“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.”
– Matthew 12:18
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he received harsh criticism from the religious leaders. They wanted to get Jesus to slip up so that they could discredit his authority.
As they were walking through the grainfields, the Pharisees quickly confronted Jesus’ disciples when they started to pluck and eat some of the grain. The Pharisees considered their action as harvesting which they interpreted as work, which was outlawed on the Sabbath day of rest. Jesus confronts their criticism by citing two examples in defense of his disciples’ actions. The first example is when king David was hungry and ate the bread of the Presence from the temple. This bread was reserved only for the priests to eat, not the king or those who were with him. The reason David and his companions ate the bread is out of the hunger for food. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples were eating out of hunger for food. The second example is how those priests who minister in the temple on the Sabbath actually break the Sabbath law because they are working on the day of rest. They, however, are considered innocent because they are doing the work of the Lord. Jesus’ disciples are with him doing the work of the Lord at all times. They, too, are guiltless of breaking the Sabbath.
For the second time, Jesus quotes . The Pharisees continue to not understand this verse because they are condemning those who do not deserve any condemnation. When Jesus calls himself the lord of the Sabbath, he shows that he alone has the authority to determine whether the Sabbath has been broken or not.
Jesus again runs into conflict with the Pharisees in the synagogue. Although there was no law about healing on the Sabbath, Jewish tradition equated healing with work. When the Pharisees ask him if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus presents them with a question of his own. By his question to the Pharisees, Jesus shows the intrinsic value of human beings. Of course a person would retrieve their sheep from a well on the Sabbath so that it does not die. In the same way, healing a person on the Sabbath is lawful because it is doing good for a fellow human. When Jesus asks the man to stretch out his hand, he trusts in faith and his hand is restored.
When the Pharisees began to conspire against him, Jesus chose to withdraw from them. It is not that Jesus was afraid of the Pharisees, but that his time had not yet arrived for him to suffer on the cross. Jesus continues his ministry by healing those who were brought to him. He continued to tell them not to spread what he was doing. Matthew gives us further insight as to why he did this by quoting a prophetic passage from . As the passage says, the Messiah would not boastfully proclaim what he was doing, but would be a picture of humility while bringing justice, victory, and hope to the world.
The Pharisees cannot seem to give Jesus a break. After healing a demon-possessed man, they again declare that Jesus himself is possessed by the prince demon, Beelzebul. Jesus quickly shows them how their logic is severely flawed. It would be counter-productive if Satan was trying to cast out Satan from someone. The kingdom of Satan would be working against itself. Plus, he shows that they are hypocritical because some of the Pharisees’ own sons have been casting out demons. If all people who cast out demons are possessed by demons, then there are a lot of problems. Instead, Jesus tells them that it is by the Spirit of God that he is able to cast out demons and that the kingdom of God has come. Jesus uses the illustration of a strong man being plundered to explain why he casts out demons. He is binding Satan in order to redeem those which Satan has stolen. Just as a kingdom cannot be divided against itself, one must also choose which kingdom they hold allegiance to. Jesus said that if we are not with him, we are automatically against him.
In , Jesus talks about what is often called the “unpardonable sin” or “blaspheming the Holy Spirit”. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is “a state of hardness in which one consciously and willfully resists God’s saving power and grace. It is a desperate condition that is beyond the situation of forgiveness because one is not able to recognize and repent of sin. Thus one wanting to repent of blasphemy against the Spirit cannot have committed the sin.” Jesus warns against resisting what the Spirit of God does or attributing it to something other than God (i.e., demonic possession) because it can lead to outright rejection of God’s saving work.
Jesus also attacks the actions and words of the Pharisees. The Pharisees thought that they were good people, but their words and actions did not support this. Our words and actions reveal the true intentions of the heart and will be judged on the day of judgment. We will have to face God with every careless thing we say because our words show where our heart is.
It is interesting – the religious leaders have seen a number of miracles done by Jesus and have heard his teaching, but they come to him asking for a sign. These people have seen so much, yet they remain unconvinced. Jesus knows that another miracle is not going to change their opinion of him. He tells them that he will give them one more sign at some point called the “sign of Jonah”. Just as Jesus says, this sign will be that the Son of Man (himself) will be in the heart of the earth (buried) for three days and three nights. It is called the “sign of Jonah” because it is similar to Jonah being in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. The thing Jesus does not say is what will happen after he is in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The true sign is what happens after that: the resurrection. This would be the only sign given to the religious leaders. If they denied this sign as proof of his Messiahship, then there really was no other hope for them.
Jesus gave examples of people who responded to the preaching and wisdom of God’s representatives. The people of Nineveh repented when Jonah preached to them and the queen of the South was amazed by the wisdom and splendor of Solomon. Jesus says that the unresponsiveness of the religious leaders is worse because something greater stands before them – Jesus Christ himself.
Jesus shares a parable with them about an unclean spirit leaving a person and then returning. This parable illustrates those who are freed from the bondage of Satan, but they do not do anything to be transformed into disciples of Christ. Instead of the unclean spirit returning to find the person empty, it should have returned to find it full of Christ. When it finds the person empty, it returns and makes the person worse off than in the first place. is a good example of what must happen when we are transformed by Christ. We must get rid of the old, but we must also replace it with the new.
In this final passage, Jesus experiences what he had prepared his disciples for when he sent them out: rejection from family. shows us what happened leading up to this encounter. Jesus’ family thought he was crazy because of what he was doing and preaching. They did not understand his ministry or his teaching. Jesus knew what his family thought of him. Instead of going out to see his family, he points straight to his disciples and says that this is his family. We too have a family – a spiritual family. The body of believers is called to be one family that supports one another and spurs each other on in discipleship.
As disciples, we will face criticism at some point. In an increasingly secular society, we will have pressures all around us trying to conform us to something incompatible with our faith. Like the Pharisees, the world will try to call us out on actions we take. They will falsely criticize and slander us. In those times, we turn to our spiritual family, the body of Christ, for love, guidance, and support.