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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Matthew 12

QUESTIONS REGARDING THE SABBATH, BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT, THE SIGN OF THE PROPHET JONAH, THE EMPTY HOUSE AND THE RETURN OF THE UNCLEAN SPIRIT


 
Verse 1
At that season, Jesus went on the sabbath day through the grain fields; and his disciples were hungry and began to pluck ears to eat.

This action of Jesus' disciples should have been passed over and ignored altogether; but the bitter, hair-splitting Pharisees, finding no genuine fault in the conduct of Jesus and his disciples, attempted to make a case out of this. Their knowledge of so trifling an incident shows how minutely they observed all his deeds. Their spies must have included half the population! The time was April or May, when the grain was formed in the ear but not yet harvested. The grain was likely wheat; Indian corn would not be known until after Columbus discovered America.


 
Verse 2
But the Pharisees, when they saw it, said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which it is not lawful to do upon the sabbath.

This charge was false. God's law did not prohibit the preparation and eating of food on the sabbath day. At the conclusion of the interview, Jesus referred to his disciples as "guiltless" (Matthew 12:5). It is true, however, that the disciples had violated a Pharisaical "interpretation" of the law; and such interpretations were held even more sacred by the Pharisees than the law itself. In the Pharisees' view, the disciples were guilty of threshing wheat! Such pedantry, nit-picking, and magnification of trifles would also have made them guilty of irrigating land, if they had chanced to knock off a few drops of dew while passing through the fields! The Pharisees were out to "get" Jesus; and any charge was better than none.


 
Verses 3, 4
But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was hungry, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread which it was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them that were with him, but only for the priests?

Note that what David and his companions did on that occasion was UNLAWFUL, nor does Jesus say that they were blameless in so doing. That was not the point of bringing up the conduct of David. Some commentators have drawn unjustifiable conclusions from this, as, for example, Dummelow, who wrote:

He (Christ) laid down the principle that even the Divine Law itself, so far as it is purely ceremonial, is subservient to human needs, and can be broken without sin for adequate cause. F1

We agree with McGarvey's words,

If Christians may violate law when its observance would involve hardship or suffering, then there is an end to suffering for the name of Christ, and an end, even, of self-denial? F2

Why then did Christ mention those unlawful actions of David? It was because the Pharisees wholeheartedly approved of that far more flagrant case of sabbath-breaking by David (for David's action WAS unlawful; the disciples' was not), and yet were willing to press an accusation of wrongdoing against the Christ for something of infinitely less consequence. That the Pharisees did approve David's conduct was well known; and, if they had not approved it, they could have turned Jesus' words against him by saying, "So, you class yourself with David, but both you and David are sinners." That they did not so respond proves that they approved of David's conduct. Thus, their hypocrisy was open for all to see.


 
Verse 5
Or have ye not read in the law, that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless?

This reference is to the fact than an exception was made for the priests who served in the temple, and who could, therefore, do work on the sabbath that would otherwise have been unlawful. Christ's stress on that exception called attention to an analogy between himself and the temple. He referred to his body as "the temple," stating that he would raise it up in three days (John 2:19). The argument is that, just as the priests served the temple on the sabbath day and were guiltless, his disciples might also serve Christ, the Greater Temple, without incurring guilt. Thus, even if his disciples had violated the sabbath restrictions (which they had not done), their doing so in the service of Christ would have granted them exemption. "Profaning" the sabbath does not refer to any actual profanation, but means that their actions, if performed otherwise than in temple service, would have profaned it.


 
Verse 6
But I say unto you, that one greater than the temple is here.

Who but God Himself could be greater than the temple God ordained? Christ again made a statement fixing a gulf between himself and all ordinary men. This is a dramatic reference to the analogy between Christ and the temple, mentioned under the preceding verse, and makes it crystal clear that Jesus' disciples were totally within the law, and were, like the temple priests, GUILTLESS! Those expositors who assume the charge of the Pharisees to have been correct, making Jesus' justification of his disciples to be merely that "David did it too," appear totally to have misunderstood this portion of God's word. And then, to go forward and formulate a law authorizing in prescribed circumstances the breaking of God's laws, is to forget that Jesus said, "Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).


