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Matthew #38 . Matthew 12:15-45
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the healing of the man’s hand on the Sabbath as the point at which the Pharisees began to seriously oppose Jesus. Remember, in the exchanges about the Sabbath, Jesus said, “The son of man is Lord of the Sabbath.” When he says, “Son of man (this is the second time he uses it in Matthew) it is clear that he is referring to himself. Not only that, it is clear that he is referring to himself as the Messiah.
Psalm 80 contains this obscure Messianic reference about “the son of man”:
Let Your hand be with the man at Your right hand, with the son of man You have made strong for Yourself. (Ps 80:17, HCSB)
A vision of Daniel makes it even more explicit:
I continued watching in the night visions, and I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14, HCSB)
Calling himself the “Son of Man,” and the claims to have authority to determine what was right or wrong on the Sabbath were staggering claims. It would be like someone coming into a Christian church today and saying, “Communion is all about me. I alone have the right to determine how you celebrate communion, and to tell you what it means.” That of course, would be tantamount to a claim to be Jesus himself. In the same way, Jesus’ words at the beginning of Matthew 12 are nothing less than a claim to be God.
When Jesus, not only claiming authority to break the (man-made) rules of the Sabbath, actually breaks them, deliberately, in front of the Pharisees and all the worshippers, this is the last straw for them. It is at this point that they move from being skeptics to enemies. What seems staggering in the middle of all this is that the miracle of healing that was at issue does not seem to figure into their calculations at all, except as something to explain away.
I think there is something important for us to consider here. The Pharisees began to oppose Jesus as soon as he claimed authority over something they wanted to control. It is when they are faced with the challenge to accept his authority over their own lives that they balk. He can have his healing ministry. He can wander around and say stuff to isolated groups of country people. But as soon as he comes into their synagogues, claiming authority to tell them what’s appropriate on the Sabbath, they become his enemies. What he does and says no longer matters – they only want to discredit him and destroy him.
Jesus knew this, and so Matthew records that he withdrew. Though he continued to heal, he tried to keep a low profile. Remember, Jesus came to earth with one mission, broken into two tasks. His first task was to reconcile the world to God by offering his life as a sacrifice in our place. To do that, he had to die. The second part of the mission was to train and prepare his disciples to follow him even after he was gone, and show them how to make new disciples and spread the news about his sacrifice. He could not die until his disciples had been trained. So, he avoided conflict at this point, because he was still training the disciples. Therefore, though Jesus continues his healing ministry, he warns people not to spread the word about him.
Matthew 12:18-21 marks the twelfth time that Matthew explicitly points out how Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy, in this case, Isaiah 42:1-14. (There are other things that Matthew records which show fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, but Matthew does not always point them out explicitly).
There was one healing incident to which the Pharisees are privy, however. Jesus heals a man harassed by demon, and the occasion was so impressive that many more people began to wonder if Jesus was the “son of David,” which, in this context, means Messiah.
The response of the Pharisees, and Jesus’ accompanying teaching have become one of the most controversial passages of Scripture. The Pharisees have decided that Jesus is their enemy, so they cannot accept that anything he does is godly or righteous. Therefore, they attribute Jesus’ ability to drive out demons not to God, but to the devil. It is important for us to understand how they arrived at this place. Their minds were already made up: they didn’t want to listen to Jesus or obey what he said, therefore, Jesus could not be approved by God, therefore, whatever supernatural power he seemed to exhibit must come from the devil.
Jesus responds to their allegations with several reasonable thoughts. First, it doesn’t make any sense for Satan to be going about freeing people from his own power. If this is how the devil operates, says Jesus, then the works of the devil would soon fall apart and the world would be free. Second, Jesus points out that some Jews in the party of the Pharisees claim to also drive out demons. The book of Acts makes reference to this, as does the historian Josephus. The Bible doesn’t really tell us if these other exorcisms are genuine or not, and that’s not the point that Jesus is making. His point is that the Pharisees do believe that demons can be driven out by the power of God. He is uncovering their bias, showing that the reason they want to attribute his power to the devil is not because he is driving out demons, but only because they don’t want to listen to him.
Next, Jesus moves from responding to the Pharisees to teaching in general about what is going on in the spiritual realm.
If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. (Matt 12:28-30, HCSB)
Jesus clearly means to say that he is the one who has entered the territory of the devil, tied him up, and is now doing as he pleases. As a side point, this should encourage us whenever we face spiritual opposition. Jesus is stronger than the devil. It is not a struggle between equals – Jesus wins, every time. Jesus adds this:
Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. (Matt 12:30, HCSB)
The Message paraphrases it like this:
This is war, and there is no neutral ground. If you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy; if you’re not helping, you’re making things worse.
