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Go to Bible: Matthew 12
“Jesus went through the grainfields.” This record occurs here in Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28, and Luke 6:1-5.(top)
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“Your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” To the Pharisees, plucking grain on the Sabbath was breaking the Mosaic Law. See commentary on Luke 6:2.(top)
“you.” This “you” is plural in the text. “Have all of you never read….”(top)
“ate.” The “ate” is plural. David and the men with him all ate the Bread of the Presence. A more literal, but more difficult rendering in English would be, “he [David] went into the house of God and they ate the Bread of the Presence.” This is a case where a literal translation from the Greek makes the English difficult.(top)
|Mat 12:5||- (top)|
|Mat 12:6||- (top)|
“I want mercy, and not sacrifice.” Quoted from Hosea 6:6. See commentary on Hosea 6:6 for more understanding as to why Jesus quoted that verse. Also, he quoted it once before under different circumstances in Matthew 9:13.(top)
|Mat 12:8||- (top)|
|Mat 12:9||- (top)|
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!”).
“And in order to accuse him.” The evil nature of these religious leaders is exposed in the fact that they did not care at all about the man with the shriveled hand who in that “hands-on” culture would have been terribly handicapped. They simply wanted to get rid of Jesus.
“they asked him.” The literal is “they asked him, saying,” which is exactly the Aramaic idiom, but we would say, “they asked him,” which reads more smoothly in this context.(top)
|Mat 12:11||- (top)|
|Mat 12:12||- (top)|
|Mat 12:13||- (top)|
|Mat 12:14||- (top)|
|Mat 12:15||- (top)|
“warned.” The Greek word translated “warned” is epitimaō (#2008 ἐπιτιμάω). Usually epitimaō means to express strong disapproval of someone: rebuke, reprove, censure; or to speak seriously, and thus warn in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end. It can also mean “punish” (cp. BDAG Lexicon). Epitimaō is also used in a technical sense in the NT, see commentary on Mark 1:25. Jesus “warned” his disciples, no doubt including some of what might happen if they ignored what he said.(top)
|Mat 12:17||- (top)|
Quoted from Isaiah 42:1. (Matthew 12:18-21 is quoted from Isaiah 42:1-4).
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“my servant.” Matthew 12:18-21 is quoted from Isaiah 42:1-4 and are the first four verses of the first “Servant Song” in Isaiah (called a “song” because Isaiah wrote in Hebrew poetry). The “Servant Songs” are sections of Isaiah that are about the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and present him as the Servant of God. The four “Servant songs” are: Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12. The last Servant song is familiar to us because of Isaiah 53, but few people realize the song starts in chapter 52, and unfortunately is broken up by the chapter break of Isaiah 53. The chapter breaks were added to the Old Testament in the 13th century AD, some 2000 years after Isaiah wrote, and the song would have been much easier to see and understand had it not been interrupted by the chapter break.
The fact that Matthew 12:17 says that Jesus fulfilled the Servant Song shows conclusively that Jesus is the “servant” of the Servant songs in Isaiah. The disciples understood this also, because in Acts 4:27 they prayed to God and referred to Jesus as “your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.” This is likely an illusion to Isaiah 42:1, which speaks of Jesus as the Servant of God and that he was given (thus “anointed with”) the holy spirit by God.
The Servant Songs are sections of Isaiah that are specifically about the Messiah, and would have enabled Jesus to more clearly understand his mission and what he would have to endure to accomplish it.
“my soul.” The Greek word often translated “soul” is psuchē (#5590 ψυχή; pronounced psoo-kay’), and it has a large number of meanings, including the physical life of a person or animal; an individual person; or attitudes, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. We can tell that in this verse “my soul” is equivalent to “me” (including my thoughts, emotions, and feelings) because the “my” is God, and He is not a body powered by soul. [For a more complete explanation of “soul,” see Appendix 7, “Usages of ‘Soul’”].(top)
Quoted from Isaiah 42:2.(top)
Quoted from Isaiah 42:3, 4.
“A bruised reed he will not break.” In this verse, the “bruised (or broken) reed” and the “smoking flax” are the figure of speech hypocatastasis for afflicted and weak people [for an explanation of hypocatastasis, see commentary on Revelation 20:2]. In fact, the verse is a litotes (“meiosis”), because it is stating in the negative something that is really positive. It is not just that Jesus will not break a reed that is bruised, but he will heal the reed and cause it to stand upright. It is not just that Jesus will not put out a smoldering wick, he will trim that wick and make it burn brightly. Jesus will not oppress the oppressed. A “smoking flax” is a smoldering wick—the wicks of the oil lamps (sometimes mistranslated as “candles”) that were used at the time were often made of flax and often linen. For example, the remains of a 1500-year-old linen wick was discovered at the town of Shivta in the Negev in 2018, the wick being kept from disintegrating by the dry conditions of the Negev. The Mishna, tractate Shabbat, mentions the materials that kosher wicks can be made from.
“leads justice to victory.” This is the figure of speech personification. “Justice” is portrayed as a person, and today justice is currently being thwarted and ignored. If we were to translate the verse without the personification, we might say something like: “until the Messiah’s victory brings justice.”(top)
Quoted from Isaiah 42:4.(top)
|Mat 12:22||- (top)|
|Mat 12:23||- (top)|
“Beelzebul.” The Greek is Beelzeboul (#954 Βεελζεβούλ), which gets put into English as “Beelzebul.” “Beelzeboul” is “lord of the dunghill.” This comes from the Hebrew zebul (dung, a dunghill). [For more on the name Beelzebul and other names of the Slanderer (the Devil), see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil”.](top)
|Mat 12:25||- (top)|
“the Adversary.” The Greek word for Adversary is Satanas (#4567 Σατανᾶς), which has been transliterated into “Satan” in most versions. This causes the meaning of the word, which is important, to be lost. For more information on it, see commentary on Mark 1:13. [For information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil”.]
