Jesus and the Pharisees – Matthew 12

Read the Passage: Matthew 12

Rejection of Jesus (12:22–30)

This chapter begins with an account about Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees concerning the Sabbath. Two narratives are recorded. The first account details the Pharisees’ critique of Jesus’ disciples plucking of grain on the Sabbath. The second narrative reports Christ’s healing of a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Both of these accounts are given in order to make clear the point that the Pharisees’ understanding of the law—and by implication, the One who gave the law—was wrong. Jesus explicitly teaches this by twice asking, “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3, 5), and by saying, “If you had known” (Matt. 12:7). Further, Jesus shames the Pharisees at Matt. 12:11–12 by showing their hypocrisy. The reaction of the Pharisees is not repentance, but rather the crafting of a plan to kill Jesus (cf. Matt. 12:14).

Following the teaching in Matt. 12:15–21 that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. With Jesus’ divine power being unmistakable, this healing prompted the crowds to ask, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matt. 12:23). When the Pharisees, a groups of religious leaders who were about 6,000 in number, heard the crowds attributing Jesus’ miracles to God, they responded with the claim, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (Matt. 12:24). This was not a new claim, as it had previously been made by the Pharisees at Matt. 9:34. Indeed, the Pharisees had already decided that they would destroy Jesus (cf. Matt. 12:14). Note that Beelzebub comes from Baal-Zebul (lit., “Baal the prince”), a Philistine god. The Jews derogatorily called him Baal-Zebub (lit., “Lord of the flies”).

Just as the Pharisees had evaluated Jesus, so here in Matt. 12:25–30 Jesus evaluated the Pharisees. Christ gives three critiques of the Pharisees’ conclusion about Him. First, in Matt. 12:25–26 Jesus gives a logical critique, saying that the Pharisees’ charge of demons being cast out by a demon was simply nonsensical. Second, Jesus levels a practical critique against the Pharisees, asking, “And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges” (Matt. 12:27). Here Christ seems to be alluding to miracles being facilitated by Old Testament prophets. Finally, Jesus makes a rational argument, asking, “Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?” (Matt. 12:29). In closing His argument, Jesus notes that “the kingdom of God is upon you” (Matt. 12:28).

The Unpardonable Sin (12:31–37)

Matt. 12:31–32 is a well-known passage in which Jesus teaches about what has become known as the unpardonable sin (cf. Mark 3:28–29). Here Jesus identifies this sin as “the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 12:31). Note, carefully, however, the context of this passage and how Jesus defines the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In short, it is to do exactly what the Pharisees did—that is, to reject the message and works of God. This transgression is unpardonable not because of its magnitude—as if there could be sin so offensive that God would withhold forgiveness—or because of its nature—as if Jesus’ atonement on the cross was insufficient to cover it. Rather, this sin is unpardonable because in committing it the sinner cuts himself off from the only source of pardon. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is one of regeneration (cf. John 3:6; 6:33; 2 Cor. 3:6; Titus 3:5).

Demanding of a Sign (12:38–50)

In Matt. 12:33–37 Jesus continued his teaching about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, making two important points. First, using the illustration of a tree, Christ notes that the words which one speaks are actually a barometer of one’s heart condition (cf. Matt. 12:33–35). Second, Jesus observed that words are important “for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the Day of Judgment” (Matt. 12:36). Indeed, the tongue is a powerful instrument that must be kept under control (cf. Jas. 3:1f). The Pharisees’ response was to ask for Jesus to perform another sign—presumably to prove His authority. Christ responded by saying, if effect, that they had already seen enough signs. Jesus then taught about the dangers of moral reform apart from spiritual regeneration. As Jesus notes, such religion will result in legalism and ruin.

Application Questions:

  1. What did Jesus mean in teaching that “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”? (Matt. 12:8). Are we to observe the Sabbath? If so, how?
  2. Do you think the Pharisees understood that Jesus’ miracles were supernatural acts that could have been done by the power of God? Was this clear to them?
  3. What is the kingdom of God? What did Jesus mean with His claim that “the kingdom of God is upon you” (Matt. 12:28; cf. Luke 17:21; Rom. 14:17)?
  4. Have you ever committed the unpardonable sin? Can a Christian commit the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit after salvation?
  5. What is the attraction in legalistic religion? Why are so many people attracted to works-based salvation systems?