This chapter is titled "Spirit" though the Holy Spirit is not mentioned till verse 18 where Matthew connects the ministry of Jesus with the prophecy of the Spirit upon the Messianic Servant of Isaiah.
An important area in which the freedom of the Spirit was expressed in the words and life of Jesus was in the interpretation of the fourth commandment relating to the Sabbath or day of rest. Interpretation is needed because the ten commandments are more like categories of moral judgment which are found among all people everywhere but they have little content till they are interpreted in particular cases (See Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage, chapter 1).
All people know that unremitting work cannot be demanded of humans or animals. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns" (Exodus 2:8-10).
But although the principle of one day of rest in seven is an absolute, we are not given a content for what work is, or what rest is, or which day work should be begun, or what time the Sabbath should begin, or what to do in exceptional cases. The Jewish scribes made the Sabbath begin on Friday evening, and at one time the rabbis listed 39 rules of what could be done and not done for its proper observance. A hundred years ago some Christians invented as many rules for what must be done or not done on Sunday.
The freedom of the Spirit is expressed in being able to take the equivalent of one day of rest as best as can be managed creatively in the circumstances. In countries where there is five day work week there is a huge amount of work that needs to be done on the sixth day, and still leave time for recreation in body and mind on a seventh day. For example airline pilots, doctors and nurses, truck drivers, dairy farmers, and mothers with small children will all need different ways of getting the proper rest and recreation that is needed. People who try to work seven days a week soon begin making mistakes and cracking up one way or another.
The freedom of the Spirit in interpreting the content of the ten categories of moral judgment is an essential part of what Jesus taught. Paul does not reject the ten commandments (Romans 13:8-9) but he insists on our freedom to interpret them by love (Romans 13:10). And that requires both the freedom of the Spirit (Romans 7:6; 8:4; Galatians 3:2; 5:1) and the power of the Spirit to live out that freedom (Romans 8:4; 15:13; Galatians 3:3; 5:5-6).
12:1-2 The Sabbath had been interpreted to mean that no harvesting should take place for twenty-four hours from Friday evening. When Jesus went out for a walk with his disciples one Saturday afternoon, and the disciples chewed on grains of wheat as they walked through the fields, they were faulted for harvesting and thus disobeying the fourth commandment.
12:3-4 Jesus answered by giving the example of an Old Testament law which reserved the holy bread in the house of God for the priests only. David, who was already the anointed king but still a fugitive, took the consecrated holy bread for his men to eat when they were hungry (1 Samuel 21:2-6). The point is that laws must be interpreted according to circumstances, and chewing on grains of wheat on the Sabbath afternoon walk does not count as harvesting.
12:5-6 Similarly priests have their work to do on the Sabbath day. And Jesus implies that a new temple was already among them (see John 2:19-21; Ephesians 2:21-22). Peter must have received his vision of the new kind of temple and royal priesthood from Jesus (1 Peter 2:5, 9; based on Exodus 19:6; compare Romans 15:16; Ephesians 2:19-22).
12:7-8 The quotation from Hosea 6:6 suggests that the law of love is more important to God than the ceremonial rules made by men (see 22:36-40). Jesus, as a fully human Son of Man, has the right to interpret the meaning of the fourth commandment (and by implication all of the other nine categories of moral judgment). Or as Mark's Gospel explains, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28). Christians therefore have a right, and the responsibility, to fill out and interpret the fourth and other commandments as the Holy Spirit reveals what is best in each situation.
12:9-10 Here again Jesus attends a synagogue service, as was his usual practice (4:23; 9:35; 13:54). The Sabbath legalists were expecting Jesus to be moved with compassion for the man with a paralyzed hand. And they were ready to condemn him for Sabbath breaking. Their rule was that medical treatment was permitted on the Sabbath in cases of life and death, but not for a chronic condition like paralysis.
12:11-12 Jesus points out that they would help a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath day, and surely humans are more important than sheep! That means that doing good can always override a Sabbath rule.
12:13-14 When the man is healed right there in the synagogue the Pharisee conspiracy to eliminate the Messiah begins (see 21:1-46; 22:15; 26:3; in Mark 3:6 the Herodians of the opposing Sadducee party were included in the conspiracy). The logic is that anyone who upsets their legalistic rules by definition cannot be the Messiah.
