Pp Mark 3:22-30, Luke 11:14-23
1. Wrong Inferences - Satan versus satan
2. Wrong Inferences - Jewish exorcism
3. Right Inferences - God’s Kingdom has come
4. Right Inferences - Satan bound
5. Implications of the Pharisees’ statement
a. Not for is against
b. Hardness and the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
6. Jesus’ command to the Pharisees
a. Good fruit means a good tree
b. A good man yields good fruit
c. Words will be the judge
This seems like an incredibly long passage not to divide up at least into two equal halves, but the flow of thought is sufficient here to warrant a complete treatment of this one passage seeing as it comes out of one incident (Mtw 12:22-23) and the flow of thought is such that it’s not easy to draw a line under most of the verses to denote a break of one argument and the start of another.
The parallel passages attributable from the other Gospels are many and appear in various places throughout their text, an indication to some commentators, no doubt, that Matthew has borrowed sayings from other points in Jesus’ life which have been brought together here to present one coherent and logical argument. But, as I’ve said on numerous occasions before (ad nauseum), the same words delivered to a different audience in the life of Christ does not prove that they would have had to have been delivered at the same time, in much the same way as a modern day preacher who delivers the same message to a different congregation shouldn’t be accused of only having delivered one particular message to one people in his entire life - to say nothing of the preacher’s adaptation of his message to reach what he feels the people gathered in front of him need to hear.
Therefore, although we can point towards similar passages in other places, the truly parallel passages must be reserved for those places where it appears that the same incident is being recorded.
For instance, Mark 3:22-30, although not dealing with a specific miracle out of which the condemnation of the scribes arises, seems to be most definitely referring to this same incident in Matthew for, in Mark, the parallel passage of the previous incident in Matthew is recorded with only the selection of the twelve dividing it (Mark 3:7-12, Mtw 12:15-21) and, immediately afterwards, we get the recording of the time when Jesus’ mother and immediate family came to see Him (Mark 3:31-35), something which concludes Matthew’s chapter as well (Mtw 12:46-50) though there the author adds the request by the scribes and Pharisees for a sign (Mtw 12:38-45).
Luke also parallels the incident but out of the chronological order where it appears in both Matthew and Mark. The incident is recorded in Luke 11:14-26 and the author there selects the parts of the event which he chooses are sufficient to convey the truth, including a verse (Luke 11:23, Mtw 2:30) that Mark chooses to omit (if that verse was available or known to him, that is).
Luke’s record concerning the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is reserved for a later passage and different context (Luke 12:10) and it seems best, therefore, to accept this verse as one which was spoken on more than one occasion and that Luke felt it better fitted recording at that point in his record.
He also summates the statement of the Pharisees concerning the origin of His power (Mtw 12:24) and the request for a sign (Mtw 12:38) into just the one statement (Luke 11:15-16) and affirms that both incidents happened at the same time. Though we may have thought that the two incidents are unrelated, Luke is quite certain that they happened together through his placement of them. However, he relegates his record of Jesus’ teaching about the request for a sign to Luke 11:29-32, dividing it from the main body of material by the woman’s proclamation of Luke 11:27-28.
Finally, although Mtw 12:33-35 bears similar wording to both Mtw 7:16-20 and Luke 6:43-45, there’s really no parallel here for the intention of His words are wholly different, sufficient evidence, therefore, for us to realise that we must always be careful not to consign similar sounding phrases to the same interpretation but view each passage in the context in which it was recorded.
Though we’ve been able to identify two parallel passages, the variation within them is quite wide and it’s generally true that the author of Matthew has been careful to record as much of the discourse following the incident as he either remembered or had records for.
Mark omits this healing incident which seems to be the reason why the Pharisees responded the way they did (Mark 3:22) whereas Luke, who records it (Luke 11:14), states only that the demon that was being cast out was ‘dumb’ (that is, unable to or unwilling to allow the human to speak). Matthew, on the other hand, speaks not about the demon being dumb but that the demoniac (that is, the person with the demon) was both blind and dumb and that both conditions were rectified as soon as the demon went out from him.
Initially, the author of Matthew records that the demoniac is brought to Jesus. Although fitting in well with the observation we made on a previous web page that the most obvious common denominator for healing to take place in the Gospel accounts was not the presence of faith in the individual about to receive the healing or deliverance but the fact that they approached Jesus, it hardly seems possible that, in the present circumstances, the man could ever have found Jesus, being both blind (therefore unable to see which way to go) and mute (unable to ask anyone to take him to where Jesus was).
Nevertheless, someone, somewhere decided to bring the person to Jesus for healing.
As we noted in the previous incident in Mtw 9:32-34 where a dumb demoniac is delivered, the word translated ‘dumb’ (Strongs Greek number 2974) could equally well be translated ‘deaf’ for the original word carries with it both senses.
Just as in that previous place, the author notes specifically that the ex-demoniac began to speak once the demon had been cast out and this would indicate more definitely that what’s being indicated is the inability to speak rather than deafness where we would have naturally have expected some statement concerning the demoniac’s hearing. It would have been impossible in first century Israel for this type of person to have had a livelihood from which he could acquire a living, probably being consigned to a place of begging on the streets of some town or on the highway from some city or other.
Alternatively, his relatives may have given their own time to looking after him and may have been the reason why He’s brought to Jesus’ attention. Whatever his exact circumstances, however, he was certainly unable to travel to where Jesus was without some help from another who took it upon themselves to bring him to Jesus.
As I’ve previously noted, the most that can be said about the man was that he was both blind and mute - we have no reason to assume that he was deaf also. However, if this was the case, then his healing becomes all the more significant for, being deaf, the demon couldn’t possibly have heard the word of command to leave the human and, being blind, whatever gestures were made towards the demoniac in commanding the demon to leave wouldn’t have been able to have been seen.
All the more amazing, therefore, would the miracle have been to those present and the Pharisees’ response to consign the deliverance to the power and work of satan becomes all the more necessary for them - unless they confess that none other than God Himself could have done such a thing.
Matthew firstly records the people’s reaction when they see the healing take place. In the previous incident where a dumb demoniac was delivered, it’s recorded that they
‘...marvelled, saying “Never was anything like this seen in Israel”’
where their expression is more one of general surprise and shock rather than an acknowledgement that the Person who’s just performed the miracle may be the One that they’ve been waiting for. Here, though, the crowds begin to put two and two together and come up, instead of a statement that Jesus is the Messiah as the two blind men had done previously (Mtw 9:27), with the astonished question
‘Can this be the Son of David?’
that doesn’t quite push them over the edge from accepting Jesus as being a wonder-worker to being the Messiah. But the crowds are moving in the right direction and may have arrived at the definitive conclusion of Jesus’ identity had it not been for the Pharisees’ cynical interjection that
‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons’
attributing the power at work both in and through Him to a demonic source (see my notes on this web page for information regarding Beelzebul). Although they’d previously equated Jesus’ work with satan (Mtw 9:34), it seems as if time had been no great healer and it certainly hadn’t imparted them with wisdom for the time when the next dumb demoniac was healed (9:32-33, 12:22).
The Pharisees’ statement may seem somewhat out of the blue both here and in the previous passage, but we need to think carefully about the conclusion that they’ve arrived at here and the way in which it’s been reached.
Using those incidents which have gone before, we must first note that the Pharisees appear to have been initially sceptical of Jesus when He first appeared on the scene, going about Galilee both teaching and healing. For instance, they gripe about Jesus eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (Mtw 9:11), they probably witnessed Jesus’ statement that He had authority on earth to forgive sins which would have caused some consternation (Mtw 9:2-6) and may not have been very far from instigating the approach of John the Baptist’s disciples who ask Jesus about fasting (Mtw 9:14).
In short, they hadn’t liked what they’d initially seen and seem to have negatively reacted against it.
