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The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 6

Jesus rejected by the religious leaders

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 12:22-37
Mark 3:20-30

The crowd hails Jesus as the Son of David - a messianic title but despite having seen all the miracles, the Pharisees deny his messiahship, attributing his power to Satan and not the Holy Spirit.

The crowd hails Jesus as the Son of David - a messianic title but despite having seen all the miracles, the Pharisees deny his messiahship, attributing his power to Satan and not the Holy Spirit.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 6. This is entitled ‘Jesus Rejected by the Religious Leaders.’ We're going to be in Matthew 12: 22 - 37, which we'll read in sections as we go through this episode.

Introduction and Recap

As stated in recent episodes, the context is important. We're now in the second tour of Galilee that Jesus is carrying out with his twelve Apostles, with other disciples following him. In between the first and the second tours was the Sermon on the Mount (which we studied in its entirety in Series 4) which is basically giving the ethical and religious framework for the discipleship community. Series 3 described his first tour of Galilee, the beginning of his ministry, where he experienced great success and popularity - large crowds following him. In Series 5, the Gospel writers continue the story, telling some remarkable miracles and events that happened and also highlighting something which is very significant for today's episode and that is the growing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. What happens in today's episode is a critical and defining moment in that conflict. Some very remarkable things are said about Jesus; he has a confrontation with the Pharisees. They make an astonishing accusation against him; and, in this episode, we have Jesus on the one hand, the Pharisees on the other, and the crowd caught between them, as it were, in working out and assessing the identity of Jesus. The question at stake is concerning his Messiahship, his uniqueness as the Son of God and the Saviour of Israel, the one who fulfilled the Old Testament promises - and particularly the covenant with David. There's a whole number of things involved in this episode. It is one of the most important and defining episodes of our whole study because what happens in this episode today will cast a shadow across the rest of the story of Jesus, right the way through until his death and resurrection.

Healing of the Blind and Mute Man

We're going to read this account in sections a starting at Matthew 12: 22 and 23, which is the opening circumstance:

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

Matthew 12:22-23, NIV

We have to think about this a little to understand the significance of what's going on here. Obviously, Jesus has performed a remarkable miracle and the healing of the blind and the mute was considered very significant - the healing of the blind the Jews understood to be a particularly significant miracle. In order to understand the context of this, it's probably worth referring, briefly, to the fact that this is referred to in the Old Testament in a context that points towards the Messiah. I've mentioned this before and I'll probably mention it again at a later episode but it's always good to keep the context in mind. In Isaiah 35, we have a whole chapter which is a prophecy about what we could call the messianic Age (the age of the Messiah) when the Messiah comes and redeems Israel and brings his power to bear on the nation and brings salvation and overturns all the problems that the people have experienced. That's the sort of context of Isaiah 35 and in that context we read, in verse 5, the following statement:

‘Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.’ And continuing:‘ Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.’

Isaiah 35:5-6, NIV

And then, moving on to verse eight:

8And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10… those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.’

Isaiah 35:8-10, NIV

The particular point about this passage that I'm bringing, is the reference to these miracles: the mute, the lame, the blind being healed. They're being healed in the context here of a messianic event - of God breaking in and his Messiah coming and performing these miracles. 

Son of David

That's how most Jews would have understood that scripture at that particular time, which explains to us, to some extent, the comment of the crowd which is the absolute key to this passage, easily overlooked:

‘All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”’

Matthew 12:23, NIV

What's the significance of this expression: the Son of David? We've touched on it earlier and we'll come back to it again; it appears on a number of occasions in the Gospels. What we have to remember, when we see expressions like this, is the context of the Old Testament and God's covenant promises. David, the king that God chose to rule over Israel in the days when he established his monarchy, was promised (remarkably and uniquely) that his kingship, his monarchy, would not be a one generation wonder - not even him and his son Solomon - but would have a permanent nature. There would be a permanent monarchy, or a permanent dynasty, of descendants of David who would rule the people, Israel, on behalf of God and bring in the Kingdom of God. This is stated clearly in 2 Samuel 7 when God makes a prophetic promise to David through the prophet Nathan. We'll just look at verse 16, which is the key for us:

‘“Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”

2 Samuel 7:16, NIV

This is confirmed in the Psalms. in Psalm 89 we have a wonderful affirmation of this, which I'll read quickly. Psalm 89: 3 and 4:

3You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, 4‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’”

Psalm 89:3-4, NIV

These are the foundational promises that the Jews believed in and they believed that the redemption of the nation is going to come through a descendant of David. The prophets pointed towards this. A couple of well-known examples, just to indicate the significance of this. Isaiah 9: 7, says of a child who is to be born (verse 6):

‘Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. (He'll) reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.’

