Chapter 6: The Third Part of the Galilean Ministry
Matthew proceeds with an incident related later by Luke (Mt 11:2-6; Lk 7:18-23). As told by Matthew the story begins, "Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ." John’s imprisonment has so far been barely mentioned by Matthew and Mark (Mk 1:14; Mt 4:12). Luke has briefly reported it (3:19-20); here he says only that John’s disciples had "told him of all these things." Matthew’s reference to Jesus simply as "the Christ" is unusual in the Gospels.
The question brought by John’s disciples was, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Having performed many miracles "in that hour," according to Luke, Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you have heard and seen," and reminded the messengers of the various kinds of maladies they had seen cured, adding "and the poor have good news preached to them." The list contains clear allusions to several verses in Isaiah (Is 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1). "And blessed is he who takes no offense at me," Jesus concludes, as though rebuking John for his doubts.
John’s question is often taken to indicate that he had not previously thought of Jesus as the Messiah. It is equally possible, however, that John had long believed Jesus to be the one mightier than he who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The reports that reached him in prison may have revived this hope, or may have aroused impatient doubt because Jesus was not doing what the coming one was expected to do.
Both Matthew and Luke continue with a tribute to John spoken when the messengers left (Mt 11:7-19; Lk 7:24-35). What did people expect, Jesus asked, when they flocked to the wilderness to see and hear John? Surely not a pliant seeker of popularity. "a reed shaken by the wind," nor a well-fed, well-dressed preacher — for such a man they would go to the court of a king. If they went to see a prophet, they saw one, "and more than a prophet."
John, Jesus continues, is the messenger promised by Malachi, sent to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming in judgment (Mal 3:1). No man ever born was greater; "yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Did Jesus consider John excluded from the kingdom? I cannot avoid a suspicion that these words were added by some preacher or teacher who felt that he must avoid making John seem equal to a Christian. The quotation marks belong after "no one greater than John the Baptist."
This is supported by the saying that follows in Matthew (11:12-13). Luke has it later (16:16). In Matthew it reads: "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John." Luke’s form is shorter: "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently." If these are both derived from the same original text, we cannot recover it. Luke’s favorite verb, "preach good news," and the fact that his version is clearer than Matthew’s, indicate that he rewrote the saying. His form of it suggests a mass movement into the kingdom; Matthew may have in mind efforts to force God’s hand by direct action (cf. Mt 21:31).
The important point here is that in both Gospels the saying, like the one before it, distinguishes two eras; but here the era of the kingdom begins with John the Baptist, not after him. He was not the last prophet of the old order but the first herald of the new. This agrees better with Jesus’ tribute to John than the contrary implication of the preceding verse, and favors the authenticity of this saying in its original form.
At the end of Jesus’ tribute to John the Baptist, according to Matthew, he adds, "and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mt 11:14-15). John the Baptist is here identified not only with the messenger of Malachi 3:1, but with the prophet Elijah, whose return "before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes" is predicted a little later in Malachi (4:5). (The identity of the messenger and Elijah is implied.) This is stated more fully later (Mk 9:11-13; Mt 17:10-13).
Now Matthew and Luke continue with Jesus’ apt comparison of the men of that generation with children in the marketplace, peevishly complaining that their companions will not play either a happy or a mournful game with them (Mt 11:16-19; Lk 7:31-35). This is significant for Jesus’ positive attitude to life and his standard of right human relations. Highly as he valued John’s place in the divine program, he sharply distinguished between John’s way of living and his own. There will be more to say about this in the last chapter.
The last sentence reads in Matthew, "Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds"; Luke reads, "by all her children" (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:35). Perhaps the word "wisdom" should be spelled with a capital W. In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha God’s wisdom is often personified and speaks in the first person (e.g., Prov 1:20-33; 8; Sir 24). Here, however, recent translations are almost unanimous in avoiding any suggestion that wisdom is personified.
The verb translated "is justified" may mean "is vindicated, proved to be right." Matthew’s reading, "deeds" (literally "works"), fits this meaning. "Justified," however, may mean "judged to be right, approved." This goes better with Luke’s reading. "by all her children." According to a common Semitic idiom, just as sons of wickedness are wicked men, and sons of tumult are tumultuous ones, wisdom’s children are people who have wisdom. Luke’s form of the saying therefore means, "Wisdom is recognized by those who are wise." This was probably the original text and meaning.
