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Barnes' Notes on the New Testament

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Verses 1-8. The account contained in these verses is also recorded in Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5.

Verse 1. At that time. Luke 6:1 fixes the time more particularly. He says that it was the second Sabbath after the first. To understand this, it is proper to remark, that the Passover was observed during the month Abib, or Nisan, answering to the latter part of March, and the first of April. The feast was held seven days, commencing on the fourteenth day of the month, Exodus 12:1-28; 23:15 on the second day of the paschal week. The law required that a sheaf of barley should be offered up, as the first fruits of the harvest, Leviticus 23:10,11. From this day was reckoned seven weeks to the feast of Pentecost, Leviticus 23:15,16 called also the feast of weeks, Deuteronomy 16:10 and the feast of the harvest, Exodus 23:16. This second day in the feast of the passover, or of unleavened bread, was the beginning, therefore, from which they reckoned towards the pentecost. The sabbath in the week following would be the second sabbath after this first one in the reckoning; and this was doubtless the time mentioned when Christ went through the fields. It should be further mentioned that, in Judea, the barley harvest commences about the beginning of May, and both that and the wheat harvest are over by the twentieth. Barley is in full ear in the beginning of April. There is no improbability, therefore, in this narrative on account of the season of the year. This feast was always held at Jerusalem.

Through the corn. Through the barley, or wheat. The word corn, as used in our translation of the Bible, has no reference to maize, or Indian corn, as it has with us. Indian corn was unknown till the discovery of America, and it is scarcely probable that the translators knew anything of it. The word was applied, as it is still in England, to wheat, rye, oats, and barley. This explains the circumstance that they rubbed it in their hands Luke 6:1 to separate the grain from the chaff.

{h} "At that time" Mark 2:25; Luke 6:1
{i} "???" Deuteronomy 23:25

Verse 2. Upon the sabbath day. The Pharisees, doubtless desirous of finding fault with Christ, said that, in plucking the grain on the sabbath day, they had violated the commandment. Moses had commanded the Hebrews to abstain from all servile work on the sabbath, Exodus 20:10; 35:2,3; Numbers 15:32-36. On any other day this would have been clearly lawful, for it was permitted, Deuteronomy 23:25.

{k} "not lawful" Exodus 31:15

Verse 3. But he said unto them, etc. To vindicate his disciples, he referred them to a similar case, recorded in the Old Testament, and therefore one with which they ought to have been acquainted. This was the case of David. The law commanded that twelve loaves of bread should be laid on the table in the holy place in the tabernacle, to remain a week, and then to be eaten by the priests only. Their place was supplied then by fresh bread. This was called the shew-bread, Leviticus 24:5-9. David, fleeing before Saul, weary and hungry, had come to Ahimelech the priest; had found only this bread; had asked it of him, and had eaten it, contrary to the letter of the law, 1 Samuel 21:1-7. David, among the Jews, had high authority. This act had passed uncondemned. It proved that in cases of necessity the laws did not bind a man: a principle which all laws admit. So the necessity of the disciples justified them in doing on the sabbath what would have been otherwise unlawful.

{l} "David did" 1 Samuel 21:6

Verses 4,5. House of God. That was, the tabernacle; the temple not being then built.

In the law. In the law of Moses.

Profane the sabbath. He referred them to the conduct of the priests also. On the sabbath days they were engaged, as well as on other days, in killing beasts for sacrifice, Numbers 28:9,10. Two lambs were killed on the sabbath, in addition to the daily sacrifice. The priests must be engaged in slaying them, and making fires to burn them in sacrifice; whereas to kindle a fire was expressly forbidden the Jews on the sabbath, (Exodus 35:3) they were obliged to skin them, prepare them for sacrifice, and burn them, They did that which, for other persons to do, would have been profaning the sabbath. Yet they were blameless. They did what was necessary and commanded. This was done in the very temple, too, the place of holiness, where the law should be most strictly observed.

{m} "shewbread" Exodus 25:30
{n} "only for priests" Exodus 29:32,33

Verse 5. No Barnes text on this verse. See Barnes "Matthew 12:4"

{o} "in the law" Numbers 28:9
{p} "in the temple" John 7:22,23

Verse 6. One greater than the temple. Here he refers to himself, and to his own dignity and power. "I have power over the laws: I can grant to my disciples a dispensation from the Jewish laws. An act which I command or permit them to do, is therefore right." This proves that he was Divine. None but God can authorize men to do a thing contrary to the Divine laws. He refers them again to a passage he had before quoted, See Barnes "Matthew 9:13" showing that God preferred acts of righteousness, rather than a precise observance of a ceremonial law.

Mark adds, Mark 2:27 "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." That is, the Sabbath was intended for the welfare of man; designed to promote his happiness; and not to produce misery, by harsh, unfeeling requirements. It is not to be so Interpreted as to produce suffering, by making the necessary supply of wants unlawful. Man was not made for the Sabbath. Man was created first, and then the Sabbath was appointed for his happiness, Genesis 2:1-3. His necessities, his real comforts and wants, are not to bend to that which was made for him. The laws are to be interpreted favourably to his real wants and comforts. This authorizes works only of real necessity, not of imaginary wants, or amusement, or common business, and worldly employments.

To crown all, Christ says that he was Lord of the Sabbath. He had a right to direct the manner of its observance--undoubted proof that he is Divine.

{q} "greater than" 2 Chronicles 6:18; Malachi 3:1; Matthew 23:17-21

Verse 7. No Barnes text on this verse.

