Jesus Faces Skepticism

Narrative #3

Matthew describes the aggressive questioning Jesus would begin to draw from the Jewish religious leaders as His ministry progressed.
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So far, Matthew has described an almost uninterrupted ascension of Jesus' ministry: baptism at Jordan, defeat of satan in the wilderness, miracles and ministry among the people, and choosing and sending disciples to preach and heal in His name.

In the third narrative portion Matthew describes the aggressive questioning Jesus begins to draw as His ministry progressed.

When Jesus had finished giving instructions to His twelve disciples, He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities.
- Matthew 11:1

Chapter 11:1 serves as a bridge between the discourse where Jesus was sending the Apostles out to preach, and new encounters that He would have with John's disciples and the Pharisees. This narrative deals with the doubt and skepticism of both John and the Pharisees.

Witness to and Concerning John the Baptist

Response to John

2Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to Him, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" 4Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me."
- Matthew 11:2-6

Matthew mentions that John had been imprisoned earlier, and now John sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the Messiah or if another was to come. John has certain doubts and sends his people to question Jesus.

John had preached that when the Messiah came there would be judgment, fire and a cutting away of the dead branches etc. So far, none of this had happened. On the contrary, John himself had been imprisoned and no judgment had yet come upon the nation.

Jesus' response shows John that everything that He is doing is in line with what the Old Testament said that the Messiah would do when He came (heal, Isaiah 35:6; preach, Isaiah 61:1). John assumed that all things would happen in a certain time frame, and when all did not happen right away, he doubted. We know, however, that after the Baptist's death, the judgment he spoke of did come to the Jewish nation. In 70 AD the Roman army destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its temple, and killed most of the inhabitants living there. This was a terrible judgment on the nation of Israel for rejecting their Messiah but was not, as John thought, the end of the world. He assumed that the judgment on the Jewish people would coincide with the end of time when the Lord would return to judge all men. These were to be two separate events.

John did not understand that the first coming of the Lord was to be with grace, patience and forgiveness. This is the period that we are still living in now and continue to live in until Jesus returns. His second coming, however, will arrive with judgment on the entire world, not just the Jewish nation (Acts 17:30-31). This will occur but in God's own time, and we should not doubt that it will happen.

Jesus warns everyone not to stumble on account of Him. The word that He uses refers to a trap, and the idea is that a trap, when sprung, kills the victim. Jesus cautions His disciples to take care and not be caught in the trap of disbelief concerning Him, a trap that would cause one to lose faith and be destroyed.

Witness concerning John

7As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings' palaces! 9But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,

'Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way before You.'

11Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. 15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

16"But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, 17and say, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon!' 19The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
- Matthew 11:7-19

Jesus describes John the Baptist:

  • He was truly a prophet (verses 7-9).
  • He was the fulfillment concerning the one who was to come in order to prepare the way for the Messiah (verse 10).
  • He had the greatest prestige of any prophet because of his proximity to the Lord (verse 11a).
  • He was not as great as those in the kingdom because he did not possess the Holy Spirit in the way that those in the kingdom did – Acts 2:38. (verse 11b).
  • He was rejected in the same way that Jesus was rejected. "Kingdom suffering violence" could refer to the suffering that both John and Jesus suffered in order to establish the kingdom.

Reproach on the cities that rejected both Him and John

20Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. 24Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you."
- Matthew 11:20-24

John's disciples wanted to know when the actual judgment was to come, and Jesus reminds them, as well as unbelievers, that a terrible punishment is coming. This passage may suggest degrees of punishment if you interpret the term, "day of judgment" to mean the final judgment at the end of the world. However "day of judgment" can also be a time referring to the judgment on the Jews as a nation (i.e. 70 AD Rome destroys Jerusalem).

The destruction of these other pagan cities, who were much more sinful, will be less painful than the horrible siege and suffering brought upon the Jewish nation in 70 AD.

Invitation and promise for those who accepted the message and arrival of Jesus

25At that time Jesus said, "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. 26Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. 27All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.

