[August 17, 2008] In the Gospel according to Matthew we have: the coming of the kingdom of the heavens to Israel in the person of the Messiah Jesus, the calling into being of His church within Israel, and the turning of the Gentiles to God within the church as a sign to Israel. Paul discusses this last item in Romans 9—11 in complete agreement with Matthew’s presentation.
We have been following along in the gospel, paying attention to context, and putting ourselves into the story. We are the disciples of Jesus, those whom He has called. He has claimed our total allegiance, loyalty and commitment and we have given it to Him (this is what faith means). We have been brought into His sphere, His “space,” so that His Father is now our Father. We are in the place of the Son, beloved by the Father as His own children, and we are under His government. And we have been sent by Jesus into the world, as sheep among sheep, to call others to faith in Him. We also learned in chapter 10, however, that we are also in the world as sheep in the midst of wolves, and the world will receive us the way it received Him.
After that, beginning in chapter 11, Matthew shows us how people reacted to Jesus. This is the theme of 11:2—13:53. It seems like the crowds loved Jesus. They flocked to Him because He worked miracles, healed their diseases and delivered people from demons. But then we begin to see something else. First on their part, Jesus does not live up to their expectations and they became offended. Even John the Baptist was offended because Jesus did nothing to deliver him from prison. The crowds also got impatient because Jesus would not dance to their tune. For His part, Jesus too was disappointed, because the crowds flocked to Him but they would not repent. Who He is was hidden from them because they deemed themselves so wise and intelligent. As a result, they did not know who He is and the Father did not reveal it to them.
Back on January 27, I preached on this part of the gospel (Matthew 11:20—12:8). Jesus acknowledges to the Father that after all the signs He has performed and after all His teaching, the crowds are still indifferent, and He puts Himself and His situation in the Father’s hands. He praises the Father for His will, and rather than complaining or striving, He rests in the Father’s will.
Then He invites others into His rest. “Come to Me all who toil and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In the following episode (12:1-8), He compares Himself to David on the run from Saul, and He shows that even as the rejected Messiah, He is the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of rest.
The Pharisees Wanting to Destroy Jesus (Matthew 12:9-15a)
In the first story we read today, Jesus is put to the test in a synagogue to see if He would heal someone on the Sabbath. These people equate religion with following rules. As long as a person conforms to the outward rules and does not deviate, they are okay. This kind of religion is childish and always hypocritical. It not only indicates unbelief, but it is a form of rebellion against God. Not only do the rules serve to justify a person in the eyes of others, they also serve to keep God at bay. If we can keep God from getting angry at us, we can also keep Him far away so He won’t spoil our little lives.
Of course, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. In His presence, we cannot hide from God. He does not require of us that we “behave” and follow the rules. He demands our entire allegiance, that we quit our own life and follow Him. There is no safety from Him, or the judgmental eyes of others. The only safety is with Him.
Here in the synagogue is a man with a withered hand. He cannot perform his labor during the week because he is handicapped, and so he cannot enjoy the Sabbath either. With a withered hand we can only imagine in those days how he managed. In 9:36, Jesus saw the crowds and was “moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and cast away like sheep not having a shepherd.” In 11:28 He looked at them as those who toil and are burdened. This man, the man with the withered hand, might have had to work extra hard or perhaps he was a burden to others. Jesus compares him to a sheep that needs to be rescued, rescued really so that the Sabbath can be more fully enjoyed. His accusers have no such compassion. They want to know whether Jesus will perform any “work” on the Sabbath.
In fact, Jesus does no work. He tells the man to stretch out his hand, but He Himself does not touch him. God healed the man through the word alone.
Nevertheless, Jesus insists that it is LAWFUL—not to do “work” but—to do well on the Sabbath. The work that the law of the Sabbath forbade did not forbid acts of compassion such as the restoration of someone’s life. Work has to do with productivity, with adding a surplus value to the creation, not the enjoyment of the creation as it is or the exercise of compassion in restoring what is injured in the creation.
The Lord speaks to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The Lord’s word was life-giving, it contained life for the man, but the man had to stretch out his hand as if to take the Word. We too need to not just listen to the Lord’s word passively. We need to stretch and take hold of it for ourselves and make it our own. We need to examine and ask ourselves if we do this.
The Pharisees are offended at Jesus’ boldness and begin to plot secretly against Him. Even though these Pharisees do not represent the crowd, and do not even represent other Pharisees, what we see at this point is some very serious resistance to Jesus.
The Rejected Servant of the LORD and Salvation for the Gentiles (12:15b-21)
Jesus refuses to quarrel or cry out, and He charges the crowd to not make Him known. He offers no resistance to His opposers but simply withdraws from them. This is according to what He commanded His disciples in chapters 5 and 10. We are called to prophetic patience and to wait for God’s justice.