{r} "what this means" Hosea 6:6

Verse 8. No Barnes text on this verse.

Verses 9-13. The account contained in these verses is recorded also in Mark 3:1-5; Luke 6:6-10.

{s} "And when he was" Mark 3:1; Luke 6:6

Verse 10. A man which had his hand withered. This was probably one form of the palsy. See Barnes "Matthew 4:24".

Mark and Luke have mentioned some circumstances omitted by Matthew. They say that Jesus addressed the man, and told him to stand forth in the midst. He then addressed the people. He asked them if it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath day? This was admitted by all their teachers, and it could not be denied. They were therefore silent. He then appealed to them, and drew an argument from their own conduct. A man that had a sheep that should fall into a pit on the Sabbath day would exercise the common offices of humanity, and draw it out. If a man would save the life of a sheep, was it not proper to save the life of a man ? By a reference to their own conduct, he silenced them.

Mark adds, that he looked on them with anger; that is, with strong disapprobation of their conduct. Their envy and malignity excited feelings of holy indignation. See Barnes "Mark 3:5".

{t} "Is it lawful" Luke 14:3

Verse 11. No Barnes text on this verse.

{u} "and if it fall" Deuteronomy 22:4

Verse 12. A man better than a sheep. Of more consequence, or value. If you would show an act of kindness to a brute beast on the Sabbath, how much more important is it to evince similar kindness to one made in the image of God! one for whom the Saviour came to die, and who may be raised up to everlasting life.

It is lawful to do well. This was universally allowed by the Jews in the abstract; and Jesus only showed them that the principle on which they acted in other things applied with more force to the case before him, and that the act which he was about to perform was, by their own confession, lawful.

Verse 13. And he said, Stretch forth thine hand. This was a remarkable commandment. The man might have said that he had no strength; that it was a thing which he could not do. Yet, being commanded, it was his duty to obey. He did so, and was healed. So the sinner; it is his duty to obey whatever God commands. He will give strength to those who attempt to do his will. It is not right to plead, when God commands us to do a thing, that we have no strength. God will give us strength, if there is a disposition to obey. At the same time, however, this passage should not be applied to the sinner, as if it proved that he has no more strength or ability than the man who had the withered hand. It proves no such thing. It has no reference to any such case. And it should not be used as if it proved any such thing. It may be used to prove that man should instantly obey the commands of God, without pausing to examine the question about his ability, and especially without saying that he can do nothing. What would the Saviour have said to this man, if he had objected that he could not stretch out his hand?

It was restored whole, Christ had before claimed Divine authority and power, Matthew 13:6-9. He now showed that he possessed it. By his own power he healed him; thus evincing, by a miracle, that his claim of being Lord of the Sabbath was well founded.

These two cases determine what may be done on the Sabbath. The one was a case of necessity; the other of mercy. The example of the Saviour, and his explanations, show that these are a part of the proper duties of that holy day. Beyond an honest and conscientious discharge of these two duties, men may not devote the Sabbath to any secular purpose. If they do, they do it at their peril. They go beyond what his authority authorizes them to do. They do what he claimed the special right of doing, as being Lord of the Sabbath. They usurp his place; and act and legislate where God only has a right to act and legislate. Men may as well trample down any other law of the Bible, as that respecting the Sabbath.

Verses 14-21. This account is found also in Mark 3:6-12.

Verse 14. The Pharisees--held a council, etc. Mark adds, that the Herodians also took a part in this plot. They were probably a political party, attached firmly to Herod. See Barnes "Matthew 3:7". The friends of Herod were opposed to Christ, and ever ready to join any plot against his life. They remembered, doubtless, the attempts of Herod the Great against him when he was the Babe of Bethlehem; and they were stung with the memory of the escape of Jesus from his bloody hands. The attempt against him now was the effect of envy. They were enraged also that he had foiled them in the argument; they hated his popularity; they were losing their influence; and they, therefore, resolved to take him out of the way.

{1} "council" or, "took counsel"

Verse 15. Jesus--withdrew himself, etc. He knew the design against his life. He knew that his hour was not yet come; and he therefore sought security. By remaining, his presence would only have provoked them farther, and endangered his own life. He acted, therefore, the part of Christian prudence, and withdrew. See Barnes "Matthew 10:23".

Mark adds, that he withdrew to the sea; that is, to the sea of Galilee, or Tiberius. He names, also, the places from which the multitude came; an important circumstance, as it throws light on the passage quoted by Matthew, Matthew 13:21 "In his name shalt the Gentiles trust."

Pressed by the crowd, Mark 3:9 he went aboard a small vessel, or boat, called by Mark a ship. This he did for the convenience of being separated from them, and more easily addressing them. We are to suppose the lake still and calm; the multitudes, most of whom were sick and diseased, standing on the shore, and pressing to the water's edge; and Jesus thus healing their diseases, and preaching to them the good news of salvation. No scene could be more sub- lime than this.

Verse 16. And he charged them, etc. He was, at this time, desirous of concealment. He wished to avoid their plots, and to save his life.

Verse 17. That it might be fulfilled, etc. Matthew here quotes a passage from Isaiah 43:1-4, to show the reason why he thus retired from his enemies, and sought concealment. The Jews, and the disciples also, at first, expected that the Messiah would be a conqueror, and vindicate himself from all his enemies. When they saw him retiring before them, and instead of subduing them by force, seeking a place of concealment, it was contrary to all their previous notions of the Messiah. Matthew, by this quotation, shows that their conceptions of him had been wrong. Instead of a warrior and an earthly conqueror, he was predicted under a totally different character. Instead of shouting for battle, lifting up his voice in the streets, oppressing the feeble-- breaking bruised reeds, and quenching smoking flax, as a conqueror--he would be peaceful, retiring, and strengthening the feeble, and cherishing the faintest desires of holiness. This appears to be the general meaning of this quotation here. Comp. See Barnes "Isaiah 42:1" and following.

