IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 22, July 26 to August 1, 1999

Matthew 12:15-37

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    "Aware of this [the plot of v. 14], Jesus withdrew from that place" (v. 15a). In doing so, he exemplifies the kind of action he has urged upon his followers (10:23) - flight to prevent the end of the mission (it is not yet time for Jesus' death) and also to extend the mission (note the full ministry described in v. 15b).


    The quotation of Isa 42:1-4 (1) carries forward and amplifies the description of Jesus found already in 3:17; (2) underscores the point made in 8:17 (where Matthew quotes from Isa 53, another of the Servant songs), namely that the healing of physical infirmities is integral to the Servant's saving work; (3) explains the warning of 12:16 (that the people "not tell who he was") as Jesus' effort to discourage false notions of messiahship (cf. comments on 8:4); and (4) points positively to Jesus' concept of true Messiahship (see the next point).


    This passage amplifies the profound principle repeatedly enunciated already in Mt, that Messiah's lowly servanthood (v. 18a) accounts for his power and his authority (v. 18cd); and that his gentleness (vv. 19-20b) is the path to his triumph (v. 20c). Moreover (to enlarge on the point made under I.), Jesus' very flight from the Jews provides the impetus for Gentile evangelism (vv. 18d, 21).

    This encourages persecuted disciples (then and now): God uses that very experience as the occasion for unleashing saving power (cf. 2 Cor 12:9-10). "A persecuted ministry...results in conversion of Gentiles" (Gundry, 230). Messiah and his followers shall be both victor and victim in all their wars, and shall make their triumph in defeat (D. L. Sayers, The Man Born to be King).


  1. PREPARATION. 12:22-24.

    1. Jesus' Healing.

      The victim is "blind and mute," a dual affliction ascribed to demon-possession (v. 22). Matthew has already demonstrated Jesus' power to heal all three aspects of the afflictions (chs. 8-9). The healing is complete, "so that he could both talk and see" (v. 22b).

    2. The Crowd's Astonishment.

      While "the Jews did not expect the Davidic Messiah to perform healings or exorcisms" (Gundry, 231), Messiah was expected to do miracles (11:2; 12:38; cf. Jn 10:41). The crowd's rather doubtful question ("This one is not,...is he?"), prepares for v. 24.

    3. The Pharisees' Charge.

      Their words in v. 24 are a response to the crowd, words designed to dispel whatever glimmers of faith in Jesus might have been reflected in the crowds' question. They accuse Jesus of driving out demons "by Beelzeboul, the prince of demons" (NIV mg.).

      Of the several variant spellings, I choose Beelzeboul because of (1) its attestation (cf. GNT in loc.), and (2) its meaning (a Hebrew wordplay on baal, "master, lord," and zebul, "house" = "lord of the dwelling, master of the house"; cf. Jesus' figure in 12:29, including the noun oikia, and the juxtaposing of beelzeboul and its Greek equivalent, oikodespotas, in Mt 10:25). When we view the Pharisees' charge in light of v. 14, and this in turn in light of the controversy of vv. 1-14, we conclude that the charge stems from the Pharisees' notion that Jesus has come to destroy the sacred Law.

  2. JESUS' DISCOURSE. 12:25-37.

    1. Refuting the Accusation. 12:25-29.

      1. The character of Satan, vv. 25-26. While division of the sort described in the proverbial saying of v. 25 can and does occur (with the predictable results), so cunning and powerful a king as Satan would not let that happen. He is an absolute dictator whose underlings work in concert to achieve his own appointed ends.

      2. Exorcisms among the Jews, v. 27. Jews other than Jesus are engaged - and successfully so - in the practice of exorcising demons. At this stage Jesus is forcing the Pharisees to admit (if only tacitly) that men can exorcise demons through an exercise of divine power. In this statement Jesus cleverly exposes the Pharisees' underlying objection (for they are not opposed in principle to men's exercising miraculous powers, and they would certainly not ascribe every other instance of exorcism to demonic activity) - namely that they oppose Jesus not for his exorcising activity as such, but for other reasons (his alleged hostility to the Law, and his exposure of their own sin) - which in turn make it impossible for them to acknowledge that he does miracles by the agency of God's Spirit. In this light, that for which the Pharisees' followers will judge them (v. 27b) is apparently their "hypocritical inconsistency" (Gundry, 234-35).

      3. Jesus' exorcisms, v. 28. Jesus in fact casts out demons (as the Pharisees recognize, v. 24). Once the stupidity of the Pharisees' explanation is exposed (vv. 25-26), the only other explanation is that Jesus expels demons "by the Spirit of God." And since (for ei in the protasis of the conditional sentence) Jesus does so, "then the kingdom of God has come upon you." His exorcising activity, while resembling that of others, is unique. In him God is acting in an unprecedented way to establish his final Rule, which entails crushing the empire of Satan. Far from operating in Satan's power, Jesus confronts and assaults Satan himself (not just his underlings, as did other exorcists) with the powers of the Kingdom of God and thereby achieves a decisive victory. He "ties up the strong man" (Satan), v. 29, and frees his victims.

