Bible Book List
Matthew 12 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Which of Us Is for the Devil?

Convinced that Jesus is not God's agent and annoyed by the popular response to him (v. 23; compare 7:28; 8:27; 9:8), the Pharisees resort to the only other possible explanation for his supernatural power over demons (12:22; compare 9:32-34): it comes from the devil himself (12:24). In a lengthy response, Jesus not only refutes their charge but turns it back against them (vv. 25-45). Matthew's portrayal of Jesus here is also significant for our own day in a number of ways.

God's Enemies Challenge the Way God Attests His Servants (12:22-24)

Whereas ancient Jewish teachers normally characterized as a prophet or pious man one who could know others' thoughts (as in t. Pisha 2:15), Jesus' opponents attribute his knowledge here to the same source to which they attributed his exorcisms.

People often thought magicians performed their acts through the help of spirit agents (compare PGM 1.88-89, 164-66, 181-85, 252-53; 2.52-54), hence the charge here is that Jesus was a sorcerer (compare Aune 1987:56). This is no small charge: magic was a capital offense (Meier 1980:134). Unable to deny Jesus' miracles, later Jewish sources continued to charge him with sorcery; these sources also complained that Christians, who were still working miracles well into the second century, were working them by Satan's power (Dalman 1973:37-38; Herford 1966:211-15; Bagatti 1971:95-96).

Those Who Work Against the Devil's Purposes Are Doing God's Work (12:25-30)

Jesus presents a world sharply divided into God's kingdom and the devil's kingdom, and indicates through various arguments that one cannot be working for both kingdoms at the same time.

Jesus first asks why the devil would work at cross-purposes with himself (vv. 25-26). Perhaps the devil might permit a few exorcisms to bring fame to a sorcerer and gain ground in the long run; Jesus' widespread expulsion of demons, however, constitutes no minor strategic retreat but a wholesale assault on Satan's kingdom on earth. The necessity of concord or harmony for survival represents common wisdom in ancient society (unfortunately sometimes ignored by Christians today).

Jesus next questions why his opponents single out his ministry of exorcism while approving exorcisms performed by their own disciples (v. 27). Jewish exorcists were common and employed a variety of magical techniques (see comment on 8:17; compare Meier 1980:134-35), quite in contrast to Jesus, whose mere command the demons obeyed in fear (see also Taylor 1935:129).

Third, if Jesus was driving out demons by God's Spirit, this action constituted proof that the time of the kingdom was upon them (12:28). Most Pharisees apparently believed that the prophetic Spirit had been quenched when the last biblical prophets died and that the Spirit would be restored only in the time of the kingdom (Keener 1991b:77-84). Although many Pharisees apparently rejected miracles as proof of truth (Bonsirven 1964:16), Jesus summons them to consider an alternative explanation for his miracles, namely, that the promised time of the Spirit has come. Indeed, the Greek construction here could be rendered "since I drive out demons by the Spirit, the kingdom has come on the scene." Matthew rightly interprets "finger of God" (Lk 11:20 and probably Q) as God's Spirit, showing that Jesus is the promised harbinger of the Spirit (12:18), the first agent of God's kingdom. This makes good sense: as the climax of history approaches, the forces of God's kingdom and the devil's are arrayed in battle against one another.

Fourth, Jesus had defeated the strong man, "binding" him (tying him up) so that he could plunder the possessions in the strong man's house (v. 29). That is to say, Jesus invaded Satan's domain and defeated him so he could recapture the human hearts that Satan had enslaved through demon possession or other means. Far from being authorized by the demons' ruler, Jesus had authority over the devil-one spirit that no mere magical incantation could thwart (compare Test. Sol. 6:8)! Since Jesus claims a specific act of binding prior to his ministry of exorcism, he probably refers back to his defeat of Satan at the temptation (using language from Is 49:24-25). Jesus is saying that his integrity before God in defeating temptation has given him power over Satan.

In some modern circles, attempts at exorcism dabble in imaginary demons or recite formulas taken out of context from Scripture. Although God honors faith regardless of the formula used, exorcists do not need to say "I bind you" to demons before expelling them; they just need to make sure they are walking in integrity before God (Acts 19:11-20). In establishing the first stage of his kingdom, Jesus already defeated the devil, and he has delegated his authority over evil spirits to those who are truly his followers, those who submit to his reign. The final "binding" of Satan awaits his future defeat (compare 13:30; Rev 20:2; Twelftree 1986:391-92); thus it is possible that his binding before the end of the age may have caught him by surprise (see 8:29).

Finally, this list of arguments concludes with Jesus' warning that whoever was not on his side was on the other side (12:30). This saying also reflects common wisdom in both Greek (compare Suet. Julius 75) and Jewish (compare Flusser 1988:510-11) life. Jesus allows no would-be disciples to straddle the fence: one either follows him or opposes him, just as one does with the devil.