{v} "saying" Isaiah 42:1

Verse 18. My servant. That is, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, called a servant, from his taking the form of a servant, or his being born in a humble condition, Philippians 2:7 and from his obeying or serving God. See Hebrews 10:9.

Shall shew judgment to the Gentiles. The word judgment means, in the Hebrew, law, commands, etc., Psalms 19:9; 119:29,30. It means the whole system of truth; the law of God in general; the purpose, plan, or judgment of God, about human duty and conduct. Here it means evidently the system of gospel truth, the Christian scheme.

Gentiles. All who were not Jews. This prophecy was fulfilled by the multitudes coming to him from Idumea and beyond Jordan, and Tyre and Sidon, as recorded by Mark 3:7,8.

Verse 19. He shall not strive, etc. He shall not shout, as a warrior. He shall be meek, and retiring, and peaceful. Streets were places of concourse. The meaning is, that he should not seek publicity and popularity.

Verse 20. A bruised reed, etc. The reed is an emblem of feebleness, as well as change, Matthew 11:7. A bruised, broken reed, is an emblem of the poor and oppressed. It means that he would not oppress the feeble and poor, as victorious warriors and conquerors did. It is also an expressive emblem 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 haughty, unforgiving, and cruel. He will heal it, pardon it, and give it strength.

Smoking flax. This refers to the wick of a lamp when the oil is exhausted--the dying, flickering flame and smoke that hang over it. It is an emblem, also, of feebleness and infirmity. He would not farther oppress it, and extinguish it. He would not be like the Jews, proud and overbearing, and trampling down the poor. It is expressive, also, of the languishing graces of the people of God. He will not treat them harshly or unkindly, but will cherish the feeble flame, minister the oil of grace, and kindle it into a blaze.

Till he send forth judgment unto victory. Judgment here means truth --the truth of God, the gospel. It shall be victorious. It shall not be vanquished. Though not such a conqueror as the Jews expected, ye he shall conquer. Though mild and retiring, yet his scheme shall be victorious.

Verse 21. And in his name, etc. The Hebrew in Isaiah is, "And the isles shall wait for his law." The idea is, however, the same. The isles denote the Gentiles, or a part of the Gentiles--those out of Judea. The meaning is, that the gospel should be preached to the Gentiles, and that they should receive it. See Barnes "Isaiah 41:1", for an explanation of the word islands, as it is used in the Bible.

Verses 22-30. One possessed with a devil. See Barnes "Matthew 4:24". The same account, substantially, is found in Mark 3:22-27 Luke 11:14-26.

{w} "Then was brought" Mark 3:11; Luke 11:14

Verse 23. Is not this the Son of David? That is, is not this the promised descendant of David, the Messiah? They were acquainted with the prophecy in Isaiah 35:5, "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped;" and they inferred that he must be the promised Messiah Who should be able to do this. This inference was drawn by the common people, and not by the proud and haughty Pharisees. It is not uncommon that men of plain common sense, though unlearned, see the true beauty and meaning of the Bible, while those who are filled with pride and science, falsely so called, are blinded.

Verse 24. But when the Pharisees heard it, etc. It was necessary for the Pharisees, who had determined to reject Jesus of Nazareth, to account in some way for the miracles he had wrought. Here was a manifest miracle, an exertion of power unquestionably superior to what men could do. The common people were fast drawing the proper inferences from it, and coming into the belief that this was the Messiah. The authority and power of the Pharisees were declining, and about to become extinct. Unless, therefore, some way should be devised of accounting for these facts, their influence would be at an end. Whatever way of accounting for them was adopted, it was necessary that they should acknowledge that there was superhuman power. The people were fully persuaded of this; and no man could deny it. They therefore ascribed it to the Prince of the devils --to Beelzebub. In this they had two objects:

1st. To concede to the people that here was a miracle, or a work above mere human power.

2nd. To throw all possible contempt on Jesus. Beelzebub was an opprobrious name, given to the worst and vilest even of the devils. See Matthew 10:25. It denoted the god of flies, or the god of filth; and hence the god of idolatry, as being, in their view, filth and abomination.

{1} "Beelzebub" "Beelzebul"

Verse 25. 25. And Jesus knew their thoughts, etc. To know the thoughts of the heart belongs only to God, Psalms 139:2; Jeremiah 17:10.

Every kingdom, etc. Their subtle and cunning device was completely foiled, and Jesus made their argument recoil on their own heads. A kingdom, or a family, can prosper only by living in harmony. The different parts and members must unite in promoting the same objects. If divided--if one part undoes what the other does--it must fall. So with the kingdom of Satan. It is your doctrine that Satan has possessed these whom I have cured. It is, also, your doctrine that he has helped me to cure them. If so, then he has helped me to undo what he had done. He has aided me to cast himself out--that is, to oppose and discomfit himself. At this rate, how can there be any stability in his kingdom? It must fall; and Satan must have less than human prudence.

{x} "thoughts" Psalms 139:2; John 2:24,25

Verse 26. No Barnes text on this verse.

