Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

75. Baalzebub (Matthew 12:22-37; Mark 3:19b-30; Luke 11:14-23)*

Jesus now returned to Capernaum (offer a visit to Jerusalem for one of the feasts?), but he did not return to the family home there. This suggests that among his brothers and sisters there was lack of enthusiasm for his activities. By and by they showed this more openly (Jn. 7:3-8).

The crowds which thronged Jesus whenever he was in Galilee immediately came round him again (Mk. 3:20). They would not leave him alone. They were fascinated by his teaching and by his very personality; and, of course, they hoped for miracles. There was no let-up from the ceaseless pressure. It became impossible even to find time for a meal.
News of all this excitement came to his home. In the common version the phrase is: “his friends heard of it” More literally this would be: “those belonging to him”. The concluding verses of Mk. 3 show that this means his own family. Unable to take the words and works of Jesus seriously (for “no prophet is honoured among his own kin, and in his own house”; Mk.
6:4) they decided that he must have gone out of his mind: “He is beside himself” (s.w. 2 Cor. 5:13; Acts 8:9.11). Clearly, a man who takes preaching so seriously that he is not interested in making time for a meal is not right in his head. So they set out with the intention of bringing him home, by force if necessary (RSV: “seize”).

Thus was being fulfilled the Scripture concerning him: “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children” (Ps. 69:8). No wonder that soon offer this Jesus forewarned his disciples that loyalty to him would inevitably mean cleavages in their own family circle: “A man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Mt.10:36).

Word about the unsympathetic attitude of Jesus’ family quickly went round. This came to the ears of hostile scribes from Jerusalem, who had been deputed to follow Jesus everywhere (Mk. 2:2; 3:2-6), noting all he said and did. And it came at the right moment, just when they were able to make telling use of it.

At the time the Lord was busy working a remarkable cure. The Greek expression used by Luke (11:14) seems to imply that, like certain other miracles (eg. Mk. 8:22-26) this was not an instantaneous cure. The man being healed was both blind and dumb (Mk. 12:22). Such a highly unusual combination of disabilities is perhaps to be explained as due to brain damage. It is very improbable that he had been like this from birth, unless one is to assume that to the miracle of healing Jesus added the further miracle of imparting instantaneous ability to enunciate readily words which had never been spoken before. The man “both spake and saw”, Mathew records, mentioning speech first because this is what would make the first and biggest impression on the crowd.

These onlookers were “amazed”. Matthew’s word here is hardly given a strong enough translation, for it is the same as Mark’s expression translated: “He is beside himself”. In their extreme astonishment they speculated uncertainly: “Is this the Messiah, the son of David. Surely not.”

At this point the scribes and Pharisees came in with their own commentary. There was no denying the miracle, they blandly admitted. But the popular explanation was quite wrong. ‘Son of David. No, son of the Devil, more likely. Do not his brothers agree that he is crazy. And nobody knows him better than they do. There’s the explanation of these queer happenings-he is able to cast out demons because he is in league with Baalzebub, the chief of all the demons.’
This name Baalzebub was a deliberate contemptuous Jewish perversion of Baalzebul, mentioned in the Ras Shamra tablets as the god of the underworld. The name means “Lord of the dwelling”, ie. of the temple where he was worshipped. But the Jews distorted the name, as was their wont, to mean “Lord of Flies” (the same word as in Eccl. 10:1), implying, of course: “Lord of the dung-heap”. (Had they already, in some vague fashion, arrived at the connection between dirt, flies, and disease?).

This foul misrepresentation of the work of Jesus was rubbed in yet further (Lk. 11;16) by a demand for a sign from heaven. The jibe had a double sting: ‘Enough of your works from the underworld. Give us a sign which is plainly from heaven. Ahaziah, king of Israel, sent to consult the oracle of Baalzebub in Ekron, and died almost immediately. No doubt these whom you pretend to heal with the powers of hell will die just as suddenly. Why do you not give us a clear sign from heaven as Elijah did that very day, when he called down fire from heaven?”

It was a clever challenge, for they knew perfectly well that even if he could he wouldn’t call down fire from heaven and consume them and their fifty (2 Kgs. 1:2, 10). They were taking just the same line as the cocky aggressive rationalist who says: “If there’s a God, let him strike me dead this minute!”. Shrewdly they had well appraised the character of Jesus, and knew that they were safe. It was the second temptation over again (Mt.4:6), and it had the same response.

The irony of the situation was this--that it was by “the Lord of the Dwelling” that Jesus did his mighty works. At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, “the Lord said he would dwell in the thick darkness”. Using the same word zabal Solomon continued:”! have surely built thee an house to dwell in for ever” (1 Kgs. 8:12, 13; cp. 2 Chr. 6:2; ls. 63:15).

But these critics were oblivious of the great truth they had spoken. Instead, all at once, it dawned on them that they had here the most powerful disparagement possible of this Jesus and his miracles, and they proceeded to make as much of it as they could in progaganda against him. Time after time (there are at least six separate instances in the gospels) they threw this jeering accusation at him: ‘He can command the devils because his is in league with the chief of all the devils.’

