Responding to Jesus’ kingdom ministry (preaching resource for 12/11/22)

This post exegetes Matthew 11:2–12:50, providing context for the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for 12/11/22 (Advent 3). This exegesis draws on commentary from "IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament" by Craig Keener, "New Bible Commentary" by RT France, and "Bible Knowledge Commentary" by Louis Barbieri.

"Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea" by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

So far in his Gospel, Matthew has focused on Jesus himself as the Kingdom’s king. Now his focus shifts to examine people’s response to Jesus’ kingdom ministry. Responses include doubt, glad acceptance, hostile accusation, enthusiasm, and even sheer puzzlement. The response that Jesus wants is deep commitment.

Doubt (11:2-19)

2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" 4 Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6 Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." 
7 As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' 11 I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 He who has ears, let him hear. 
16  “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her actions."

From prison (4:12), John the Baptist has followed Jesus’ ministry. John is confused and expresses doubt (vv2–6). He was likely expecting that Jesus would do as he had done—preach a judgment coming upon Israel for her sins (see 3:11–12). Instead, by showing concern for the helpless and unimportant, Jesus exhibits a far more ‘low-key’ image than John expected from Israel’s Messiah. In reply to John’s doubts, Jesus weaves together various Old Testament texts (mainly Isa 35:5–6 and Isa 61:1–2), which find clear and visible fulfillment in his deeds as recorded in Matthew chapters 8–9. Unexpected as these deeds may have been to John, they are prophesied ‘deeds of the Messiah’ (the literal meaning of the phrase what Christ was doing; v2). Those who do not recognize them as such, have always found Jesus hard to take (v6; fall away on account of is literally ‘be scandalized by’).

Despite this mild reprimand of Jesus from John, Jesus commends him as the last and greatest of the prophets—the returning Elijah prophesied to inaugurate the last days (Mal 4:5–6). But, great as John is, he is only the forerunner (v10, quoting Mal. 3:1) of God’s decisive new initiative, the kingdom of heaven, which has now been inaugurated with Jesus. John stands only at the kingdom’s threshold. The comment in v12 that forceful men lay hold of this advancing kingdom, is probably referring to violent opposition, which the true work of God always arouses (see vv16-19). This opposition is seen already in John’s imprisonment, and it will soon escalate in John’s execution and in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  

Note in v13 that the entirety of the Old Testament revelation (the law and prophets), points to Jesus and finds its fulfillment in him (as Jesus said it would be in 5:17). Different as John and Jesus are in their ministry style and even message, there is no pleasing some folk, as the playful parable of vv16–19 illustrates. John’s ascetic lifestyle is branded by his opposition as fanatical, and Jesus’ convivial approach is branded as scandalous. Nevertheless, God’s wisdom is wiser than human prejudice and is justified (vindicated) by the very actions which this generation despises. Despite doubts and even violent opposition, the kingdom ministry of Jesus marches on.

Rejection (11:20-24)

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."

The hostile response hinted at in vv16–19 is now specified. The three towns mentioned are close together at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, the area where Jesus’ mission has so far been focused. Even the notoriously wicked pagan cities whose judgment figures in the Old Testament (Tyre, Sidon and Sodom) would have been more receptive to what is so obviously the work of God. Notice here that Jesus expects his miracles alone to cause people to repent. How much more his preaching of the good news in these towns!

Glad acceptance (11:25-30)

25 At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. 27 All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 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."

It is not the high and mighty but little children and those who are weary and burdened who are accepting Jesus and his message. Why is this so?  The reason lies not in human capability, but in the will of God and in the miracle of revelation. The initiative of this revelation remains with the Father, who reveals the meaning of Jesus’ ministry (vv25–26), and with the Son, who reveals the Father (v27). To those whose eyes are opened to this revelation, the invitation is made to come to Jesus and to follow him, taking upon oneself his yoke—which means to become one of Jesus’ disciples. 

In that culture, a yoke was used with animals (such as oxen) to ease their discomfort in pulling a heavy load. But it also symbolizes obedience and the acceptance of responsibility. The rabbis spoke of taking on ‘the yoke of the Law’, and under their direction that burden had become oppressive. Jesus’ yoke, by contrast, is easy—not because his call to discipleship is undemanding (as we saw in chapter 5), but because it makes us pupils of Jesus who, quite unlike other religious leaders of his time, is gentle and humble in heart. Thus when we hear his call to discipleship, we can respond unreservedly and with great joy, having no fear that our Lord might abuse or misuse us.

Accusations and threats of violence (12:1-14)

1 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. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath." 3 He answered, "Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 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. 5 Or haven't you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." 

9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 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?" 11 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? 12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." 13 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. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

These two stories show why some people were finding Jesus’ mission unacceptable. They view him as a dangerous radical who is undermining obedience to the Law, which is at the heart of their religion. Some of their leaders begin to plot his murder (v14). Both stories focus on who has authority to determine what is, and is not, permissible under Jewish Sabbath law. By this time, Jewish law has added to the Sabbath command in Ex 20 a large number of subsidiary requirements. In particular, this legislation prohibited reaping and healing on the Sabbath (unless there was an immediate threat to life). Nevertheless, Jesus boldly claims that he has the right to dispense with these regulations as David had done (1Sam 21:1–6) and as the temple priests were obliged to do in fulfilling their duties. In putting himself in this company, Jesus in effect is claiming to be at least equal with David and greater than the temple. This same argument will be carried further in vv41–42.  If that is his status, then surely he is Lord of the Sabbath too. His shocking and authoritative dismissal of Pharisaic tradition is in line with Hosea’s principle that God is concerned with love before ritual (v7; see also 9:13).