But Jesus hadn’t stopped here and had gone on to prove Himself to be an enemy of their interpretations of what it meant to observe the sabbath (Mtw 12:1-14). Now, if they refuted Jesus’ teaching concerning what regarded work on the sabbath (indeed, His entire reinterpretation of that day) and regarded their own interpretation as being ‘of God’, then the inference had to be that Jesus was leading astray the multitudes that He was both healing and teaching.
And, more especially, if Jesus was opposed to God, He had to be an instrument of satan - and, as such, the works He was doing had to consequently be of the devil because the power at work in and through the miracles had to have some source which couldn’t have been God’s if He was satan’s instrument.
If they hadn’t taken this viewpoint they would have been forced to have accepted the works as being of God, and they would also have had to have accepted Jesus as being sent from and anointed by God - a tricky position to take when Jesus had obviously not come to pat them on the back for their faithfulness to the Father and was not in any way concerned that their power structures were being threatened by His new teaching in which He claimed Himself as the authority (Mtw 5:22,28,32,34,39,44 - where Jesus’ ‘But I say to you...’ naturally opposes what His listeners had previously been told).
Their position is somewhat logical, therefore, and we shouldn’t consider their declaration that Jesus was using satanic power as being a sudden step from belief to unbelief, that it shot like a thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky. Rather, it’d started with a suspicion that sprang from a hardness of heart and which could only deny any move of God which was outside their own experience and which didn’t conform to their own definition of service to God.
And, when they saw a positive proof that God’s power was at work through a channel they had already rejected, they ended up by renouncing the work - for to do anything else would have meant that they would have had to have accepted Jesus as being a chosen instrument of God.
And so is born the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mtw 12:31-32) where a continual rejection of the moving of God within society causes a hardening to come upon the heart so that, when the power of God is revealed plainly, it is inevitably rejected and denounced as being of the evil one.
That’s all very well for Jesus’ time, of course, but what does that say to us about this present age?
In an attempt to pacify the worried consciences of many a believer, preachers often assure people that if they’re truly worried about committing the ‘unforgivable sin’ - that is, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit - then the individual almost certainly hasn’t. The worry is proof positive, so the reasoning goes, that it hasn’t taken place - but, with that assurance, does the believer then feel secure and at peace only to worry that he must have committed the ‘unforgivable sin’ because he’s no longer worried about whether he’s committed it or not?!
I believe it’s far better to think through the implications of following after a legalistic interpretation of what it means to serve God and to make sure that we don’t mimic the same route down which the Pharisees found themselves travelling and the destination at which they found there was no return from, than to console ourselves with unscriptural assurances.
After all, many denominations, individual congregations and believers make sins out of some ‘other’ people’s service - just as the Jewish religious leaders did. In the present day and age - that is, within the last two decades of the twentieth century - movements of God have been condemned as being not from God because of excesses that have accompanied such outpourings of God’s presence.
While it’s no doubt true that everything should be tested and that the Spirit of God leads into a Christlikeness in those who follow Him, the damning condemnation of movements where the power of God has obviously cast out the demonic, set free the spiritually bound, healed the sick and, even, raised the dead show that we haven’t learnt by the mistake of the NT Pharisees.
But this position isn’t arrived at suddenly.
I have just returned from an area in the US where both legalism and man’s interpretation of service to God abounds - where even christian music is said to be of the devil if it doesn’t conform itself to a specific art form, where work on Sundays is condemned because it’s the christian sabbath. Couple them with the denunciation of women who wear jeans (and more especially when they’re worn on Sundays and to a church meeting), the renouncing of speaking in various kinds of tongues because it’s considered that the spiritual gifts died out with the early Church and the adherence to one specific English translation of the Bible as being the only one which is solely inspired and anointed (if they only knew what some of the verses in the Book of Ezekiel said in that translation!).
And all this from Bible believing christians who have cleverly found such doctrines within the pages of their Bibles when they’re distinctly lacking from mine and most other believers’. Of course, they seem to have been gleaned laws through inferences from Scriptural texts (jeans, especially, weren’t invented til fairly modern times, so a direct statement by God concerning their use is impossible to be found within the Bible’s pages!) but all the rules can really be classed as modern day Pharisaic regulations which cut against the outpouring and demonstration of God’s presence in their midst.
Those who teach and speak against such strongly held interpretations are, quite obviously, speaking against God’s Word and, if against His Word, then against God Himself. And, further, if against God, the spirit of the speaker must be of demonic origin, set opposed to the known and revealed will of God.
And, before one realises it, the power of God which is at work within and through those who have been demonised is only ever recognised as being of devilish origin. After all, if power is demonstrated and brings about miraculous change, it has to be conceived as being of supernatural in origin.
Voila! Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit!
The Pharisees’ condemnation of the display of God’s power is hardly surprising when we consider it as the conclusion of a series of moves against God Himself. But what is surprising is that, on occasions, the Church has forgotten to learn by the record of Scripture, choosing rather to repeat erroneous spiritual living that, far from condemning those we don’t approve, condemns the possessor of such belief structures.
Finally, it is perhaps with significance that Mark 3:22 (my italics) speaks of
‘...the scribes who came down from Jerusalem...’
as being the ones who have equated the power of God with that of the prince of demons whereas, in Mtw 9:34, no such demarcation of their origin is given, making the reader understand that, in that place, the religious leaders were likely to be those local to the area.
But Jesus appears to have attracted the attention of the Jerusalem authorities by this point in His ministry and, even though they may not have seen too much, they appear to have responded in the same manner as their Galilean counterparts had done.
Even though they should have come with an open mind and looked carefully at what was transpiring before them, it would appear, as I’ve said above, that Jesus had already been pigeon-holed and that anything He was subsequently to do was to be interpreted in the light of the decision that had already been made.
Before the lengthy discourse begins, aimed at the scribes and Pharisees who’ve come from Jerusalem (Mark 3:22), the author of Matthew records that the reason for the speech was because Jesus knew their thoughts, a phrase which has been used previously in Mtw 9:4 where the man being lowered through the roof was proclaimed forgiven of his sin, causing puzzlement and condemnation to spring up in the minds of many of the scribes present. Yet Jesus addresses their questionings because he knew their thoughts.
I noted there that the parallel statement in Mark 2:8 that Jesus perceived ‘in His spirit’ their thoughts naturally led one to believe that what was being described was a revelation which had been made known to Him by the Father and that, although some commentators describe the revelation in terms which have Jesus operating from out of His divinity rather than dependent upon God in His humanity, this was the preferred option unless the relationship between Father and Son described elsewhere in the Scriptures was to be undermined.
In the present passage, however, the mention of a perception within His spirit is lacking from Mark 3:23 (he only relates to his readers that Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables where his text reads as if His response is to something which He’s either overheard or been told) and Luke 11:17 simply repeats Matthew’s turn of phrase.
Therefore, Matmor is not incorrect to comment that the writer of Matthew
‘...may be ascribing supernatural knowledge to the Lord or he may mean that Jesus had the normal human capacity for penetrating to some extent into what others have in mind...’
This latter possibility is not without justification for such modern day concepts as ‘body language’ can often betray a person’s thoughts and the expression on a person’s face can often give away their internal response to what is taking place - not only in today’s society but throughout the record of relations between fellow human beings.
However, we aren’t thinking about a response to a situation so much as a verbal response of their interpretation of the matter and the thoughts which subsequently followed on from their proclamation. It would have seemed more likely that this may have occurred in Mtw 9:4 where Jesus’ statement is immediately met with unbelief and a response which answers those things which have started to be formulated within the scribal minds had it not been for Mark’s specific statement.
Here, however, the impression one gets is that the decision of the Jerusalem authorities has already started to be spread and that Jesus then responds having perceived that slander was being spread about the work of God.
It’s best to be a little more definite, therefore, and Mathag’s
‘...Jesus supernaturally knows...’
is the best statement. Again, the implication is that the Father has revealed this knowledge to the Son and that, because Jesus perceives the danger of such statements towards the will of God on earth, He takes time to address His accusers - presumably openly with the crowds present - and to show that their authoritative conclusion is lacking in sound reason and judgment.