On this occasion the smear was carefully put round with Jesus out of earshot. But it made no difference. He knew their thoughts (Mt. 12.25; Ps. 139:2) and called them to him (Mk. 3:23). Then he carefully took their slander to pieces.

No kingdom is ever benefitted by civil war. Its only gain is devastation. And for this to happen in time of invasion by an external foe is sheer lunacy. Did not the history of Israel and Judah prove this in the time of Assyrian and Babylonian expansion?

No city can enjoy the toll taken by surging riotous mobs fighting one another in its streets. When there is also an outside enemy, such behaviour as this is sheer lunacy. It happened in the siege of Jerusalem in A.D.70.

Neither, Jesus added, can a family afford the luxury of a. long-sustained quarrel by its members living under the same roof. The force of this simple logic of experience in its application to bickering in a home, to dissension in an ecclesia, and to schism in a brotherhood seems to have been meagrely appreciated by many of the Lord’s followers. Here is the simple
explanation of the dereliction which has overtaken some candlesticks of Truth. Here is the undeniable reason why, in some regions, instead of vigorous progress, the Truth of Christ has long been struggling to survive. It is a lasting reproach against the Lord’s people in this age that they have tolerated and still tolerate such flagrant flouting of his spiritual ABC.

But Jesus was intent on a devastating application of these simple truths to the fatuous calumny of the scribes: “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself: how then shall his kingdom stand...he cannot stand, but hath an end” (Mt. 12:26). It was the Lord’s way of saying: “Dog doesn’t eat dog”.

He followed this up with a further argument: “And if I by Baalzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons (ie. your disciples) cast them out?” This, Mark is careful to add, was said unto them in parables--an expression which precludes any assumption of the Lord’s personal belief in the existence of Baalzebub, Satan or evil spirits. It was a classic case of demonstrating the falsity of a conclusion by accepting the assumptions made and then showing that the argument based on them was hopelessly illogical. Lk. 11:18 requires the ellipsis: “(I argue this way) because ye say that I cast out devils through Baalzebub;” otherwise, there is drastic discontinuity in the argument.

The claim to be able to exercise power over unclean spirits was not uncommon in those days. Josephus (Antiquities 8.2.5) has a vivid story of one Eleazer who “cured” a demoniac in the presence of Vespasian and his leading officers. The method adopted was to put to the nose of the poor wretch a ring to which was fastened some herbal root. The demoniac fell to the ground as incantations in the name of Solomon were pronouced over him. And in “proof” of the cure a cup of water some distance away spilled over without being touched! All very impressive-and rather silly!

Some of the Pharisees taught their disciples this kind of hocus-pocus. So Jesus reminded them that their explanation of his being in league with the devil was two-edged. If it condemned him, it also damned the exorcists and their Pharisee teachers as being agents of the powers of evil. They could only evade this argument by confessing that they did not cast out demons, thus admitting publicly that all their pretensions in that direction had always been bogus.

Why, he went on, could they not apply a little commonsense to their assessment of himself? Evil is only cast out by its opposite. So: “if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God then the kingdom of God is come unto you”. It was a straight appeal for honesty in assessing his claims backed by such amazing miracles.

The unusual word here translated “is come” means either “the gospel is come first”, before being offered to the Gentiles (cp. Acts 13:46); or it has the idea of first installment -- the miracles of Jesus were not Satanic but a foretaste of the Messianic Age.

In this passage, Mathew is, to some extent, interpreting what Jesus actually said, as reported by Luke: “If I with the finger of God cast out devils...” It was an apt allusion to the experience of Moses in Egypt. At the command of God all the dust of the land became alive with lice. As with the earlier signs, the Egyptian wonder workers sought to do the same kind of thing, but this time had to confess themselves defeated: “This is the finger of God”, they said.

And now, similarly, it was palpably obvious that by its miracles the finger of God, the Holy Spirit (cp. Job. 26:13 with Ps. 8:3), pointed to Jesus as the Son of God, and at the same time the exorcists trained by the Pharisees were discredited.

Again, there may have been the added implication that since the Ten Commandments were “written with the finger of God” there was here the true explanation of all that Jesus did -not through powers of evil but by his perfect obedience to the La w of God.

“Thus”, Jesus added, “the kingdom of God is come unto you”. He may have meant that the kingdom, in the person of its King-designate, was now in their midst. But the small handful of occasions where this expression occurs in Matthew’s gospel (21:31, 43; 19:(23)24; 6:33 only) suggests a somewhat different idea-that they were now experiencing their finest opportunity of being associated with the kingdom by yielding the loyalty which its rightful king required of them.

It is evident that Jesus took very seriously this current campaign of denigration by the Pharisees, for, not content with the withering exposure he had already made of its utter falsity, he now proceeded by means of another neat little parable to show more positively the only possible interpretation of his own miracles: “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: but when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils” (Lk. 11:21, 22).

