 17:11). Dead are raised (Matt. 9:23; Luke 7:11; John 11:43). Poor have glad tidings preached to them.
- For John’s heart (v.6). He gently remind him (and us by extension) that in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, “don’t be offended in me”. If John could be offended, it should be a warning to us lest we should falter. The best of men is a man at best.
Jesus Commends John before the Multitudes (vv.7-15)
vv.7-15 The Lord is careful to give John the words needed for his restoration, but once the messengers depart, He defends the dignity of John in spite of his recent failure. What a gracious Master! Jesus would not allow John’s moment of weakness to spoil the work he had accomplished.
7 But as they went away, Jesus began to say to the crowds concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? a reed moved about by the wind? 8 But what went ye out to see? a man clothed in delicate raiment? behold, those who wear delicate things are in the houses of kings. 9 But what went ye out to see? a prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet: 10 this is he of whom it is written, “Behold, “I” send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.” [Malachi 3:1] vv.7-10 The Lord addresses the wrong views that the crowds had of John. He address three levels of opinion, showing that each fell short of the true significance of John and his ministry:
- v.7 “A reed shaken by the wind” – John was not a mere tourist attraction, worthy of nothing more than passing interest or idle curiosity. A “reed” in scripture is a weak thing. John was not a coward, shaken by the changing winds of public opinion; he was a man of courage.
- v.8 “A man clothed in delicate raiment” – John was not a political or social figure, looking to gain a following. He clothing was rough (Matt. 3:4), not delicate. This wasn’t an easy lifestyle. He was marked by self-sacrifice; a man of consecration.
- vv.9-10 “A prophet” – even the loftiest of man’s opinions concerning John fell short. He was no ordinary prophet, he was “my messenger”. What a privilege! He had the unique role of forming a remnant, turning the hearts of the people to the Lord. He was a man of communication.
11 Verily I say to you, that there is not arisen among the born of women a greater than John the baptist. But he who is a little one in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he. v.11 For this reason (see v.10), John was the greatest born of women, of course excepting the Lord Himself. But then, the least in the Kingdom of Heaven would be greater than John the Baptist! A new order was about to commence. The blessings of the new dispensation would far outweigh those of Israel under the law; and those who possessed them must walk by faith with no outward display of power. This is a great key to understanding the Kingdom of Heaven in mystery. It is a time when things look dark, by earthly standards, yet we are to walk as those under the authority of Heaven and lordship of Christ, looking back on the finished work of Calvary, yet having our hopes on a future day; we will not be disappointed. Note: this is not saying that the personal faith of the weakest Christian is greater than that of John. It is simply this: to enjoy a small part of the Kingdom is better that to give a full testimony of its coming. Also, the “least in the kingdom” does not refer to Jesus; He is the King!
12 But from the days of John the baptist until now, the kingdom of the heavens is taken by violence, and the violent seize on it. 13 For all the prophets and the law have prophesied unto John. vv.12-13 The Lord shows that there is an action of faith needed now; that the kingdom of heaven here presented demands the rupture of natural ties and the giving up of previous associations. “All the prophets and the law” (the Old Testament) predicted the coming of the kingdom, and that testimony would encourage the hearts of the remnant who waited for it by faith. But the patience of faith is an endurance test. What they needed now was energy! The period of “kingdom-prophecy” was now terminated, because the King was here. The remnant needed to energetically force their way through the opposition of the apostate nation of Israel and the spite of their religious leaders, to join ranks with the rejected King. It would take ruthless self-judgment (violence) to navigate that transition.
14 And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, who is to come. v.14 Elijah, which is to come. There might be difficulty in reconciling v.14 with John’s answer in John 1:21. When asked, “Art thou Elijah?” he says, “I am not.” How is this denial from John himself to be reconciled with what the Lord says here? The key is: “And if ye will receive it… this is Elijah which was [literally “is”] to come.” Such a statement needed “ears to hear”. Recall that the Lord’s first coming was one of shame and rejection, but His second coming will be in power and glory. The Jews naturally cared only for the latter, because they didn’t have faith. In the same way Elijah came to those of faith in the person of John the Baptist, who testified in humiliation, etc. The expression “if ye will receive it” means that John wasn’t literally Elijah, but it was the spirit and power of Elijah if you had the faith to see the moral connection. John was doing the moral work of Elijah’s mission, which was to prepare the way of the Lord. But Elijah will come again to the apostate nation of Israel in a manner in keeping with the time of the end. (Rev. 11:1-14). So in that sense, Elijah was not yet come. This is also the reason that John said he was not Elias (John 1:21), and never applied Malachi 4:5-6 to himself. In the wonderful dualism of prophecy, had the mystery not been unfolded, John would have been the apocalyptic Elijah. This of course was never to be, but we can see the beautiful symmetry between the circumstances just before and after the Church period.
15 He that has ears to hear, let him hear. v.15 This expression is always connected with special prophetic revelations of vital importance. For example, it is repeated seven times over in Rev. 2-3 where were have a prophetic outline of Church History. Notice however, here it is “ears” (plural), but by the time we get to Revelation is it “ear” (singular). It has to be received by the attentive ear of faith.
The Capriciousness of the Multitudes Exposed (vv.16-19)
16 But to whom shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the markets, which, calling to their companions, 17 say, We have piped to you, and ye have not danced: we have mourned to you, and ye have not wailed. 18 For John has come neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon. 19 The Son of man has come eating and drinking, and they say, Behold, a man that is eating and wine-drinking, a friend of tax-gatherers, and of sinners: — and wisdom has been justified by her children. vv.16-19 These verses show that both John’s ministry and His own ministry were rejected by the common people. He illustrates their evil attitude with bored children sitting in the marketplace. They would never be satisfied. John came with a certain character (ruthless self-judgment) and they dismissed him as having a demon. Jesus came with a different character (grace to sinners) and they dismissed Him as a drunkard and low-life. They received neither: John was too strict, and Jesus was too gracious. This dual presentation (John and Jesus) had served to manifest the capriciousness of their hearts. The natural man does not receive the testimony of God because he doesn’t want to hear it! No matter what excuse they might give, failure to receive God’s testimony proved where they really stood (shown in vv.20-24). But on the other hand, “wisdom is justified by her children”; that is, those who did receive God’s testimony (justify wisdom) made plain that they stood on Wisdom’s side (shown in vv.25-27). The Lord’s sheep will always hear His voice (John 10:27). This applies to the faithful remnant in any dispensation.