28"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
- Matthew 11:25-30

Prayer of Jesus:

  • Gratitude for those who did accept (verses 25-26).
  • Promise to reveal the Father to all who come to the Son (also a claim to deity) (verse 27).
  • Invitation to come to Jesus. The yoke of the Law, yoke of ignorance and the yoke of fear will be replaced by the yoke of faith and obedience to the teachings of Christ that, although demanding, are made easy and light by His mercy, grace and presence (verses 28-30).

Jesus responds to the questions of John and his disciples, gives a witness towards John, rebukes the cities that rejected Him, and renews His invitation for all to follow Him.

Conflict with the Pharisees – Chapter 12

The next chapter chronicles the on-going conflict that Jesus had with the Pharisees and scribes who were the principle teachers of the nation of Israel.

Jesus' popularity as a teacher, regardless of His miracles, posed a threat to their position and influence so they were determined to discredit or destroy Him. This aggression began as a form of questioning concerning His conduct and teachings, and finally ended with a plot to kill Him.

Accusations of Sabbath Breaking

Pharisees accuse Jesus' disciples of breaking the Sabbath

1At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. 2But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath." 3But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, 4how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? 5Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? 6But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.
8For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
- Matthew 12:1-8

Sabbath law forbade thirty-nine types of work on the Sabbath. Harvesting was one of these.

Jesus responds by showing them that God's law concerning mercy towards suffering and need is higher than the law concerning religious ceremony. God provided ceremonial laws for man's benefit in worship, but when these clashed with human need and mercy, the higher principle of love trumped the rules about required worship (David eating the showbread). The Lord points out that the priests themselves broke the Law since they had to work in order to perform their duties on the Sabbath.

Jesus rebukes them for not discerning between the form (temple and sacrifices which led to Christ) and the substance of the Law (Christ Himself, the giver of the Law and the reason for the ceremonies).

Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath by healing someone on the Sabbath

9Departing from there, He went into their synagogue. 10And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"—so that they might accuse Him. 11And He said to them, "What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." 13Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand!" He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
- Matthew 12:9-14

They set a trap for Him by asking if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus answers with the question, "Is it right to do good on the Sabbath?" He uses the example of saving an animal's life on the Sabbath. He then contrasts this with the value of a human life and how right it is to save lives, even on the Sabbath. He then heals a man's withered hand to make His point. It is always right to do good. They again miss the point and plot His demise in their anger.

Fulfillment of prophecy

15But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, and He healed them all, 16and warned them not to tell who He was. 17This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet:

18"Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen;
My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased;
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19"He will not quarrel, nor cry out;
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
20"A battered reed He will not break off,
And a smoldering wick He will not put out,
Until He leads justice to victory.
21"And in His name the Gentiles will hope."
- Matthew 12:15-21

Matthew is always careful to demonstrate how every facet of Jesus' life is in accordance with prophecy concerning the Messiah. Here he weaves together several verses from the prophet Isaiah's "Suffering Servant" passages (Isaiah 42:1-ff) along with other revelations during Jesus' life on earth (... "this is my beloved Son," Matthew 3:17) to demonstrate that His meekness and refusal to debate the Pharisees at this time is in line with what was said about His character in the Old Testament. Matthew also introduces the idea that the prophets also saw the Messiah bringing salvation to the Gentile world as well as the Jewish nation. This was done to prepare for the time when Jesus would do this as well.

Accusations of Association with Satan

Jesus miraculously heals a blind and dumb man possessed of a demon

22Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. 23All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, "This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?" 24But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons."
- Matthew 12:22-24

The crowd begins to perceive that Jesus may be the Messiah based on this miracle. The Pharisees counter by accusing Him of performing miracles by the power of Satan.

Jesus responds to them

25And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. 26If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. 28But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.

30He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.

31"Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 32Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

33"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. 35The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. 36But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
- Matthew 12:25-37

Verses 25-26: It is illogical that I cast out demons by the power of demons because this would mean Satan is fighting against himself, and even if this were so he would be destroyed (a house divided against itself).

