Response to the Mystery of Jesus Messiah (Matthew 11-12)

Response to the Mystery of Jesus Messiah (Matthew 11-12)

Chapters 11:2-12:50 – Growing Opposition and Serious Warnings of Impending Judgment

If chapters 8-9 focused on the miraculous powers and authority of Jesus in response to the faith people placed in him, chapters 11-12 conversely reveal the doubts and outright denial that many expressed about his Messiahship. Remember the contrast Matthew defined in 9:33-34. The contrast between these two sections is immense and in between Jesus has expressed to “his twelve disciples” the dangers of discipleship – sheep among wolves. We begin to see in chapters 11-12 how this plays out. At the centre stands 11:25-30 in which Jesus sets himself apart from all others as the source of access to God and in which he invites all to “take his yoke.” However, many reject his offer and refuse his yoke, and in so doing cut themselves off from “rest” and a relationship with God.

Consider how the flow in this narrative sequence works:

  • John in prison – “are you the coming one or should we expect another?” His doubts and Jesus’ response (11:2-6) – the “works of the Messiah.” John’s experience illustrates the dangers Jesus faces.
  • Jesus’ testimony about John and his place in salvation history (11:7-15) – “he is Elijah.”
  • The rejection of Jesus and John by the crowds (11:16-19) – “Wisdom is justified.”
  • Jesus pronounces judgment on unrepentant Jewish cities (11:20-24) – eschatological timeframe
  • Jesus is the only way to know God (11:25-30) and his way is “easy” – the paradox of discipleship
  • Sabbath Controversies (12:1-21)
    • Picking grain (12:1-8) – Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath
    • Healing the man with the withered hand (12:9-14) – Pharisees conspire to kill him
    • Withdrawal and fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1-4 (12:15-21)
  • Exorcism Controversies (12:22-45)
    • Jesus and Beelzebul (12:22-37) – the power of the Holy Spirit
    • Demand for signs — The Sign of Jonah and the Sign of Solomon (12:38-42)
    • Return of the Evil Spirit (12:43-45)
  • Family Controversy (12:46-50)

Throughout this passage we also have various uses of the comparative expression “greater than.” Jesus is greater than the Temple (12:6), Satan (12:28-30), Jonah (12:41), and Solomon (12:42), as well as John the Baptist. John is “more than a prophet” (11:9). The least in the Kingdom is greater than John (11:11). But who will recognize this “greatness”? If John is struggling to get his mind around the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship, no wonder others do as well. Yet, the crowds affirm that “This is the son of David, isn’t he?” expecting a positive answer (12:23). This is immediately followed by the Pharisees’ accusation that “he does not cast out demons except by Beelzeboul, prince of demons.” On what basis did the Pharisees reach their conclusion? When the demons identified Jesus as “son of God,” did this lead some to think the demons were acknowledging a superior demon? Is this comparing Jesus to someone like Simon the Sorcerer who was described by the people as “the divine power known as the Great Power” (Acts 8:10)? The controversy swirls around the question of Jesus’ role and significance.

Jesus and John the Baptist – 11:2-19

The last note about John occurred in 4:12, when Jesus hears about John’s arrest (cf. 14:1-12). John becomes the first example of what discipleship means – a willingness to give one’s life for Jesus’ sake. In prison John hears things about Jesus – the works of the Messiah, as Matthew puts it — and wonders whether he is “the coming one” (cf. John’s language in 3:10.). Perhaps some of this uncertainty is already detectable in the question about fasting raised by John’s disciples in 9:14. Is there a way to resolve the tension between John’s certainty in Matthew 3-4 and his current doubt? If Jesus claimed to release prisoners, why was John still in jail?

In response Jesus encourages John’s disciples to observe his ministry, compare it to the prophetic announcements in the OT (Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1), and then reach the proper conclusion about him. By his teaching and miraculous actions Jesus is attacking the power of evil in the world and releasing people from its slavery. This same list is found in 4Q521, “4Q Messianic Apocalypse: 2:1-12,” where the term ‘Messiah’ is linked with similar activities. For Jesus, this is precisely how the Kingdom reality is drawing near and invading Satan’s space. He becomes Christologically explicit in v. 6 as he warns those who take offence at him that they will receive no approval from God. Jesus challenges John to respond positively to his own question, even while Jesus recognizes that his mode of operation will generate uncertainty and require faith for his appropriate identity. But what are the factors that cause such stumbling? Are they intentionally provoked by Jesus? If so, to what end?

