"Either One or the Other"
(Delivered Sunday, July 2, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning's passage is a bit like a chainsaw. Pick it up carelessly, and somebody is bound to get hurt by it.
I'm not the only one who has that opinion. I read of one commentator who said he believed this morning's passage has done more harm to people than good; and that he even wondered why God chose to include it in the Scriptures. He felt so strongly about this, in fact, that he even urged that no pastor should ever preach from it.
Well; I believe, of course, that there is no portion of God's word that does not have a blessing to give us—if we handle it correctly! I believe that's even true of this morning's passage. In fact, I believe that once we get past the immediate problems it seems to present, and get down to the real heart of its message, God can use this passage to bless us greatly. He can even use it to call someone to eternal life.
But I also believe that it should be handled with great humility, and with a reliance on the Holy Spirit's guidance and help. I hope then that, by God's grace, we will handle this remarkable passage correctly today—and gain the greatest possible blessing from it.
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This passage is a part of our ongoing study of Matthew's Gospel. It tells us of an encounter that the Lord Jesus had with the religious leaders of His day as a result of a notable miracle He performed.
Jesus—as we have seen in the twelfth chapter of Matthew—was experiencing increasing opposition from the Jewish religious leaders. And in this morning's passage, that opposition came to a very decisive point. It says:
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As you probably noticed as I read this passage, there is—tucked away in the middle of it—something mentioned that has caused a lot of anxiety and problems for a lot of people. It's the whole question of the so-called “unpardonable sin”.
Let me share with you about something that happened to me last week. Near the end of the week, as I was preparing to study this passage, I checked my email late one night; and I found a note from someone who visited our church website. As you might know, we have a feature on our website through which visitors can send in a question about a particular Bible passage or a spiritual issue; and this particular person wrote to ask me to explain what the 'unpardonable sin' was all about.
I wrote back to them and told them that, as it happened, I was about to preach from that very passage! I did my best to summarize for them how I understood the whole matter of the “unpardonable sin”, and then sent my note off to them. But here's the remarkable thing: No sooner did I sent that note off to that person, than I checked my email one more time just before going home to bed. And when I did, I found that I had just then received another question from a completely different person asking the very same question! At first, I thought someone was playing a joke on me. But after I read it carefully, I could see that it was not a joke at all.
Well; this was much easier to deal with the second time around! I simply copied what I wrote for that first person, and sent it off to the second person as well. It answered many of the questions they were asking. I have to admit that, after I did so, I wondered if that second person was a little amazed that they got a detailed response so quickly! But whatever they thought, I know that I was greatly surprised to have received two notes on the same evening from two different visitors to our website—both asking the same question!
The second person who wrote was writing with a certain amount of anxiety. They were concerned that they themselves had committed the “unpardonable sin”. And as a pastor, I have talked to many people who were afraid they had done so. I believe that, through this little email exchange the other night, God was reminding me that this is a very relevant and important concern to some people; and that I should handle this passage with great care.
So; here's what I'd like to do this morning. I'd like, first, to deal with the whole question of the “unpardonable sin” that's mentioned in this passage. I'd like to clear things up, to the best of my ability, so that this question doesn't stand in our way and that no one here has any undue anxieties about it. And then, I'd like to focus on what this passage is REALLY about.
You see; this passage is NOT about the “unpardonable sin”. In fact, that sin is only an incidental part of what this passage is really about. And I believe that, once we understand what this passage is really about, we'll better understand the “unpardonable sin” that is mentioned in it.
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The setting of this passage is very important to notice—that is, the opposition Jesus was receiving from the religious leaders of the day. Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath day in their synagogue; and as far as the Pharisees were concerned, this was the last straw! He was proving Himself to be the Son of God; but they would not believe in Him or receive Him as such. And so, they plotted together how they might destroy Him. This growing and intensifying opposition against Jesus is the immediate context of this morning's passage.