“How then….” This is the figure of speech Erotesis (rhetorical question).(top)
“Beelzebul.” See commentary on Matt 12:24.
“sons.” Here “sons” refers to disciples, not literal children. The Greek word is huios (#5207 υἱός), and means “son,” but the key to understanding what the verse is saying is recognizing that “son” was used in many ways in Semitic languages, just as we use it in several ways in English. In this case, the “sons” are the students, or disciples, of the Pharisees, in the same way that in the Old Testament, the disciples of the prophets were called “the sons of the prophets” (1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1, etc.).
Other meanings of the word “son” include: someone who was a person’s immediate child (John 9:19); a grandchild or descendant, such as a “son of David” (Matt. 1:20); a male heir that is adopted or taken into the family (Exod. 2:10); and a younger person for whom you have taken on a fatherly role or the role of a mentor/teacher and have special affection for (2 Chron. 29:11; 1 Pet. 5:13). The word “son” also refers to a person who is closely related or associated, especially in a group; thus all mankind is referred to as the “sons of men,” and Jesus referred to himself as “the son of man” which confused the religious leaders, because it could have been a simple way of saying “a man,” but was also a Messianic title due to Daniel 7:13. “Son” also was used to refer to a person who has the character, and even follows in the footsteps, of another (Acts 13:10 “son of the Devil”). Also, a person who has a certain specific characteristic is called a “son” of that characteristic (e.g., “sons of disobedience” are disobedient people, Eph. 2:2).
Just as someone’s disciples were called “sons,” a person who was a father figure, mentor, and guide, was called a “father.” Thus, Joseph said he had become a “father” to Pharaoh (Gen. 45:8). In the book of Judges, first Micah of Ephraim, and then people of the tribe of Dan, asked a Levite to be a “father” to them, that is, be their spiritual guide (Judg. 17:10; 18:19). The prophet Elisha referred to the elder prophet Elijah as his “father” (2 Kings 2:12), and the servants of the Syrian commander, Naaman, referred to him as “father” because he was a mentor and guide (2 Kings 5:13). The king of Israel referred to the prophet Elisha as his “father,” his spiritual mentor and guide (2 Kings 6:21). Job was wealthy, and he said he had been a “father” to the poor (Job 29:16). [For more on “father” see commentary on Genesis 4:20].
Since the disciples of a Rabbi were called his “sons,” and the Rabbi was called their “father,” in the Jewish culture of biblical times if a Rabbi died or left the area, his disciples were then referred to as “orphans,” and this terminology shows up a couple times in the New Testament (John 14:18; 1 Thess. 2:17. See commentary on John 14:18, “orphans”).
In this verse, the “sons” of the Pharisees were the disciples of the Pharisees. This same use of “sons” or “children” can be found in Revelation 2:23, where the “children” of Jezebel were those people who were following in her footsteps and acting like she did.
“cast them out.” See commentary on Luke 11:19.(top)
“spirit of God.” This is the gift of holy spirit that God put upon believers in the Old Testament so they could do the works of God. It is not a “person,” but the very nature of God; holy and spirit. It is referred to as the finger of God in Luke 11:20. (See commentary on Luke 11:20. See also, Graeser, Lynn, Schoenheit, The Gift of Holy Spirit: The Power to Be Like Christ).(top)
“binds.” The Greek word “binds” is the common word deō (#1210 δέω), which means to bind or tie up. However, here it has a special meaning. The word was used in magic and spells for binding someone via a spell. The word was used to “to describe the ‘binding’ power of curses” (Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek NT). The context is the casting out of demons (v. 28), so the “binding” in this verse refers to binding a demon and making it powerless by the power of God.(top)
“He who is not with me is against me.” This verse does away with the idea that people can somehow “sit on the fence” when it comes to God and the things of God. There are many people who fancy themselves “not religious,” who would say that they are not for Jesus but neither are they against him. Actually, that is an impossibility. We are God’s creations, and as such we have a moral obligation to serve God. Furthermore, the Adversary is constantly attacking God, and one of the ways he does it is to get people to not commit to any religious belief. However, not being committed to a religious belief is being committed to that fact that there is nothing that deserves to be committed to. Thus these “uncommitted” people are committed to something, just not God. Furthermore, they are a part of the general “background noise” of the many people who are not committed to God, which helps encourage other people that being “uncommitted” is okay. In one of his sermons rabbi Shalom Lewis of Atlanta said, “Brutal acts of commission and yawning acts of omission both strengthen the hand of the devil.” Each person either scatters or gathers, there is no middle ground. This maxim is stated the opposite way in Mark 9:40, and for more information on it, see commentary on Mark 9:40.(top)
“People will be forgiven for every sin and defaming word, but the defaming of the Spirit will not be forgiven.” These words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 12:31-32 (cp. Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10) are very direct: “every” sin and defaming word can be forgiven except one, a sin he referred to as “defaming” or to “speak against,” the Holy Spirit. The definition of “defaming” includes slander, speaking against God, or verbal abuse, and it is clear from comparing the above two verses that Christ is defining defaming as “speaking against” something.