  • Jesus’ interpretation of Jewish principles and practices?
  • Jesus’ claim to be Messiah, but his refusal to launch the expected military and political campaign to restore Israel and punish evildoers?
  • Jesus’ announcement that his followers would experience persecution – just as John is?

Are these the same factors today that cause people to reject or disregard Jesus? Consider the list Jesus provides in 13:18-22.

In 11:7-15 Jesus turns the tables. John had asked for clarity about Jesus and his mission. Now Jesus provides clarity about the significance and role of John. Undoubtedly, not everyone accepted John and his prophetic announcements. Jesus acts to remove those doubts. The more clarity people have about John’s role, the greater clarity will emerge with respect to Jesus’ role. The crowds would not have gone out into the wilderness just to see “a commonplace reed.” So their very action indicates they sensed John had significance. If they had sought a kingly figure, then they would have gone to a palace and sought a person royally attired. Since John was neither in a palace nor garbed like a king, his prophetic status was the attraction – witnessed by his unusual clothing and diet. Jesus, using a pesher-type of scriptural interpretation (this is that) (v.10) and identifies John as the one described in Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1.

Who is being addressed through this quotation (the second person pronouns are all singular sou (σου) “before you.” Is it Jesus? Is it Israel? The way is presumably Jesus’ way. If Yahweh is the subject (”I”) in the quote, perhaps Jesus regards this quote as part of the conversation God has with Jesus (11:27) and which now Jesus is reporting. This is the wisdom God has revealed to Jesus. In the Exodus passage referred to the messenger is God’s angel, sent to lead Israel into the Promised Land and protect her from her enemies. In Malachi the one who prepares God’s way is Elijah = John (Malachi 3:1, 23), an identity that Jesus makes clear in v. 14.

Vv. 11-15 give us Jesus’ assessment of John:

  • No human being is greater than John because of his role in Salvation History as the forerunner of the Messiah.
  • His presence has marked the initiation of the Kingdom reality.
  • He concludes the era of the Law and the Prophets and something new follows in God’s design.
  • He is the promised Elijah.

Jesus proclaims that John marks the end of the Old Covenant era and the arrival of the New Covenant era. This is similar to Jesus’ earlier statement about new wine needing new wineskins.  As great as the first covenant era was, with its revelations of God’s love, power and mercy, the second covenant era is far more glorious because God is with humans in an extraordinary way. Jesus expresses this by saying that John, as great as he was in the first covenant era, is not as great as the least in the Kingdom reality of the second covenant era. Such greatness does not rely on the quality of the person, but rather on the opportunity to experience the blessings being introduced by the Kingdom reality – gospel, peace, righteousness – the opportunity to see God! The use of Kingdom of Heaven in this setting suggests a strong identity with the Messianic community, i.e., the church.

While Matthew recognizes the transition that is occurring from John to Jesus, he nevertheless wants to see their respective ministries as intrinsically connected. V.12 expresses this in an enigmatic fashion. “From the days of John the Baptist until now” could mean that John is part of the Kingdom era. However, the statement in v.11 would seem to eliminate that possibility. So the time reference would signify “after John the Baptist until now.” If the verb biazetai (βιάζεται) in the first clause is middle voice, then it means “the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing.”[1] However, this seems to run counter to John’s perception. Jesus has seemed anything but forceful in terms of military or political maneuvering. His forcefulness is expressed in his dealings with demons, his healings, his authoritative interpretations of OT materials, his power over creation, etc. There is a second possibility. As Blomberg notes, the verb (βιάζεται) could be a passive voice formation, in which case the clause would mean “the Kingdom of Heaven is suffering violence, i.e., is being violated/forcefully impacted.”[2] The second clause probably has the sense that “violent people are attacking it.” Perhaps what Jesus is noting is that his vigorous initiation of the Kingdom reality is meeting with increased opposition, as the imprisonment of John the Baptist illustrates. Such an interpretation fits well with the theme of Matthew 10 and the growing hostility that we are discerning in chapters 11-12.

