Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Matthew 12:46-50 - "While he was still speaking to the multitudes..."

Jesus has obviously been causing some commotion in town, what with the Pharisees stalking him and accusing him of having a demon while the multitudes clamor for another miracle. It has reached the point of causing embarrassment to his family. Perhaps at the urging of neighbors and friends, his mother and brothers all decide to team up, seek Jesus out, and tell him to knock it off.

That's why they arrive at the place where Jesus is teaching, someone's house perhaps, but instead of going in they send someone inside to call Jesus out. They stand apart from the gathering, refusing to be a part of it. They do not want to confront Jesus publicly and embarrass him or themselves. Let him come out and talk to us. So there they stand, waiting. They have arrived as a group to show Jesus that they've discussed this, they stand together as a family, and they have all agreed that he has gone off his rocker. Now won't you please listen to Mother and come home this instant?

Like any good son--and you have to believe that Jesus is the best son that has ever lived--he loves his mother. He loves his brothers too, and his sisters, and their spouses and children. So you cannot gloss over how painful this situation must be for him, the public disapproval of his own family, clearly ashamed of him, demanding that he call off the apparent charade. We know you. We're your family. You don't impress us like you've impressed these other people. We've been patient with you but now you've gone too far. Don't make us come in there and get you.

Under the pressure of the situation Jesus responds as a dutiful son should . . . to his Father. Jesus does not bend to the will of Mary his earthly mother--despite what the Roman Catholic Church teaches--but to God his heavenly Father. His Father has many children, all of whom sit at Jesus' feet in that very house, all of whom are ready to do the will of God whatever the cost. By being where he is, Jesus is being true to his family. He would not shame or disappoint them by forsaking them for the passing pleasures of this life. And he gives comfort to those of us who have made similar sacrifices, that even if we are rejected by our earthly families, we have mothers and brothers and sisters in our heavenly family, Jesus as our Elder Brother and God as Father of us all.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Matthew 12:43-45 - "Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man..."

I don't get why the commentators I've consulted think this passage on the unclean spirit is a parable. It strikes me more as a truism. A person who has had a demon cast out of him isn't safe from repossession unless he receives the Holy Spirit in place of the unclean spirit. Otherwise he is just a sitting duck, still on that demon's radar screen. And if the cast-out demon wanders around and finds no other place to go, he will surely check back to see about the old place; and if the coast is clear he will bring heavy reinforcements (seven other more wicked demons) to make it harder to exorcise him next time. This is just a demon being smart, self-serving and practical. We have a lot to learn from this.

It's not enough to enjoy the benefits of Jesus' ministry, you have to embrace him wholly; otherwise you'll find yourself in a worse state than if you had never been exposed to the truth in the first place. A few verses back Jesus had said, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" (v. 30). You belong to either God or Satan. A person who has had a demon cast out of him can't remain empty like an unoccupied, swept house. An unoccupied house is waiting for someone to occupy it, the only question is who. If, after being graced by Jesus' presence, you don't receive him by faith, you will be overcome by a greater, more damning unbelief than you had before. A demon who loses his grip on a soul temporarily will only redouble his efforts to get it back. Unless you have the Spirit of God himself dwelling inside you ready to take him on, you will be defenseless.

Obviously not all unbelievers are demon-possessed in the way we think of demon possession, but they are under Satan's domain. Jesus' teaching shows that there really is no such thing as an empty house, a place of spiritual neutrality. Those who aren't controlled by the Holy Spirit have another spirit at work in them, breeding unbelief, pride and fleshly desire. It is a warning to those who think they can sit on the fence when it comes to following Jesus. That edge of the fence that you think you are perched upon doesn't really exist. And if you fail to embrace Christ, in spite of all the ways he has graced your life, you will fall so far down the side of unbelief, you will never find your way back the opposite way.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Matthew 12:38-42 - "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying..."

Even though they had just blasphemed the Holy Spirit (see two posts ago), the scribes and Pharisees have the audacity to ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus had just given them a big one by casting out a demon, and they called this display of the Holy Spirit's power a work of the devil. Now they want another sign, a real sign that would truly convince them.