 
Verse 7
But if ye had known what this meaneth, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

Christ said the disciples were guiltless. Therefore, he was not attempting to justify their conduct on the basis that David had also been guilty of sabbath breaking. Christ's quotation from Hosea 6:6 (See more on this under 9:13) was a plain reference to the corruption and guilt of the Pharisees, and suggests that a proper attitude of mercy in their hearts would have rejected the criticism of this action before it was made. The real trouble was not in Christ and his disciples but in the hearts of the Pharisees.


 
Verse 8
For the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath.

This proclamation of his own authority took the whole matter out of the context of their law, and their interpretations, and their opinions, and even out of the Law of Moses. Christ had the right to set aside all of those; and, in the final analysis, his disciples needed no permission except Christ's to do whatever he permitted. This place has been cited as proof that Christians should keep the sabbath day, but the opposite is taught. The sabbath should be ignored and rejected utterly, unless Christ commanded it (which he did not); for Paul said, "He took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross" (Colossians 2:14).


 
Verses 9, 10
And he departed thence, and went into their synagogue: and behold a man having a withered hand. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? that they might accuse him.

Following so closely on the preceding, this question amounted to a continuation of the conflict regarding the sabbath day: Their question, Matthew declared, sprang not from a desire to learn, but from hope of a chance to accuse.


 
Verse 11
And he said unto them, What man shall there be of you, that shall have one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?

The obvious answer was affirmative. The Pharisees, with one accord, made an exception for "the ox in the ditch," basing their view upon Exodus 23:4,5 and Deuteronomy 22:4.


 
Verse 12
How much then is a man of more value than a sheep! Wherefore it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day.

In this, Christ continued to prove that his conduct and that of his apostles was altogether correct and lawful. He did not lay claim to any "excusable violations," but he claimed strict and wholehearted compliance with the law, the whole law. He said, "Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I came not to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). Certainly, healing was allowable on the sabbath day, or upon any other day. That principle was honored by the Pharisees, as it applied to animals; but, in their blindness, they rejected the same principle applied by Christ to a man!


 
Verse 13
Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, as the other.

Christ demonstrated the principle he had just enunciated. As Luke expressed it, it was both in "preaching and bringing" the gospel to men that Jesus surpassed all other teachers (Luke 8:1). Christ always fitted the deed to the precept and the precept to the deed.


 
Verse 14
But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how they might destroy him.

Hatred and blind rage will always try to destroy that which cannot be removed by more conventional means. Mark's mention of the Herodians in their conference shows the grounds upon which the Pharisees would attempt his legal murder; that is, by accusing him of sedition. This added to the difficulties confronting Christ in a situation where he was constrained to convince as many as possible of his Messiahship, yet without giving grounds for his legal punishment as a mere plotter against the government.


 
Verse 15
And Jesus perceiving it withdrew from thence: and many followed him; and he healed them all.

Knowing of the evil plot to kill him, Christ withdrew, as Mark added, to the Sea of Galilee (Mark 3:7). This was in keeping with Jesus' own rule (See under 10:23). Significantly, he healed them all. There were no failures.


 
Verse 16
And charged them that they should not make him known.

To have given wide publicity to his deeds at that time would have prematurely precipitated his eventual showdown with the Pharisees; and Christ was not yet ready for that. He was the Great Architect of all those events; and, although he intended to die, he intended also to accomplish his death at a time and manner fully in harmony with his own eternal purpose.


 
Verse 17
That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying.

Characteristic of Matthew are the numerous appeals to the writings of the prophets of the Old Testament. The reason for this reference is that it shows that Christ was doing exactly what it was prophesied that he would do.


 
Verse 18
Behold my servant whom I have chosen; My beloved in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my Spirit upon him, And he shall declare judgment to the Gentiles.
- Isaiah 42:1ff

The area into which Christ then entered had a heavy Gentile population. "Judgment," as used in this place, means "God's truth." The meekness and submissiveness of the Lord in that withdrawal were also in keeping with prophecy.


 
Verse 19
He shall not strive, nor cry aloud; Neither shall any one hear his voice in the streets.
- Isaiah 42:1ff

Jesus was no street-corner egotist, bawling for attention. Techniques of the rabble rouser, the sensationalist, and the soapbox orator were beneath his dignity. Barnes wrote, "The meaning is that he should not seek publicity and popularity." F3 In keeping with these words concerning Christ, some of the antics of certain religionists appear to be totally improper. On Times Square in New York City, one often sees screaming advocates of this or that doctrine jostling the throngs pouring forth out of the theaters; and, although their zeal may be commendable, one cannot help remembering that the Christ drew the throngs to himself. He did not invade them, beating on a bucket, and yelling for the attention of the passers-by.


