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Beelzebub Or The Holy Spirit? (Matthew 12:22-37)

In this section of Matthew we see the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day intensify to the point of their complete rejection of Him, and His warning to them of what that would mean. In many ways this portion of Matthew provides the turning point for the emphasis of the book. It is one thing to oppose Jesus’ apparent violations of the current rules made by religious leaders, but to say that He is empowered by Satan is another matter altogether.

This section begins with a miracle by Jesus and the blasphemous accusation by the Pharisees. There follows a lengthy response by Jesus about the source of power in His miracles, and the accountability for words that reveal what is in the heart.

In the next section (study 18) the leaders will demand a sign from Jesus, but He responds with a different kind of sign than they had sought, as well as a stinging rebuke of their wicked unbelief. So this study 17 and the next one, 18, provide the major material for the rejection of Jesus, and turning in the book of His ministry.

Reading of the Text

22 Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and the mute man both saw and spoke. 23 And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” 24 Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.”

25 But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. 28 But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.

30 He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad. 31 Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven people. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. 36 But I say to you that for every idle word people may speak, they will give account for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The Setting and the Structure of the Passage

The passage just before this event is a lengthy citation from the prophet Isaiah declaring that Jesus is the prophesied Servant who would come to heal and to restore. That passage also contrasts the peacefulness and tranquility of Jesus the suffering servant with the malicious hatred of the Pharisees in this passage, preparing the way for the material to follow.

Our passage is essentially some teaching of Jesus based on an incident--although that is the immediate cause, the tension toward the teaching has been building for some time. But in the analysis of the structure we have the event (v. 22) and the twofold response of amazement (23) and blasphemy (24). Then the rest of the section is Jesus’ response to the blasphemy of the Pharisees. That teaching first analyzes their response from the perspective of simple logic--the divided kingdom (25-28), then the analysis of the strong man’s house (29), then the warning of blasphemy against the Spirit (30-32), and finally the principle of nature and fruit (33-37).

This lengthy discussion is paralleled in Luke, but in several places (6:43-45; 11:17-23; and 12:10), prompting a number of scholars to assume that Matthew has taken several separate teachings and put them together here to address the issue of the blasphemous charge. While that is possible, it is also possible that Luke broke up the discourse and used part of it for a topical purpose (6:43-45), had another part simply in a parallel event (12:10), and the retains a part (11:17-23) as his summary of this discourse at this time. Whatever is the explanation of the synoptic connections, the discourse in Matthew makes a unified and coherent argument.

So the study of this passage will primarily deal with the points of argument that Jesus made in response to the accusation. There are no difficult words to deal with apart from identifying Beelzebub in passing, or defining “blasphemy.” I will give a brief explanation in passing, but these can be studied in any theological dictionary or word book.

There is rhetorical and figurative language in the passage, as in all of Jesus’ teachings. Since these things are so bound up with the teachings they are best discussed in the analyses of the verses in context.

There are no Old Testament quotations in this section either, and so that part of the study does not apply. But the reader should become familiar with the lengthy quotation from Isaiah just before this event, for that is the foundation Matthew uses to report this event and teaching. But for the study we are really left with the analysis of Jesus’ teachings.

The Analysis of the Passage

1. The Healing and the Accusation (12:22-24). This section of the passage is pretty straightforward and will require less attention than what follows. But it must be understood, nonetheless.

The Healing. A man who was demon possessed was brought to Jesus; the effect of the demon possession was that he was blind and mute. I suspect that in your study of Matthew you have had sufficient time now to learn a little about demon possession. Most of Christianity would affirm that true believers cannot be demon-possessed, because they have the Holy Spirit indwelling. But they can be attacked and afflicted by forces in this world, for the spiritual war is against such powers, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians.

Jesus healed him, so that he could see and talk once again. That is it--a brief report. This shows that the real point of interest is in the teaching to follow.

And the people who saw this were amazed, wondering if this could be the “Son of David.” The way the Greek text words the question indicates that the people were not sure of the answer: “This couldn’t be the Son of David, could it?” Messiah was expected to perform miracles (see v. 38), and so the exorcism was an indication that Jesus might be the Messiah. But the people could not yet see past the situation (as we can with the full revelation), and Jesus did not look the part of the Messiah, even though He was doing these things. Matthew’s readers, however, would read the passage from Isaiah just quoted, and look at the whole ministry of Jesus and understand it better.

