Wanting to See, Matthew 12:38-42

Surely, we would agree that if we want to see something, we are more likely to see it. When my wife and I go to Ecola State Park (on the Oregon coast) we look for Haystack Rock to the south, down the stunning beach.

Imagine a situation in which the object someone wants to see is affirmatively present, and clearly visible, yet they do not see it. I think we would agree that, in such a situation, something is fundamentally wrong. Jesus confirms!

Matthew 12:38-42

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.

39 He answered, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomons wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

What Old Testament figures are named in these verses?

Commentary

We have in verse 38 what looks like an innocuous request, but that is not the case. Just at the moment when Jesus has spoken about being judged for careless words about God, then (verse 38) the scribes and Pharisees make a statement to Jesus. Matthew introduces that statement using a pattern that Greek grammar tells us is significant because it draws special attention to the speech that follows.[1]

Matthew 12:39-40 39 He answered, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Osborne explains that the Jewish religious leaders are asking for a heaven-sent spectacle, something that Jesus has already proven he will not do to draw attention to himself (Matthew 4:1-11).[2] Jesus also uses the verbal pattern to heighten the significance of his refusal and reasons (verse 39). He first notes the ongoing demand for a sign and his decision not to grant one. If you have been following Jesus ministry of healing and casting out demons, then you understand that asking for one more miracle on top of hundreds cannot be a serious request.

While it is easy to find fault with the Pharisees, how do you sometimes stop short of living by faith while waiting for a sign from God?

Since it was not obvious how any sign related to Jonah could be given (verse 39), Jesus explains it in verse 40. Remember that Matthews Gospel was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus, so Matthew knows that his readers will interpret the words of Jesus in light of his death followed by his resurrection three days later.[3]

Matthew 12:41-42 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomons wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

To understand verses 41-42, keep in mind that shame and honor provided the framework of the dominant moral system. Jesus is contrasting the Jews unbelieving response toward him with the positive response of the Ninevites to the preaching of Jonah. The Ninevites will find honor at the judgment by having repented at the preaching of Jonah, but the Jews of this generation will have only shame from their rejection of Jesus, because Jesus is greater than Jonah. A further source of shame for the unbelieving Jews at the judgment will be the fact that the Ninevites had been Gentiles of the most cruel and violent sort prior to their repentance.

The legendary wisdom of Solomon had convinced the Queen of the South (1 Kings 10), yet the current religious leaders were not listening to the greater wisdom of Jesus (verse 42), so she will rise with honor to condemn them at the judgment. Their shame will know no bounds.

[1] Steven, E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 150. We saw this device earlier in Matthew 11:25. The pattern consists of redundant verbs of speaking, often answered and said.

[2] Osborne, Matthew, 485.

[3] By Jewish reckoning, any part of a day counted as a full day. Jesus was in the grave from dusk on Friday until Sunday morning. Osborne, Matthew, 486.

The Power of Words, Matthew 12:36-37

 

Perhaps you remember learning as a child to say, in response to taunts: Sticks and stones will break my bones / But words will never hurt me.

To the contrary, Jesus says our words can hurt us forever.

Matthew 12:36-37

36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Who must account for their words?

Commentary

Frivolous. That is probably my best summary of social media my apologies to those who indulge. For those who use social media in a hostile way, the summary might be hateful. The unfortunate truth is that the twenty-first century offers more opportunity than ever to misuse words.

Personally, I subscribe to the speech-act theory, which holds that there is little to no difference between speech and action. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer explains that we do something in speaking: To speak is not simply to utter words but to ask questions, issue commands, make statements, express feelings, request help, and so forth.[1] So true!

A great deal of what goes on in Matthew 12 hinges on words. The people light a fire under the Pharisees by calling Jesus Son of David (verse 23). The Pharisees attribute Jesus miracles to the power of Beelzebul (verse 24), an alternate name for Satan. Jesus says that such blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (verse 32), either now or later.