 
Verses 20, 21
A bruised reed shall he not break, And smoking flax shall he not quench, Till he send forth judgment to victory. And in his name shall the Gentiles hope.
- Isaiah 42:1ff

The last sentence of this quotation gives the sense but not the exact words of Isaiah 42:4. The bruised reed and dimly-lighted lamp are symbols of weakness and feebleness of faith, applicable in this place, no doubt, to the general spiritual condition of the Gentiles, but also a pledge that Christ does not despise the faith of any of his children, however weak and ready to perish. Barnes saw in the bruised reed a symbol

of the soul, broken and contrite on account of sin, weeping and mourning for transgression. He will not break it. That is, he will not be severe, unforgiving, and cruel. He will heal it, pardon it, and give it strength. F4

The metaphor of the smoking flax referred to the string-like fabric, or wick, one end of which was contained in the bowl of ancient lamps, and the other end lighted. Flax was the material of which such wicks were made. "Smoking flax" indicated a lamp, nearly out of fuel, and almost ready to go out.

There is also in this place a contrast between worldly conquerors and the Pharisees, on the one hand, riding rough shod over the weak and helpless; and, on the other hand, the lowly Christ, withdrawing from popular clamor, solicitous for the bruised reed or the smoking flax. But make no mistake. Christ, not the Pharisees, was THE VICTOR. Look to the last word of the quotation from Isaiah. He will send forth judgment "to victory"! Christ will continue in the way of the meek and humble. His methods did not lead to nor tend towards defeat. Far from it. Total and final VICTORY was, and ever shall be, his.


 
Verse 22
Then was brought unto him one possessed with a demon, blind and dumb; and he healed him, insomuch that the dumb man spake and saw.

"Dumb" in this place means "mute," which was the original meaning of that word. More recent connotations, indicating feeble mental powers, are not implied. Extensive events developed from this gracious deed, the populace hailing him as the "Son of David" (a popular name for the Messiah), and the Pharisees accusing him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub.


 
Verse 23
And all the multitudes were amazed, and said, Can this be the Son of David?

The contrast in attitude between the Pharisees and the multitudes showed that Christ was getting his message over to the majority of the people in spite of the bitter opposition of the leaders. For more on "Son of David," see under Matthew 1:1.


 
Verse 24
But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This man doth not cast out demons, but by Beelzebub, the prince of the demons.

Regarding the meaning of "Beelzebub," see under Matthew 10:25. Charges of the Pharisees were not honest. They would have denied the miracles if possible; but, unable to do that, they spoke maliciously about the source of his power. "Beelzebub" was a combination of two ancient words, "Baal," the name of the old god of the Canaanites, and "zebul," meaning "dunghill." In the lore of the Pharisees, "Baal-zebul," or Beelzebub, as he came to be called, was said to be the prince of devils, or demons. How shameful it was that they linked the name of the Saviour with that false god. In spite of those vile charges having been initiated in deceit and malice on the part of their progenitors, the widening river of sin carried those slanders far from their source; and thus it is found that Celsus repeated them, with embellishments of his own, more than a century later, in 170 A.D., as did also the later Jewish Talmudists.


 
Verse 25
And knowing their thoughts he said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.

The argument in this and the following verse is simple, but profound. If Satan was really casting out Satan, a ridiculous absurdity on the face of it, then Satan's kingdom was being destroyed. Note that Jesus knew their thoughts, a knowledge that only God could have.


 
Verse 26
And if Satan casteth out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand?

Christ, in this argument, took full advantage of the fact that the Pharisees, in malice, had overreached themselves by making an argument that was fraudulent and illogical on the face of it.


 
Verse 27
And if I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges.

Christ here referred to the widespread practice of some of the disciples (sons) of the Pharisees of casting out demons, or pretending to do so, which practice the Pharisees openly accepted, and upon which they based claims of divine approval of both themselves and their doctrines. Josephus described such a case thus:

I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazer, releasing people that were demoniacal, in the presence of Vespasian and his sons and captains. He put a ring to the nostrils of the domoniac, and drew the demon out through his nostrils, making mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. F5

Christ's argument was: You Pharisees accept so-called exorcisms by your disciples, in spite of all the "mumbo jumbo" and evident witchcraft connected with them, but you reject my miracles which are accomplished with only a word of authority. If the miracles of your disciples are acceptable, surely mine, the Christ's, should also be acceptable. Of course, Christ did not endorse the exorcisms of the Pharisees' disciples any more than he endorsed the Pharisees.


