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Bible evangewomanblogspotcomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (‘Blaspheming the Holy Spirit’ parts 1 and 2).

Matthew 12:22-32

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.


Last week’s post looked at the preceding verses to this week’s reading. In Matthew 12:15-21, Jesus left the area where He had healed a man with a withered hand in the local synagogue and went to another place where He continued to heal people and make them whole again. Matthew cited and paraphrased Isaiah 42:1-3 to show the Jews — and us — that Jesus truly is the prophesied Messiah and Saviour.

Now someone brought to Him a man who was blind and mute because of demon possession (verse 22). Our Lord healed the man who could then see and speak.

This is both a physical and spiritual healing. Matthew Henry says:

A soul under Satan’s power, and led captive by him, is blind in the things of God, and dumb at the throne of grace sees nothing, and says nothing to the purpose. Satan blinds the eye of faith, and seals up the lips of prayer.

The people watching this were beside themselves with astonishment. Immediately they asked if He was the long-awaited Son of David (verse 23). John MacArthur analyses this verse for us:

The word there means ‘to be totally astounded.’ It is existemi, and it means to be beside yourself with astonishment; it isn’t just saying, “Well, isn’t that something.” It is losing it. In fact, one translator says that it means to be literally knocked out of your senses. Another one says it is to be out of your mind with amazement. To put it in Junior High talk, it is to be blown away. They just couldn’t handle it; it was an overwhelming thing.

Yet, they were trying to reconcile His humble appearance with His magnificent healing power (emphases mine):

… they are saying, “This can’t be the Messiah, can it?” It’s like an 80-percent no but a 20-percent yes. The ‘no’ comes from the fact that He didn’t fit their bill, their design, their preconception; but the 20-percent ‘yes’ comes from the fact that they couldn’t explain His power.

The Pharisees addressed them and alleged that our Lord was in league with Satan (verse 24). No Jew of the time was going to argue with these men considered to be the paragons of God’s people. And the Pharisees were so wrapped up in their own prestige that they were permanently hard of heart, so much so that they accused Him of getting His power from Beelzebul.

MacArthur explains the name:

That is the old word that originally was the name of a Philistine god, Beel comes from Baal. You’ve heard of worshiping Baal, and that is just the ancient pagan word for ‘lord.’ ‘Zebub’ or ‘zebul’ is best connected in translation to the word ‘flies.’ So we go all the way back to the lord of the flies, or the god of the flies.

The Ekronites worshiped the god of the flies, if you can imagine. It was a play on words, because there is another word ‘zebel’ which means ‘dung.’ So apparently, they even called Beelzebub ‘Beelzebel,’ which was a derisive thing, saying, “Your lord of the flies is nothing more than the lord of the dung.” It would be easy to do that play on words, because flies tend to hang around, well, you get the picture. So that is probably what they had in mind.

Through the centuries, this lord of the flies or lord of the dung title for this deity became a very common title for Satan. So to be the prince of demons or Beelzebub is simply using one of the titles of Satan. Jesus recognized this, because in verse 26, when He answers, He uses the word ‘Satan’ in response to their word ‘Beelzebub.’

Jesus pointed out the absurdity of that accusation (verses 25, 26), effectively asking how and why Satan could be working against his own demons, his servants.

Note that the Pharisees were not addressing our Lord. He was going to talk to them, however.

It is likely that the Pharisees were standing closer to the crowd than to Jesus, so He might not have been in earshot but, because He is omniscient, He knew what they had said.

Jesus went further, asking them how their sons were casting out demons (verse 27). Were they, too, in league with Beelzebul?

Or, He asked them, was He healing through the Spirit of God (verse 28)? If so, then the kingdom of God was present among them. Henry explains:

This casting out of devils was a certain token and indication of the approach and appearance of the kingdom of God (Matthew 12:28) … Other miracles that Christ wrought proved him sent of God, but this proved him sent of God to destroy the devil’s kingdom and his works. Now that great promise was evidently fulfilled, that the seed of the woman should break the serpent’s head, Genesis 3:15. “Therefore that glorious dispensation of the kingdom of God, which has been long expected, is now commenced slight it at your peril.” Note, [1.] The destruction of the devil’s power is wrought by the Spirit of God that Spirit who works to the obedience of faith, overthrows the interest of that spirit who works in the children of unbelief and disobedience. [2.] The casting out of devils is a certain introduction to the kingdom of God. If the devil’s interest in a soul be not only checked by custom or external restraints, but sunk and broken by the Spirit of God, as a Sanctifier, no doubt but the kingdom of God is come to that soul, the kingdom of grace, a blessed earnest of the kingdom of the glory.

Jesus expanded on that further by alluding to a break-in (verse 29). If someone is going to plunder the house of a strong man, he’d better be able to overpower that man and bind him first. Therefore, who is the only one strong enough to bind Satan? Jesus.

Henry analyses the verse:

The world, that sat in darkness, and lay in wickedness, was in Satan’s possession, and under his power, as a house in the possession and under the power of a strong man so is every unregenerate soul there Satan resides, there he rules. Now, (1.) The design of Christ’s gospel was to spoil the devil’s house, which, as a strong man, he kept in the world to turn the people from darkness to light, from sin to holiness, from this world to a better, from the power of Satan unto God (Acts 26:18) to alter the property of souls. (2.) Pursuant to this design, he bound the strong man, when he cast out unclean spirits by his word: thus he wrested the sword out of the devil’s hand, that he might wrest the sceptre out of it

Then our Lord said that anyone who was not with Him was His enemy and that anyone who did not gather — spread His message — would scatter, or be lost (verse 30).

He went on to say (verses 31, 32) that many forms of blasphemy can be forgiven — including those against Himself as the humble Son of Man — once one repents but that against the Holy Spirit cannot be pardoned.

MacArthur says that this is because blaspheming the Holy Spirit is doing what the Pharisees have done: allying the Spirit with Satan.

MacArthur unpacks this for us:

He is saying, “You can speak a word against the Son of Man, and that would be forgiveable because you may speak against Him, seeing nothing more than the humanness.” In other words, your perception may not even allow you to be dealing with deity as a factor. And it is not His power on display, so you may be speaking against Him as Son of Man; you are condemning what you perceive in His humanness (even though you’re wrong), you can understand that you can do that without making a comment on His deity at all, because it is the Spirit who is working, not Him, technically.

Another thought is important here, and that is the fact that this is His humiliation. There is a sense in which He is in a mode of humiliation which invites that kind of criticism. In other words, you might say, “If that is the Second Person of the Trinity, I’m not impressed. I mean, He’s a carpenter from Nazareth.” You could speak a word against the human Jesus in His humiliation, that’s forgiveable; you may just not know the facts, who He really is. You may not have seen the evidence, and are just talking at the human level, without a perception of the divine. That’s what He’s saying.

Nevertheless, when you speak against the Holy Spirit, that will not be forgiven you, not in this time period or in the time period to follow, because when you begin to speak against the Spirit, then you are saying, “I recognize the supernatural, I see the supernatural, only I think it’s Hell, not Heaven.” For that, you won’t be forgiven.

Ultimately — and this is important to be able to explain to people, because these are not easy verses to understand:

If you’re looking on the human plane and that’s all you perceive and understand, you can be brought along to believe and understand. But if, when you have seen the supernatural and the ministry of the Spirit of God through Christ, and you conclude that it is of the Devil, you can’t be forgiven because now, you are speaking against the Spirit of God, the power of God, the energy of God, as made manifest through Christ. So, in a real sense, you’re speaking against His deity, His divine nature, and calling it satanic.

It is easier to understand this in the context of the Pharisees, prime examples of the condemned. They spent a lot of their time following our Lord around, witnessing His miracles and hearing His teaching. Yet, as we saw in Matthew 9:32-34 and in this passage, they accused Him of being in league with Satan. They denied the divine source of His power, the Holy Spirit, and — worse — called it satanic. That cannot be forgiven.

Henry explains:

This is such a strong hold of infidelity as a man can never be beaten out of, and is therefore unpardonable, because hereby repentance is hid from the sinner’s eyes.

