OPPOSITION TO THE KING Matthew 12–13
“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the Prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:39).As it became increasingly clear that one must choose for or against Jesus, opposition to Him and to His kingdom hardened. Today too some reject Christ not because they know so little about Him, but because they do not like the little they know!
Definition of Key Terms
The Sabbath Day was set aside as holy in Judaism. A person could do no work, but did worship, pray, and study the Scriptures. Over the years many rules of Sabbath observance had been propounded by the rabbis. These were intended to help the observant Jew keep from breaking the Sabbath inadvertently. But these rules, held by the Pharisees to be oral law given Moses on Mount Sinai and therefore just as binding as the written Law, were in fact only the notions of men. While Jesus was accused of being a Sabbath-breaker, He in fact only violated human rules that were not binding at all. It’s all too easy to raise our applications or interpretations of Scripture to the status of Scripture itself. This is a tendency each individual, congregation, and denomination must guard carefully against.
Jesus’ claim to be Lord of the Sabbath (12:1–14) and the Servant predicted by Isaiah (vv. 15–21) brought direct conflict with the Pharisees (vv. 22–37). Christ rejected their demand for a miraculous sign (vv. 36–45), but announced kinship with those who do God’s will (vv. 46–50). In a series of parables told to puzzled crowds (13:1–35), and in another series told to His disciples (vv. 36–52), Jesus explained the unexpected aspects of His kingdom.
Understanding the Text
“Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” Matt. 12:1–13.Two Sabbath incidents led to open conflict with the Pharisees. The first was provoked by Jesus’ disciples, who plucked and ate grain on the Sabbath Day. In the first century grain was planted right to the edge of paths and trails. According to Old Testament Law a traveler might break off a stalk and eat as he walked along. The Pharisees objected because they classified this as “harvesting,” one of the 39 kinds of work the sages prohibited on the Sabbath. Christ answered in a familiar form of rabbinic argument. The Scripture says no layperson is to eat the temple showbread. But David ate, and was not condemned. If one wants to argue that David was special, all right: Jesus is more special. Again, the Law says not to work on the Sabbath. But the priests work then, offering sacrifices. If one wants to argue that the temple service is special, all right: Jesus is more special. The argument makes a double point. The strict legalism of the Pharisees was not supported by the Old Testament. The written Law showed that God is more concerned with mercy than with sacrifice (i.e., with relationships than with rules and ritual). And, in the person of Jesus, the God who gave the Sabbath cleared the disciples: they were innocent of the crimes charged (vv. 7–8). Shortly afterward Jesus entered a synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. Looking for some crime to charge Jesus with, the Pharisees asked if it were right to heal (again “work”) on the Sabbath. Jesus’ reply was scornful. Even they would rescue an animal that had fallen in a pit on the Sabbath. Of course it is right to do good on the Sabbath. And then Jesus healed the man’s hand. What a revelation of the heart of Jesus—and of the Pharisees. These men who were so concerned over their rules cared nothing for the crippled man’s suffering. They only wanted to use his injury to attack Jesus. In contrast, Jesus cared about the man, and willingly faced criticism to help him. You and I are much closer to Jesus when we consider how we can meet others’ needs than when trying to force others to live by our convictions. “The Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus” Matt. 12:14. Jesus’ sayings and actions exposed the cold hearts of the Pharisees, and the emptiness of an approach to religion to which they had dedicated their entire lives. When so exposed, only two courses of action are open. One can humble himself, confess, and repent. Or with cold fury one can strike out at the person who threatens his very identity. The Pharisees chose to strike back, and determined to kill Jesus. We must not be surprised when some are furious at the Gospel message. Like the Pharisees, many today have built their lives on a faulty foundation that they hold very dear. “Jesus withdrew from that place” Matt. 12:15–21. Jesus responded to their hostility by simply leaving the area. Matthew explained by quoting a passage from one of Isaiah’s “servant songs.” Messiah “will not quarrel or cry out.” He will be so gentle that He will not even snap a worthless reed flute, or discard a soot-filled candle wick. You and I seldom win those who are deeply antagonistic. It’s far better to leave them, as Jesus did, and go on healing the sick. Debate is never as effective as loving service. We win many more by showing compassion to those in need than by showing up those who want to argue. “Could this be the Son of David?” Matt. 12:22–29 The Greek suggests the question should read, “This can’t be the Son of David, can it?” There were doubts. But there was the growing awareness that Jesus might be the prophesied Messiah. The Pharisees must have been driven to distraction when they learned the crowds were asking such a question. The zealous Pharisees were respected by all and viewed as prime examples of godly, spiritual men. If Jesus were accepted as the Messiah, this Man who showed up the spiritual void of the way they had chosen would surely rob them of all respect. In desperation the Pharisees began a whispering campaign. They couldn’t argue that Jesus had performed no miracles. But they could plant doubt by suggesting He was in league with the devil. When people can’t do anything else to harm believers, they can lie about us. What is important is that our lives be so pure that everyone sees the lies are as ridiculous as the charge raised against