Updated: Jul 14, 2022
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
When the last chapter ended we were to understand that Jesus' disciples were out on their first ministry assignment by themselves while Jesus continued to teach in the region of Galilee. Now as Matthew chapter 12 begins, some time has passed and the disciples have returned to Jesus. I find it interesting that Matthew does not immediately include the disciples' report to Jesus of how their journey went, which cities accepted them, and which rejected them. Although we might be interested in learning what happened on the disciples first journey by themselves to share the Good News and to heal as Jesus had been doing, Matthew points us back to the true main character of the story: Jesus!
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. Matthew 12:1
Now before we get into the Pharisees' response to the disciples' actions, we should probably discuss what on earth the Sabbath is. Even if you grew up in the church, it is likely that you only have a foggy idea of what exactly the Sabbath day is supposed to be. The first Sabbath was observed by God Himself.
So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:3
After God had finished creating everything including human beings, He rested on the seventh day. Yet, we don't hear about anyone else being required to observe the Sabbath until the Exodus. This means Adam and his children did not observe the Sabbath, neither did Noah or his children, and neither did Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob and his sons. The first time anyone else is instructed to keep the Lord's Sabbath is in the desert when the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron that they have no food. God, therefore, provides for them quail and manna or bread from Heaven. He tells them to gather all they can eat each day for six days and not to keep any overnight. On the sixth of the days, they are to gather twice as much so that they can rest on the seventh day.
On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day. Exodus 16:22-30
Then God also commands the Israelites in His Law to keep the Sabbath days holy. It wasn't just meant for the seventh day of the week, but also for the seventh month, and the seventieth year. That year would be known as the year of Jubilee! These holy days of rest were given specifically to the Israelites, but the Israelites failed to keep them faithfully. In fact, there is only one recorded celebration of the Year of Jubilee and it's during the reign of King Josiah long after Israel's civil war and only shortly before their exile to Babylon. The prophets continually warned the people to turn back to God and to keep His Sabbath day, but they did not. Now the Christian Church meets on Sunday for a few different reasons, but the practice of keeping the Sabbath which begins Friday at sundown and ends Saturday at sundown has been left to the Jews. If you're interested, we can go over why the Christian Church meets on Sunday instead at a later time and whether or not Christians should keep the Sabbath. Now, let's get back to Matthew's account...
But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:2
One of the ways they taught us in Sunday School to remember the names of religious leaders of Jesus' day was that this group is the one always saying something along the lines of, "This isn't fair, you see?!" We can laugh at the wordplay, but it is very much the focus of these religious leaders. They're very worried about the justice of God and that everyone gets what is coming to them. Now they've read in Exodus how a man is found in the desert gathering sticks for firewood on the Sabbath day, he was brought to Moses and Aaron for judgment and God commanded that he be stoned to death (stoning is when people gather around and throw rocks at you until you die and are buried beneath them). If God was that strict about His Law in the day of Moses, then surely His Messiah will be equally as just with His disciples!
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? Matthew 12:3-5
Instead of condemning His disciples, Jesus responds with two examples that the Pharisees themselves recognize as good that the Sabbath was broken.
This first is of David when he was still a servant of King Saul. When fleeing from the murderous wrath of the King, he and his men came to Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant was still kept in the Tabernacle because the Temple had not been built yet.
Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David, trembling, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. 1 Samuel 21:1-6
David was the true anointed King appointed by God, he and his men ate of the bread of the Presence in a case of life or death survival. If David had not survived, Jesus Himself would never have been born, nor any of the kings who ruled in Judah.
The second example is from the duties of the priests themselves. God has allowed the priests to perform their regular Sabbath duties that would normally be considered work, without condemnation. By performing their duties, they are completing the tasks that God has called them to do.
Where the Pharisees have gone wrong is in their understanding of the purpose of God's Law and God's own measure of what is just. They value above all else the legalism of their Temple practices; all their rules, rituals, and restrictions. Valuing these things, they have lost sight of the One who is of infinitely more importance and value: God.
Something Greater Than The Temple
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:6-8
Jesus tells them that something greater than their Temple has come to them. Immanuel! God with us, was speaking to them and they had missed it. Jesus fills both the purposes of King and Priest appointed by God as His Son. Not only that, but He also declares to them that He is the Lord of the Sabbath! Of course, God is greater than the house built to be the place of His presence among them and their worship of Him. Yet, they had long ago defiled God's house filling it with idols and vile practices, expanding the laws to fit their own ideas of self-righteous piety.
This is not the first time that Jesus has reprimanded them for condemning the guiltless. We also heard this response from Jesus, when the Pharisees criticized Him and His disciples for eating with sinners and tax collectors.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6
The Hebrew word that is translated in Hosea to be love, is translated in Greek to mean mercy. God knew from the beginning that humanity, having been fallen since the time of Adam and Eve could not keep the Law. The purpose of the Law was not blind unfeeling legalism, but to shepherd the people to a knowledge of the righteous character of God and their inadequacy before Him. It was a call to seek God, to honor and obey Him, and to trust in His mercy when they failed. Instead, these Pharisees were too busy condemning the failures of those around them, they did not understand God's justice and therefore could not fathom His mercy.
