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Matthew 11:20-12:42

Roger Hahn

Matthew 11:2-12:50 - Rising Opposition (cont.)

Matthew 11:2-12:45 form the third major narrative section of the first gospel. The theme of this section is doubt, indifference, and dissent. The first portion of the section dealt with John the Baptist in 11:2-19. Matthew continues the theme of failure to understand Jesus in verses 20-24 as Jesus pronounces a "woe" on several unrepentant cities. The stories of John the Baptist's doubt and the judgment on the unrepentant cities also appear in Luke's gospel, but are separated by several chapters. Matthew's logic in bringing them together reflects the theme that he is developing. In verse 18 Jesus had pointed out that many in the audience had not accepted John the Baptist's message. In fact, some had gone so far as to accuse him of being demon possessed. Despite John's call for repentance, these people had not turned toward the full obedience required by the Kingdom. Jesus was able to confront them with the judgment their disobedience will bring by talking about the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Matthew 11:2-24 - Doubts and Dissatisfaction (cont.)

Verse 20 identifies the point of this paragraph. The cities in which he had done the majority of his miracles had not repented. The cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida are mentioned first. Here and the parallel passage in Luke 10:13 are the only places in the Bible that mention Chorazin, which was apparently a few miles north of Capernaum on the Roman road to Damascus. Bethsaida has been mentioned more frequently because several of the disciples (Philip, Andrew, and Peter) are said to have come from Bethsaida (John 1:44). It was probably located several miles east of Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Neither appears to have been a major city, but because of their closeness to Capernaum they would have been well aware of Jesus' ministry. The miracles described in Matthew 8-9 would have been performed in the vicinity of both of these cities. The Kingdom had been preached in their hearing, but they refused to repent.

The word "woe" that Jesus pronounced over these cities was an exclamation of grief. Christ lamented the spiritual death of these cities that had had the opportunity to encounter the grace of the Kingdom, but had failed to repent. The judgment that will come upon them will be worse than the judgment of the cities of Tyre and Sidon. These cities were part of ancient Phoenicia and were noted in the Old Testament for their idolatry. Isaiah 23, Ezekiel 28, and Amos 1:9-10 promise the judgment of God to be visited upon them for their arrogant pride. Though they experienced temporary military set backs from Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, it was not until the invasion of Alexander the Great, who captured the cities in 331 BC, that their prominence was broken. There was a long period of history in which Jews resented the power and arrogance of Tyre and Sidon and rejoiced at the fall of those cities. Jesus' comment was that Tyre and Sidon would have repented and found forgiveness had they had the same opportunity available to those who had heard his message.

Jesus then turned his attention to Capernaum. This was his home base during his ministry (Matthew 4:13) and most of his Galilean ministry took place in the general vicinity of Capernaum. Verse 23 quotes lines from Isaiah 14:13 and 15. In their original context in Isaiah 14, these verses spoke of the arrogant self-exaltation of the king of Babylon who claimed to be equal to God. The prophet, in effect, warned that such pride would only be a prelude to a great fall. (This passage has also been interpreted as a reference to Satan primarily because of the similar arrogance of the devil in making himself an equal and a rival against God; see "Lucifer" in Isaiah 14:12-17.) 

Jesus’ point in quoting the passage from Isaiah with reference to Capernaum is important. Capernaum was the place where God most directly revealed himself in the miracles of Christ. For the inhabitants of Capernaum to refuse to repent was the equivalent of setting themselves up as equals and rivals of God. Their judgment will be worse than the judgment God sent upon Sodom when he destroyed that city with fire and sulfur (Genesis 19:24-25). This is a significant warning for us. We have received so much light from the strong Christian heritage that we have received that our responsibility before God will be much greater than those who have been less blessed than we.

The following paragraph, verses 25-30, has two sections. The first, composed of verses 25-27, contain a prayer of thanksgiving by Jesus. Verses 28-30 contain one of the most gracious invitations of Jesus ever recorded in Scripture.