Judgment to fall on the Northern Towns because of Unbelief (11:20-24)
vv.21-24 These verses show that God holds people responsible for the degree of light that they have. See Luke 12:37, and Romans 2:5-6.
¶ 20 Then began he to reproach the cities in which most of his works of power had taken place, because they had not repented. v.20 This is a pivotal “then”. It is after the capriciousness of the multitudes has been exposed that the Lord pronounces judgment. They had rejected heavenly wisdom, and the result would be judgment from heaven. “They repented not” – these were the cities that had been given the greatest privilege in having the Lord among them, doing His works of power. They refused to “repent” or “rethink” their evil path of unbelief.
Woe to Chorazin and Bethsaida (vv.21-22)
21 Woe to thee, Chorazin! woe to thee Bethsaida! for if the works of power which have taken place in you, had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they had long ago repented in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I say to you, that it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in judgment-day than for you. vv.21-22 Chorazin and Bethsaida were situated near the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. They are compared with Tyre and Sidon, which were Phoenician merchant-cities particularly responsible for scattering the children of Israel and selling them into slavery for profit (see Joel 3:3-6). The overthrow of Tyre predicted in Isa. 23 and Ezek. 26 was only partially accomplished by Nebuchadnezzar in the Judean captivity. Later Alexander the great utterly destroyed them according to Ezek. 26:3, 4, and sold the remaining inhabitants into slavery. They had been destroyed by Alexander, but their inhabitants still await the great white throne. Yet the Lord says that they would have repented if given the same witness as presented to Chorazin and Bethsaida. Those who had the light of the Lord’s ministry will be “beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:47) compared to the inhabitants of Phoenicia.
Woe to Capernaum (vv.23-24)
23 And “thou”, Capernaum, who hast been raised up to heaven, shalt be brought down even to hades. For if the works of power which have taken place in thee, had taken place in Sodom, it had remained until this day. 24 But I say to you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in judgment-day than for thee. vv.23-24 Capernaum is located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. “Exalted unto heaven” – Capernaum was blessed above all other cities of Galilee, because the Lord had chosen to reside there during the three years of His public ministry, calling it “his own city” (Matt. 9:1). He wrought more mighty works in Capernaum than in any other place. Sodom was one of five cities in the Vale of Siddim. They were especially marked for their sin of gross immorality. Their sudden and violent destruction is recorded in Genesis 19. And yet the Lord says that had they been given the privilege awarded to Capernaum, they would have evaded destruction. But the hearts of these Jews to the north of Israel were so cold that their final judgment in the Lake of Fire will be more severe than the immoral wretches of Sodom. Note: judgment-day in vv.21-23 refers to the day of the Lord, which is 1000 years, from the appearing to the great white throne.
Objection. Does this conflict with the doctrine of election? Is the Lord here teaching that all man needs is more light, and the flesh will be convinced to follow God’s way? First, look at the Lord’s argument. It isn’t to vindicate the inhabitants of Sodom, etc. but rather to condemn the inhabitants of Capernaum, etc. In other words, these verses are taking up man’s responsibility. Secondly, we must understand that the city of Sodom continuing is not the same as escaping the “day of judgment” (Rom. 2:16). The inhabitants of Sodom knew something of God from creation, and they rejected that light. The presence of Jesus among them might have prevented their descent into gross immorality, but another avenue for the flesh would have opened up. By the same token, Capernaum was not guilty of moral debauchery, but that was not the test God had laid before them. Rather, it was a test as to the reception of His Son. God tests man in different ways.
A Faithful Remnant Preserved for the Father’s Delight (11:25-30)
Christ’s Prayer of Praise to His Father (vv.25-27)
25 At that time, Jesus answering said, I praise thee, Father, Lord of the heaven and of the earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to babes. 26 Yea, Father, for thus has it been well-pleasing in thy sight. vv.25-26 The Lord was in perfect harmony with Father’s mind in blinding the apostate nation and revealing His truth to a poor remnant. This is the way of God; “that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; etc. … that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Notice that He refers to the Father as “Lord of the heaven” as well as “of the earth“. The rejection of Israel was about to open out to a wider sphere of blessing characterized by heaven, which this little remnant would be ushered into. The connection between v.26 and v.27 is beautiful. The Lord humbly submits to the Father’s will… that He be rejected by men. And there, stripped of every official glory that rightly belonged to Him, His personal glory shines out in all its fullness!
27 All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son but the Father, nor does any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom the Son may be pleased to reveal him. v.27 On the backdrop of His utter rejection by man, the Father’s delight in His Son is declared. “All things have been delivered” to the Son of the Father’s love. Notice that in Psa. 2 it is the Father’s delight in His Son that moves Him to say; “ask of me, and I will give thee the heathen for thy inheritance.” What is His personal glory?… His being the Son of the Father; as He says “my Father“. It is as a man on earth that He declares His Sonship. But it is an exclusive, transcendent relationship. Who could look upon that Blessed Person and scrutinize the mystery of two natures, one Person; fully God and fully man… no one but the Father! The truth that we have in Matt. 11:27 (and Luke 10:22) is a statement that the Person of the Son in manhood is inscrutable! In the incarnation, the Son took manhood into His Person. Read more… The system of evil doctrine invented by F.E. Raven, J. Taylor, and C.A. Coates to deny the eternal sonship of Christ includes dividing the person of Christ, when they say “Person,” they restrict the word “Person” to what He is in Deity. The truth is that the Son took humanity into His Person. This verse refers to His Person as God and man united in one Person. Another thing we learn from this verse is that the Person of the Son is the key to knowing the Father, for He alone declared the Father. By rejecting the Son, the Jews were throwing away the key to knowledge of the Father! How sad.
Connection between Matthew, John, and Paul. Matthew documents the rejection of Jesus as the Christ, and John begins with His rejection as a forgone conclusion! In Matthew, man’s rejection of the Christ is the cause of Him retreating into His eternal identity as the Son of God (Matt. 11:17, Matt. 16:16), but just mentioned in a kernel-form. Then in John, the glories of the Son of God and the revelation of the Father are fully treated of. In Paul’s writings, we have the glories of the Son as a foregone conclusion, and the main subject is the unfolding of those blessings that are ours as associated with the Person of the Son! There is a doctrinal progression therefore from Matthew to John, and from John to Paul.
