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Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath
Matthew chapter 12, verses 1-14
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
“At that time” must have been in the month of April, near Passover time, the year before Jesus’ death, for the grain was ripe and ready to harvest. There was nothing unusual, and nothing wrong with helping oneself to some of the grain, rubbing the kernels out in one’s hands, and eating the grain. The Law of Moses clearly provided for this: “If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain” (Deuteronomy chapter 23, verse 25).
The Pharisees knew better than to make an issue of the disciples’ actions in themselves, but they pretended to be horrified that Jesus would let his disciples do this on the Sabbath Day. It is true that the Sabbath was to be a day of rest. No unnecessary work was to be done on the Sabbath, and the Law of Moses clearly pointed out many kinds of labor that were to be avoided on the Sabbath. But the Law of Moses did not condemn what the disciples were doing. The legalistic Pharisees, who had formulated many more regulations of their own, classified the disciples’ deeds as unlawful harvesting and threshing of grain. They were delighted to find another excuse for criticizing Jesus and his disciples.
Once again, however, Jesus had no difficulty in refuting the charge of the Pharisees. He did not even bother to remind them that the disciples had not broken a God-given law, but only a man-made regulation that really had no validity. He responded on a higher level, pointing out that the law of love might at times violate ceremonial laws without being guilty of sin. As a matter of fact, there are times when it would be wrong not to violate the letter of some ceremonial laws. Jesus proceeded to give them two examples.
First he reminded them of an incident recorded in 1st Samuel chapter 21. At a time when David and his soldiers were being pursued by King Saul, who wanted to kill David, God’s priest, Ahimelech, gave David and his companions consecrated bread that, according to the ceremonial law, was to be eaten only by the priests. This was an emergency, and Ahimelech did not hesitate to make an exception to the usual order of things. And no one charged David and his companions or Ahimelech the priest with committing sin in this situation. So it was ridiculous to condemn Jesus’ disciples for something that was not even a violation of the ceremonial laws God had given to Israel through Moses.
Furthermore, Jesus said, God himself required his priests to do physical labor on the Sabbath. For example, butchering sheep was forbidden labor on the Sabbath, yet God had commanded, “On the Sabbath day, make an offering of two lambs a year old without defect” (Numbers chapter 28, verse 9). No one would accuse the priests at the temple of sinning by offering those sacrifices on the Sabbath.
The temple was a symbol of God’s presence among his people, and the temple was not desecrated by such labor of the priests on the Sabbath. Jesus was more than a symbol of God’s presence. He was Immanuel, God with us, true God incarnate, and Lord of the Sabbath. He could set aside Sabbath laws if he so desired, and in due time he did just that, but at this time he and his disciples scrupulously obeyed the ceremonial laws. What the disciples did in that grainfield was not a violation in any sense of the word.
The Pharisees’ problem was that they did not understand the divine principle expressed by the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea chapter 6, verse 6). Anytime there might be an apparent conflict between the ceremonial laws and human needs, God tells us to do whatever is necessary to be merciful to someone in need.
Those Pharisees could not respond, but they were not ready to give up in their efforts to criticize and condemn Jesus. Their unbelief was unreasonable, but they refused to learn from Jesus. They rather felt that they had to find a way to silence him, and they would stop at nothing! So they continued to keep an eye on Jesus and to look for more opportunities to discredit him. They had another chance on the following Sabbath Day (see Luke chapter 6, verse 6). Jesus went into their synagogue, and this time they took the initiative. They noticed a man in the congregation who had a shriveled hand, and immediately they correctly surmised that Jesus might heal this man—even on the Sabbath Day. So they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
Jesus’ response clearly revealed their hypocrisy in asking that question. They would not hesitate to rescue a sheep from a pit on the Sabbath, even though that might require quite a bit of physical labor on their part, and they would not regard that labor as a violation of Sabbath law. A human being is much more valuable than any animal, and Jesus could heal this man’s shriveled hand without doing any physical labor at all. So how could they possibly find fault with him? Jesus then simply told the man to stretch out his hand. He did, and he was healed. Jesus did not even touch him, and Jesus did not even pronounce him healed. Yet, it was obvious that the healing came from Jesus.
Again the Pharisees were silenced and felt humiliated. Their unreasonable hatred of Jesus continued unabated. As a matter of fact, they became even more vicious. They went out and plotted to put Jesus to death. That was their response to Jesus’ good deed. Those who accused Jesus of being in league with Satan for doing good were themselves under the power of the devil and capable of doing unspeakable evil!
Jesus shows himself as God’s chosen servant
Matthew chapter 12, verses 15-21
Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, warning them not to tell who he was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “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. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.”