A logical question (and one that is often asked) is how people who received such direct revelation from Christ as Capernaum did could "not repent" and end up rejecting Christ. The answer according to Jesus is hidden from the wise and intelligent. The statement that it has been revealed to infants can be understood in more than one way. Some see Jesus’ point as being that if infants can understand God’s revelation, anyone could if that person would become as a child.

However, it seems better to take this statement as ironic rather than literal. Infants may understand basic relational matters like love and trust in more profound ways than adults do. They are unable to communicate such knowledge and so whatever knowledge they have is of no help to anyone except themselves. Verse 27 makes the point that no one knows the Son [Jesus] except the Father. The whole question of chapter 11 has been knowledge of Christ. John the Baptist was not clear on Jesus’ identity. Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum failed to recognize his significance. Only God truly knew and understood Jesus. Thus knowledge of Christ is a gift that only God can give to us.

Matthew 11:28-30 contain one of the most gracious invitations to Christ that can be found in the gospels. The invitation is directed to those who labor and are burdened down. The Greek words speak of grinding toil and desperate burdens. The second word is constructed to show a condition of a heavy burden that creates on-going weariness as it is carried on through life. The invitation to such weary people is to come to Jesus who will give them rest. The Greek word for "rest" here suggests renewal and refreshing. It does not promise that the burdens will go away. It does not promise that they will never again be weary. It does promise renewal and refreshment in the difficult journey of life. Verse 29 makes it clear that the invitation is being extended to those who have not yet responded to the call of Christ to discipleship. In fact, the phrase normally translated, "learn of me," could be translated, "become my disciples."

Perhaps the key word in this invitation is the word "yoke." This word was used in Judaism in a figurative way to signify submission, discipline, duty, and obedience. However, it also spoke of freedom and life. Jews used the word "yoke" figuratively with reference to the Law and the commandments. To become a student of the oral law was to take upon oneself the "yoke of the Torah." Jesus’ invitation was to discover the discipline and the freedom that came from following him. Though Protestants have tended to emphasize the freedom from the Law that comes from Christian faith, Jesus’ use of the "yoke" metaphor shows that he understood both discipline and freedom to characterize his followers.

Verse 30 states that this Christian yoke is easy. The Greek word could be translated "kind." Another way of saying this is that the Christian yoke "fits." Some scholars believe that these words of Jesus, "My yoke is easy," echo the advertising sign of Joseph’s carpenter shop in Nazareth, "Our yokes fit." Whether that was true or not the Christian "yoke" does fit. When Christ renews and refreshes us from our weary burdens in the journey of life, the discipline of obedience to him is not burdensome, but a joy. Thus chapter 11 ends with the "real" answer to the question of John the Baptist. No only was Christ the long-awaited Messiah, he is also the one who is able to meet our deepest needs. The last thing we should do is wait for another, as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum had done.

Conflict with Judaism - Matthew 12:1-45

The unifying theme in chapter 12 is conflict with Judaism. Verses 1-21 contain two Sabbath controversy stories while cantankerous responses of the Pharisees to Jesus’ ministry dominate verses 22-45.

Matthew’s readers would have naturally contrasted the gentle or "easy" yoke of Jesus mentioned in chapter 11 with the "yoke of the Torah" that the Pharisees insisted upon. That contrast now appears in a specific example in Matthew 12:1-8, a story about Jesus’ disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. For Matthew there are two issues at stake in this passage. The first is difference in views of the appropriate way to keep the Sabbath. The followers of Jesus accepted the same Sabbath commandment from the Old Testament that the Pharisees did. The difference lay in the way in which that commandment was understood and interpreted. The second issue of critical importance in this passage is the right of Jesus to introduce a new Sabbath interpretation. Thus the authority of Jesus to speak for God is also at stake here.