Another passage not found in Mark comes next in Matthew; Luke has it at the end of the instructions of the seventy (Mt 11:20-24; Lk 10:13-15). "Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done," Matthew says, "because they did not repent." Chorazin and Bethsaida will suffer more severely on the day of judgment than Tyre and Sidon; and Capernaum will be brought down to Hades and judged more severely than Sodom. Matthew has already quoted the prediction that a town that rejects the disciples will be punished more than Sodom and Gomorrah; in Luke this immediately precedes the denunciation of the Galilean cities (Mt. 10:15, Lk 10:12).
This passionate outburst seems bitter, if not vindictive. Possibly, however, Jesus said these things out of grief for the cities he knew, rather than personal resentment, just as he is later reported to have wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41).
Matthew now records Jesus’ thanksgiving to God for hiding the truths he is preaching from those who are "wise and understanding" and revealing them to "babes," the simple, unsophisticated common people (Mt 11:25-26; Lk 10:21). Between the denunciation of the cities and this thanksgiving Luke tells of the return of the seventy disciples, who reported joyfully, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" (10:17-20). Jesus replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." Then, as in the Great Commission in the longer ending of Mark (cf. Mk 16:15-16), he announced that he had given the disciples "authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy."
It was God’s gracious will, Jesus says, that what was hidden from the wise should be revealed to babes. It is often so. Learning controlled by humility and reverence can mitigate the consequences of ignorance, but pride and presumption will keep the most brilliant thinker from seeing through the facts to the truth.
Next comes a saying (Mt 11:27; Lk 10:22) that sounds so much like the Gospel of John that commentators call it "Johannine." "All things have been delivered to me by my Father," Jesus says, and he claims a unique, exclusive understanding between "the Father" and "the Son." This is different from another passage where the expression "the Son" is used. In the apocalyptic discourse Jesus says. "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mk 13:32; Mt 24:36). To judge by the whole tone of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, this "Johannine" saying is much more likely to be an expression of the later theology of the church than of the teaching of Jesus. That does not necessarily make it less true. What the church came to believe about him may be as true as anything he said of himself.
After this Matthew has the familiar invitation, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden" (Mt 11:28-30). Neither Mark nor Luke has this. In the book of Sirach (51:23, 26-27), Wisdom says:
Draw near to me. you who are untaught.
and lodge in my school. . .
Put your neck under the yoke,
and let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
See with your eyes that I have labored little
and found for myself much rest.
These lines may or may not have suggested the similar references in the saying recorded by Matthew (cf. Mt 13:52). The rabbis spoke of "the yoke of the law"
and "the yoke of the kingdom of heaven." It would therefore be quite natural for Jesus to say, "The yoke the scribes offer you is heavy and will exhaust you, but mine is easy to bear." I once heard an explanation of the easy yoke given by an old uneducated preacher. He had grown up, he said, on a farm where oxen were used, and he told how the yokes were fashioned so that they would fit without galling the animal’s shoulders. When a young ox was to be trained, he was yoked with an older and stronger one and the yoke was so made that the end worn by the young ox was longer than the other, making the older ox pull a larger share of the load.
After this long section of matter found nowhere else or shared only with Luke, Matthew rejoins Mark with the story of the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28; Mt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5). The law allowed going through a grainfield and plucking a few ears by hand on the way, but some of the Pharisees found fault with the disciples for doing this on the Sabbath. The basic issue was Sabbath observance. But Jesus reminded the critics that when David was fleeing from Saul he made the priest at Nob give him the consecrated bread of the Presence ("show-bread"), which the law reserved for the use of the priests (I Sam 21:1-6; Ex 25:30; 39:36; 40:23; Lev 24:5-9).
In Mark, Jesus says that this occurred "when Abiathar was high priest." First Samuel 21:1 says that the priest at Nob at the time was Ahimelech, and the next chapter tells how he and his family were slaughtered at Saul’s command for helping David, the only survivor being Ahimelech’s son Abiathar (1 Sam 22:9-22; 2 Sam 8:17; 1 Chron 18:16; 24:6, 31). Later, when David became king, he had "Zadok the son of Ahitub and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar" as priests at his court; yet at the end of his reign the chief priest was Abiathar. Since it was not uncommon in the ancient world to name boys after their grandfathers, it is quite possible that there were two Ahimelechs and two Abiathars.