Jesus said there is one form of defaming against God that will never be forgiven, and he was referring to a specific defaming, not just speaking against God in general. Many people have at some time been angry at God due to the horrific circumstances of this fallen world, and many have spoken very harshly about God and/or to Him. In fact, it is safe to say that most people have even cursed at God, and yet when they ask for forgiveness, He forgives them. The same is true of other kinds of sin. Many people sin horribly against God but are later forgiven. But there is a defaming that will not be forgiven.
What we learn from the scope of Scripture is that the defaming that cannot be forgiven is a person saying, and truly meaning in the depths of their heart, that Satan is the true God. The Bible reveals that the Devil can have “children,” that is, people who have a unique relationship with him that makes them different from other sinners whose sins can be forgiven. People who are children of the Devil have sinned in such a way that they are no longer redeemable, that is, they cannot be forgiven, and it is not possible for them to be saved. The world is full of sinful people, and some of those sinners do very horrible things. Nevertheless, in the spiritual world there is a difference between people who sin and can be forgiven, and people who cannot be forgiven because they have taken the Devil as their god and have become his “children” and are true enemies of righteousness.
The Bible has much evidence of the “unforgivable sin,” which leads to the everlasting death of the individual who commits it.
This verse reveals the same basic truth Jesus spoke about: there are sins that are “not unto death,” and there is a sin that is “unto death.” The Word of God directs us not to pray for those who have committed the sin unto death because they cannot be forgiven.
Scripture shows a link between the unforgivable sin and those referred to as “children of the Devil.” When speaking to some of the religious leaders, Jesus said, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44 NASB). These leaders were in a different category than “regular” sinners like the prostitutes and tax collectors, who Jesus never referred to as “children of the Devil.” Jesus always reached out to sinners like prostitutes, tax collectors, and even the thief on the cross. He actively tried to win them to salvation and to living a life of righteousness. In contrast, there is no evidence Jesus attempted to evangelize those he referred to as being fathered by the Devil. Instead, he told his disciples, “Leave them alone! They are blind guides” (Matt. 15:14).
The Apostle Paul also encountered a child of the Devil. Confronting the false prophet Bar-Jesus, he said by revelation: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything right” (Acts 13:10). Paul confronted many stubborn, sinful, hard-hearted people on his journeys, but this was the only man he called a child of the Devil. The fact that the text tells us that Paul was filled with the holy spirit when he spoke alerts us to the fact that this was not just his opinion, but came from the Lord. Those people who commit the unforgivable sin become children of the Devil.
Interestingly, there is a lot of folklore about people who “sell their soul to the Devil.” The folklore usually goes something like this: a person wants something really badly, like money, power, fame, or love. So the Devil comes to him and says, “I will give you what you want at a very reasonable price—your eternal soul.” The person, blinded by desire, makes the deal with the Devil and then at the end of his life has to go to “hell,” with no chance of “heaven.” Most folklore has some basis of truth in it, and this folklore is no different. Throughout history, many people have sensed that, in contrast to the majority of sinners who are simply caught up in their sin, some people are truly evil to the core and are somehow connected to evil spiritual forces, and many of those people are indeed “children” of the Devil, just as Christ said.
Some people so strongly lust for what they want that in their heart they make Satan, or one of his many fronts or idols, their “true” god and provider, and thus become his “children.” These self-centered people turn to Satan in order to quickly gain their desires, and in so doing turn away from the true God. The Bible does not describe exactly what a person does to become a child of the Devil, but it gives us some important information. Because Christ categorized it as a form of blasphemy, we know it is something that is said, either audibly or by speaking to oneself. but it cannot simply be saying, “I hate God” or “I love the Devil,” or something such as that. It has to be fully believed in the heart as well as in the mind. From what we see in Scripture, it occurs when someone completely turns away from God, and confesses and believes in their heart that Satan, or one of his many forms—such as money, power, fame, or love—is the true “god” by being their sustainer, provider, or the “lord” of their life.
The Bible makes it clear that committing the unforgivable sin is a decision of the heart, not just something people say or act out without being heart-committed to it. The world is full of many kinds of egregious sinners—murderers, rapists, and much more—who later repent and get saved. That includes many people who dabble in the black arts, magic, spells, divination, and such. We know from Acts 19 when Paul was in Ephesus that many of the people who had been involved in magic got saved (Acts 19:18-20). Although some people are frightened that because of the sins they have committed they might not be able to be saved, the scriptural evidence is that if a person wants to be saved, or is concerned about not being saved, then they have not committed the unforgivable sin. The people in the Bible who had committed the unforgivable sin, such as Cain, the religious leaders Jesus was talking to in John 8:44, or Elymas the sorcerer, had no desire to humble themselves to God and get saved. In contrast, Simon the sorcerer got saved despite his background in magic arts because he had never made a heart-commitment to Satan (Acts 8:13).
In the context of the unforgivable sin, it is important that Christians understand “god” in its more basic meaning of sustainer, provider, something that is worshipped or idealized, and something considered of supreme value. To blaspheme God does not mean one has to believe that the Devil is actually the Christian God and Father. Nor does it mean a person has to know that the Devil is a fallen angel who opposes the true creator God. To commit the unforgivable sin a person only has to truly take the Devil or one of his fronts as his own true god and provider. For example, it is unlikely that the Pharisees who were children of the Devil had taken “the Devil” per se as their god, but rather that they so highly valued their prestige, power, and position that they had in their hearts made that their god, and in doing so completely turned away from the true God and turned to the Devil via one of his fronts.