Jesus highlights, first, two specific inferences which are wrong and which lie at the basis of the scribes and Pharisees’ conclusion (dealt with under the sections prefixed with ‘Wrong Inferences’) before proceeding to show them where what had just taken place should have led them (prefixed ‘Right Inferences’). He then goes on to draw out certain consequences of the Pharisees’ statement and what it said about them (‘Implications of the Pharisees’ statement’) before concluding with some specific words directed against them which also made an appeal for a correct interpretation of the events that were transpiring in their midst (‘Jesus’ command to the Pharisees’).
1. Wrong Inferences - Satan versus satan
Jesus immediately uses a natural observation to answer the spiritual statement which the scribes and Pharisees have announced (notice here that the scribes’ attribution to ‘Beelzebul’ appears to be equated with none other than satan himself by Jesus - Mtw 12:24,26). Division of purpose doesn’t create strength but weakness to the point where even mighty kingdoms will fall because of the internal disagreements and differences in purpose that their inhabitants possess.
Even a household, a family unit which was highly regarded in Israel as being the building block of society, will destroy itself unless it remains committed to one outlook and purpose, reaping arguments and quarrels when individual members begin to fight to gain on their own way at the expense of others.
Nothing less is the case with satan’s kingdom (this is the only place in the NT as far as I’m aware - apart from the parallel passages - where satan is spoken of as having a kingdom. Normally, his sphere of influence is referred to as a ‘dominion’) for, having gained an influence in society through the possession of an individual, why would he now remove himself from that person and therefore lose his influence? The logic was baffling and couldn’t possibly be attributable to the situation for it showed that satan was destroying his own kingdom via his strategic strongholds within the Israelite society. As Mattask notes
‘Satan is not engaged in committing suicide!’
but such a position is immediately apparent if he’s now undermining the very kingdom which he’s seeking to establish, enabling Jesus to bring healing to individual lives and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Well over ten years ago, I remember speaking with a minister who’d been rather upset at the goings on in one of the meetings they’d been holding in their fellowship a few weeks’ prior to us visiting the church. There was no doubt that something had been going on in the meetings because there were many manifestations of power that had been witnessed by those present.
But I’d already helped on a couple of weeks of meetings that had had this specific visiting ‘evangelist’ speak in another city about a year prior to what had taken place in this small village and I was aware that the minister’s methods left quite a bit to be desired.
All I can say is that the man’s display of Christlikeness appeared to be extremely well hidden beneath a facade of selfish declarations that always, I still believe to this day, wasn’t helping to advance the Kingdom of God. There was nothing which you would condemn as being gross sin but there was the ‘all afternoon’ time of prayer that the person had spent alone in his bedroom battling against the forces of darkness when he was found lying on the bed snoring, the urgency with which he made known his new book which he wanted everyone to buy (with a careful placement of the book stall immediately before one left the building) and the offerings which were always taken up for some cause or other in the meetings when it was always pointed out that the guy wasn’t accepting any payment for his services - but the paying in of the money into the bank account was always a matter of puzzlement when the differing accounts were all owned by the minister himself.
So, yes, I could understand why this other leader had been rather upset at what had been going on - I didn’t need to ask ‘What things?’, I already knew what they were!
But how could you deny that God hadn’t done something in their midst? After all, if the demonic had been pushed back, that meant that the power of God would have had to have been released and applied in their midst, wouldn’t it?
Well, the leader knew this passage but he made a statement to us that
‘An evil spirit can remove a fellow evil spirit when that second evil spirit is more powerful and wicked than the first one’
a concept that I’ve never yet found in my reading of the Bible. The problem was that he was so close to equating the work of God with that of satan, that the good that had come about through the ‘deliverance’ was nothing more than a smokescreen behind which satan was set to reappear in a much stronger and more sinister way at a future date. If this is possible, then how could anyone pronounce that the power of God had just delivered or healed someone when all the time we could simply think of it as a subterfuge? How would we ever know whether a healing was genuine?
Before the reader attempts to apply this to the demon expulsion outlined for us prior to this discourse (Mtw 12:22), the words of Matmor (my italics) are particularly relevant here when he writes that
‘Theoretically...it might be argued that satan could allow the expulsion of one demon in order to effect some diabolical purpose, but this would be met by the fact that Jesus kept on expelling demons; He carried on an unrelenting war against all the demonic forces’
And, in the case of the fellowship where the statement had been made, the amount of healings and deliverances were more than a single occurrence throughout the course of a busy week of meetings.
The problem here was that the minister was unwilling - or, perhaps better, unable - to accept the behaviour of the evangelist and the power of God as compatible. In fact, they probably weren’t compatible at all (if my understanding was correct of previous meetings I’d worked on with the evangelist) but that God was still moving through an imperfect channel shouldn’t have been a problem - after all, how would God ever move through us if we had to be perfect?!
Therefore we should be careful in case we think that the person through whom the power of God is displayed has to conform to our own image - in the case of Jesus, it was an image which the scribes and Pharisees had invented for themselves but, in the case of the travelling evangelist, it was a lifestyle which didn’t appear to match up with the nature of Christ - and so arrive at interpretations of what’s taken place in our midst instead of giving the glory directly to God.
God moves even through imperfect channels like ourselves - even through people who we don’t care for - but to equate the power at work as being the hand of satan demonstrates that we haven’t thought through the logical implication of our statement that the demonic realm is divided against itself or, as in the case of the minister I met, that satan was doing great works in a person’s life so that he might replace an evil spirit with a stronger and more evil one.
Best just to raise our hands up in ignorance and confess we don’t know everything - but to fail to acknowledge God at work because of our own objections neither gives glory to God nor sees the situation for what it really is - and that latter consideration can lead on to more dangerous inferences about the work of God (Mtw 12:31-32).
To be truthful, someone needed to take the evangelist to one side and have a serious talking to him - I was a young christian when this incident took place and ran away from the situation rather than confront it, but I hope I might do something different today!
The principle outlined by Jesus is also a warning to the Church but also one which it hasn’t always been quick to apply.
If the Body of Christ is internally divided, the Kingdom of God will never effectively advance, for it’s in unity that the Holy Spirit moves to extend the Kingdom. After all, what one believer may be used in to establish in the fellowship’s midst will be the very same thing that another will seek to remove or to resist because of their perception of the character of God.
In a fellowship where one seeks something to the annoyance of another (and that even in innocence), there will never be a demonstration of the unity that has already come about through the death and resurrection of Christ (Eph 4:1-3) and the Scriptures speak of the fulness of God’s blessing falling upon those groups of people who live together in unity (Ps 133), that God commands a blessing upon them which, according to Ps 133:3, is nothing short of eternal life.
Division in the church causes fightings and wranglings against one another and spiritual civil war ensues - the real enemy isn’t fought and God’s Kingdom is frustrated in its advance.
Much the same problem arises in marriage where the two become one flesh (Gen 2:24) and where an unequal alliance will cause not tolerance but division (II Cor 6:14). Amos 3:3 is also relevant here, though spoken in a different context, which asks the question
‘Do two walk together, unless they have made an appointment?’
The same is true not only within marriage but within all the relationships we have throughout our natural and spiritual lives. Agreement is vital if ground is to be covered and progress to be made - unfortunately, divisions exist within situations that demand unity and little or nothing transpires that’s of any lasting worth where such divisions are present.
Satan, of course, isn’t divided against himself or else his dominion wouldn’t be able to increase and advance. There must be a singleness of purpose in his plans which spread his kingdom’s influence throughout the earth or else they would soon self-destruct through internal differences and arguments.
So, too, the Pharisees were united in their deliberations that Jesus had to be removed (Mtw 12:14) otherwise the full weight of the council would not have been able to have been put behind their schemings to remove Him.