Old Testament history of Israel
Christ presented and
rejected by His people
Christ presented and
rejected by His people
The glories of the Son,
the Father revealed
The glories of the Son,
the Father revealed
Our blessings in
association with Christ
Invitation to the Weary Remnant to Find Rest (vv.28-30)
28 Come to me, all ye who labour and are burdened, and “I” will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest to your souls; 30 for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. vv.28-30 These verses set before us the grace that “came by Jesus Christ”. It doesn’t say “come unto me righteous” but “all ye who labor and are burdened.” The yoke here is the yoke of legal bondage, not specifically the burden of sin. This verse is often applied in the gospel, and rightly so; but the proper interpretation of it is to the remnant of the Jews. Yet there can be a broad application to any who are under legal bondage. Their tutelage under the Law was over (Gal. 3:24). “I will give you rest”… the rest of knowing the Father, and the peace it brings. “My yoke” is the yoke of perfect obedience to the Father’s will; it is an easy yoke, unlike the cruel yoke of the law. He says “learn from me“; not “learn from my words” but “learn from my example”; Christ was one that perfectly walked in submission to the Father’s will, and He was the happiest man on earth (Psa. 1:1). Jesus could have described Himself many ways, but He close to call Himself “meek and lowly in heart”. What an example to us! Man is an active creature, and once he has rest for his soul, God will fill his hands with service; hence “take My yoke“. But it will be a service that is “easy” and “light” to the new nature.
continues the transition we saw in ch.11. Previously we had seen the preponderance of John, and Christ’s rejection by the Northern townspeople. Now we get His rejection by the religious leaders, and by the nation as a whole. In Mark we learn that many of those he was speaking to in this chapter had come up from Judea and Jerusalem. We find that Israel had by this time committed the unpardonable sin, in that they attributed the ministry of the Spirit of God to Beelzebub. Their final state or moral and spiritual ruin is predicted under the figure of a possessed man. Finally, the Lord reveals that a new dispensation was dawning, in which natural relationships took a back seat to spiritual relationships, and that obedience to the Father’s will was paramount. Then in ch.13, He teaches that the Kingdom would take on a mysterious form, in which we are living today. The overarching theme of this chapter is that a break was being made symbolically between Christ and Israel. I say symbolically because we know that the actual break occurred later. The setting aside of Israel can be seen in four phases:
- Judicially at the Cross (Psa. 69) – They rejected the Messiah.
- Officially at the Stoning of Stephen (Acts 7) – They rejected the Spirit’s testimony.
- Evangelically at the end of Acts (Acts 28) – Jew/Gentile order was reversed.
- Literally at the Destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70, Luke 21:12-22) – the blow finally fell.
Chronology of this section. The expression in v.1 “at that time” has the thought of a general time in which connected events occurred, not referring to a precise moment. In Mark’s gospel we get things presented chronologically, and the expression “immediately,” or “forthwith” is frequently found. From Mark 2 we learn that this scene in the cornfields occurred on the Sabbath following the call of Levi, and before the sending out of the disciples. The Spirit of God places these events here to support the theme of Christ’s rejection by the nation, and their consequent rejection by God.
Rejection Concerning Jesus’ Authority over the Sabbath (12:1-21)
Plucking Grain on the Sabbath: Christ is Lord of the Sabbath (vv.1-8)
¶ At that time Jesus went on the sabbath through the cornfields; and his disciples were hungry, and began to pluck the ears and to eat. 2 But the Pharisees, seeing it, said to him, Behold, thy disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on sabbath. vv.1-2 The King and His followers had been rejected. No one had offered them hospitality, and so Jesus led them through the cornfields where the disciples availed themselves of the wheat that was ripe. This was in keeping with the provision made in the law, “When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour’s standing corn” (Deut. 23:25). But because they did this on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees called attention to what they considered a breaking of the Sabbath commandment. To the legal-minded, plucking the ears of corn was equivalent to reaping one’s field on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is a vastly important subject, tying together Old and New Testaments. To understand its purpose, the Jews’ misconceptions about it, and the importance of these actions being carried out on the Sabbath day, we must understand God’s thoughts about the whole subject; see entry on the Sabbath. Exodus 31:13-17 shows that the Sabbath was the sign of Jehovah’s covenant with Israel. Neither of these two things that the Lord and His disciples did (plucking grain, then healing the withered hand) were prohibited by the Law, but these actions done specifically on the Sabbath showed that the covenant with Israel was being figuratively suspended. Israel was in a sad state. In bondage to the Romans, they were stripped of much of their identity as the people of Jehovah. But they still had the Sabbath, or so they thought, and over-stressed it as a way of reassuring themselves of their place among the nations. They hung, connected as it were, to Jehovah by a thin string. That string was the Sabbath; and the Lord was here with a pocket knife, slicing away thread by thread, until… SNAP; the connection is severed (ch.12). This is why the Pharisees pursued Him so doggedly on this issue.
vv.3-4 The Lord next gave two Old Testament examples that justified the actions of His disciples, but more importantly, that condemned the Jews. The first example is that of their most honored king of antiquity, and the second was of the priesthood all the way up to the present day. The unifying theme in these two examples is this: sin necessitates the setting aside of religious ceremony. In John 5 we have the same truth from God’s side; because sin exists in the creation, Father and Son cannot rest.
3 But he said to them, Have ye not read what David did when he was hungry, and they that were with him? 4 How he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests only? vv.3-4 1st Example: King David and his followers (1 Sam. 21:4-6). David was no stranger to reproach, and suffering. Why was David hungry? It was because he was being hunted by Saul, a king after the people’s heart. The same was true in the time of our Lord. The true King after God’s heart had been rejected, and was being persecuted by the ruling class among His own people. Think of it, the Messiah left hungry on the Sabbath day? Did that shewbread, a symbol of God’s sustaining provision for Israel, hold any legal restriction in the sight of God when His own were in need? No… the ceremonial law was never intended to harm God’s people, but that is how the Pharisees were using it. In the giving of the Law, exceptions for cases of necessity (David’s hunger, etc.) were not expressed, and yet we can see that they were implied, not only with the Sabbath, but with all other ceremonies as well. Admittedly, it was disorderly for David to burst into the house of God and ask for bread; but it was indicative of Israel’s deplorable state! It wasn’t proud dignity that drove David to make his request (c.p. with Uzziah the king, who was struck with leprosy; 2 Chron. 26:16), but his hunger. Note: to be clear, the shewbread eaten by David and his men was from the prior week; the fresh batch was in the oven at the time of David’s request.