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit which began working through the Apostles starting on that day enabled them to spread the Gospel message, preach, teach and heal in Christ’s name. This is why Confirmation — a sacrament for Catholics, an ordinance for Protestant denominations — is so important. Unfortunately, it seems to be the last time many adolescents ever see the inside of a church. Families agree that once their children are confirmed, they do not have to attend Sunday services any more.

This is, I think, in part, because Confirmation classes are not what they used to be. They are rather watered down. Consequently, adolescents do not understand the nature and importance of the Holy Spirit. Another factor is parental. Mum and Dad have forgotten, or never understood, the Holy Spirit, either. Were their clergy to blame, too? Or was it that they drifted away from worship and the faith?

Those of us who have been confirmed or ‘born again in the Spirit’ would do well to consider how we are using the Holy Spirit’s gifts in our relationship with Christ Jesus and in our daily lives.

In closing, parallel verses for today’s passage are in Luke 12:8-10. It is a pity that neither of these was included in the three-year Lectionary for public worship.

Next time: Matthew 12:33-37


Bible ourhomewithgodcomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 12:15-21

God’s Chosen Servant

15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all 16 and ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21     and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”


Last week’s reading ended with Matthew 12:14:

But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

As Jesus is omniscient, He knew their intentions and He left (verse 15). The time of His destruction had not yet come. He had more teaching and healing to accomplish.

Although the Pharisees wanted our Lord destroyed, note how the ordinary Jews followed Him. In His mercy, He healed everyone who had need of it. He ordered them not to make Him known (verse 16).


Matthew Henry offers these reasons (emphases mine):

1… in suffering times, though we must boldly go on in the way of duty, yet we must contrive the circumstances of it so as not to exasperate, more than is necessary, those who seek occasion against us[:] Be ye wise as serpents, Matthew 10:16. 2. It may be looked upon as an act of righteous judgment upon the Pharisees, who were unworthy to hear of any more of his miracles, having made so light of those they had seen. By shutting their eyes against the light, they had forfeited the benefit of it. 3. As an act of humility and self-denial. Though Christ’s intention in his miracles was to prove himself the Messiah, and so to bring men to believe on him, in order to which it was requisite that they should be known, yet sometimes he charged the people to conceal them, to set us an example of humility, and to teach us not to proclaim our own goodness or usefulness, or to desire to have it proclaimed. Christ would have his disciples to be the reverse of those who did all their works to be seen of men.

Matthew says this was to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy (verse 17):

The scope of it is to show how mild and quiet, and yet how successful, our Lord Jesus should be in his undertaking …

He refers to Isaiah 42:1-3:

1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.

I say ‘refers’, because he reinterprets a few of the verses.

Remember that Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience, to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

John MacArthur explains:

Matthew wants us to know that it is not only the Messiah, but the very Messiah prophesied by Isaiah. So he says, “All this in order that it might be fulfilled what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet.” Isaiah said He would be like this, and the key is in verses 19-20. “He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth justice to victory.”

That’s the heart of what Isaiah wants to say as the defense of Christ in prophetic literature, but he also adds the beginning of verse 18 and the end of verse 21, so we take it all. It’s one of the most strikingly beautiful descriptions of Jesus Christ in Scripture, taken from Isaiah 42:1-4.

God was speaking to Isaiah, referring to His Son — His chosen servant with whom He is well pleased (verse 18). This is a recurring phraseology in the Gospels:

What did He say at the Son’s baptism? “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” What about at the Transfiguration? “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” What did He do when Jesus died and rose again but exalt Him, place Him at His right hand, and put all authority under Him, and gave to Him to send the Holy Spirit, which is the ultimate act of His commendation. He was commended by the Father. Doesn’t that show you how far off the religious leaders were? The one whom God was commending, they were condemning; the one whom God made alive, they killed.

“Behold My servant, whom I have chosen.” ‘I have chosen’ is a marvelous phrase; it’s a word that is only here in the Greek New Testament and appears nowhere else. It indicates great firmness of choice. For example, it is used in secular Greek to speak of adopting a child, really taking them in in a firm commitment. He has chosen the Son. In Hebrews 1, it talks about how He chose the Son to fulfill this role. In Isaiah 49:1, it says the same thing in the wonderful verse about how the Father has chosen the Son. So much was this a part of the Messianic identity that the Messiah became known as ‘the Chosen One’ in the Jewish mind, so when Isaiah says, “My servant, whom I have chosen,” he is designating a title for the Messiah that the Jews in Jesus’ time would know. They would know that as Matthew is quoting this, he is quoting a Messianic passage; they know that he is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the Chosen One.

The Spirit was upon Him from the beginning. For mankind, God the Father demonstrated this after Jesus’s baptism, when:

the Spirit of God descended like a dove. But I don’t believe that is when it started; I believe that Jesus Christ was indwelt by the power of the Spirit of God from the time He was conceived. It says of John the Baptist in Luke 1 that he was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb. If that was true of a human being, believe me, it must have been true of the God-Man. It also says in Matthew 1:20 that He was conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew uses ‘Gentiles’ instead of Isaiah’s ‘nations’. Our Lord came for them — the Chosen — first, then for the Gentiles.

Verse 19 speaks of Jesus’s gentle, quiet manner. Indeed, the preceding verses tell us that He left quietly and told people not to speak of Him when talking of their healing. ‘Cry aloud’, MacArthur says, refers not to an agonising cry as at the Crucifixion but an animalistic noise like a bark or shriek. Furthermore, Jesus was not a rabble-rouser, calling for revolution, despite what some misguided theologians purport today.

Verse 20 speaks of His gentleness. Unlike mankind, He would not break a limp reed nor put out a fading light. MacArthur interprets the verse as meaning the hurt, the injured, the spiritually weak:

This is a picture of the hurting people, the ones everyone else steps on, discards, throws away, the bruised reeds that don’t play the tune anymore, the smoking flax that can’t give any light to illuminate the situation. This is the weak, powerless, helpless, ones destroyed by sin and suffering, those bowed down with care, the unworthy, the ones without spiritual resources, the whole world of trampled, despised, ignored, suffering, hurting people. These are the kind of people that human conquerors have no time for, those that the Pharisees walked all over, the broken people. But those are the ones the Lord goes to; He doesn’t break those kind of bruised reeds or put out what’s left of the smoldering flax.

In fact:

He strengthens them. He picks up the reed and plays a melody through it that has never been heard. He will fan the flame that is smoldering on that wick so that it brightens and lights the room. He will pick up the sick and tax collectors and prostitutes and sorrowing and fearful and doubters and hungry and sinners, and meet their needs. That’s the kind of Savior He is, and He is the antithesis of the religious leaders around Him. That is the indication of Isaiah, that He is indeed God with us, Emmanuel, because that is the heart of God.

Ultimately, He will bring justice:

He will win the victory and consummate the victory …

One writer put it this way, “Down in the depths of the human heart, crushed by the tempter, feelings lie buried that grace can restore. Touched by a loving hand, wakened by kindness, cords that are broken will vibrate once more.” Jesus came along and put a new song, fanned the fading flame, reached out to those who suffered. Christ has come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, not to heal those who are well, but those who are sick and face it. How different He is from other religious leaders; He ought to be – He is God.

Therefore, we have hope because of — and thanks to — Him (verse 21).

Despite our suffering in this life, He will wipe away our tears and heal our broken hearts. He will save us and bring us to everlasting life. What a beautiful promise!

Next time: Matthew 12:22-32



Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 12:9-14

A Man with a Withered Hand

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”— so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.


Not one of the three Synoptic Gospel accounts of our Lord’s healing of the man with the withered hand is included in the three-year Lectionary.

I wrote about the other two accounts a few years ago: Mark 3:1-6 in 2012 and Luke 6:6-11 in 2013.

The first verses of Matthew 12, the subject of last week’s post, concerned the Pharisees stopping Jesus to ask if it was lawful on the Sabbath for His hungry disciples to pluck grains to eat as a snack. Jesus firmly rebuked them, stating that He was the Lord of the Sabbath. Therefore, it was He who made the observance rules, not they.