 
Verse 28
But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you.

In this, Christ turned their own arguments against them. His works, accomplished by God's power, were proof enough that the kingdom of God was at hand. "Come upon you" does not mean that the kingdom had been set up at that point, but that the King had certainly appeared, and that its establishment was near.


 
Verse 29
Or how can one enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house.

In some real sense, Satan was "bound," else the Lord could not have cast out demons. Satan is still "bound." All the evil on earth seems, at first, to negate this view; but, when it is considered that things might be infinitely worse than they are, and when certain passages of the word of God are taken into consideration, it appears certain that Satan is limited and restrained by divinely imposed boundaries encompassing all infernal activity: (1) Satan cannot tempt a child of God more than is possible to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). (2) He could not enter even a herd of swine without our Lord's permission (Matthew 8:32). (3) God's specific permission was necessary in the satanic harassment of the patriarch Job (Job 1:12). (4) Satan sifted Peter only after the Lord allowed it (Luke 22:31). (5) Satan and his angels are reserved "in chains of darkness" until the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:4). (6) He sowed tares in the wheat, but could do so only "while men slept" (Matthew 13:25). (7) He snatches the word of God from men's hearts, but he can do so only when hearts are hardened (Matthew 13:4). From these and countless other implications in the Scriptures, it may be positively concluded that Satan does not share control of the universe with God. Whatever Satan may do, it is always under God's permissive will; and all that he does will finally serve the eternal purpose.


 
Verse 30
He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.

Of this, Boles wrote:

In the great conflict between life and darkness, good and evil, the kingdom of God and of Satan, there is no middle ground; there is no neutral position; there is no third power to which these miracles may be attributed. These Pharisees were obliged either to join Christ or to be against him. They had to become allies of God or co-workers with Satan; there was no other alternative. F6

Also, since their disciples were doing the same thing, or professing to do so, their judgment of Christ was automatically a judgment of themselves.


 
Verse 31
Therefore, I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.

There is an unpardonable transgression, and here is an example of it, "blasphemy against the Spirit." Boles' comments that the passage speaks not of "a sin against," F7 but of "blasphemy against" the Spirit does not exclude a class of sins which are unforgivable and known collectively as "the sin" against the Holy Spirit. From the gospel of Mark comes, "Whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of AN ETERNAL SIN; because they said, He hath an unclean spirit" (Mark 3:29,30). Significantly, Mark spoke not of "the" but "an" eternal sin, showing that the transgression under consideration in this place is one of a class of sins designated as "eternal."

We shall note the whole class of eternal sins first and then consider the example of it, committed by the Pharisees.

The word of God teaches:

  1. "There is a sin unto death; not concerning this do I say that he should make request" (1 John 5:16). Note that John spoke not of sin "until," but "unto" death. Such a sin is, therefore, not UNTIL physical death, but it is UNTO spiritual death.

  2. "For, as touching those who were once enlightened, and tasted the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then fall away, it is impossible to renew them" (Hebrews 6:4-6).

  3. "She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth" (1 Timothy 5:6; 5:6 ).

  4. And regarding certain violations of the Lord's table, Paul declared, "For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and some sleep" (1 Corinthians 11:30). "Sleep" in this place is a euphemistic expression for death.

  5. That the Holy Spirit in one's heart can be "quenched" is evident from the admonition, "Quench not the Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

  6. Concerning apostates, "The last state is become worse with them than the first" (2 Peter 2:20,21), indicating a condition worse than being lost, and which is fulfilled only by being lost without possibility of recovery. Now of this general condition, variously described as death while one lives, a sin unto death, the quenching of the Spirit, worse than being an alien sinner, and impossible to renew, and for which there is no need to pray - all such sins qualify for Mark's description, "an eternal sin."

What, then, is THE sin that does all this? It may be any sin, hence the deadly and dangerous nature of all sin. In the physical world, what is THE fatal disease? It is the one the doctor writes on the death certificate, and may be any one of a countless number of maladies. The analogy holds in the spiritual realm; and the eternal sin is the one that destroys the soul of the sinner. That such may occur even while physical life is extended appears certain from all of the references noted above.

