A Bible Lesson on Matthew 11:20-12:14

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Matthew 11:20  Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.

“Then” is probably as much a logical “then” as it is reference to a specific time referring to events in the previous verse.  Logically, Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing in Galilee.  He’s drawn crowds, but the real nature of His person and work has not been accepted/appreciated.  In particular, though He’s come preaching the arrival of the Kingdom of God, there has been no serious repentance.

All Biblical preaching involves a call to repentance.  The nearness of the King ought to cause His subjects to live respecting that presence, and in harmony with His rule, reign, and law.  And there has been no general repentance.  Jesus grieves over the towns where He has been.

21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

“Woe/alas Chorazin!”  “Woe/alas Bethsaida!”  These are expressions of grief on the part of Jesus, not warnings at this point.  There are a number of contrasts between these little towns of Galilee and the formerly great Phoenician coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon that Jesus mentions.  For one, there is a huge difference in size and worldly importance.  It’s Nevada, Iowa, and Los Angeles, California.

Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 26-28 speak about Tyre and Sidon and give the picture of proud, money-mad, wicked, cruel people.  Amos 1:9 says that the people of Tyre sold the people of Israel into slavery to the Edomites.  Joel 3:6 talks about the Phoenicians selling the children of Judah and of Jerusalem to the Greeks.  These were not nice people.  They are a symbol of pagan arrogance, but the light those people had was relatively small.

Chorazin and Bethsaida were of little worldly account, and they were without doubt far more moral than were ancient Tyre and Sidon, in all probability not much different from or any worse than any other Jewish town.  But Jesus had preached in them and had healed in them, so their light was great.  And with light, always, always, always comes responsibility.

Jesus mentions specifically the testimony of His “mighty works.”  It seems He’s likely referring to miracles, probably mostly healings.  In these acts of mercy there is ample testimony to who He is, and Jesus, the only One in the universe that can with certainty say what would have been “if,” says that “if” they had light equal to the Jewish towns, the pagans would have recognized the presence of God and repented.  They would have prostrated themselves before the King, and grieved over their foolish flaunting of His law and rebellion against Him.  They would have shown good sense.

22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.

By human religious standards, this is a surprise.  Tyre and Sidon were notorious, their people were bold brazen big sinners.  By contrast, there surely wasn’t much outward evil going on in Chorazin or Bethsaida.  But Jesus says that God’s judgment will be more awful for the Jewish towns of Galilee than for the pagan Tyre and Sidon.  Amazing.  How can that be?  Well, there is stupid uninformed crass flagrant rebellion against God’s law, and while that is not a good or pretty thing, Jesus plainly says that it pales in comparison to the seriousness of willfully ignoring His direct presence and invitation to salvation.  The regret on the day of judgment will be far more bearable for the former than the latter.  For both, the loss will be absolute, but those with more light will fall farther and the misery be greater.

23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

And there is this contrast between Capernaum and ancient Sodom,  Capernaum was Jesus’s base of operations, seemingly an adopted home.  Commentators’ best guess seems to be that the folks of Capernaum were sort of proud of having their own “home town prophet” in Jesus.  But that’s the wrong reaction!  If the Kingdom of God is near, there ought to be humility, reverence, repentance.  But there really hasn’t been any on a large scale.

Again, Jesus, the only One who could say with certainty how things would have been if roles were reversed, says that notorious sinners of Sodom, given the light that had been seen in Capernaum, would have repented and avoided the destruction of God’s judgment.  For Capernaum to miss the real implication of the presence of Jesus is no small thing.  You will be brought down to Hades/the abode of the dead/Sheol.  These words are very close to those used by God in Isaiah 14:13-15 speaking about the arrogant King of Babylon.

Isaiah 14:13  You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;

14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’

15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.

As applied to the people who have witnessed Jesus’s works, this is terrible condemnation.  Capernaum’s practical indifference to the presence of the King is as damnable as the arrogance of the King of Babylon.  The Isaiah passage is even thought to be applicable to Satan himself.  Imagine, a small Jewish town of maybe 2000 being characterized this way.  Fail to respond to the presence of Christ and all is lost.

24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

With light comes responsibility.  Indifference to the Son of God is (as the quote indicates) plain and damnable arrogance and pride.  He is, as Paul says in Colossians 1, the center of all things.  He made all, He presently upholds all, He is the end of all.  To act and think as if one rather than He is in the center is destruction.