In today’s reading, Jesus, the disciples and the Pharisees are in the synagogue — immediately following the grain incident. Hence, verse 9: ‘He went on from there …’

A man with a withered hand was in the congregation and the Pharisees, by now well acquainted with Jesus’s compassionate miracles, asked Him if He planned on healing the man on the Sabbath (verse 10). So, even after He told them He was the Lord of the Sabbath a short while earlier, they persisted in making their Sabbath everyone else’s Sabbath. They refused to bow down before our Lord. They refused to admit they were wrong. They refused to see Him as their Messiah. They believed His healing powers came from Satan. We will see this accusation again later in Matthew 12.

These men knew Scripture inside and out. That knowledge should have penetrated into their hearts and revealed something to them. Yet, they had extreme hardness of heart.

Jesus further explored Sabbath rules with them, asking if it was lawful for an observant Jew of the time to rescue a sheep on the day of rest (verse 11). He told them that a man is worth much more in God’s eyes than a sheep, therefore, it is lawful for Him to heal on the Sabbath (verse 12). By extension, the inference is that we are obliged to follow His example in compassion, mercy and kindness.

John MacArthur tells us that the reason the Pharisees allowed the rescue of a sheep was that the animal would bring in money when sold. Therefore, it was a matter of making one’s livelihood. On the other hand, they would have considered the man’s withered hand to be what today’s health industry would call ‘a pre-existing condition’. Therefore, his healing could wait until after the Sabbath.

MacArthur takes a brief detour in his sermon to discuss the Hindus’ attitude towards humans and animals. Their belief in reincarnation causes them to not harm rodents and other pests consuming their food supply whilst India is full of starving humans at the bottom of the caste system (emphases mine):

They won’t kill a fly because it is the incarnation of someone who is trying to get out of that karma. They won’t kill a rat, a mouse, or a cow. Two-thirds of their food supply is eaten by those things, and that is why they have starvation problems. They let people die all over the place and don’t help them, because it’s their karma. They won’t give money to beggars or help the destitute because they feel they must endure that suffering to earn their way to the next level. So cows are worth more to them than people; cows are sacred, for whatever reason. It’s the same in Judaism, but not quite so religiously defined, and sheep were more important to them economically than people. Ethical conduct is the issue, and the Lord makes it very clear at the end of verse 12, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

This was to illustrate that when we come to belief in Christ, through God’s grace, we will appreciate that humans are more important in His sight than animals, although we have an obligation from Genesis to care for them and nurture them. God created every living thing.

MacArthur says:

By the way, Mark and Luke tell us that all the while He is talking, He has brought the man with the paralyzed hand and sat him in front of the entire synagogue, and it is very dramatic. He is confronting them and saying, “You tell me. You rescue a sheep; would you rescue a man? Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” What can they say? If they say it is lawful to do good, then they are stuck. He would say that it would be good to heal the man. If they say it is not lawful to do good on the Sabbath, then what have they said? What is the alternative, evil? So He asks the question, but they don’t want to answer, so they don’t.

And after the healing, they left to plot against our Lord (verse 14).

In mercy, Jesus asked the man to extend his hand. He did so.

Immediately, Jesus completely restored it. It was the same as his other hand (verse 13).

MacArthur gives us this insight on the healing and on the meaning of the Sabbath:

Was that a good thing to do for that man? If there was ever any meaning in the Sabbath, wouldn’t it be to do good? Sure. And to know to do good, and have the ability to do good, and not to do good is to do evil. If ever there was a time for blessing, it was the Sabbath …

Jesus connected the Sabbath with the heart of God – benevolence, mercy, kindness, goodness. That is the purpose of it all. Jesus came that we might enter into a relationship with God in which He pours out to us grace, goodness, mercy, kindness, peace, benevolence, and tenderness. The Pharisees had completely obliterated that illustration in the Sabbath. Jesus’ lesson is very clear: we broke the ceremonial law to meet our need, but that is the heart of God. We broke a traditional law of not going more than so many feet to serve God; that is the heart of God. God wants mercy to be shown, not ritual. The only function that ceremony ever has is the illustration of a right attitude. If you corrupt the illustration without having the right attitude, you miss the whole purpose.

Matthew Henry has a fascinating insight into the background of the man with the withered hand. Because scholars from centuries ago had not only read writings of the early Doctors of the Church but also valued them, Scripture had more meaning than perhaps it does today.

Of the man, Henry cites St Jerome:

St. Jerome says, that the gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, used by the Nazarenes and Ebionites, adds this circumstance to this story of the man with the withered hand, that he was Cæ mentarius–a bricklayer, and applied himself to Christ thus “Lord, I am a bricklayer, and have got my living by my labour (manibus victum quæ ritans) I beseech thee, O Jesus, restore me the use of my hand, that I may not be obliged to beg my bread” (ne turpiter mendicem cibos).

That is something which we can all include in the teaching of this miracle to others.

Henry draws these lessons from this miracle with regard to animals, people and the Pharisees:

Note, Man, in respect of his being, is a great deal better, and more valuable, than the best of the brute creatures: man is a reasonable creature, capable of knowing, loving, and glorifying God, and therefore is better than a sheep. The sacrifice of a sheep could therefore not atone for the sin of a soul. They do not consider this, who are more solicitous for the education, preservation, and supply of their horses and dogs than of God’s poor, or perhaps their own household.

This is something to bear in mind, particularly today. There are many in the world — including ‘Christians’ — who erroneously place animals and the environment above human need. Our fellow man is worth much more than either. Let us, therefore, focus on man’s needs first.

Next time: Matthew 12:15-21

Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 12:1-8

Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath

12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”


According to the three-year Lectionary schedule, the corresponding reading of Mark 2:23-28 is to be read on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B. However, I checked the Vanderbilt University Lectionary site as well as those for the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for 2014. That reading was not among those listed. The number of Sundays after Pentecost may depend on when Easter falls, with readings adjusted accordingly.

Before I go into a verse-by-verse study, this episode in Christ’s ministry is important for churchgoers to understand. John MacArthur makes an interesting point on Sabbath observance (emphases mine):

Although God rested on the seventh day, God did not command men prior to the Mosaic Law to rest on the seventh day; it was in the Mosaic Law that the requirement was first articulated. Then it became, in the Mosaic Law, a special, covenantal sign between God and Israel. Listen carefully, because many misunderstand this. The Sabbath commandment is one of the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20; it is the only commandment that is a non-moral one, the only one that is a ceremonial command. It is the one of the Ten Commandments that was uniquely between God and Israel as a ceremonial rule; all the other nine are moral absolutes. The reason we know this for sure is because when you get to the New Testament, every other command is repeated. Every one of the Ten Commandments is repeated except the one regarding the Sabbath. It is not repeated in the New Testament because it was a unique covenantal sign, much like circumcision was, between God and Israel.

At the time of Jesus and His disciples, the Sabbath was in fact the ceremonial law of God. It is not a binding law for the church, but it was for Israel. So the Lord would honor the Sabbath, as would His disciples, insofar as God intended it to be honored.


Romans 14 says, “Some people want to keep the Sabbath and some don’t. It’s no big deal; if they want to, it’s because the are doing it traditionally from their Judaism, don’t offend them, let them go. If you don’t want to do it, don’t worry about it.” That’s why Paul says in Galatians 4 and Colossians 2, “Don’t let anyone impose upon you days or Sabbaths.” We have the reality; the shadow is gone. Christ fulfilled it.

That’s why He rose on the first day of the week. The disciples met together on the first day of the week (Acts 2:1), regularly breaking bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), and they were to collect their offerings when they came together on the first day of the week (I Corinthians 16:1). Why? Because that was the day that commemorated and celebrated the resurrection. That’s why we meet today, because it’s resurrection day! It’s the new covenant.

Now onto the text. I wrote about the parallel account — Luke 6:1-5 — in 2013. That post gives all the background to what is otherwise a puzzling reading for those who are not well acquainted with the Old Testament.