Now, with reference to blasphemy against the Spirit, Christ named it as "an eternal sin," making it unforgivable. It was not the only sin that could have destroyed the Pharisees, but it is the one that did. The peculiar aggravation of their wickedness springs from their reviling Christ although they knew him to be righteous. Contrary to what they KNEW, they said he had an unclean spirit. They put falsehood for truth, darkness for light, evil for righteousness, and shut their eyes and hearts against the Lord. Their blasphemy was of a kind that blotted out the hope of heaven; and there can be little doubt that the same type of blind, senseless opposition to the Lord today would have the very same consequences.

Acknowledgment of the influence of the highly-esteemed Grover Cleveland Brewer in the understanding of this difficult question, is hereby registered. His convincing sermons on this subject are reflected in the above comments.

Seven different sins against the Holy Spirit may be noted in these references: (1) lusting against (Galatians 5:16);(2) resisting (Acts 7:51), (3) grieving (Ephesians 4:30); (4) lying to (Acts 5:3); (5) insulting (Hebrews 10:24); (6) blaspheming against (Mark 3:29); and (7) quenching (1 Thessalonians 5:19). It might be assumed that Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:3) committed an eternal sin, but it is not so stated in the word of God. It is implicit, however, in the very nature of all sin that ANY SIN, persisted in, can result in quenching the sacred fire within the soul and issue at last in eternal death.


 
Verse 32
And whosoever shall speak 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 world, nor in that which is to come.

Many did speak against Christ, but when the Spirit of God came of Pentecost, they obeyed the gospel message and were saved. Those who spoke against the Spirit, rejecting the gospel which he delivered through the apostles, were not saved. No other means of redemption was given. Those who rejected the Spirit received no forgiveness then, or ever. One should avoid reading into this passage any hope that some sins will be forgiven in the world to come which remain unforgiven now. We agree with Boles. "No sin, unforgiven here, or in this world, will be pardoned or forgiven hereafter." F8


 
Verse 33
Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by its fruit.

Dummelow's paraphrase on this passage brings the meaning into sharp focus:

Pharisees, be logical. You say that to cast out devils is good, but that I who do it am corrupt. That is as if you said, The fruit of this tree is good, but the tree itself is corrupt. Make up your minds which way you will have it. Either say that my works are good, and therefore that I am good also, or else that my works are corrupt, and that therefore I am corrupt also. You cannot separate a tree from its fruit, for a tree is known by its fruit. Nor can you separate a man from his works, for he is known by them. F9


 
Verse 34
Ye offspring of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.

In this, Christ applied to them the principle expounded in the preceding verse. The evil works of the Pharisees proceeded from inner corruption. Their hearts were not right in the sight of God. People should keep the heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23). As Adams expressed it, "When the citadel of the heart is won, the turret of the understanding will not long hold out." F10


 
Verse 35
The good man out of his good treasure bringeth forth good things: and the evil man out of his evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.

This is an elaboration of what Christ had already said. Such full attention to the Pharisees' slanders endows the entire event with tremendous significance; and, when it is recalled that their sin consisted principally of "speaking against" Christ, the implication is mandatory that an evil mouth can damn the soul forever. Evil and unbelieving words are not merely evil within themselves, but are like the escaping bubble to the surface of the lake, that betrays the rotten carcass beneath. Evil words proceed out of evil hearts.


 
Verse 36
And I say unto you that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment.

This is a strong admonition to guard what is spoken. "Idle" words are not necessarily those casual and insignificant sayings indulged in the course of social fellowship, nor such words as may be calculated to bring a smile to care-worn faces, but rather, they are the words that betray a bias of the soul against God and expose the evil heart of the sinner.

Again, Christ referred to "the day" of judgment. See on Matt. 12:41, below.


 
Verse 37
For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.

Speech is one of the greatest endowments of humanity; and the greater the gift, the greater the sin of perverting it to unworthy purposes. It would be impossible to sum up all the sins of mankind in the area of sinful speech. It must appear even to casual thought of it that words, as used by millions, constitute the bulk of human shame and wickedness. James said, "If any stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also" (James 3:2). Beyond everything else, man should watch what he says. One's words can justify when they confess Christ, or teach the truth, or serve to make peace, bestow a blessing, or give encouragement; but on the other hand, when words condemn, cast a reflection, subvert the truth, utter profanity, vulgarity, hatred, or malice, or any one of a million other evil things - then such words bring the condemnation of those who speak them.