5 Or have ye not read in the law that on the sabbaths the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? 6 But I say unto you, that there is here what is greater than the temple. vv.5-6 2nd Example: the Priestly Duties must be carried out on the Sabbath. The Old Testament made it clear that the priests in the temple do not cease their work on the Sabbath day. In 2 Chron. 2:4 Solomon states that the Temple was intended “… for the burnt offerings morning and evening, on the sabbaths, and on the new moons, and on the solemn feasts of the LORD our God. This is an ordinance for ever to Israel.” There was no provision for the priests to break the Sabbath! So what do we learn? That which is ceremonially right must give way to that which what is morally right. It was Israel’s sin that demanded the sacrifices. It is abundantly clear that the presence of sin in Israel demanded what was morally right, and what was normally right from a ceremonial standpoint must be set aside. Christ was far greater than David (vv.3-4) and also far greater than the temple (vv.5-6), insomuch as He was the bodily dwelling-place of the Godhead (Col. 2:9). Surely, it was morally right for the cornfields to yield their bounty to the rejected King; on the Sabbath day, or on any other day.
7 But if ye had known what is: “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” [Hosea 6:6], ye would not have condemned the guiltless. v.7 Now the Lord quotes plainly from Hosea 6:6, Jehovah states that He prefers right moral actions (loving-kindnesses) over ceremonial activity (sacrifice). If the Pharisees really knew the heart of Jehovah, they would have understood that scripture, and would not have condemned the disciples, who were in Jesus’ words, guiltless.
8 For the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath. v.8 Finally, to conclude the whole Sabbath controversy, Jesus declares that, as Son of Man, He is Lord of the Sabbath. His title of “Son of Man” is what Christ takes in special connection with all of mankind; as either the rejected Sufferer on behalf of man, rejected by all, or as exalted Heir of all that God destines for man (see Heb. 2:6-8, and 1 Cor. 15:27). When the Lord is rejected as Messiah, we see Him come forth as Son of Man effecting a wider sphere of blessing. As Son of Man, Jesus is the object of God’s purpose in creating mankind. In other words, God was thinking of Jesus when He created Adam. As such, the Sabbath had no binding power over Him. “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). As Son of Man, He was Master of the Sabbath, and could dispose of it as He saw fit. By taking up the title “Son of man” which embraces Gentiles as well as Jews, and by declaring His power over the Sabbath (the token of the covenant between Jehovah and Israel, Ezek. 20:12-20), the Lord showed that Israel was being set aside, and a new dispensation was coming in.
This event (compare) happened most likely in the synagogue in Capernaum. The previous event (plucking ears of corn) did not involve the Lord personally working on the Sabbath, but His disciples only. In this event, the Lord does work Himself on the Sabbath day.
¶ 9 And, going away from thence, he came into their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man having his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath? that they might accuse him. vv.9-10 We find the evil heart of the Pharisees manifested. They bait the Lord with one of their own sheep! Ever gracious, and without ignorance, the Lord takes the bait. But He first addresses the heart.
11 But he said to them, What man shall there be of you who has one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and raise it up? 12 How much better then is a man than a sheep! So that it is lawful to do well on the sabbath. vv.11-12 If any one of these Pharisees had a sheep that was stuck in a pit on the Sabbath, they would not hesitate to do that servile work required to pull it out. Why? Because they view that sheep as their property, and it advantaged them to save its life. But they would not extend the same kindness to a fellow human being in a pit, because it was the Sabbath day. The Lord shrewdly exposes that it was not “truthful righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24) in their hearts, but a manipulation of the law to serve self. “How much better then is a man than a sheep!” – a question we might well ask the liberals of today, who count the life of an unborn human less than that of an animal. The logic of His argument cannot be avoided. If you can unscrupulously help an animal on the Sabbath when the motive is wrong, then surely it is lawful to help a man on the Sabbath when the motive is right!
13 Then he says to the man, Stretch out thy hand. And he stretched it out, and it was restored sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees, having gone out, took counsel against him, how they might destroy him. vv.13-14 And so Christ proceeds to help a poor “sheep” on the Sabbath day. Notice how closely this man’s physical condition represented Israel’s spiritual condition. Hands in scripture speak of service; and Israel was powerless to do anything for God. Unlike this poor man, the Jews were unwilling to have Christ heal them. Instead, the Sanhedrin gather to plot His destruction. They felt that Christ had dealt a death-blow to their entire religious system… and they were correct. Jehovah was on earth, practically tearing up the seal of His covenant with Israel. They were feeling the pressure.
Rejected by His People, a Greater Circle of Blessing Opens (vv.15-21)
15 But Jesus knowing it, withdrew thence, and great crowds followed him; and he healed them all: v.15 Just as He had taken up the “mantle” of the Son of Man, now being plotted against by the religious elite, He “withdraws” – a symbolic action – withdrawing from the nation of Israel. Then He reaches out in blessing to the masses. He healed them “all” – without restriction on gender, race, or social class.
Symbolic Actions. The Lord takes a number of symbolic actions in Matt. 12-13 to demonstrate the break with Israel and the ushering in of a new dispensation.
- Healing on the Sabbath (12:1-14) – Jehovah terminating His covenant relationship
- Withdrawing himself (12:15) – placing distance between Himself and Israel
- No more lifting up His voice (vv.16-21) – signaling the suspension of the Kingdom in power
- No more signs to be given (12:38-42) – God had abandoned attempts to convert the nation
- Breaks link with mother and brethren (12:46-50) – setting aside the natural order for the spiritual
- Goes out of the house down to the sea (13:1-2) – Turning toward the Gentiles
- Begins to speak in parables (13:10-17) – opening up the secrets of the Kingdom in mystery to the faithful remnant.