Matthew and Luke and some important manuscripts of Mark do not have the troublesome clause. If we had to suppose that it was an exact record of Jesus’ words, we should have to raise the question whether he made a mistake in a matter of history. The significance of the item is that it compels us to recognize the existence of textual and historical problems even in reported sayings of Jesus. As previously noted, such difficulties constitute a problem for faith only if one assumes a literalistic, mechanical view of inspiration.
After the reference to David, Matthew has three more verses apparently continuing what Jesus said on this occasion (12:5-7). Neither Mark nor Luke has them, and it seems doubtful that they belong here. The first one cites another way in which the Sabbath is profaned without incurring guilt, and Jesus asks his hearers whether they have not read about it "in the law." The reference may be to a passage in Numbers concerning a special burnt offering (28:9-10), but why the performance of a duty according to the law should be considered a profanation of the Sabbath is not clear.
The next verse, "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here" (Mt 12:6) resembles verses 41-42 of the same chapter and is more clearly relevant in that context than it is here. The only apparent reason for inserting it here is that, like the preceding verse, it refers to the temple.
The last of these three verses introduces the same quotation from Hosea used before (v 7; cf. 9:13; Hos 6:6): "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." The fact that only Matthew has it in either place makes Jesus’ use of the quotation on these occasions questionable. It is entirely probable, however, that he was known to have used it sometimes. "Mercy" is not a good translation of Hosea’s Hebrew word. It is what the Greek word used in Matthew means, and this word is used by the Septuagint in Hosea 6:6; but Jesus would either have quoted the Hebrew text or used an Aramaic translation, and the Aramaic word is the same as the Hebrew. The context in both places where the verse is quoted shows at least that Matthew understood it to mean that human welfare is more important than correct ritual. That this was the point of Jesus’ defense of the disciples is indicated by another statement (Mk 2:27): "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath." Only Mark reports this.
The story ends with a Q.E.D., "so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath." All three evangelists record this (Mk 2:28; Mt 12:8; Lk 6:5); yet its authenticity is uncertain. Involuntarily one thinks of an early Christian teacher or missionary telling the story and concluding. "So you see, the Son of man is greater than the law; his authority embraces even the Sabbath."
An instructive case study of Matthew’s and Luke’s ways of using Mark is afforded by the accounts of the healing of a man with a withered hand (Mk 3:1-6; Mt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-10), which in all three Gospels follows the incident of plucking grain on the Sabbath. Whether it happened immediately after that incident is not clear. Mark begins, "Again he entered the synagogue," which might refer either to the same or to a different occasion. Matthew reads, "And he went on from there, and entered their synagogue." Luke, however, says distinctly. "On another sabbath, when he entered the synagogue and taught. . ."
Luke expands Mark’s account of this episode; Matthew condenses it. Mark alone has a characteristic human touch, perhaps too human for Matthew and Luke: "And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart." The three agree that Jesus told the man to stretch out his hand; he did so, and the hand was restored. This concludes Mark’s series of conflict stories. Again a miracle, a cure on the Sabbath, provoked the conflict.
After these demonstrations of Jesus’ independence and authority, we are told, the Pharisees went out and began to discuss ways to get rid of him (Mk 3:6; Mt 12:14; Lk 6:11; cf. Mk 8:15; 12:13). Mark says that they "held counsel with the Herodians," the party that supported the sons of Herod the Great. Matthew and Luke omit this, although Matthew elsewhere retains a reference to the Herodians (22:16).
Mark continues with the statement that Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea (evidently meaning the Sea of Galilee); "and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude, hearing all that he did, came to him" (Mk 3:7-8; cf. Mt 12:15; 4:25; Lk 6:17). Before this, Luke inserts the appointment of the twelve apostles, which follows it in Mark. So great was the press, Mark says (3:9), that Jesus "told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him." Matthew and Luke omit this too. There is a similar reference later in Mark and Matthew (Mk 4:1; Mt 13:2), but Luke omits it there too, having used the same idea in his account of the calling of the first disciples (5:3).