Against the idea that the First Amendment authorizes us to say whatever we like, Jesus says that we will be compelled to account for every empty word (verse 36). The crucial word in this phrase is the Greek adjective argon, which the standard Greek lexicon takes here to mean, a careless utterance which, because of its worthlessness, had better been left unspoken.[2] In agreement with “careless” are English versions HCSB, ESV and NASB. The NET Bible is close to that with worthless. I suppose the reason that I don’t like the NIV’s choice empty is that speech-act theory leads me to think that no word fails to make an impression. Remember that the words Jesus was condemning were words about God.

Now that we know what kind of words Jesus condemns, we need to return to verse 36 for some important work. Jesus informs us that we will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word. Does this mean that Christians can never joke about anything in a playful way? No! But it does mean that we speak about God in a respectful way without exception.

How will this revelation affect the way you speak, both to God and to others?

Some of you were peeved that the NSA was monitoring your electronic communications. Well, I have news for you: God has a surveillance program that records every word you say! Further, he may react to our words in real time. Jesus signals the importance of what he is saying in two ways. First, he begins with the phrase I tell you, a method of highlighting what follows. Second, he uses a certain Greek particle that marks a development in the progress of an account. To say words are important is one thing, but to bring them up on the day of judgment puts the matter on another level.

Verse 37 makes it obvious that our words are considered to be a fruit that makes it possible to show whether we are a good tree or a bad tree, in the metaphor of verse 33. If you have never been to court, understand that the difference between acquittal and condemnation is huge. As my old textbook on sea power said with classic understatement, A collision at sea can ruin your entire day. One day that you do not want to be ruined is judgment day!

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) 63.

[2] BDAG-3, argon, careless, q.v.

Putting Your Heart on Display, Matthew 12:33-35

Contrary to what many think, we have to make judgments about others on a routine basis. Jesus both models and teaches how we can determine the people we want as our friends and the ones to keep at arms length.

Matthew 12:33-35

33 Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

List the metaphors you see in this short passage?

Commentary

Matthew 12:33 is one of the most difficult to understand in Matthews Gospel, particularly because most of our English versions fail to make its original meaning clear. We will take a closer look.

My rough translation: Either take as an example that a tree is good, and so its fruit is good. Or take as an example that a tree is rotten, and so its fruit is rotten. Because it is from its fruit that a tree can be understood.[1] (Matthew 12:33).

My paraphrase: If you want to understand the quality of a tree, start with its fruit. Good fruit means that the tree is good. Rotten fruit means that the tree is rotten. (Matthew 12:33).

After producing my analysis above, I discovered the following translation (or paraphrase) of verse 33 from the New Living Translation: A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad. This shows once again that NLT tends to shine when idioms are being used by the authors of the New Testament books.

This understanding of verse 33 may be confirmed from the context. Jesus has been healing people and casting out demons. Everyone understands that these acts are good, approved by God, as is shown by their pensive question, Could this be the Son of David [the Messiah]? (Matthew 12:23).

That question shows that the people who saw Jesus work his miracles of healing and exorcism understand those deeds to be good, and so they take the person doing the deeds to be good. They are judging Jesus by his fruit. However, the Pharisees are trying to confuse everyone by saying that Jesus works his miracles using Satans power (Matthew 12:24). With their spiritual authority, they are trying to sell the idea that it was a rotten tree that produced this good fruit.

How does this exchange demonstrate that we must judge religious authorities?

When we get to verse 33, Jesus is reminding the crowd of the right way to judge a tree, and that is by the quality of the fruit.

Having shown that the Pharisees are guilty of such intentional evil that they cannot be forgiven, Jesus adopts a metaphor for them that John had used: You brood of vipers (verse 34a). As vipers, their mouths contain poison! The lies they have told about Jesus come from evil hearts, just as the rhetorical question in verse 34a suggests.

When we get to verse 35, the metaphor seems to change to viewing the heart as a well and the words from the Pharisees mouths as the overflow from their innermost self, their heart. Jesus has already said that they are evil, so their poisonous words make a consistent picture. Small wonder that people would stay clear of them.