So; when we come to this morning's passage, we find that Jesus healed a demon-possessed man. Before their very eyes, the Holy Spirit was authenticating to them that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Other people who observed it all were even beginning to wonder; saying, “Could This be the Son of David?”
But upon hearing that, the Pharisees jumped in and accused Jesus of being able to cast out demons "by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons" (v. 24). And this was what evoked those startling words from Jesus: “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who 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 age to come.” Mark, in his telling of this story, adds that Jesus spoke these words to the Pharisees "because they said, 'He has an unclean spirit'" (Mark 3:30).
So; however we understand the “unpardonable sin", we have to see it in the context of the fact that the Pharisees witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit being exhibited through Jesus personally; but then attributed the power to perform that work to an evil source. It is a sin that was committed when Jewish religious leaders witnessed the actual work of Jesus Christ in performing a miracle through the power of the Holy Spirit in an undeniable way and in His bodily presence. And yet, they were so persistently hardened in their hearts against Jesus that they dared to call the Holy Spirit the devil.
Now; that's all that the Bible tells us about this remarkable sin—this “unpardonable” sin. We don't have a right to define it in any other way than that. And that means that, strictly speaking, this is NOT a sin that can be committed by anyone today. It was a unique sin, committed at a unique time, by a unique people; and that was why it received such a unique condemnation!
I believe that, today, there is absolutely no sin today that Jesus Christ cannot and will not forgive, if the sinner confesses and repents. And what's more, I believe that people who are fearful that they have committed the “unpardonable sin”, and who worry that they will now never be forgiven, actually prove by the presence of their fear that they haven't committed it at all! The Bible teaches us that it is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit to “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment . . .” (John 16:8); and so, I believe that a man or woman who sincerely feels the conviction of sin is experiencing the gracious work of Holy Spirit; because apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit, he or she wouldn't even feel the conviction of sin at all.
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Now; in all of this, we should remember that the Holy Spirit is just that—most holy! At the very least, Jesus' words concerning the dreadful seriousness of blaspheming the Holy Spirit should teach us that we should not speak about the Spirit or His ministry in a flippant or careless way. And I certainly believe that we should be very careful about referring to preachers or Christian ministries or denominations that we don't happen to like as “of the devil”. Be very careful about that! And most certainly, I believe this passage teaches us that we should always respond with the utmost reverence to what ever it is that the Holy Spirit seeks to teach us from the Scriptures about Jesus.
And that brings us to what this passage is really about. Its main concern is not about “the unpardonable sin”. That, as I have said, is incidental to what it is really seeking to teach us. If you would like a key verse for this passage, I would say that it's verse 28; where Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” That's the main point—that there, before them, was their long awaited King. The kingdom of God has come upon them, and is now there before them in the person of the King Himself. And if you would like a verse that highlights the key application of this passage, I would say it's verse 33; where Jesus calls those Pharisees to make a clear-cut decision about Himself: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.”
The point of this passage for us today, then, is that the Holy Spirit's revelation of Jesus forces each one of us to realize who Jesus is and make a decision about Him. We have been given the testimony of Jesus— written down for us in the pages of the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit has preserved for us, and authenticated to us by the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit Himself with respect to the truth of these things. In fact, we stand at an even greater advantage than the Pharisees of old; because we have the full story—not only of His righteous life and of His miracles as those Pharisees knew of these things; but also of His death, His burial, His resurrection, His ascension, and of His ongoing ministry over the past two-thousand years of changing the lives of those who trust Him.
People in our day have a far greater and more complete testimony of the truth about Jesus Christ. And now, it comes before us to either receive Him as good or reject Him as evil. The way we will choose with respect to Jesus is what reveals the nature of what is in our heart. That's what this passage is really all about.
Note, first, then . . .
1. THE SITUATION OF HEALING (v. 22).
We're told, “Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute . . .” There are stories in the Bible of how demons afflicted people in harmful physical ways (see Matthew 9:32-34; 17:15-18); and apparently, this poor man had a demon that afflicted him in just such a way. And while there were some Jewish people in those days who 'claimed' to have the ability to cast out demons1; none of them would dare to claim to be able to do so in such a way as to heal a man's blindness and restore his ability to speak. To do that would be a notable miracle—one that would immediately verify whether or not that the person truly had the power and authority to cast out demons.