Again the demons cause Jesus no little embarrassment by making the wretched people they have possessed cry out (Mk 3:11; cf. Mk 1:24; Lk 4:34), "You are the Son of God." Only Mark records this; Luke has reported the same acclamation with the healing of many sick people at Capernaum (4:41). Matthew says simply (12:15) that Jesus "healed them all, and ordered them not to make him known," but makes up for the condensation by again quoting in full the passage from Isaiah that was briefly echoed in the accounts of Jesus’ baptism (Mt 12:17-21; Is 42:1-3).
Now Mark tells of the choice and appointment of the twelve apostles (3:13-19). Matthew nowhere records this but gives the names of the twelve (10:2-4) in connection with their preaching mission. Luke says that Jesus spent the whole preceding night in prayer (6:12). The purpose for which the twelve were appointed is stated only in Mark: "And he appointed twelve to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons" (3:14). Personal association with Jesus himself is the first purpose. But this is only preparatory; "and to be sent out." They were also to be apostles, envoys, missionaries. As such they had a double mission, "to preach and have authority to east out demons."
This is an admirable summary of the mission of the Christian church in the world. It exists to proclaim the gospel and to apply it to the alleviation of human distress. It cannot accomplish this double mission unless it fulfills its first purpose "to be with him." Being with Jesus means different things to different people. Whatever else it may involve, however, any separation from the real man who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, any dissolving of his historical person and gospel in theological abstraction, stultifies and nullifies the true purpose of the Christian church.
The lists of the twelve chosen disciples in the Gospels might be expected to agree, and on the whole they do, but there are some differences. Instead of Thaddeus, the tenth name in Mark and Matthew, Luke has "Judas the son of James." This Judas is not mentioned elsewhere, unless he is the man called in John (14:22) "Judas (not Iscariot)." The last member of the twelve (aside from Judas Iscariot) is another Simon (Mk 3:18; Mt 10:4). In Mark and Matthew he is called "the Cananaean." Luke calls him here "Simon who was called the Zealot," in Acts simply "Simon the Zealot" (Lk 6:15; Acts 1:13). "Cananaean" does not mean "Canaanite" (in the Greek the two words are quite distinct). It is a Greek transcription of the Aramaic word for Zealot, which Luke translates.
One of the twelve, therefore, was a member of the Zealots, the most aggressive advocates of rebellion against Rome. Simon must have been one of those who hoped Jesus would take up arms Jesus’ refusal must have been a bitter disappointment to Simon, and perhaps to Judas Iscariot.
The name or epithet Iscariot has occasioned much speculation. Three of the many proposed explanations deserve mention. It may represent Hebrew Ish-Kerioth, "man of Kerioth." It may be an Aramaic word meaning "deceiver" or "one who deals falsely." It may represent the Latin noun sicarius, that is, dagger-man or assassin, a term applied later to the most extreme Zealots.
According to Mark and Luke, Jesus had gone "up on the mountain" to appoint his inner circle of disciples (Mk 3:13; Lk 6:12). After doing this, Luke says, he came down, healed many who had unclean spirits (Lk 6:17-19; cf. Mk 3:7-8), and delivered the Sermon on the Plain, which we have considered together with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Lk 6:20-49). This done, he then entered Capernaum. Luke relates here the healing of the centurion’s servant, previously reported by Matthew (Lk 7:1-10; Mt 8:5-13). This is followed by a miracle recorded only by Luke, the restoration of a widow’s son to life at Nain (7:11-17). The funeral procession was leaving the city when Jesus and his disciples arrived. Moved by compassion, Jesus told the man to get up, and he "sat up and began to speak." Luke adds that Jesus "gave him to his mother," recalling similar statements about Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17:23; 2 Kings 4:36). What influence these Old Testament precedents may have had on Luke’s story is anybody’s guess. But the uncertainty today regarding a clinical definition of death suggests the possibility of a premature decision in this case.
The story ends with one of Luke’s surprising references to Judea (Lk 7:17; cf. 4:44). Nain was in Galilee, about six miles southeast of Nazareth; yet Luke says that the report of the miracle spread through Judea. Only if Judea means all Palestine was Nain in Judea.
Luke now tells of Jesus’ response to a question brought by two disciples of John the Baptist, and his public tribute to John; Matthew has this after his second major discourse (Lk 7:18-35; Mt 11:2-19).