Sometimes the Church’s enemies are more committed to their own devilish cause than are the sons of God.
2. Wrong Inferences - Jewish exorcism
The problem with the scribes’ logic was that, if Jesus was casting out the demonic by the power of Beelzebul, and for no better reason than that they announced it as such, then it meant that their own followers (‘children’ I’ve taken to mean the converts of the scribes rather than necessarily to mean their natural offspring. Mathag interprets it as meaning ‘those associated with you’) who were going round the nation casting demons out, were obviously open to the same charge - that they, too, were using the power of satan to cast satan out.
Both Jesus and the Jewish exorcists, therefore, had to stand or fall together as one so, Jesus says
‘...they shall be your judges’
That is, they will be the proof of whether their pronouncement is true or not - and the witness cries loudly that the scribes’ statement is false.
It’s worthy to note here that Jewish exorcism seems to have been wholly different from those methods which Jesus employed. The Scriptures record for us that Jesus simply spoke a word of command on many occasions and that the demons obeyed the voice of authority and left the human alone (for example, Mtw 8:32) but the Jewish exorcists seem to have used magical formulae and procedures that were supposed to drive the evil spirit away.
This certainly seems to be what marked Jesus out from the religious leaders and may be one reason why the crowds expressed their amazement at how Jesus simply spoke the word to remove the demonic rather than to get all manner of props out and apply them to the possessed (Mtw 9:32-33, 12:22-23, Mark 1:27, Luke 4:36).
Josephus tells us in Antiquities 8.2.5 that Solomon learnt from God methods which appear to have been used even during the time of Josephus, judging from the way he describes them. He notes (my italics) that Solomon’s learning of the demonic
‘...is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed...’
The Apocrypha also notes a few methodologies which were to be employed to remove the influence of the demonic. Tobit 6:6-7 reads that
‘...if a devil or an evil spirit trouble any, we must make a smoke thereof before the man or the woman, and the party shall be no more vexed’
while Tobit 6:16-17 comments that
‘...when thou shalt come into the marriage chamber, thou shalt take the ashes of perfume, and shalt lay upon them some of the heart and liver of the fish, and shalt make a smoke with it: And the devil shall smell it, and flee away, and never come again any more...’
There seems to be no doubt that something did, indeed, happen when they did such things on occasions (though Jesus’ words may be understood as an argument based upon the scribes’ belief rather than on the potency of such exorcisms) - probably more akin to the Lord’s mercy for the individual than in the honouring of the procedure - but that Jesus spoke a word of command marked Him out immediately as different from the disciples of the Pharisees.
Whereas the Jewish exorcists used formulae, Jesus will go on to point out that He deals with the demonic with the Spirit of God (Mtw 12:28) and that He can do so because He’s previously bound the one who has control in the person’s life (Mtw 12:29).
The principle here exemplified in the denunciation of the scribes should serve as a warning to the Church as well for, if a local fellowship equates other denominations with the work of the devil (because the work of God is not being done their way or because they’re jealous of how God is using them - perhaps, even, they disagree on a specific fundamental [to us] doctrine and we believe that such a standpoint is incompatible with a christian believer), we put ourselves under the same condemnation, for the same Holy Spirit is at work in both camps.
Of course, if some fellowship was to declare that everyone was to stand butt-naked before God and then to engage in practices which were expressly forbidden in the Scriptures then, quite rightly, we could say with all certainty that this wasn’t a work of the Holy Spirit! But the scribes attribution of Jesus’ power to the devil comes on the back of the religious leaders’ understanding that Jesus’ interpretation of the sabbath is incompatible with their own interpretation ‘from God’ (Mtw 12:1-14).
So the church ‘next door’ doesn’t speak in tongues (or perhaps they do and you don’t) and the women don’t wear hats in meetings like you do but, rather, seem to delight in looking like slobs before God by wearing faded jeans and teeshirts with ‘weird’ slogans on, some of which are in Chinese - does that mean that what God is doing in their midst is to be condemned?
Only if you want to self-condemn the work of God that’s being done in your own midst (if God is doing anything in your midst. Sounds like you’re so hard and fast in your rules that God won’t be able to break through at all in your meetings unless He conforms to your own image! But, there again, perhaps I’d interpret God moving in your midst as not from Him?!!). And, if the ‘other’ church condemns you for doing the opposite of what they do, we’re back to Mtw 12:25-26 again on an interdenominational basis where civil war between churches ensues and God cannot command His forces with any great degree of unity.
But in fact God works by His Spirit through many different denominations and not just our own - frightening though that might sound.
When Jesus had finished speaking about those who receive a little child in His name as receiving Himself (Luke 9:48), one of the twelve apostles, John, confessed a situation (Luke 9:49) in which they’d seen
‘...a man casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us’
Jesus’ response is not an easy one to accept if we like to think of our own particular fellowship or denomination as being the final expression of God into society, but it’s one that we need to face up to if we’re going to be able to accept the work of God that’s being done in the places round about us. He said
‘...Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you’
But what if the man was a Pharisee or a scribe, didn’t that make a difference? Obviously not. The man had seemingly realised that there was authority inherent within Jesus and so was using the revelation he’d got to go about Israel doing good by casting out demons. Indeed, perhaps we could even think of him as being more perceptive in spiritual matters than the twelve disciples who had to be formally given authority before they went out to minister (Mtw 10:1) whereas this person seems to have received it directly as a revelation and then began putting it into practice.
But a person who wasn’t under anyone’s ‘covering’?! God forbid! However, Jesus doesn’t see anything wrong with it - and neither should we.
Again, in Acts 11:1-3 we find a situation when Peter’s gone and done a really dumb thing - having been shown by God that the Gentiles are no longer to be regarded as ‘unclean’ to the Jewish believers but that salvation in Christ is for them as well, he goes ahead and speaks to a Gentile family whose head was one Cornelius (Acts chapter 10).
Now Peter has to face the music for obeying God and, when he finally arrives back in Jerusalem
‘...the circumcision party criticised him saying “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”’
The one positive thing here is that at least whatever words were being spoken about Peter behind the scenes actually saw the light of day as the people confronted the apostle when he came to HQ. The circumcision party appear to have been a group of NT believers who insisted on certain requirements of the Law to be laid upon new converts and, ultimately, this meant that the Gentiles were to be compelled by some of their ranks to be circumcised, to observe the sabbath and the like - things which the Jerusalem church had to consider and decide upon when it started becoming a problem of division within their ranks (Acts 15:1-29).
But, for the time being, Peter’s attendance at a Gentile meal was tantamount to backsliding! How could he do such a thing?
And therein lay the problem - if the power of God that had been demonstrated in the household of Cornelius was not accepted for what it was, then it had to have been consigned to the work of satan for something had happened in their midst (Acts 10:46 - demonic tongues?!) - and that in open parallel to what had happened on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit had first been poured out on the believers gathered together (Acts 2:1-4).
But, if that work is condemned, the natural inference is that God at work in the Jews must also have the wrong source and so their own personal spiritual experience would naturally have to be condemned. Such is the problem of condemning out of hand the moving of God in some group or people who are outside our own little holy huddle of the ‘redeemed’.
If the scribes had but thought through the implications of what they’d levelled at Jesus, they would have realised that, in pronouncing judgment, they had, in effect, condemned themselves.
3. Right Inferences - God’s Kingdom has come
In the previous two sections, we’ve looked at inferences which Jesus has gleaned from the scribes’ statement concerning the source of Jesus’ power which He used to expel demons. Here and in the next section, we look at a couple of statements by Jesus which He presents to the scribes as logical inferences from the deliverance that has previously taken place in their midst (Mtw 12:22).
Firstly, that demons are being expelled from people’s lives is positive proof that the Kingdom of God has come - that is, God’s sovereign rule as a reality in situations and people’s lives. This was something which the Jewish leaders couldn’t help but refuse to accept without having to also accept the Person who was being used to do such things.