John has asked (11:3) if Jesus is “the coming one.” Now in v.14 Jesus affirms that John is Elijah, “the one who was going to come” (who comes “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17)) in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. However, Jesus is “the coming one” prophesied by John. Perhaps we have an inclusio here.

Jesus acknowledges that not everyone will agree with his evaluation (“if you are willing to accept it”). However, he insists that this is the truth and true faith will demonstrate itself by really hearing and accepting what Jesus is affirming about John. The parable in vv.16-19 and its interpretation show the variance between Jesus’ understanding of John and Jesus’ personal claims and what some in the crowds are saying about their respective roles. Like children who refuse to play either the wedding game or the funeral game, the people of Israel have refused to respond either to John or Jesus, even though they have brought God’s message in diverse, but prophetic ways. What is surprising here is the charge that John was demon-possessed and that Jesus, “the Son of Man,” was a glutton. I think that John and Jesus are being compared to the children inviting their friends to play. “This generation” (v. 16) then would be the respondents cited in vv. 18-19. Unfortunately, in this response they reject “the Wisdom” that could really help them (cf. the parable of the wise and foolish builders at the end of chapter 7). Wisdom’s “works” (ἡ σοφία ἀπὸ τῶν ἔργων[3] αὐτῆς) take the reader back to the “Messiah’s works” mentioned in vv. 4-5. But in this case the works of Wisdom probably incorporate the ministries of John and Jesus, expressing how God intends to carry forward the initiation of His Kingdom. This plan will be justified, even if many human beings consider it foolish.


Denunciation of Cities – 11:20-24

These oracles of judgment build upon the previous parable that marks the rejection of John and Jesus by many of their contemporaries. We have read about Jesus’ work in Capernaum, but nothing has been said about Bethsaida (home of Peter, Andrew and Philip) or Korazin, but they seem to be located close to Capernaum. Jesus’ itinerant ministry around Galilee presumably took him to these places. Probably some of the miracles recorded in Matthew 8-9 happened in these places. What Jesus laments is that these miracles did not produce the response to the Kingdom reality that he anticipated. So to them he announces woe, not blessing. He emphasizes the seriousness, indeed the surprise, of this response by comparing them to the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon and the OT city of Sodom (cf. 10:15), that God judged and destroyed by fire (does this presage the prophecy about Jerusalem in 24-25?). Such pagan people, if they had seen Jesus’ miracles, would have responded in repentant faith, in contrast to the Jewish inhabitants of these Galilean towns. Judgment is coming and Jesus warns them of the consequences of their actions. These are certainly extreme comparisons. Despite the ‘fame’ that spread about Jesus, the response fell short of what Jesus required. Just as he counseled his disciples to “shake off the dust of their feet” against those who would not receive them, Jesus here does the same with these Jewish towns. Jesus borrows language from Isaiah 14:13, 15 used to describe Babylon’s wicked arrogance to characterize Capernaum’s failure to repent.

The Invitation – 11:25-30

This has to be one of the most extraordinary passages in Matthew’s Gospel, at least in terms of insight into Jesus’ self-understanding of his role, his relationship with God, and the significance of his message. In spite of the negative response from the Galilean cities, Jesus continues to invite a positive response, urging people to recognize in him the only way to connect with God, the only way to bring wisdom into life, and the only way to enjoy God’s blessing. The theme of reversal is prominent – the wise and learned (embracing godless intellectualism or spirituality) remain in the dark, and the “little children” (remember “the least” in 11:11) discover God’s revelation. God exercises his sovereignty in disclosing his wisdom, but he calls humans to respond freely to this good news. His ‘good pleasure’ is operative in these processes. Human beings, like John, might require different signs or Messianic activities, but Jesus is acting as God has ordained for him.