Isaiah 9:7, NIV

That's a very clear Messianic promise that there is a link, specifically, to a descendant of David. Likewise in Isaiah 11: 1,

‘A shoot will come ... from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’

Isaiah 11:1, NIV

Jesse is the father of David and therefore the name Jesse symbolises David's family. ‘A shoot will come ... from the stump of Jesse; (and) from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’ This was understood as a messianic promise too. The kingdom of Israel, led by descendants of David, continued for several hundred years after David but that monarchy was abolished by the Babylonians in 587 BC when they captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, exiled the nation and overthrew the monarchy permanently. For nearly 600 years, the Jews had not experienced a king of Davidic descent ruling over the country. In fact, for most of that time the country had been ruled by foreign powers - Persia, various Greek kingdoms and now, at this particular time, the Romans. There was an aspiration amongst the Jewish people that God's salvation would come about through a biological descendant of David; a man who would be a king in Israel in some form or another.

When they use the term Son of David, it's a messianic term concerning the fulfilment of this covenant promise from 2 Samuel 7: 16 (and affirmed in Psalm 89 and elsewhere) which speaks about a Davidic descendant. What we know about Jesus is that, biologically through Mary, through his genealogy (as we discussed earlier on) he's descended from David; and his adopted stepfather, Joseph, is also a descendant of David. The significance of this was, basically, the crowd saying, “Could this be the Messiah?” This provokes the dramatic counter-statement of the Pharisees. Verse 24:

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

Matthew 12:24, NIV

This is an incredible statement and it's repeated later on. In Luke 11, we have another example of a similar confrontation but in a different time and a different geographical location. The Pharisees present are basically saying that Jesus is a false messiah; he's operating through evil, demonic power - Beelzebul being a name for the senior evil spirit (or demon) understood by the Jews - Satan himself. The Pharisees are saying the power he is using is evil power, not the power of God, because he's a false messiah, not a true Messiah. This conclusion is a culmination of a critique of Jesus that the Pharisees have been conducting for some time. They've been on his tail; they've been observing him; they've been questioning him; they've been debating with him; and they've been critical of him. They have argued that he's broken the law of the Sabbath; that he's inauthentic in his claims; and that he doesn't have the power to forgive sins. We saw in a recent episode, for example, when Jesus entered the house of Simon the Pharisee and the prostitute came and anointed his feet, that Jesus pronounced forgiveness and the Pharisees, and others present, were hostile and critical and questioned him. They didn't believe he had the power to forgive sins because they didn't believe he was the Son of God and the Messiah; they believed he was just an ordinary human.

This conflict has been going on for a long time and what's actually happened is that this opinion isn't the opinion of just a few people who are present. These Pharisees are part of a national network - several thousand Pharisees, always in communication with each other, all connected to the city of Jerusalem and all connected to the religious establishment and the senior religious court (which adjudicated or made decisions about religious matters) known as the Sanhedrin, which we mentioned before and we'll mention again. There were some Pharisees on the Sanhedrin and the Sanhedrin had the responsibility for investigating any claims that someone was the Messiah. They would investigate by sending people to observe and then sending people to question, to bring back reports and then adjudicate their answer. They'll ultimately do this when Jesus is tried by the Sanhedrin, under the leadership of the High Priest, at the end of his life; but these Pharisees are delivering the opinion of the Sanhedrin and the Pharisee movement - that Jesus is a false messiah.