Verse 27. By whom do your children, etc. Christ was not satisfied by showing them the intrinsic absurdity of their argument. He showed them that it might as well be applied to them as to him. Your disciples, taught by you, and encouraged by you, pretend to cast out devils. If your argument be true that a man who casts out devils must be in league with the devil, then your disciples have made a covenant with him also. You must therefore either give up this argument, or admit that the working of miracles is proof of the assistance of God.

The words of Christ, here, do not prove that they had actually the power of casting out devils, but only that they claimed it, and practised magic or jugglery. See Acts 19:13.

Your children. Your disciples, or followers. See Barnes "Matthew 1:1".

They shall be your judges. They shall condemn you and your argument. They are conclusive witnesses against the force of your reasoning.

{y} "Beelzebub" Matthew 13:24

Verse 28. But if I--by the Spirit of God, etc. The Spirit of God, here, means the power of God--in Luke, by the finger of God. Compare Exodus 8:19; Psalms 8:3. If this work is not by the aid of Satan, then it is by the aid of God. Then his kingdom, or reign, is come, Matthew 3:2. The reign of Satan over men, and the reign of God, are in opposition. If God expels Satan from his dominion over men, then his reign has come.

{z} "kingdom of God" Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:33; Luke 11:20; 17:21; Romans 14:17

Verse 29. Or else, etc. He takes a new illustration to confute the Pharisees, drawn from breaking into a house. A man could not break into the house of a strong man, and take his property, unless he had rendered the man himself helpless. If he had taken his goods, it would therefore be sufficient proof that he had bound the man. So I, says he, have taken this property--this possessed person--from the dominion of Satan. It is clear proof that I have subdued Satan himself, the strong being that had him in possession. The words of else, mean or how. How, or in what way, can one, etc.

Spoil his goods. The word spoil commonly means now, to corrupt, injure, or destroy. Here it means to plunder, to take with violence, as it commonly does in the Bible. See Colossians 2:8,15; Exodus 3:22.

{a} "spoil his goods" Isaiah 49:24; 53:12; Revelation 12:7-10; 20:2,3

Verse 30. He that is not with me, etc. In addition to his other arguments, he urges this general principle that there could be but two parties in the universe. If any one did not act with him, he was against him. If he gathered not with him, he scattered. This is taken from the practice of persons in harvest, he that did not gather with him, or aid him, scattered abroad, or opposed him. The application of this was, "As I have not united with Satan, but opposed him, there can be no league between us." The charge, therefore, is a false one.

{b} "against me" 1 John 2:19

Verses 31,32. In this place, and in Mark 3:28-30, Jesus states the awful nature of the sin of which they had been guilty. That sin was the sin against the Holy Ghost. It consisted in charging Jesus with being in league with the devil, or accusing him with working his miracles, not by the spirit or power of God, but by the aid of the prince of the devils. It was therefore a direct insult, abuse, or evil speaking, against the Holy Ghost--the Spirit by which Jesus worked his miracles. That this was what he intended by this sin, at that time, is clear from Mark 3:30, "Because they said he had an unclean spirit." All other sins--all speaking against the Saviour himself--might be remitted. But this sin was clearly against the Holy One; it was alleging that the highest displays of God's mercy and power were the work of the devil; and it argued, therefore, the highest depravity of mind. The sin of which he speaks is, then, clearly stated. It was accusing him of working miracles by the aid of the devil--thus dishonouring the Holy Ghost.

All manner of sin--shall be forgiven. That is, only on condition that men repent and believe. If they continue in this sin, they cannot be forgiven, Mark 16:16; Romans 2:6-9.

Blasphemy. Injurious or evil speaking of God. See Barnes "Matthew 9:3".

A word against the Son of man. The Jews were offended at the humble life and appearance of the Saviour. They reproached him as being a Nazarene--sprung from Nazareth, a place from which no good was expected to proceed; with being a Galilean, from Galilee, a place from which no prophet came, John 7:52. Jesus says that reproaches of this kind could be pardoned. Reflections on his poverty, his humble birth, and the lowliness of his human nature, might be forgiven. But for those which affected his Divine nature, accusing him of being in league with the devil, denying his divinity, and attributing the power which manifestly implied divinity, to the prince of fallen spirits, there could be no pardon. This sin was a very different thing from what is now often supposed to be the sin against the Holy Ghost. It was a wanton and blasphemous attack on the Divine power and nature of Christ. Such a sin God would not forgive.

Speaketh against the Holy Ghost. This probably refers to the Divine nature of Christ--the power by which he wrought his miracles. There is no evidence that it refers to the Third Person of the Trinity. The word ghost means spirit, and probably means the Divine nature or spirit with which the man Jesus was endowed. And the meaning of the whole passage may be--

"He that speaks against me as a man of Nazareth, that speaks contemptuously of my humble birth, etc., may be pardoned; but he that reproaches my Divine character, charging it as being in league with Satan, and blaspheming the power of God manifestly displayed by me, can never obtain forgiveness."

Neither in this world, neither in the world to come. That is, as Mark expresses it, hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation. This fixes the meaning of the phrase. It means, then, not the future age or dispensation, known among the Jews as the world to come; but it means that the guilt will be unpardoned for ever; that such is the purpose of God, that he will not forgive a sin so direct, presumptuous, and awful. It cannot be inferred from this that any sins will be forgiven in hell. He meant simply to say that there were no possible circumstances in which the offender could find forgiveness. He certainly did not say that any sin unpardoned here would be pardoned hereafter.

