ATTRIBUTING WORKS OF JESUS TO DEMONIC POWER UNLEASHES A POWERFUL REFUTATION DENOUNCING THIS UNPARDONABLE SIN
R. T. France: After the brief respite of Jesus’ withdrawal, the confrontation with the Pharisees is resumed. The trigger in this case is not an act which can be criticized in itself, but the demonstration of Jesus’ authority over demonic possession leads to polarized opinions, the crowd in general discussing whether Jesus is the Messiah, but the Pharisees, unable to deny his power, questioning its source. It is their outrageous allegation which provokes Jesus into a withering response, in part consisting of reasoned argument (vv. 25–29), but leading on to a quite melodramatic warning of the possible consequences of their entrenched refusal to recognize his divine authority for what it is. . .
The accusation of complicity with the devil is not only extremely offensive, but is intended to destroy Jesus’ credibility in the eyes of a God-fearing public. It is also potentially extremely serious, since sorcery was, according to the Mishnah, a capital offense. But it is a step too far, as Jesus’ reply will warn them. Not only is the accusation in itself patently ridiculous (vv. 25–29); it also indicates a fundamental choice to take sides against Jesus (v. 30) and, even more seriously, against the Spirit of God by whose authority he acts (vv. 31–32); by making this accusation they have revealed their true character, and will be judged for it (vv. 33–37). The Pharisees are playing with fire.
Matthew McCraw: The power of Jesus is on full display throughout His ministry, yet some, such as the Pharisees, doubt and critique His power.
In this passage, Jesus has a strong response to those who doubt His power. He not only logically defends His power, but He also issues a dire warning about where this doubt and lack of repentance may lead. . .
Jesus was proving time again that He really was sent by God, that He really was ushering in the kingdom of God, and that He really was doing the work of God.
D. A. Carson: The NT reveals how close one may come to the kingdom – tasting, touching, perceiving, understanding. And it also shows that to come this far and reject the truth is unforgivable. So it is here. Jesus charges that those who perceive that his ministry is empowered by the Spirit and then, for whatever reason – whether spite, jealousy, or arrogance – ascribe it to Satan, have put themselves beyond the pale (of forgiveness). For them there is no forgiveness, and that is the verdict of the one who has authority to forgive sins.
Scott Harris: Matthew 12:22-32 not only marks an irreversible point in Jesus’ relationship with the Scribes and Pharisees, but it also marks a change in His presentation of Himself. Up to this time His major method of teaching the people was direct with illustrations to make the point. After the confrontation that is recorded in this passage, Jesus’ major method of teaching will be in parables. Why? Matthew 13:11-14 tells us specifically that it is so the truths of the kingdom can be revealed to those who belong to it, while at the same time those truths will be hidden from those that do not belong to the kingdom. A person can only understand the parables if they have the Holy Spirit.
The rejection of Jesus by the religious leaders of Israel marks a change in the offer that Jesus was presenting to the people. Up to this point, it has been “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It was a real offer of the kingdom of God to be established. From this point on it will still be “repent,” but the kingdom is now in their midst. The offer of the physical kingdom is gone, but the spiritual kingdom is present. This is a major theme of the parables of Matthew 13.
What precipitated such an event that would result in such a confrontation and then end with such far reaching results? Remember that we have been seeing the relationship between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees deteriorate for some time. Starting in Matthew 11, the strain in their relationship with one another declines at an even faster rate. They accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard and the friend of tax-gatherers and sinners (Matthew 11:19). They ignored the many miracles that Jesus did including healing every manner of disease and sickness, casting out demons, power over nature, and even raising people from the dead (Matthew 11:20-22). They accused Him and His disciples of breaking the Sabbath when in fact all Jesus and His disciples had done was to follow the Mosaic Law and refused to follow their legalism (Matthew 12:1-8). They became so incensed when Jesus proclaimed that He was Lord of the Sabbath and healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (which was in direct violation of their legalistic rule that compassion could only extend on the Sabbath to keeping a person from getting worse) that they began to plot in conjunction with their arch foes, the Herodians, to find a way to kill Jesus (Mark 3:6; Matthew 12:14).
As we saw two weeks ago as we looked at Matthew 12:15-21, Jesus came as a gentle servant of God the Father. In His deity, He is God Himself. In His humanity, Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit which was the means by which His humanity was able to be in complete accord with His deity. He came to offer hope to all people – both Jew and Gentile. He came and proclaimed the truth of God’s kingdom, but He did not quarrel and shout in anger. He had compassion on sinful men including those most rejected by society, the battered reed and smoldering wick of verse 20, and offered them hope of redemption as well.