Jesus' Refutes the Pharisees' Argument

This provokes Jesus to speak very firmly into this situation. Let's read verses 25 to 29:

25Jesus 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. 26If Satan drives out Satan, (he's) divided against himself. (But) then can his kingdom stand? 27And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”’

Matthew 12:25-29, NIV

Jesus is pointing out that any kingdom divided against itself will fall. What motive would Satan have for allowing his house to be divided - of one evil spirit driving out another spirit? Jesus says it doesn't make any sense to consider that this miraculous action - of this demonised man, who is healed of blindness and being mute - it doesn't make any sense to attribute this to Jesus operating out of evil power. Why would he perform a good miracle and undo the work that evil has done in that man? Jesus refutes their argument and their statement, very clearly, and basically says (in verse 29) that he is the person who is going to take hold of the captives of Satan, going to break into his house and release people through his power. He continues, verse 30 - 32, with some very sobering words:

30“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32Anyone 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.”’

Matthew 12:30-32, NIV
The Unforgivable Sin

These are challenging and, for some people, very perplexing words. What did Jesus actually mean? It's the activity of the Holy Spirit that is under question here. A man has been healed of blindness and being mute who is described as having an evil spirit operating within him causing those infirmities. The Pharisees say Jesus used a more powerful evil spirit to get rid of the lesser evil spirit to produce the result of healing. Jesus says, to the contrary,

‘“If I, by the Spirit of God ... drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”’

Matthew 12:28, NIV

He's basically saying, “The activity you've seen before your eyes when this one man was healed (and many similar circumstances, of course, but this particular one man, this activity) is the activity of the Spirit of God.” It's the Spirit of God overturning evil and bringing in God's Kingdom and is a sign of the Messiah because it fulfils the words of prophecies like Isaiah 35: 5 (which was a well-known verse in a well-known prophecy).

Jesus warns here that if you attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to evil forces, you are entering into very dangerous territory. It's even worse than speaking negative words about Jesus. It's attributing to the devil, the work that the Spirit does; it's a serious insult, or a slander. What is Jesus talking about here? He is talking directly to the Pharisees so let's put this verse, very firmly, in its context so that we don't misunderstand it. Some people have been very afraid that they've committed ‘the unforgivable sin’ but, for those who do that, they have such a set attitude that they wouldn't have that fear. Let's try and work out through the context, exactly what Jesus means. He's talking to these Pharisees; he's talking to them about their statement and he says, “Once you make that statement there is no way back.” They've adopted a fixed attitude, not a casual comment - a fixed attitude of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demonic power having clearly seen the evidence of God's power through Jesus' ministry; they've seen with their own eyes what Jesus has done and they have formally said, “It's the work of evil not the work of the Holy Spirit.” The only people who can carry out this unforgivable sin are those who have very clear and decisive revelation. They've seen with their own eyes the work of God, the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit and having investigated it closely and investigated the message of Jesus, have formally, decidedly, permanently, said “No, we're against that. This is the work of evil.” Very few people ever do that. Most people dismiss Jesus because they don't understand him. They speak words against him; they slander him; they minimise him; they say that the events in the Bible didn't happen; they say he's not really the Son of God; he didn't perform miracles or whatever - all those things can be forgiven. Once you've seen the whole picture, as the Pharisees had done, and then you maliciously attribute the work of the Spirit to the work of demons, then Jesus warns that you won't get a second chance.

Judged by What We Say

We finish this passage by reading the final verses, verses 33 to 37:

33“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings (out) evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”’

Matthew 12:33-37, NIV

Jesus is pointing out that what we say ultimately indicates what we believe; our words reflect our heart and our heart attitudes, and God judges the heart. One of the ways he can do that is through the things that we have said. This is a very sobering teaching to end a very sobering passage. I'm sure you'll agree this is a remarkable confrontation that takes place here.


I want to spend a few minutes carefully reflecting on what we've looked at to try and make sure we've understood it as accurately as we can and applied it as appropriately as we can. First of all, to remind you what I said at the beginning - this is actually a turning point in the life of Jesus and if you're analysing the whole story of Jesus and studying it, as we're doing in this teaching, then we need to take note of this turning point because, as I said earlier on, it casts a shadow over the future. The Pharisees have declared formally and publicly to Jesus their position and, we can assume, the position of the Sanhedrin - the religious ruling authority in Jerusalem. That's quite serious because they are now guiding the nation not to believe in Jesus. The Pharisees, of whom there were maybe six or eight thousand in Israel at the time according to other sources, were very influential. They were all over the country. People came to them and experienced their teaching; they tried to follow their way of life; they respected their religious actions and if this group is now opposing Jesus that's a very powerful force which is stopping people from believing. It wasn't just the Pharisees because we know that the Sanhedrin, which involved the priests in Jerusalem and other religious groups like the Sadducees (which we'll study more about later on) were taking a similar position. This is a turning point and it leads, ultimately, to the final confrontation between Jesus and the Sanhedrin and the religious authorities in the final week of his life when they hunt him out, arrest him and bring him to trial in their religious court. Their charge against him is that he's been a blasphemer because he's claimed messianic status. It's all part of the same story and this conflict grows as the rest of the story continues.