In v. 27 Jesus defines the “revealing role” of the Son. The father-son relationship between Jesus and God is clear, as is the intimacy of the knowledge they have of one another. Matthew uses epignōskō (ἐπιγινώσκω “I fully know”), whereas Luke uses the simplex (ginōskei γινώσκει 10:22). This mutual, exclusive intimate knowledge between God and someone else is difficult to parallel in Judaism. The relationship of wisdom to God is not defined like this in Jewish sources. Nolland suggests that Moses’ relationship with God (Exodus 33:12-13) might be a partial parallel. The compound form of the verb may express intensification. The ‘all things” may refer to knowledge[4] or it may refer to authority (28:18 edothē ἐδόθη “have been given”), or perhaps it combines both. Regardless, God has “passed on” (paredothē παρεδόθη) all of it to Jesus. What he says and does comes with God’s full authority and backing. Compare the use of the titles “the Son” and “the Father” in Matthew 24:36; 28:19.

Jesus extends an invitation – ‘come’, just as he did to the initial disciples. The “weary and burdened” (cf. the characters in the Beatitudes) are pictures of exhausted day-labourers seeking respite and restoration.[5] Jesus promises ‘rest’, a Sabbath-like rest. He switches metaphors and urges them to accept his ‘yoke’ and engage in the work that he requires. His yoke will rest easily and comfortably upon the neck because it brings salvation. It is a well-designed, comfortable yoke. The load assigned may be heavy, but this yoke enables it to be handled well. A yoke brings an animal into service. People are to take it up onto their own necks – a personal decision and action is intended. Acceptance requires humility and submission to Jesus (cf. 18:3-5). Obedience morphs into instruction – a new kind of discipleship – learning from the one who has received all things from the Heavenly Father.

Jesus is not promising exemption from suffering in this imagery. We have to read this in the light of Matthew 10 — the persecution of disciples, and 11 – John’s imprisonment. However, as Jesus promised in the SM, if we seek God’s righteousness, we are relieved from the burden of anxiety and worry. Some see an allusion to Ben Sira 51:27 – “See…that I have laboured but little and found for myself much rest (anapausis (ἀνάπαυσις)),” referencing Wisdom.

The last part of v. 29 is probably a quote from Jeremiah 6:16 (“ask where the good way is and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”). God offered peace to Israel, but they rejected it and went into Exile.

Why does Jesus stress that he is “meek and humble”? Does this characterize his messianic approach and thus help Matthew’s readers understand why he does not act like John expected? If Jesus is meek and humble, i.e., submissive to God’s mission, is this then the attitude and character that should define his followers? Do these terms summarize the ethic of the SM?

Plainly there is some paradox here in Jesus’ words, a paradox with which John wrestled.


Sabbath Controversies – 12:1-21

I think the promise of rest is picked up in this following section that discusses appropriate behaviour on the Sabbath, the day of rest. Perhaps we discern the nature of Jesus’ yoke here. If he provides a continuous rest, why is there any need for Sabbath practice? Jesus leads his disciples through the grainfields and so he is intentional. While the criticism is directed to the action of the disciples, it is Jesus who responds, taking the criticism as rightfully his to bear. Perhaps the presence of this ripened grain is viewed by Jesus as one of the ways God is providing for his disciples.

In the matter of the Sabbath, Jesus does not merely reinterpret the Fourth Commandment, he abolishes it because it is fulfilled in his own mission. Matthew’s version of David’s action (cf. 1 Sam. 21:1-6) focuses on his hunger, not his need, although this is probably implied. Jesus’ citation of the priests’ work (Numbers 28:9-10) in the sanctuary on the Sabbath to validate his action is not found in Mark’s Gospel. So Jesus gives two precedents to justify the actions of his disciples and both involve people on a mission from God. In the case of David the argument seems to be that if David was justified in interpreting the Law this way, then the Son of David, could also interpret the Law in a similar fashion – perhaps one greater than David is present. Jesus challenges the ability of the Pharisees to understand and interpret their own sacred writings.

As he compares himself to the priests, his justification does not stem from any Levitical heritage, but rather builds on the fact that “one greater than the temple is here” (12:6). If the temple and its sacrificial rituals are more important than Sabbath principles, then Jesus, being greater than the temple, similarly is justified to make his own rules for the temple rituals. Further, the quotation from Hosea 6:6 indicates that Jesus is allowing his disciples to act in this way on compassionate grounds. Mercy will trump the Sabbath-keeping ritual.