Jesus kept his priorities in order and did things according to God the Father’s plan for Him. He did not seek out confrontation with the religious leaders over their falsehood in order to put them down and gain their power. We find times when Jesus walked away from them because to argue with them would not serve the Kingdom of God (Matthew 12:15). We find instead that Jesus would simply proclaim the truth, sometimes in a very direct and powerful manner, and then let the truth do the work. When an escalation of the confrontation would serve the kingdom of God, Jesus was not shy to do so. Such is the case we find in this morning’s text.
I. (:22-30) CONFRONTATION REGARDING THE SOURCE OF JESUS’ POWER
A. (:22-24) Reactions Differ to the Miraculous Exorcism and Healing
- (:22) Healing / Exorcism Accomplished by Jesus
“Then there was brought to Him a demon-possessed man
who was blind and dumb,
and He healed him, so that the dumb man spoke and saw.”
J. Ligon Duncan: in verses 22 and 23 you will see an amazing healing, and you will see an amazing response from the crowd. There in those verses, we see that Christ’s deeds and doctrine show him to be the messiah. In that passage Matthew gives a testimony to us that Christ is indeed the Messiah. He shows us His messiahship by the deeds that He does. Christ is brought a man who is demon-possessed, and the physical manifestation of that demon-possession is that he is blind and speechless. Now we know that Christ makes a distinction. He does not say that all physical manifestations are the result of demon-possession, but in this case these physical manifestations are the result of the work of demonic activity. And the Lord Jesus Christ does a great sign in connection with that demon’s possession of the man. He casts out the demon. The man is instantaneously healed. And the miracle again shows the heart of Jesus.
Matthew is once again showing you the compassion of Christ towards those who are not merely physically disabled, but those who are spiritually in the bondage of Satan. Christ loves them and has compassion for them and longs for them to be freed from the conquest of Satan. We also see here the power of the Lord Jesus Christ in a test that He is sovereign, that He is the Son of God, that he is the Messiah, that He has the power to bind Satan, and to release those who are under the control of demons. And the crowd is absolutely astonished. The Lord Jesus has done miracles like this before even in the gospel of Matthew, but apparently the people who were witnessing this one had not seen Jesus do a miracle like this for they were amazed.
S. Lewis Johnson: Now this was, I think, a final, climactic Messianic sign because, in the next chapter the Lord begins to speak of Israel’s blindness and of the necessity of judgment upon them.
So it would seem, then, that this is the final test posed the nation concerning their response to the Messiah. He says in the 28th verse, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” This is the final proof that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah, and the kingdom has come with the King.
- (:23) Amazed Reaction of the Multitudes – Speculation Regarding Identity of Jesus
“And all the multitudes were amazed, and began to say,
‘This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?’”
R. T. France: They are beginning to draw the conclusion which Jesus had expected John the Baptist to draw from his miracles (11:2–6). The immediate juxtaposition of this acclamation with the Pharisees’ accusation suggests that the latter have recognized the dangerous state of public response to Jesus, and decide to stamp on it before it is too late.
- (:24) Hostile Reaction of the Pharisees – False Accusation
“But when the Pharisees heard it, they said,
‘This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.’”
The miraculous healing accomplished by Jesus obviously required supernatural power. There are only two possible sources of such power. Here the Pharisees choose to malign the work of the Holy Spirit and attribute the miracle to the power of Satan. Jesus immediately refutes this false accusation.
B. (:25-29) Refutation of the False Accusation
- (:25-26) Absurdity of the Accusation
a. (:25) General Principle = Division Leads to Kingdom Destruction
“And knowing their thoughts He said to them,
‘Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste;
and any city or house divided against itself shall not stand.’”
Daniel Doriani: The charge is that Jesus’ miracle was nothing but a satanic trick, designed to delude the people. Watch carefully how Jesus replies.
- First, he refutes the charges. He dismantles them, at a logical level. He appeals to the mind and teaches everyone about the true source of his power.
- Second, he preaches to the Pharisees and other doubters. He appeals to the heart and the will and calls them to faith.
b. (:26) Specific Application to Kingdom of Satan
“And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself;
how then shall his kingdom stand?”
Richard Gardner: It is absurd to think that the one who rules the forces of evil would invite someone to attack those forces (vv. 25-26). Such a course would lead to the collapse of Satan’s kingdom.