Jesus’ hour had not yet come, and so no schemes of the Pharisees to put him to death could possibly succeed. Even though Jesus could have exercised his divine power or summoned 12 legions of angels to protect him, he chose instead not to expose himself to danger unnecessarily. He simply withdrew from that place. But great crowds followed him. Mark mentions that these crowds included people from Jerusalem, Judea, Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from around Tyre and Sidon—presumably Gentiles as well as Jews.
Jesus healed all the sick among them. No one who ever came to him or was brought to him for healing went away disappointed. Jesus never refused. He showed mercy. He could have told them not to bother him because he had more important work to do. Only a small percentage of the people needed physical healing, but all the people needed a spiritual healing. Without physical healings their lives might be unpleasant or even shortened, but without spiritual healing they would all suffer eternally in hell. Clearly the spiritual blessings Jesus had to offer were much more valuable than any physical healing, and he plainly said so, but he did not use that as an excuse to refuse to heal all who came to him. He showed great mercy by healing people’s bodies, and he showed much greater mercy by enduring suffering in his own body and laying down his life on the cross so that sinful human beings might be saved eternally—body and soul.
As previously (page 118, for example), Jesus had his own good reason for “warning them not to tell.” Let their faith be built by Scripture, not just by physical healings which will in days to come perhaps be followed by new illnesses.
The ways Jesus showed mercy to sinners proved him to be the promised Messiah. Matthew quotes Isaiah chapter 42, verses 1-4 to demonstrate this fact. There the Father characterizes the Messiah as his beloved servant, upon whom he will send the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism the Father expressed his delight in his Son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.
Jesus also fulfilled the other aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy. He proclaimed justice to all nations. God’s justice rightfully condemns all people, for all are unworthy sinners, but Jesus fulfilled all the demands of God’s justice by living a perfect life as our substitute and by dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world. He continues to proclaim his condemning law as well as his saving gospel through the mouths of his believers all over the world. We are among these ambassadors for Christ, and we do well to follow Jesus’ example as we proclaim his message. We won’t save anyone by being argumentative and quarrelsome, even if what we say is the truth. The power of the saving gospel is in the message of forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. The gospel of Christ is the power of God for the salvation of all believers, and it is the only power God uses for that purpose. The gospel in Word and sacrament is the means of grace, the only means God uses to give us the blessings that Christ has earned for us, namely, forgiveness of all sins, life, and eternal salvation. Any attempts to add to that power can only lead to disaster.
Like Jesus, we should show mercy to the “bruised reed” and the “smoldering wick.” Such reeds and wicks symbolize people who are weak in faith, spiritually wounded, on the verge of losing their faith entirely. Every Christian congregation has such bruised reeds and smoldering wicks in its midst. Sometimes we call such people “delinquent members” or “dead wood” and are eager to cleanse the church by getting rid of them. Excommunication sometimes becomes necessary, and we should not hesitate to excommunicate as a final effort to bring a defiant sinner to repentance. But a reed that is only bruised, not broken off, and a wick that is still smoldering, not totally extinguished—these need our patient and loving words of admonition and encouragement. Remember, those who seem to appreciate the gospel the least are the ones who need it the most. We must never forget the important principle Jesus expressed at Matthew’s house when he told the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. . . . I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (chapter 9, verses 12 and 13).
Divine justice will prevail. All will have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and all will have to submit to the verdict he pronounces: eternal life for all believers in Christ, eternal damnation for all who hoped to get into heaven in some other way. People from every nation under heaven will be gathered into Christ’s kingdom by the power of the gospel, and all Christians have the privilege of participating in this saving work.
Jesus demonstrates that he is not for Beelzebub but against him
Matthew chapter 12, verses 22-37
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. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” 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. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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. “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. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Demon possession was widespread among the people of Jesus’ day. It seems that Satan was making a desperate attempt to counteract the work of Jesus and to interfere with the coming of God’s kingdom. We cannot say how the people were able to recognize cases of demon possession, for the outward symptoms were much like physical problems caused by disease, at least in some cases. But when we are told that Jesus cured people by casting out the demons that possessed them, we know that they were not suffering only from a common physical ailment. In the case mentioned here, a demon-possessed man was blind and mute. After Jesus healed him, he could both see and talk. Many of the people who observed this miracle correctly concluded that Jesus just might be the promised Messiah, the Son of David.
