Matthew 12:22-32

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Matthew 12

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

In 1942 C.S. Lewis made is famous argument concerning the identity of Jesus that is known today as “The Lewis Trilemma.” Here it is:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to…Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.[1]

Christians and non-Christians alike have argued about the validity of Lewis’ argument since he first made it on BBC radio and then again when it appeared in his classic work Mere Christianity. The debate is over the logical cohesion and force of the argument. That particular issue is not my concern here. What is my concern here is the fact that Jesus, in our text, appears to offer something similar. I am not saying that the Lewis Trilemma is in the New Testament. Rather, I want to show that Jesus shows the Pharisees that if He was not who they alleged He was then He must be the one that they did not want to admit He was! In this way, there is a parallel between the Lewis Trilemma and Matthew 12:22-32. In this passage, we see three proposals offered concerning who Jesus might be.

Proposal #1: Jesus is a King Who Restores Israel

The first proposal came from “the people,” those who watched Jesus heal a demon possessed man.

22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”

The insinuation here is that, in this case (i.e., not in every case), the man’s blindness and muteness was a result of his demonic possession. Regardless, we must see his healing as involving all three realities: (1) deliverance, (2) blindness, and (3) muteness. He was healed completely.

The people respond with our first proposal concerning the identity of Jesus: “Can this be the Son of David?” It has been suggested that there might be a note of doubt in the way this question was phrased: “This can’t be the Son of David, can it?!” Regardless, I am intrigued by the title that they use: “the Son of David.” Let us remember that Matthew uses the title in the first verse of the book: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” But how did “the people” use the title in Matthew 12:23?

The title was Messianic. The people were asking if Jesus was the Messiah. And, of course, He was. But let us note that national restoration was oftentimes bound up with the idea of messiahship in the minds of many Jews at the time. Craig Blomberg writes of the title “Son of David” that it “points to the Messiah’s necessary lineage and royal role (see 2 Sam 7:llb-16)” and that “[t]he classic intertestamental illustration of the messianic Son of David appears in Pss Sol 17:21-18:7—a righteous warrior-king who establishes God’s rule in Israel.”[2]

It is possible, then, that “the people” were close to the truth and even possibly saw a part of the truth—that Jesus was the Messiah—but that their understanding was flawed by the idea that the Messiah would be a national political figure that would cast off the fetters of Rome and restore national Israel. But Jesus the Messiah turned out to be quite different than their understanding of what the Messiah would be: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

This, then, is our first proposal: the Messiah/Restorer of Israel. At least the possibility of it was suggested by “the people” in their question, “Can this be the Son of David?”

Proposal #2: Jesus is a Demon-possessed Deceiver

The second proposal was an obscene proposal. It came from the Pharisees.

24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”

The Pharisees “heard it.” That is, they heard of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man. They allege that Jesus did what He did “by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” It is an interesting word, “Beelzebul.” “Oxford Biblical Studies Online” offers some helpful etymology:

The devil. ‘Beelzebub’ (= ‘Lord of Flies’), in AV, following Latin Vulgate; Greek MSS have Beelzebul (= ‘Lord of Heaven’ or ‘Lord of the House’), which is the more reliable spelling. It is a corruption of ‘Baal-Zebul’ and may refer to the god of Ekron (2 Kgs. 1:2f.). It is used insultingly by Pharisees (Matt. 12:24) to persuade the crowd that the powers which astounded them were not Messianic but demonic.[3]

The “Jewish Encyclopedia” offers even more details:

What renders the name still more problematic is the form “Beelzebul,” which the older manuscripts present, and which has given rise to a number of other conjectures, among them the following: (1)It has been suggested that the appellations Beelzebub and Baal Zebub are corrupt forms of what was originally “Baal Zebul” (Baal of the heavenly mansion, , Movers, in “Journal Asiatique,” 1878, pp. 220-225), and afterward “Baal of the nether world.” (2) The word “Zebul” (from “zebel,” dung) is a cacophonic corruption of “Zebub,” in order to give the name the meaning of “god of the dung.” It is more likely that the name “Beelzebul” is a dialectic variation of “Beelzebub,” as “Beliar” is of “Belial”; Jerome read and translated the name as “dominus muscarum” (lord of flies).[4]

We can see, then, that “Beelzebul” was a title pregnant with satanic and occultic overtones. This is a truly astonishing thing, this allegation that Jesus was operating under and with the power of Satan, that Jesus was in union with Satan. Blomberg notes that “this charge persisted as a common view of Jesus among Jews in the early centuries of the Christian era. They did not deny the genuineness of his miracles but ascribed his power to the devil, so that he was branded a sorcerer (e.g., b. Sanh 107b; b. Sabb. 104b) and worthy of death (m. Sank 7:4).”[5]

This is proposal #2: the blasphemous idea that Jesus was operating with satanic power.