R. T. France: Jesus’ first counter-argument is the common-sense point that it is absurd to imagine that the demon king would attack and defeat his own demonic forces. This would mean civil war in the demonic kingdom, and that can only be a recipe for disaster, as human experience of divided loyalties illustrates. Note that Satan is assumed to have a “kingdom,” which we will hear in v. 28 is under attack from the “kingdom of God.” The term “kingdom” here carries its normal dynamic sense of “rule:” Satan cannot for long remain king if his forces are divided. For Satan’s claim to kingship in the world see on 4:8–9; cf. also Rev 2:13, where Satan has a “throne.”
- (:27-28) Inconsistency of the Accusation
a. (:27) Double Standard of Their Reasoning
“And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons,
by whom do your sons cast them out?
Consequently they shall be your judges.”
Richard Gardner: Jesus suggests that the position of his critics leaves them vulnerable: If my power over demons comes from the devil, Jesus says, what does this say about the exorcists among your own ranks.
Grant Osborne: Jesus’ logic is irrefutable. He takes the opposite tack: “Let’s say you are correct and my power over demons comes from Satan himself. Then what does that say about your own followers?” The phrase “your sons” (οἱ υἱοὶ ὑμῶν) could mean either Jewish exorcists in general or, more likely, the Pharisees’ own followers. Rabbi/disciple relations were often spoken of as “father/son.”
Exorcism in the first century was a thriving business, both in pagan and Jewish societies. Those performing it would employ complex incantations (which they said came from Solomon), magical charms, and even visual effects (cf. Josephus, Ant. 8:45–48; Tob 8:2–3), so Jesus is saying that their practices would be endangered as well. There is an implicit contrast between Jesus (“I”) and the “sons” of the Pharisees, for Jesus needed only an authoritative word. Jesus’ deeds are superior to theirs, as seen in 9:33 when the crowd said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” If Jesus’ superior power comes from Satan, how much more their inferior authority? “They will be your judges” means that the practices of the Pharisees prove them wrong about Jesus.
“They would ‘judge’ them for ascribing to Satan what they, the exorcists, knew came from God.” The future “they will be” (ἔσονται) may point to the final judgment, but there is a realized aspect as well. The very presence of such exorcisms in their own ranks proves them wrong.
S. Lewis Johnson: So, the Pharisees, evidently, were linked with people who claim to be performing mighty miracles. Now that’s a very interesting thing, because it illustrates just exactly what we have today in Christendom. For, we have whole groups of people today who claim to be working mighty miracles. So, I think we can learn from this that there are claims for the miraculous that are not necessarily genuine claims.
b. (:28) Divine Presence Revealed by Exorcism
“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God,
then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
Grant Osborne: Now he points out the true source of his ministry, saying that his power actually comes “through [instrumental ἐν in both cases] the Spirit.” It is not demonic power but divine presence that has led to the authoritative demonstrations.
- (:29) Proof that Jesus is Opposed to Satan and More Powerful
“Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.”
Craig Blomberg: Jesus now illustrates the correct interpretation of his exorcisms with an analogy or short parable. One cannot attack a well-protected home without first rendering the guard powerless. So, too, Jesus must first bind Satan before he can plunder (carry off or rob, from the same verb stem as “lay hold of” in 11:12) his house, i.e., cast out his demons. The exorcisms demonstrate that God in Christ is decisively defeating the devil. As has often been noted, D-Day has come, though not yet V-Day. Satan is in his death throes. His last flurry of activity, to change the metaphor, is like that of a chicken (or perhaps better a snake!) with its head cut off.
Daniel Doriani: When Jesus enters this world with power, God enters the world with power. The process of restoration and renewal has begun. With this, the logical argument is complete. Now the preaching begins.
D. A. Carson: The argument has thus advanced: if Jesus’ exorcisms cannot be attributed to Satan (vv.25–26), then they reflect authority greater than that of Satan. By this greater power Jesus is binding “the strong man” and plundering his “house.” So the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing.
C. (:30) Revelation Always Demands a Response –
Application: No Possibility of Neutrality Towards Jesus
“He who is not with Me is against Me;
and he who does not gather with Me scatters.”
Craig Blomberg: The point here is that Christ leaves no room for neutral ground. If people cannot accept his teaching and work, they are in danger of God’s judgment.