A sign . . . a sign. Well, let's see now, they had just witnessed a glorious manifestation of heaven exploding onto earth, and they pronounced it an act of sorcery from hell. Has anyone else in the history of mankind seen the wonders they have? People in times past have seen far less and believed. The men of Ninevah heard the preaching of Jonah and immediately repented in sackcloth and ashes, yet Jonah worked no wonders before their eyes, no miraculous healings. The Queen of Sheba traveled from afar on the basis of mere hearsay to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and she believed though she saw no lepers healed, no demons cast out. What's more, these people were Gentiles. Somehow they got more faith-mileage out of crumbs falling from Israel's table than the Pharisees and scribes who occupied privileged seats at the banquet of God's glory. Yet they complain that they lack a sign. Really?

You can see why Jesus calls them "an evil and adulterous generation." Not adulterous literally but spiritually: they are unfaithful to Yahweh and that has left them spiritually blind. No matter what sign is performed before their eyes they will never perceive its meaning, so the only one they will be given is the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three days, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and then be raised to life again.

Why is Jonah's time in the fish's belly like Jesus' time in the grave? Jonah couldn't have been closer to death than to be in that fish's stomach waiting to be consumed by its digestive organs. In his prayer (Jonah 2:1-9) he describes himself as in "the depths of Sheol," "descended to the roots of the mountains," and says that God "brought up my life from the pit." Jonah's "resurrection" isn't nearly as glorious as Jesus'--the fish barfed him up onto dry land--but otherwise his harrowing experience does closely parallel Jesus' three-day-long embrace in the arms of death. Reading the prayer in Jonah 2 makes you wonder if the emotions Jonah expresses were also Jesus' during his own frightening descent into death's maw.

Jesus' death and resurrection would be the only sign that the Pharisees and scribes would receive from here on out. The sign of Jonah. For countless others it would be the only sign needed to believe, but for the proud and hard-hearted it would serve only to condemn them further on the Day of Judgment, when witnesses from Ninevah to Sheba would rise up and testify that they had been given far less revelation and yet believed.

Matthew 12:38-42 - "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying..."

Even though they had just blasphemed the Holy Spirit (see two posts ago), the scribes and Pharisees have the audacity to ask Jesus for a sign. Jesus had just given them a big one by casting out a demon, and they called this display of the Holy Spirit's power a work of the devil. Now they want another sign, a real sign that would truly convince them.

A sign . . . a sign. Well, let's see now, they just witnessed a glorious manifestation of heaven exploding onto earth, and they had pronounced it an act of sorcery from hell. Has anyone else in the history of mankind seen the wonders they have? People in times past have seen far less and believed. The men of Ninevah heard the preaching of Jonah and immediately repented in sackcloth and ashes, yet Jonah worked no wonders before their eyes, no miraculous healings. The Queen of Sheba traveled from afar on the basis of mere hearsay to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and she believed though she saw no lepers healed, no demons cast out. What's more, these people were Gentiles. Somehow they got more faith-mileage out of crumbs falling from Israel's table than the Pharisees and scribes who occupy privileged seats at the banquet of God's glory. Yet they complain that they lack a sign. Really?

You can see why Jesus calls them "an evil and adulterous generation." Not adulterous literally but spiritually: they are unfaithful to Yahweh and that has left them spiritually blind. No matter what sign is performed before their eyes they will never perceive its meaning, so the only one they will be given is the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three days, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and then be raised to life again.

Why is Jonah's time in the fish's belly like Jesus' time in the grave? Jonah couldn't have been closer to death than to be in that fish's stomach waiting to be consumed by its digestive organs. In his prayer (Jonah 2:1-9) he describes himself as in "the depths of Sheol," "descended to the roots of the mountains," and says that God "brought up my life from the pit." Jonah's "resurrection" isn't nearly as glorious as Jesus'--the fish barfed him up onto dry land--but otherwise his harrowing experience does closely parallel Jesus' three-day-long embrace in the arms of death. Reading the prayer in Jonah 2 makes you wonder if the emotions Jonah expresses were also Jesus' during his own frightening descent into death's maw.

Jesus' death and resurrection would be the only sign that the Pharisees and scribes would receive from here on out. The sign of Jonah. For countless others it would be the only sign needed to believe, but for the proud and hard-hearted it would serve only to condemn them further on the Day of Judgment, when witnesses from Ninevah to Sheba would rise up and testify that they had been given far less revelation and yet believed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Matthew 12:33-37 - "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad..."

