William Kelly Major Works Commentary
At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.Matthew Chapter 12
Matthew 12 completes the picture of the transition begun in chapter 11, and shows that, before God, the crisis was come. The Lord might continue to become the object of still deeper rejection, but the spirit that crucified Him had already manifested itself clearly. In the centre of this chapter we have the warning of the unpardonable sin, not merely against the Messiah, but against the Holy Ghost bearing His testimony to the Messiah; and, further, the fact that Israel as a nation would be guilty of that sin, and hence be given up to the power of Satan beyond example in all their sad history. So that the evil for which God had allowed them to be carried captive to Babylon was little in comparison with the iniquity of which they were now, in spirit, guilty, and into which they were about to sink. This brings the crisis closing the announcement of the kingdom to Israel; and chapter 13 introduces a new thing - the kingdom of heaven about to begin in its present mysterious form, because of the rejection of the Messiah.
I must now proceed to show how far all the incidents in this chapter are in harmony with the leading thought - the break between Christ and Israel. Therefore the Holy Ghost does not here confine Himself to the mere order of time in which the events took place. "At that time Jesus went on the sabbath-day through the corn, and His disciples were hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat" (ver. 1). We are not to suppose that "at that time" means "at that exact moment." It is a general term, embracing connected events, though there might be months between them. It is not like "immediately," or "forthwith," or "the week after," etc. What did intervene we must gather from the other Gospels. In Mark we find that the scene of the corn-fields took place early in our Lord's ministry. Thus, in chapter 2, on the sabbath-day following the call of Levi and the discourse about fasting, we are told that "He went through the corn-fields," Here we have this incident taken completely out of its historical connection. Mark adheres to the order of events: Matthew departs from it in order to give the great change consequent on the Messiah's rejection by Israel. Our Lord's word of woe upon Chorazin and Bethsaida, and the blessedness of those who received Him, was spoken by no means early. Here they are put together, because the object of the Holy Ghost in Matthew is to show this change.. Hence, what would prove the change is selected and reserved for this place.
In short, the Holy Ghost is giving us an historical picture apart from the mere date in which the events took place; and the events and discourses that illustrate the great transition are all grouped together. The disciples passed through the corn, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat, according to the liberty allowed them in the law. ,,When the Pharisees saw it, they said unto Him, Behold, Thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the sabbath-day." Our Lord then cites two incidents: one of them a constantly-recurring fact among the priests; the other recorded of their most conspicuous king, David; both proving the sin and the utter ruin of Israel. What was the state of things when David was obliged to use the showbread? Was it not because the true king was a despised, persecuted man - because the king of their own hearts' choice was there? It was the same thing now. The sin . of Israel profaned the holy bread. God would not accept aught as holy from people that were living in sin. No ceremonial is worth a straw if the heart does not honour Christ. Why were the disciples reduced to pluck and eat the ears of corn? Why were the followers ,of the true King reduced to hunger?
Besides, "Have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath-days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?" (ver. 5). The priests did a very important work upon that day. They offered sacrifices then, because there was sin; and the people's sin demands what, according to the letter of the law, would seem to a Pharisee to be a breach of it. It does not matter what the law may ordinarily claim, if there is sin on the part of God's people, sacrifice cannot be deferred. Thus, whether you take the particular instance of the Lord's anointed in Saul's day, or the constant priestly service on the sabbath-day, one thing ,accounted for all disorder, whether real or apparent - Israel were sinners. They had allowed the chosen of the Lord to be hunted upon the mountains when he was there; and a greater than David was here. And so as to the priests and their work. One infinitely greater than the temple was there - Messiah Himself: and what was not their indifference, nay, their enmity, towards Him?
Another sabbath-day was necessary to complete the sketch. And now Jesus does work Himself; and these two things are brought together here. "When He was departed thence, He went into their synagogue; and behold, there was a man which had his hand withered; and they asked Him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath-days? that they might accuse Him." The Lord accepted the challenge. "He said unto them, What man shall there be among you that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath-day, will he not lay hold on it and lift it out?" Of course they would deliver the poor sheep out of the pit, because it was their own sheep. They had no conscience about doing what was to their own advantage because it was the sabbath-day. And the Lord does not blame them; but He presses this most pungent conclusion upon them - "How much, then, is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath-days." In a word, He shows by this second case, that not only was Israel a guilty people respecting the true Beloved, but that, if they knew their own condition, would own themselves to be like the man with the withered hand, in need of His mighty power. He was there in grace to accomplish all necessary healing. The Lord pressed upon them their dismal condition. The whole nation before God was morally as withered as that man's hand physically; but not willing, alas, to be healed like him. "Then saith He to the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth, and it was restored whole as the other" (ver. 13). Why is this recorded here as having occurred on the sabbath-day - especially in connection with the incident of the corn-field? In the first, the Lord proves Israel's guilt in contrast with the sanctity of the sabbath; and in the second, He declares Himself thereto work restoration even on the sabbath. It is an account of all importance, because the Lord is, as it were, tearing in pieces the outward letter of the bond between Him and Israel, of which the sabbath-day was a special sign.