Matthew 12 begins with this story. MacArthur says Matthew might well have wanted to draw a connection between it and the preceding chapter’s final verses (Matthew 11:28-30):

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In Matthew 12:1, Jesus and His disciples were walking through grain fields on the Sabbath. Hungry, the disciples began picking grains and eating them. They would have rubbed off the chaff and eaten the inner portion, which would have been a bit of a snack. MacArthur says:

They did this commonly. Some of you have lived on a farm and done this; maybe you’ll take the head of the wheat or barley and roll it in your hands to clear the kernel out, then you throw it in the air and the chaff is blown away, and then, as if eating nuts, you eat the grain.

Students of the King James Version will say that these were cornfields. MacArthur tells us why later versions refer to grain:

Some Bibles say ‘corn fields’ but they were probably wheat and barley fields. The grain was likely ripening because of what occurs in the incident in verse 1. If they were there in Galilee, in the Jordan Valley, that would mean that it was around April, nearing Passover season, perhaps, because that’s when grain usually ripens there: in the spring. As you go east from there, the farther east you go, the later it is, until finally, at the eastern parts of that area, it doesn’t ripen until August. But in the Jordan Valley, it would be around April. The harvest must have been very near.

The Pharisees voiced their objections to Jesus (verse 2). Removing chaff from grain was not allowed in their many burdensome Sabbath laws. However, Mosaic law, which God revealed to Moses, said that, in case of hunger, people were allowed to pick, but not harvest, grain on the Sabbath:

The Lord had made a wonderful provision for the traveler in Israel in Deuteronomy 23:25. It says, “When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor’s standing grain.” In other words, there weren’t any restaurants or truck stops or McDonald’s anywhere, so as you were moving along, you would get hungry. So the Lord provided, in Deuteronomy 23:25, within the nation of Israel, that you could take your hands and pluck some of the grain.

In verses 3 and 4 Jesus countered the Pharisees by reminding them of what David and his companions did when they were fleeing for their lives, became hungry and approached the priest in the tabernacle for something to eat. The priest in charge gave them the showbread which only the priests were allowed to consume. The story is in 1 Samuel 21. MacArthur summarises it:

He had been rejected by his people as king, and he was fleeing for his life. He was going south to Gibeah, as it says in I Samuel 21, and Saul was after him. He came to the land of Nob, just north of Jerusalem, where the tabernacle was. He didn’t have any food and he and his men were very hungry. So he went in to Ahimelech, who was ministering in the place of Abiathar, the high priest, and told him that he was hungry. David even told a lie about what mission he was on, but he nonetheless told him that he was hungry. You know what they gave him to eat? The showbread from off the table in the tabernacle.

What was that? Every week, they baked 12 loaves of bread and each loaf was baked with six and a half pounds of flour; these were big, big loaves. They were put in two piles of six each, and represented the 12 tribes of Israel, and placed on the table. Every Sabbath, the loaves would be taken away and new ones put down. When the loaves were taken away, according to Leviticus 24:5-9, they were to be eaten by the priests and no one else. The word ‘showbread’ literally means ‘the bread of presence,’ or ‘the continual bread,’ and it was the representation of God’s perpetual relationship to His people, and it was to be eaten only by the priests. It was sacred, never to touch the lips of a common person, even a person like David, because he wasn’t a priest.

Still, David ate the showbread

Why did God let him do this? Because God never invented any law that was intended to overrule human need. Ceremony takes a backseat to the meeting of a need. God not only allows necessity to overrule ritual, but the ritual in David’s time, and in our Lord’s time, had lost its meaning anyway, because the people were so unholy. God will even violate one of His own ceremonies, not moral laws, but ceremonial law if He has to to meet a need, because God is all about loving men and meeting their needs. The Pharisees didn’t understand this, “That the Sabbath was made for man,” so he could rest and have his needs met. Not man for the Sabbath. David violated the ceremonial law to meet the heart of God, which is to meet needs.

Jesus then went on to ask how priests in the temple could get away with working — e.g. lighting fires for the animal sacrifices — and not be declared guilty of breaking Sabbath law (verse 5).

Jesus said that this concerned something greater than the temple (verse 6), which the Jews highly venerated. At that moment, the field was much more sacred because He was standing in it.  The Pharisees would never understand that, as the events of Matthew 12 and 13 make clear.

Our Lord sharply reminded them that God prefers mercy to sacrifice (verse 7). Hosea 6:6, which Jesus quoted, says:

6For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

He ended His rebuke by telling the Pharisees that the Lord of the Sabbath — the Son of Man — was in their very presence (verse 8). He would make the rules, not they.

As we will read next week, Jesus and His disciples were on their way to the synagogue.

Matthew Henry concludes:

This intimates, that those labours are lawful on the sabbath day which are necessary, not only to the support of life, but to the service of the day as tolling a bell to call the congregation together, travelling to church, and the like. Sabbath rest is to promote, not to hinder, sabbath worship

That law, as all the rest, is put into the hand of Christ, to be altered, enforced, or dispensed with, as he sees good. It was by the Son that God made the world, and by him he instituted the sabbath in innocency by him he gave the ten commandments at mount Sinai, and as Mediator he is entrusted with the institution of ordinances, and to make what changes he thought fit and particularly, as being Lord of the sabbath, he was authorized to make such an alteration of that day, as that it should become the Lord’s day, the Lord Christ’s day. And if Christ be the Lord of the sabbath, it is fit the day and all the work of it should be dedicated to him. By virtue of this power Christ here enacts, that works of necessity, if they be really such, and not a pretended and self-created necessity, are lawful on the sabbath day and this explication of the law plainly shows that it was to be perpetual ...

Some Protestant denominations still make Sunday a day of restrictions, possibly more than necessary. They have that freedom as long as they do not impose it on others or criticise others for being less observant than they.

Next time: Matthew 12:9-14

October 31 is widely celebrated in North America.

Hallowe’en has not managed to recuperate its roots in Europe, despite efforts by marketers and the media to encourage trick-or-treating.

In England, at least, households not wishing to participate keep their hallway and front door lights off. Generally speaking, trick-or-treaters respect this gesture and stay away.

Although I run the risk of over-simplifying the origins of Hallowe’en — All Hallows Eve/Evening, hence the traditional contraction — I may expand on it next year at this time. My pagan readers are welcome to contribute in the comments, which will stay open for a fortnight.


During the Middle Ages, a tradition called mumming developed whereby a group of people dressed up, went door-to-door or to a venue such as a pub to perform a short skit or play. They did this at various times through the year.

So far, historians have only been able to find scripts from plays which date back to the 18th century, when mumming reached its peak. It continued through the 19th century, at least in the British Isles, then faded out.

The scarcity of written records makes it difficult for researchers to pinpoint the exact origin of mumming. Wikipedia says:

Early scholars of folk drama, influenced by James Frazer‘s The Golden Bough, tended to view these plays as debased versions of a pre-Christian fertility ritual, but some modern researchers discount this view preferring a late mediaeval origin (for which there is no evidence either).[3]

That said:

Mummers and “guisers” (performers in disguise) can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages, though when the term “mummer” appears in medieval manuscripts it is rarely clear what sort of performance was involved. In 1296, for example, the festivities for Christmas and for the marriage of Edward I’s daughter included “fiddlers and minstrels” along with “mummers of the court”.[2] At one time, in the royal courts, special allegorical plays were written for the mummers each year — for instance at the court of Edward III, as shown in a 14th-century manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.[citation needed]

In any event — apart from mumming — the Middle Ages also saw the rise of souling, the practice of poor children and adults going door-to-door offering to pray or sing a Psalm for the dead in return for a soul cake. This took place on Hallowmas, which had pagan origins (emphases mine below):

The custom of trick-or-treating at Halloween may come from the belief that supernatural beings, or the souls of the dead, roamed the earth at this time and needed to be appeased.