Christians are often accused of being narrow minded, or demanding that people agree with them. There are ways we do that which are inappropriate, of course. However, Jesus demanded allegiance to him in no uncertain terms. He says, “either you’re with me, or against me.” These are not my words, nor the words of a fundamentalists preacher. These are the words of Jesus himself. The teaching of Jesus is that the world is indeed divided between those who are with him and those who are against him. As Petersen rightly captures in the message, there is no neutral ground. We don’t get to hang back and say, “I don’t follow Jesus, but I’m not against him.” Jesus himself says that can’t be true. Anyone who wants to can be with Jesus, by simply surrendering our lives to Him and trusting him for grace and forgiveness. But if we don’t want to do that, (and particularly, we don’t like the part about surrendering control of our lives to him) Jesus says, “you’re against me.”
Next comes the part that we often find so scary:
Because of this, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever 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 one to come. (Matt 12:31-32, HCSB)
This is sometimes known as the “unforgivable sin.” It is the only sin in the entire Bible about which it is said “it will never be forgiven.” When we read this, it is natural to want to know specifically what this sin is, and how we can avoid it. I have met tortured souls who are afraid that they have committed this “unforgivable sin.”
First I want to make something clear: I don’t think this is a sin that you can commit by accident. If you ever thought, “Oh my gosh! Have I committed the unforgivable sin?” I want to set your mind at ease. First, you have learned the context of this verse. The Pharisees have made an internal commitment to receive nothing that Jesus says or does as coming from God. If you are worried about committing the unforgivable sin, you probably have not made that same commitment.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it is helpful to revisit it for understanding this verse. Remember that when Jesus came to earth he chose not to use his divine nature to make things easy for himself. He chose to come in human flesh, which meant among other things that he had to rely entirely upon the Holy Spirit working in him and through him. Jesus did not do his miracles as God-the-Son revealing his power; instead he did miracles by relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit to work through him. So when he healed people, it was as a man, relying upon God the Holy Spirit to heal through him. And especially important for this case, when he drove out demons it was by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus just said that, right here in verse 28.
This may seem all strange and theological but hang with me for a minute. Jesus came to earth to die. In order for that to happen, a number of people had to reject him and despise him. Rejecting Jesus himself could not be the unforgivable sin, because someone had to crucify him, and those who crucified him would have been condemned to hell with no chance for redemption. Someone who blasphemes against Jesus might be mistaken, or blinded by political considerations. However, it is the Holy Spirit who works to bring us to repentance. It is the Holy Spirit through the Bible who tells us the truth about Jesus and gives us the opportunity to receive him in faith. If we reject the work of Holy Spirit, we have cut off any possibility of being saved, since it is only through the power of the Spirit that we are given faith to trust Jesus.
The Pharisees were looking at the work of the Holy Spirit and saying, “this is the work of the devil.” If they committed to viewing the work of the Spirit as the work of the devil, then when the Spirit went to work on their hearts to bring them to repentance and faith in Jesus, they would say, “No! That’s the work of the devil.” They would be left with no way to repent and be saved.
To put it another way, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, is to totally reject God’s work in the world and in your life. It is to cut yourself off from God. This is unforgiveable, because you are rejecting the only means by which you may be forgiven.
To use an analogy, it is something like this. You are hanging by a rope from a sheer cliff, one thousand feet above the ground. You say, “I don’t want this rope. It does me no good. I can get to the top without it. In fact, it is hindering me.” With that, you cut the rope. You fall to your death, not because the cliff is vindictively punishing you, but because you cut yourself off from the one thing that could have saved you.
Jesus makes it clear with the following comments:
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. A good man produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil man produces evil things from his storeroom of evil. (Matt 12:33-35, HCSB)
The Pharisees’ blaspheming against the Sprit is the fruit – and it reflects the nature of the whole tree, which is the rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit. They said what they did because they had rejected God right down to the core. Their words were an indication of where their hearts were.
All right, what does all this mean for us? What took the Pharisees down the road to the unforgiveable sin was their refusal to let Jesus have authority in their lives. What I mean is, they rejected the idea that Jesus should be able to correct them or lead them, and it began with rejecting his authority over one area of their lives; in their case, the Sabbath. Is there anything about which you are tempted to say, “No, Jesus! You cannot direct me, in this area. No, I retain my own right to do what I want here.” This is very dangerous, spiritually speaking.
But I want us to consider something else. What we tend to focus on in this passage is Jesus’ words about the unforgiveable sin. However, revisit the first part of what he said:
Because of this, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. (Matt 12:31, HCSB)
Jesus begins this by saying, essentially, “anything except this one thing can be forgiven.” Do you understand – grace is huge. Forgiveness is vast. Turn it around: except for this one thing (because of the Holy Spirit brings us faith), everything else can be forgiven. This is wonderful news. To put it simply, if you still believe you need forgiveness, if you still want forgiveness, it is yours by simply trusting that Jesus has obtained it for you, and turning away from your sin.
When I say “turning away from your sin,” I don’t mean “living a perfect life.” I mean repenting, moving the opposite way, even if you do so imperfectly, and fail from time to time.
Perhaps that is what you need to hear today: You have not fallen so far that you can’t be forgiven and restored.
Listen to what the Holy Spirit has to say to you today.
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