The action of the disciples that became the focus for the controversy was plucking heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands to extract the grain from the chaff and then eating the grain. According to Deuteronomy 23:25 such a practice was permitted for what we might call a "snack." The objection of the Pharisees was not to the disciples’ taking grain from someone else’s field, but to the fact that they did this on the Sabbath. By about AD 200 the huge collection of oral traditions of Judaism was put into writing so it would not be forgotten. This document is called the Mishnah. The Mishnah has a large section on Sabbath observance. In this section were specific prohibitions against reaping and threshing on the Sabbath. By picking the grain and by rubbing the grains out from the chaff, the disciples had violated both prohibitions and the Pharisees pointed that fact out to Jesus.

Jesus’ reply to the criticism of the Pharisees has four segments that may be thought of as four arguments against the "yoke" of the Pharisees. First, Jesus refers to an event described in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 in which David and his soldiers entered the Holy Place in the Tabernacle and ate the Bread of the Presence that only priests were allowed to eat. Jesus’ point in mentioning this is not entirely clear. The Old Testament passage does not place this event on the Sabbath, though the later tradition of the rabbis made that claim. Some interpreters believe that his argument was that since the Law had been broken in the Old Testament, it was permissible for his disciples to break it. Others argue that the point is that David violated the Law and no one objected because of his greatness. But Jesus, as one "greater than David," was now present and thus he possessed the authority to violate the Sabbath also.

The second argument, given in verses 5-6, is that the priests in the temple regularly break the Law of the Sabbath by their "work" in the worship services at the temple on the Sabbath (killing the sacrificial animals and cleaning up the mess from the sacrifice). Though the temple sacrifices justified Sabbath breaking, Jesus states that something greater than the temple is present. That greater thing than the temple is presumably the ministry of Jesus and thus meeting the hunger of his disciples would justify violation of the Sabbath law.

The third argument, found in verse 7, appeals to Hosea 6:6 in which God calls for mercy rather than sacrifice. Neither Jesus nor Hosea understood that verse as an argument against the sacrificial system. Rather, it is a call to right priorities in spiritual matters. For Jesus, human need has priority of the oral law’s interpretation of how to observe the Sabbath.

The final argument is given in verse 8 and shifts from the issue of correct Sabbath observance to the issue of Christology. The question is Jesus’ right to give a new interpretation of the Sabbath law. Obviously, by calling him the "lord of the Sabbath" Matthew was convinced that Jesus had that authority. As Son of Man Jesus does not deny the Sabbath commandment but claims the right to interpret it in such a way that the Pharisees’ interpretation is canceled. Thus Jesus’ "yoke" is easier than that of the Pharisees.

The second Sabbath controversy appears in Matthew 12:9-14 in the healing of the man with a withered hand. The Mishnah made it clear that medical treatment could only be extended on the Sabbath when a person’s life was in danger. If no danger would result from waiting until the following day, that was the course of action required by the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law. The fact that a man with the withered (literally "dried up") hand was present in the synagogue and the Pharisees immediately ask Jesus for his view on healing on the Sabbath has caused some to see this case as a "set-up" designed by the Pharisees to entrap Jesus.

His response here does not appeal to the Old Testament, but directly to the Pharisaic interpretations of the Law. Jesus asked them whether they would lift out one of their sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath. The question is quite interesting because it appears that Judaism was arguing over that very issue at the time of Jesus. The community that copied the Dead Sea Scrolls argued that a person could not help an animal out of a pit on the Sabbath. The Pharisees permitted such an action though the Mishnah and Talmud show a variety of opinions about how to justify such actions. The conclusion in the Talmud was that preventing an animal from suffering should override the oral traditions for Sabbath observance.

Jesus then used a typical rabbinic argument that is usually called "from lesser to greater." This argument stated that if a principle were true in a lesser case it would be even truer in a greater case. The linguistic clue that a "from lesser to greater" argument is being used is the phrase, "how much more." If the Pharisees would permit Sabbath breaking to rescue a trapped sheep how much more should a human being in need be set free on the Sabbath. Verse 12 provides Jesus’ conclusion, "So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." After arguing the case Jesus then promptly healed the man and the paragraph concludes with Matthew’s remark that the Pharisees exited conspiring how to destroy Jesus.