And therein lay the problem.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the deliverance that had just been performed on the blind and dumb demoniac but that there was something fundamentally wrong with the position of the scribes who were interpreting what was good as being evil.
Such a position should have been crushed when they saw what was transpiring - instead, they decided to stick to their position. But it was obvious - if one even superficially looked at what had just transpired - that deliverance was proof positive that the Kingdom of God had come.
This ‘proof’ is actually only a logical inference from the conditional statement (my italics) which Jesus makes when He says
‘...if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons...’
and, as such, this verse really goes with that which precedes it (Mtw 12:27) where Jesus is showing, firstly, that a denial of the authenticity of the deliverance infers that their disciples are also using satan’s power but that, secondly, if their disciples’ exorcisms are considered genuine, Jesus’ also must be true - and so the position which they’ll never accept is the logical conclusion at which they must inevitably arrive.
Jesus’ words are also, therefore, a warning which they would have done well to heed. While the Jews didn’t deny that exorcisms were taking place, they were seriously in error by attributing them to a work of an evil power.
It’s possibly with a deliberate choice of words that Luke has decided to render what Jesus said here as ‘the finger of God’ rather than ‘the Spirit of God’ (Luke 11:20) which seems to be an allusion back to Exodus 8:19 where the Egyptian magicians, after having seen that gnats were being formed from out of the dust of the earth and that they couldn’t do the same by their magic arts confessed before Pharaoh that
‘This is the finger of God’
There’s a similarity here between the two incidents that Luke is seemingly trying to convey for, even though the magicians had remained hardened to the power of God in the previous wonders which had been performed in Egypt, they had to confess that this wonder was something which went far beyond their own capabilities and understanding.
Though such Gentiles had turned to accept that the power at work was something greater than they could demonstrate - wretched sinners that the Gentiles were! - nevertheless, the scribes who believed they knew the ways of God couldn’t bring themselves to confess the source of Jesus’ power as being divine.
There’s immediately a condemnation here, therefore, and Jesus is shown to be indicating that they stand in a position which is even more deplorable than the Egyptian Gentiles who, although initially hardened against God, were willing to accept something when it went beyond their own experience and abilities to duplicate.
In Luke 10:17-19, we read of the seventy who’d been sent out (Luke 10:1) as returning with great joy to Jesus and proclaiming that
‘...even the demons are subject to us in Your name!...’
Jesus responding with the statement that
‘...I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you’
where the fall of satan from heaven (that is, from exercising his rule and power over the lives of men and women) is equated with the casting out of the demonic. This indicates even more so that satan dare not cast himself out of situations (Mtw 12:26) and that his dominion over the sons of men appears to be established on his habitation within men and women and that, when this is systematically removed, he’s unable to hold the same position as he normally does.
Deliverance from the demonic, therefore, appears to be a genuine necessity for the believing Church to practice (though, I hasten to add, there is an incredible amount of abuse of this ‘ministry’ amongst the Church where demons lie behind the wallpaper and inhabit pieces of food awaiting some person to consume them so that they might secure demon possession!) and is the way that the influence of satan over an area is diminished.
Note, therefore, that it isn’t by the signing of petitions or of writing to one’s local Member of Parliament that satan is pushed back but by actively operating in the authority of Christ and of pushing back those powers which have a hold on people’s lives.
If the Kingdom of God truly is making its presence and reality felt, then the control of satan must naturally be pushed back and the principalities which control areas will ultimately fall.
4. Right Inferences - Satan bound
Jesus comes out with quite an amazing statement here and one which appears to have been personally attributable - and meant for it to be taken as such.
We’ve previously noted above that the Jewish exorcists went about Israel casting out demons by certain methodologies which appear to have been laid down, reputedly, by Solomon himself - I doubt whether this is actually the case but that, at least, is what Josephus claimed. These exorcists relied upon following the formulae that they knew to be magically sufficient for the situation that was presented to them but in no way could it ever be imagined that they had authority over the evil spirit that they were confronting.
That set apart Jesus from the scribes’ recognised exorcists immediately and His statement should have caused them alarm and taken them by surprise for it would have been immediately apparent that Jesus didn’t just claim that He was casting out demons by the power of God but that He was doing so in a totally different manner than their followers were - that is, with personal authority rather than with magical formulae.
I have previously dealt with the set up of authority on the earth in my notes on ‘Creation/Restoration of Creation’ under Part 2 Section 3 ‘Man - Created to Rule’ and, if that argument is followed, one can see that a man who has no sin is one who also has no superiors other than God Himself to obey.
Therefore, even as Jesus walked the earth, there was a sense in which He had an authority over satan that was a part of the original intention of God when He first brought all things into being (Gen 1:28). However, although Jesus’ authority over the evil one is naturally assumed even before He’s anointed with God’s Spirit (Mtw 3:16), He must necessarily go through formally being tested to see whether obedience to God will be maintained so that the authority is established and enforced that He has in principle by the command of God. Just as it was in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-7) so it was in the life of Christ following His immersion in water when He was led out into the wilderness to be tested by satan (Mtw 4:1-11).
This necessarily seems to be the implication of Jesus’ words in Mtw 12:29 when He announces to the scribes that it’s impossible to plunder someone’s goods
‘...unless he first binds the strong man...’
who has control over them (we would be going too far to insist that what is being taught here is that Jesus can enjoy the evil spirits and bring them into His own service once their master has been removed. Rather, the thought is simply one of demon expulsion). This statement implies an event in the life of Christ to which He’s now referring and we won’t be going wrong too far wrong to see the forty day wilderness experience as the place where Jesus negated satan’s hold by personally refusing to obey his will.
Such an experience is recorded in many of the Church’s ‘great’ leaders throughout history in which they found that they went through a time when choices were presented to them to either follow after the way of satan or the way of God and, in so choosing what appeared to them to be the harder way, they found that they gained authority over the power of the devil.
Therefore Rev 12:11 (my italics) speaks of the martyrs of God that
‘...they have conquered [satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’
Though many would see in a believer’s life a defeat when satan has come against them and taken their physical life away, obedience to Jesus’ will until the end of one’s life under persecution is the force which unlocks authority for the Church to overcome the evil one. For, if not even death will change a believer’s will, satan’s power over the Church is immediately negated.
But, going back to the personal application of this principle, overcoming the will of satan by a refusal to go the way that he’s leading is the manner in which authority over him is secured. While it’s true that every believer sits with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph 1:21-22, 2:6) and, therefore, possesses the same authority as Christ, there is a sense in which that authority needs to be activated by a personal refusal to follow after satan’s will (Cp I Peter 5:9’s command to ‘Resist him...’).
The place of temptation in the wilderness, then, is the place where Jesus bound satan to be able to aggressively attack his kingdom through the deliverance of the demonic in people’s lives. Instead of attacking satan from within his own kingdom as the Pharisees allege, Jesus is the one who wages a warfare from an external position because He’s already dealt with the commander-in-chief.
What the demonstration of power should have taught the scribes and Pharisees was that Jesus had power at His disposal that was greater than that of satan.
5. Implications of the Pharisees’ statement
I’ve loosely grouped these three verses together as teaching about the implications or consequences of taking up a position similar to that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus has previously shown, firstly, the wrong assumptions that are foundational for their conclusion to be treated as factual (Mtw 12:25-27) and the right assumptions which should have alerted them to the correct conclusion that what was being demonstrated in their midst was the Kingdom of God (Mtw 12:28-29).
Here, though, Jesus moves on to specifically announce to the religious leaders where they stand both in relation to Himself (Mtw 12:30) and in relation to God Himself who they profess to be serving (Mtw 12:31-32). This latter point has caused many problems in the Church and will, no doubt, continue to do so but we shouldn’t water down the words to mean something less forceful than Jesus originally intended them to mean. The reader should note that this ‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ has already partly been dealt with by myself above on this web page but I’ll refer to those notes when we reach that section.
a. Not for is against
The reader who’s been paying careful attention to the Scriptures I’ve been quoting will probably realise that my quoting of Luke 9:50 which reads
‘...he that is not against you is for you’
seems to contradict Jesus’ words here in which He states the opposite truth that
‘He who is not with Me is against Me...’