It may have originated in a Celtic festival, held on 31 October–1 November, to mark the beginning of winter. It was Samhain in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, and Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The festival is believed to have pre-Christian roots. The Church made the date All Saints’ Day in the 9th century. Among Celtic-speaking peoples, it was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies (the Aos Sí), and the souls of the dead, came into our world and were appeased with offerings of food and drink. Similar beliefs and customs were found in other parts of Europe.

It is suggested that trick-or-treating evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the spirits, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf. S. V. Peddle suggests they “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune”.[2] Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them.[3]

At least as far back as the 15th century, there had been a custom of sharing soul cakes at Hallowmas.[4] People would visit houses and take soul cakes, either as representatives of the dead, or in return for praying for their souls.[5] It was known as “souling” and was recorded in parts of Britain, Flanders, southern Germany and Austria.[6] Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of “puling [whimpering or whining] like a beggar at Hallowmas.”[7] The wearing of costumes, or “guising”, at Hallowmas, had been recorded in Scotland in the 16th century[8] and was later recorded in other parts of Britain and Ireland.[9]

The Soul — Souling — Cake

The Semper Eadem blog, which concerns all things Elizabethan, has a recipe for souling cakes, for those who are interested in making these for friends or family.

The recipe post explains:

A Soul Cake (or Souling Cake) is a small round cake, like a biscuit, which is traditionally made for All Souls’ Day (the 2nd November, the day after All Saint’s Day) to celebrate the dead

Traditionally each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes is often seen as the origin of modern day Trick or Treating, which now falls on Halloween (two days before All Souls’ Day). The tradition of ‘souling’ and giving out Soul Cakes on All Souls’ Day originated in Britain and Ireland hundreds of years ago, from giving out bread on All Souls’ Day during the devout Middle Ages …

Soul cakes and breads were often made by drawing a cross shape into the dough before baking, signifying their purpose as Alms for the dead.

The recipe given is one from the Victorian era when many ingredients that were very expensive in the Middle Ages became more widely available. However, when the tradition first started:

Indeed, any spice at this time, sugar included, would have been a prized commodity that primarily only the wealthy could afford. To go from door to door, praying for the souls of the departed in return for these sweet treats, would have been viewed by generations of poor children as quite a good trade-off.

The Reformation

The Reformation is synonymous with the printing press. Even if one could not read, one could at least go to church to hear the Bible read in one’s own language, rendering it comprehensible for many.

As a result, where Protestantism took root, the government and Reformers frowned upon earlier syncretic practices. In England:

Henry VIII changed the perceptions of the kingdom forever when he broke from Rome. A guiding force in his reformation of the Catholic Church was the destruction of what he and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell scorned as “superstition.” Saints’ statues were removed; murals telling mystical stories were painted over; shrines were pillaged; the number of feast days was sharply reduced so that more work could be done during the growing season. “The Protestant reformers rejected the magical powers and supernatural sanctions which had been so plentifully invoked by the medieval church,” writes Keith Thomas. The story in The Crown is told from the perspective of a young Catholic novice who struggles to cope with these radical changes.

Yet somehow Halloween, the day before All Saints’ Day, survived the government’s anti-superstition movement, to grow and survive long after the Tudors were followed by the Stuarts

Recent practice

Trick-or-treating still exists in parts of the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe. Ancient traditions live on, even if they are not widespread.


An Irishwoman, Bernadette, wrote on a 2009 Telegraph blog that, where she lives, October 31 is a religious rather than secular celebration:

Round here, all the kids dress up as saints, have their mates round, run riot, prize for the best re-enactment of the life story of the saint you’ve come as, Mass, Adoration, pizzas….. which takes us nicely into All Saints Day. Come on — who celebrates Hallowee’en anymore as ghosts witches and ghoulies ? It’s so passé, dear. Keep up. Catholics have moved on a bit recently.


Scotland has the practice of guising — disguising.

I have only seen it once, around Guy Fawkes’ (Bonfire) Night (November 5), when I was approached on Princes Street in Edinburgh one evening by a little girl and her mother. The little girl was in ancient dress, held out a small bag and said:

Penny for the guy.

I gave her a couple of copper coins, she thanked me nicely and we all went on our way.

Another Telegraph reader, johnofcroy, shared his childhood memories:

As a boy growing up in Scotland we used to dress up at Halloween as “guisers”, carry a hollowed out turnip and call on the neighbours when, in exchange for a song or dance, we would be given some sweets. This was in the sixties when American trick or treat culture was totally unknown to us. So although there may be no English tradition of guising at Halloween there most certainly was a long Scottish tradition.

Northern England

An English reader, crownarmourer, recalled going around with his friends carrying a moggy — a jack o’lantern:

and asking for cash not candy for years in my home village in the North East of England.

Miserable Southerners may not have any old customs but we did and still do …

Hans Castorp wrote:

… The distant origins of ‘trick or treat’ came from these islands, probably the Celtic fringes where the autumnal feast, clearly pagan, was Beltane, much condemned by Scottish divines. (It looks like it was originally a pagan autumn equinox which was transferred to the eve of All Saints Day after Christianisation. Anyone got detail on this?)

The remnants of this in the non-Celtic north of England (Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria etc) is ‘Mischief Night’ which involves acts of hooliganism by teenagers against unpopular neighbours. Again, a threat against neighbours as with ‘T or T’ but a rather more serious one and police are or were often invoked to deal with it

Parts of the American Midwest

This I did not know. It appears as if guising is alive and well in pockets of the Midwest.

From Wikipedia:

Children of the St. Louis, Missouri area are expected to perform a joke, usually a simple Halloween-themed pun or riddle, before receiving any candy; this “trick” earns the “treat”.[52] Children in Des Moines, Iowa also tell jokes or otherwise perform before receiving their treat.


From the same Wikipedia link:

In Portugal children go from house to house in All Saints day and All Souls Day, carrying pumpkin carved lanterns called coca,[57] asking every one they see for Pão-por-Deus singing rhymes where they remind people why they are begging, saying “…It is for me and for you, and to give to the deceased who are dead and buried[…]”[58] or “[…]It is to share with your deceased […]”[59] If a door is not open or the children don’t get anything, they end their singing saying “[…]In this house smells like lard, here must live someone deceased”.

Pão-por-Deus translates as ‘Bread of God’. Records of this tradition go back to the 15th century.

In the nearby Azores:

the bread given to the children takes the shape of the top of a skull.[60]

After the ‘begging’ is complete:

the Magusto [feast for the dead] and big bonfires are lit with the “firewood of the souls”. The young people play around smothering their faces with the ashes. The ritual begging for the deceased used to take place all over the year as in several regions the dead, those who were dear, were expected to arrive and take part in the major celebrations like Christmas and a plate with food or a seat at the table was always left for them.[62]

Politically incorrect

In closing, a group of leftists have criticised American Hallowe’en celebrations as being politically incorrect. They allege the costumes (e.g. cowboys and Indians) reopen old historic wounds. A brief, sometimes entertaining, video has just appeared on YouTube criticising those who want to do away with Hallowe’en for reasons of ‘offence’:


I was amazed to find out about all the ancient and modern commemorations for the dead which take place all over the world, and not always around the end of October and the beginning of November.

Next year, I intend to write a piece on Day of the Dead, which became popular in the US after I left. It is a newish tradition celebrated by St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. A church should not be taking part in a syncretic tradition, even if their altar to the dead is in a nearby tent.

Pastor Ashcraft of Mustard Seed Budget has an excellent post, ‘Suspicion is not proof’, which gives seven good tips on dealing with those suspected of wrongdoing in a church context:

If you are in Christian leadership, you should exercise much wisdom:

1. Always use the lightest correctionary discipline possible, not the heaviest.

2. Be suspect of “revelation or confirmation of the Holy Spirit.”

3. Be aware of your own personality and flesh and how that might color your judgement.

4. Use grace. Forgive others.

5. Don’t insist on having your way but look for God’s.

6. Allow the Holy Spirit to rule the church. You are not the Holy Spirit.

7. Know that the Pharisees exceeded their authority and punished the innocent (Jesus). Don’t join the company of the Pharisees.

Hope these tips are helpful.