The second thing that I want to do, by way of reflection, is to go back for a moment to our consideration of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or speaking against the Holy Spirit. This genuinely does trouble people and so it's worthy of some consideration. There are two contexts in the New Testament where this issue comes to light. This is the first one and the second one is in the book of Hebrews, where a similar warning is made to people in a similar situation. I'm going to end this talk by briefly referring to the context in the book of Hebrews, comparing it with the one we've just looked at and drawing our final conclusion very clearly. The book of Hebrews was written by an anonymous author to Jewish people - hence the title Hebrews - Jewish people who had moved from Judaism to Christianity. They'd adopted the Christian faith; they'd moved on from the Law of Moses and the writer explains the difference between the two and focuses a lot on faith in Jesus, and the nature of the New Covenant that he had brought about by his blood, and by his death on the cross. The fact that it was a permanent New Covenant, a new way of relating to God, made the Mosaic Covenant obsolete and no longer required. That was the basic issue in the book but the writer also addresses some Jewish people who had been very interested in the faith, who'd heard the Gospel explained and preached and also who had experienced some of the miracles that happened in the Early Church - miracles like the miracles we've described in Jesus' life and like the miracle that was the trigger for this event (the healing of the blind and mute man). The writer warns people that, if they hear the Gospel, experience the Kingdom of God, sense the work of the Holy Spirit, see miracles, they know the whole picture (not just a bit but the whole picture) of what the Gospel is. If they then choose, with absolute determination, to refuse that message and to claim that it's an evil message and go back to their Jewish faith, then they have experienced their last chance and they're not going to get another chance. This is described very vividly in Hebrews 6: 4 - 8:

4It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.’

Hebrews 6:4-8, NIV

This passage has caused a lot of comment discussion and different views amongst Christians - rather like the passage I've just been looking at in Matthew 12. What I want to propose to you, very clearly, is that this is talking about exactly the same type of situation. These people - who've tasted the goodness of the word of God, shared in the experience of the Holy Spirit, fallen away - they're ‘crucifying the Son of God all over again, subjecting him to public disgrace,’ by basically accusing him of being a false messiah. They are falling into the category of those who have experienced their last chance because they've had the whole experience of what it is to be saved or might be saved, or the power of God associated with it; they'd seen that operating in other people and then they'd chosen, at the last minute, to turn away from it. That's exactly what the Pharisees did: they'd seen everything; they'd been around with Jesus; they'd seen miracle after miracle, teaching after teaching; they'd seen his grace extended to people; and at this point (Matthew 12: 24) they said, “It's by Beelzebul, Satan, that he is exercising his power.”

Therefore, every sin that we commit can be forgiven - even sins of insulting Jesus, misunderstanding him, rejecting him - but those who've seen everything of the Gospel (they've had a full experience of its power) and then claim that there is demonic power at work, or something equivalent, are putting themselves beyond the opportunity of having another chance. They've had their chance. If you're still investigating, you're still finding out and maybe you've had wrong ideas about Jesus and expressed those very clearly, they can and will be forgiven if you come in repentance to him. 

This is a profound episode, with many important themes in it, and what happens here will shape to a great extent the story that is to follow in subsequent episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Have you ever worried that you may have done ‘the unforgivable sin’? How does this study encourage you?
  • Discipleship
    1. What about backsliders? Can they be those who cannot be forgiven? Does it depend on whether they have just faded away and lost their zeal or have given themselves over to evil?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. The Pharisees believed that Jesus was a false messiah. How do you approach those who still think this?
    2. Use tagging to see how often David is mentioned in the Gospels. What was so important about King David?
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