Jesus. “Blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” Matt. 12:30–32. What is the unforgivable sin? It is a denial of that which one knows God must be doing, even as it was clear that Christ performed His miracles by the Spirit of God. The sin is unforgivable because the person who commits it has so hardened himself that he willfully rejects what he knows to be true. If you’ve ever worried that you might have committed this sin, relax. The very fact that you’re concerned shows that your heart is not hardened like the hearts of the Pharisees. “It finds the house unoccupied” Matt. 12:43–45. Self-reform is possible. Ben Franklin developed a list of desirable traits, and worked hard at developing them. But even if our bad habits are overcome, our lives are empty unless we invite Christ in, to empower us for godly living. The Pharisees were great at sweeping out. But their failure to welcome Jesus left them vulnerable to demons far worse than the ones they worked so hard to brush away. Let’s be careful to open our lives to Jesus, and let His love fill us with the compassion, mercy, and love these very religious opponents of Jesus lacked. “He told them many things in parables” Matt. 13:1–35. A parable is a story that makes one central point, and relates every element in the story to this point. The parables in this chapter concern Jesus’ kingdom, but are not obvious. In fact, Jesus said that He spoke in parables so that those who believed might understand and those who did not believe would not understand (vv. 11–15). What an illustration of God’s grace. Those who showed that they would not hear the King were spared the revelation of further truth, for which they would have been held responsible. Those who were willing to respond were given truth in a form they alone would grasp. This section of the Gospel closes with Christ’s return to Nazareth, His hometown. He was famous now, known all over Galilee and Judea too for His miracles and teaching. Did the hometown folks roll out the red carpet, to welcome the returning hero? No; instead they resented His fame. Wasn’t He just the carpenter’s Son? Weren’t His brothers just ordinary folks? How did Jesus get off, putting on such airs? Often the hardest people we have to minister to are those who know us well. Others are impressed. Our family and neighbors seem almost resentful. If this has happened to you, try not to be too upset. It happened to Jesus first. Of course, there’s also the rest of the story. Among those hometown folks who rejected Jesus were His own brothers (cf. John 7:3–5). Yet in Acts 1:14, on a list of those who were gathered in the Upper Room after Christ’s resurrection, praying and waiting for the coming of the Spirit, we find “Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Yes, it hurt to be misunderstood and rejected at home. But in the end, all the family did respond. All came to know Jesus as Saviour and as Lord. What an encouragement for you and me. We may be misunderstood at home, or even scorned. But a faithful, loving witness will bear fruit.
Parables of the Kingdom
|The Parable||Expected Form||Unexpected Form|
|1. Sower 13:3–9, 18–23||Messiah turns Israel and all nations to himself||Individuals respond dofferently to the Word’s invitation|
|2. Wheat/tares 13:24–30, 37–43||The kingdom’s righteous citizens rule over the world with the King.||The kingdom’s citizens are among the men of the world, growing together till God’s harvestime.|
|3. Mustard Seed 13:31–32||Kingdom begins in majestic glory||kingdom begins in insignificance; its greatness comes as a surprise.|
|4. Leaven 13:33||Only righteousness enters the kingdom; other “raw material” is excluded.||The Kingdom is implanted in a different “raw material” and grows to fill the whole personality with righteousness.|
|5. Hidden treasure 13:44||Kingdom is public and for all.||Kingdom is hidden and for individual “purchase.”|
|6. Priceless pearl 13:45–46||Kingdom brings all valued things to men.||Kingdom demands abandonment of all other values (cf. 6:33).|
|7. Dragnet 13:47–50||Kingdom begins with initial separation of righteous and unrighteous.||Kingdom ends with final separation of the unrighteous from the righteous.|
Careless Words (Matt. 12:1–37)
The Pharisees just didn’t realize what they were saying until it was too late. They figured they had Jesus dead to rights when they criticized His disciples for picking wheat on the Sabbath. And then they rubbed their hands together in glee when they thought of tricking Him into healing a cripple on the Sabbath. Then, oops! They realized all they’d done was expose their own failure to understand God’s Word and their own cold hearts. They had accused the innocent (the disciples) and used the helpless (the man with the shriveled hand). They hadn’t been thinking when they spoke. That’s the meaning of the “careless words” that Jesus speaks of in verse 36. It wasn’t the mean, hateful accusations that the Pharisees hurled against Jesus that exposed them (vv. 22–32). Actually, each person’s heart can be read in his or her actions and words. Those things we say without thinking, like the Pharisees’ challenges of Jesus, reveal the heart. In the Pharisees’ case their words, so quickly uttered, revealed cold and uncaring hearts, totally unconcerned with the guilt or innocence of those they accused or with the suffering of the cripple they intended to use to trap Jesus. What people say coming out of church or in public does not reveal their hearts. It’s the words that slip out when they speak casually to their family, coworkers, or friends. It’s good every now and then to check on our own careless words. When we do, we’ll be able to tell a lot about the quality of our personal relationship with Christ.
Careless words can reveal a loving heart as well as a hard one.
“What will it mean in practice for me to put God first? This much at least. The 101 things I have to do each day and the 101 demands on me which I know I must try to meet will all be approached as ventures of loving service to Him, and I shall do the best I can in everything for His sake.”— J.I. Packer