 
Verse 38
Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, Teacher, we would see a sign from thee.

This arrogant request came from a group who had already accused Jesus of being in league with the devil and who had already seen signs aplenty; but in this case, they were demanding a sign of their own choosing. Luke stated that they sought a "sign from heaven" (Luke 11:16). By that, they no doubt meant some spectacular wonder without moral value but which would appeal sensationally to a man's curiosity. Christ always rejected that type of sign, as, for example, when he refused to jump from the pinnacle of the temple (Matthew 4:6). In fact, there is more than a suggestion that the Pharisees' request for a sign was but a renewal of Satan's temptation of the Lord in the wilderness. Christ always refused to perform wonders for his enemies like Herod or the Pharisees. He did work miracles for the benefit of John's disciples (Luke 7:18-22), and raised Lazarus that the people might believe (John 11:42). For more on "a sign from heaven," see under Matthew 16:1.


 
Verse 39
But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.

The "adulterous generation" refers not merely to the morals of the people but to the rejection of Israel's covenant with their God. Barnes wrote:

The relation of the Jews to God was represented as a marriage contract with God as the husband and the Jewish people as his wife (Isa. 57:3; Hosea 3:1; Ezek. 16:15). Hence, their apostasy and idolatry are often represented as adultery. F11

The "sign of the prophet Jonah" refers to the resurrection of Christ, the greatest and most wonderful miracle of all time. Jesus' announcement of this "sign" at that time was actually a prophecy of his death, burial and resurrection. The Old Testament had plainly indicated the Messiah would rise from the dead (Psalms 16:10); but, in keeping with his usual methods, Christ again laid claim to Messiahship, but in such terminology, and in such analogies, that his enemies would not see it, or if they did, would be unable to prove what he meant!


 
Verse 40
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

The use of "whale" in this verse is in error; the Greek word is "sea-monster," as a glance at the English Revised Version (1885) margin will show; not that there is any essential difference, for the Bible states that "God prepared" a great fish (Jonah 1:17). In the book of Jonah is related also how God "prepared" a gourd (Jonah 4:6), a worm (Jonah 4:7), and a sultry east wind (Jonah 4:8)! Why it should be considered for God a more difficult matter to prepare a great fish than any of those other "preparations" is surely a mystery!

Regarding the truth of the Jonah narrative, it appears absolutely incredible that Christ, one of the Godhead, would have made a mere folk tale the principal prophecy and sign of his resurrection from the dead. We here register a protest against those expositors who are so wise above their Saviour in casting a reflection of doubt upon this astounding incident from the Old Testament. From Jesus' reference to it here, it appears that the experience of Jonah was an authentic event which God "prepared" to be a prophecy of a still greater one, the resurrection of Christ.

The question of "three days and three nights," as signifying the time of our Lord's remaining in the tomb, is one of the most widely discussed issues in the New Testament. An overwhelming number of scholars hold the conviction that the expression is a Hebrew idiom referring to any part of three days and nights which included an entire day, the two nights on either side of it, and portions of the other two days. The present custom of accepting a month to be 28, 30, or 31 days is held to be similar to the Hebrew custom of so loosely determining "three days and three nights." The traditional view that Christ was crucified on Friday and raised on Sunday draws its principal support from Matthew's word that Christ should be raised "the third day" (Matthew 16:21). This view asserts that if he was crucified on Thursday, and raised on Sunday, then he would have been raised on the fourth day.