The unforgivable sin can be committed by believing and saying in your heart, that Satan or one of the forms he hides behind and supports is the true sustainer, provider, or object of supreme value in one’s life. No doubt that was what Satan was asking Jesus to do when he offered him all the power of the world if Jesus would worship him (Luke 4:6). The Devil was not asking Jesus to think that God did not exist or that Satan somehow was in fact God, but rather that Satan would be Jesus’ true sustainer and provider, the true god of his life. The Devil wanted Jesus to become a child of his, which would have been the ultimate coup, but to do so Jesus would have had to “worship” the Devil, not just in form, but in the depths of his heart.
It is not specifically stated in Scripture what happens to a person spiritually, mentally, and physically when he becomes a child of the Devil such that he is unable to repent and be saved. We have no way of knowing what actually happens, but one possibility is that when one commits the unforgivable sin, a demon enters him and gains access to, or perhaps even takes control of, the portion of the brain that controls freedom of choice, and the demon continually blocks his ability to repent.
The Bible has a lot to say about the people who have committed the unforgivable sin and become His enemies, and it can be found throughout the Scripture. Cain committed the unforgivable sin and was a child of the Devil, see commentary on Gen. 4:8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15; 1 John 3:12. The sons of Eli the High Priest were also sons of the Devil (1 Sam. 2:12).
[For more on “sons of Belial, see commentary on 1 Sam. 2:12. For more on Elymas the sorcerer being a child of the Devil, see commentary on Acts 13:10. For religious leaders at the time of Christ who were sons of the Devil, see commentary on John 8:44. Also see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil,” under “Belial” and “Father”].
“defaming word...defaming” Greek noun blasphēmia (#988 βλασφημία), and the verb blasphēmeō (#987 βλασφημέω) are transliterated (not translated) from the Greek into English as “blasphemy.” There is a problem with that, however, because “blasphemy” in English has a different meaning than blasphēmeō and blasphēmia do in Greek. In English, “blasphemy” is only used in reference to God. It is insulting God or a god, insulting something considered sacred (like defacing a cross or statue of Jesus), or claiming to be God or a god in some way. However, in Greek, blasphēmia and blasphēmeō did not have to refer to God or a god, but were common words that were used of someone speaking against another. The primary meaning of them as they were used in the Greek culture was showing disrespect to a person or deity, and/or harming his, her, or its reputation. In the honor/shame society of the biblical world, that was even more heinous an act than we would think of it today because honor and reputation were at the very core of societal status and were the basis of all social interaction. [For more on blasphēmia and blasphēmeō, see commentary on Matt. 9:3].(top)
“the Holy Spirit” Literally, “the Spirit, the Holy one.” A name of God. [For more information on the uses of “Holy Spirit”, see Appendix 6: Usages of ‘Spirit’].
“it will not be forgiven him.” See commentary on Matthew 12:31.(top)
“declare.” The Greek is poieō (#4160 ποιέω), which is properly “to do” or “to make,” and many versions read “make.” However, poieō can refer to what is made up in the mind, and thus what is thought, or in this case, as the context shows, what is declared or spoken. Examples of this include John 5:18; 8:53 and 10:33. The key to understanding this verse is realizing that Jesus is referring back to the evil and hypocritical judgment of the Pharisees, who said that when Jesus was delivering people by casting out demons, he was doing it by the prince of demons (Matt. 12:24). Jesus was telling the Pharisees that they could not rightly come to the conclusion that Jesus was evil when the result of his work was good. If they said the tree (i.e., Jesus) was evil, then his fruit would have to be evil too. But if they acknowledged that Jesus’ fruit was good, then they should acknowledge that he was good. The justification for the translation “declare” comes from the context: what the Pharisees were saying (Matt 12:24ff), and Christ’s reference to what is coming out of the mouth and idle words (Matt 12:34-37). Cassirer’s translation of this verse reads: “Suppose a tree is good, then its fruit will be good; suppose a tree has fallen into decay, then its fruit will be worthless.” Jesus taught with great consistency when it came to people and the fruit they produced (Matt. 7:15-20).(top)
“What overflows from the heart.” This is why the wise person guards their heart, because out of it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). The Bible says in many different places that what comes out of the mouth originates in the heart (see commentary on Matt. 15:18).(top)
|Mat 12:35||- (top)|
“careless word.” The Greek word the REV translates “careless” in Matthew 12:36 is argos (#692 ἀργός). It is a word that pertains to being unproductive and is therefore worthless, and in the context of speaking is basically a worthless word spoken carelessly (cp. BDAG Greek-English Lexicon). Some translations read “worthless” (NET), but in this context “careless” seems to be better, although we would understand what Jesus was saying even better we understood “careless” to mean “without care,” i.e., that the person could not “care less” and thus did not care what they said and who it hurt.
The Devil’s people have no fear of God or of the Day of Judgment, so they constantly spew worthless, hurtful, ungodly language. Because unsaved people make up the majority of the people on the planet, they create an atmosphere in which people are not taught to pay attention to what they say, and so they say (or text or email) many ungodly and hurtful things. Christians beware! There is a Day of Judgement coming, and how we have used our tongue will be part of what is judged. Jesus was not kidding when he said people will be judged for what they say. Does any Christian really want to lose rewards in the coming Kingdom of Christ just so that right in the moment of emotion they can say what they feel no matter what it is or who it hurts? We Christians need to obey God and control what we say to people (Eph. 4:29). How we feel is not more important than how God commands us to behave.