They are also helpful in the home. I shudder when I read some parents’ blogs with their accounts of supposed divinely received messages or visions. Scary. Is that bringing their children closer to Christ or estranging them?

There are also many families who are quick to universally condemn a sibling or cousin who, for whatever reason, feels estranged: ‘We don’t talk to them any longer’. Why not? Instead of behaving like Pharisees and all falling into line without getting the facts, talk to those relatives! Resolve the problem!

One of my cousins from my late mother’s side once said, ‘Your dad was always so nice — and so witty!’

I said, knowing of our side’s estrangement of another cousin — a devout Christian — who, after many years, feels as if she can no longer be part of the family despite my long-distance appeals, ‘My dad’s side did not have feuds or a falling out, even though everyone was an individual with different life experiences.’

He replied, ‘Wow. That’s sure not how our family operates.’

‘No kidding. What are you going to do about it?’

‘Nothing. None of my business. I have my own children and grandchildren now. They keep me busy enough.’

I hope that my readers are not like my cousin, congenial and responsible as he is. I pray that if you are reading this and have a family estrangement for no good reason, you take constructive steps to resolve it, especially before Christmas. Invite that relative over for coffee or meet up somewhere. Have a friendly conversation. Let them know you love them — and keep in touch afterwards.

Bible spine dwtx.orgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 11:20-24

Woe to Unrepentant Cities

20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”


The parallel passage for today’s verses can be found in Luke 10:13-15, about which I wrote in 2014. That means that neither reading is part of the three-year Lectionary.

That’s a pity, because the lesson Jesus is impressing upon us is that if we do not heed the Gospel message once we hear it, we are condemned for eternity.

Verse 20 begins with the word ‘then’. If you read my post on Matthew 11:16-19, you will recall that Jesus criticised those who rejected both John the Baptist and Him. Today’s reading records His words of rebuke to those who were rejecting His ministry. The people from these cities have seen His miracles and heard His teachings yet refuse to repent.

Our Lord names the cities (verse 21). My post on Luke 10:13-15 gives more detail on the cities, however, today neither Chorazin nor Bethsaida exist. Coincidence? Or divine judgment?

Chorazin was a village near Capernaum, where Jesus lived. The residents knew Him and the Apostles. Yet, they did not accept Him as Lord and Saviour. Bethsaida was a small town northwest of Capernaum. Bethsaida’s residents also actively chose not to accept Him.

The expression ‘woe to you’ means ‘may you be cursed’. Our Lord emphasised His condemnation of those towns by saying that even the cities of Tyre and Sidon — known to be evil, pagan places — would have repented had He gone there. Not only that, they would have donned sackcloth and ashes in the process.

Sidon and Tyre were powerful trading centres. Sidon was a Phoenecian port city, mentioned in Genesis 10. Egyptians sent their wheat to Sidon, where it was then shipped out to other countries along the Mediterranean. Tyre was a fortified city nearby, mentioned in Judges 19. It was known for providing the famous cedars of Lebanon for Solomon’s temple. Regardless of their commercial power, however, Jesus’s audience would have known the bad moral and spiritual reputation both cities had.

However, no matter how sinful Tyre and Sidon were, Jesus said that their fate at judgment would be nothing compared with that of Chorazin and Bethsaida (verse 22). Matthew Henry’s commentary explains (emphases mine):

Though the damnation of all that perish will be intolerable, yet the damnation of those who had the fullest and clearest discoveries made them of the power and grace of Christ, and yet repented not, will be of all others the most intolerable. The gospel light and sound open the faculties, and enlarge the capacities of all that see and hear it, either to receive the riches of divine grace, or (if that grace be slighted) to take in the more plentiful effusions of divine wrath. If self-reproach be the torture of hell, it must needs be hell indeed to those who had such a fair opportunity of getting to heaven. Son, remember that.

That is why these passages from Matthew and Luke should be in the three-year Lectionary!

Jesus went on to condemn Capernaum, where He based His ministry. He said the town would be brought to Hades (verse 23). He said that if He had performed mighty works in Sodom, the people there would surely have repented and the city would not have been destroyed. That is a very strong condemnation, and the Jews would have understood it as such. They knew Sodom was an abominable city that deserved — and received — divine wrath for its sinfulness.

Yet, the residents of Capernaum who had the blessings, grace, miracles and mercy of Jesus among them will be punished more severely for having rejected them (verse 24).

Henry says:

Sodom will have many things to answer for, but not the sin of neglecting Christ, as Capernaum will. If the gospel prove a savour of death, a killing savour, it is doubly so it is of death unto death, so great a death (2 Corinthians 2:16) Christ had said the same of all other places that receive not his ministers nor bid his gospel welcome (Matthew 10:15) It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for that city.

For us, this means:

We that have now the written word in our hands, the gospel preached, and the gospel ordinances administered to us, and live under the dispensation of the Spirit, have advantages not inferior to those of Chorazin, and Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and the account in the great day will be accordingly.

If we reject Christ, having heard the Gospel message, we are just as condemned as those cities.

Incidentally, Capernaum was later destroyed. For centuries, it was impossible to know where the city stood, the destruction was so complete.

However, divine judgement did not fall on the city alone. A condemnation had been passed on all the inhabitants who ignored our Lord in their self-righteousness. They did not have the morality issues that the people from Sodom did. Yet, their condemnation is the greater because they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

John MacArthur has two observations which help us to interpret this passage more fully.

The first is on the use of Hades in verse 23:

… that word is a word that basically is a neutral word, sometimes refers to waiting place, sometimes just refers to sort of darkness, or the place of death, or the grave. But it is used sometimes with more specificity, or more exactness. And, I believe, Matthew uses it here in the sense of torment, in the place where Satan and his demons and the condemned will dwell. He uses it in the sense of hell. That is Matthew’s pattern. He uses Hades one other time and that’s in chapter 16 verse 18 and he talks about the gates of hell. And I think he means in both of these cases, consistent, the place of torment. Matthew also commonly in referring to this same place uses the term Gehenna, which was a word that meant a burning fire; actually it was the term for the dump in Jerusalem which never went out, the fire burned continually. And he uses that twice in chapter 5 and once in chapter 10.

Also, it’s interesting to note that in Luke 16:23 it talks about the rich man being in Hades and being in torment. So, Hades can be a word that reflects torment. And in consistent with Matthew’s approach, that’s what I think he is saying. You are going to a place of torment. And the torment of Capernaum will exceed the torment of Sodom.

Since the 17th century, if not before, some scholars and intellectuals, especially those favouring universalism, have presented us with the neutral connotation of Hades. Yet, it is worth keeping MacArthur’s explanation in mind: that, in some contexts, Hades may well refer to a place far worse — one of torment.

The other point MacArthur made was on sackcloth and ashes:

Sackcloth was the coarse … camel hair, like John the Baptist wore, that turned black. It was a symbol of mourning. And when you wanted to mourn or show humility, you put on sackcloth and then in an oriental custom, threw ashes all over yourself. Or else, you could have a big bed of ashes and just dive in and wallow in it. That was another way you expressed your sorrow. That is not necessarily a biblical custom that was an oriental one. But Job did it, in Job 42:6, he repented in dust and ashes. And so did Daniel in 9, when he prayed that great prayer to God on behalf of his people in captivity, he put ashes on himself.

In closing, we need to exercise caution when we see lax interpretations of Scripture. The explaining away of torment — i.e. the meaning of Hades — is one of these. Some of my readers will find this warning unsophisticated. So be it. What does Jesus say in Matthew 11:25-26?

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

The chapter concludes with one of the best known and best loved Bible verses:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

May we contemplate this in the week ahead.

Next time: Matthew 12:1-8

Two years ago, the Revd Conrad Mbewe, pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Zambia, spoke at John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference.

Pastor Mbewe spoke about the Charismatic movement in Africa for the conference. The Grace to You ministry team has published an article he wrote on the same subject.

A summary and excerpts follow, emphases mine. Please also read the comments. This movement is popular on other continents where shamanism is popular, e.g. some Asian countries (Korea) and South America.