{c} "all manner" Mark 3:28; Luke 12:10
{d} "the Holy Ghost" Hebrews 10:29; 1 John 5:16

Verse 32. No Barnes text on this verse. See Barnes "Matthew 12:31"

{e} "it shall be" Luke 7:34; John 7:12; 1 Timothy 1:13

Verse 33. Either make, etc. The fact asserted in this verse is, that a tree is known not by its leaves, or bark, or form, but by its fruit. The application to the argument is this: "You are to judge of man's being in league with Satan by his works. If my doctrines and works be properly the works of Satan, then I am corrupt; if not, then your charge is blasphemy. So, on the other hand, if, not withstanding your professions, your works are the works of the devil, and your doctrines be such as he would teach, it would prove respecting you that which you charge on me." In this indirect but powerful manner, he advances to the charge against them, which he urges in the following verses.

Verses 34,35. O generation of vipers. Christ here applies the argument which he had suggested in the previous verse. They were a wicked race; like poisonous reptiles, with a corrupt and evil nature. They could not be expected to speak good things--that is, to speak favourably of him and his works. As the bad fruit of a tree was the proper effect of its nature, so were their words about him and his works the proper effects of their nature. The abundance or fulness of the heart produced the words of the lips.

Vipers. These are a poisonous kind of serpents, not often a yard long, and about an inch thick, having a flat head. The males have two large teeth, through which a most deadly poison is thrown into the wound made by the bite. They are an emblem of malignity and mischief. These were strong expressions to be used by the meek and lowly Jesus; but they were not the effect of anger and malice; they were a declaration of the true character of the men with whom he was conversing--a declaration most justly deserved. See Barnes "Matthew 3:7".

{f} "generation" Matthew 3:17
{g} "out of the" Luke 6:45

Verse 35. No Barnes text on this verse. See Barnes "Matthew 12:34"

Verse 36. But I say unto you, etc. Christ closes this address to his malignant and wicked hearers by a solemn declaration that for these things God would bring them into judgment. They, therefore, who had spoken so malignantly against him, could not escape.

Idle word. This literally means a vain, thoughtless, useless word, that accomplishes no good. Here it means, evidently, wicked and injurious, false and malicious; for such were the words which they had spoken.

{h} "give account" Ecclesiastes 12:14; Ephesians 5:4,6; Jude 1:15

Verse 37. By thy words thou shalt be justified, etc. That is, words shall be the indication of the true principles of the heart; by words the heart shall be known, as the tree is by its fruit. If they are true, proper, chaste, instructive, pious, they will prove that the heart is right. If false, envious, malignant, and impious, they will prove that the heart is wrong, and will therefore be among the causes of condemnation. It is not meant that words will be the only thing that will condemn man; but that they will be all important part of the things for which he shall be condemned. See James 3:3-12.

{i} "thy words" Proverbs 13:3

Verses 38-42. We would see a sign from thee. See Luke 11:16; 29-32. A sign commonly signifies a miracle; that is, a sign that God was with the person, or had sent him. Comp. See Barnes "Isaiah 7:11". Luke adds that this was done tempting him trying him, doubting if he had the power to do it. If these persons had been present with him for any considerable time, they had already seen sufficient proofs that he was what he pretended. They might have been, however, those who had recently come; and then the emphasis must be laid on "we." We, as well as the others, would see a proof that thou art the Christ. In either case it was a temptation. If they had not seen him work a miracle, yet they should have believed it by testimony. Comp. John 20:29. Perhaps the emphasis is to be laid on the words from heaven. They might profess not to doubt that his miracles were real, but they were not quite satisfactory. They were desirous of seeing something, therefore, that should clear up their doubts, where there could be no opportunity for dispute. A comet, or lightning, or thunder, or sudden darkness, or the gift of food raining upon them, they supposed would be decisive. Perhaps they referred in this to Moses. He had been with God amidst thunders and lightnings; and he had given them manna--bread from heaven-- to eat. They wished Jesus to show some miracle equally undoubted.

{k} "sign from thee" Matthew 16:1; 1 Corinthians 1:22

Verse 39. An evil and adulterous generation. The relation of the Jews to God was often represented as a marriage contract;--God as the husband, and the Jewish people as the wife. See Isaiah 57:3; Hosea 3:1 Ezekiel 16:15. Hence their apostasy and idolatry are often represented as adultery. This is the meaning, probably, here. They were evil, and unfaithful to the covenant or to the commandments of God--an apostate and corrupt people. There is, however, evidence that they were literally an adulterous people.

There shall no sign be given to it, etc. They sought some direct miracle from heaven. He replied that no such miracle should be given, He did not mean to say that he would work no more miracles, or give no more evidence that he was the Christ; but he would give no such miracle as they required. He would give one that ought to be as satisfactory evidence to them that he was from God, as the miraculous preservation of Jonah was to the Ninevites that he was divinely commissioned. As Jonah was preserved three days by miracle, and then restored alive, so He would be raised from the dead after three days. As on the ground of this preservation the Ninevites believed Jonah and repented, so on the ground of his resurrection the men of an adulterous and wicked generation ought to repent, and believe that He was from God.

"The sign of the prophet Jonas," means the sign or evidence which was given to the people of Nineveh that he was from God--to wit, that he had been miraculously preserved, and was therefore divinely commissioned. The word Jonas is the Greek way of writing the Hebrew word Jonah, as Elias is for Elijah.

{l} "adulterous generation" Isaiah 57:3

Verse 40. For as Jonas was three days, etc. See Jonah 1:17. This event took place in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere between Joppa and Tarshish, when he was fleeing from Nineveh. It is said that the whale seldom passes into that sea, and that its throat is too small to admit a man. It is probable, therefore, that a fish of the shark kind is intended. Sharks have been known often to swallow a man entire. The fish in the book of Jonah is described merely as a great fish, without specifying the kind. It is well known that the Greek word translated whale, in the New Testament, does not of necessity mean a whale, but may denote a large fish of any kind.