[For more on the future kingdom of Christ, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on the future judgment of Christians, see commentary on 2 Cor. 5:10, “good or worthless”].(top)
|Mat 12:37||- (top)|
“Teacher.” A respectful address spoken in hypocrisy(top)
“sign of Jonah the prophet.” Here in Matthew 12:39-40, the “sign” of Jonah was that he was dead in the fish for three days and three nights, just like Jesus would be dead for three days and nights in the grave. This verse shows us how obscure a “sign” can be. We like to think that a “sign” is something that can clearly be understood. Today, sign makers spend many hours thinking about how to make their signs visible and easily understood so people know what is coming in the future. A “deer crossing” sign, for example, shows an image of a deer crossing the road so people of any language still understand the sign. But God has some signs that are not clear at all. Jonah disobeyed God and as a result ended up dead in a large fish (or perhaps a whale) for three days and three nights. Who knew that Jonah was a ‘sign” of the Messiah? When we look for patterns of the Messiah in the Old Testament, we have to be prepared to look prayerfully and patiently and use the New Testament to help identify and confirm them. They may not be clear.
Jesus also talked about the sign of Jonah in Luke 11:29-30. However, the “sign” of Jonah in Luke is different than the sign of Jonah in Matthew. In Luke, Jesus was teaching at a totally different time and place to a different audience. Here in Matthew, Jesus was in Capernaum, his hometown, and he was speaking to the Pharisees and experts in the Law, and he was answering their question about a sign that would show his authority to say the things he was saying. In contrast, in Luke, the evidence is that Jesus was in Perea, east of the Jordan River, and Jesus was teaching the multitudes, whom he was encouraging to repent and live a godly life (Luke 11:32). In Luke, Jesus pointed out that the unbelieving Ninevites repented when they heard Jonah, and since someone greater than Jonah was among them, they should repent.
In Luke, the Bible says that Jonah was a “sign” to the people of Nineveh, but they did not know anything about Jonah being dead in a fish (and they likely would not have believed it if he had told them). Nineveh was over 400 miles (650 km) from the Mediterranean Sea where Jonah had been swallowed by the great fish, and it likely took Jonah 3 months or so to reach Nineveh after the fish vomited Jonah out on the Phoenician shore. The “sign” of Jonah to the Ninevites was that a prophet of God came alone and unarmed into the capital city of an enemy country and boldly proclaimed the truth to them—that they would be destroyed if they did not repent—at the possible cost of his life. In fact, is it likely that Jonah’s life was spared only because the people of Nineveh believed him. Like Jonah, Jesus came and boldly preached the Gospel, but the Jews killed him.(top)
“Jonah was three days and three nights….” Quoted from Jonah 1:17.
“for as Jonah was.” Jonah was dead inside the big fish (or whale) for three days and three nights, and so is a perfect “type” of the Messiah. The common Christian teaching is that Jonah was alive inside the fish, but that is not what the Bible says. It does say that Jonah prayed from inside the fish, but that prayer is never recorded and would have been a very short prayer. The prayer that is recorded in Jonah 2 is a praise-prayer that he prayed after he was out of the fish. We can tell that just by reading it. For one thing, it is spoken in the past tense.
When we examine Jonah’s prayer it begins: “I cried out of my distress unto Yahweh, and he answered me” (Jon. 2:2). This is not a prayer, this is the memory of a prayer. A prayer of distress would be, “Yahweh, help me!” It certainly would not be prayed in the past tense. Furthermore, the reason Jonah knew that God “answered me” was that he was already out of the whale when he said it. This praise-prayer in Jonah 2:2-10 is placed as if it was spoken while in the whale’s belly, and surely it contains things that Jonah thought while still alive in the whale, but in its form and entirety it was spoken after he was out of the whale and alive, as we can see from the prayer itself.
The last half of Jonah 2:2 echoes the first: “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” Here again we can see that Jonah has been answered by God and is alive again—he came out of Sheol, the grave. Jonah 2:3 continues the praise-prayer in the past tense. It was not what Jonah was experiencing, it was what he had experienced. In Jonah 2:4 Jonah recalls some of his final thoughts before he died, and they are very comforting. He thought he was going to die: “I am cast out of your sight;” but he knew that he would be in the resurrection: “yet I will look again upon your holy temple.” Jonah knew what we all should know: our sins and shortcomings will not keep us from being saved. We are saved by faith, and even in disobedience, Jonah had faith in God and assurance of his eventual salvation.
In Jonah 2:5 he continues his praise-prayer, recounting how deeply he had been in trouble. In Jonah 2:6-7, Jonah praises God, saying, “You brought up my life from the pit,” a way of saying that God got him up from the dead. In verse 7 he remembered: “When my soul was fainting away within me, I remembered Yahweh and my prayer came up to you, into your holy temple.” Here Jonah remembers praying in his dying moments and notes that his prayer reached God inside the Temple. In Jonah 2:8 he comments that prayer to Yahweh works, while people who pray to “lying vanities,” i.e. false gods, don’t get answers and thus forsake their own mercy, the help that they could have had. Again, this is clearly not a prayer from inside the fish. This is an after-he-was-raised reflection. In Jonah 2:9 he says he will be thankful and obedient; he will pay what he has vowed, which as a prophet of God was to obey God no matter what He asked. Jonah’s reflection ends with “salvation is of Yahweh,” and surely he was thinking of both his temporal salvation from death and his ultimate salvation from everlasting death.
That Jonah was dead in the fish for three days and three nights fits with Jonah being a type of Christ as well as the rest of the book of Jonah. That Jonah was dead and then raised from the dead was the great “sign of the prophet Jonah” mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 12:38-41. How could Jonah have foreshadowed the Messiah if he did not die in the fish, but Jesus Christ did die on the Cross? How can a living man be a “sign” for a dead man? The great “sign” of Jonah was that he was dead for three days and nights in the fish and then was raised from the dead, just as Jesus was dead for three days and three nights in the “heart of the earth,” the tomb, and then was raised from the dead. There are some well-respected Christian commentators who show from Scripture that Jonah was dead. A very good example is J. Vernon McGee, author of the book, Jonah: Dead or Alive? (The Church Press, Farson and Sons, Glendale, CA).
