A Possible Ambush, A Great Change, Matthew 12:22-28

Perhaps you have heard the advice that if you don’t have a good, sound argument, then find an argument that sounds good. Anyone interested in American politics sees that ploy in use all the time. But you can find people in the Gospels trying the very same tactic on Jesus.

The Jewish religious leaders, led by the scribes and Pharisees, had a problem on their hands. They had given a name to their pain, and that name was Jesus. We already know they were working on a plot to kill him (Matthew 12:14), but they had to be careful about his death to avoid any blame.

Might there be another way to stop Jesus?

Matthew 12:22-28

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, Could this be the Son of David?

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Commentary

When you read this, the Dallas Cowboys will be preparing for the playoffs. As every football fan knows, when you have a powerful opponent, it is vital to scout them thoroughly and try to find some way to attack them. The Pharisees and their allies had been scouting Jesus from the beginning, but his abundant miracles, both healings and exorcisms, gave their efforts special urgency.

It is my opinion that the events we are looking into today may have been an ambush. The Pharisees knew Jesus would perform an exorcism, if the need arose, and they had prepared an argument that they hoped would place him in such danger that his life could be taken according to the law. Practicing magic or sorcery was a capital offense under Jewish religious law, so one promising line of attack was to convince the public that Jesus was a sorcerer.[1] Such a charge would put him on the wrong side of Roman law as well. As in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, Roman consent was necessary to execute anyone, but an aroused mob needs no consent. While this is speculation on my part, it fits the circumstances as we know them.

Matthew reports the miracle with remarkably few words (verse 22). Yet the few words present a man in abject misery, having an ongoing experience of blindness and inability to speak due to a demonic presence within him. This man is an archetype for a prisoner of Satan. Though the details are not stated, we can infer that Jesus cast out the demon, and muted it as well, because Mark informs us that, upon seeing Jesus, the unclean spirits would cry out, You are the Son of God (Mark 3:11). Jesus freed this man so he could both see and speak (Matthew 12:22).

Yet the words Matthew reports are those of the astonished witnesses: Could this be the Son of David? (verse 23). France notes that this is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel a crowd has used explicit messianic language about Jesus.[2] The significance of the crowds reaction is not lost on the Pharisees! They immediately respond with their prepared charge: It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons (verse 24). Beelzebul seems to have been a popular nickname for Satan, a name chosen for the crowds ears.

In making his first counterargument (verses 25-26), Jesus too relies on what is common knowledge; a demon king attacking his own forces would divide his own kingdom and lead to its fall. The people knew all about how internal divisions had torn Herod’s kingdom into many pieces after his death (see the map in the introduction). So, it made no sense for Satan to attack himself by empowering Jesus exorcisms.

How does unity among Christians play a vital role in accomplishing Jesus work among us and in our community? What about the effect of disunity?

Jesus makes his second counterargument in verse 27; his opponents have no right to criticize his exorcisms while approving exorcisms done by their own disciples.[3] Do not fail to notice verse 27b: So then, they will be your judges. In the final judgment, when the deeds of every person are evaluated by God, the disciples of the Pharisees will testify that they performed exorcisms on orders of their masters, bringing them shame for criticizing Jesus.

The idea that these false charges against Jesus were orchestrated finds support in Jewish sources making the same charge of sorcery or magic against Christians working miracles well into the second century after Christ came.[4] One such Jewish source talks about an early second-century rabbi who, when near death, tried to get a second rabbi to let a Christian enter and pray for him, but he died before he could finish the argument.[5] We all want miracles!

The Arrival of God’s Promised Rule

Matthew 12:28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

My guess is that the Pharisees were not expecting Jesus to meet their prepared charge with a strong defense. Worse for them, Jesus took the offensive (verse 28) with an effective, though indirect, claim to cast out demons by the Spirit of God. His audience knows what he is claiming, but his wording offers no effective way to charge him with anything.

This skirmish between Jesus and the Pharisees has the appearance of a strictly earthly struggle for religious control of Galilee, but Jesus is revealing developments in a much larger conflict. Jesus is ripping away parts of Satan’s kingdom and making them part of his own. He pulls back the concealing drape in verse 28.

The if-statement in verse 28 has a form meaning that it must be taken as true for the sake of argument. As a matter of fact, we know the if-statement to be true. Jesus does drive out demons by the Spirit of God. That means the matching conclusion is true as well: then the kingdom of God has come upon you (verse 28b). Jesus is warning his opponents that his decisive victory over the demonic spirits by the Spirit of God is a clear sign that God’s rule has come through him. To oppose Jesus is to oppose God.

What are the implications of such an effortless victory by Jesus over Satan? What does this victory say about Jesus ability to help you defeat spiritual enemies in your own life?

The person who best develops the meaning of the phrase the kingdom of God has come upon you (verse 28) is Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary when he explains Luke 11:20. Bock points out that Jesus demonstration of saving authority demands a decision: Jesus is perceived as ruling over God’s many salvation benefits. He has the authority to distribute them to anyone who responds to his message.[6] Bock points out that the presence of Jesus rule within believers, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, looks forward to his coming physical rule over the earth.

Have you made a decision about the reign of Jesus over your life? If not, what is standing in your way?

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1]Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 361.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)477.

[3] Keener, Matthew,363.

[4] Keener, Matthew, 362.

[5] Keener, Matthew, 362.

[6] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 1081.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!