Responding to God’s Servant (Matthew 12:15-50)

In this passage of his Gospel, Matthew describes several responses to Jesus as he preaches about his kingdom. We need to remember that this period in the ministry of Jesus occurred before the cross and he had to instruct people about their expectations regarding his mission. There was the danger that they would attempt to bring in the kingdom of God in a wrong way and this explains the instruction of Jesus to those he healed that they should not make him known. His kingdom could not appear until after he had died and risen again. He had to deal with the punishment of sin and provide the basis of forgiveness before sending out his disciples to the world to declare the gospel and describe entrance into the kingdom.

Matthew inserts a passage from the prophecy of Isaiah 42:1-4 that describes the nature of the kingdom of Jesus. In verse 18, we have the words that God the Father announced at the baptism of Jesus when he received the Holy Spirit. The Father on that occasion declared that he was well-pleased with his Son. The following verses in the prophecy go on to say that the Messiah will focus on the needy among the Gentiles and will instruct them in a gentle manner.

We can observe the way Isaiah describes the Gentiles whom Jesus will help – they are like bruised reeds. A bruised reed is a reed that has been stood on by a person or an animal and since it is unable to recover it is regarded as worthless. It is a very appropriate image for describing those who have been damaged by their sins. Such cannot recover themselves and often they may regard themselves as of little value. Others may think the same of them. Yet the prophet predicted that Jesus would show compassion on such people and heal them from the effects of their sins. In his earthly ministry he had occasionally helped Gentiles, but soon the time would come when Gentiles would come into the kingdom in vast numbers. As Jesus said on one occasion, many will come from the east and the west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom.

This outcome was not what the Jews in Israel at the time of Jesus expected to happen. Yet they should have done so because that was what their prophets had said would take place. We could say that at this stage in the ministry of Jesus described by Isaiah most of the prediction after verse 18 had not yet happened, and would not occur until after his resurrection. Nevertheless, people could respond to what Jesus was saying and doing, and Matthew mentions several wrong responses.

The unforgiveable sin
Jesus had healed a blind and deaf man who had been demon-possessed. It is not surprising that the people, when they saw such an amazing miracle, wondered if Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Pharisees had a very different opinion about him from that of the crowd, which was that Jesus had performed this miracle with the help of the devil. They stated that Jesus was an agent of the devil rather than being the agent of God.

Jesus responded to this suggestion by saying that it was both silly and serious. What made it silly was the idea that the devil would fight against himself, which is what they had suggested when they said that Jesus was using the devil’s power to cast out demons. The Saviour also mentioned that he was not the only person casting out demons; in fact, some of their followers were doing so and he asked if all such were using the power of the devil as they did so.

What made their allegation serious was their failure to see that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of the Spirit. The Pharisees were spiritually blind and this made them unable to tell the truth about what Jesus was doing. They did not realise that he had come to defeat the devil (the strong man) and free people from his grip. This would happen after he had defeated the devil on the cross and then the Gentiles living in spiritual darkness would be set free from their chains by Jesus.

The Pharisees had a choice to make, which was to follow Jesus or to oppose him. At that moment they were opposing him and in danger of sinful misinterpretation of his mission. The danger was connected to what Jesus called the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which he said was unforgiveable, whereas all other sins, including sins against him, could be pardoned.

This verse has caused distress to many people who had no need to be distressed by it. How do we know that is the case? Because a person who has committed this sin hates Jesus and despises his kingdom. No one who loves Jesus and wants his kingdom to prosper has committed this sin.

Nevertheless, there is a warning that there are some sins that take the sinner beyond the possibility of forgiveness. One such sin is the refusal to repent before God for our sins. If we die in that state, we will not be forgiven. A decision to give up following Jesus can lead to the sin of apostacy, although we can never judge if someone has committed it. The best response is to avoid such awful consequences by going to God through Jesus and asking him to forgive us. If we continue engaging in this response, we are safe from divine judgement.

The Saviour reminds the Pharisees that their words reveal what is in their hearts. They spoke about Jesus in this wrong way because their hearts were evil. Our words usually reveal what we think about and what we love. If we love Jesus and his kingdom, we will think about it and speak about it. If we don’t love Jesus, we will think about something else and speak about it. Yet we are reminded that our words may come back to haunt us on the Day of Judgement. It is a solemn thought that everyone will give an account for every careless word they uttered, and that our words now already indicate what the verdict will be then. If we are for Jesus now, our words will reveal it very clearly.