A Heart Can Become Too Hard (12:31-32)

Jewish teachers acknowledged that deliberate sin against God's law ("sin with a high hand" or "defiantly"-see Num 15:30-31; Deut 29:18-20; CD 8.8), such as deliberate blasphemy against God, was normally unforgivable (Jub. 15:34; 1QS 7.15-17, 22-23). Even such a sin as Peter's denial of Jesus (Mt 26:69-75) clearly does not count in the unforgivable category (28:10, 16-20); the context of blaspheming against the Spirit here refers specifically to the sin of the Pharisees, who are on the verge of becoming incapable of repentance. The sign of their hardness of heart is their determination to reject any proof for Jesus' divine mission, to the extent that they even attribute God's attestation of Jesus to the devil.

The equivalent today would be someone who remained so committed to rejecting Christ that she determined to find alternative explanations for any obvious proof (such as miracles) attesting him. Even in what seems to be that case, however, Paul exhorts one of his students and coworkers to remember that we humans cannot judge who has forever crossed that line (1 Tim 1:12-20). Not uncommonly young Christians read about the "unforgivable sin" and fear they have committed it. We therefore must reiterate the point in this context: the sin is unforgivable only because it reflects a heart too hard to repent. Those who desire to repent, troubled by the fear that they may have committed this sin, plainly have not committed it!

Our Words About God's Purposes Reveal Our Character (12:33-37)

That one's speech reveals one's heart may represent conventional Jewish wisdom (compare Dalman 1929:227); Jesus here indicates that even the most careless words spoken without thought will testify concerning one's character in the judgment day. God does not listen only to what we say during Sunday-morning church services.

In this context Jesus is saying that one expects people like these Pharisees to blaspheme the Holy Spirit because their hearts are so corrupt. Because the Pharisees appeared righteous to most other observers (compare Lk 16:15), Jesus' harsh condemnation of their behavior sounds an even greater warning to those today who reject the truth of Christ yet sit in churches.

Those Who Repent with Less Evidence (12:38-42)

Because God has already provided the world with sufficient evidence, he has the right to expect faith from those who have heard the truth. It is important to be ready to respond to people's objections to the faith, but sometimes we must also point out where the challengers ignore evidence already available to them. Jesus had already been providing signs, and his opponents were disputing their validity (vv. 22-24). The demand for a sign may recall Pharaoh's challenge to Moses for a sign (Ex 7:9; Allison 1993b:236).

The whole of Matthew 12:39-45 constitutes Jesus' response to his opponents' charges (wicked . . . generation in vv. 39, 45 frames the section). Jesus explains that his generation needs no greater sign that he is from God than his own message.

He first insists that the only sign the sign seekers would be given was the sign that God supplied to the Ninevites: Jonah's restoration after three days on the edge of death (vv. 39-40). One should keep in mind, however, that the Ninevites did not witness Jonah's resuscitation for themselves; indeed, there is no evidence he even recounted it to them (Jon 3:1-4; compare 3 Macc 6:8; Justin Dial. 107). The Ninevites experienced the effects of a divine sign they never recognized, and this may be Matthew's point (not clear in Lk 11:29, 32): the Ninevites repented without recognizing a sign, whereas Jesus' opponents were too hardhearted to repent despite the many signs he had been giving them (compare Mt 11:20-24; Jon 1:16; 4:2). All the Ninevites needed was Jonah's preaching of the truth, yet Jesus was greater than Jonah (Mt 12:41; compare v. 6).

Jesus' second example is that Solomon's wisdom was enough to prove his divine appointment, and that a distant queen heard and came to him (as some Gentile seekers had done with Jesus-2:1-12; 1 Kings 10:1-13). Yet one greater than Solomon was there. The images of the Ninevites and the queen of Sheba condemning Jesus' generation in Israel at the judgment would have horrified Jesus' hearers, many of whom expected Israel's final vindication against the nations on judgment day (compare Amos 5:18).

At least part of the point of the story of the queen of Sheba in context is Solomon's witness to the nations, and God's concern for Gentiles stands at the heart of the book of Jonah as well. By appealing to two repentant Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible, Matthew reemphasizes the Gentile mission: those who know little about Israel's God (like the Ninevites or the queen of Sheba, or the Magi earlier in his Gospel) are often least arrogant, hence most responsive to the gospel.

Jesus' Opponents End Up Worse Than They Started (12:43-45)

Matthew specifically places this paragraph within the discussion of this wicked generation (vv. 39, 45) and uses it (unlike Luke) to conclude Jesus' response to his opponents. Whatever else the parable might say about exorcism, Jesus' point is what it says to that generation: although Jesus was exorcising the generation, its evil leaders were setting it up to be demonized all the more by rejecting Jesus' reign (compare Jeremias 1972:106; Argyle 1963:99).

If one translates the passage literally, a key sentence may be conditional: the demons will return if the house is left empty (Jeremias 1971:154). Were Jesus' opponents accusing him of being in league with Satan through his exorcisms (v. 24)? Jesus here returns the charge: it is they, not he, who are redemonizing their generation, for they leave the house empty in which God, the only true alternative to the devil, should reign (compare 23:38-39).

Previous commentary:
The Spirit-Anointed Humble Servant

Next commentary:
Jesus' True Family

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.