Is 12:8 an editorial comment or part of Jesus’ own teaching? I think it belongs to Jesus’ teaching because he is the one that has been using the “Son of Man” designation, not Matthew in his narrative framework. Jesus further has the sovereign authority given to him by God to redefine and interpret correctly God’s intent in giving such commands. As Blomberg indicates, Jesus “will determine how the Sabbath is now fulfilled in the Kingdom age.”[6] Jesus’ authority as Son of Man is also indicated in 9:6.

The second controversy occurs as Jesus heals a person on the Sabbath in a synagogue. There seems to be no medical emergency driving this miracle. It is an act of mercy to relieve the person of this condition as soon as possible. On this occasion the synagogue leaders, perhaps the Pharisees of v. 2, bait Jesus because they want some evidence by which they may lay a legal charge against him. They assume he has the power and the willingness to comply with this request. Jesus responds with a parable, building on the assumption that it is permissible for an animal owner to rescue a distressed sheep on the Sabbath. So why is it not permissible to help a suffering human being on this day, because “human beings are more valuable than animals?”[7] Jesus declares such rescue “doing good” and to be lawful on the Sabbath.  When Jesus in mercy heals the person (v. 13), the incensed Pharisees “plot how they might kill Jesus” (ἀπολέσωσιν).[8] Perhaps there is emphasis on “destroying” Jesus.

The withdrawal of Jesus from further confrontation and in order to promote his Kingdom ministry is based on the definition of the servant in Isaiah 42:1-4. Matthew 12:17-21 quotes this passage and is one of the formula quotations. It has specific linkages with 11:28-30, as well as explains the meekness of Jesus as intentional – he will not quarrel or cry out. His stern rebuke to the healed requires them not to publicize these healings. However, such a command is impossible to carry forward. In the narrative it functions to assure the reader that as Messiah, Jesus is not concerned about developing a particular kind of power base. His goal will be to produce justice, but it will not be accomplished in a military or violent fashion. His goal will be achieved and it will affect not just Israel, but the nations. The hope that he generates among the nations is the hope of salvation and presages the intention of the Great Commission. This quotation again is very different from the Septuagint version. Jesus offers a very different vision of the Messiah’s role in his first coming.

Exorcism Controversies – 12:22-45

God may identify Jesus as his son; Jesus may fulfill the prophetic role of the Suffering Servant expressed by Isaiah; his authority as son of God may be underscored by healings, raising the dead and exorcisms; but still the religious leaders persist in their evaluation – Jesus’ power arises from demonic sources, not the divine source who is Yahweh. This apparently is the same claim they made regarding John the Baptist.

Four segments are included – the exorcism of the blind and mute person, with following discussion (22-32), the warning against careless words (33-37), the demand for a sign (38-42), and the return of the evil spirits (43-45). The initial and final discussions about evil spirits seem to form an inclusion for this segment of the narrative.

When Jesus exorcizes the demon (v. 22), the crowd is astonished and wonders (v. 23) “This isn’t (μήτι) the Son of David, is it?” The wording of the Greek would expect a negative response – No! So while they are open to entertain this possibility, they are not very sure. The Pharisees are even more negative: “This person does not cast out demons except by Beelzeboul, prince of demons”(v. 24). The Son of David would refer both to Solomon and Messiah. A common accusation within later Jewish sources is that Jesus was a sorcerer – he performed miracles but he did so using Satan’s power. Is this why Jesus did not want the demons to publicly identify him?

Jesus addresses the Pharisees’ accusation through parables, as he did in response to the refusal by the people of Galilee to see his miracles as evidence of his Messianic role (11:16-18). He recognized their inner disposition that generated this analysis (cf. 9:4). Kingdom language dominates his response, as he uses a ‘kingdom’, a city(-state), and a household (perhaps royal dynasty) for the comparisons. If internal dissension dominates in such political/social entities, then their survival is seriously jeopardized. The kingdom ‘is laid waste’ and the city or household/dynasty loses its stability (cf. 7:24-28 and the parable of the two houses).[9] The final member of this comparison is “Satan casts out Satan.” If there is civil war in Satan’s kingdom, then he is doomed. If Jesus is casting out demons by Satan’s power, then Satan is undermining his own rule. There should be a diminishing of the effects of evil, but this is not the case. Further, how do the Pharisees explain the ability of their own followers to cast out demons? Are they also satanically empowered? By accusing Jesus in this way, they pass judgment on their own actions.