The light that Sodom had was pretty dim.  Lot didn’t exactly brighten up the night sky with it.  Capernaum had the pure white light of Christ in its midst.  The regret of missing that will be far worse than Sodom’s regret.  France put it this way, “Arrogance and immorality will be punished, but not so severely as the rejection of God’s direct appeal.  Only the rejection of forgiveness is unforgivable.”

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children;

The “at that time” here (as does the “then” in verse 20) tells us that this is Jesus’s response to what is going on: His rejection by the Jews, especially the Jewish religious leadership, the ones who consider themselves “wise and understanding.”  If these folks had lived up to their reputations and their own thinking about themselves, they would have understood “these things,” namely the truth about who He is and what He is doing.  But the Father has purposely hidden these things from them.

Isaiah 29:14  therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

Spiritual understanding does not depend upon human capability or status, it is the gift of God.  It is His sovereign work, and He chooses to bestow it on the humble.  The Father reveals the truth about Jesus to those who do not think themselves wise or deserving.  Jesus is not making some romantic mushy statement about the natural goodness/innocence of kids.  Nor is He commending purposeful stupidity and indolence.  He is rather saying that it is the Father’s sovereign choice to grant salvation to the spiritually humble.  Ryle wrote about this, “One thing, at all events, stands out in Scripture, as a great practical truth to be held in everlasting remembrance: those from whom the Gospel is hidden are generally ‘the wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight;’ those to whom the Gospel is revealed are generally humble, simple-minded, and willing to learn.”

Is that really so hard to fathom?  God is completely out of our class, our Maker and Sustainer, so far beyond us in every dimension that our deluded little notions of our own grandeur are silly on the face of them.  If a person insists on beginning from those silly notions, ought we be surprised that the person fails to find the truth?  It is the fear of the LORD that is the beginning of wisdom, and stubborn human arrogance is the very antithesis of that.

The parallel passage in Luke says

Luke 10:21  In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

Jesus rejoiced in this.  It is good, it is fitting, it is right, that God opposes the proud and arrogant and shows mercy to the humble.  How could He abide rebellion in His presence?  It brought Jesus joy and should bring His people joy that God graciously chooses to give salvation to the humble.

26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

Jesus now makes a sweeping breathtaking claim to divinity and oneness with the Father.

27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

There are 4 stunning claims here:

  1. at the express will of His Father, He, Jesus, is in command of the Universe,
  2. the only One who fully knows Jesus is the Father,
  3. the only One who fully knows the Father is Jesus, and
  4. the only way that an ordinary person will know the Father is through the work of Jesus.

Those are just chocked full of stuff that is central to the way things are and absolutely contrary to the thinking of most humans.

All things have been handed over to me by my Father.  It’s not “the” Father in this instance, it’s “my” Father.  In this matter Jesus is speaking in his unique role as the second person of the Trinity, not as one of us.  And He says something that is either true or insane.  By the will of His Father, He’s in command of ALL THINGS.  He’s here in full harmony with the Father, with the full authority of the Father, to act on behalf of the Father.  The C.S. Lewis possibilities of liar, lunatic, or Lord come in focus here.  These are the only ones available to describe One who says this.

No one “knows.”  The Greek means to know exactly, completely, through and through.  It indicates intimate relationship.  The exclusive communion of the Father and the Son is the essence of their relationship.  And there is none other who has this kind of relationship with the Father.  On both sides of this, there is the mystery of God and His gracious revelation.  Those there and people today think that they have Jesus figured out.  Our silly post-moderns think they can get to “the real” Jesus by making Him to be one like us.

Even ones of good will have trouble holding simultaneously His great divinity and humanity.  Who really knows who Jesus is?  Only the Father, but Jesus has just said that the Father has graciously chosen to reveal the truth about Him to the humble of heart.  On the other side of it, Jesus plainly claims that only He truly knows the Father.  Again, this is either completely true or outrageous.  And if it is true, then you and I are in a totally different class as regards our knowledge of the Father than He.  EXCEPT, Jesus says, by the purposeful revelation of the Son!  How is it that a mere mortal can come to God, have any true relationship with or know in any real sense the One true and living God?  ONLY by the mediation of the Son!  Not by good works, not by meditation, not by appeal to any made-up religious mumbo-jumbo.  ONLY by the gracious work of Jesus to reveal Him.