Although some would jump to the conclusion that both must be absolute statements and, therefore, are ample proof that the Bible is inaccurate and self-negating, we should remember that even the OT needs to express different actions that are desirable even when the same situation is being confronted. So, Prov 26:4 instructs the reader to
‘Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself’
and immediately follows it (Prov 26:5) by stating that a person should
‘Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes’
The problem, though, lies in our inability not to see that similar situations can often require different solutions because of the person that is being addressed. Even more so when two different situations are being considered as is the case with the two NT Scriptures with which we began.
In Luke 9:49-50, the disciples had observed a man going about delivering the demon possessed using the authority in the name of Jesus and they forbade him because he wasn’t following them. Jesus there points out that, if the man is doing the same works as they are and in the same name, then he’s obviously not opposed to them and will only announce to those he meets and delivers the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Here, in Mtw 12:30, however, it’s obvious that the scribes and Pharisees aren’t ‘with Jesus’ because of their opposition to the work that’s being done by Him (Mtw 12:24). Opposition is sufficient proof to show that they aren’t with Jesus and, though their observations about the origin of the power is probably being couched in spiritual language and concerns for the nation of Israel, it’s necessarily a word which cuts against the will of God now being made known.
No matter how holy a person looks, how much good they seem to do or how much work they do in the name of God, if they’re opposed to the Person of Christ and to the things that He’s doing, they’re living in opposition to God’s will.
Indeed, as Jesus goes on to point out in the second phrase of this verse
‘...he who does not gather with Me, scatters’
There’s power in opposition to the message of the Gospel that Jesus recognises as being destructive for the advancement of the Kingdom of God on earth. While Jesus is going about bringing together Israel and bringing them back into a correct relationship with God through the forgiveness of sins and a demonstration of God’s mercy, the Pharisees are seeking to bring to nothing its effect.
By sowing doubt in the Israelites’ minds as to the nature of the power being demonstrated (Mtw 9:34, 12:24), they’re necessarily pushing many away from listening to and observing Jesus’ teaching, using their own religious authority over the nation to destroy the work of God.
Therefore, instead of being simply words which will have no effect, Jesus notes that their opposition will have a destructive effect. Though they would unite the nation under their own leadership and control, they will have the effect of actually dividing the nation from a true move of God.
Matmor sees Jesus’ words as implying that the scribes are doing ‘nothing’ rather than anything active either for or against Jesus. He writes that
‘Animals tend to scatter and if any given person takes no part in gathering the scattered members he in effect scatters them; by doing nothing he casts his vote in favour of scattering’
but this is to miss the point. While they certainly were apathetic in their gathering with Jesus, they were most certainly active in attempting to pull people away from following after Him and, therefore, of being gathered together as one true flock before God. Consequently, we shouldn’t think of their opposition as being passive but as active and dangerous to the work of God.
We shouldn’t be ignorant to the warning given here to Church leadership, either, for their pronouncements on occasions against true moves of God which have the intention of uniting believers under their own leadership, in their own fellowships, will actually fracture and divide the work of God and persuade many who had welcomed God’s new work with open arms that the power being demonstrated is an alternate power which is to be avoided.
Religious authority, therefore, can destroy God’s work and, though it announces loudly that it’s on the side of God, by scattering the work it shows itself to be on the side of satan which it’s put as a label on God’s true move - quite ironic.
b. Hardness and the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
That the blasphemy against (or ‘of’) the Holy Spirit is a hot potato is seen simply by looking at the space afforded it in the books of commentators. From ten or so lines on most of the other verses in this passage, suddenly the commentator jumps to a page a verse and, as in the case of Mathag, even consigns these two verses to an entirely independent section where the subject can be discussed at length.
I have dealt with the logical arguments which lead a believer on to associate God’s work with something that’s satanically empowered under the heading ‘The Incident’ on this web page and I don’t intend recovering the ground that we dealt with there.
On my web page which dealt with the subject of blasphemy as defined in the OT, I noted that
‘...the concept behind the word “blaspheme” as used in Lev 24 is one of damage. That is, the words spoken that were considered to be blasphemy were words that injured the character of God - they maligned Him. Very simply, it would mean that God was spoken evil of’
In the NT, however, ‘blasphemy’ is normally understood to be something a little different except in the case of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit where the same concept is apparent by appeal to the context of what’s transpiring at the time that Jesus pronounces His judgment on the matter. As the previously cited web page notes, the offence is specifically that which attributed
‘...evil to a work of the Holy Spirit when it was obvious that what had transpired was a work of God’
paralleled also in the OT in Is 5:20. This isn’t something which comes as a sudden decision of the individual but normally is to be seen as a progressive work in a person’s life and of their own will when they harden their hearts against the will of God, until they find themselves in a place where repentance is no longer possible because of their adopted attitude. After all, continual rejection of the movement of God causes a hardening to come upon the heart so that, when the power of God is revealed, it’s rejected and denounced as being of the evil one for, to do anything else, would be to confess the need for individual repentance.
Very obviously, this sin is most likely to occur amongst the religious (the scribes and Pharisees were not ‘believers’ in Jesus in any sense of the word so ‘religious’ is a better description of the people most likely to fall foul of blasphemy) and amongst the Church which knows the moving of the power of God, than it is to occur amongst those who’ve never come to a point where God is known and experienced.
The Church’s problem, time and time again throughout our short history, has been that, once we’ve been set free from those things in which we’d been held captive, we tend to regress into a religion that’s based more upon man’s interpretations of Scripture than it is upon a dynamic and life-empowering relationship with God.
In short, we leave behind the danger of having to walk by faith and of the need for fresh revelation and opt for the much safer routeway of law and legalism in which our service to God is nicely defined and spelt out for us in commands such as
‘Thou shalt go to church on Sundays’
‘Thou shalt not surf the evil Internet’
When God moves in individuals outside our experience and our man-made regulations - such as people being saved through an Internet based ministry or when believers forsake a church meeting and proclaim the Gospel to their relatives on a Sunday with incredible effect or, even worse, to surf the Internet to meet one’s families and speak to them about Jesus on a Sunday when we should be in church, our natural tendency is to define the power at work in those situations by recourse to a logical progression of our preconceived laws.
And so the power of God becomes labelled as the work of satan and what is obviously a work of God is maligned and explained away as being an alternative power source. It’s quite true that some things which happen are difficult to understand and believers find it problematical to accept them as being a work of God - for instance (and this is one which I note here simply because it’s one that I’ve never managed to successfully resolve in my own mind), if a person falls down under the power of the Holy Spirit when they come forward for healing, why is it that they’re the same when they get up from the floor as they were before they went forward to be prayed with?!
There’s no problem in God’s eyes with a doubt - where the problem lies is when a person has set themselves to define God by their own experience and within their rules and regulations and when, through time, that code becomes the be-all-and-end-all of christian experience.
Then, there remains the real possibility that God, when He moves, will be said to be satan.
Jesus says that a word spoken against Himself will be forgiven (Mtw 12:32a - in the previous verse ‘every sin and blasphemy’ is described as being able to be forgiven but I’ve highlighted this statement to show what the Pharisees had opposed by their statement in Mtw 12:24) and there is the sense in which Jesus’ identity was still concealed towards many of those who had been following Him and observing the things that were being done. So Matmor states that
‘...it was not obvious to everybody that Jesus was the Son of God; it was possible for people to make a mistake about His Person’
After all, the crowds may be astonished at what’s transpiring (Mtw 9:33) and even begin to consider whether Jesus is the Messiah (Mtw 12:23), but when something is clearly and undeniably a work of the power of God, it should be recognised and acknowledged by everyone.