The Accusation. The Pharisees, however, said that He cast out demons by Beelzebub (you will want to look this up in a good Bible Dictionary and see the full discussion). This Beelzebub is identified here as the prince of demons, or Satan. The name appears to come from the Old Testament world, from either ba’alzebub, “lord of the flies,” or from a take-off on ba’al zebul, “prince Baal.” The Greek text has it Beelzeboul, suggesting perhaps “lord of dung,” or “lord of heights”--however the people referred to Satan in those days. One plausible suggestion by MacLaurin (NovTest 20 [1978]:156-160) is that it meant “lord of the house,” meaning the head of the house of demons. This would explain why Jesus presents Himself here as the head of a house, the household of God that cannot be divided. At any rate, the leaders were therefore trying to turn the people against Jesus by claiming His miracles were diabolic, empowered by Satan.

2. The Reply of Jesus (12:25-37). The rest of the passage records Jesus’ response to this ridiculous charge.

The Logic of the Undivided Kingdom (25-28). Jesus’ argument here is very clear: any kingdom, city, or house (Matthew does not mention the house, but see Mark 3:20,23) that is divided against itself will fall. This would be true of Satan’s kingdom: for the prince of demons to be casting out his demons would be folly because they were there doing his work. So, if Jesus is casting out demons, he cannot be working for Satan.

Jesus turns the argument back on them. If this work is empowered by Satan, then Satan must also be empowering their own disciples (their “sons”) who do the same kind of ministry on occasion.

On the contrary, if Jesus is doing these miracles by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom is coming to them. The miracle had to be by Satan or by the Spirit of God--and it is illogical to think it would be by Satan. And Jesus knows full well that He has done these things by the Spirit of God, and if the Spirit of God is at work, then the Kingdom of God has dawned on them--the King is present.

Luke 11:20 has “the finger of God” instead of the “Spirit of God.” The allusion is clearly to Exodus 8:19, the miracle that Moses performed that the magicians could not do, proving it was of God. It is hard to know which was the phrase Jesus used and which evangelist substituted a parallel phrase. The “Spirit of God” may be the original expression in this event, since it forms such a contrast with the prince of demons idea. But the meaning is the same in either case--God alone was at work here, and the evidence that it was God is indisputable.

The Strong Man’s House (12:29). Now Jesus offers another argument, as if to say, “Look at it another way” (= “or”). The point now is that if Jesus’ casting out demons cannot be explained by the power of Satan, then it all reflects an authority that is greater than Satan’s. By this point, then, the analogy can be understood. Jesus is the one who is binding the strong man, Satan, and plundering his house. The little image provides an implied comparison. The people were expecting the Messiah to come and bind Satan in the Messianic Age; and so here Jesus shows He has the power and the authority to do just that. Jesus came with the authority of heaven to defeat and destroy the works of Satan, and to rescue valuable things--people--from his house.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (30-32). Jesus next announces a very basic principle: in our relationship to Jesus there is no neutrality (30). Jesus has made such clear claims and demands that it is impossible to be neutral or indifferent. His claim to be Messiah draws on the Messianic imagery of the harvest: the Messiah will at the end of the age gather in the harvest, so to speak--a work that is attributed to God in the Old Testament. The language of the harvest is figurative, then, an implied comparison. The statement would serve as a warning to the crowd not to treat Jesus with indifference, and a rebuke to the Pharisees not to accuse Him of Satanic powers--because He is the judge of the world. Gathering in the harvest is the work of the kingdom; scattering and driving people away from the kingdom is the work of Satan. To be indifferent or apathetic is to be opposed to Christ, because it is not doing the work of the kingdom.

After making this announcement, Jesus turns to the question of forgiveness (31). Every sin can be forgiven, even blasphemy against the Son of Man. But blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. Critical to this passage, then, is the meaning of “blasphemy.” The word refers to speaking wickedly or slanderously against God or His nature. It is not a minor offense, but a major one. Sometimes people use “blaspheme” to refer to people using the holy name in anger. That is an application of the idea; but it is not what is intended here. In this passage, consciously arguing that the miracles of Jesus were done by the power of Satan is the primary meaning of blasphemy.

To blaspheme the Son of Man would be to speak evil of Him, to discredit Him and His message in some way. Within the context of the argument at this point, this would refer to the rejection of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus. But if someone considered it further and repented, that one could be forgiven.

But the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be the rejection of the same truth in the full awareness that that is what is happening--it is the thoughtful, willful rejection of the work of the Spirit of God even though there can be no other explanation of the healings of Jesus. Blasphemy against the Son and against the Spirit then means the complete and willful rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and the crediting of His works to Satan. Thus, this is not a sin that a true believer can commit, for the true believer has already accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

In Jewish law there must be two witnesses to establish any point. Here Jesus is showing that there are two witnesses to His being Messiah--His words and His works. If a person rejects His words, there is another witness that will authenticate His person--His works. But if someone rejects that too, completely, by blaspheming, then there is no other witness.