Three days and three nights. It will be seen, in the account of the resurrection of Christ, that he was in the grave but two nights and a part of three days. See Matthew 28:6. This computation is, however, strictly in accordance with the Jewish mode of reckoning. If it had not been, the Jews would have understood it, and would have charged our Saviour as being a false prophet; for it was well known to them that he had spoken this prophecy, Matthew 27:63. Such a charge, however, was never made; and it is plain, therefore, that what was meant by the prediction was accomplished. It was a maxim, also, among the Jews, in computing time, that a part of a day was to be received as the whole. Many instances of this kind occur in both sacred and profane history. See 2 Chronicles 10:5-12; Genesis 42:17,18. Comp. Esther 4:16 with Esther 5:1.

In the heart of the earth. The Jews used the word heart to denote the interior of a thing, or to speak of being in a thing. It means, here, to be in the grave or sepulchre.

{m} "as Jonas" Jonah 1:17

Verse 41. The men of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire. It was founded by Ashur, Genesis 10:11. It was situated on the banks of the river Tigris, to the north-east of Babylon. It is now so completely destroyed that geographers are unable to ascertain whether it was on the eastern or western bank. It was a city of vast extent, and of corresponding wickedness. It was forty-eight miles in circuit; its walls were one hundred feet high, and ten thick, and were defended by fifteen hundred towers, each two hundred feet in height. It contained in the time of Jonah, it is supposed, six hundred thousand inhabitants. The destruction of Nineveh, threatened by Jonah in forty days, was suspended, by their repentance, two hundred years. It was then overthrown by the Babylonians, about six hundred years before Christ. During the siege, a mighty inundation of the river Tigris took place, which threw down a part of the walls, through which the enemy entered, and sacked and destroyed the city. This destruction had been foretold one hundred and fifteen years before, by Nahum, Nahum 1:8 "But with an overwhelming flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof." And Nahum 2:6: "The gates of the river shall be opened, and the palace shall be dissolved." The place is completely destroyed. The very situation is unknown. If it seem strange that ancient cities are so completely destroyed that no remains of brick or stone are to be found, it should be remembered that they were built of clay dried only in the sun, and not burned; that frequent rams softened the clay; and that the mighty walls and dwellings, in the lapse of ages, would sink down into an undistinguished heap of ruins.

Shall condemn it. That is, their conduct, in repenting at Jonah's prediction, shall condemn this generation. They, ignorant and wicked heathen, repented when threatened with temporal judgment by a mere man--Jonah; you, Jews, professing to be enlightened, though threatened for your great wickedness with eternal punishment by the Son of God---a far greater Being than Jonah--repent not, and must therefore meet with a far heavier condemnation.

{n} "condemnation" Romans 2:27
{o} "at the preaching" Jonah 3:5

Verse 42. The queen of the south. That is, the queen of Sheba, 1 Kings 10:1. Sheba was probably a city of Arabia, situated to the south of Judea. Comp. See Barnes "Isaiah 60:6".

From the uttermost parts of the earth. This means simply from the most distant parts of the hospitable world then known. See a similar expression in Deuteronomy 28:49. As the knowledge of geography was limited, the place was in fact by no means in the extreme parts of the earth. It means that she came from a remote country; and she would condemn that generation, for she came a great distance to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and the Jews of that age would not listen to the wisdom of One much greater than Solomon, though present with them.

{p} "queen" Luke 11:31
{q} "she came" 2 Chronicles 9:1

Verses 43-45. When the unclean spirit, etc. The general sentiment which our Saviour here teaches is much more easily understood than the illustration which he uses. The Jews had asked a sign from heaven that should decisively prove that he was the Messiah, and satisfy their unbelief. He replies, that though he should give them such a sign--a proof conclusive and satisfactory; and though for a time they should profess to believe, and apparently reform--yet such was the obstinacy of their unbelief and wickedness, that they would soon return to them, and become worse and worse. Infidelity and wickedness, like an evil spirit in a possessed man, were appropriately at home in them. If driven out, they would find no other place so comfortable and undisturbed as their bosoms, Everywhere they would be comparatively like an evil spirit going through deserts and lonely places, and finding no place of test. They would return, therefore, and dwell with them.

He walketh through dry places. That is, through deserts--regions of country unwatered, sandy, barren, desolate, That out Saviour here speaks according to the ancient opinions of the Jews, that evil spirits had their abodes in those desolate uninhabited regions, there can be no doubt. Nor can there be any doubt that the Bible gives countenance to the opinion. Thus Revelation 18:2: "Babylon--is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit;" that is, has become desolate --a place where evil spirits appropriately dwell. So Isaiah 13:21: "And satyrs shall dance there ;" i.e., according to the ancient Greek translation, "devils, or demons, shall dance there." See also Jeremiah 50:39. See Barnes "Isaiah 34:14". See Barnes "Deuteronomy 32:17".

Seeking rest, and findeth none, Thus desolate and dry regions are represented as uncomfortable habitations; so much so, that the dissatisfied spirit, better pleased with a dwelling in the bosoms of men, as affording an opportunity of doing evil, seeks a return there.

{r} "When the unclean" Luke 11:24
{s} "he walketh" Job 1:7; 1 Peter 5:8

Verse 44. Then he saith, I will return into my house, etc. The man is called his house, because he had been the place where the spirit had dwelt.