That Jesus could be confused as just a great Teacher is possible - as He is even today. But to see the power of God being demonstrated before one’s eyes and yet to equate it with a satanic power is unforgivable - it shows that the person who’s done such a thing has already chosen to reject God no matter what confession comes from out their mouths that says otherwise.
Committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, therefore, in a very real sense could be seen as the overflow and demonstration of a person’s life rather than as a foolish word spoken in haste that is immediately - or very quickly afterwards - realised to be wrong.
In that sense, a believer who’s set to following after God, of seeing where God is moving and responding with praise for what he sees and who is actively seeking to hear from God and to obey Him, is never likely to commit blasphemy against God’s Spirit.
6. Jesus’ command to the Pharisees
I’ve titled this section to imply that in all five verses we find instructions by Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees who’d made the statement that the power of God which healed the demoniac was of satanic origin, but the actual ‘command’ only runs to the first verse.
After that, Jesus moves on to speak a strong word against the religious leaders (as if Mtw 12:32 wasn’t strong enough!), condemning them for being evil at heart and inferring that they’ve all the more to fear on the final day when everyone will be judged, an observation which was also found on the lips of John the Baptist (Mtw 3:7,10).
We would do well to consider the shocking word which this really was in the context of the day where the scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders who were held in high esteem by the people and who gave a spiritual lead to the nation. It was they who strove to make themselves more acceptable to God by observing rules and regulations which they believed were God’s requirements from them.
Out of the blue, then, Jesus condemns them as deserving eternal punishment (Mtw 12:36-37) and that the forgiveness of sins is something which will not be given them because of their equating of the power of God with that of satan (Mtw 12:32). Even worse, their lives are evil at the very core (Mtw 12:34) and they’re inevitably compelled to demonstrate the outworkings of that nature through the things they say (and do).
So, would you or I go to our church leaders and say the same?
Maybe some of us would if we really felt that God required that from us, but we shouldn’t lessen the force and offence of Jesus’ words as spoken in this short passage. Jesus isn’t telling the scribes and Pharisees that they’ve made a few errors which need to be corrected, that they’ve misinterpreted a couple of commandments that need to be straightened out, but that they’re fundamentally wrong and inherently committed to do what’s evil in God’s sight.
I wonder why He didn’t prove to be too popular with them?
a. Good fruit means a good tree
This verse remains somewhat of a mystery because of a specific Greek word employed and most commentators decline to accept the literal translation and opt, rather, for an interpretation which places it as identical in meaning to the passage of Mtw 7:16-20, verse 17 of which reads
‘...every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit’
Therefore Mattask summarises the verse as declaring that
‘Jesus...was radically good and it was no more possible to be allied with satan than it was possible for a sound tree to produce bad fruit’
making Jesus’ words harbour the instruction to the Pharisees that He was good at heart and, as such, there wasn’t any way that He could produce bad fruit. However, in Mark 10:17-18, when Jesus was approached by a rich ruler and asked
‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
His response wasn’t to immediately answer the question but to return a one of His own, saying
‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone’
We would be going too far to insist that Jesus didn’t think of Himself as good at heart for He’s responding to the question to make the person sit up and think about the statement He’s just made and its implications, but it does show that Jesus wasn’t in the habit of moving about Israel declaring how good He was. There were times when this did take place (John 10:11,14) but Jesus was more concerned to proclaim the goodness of God and the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom than to elevate Himself over and above both the Person who’d sent Him and the mission He’d been given.
The real problem with the verse, however, is that the Greek verb ‘make’ (Strongs Greek number 4160) appears in the text, something which is wholly missing from the Mtw 7:16-20 passage, and it seems to throw out what most commentators would expect to get from such a verse as this. While Matmor simply states that
‘It is not easy to understand why the verb “make” is used...’
Matfran prefers to eliminate the verb from the intended meaning when he writes that
‘...”make” here is not a command to be given literal application but an idiomatic way of stating the situation “suppose...”’
Mathag’s translation of the verse, alternatively, chooses to add the words ‘will be’ to the second clause and so translates it (my italics)
‘Either make the tree good and its fruit will be good, or make the tree bad and its fruit will be bad’
whereas Mathen takes the Greek word translated ‘make’ and understands Matthew’s intention to convey an appeal to the religious leaders to ‘consider’ their position, translating the verse as
‘Either consider the tree to be good and its fruit good or consider the tree to be sickly and its fruit sickly’
Matmor’s footnote, on the other hand, explains the text as implying the paraphrase
‘In your thinking, make the tree good and its fruit will be good, make it evil and evil fruit follows’
Perhaps the most which can be said about this discussion (and we’ve covered a whole range of meaning in just a handful of commentators) is that there appears to be much discussion because of the words which actually occur here! Each person seems to be interpreting the words in a slightly different way by either adding clauses, removing words or by reinterpreting the obvious meaning of a word to make more sense of it.
However, the RSV follows the most likely translation and, therefore, literal interpretation here and takes the Greek text at face value - and this should really be our starting point. It reads
‘Either make the tree good and its fruit good; or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit’
Although the RSV begins this passage (Mtw 13:33-37) with a new paragraph showing a change of thought, there really is no break with the previous two verses which have taught the Jewish leaders that demonising what is plainly a work of God will never be forgiven men and women because it reveals the truth that one has already closed one’s eyes to the truth of God (this is possibly why most of the interpretations of this verse haven’t integrated the meaning back into the verse which immediately precedes it).
In their case, although they knew the work of deliverance was a good work (Mtw 12:22) in that the demonic had been repelled and that the man had been delivered from both his blindness and from being mute, they assigned the power at work in him to the demonic - they’d made the tree bad (the Holy Spirit) and the fruit good (the deliverance).
Some would see the talk of the good tree as representing Christ Himself but it isn’t so much Jesus who’s being spoken against here (as Jesus makes plain by His reference to the work of the Holy Spirit in contrast to that same work which could have been considered to have been attributable to Himself) as the power at work both in and through Him. Therefore, the talk of the good tree is more likely to mean the Holy Spirit and the fruit His work, than it is to mean Jesus.
There could be no doubt that the miracle which had been performed was ‘good’ and the Jews nowhere here disapprove of what’s transpired on the grounds that the state of the demoniac is worse after the event than it was before - their cynicism lies in the fact that they’ve equated the power which has brought the good about as being evil.
Therefore Jesus’ words become a little more obvious when viewed from this perspective and we can take the entire verse as conveying meaning without having to alter it in any way. By using the word translated ‘make’, Jesus is insisting that they consider the label they’ve just used in attributing the source of something good as evil.
Jesus tells them, then, that they should either attribute the power at work in the demoniac as good and the result as good or else attribute the power at work as evil and the resultant work as evil - but to mix up the two makes no sense whatsoever even though this is precisely what they’ve done.
In their case, they’ve called the fruit good but the tree evil - this was no more possible than a good tree could produce bad fruit because (Mtw 12:33)
‘...the tree is known by its fruit’
Paraphrased, we see Jesus’ statement as insisting that the scribes
‘Do one thing or the other but don’t sit on the fence and hedge your bets as it suits you’
for that a great work had been done in Israel was obvious. And, if that work was truly ‘good’, then the power which had brought it about was also good - also good, by logical implication, was the One who’d done the work and, therefore, they had no adequate reason to reject His mission to Israel as being, similarly, of the devil.
Mtw 13:34 will go on to use the good and evil imagery and apply it directly to the scribes and Pharisees but Mtw 13:33 is more a summation of their position and a call for consistency of interpretation which provides a bridge between the two passages, summarising what’s gone before with an appeal to reassess their position and introducing the contrasts between good and evil which will be applied to them immediately afterwards.
b. A good man yields good fruit
After introducing the good tree and bad fruit theme, Jesus goes on to develop the application in the lives of those who had declared the power at work through Him as being of demonic origin but although He uses the good versus bad imagery, there’s no longer the mention of the analogy of the tree, and He goes on, rather, to speak of the heart of man and what must necessarily overflow from the heart through the mouth, imagery more in keeping with a stream or river whose origin is from a spring.