On the heels of saying that the Pharisees had blasphemed the Holy Spirit, an unpardonable sin, Jesus now points out that an idle word can be revealing, and damning.

When the Pharisees had accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul, they may have only been whispering among themselves, since v. 25 says that Jesus knew what they were saying because he perceived their thoughts. They weren't proclaiming this accusation before the crowds, and yet they will be judged for it because their words are evidence of the evil in their hearts. A tree is known by its fruit. A good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Likewise the words you speak tell of the state of your heart. Your words are like the fruit of a tree telling everyone what kind of tree it is.

"And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned." This pronouncement has always scared me. So many idle words come out of my mouth every day. On the Day of Judgment shall I be held to a standard of perfection? But now looking at this passage I don't think Jesus is talking about perfection, but about whether you have true faith and a true heart. As Jesus said in v. 30, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." What do your words say about where you stand in relation to Jesus? Are you for him or against him? There is no middle ground. The question has to do with where your heart is, which has to do with the kinds of words that proceed from the heart. Idle words can be very telling. The Pharisees can't brush off their accusation against Jesus as just careless words. If they think he casts out demons by the power of the Devil, then it's obvious where their hearts are at. They are most decidedly against Jesus if they would make a mockery of common sense by calling the work of the Holy Spirit an act of devilry.

So the passage is still scary, but at least it makes more sense. Even idle words can indicate unbelief--or belief. But God will judge words only because they tell something about the core of the person who speaks them. God knows the heart even if people are able to conceal their true selves from others, yet on Judgment Day he won't just make a pronouncement upon us based solely on his omniscient reading of our souls. He will try us before angelic witnesses as in a courtroom, and he will bring forth the evidence of our lives. Words, deeds, the testimony of human witnesses. All of it focused on whether you are for Jesus or against him.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Matthew 12:30-32 - "He who is not with me is against me..."

The idea that there is a sin for which there is no forgiveness freaks people out, which is why you don't hear Christians quoting this passage left and right like John 3:16. It seems like the only people I've heard of who like to quote this passage are dictator-like church leaders who come up with self-serving interpretations of what is means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit (such as daring to disagree with their teaching) in order to keep their members in line. They wield it like a weapon to control people with fear.

All the more reason to get to the bottom of what Jesus really means. He says that any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. "Whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him. But whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." So, even speaking against the Son of Man is a forgivable offense. Peter who denied Jesus three times was forgiven and restored. The mob who had called for Jesus' crucifixion, whom Peter preached to on the Day of Pentecost, were forgiven and baptized, three thousand souls. Even Saul the Pharisee who had persecuted Jesus by murdering his followers was forgiven and transformed into Paul the apostle.

So why isn't it okay to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? First off, I don't think it's helpful to think of the distinction between blaspheming the Son of Man versus the Holy Spirit as a distinction of blaspheming the second person versus the third person of the Trinity. Because then you start wondering if the third person is somehow greater than the second person, and that's not the point.

Rather the distinction is about clarity of revelation. The true identity of the Son of Man is veiled to people's eyes, whereas the miraculous works of the Holy Spirit are an obvious sign of God's power. Those who fail to understand who the Son of Man is are spiritually blind, like those who stumble around in the darkness, who feel the objects they bump into but can't identify them. When Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" he already knows there is confusion: some say he is Elijah, others say he is prophet, others say he is John the Baptist returned from the dead. Even when Peter confesses, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," moments later he falls into blindness again so that Jesus has to rebuke him with, "Get behind me, Satan!" The clear vision Peter had of the Son of Man's true identity instantly escapes him, and most never grasp it at all (Matthew 16:13-23).

The works of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, are clear signs of divine power exploding into the realm of fallen humanity. A leper is cleansed, a blind man healed, a paralytic cured, a demon cast out. And yet the Pharisees say of such works, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons." They are calling the holy miracles of the Spirit demonic. They denounce the wondrous healings of the Spirit as evil. Mark helps to clarify what Jesus means when he speaks of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in this parallel passage: [Jesus says,] "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"--because they were saying, "He has an unclean spirit" (Mark 3:29-30). In this last editorial comment Mark makes clear that the eternal sin is condemning the unique manifestation of the Holy Spirit's power through the incarnate Christ as something unclean.

