During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He often conversed and rubbed shoulders with stubborn, hard-hearted people. He preached sermons and gave talks to people who had no intention of listening. He often found Himself ministering to people who wanted nothing to do with His way of life or the salvation that He offered. The sad thing is that those who were most opposed to Jesus should have been His biggest supporters. Jesus’ opposition came primarily from men who knew the Bible inside and out but failed to really hear and understand what it meant.
The Jews since antiquity have had three sects of philosophy: the Essenes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees.(1) Our passage of interest records two hostile encounters with the most prominent group, the Pharisees.
Much of what we know about the Pharisees comes from Josephus, the Gospels, and the Rabbinic tradition after AD 70.(2) While the gospels describe the Pharisees negatively, Josephus is prejudiced in favor of them. Josephus records this: “The Pharisees simplify their way of life and give in to no sort of softness; and they follow the guidance of what their doctrine has handed down and prescribes as good… Because of these doctrines they hold great influence among the populace, and all divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices are performed according to their direction. In doing so the cities bear witness to all their virtuous conduct, both in their way of life and in their words.”(3)
The Pharisees were respected in their communities because they were whole-heartedly committed to God’s Law. Yet the Pharisees, as religious separatists, prided themselves in their own righteousness.(4) Their way of life bred pride, legalism, and self-righteousness. R. T. France describes it this way, “Pharisaic concern for the detailed regulation of religious duty was in danger of putting the rules before the good purpose for which they were given.”
In other words, the Pharisees’ zeal for the law had turned them into self-righteous hypocrites who “followed the law” at the expense of hurting themselves and others. Their approach to keeping the law actually resulted in their own breaking of the law. They had lost sight of the fact that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). Jesus points out that the law was created to serve people, instead of people being created to serve the law.
What About Us?
The question must now be raised; “What about us?” How can we protect ourselves from being heartless rule followers? How can we be men and women who follow Jesus from the heart and minister to others out of a desire to be like Christ? It would be foolish to think that we couldn’t possibly turn into the Pharisees that Jesus criticized in Matthew 12.
We are just as capable of reading but not understanding, hearing but not doing, and seeing but failing to perceive. We are just as capable of living the hypocritical lifestyles that Jesus accused the Pharisees of living.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon pointed out that it is possible to read the Bible, know the Bible, and be passionate about the Bible, but completely misunderstand what the Bible is really teaching. He warns that, “Much apparent Bible reading is not Bible reading at all. The verses pass under the eye, and the sentences glide over the mind, but there is no true reading. An old preacher used to say, the Word has mighty free course among many nowadays, for it goes in at one of their ears and out at the other; so it seems to be with some readers—they can read a very great deal, because they do not read anything… Now, beloved, unless we understand what we read we have not read it; the heart of the reading is absent.”(5)
My hope is that Matthew 12 would inspire people to be continually transformed by God’s Word instead of hardened by it. This passage serves as a good reminder that it is only those who come into God’s presence with humility and brokenness that will leave changed by Him. It’s a reminder to check our hearts and ask why we even read and study the Bible in the first place.
Why do we attend church? Serve? I would suggest that if everything we do is not motivated by a heart of worship, it is a great offense to God. Even our rule following can be disgusting in God’s sight.
Let us be men and women who exalt God first and foremost and live out the demands of Scripture because of our love for Jesus and others, rather than out of a love for the applause of men.
(1) Josephus. Antiquities 18.1.2-3 11-13
(2) Green, Michael. (1988). Matthew. The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Matthew. Pg. 144-147
(3) Josephus. Antiquities 18.1.2-3 11-13
(4) Augsburger, Myron S. (1982). Matthew. The Communicators Commentary. Pg. 121-122
(5) Charles H. Spurgeon, sermon