Matthew 12

Structure of the Passage

Jesus’ Authority is Challenged (Mt. 12:1–45)
Cycle 2: Sabbath Conflicts and Jesus’s Response (Mt. 12:1–21)

1. Unbelief: Sabbath controversy (Mt. 12:1–8)

2. Unbelief: Sabbath controversy (Mt. 12:9–14)

3. Belief: “The hope of the Gentiles” (Mt. 12:15–21)

Cycle 3: Confrontation with the Pharisees (Mt. 12:22–50)

1. Unbelief: The unforgivable sin (Mt. 12:22–37)

2. Unbelief: An evil generation (Mt. 12:38–45)

3. Belief: Jesus’s true family (Mt. 12:46–50)



In this chapter, more and more of the world’s opposition to Christ and His ministry becomes evident. The greatness of Christ is a stumbling block for many, even for His own family. Yet Jesus, in this chapter, shows the greatness and holiness of His power, God’s Spirit, and the family of God.

Exposition of the Verses

There are three major areas of controversies which Jesus engages in the following chapter. The first one is His attitude to the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1–14), the second his exorcisms (Mt. 12: 22–37), and lastly the basis of his authority as it is challenged in the demand for an authenticating “sign” (Mt. 12:38–45). All these times, the accusers are the Scribes and Pharisees. For them Jesus is a law-breaker (Mt. 12:1–14), an agent of Satan (Mt. 12:24–32) and a self-appointed “teacher” with no proper authorization (Mt. 12:38–42). Here, they make a plan to execute Jesus, even though it will not in fact be in Galilee and under Pharisaic auspices that Jesus will eventually be executed, but under the priestly régime of Jerusalem. These accusations are used by Christ to justify his mission, (Mt. 12:3–8, 11–12, 25–29, 39–42), and to show His status as prophet, priest and king.

Verse 1-8 The Accusation of Unlawful Activity and the answer from Scripture

Matthew places this Sabbath controversy right after Jesus’ promise to give His disciples rest, a “light yoke.” Moses had never forbidden to pick grain during a walk on the field, but had forbidden the use of a sickle (Deut. 23:25; cf. Lev. 19:9–10). It is the Pharisees that consider the act of the disciple’s work, for in order to eat the grains, they would have to be rubbed out of the husks, which the Pharisees saw as threshing, or harvesting. There is no doubt that Jesus valued the Sabbath, but the many rules and regulations that were given by the leaders took the essence of the Sabbath day away, and made it burdensome.
Jesus answers to this accusation twice by the phrase: “haven’t you read?” First, mentioning David, then the priests and then turning to Hosea. Hereby Jesus underlines a basic hermeneutical conflict between himself and the Pharisees (Matt. 12:7–8). Jesus makes crucial statements about his identity and stature in Mt. 12:6 and Mt. 12:8 (cf. Mt. 12:41–42). For if David, who was anointed by God was allowed to break the rules and eat the temple bread, (1 Sam. 21), Jesus who is the Son of David, has the authority to permit the same.
The basic hermeneutical problem of verse 7-8 shows how Jesus’ heart is different from the Pharisees, and therefore His desires and laws are not the same. Quoting Hos. 6:6, Jesus shows God’s mercy and compassion for His people, and that their own laws are burdens for the people.
When Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made to benefit people, and not people to benefit the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), His argument is both haggadic (the analogy drawn from a narrative passage about David) and halakic (the precept drawn from a legal passage about the priests). As Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8), Jesus fulfills the promise of rest for His people: an easy yoke, and light burdens (Mt. 11:29–30).

Verse 9-14 Healing in the Synagogue

Another Sabbath controversy follows. Jesus is put to the test with the question whether or not it is lawful to heal a man on the Sabbath. The penalty for profaning the Sabbath was death (Exod. 31:14; Num. 15:33), and so the question of the Pharisees may be linked to the plot in Matt. 12:14. This narrative takes place most likely in the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown Capernaum, where again the same group of Pharisees is confronted with Jesus’ power and authority. The hand of the man is withered, ξηράν (paralyzed, dried up).
Healing was not really forbidden if there would be little to no physical action, but yet the Pharisees tried to use this case to dethrone Christ. Christ’ response touches the conscience of the crowd, as they ought to consider that which is good on the Sabbath. He does this by citing a situation that might have been allowed: removing a sheep from a pit (see Deut. 22:4; Prov. 12:10; Matt. 15:14). The argument is again from lesser to greater, since healing a diseased person is more necessary than lifting a sheep out of a pit (cf. Matt. 6:26–30; 7:11; 10:31). Doing good on the Sabbath is equivalent to prioritizing compassion over sacrifice (Mt. 12:7). God fulfills the law by loving a neighbor, and therefore he is no Sabbath breaker.
In verse 13 and 14, Jesus heals the man by a simple command, involving little to no physical work, but depends on the man’s faith. Interestingly, this act of healing is done very publically, as Luke and Mark describe how Jesus took the man in the middle of the crowd as He healed him. The Pharisees take off, and plan Jesus’ murder, as done before (Mt. 3:7; 9:11, 34; 12:24; 15:7, 12; 16:6, 21; 17:9, 12, 22; 20:18; 21:38, 46; 22:15, 34; 23:30–32; 26:2–5, 14–16). According to Turner, it is not the observance of Moses’ law that made them plot the murder, but Jesus’ disobedience to the “status quo.” The mob follows Him, He proves His superiority over them, and He might even be a threat to the Roman-Jewish relationships.