In verse 35, Jesus contrasts two kinds of people using the metaphor of a treasure house. This verse has two instances of the Greek verb ekballo that we have previously seen with the meaning cast out or drive out in relation to demons driven out of a person by Jesus. Here ekballo occurs with the meaning bring forth and represents the actions taken by the person themselves. The good man brings forth good treasures, while the evil man brings forth evil treasures. Imagine a Christian showing kindness to another person, or a terrorist killing them without an editing thought.

Verse 35 begs the question: what kind of treasures are you storing? Have your treasures changed quality since you gave your allegiance to Jesus Christ? Explain.

You can see that Jesus has used the metaphors of the tree, the well and the treasure house to say that what is in the heart will emerge to be seen by others, especially God. People can only see our deeds and our words, but God knows our hearts and everything that emerges from them!

[1] BDAG-3, poieo, take as an example (meaning 5.b.); kai, and so (meaning 1.c.), q.v.

Restraining the Strong Man, Matthew 12:29-32

I have often mentioned metaphors, and I have done so because the Bible has an abundance of them. When Jesus says, I am the bread of life (John 6:35), he is speaking metaphorically, not literally. Two noted experts explain that metaphors help us understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another.[1] The importance of metaphors lies in the fact that they help us try to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally, such as spiritual realities.

The way metaphors are normally used is to explain something unfamiliar by using language about something familiar. All of us have experienced bread, and that experience allows us to understand something about Jesus and to share that understanding with each other.

When I encounter a Bible passage, one of the first things I do is find the metaphors in it. They provide new windows into the passage — a metaphor, of course!

Matthew 12:29-32

29 Or again, how can anyone enter a strong mans house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

What metaphors do you see in verse 29?

Commentary

Of course, verse 29 relates strongly to its context, particularly verse 28, where Jesus has mentioned casting out demons by the Spirit of God as proof that the rule of God has overtaken the Pharisees and their allies. Typical of his writing, Matthew 12:30 looks back to Isaiah 49:24-25, where God promises to rescue his people from their oppressors.[2] In Isaiah’s prophecy, the enemy is described as a warrior or conqueror –powerful, but certainly no match for Yahweh!

The strong man of verse 30 is a metaphor referring back to the warrior/conqueror in Isaiah, the one defeated by God. But, in the context of Matthew 12, particularly verses 22 and 26, the strong man represents Satan. The exorcisms performed by Jesus are a direct attack on Satan’s kingdom, represented metaphorically by his house. The possessions (verse 30) that Jesus carries off are another metaphor for the human lives that Satan had enslaved through demon-possession or other means.[3]

Unfortunately, there is a lot of room in verse 29 for misinterpretation. Every time Jesus meets and defeats Satan — such as the temptation in Matthew 4 or the cross in Matthew 27 — someone wants to make it into a total and final defeat. For example, one group of conservative theologians argues that Satan was bound by the first coming of Christ so that he can no longer deceive the nations.[4] I consider that view to be wishful thinking since the New Testament contains a significant number of warnings about resisting Satan and his forces (Ephesians 6:11-17, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8-9). The truth is that, in this age, Jesus defeats Satan at will, yet Satan retains a significant ability to injure Christians and the church in general.

A Troubling Paragraph

Few paragraphs in the New Testament have caused as much anxiety as verses 30-32. Jesus begins with a metaphor in verse 30, and that metaphor could be either shepherding sheep or harvesting grain. Both activities involve gathering and scattering, but shepherding is the best option here. No room was left for neutrality about Jesus; his many miracles had proven his authority beyond all reasonable doubt. Those not gathering with Jesus were hunted by wolves.

But the nature of that reasonable doubt about Jesus miracles has been debated. Turner rightly points out that some theologians tend to generalize the unpardonable sin (verse 31) by equating it with ordinary unbelief.[5] Others want to make the unpardonable sin about murder, adultery and divorce, which in twenty-first century America cuts a wide arc through the population. One Roman Catholic source reduced the unpardonable sin almost to the vanishing point, preferring instead to emphasize the complete authority of the Church to forgive sins.[6]

Reading the text (verses 31-32) appears to narrow the sin to two elements:

  • Stubborn rejection of the most direct possible evidence: miracles worked by Jesus in the person’s presence.
  • Attribution of Jesus miracles to Satan’s power rather than to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Any sin that cannot meet those requirements may be serious, but it cannot be the one Jesus is talking about.