In spite of the fact that a good case can be made out for the above explanation, some very respected students of God's word take another view. Torrey said, "There is absolutely nothing in favor of Friday crucifixion, but everything in Scripture is perfectly harmonized by Wednesday crucifixion." F12 Torrey's argument is the following: (1) Christ was crucified the day before the sabbath (Mark 15:42). (2) This does not necessarily mean the day before the ordinary sabbath, because the Jews always honored the day before the Passover (15th of Nisan) as a special "high" sabbath, no matter what day of the week it fell upon (Exodus 12:6; Leviticus 23:7; Numbers 28:16-18). (3) The truly important question is, therefore, whether "day before the sabbath" refers to an ordinary Saturday, or the special "high" sabbath related to the Passover, and occurring on any day of the week, depending where the 15th of Nisan fell. (4) John's gospel plainly says it was "the preparation of the Passover" (John 19:14), and that it was "an high day" (John 19:31). These Scriptures plainly show that the ordinary sabbath was not meant. (5) Thus, Christ was crucified on the day before the "high day," or first day of Passover. Since the Passover (15th of Nisan) in the year 30 A.D. fell on Thursday, the "day before" would make it Wednesday on which Christ was crucified. (6) Scriptures supporting this view are: Christ said he would rise "after three days" (Mark 8:31). "After three days" he would rise again (Mark 9:31; 10:34). "This is now the third day since these things were done" (Luke 24:31). Whatever one thinks of Torrey's argument, it must be admitted that it is supported by more Scriptures than the traditional view.

Warning: devout souls will not be troubled by this question; for, if it had been necessary to know the day of the week, the Lord would have revealed it. Furthermore, to resolve this question finally and dogmatically, it would be positively necessary to know the exact year of our Lord's passion; and THAT is not certainly known. Not even the exact year of his birth can be determined. It can never be known what day of the week was the 15th of Nisan until the overriding question of WHAT YEAR is fixed. This, of course, is the weakness of Torrey's position. He takes the year 30 A.D. as the base of his calculations.

The heart of the earth
is a figurative expression for the grave which is also called "the lower parts of the earth" (Psalms 63:9; Ephesians 4:9).


 
Verse 41
The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.

Of surpassing interest in this passage is Christ's reference to "the judgment." Some fancy they see seven judgments in the word of God; but Christ continually spoke of only ONE. As already noted repeatedly in this commentary, THE JUDGMENT was a constant theme of Christ's teaching. Christ's view of the judgment envisioned a day of wrath and glow toward which all the world is moving, a day on which God shall rise in righteous anger and cast evil out of his universe. Christ's word on this subject makes it impossible to hold "our age" as the judgment; for "it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Nor is the day of death to be viewed as the day of judgment. THAT comes after death. The verses before us show that the judgment is a simultaneous judgment of all nations and conditions of men, regardless of the ages in which they lived. The Queen of the South, the men of Nineveh, and the people of Christ's generation are spoken of as all appearing simultaneously for judgment, though, of course, their lives were separated by many centuries in time. Paul referred to that occasion as "that day" (2 Timothy 4:8). Thus, it may be logically concluded that "the judgment" of Scripture is a specific occasion, a cataclysmic day, upon which every man ever born on earth shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the deeds done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10).

How commendable was the repentance of the men of Nineveh! They repented without any command to repent, without any promise of relief if they did repent, with no invitation to repent, without even a small desire on the part of the preacher that they would repent (but, on the contrary, a fervent hope that they would not), and without any appreciation on Jonah's part when they did repent! A preacher will know how to elaborate this!

Christ's being greater than Jonah is seen in the contrast between the messages, one secular, the other spiritual; between the messengers, one true, the other untrue; and between the miracles that certified each, one disgorged by a sea-monster, the other raised from the dead. See also Matt. 8:25.


 
Verse 42
The 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, a greater than Solomon is here.

The superior faith of the Queen of the South is seen in that she came upon a paucity of evidence, responding to rumor, or hearsay.

The ends of the earth
, according to Barnes, referred to "the most distant parts of the habitable world then known." F13 Christ as "greater than Solomon" was expounded by James H. Childress as follows: (1) Christ was greater in his birth, (2) his wisdom, (3) his temple, (4) his throne, (5) his prayers, (6) in his mansions, and (7) in the sacrifice Christ offered. As one example, Solomon offered at the dedication of the temple "twenty-two thousand oxen, and a hundred twenty thousand sheep" (2 Chronicles 7:5). Christ offered his own blood within the holiest place of all for the sins of all men (Hebrews 9:14).


 
Verse 43
But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passeth through waterless places seeking rest, and findeth it not.

This parable of a wandering demon applies to the Jewish nation, which is "the man." The "going out" represents the spiritual rebirth of Israel under the preaching of John the Baptist. The "swept and garnished" period (in next verse) referred to the lack of any meaningful change in the character of the people, and the relatively innocuous neglect of Christ during the early part of his ministry. The restlessness of the demon showed the anxious and unrelenting hostility of the forces of evil and their determination against Christ.