He findeth it empty, etc. There is here the continuance of the reference to the dwelling of the spirit in men. He was called his house. By the absence of the evil spirit, the house is represented as unoccupied, or empty, swept, and garnished; that is, while the evil spirit was away, the man was restored to his right mind, was freed from his wicked influence.

Garnished. Adorned, put in order, furnished. Applied to the man, it means that his mind was sane and regular when the evil spirit was gone; or, he had a lucid interval.

Verse 45. Then goeth he, etc. Seeing the state of the man, dissatisfied with a lonely dwelling in the desert where he could do no evil, envious of the happiness of the individual, and supremely bent on evil, he resolved to increase his power of malignant influences, and return. He is therefore represented as taking seven other spirits still worse, and returning to his former habitation. Seven denotes a large but indefinite number. It was a favourite number with the Jews, and was used to denote completeness or perfection, or any finished or complete number. See 1 Samuel 2:5; Revelation 1:4. Here it means a sufficient number completely to occupy and harass his soul.

Even so shall it be with this generation. This shows the scope and design of this illustration. The state of that man was a representation of that generation of men. Much might be done to cure their unbelief; much to reform them externally; but such was the firm hold which the principles of infidelity and wickedness had taken of their minds as their proper habitation, that they would return, after all the means used to reform them, and the people would be worse and worse. And this was literally accomplished. After all the instructions and miracles of the Saviour and his apostles; after all that had been done for them by holy men and prophets, and by the judgments and mercies of God; and after all their external temporary reformations--like the temporary departure of an evil spirit from a man possessed--yet such was their love of wickedness, that the nation became worse and worse. They increased in crime, like the sevenfold misery and wretchedness of the man into whose bosom the seven additional evil spirits came. They rejected God's messengers, abused his mercies, crucified his Son, and God gave their temple, and capital, and nation, into the hands of the Romans, and thousands of the people to destruction.

It is not proved, by this passage, that evil spirits actually dwell in deserts. It is proved only that such was the opinion of the Jews; that it was drawn from some expressions in the Bible; and that such expressions were sufficiently clear to justify our Saviour in drawing an argument from them to confound those who firmly believed that such was the case. Nor is there any absurdity in the opinion.


(1.) there are evil spirits. See Barnes "Matthew 8:33".

(2.) They must exist in some place.

(3.) There is as much propriety that they should be located about our earth as anywhere.

(4.) The clear doctrine of the Bible is, that many of them have much to do with our world.

(5.) It is as reasonable that they should dwell commonly in desolate and uninhabited regions as anywhere else.

{t} "worse than the first" Hebrews 6:4; 10:26; 2 Peter 2:20,22

Verses 46-50. See also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21.

His brethren. There has been some difference of opinion about the persons who were meant here; some supposing that they were children of Mary his mother, others that they were the children of Mary the wife of Cleophas or Alpheus his cousins, and called brethren according to the customs of the Jews. The natural and obvious meaning is, however, that they were the children of Mary his mother. See also Mark 6:3. To this opinion, moreover, there can be no valid objection.

{u} "his mother" Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19
{v} "brethren stood" Matthew 13:55

Verse 47. No Barnes text on this verse. See Barnes "Matthew 12:46"

Verse 48. Who is my mother? etc. There was no want of affection or respect in Jesus towards his mother, as is proved by his whole life. See especially Luke 2:51; John 19:25-27. This question was asked merely to fix the attention of the hearers, and to prepare them for the answer; that is, to show them who sustained towards him the nearest and most tender relation. To do this he pointed to his disciples: Dear and tender as were the ties which bound him to his mother and brethren, yet those which bound him to his disciples were more tender and sacred. How great was his love for his disciples, when it was more than even that for his mother! And what a bright illustration of his own doctrine, that we ought to forsake father, and mother, and friends, and-houses, and lands, to be his followers.

Verse 49. No Barnes text on this verse. See Barnes "Matthew 12:46"

Verse 50. No Barnes text on this verse. See Barnes "Matthew 12:46"

{w} "will of my Father" Matthew 7:20; John 15:14; Galatians 5:6; Hebrews 2:11; 1 John 2:17.


(1.) Our Saviour has taught us the right use of the Sabbath, Matthew 12:1-13. His conduct was an explanation of the meaning of the fourth commandment. By his example we may learn what may be done. He himself performed only those works on the Sabbath which were strictly necessary for life, and those which went to benefit the poor, the afflicted, and needy. Whatever work is done on the Sabbath that is not for these ends, must be wrong. All labour that can as well be done on another day; all which is not for the support of life, or to aid the ignorant, poor, and sick, must be wrong. This example justifies teaching the ignorant, supplying the wants of the poor, instructing children in the precepts of religion, teaching those to read in Sabbath-schools who have no other opportunity for learning, and visiting the sick, when we go not for formality, or to save time on some other day, but to do them good.

(2.) The Sabbath is of vast service to mankind. It was made for man, not for man to violate or profane, or to be merely idle, but to improve to his spiritual and eternal good. Where men are employed through six days in worldly occupations, it is kind towards them to give them one day particularly to prepare for eternity. Where there is no Sabbath there is no religion. There are no schools for instructing the poor. There are no means of enlightening the ignorant. This truth, from the history of the world, will bear to be recorded in letters of gold, that the true religion will exist among men only when they strictly observe the Sabbath. They, therefore, who do most to promote the observance of the Sabbath, are doing most for religion and the welfare of man. In this respect, Sunday-school teachers may do more, perhaps, than all the world besides, for the best interests of the world.