But the Pharisees reacted with their usual viciousness and unreasonableness. Once again they accused Jesus of being in league with the devil, Beelzebub. And once again Jesus easily demonstrated how silly their accusation was. A kingdom or a city or a household divided against itself will not long survive. Satan is clever, not stupid, and he would not use such tactics in an effort to advance his kingdom. Oh, he may have been willing to sacrifice a few demons in an effort to deceive people, but Jesus was casting out demons by the dozens. Furthermore, there were others who cast out demons. We don’t know who they were or how they went about casting out demons, but everybody recognized the fact that they succeeded in doing so. Nobody accused those people of being in league with the devil. God could have used them as his instruments whether they were believers or not. God often uses people even without their knowledge and against their will to accomplish his good purposes for his kingdom.
The logical conclusion, then, was that Jesus was driving out demons by the power of God. Any reasonable person would see Jesus’ work as a function of the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Satan. Jesus could cast out demons because he was more powerful than the devil. Jesus had come into the world in order to do battle with Satan and prevail over him, to crush the head of the serpent, Satan (see Genesis chapter 3, verse 15). He had won a major victory over Satan when he withstood Satan’s temptations over a period of 40 days in the wilderness, and he won another small victory whenever he cast out a demon. Satan cannot withstand the power of the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. The devil was like a strong man who had been tied up, so that he could not protect or hold on to his possessions.
Under those conditions, whose kingdom would you like to be in, Satan’s or Christ’s? Jesus reminds us that neutrality is impossible. “He who is not with me is against me,” he warns. All who want to be neutral in spiritual matters need to realize that neutrality is enmity against Christ. Jesus claims to be the only Savior of the whole world of sinners, and he warns that anyone who does not believe in him will suffer with Satan for all eternity. So to claim neutrality toward Christ is to reject him.
Many who reject Christ for a time eventually come to repentance and salvation. Christ died for all our sins and offers us forgiveness for all of them. As a matter of fact, total forgiveness is the only kind there is. God does not forgive us our sins one at a time. He forgives sinners. The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin. Yet many reject Christ’s forgiveness and die in their sins.
When sinners repent and are saved, that is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the gospel, he creates spiritual life in people who were dead in their sins. He gives us the gift of saving faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit deserves all the credit for bringing us to faith. We could not help along in that process any more than a stick or a stone can bring itself to life.
On the other hand, when sinners persevere in their sins and are condemned, that is entirely their own fault. This may not seem logical or fair according to our ways of thinking, but the Bible tells us that is the way it is. So those who are saved give all the credit to God, while those who are condemned have only themselves to blame.
From our point of view, there is hope for repentance as long as a person is alive. But Jesus tells us that some are beyond the possibility of repentance even before their earthly lives end. They are persons who are guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Such people have stubbornly rejected the work of the Spirit in spite of many opportunities or in spite of having been believers at one time. Sooner or later, God’s patience with them is exhausted, and their time of grace is over. We cannot judge when a persistent sinner has fallen under that judgment. We are to regard sinners as candidates for conversion as long as they live, even as we warn them that God’s patience is not inexhaustible. The epistle to the Hebrews warns us, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left. . . . It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews chapter 10, verses 26 and 31).
Just as bad fruit proves a tree to be bad, Jesus warns the Pharisees that their wicked words reveal the wickedness in their hearts. He calls them a brood of vipers, offspring of the serpent Satan. They can speak nothing but evil because their hearts are full of evil. Even when they appear to speak the truth, they do so with evil intentions, and God judges intentions as well as words. To say or to do the right thing for the wrong reason is totally evil in the sight of God. But God can cause such evil deeds to help work out his good purposes for his kingdom. For example, God may use the gospel when proclaimed by a hypocritical preacher, himself really an unbeliever, to bring sinners to faith and salvation. The power of the sacraments does not depend upon the officiant, but upon the gracious gospel promises associated with Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We also need to take to heart Jesus’ warning against speaking careless words, for they are sins for which we deserve to be condemned. Our prayers are careless words when we speak only with our lips and not from our hearts. Our words are careless ones when we speak nothing of substance at times when we ought to confess Christ our Savior. Our words are careless ones whenever we use God’s name in a flippant or disrespectful manner. Our words are careless ones if we inaccurately report what God’s Word says about a matter. Words are powerful, and careless words can do untold harm. As we examine our own lives, we surely must confess that we are guilty of speaking careless words day after day. For these sins also we need God’s forgiveness for Jesus’ sake every day. And we need to implore God to help us bridle our tongues. In this connection, read James chapter 3, verses 1-12.
Jesus refuses to give any miraculous signs, except the sign of Jonah
Matthew chapter 12, verses 38-45
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. 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 one greater than Jonah is here. 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 Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
When the Pharisees were unable to rebut Jesus’ words, they decided to use another approach. They addressed him as “Teacher” (Rabbi) and asked him for a miraculous sign. They implied that if Jesus gave them such a sign they would believe in him. They didn’t specify what kind of sign they wanted, but it is certain that no miraculous sign would have satisfied them. After all, they had watched Jesus heal the sick and observed as he cast out demons, but that was not enough for them.