After illustrating the trivial Pharisaic objections to Jesus' attitude to the Sabbath, Matthew now focuses on their much more serious rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew term ruakh elohim (meaning "wind of God") for the Holy Spirit is first used in Genesis 1:2 (see previous comments on Matthew 1:19; 3:11, 16; 4:1; 10:20; 12:28). The term "Messiah," meaning "anointed one," included the idea of being anointed by the Spirit, as in the quote from Isaiah in 12:18. But when the crowds wondered whether Jesus could be the Messiah (12:23), the Pharisees claimed that he was healing by Beelzebul (12:24). Jesus called this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (12:31). They were ascribing satanic power to what was obviously the power and love of God.
12:15-16 As the Messiah's ministry of healing continued (see 11:2-5) those healed were asked not to trumpet the news around (8:4; 9:30). Reports of healing always tend to become sensational, and turn people's attention from the presence of the Messiah and his kingdom among them (see note on 12:19-21).
12:17-18 Matthew notes the combination of power and humility that characterized the Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; see Matthew 20:28). The text from Isaiah introduces the fact that the Messiah does his work by the power of the Spirit, and this power will not be confined to Israel but will flow out to all nations (12:18, 21; 21:43; 24:14, 31).
12:19-21 The Messiah King will not work by making proclamations. He will be recognized first by his tending those who are bruised in his Kingdom (see Isaiah 61:1 quoted in Luke 4:18), then by kindling the flame of those whose faith has almost spluttered out, and eventually by reaching out to the nations (28:19-20).
12:22-23 This Messianic care for the most bruised in society is illustrated by the healing of a person who is both blind and dumb, and also possessed by a demonic power. The ordinary people immediately recognize this as something only the Messianic heir to the throne of David would do and could do.
12:24 The Pharisee legalists, having already decided that Jesus could not be the Messiah (12:14), not only deny that the healing of this extremely handicapped man could be characteristic of the Messianic reign of the Spirit, but they have to ascribe the healing to satanic power (as in 9:34; 10:25. The local god Baal-zebul, the "lord of the flies," in the city of Ekron, [2 Kings 1:1-6], had apparently been promoted to supreme satanic power).
12:25-26 Jesus asks the Pharisees how the prince of devils, who had held the unfortunate blind and mute demoniac in his power, can now act against himself to free his prisoner. The humorous irony of Jesus' answers is illustrated throughout this section.
12:27 There were exorcists among the Pharisees (see Acts 19:13) who by prayer, fasting, and faith were called upon to free the possessed. Did the Pharisees want to suggest that they were also empowered by Satan?
12:28 Jesus claims that his own ministry is by the power of the Spirit (see 1:20; 3:11, 16), and this is sure evidence of the Messianic kingdom (as in 4:17).
12:29-30 The fact that people, who had been possessed by satanic power, were now being freed is evidence that the Messiah has already begun defeating the enemy (see Luke 10:18; 11:20-22). And in this cosmic spiritual battle it is impossible to be neutral.
12:31-32 There are many guilt-ridden individuals who are afraid they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and that they are damned for ever. In this section it is quite clear that blasphemy against the Spirit is calling good evil, or ascribing the loving work of the Holy Spirit to satanic power.
It is possible to be mistaken and criticize what Jesus said or did as a very human Messiah. But calling love, joy, peace evil instead of an expression of the loving heart of God (see Galatians 5:22) makes it impossible to enjoy heaven. Similarly Paul tells us that delighting in the works of the flesh as one's supreme good is equally disastrous (Galatians 5:19-21).
12:33 Matthew's section about the Holy Spirit ends with a parable or extended metaphor about fruit bearing. In contrast to every form of legalism Jesus teaches that a person can only become good by a heart change. "It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come" (Mark 7:21). Good fruit is not produced by effort. It can only come from the sap of a good tree. "The branch cannot bear fruit by itself . . . Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5). Or as Paul wrote, "Live by the Spirit that you may not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16, taking the Greek ou me as a strong negative), and then contrasted the desires of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit (5:17-24).
12:34 By rejecting heart change by the Holy Spirit Jesus' Pharisee opponents hiss like vipers instead of teaching the Messianic good news.
12:35 Here the metaphor changes to a heart viewed as a storehouse from which either good or bad teaching will inevitably be expressed in words (see 13:52 for the training that is needed). Depending on what fills our heart, the crises of life will bring out in words what we really are.