Why the Charismatic movement is popular in Africa

Mbewe introduces his article by saying that the Pentecostalism practised in Africa is not the traditional, old fashioned one, but a syncretic one which merges with ancient animist beliefs.

Let me explain what I mean. The African spiritual worldview consists of four tiers.

1. God
2. Angels and demons
3. Ancestral spirits
4. Human beings

It is because of this reality that Africans do not question the existence of God, as is the case with many people in the Western world. To an African, God is there. He is the Creator and ultimate Governor and Benefactor of the whole universe …

So, although God is a benevolent, loving, and caring Being, unless the beings that dwell in these two layers that lie between him and us are appeased, his blessings cannot reach us. It is, therefore, important to appease the ancestral spirits and defeat the demons. Only after that will God’s blessings come upon us.

Christians practising a Westernised form of the faith rely on private prayer, Bible study and structured worship, with a focus on Jesus Christ as our only Mediator and Advocate. However, many churchgoers in Africa look for a ‘holy’ man living among them who can accomplish this mediation. Historically, this was the witchdoctor.

The witchdoctor was the key to relieving health problems, difficult relationships and ridding demons from people’s lives:

So, a person who is beset with perennial illnesses, failing to get a job, failing to find a spouse or to have children, whose business is failing to thrive, etc., simply goes to the witchdoctor who alone has the key to look into the spirit world. He is told that it is either a deceased person or an evil spirit who is frustrating him.

Sometimes the enemy is a person who is alive. However, the reason why this living individual seems to have a mysterious hold over your life is because he has plugged into those two layers (of either dead ancestors or evil spirits) and you have not. With the help of a powerful witchdoctor you can outsmart him in those two layers, and the blessings of God can once again begin to flow into your life.

Mbewe makes two important observations:

Whichever way, the power of the witchdoctor is not in explaining truth but in mindless frenzy.

Of course, this is never done by benevolence. You pay for his services.

In many African churches, a ‘man of God’ has replaced the witchdoctor but not completely:

I do not mean to be unkind, but what the modern Charismatic movement in Africa has done is to simply take this entire erroneous superstructure of African religious worldview and baptise it with wrongly applied Bible verses and Christian language. The only difference is that the layer of dead ancestors and evil spirits is now one hotchpotch of confusion. This is why the nonsense of demons becoming spirit husbands and wives, and wrecking havoc in marriages, is taken for granted! This is also why the heresy of generation curses has become so popular. In our minds, bad luck can be passed on from that layer of dead ancestors.

Africans are flocking to church not because of salvation as much as resolving personal issues via the pastor:

So, when blessings are not flowing our way despite our prayers, we make a beeline to his quarters or his church for help. This explains the throngs in these circles. The crowds are not looking for someone to explain to them the way to find pardon with God. No! They want the “man of God” to pray for them

This also explains why the answer to almost any problem that you take to these “men of God” is “deliverance” and “breakthrough”. God wants to bless you, but you need to break through these impregnable layers before those blessings can reach you. The prayers of the “man of God” will bring deliverance because at the overnight prayer meeting or on the hill he will bring about a breakthrough. Who can doubt that these two phrases have become the key words of this movement?

He warns us off ‘prayer warriors’ for this reason:

prayer in the modern Charismatic movement in Africa is literally a fight. In fact, the people praying are called “prayer warriors”. Although they begin by addressing God, within the first few seconds they divert from God and begin to fight the spirits in these impregnable layers with their bare knuckles. The language is almost always, “We bind every unclean spirit in Jesus’ name! We loose the Spirit that breaks the yoke in Jesus’ name!” 

At some point, they seemingly ‘prevail’ over the bad spirits:

That is when they reach through to God and his blessings begin to flow. This is nothing more than the African traditional religious worldview sprinkled with a thin layer of Christianity.

Another dangerous and false teaching is ignoring a proper explanation of the Bible and hammering home the same few verses out of context:

teaching is not the strength of the modern Charismatic movement in Africa. Its chief proponents survive on a few, well-worn, tortured verses: “By his stripes we are healed,” “We are not the tail but the head,” etc. There is absolutely no effort to properly exegete Scripture. Rather, by chanting phrases and making people drop under some trance, in witchdoctor fashion, they are holding sway over the popular mind. The people love it and are paying for it! The “men of God” are becoming stinking rich as the crowds just keep on coming

Not Christianity

Mbewe says that we should discourage the expansion of this movement because it is not Christian but syncretic:

I know that this approach is filling our church buildings and classrooms to overflowing, until we have to multiply church services in order to accommodate the crowds. But this is not Christianity. It does not lead to heaven. It is a thin coating over the religion that has been on African soil for time immemorial, which Christianity was meant to replace. We have lost the Christian faith while we are holding the Bible in our hands and using some of its words. This is really sad.

He asks us to remember the central tenet of Christianity, one not preached in these ‘churches’:

The religion of the Bible does not teach a God who is so far away from us that unless some powerful humans come in and give us a breakthrough he cannot bless us. No! The Bible teaches a God who is near us. The only barrier between God and us is our sin, and Jesus has dealt with that by his death on the cross.

When we pray, we are in the throne room of divine grace talking directly to God. We do not need to address demons and ancestral spirits before we break through to him. We do not need to chant and jump around like witchdoctors around their fire under the midnight moonlight. God is our heavenly Father. Only our sin can hinder our prayers.

This is true. However, the truth does not ‘tickle the ears’.

We can but pray for true men of God to spread the reality of the Gospel.

Witchcraft murders in the UK

Over the past several years, we have had a few violent, systematic deaths by torture in the UK. There have also been cases of abandonment. These have to do with witchcraft. Some of these crimes are possibly committed under animistic belief. Others, however, are related to Christian Africans.

Victoria Climbie’s horrific torture and death in 2005 is probably the best known case. Authorities were reluctant to intervene because her guardians were African. The BBC has documented other cases. Ibidapo came to the UK from Nigeria at the age of ten to work for relatives:

Each time the children got sick my aunty would accuse me of being the one responsible for their illness, start calling me a witch, start beating me up, and there was a time that she took me down to church, to a pastor. They were calling me a witch, they were using a broom to beat me.

Sometimes my aunty would look into my eyes and call me a witch. It made me feel rejected, like I’m nobody.

Fortunately, a Nigerian neighbour helped her to escape a horrible situation.

Debbie Ariyo, founder of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, told the BBC that stepchildren are often targets of abuse. It is not unusual for pastors to single them out during public worship. The object is to make money via ‘deliverance’:

She added that within churches there was often a financial motivation behind accusations.

“The pastor says there’s a witch in this church today; looks around and points to a child.

“That means public humiliation for the family. The next step is exorcism which is not done for free. It’s a money-making scam.”

The Daily Mail also featured articles on African church-led child abuse. One of them described the violence a little girl from Angola endured:

In 2005, three people originally from Angola were found guilty at the Old Bailey of torturing an eight-year-old girl they thought was a witch. The cruelty started when a boy told his mother that the girl had been practising witchcraft.

The girl was starved, cut with a knife and hit with a belt and shoes to ‘beat the Devil out of her’. She had chilli peppers rubbed in her eyes and, at one stage, was put into a laundry bag to be thrown into the river. She was saved from drowning only when one of the perpetrators warned that they would be sent to prison if caught and they decided against it.

This child, an orphan, was the victim of trafficking, like Adam [another horrifying case where his body was found dismembered in the Thames] she was brought into the UK from Angola by her aunt, who had passed her off as her daughter.

A few years ago, we read of the death of Kirsty Bamu, a teenage boy tortured because a relative thought he was a witch. Tragically, this took place on Christmas Day 2010. The Huffington Post carried news of the trial in 2012:

A teenager begged to die after being tortured by relatives wielding hammers, pliers and chisels who were convinced he was a witch, a court heard on Thursday.

Kristy Bamu was subjected to a “prolonged attack of unspeakable savagery and brutality” by his older sister and her partner. The 15-year-old had suffered 101 injuries by the time he died on Christmas Day in 2010, jurors heard.