16 and charged them strictly that they should not make him publicly known: 17 that that might be fulfilled which was spoken through Esaias the prophet, saying, 18 “Behold my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, in whom my soul has found its delight. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall shew forth judgment to the nations. 19 He shall not strive or cry out, nor shall any one hear his voice in the streets; 20 a bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, until he bring forth judgment unto victory; 21 and on his name shall the nations hope.” [Isa. 42:1-4] vv.16-21 The Lord had not come to make a big flash, like the celebrities of this world. He “charged them strictly” that they should not publicize Him. How different from the spirit of this world! The Spirit of God quotes from Isa. 42 to illustrate the Messiah’s tone and attitude when He would appear.
- Especially claimed by Jehovah – “my servant, my elect, my beloved, my delight”
- Acted in the power of the Spirit – “I will put my Spirit upon him”
- Exercised authority over the Gentiles (hinted at, but largely still future) – “he shall shew forth judgment to the nations”
- Would not publicize Himself (v.16) – “He shall not strive or cry out, etc.” This may also be connected with the cessation of the urgent Gospel of the Kingdom. From this point forward in Matthew, the Kingdom of heaven is no longer proclaimed as “at hand“.
- Would not come as a judge at His first coming – “a bruised reed shall he not break, etc.” A “bruised reed” would be relative weakness. A “smoking flax” would be a repulsive smell. Things He could have easily rectified with divine power, instead He left them until the appearing.
- Reaching out with blessing to the Gentiles (hinted at, but largely still future) – “and on his name shall the nations hope.”
Rejection Concerning the Source of Jesus’ Power: the Unpardonable Sin (12:22-37)
This event (compare) is the final testimony to Israel, in this symbolic sequence. With the healing of this man a crises is reached. The gracious power of the Spirit of God was on full display. What would the Jews do? They categorically condemn it as from Satan. This is a turning point. To speak injuriously against the Spirit of God is unpardonable sin. From this moment on, Israel is symbolically set aside in Matthew’s gospel.
¶ 22 Then was brought to him one possessed by a demon, blind and dumb, and he healed him, so that the dumb man spake and saw. v.22 Here we have a man that is in the worst possible case. He is possessed by a demon, he is blind, and he is unable to speak. The Lord frankly heals him, and the healed man demonstrates that he is healed before the multitudes. This man is a picture of Israel in the natural state: (1) possessed – under Satan’s power, (2) blind – without spiritual perception, (3) dumb – unable to render the praise that is due to God. The healing offered to this man is what Christ could have done for Israel, if they had received Him. This was a final sign to Israel.
23 And all the crowds were amazed and said, Is this man the Son of David? 24 But the Pharisees, having heard it, said, This man does not cast out demons, but by Beelzebub, prince of demons. vv.23-24 The testimony is so clear and convincing that even the ignorant crowds raise the question of His being the Son of David. This momentum in the crowd produces a reaction from the Pharisees; “when they heard it.” They attribute the Lord’s miracle to Beelzebub (“Lord of the Flies”), or the Prince of the demons, who can be none other than Satan himself. In the same account in Mark they actually say that the Lord was demon-possessed. Think of it, the very one on whom the Spirit of Jehovah was placed upon for power in blessing (v.18) had worked in such grace… and they attribute it to Satan. In doing so, they manifest that they are the ones who are possessed, blind, and dumb. This was now the second time they had committed this blasphemy (see Matt. 9:34), and “in the mouth of two or three witnesses” their guilt was established.
A House or Kingdom Divided Cannot Stand (vv.25-28)
25 But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not subsist. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom subsist? vv.25-26 The Lord goes on to explain how their claims would be impossible; a kingdom divided or a house divided against itself cannot stand, etc. Satan has a kingdom, and He is the head of that kingdom. If some of his servants defeat others of his servants, his kingdom would fall. It wouldn’t make sense for Satan to be fighting against himself.
27 And if “I” cast out demons by Beelzebub, your sons, by whom do they cast them out? For this reason “they” shall be your judges. v.27 Some of the younger generation, sons of the Pharisees, had become followers of our Lord, and had performed exorcisms. If Jesus was working by Beelzebub’s power, what did that say about their own children? The younger generation would be their judges. Just as in the early days of the Exodus, when the children inherited the blessing offered to and scorned by the parents (read Deut. 1:39).
28 But if “I” by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then indeed the kingdom of God is come upon you. v.28 He plainly says “I cast out devils by the Spirit of God.” In fact, the power by which God does everything is the Holy Ghost. What they were really saying is that the Holy Ghost’s power was Satanic! If it was Satan’s power behind Him, then He would be presenting Satan’s kingdom. But if it was God’s power behind Him, then He would be presenting God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God was come unto them, personified by our Lord Jesus Christ in the perfection of His walk and ways. “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17).
29 Or how can any one enter into the house of the strong man and plunder his goods, unless first he bind the strong man? and then he will plunder his house. v.29 He had broached the subject of Satan’s kingdom falling, and He picks up on that line. Satan’s kingdom would not fall due to “friendly fire”, or his servants fighting within themselves. No, Christ Himself was actively plundering Satan’s house; He was the Spoiler of Satan’s dark power! But in order to freely enter a strong man’s house, the strong man must be bound. A mere man could not spoil Satan’s house. It required one who could meet the enemy’s temptations, and overcome him. Jesus had met the strong man, Satan, in the wilderness (Matthew 3) and had overcome him! Ever since, He had gone about through the land of Israel spoiling his goods, in the power of the Spirit of God.
30 He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathers not with me scatters. v.30 A critical juncture had been reached. The proverbial line had now been drawn in the sand. The time had come for those who believed on Him to take a definite stand. There were only two classes: those who were for Him, and those who were against Him – neutrality was not an option. Those who were not with Him were really against Him; the tendency of their efforts was self-glorification, and not gathering to the Person of Christ. Such activity, regardless of zeal, was scattering abroad.