Matthew 12:15-21 contains Matthew’s conclusion to the Sabbath controversy stories. These verses contain the longest quotation from the Old Testament to be found in the first gospel. Verses 18-21 quote Isaiah 42:1-4. These verses are the opening lines of the what some scholars now call the first servant song of Isaiah. Four passages are identified as servant "songs," Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:1-11; and 52:13-53:12, because of their concentrated emphasis on the servant of the Lord. It is not clear whether the Jews of Jesus’ time had noticed these passages as "servant songs" or not. Nevertheless, Matthew’s quotation of this first servant song creates a sharp contrast between the violent response of the Pharisees who were seeking to kill Jesus and Jesus’ gentle fulfillment of the servant passages.

The next major section in Matthew 12 is verses 22-37 in which Jesus is accused of performing his healings by the power of Satan and in which he responds to that charge. The immediate cause of this accusation was the healing of a blind and mute man. As was common in that day and time the man’s blindness and dumbness was attributed to demonic possession. Though Matthew does not mention anything about Jesus casting the demon out of the man, his healing assumes that. The crowds marveled at this healing and began to wonder (out loud) if such miracles were signs that Jesus was the Messiah. (Son of David was the common title for Messiah in first century Judaism.)

The reality of Jesus’ power and of the miracle itself could not be questioned. The only recourse for the Pharisees was to question the source of Jesus’ power. They also had an answer to their question, "It is only by the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that Jesus casts out demons." Another way of stating the accusation that Jesus was in league with Satan was to accuse him of sorcery, a charge that reappears in later Jewish sources about Jesus. The charge was serious because the Mishnah provided for the death penalty as punishment for sorcery. The exact derivation of the term "Beelzebul" is debated but the word was commonly used in Jewish circles for Satan himself, the chief demon. The accusation was that Jesus cast out demons by demonic power.

The accusation is patently foolish as Jesus proceeds to demonstrate. Verses 25-26 present Jesus’ first argument against the Pharisees and their accusation. Jesus pointed out that since demons are part of Satan’s kingdom, for Satan to fight against himself by empowering Jesus to defeat the power of a demon is contradictory.

The second argument appears in verse 27. Jesus asks whose power the Jewish exorcists used when they cast out demons. It is important for modern Christians to recognize that Jesus acknowledged both the reality of Jewish exorcisms and their validity as an expression of the power of God. Among other things, this means that Jesus’ ministry of casting out demons cannot be taken as direct evidence proving the deity of Christ. If demon exorcism was evidence of his deity then a whole host of Jewish and Gentile exorcists from the first century would also have a valid claim to deity.

The uniqueness of Jesus’ ministry is that it demonstrates the power of the Spirit of God at work in the world. In fact, Jesus’ ministry of exorcism is presented in verse 28 as evidence that the Kingdom of God was already powerfully present in the person of Jesus. The problem of the Pharisees is that they had failed to recognize the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on human life by means of the ministry of Jesus.

He continues his argument against the foolish accusation of Pharisees in verse 29 with a parable about the binding of the strong man. This parable appears to be founded on Isaiah 49:24-26. The strong man in the parable is Satan and his "property" are the people under his (demonic) control. In the parable Jesus points out that prior to plundering a strong man’s house or his property one must first bind the strong man. The point is clear. Jesus is plundering Satan by setting demon-possessed people (like the blind and mute man) free. To do so requires that he "bind" Satan. Thus the accusation that he was performing these miracles by Satan’s power is nonsense.

Verses 31-32 deal with blasphemy against the [Holy] Spirit and the unforgivable sin. These verses have caused significant worry through Christian history in people who feared they had committed such a sin. It is important to note the context of these remarks by Jesus. They are the conclusion to his response to the accusation by the Pharisees that he cast out demons by the power of Beelzebul. The sin against the Holy Spirit is to attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, the most evil spirit. The unforgivable sin is willfully to reject Jesus and excuse our own rejection by claiming that he is demonic. What the Pharisees were engaged in was a massive case of theologically "switching the labels." When one calls evil good and good evil that person’s moral capacities are so twisted that they will never be able to repent and accept Christ. Repentance is the last thing a person who considers Jesus to be evil will do. Modern Christians who worry about committing the unforgivable sin can rest assured that they have not. The people who have committed the unforgivable sin are not the slightest worried about that possibility.