Kristy’s brother-in-law Eric Bikubi his partner Magalie Bamu, both 28, forced Kristy’s other siblings to join in with the horrific torture, according to prosecutors. Kristy’s face and head were covered in deep cuts and bruises and his teeth had been removed, the court was told.

Brian Altman QC, prosecuting, accused Bamu and Bikubi of beating, torturing and drowning Kristy after they accused him of witchcraft and sorcery.

The Daily Mail also reported on some of the testimony given:

Kelly [Kristy’s sister] said: ‘They started talking about kindoki, witchcraft and this and that. It was as if they were obsessed by witchcraft and then it became absolutely unbearable.

‘They asked if we were witches. I repeated again and again and again that we were not witches. I did not know what was going on in their minds. They decided we had come there to kill them.’

Kelly said they had been made to fast, pray all night to remove the kindoki and hold a vigil over the next few days. Then Bikubi had allegedly said he would get the truth out of them with a stick.

She said angrily: ‘He began to hit Kristy while my sister was watching and didn’t do anything.

‘I begged him, we didn’t do anything, we are innocent. She didn’t argue at all. It was as if it was completely normal. She was just sitting there as a spectator.

He hit and hit Kristy. He was not feeling well, He was having trouble breathing and he fell over. As far as Eric and Magalie were concerned, that was the kindoki coming out of him …’


These beliefs and practices — under the banner of Christianity — are un-Christian, dangerous and fatal both to the body and the soul.

Let us pray that African churches and congregations discover the truth of the Gospel and salvation through our only Mediator and Advocate, Christ Jesus.

Bible croppedThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 11:16-19

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”[a]


Last week’s entry examined Jesus’s comparison of John the Baptist to Elijah in greatness. He also spoke of the kingdom of heaven and how John’s followers sought repentance and holiness with a deep passion: ‘the violent take it by force‘ (Matthew 11:12). He also referred to the fact that, in John the Baptist’s ministry and His own, the kingdom was suffering violence from persecutors.

Today’s passage has a parallel account in Luke 7:31-35, which I wrote about in 2013.

Our Lord takes issue with those — ‘this generation’ — who have been indifferent to John’s and His message (verse 16). John exhorted the people to repent — and many did, although not all. Jesus came to bring them to salvation. Repentance, then salvation.

However, many were not listening. Jesus likened them to children who refuse to play with their friends in the marketplace (verses 16, 17).

He refers to the two most popular re-enactments — weddings (flute) and funerals (dirge). We play ‘house’ — ‘happy families’, as it is known in Britain. They chose weddings and funerals because both involved large numbers of people, drama, emotion, ceremony and ritual. What’s not to like?

Yet, there were always children who sat on the sidelines carping, refusing to play. Jesus likens those who criticise Him and John to complaining children who never like what their friends are re-enacting in the marketplace.

Jesus explains (verses 18, 19): John led the life of an ascetic, abstaining from most food and all intoxicating drink. People complained about that, saying he had a demon. Then our Lord began His ministry. He had no such restrictions and associated with tax collectors and sinners. People objected to that, too: for that, they called him a drunkard and a glutton.

Jesus concludes by saying that wisdom is justified by her deeds. What does that mean?

John MacArthur unpacks the verse for us (emphases mine):

In other words, you sit back and you criticize no matter what I do or John does, no matter what our message is, you criticize. But in the end the truth will justify itself by what it produces. You can criticize Christ, but where you’re going to run into trouble is when you run into the people whose lives He’s changed, right? You can criticize the church but where you’re going to have problems is when you have to explain why the church has had the impact it’s had on the world. You see, truth or wisdom ultimately is justified by what it produces, and that is an unanswerable argument.

The wisdom of John the Baptist which insisted on repentance and the wisdom of Jesus which insisted on salvation was shown to be justified by what it accomplished in the hearts and the lives of the people who believed. They rendered the right verdict, they who believed. And they become the testimony to the truth. Some people are just critical. And you meet them and I meet them. They’re not even looking for the truth. They just want to find everything wrong with Christ and Christianity and that’s a tragic response. Because in the end, the truth will be justified by what it produces.

These…see, these people had a smugness that made them sit in condemning judgment and they were wrong

Matthew Henry has a similar analysis:

The success of the means of grace justifies the wisdom of God in the choice of these means, against those who charge him with folly therein …  If the unbelief of some reproach Christ by giving him the lie, the faith of others shall honour him by setting to its seal that he is true, and that he also is wise, 1 Corinthians 1:25. Whether we do it or not, it will be done[,] not only God’s equity, but his wisdom, will be justified when he speaks, when he judges.

However, Jesus had not finished; He had harsher words, to be covered next week. A parallel account is in Luke 13:10-15, also excluded from the Lectionary. Lamentable. We need those words of wisdom today more than ever!

Next time: Matthew 11:20-24

One of John MacArthur’s Grace to You elders, Cameron Buettel, wrote an excellent article warning Christians about the ‘whole Gospel’ teaching which focusses on socio-political works.

In ‘Is the Social Gospel the Whole Gospel?’ we discover that, not only are today’s celebrity evangelists promoting something St Francis of Assisi never said, they are also abusing the context of the Gospel of Matthew, turning it into a socio-political one.

Tony Campolo is a primary mover in this regard, advocating the ‘whole Gospel’. Yet, as Cameron Buettel explains, this is not only inaccurate but it also confuses believers who think that by doing charitable work they are effecting their own salvation which comes only through divine grace through faith.

If we are grace-filled and obedient to Christ, we will automatically be drawn to give of ourselves in charity to others. Such acts are the fruits of our faith.

However, we must not expect charity to deliver us to the pearly gates if we lack faith.

Buettel unfolds the argument (emphases mine):

Advocates of the social gospel … appeal to Matthew 25 as their apex argument:

Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” The King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.” Then they themselves also will answer, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?” Then He will answer them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:34–46)

Was Jesus saying that our eternal destinies hinge on feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, and visiting the oppressed? And how would that square with salvation by grace through faith apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Buettel explains that Campolo:

is implying that proclamation of the good news is only a partial gospel and must be accompanied by social action in order to become a complete or “whole” gospel. But his imbalanced emphasis betrays his mishandling of Matthew 25:35–40.

The Bible repeatedly teaches that good works are ultimately God’s works because they are the natural fruit of salvation; never the cause (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-27; James 2:14–17). And in Matthew 25 you don’t see judgment based on works, you see works revealing who is truly saved by faith.

No doubt with the refugee crisis these verses are at the forefront of European Christian activism. However, it is worth remembering that throughout the New Testament the predominant message was exercising charity to fellow believers as well as non-believers. We are not meant to put non-believers above our own brothers and sisters in Christ. Buettel expands on this in a comment (#18) to a reader:

… if you read the post through you’ll see that I also mention our responsibility to love our neighbors and our enemies. My point is that Matthew 25 is not an argument for social responsibility to unbelievers. Scripture is also clear that Christians must have a greater priority on caring for fellow believers than unbelievers. Note that I did not say only priority.

“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Ultimately, Matthew 25 warns against false beliefs — and this ‘whole Gospel’ misinterpretation of it may well turn out to exemplify what our Lord referred to:

the division Christ makes is not between the church and the pagan world, but between true and false Christians. While the pagan lives in open unbelief, the false Christian is an imposter who has blended in among God’s people. False Christians are the recipients of Christ’s most terrifying judgment:

So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:20–23)

Matthew 25:34-46 makes a similar division between those who have genuine faith and those whose faith is false, according to the evidence of their works. Note carefully that both groups of people think they are Christians because they address Jesus as “Lord” (Matthew 25:37, 44). Both groups are also surprised by the verdict. The surprise reveals humility among Christ’s people (“when did we,” Matthew 25:37–39) and self-righteousness among those who are faking it (“when did we . . . not,” Matthew 25:44).

Let us give careful consideration to how and why we are performing charitable works and getting involved in political activism.

Above all, may we pray for the wisdom and grace to care for our own — less exciting? — Christian brethren: the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the poor. They are right on our doorstep. They deserve our love first and foremost.



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