12:36-37 This is not meant to create guilt and make us wonder how we will fare in a last judgment after death (eternal damnation is found nowhere in this Gospel). The point is that careless, hurtful, destructive words wreak havoc in our lives. Rather than trying to put a lid on a jealous, angry, resentful, unloving spirit, the good news is that the Holy Spirit can be trusted to change our heart. By the Spirit's inspiration (as in 10:19-20) the sweet words of God's love will come to our lips when they are needed. It is words that judge us, but the words that come to our lips are "out of the abundance of the heart" (12:34).
Having been defeated by their own illogical arguments and the powerful logic of the Spirit, the theologians and Pharisees now demand a miraculous sign that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
As Paul explained, the Messianic kingdom is faulted by the demand for signs on the one hand and the demand for impressive human wisdom on the other. But it is the Messiah's choice of weakness and eventual crucifixion that Paul had learned to preach from the first disciples (1 Corinthians 1:21-24). And Paul adds that he preached knowing his own great weakness, and the resulting good news was "a demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; see the conclusion of Paul's argument in Romans 15:13).
12:38-40 The use of signs to promote the Messianic kingdom had been rejected in Jesus' temptations (4:3, 6). John's Gospel is structured around a series of signs or pointers to faith, but none of these would offer the kind of proof that the Pharisees were demanding. The one sign that would be totally unanswerable would be the resurrection of a Messiah who had accepted the astonishing weakness of his humanity and final crucifixion (a sign as incredible as Jonah's resurrection from the sea monster's belly).
12:41-42 The Pharisees knew that the people of Nineveh (capital of Assyria) had turned to God when they heard Jonah's preaching (Jonah 3:5-9). They also knew how the Queen of Sheba had come from the farthest end of Arabia to learn the wisdom God had given to Solomon (1 Kings 3:9, 12; 4:29-30; 10:1-9). The Assyrians were totally ruthless in their wars, and the Queen of Sheba was both an Arab descended from Ishmael and a woman. Such persons were willing to turn to God and seek his wisdom, but these religious leaders were so blinded by legalism (as in 23:13-36) that they were rejecting their own Messiah.
The judgment in that generation was to be the destruction of the temple and the Jerusalem religious establishment that occurred within forty years (AD 70) when the people of that generation were still around to see it happen (as in 23:36; 24:1-2, 14, 34). The reference to the rising up of the people of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba is therefore metaphorical of the comparative blindness of the Jewish religious establishment.
12:43-45 Matthew concludes this section about the judgment on the Jerusalem religious establishment in that generation with Jesus' words about the danger of legalism. There is a terrible outcome for people who clean up their lives like the Pharisees but fail to fill their hearts with the power of the Spirit.
The loving relationships of members of the Messianic kingdom will inevitably become closer than ordinary family ties (see 10:21). Matthew makes clear that it is Jesus' disciples who are members of this new kind of family. We are children of God the Father (5:9, 45; 6:9; 7:11), or in other words children of the kingdom (8:12). This contrasts with earthly kings and rulers who appoint their own family members to positions of power.
Similarly John's Gospel calls us children of God (John 1:12). And Paul explained how the Holy Spirit gives us this assurance of sonship (Romans 8:14; 9:26; Galatians 3:26) and the Church is a family or household (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 2:19). In these verses the term "sons of God" obviously includes the daughters of the family, since women as well as men were baptized (Acts 5:14; 8:12; 16:15) and enrolled as disciples (6:1-2, 7; 9:1, 10, 19, 25, 26) or Christians (11:26). This is why in the book of Acts the term "brothers" (9:17, 30; 11:1, 29; 12:17; 22:13) is properly translated "brothers and sisters."
Matthew has included these words of Jesus to make a sharp contrast between Jesus' natural family and Christians as children of God, and therefore brothers and sisters in this new Messianic family.
12:46-47 Jesus' mother has been mentioned in the first two chapters (1:18-20; 2:11-14), and Matthew will refer to Mary and Jesus' brothers and sisters in the family home in Capernaum (13:55-56; as in Mark 6:3; see note on Capernaum in 4:13).
12:48-49 This is the first reference to the Messianic kingdom as a family. Matthew uses it to show how the vision of the Church as a loving family had already been given by Jesus to his disciples.
12:50 By comparing the previous verse it seems that doing the will of the Father is equivalent to being a disciple of Jesus. A disciple is someone learning with a teacher, and the children of God are those who are learning with Jesus (or after Pentecost with the Holy Spirit as teacher). Eventually the Son intends to perfect his disciples in love (see comment on 5:48) but when we begin our learning we bumble and make many mistakes. It is therefore wrong to twist these words into a form of legalism which requires a level of performance to be acceptable in the family of God.