(3.) In the conduct of Christ, Matthew 12:14,15 we have an example of Christian prudence. Re did not throw himself needlessly into danger, he did not remain to provoke opposition. He felt that his time was not come, and that his life, by a prudent course, should be preserved. He therefore withdrew. Religion requires us to sacrifice our lives rather than deny the Saviour. To throw our lives away, when with good conscience they might be preserved, is self-murder.

(4.) The rejection of the gospel in one place is often the occasion of its being received elsewhere, Matthew 12:15 Men may reject it to their own destruction; but somewhere it will be preached, and will be the power of God unto salvation. The wicked cannot drive it out of the world. They only secure their own ruin, and, against their will, benefit and save others. To reject it is like turning a beautiful and fertilizing stream from a man's own land. He does not, he cannot dry it up. It will flow somewhere else. He injures himself, and perhaps benefits multitudes. Men never commit so great foolishness and wickedness, and so completely fail in what they aim at, as in rejecting the gospel. A man, hating the light of the sun, might get into a cave or dungeon, and be in total darkness; but the sun will continue to shine, and millions, in spite of him, will be benefited by it. So it is with the gospel.

(5.) Christ was mild, still, retiring; not clamorous or noisy, Matthew 12:19. So is all religion. There is no piety in noise; if there was, then thunder and artillery would be piety. Confusion and discord are not religion. Loud words and shouting axe not religion. Religion is love, reverence, fear, holiness, deep and awful regard for the presence of God, profound apprehensions of the solemnities of eternity, imitation of the Saviour. It is still. It is full of awe--an awe too great to strive, or cry, or lift up the voice in the streets. If men ever should be overawed, and filled with emotions repressing noise and clamour, it should be when they approach the great God. This great truth is the essence of religion, that we have most of it when we come nearest in all things to the Lord Jesus Christ.

(6.) The feeble may trust to Jesus, Matthew 12:20. A child of any age, an ignorant person, the poorest man, may come, and he shall in no wise be cast out. It is a sense of our weakness that Jesus seeks. Where that is, he will strengthen us, and we shall not fail.

(7.) Grace shall not be extinguished, Matthew 12:20. Jesus, where he finds it in the feeblest degree, will not destroy it. He will cherish it. He will kindle it to a flame. It shall burn brighter and brighter, till it "glows with the pure spirits above."

(8.) Men are greatly prone to ascribe all religion to the devil, Matthew 12:24. Anything that is unusual, anything that confounds them, anything that troubles their consciences, they ascribe to fanaticism, overheated zeal, and Satan. It has always been so. It is sometimes an easy way to stifle their own convictions, and to bring religion into contempt. Somehow or other, like the Pharisees, infidels must account for revivals of religion, for striking instances of conversion, and for the great and undeniable effects which the gospel produces. How easy to say that it is delusion, and that it is the work of the devil! How easy to show at once the terrible opposition of their own hearts to God, and to boast themselves, in their own wisdom, in having found a cause so simple for all the effects which religion produces in the world! How much pains, also, men will take to secure their own perdition, rather, than to admit it to be possible that Christianity should be true!

(9.) We see the danger of blasphemy--the danger of trifling with the influences of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 12:31,32. Even if we do not commit the unpardonable sin, yet we see that all trifling with the Holy Ghost is a sin very near to God, and attended with infinite danger. He that laughs away the thoughts of death and eternity; he that seeks the society of the gay and trifling, Or of the sensual and profane, for the express purpose of driving away these thoughts; and he that struggles directly against his convictions, and is resolved that he will not submit to God, may be, for aught he knows, making his damnation sure. Why should God ever return, when he has once rejected the gospel? Who would be to blame if the sinner is then lost? Assuredly not God. None but himself. Children sometimes do this. Then is the time, the very time, when they should begin to love God and Jesus Christ. Then the Spirit also strives. Many have then given their hearts to him, and become Christians. Many more might have clone so, if they had not grieved away the Spirit of God.

(10.) We see the danger of rejecting Christ, Matthew 12:38-42. All past ages, all the wicked and the good, the foolish and the wise, will rise up in the day of judgment, and condemn fit, if we do not believe the gospel. No people, heretofore, have seen so much light as we do in this age. And no people can be so awfully condemned as those who, in a land of light, of Sabbaths, and Sabbath-schools, reject Christ, and go to hell. Among the hundred and twenty thousand children of Nineveh, Jonah 4:11 there was not one single Sunday- school. There was no one to tell them of God and the Saviour. They have died and gone to judgment. Children now living will die also, and go to meet them in the day of judgment. How will they condemn the children of this age, if they do not love the Lord Jesus Christ!

(11.) Sinners, when awakened, if they grieve away the Spirit of God, become worse than before, Matthew 12:43-45. They are never as they were. Their hearts are hard, their consciences are seared, they hate religious men, and they plunge deeper and deeper into sin. Seven devils often dwell where one did; and God gives the man over to blindness of mind and hardness of heart. This shows, also, the great guilt and danger of grieving the Holy Ghost.

(12.) We see the love of Christ for his followers, Matthew 12:46-50. Much as he loved his mother, yet he loved his disciples more. He still loves them. He will always love them. His heart is full of affection for them. And though poor, and despised, and unknown to the rich and mighty, yet to Jesus they are still clearer than mother, and sisters, and brothers.

Copyright Statement
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Bibliography Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Matthew 12". "Barnes' Notes on the New Testament". <>.  


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