31 For this reason I say unto you, Every sin and injurious speaking shall be forgiven to men, but speaking injuriously of the Spirit shall not be forgiven to men. v.31 The Lord is now connecting the Pharisees’ sin with a turning point in God’s governmental dealings with Israel. God had given them the greatest possible witness; His Spirit working in power and grace through His Son on earth. By attributing the action of the Holy Spirit through the Person of Christ to Satan, they had blasphemed (spoke injuriously against) the Holy Ghost. Israel was rapidly falling into this sin; a slide which would be complete in the stoning of Stephen, who remarked on their whole history, “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51). It is a process, not a single act, because they had previously said these same words in Matt. 9:34. It isn’t something a person just slips up and says… it is a conscious state a person enters though a process of rejection. But finally, when the line is crossed, they have demonstrated a seared conscience, which is not capable of repentance, nor subject to forgiveness. It isn’t that there is some deficiency with the work of Christ; because “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Rather, by committing this blasphemy, these ones were manifesting that they were past the point of no return.
32 And whosoever shall have spoken a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age nor in the coming one. v.32 The Son of man is the Lord’s title in rejection. The Son of man came with the expectation of being rejected as a Person; for He “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). But the nation was so bold, they not only reject Him as a Person, but went beyond to insult the pure Spirit of grace which testified of Him. Neither in this age (the Mosaic age, of the Law) nor in the coming age (the Millennial Kingdom) will the governmental consequence of this sin ever be lifted from the apostate class (“this generation”). Even 2000 years later, when the nation is on the threshold of entering into the Millennium, the apostate class will be denied a place of blessing.
Who can commit blasphemy against the Holy Ghost? Strictly speaking, these verse apply to those to whom the Lord was speaking; the class of apostate Jewish leaders who had witnessed first-hand the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Lord is speaking to a class of persons, later called “this generation” (see note). However, He does say “whosoever” bringing forward the consequences for individuals who find themselves in that class. Hebrews makes it clear that the testimony of the Holy Spirit continued after the Lord was on earth; “so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will…” (Heb. 2:3-4). It is not even possible, technically speaking, to blaspheme the Holy Ghost today, as the Lord and His apostles are no longer here.
What about today? However, there is a solemn passage in Hebrews which applies this same principle to Christianity. “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God …and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:28, 29). In this sense, it is possible for a person today to commit despite to the Spirit of grace. Who can do that? Only an apostate. An apostate is one who once had a profession of Christianity and partook of its blessings, but then fell away from “the faith”, never truly having possessed “saving faith”. Merely rejecting the gospel does not constitute blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. There were those who “were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come” and yet remained unconverted. If they were to reject that testimony of the Spirit, “it is impossible… to renew them again unto repentance.” Incorrect use has been made of this verse to teach that the believer’s security is conditional, and that it is possible, once saved, to be lost again. This is false, for it denies many other scriptures, such as John 10:27-29. Only an unbeliever could really say with open-eyed, deliberate hatred toward God, that the Holy Spirit is demonic.
Governmental Forgiveness vs. Eternal Forgiveness. We must bear in mind that there are several aspects of forgiveness. Eternal forgiveness is not spoken of prior to the cross. It is most often governmental forgiveness that is taken up. Governmental forgiveness is divine exemption from the governmental consequences of our sins in this life. A person may remain under the government of God until death, perhaps due to an unforgiving spirit, but then go to heaven (Matthew 6:14-15). Here the Lord is speaking to the leaders of apostate Israel. Israel will never again be forgiven this blasphemy and restored to Jehovah en masse. To be clear, they will be nationally restored (Rom. 11:26), but it will be through a remnant. You can see that it is governmental forgiveness because the Lord jumps forward to the millennium; “neither in that age which is to come”. Certainly, those who he was speaking to have long since died. But that same moral class will be present at the close of this epoch, and they will not be allowed to enjoy the blessings of the Spirit in the Millennium. They had “tasted” of the Spirit’s grace, and rejected it. And while a remnant will be brought into the full enjoyment of the Spirit in the Kingdom, the apostate ruling class will be cut off in the Great Tribulation judgment. However, in that the individuals within the class of “blasphemers” are apostates, the consequences are eternal; for “it shall not be forgiven him“.
Sin against the Holy Ghost. What about believers? What word does this subject have for our conscience? The Holy Ghost is on earth indwelling the House of God. We are exhorted to walk uprightly in light of this fact “And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). One particular evil that has pervaded the Church is clericalism. The clerical principle is a special kind of sin against the Holy Spirit, because it denies the Spirit’s place in the Church, and replaces Him with a false system. The clerical principle states that all true ministry flows from the clergy, and any lay preaching is from the Devil. You can see how this evil is of the same character as what the Jewish leaders were guilty of in Matthew 12:30-31. As Israel spoke injuriously against the Spirit in their dispensation, so Christendom has denied the Spirit in our dispensation. The Church has effectively denied the presence and power of the Holy Spirit on earth. Collectively, the Jewish system came into judgment in 70 A.D., and one day the clerical system of Christendom will come into judgment as well, at the middle of Daniel’s seventieth week. While we wouldn’t call the clerical principle “blasphemy” against the Holy Spirit, we can see that it is “sin” against the Spirit, and certainly the dispensational counterpart to what Israel was guilty of. 
If a believer committed this sin, could they lose their salvation? No. None of the elect will ever commit this sin. We know based on the doctrine of election that every person is either a “vessel of wrath” or a “vessel of mercy”. If you are a vessel of mercy, you were chosen in an eternity past and He gave you the faith to believe when the time came. You were elected. A vessel of wrath is a person that was not elected, but when given the opportunity, hardened their heart (like Pharaoh, read Romans 9:14-24) and thus fitted themselves for judgment, despite God’s long-suffering. Later, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, hence the phrase “it is impossible.” Since none of the redeemed can or will ever commit this sin, there is no contradiction with 1 John 1:7.
A couple helpful realizations that help with this type of question:
- There are two aspects to the atonement of Christ. Propitiation is the aspect in which Christ died to perfectly satisfy God. In this aspect He died for the whole WORLD. Substitution is the aspect in which Christ died for ME. In this aspect He only paid for the individual sins of those who would be SAVED.
- Whenever we come to two verses that seem to contradict each other, we need to accept both as true, even if we can’t comprehend how they can both coexist. For example; “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men” is 100% true and “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” is 100% true. What I have started to do is simply accept the Word of God, and then ask him to make it clear to me if it pleases Him. And He usually does.