Verse 15-21 The Servant’s Response to Escalating Opposition

We see Jesus leaving the place where the two miracles happened, and he presses the crowd not to make him known. In this way, He fulfills the prophesy of hte Lord’s Servant, in Isa. 42:1-4. Jesus is here portrayed as a gentle, non-confrontational attitude, an avoidance of publicity, and a patient ministry of encouragement rather than denunciation. Jesus withdraws to avoid an early confrontation that would harm His ministry. Jesus’ withdrawal reflects the instruction he has already given to his disciples to move on when they meet a hostile reception (Mt. 10:14, 23).

Verse 17-21 Biblical Fulfillment: The Lord’s Servant

The following quotation is the largest citation in the book of Matthew, and does not literally reflect the LXX or MT, but is likely Matthews own translation. Similar words were spoken at Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:17) and speaks of the beloved Son, who has the Spirit of God, and will bring peace to the nations (Mt. 12:18).
The Spirit leads, not according to what the crowd wants, but what God wants, to handle gently the weak, humble, with kindness and compassion (Matt. 5:5). Matthew 42:1, 4 also prepares for the mission to the Gentiles, and their reception of the Gospel message. Thirdly it shows that this message will be led by the Spirit of God, and that those who reject and neglect this work, will be in offense to the Spirit of God. Christ is very different from people. His power is to serve, and not to take. As Turner says, “Jesus does not extend his influence by selfish quarrels and inflammatory rhetoric. His ministry will eventually bring justice to victory (Matt. 12:20), but by self-sacrificing service.”
Verse 20-21 speak metaphorically of those whom Christ will minister gently to. A reed was used for measuring and for support, so that once its straightness was lost by bending or cracking it was of no further use. A strip of linen cloth used as a lamp-wick, if it smokes, is no use for giving light and is simply a source of pollution; it is in danger of going out altogether. Both would be replaced, the reed broken and burnt, and the wick extinguished. It means here, that Christ will encourage and lead the damaged and broken, where society would reject them.

Cycle 3: Confrontation with the Pharisees (Mt. 12:22–50).

Verse 22-27 The Unforgivable Sin

The confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees comes to a climax in the following verses. A man who mute, blind and demon-possessed comes to Jesus and evokes a reaction of all present: the crowd who wonders if Jesus is the Messiah, being marveled, and mention Him as “Son of David.” Previously they had witnessed that “nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel” (Mt. 9:33). Yet on the other side there are the Pharisees. The text speaks of “when they heard this,” meaning that they deliberately slandered Christ after the praise of the crowd. They do so by calling him “Beelzebub,” which means “lord of the house” or “lord of the heights” but is a term used to describe evil supernatural powers or the devil himself, as the appositional “ruler of the demons” clearly shows. Yes, they believe that the miracles are real, but are labeled as work of the devil.
Jesus’ response to them is remarkable. First of all because He knows their thoughts and intentions. Second of all, by the way He responds. He asks two rhetorical questions, whether or not Satan would work against himself (Mt. 12:25–26), then asks whether the Pharisees’ own exorcists are empowered by Satan (Mt. 12:27). As the Scriptures will confirm, the slander of Christ’s work is slander against the Spirit of God, and portray their eschatological doom, an unfruitful tree who will wither and be hewed down in due time.

Verse 28-30 Jesus Provides the Real Explanation

Jesus now provides the real source of His power, the Spirit who came at His baptism, and who works through the miracles which He performs. This verse is likely the most profound statements of the Kingdom in Matthew. The power of God that saves and heals is now among men.
Speaking of the Kingdom of God taking over the domain of Satan, Jesus gives the example of a strong man and the looting of his house (see also Ps. Sol. 5:3). God’s teaching and preaching drives into Satan’s territory and binds his power increasingly (Matt. 11:1, 5, 21–23; 12:13, 18, 22; cf. 1 John 3:8). It contains language of Isa 49:24–25 where God strongly stands up for His people. The tying up means that Jesus Christ is superior over Satan, and that He actively limits his powers.
Verse 30 shows synonymous parallelism. Gathering and scattering are opposites and both terms of shepherding. Jesus tells here that the Kingdom is black and white. Either you are for Him or against Him (Mark 9:40). Perhaps these words are intended to warn the wondering crowd more than the Pharisees, whose minds seem to be made up.