After the paragraphs about John the Baptist. Luke gives his account of the woman with an alabaster flask of ointment, anticipating a much later incident in Mark (Lk 7:36-50; cf. Mk 14:3-9). He then concludes this section of his Gospel with an item reported by him alone (Lk 8:1-3). As Jesus went on, he was accompanied not only by the twelve but also by "some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities." One of them was Mary Magdalene (i.e., Mary of Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee). Seven demons had gone out of her, Luke remarks casually, though the story of this miracle is nowhere told. All four Gospels record her participation in events associated with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. "Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward," is no doubt the Joanna mentioned also by Luke among the women at the tomb (24:10). Susanna is not mentioned elsewhere, but Luke says there were "many others." They provided for Jesus and his disciples "out of their means." Mark and Matthew mention this at the time of the crucifixion (Mk 15:40-41; Mt 27:55-56).
These items, not recorded by Mark, appear in Luke after the appointment of the twelve. After Mark’s account of that event, the RSV and TEV say. Jesus went "home"; other versions read, more literally, "into a house" (Mk 3:19). This may or may not have been the house in which he lived while in Capernaum (v 20). In any case, "the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat."
The next verse (v 21) is variously understood. The RSV says, "And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, ‘He is beside himself.’" The Greek expression rendered "his family" may mean "his friends" or "his relatives" (NEB, NAB, JB). Some take "they were saying" as impersonal. The words rendered "people were saying" (NEB, TEV) mean literally "they said." The opinion expressed here may have been that of Jesus’ friends or relatives. This is one of the few things in Mark that Matthew and Luke both omit. Nothing is said of the success or failure of the attempt to seize Jesus.
Evidently there were people who questioned his sanity. Any person who ignored common assumptions ran the danger of being considered insane. Where skepticism was joined to bigotry and superstition, any extraordinary achievement might arouse a suspicion of alliance with evil powers.
That this happened to Jesus is attested by the charge brought against him by scribes from Jerusalem, as Mark reports next (Mk 3:22; Mt 12:24; Lk 11:15): "He is possessed by Beelzebub, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons." In Matthew and Luke this is connected with the healing of a dumb demoniac ("blind and dumb," Matthew says) (Mt 12:22; Lk 11:14). Matthew has already reported the healing of two blind men (9:27-31), followed by the healing of a dumb demoniac (vv 32-34). In the latter instance the Pharisees said, "He casts out demons by the prince of demons." Again in the second discourse Jesus alludes to such hostile propaganda: "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign those of his household’’ (Mt 10)5’ cf Jn 13:16: 15:20) — an instance of the "how much more" argument. Now Matthew repeats the charge (12:22-24), and in so doing practically repeats the miracle also, except that this time the demoniac is both dumb and blind. Perhaps he innocently recorded as different incidents variant forms of the same tradition, but the result looks like careless editorial work. Luke’s account of the healing of the dumb demoniac seems to combine two of Matthew’s stories (Lk 11:14; cf. Mt 9:33). He repeats almost the same words used by Matthew earlier, but instead of ascribing to the Pharisees the accusation of Satanic power. he says that some of the people made it and others demanded a sign from heaven (Lk 11:15-16).
The title "Son of David" is used by the two blind men in the first of Matthew’s stories and by "all the people" in the third (9:27; 12:23). In Mark and Luke it is applied to Jesus only in the healing of another blind man at Jericho, where Matthew also has it and again has two blind men (Mk 10:47-48; Lk 18:38-39; Mt 20:30-31). According to Matthew the "Canaanite" woman used it in appealing to Jesus (Mt 15:22; cf. Mk 7:26), and again it is Matthew who quotes it when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the children hail him in the temple (Mt 21:9, 15; cf. Mk 11:9-10). These are the only places where the expression is used of Jesus. It was familiar in Judaism, especially in the form, "Messiah Son of David."
Beelzebub (cf. 2 Kings 1:2-3) (KJV Beelzebub, following the Vulgate instead of the Greek manuscripts) is another name for Satan. Jesus uses the latter name in his reply to the charge. Mark says that he called the scribes and spoke to them "in parables," evidently meaning not a story but simply a comparison (3:22-26). "How can Satan cast out Satan?" Jesus asks. Any kingdom or family divided against itself cannot endure. If Satan is expelling his own subjects and agents, he is doomed.