    2. Judging the Accusers. 12:30-37.

      1. Two kinds of blasphemy, vv. 31-32.

        1. The structure of vv. 31-32. The two clauses of v. 31 are parallel to one another, as are the two clauses of v. 32 (see the Greek). Moreover, v. 32 enlarges upon v. 31, as shown by the linguistic affinities between the vv. (the aorist passives aphethasetai and ouk aphethasetai of v. 31 are repeated in v. 32, as is pneumatos). Thus, "anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit" (v. 32b), has committed "the blasphemy against the Spirit" (v. 31b) - an unforgivable act. Correspondingly, "speaking a word against the Son of Man" (v. 32a) is one of the blasphemies (or sins) that will be forgiven (v. 31a). But why this particular distinction?

        2. The blasphemy against the Son of Man. This occurs when one disregards, misinterprets or doubts Jesus' teaching and his claims concerning himself (including his identifying himself as the Son of Man), and accordingly rejects both Jesus and his message. Cf. the question of John (11:2), and that of the crowd (12:23) at the beginning of the present section. But if such a person comes to the place where he attends to Jesus' words and works, correctly understands them, and believes Jesus' witness to be true, and then - on that basis - personally entrusts himself to the Lordship of Christ, repents of his sin and commits himself to obedient discipleship on Jesus' terms, then his sins - including the worst of them - will be forgiven. Indeed it is to the worst of sinners that Jesus appeals (9:13b).

        3. The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. As the immediate context shows, this means interpreting the Spirit's activity as Satanic activity (vv. 24, 28). This blasphemy pertains to the very same witness as that described under b. (for the judgment of v. 24 obviously pertains to the person and work of the Son of Man). The difference is that those guilty of this blasphemy speak "not out of ignorance or unbelief, but out of a 'conscious disputing of the indisputable'" (Carson, 291, quoting G. C. Berkouwer, Sin, 340). NB in this regard Jesus' refutation of the Pharisees' accusation (12:25-29). Does the very absurdity of the accusation expose the Pharisees' awareness that they are questioning the unquestionable? The blasphemy against the Spirit is like that against the Son of Man in that both are responding to the same truth. But the former rejects that 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" (Carson, 291-92). For this act there is no forgiveness, "either in this age or in the age to come" (v. 32b), i.e. "never" (Mk 3:29). Is Jesus seeking to jolt his accusers out of their lostness and into faith and repentance? But see also 1 Jn 5:16-17.

      2. The impossibility of neutrality, v. 30. He who persists in blaspheming the Spirit is irretrievably "against" Jesus. But let the person described under 1. b. beware, lest persistent doubt or indifference, in the end place him under irreversible judgment (cf. 11:20-24). That the reasons for Jesus's condemning a member of the "crowd," are different from his reasons for condemning the Pharisees, does not alter the seriousness of the judgment upon the first group. One is given time to weigh carefully Jesus' claims; but in the end neutrality is impossible. One must finally either acknowledge Jesus or disown him (10:32-33). Cf. the distinction and the order of the Lukan sayings, "Whoever is not against you is for you" (9:50), and "He who is not with me is against me" (11:23).

      3. The cruciality of words, vv. 33-37.

        1. In assessing character. V. 33 recalls 7:17-20. Whether a tree is good or bad, may be determined by what the tree bears. Vv. 34-35 make it plain that the particular "fruit" in view is one's speech: "You brood of vipers [meaning the Pharisees, v. 24, the same audience of whom John uses the phrase in 3:7], how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (v. 34). (V. 35b speaks of counterfeit coins, Gundry 240.) Jesus judges the innermost character of his opponents, by what they have said about him in v. 24.

        2. In executing judgment. "Men will have to give account [logos] on the day of judgment for every careless word [pan hrama argon] they have spoken" (v. 36). Note the wordplay: logos = "account" in v. 36 and "words" (=hrama) in v. 37. However "useless" or "worthless" (cf. BAGD, s.v. argos) or "insignificant" (Stendahl, in Peake) words may appear to be, they are in fact an accurate index to the condition of one's heart (vv. 33-35). Plummer comments, "Every man's heart is a store-house, and his words show what he keeps there. Even lightly spoken words do that, and what is said on the spur of the moment is sometimes better evidence of a man's disposition than what he says deliberately, for the latter may be calculated hypocrisy" (Matthew, 181). The "careless word" for which one is to give account, is not an isolated phenomenon (which could easily drive one to distraction and inhibit speech in an unhealthy way); rather, one gives account for such words precisely because those words reveal what the person is. This latter explains why one is either acquitted or condemned by his words (v. 37).

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