“three days and three nights.” Jesus was in the “heart of the earth,” the grave, for three days and three nights. Tradition teaches that Jesus died on Friday and was up Sunday morning, but that would not fulfill the words of Christ. Some commentators say that it is wrong to take Jesus’ words here too literally, but we assert that Jesus used words very precisely in his teachings, and the only reason to say they should not be taken literally in this case is to support tradition—a tradition that should be abandoned. Tradition acts as if Jesus said he would be “three days” in the grave, treating a “day” as any part of a day. But that is not what Jesus said! He specifically said he would be “three days and three nights” in the grave. Before we get into the specifics of the tradition and the truth, we need to remember that the Jewish day started at sunset, not midnight. Thus the Jewish day is a “night and day,” not, as we normally say in English, “day and night.” In that light, it is noteworthy that Jesus said “three days and three nights,” because historically he was placed in the grave during the day, just before sunset, then night fell quickly afterward. The traditional teaching about Jesus dying on Friday does not fulfill the prophecy of Jesus Christ, and there are other problems as well, which we will see below.
It is often stated that Jesus was in the grave for “three days,” and that biblically any part of a day could be called a “day.” Thus, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday made three days. While it is true that biblically, and also according to the Rabbis, any part of a day could be called a “day,” that is not what Jesus or the Bible says. Jesus did not say he would be three days in the heart of the earth; he specifically said he would be “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth. That is hugely significant because there are many times in Scripture that the term “three days” is used to indicate any part of the three days, even if they are not complete days (examples include: Gen. 42:17; Exod. 10:22; 15:22; Num. 10:33; Josh. 1:11; 2:16, 22; Judg. 19:4; 2 Sam. 24:13; 2 Kings 20:5, 8; 1 Chron. 21:12; 2 Chron. 20:25; Hos. 6:2; Jonah 3:3; Matt. 15:32; Luke 2:46; Acts 9:9).
In stark contrast to the over 50 times that the phrase “three days,” referring to any part of those days, occurs in Scripture, the phrase “three days and three nights” only occurs three times in the Bible (1 Sam. 30:12; Jonah 1:17; and Matt. 12:40). The first time “three days and three nights” occurs in Scripture it refers to the Egyptian slave of an Amalekite. He got sick and was left behind while the Amalekite army continued on, and he had had no food or water for “three days and three nights” (1 Sam. 30:11-12). It is clear from the context that the Bible is not simply saying that he had had no food or water for just under 36 hours, which would have been the time Jesus was in the grave according to Christian tradition. Rather, the Bible is telling us that he was close to death, and only “revived” when given food and water because he had literally been three days and nights without food and water. Interestingly enough, in the common idiom of the day, the Egyptian said he had been left three days before (1 Sam. 30:13); it is the Divine Author who gives us the full story and tells us that he had been “three days and three nights” without food or water.
Jonah 1:17, speaking of the time that Jonah was in the belly of the sea creature (neither the Hebrew or Greek language allows us to tell whether it was a fish or whale), says he was there for “three days and three nights.” A couple of things are very important to know to properly understand the Jonah record. For one thing, it was common at that time to sail close enough to land to keep it in sight. The boats and navigation equipment were not well prepared for voyages across the Mediterranean, so most boats kept land in sight. Also, due to the Mediterranean climate in that part of the world, generally sea travel was very reliable during the “calm season,” and then people did not travel by boat during the stormy season (cp. Acts 27:9 for the stormy season). So when a huge storm came up, the sailors correctly discerned that it had a spiritual cause and that someone had angered a god (Jonah 1:7). However, when Jonah said that to stop the storm he would have to be thrown into the ocean, the sailors did not want to be responsible for his death and tried hard to row to land, which they could have seen in the distance (Jonah 1:13). They would have tried hard for hours, but eventually gave up, likely as darkness was coming on, and so they threw Jonah into the sea, which calmed down right away (Jonah 1:15). That would mean that Jonah was thrown into the sea and then swallowed by the fish at about the same time of day that Jesus’ body was placed in the grave.
Given all the times in the Bible that the phrase “three days” refers to any part of a day, there is no good reason the Bible would have used the phrase “three days and three nights” in Jonah 1:17 unless that actually was the amount of time Jonah was in the fish. Furthermore, the book of Jonah was written some 750 years before Jesus Christ, and no one at the time the book of Jonah was written, and in fact, no one at the time of Christ, knew that Jonah was a sign of the Messiah until Jesus himself said so. Only God, the Divine Author of Jonah, knew the connection between Jonah and Jesus, and knew Jesus would be in the grave for three days and three nights, and so created the connection between Jonah and Jesus. Jesus openly established the connection between himself and Jonah when he quoted Jonah 1:17 and said he would be “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth.
A major principle in biblical interpretation is that the Bible should be taken literally unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. But in this case not only is there no compelling reason not to take the three days and three nights literally, there are reasons it should be taken literally.
The major reason tradition says Jesus was crucified on Friday is the Bible says he was crucified the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31). However, John 19:31 says that Sabbath was a “high day,” a special Sabbath. It was not Saturday, the regular Sabbath. The Passover Lamb was always killed before a Sabbath because sunset after the Passover Lamb was killed started the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread which was always a Sabbath (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 23:6-7). So just because Jesus was crucified the day before a Sabbath does not mean he was crucified on Friday, and we will see below he was not.