The other evangelists (Mt 12:25-26; Lk 11:17-18) introduce Jesus’ reply with the words, "knowing their thoughts." Matthew expands Mark’s report, Luke condenses it, and both add the question, "how then will his kingdom stand?" The idea of a kingdom of Satan at war with the kingdom of God, and temporarily dominant in the world, appears in one Greek manuscript in an addition to the long ending of Mark: "The limit of the years of the authority of Satan is fulfilled." In the Dead Sea Scrolls the present age is called "the dominion of Belial," using another name for Satan that occurs once in the New Testament (2 Cor 6:15), but never in the Gospels.
Matthew and Luke have next an important paragraph not found in Mark (Mt 12:27; Lk 11:19). "And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub," Jesus says, "by whom do your sons east them out? Therefore they shall be your judges." Not only Jesus is exorcising demons, but also "your sons," which can only mean the sons of those to whom he is speaking. He has given the apostles authority to east out demons (Mk 3:15; Mt 10:1). Possibly they are here called "your sons." The reference may, however, be to exorcists who were not followers of Jesus. In any case, Jesus’ question implies that they are casting out demons by the power of God.
Jesus continues, "But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Lk 11:20; Mt 12:28). This is one of the four places where Matthew has "kingdom of God" instead of "kingdom of heaven"; no one knows why. Instead of "finger of God" Matthew has "Spirit of God"; but Luke, being especially interested in the Spirit, would hardly have substituted "finger" if his source had read "Spirit." The expression is probably an allusion to the story of the plagues of Egypt (Ex 8:19), where Pharaoh’s magicians, unable to duplicate the plague of gnats, say, "This is the finger of God."
That Jesus said this is fairly sure; but since he clearly taught that the kingdom of God had not come, what does the statement that it "has come upon you" mean? The Greek verb here is found nowhere else in the Gospels. Its meaning, however, is plain. It appears four times in Paul’s letters (Rom 9:3 1; 2 Cor 10:14; Phil 3:16; 1 Thess 4:15), and in the Greek Old Testament it is used to translate an Aramaic verb that occurs eight times in the Aramaic part of Daniel (Dan 4:11, 20, 22, 24, 28; 6:24; 7:13, 22). Jesus tells his accusers that the kingdom of God has caught up with them, not for salvation but for judgment. That is what the coming of the kingdom meant to John the Baptist. Jesus too called for repentance. The demonstration of God’s supreme power in the conquest of the demons both confirmed his assurance that the kingdom was near and put to shame those who would not recognize it. Which being interpreted means now: "You cynics, who suppose that self-interest rules the world, are convicted and condemned by countless acts of mercy and kindness, not perceiving that they manifest the power of God, which alone can prevail in the end."
Jesus’ refutation of the charge against him is clarified and enforced by an illustration in all three Gospels (Mk 3:27; Mt 12:29; Lk 11:21-22): If a strong man’s house is broken into, the robber must have overcome and bound the owner. In Luke the house is a palace, which the owner guards in full armor; he can be stripped of his armor and robbed only "when one stronger than he assails him." Since Satan is unable to prevent the expulsion of his agents from people possessed by them, he has evidently been bound and rendered helpless by "one stronger than he."
Matthew and Luke add here (Mt 12:30; Lk 11:23), "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." In another connection Mark and Luke have the converse: "For he that is not against us is for us" (Mk 9:40; cf. Lk 9:50). The two forms together imply that Jesus considers every man either a friend or a foe. There is no neutral position.
Next, Mark and Matthew report Jesus’ statement about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28-30; Mt 12:31-32; Lk 12:10). Luke has it, somewhat condensed, in another connection. Both contexts associate blasphemy against the Holy Spirit with rejection of Jesus. He was convinced that his work was inspired and accomplished by the Holy Spirit. To reject his proclamation of the kingdom of God and the proof of its nearness in his ministry of healing was to deny the manifest work of the Spirit of God.
Matthew includes here a statement (Mt 12:32; Lk 12:10) quoted later by Luke but not found in Mark; "whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven." Here again Jesus uses the expression with which he contrasted his way of life with that of John the Baptist (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34). As pointed out there, "a son of man" means in Hebrew and Aramaic simply "a man." "The son of man" indicates a particular man. Mark uses the term in the plural in this same passage (Mk 3:28; cf. Mt 12:31): "all sins will be forgiven the sons of men" (Matthew says "will be forgiven men"). Perhaps what Jesus meant here was not "against the Son of man" but "against a man." Even so, he would be referring indirectly to himself.