Solid advice about the unpardonable sin comes from Craig Blomberg, who notes that: (1) only Jesus enemies are in any danger, and (2) professing believers who fear they have committed the unforgivable sin demonstrate a concern for their spiritual welfare which be definition proves they have not committed it.[7]

Of course, the Holy Spirit did not stop working miracles through followers of Jesus. Whether it is possible to commit the unpardonable sin by claiming those are works of Satan is open to question. Personally, I have never favored living near a cliff, and balancing on one leg there seems inadvisable. :)

What should trouble us more is that those who persist in refusing to give their allegiance to Jesus will ultimately wind up in the same grim situation as those who committed the unforgivable sin. Even at this moment, God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus still offers amnesty to all who will accept it. Gather with Jesus while time remains!

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 5, 193.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 481.

[3] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 364.

[4] David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 322.

[5] Turner, Matthew, 323.

[6] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.) 423.

[7] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 204.

A Possible Ambush, A Great Change, Matthew 12:22-28

Perhaps you have heard the advice that if you don’t have a good, sound argument, then find an argument that sounds good. Anyone interested in American politics sees that ploy in use all the time. But you can find people in the Gospels trying the very same tactic on Jesus.

The Jewish religious leaders, led by the scribes and Pharisees, had a problem on their hands. They had given a name to their pain, and that name was Jesus. We already know they were working on a plot to kill him (Matthew 12:14), but they had to be careful about his death to avoid any blame.

Might there be another way to stop Jesus?

Matthew 12:22-28

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, Could this be the Son of David?

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Commentary

When you read this, the Dallas Cowboys will be preparing for the playoffs. As every football fan knows, when you have a powerful opponent, it is vital to scout them thoroughly and try to find some way to attack them. The Pharisees and their allies had been scouting Jesus from the beginning, but his abundant miracles, both healings and exorcisms, gave their efforts special urgency.

It is my opinion that the events we are looking into today may have been an ambush. The Pharisees knew Jesus would perform an exorcism, if the need arose, and they had prepared an argument that they hoped would place him in such danger that his life could be taken according to the law. Practicing magic or sorcery was a capital offense under Jewish religious law, so one promising line of attack was to convince the public that Jesus was a sorcerer.[1] Such a charge would put him on the wrong side of Roman law as well. As in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, Roman consent was necessary to execute anyone, but an aroused mob needs no consent. While this is speculation on my part, it fits the circumstances as we know them.

Matthew reports the miracle with remarkably few words (verse 22). Yet the few words present a man in abject misery, having an ongoing experience of blindness and inability to speak due to a demonic presence within him. This man is an archetype for a prisoner of Satan. Though the details are not stated, we can infer that Jesus cast out the demon, and muted it as well, because Mark informs us that, upon seeing Jesus, the unclean spirits would cry out, You are the Son of God (Mark 3:11). Jesus freed this man so he could both see and speak (Matthew 12:22).

Yet the words Matthew reports are those of the astonished witnesses: Could this be the Son of David? (verse 23). France notes that this is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel a crowd has used explicit messianic language about Jesus.[2] The significance of the crowds reaction is not lost on the Pharisees! They immediately respond with their prepared charge: It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons (verse 24). Beelzebul seems to have been a popular nickname for Satan, a name chosen for the crowds ears.

In making his first counterargument (verses 25-26), Jesus too relies on what is common knowledge; a demon king attacking his own forces would divide his own kingdom and lead to its fall. The people knew all about how internal divisions had torn Herod’s kingdom into many pieces after his death (see the map in the introduction). So, it made no sense for Satan to attack himself by empowering Jesus exorcisms.