Together, verses 25-27 say plainly that salvation and knowledge of God is only for the humble of heart, at the pleasure and revelation of the Father and Son, who are perfectly one in purpose and intimate relationship.  This is the Christian Gospel.  This is the absolutely exclusive claim of Jesus.  This is what makes Christ both so loved and so despised in this world.  The humble of heart to whom He’s been revealed and to whom He reveals the Father rejoice in Him and His salvation.  Those stiff of neck and full of pride hate the real presentation of who He says He is.  There really is no middle ground.

This One who says He is the only One who firsthand knows the Father now issues an invitation.  Ryle says, “The last three verses of this chapter … are indeed most precious.  They meet the trembling sinner who asks, ‘Will Christ reveal His Father’s love to such a one as me?’ with the most gracious encouragement.”

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Come!  Who is it that Jesus invites?  It’s not ones who feel themselves up to the job of approaching God in their own righteousness and worthiness, but rather ALL those who are worn down with the burden of sin and sorrow that comes to us as children of Adam.  It refers to ALL those who are weary from having carried a heavy load.  Calvin phrased it as ” … those who are overwhelmed by their sins, who are filled with alarm at the wrath of God, and are ready to sink under so weighty a burden … let our miseries drive us to seek Christ …”   If we really don’t see how undone we are in our sin, there is really no humility in us.  But if ANYONE will come to Him in misery of sin, He promises rest of conscience, rest of heart.  He promises real rest, built on pardon of sin and peace with God.  He promises to make things right.  It is relief, not an opportunity to kick back and take it easy, but rather the mercy that we so desperately need.  In fact

29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

The Jews spoke of obedience to the Law as taking on the yoke of the Law.  Yokes worn by human beings are fashioned to make the carrying of a load easier than without the yoke.  Jesus invites us to come and take His yoke and learn “from” or learn “about” Him.  Jesus is gentle and meek, and in learning to imitate Him, to come humbly to the Father, there is rest from the impossible misery of trying to present ourselves to God in our own merits.

30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The yoke is not one of obedience to external commandments, but rather one of grateful loyalty to a gentle savior.  Jesus’ yoke is not “easy” because it is not demanding, but because it is an invitation to discipleship/relationship with Him who is gentle and lowly of heart.  It is a yoke of love, not a yoke of duty.  Ryle again wrote, “No doubt there is a cross to be carried, if we follow Christ; no doubt there are trials to be endured, and battles to be fought: but the comforts of the Gospel far outweigh the cross.” Green said, “It is the response of the liberated, not the duty of the obligated.”

We now come to the beginning of the resistance to the ministry of Jesus. In Chapter 12 there are a number of incidents where the religious leaders begin to reveal their antagonism towards Jesus.

Matthew 12:1  At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.

2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”

We’re not told where Jesus and the disciples are headed, but the Pharisees are along.  And they seem to be there looking for reason to find fault with Jesus.   They see the disciples picking and eating some grain and take the opportunity to see if Jesus will uphold their elaboration of the Old Testament law.  Note that they are not complaining about the fact that the grain was not planted by the disciples.  In fact, the Old Testament specifically provided for people to snack in this manner.

Deuteronomy 23:25  If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.

The rub was that the disciples were doing what they were doing on the Sabbath.  The 4th commandment reads as follows.

Exodus 20:8  “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,

10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The Pharisees, in their attempt to approve themselves before God by the meticulous keeping of the law, had expanded on the commandment to name literally 39 kinds of “work” that were forbidden on the Sabbath.  In their system, they could charge the disciples with reaping, winnowing, threshing and preparing a meal, based on the picking and eating of the grain.  But that certainly goes beyond the plain meaning or intention of the 4th commandment.  What the disciples did was incidental, and only in the most far-fetched interpretation could be interpreted as a real violation of God’s moral law.  But the Pharisees want to make an issue of it and see if Jesus will toe the party line.

Rather than condemn his disciples for what wasn’t really a violation of the 4th commandment, in good rabbinical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question and a reference to a scriptural case.

3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:

4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?