Jesus invites them to reach the opposite conclusion, namely that it is the Spirit of God working in him that is responsible and this is evidence that “the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” Probably we have to see in Jesus’ response the sense that the manner in which he does these things (by word only) shows an authority greater than that normally exhibited by the Pharisees or other Jews in exorcism. It is this authority that demonstrates the presence of the Kingdom. V.28 provides the strongest evidence that in Jesus’ teaching the Kingdom of God is present in some form. It is not an entirely future entity. In his response, Jesus also compares his kingdom with that of Satan’s and sets up the primary opposition that explains the moral and spiritual warfare that continues within this world. Luke speaks of “the finger of God” in the parallel passage.

The strong man analogy that follows communicates Jesus’ aggressiveness against evil, as well as his power. The proper explanation for Jesus’ ability to do exorcisms comes from the fact that he has overpowered Satan (as shown in Matthew 4) and can plunder his house at will. Even though Satan is strong, Jesus is stronger. Here is another comparative to consider – one stronger (cf. 3:11) than Satan is present. V. 30 stresses that one’s relationship to Jesus is the primary spiritual matter – being with him and gathering with him, i.e., participating in shepherding the flock, is the critical question. Otherwise one is against him and scattering, i.e., the flock?

Vv. 31-32 draw a conclusion (for this reason). Jesus claims that forgiveness for “all sin and blasphemy that people commit” is possible, with one exception. Those who slander the Spirit shall never receive forgiveness – in this age or the coming age. Those who attribute God’s work to Satan cannot receive God’s forgiveness, because they will not recognize the work of God for their salvation. What is the nature of the contrast between the Son of Man and the Holy Spirit? Blomberg suggests that it may reflect the ambiguity of the Son of Man terminology and actions, in contrast with the Spirit’s actions, i.e., exorcisms and healings that are clear and unambiguous. Jesus defines ‘blasphemy’ in v. 32 as “speaking a word against the Holy Spirit.” The word of warning is consistent with other statements of judgment that Jesus has been expressing in Matthew’s narrative. Finally, note the use of the common Jewish concept of distinctive ages – “this age and the coming age.” What is the coming age in Jesus’ perception? Is it the kingdom age or the eschatological age after the second coming?

Jesus concludes (vv. 33-37) his interaction with the Pharisees with a parable statement (v.33) from which he draws additional applications of the same nature. These religious leaders make sinful accusations because of the attitude of their ‘hearts’, i.e. their inner self where judgments and discernments are made. Because this is evil (πονηρός), so then their words are also evil (v. 34; cf. 6:22-23). They appear pious but are in reality “offspring of vipers,” just as John the Baptist previously named them (3:7). Their speech betrays their spiritual condition, just as the kind of fruit a tree produces indicates whether it is a ‘good’ tree or an ‘infected’ (sapros σαπρός) tree that will produce ‘infected’ fruit. This analogy is similar to that Jesus used in 7:18, while the statement about ‘treasure’ reflects the analogy he used in 6:21.

How important is the language we use? Even ‘deedless’ or ‘idle’ words can reveal the true intent of a person’s commitments. In 10:32-33 Jesus warned his disciples about their confession before people – what they said – and how this would reveal their true relationship with the Messiah now and in eternity. Perhaps he intends the same warning here. Is Jesus here establishing ground rules by which God will judge human beings? If so, again we have him demonstrating his knowledge of God’s ways and his authority.

A new, but connected dialogue occurs in vv. 38-45. Although there is a paragraph division in many English versions after v. 42, it may well be that we are to understand this entire segment as a single paragraph, as Jesus responds to the demand for a ‘sign’ (v. 38). Note that the reference to a “wicked generation” occurs in vv. 39 and 45. Just as Jesus responded to Pharisees in v. 24, so some “of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees” respond to him in v. 38. “They answered” and demanded a ‘sign’. Jesus has just done a miracle and exorcism (i.e., healed the blind, mute man v.22), and the religious leaders accuse him of using the power of Beelzebul (we played the flute for you but you did not dance – 11:17); now they want a sign (we sang a dirge, but you did not mourn – 11:17) and Jesus refuses. They require him to confirm his credibility, just as Moses had required a prophet to do so in Deuteronomy 13:1-2. By calling them an “adulterous generation,” i.e., one that engages in religious idolatry and breaks covenant with God, he shows that their request is not genuine, i.e., it is not arising from faith. What is the nature of their idolatry? Consider Ezekiel 16:38 or 23:45.