Verses 27-30: The Jews cast out demons and claimed power from God to do so, why do they doubt that His power is from God? There is something wrong with men who ascribe the identical effect to opposite causes. Jesus does not allow them to escape the obvious conclusion that if His power is from God, then what He claims is true. The miracle not only demonstrates that His power is from God, but also that His power is greater than Satan's. The final conclusion is that those who accuse Him or are not for Him are automatically against Him. When it comes to Jesus there is no neutral ground. He came to sow the seed, catch the fish, find the sheep, and those against Him do the opposite, they scatter the seed, the fish, and the sheep (this has always been the work of the devil).

Verses 21-37: Jesus rebukes them for their false accusations against Him. The English word blasphemy comes from two Greek words meaning injure and speech. To speak injuriously or badly about anyone, including Jesus as they had just done, can be forgiven. But to do so against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, ever. This is probably so because it is the Spirit who convicts the world of sin and leads us to repentance (John 16:8). If we speak against Him and reject Him there is no other power to lead us once again to repentance and the forgiveness that stems from repentance. Jesus is warning the Pharisees that they are dangerously close to this point because they are blaspheming Him within whom resides the Holy Spirit and by whose power He was doing the miracles.

The Lord comments on their accusations against Him:

  • Make up your minds based on facts. Good fruit comes from good trees and vice versa. Look at my fruit and judge.
  • The fruit of your lips already reveals what is in your hearts. To accuse me of being with Satan after seeing good works demonstrates how twisted you are inside.
  • He makes a specific statement to them concerning their confession (they chose not to confess Him but to blaspheme Him) and how it will come back to judge them in the last day (10:32 "whoever confesses me...").
  • Jesus gives a general warning to everyone concerning the use of their tongues, and how our own words reveal our hearts and will judge us in the end.

Seeking a sign

38Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You." 39But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

43"Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. 44Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came'; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. 45Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation."
- Matthew 12:38-45

The Pharisees assigned His miracles to Satan. The Scribes (learned lawyers) were not satisfied with these works of mercy and grace. They wanted something spectacular (movement of the heavenly bodies) or something bizarre. They wanted their own personal "sign".

Jesus responds that the only sign given to them would be that of Jonah in the whale. Jonah was three days and nights in the whale and brought out; in the same way Jesus would be three days and three nights in the grave and be brought out. This would be the final and most convincing sign to demonstrate His deity and person.

He compares their reaction to Him to how others reacted to God and His servants in the past:

Nineveh repented after hearing Jonah's message, but they, after receiving much more proof, refuse to repent. When they will be judged, their disbelief will be in marked contrast to those Gentiles who long ago believed and repented. Also, Jerusalem was facing impending doom just as Nineveh was before it repented and was spared.

The Queen of Sheba travelled a thousand miles to hear Solomon, but they refuse to hear Him who is among them. Again, a contrast that will condemn them in the end.

At this point Jesus gives an illustration that compares the generation of Jews He was addressing to a demon possessed man (verses 43-45). Jesus, by His appearance, miracles and teachings is casting out the demons by which they are threatened and controlled. Despite all of this, the cleansed nation rejects Christ and His Spirit and thus left worse off in the end than at the beginning because after rejecting Him they will be totally under the control of Satan and his demons. By not accepting Jesus as Lord of the house of Israel they are left empty and vulnerable.

To those who seek a sign He tells them that their request is a sign of their lack of faith and pending destruction, but He does reveal what sign they should be looking for, always holding out the offer and hope of salvation for them.

Conflict with His Family

46While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. 47Someone said to Him, "Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You." 48But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?" 49And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, "Behold My mother and My brothers! 50For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother."
- Matthew 12:46-50

In the middle of His response to the Scribes He is told that His mother and brothers want to speak with Him. Mark 3:21 tells us that they thought He had lost His senses, and wanted to bring Him home. Perhaps the accusation that He was possessed by Beelzebub moved them to action.

Jesus does not respond to them in this, but questions the very essence of their relationship with Him. Their claim to Him was their physical relationship, but He responds that His true family is made up of those who do the will of God, and the will of God is that everyone believe in His Son.

In the conflict with His family Jesus extends the same invitation to them as He has to the Scribes, Pharisees, disciples and multitudes: to be united to Him through faith and obedience.

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