Some modern interpretations of these verses make it out as if Jesus is establishing some kind of general principle here that on the basis of human need God’s law can be suspended.  I don’t think that’s the point at all.  Instead I believe that Jesus is saying “Look, neither scripture nor yourselves condemns David and his followers for eating the shewbread.  Let’s make a comparison here.  In the first place what the disciples have done doesn’t violate Scripture and in the second place, I, the Son of David am greater than David.  I’m the fulfillment where David was only the shadow or prefiguring.  If those traveling with David were not wrong in eating the shewbread, how could these guys possibly be wrong in having a snack in the field?”

Then Jesus answers with a second question and scriptural reference.

5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?

The principle is that worship in the temple needed to go on even (or especially) on the Sabbath.  So something has to give.  Either the temple worship or a very strict interpretation of the 4th commandment has to give.  And the priority is the worship of God, not a ridiculously narrow interpretation of the 4th commandment.

6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.

Here’s one that must make the Pharisees’ hair stand on end!  Jesus has unmistakably, for a second time made a claim to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament types and shadows.  He’s not only the Son of David, but He’s the fulfillment of the temple worship.

7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Jesus quotes from Hosea.

Hosea 6:6  For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

The word translated “steadfast love/mercy” is the Hebrew word “hesed.”  It is the word sometimes translated “lovingkindness.”  It is a constant/unfailing love.  It is a covenant love, a love that will not fail regardless of circumstances.  God desires our full unlimited devotion, not simply the rote keeping of a set of rules.

The Pharisees hoped to approve themselves to God by the keeping of rules.  When that’s your supposed means of obtaining righteousness, you don’t see things clearly.  You look for minor violations of the rules in others as a means of convincing yourself that you are making it (and they, of course, are not).  That’s what the Pharisees were doing with the disciples, and Jesus says so and then, again, makes a clear claim to be the Messiah.

8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Listen Pharisees, if you see your elaborations on the 4th commandment and Me coming into conflict here, you’d better decide that it is your rules that must give way (just as the narrow interpretation of the 4th commandment has to yield in the case of the temple worship).

9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue.

Luke 6:6 makes it clear that this incident occurs on another Sabbath (perhaps the next).  The Pharisees have had time to think things over, realize that Jesus is not going to uphold their elaborations on the Law and understand that he was claiming to be Messiah.

10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”–so that they might accuse him.

These are not honest hearts.  They are not coming to Jesus wanting to learn.  They’re instead hoping to catch him in an error so as to debunk His Messianic pretensions.  There is nothing in the Old Testament prohibiting healing on the Sabbath.  However, their amplification of the 4th commandment allowed as how one could give medical aid if a life was in danger, and one could do what was necessary to keep a person’s condition from deteriorating.  But one could not give aid intended to help a patient get better.  For example, you could bandage a wound, but could not put ointment on the bandage on the Sabbath.  In this context, they see the man with the shriveled hand and try to goad Jesus into healing him and thereby breaking their rules.  Note that before it was the disciples who had broken their rules.  Jesus had simply refused to condemn them for eating the grain.  Here the Pharisees hope to get Jesus in the act.

Again, in good rabbinical fashion, Jesus answers a question with a question.  He essentially is going to say “You guys are asking the wrong question.  The issue is not whether it is wrong to WORK on the Sabbath.  The issue is whether it is wrong to DO GOOD on the Sabbath.”  The Pharisees, in their proliferation of rules had created ones here that simply make no sense in the light of Scripture.  For one thing, if healing comes from God anyway (and the Pharisees would have admitted that it does), how could it even be possible to heal if doing so was wrong?  Jesus proceeds to show how absurd their addition to God’s law actually is.

11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?

“You guys would surely give aid to a stupid animal.  In fact your rules specifically allow for it!  But they don’t allow for doing good to a human being created in the image of God?”  Jesus is essentially saying that this is nonsense.  Not only won’t keeping the rules approve one to God, but in this case the rules are flat wrong.

12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.

The Son of God does here what only God can do.  He makes the man whole.  But that certainly does not please the Pharisees.

14  But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

This is tremendously ironic.  The Pharisees hold that it’s wrong for Jesus to heal, but it’s OK for them to plot murder on the Sabbath.  This is a testimony to the blackness of the human heart.  Once we make up our minds to make our own way, we’re capable of incredible blindness.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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