The truth of the situation is that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, was buried just before sunset on Wednesday night, and got up Saturday night. Then when the women came to the tomb on Sunday morning they were told that he had already risen from the dead and was not there. To fulfill the prophecy Jesus gave, he had to be in the grave three days and three nights. Wednesday just before sunset to Thursday just before sunset is one full day and one full night. Thursday before sunset to Friday before sunset makes two full days and nights, and Friday before sunset to Saturday before sunset makes three full days and nights. So Jesus got up just before sunset Saturday night, three days and three nights after he was buried. Then, when Mary came to the tomb on Sunday morning while it was still dark, the tomb was open and Jesus was gone (John 20:1-2). Most people assume that Jesus had just gotten up a few minutes before the women arrived, but the Bible never says that. The Bible never says exactly when Jesus got up except by telling us that he would fulfill the sign of Jonah and be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights, a period that ended just before sunset on Saturday, the 17th of Nisan. On Sunday morning when Mary, Peter and John, and the other women arrived at the tomb, he was already up.
One of the keys to understanding the record of Jesus’ crucifixion is realizing that Jesus died on the cross on Golgotha as our true Passover Lamb at the same time the regular Passover Lamb was being slain in the Temple. Leviticus 23:5-7 and Exodus 12:6-16 set forth the regulations of Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Passover Lamb was slain on the 14th of Nisan “between the evenings,” a phrase that has been interpreted to mean the time when it can be clearly seen the sun is starting to fall in sky, thus about 3 PM. The lamb is cooked before sunset, and the Passover meal is eaten after sunset, which, according to Jewish reckoning started the next day, the fifteenth of Nisan and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was always a special Sabbath. Thus, the sunset after the Passover Lamb was killed began the special Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The day the Passover Lamb was killed was known as “the preparation” or “the preparation day,” because preparations were being made for the special Sabbath that began at sunset. The Bible is clear that Jesus Christ was the true Passover Lamb who died for our sins (1 Corinthians 5:7), and all Four Gospels testify that Jesus was killed on “the preparation day” (cp. Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31, 42), so Jesus died on the cross at the same time the Passover Lamb was slain in the Temple. Then, the day after the “preparation” day is the first day of Unleavened Bread and always a Sabbath, and John 19:31 correctly differentiates that Sabbath from the regular weekly Saturday Sabbath by saying the Sabbath after Jesus died was “the High Day” (REV); “a special day” (HCSB), and thus not the weekly Sabbath.
To take all of the above information and find out what day Jesus was crucified and buried we have to fit together some basic facts. First, he had to be in the grave three days and three nights. Second, he was already up on Sunday morning when the women came to properly bury him. Third, just before sunset he was placed in the grave by Joseph of Arimathea, who closed the grave by rolling the stone over the door (Mark 15:46), so since he was three days and three nights in the grave he would have to get resurrected and out of the grave just before sunset. Fourth, Luke tells us the women got and prepared the spices before a Sabbath Day, while Mark says they bought the spices after the Sabbath day.
Using these facts and working backwards in time from Sunday morning, we can see that Jesus got up Saturday night before sunset, and thus had to be crucified and buried on Wednesday. Thus, Wednesday was the “preparation” when the Passover Lamb and Jesus were slain, Thursday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and a Special Sabbath, Friday was a regular work day so the women could buy the spices, Saturday was the regular weekly Sabbath, and by Sunday morning at dawn Jesus had already been raised.
We can now construct the chronology and make Jesus’ prophecy of being in the grave for three days and three nights work perfectly with him being the real Passover Lamb.
There is an important proof that there were two Sabbaths during the time Jesus was in the grave. The first of the two Sabbaths was Thursday the 15th of Nisan, the Special Sabbath that started the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The second Sabbath was Saturday the 17th of Nisan, which was the regular weekly Sabbath. The Bible tells us that the women went and bought and prepared spices to properly bury Jesus (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56). But Mark says the women did this “when the Sabbath was over.” That in and of itself is problematic, because the Sabbath was not over until sundown Saturday and it is unlikely that the women would have been able to buy the spices after sunset on Saturday night so that they had them Sunday morning. The merchants were likely closed. But even if they could have bought the spices at night, Luke 23:56 contradicts Mark 16:1, and says the women bought the spices before the Sabbath, not after it. Luke says, “having returned, they prepared spices and perfumes. And on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” So did the women buy the spices before the Sabbath, like Luke says, or after it, like Mark says? The answer is “both.” The women bought and prepared the spices on Friday, which was after the Special Sabbath on Thursday, but before the regular weekly Sabbath on Saturday. They could not take the spices to the tomb on Friday because of the guard, and they had to rest on Saturday which was the regular weekly Sabbath. They were able to take the spices to the tomb on Sunday, because it was the fourth day (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), and the soldiers were only going to guard the tomb for three days. Thus they thought the guard would be gone, and they went very early Sunday morning, only to find that Jesus did not need the spices because he had already risen from the dead.
There is another fact about the three days and nights that is worth mentioning. As the Passover Lamb, Jesus was killed on Nisan 14, and buried the same day before Sunset. He got up three days and nights later, before sunset on the 17th of Nisan. That is the same day Noah’s ark landed. Genesis 8:4 says the ark “came to rest” on the 17th day of the 7th month. Before the Exodus, Nisan was the 7th month and Tishri was the first month. At the Exodus, God changed the calendar by 6 months and Nisan became the first month and Tishri became the 7th (Exod. 12:2). So Noah’s ark landed and humanity was safe on Nisan 17. Similarly, when God raised Jesus from the dead on Nisan 17, humanity was safe. Christ was the firstfruits, and the living proof that God was going to raise the dead and save humanity. And just as there was a period of time after the ark landed when Noah had to stay on the ark before the earth was fit for human life, there is a period of time between the resurrection and when Jesus conquers the earth at Armageddon and makes it a wonderful place for humanity again. This fact about Noah’s Flood is not well known because tradition teaches that Jesus died as the Passover Lamb on Friday the 14th of Nisan and was raised on Sunday morning, which would have been the 16th of Nisan.. According to tradition, the 17th of Nisan would occur on the Monday after Jesus was raised, and nothing significant happened on the Monday after the Passover. If traditional dates are followed, the great typological parallel between Noah’s Ark and Jesus’ resurrection is lost.