Certainly this healing of the shriveled hand could have waited until a day other than the Sabbath. However, Jesus acts intentionally on the Sabbath day. In doing so, he exposes the double standard of those who are willing to make exceptions to their Sabbath laws in order to alleviate animal suffering (and avoid economic loss?), but are not willing to act for human relief. Jesus’ sweeping statement, ‘It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’, is in striking contrast with the Pharisees’ tendency to multiply restrictive Sabbath regulations. No wonder they have to oppose a man who so openly flouts both their authority and the principles they stand for.

We should also note that because these stories, which focus on Sabbath law, follow Jesus’ invitation to come to him for “rest” (see 11:28), he clearly is implying that the kingdom life, which he offers to his disciples, replaces the weekly Sabbath (note that the word Sabbath, means rest). As stated in 5:17, Jesus fulfills, and thus brings to its ultimate conclusion, the Law (including the command to observe the weekly Sabbath day).

Jesus’ nonviolent response (12:15-21)

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, 16 warning them not to tell who he was. 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 leads justice to victory. 21 In his name the nations will put their hope."

Jesus responds to the threat of violence not by retaliating, not with violence, but by withdrawing for the time being from the public arena. In this Matthew sees Jesus fulfilling the portrait of God’s servant that is described in Isa 42:1–4—one who is gentle and non-violent, yet ultimately victorious. This is the first of the so-called ‘Servant Songs’ which recur through Isa chapters 40–55, and from the last of which Matthew has already illustrated another aspect of Jesus’ total ministry in 8:17.

More accusations (12:22-37)

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 Beelzebub, 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 Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 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. 

30 "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the 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. 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 out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 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. 36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

Now the opposition against Jesus becomes more ‘theological’. Recognizing Jesus’ supernatural power, his opponents attribute it not to God but to Satan. Jesus’ response is first to show how inconsistent the charge is, and then to underline its seriousness, as blasphemy against the Spirit. This leads to some comments on how significant, and how damning, words can be.

This encounter arises out of an exorcism similar to that in 9:32–34, where Matthew recorded the same charge that Jesus was drawing on demonic power. The obvious power of Jesus led more neutral onlookers to the suggestion that he was the Son of David, the Messiah working by the power of God. Since the Pharisees had already decided against this explanation (12:14), they have to find another to explain his more than human authority, and they find it in his alleged collusion with the Devil.

Jesus’ first reply to this accusation (vv25–26) points out how nonsensical it is: Satan would not attack his own troops! Secondly (v27), he points out that he is not the only person who is exorcizing demons; are all these others also in league with Satan? Thirdly, and more positively (vv28–29), he shows that, on the contrary, his attack on spiritual evil is a sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God and the defeat of Satan, the strong man. It is thus a sign not of demonic power but of the Spirit of God at work. The statement in v28 that in Jesus’ ministry the kingdom of God is not only imminent but already present and visibly active is strong proof that with Jesus’ arrival on earth the kingdom of God has begun, as seen in Jesus’ exorcisms which prove he has already overpowered Satan.

In v30 Jesus points out that there is a radical division between those who recognize God at work, and therefore are with me (v30), and those who by attributing God’s work to his arch-enemy prove themselves to be against me. By this blasphemy against the Spirit they are deliberately aligning themselves with the enemy, and thus placing themselves outside the scope of God’s forgiveness which comes through Jesus. It is important to read the terrible verses 31–32 in context. Insensitive, ill-informed applications of these words to situations which bear no resemblance to the Pharisees’ deliberate perversion of the truth have caused distress to many vulnerable people. Jesus is speaking not of a temporary lapse, but of a settled and deliberate decision to oppose the work of God. However, verses 32–37 warn us all to be careful with our pronouncements, for our words reveal what we are really like, and thus even a careless word has consequences. This is a reminder to us all of the need we have for God’s unconditional forgiveness—and indeed extending that forgiveness to us through and in Jesus, is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus warns (12:38-45)

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." 39 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,  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 one 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 Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. 

43 "When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 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. 45 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."

The religious leaders, typical of their generation (v39), demand that Jesus produce a sign to prove that his power is from God. But Jesus refuses, claiming an authority from God greater than that of Jonah or Solomon (see v6 where Jesus makes the same argument in relation to the temple and its priests). Jesus’ point is this: if even pagans could recognize God’s presence in those great men of the Old Testament, why could not this (Jewish) generation accept the authority of the one in whom all those strands of authority (prophet, priest, king, wise man) found their fulfillment? Rejecting the call of such a spokesman will lead only to judgment (v42). The humorous parable of the homeless evil spirit (vv43–45) conveys a serious warning against a half-hearted response to Jesus. Even if Jesus’ warnings of judgment bring about ‘repentance’, unless this leads on to a positive reorientation to follow him, there will be merely a void which the devil can exploit.

Jesus does point to one sign to authenticate his claim to represent God (and not the devil as was their accusation), namely the sign of the prophet Jonah (vv39-40). Jonah’s miraculous escape from the belly of the fish authenticated his preaching, and Jesus’ coming resurrection from the dead will do the same. Three days and three nights is a Jewish idiom that refers to three ‘day-and-night’ periods of time that need not be a full 24 hours each (see 1Sam. 30:12–13 and Esther 4:16–5:1).

Conclusion: a call to commitment (12:46-50)

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." 48 He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

This section of Matthew's Gospel concludes with a call from Jesus to full commitment. Matthew does not tell us how Jesus’ mother and brothers respond at the time, but portraying them as outside the circle of disciples suggests that they were uncommitted. Jesus calls for commitment by contrasting natural family ties with the greater ‘family’ of those who do the will of my Father in heaven. The reward for this commitment is to be part of this new family, which is gathered around the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.