Restraining the Strong Man, Matthew 12:29-32

I have often mentioned metaphors, and I have done so because the Bible has an abundance of them. When Jesus says, I am the bread of life (John 6:35), he is speaking metaphorically, not literally. Two noted experts explain that metaphors help us understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another.[1] The importance of metaphors lies in the fact that they help us try to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally, such as spiritual realities.

The way metaphors are normally used is to explain something unfamiliar by using language about something familiar. All of us have experienced bread, and that experience allows us to understand something about Jesus and to share that understanding with each other.

When I encounter a Bible passage, one of the first things I do is find the metaphors in it. They provide new windows into the passage — a metaphor, of course!

Matthew 12:29-32

29 Or again, how can anyone enter a strong mans house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

What metaphors do you see in verse 29?

Commentary

Of course, verse 29 relates strongly to its context, particularly verse 28, where Jesus has mentioned casting out demons by the Spirit of God as proof that the rule of God has overtaken the Pharisees and their allies. Typical of his writing, Matthew 12:30 looks back to Isaiah 49:24-25, where God promises to rescue his people from their oppressors.[2] In Isaiah’s prophecy, the enemy is described as a warrior or conqueror –powerful, but certainly no match for Yahweh!

The strong man of verse 30 is a metaphor referring back to the warrior/conqueror in Isaiah, the one defeated by God. But, in the context of Matthew 12, particularly verses 22 and 26, the strong man represents Satan. The exorcisms performed by Jesus are a direct attack on Satan’s kingdom, represented metaphorically by his house. The possessions (verse 30) that Jesus carries off are another metaphor for the human lives that Satan had enslaved through demon-possession or other means.[3]

Unfortunately, there is a lot of room in verse 29 for misinterpretation. Every time Jesus meets and defeats Satan — such as the temptation in Matthew 4 or the cross in Matthew 27 — someone wants to make it into a total and final defeat. For example, one group of conservative theologians argues that Satan was bound by the first coming of Christ so that he can no longer deceive the nations.[4] I consider that view to be wishful thinking since the New Testament contains a significant number of warnings about resisting Satan and his forces (Ephesians 6:11-17, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8-9). The truth is that, in this age, Jesus defeats Satan at will, yet Satan retains a significant ability to injure Christians and the church in general.

A Troubling Paragraph

Few paragraphs in the New Testament have caused as much anxiety as verses 30-32. Jesus begins with a metaphor in verse 30, and that metaphor could be either shepherding sheep or harvesting grain. Both activities involve gathering and scattering, but shepherding is the best option here. No room was left for neutrality about Jesus; his many miracles had proven his authority beyond all reasonable doubt. Those not gathering with Jesus were hunted by wolves.

But the nature of that reasonable doubt about Jesus miracles has been debated. Turner rightly points out that some theologians tend to generalize the unpardonable sin (verse 31) by equating it with ordinary unbelief.[5] Others want to make the unpardonable sin about murder, adultery and divorce, which in twenty-first century America cuts a wide arc through the population. One Roman Catholic source reduced the unpardonable sin almost to the vanishing point, preferring instead to emphasize the complete authority of the Church to forgive sins.[6]

Reading the text (verses 31-32) appears to narrow the sin to two elements:

  • Stubborn rejection of the most direct possible evidence: miracles worked by Jesus in the person’s presence.
  • Attribution of Jesus miracles to Satan’s power rather than to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Any sin that cannot meet those requirements may be serious, but it cannot be the one Jesus is talking about.

Solid advice about the unpardonable sin comes from Craig Blomberg, who notes that: (1) only Jesus enemies are in any danger, and (2) professing believers who fear they have committed the unforgivable sin demonstrate a concern for their spiritual welfare which be definition proves they have not committed it.[7]

Of course, the Holy Spirit did not stop working miracles through followers of Jesus. Whether it is possible to commit the unpardonable sin by claiming those are works of Satan is open to question. Personally, I have never favored living near a cliff, and balancing on one leg there seems inadvisable. :)

What should trouble us more is that those who persist in refusing to give their allegiance to Jesus will ultimately wind up in the same grim situation as those who committed the unforgivable sin. Even at this moment, God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus still offers amnesty to all who will accept it. Gather with Jesus while time remains!

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

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 5, 193.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 481.

[3] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 364.

[4] David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 322.

[5] Turner, Matthew, 323.

[6] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.) 423.

[7] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 204.

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