Proposal #3: Jesus is the King of Kings

Jesus, however, offers a third proposal concerning who He is.

25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Jesus’ argument is tight in its logical and persuasive force. Consider:

Argument #1: If Jesus is operating under the influence of Satan then the realm of Satan is collapsing (v.25-26).

25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?

Jesus points out something that should have been abundantly plain to the Pharisees: Satan is not suicidal and Satan never thwarts his own designs. If, in other words, Jesus was operating under the influence of Satan that would mean that the kingdom of Satan had turned inward, was cannibalizing itself, and was destroying itself. Satan wants to see his kingdom expand, not collapse. Therefore, the Pharisees’ allegation made no sense.

Argument #2: The Pharisees’ own followers cast out demons but have not received this kind of skepticism (v.27).

27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.

What is more, the “sons” (i.e., followers) of the Pharisees cast out demons themselves. Therefore, would not the Pharisees’ allegations also apply to their sons? And, if not, why not? For the simple reason that they did not like Jesus and His teachings? How can they attribute Satan to one and not to the other?

Argument #3: For Jesus to cast out demons He must be stronger than the devil, and this would mean that His exorcisms are evidence that God has come among them (v.28-29).

28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.

The third argument is powerful indeed. Jesus points out that for one to cast out demons (i.e., “plunder his goods”) He must first be stronger than the devil (i.e., “the strong man”). But who is stronger than the devil? Certainly not fallen human beings. Who then? The answer is given in verse 28: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

God is stronger than Satan. If Jesus is able to bind the devil and cast out demons it must be because “the kingdom of God has come upon you.” But this, of course, was the one idea the Pharisees simply could not and would not accept! It was this conclusion that led them to make their blasphemous allegation against Jesus and to reject Him. This leads Jesus to say:

31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

To be honest, I feel that we have greatly overcomplicated these controversial words. They have two parts:

  • You can be forgiven for speaking against Jesus.
  • You cannot be forgiven for speaking against (i.e., blaspheming) the Holy Spirit.

Here we find the much-controverted “unforgivable sin.” What can this mean? The first point seems clear enough. Peter was forgiven after denying Jesus thrice (Luke 22:54-62) and Jesus prayed that the Father forgive those who were crucifying Him (Luke 23:34). So clearly one may sin against Jesus and yet find mercy and forgiveness through repentance. But why is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit different? It is different because the Spirit is the person of the Trinity who woos us, calls us, illuminates our hearts and minds, points us to Jesus, convicts us, and shows us our need for Jesus.

To blaspheme the Spirit is therefore to harden one’s heart against God’s call for repentance and faith in Jesus and to resist the Spirit’s leading of one to salvation. It is ultimate rejection of God.

To “speak against the Spirit” is not some singular act in a moment of temper or weakness or sin. It is rather the disposition of unbelief and rejection. It is epitomized in the Pharisees of our text who have blinded themselves to the truth of God. To blaspheme against the Spirit is to feel no need to repent at all!

You cannot receive the second person of the Trinity if you reject the wooing of the third person.

You cannot come to the Son if you reject the Spirit for it is the Spirit who calls and draws us to the Son!

You cannot see your need for Jesus if you turn away from the Spirit for it is the Spirit who convicts us of sin (John 16:8)!

This is the unforgiveable sin: to die in a state of rejecting the Spirit’s draw to Jesus.

So make your choice: is Jesus a national hero, the devil, or God with us? These are the options. This is “the Trilemma” of Matthew 12:22-32. Who do you say that the Son is? I do pray that your answer aligns with that of Jesus.

 

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/is-c-s-lewiss-liar-lord-or-lunatic-argument-unsound/

[2] Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew (The New American Commentary) (p. 52). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t94/e242

[4] https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2732-beelzebub

[5] Blomberg, Craig L., p. 201.

 

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