An interpreative work on Matthew 12:22-37
The drama of what I consider as the Beelzebul controversy unfolds in this narrative of Matthew that has dealt with Jesus’ public ministry which has sparked outrage with the Jewish religious leaders. This contesting from the miraculous works has caused tension and accusation towards the messiah of using demonic powers to advance His kingdom. Unrepentance plays a key role within the characters of this story who refuse to acknowledge the claims of Lordship present by Jesus. It is at this juncture that the healings are misconstrued as an act of defiance against the very Law that has been fulfilled in Christ. The scene is nothing new except that the recipient of the healing is both deaf and mute making the miracle that much more impressive to the crowds. This incontestable miracle was a reality by both the crowds and leaders that leaves little room for options. Immediately, we are confronted with doubt at their astonishment, or as one commentary describes it, “to be out of one’s mind” fits the literacy of the text which provokes the charge against Jesus (Hare, 138). This has been the prevailing argument against the messiah that concerns the issue of kingdom authority as Lord of the Sabbath in the previous section. This reversing of charges is what Jesus is telling the leaders who have already been casting out demons not with the empowerment of God’s Spirit (v.28) but instead invite them right back in (12:45). The power struggle is still prevalent as the Jewish people have been under the tyranny of Roman rule so any opposition to the religious structure of the time would have been considered an act of hostility if not conducted according to their rites and rituals.
The charge against the messiah relates to the authority that has been given to him as confirmed by baptism and provoked by the Satan in the wilderness. He cast out demons by Beelzebul (12:34) is the presume charge by which his exorcisms have been conducted. Since the use of magic was considered a capital offense, any practice of sorcery resulted in the penalty of death under Jewish Law (Keener, 361). This fabrication might have been motivated by Jesus’ upbringing as a youth living in the confines of Egypt (2:13-19) but it goes deeper into the motivation of the heart. It’s no wonder that this section in Matthew is the most intense because it would disrupt the fundamental way of the Law that has been taught for generations. The true source of power is not weaved by incantations or material objects but through the authority of Heaven. This kingdom of Heaven as come near to you (v.28) is the same idiom that appears in the Septuagint (Judg. 20:34,42) and appears as a warning to those listening that judgment regarding the denial of God’s presence will surely come (Hare,139). The internal structure of this section contains specific counter-arguments or counter charges made by Jesus to prove that this demonstration of power could only come from the Spirit of God. The first few arguments are described as rational because they suggest that Jesus’ identity is co-equal with that of the Satan. The next responses deal with the issue of empowerment that defiles the conventional reason that this physical miracle couldn’t happen but only through the finger of God was it made possible.
The temptation narrative (4:1-11) is called back into the story by the Gospel writer as this struggle between flesh and Spirit ensue and makes its way into the scene. The Pharisees are convinced without any evidence that Jesus performs miracles by the ruler of demons. This parallel of titles between Beelzebul and the Son of David speaks into the lack of comprehension that the crowds and leaders possessed regarding their messiah who was to come as prophesied in the Old Testament. The commanding of this authority is illustrated in a metaphor by Jesus as one who either gathers or scatters. This gathering refers to the occupation of David as Christ is seen as the great shepherd who seeks to keep the integrity of the flock intact, protecting and guiding the sheep along the way. The business of healing as seen through the eyes of the shepherd doesn’t scatter the sheep of the house of David but the line in the sand is drawn and a fundamental choice must be made. Either you are with me as one who gathers or against me as one who scatters (v.30)? There’s zero tolerance for a neutral ground and the Pharisees were indeed straddling the fence accusing Jesus of being in the same league as the Satan.
The keyword that is frequently used is “kingdom” rendered in Greek as βασιλεία which denotes dominion or a royal rule. The rulership of this kingdom is under scrutiny and is emphasized by Jesus that this kingdom has come upon the people of Israel. A kingdom divided against itself cant stand. It’s irrational and highly unlikely that a civil war could bring a positive outcome and Jesus’ response echoes that this is common sense. Jesus continues with his line of questioning of the approval of exorcisms by their own disciples (Keener, 363). This argument is ad hominem and probably directed to the members of the Jewish community. This open question is Jesus responding to say that the same power of God that works through your sons is the same power working in me. This fits into the larger argument that condemnation of His miracles would be a direct conflict with the miracles conducted by their own. This judgment of the religious leaders on their sons has now been challenged by the judge of the world who will be judged to die for all. The evidence of an anti-Satan alliance is the kingdom which has come unto you (v.28) in the form of human flesh, a son of David whom the Spirit resides in as Matthew connects this thought with the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 42:1). He will bring forth justice to the nations is the experience this demonic man would embrace from the finger of God at work. The issue of allegiance is yet again disputed as the final argument reaches a parabolic form of the binding of the strong man. Again we see the Gospel writer making reference to the book of Isaiah symbolizing a rescue attempt by God from their oppressors. Over and over has this strong man (Satan) invaded and disrupted the lives of God’s people but his time of plundering has met its demise. This recapture by Jesus towards humanity will put to end the enslavement of powers once and for all (Keener, 364).
We move now to a portion of the text that has caused Christians to mull-over in self-condemnation, struggling to forgive themselves in the process, facing the eternal guilt as decisive. The unpardonable sin has perplexed the biblical interpretation and meaning of the text in question to modern readers because it seems to set up limits on God’s capability to redeem even the worst of sinners (Hare, 140). Yet, we are dealing with some of the worst sinners in this scenario who claim to possess the truth but ultimately are incapable of grasping the wisdom of God. This supposed contradiction of God’s grace attempts to deny the omnipotence of the supernatural working of Jesus. Their sin was perceived as accrediting the Satan with what the Spirit was doing. The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the willingness to reject His identity out of consciousness and hardening of one’s heart to the point of becoming incapable of repentance (Keener, 366). This rejection of proof in the validity of Jesus as the Son of David is a determined denial of His Lordship but rather see a good work as inherently evil. This unrepentant repudiation of the Holy Spirit is placed on those nearby who perceived to know the kingdom of God but Jesus argues that they’ve miss the message.
Matthew goes on to repeat, in the final section, the tree analogy (7:16-20) with parallelism that states two principles, “either make or make” as the character of the tree determines its production. Jesus initiates a warning in the form of a brief parable to illustrate the point. The speech by which one utters mirrors the nature by which they make their confession. You speak evil because you are full of evil from the abundance of your heart. The Pharisees are beyond repentance at this very stage of the narrative because their idle words put to death the very one who has the authority to forgive them of sin. This exposure of the human heart and internal conflict must decide on the goodness of God or the self-righteousness of perverted thinking that faces judgment. The principle of this parable is embodied in the treasure of the believer’s heart that is transformed in spiritual condition, character, and fruit.
The hearing and seeing motif can be found throughout Jesus’ interactions especially with John’s disciples to go and report back what they hear and see (Matt. 11:4). The very demon that shut the eyes and ears of the man is the same spiritual entity that causes the religious leaders to suffer the same. This correlation of hearing and seeing is found in the battle of words that marked Jesus as a terrorist who disrupts the satanic work of their pride. The pharisaical system is nothing but fake news that echo’s hollow into the community but Christ presents a source of power in the form of forgiveness. The sin of apostasy is the outspoken denial of all things Holy concerning the son of David yet it’s the fruit found in our declaration of both word and deed that will bring restorative healing and eternal forgiveness.
Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew. Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.