Waterless places
were supposed to be attractive to demons, who were thought to take advantage of people who borrowed water, and were said to take up residence in crumbs, or fragments of food. Christ flaunted all those popular notions by borrowing water from the woman at the well of Samaria (John 4), by commanding the disciples to gather up the fragments after the feeding of the five thousand, and the four thousand, and by himself frequenting desert places. Although the primary application of the "swept and garnished" condition must be to Israel's lack of the fruits of repentance, it is also proper for the Christian teacher to base a warning to all Christians upon these words. No house can remain long empty, unused, swept, garnished, or idle. Alas, such is a true description of the spiritual condition of many. They are "good," but "good for nothing." Their righteousness consists of emptiness, superficial decoration, and negative goodness. However, the life that is not constantly improved and dedicated, and pressed, and worn out in service to God, will finally revert to a condition worse than at the first. The evil spirit cast out of a man is ever lurking and seeking an opportunity to return with seven companions worse than himself, and to take over and plunge the soul in greater wickedness than ever. That is exactly what happened to Israel.


 
Verse 44
Then he saith, I will return into my house whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.

See comment on preceding verse. The failure of Israel to carry forward the good impulses initiated by the preaching of John and the early popularity of Christ and his teachings became the occasion for a far more terrible thing than mere neglect and casual indifference. In the diabolical intentions of the wicked leaders, coupled with the relative "emptiness" of the people regarding any genuine righteousness, Christ clearly saw that the Pharisees would be able to deceive and command them all in a catastrophic rejection of himself as the Christ. That is why the warning came at that moment, when the evil heart and purpose of the Pharisees had become so evident to Christ.


 
Verse 45
Then goeth he and taketh with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man becometh worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this evil generation.

These words were doubtless spoken in sorrow. They were a firm, dogmatic prophecy of Israel's rejection of Christ, reminding one of 2 Peter 2:20. What state is worse than being unsaved? It is the apostasy from which it is impossible to be renewed (Hebrews 6:4-6).


 
Verse 46
While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak with him.

If the mother of Jesus in this passage was his literal mother, then there is no reason to suppose that his brothers were not his literal brothers. Medieval theology has warped the views of expositors on such Scriptures as this and others like it. See more on this subject under Matthew 13:55. What they desired to discuss is not known.


 
Verse 47
And one said unto him, Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking to speak to thee.

Whoever delivered that message apparently expected Jesus to drop everything and honor the intrusion. He did no such thing. He plainly declared that the ties of flesh and blood would not take precedence over the spiritual ties of the kingdom itself. At least, this would appear to be a logical inference from what Christ said and did.


 
Verses 48, 49
But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand towards his disciples, and said, Behold, my mother and my brethren!

Probably due to his foresight of the gross idolatry that would flourish around the name of his mother, Christ was careful to guard against it. More on this will be found under Matthew 13:55. Mary was never set forth as a female deity by Christ. If she had been, in any sense, the "Mother of God," Christ's treatment of her on this occasion was improper. Although there is no hint that they were aware of it, Mary and his brothers were interfering with his work; and Christ refused to see them, at least until the business at hand was completed.


 
Verse 50
For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.

Relationship to Christ does not depend on fleshly kinship but on obedience to God's will. As John's gospel has it, "As many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12,13).


Footnotes for Matthew 12
1: J. R. Dummelow, One Volume Commentary (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 666.
2: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew (Delight, Arkansas: The Gospel Light Publishing Company), p. 104.
3: Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1954), p. 129.
4: Ibid., p. 129.
5: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 668.
6: H. Leo Boles, Commentary on Matthew (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1961), p. 268.
7: Ibid., p. 269.
8: Ibid., p. 270.
9: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 669.
10: R. A. Bertram, A Homiletic Encyclopedia (New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, thirteenth edition), Item 2690, p. 458.
11: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 134,
12: R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), p. 109.
13: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 135.
14: Revised Standard Version.
15: Emphatic Diaglott.
16: Goodspeed, New Testament in Modern Speech.
17: Williams, The New Testament.
18: Moffatt, The New Testament.
19: Paul Blanchard, American Freedom and Catholic Power (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press), pp. 138-139.
20: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 16.
21: Ibid., p. 16.
22: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons, Volume 5 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company), p. 20.
23: Robert Milligan, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: World Vision Publishing Company), pp. 73-74.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=mt&chapter=012>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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