Verse 31-37 Jesus Warns of the Unforgivable Sin

Jesus says clearly that the slander of the Pharisees (Mt. 9:34; 10:25; 12:24) is unforgivable. It is the Spirit of God that is being slandered, not Jesus Himself. Scripture takes direct insults to God Himself very seriously, calling it “sinning with a high hand” (Num. 15:30–31). Much debate has followed this passage. Augustine took the reference to a sin not forgivable in the age to come as implying the existence of purgatory (City of God 21.24). John Bunyan mentions that it might indicate a lack of response to God, that those have “sinned away their day of grace.” Yes, ultimate unbelief is unforgivable but the Bible does not say that those who do not directly believe Scriptures are unforgivably doomed. Turner notes: “This saying is a wake-up call to the arrogant, not a bogey to frighten those of tender conscience.” Sadly, after those warning and condemning words, they still desire a sign (Mt. 12:38).

Verse 38-45 Some Legal Experts and Pharisees Ask for a Sign

Though the leaders ask Jesus for a sign, He does not give them a new sign. In fact, He names them “an evil and adulterous generation.” Matt. 11:16–19; 16:4; 17:17; 23:29–36; 24:34; cf. Deut. 1:35; 32:5. The Pharisees are here accompanied by legal experts, or theologians, people that did not want to let Jesus’ words go unchallenged. Asking a sign was not uncommon in the OT. Moses, in the expectation that his God-given authority would be challenged, was given miracles to perform (Exod 4:1–9, 29–31; 7:8–22); Gideon requested and received a sign to confirm God’s promise (Judg 6:36–40); Elijah called down fire from heaven (1 Kgs 18:36–39); Ahaz and Hezekiah were offered signs to authenticate Isaiah’s prophecies (Isa 7:10–14; 38:7–8). A sign would testify to the authority and authenticity of the prophet, and the reason why Jesus does not give them their desire is because of the intentions of the ones who ask.
Jesus refers to Jonah 1:17, referring to Jesus death and resurrection. Known was that the Jews were not so much occupied with Jonah’s preaching of repentance but his presence in the whale. This is the first time Matthew speaks of Jesus’ upcoming death. In verse 41, the people of Nineveh are placed above the Jewish leaders in the Kingdom of heaven. Although the Ninevites repented when Jonah preached (Jon. 3:2), Jesus’s contemporaries do not repent when one greater than Jonah preaches (cf. Matt. 12:6).
The same counts for the queen of the south, who came to listen to the wisdom of Salomon (1 Kings 10:1–13; 2 Chron. 9:1–12), yet one who is wiser and greater is despised of his own people. Therefore on judgment day both the Ninevites and the queen of the South will condemn Jesus’s contemporaries.

Verse 43-45 The Unclean Spirit

The debate concerning exorcism that commenced in verse 22 goes further in verse 43. The spirit leaves the man in whom he lived to a desolate desert (Isa. 13:21; 34:14), and return to the man who has swept his house clean and therefore has a more appealing abode), with seven buddies. There is sarcasm in this story. The unclean demon who feels at home with the man does not see himself fit in a clean house, but the seven demons would make it “dirty” enough to make the heart inhabitable again. This passage speaks of the hardened hearts of the nation of Israel, who have seen Jesus’ miracles and understood His message, but have not guarded themselves, and are unwilling to guard themselves against returning evil. This enigmatic parable implies that the absence of evil spirits does not equate with the presence of redemption.

Verse 46-50 The True Family of Jesus

Jesus’ mother and brothers are in front of the house, desiring to speak with Him, and Jesus uses this opportunity to speak of His family. Perhaps his mother and brothers are afraid of the conflict that they see developing between Him and the spiritual leaders. Mark 3:21, 31 even shows their concern that Jesus has gone mad, and they want to stop Him. However, they have to stand outside. Jesus’ inner circle does not consist of His own family, but of His close disciples, who have become His brothers and sisters. It is known that Jesus’ family was often not sympathetic for His ministry (Mark 3:21; John 7:1–5). It is only later on, that Mary and James become involved in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus does not disown His family, but He shows that biological relationship or anything of the sort does not define Jesus’ family, but following Christ. Jesus values family (Mt. 15:1–9; 19:19; John 19:27), yet puts His own values higher than biological families. This is consistent with His message that Jesus’s disciples may have to leave their families behind (Mt. 19:29), and they may even face betrayal by the members of their own families (Mt. 10:21, 35–37). Everyday family duties (cf. Mt. 4:22; 8:22) cannot take precedence over one’s loyalties to the Messiah and his kingdom.