Many sensitive souls have worried about the unforgivable sin and wondered whether they might have committed it and incurred eternal damnation. What is meant by blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, however, is clear. In the Bible the Holy Spirit is the active power of God at work in the world. Jesus’ adversaries, seeing God’s work, ascribed it to Satan. This was blasphemy against God himself. It could never be forgiven because it bespoke a willfully blind spirit that made repentance impossible. Without repentance, which presupposes recognition of the need to be forgiven, there can be no forgiveness (cf. 1 Jn 1:8-9). When a person realizes that he needs forgiveness, that itself is proof that he has not committed the unforgivable sin.
An honest, conscientious error of judgment, made by a person who is willing and able to change his mind when shown to be in the wrong, is a very different thing from the sin that Jesus condemned. Over and over again he denounced hardhearted self-righteousness. That was what made the charge brought by his enemies unforgivable. There was no hope for people who saw what they saw and called it the work of the devil.
Matthew gives next a brief series of sayings (Mt 12:33-35; cf. 7:15-20; Lk 6:43-45), repeating in part what has already been used in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. The saying about knowing a tree by its fruit is followed by one about the good brought by a good man from his treasure and the evil brought by an evil roan from his. Matthew introduces this with the denunciation of the Pharisees as a brood of vipers, which both he and Luke have previously reported as uttered by John the Baptist (cf. Mt 3:7; Lk 3:7). Matthew adds to the series a saying warning Jesus’ hearers against careless speech (12:36). The charge of healing by demoniac power was just such a statement as people often make irresponsibly.
Now Matthew presents another important passage that Luke reserves for the final journey to Jerusalem (Mt 12:38-42; Lk 11:29-32). Some of the scribes and Pharisees, Matthew reports, asked for a sign. In the Old Testament a message from God is sometimes authenticated by a miraculous "sign" (e.g,. Judg 6:36-40; Is 7:10-16). Mark reports later that the Pharisees demanded of Jesus a sign from heaven, but he refused (8:11-13). In Matthew and Luke this is expanded and an exception is made: "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah." Matthew repeats this (cf. Mt 16:4) where Mark has the unqualified rejection of the demand.
What the sign of Jonah means is explained in Matthew as follows (12:40): "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Instead of this, Luke says, "For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation." A statement in both Gospels interprets this: the men of Nineveh, who repented when Jonah preached to them, will arise at the judgment and condemn the generation that has not repented at the preaching of Jesus. So the queen of Sheba, who came from afar to learn wisdom from Solomon, will condemn this generation. Matthew’s first explanation is clearly not what Jesus intended but an insertion by a copyist or perhaps a reader.
Explaining the historical allusions Jesus says, "something greater than Jonah is here"; and "something greater than Solomon is here." (The Greek word for "greater" is in the neuter gender.) The "something greater" must be the manifestation of God’s kingdom. The demand for a sign was needless and futile, because there were abundant signs already to convince and convict those who observed them.
Following this passage in Matthew, and almost immediately preceding it in Luke, is a paragraph (Mt 12:43-45; Lk 11:24-26) about what may happen when a demon that has been expelled from a man finds no other place to rest and comes back to his victim. If he finds his former home unoccupied, he will bring seven other demons to live there with him, and the possessed man’s condition will be worse than before. The general meaning is plain: to get rid of evil influences — physical, mental, or spiritual — is not enough if their place is not filled with good influences.
In Mark the "Beelzebub controversy" fills the interval between the undertaking of Jesus’ friends or relatives to seize him (3:21) and the arrival of his mother and brothers, with which Matthew flow rejoins Mark’s order (Mk 3:31-35; Mt 12:46-50; Lk 8:19-2 I). (Luke puts the coming of the family sometime before the debate about Beelzebub.)
Some think that the word "brothers" here means not sons of Mary but simply relatives. A cousin or even a more distant kinsman might be called a brother in Hebrew or Aramaic; but there is no reason to suppose that these brothers were not younger sons of Joseph and Mary. Later in Mark the people of Nazareth name the four brothers of Jesus and mention his sisters (Mk 6:3; cf. Mt 13:55).