And by the way; I can't help but think of what a picture it was of the helplessness of a sinner apart from God's grace. The demon that oppressed him had effectively closed him off from the way of life. He lived at the time when Jesus walked the earth; and there were blind men in that day who cried out to Jesus for mercy (Matthew 9:27). But this poor man was not only unable to see the Savior, but he wasn't even able to cry out for mercy. The Bible tells us that “the god of this age” is able to blind the minds of those who are perishing, “who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
Apart from the grace of God, you and I are no better off than that poor blind man. But Matthew tells us that he was brought to Jesus, “and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw.” This, then, was a remarkable miracle; and it was also a great act of kindness and mercy on the part of our Savior toward this poor man. It was a picture, if I may, of the 'regenerative' grace of God—calling the sinner to live; giving him or her eyes to see their need; giving him or her ears to hear the gospel; and giving him or her the voice to cry out to God for salvation and confess faith in Christ.
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This leads us, next, to notice . . .
2. THE REACTIONS OF THE WITNESSES (vv. 23-24).
Those who brought the poor man to Jesus—and perahps others who stood by and witnessed it—were astonished at what they saw. The word in the Greek2 means that they were “put out of their place” by it. They were astonished at the things they saw; and they began to ask questions about Him. “Could this be the Son of David”—that is, the long-awaited Messiah (2 Samuel 7:27)? In fact, according to the way it's worded in the original language, it was almost as if they were in some measure of disbelief about Him, but were still so astounded by Him as to be uncertain about their disbelief! The New American Standard Version translates it best: “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?”
And it was right then that the Pharisees jumped into the picture! People were beginning to believe on Him; and they had to put a stop to it. Matthew tells us, “Now when the Pharisees heard it [that is, the things that the people were beginning to say about Jesus], they said, 'This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.'”
To say that Jesus operated in the power of Beelzebub was an extremely vulgar blasphemy! This was a play on the name of a false god; and the Jewish people altered it to mean, “lord of the flies” or “lord of dung”. It was a name that had come to be understood by the Jewish people as a reference to Satan. Jesus Himself warned His disciples that His enemies treat Him shamefully, they will also treat His followers shamefully: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household?” (Matthew 10:25).
And this wasn't the only time that the Pharisees said this kind of thing about Jesus. In Matthew 9:34, when He had cast a demon out of a different man and healed him of his inability to speak, they said, “He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons”. So, this wasn't a spontaneous reaction. It was the expression of a heart that was progressively hardening against the Savior. Here, they were basically saying that the fact that He was able to exercise authority over demons was because He Himself was enabled to do so by the devil. They never recognized that He had authority over the demons because—as the Son of God in human flesh—He had authority over the devil as well!
When Jesus physically gave sight and voice to the man, He revealed the spiritual condition of the Pharisees. On another occasion, Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind” (John 9:39).
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So, this underscores the deep hardness and sinfulness of the hearts of the Pharisees. It was evident that they were trying to dissuade people from believing on Jesus as a result of this miracle. They were trying to prevent people from seeing Lord Jesus operating in the power of the Holy Spirit, and from coming to the conclusion that He was the promised Messiah sent from God. They were actually seeking to stifle belief in Him. Later on in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus would bring this back upon them and say, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13).
It's very important to understand the seriousness of what they were doing. There, standing before them, was the long-awaited Messiah. And here they were, the religious leaders of the people—the very ones who should have been there to welcome their King—seeing Him perform miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit; and yet, rejecting Him, and despising Him, and going so far as to say that He operated in the power of the devil . . . all in order to keep people from trusting Him.
It's important to understand what a lost opportunity this was for the leaders of the Jewish people. And it's important to understand what a decisive reaction to Him it was. As the Scriptures tells us, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
By the way; how do you react to what the Holy Spirit has revealed about Him? Have you truly received Him and trusted Him?