It is Lawful To Do Good...
He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Matthew 12:9-14
Walking with them from the fields into the city, which could not have been far because the Pharisees counted every step on the Sabbath and one step over the "lawful" amount would bring their condemnation back on their own heads. Jesus entered the synagogue of these Pharisees, where there was a man with a withered hand. Matthew does not tell us how this man came to have a withered hand or for how long, but I get the distinct impression that this was a man well known to the Pharisees. Someone they would have seen regularly in the synagogue and known as a sheep among their flock. Yet these bad shepherds were not worried about the health and well-being of this man, they were more interested in finding a way to trap Jesus into saying or doing something that would really break the Law of God. How similar do you find their tactics to the tactics of the Enemy who came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness before His ministry had ever begun? As if to repeat the lesson He had just given them from the Prophet Hosea, Jesus answers that of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath and He heals the man they brought before him. We don't know this man's thoughts on the matter at all. He could have come with the Pharisees as a partner in their scheme for all we know! Yet Jesus heals him because it is His will to do so and He requires no payment from this man for his miracle. Jesus gives him mercy where their Pharisees required endless sacrifices that would never heal this man's withered arm. These evil men know they have lost this battle and leave to concoct their next trap. Again, how similar do you find this to the Enemy who when he was done tempting Jesus in the wilderness, left him until a new moment of opportunity would arise?
Well aware of their scheming, Jesus left their city but massive crowds followed Him.
Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” Matthew 12:15-21
We've seen this saying in Matthew multiple times now where Jesus continually orders those He has healed not to tell anyone about Him, yet His fame continues to grow. We also get back to another proof that Matthew is offering to his Jewish audience that Jesus is who He claims to be: The Lord of the Sabbath and the Messiah.
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Isaiah 42:1-4
This invites us to ask, 'what do we know about this Jesus character so far?' We know that He is the Son of God (His anointed/chosen one) in whom God is well pleased. [Matt. 3:16-17] And that God put His Spirit upon Jesus. He has been teaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing the people. His answers and actions have called the people to understand the true measure of God's justice from His Sermon on the Mount to His testing by the Pharisees. It is His law [Matt. 12:8] and He is the fulfillment of it.
Isaiah's prophecy about this Chosen Servant of God:
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” Isaiah 42:5-9
This context is wonderfully important for what happens next in Matthew's account!
Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Matthew 12:22-30
This man was brought before Jesus blind, sitting in darkness, a prisoner of demonic forces, and unable to cry out from his mouth for help. Jesus healed him so that He could see, speak, and live in freedom from the evil that had controlled his life. According to Matthew's reference of Isaiah, there could not be a more clear sign that the Chosen Servant of the Lord, the Messiah had finally arrived. Yet, the Pharisees blinded by their own judgment, hatred, and schemes claimed that instead of the Messiah, this man had to be the Devil. Their accusation reveals to us far more about their true beliefs regarding the power of God and the power of the Enemy than it does about the One who they were accusing. If Jesus was who said He was, then by the Spirit of God He had been given the power to establish justice on the earth: to give sight to the blind, voice to the voiceless, freedom to the prisoner, and light to the nations stranded in darkness. If it was the Enemy accomplishing these things, then Satan was working to accomplish the will of God instead of standing against it. He would then be working to destroy his own kingdom rather than fighting against the Kingdom of God.
Jesus' explanation of this reminds me of the mid-2010s Disney movie, The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Timothy has absolutely no athletic talent, but to give him a full experience of life, his parents sign him up for soccer. During his first game, he spends most of the time as the waterboy for the team, but the coach is finally convinced to let Timothy play. With only moments left in the game, the ball suddenly comes Timothy's way and he takes this opportunity with gusto. He kicks and he scores! The game is over, but his team lost because the goal he scored was against his own team. Satan is far more devious than our hapless hero, Timothy Green. He is not so foolish as to be spending time, energy, and his evil minions on defeating himself and tearing down his own kingdom.
Because of their obstinate rejection of the truth of who Jesus is and where His authority comes from, the Pharisees are given one last warning. Jesus tells them that those who are against Him are His enemies, they are playing on Team Satan against the Kingdom of Heaven and on the Day of Judgement, those who have remained enemies to God will not be forgiven. Their chance for mercy will be over.
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:31-37
Just as Satan will not be found tearing down his own kingdom by having compassion on people, healing them, forgiving their sins, and releasing them from bondage; the fruit of these Pharisees has marked them as workers of the Enemy. Jesus points out that they cannot speak what is good and true in the Law of God, because they have stored up evil in their hearts and they can only speak from the abundance of what they have hidden there.
Remember what treasure we are to be seeking? Remember what things God has hidden from these worldly-wise men? We are to seek to know Him and seek His Kingdom and His righteousness above all else! We are to love mercy as He loves mercy, more than any half-hearted sacrifice we could give.