Or to put it the other way around--there are two witnesses that will condemn a person: the rejection of the truth of the Gospel of Christ, and the attributing of his miracles to Satan. This adds up to complete and conscious rejection of Jesus. For those who maintain that opposition to Christ throughout their lives and never recant and turn, there is no forgiveness.

That Jesus is dealing in first century Jewish thought is evident from the fact that He clarifies there is no forgiveness in this world or the world to come. Jewish leaders were often great literalists. If the text of Scripture said something like “there is no forgiveness”--only saying it once--they would conclude that meant in this life, but not the life to come. If a passage said “there is no mercy, there is no forgiveness”--parallel or double expressions--then that meant in this life and in the life to come. Jesus clarifies what He meant so they would not play such games with the words.

Nature and Its Fruit (33-37). The point that Jesus now makes is that conduct, especially speech, reveals character. The section is similar to 7:16-19, but there the point was to test character by conduct, a little different.

Jesus tells his hearers to make the tree good or bad, knowing then that its fruit will be good or bad. The metaphor is rather easy to understand. The tree is the character, or the heart--so if you want to produce good things (fruit), you have to have a radical change of heart.

He then calls His enemies a “brood of vipers.” This is an implied comparison, probably addressed to the Pharisees, of whom in John 8 He said were of their father the devil--i.e., the seed of the Serpent in Genesis 3. The point of the comparison is that they are evil and dangerous at heart, but sly and deceptive at first sight. They have an evil heart, and so cannot bring forth good things out of their mouths. The mouth simply utters what “overflows” from the heart.

And so in verses 36 and 37 Jesus warns them that they will have to give an account of themselves on judgment day. These lines may be a proverb, or a popular saying of Jesus, or of Jesus’ day, for the language shifts to the second person. A person will be held accountable for every “careless” word--words that might seem to be insignificant, but are not. In this context the point is clear--if you recall the beginning of this passage: what one says about Jesus and His miracles reveals what is in one’s heart. Some said, “Could this be the Son of David?”--they are on their way to the kingdom; other said, “he blasphemes”--they are not even near the kingdom.

Conclusion and Application

Jesus then took the response of the Pharisees to His miracle as the occasion to teach about belief and unbelief expressed by the words that people say, especially what they say about the person and works of Jesus. The passage affirms again that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who can do the miracles and help the poor and the needy. But the passage goes beyond this to warn those who oppose and reject Jesus that they will not be forgiven but will be condemned for their words, which reflect an evil heart.

The theological application for such folks is to have a radical change of heart, to receive a new heart, we would say, and find forgiveness. The way to do that is to believe in Christ as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. This will mean a change from blaspheming the Lord and the Spirit, to expressing faith and adoration.

The message is primarily addressed to folks who oppose Christ and blaspheme the Spirit concerning His miracles--in other words, unbelievers. To make an application to believers, we would have to formulate secondary applications, applications derived from the implications here. We could say things like:

    1. Believers should be encouraged in their faith by passages like this because Jesus demonstrates again that He truly is the divine Son of God.

    2. Believers can take comfort in the grace of God that Christ has been judged for them, in their place. They may have to give an account of their works at the Bema Seat of Christ, but not at the last judgment where there will be condemnation for unbelief and unrighteousness, and where there will be no forgiveness. Believers have been forgiven, and so there is no condemnation for them.

    3. But believers should also guard their words, because what they say reflects who they are, and those words should reflect a heart of faith and a life of righteousness.

    4. And, believers should do what Matthew is doing here, and proclaim who Christ is to people and tell them that in Christ there is forgiveness of sin, but there is no neutrality--only by being in Christ can people “gather” with Christ.

Correlation

As mentioned above, Jesus in several places in the Gospels spoke of evil being in the heart, or that what proceeds from the heart is evil. So we can correlate those passages in His teachings to show the importance of being born again, or repenting, or coming to faith in Jesus.

The passage naturally correlates to Gospel teachings throughout the Scripture. There is salvation and forgiveness only in the LORD God--and by His claims and by His mighty works, Jesus reveals that He is this LORD God. And so passages that center on faith in Jesus Christ as the guarantee of salvation and deliverance from the judgment would be useful. And Paul reminds us in Romans that we are to confess the Lord Jesus with our mouth.

Likewise James focuses on speech, showing that good things should come from a good heart. Our difficulty is that we do not always show by thoughts, words, or deeds, that our hearts have been cleansed and created anew. We who know that Jesus is the Messiah, who know that He did His works by the power of the Spirit, who know that He is coming to judge the world, ought to make sure that our words and works harmonize with that faith.