A great deal of discussion has occurred about the nature of “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (v. 39). Jesus seems to identify his death as the ‘sign’, equating his 3 days between death and resurrection as analogous to Jonah’s time in the belly of the great fish. Jesus’ death is due to his rejection by the Jewish religious leaders. Perhaps then the sign is his message of judgment which leads to his death. We have commented earlier on the comparative language – “one greater than Jonah is here.” What is ironic is that the Gentiles – those living in Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba – will be critical of the generation of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries because they failed to recognize God at work in Jesus. A similar reversal is noted in 11:21, 24 in the comparison of villages such as Capernaum with Tyre and Sidon and Sodom.

How is Jesus greater than Jonah? Perhaps in the consequences of his message? How is Jesus greater than Solomon? As the new ‘son of David’, Jesus is not just wiser than Solomon. Given the context of exorcism and the current Jewish beliefs that Solomon had given the Jewish people the knowledge by which to control evil spirits, Jesus is greater than Solomon in his authority over the demons.

This sequence began with Jesus exorcisizing a demon. He comes back to this issue in vv. 43-45. Nolland argues that the language of 45c requires us to take Jesus’ statement as a parable. However, Blomberg considers it to be commentary on the release Jesus gave in vv. 22-23. Whether we should consider this to be Jesus’ teaching about demons or a parable, the warning seems clear. Just because one is released (by Jesus or anyone else) from demonic possession, does not guarantee continued relief. A person who is freed in this manner, must then act to install God’s authority and in this case God’s authority is represented by Jesus Messiah. People might be amazed and astonished at the actions Jesus does to release and heal people. However, if they do not connect these miracles with his message and the authority of his role as Messiah, then it will do them no good now, and will certainly do them great harm in the future. The mention of the “wicked generation” picks up the language of v. 39

This interchange is interrupted by the note that Jesus’ family is waiting to speak with him (vv. 46-50). Matthew does not provide any explanation for this intervention as Mark does (3:21), attributing their response to rumours that he was ‘mad’. Just as John struggled to discern whether Jesus was the messiah, so it seems Jesus’ own family was not automatically convinced. Their personal, familial relationship with Jesus does not automatically place them within the Kingdom. Only “doing the will of my Father in heaven” enables a person to claim a personal connection with the Messiah. Perhaps this anticipates Jesus’ teaching about “my assembly” in chapter 16. The references to Jesus’ family and hometown form a parenthesis around the discourse on parables (Matt. 13).

As we conclude our review of Matthew’s narrative in chapters 11-12, the rejection motif has deepened considerably. Despite this, Jesus continues to act as one who will not break a bruised reed. Yet he is greater than the Temple, Satan, Jonah, Solomon, Sabbath and John the Baptist. The warnings multiply. Those who rejected him are a wicked and adulterous generation, the offspring of vipers, equated with the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom. In doing this they slander the Holy Spirit of God and reject the will of God. The discourse in chapter 13 will provide Jesus’ commentary on this growing rejection.

[1] Consider the parallel in Luke 16:16 – “the good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached.”

[2] Here is another play on words that works in Greek, but does not seem to work in Aramaic very easily – biazetai (βιάζεται), biastai (βιασταί). This is the only place in the NT where both terms occur. The noun is very rare in Greek literature.

[3] Note the textual variant tōn teknōn (τῶν τέκνων) found also in Luke 7:35.

[4] To “pass on” is language that defines the transmission of tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 11:24; 15:4ff).

[5] Again we have a play on words as Matthew contrasts the condition of pephortismenoi πεφορτισμένοι (v. 28) with the phortion φορτίον (v. 30) that Jesus expects his followers to carry.

[6] Blomberg, p. 197.

[7] Comparison of humans with birds occurs in 6:26; 10:31.

[8] Cf. the use of this verb in Matthew 10 with reference to Israel and discipleship.

[9] This of course is what eventually happens to Jerusalem because it is “divided” in its response to Jesus.