Something Greater Than Jonah
The Pharisees are not satisfied with the many wonders they've been witnessing Jesus perform among the people. While the people stand amazed, they stand in judgment. We also know by Matthew's reference to Isaiah, that Jesus was now teaching and healing the Gentiles or non-Jews living in Israel and they were putting their hope in Him. This was probably at least some of the source of the Pharisees' animosity toward Jesus because they believed the Messiah was coming to deliver them from the political and social power of the Romans. Responding to Jesus' diagnosis of their heart condition, the Pharisees as for yet another sign.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. Matthew 12:38-41
Jesus no longer holds back His rebuke of these bad shepherds, He has called them enemies of the Spirit of God, now He calls them evil and adulterous. But what does He mean by the sign of Jonah?
Jonah was a prophet of the Lord who spent many years taking God's Word to His people, but one day God called Jonah to take the His Word of Warning and repentance to the evil Gentile nation of Ninevah. Jonah disobeyed God and attempted to flee as far from Ninevah as he could get, but God brought a storm to stop the ship that Jonah traveled in. When the sailors found out through a game of chance that Jonah was the one who had angered God and brought about the storm that was about to sink them, they threw him into the sea. The storm immediately ceased, but Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish where he remained for three days and nights. Then Jonah cried out to God for mercy and God had the fish vomit him onto the dry land where Jonah found that God had brought him near to his commanded destination. Jonah obeyed this time and brought the Word of warning and repentance to the people of Ninevah, who immediately repented and mourned their sins. We might think that that is a wonderful ending to the story, but like the Pharisees, Jonah did not understand God's justice or fathom God's mercy. He went up a tall hill next to the city to wait for God to destroy it anyway and that is where the Bible's account of this prophet ends.
As we compare Jesus to Jonah, remember that the audience Matthew is writing to already knows the end of this story. Jesus has come from God obediently even to death on a cross. He has come for the sinners, the tax collectors, the Gentiles, the Samaritans, the lepers, the poor, and downtrod. He doesn't turn away in revulsion from any of them but has compassion for the masses. In His death, He will remain buried three days and three nights but when the dawn comes He will rise! Jesus tells them, something greater than Jonah is here... the Lord Himself has come to offer mercy to the repentant but He has not forgotten His justice or the Day of Judgment. The people of Ninevah who turned from their sin are in the "for Jesus crowd" while the wicked generation of unrepentant Pharisees who stand before Him are declared His enemies. Unlike Jonah, Jesus' message of mercy comes without judgment and without resentment. He is faithful and just to forgive us just as He promised!
Something Greater Than Solomon
The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. Matthew 12:42
There is one more person in this chapter that Jesus declares, "something greater than... is here." King Solomon was the son of King David and Bathsheba who had been Uriah's wife. You may remember her from our study of the Genealogy. When Solomon was still a young king, God came to him in a dream and told Solomon to ask for whatever he wanted God to give him. Solomon asked for wisdom. This pleased God so He blessed Solomon with the wisdom he asked for, and also with the riches and honor he had not asked for. In his lifetime, Solomon would have no equal among kings.
Hearing of the greatness of Solomon and his wisdom, the Queen of Sheba or the queen of the South as Jesus calls her here, comes to test Solomon with the hardest questions she can think of.
Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones. And when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her. And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more breath in her. And she said to the king, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices and precious stones. Never again came such an abundance of spices as these that the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. Moreover, the fleet of Hiram, which brought gold from Ophir, brought from Ophir a very great amount of almug wood and precious stones. And the king made of the almug wood supports for the house of the Lord and for the king's house, also lyres and harps for the singers. No such almug wood has come or been seen to this day. And King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon. So she turned and went back to her own land with her servants. 1 Kings 10:1-13
When the Queen saw how God was with Solomon, she rejoiced in the Lord and worshiped Him for making Solomon king of Israel. Unlike the Pharisees, she did not harbor hatred or resentment in her heart that the question she had brought to test the king were able to be answered by him. Yet, Jesus told the Pharisees, a greater King than Solomon is here! They had come to test Him and they had rejected Him, the Queen of the South a Gentile would therefore stand in judgment against them, for she had believed where they had rejected.
At last, Jesus returns to the subject of the man whom He had healed from demonic oppression. He tells the Pharisees to consider the condition of a man who has been oppressed by a demon, but for whatever reason that demon leaves him.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” Matthew 12:43-45
This generation had turned at the preaching of John the Baptist and they practiced the rituals of the Law out of duty rather than worship. Their priests even cast out demons according to Jesus' response to their accusation that He was doing so by the authority of Satan. The problem was that these people were left hollow, their house in order but unoccupied. Rejecting the true Lord of the house, they left it defenseless and unprepared for when the demons inevitably returned. This is the cost for the wicked generation who refuses the Spirit of God.
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matthew 12:47-50
What about those who accept the Good News of the Kingdom and the Spirit of God? Well not only are they no longer enemies of God's Kingdom, Jesus declares that they are His family: whoever does the will of His Father in heaven is His brother and sister and mother.
This is why dear Christian, we are able to call ourselves the Family of God. No longer simply His nation chosen from among the other nations of the Earth, but His family welcomed in His home and at His table!