The Sign of Jonah
The next incident that Matthew mentions occurred when some scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign to prove that he was the Messiah. Of course, this request was a statement of unbelief because Jesus had already given numerous signs that revealed that he was the promised Deliverer. We only need to think of the response Jesus gave to John the Baptist when he sent messengers to ask if Jesus was the promised Messiah. In his reply, Jesus mentioned several signs that showed he was the Messiah, signs such healing people of their diseases.

The Saviour chose to inform the scribes and Pharisees that they would yet see a great sign. It is possible that they may not have grasped at that time what Jesus meant, yet they would hear about it in a short while and then they could repent of their sins. The future sign was his death and resurrection which he likened to the experience of Jonah when he was swallowed by a great fish. We know that after Jonah was delivered from the fish he took a message of grace to the Gentiles in Nineveh and although it was very unlikely beforehand the inhabitants of the city repented and the threatened judgement was averted. In a far greater manner than Jonah, Jesus after he would rise from the dead would take the message of grace to the Gentiles, as predicted by Isaiah, and would do so gladly, unlike Jonah who was annoyed that the inhabitants repented of their sins against God.

Would those people follow the example of the inhabitants of Nineveh? Jesus reveals that they would not because he says that they yet will be condemned on the Day of Judgement by the people of Nineveh for not listening to him. He also reveals that the Queen of Sheba will also condemn them for not listening to Jesus who was physically beside them. In contrast, she had travelled many miles to listen to the truth as spoken by Solomon.

Jesus here speaks as a prophet as he describes what will take place on the Day of Judgement to the people, including those scribes and Pharisees, who were in danger of rejecting him and his mission of grace. They might have imagined that grace was not for Gentiles, but even the Old Testament revealed that it was. The question that applies to us is will the inhabitants of Nineveh and the queen of Sheba stand up and condemn us for not listening to the Saviour who was sent to deliver Gentiles from the penalty of their sins.

The danger of half-heartedness
Jesus then told a story to illustrate what was happening to those who were listening to him. In the story, he refers to a person who has been delivered from an evil spirit, but who then allows that spirit, along with seven worse spirits, to retake control of his life. What does he mean?

For a while, Jesus had been popular with people and they had responded to his message and given up certain practices. In doing so they had been delivered to an extent from the influence of the devil and his agents. Those agents are still looking to destroy them and now discover that those persons are not truly following Jesus. The powers of darkness retake control easily and those who once looked to be potential disciples of Jesus now are his opponents.

What was wrong with those people? Their connection to Jesus had been lukewarm and their hearts had not been involved. They had conformed to some extent externally but had failed to give their affections to Jesus and to repent of their sins against God. They had not taken his message seriously, and it is not surprising that the powers of darkness could retake their old location. The only one who could help those people was Jesus and he was the person they did not ask for help.

In other passages in the Gospel we are told about people who gave up following Jesus because he did not fit in with their expectations. One such example was those who wanted to make him King after he had fed thousands in a miraculous way. Yet when he refused to become a king in an earthly political sense they stopped following him. It takes more than participating in a miracle to get a changed heart.

The family of Jesus
Around that time, the mother and brothers of Jesus come to his house and ask to see him. Probably there was a crowd of people preventing them from getting in. The request gives to Jesus the opportunity of describing who belongs to his family. It is not those who have a physical connection with him, like his mother and brothers. So if it is not them, who can they be?

Of course, we should not imagine that at that moment his mother Mary was unconverted. She had been a devout believer since she was young as we can see from passages that describe the birth of Jesus. Nor are we to imagine that his brothers would not yet be converted – they were after his resurrection and we find them gathering with the disciples waiting for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:14). So Jesus was not indicating here that they did not belong to his kingdom.

The point of this incident is that it is easy to work out who belongs to the family of God. Those who do belong to the family obey what God the Father commands them to do, not because they are working their way to heaven, but because they show their gratitude for his mercy by doing what pleases him.

Here were several responses to Jesus. The malicious Pharisees, the seekers after signs, the careless listeners, and the connection by family ties. Each of them fell short. Instead, we should trust in Jesus and follow him.

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