I may here observe, the Lord's day differs essentially from the sabbath; and in the early Church there was scrupulous care taken not to confound the two things. The sabbath and the Lord's day are signs of wholly distinct truths. The first owed its origin to God hallowing His rest when creation was done; and it was the token that, when God would finish His works, there would be a holy rest for man. Then sin came in, and all was ruined. We do not hear a word about it (at least, directly), till a people is called out from among all others to serve the true God, as His chosen nation. We have seen, in the Old Testament as well as the New, how utterly they failed; and now the only hope of having a true sabbath is when Christ Himself shall bring it in. When Adam sinned, death passed upon all, and the creation-rest was broken. Then (after the type of Christ in the manna, with the sabbath following), came in the law, which took up the sabbath, incorporated it in the ten words and the statutes of Israel, and made it not only a hallowed day, but a day of command, which was enjoined upon them like the other nine words; a day in which every Israelite was bound, not only to abstain from work himself, but to give rest to everything that was his. It was not a question of a spiritual people. All Israel were bound by it, and they shared its rest along with their cattle. The Lord's day, on the other hand, never was heard of till Christ rose from the dead. Thence issued an entirely new order of things. Christ, the beginning, the Head of a new creation, rose from the dead on the first day of the week. Thus, while the old world goes on, sin still at work, and Satan not yet bound, God has wrought salvation, which He is giving to every soul that believes. These recognize that Christ risen is their Saviour, and that they consequently have new life in Him. This, and much more than this, they come together to acknowledge on the Lord's day. They "show the Lord's death till He come." Nothing can be plainer in Scripture, if our desire is to know and follow the word of God. It was no longer a question of whether people were Jews or Gentiles. Were they Christians? Had they Christ as their life and Lord? If they thankfully confessed Him, the Lord's day was the day for them. Such of the Christians as had been Jews continued to frequent the synagogue on the sabbath. But this only shows the more plainly that it was not a mere change of day. To the Roman saints the apostle insists that the man who regarded the day, to the Lord he regarded it; and that the man who regarded it not, to the Lord he did not regard it. Was this the Lord's day? No, but Jewish days and fasts. The apostle would never treat the Lord's day as optionally to be regarded or not. Some of these believers saw that they were delivered from the law, and did not observe the Jewish feasts or fasts. The Gentiles, of course, were not under the law at all. But some, at any rate, of the Jewish believers, still had a conscience about the ancient holydays, and of them the apostle speaks. The Lord's day never was and never will be a Jewish day. It has its own proper character stamped upon it; and Christians, though not under the law as Jews with the sabbath, are yet by grace called on far more solemnly to use it for the Lord, as that which summons them to meet together in the name of Jesus, in separation from this world, conscious of redemption and justification through His death and resurrection. It is the type of the blessing that the Christian has got, yet to be manifested in glory. The world always confounds it, as do many Christians, with the sabbath. One hears sometimes real believers, but uninstructed, talk of the "Christian sabbath." This is, of course, because they do not see their deliverance from the law, and the consequences which flow from their belonging to Him who is risen from the dead. The apostle develops these blessed truths.
Our Lord merely deals with the Jews here. His disciples were not hindered from plucking the ears of corn on the sabbath, as on another He openly wrought a miracle in the presence of all (thus giving occasion for the Pharisees who sought one against Him). It is true that the works were works of mercy and goodness; but there was no necessity for either, had there not been a purpose. He could have spoken without doing a single thing. So with the blind man in the Gospel of John. All the clay in the world could not have cured him, but for the power of our Lord. His word would have been enough; but He does something Himself, and makes the man do something else upon the sabbath. We are told expressly, "It was the sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes." The Lord was breaking the seal of the covenant between Jehovah and Israel. The sabbath scaled that bond, and was in Israel now worse than useless in God's sight, because the people who pretended to keep the sabbath so carefully, were the bitterest enemies of His Son. It was utterly false to subject Him to the Sabbath. The Son of Man was "Lord even of the sabbath day." He takes that ground boldly, as we are here told (ver. 8), and the following sabbath performs this miracle. The Pharisees felt that it was a death-blow to their whole system, and they, gathering together, "held a council against Him how they might destroy Him." This was the first conclave for the purpose of putting Him to death. Jesus, knowing it, withdraws Himself from thence, "and great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all" - a picture of what He would do when Israel put Him to death. Thenceforth, the great work was to be among the Gentiles. The prophet Isaiah is quoted in connection with this occurrence, to show what our Lord's character was: "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 show judgment to the Gentiles: He shall not strive nor cry, neither shall any man hear His voice in the streets; a bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench, till He send forth judgment unto victory. And in His name shall the Gentiles trust."