Jesus has already spoken about false prophets and the bad fruit which they bring to fruition (Mtw 7:16-20) and, although we saw that Mtw 12:33 didn’t directly relate to this and that this passage doesn’t mention the fruit terminology, the parallels are quite close. The reader should therefore also consult my notes on the passage in the Sermon on the Mount under the heading ‘False Prophets’.
Although, in that place, Jesus is speaking in general terms and omits applying the teaching to the scribes and Pharisees, there’s little doubt that part of the application of His words must necessarily be meant to be taken this way.
Jesus begins His condemnation of the religious leaders with the label ‘brood of vipers’, one that John the Baptist also used of them in Mtw 3:7 and, from Jesus’ subsequent words, it appears that He’s almost giving up on the scribes ever speaking what’s right concerning what He’s doing because of the problem which lies at the very heart of their lives, asking them rhetorically how it would be possible for them ever to speak good when they’re fundamentally set towards evil.
These are strong words - which I noted in my introduction to this section - and we need to realise the full force of such a statement. In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus will go on to outline the problem with mankind in general - that out from within comes what’s unacceptable to God - and that the Pharisees’ objection that the disciples hadn’t first removed ceremonial uncleanness from themselves before they ate is ungrounded because their belief that they would render themselves unclean by doing so is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of man.
Here, though, Jesus is saying more than the scribes belong to mankind and that their lives will demonstrate what lies at the heart on occasions - He’s saying that fundamentally they’re evil and that their wills are set towards doing what is opposed to God rather than that they sometimes let out what’s inside. Matfran notes (my italics) that
‘The Pharisees’ abuse of Jesus could not therefore be treated as a thoughtless passing remark; it revealed their true nature’
and that in contrast to the men and women who’d acknowledged what was within them, had turned away from it and towards Jesus for mercy and forgiveness. The scribes had seemed only to fan the flames of rebellion which already lay within and did nothing about what they discovered was within them, thinking that by an outward show, the internal workings of the heart could be safely ignored (Mtw 23:27-28). But, as Matmor says (which is certainly true to a limited extent unless a person is attempting to put on a facade)
‘People do not speak out of character’
and the plottings and schemings which had been continuing within them had now seen the light of day through their equating of the work of God with the demonic because it suited their own ends.
Jesus doesn’t claim divine knowledge concerning their state of heart but uses the evidence of what He hears them say to define the matter for Him for (Mtw 11:34)
‘...out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks’
That is, the mouth is the overflow through which the contents of the heart are made known. It wasn’t that they were foul-mouthed individuals who went about cursing and using dirty language - they would have been careful to have tried to use only those words which were acceptable in their society which caused no such offence - but their words demonstrated their intentions to destroy the work of God wherever they saw it being done if that work wasn’t approved by them and, ultimately, wasn’t being controlled also by them.
Matfran comments that the passage’s application
‘...is not to suggest that no-one can be changed but that as long as they remain unchanged at heart, their words and behaviour will show it’
However, this does seem to contradict Jesus’ words concerning the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mtw 12:31-32).
Jesus is speaking specifically against the scribes and Pharisees who have shown themselves to be set opposed to God and on a path from which they’re unwilling to remove themselves from. Therefore, for them, change remained impossible even though, for the multitudes, there remained the consistent opportunity to turn round their lives and turn to God through Jesus for both mercy and forgiveness.
Mtw 12:35 could be taken as a generalisation which deals with all those things which come from both the good and bad man but it’s more specifically being applied to the words of men and women who make the content of their heart known by the words which proceed out from their mouths.
Interestingly, Jesus speaks of the contents of the heart as being a ‘treasure’, a place where items are stored and kept together for safe keeping. As I said above, it isn’t that the scribes only share the problem of the nature of man, but that they’ve taken delight in setting themselves against God’s will by collecting for themselves traits and attitudes within their own lives which are used to destroy what they see to be against their own livelihood and prosperity.
Therefore, the scribes have gone that one step further than most men and women and, though they have a religion which demonstrates a righteousness based on self-effort, the person they really are at their core has been nurtured to go against the will of God when the opportunity arises. Mattask observes that
‘What the mouth utters is often what has been occupying the thoughts for so long that it must now find vocal expression’
and it’s this idea of development which appears to be behind Jesus’ words. Their observations concerning Jesus’ forgiveness of men’s sin (Mtw 9:2-5), that both Jesus and His disciples ate freely whereas they fasted often (Mtw 9:14), that Jesus wasn’t careful to remove Himself from unclean situations (Mtw 9:10-11) and that He wasn’t too enamoured by their observance of the sabbath which would have prevented Him from doing God’s will (Mtw 12:1-14) were all things which appear to have been festering in their hearts and minds for some time (I noted above that Mark 3:22 labels the scribes who came out with the utterance of Mtw 12:24 as coming from Jerusalem but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that those who said such a thing were exclusively from the centre of the Jews’ religion) and their equating God’s power with that which came from a satanic origin was a product of these processes.
However, it couldn’t have come to fruition unless they’d been intrinsically set on getting their own way and of undermining any work of God which cut against their own power structures.
c. Words will be the judge
These two verses are peculiar to Matthew but they serve the passage well as a fitting conclusion where the judgment which Jesus has pronounced upon the scribes for attributing the work of God to a satanic source (Mtw 12:31-32) is seen to have eternal effects.
The word translated by the RSV as ‘careless’ needs a little definition, Kittels defining it as holding the meaning
‘...indolent, useless, unemployed...incapable of action’
while Vines defines it as implying that which is
‘...inactive, idle, unfruitful, barren’
and, in the present context, he sees the meaning attempting to be conveyed as
We need to consider carefully Jesus’ intentions here and the maxim that
‘Careless talk costs lives’
is only correct in a limited sense. The ‘careless word’ which Jesus is directly referring to is Mtw 12:24 which we’ve just seen commented on in the previous verses by Jesus as a result of the inner workings of the heart where it’s not so much that a word is plucked out of the air to apply to the situation when there has been no inner thought process which has arrived at the statement, but that the conclusion spoken has revealed the set will of the individual who expresses it.
After all, Peter’s
‘God forbid, Lord!’
in Mtw 16:22 in response to Jesus’ instructions that He was to suffer death at the hands of the religious leaders would fall into just such a category but, there, Peter is expressing rashly a word about something which he can’t conceive as being the will of God the Father for the Son and which he hasn’t given very much consideration to. Additionally, Matfran comments that
‘...the point is that what might appear an idle quip and therefore quite innocuous may, because of what it reveals about the person who says it, be the basis for a severe condemnation’
but the scribes’ comments were never intended to be ‘innocuous’ and were intended to draw people away from following after Jesus and so undermine the effectiveness of the work of proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of God throughout the nation. Mathag also sees the ‘careless words’ as meaning even ‘seemingly neutral’ words but it’s difficult to see how anything other than the words of someone intent on destroying God’s work is being implied here.
Therefore, Mattask’s note that
‘...it is not idle speech that is under consideration, but speech that is the overflow of deliberate thought’
is preferable and absolutely correct. Had the Pharisees made their statement out of all ignorance, there should really have been no problem for them to realise the error of their ways and to turn to God for forgiveness - but the fact of the matter was that their confession was a settled conclusion based upon what they’d already been deliberating over for some time - it displayed the intentions of their heart to reject Jesus no matter what He did (or didn’t) do.
Deeds are still important in God’s scheme of things but Jesus’ words point at the assessment which God will make upon people’s lives as to what they are rather than on what outwardly they intend people to see, and that character cannot remain hidden forever and is made known by the overflow of the heart through their mouths.
The day of judgment, then, is the conclusion of all such schemes against God and, by the words that men and women speak, will judgment be made when those words are a true reflection of the intentions of the heart.
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