How does unity among Christians play a vital role in accomplishing Jesus work among us and in our community? What about the effect of disunity?

Jesus makes his second counterargument in verse 27; his opponents have no right to criticize his exorcisms while approving exorcisms done by their own disciples.[3] Do not fail to notice verse 27b: So then, they will be your judges. In the final judgment, when the deeds of every person are evaluated by God, the disciples of the Pharisees will testify that they performed exorcisms on orders of their masters, bringing them shame for criticizing Jesus.

The idea that these false charges against Jesus were orchestrated finds support in Jewish sources making the same charge of sorcery or magic against Christians working miracles well into the second century after Christ came.[4] One such Jewish source talks about an early second-century rabbi who, when near death, tried to get a second rabbi to let a Christian enter and pray for him, but he died before he could finish the argument.[5] We all want miracles!

The Arrival of God’s Promised Rule

Matthew 12:28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

My guess is that the Pharisees were not expecting Jesus to meet their prepared charge with a strong defense. Worse for them, Jesus took the offensive (verse 28) with an effective, though indirect, claim to cast out demons by the Spirit of God. His audience knows what he is claiming, but his wording offers no effective way to charge him with anything.

This skirmish between Jesus and the Pharisees has the appearance of a strictly earthly struggle for religious control of Galilee, but Jesus is revealing developments in a much larger conflict. Jesus is ripping away parts of Satan’s kingdom and making them part of his own. He pulls back the concealing drape in verse 28.

The if-statement in verse 28 has a form meaning that it must be taken as true for the sake of argument. As a matter of fact, we know the if-statement to be true. Jesus does drive out demons by the Spirit of God. That means the matching conclusion is true as well: then the kingdom of God has come upon you (verse 28b). Jesus is warning his opponents that his decisive victory over the demonic spirits by the Spirit of God is a clear sign that God’s rule has come through him. To oppose Jesus is to oppose God.

What are the implications of such an effortless victory by Jesus over Satan? What does this victory say about Jesus ability to help you defeat spiritual enemies in your own life?

The person who best develops the meaning of the phrase the kingdom of God has come upon you (verse 28) is Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary when he explains Luke 11:20. Bock points out that Jesus demonstration of saving authority demands a decision: Jesus is perceived as ruling over God’s many salvation benefits. He has the authority to distribute them to anyone who responds to his message.[6] Bock points out that the presence of Jesus rule within believers, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, looks forward to his coming physical rule over the earth.

Have you made a decision about the reign of Jesus over your life? If not, what is standing in your way?

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1]Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 361.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)477.

[3] Keener, Matthew,363.

[4] Keener, Matthew, 362.

[5] Keener, Matthew, 362.

[6] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 1081.

Taking the Role of Servant, Matthew 12:15-21

If you look around, it is not hard to find people who are quietly trying to make their way through life. They don’t get on TV or find themselves as the subject of a best-selling book. Perhaps you are one of those quiet, diligent people.

On the other hand, we also have those seeking to be the center of attention, making frequent selfies, posting their smallest movements on Facebook and otherwise wanting to be noticed and highly valued by others.

Though the world of the first century was very different from ours, these two types of people were still around. The quiet people trying to get through their lives were among those coming in throngs to find Jesus and get help. The more self-concerned and self-assertive group was led by the Pharisees and scribes in their constant effort to be seen as godly men helping — or making! — others be godly too, at least according to their rules for godliness.

Which groups did Jesus identify with? What kind of man was he?

Matthew 12:15-21

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.

What did Jesus tell the people he healed?

Commentary

As we have seen, Jesus declared that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath and did just that by healing a man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:13). What Jesus considered lawful, the Pharisees considered awful — I couldn’t resist — so they began plotting to kill him (Matthew 12:14). These were the facts occupying Jesus’ mind as we begin verse 15.

Osborne provides a sound overview of verses 15-21 by saying, As the Pharisees plot violence against the Son of God, Jesus takes the lowly path, serving God and humankind.[1] This contrast is a key point of the section.