The Lord was departing from Israel; but this is not all. There is a final testimony before He pronounces sentence upon Israel: "Then was brought unto Him one possessed with a devil, blind and dumb, and He healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw." This was the condition in which Israel was about to be, without an eye or a voice for Jesus; the apt figure of the nation's condition, the Messiah unseen and His praise unuttered in their midst. And here is the solemn thing. The poor, the ignorant, all the people might cry, "Is not this the Son of David? But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand. And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand?" - He condescends to reason with them. "And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you" (vers. 27, 28). But they were dumb and blind. The man that submitted to Jesus was healed; but the Pharisees were consulting to slay the Son of David. The Lord answers them yet more. He tells them that now it was come to a point. "He that is not with Me is against Me; and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth abroad." All depended upon being and acting with Him; wherefore our Lord adds, "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men" (ver. 31). The reason of it was this: not only the Son of Man was working these miracles, but the power of the Holy Ghost was there too. Although Jesus might submit to humiliation, He could not but assert the glory of God. The Holy Spirit was putting forth these mighty deeds, and the unbelief that refused the testimony of the Spirit when Jesus was there, would be even stronger against it on His departure. They would prove themselves to be like their fathers: "Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye." And what the consequence? They would be guilty of the unpardonable sin, of rejecting (not only Jesus Himself, as a man presented here, but) the power of the Holy Ghost, whether working in Him then, or now by Him and for Him.
It is the final rejection of the Spirit's testimony to Christ. It was true when the Lord was here, but is still more complete now that He is in heaven. They refused Christ on earth, and after He went up to heaven, when, through the power of the Holy Ghost, His name alone caused the dead to rise, and thus proved even more His glory than what He had done personally when here below. Those who resisted such testimony as this were evidently hopelessly lost in unbelief and scorn of God in the person of His Son. Therefore our Lord pronounces this blasphemy to be such as nothing can meet. It is not ignorance which thus rejects Christ. A man may be without light; and when it comes, he may, through grace, be enabled to receive Him. But he who refuses all divine testimony, and makes the displayed power of the Holy Ghost the occasion of showing his spite against Jesus, is evidently lost for ever: he bears the unmistakable stamp of perdition upon his brow. This was exactly the sin into which Israel were fast falling. The Holy Ghost might be sent down, and work even greater acts of power than the Lord Himself had done; it made no change in their heart. The blaspheming unbelieving race of Israel should be forgiven neither in this "age," nor in that which is to come. I am not particular about the word "dispensation" - which means a certain course of time, ruled by particular principles; but the point is, that neither in this age (αἰῶν) nor in that which is to come, could this sin be forgiven. The age to come is that wherein the children of Israel are to be under the Messiah's rule; as now, and since the Babylonish captivity, they have been under the rule of the Gentiles. This sin should be forgiven neither now nor then. As to all other iniquity, there was still a hope that what was not forgiven now might be when the Messiah came. Granted that there is unlimited forgiveness for every soul that receives Him; but they refused Him: they attributed the Spirit's power working in His person to Beelzebub; and that blasphemy would never be forgiven. Such was the growing danger of Israel. Rejecting the Messiah thus, they are doomed. It was rejecting the Holy Ghost's testimony; and a new work of God must then be brought in.
Hence the Lord pronounces them a generation of vipers. "The tree is known by his fruit." It. was a bad tree, and no good fruit would He expect from it. "O generation of vipers," He adds, "how can ye, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word (that is, I suppose, everything betraying contempt for God) that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned" (vers. 34-37). What God insists upon is testimony to Jesus. These idle words betray the heart's rejection of Jesus, and slight the Holy Ghost's testimony to Him. "By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." It is with the mouth that confession is made unto salvation; and the words that leave out Jesus prove that the heart prefers its sin to Him. The words of the mouth evidence the state of the heart. They are the outward expression of the feelings, and they show a man in one way as much as his conduct does in another. If the heart is evil, the words are evil, the conduct is evil: all therefore comes into judgment.