The next evidence of conflict with Judaism comes with the demand by the scribes and Pharisees for a sign from Jesus. He responded by pointing to Jonah and the "sign" of Jonah’s three day and night residence in the whale’s belly. No other sign will be given the Jews of Jesus’ day.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.

First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 11:20-12:42. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?

2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.

3. Write a brief prayer telling God how you feel about the "yoke" of Christ and expressing your desire to take his yoke upon yourself. Ask him for renewal and refreshment in your own spiritual life.

Second Day: Read Matthew 12:33-50. Now focus on Matthew 12:43-50.

1. What practical application for us today can we draw from Jesus’ statements about the unclean spirit in verses 43-45? What are some of the "unclean spirits" that threaten us in contemporary society?

2. Verses 46-50 teach a view of the church as the family of Christ. If the church is to be the family of God (or of Christ) what will its characteristics be?

3. It would be possible to take verse 50 in an individualistic way so that a person might seek to do God’s will by himself or herself. That would undercut the sense of "family" in the family of Christ. What are some ways we can increase the sense of "family" in the family of God? What could you do in the life of your own church to accomplish that goal?

Third Day: Read Matthew 13:1-23. Focus in on Matthew 13:1-15.

1. As you read the parable of the sower in verses 3-8 what do you think the main point is? What application to your own life would that point have?

2. What is the purpose for using parables that Jesus gives in this passage? Compare this statement of purpose with those found in Mark 4:11-12 and Luke 8:9-10. Which is the most difficult to understand? Why?

3. Based on what you understand about parables and what Jesus said about their purpose why do you think he spoke in parables? What purpose did they accomplish for him? What purpose do they accomplish today?

Fourth Day: Read Matthew 13:1-23. Focus your attention on Matthew 13:10-23.

1. Verses 14-15 quote from Isaiah 6:9-10. Read Isaiah 6. How do verses 9-10 fit into the flow of Isaiah 6? In what ways were the ministries of Isaiah and Jesus similar? In what ways were they different?

2. How do verses 16-17 fit into the flow of thought from verse 10 on? In what ways are your eyes and ears "blessed?" List some of the blessing you have enjoyed that many prophets and righteous people would have desired.

3. Verses 18-23 give an interpretation of the parable of the sower. How well does this interpretation describe spiritual reality? Can you give examples either from your life or the life or of others of the various ways of hearing the word?

Fifth Day: Read Matthew 13:24-43. Now focus in on Matthew 13:24-32.

1. The parable of the weeds in the wheat was given to describe the Kingdom of God. In what ways does it describe the church? (What does this say about the relationship between the Kingdom and the church?)

2. What does Jesus’ point about waiting until the harvest to separate the weeds from the wheat say about life in the church? What kinds of harm come to the church from those who are overzealous to judge and purify the church?

3. The parable of the mustard seed contrasts the tiny seed at the beginning and the great tree or bush that is the end result. If this parable is applied to the church what implications does it have for us?

Sixth Day: Read Matthew 13:24-43. Now focus on Matthew 13:31-43.

1. Compare and contrast the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven. What is similar about their teaching and what is different? What application does each have for us today?

2. Verse 35 contains a quotation from Psalm 78:2. Study Psalm 78:1-4. What teaching do you find that helps enhance your understanding of parables and Jesus’ use of them? What does Psalm 78:4 especially suggest for you?

3. Verses 37-43 give Jesus’ interpretation of the parable of the weeds and the wheat. It concludes with one of his favorite phrases, "Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" What is the meaning of that phrase? How does it apply to us today?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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