In saying that Jesus “withdrew from that place,” Matthew uses a Greek verb (anachoreo) that indicates a retreat to safety, something Jesus has already done several times to avoid direct conflict with his opponents. The day will come (in Jerusalem) when he will confront the Pharisees and put them to shame, but now such action would misdirect his mission. It would lead to premature trial and crucifixion, if not his outright murder.

Sometimes withdrawal from conflict can better serve God's purposes. For example, maintaining unity within a group of believers might require avoidance of conflict. What similar examples occur to you?

Instead of dealing with the Pharisees and their endless plotting, Jesus spent his hours healing illnesses among the large crowd that followed him (verse 15b). He commanded them to be silent about their healing (verse 16) so that no further trouble might erupt; the Pharisees were right on the point of behaving with violence. Matthew shows us that Jesus, in taking this peaceful, caring approach, was fulfilling the role of God’s special servant, as revealed by the prophet Isaiah many centuries earlier (verse 17).

By quoting this famous passage from Isaiah, Matthew implies a question: who is behaving like the servant of Yahweh? In theory, there might be two alternatives: either the Pharisees or Jesus. The Pharisees certainly see themselves as God’s servant and want honor from others as well. Matthew has shown us that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah had long been considered a prime candidate to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. So, Matthew is obviously presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of this role. To demonstrate that Matthew is right, we need to examine the prophecy itself.

Matthew 12:18 (“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations”) corresponds to Isaiah 42:1. This part is easy because in Matthew 3:17, at Jesus baptism by John, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, and the Father declared him to be his Son in whom he was well pleased. While we have not yet had many developments about the nations, the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant was accomplished along with a declaration from Jesus that many would come from the east and the west to take the place of the Jews who were disloyal to God (Matthew 8:513). Obviously, Jesus has satisfied this prophecy, while the self-declared defenders of the faith, the Pharisees, have not.

How does replacing disloyal Jews with loyal Gentiles demonstrate proclaiming justice to the nations?

Matthew 12:19 (“He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets”) corresponds to Isaiah 42:2. It is easy to show that the Pharisees have been regularly initiating disputes with Jesus and his disciples. Matthew 9:1-15 has the dispute over Jesus healing and forgiving sins as well as the controversy over his eating with tax collectors and sinners. We also recall Jesus teaching on the mountain to beware those who pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5), a clear reference to the Pharisees.

Matthew 12:20 (“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory”) matches Isaiah 42:3. France gives us great clarity here.[2] A cracked or bent reed could no longer serve its intended purpose; the same was true of a barely smoldering lamp wick. Many would throw these broken or spent things away without a thought. But the reed and the wick are metaphors for broken and hurting people, the very ones Jesus was busy healing and restoring to a meaningful life.

This image of brokenness represents so many of us. How did Jesus rescue you from a desperate life, going nowhere? If that is not your story, how has the great healer improved your life?

The final clause of verse 20 (“till he has brought justice through to victory”) needs explanation. Jesus will continue to lift up those broken people seeking him until the day when final justice is achieved through his victory over sin, death and Satan. It is easy to understand why the nations will put their hope in Jesus (verse 21) because no one else can bring about justice!

In short, we have the Pharisees busy plotting murder while Jesus is busy healing and caring for deeply hurting people. The contrast could hardly be greater, and it is obvious who is fulfilling Isaiah 42:3 (Matthew 12:20).

Copyright 2016 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)462.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)472-73.

Taking the Easy Yoke, Matthew 11:28-30

In this case we come to a famous Bible verse that many older Christians have memorized. Experience tells me that lots of Christians love this verse because it offers something they want (rest), but they lack understanding of the all-important details. The situation is something like getting one of those offers for a free dinner at a local steak house only to realize when you get there that it is a sales event, not the outright gift you were wishing for. We all like gifts and dislike obligations.

For many of us, life is a struggle, though in North Texas the struggle often occurs in comfortable surroundings, and frustrated dreams are too familiar. On top of everything is our relationship to God. Has that relationship become just one more burden among many?

