That the Pharisees, in all their pompous piety, extended an accusatory finger to Christ and declared his righteous act of mercy exorcising the demon to be powered by Satan himself, must have been received in the heart of Jesus with something more than passive indifference. Last time we noticed that the Pharisees progressed in their attack against Christ from mere questioning in Matthew 9 to the conspiring for his destruction and the accusation of Satanic influence in chapter 12. But when we look to the responses of Jesus in all those situations, we find that his irritation with the Pharisees is also growing. His answer in chapter 9 was that they should go review Hosea 6:6. At the beginning of chapter 12, he issues a mild insult/rebuke, questioning whether they had read a certain well-known passage. He also now instead of urging them to review Hosea 6:6, simply tells them that they don’t understand it. Then in response to the Pharisees’ blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, Jesus, no doubt fully enraged at this point, tells them that this sin will not be forgiven.
That Jesus should be enraged may rock the common movie portrayal of an always solemn Christ speaking softly and moving slowly. But that solemn, almost somber Christ is not the Christ that appears in the Gospels. We know, for example, that children loved to come to Jesus. As a man, we also know that he had no particular physical attractiveness that people would be drawn to him (Isaiah 53:2). Therefore, we must assume that the attraction for the children was that Jesus was fun to be with. A laughing Christ who played with (not just held) the children should be our mental image. Contrast this with his fury in the temple, whipping the animals and overturning tables. Jesus was no one-dimensional, gravely serious, colorless character. The descriptions of the Gospels show him to be an energetic, fairly young man, with a passion put into his activity.
Now, considering his response to the money-changers in the temple who spurned the house of his God and Father, hearing the blasphemy spewed out at the Holy Spirit must just as surely have made his blood boil. This must be the explanation for calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (read that, bunch of snakes) in verse 34. Not only are the Pharisees blaspheming, but what they are saying makes no logical sense. The angry frustration of Jesus comes through in his words as he corrects them in verses 33 through 37. They had considered him evil although the work he performed was good. Jesus argues that if the work is good, the person and enabling power must be good. If the work is evil, the person and enabling power would then be evil. But you can’t mix and match and maintain logical sense. And then Christ turns the tables on these Pharisees. What they had just spoken (their blasphemy) was evil although they thought themselves good. Christ therefore asks, “How can you (Pharisees) speak good, when you are evil?” (12:34).
Jesus ends this portion of his rebuke by telling them that it is by their words that they will be either justified or condemned (12:37). But how can this be? Paul says that we are justified by faith, not words (Romans 5:1). For the explanation of this difference, we must hold securely to the context. Christ’s point of the last several verses was an argument that the fruit of a person (what comes out of him in both speech and deeds) testified to the condition of the heart. Evil actions and evil deeds demonstrated a heart of evil. Paul’s argument for faith leading to justification encompasses atonement for sin and replacement of the unrighteous heart with the new creation through Christ’s righteousness. Therefore, there is no conflict in what Jesus says with what Paul says. As we who believe stand before Christ in the last day, our sin has been put away. Only the righteousness of Christ remains with us and by that we receive the final justification.
The Pharisees no doubt were taken aback by Christ’s vehemence in answering them. They may have not been used to many people questioning them, much less attacking them. Possibly merely to calm him, they quickly ask for a sign (12:38). They seem to be saying, “Okay…okay…just show us. Do something fantastic so that we will know without a doubt that you are from God…that you are who you say you are.” Here again they attempt to gain the upper hand. They had thought that denouncing his deeds as demonically inspired would cause him the loss of the crowd’s respect. But his logical and impassioned response instead causes them to switch tack. They want him to be miraculous on their terms.
Jesus does not even address the fact that his miracles are themselves signs. He does not do so because he understands what these Pharisees are asking. They considered themselves the leaders of the covenant people. They knew the Messiah was promised, but they must have imagined him as their Messiah—the idea that the Messiah belonged to them rather than that they belonged to the Messiah. This reminds us of what we saw in Matthew 11:16-17. There that generation was compared to children demanding that their playmates perform as they demanded. Here again, the Pharisees want to hold the strings and require Jesus to perform as they see fit. But Jesus says no. No sign will be given them on their basis of self-interest. Their self-interest was indeed, as Jesus characterizes it in 12:39, adulterous. Only the sign of Jonah—a sign that was intended by God for the people that also fit the demands of the Pharisees’ extreme sign—would be given to them.
Continuing then with the theme of Jonah’s ministry, Christ tells these Pharisees that the people of Ninevah would condemn them because they believed this reluctant prophet while these Pharisees can’t even see the truth from the Messiah Shepherd King Immanuel. Even the Queen of the South recognized truth when she heard the wisdom of Solomon. But these supposedly religious leaders could not even recognize truth when spoken by God himself.
Verses 43 through 45 show the miserable condition in which these Pharisees find themselves. Christ speaks of a person freed through exorcism from the indwelling presence of a demon. Without a faith and trust devotion to God, that same person may again be inhabited by the same demon, who this time brings others along for strength. This, Christ says, is the state of the Pharisees. They had the grace of God given to them through the old covenant. Yet in disregard of Christ, they would be laid hold of by evil and find their state worse than before the grace of God had been given.
That understanding is the same progression that we discussed last time in regard to Faith Electionism. God works in a revelatory/response fashion. He gives revelation. If that revelation is met with a faith response, he provides additional enlightenment. If that revelation, however, is met with resistance and rebellion, he moves away. The Jews, as a nation, were given the revelation of the covenant. In turning their backs on God in regard to Christ, God would move away.
To enforce this understanding that the old covenant and its physical heritage were not to be counted on as the priority for spiritual life or favor with God, Matthew provides the next scene in verses 46 through 50. Jesus’ mother and brothers are calling for him. And why are they calling? No doubt they heard reports of the passionate fire of Jesus in his response to the Pharisees. We learn in the parallel passage of Mark 3 that these relatives were saying that Jesus was “out of his mind” (v.20). This is a translation of the Greek existemi, which probably should be translated with a little less rigidity. They were probably actually saying that he was not thinking clearly. When the crowd tells him his family wants him to leave, Jesus, showing the importance of the spiritual relationship over the physical relationship, argues that the mother and brothers of his spiritual life are those around him who believe and enter the Kingdom.