Jesus called them “a wicked and adulterous generation” for asking for such a sign. They were not sincere in their request. They were guilty of spiritual adultery, for they were unfaithful to their faithful God. In spite of all the special blessings God had showered upon them as his chosen people, they left the Lord and went after the false gods of their pagan neighbors. When God fulfilled the promise that had been repeated throughout the four thousand or so years of Old Testament history and sent the Savior, they rejected him. They ignored all the things he did that proved him to be the Son of God and the promised Savior, and then they pretended that one more miraculous sign would make a difference.
Jesus told them he would give them one more sign in due time, “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And he explained what he meant by that. Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, and then he was cast up on the shore and enabled to go about the task that God had assigned to him, proclaiming God’s call of repentance to the people of the heathen city of Nineveh. Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day, showing that he had satisfactorily completed the task for which the Father had sent him into this world, namely, the redemption of the world.
But there was a difference, Jesus pointed out. When Jonah went to Nineveh, the people repented in sackcloth and ashes. When Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament promises about the coming Savior, most of his own people rejected him in unbelief. So the believing Ninevites and the Queen of the South (the Queen of Sheba), who traveled a thousand miles or so to hear the wisdom of Jesus’ wise ancestor, Solomon, would condemn that unbelieving generation. Those who have greater opportunities and richer blessings have greater responsibilities, and they have greater guilt when they fail to appreciate their blessings or to accept their responsibilities. The more you receive from God, the more God expects from you. The person who is a believer for a while and later rejects his Lord and Savior and dies in unbelief will be worse off than one who never knew his Lord at all (chapter 11, verses 20-40).
In verses 43 to 45 Jesus describes another situation. A man has been possessed by a demon, and the demon has left him. While the spirit is wandering about rather aimlessly, a spiritual vacuum remains in the man. He may imagine that he has made himself over without the demon, that he has gotten his life into good order, and that he is now capable of doing whatever may be necessary to qualify himself for a place in the kingdom of God. But he can’t do that by himself. He needs Jesus. When Jesus has not found a place in the man’s heart, the demon can return and take over anytime. This man did not concern himself about that possibility and was not watchful against the devil. So the original demon found seven demons more wicked than himself and took charge of the man’s life. That, Jesus said, was the way it would be with the wicked generation of which those hostile Pharisees were a part.
Jesus speaks about his mother and brothers
Matthew chapter 12, verses 46-50
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to 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.”
Even in that wicked generation there were some who repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus as their Savior. Jesus’ own brothers, at least at first, were not among them, as we are told in John chapter 7, verse 5.
On this occasion we find Jesus’ mother and brothers on the edge of the crowd wanting to speak to him. Matthew does not tell us what they wanted to talk about, but in Mark chapter 3, verse 21 we are told, “They went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” They may have been sincerely concerned about his welfare as they noted how hard he was working, how large the crowds around him were, and how bitter the hostility of the scribes and Pharisees was becoming. So they wanted to take him home, where he could eat properly and get some rest.
When the word was passed on to Jesus that his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him, we may be surprised or even shocked at his response: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He surely was not disowning them. He was rather pointing out that physical relationships don’t mean much in the kingdom of God. The true members of his family are all those who do the will of his Father, and the Father’s will is that people come to repentance and faith in Christ as their Savior.
In this connection you may wonder exactly who these “brothers” of Jesus were. Mark chapter 6, verse 3 mentions James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. Some “sisters” are also mentioned, but they are not named. The most natural explanation seems to be that they were children of Mary and Joseph born after Jesus, but Bible students hold differing opinions about their identity. The word “brothers” does not always refer to sons of the same earthly father and mother. Sometimes it refers to other close relatives, such as cousins. Those who prefer this interpretation point to the fact that, on the cross, Jesus called upon John to care for Mary. Why would he have done that if she had other sons and daughters?
Considerable evidence can be gathered to support either point of view, but it is impossible to determine whether Mary and Joseph had other sons and daughters besides Jesus or not. In a case like this you are entitled to your opinion, but remember that it is only an opinion. When we see Jesus face-to-face in the mansions of heaven, he will surely tell us and answer any other questions that have mystified us during this earthly life.
Your faith is not affected by your opinion about the identity of Jesus’ “brothers,” but what you think of Jesus makes all the difference in the world and in the world to come. Never doubt that he is the Son of God, equal in power and majesty with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He is the promised Messiah of Israel. He is the only Savior of the whole world.