Matthew quotes Isaiah 42. The beginning of the quote immediately reminds us of the voice that spoke from heaven at Jesus’ baptism and how the Spirit came upon Him at that moment. In chapter 41, God is disappointed with Israel, and He can find no one to satisfy Him. Then 42 begins, “Behold, My Servant … He will bring justice to the Gentiles.” Jesus alone satisfies the Father’s heart, but He comes not with might but in the way of compassion. A sturdy reed could be made into a flute or something else, but a bruised reed was useless. Flax was also put in oil to give a flame, but if it smoked, it needed to be trimmed down. Jesus does not reject us because of our weakness and failure or because we are ruined and useless. He is the friend of sinners.
This passage from Isaiah not only points back to the Lord’s baptism, it also points forward to the end of the gospel when the resurrected Jesus sends us out to “disciple all the Gentiles” (28:19). Even though His own people may not receive Him, the Gentiles who are suffering in their ignorance and sin will receive Him, and He will receive them, and they will become a sign to Israel that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near to them. Romans 11:6-11 is very pertinent here. “Have they stumbled so as to fall? Absolutely not! But by their misstep salvation has come to the Gentiles to provoke them to jealousy.”
The Sin Against the Holy Spirit (12:22-37)
In the next episode, the Pharisees go too far. When they accuse Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul, that is, by Satan, they reveal the evil treasure (verse 35) in their heart and condemn themselves. Jesus tells them that when He casts out demons by the Spirit of God, the kingdom of God has come upon them. He bound Satan in the wilderness. By denying Himself there Satan lost all ground, and so now Jesus can freely plunder Satan’s house. The Pharisees who accuse Him do so not in ignorance—since they recognize God’s work elsewhere in Israel (verse 27)—but in defiance of God. They recognize GOD’s hand and harden their hearts against Him. This is their blasphemy, that it is spoken in deliberate defiance of God (after having witnessed Jesus heal a demon-possessed man), even though they might continue to tell themselves that they are opposing Jesus for God’s own sake!
This word that Jesus speaks applies to these particular individuals, not to the nation of Israel. Yet it is a stern warning about what anyone might be doing when they reject Jesus. His warning extends even to the crowd, telling them that by their unwillingness to repent they are sitting on the fence, and sitting on the fence is as bad as siding with those who oppose Him. “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (verse 30). All you have to do is be passive, to not be with Him and not gather people with Him. Being passive and not committing is already a sign of a hardened heart. Jesus demands that you make a decision for Him, that you commit your life; that you give up trying to make it on your own and surrender to Him as your Lord. Are you with Him? Do you gather with Him?
The sin against the Holy Spirit, however, is to harden your heart to the point of no return. The blasphemy is the word against the Holy Spirit that reveals this condition of the heart. Jesus does not say that these particular Pharisees have committed this sin, but He comes close to saying so. If we refuse to turn to Jesus, if we reject Him, if we blaspheme Him, we come closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. If our heart is absolutely hardened, then our rejection of Jesus follows us to the deathbed and the grave.
Obviously a believer cannot commit this sin. It is equally obvious that if you are tormented, thinking that you have committed this sin, then you cannot have committed it. A symptom of this sin is that there is no torment, the conscience has become calloused. In this sense, it is an invisible sin. The person who has reached this point cannot recognize it. They are sure they are right.
There is no forgiveness for this sin in this age—that is, in this life—or in the age to come. The age to come is not necessarily eternity. It refers to the age of the kingdom when Christ will bring all things under His dominion before He hands everything over to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). These words of Jesus do not settle the final question. (About this, Scripture seems to be rather reticent, if not completely silent.)
This is a difficult passage, and it has been misused and abused through the centuries. It has been misused against the Jews and against fellow Christians, and it has tormented the sensitive consciences of individual Christians. So I will repeat, the context in Matthew has to do with the growing resistance to Jesus by leaders who have influence on the crowds, and the hardening of their hearts not only against Jesus (about whom people might draw many conclusions and have many opinions) but against God Himself.
Jesus warns them about their words. It was the words of these Pharisees that condemned them because words reveal what is in our hearts. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (verse 34). A psychologist could tell you that your words do not often means exactly what they say, nor even what you think or want them to say, but they do reveal to the discerning ear what is going on inside. A therapist often acts like a mirror and will point out to you what you have said so you can face it. Most of us are not careful with our words, and more often than not, we do not even realize what comes out of our mouth. We hurt people without realizing it. I do not say that we should listen to the words of others so we can judge them. I am saying we should pay attention more to our own words, especially what we say casually or inadvertently, and ask what they reveal about ourselves. God will help us.
If Jesus has called us and we responded, we can come to His table, knowing the love that overcame the hardness of our own heart, and be thankful.