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Matthew tells us that none of this was hidden from the Lord. Matthew writes, “But Jesus knew their thoughts . . .” And what's more, He responded to those thoughts; and showed how foolish and nonsensical it was to reject Him on the argument that He operated in the power of the devil. This leads us, then, to next consider . . .
3. THE ARGUMENTS OF OUR LORD (vv. 25-29).
First, Jesus said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (v. 22). This is just a matter of common sense. No organization—no institution—no corporation—no family can stand if it is in discord with itself. If it fights against itself, and actively seeks to undo its own interests, it is doomed.
We might call this “the principle of disunity”. And Jesus takes this principle and applies it to the argument of the Pharisees against Him to show how absurd it was: “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (v. 23). Satan isn't stupid. He spreads his own evil kingdom by destroying men; and if he himself were in the habit of casting out his own demons, then he would be undoing his own kingdom. If that were the case, then the Pharisees would then have done best to simply shut up and watch the devil destroy himself.
But Jesus was showing them that, in casting demons out of men, He was undoing the kingdom of Satan; and that He could not therefore be operating in the power of Satan.
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Second, Jesus seems to allow them their argument, just to show how arbitrary their accusation was. That first argument demonstrated that the Pharisees were mistaken about Jesus; and this second argument demonstrates the hardness of their heart toward Him. He said, “And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?” (v. 27).
Some have suggested that Jesus was arguing from the fact that the Jews had people within their ranks who claimed to be able to cast out demons. Jesus referred to them as the Pharisees “sons”—that is, their followers; and it would be as if He were saying, “Think of your own followers who are 'exorcists'. Tell Me, do they do their work by the power of the devil or by the power of God? Obviously, you're not going to make the claim that your own 'sons' cast out demons by the prince of demons! But I am, at the very least, doing nothing else than what they claim to be able to do. And if that's the case, then why to you accept them and condemn Me? Therefore, they stand as a condemnation against you for being so arbitrary in your condemnation of Me.”
That's one way of looking at this. But personally, I question that the followers of the Pharisees ever had such an ability. I believe Jesus was pointing to the fact that they couldn't cast anything out at all. There were stories of Jewish exorcisms; but they are fanciful and ridiculous. And so, I take it that, when Jesus said, “And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?”, it was meant to point to the fact that it was by nobody—because they couldn't cast any demons out at all! This, I believe, makes sense of the fact that He speaks in the future tense; and says, “Therefore they shall be your judges” (v. 27). In the end, the inability of the sons of the Pharisees will condemn them; and will prove that the results of their exorcists was more in keeping with Satan's kingdom plan to keep demons in—because Jesus actually cast demons out; and they cast out nothing!
This too, I believe, makes more sense of the conclusion Jesus draws in this argument: “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v. 28). He forces the Pharisees to the inevitable conclusion. Since they could not cast any out; then it was only revealing that Jesus truly did operate in the power of the Holy Spirit—and this would mean that there, standing before them, was the King Himself. The kingdom of God had now come upon them; and they must now choose what they will do with the King.
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And third, Jesus asks, “Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his good, unless he first binds the strong man?” (v. 29). This, again, was just common sense. No thief would dare to break into the house of a world-class bodybuilder, or a professional wrestler, or a holder of a black-belt in Karate, or a champion rifle-marksman, without first making precautionary use of duct-tape and a chair! Once he has successfully bound the “strong man”, the thief will have made it impossible for the strong man to stop him. As Jesus says, “And then he will plunder his house.”
In this parable, Satan is the strong man, and the souls of men and women are the plunder. Jesus is clearly indicating that He has exercised superiority over the devil in that He is plundering Satan's domain—and that, being bound by Him, Satan can do nothing to stop Him.
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Now, all of this is meant to do two things. First, it was meant to remove from the Pharisees the ability to argue that Jesus operated in the power of the devil. And second, it was meant to force them to the inescapable conclusion that the kingdom of God had truly come upon them in the person of the King Himself.