- Darby, J. N. The Notion of a Clergyman: Dispensationally the Sin against the Holy Ghost. Bible Truth Publishers.
Their Evil Heart was manifested by their Words (vv.33-37)
vv.33-37 The Lord now demands a clear distinction between black and white, evil and good. In this section He shows that the Jew’s actions demonstrated their evil heart. He gives four illustrations of “this generation”, each one showing that the evil heart was the cause of their evil actions. The four examples are: (1) a corrupt tree, (2) young snakelets, (3) a contaminated spring, and (4) an evil treasure house. These four can be roughly correlated to the four descriptions of the human mouth in Romans 3:13-14.
Example #1: A corrupt tree yields corrupt fruit (v.33)
33 Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt. For from the fruit the tree is known. v.33 The reason why the fruit was bad was that the tree was corrupt. In Matt. 7:15-20 the Lord used the same illustration of trees in application to false prophets (Matt. 7:17-18, 20). Here the fruit is specifically a person’s words. You can only identify a tree by its fruit. The essential nature of a tree is borne out in its fruit. Corrupt fruit has the thought of deceitful words; “with their tongues they have used deceit” (Rom. 3:13). On the other hand, the faithful remnant could speak good things, because they had been given a new nature.
Example #2: A young snakelet acts like a snake (v.34a)
34a Offspring of vipers! how can ye speak good things, being wicked? v.34a A viper is a small venomous snake. Serpents in scripture speak of Satan (Gen. 3:1). A “generation” of vipers is an expression that shows this class was composed of the Devil’s children (John 8:37-47), which are apostates who have hardened themselves against the truth, and thus given themselves up to the service of Satan. They manifested the same character as their father the Devil. This was the very condemnation John had given them in Matt. 3:7; nothing had changed. Snake poison especially has the thought of vindictive words; “the poison of asps is under their lips”(Rom. 3:13); as they had just spoken injuriously against the Holy Ghost.
Example #3: A contaminated spring yields a contaminated stream (v.34b)
34b For of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. v.34b The principle is given to us that the mouth is the barometer of the heart. The illustration is a fountain or spring. The “abundance” of water creates upward pressure, and a hole opens to allow the water out. Whatever condition the water is in underneath is what will be manifested on the surface. The fountain is the human heart, and the stream is the language that flows from the human mouth. See James 3:11. A contaminated stream might be bitter words; “whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom. 3:14, see also Rev. 8:11).
Example #4: An evil treasure house yields evil treasure (v.35)
35 The good man out of the good treasure brings forth good things; and the wicked man out of the wicked treasure brings forth wicked things. v.35 If someone gives you a gift, you expect it to be good, or helpful. If you receive a wicked gift, you must realize that the source is wicked, and there is more where that gift came from. All that the sinful heart can produce in sinful talk. “Wicked things” might have the thought of vulgar words; “their throat is an open sepulcher” (Rom. 3:13). On the other hand, the faithful remnant could speak good things, because they had been given a new nature.
Summary: What we say is important (vv.36-37)
36 But I say unto you, that every idle word which men shall say, they shall render an account of it in judgment-day: 37 for by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. vv.36-37 The Pharisees might have argued that the blasphemy they had just uttered was unintentional, or idle words. The Lord summarizes the four preceding examples to show that even idle or flippant words are significant, because they manifest a person’s heart. It works both ways, not only to condemn the Christ-rejecter, but to save the believer; for “it is with the mouth that confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:10). The judgment day refers to the day of the Lord, which is the period of 1000 years in which Christ will reign and evil will be put down. It is referred to as “a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained” (Act 17:31). It includes the appearing, the millennial reign, and the great white throne where “God shall judge the secrets of men… by Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:16). We might well make an application of this to believers, “for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10), where “every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
Israel’s Unbelief would Result in Solemn Judgment (12:38-45)
No more Signs to be Given, Except the Sign of the Prophet Jonas (vv.38-42)
¶ 38 Then answered him some of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, Teacher, we desire to see a sign from thee. v.38 To think of requesting a sign after just condemning His miracles as by Beelzebub; it was a calculated and audacious insult. It was meant to doubt the credibility of Christ’s claims. They would sit in judgment on Him. The Lord has already performed many signs, and we have just seen ten signs to the nation in ch.8-9.
39 But he, answering, said to them, A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it save the sign of Jonas the prophet. 40 For even as Jonas was in the belly of the great fish three days and three nights, thus shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. vv.39-40 Only a wicked and wanton generation would ask for a sign with no intention of receiving it. The Son came to save, and not to judge; but He would not pander to the whims of that generation. And yet, He would give them a sign to look for – the sign of the Prophet Jonah – which was a sign of God’s judgment on Israel. Due to Israel’s stubbornness, God has put them in the place of death, and meanwhile turned toward the Gentiles. In the death of Christ we see the end of all that man is in Adam, and in the resurrection of Christ we see the glorified Second Man as the Accomplisher of God’s purpose. But notice that the three days in view here are not inclusive of the resurrection. They specifically pertain to the grave of Christ. This was a sign, not only of the sureness of Christ’s claims, but of judgment on Israel. When the Son of man was laid in the grave, it was proof that Israel’s judgment was pending, and the God would take up with the Gentiles. It was the only sign left to give “this generation”.
Controversy over the three days and three nights in the “Sign of Jonas”. In recent years, there has been an increase in confusion about our Lord’s resurrection following the three days and three nights buried in the earth. See encyclopedia entry on the Grave of Christ.