Take a look at this passage where Jesus acknowledges that even if you don't believe in him (i.e., the Son of Man), you should at least believe in the plain-as-day miracles he performs (i.e., the Holy Spirit):

The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning me?" The Jews answered him, "For a good work we do not stone you, but for blasphemy; and because you, being a man, make yourself out to be God." Jesus answered them, ". . . If I do not do the works of my Father, do not believe me. But if I do them, though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father" (John 10:31-33, 37-38).
Most people who saw the miracles of Jesus understood that the power of God was at work through him. They weren't quite sure who this man was--the return of Elijah? John the Baptist? Jeremiah?--but they knew he must be a holy man of some sort because of the works he performed. They were within the ballpark of knowing that there was some God-like thing going on. But the Pharisees not only refused to acknowledge the man but also his divine works, and they even called these miracles demonic and unclean. How far gone were they? The Spirit's works were meant to be obvious, undeniable revelation. They should have recognized the works of the Holy Spirit as the power of God just as they'd acknowledge the sky to be blue.

Few people in history had the privilege of seeing the miracles of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. But for some, like the Pharisees, it only became an opportunity to reveal their wicked hard-heartedness by committing the greatest offense imaginable. They received a glimpse into heaven and they called it hell. Such a sin can't be forgiven because if you call what is undeniably holy Satanic, there is nothing left to redeem you. There is simply no hope for you.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Matthew 12:22-29 - "Then there was brought to him a demon-possessed man who was blind and dumb..."

Matthew just whizzes by an incredible opening miracle by Jesus, so in case you missed it, let's go over what happened. Someone brings to Jesus a man who is blind and unable to speak. The man is also demon-possessed. He must be a frightening sight to the people around him, totally helpless, unable to control himself, unable even to express himself except by physical contortions. Jesus heals him by casting out the demon, and suddenly the man can both see and speak. His transformation causes a sensation, and despite Jesus' efforts to maintain a low profile word of the healing reaches the Pharisees' ears.

Jesus does not seek a quarrel with the Pharisees but they, of course, are proactive in pursuing him. Upon hearing the news of this remarkable healing, they come after Jesus ready to accuse him of not simply being a Sabbath-breaker but of being in league with the Devil himself. While the multitudes are discussing whether Jesus could be the Son of David, the Pharisees are saying, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons." That's quite an interesting spin on what just took place here. Jesus commands the demons, therefore he must be their leader, their commander-in-chief. The Pharisees' twisted minds come to the exact opposite conclusion as the crowd.

Jesus answers, "If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then shall his kingdom stand?" A general would not order his army to attack their home city that they are trying to defend. Likewise, if Jesus is commander of Satan's army as Satan's servant, why would he order an attack on Satan's kingdom? Is Satan divided against himself? Obviously, Satan would not cast himself out of a man. That would be like beating himself back out of conquered territory. He would be working against his own purposes.

And the Pharisees know this because even their own disciples perform exorcisms that aren't called into question. This is what Jesus means when he says, "By whom do your sons cast them out?" "Sons" refers to followers or disciples of the Pharisees. Do the Pharisees accuse everyone who casts out demons as being a servant of the Devil? No, just Jesus. And that's the point. Someday on the Day of Judgment, the Pharisees' disciples will be called to testify to this fact against their mentors. The Pharisees' accusations are clearly prejudiced against Jesus, because if he really is casting out demons by the Spirit of God, they might actually have to listen to him.

"Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house." Jesus compares Satan to a strong man who occupies a person's body as if it were his own house. The strong man must first be overpowered and tied up before you can plunder his house. Only the Spirit of God can overpower Satan in this way. So, obviously, Jesus casts out demons by the Spirit of God, which means that the kingdom of God has come upon them.

I think it's interesting to note that Jesus makes these arguments assuming that Satan is not a blundering idiot, nor a weakling you can trifle with. Satan would not make the tactical mistake of undermining his own kingdom, nor can he be expelled by any power short of God himself. You might even say that Jesus has a healthy respect for his cunning and resourcefulness; and you can be sure it is on the forefront of his mind every day as he battles Satan's attacks, coming to him in the form of demon possessions, hypocritical authorities, hostile Gentiles, unbelieving hearers, hard-hearted disciples, and two-faced friends.