Warren Wiersbe: Jesus was able to cast out demons because He had first defeated Satan, the prince of the demons. Jesus entered Satan’s kingdom, overcame his power, and claimed his spoils. His victory was through the Spirit of God (“the finger of God,” Luke 11:20) and not in the power of the evil one. This means that God is Victor over Satan, and that men must decide on whose side they will stand. There can be no compromise. We are either with God or against God.
Matthew McCraw: Jesus has no room for neutrality. You are either with Him or against Him. If you’re against Him, you are rejecting the work of the Spirit and you are on dangerous ground because you may soon move beyond your ability to repent.
II. (:31-32) CONDEMNATION OF THE UNPARDONABLE SIN OF BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT
A. (:31) Uniqueness of the Sin of Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men,
but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.”
Charles Swindoll: So the prospect of this unpardonable sin, from which there was no opportunity for repentance, was unique to the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles and message – those who rejected it knowingly, willingly, and persistently. In that narrow sense, such blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is no longer possible because Jesus’ earthly ministry is over. However, in a more general sense, the sin for which there is no hope today would be to persist in the rejection of Christ throughout one’s life and then die in that state of rejection. There is no biblical support for the idea of a second chance after death. But until that moment, anybody can believe and be saved.
Craig Blomberg: Probably blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is nothing more or less than the unrelenting rejection of his advances. Jesus’ teaching thus parallels Acts 4:12. If one rejects the Spirit of God in Jesus, there is no one else in all the cosmos who can provide salvation. But we dare never label anyone as having committed this sin. Only God knows human hearts, and we would often make the wrong guess. Moreover, professing believers who fear they have committed the unforgivable sin demonstrate a concern for their spiritual welfare which by definition proves they have not committed it.
D. A. Carson: The distinction between blasphemy against the Son of Man and blasphemy against the Spirit is not that the Son of Man is less important than the Spirit, or that the first sin is prebaptismal and the second postbaptismal, still less that the first is against the Son of Man and the second rejects the authority of Christian prophets. Instead, within the context of the larger argument, the first sin is rejection of the truth of the gospel (but there may be repentance and forgiveness for that), whereas the second sin is rejection of the same truth in full awareness that this is exactly what one is doing—thoughtfully, willfully, and self-consciously rejecting the work of the Spirit, even though there can be no other explanation of Jesus’ exorcisms than that. It thus becomes a declaration that one is against God (see Verseput, Rejection of the Humble Messianic King, 236–38). For such a sin there is no forgiveness, “either in this age or the age to come” (cf. 13:22; 25:46)—a dramatic way of saying “never” (as in Mk 3:29).
B. (:32) Unforgiveable Nature of This Sin Emphasized Again
- Contrasted with Rejection of Jesus
“And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man,
it shall be forgiven him;”
- Condemnation of Rejection of the Holy Spirit
“but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit,
it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.”
Richard Gardner: Interpreters differ on the meaning of this distinction. According to some, the saying distinguishes between rejection of Jesus during his ministry to Israel and rejection of Jesus’ work as risen Lord through the Holy Spirit. It is more likely, however, that the saying distinguishes between rejection of Jesus as God’s messenger and rejection of the One who empowers Jesus. To criticize the messenger is a forgivable offense, but to discredit the power of God by which the messenger frees and heals is an offense without pardon.
Daniel Doriani: Blasphemy against the Spirit is the sober, clear-minded, deliberate rejection of Jesus—as a very agent of evil—despite full knowledge of his work and in the face of the Spirit’s full testimony to him. This blasphemer has heard the gospel proclaimed with clarity and power. He has watched Christians live good lives. Yet he hates Jesus and Christianity and views it as wickedness and deceit. He hears, understands, and despises. We see why this sin is unpardonable: How can one turn to Christ and be saved, when he has seen all the evidence and rejected it as a terrible evil?
Donald Hagner: To blaspheme against the Spirit was in this case to attribute the work of God’s Spirit to Satan and so in the most fundamental way to undercut the very possibility of experiencing the reality of God’s salvation. In other words, this blasphemy by its very nature makes forgiveness impossible (in that sense, it is analogous to apostasy; cf. Heb 6:4–6). . .
The failure to understand Jesus is yet forgivable but not the outright rejection of the saving power of God through the Spirit exhibited in the direct overthrow of the kingdom of Satan. The only unforgivable sin is that of deliberately denying God in a fundamental way, one which goes against plain and obvious evidence. Such hardheartedness is the result of one’s own deliberate insensitivity and cuts one off from forgiveness.