This generation. Twelve times over in Matthew’s gospel the term “this generation” is used. Matt. 3:7; 11:16; 12:34, 39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 17:17; 23:33, 36; 24:34. Half of those are found in ch.11-12. It refers to the moral class of individuals among the nations of Israel that have been the rejecters of God’s testimony throughout the nation’s history. We have this pattern all though prophecy: judgment upon the mass, and the deliverance of a remnant. We know that this is a class of persons by the context in which the expression occurs. For example, in Matt. 23 it speaks of “this generation” saying; “That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.” It isn’t that God will attribute the sins of some to others, but that judgment would finally fall on that class in light of their sins all down through the centuries. The Lord describes them vividly:
Typically, a generation is a matter of years (20 yrs. or so), a lifetime at most. But the meaning of a “generation” in prophecy is moral rather than chronological. For example; in Psalm 12:7, “Thou shalt keep them, O Lord; Thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.” The term “this generation” is coupled with “for ever”, which in the Old Testament does not denote eternity, but a great length of time. And so it is in the prophetic scriptures. This is important because Preterists will use verses like Matt. 24:34 to insist that the fulfillment of Daniel’s seventieth week occurred within one literal generation.
vv.41-42 We get two elements that “this generation” was missing which could have altered their destiny. True repentance as shown by the Ninevites, and keen interest as shown the Queen of the South. Both Jonah and Solomon were servants of God in Israel, but signs to Gentiles. Jonah’s testimony bore fruit to the north in Nineveh, and Solomon’s to the south in Sheba. This shows that in the face of Israel’s rejection, God was going to occupy Himself with Gentiles, as we will see in the next chapter.
41 Ninevites shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold, more than Jonas is here. v.41 The people of Nineveh are commended for their repentance at Jonah’s preaching. They were especially characterized by violence (Jonah 3:8), and yet when the word reached the king of Nineveh, it says “he arose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” and proclaimed a fast (Jonah 3:6-7). How different was the spirit of the Ninevites from these haughty Jews. One far greater than Jonah was here, but the only response was rejection.
42 A queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, more than Solomon is here. v.42 The Queen of Sheba displayed great earnestness in her coming to see King Solomon. She had a longing in her heart, for “she came to prove him with hard questions” and “she communed with him of all that was in her heart” (1 Kings 10:1-2). A 1000-mile journey to Jerusalem was to her a small price, to hear the wisdom of Solomon. The cold hearts of this wicked generation remained motionless in the presence of One far superior to Solomon.
Three Messianic Offices in which Christ is “greater than” the Jewish order.
- As Priest He is “greater than the temple” (v.6)
- As Prophet He is “greater than Jonas” (v.41)
- As King He is “greater than Solomon” (v.42)
Israel Like A Man Once Possessed, In Danger of Repossession (vv.43-45)
The Lord now moves on to speak prophetically of Israel’s future spiritual state. He compares three phases of Israel’s history:
- Their condition before captivity – a possessed man
- Their condition after captivity – an empty man
- Their condition in the Great Tribulation – an eightfold possessed man
To be clear, the Lord is not now talking about individuals being possessed by demons. As in the prior verses, the Lord is here speaking typically about Israel, and specifically “this generation” (v.45).
¶ 43 But when the unclean spirit has gone out of the man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and does not find it. v.43 Israel’s idolatrous state before captivity is pictured as a possessed man. The worship of idols is always connects with demons (1 Cor. 10:19-20), and as a result the “unclean spirit” is a symbol for idolatry. Israel was brought into captivity because of idolatry (2 Chron. 7:19-22). The Babylonian captivity lasted seventy years (Jer. 29:10; Dan. 9:2), and then a remnant was brought back. When they returned from the captivity, they were no longer characterized by idolatry, nor to this day (Hosea 3:4). This is pictured by the unclean spirit departing out of the man. But while the sentence of captivity was passed, the root problem had not been judged. The issue of idolatry is still lingering, like the unclean spirit vainly seeking rest in dry places.
44 Then he says, I will return to my house whence I came out; and having come, he finds it unoccupied, swept, and adorned. v.44 But there was no real deep work of national repentance. Without Jehovah in their hearts, Israel was like a house; empty, swept, and garnished. The idolatrous habit had been set aside, and a clean appearance put on. The Pharisees were exemplary of this. They would:
- Keep clean the outside of the cup and of the platter (Matt. 23:25).
- Compass sea and land to make one proselyte (Matt. 23:15).
- Pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin (Matt. 23:23).
- Build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous (Matt. 23:29).
But it was all an outward show. Inside they were unchanged, and unrepentant. Outward cleanness is no substitute for spiritual fidelity, because the human heart needs an object to worship. Israel has remained in this “empty & clean” condition for 2000 years.
45 Then he goes and takes with himself seven other spirits worse than himself, and entering in, they dwell there; and the last condition of that man becomes worse than the first. Thus shall it be to this wicked generation also. v.45 The idolatrous spirit will one day return with a vengeance! The vacancy will be filled by the Antichrist who will enforce the worship of the Beast (Dan. 11:38-39; Rev. 13:14-15). This is a worse form of idolatry than they have ever been involved with previously; because it is the worship of a man, and a diabolical man at that. What is the time frame for this?… “their last state“. It will be in the time of the end, when Israel is in its final phase of wickedness. And still, it is the same moral class that will come under judgment; “this wicked generation“.
of the Beast
|a new form of iniquity|
The Lord Cuts His Ties with Nature (12:46-50)
¶ 46 But while he was yet speaking to the crowds, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him. v.46 By comparing with Mark 3:21 and 31 we find that “his relatives” came up to seek Him in unbelief, and with a wrong attitude. They were trying to “rein in” the Lord as they felt He was going crazy. They tried to “lay hold on him, for they said, He is out of his mind.” The Lord takes this opportunity to set aside the claims of natural relationship, and to show that spiritual relationships were the only true ones.
47 Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren are standing without, seeking to speak to thee. 48 But he answering said to him that spoke to him, Who is my mother, and who are my brethren? 49 And, stretching out his hand to his disciples, he said, Behold my mother and my brethren; 50 for whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in the heavens, he is my brother, and sister, and mother. vv.47-50 Stretching forth His hands is a symbolic action. The Lord refuses to own the natural relationships with His own mother and half-siblings. It wasn’t a lack of natural affection, because we see Him even on the cross making arrangements for John to care for His earthly mother (John 19:26). As with His natural family, the Lord shared natural relationship with Israel; “[Israel] of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came.” (Rom. 9:5). Symbolically, the Lord is setting aside His natural tie with Israel in favor of a spiritual tie with the faithful remnant. The only relationships the Lord would own were with those who did the will of His Father in heaven; by receiving God’s word into their hearts. This sphere, of those who do the will of the Father in heaven (or at least profess to) is called the Kingdom of Heaven. Receiving the word of God is precisely what He takes up in Matt. 13, where He presents Himself as “a sower gone forth to sow”. What a privilege, to walk by faith and not by sight, and thus to become the family of Christ in the time of His rejection!