[For more information on the events from Jesus’ arrest to his death, see commentary on John 18:13 and 19:14. For more information on Nicodemus and that he came after Joseph of Arimathea left the tomb, see commentary on John 19:40].
“great fish.” For more on the exact identity of this sea creature, see commentary on Jonah 1:17.
“in the heart of the earth.” This phrase means in the grave, or, as the Hebrew text would say, in Sheol (#07585; the state of being dead). It is a unique phrase, and it is obvious that Jesus was being purposely unclear because he was speaking to his opponents, the experts in the Law and the Pharisees. When Jesus spoke with those religious leaders it was common for him to speak in veiled terms, and he did so in this case too. Jesus was very careful when he was around them not to state too plainly that he was the Messiah. He did all the things the Messiah was to do, and hinted to them he was the Messiah, but when they asked him to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah he only said that he had told them and that his works testified to who he was (John 10:24). One reason for that was that the testimony of one man about himself is not a legally binding testimony (he would wait until others testified to that truth), and another reason is likely that he knew they would try to kill him for saying it and he needed to fulfill his ministry. Only at his trial, when the time was clearly right and when the High Priest put him under oath before God to tell whether or not he was the Messiah did Jesus clearly say, “Yes” (Matt. 26:63-64). The result was predictable: they condemned him to die.
It is not hard to see the meaning of Jesus’ phrase “in the heart of the earth,” from the context and scope of Scripture. He said he would be “just as Jonah was,” and Jonah was dead (it is common to think Jonah was alive in the whale, but he only lived long enough to pray a quick prayer). Furthermore, it is clear from the scope of Scripture that Jesus was dead and in the grave for three days and nights. The Bible plainly teaches that he was dead. He died on the cross, and he was dead until God raised him from the dead. He was not alive anywhere; he was dead [For more information on the fact that dead people are dead see Appendix 4: “The Dead are Dead”]. Because the common teaching in Christianity is that dead people are not really dead, but alive somewhere (such as heaven, hell, or purgatory), and that similarly Jesus was not really dead, his soul was alive somewhere doing something, there is a lot of Christian speculation about where Jesus was. There is no need to speculate. Jesus was dead and his body was in the tomb.
The phrase “in the heart of the earth” is unique, but not so much so that we cannot discern what it means. Ephesians 4:9 says Jesus went into the lower parts of the earth. This is a simple phrase meaning into the grave. We know that because that is where Joseph of Arimathea put him: in a tomb. We can see that the “lower parts of the earth” means being dead in the grave from its use in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament: Psalm 63:9; Ezekiel 32:18, 24 (cp. Young’s Literal Translation). Many other clear scriptures testify that Jesus was dead while he was in the heart of the earth.(top)
“men of Nineveh.” The Greek word translated “men” is anēr (#435 ἀνήρ; pronounced an-air), meaning men; males. This verse is a window into the biblical culture. It would never have been considered in the biblical world that women would sit as judges, hence the men will rise up in judgment.
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“someone greater.” The adjective “greater,” pleiōn (#4119 πλειῶν) is being used as a substantive (BDAG). As such, it implies a greater something, which is in this case a person, so “someone” is an appropriate noun to use to complete the sense. This is another time when Jesus revealed that he was the Messiah to those who had ears to hear. He was not simply saying he was a greater person or a greater prophet than Jonah.(top)
“queen of the south.” This is who the Old Testament refer to as the “Queen of Sheba,” here called the “Queen of the South” (1 Kings 10:1-2; 2 Chron. 9:1).
“will rise up in the Judgment with this generation.” This is one of the clearer verses showing that dead people are dead in the ground awaiting the resurrection and Judgment Day. The Bible does not teach that people die and go to heaven or “hell,” but rather that they are dead in the ground and awaiting the resurrection. The Queen of Sheba, who lived almost 3000 years ago, at the time of Solomon, is still dead in the ground and awaiting her resurrection, at which time she will be judged. [For more on the resurrections, see commentary on Acts 24:15. For more on the dead being dead, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead”].
“and will condemn it.” This statement of Jesus, along with his reason, that she came from the ends of the earth to hear Solomon, implies that she will be in the Resurrection of the Righteous and have everlasting life.
“someone greater.” See commentary on Matthew 12:41.(top)
“a resting place.” The Greek is anapausis (#372 ἀνάπαυσις), and it can either mean “rest” or “a resting place.” Here, the better translation is “a resting place,” that is a place to settle in and use as a base for causing trouble and harm. See commentary on Luke 11:24.(top)
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“his mother and his brothers stood outside.” This record is also in Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 8:19-21.(top)
Brackets. This verse is omitted in many of the early and diverse manuscripts, including some manuscripts from the Majority Text, so it is omitted in some of the modern versions, such as CJB, ESV, RSV, and NJB. We put it in brackets to mark the fact that it is doubtful.
“your mother.” There is no mention of Joseph; he had apparently died. See commentary on John 19:27.(top)
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