After this the Pharisees ask a sign, and the Lord gives them a most significant one: but, before that, He pronounces His moral sentence on the nation: "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonas" (ver. 39). What was the special feature of Jonah as a prophet? To whom did he prophesy? He was sent away from Israel to the Gentiles; and, more than that, before Jonah performed his message aright, he must pass through the figure of death and resurrection. So obstinate was he in not going where he was bidden, that the Lord took care Jonah should be pitched out of the ship; and then He dealt with him as a dead man, and wrought a great work in his soul. Jonah having passed through this most remarkable type of death and resurrection was now ready for the message that the Lord gives him. This is the sign which the Lord puts before the Pharisees. Such was the state of the Jewish nation that He must leave them and go to the Gentiles; and that too after death and resurrection in reality, when Israel's hopes had perished. The Lord has blessing in store for Israel by and by; but for the present all is lost for them. They had rejected their Lord. God was going now to occupy Himself with the Gentiles. Hence it is that the instances used to confirm this are, first, the case of the men of Nineveh, who repented at the preaching of Jonah; "and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here." Then the queen of Sheba, also a Gentile, who did not merely repent because of sin, but showed an energy of faith, I may say, worthy of all note, without even a message sent to her. Such was the ardour of her heart, and her desire after wisdom, that, hearing of Solomon, she hastened in order to hear it from his own lips. What a rebuke for Israel! "A greater than Solomon is here"; and wisdom as much beyond Solomon's as the person of Jesus was above that of Solomon. But they were an evil and adulterous generation. They knew not that their Maker was their husband; they despised Him; and, adds our Lord, "The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it." But now He proclaims what will be their final condition. The link of Israel to Himself was broken; and for this blasphemous contempt of the Spirit's testimony to Jesus as the Son of Man they should be judged.
This is what the Lord now shows. "When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none" (ver. 43). Every student of Scripture will acknowledge that the unclean spirit means idolatry, and its worship connects with demons, instead of God. Are we to suppose that our Lord suddenly breaks off from what He had been saying of the nation to treat of mere individuals? Clearly it is about Israel. As a nation Israel never fell into idolatry after the return from Babylon, as before. Not that they were better men; but the unclean spirit of idolatry was no longer their special temptation. There were new ways in which the devil tempted them to sin, if not after the old sort. The house had been swept and garnished. Such it was when our Lord was here below. Israel had laid aside their idolatrous habits; they went to the synagogue every sabbath day; and they were zealous enough to compass sea and land to make a proselyte. The house was apparently clean, and nothing outwardly to shock the eye if you looked at it. But the unclean spirit is to go back. "Then goeth he and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation." The unclean spirit is to return, with the full power of Satan - "seven spirits more wicked than himself." More wicked than idolatry! The figure of a man is used to illustrate the state of Israel, as the words that follow plainly show: "Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation." And when is that to be? It is their last state, yet to be. The empty, swept and garnished state existing then may be still going on. Humanly speaking, they may be moral. They may not abandon the books of Moses, but take their stand as worshipping none but the true God. This will go on for a certain time, but not forever; for we know from Scripture that God has kept that nation for special purposes, first in judgment, and then in mercy. He will convert them, and make them a holy, as they are the lineal, seed of Abraham. Israel is yet to show the last results of Satan's power over their souls before God converts a remnant, and makes it a strong, a saved nation.
But meanwhile, what was He going to do? Was He merely pronouncing judgment on Israel? Far from it. While He yet was speaking to the people one came and told Him, "Behold, Thy mother and Thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with Thee" (ver. 47). The Lord immediately takes this opportunity to show that He no longer acknowledged mere relationships according to the flesh. He had special relationship with Israel, "of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came." He owns it no longer. They would not have Him, and will become the tenement for the devil in all his power - their last state to be worse than their first. But, says the Lord, I am going to have a new thing now - a people according to My own heart. And so He stretches forth His hand toward His disciples, and says, "Behold My mother and My brethren." His only true relations were those who received the word of God, and did it. "Whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother" - He renounced all earthly connection) for the present time. The only tie He acknowledges now is relationship to a heavenly Father, formed through the word of God received into the soul.
Thus we have in this chapter the Lord closing with Israel, as far as testimony is concerned. In the next chapter we shall find what comes dispensationally of those new relations that the Lord was about to unfold.
But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.
But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him;
How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?
Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?
But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.
But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.
For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.
And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue:
And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.
And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.
Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.
But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all;
And charged them that they should not make him known:
That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying,
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 shew judgment to the Gentiles.
He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.
And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.
Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw.
And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David?
But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.
And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:
And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?
And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges.
But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.
Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house.
He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.
O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
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 the prophet Jonas:
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.
The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none.
Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.
Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.
While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him.
Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.
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 toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.