Matthew 11:28-30

28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Who gives rest? What does he require of you in doing so?

Commentary

If “those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him [the Father]” of verse 27 sounded selective, verse 28 opens the invitation to “all you who are weary and heavy laden.” Yet, it is important that you be clear on the fact that those who do not “come to me” (verse 28a) do not get the “rest” that Jesus is offering.

In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, “come to me” has to start with repenting because the rule of God has come, and that has been Jesus message from the start (Matthew 4:17). But repenting is not like a drunk shifting from whisky to rum — a meaningless change. In our case, repenting involves turning away from those who say they need nothing from God, if he exists, and going to Jesus, the man from heaven, who assuredly lives! So, “come to me” is a call to discipleship under Jesus.[1]

As to being “weary and burdened” (verse 28), the first condition (weary) is expressed by a Greek form that suggests weariness is an ongoing condition. The second condition, being burdened, arises from a Greek form suggesting that the burden was put on them long ago and never taken off. Since Matthew 23:4 and Luke 11:46 use the same verb to express the Jewish religious requirements used to regulate people’s behavior, these burdens seem to have a religious origin. So, the people in first-century Israel are worn out from carrying out the burden of the law as it has been interpreted in detail by the scribes and the Pharisees.

Christianity has also had groups similar to the scribes and Pharisees, and these groups have at times made Christian faith more of a burden than a gift from God. It should become apparent from what Jesus is saying that those groups were not carrying out his intentions. They had an agenda of their own.

Has your personal history included painful, discouraging experiences from some Christian group or church? Did these experiences drive you away from Christ, or did you seek him again with a different group?

It is entirely possible that the weariness and burdens also involve parts of our lives that we do not normally associate with God, though he is truly Lord of all. Living, working and getting an education in a world gripped by sin and spiritual darkness can produce a weariness and burden all its own. Only Jesus can teach you how to deal with all that, because he had to do it too.

It has proven remarkably difficult to narrow the concept of “rest” (verses 28-29). First, Jesus’ words seem to look back to Exodus 33:14, where Yahweh says, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Yahweh was speaking to Moses and possibly to the entire nation in the aftermath of a serious incident involving rebellion by the Israelites on their way to Canaan. In that context, rest was connected with settling in Canaan, the land of milk and honey, where God would vanquish their enemies, give them abundant land, and dwell with them in security from future enemies.

New Testament theologian N. T. Wright shows us a way forward when he says, “Jesus was replacing adherence or allegiance to Temple and Torah [law] with allegiance to himself.”[2] Jesus sees the spiritual burden put on the people by the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, and he invites the people to come to him, the Son of Man from heaven, to put themselves into submission to him and his interpretation of the law. This submission is what is meant by the yoke — “take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (verse 29) — a device that comes from the imagery of plowing a field. Discipleship does not exempt anyone from work but makes it manageable.[3]

In the near term, those who come to Jesus find their spiritual burden lightened due to the presence of Jesus and the wisdom provided by his teaching. That is more restful than the crushing burden they have had before, and it allows them to look forward to the ultimate rest that will follow when they are with Christ in heaven. Rest now and better rest later is the blessing Jesus offers them.

All of this is possible because of who Jesus is. He is not only the Son of Man, offering them rest, but he will be with them on the way as a master who is “gentle and humble in heart” (verse 29). This rest does not consist of complete freedom from all restraint and obligation, something sought by twenty-first century hedonists. Taking the yoke of Jesus means that he is our Lord, and this teaching prepares us for Paul’s message in Romans 6 that those united to Christ are slaves to God.

Our secular world offers a life without significance, a struggle to keep the ever-changing moral requirements that emerge from an elusive human consensus, and no hope that the struggle will matter beyond our own insignificant, and utterly final, death. Jesus offers rest for your soul, both now and forever.

Will you either take Jesus offer for the first time, or will you continue to learn how to put down the burdens of this world and further embrace the easy yoke of Jesus? How will you do that?

Copyright 2016 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)441.

[2] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997) 274.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)194.