But in spite of it all, they would not receive Him. Instead, they hardened their hearts against Him. And this leads us, next, to consider . . .
4. THE WARNING AGAINST HARDNESS OF HEART (v.. 30-32).
First, Jesus warns them that there is no neutrality with Him. It's black or white when it comes to our response to Jesus. He said, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad” (v. 30).
Jesus has spoken of only two kingdoms—the kingdom of God (of which He was King), or the kingdom of the devil (of which He was the enemy). There was no possibility of a third kingdom being formed by the Pharisees. There was no other alternatives. There was no middle-ground. The Pharisees were either of one kingdom or the other.
And yet, even today, people believe that they can be neutral toward Jesus. But He has put everyone at the fork of a decision. In Matthew 10:32-33, He has said, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”
If we think that we are simply being “neutral” toward the Lord Jesus, we are deceiving ourselves and are—in fact—blinded by the devil. To not be “with” Him is to set one's self “against” Him. To not “gather” with Him is to “scatter” in opposition to Him.
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And then, Jesus takes it a step further and warns that there is no hope for those who thus persist in hardening their hearts against Him. In the case of the Pharisees; to see the truth about Jesus, to have Him revealed before their eyes by the Holy Spirit, and then to dare to blaspheme the work of the Holy Spirit for having revealed the truth, was to commit a sin that revealed an unredeemable heart. Jesus told the Pharisees, “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who 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 age to come.”
Someone might ask, “Why was a word spoken against the Son of Man forgivable; but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit unforgivable?” I believe a possible answer might be in the fact that, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we can't even believe truly on the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:3, Paul says, “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
The ministry of the Holy Spirit, you see, is that of 'shining the spotlight' on Christ (John 16:14). And it's one thing for the Pharisees of that day to have misunderstood the One upon whom the light has been shined. That could be a result blindness. But it's a completely different thing to actually be blind to the truth, and then go so far as to curse and blaspheme the 'spotlight' itself for seeking to remove the blindness! That was a sin that the Pharisees committed with full knowledge and awareness of what they were doing. It was an act of profound hardness of heart. It was a sin that left no room for the grace of God. What hope is there for someone who would do that?
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Well; all of this has been intended to present Jesus to us—and to show Him to be who He truly is. And this leads us, finally, to . . .
5. THE CALL TO MAKE A CHOICE (v. 33).
Jesus said to the Pharisees that it was time to make a choice. There could be no more wishy-washiness. He said, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit” (v. 33).
He was, in effect, saying, “It's time to come to a conclusion. You can't ride the fence any longer. You can't get by with simply saying, 'Well, it's a good thing that this Man who claims to be the Messiah casts out demons. I'm all for casting out demons! But I don't accept His claim! I believe that He is doing a thing that God would approve. His fruit is good. But I don't accept Him, and I say that He's doing it all in the power of the devil. The fruit may be good, but the tree is bad!' You can't say that kind of thing anymore. You now must choose! Either say that, in casting out demons, I do evil and am evil at the root; or say that, in casting out demons, I do the work of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, and am of God!”
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That is, I believe, what this passage is meant to do. It's meant to bring us to the point of decision. Will we receive Jesus for who the Spirit shows Him to be? Or will we try to ride the fence; and say that Jesus did good; but was not who the Spirit was showing Him to be.
The leaders of the Jewish people rejected their King. But it now comes upon you and me to say, “They may have disbelieved what the Spirit said about You, Lord Jesus; but I believe! They may have disowned You; but I claim You. They may have rejected You; but I receive You!”
May that be the way that each of us personally responds to the testimony of the Holy Spirit concerning Jesus! Because there is no middle ground. It's either one or the other!
1See Josephus, The Wars of The Jews, 7.6.3; also Acts 19:13.
2Existnmi; to put out of place; to astonish or amaze. Here, this is given in the imperfect tense; which suggests a growing sense of amazement.
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