This parable was quarried out of one of Isaiah’s finest prophecies of the promised divine salvation: “Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or shall the captives of the terrible be delivered? (Eph. 4:8). But thus saith the Lord. Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered: for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children” (ls. 49:24, 25).

This expresses the certainty of ultimate success in the redeeming work of Christ. More than this, the context foretells the drastic retribution which must come on those who, like the Pharisee critics of Jesus, set themselves in opposition: “I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh...and all flesh shall know that I the Lord am thy Saviour, and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”

The figure of “the strong man’s house” is appropriate in a contention concerning Baalzebub, the lord of the dwelling. And Jesus had already shown himself to be “stronger than he”. The overthrow of the bazaars of the sons of Annas in the temple area had already demonstrated openly that here was a Son of man whom God had made strong for Himself. In due time this victory over the Goliath of evil would be complete. The constant succession of triumphant healings of every kind of sickness and affliction was an evident token of greater conquests to come (Rev. 20:2).

Jesus’ personal victory over sin in his own life proved him to be the “stronger” who, having “bound the strong man” was already taking his “armour” (as David did from Goliath; 1 Sam. 17.54) and dedicating it to God’s service. Ultimately he would also “divide the spoils of the strong” (ls. 53:12 LXX). The corresponding phrase in Matthew is: “then will he spoil his house”. If there is to be specific interpretation of this detail it must be sought in the miraculous healing of all manner of sickness and disease, in the curtailing of the powers of the angels of evil (Study 30), and in the redemption of men from the thraldom of sin. “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it (his cross)”(Col. 2:15).

The solemn warning of Jesus to these contumacious contemporaries became more weighty than ever: “He that is not with me (when I have a right to expect him to be with me) is against me. He that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad”. It is the figure of shepherd and wolf. These Pharisee antagonists were not interested in the well being of the flock, but only in maintaining their own status as shepherds-false shepherds. Thus they did as much damage as if they were wolves.

In sharp contrast with this Jesus was also to say (in drastically different circumstances: Mk. 9:40): “He that is not against us (when there is reason to expect that he might be) is on our part”. But, either way, the distinction is clear-cut. There are only sheep and goats, good figs and bad figs, wise and foolish, those with the garment of righteousness and those without it.

It is difficult to know whether what followed was spoken in earnest appeal or as bitter denunciation. The climax of this discourse points more probably to the latter view.

“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men (1 Tim. 1:13): but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven”. They were “in danger of” (enochos = en+echo, held in the grip of) an eternal sin. Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, they resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts. 7:51), knowing full well that it was the Holy Spirit which they resisted. Perversely they tried to interpret the gracious works of Christ as fruits of an alliance with the powers of evil. “They said, He hath an unclean spirit” (Mk. 3:30). It was unforgivable because it betrayed an attitude of mind which was now incurable. When a man can descend to such wickedness, he is past hope. Repentance, the always necessary condition for the forgiveness of sins, has become a thing impossible of achievement.

A man may speak against Christ himself (as they had done- “Behold, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” -- and as his own family were doing in all sincerity at that very time-”He is beside himself” -- and as Saul of Tarsus was to do), and still change of heart may be possible, and the forgiveness of heaven. But the calculating black villainy of these men had warped them past redemption.

“Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age (the Mosaic dispensation) nor in the age to come (the gospel to the Gentiles)”. Thus Jesus extended the same principle to cover the miracles which would be wrought in the days of the early church by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The question inevitably arises. Is it possible for a man to commit this unforgivable sin in the present age when the marvellous works of the Holy Spirit are no longer experienced? What is the sin against the Holy Spirit to-day?

This is no easy question to answer. Some have concluded that no blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is possible to-day. This may well be the simple answer. If not, one must conclude that only when the clear unequivocal witness of the Holy Spirit in inspired Scripture, recognized as such, is deliberately and unashamedly flouted, has this unforgivable sin been committed.

With caustic bluntness Jesus bade his enemies use simple common-sense: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt.” The effect must be of one piece with the cause. Character and actions match. “So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh” (Jas. 3:12).”A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Mt. 7:18).

In their perversity these men deserved censure. And they got it: “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things?” Here was the obverse side of the coin. Just as the true character of Jesus could be assessed without any kind of doubt from the gracious acts of compassion which he lavished on the multitudes, so also the warped and vicious nature of these scribes, dedicated if you please to the study of the Law of God, was to be read in their bitter and nasty-minded criticism of the Son of God. The overflow of their hearts spoke eloquently what kind of men they really we re.
The Lord’s warning and denunciation climbed to a climax which has bewildered and dismayed many of his followers: “And I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Mt. 12:36, 37).

If these words mean what they say, many a servant of Christ has reasoned, then all is lost. For what man is there who has never spoken amiss? Even the mighty Moses “spake inadvisedly with his lips”, and suffered a terrible penalty. Then what hope for ordinary mortals?

There is a further, and greater, difficulty. Everywhere the New Testament’s insistence is on justification by faith in Christ. How is this to be reconciled with the frightening austerity of: “By thy words thou shalt be justified and by thy words thou shalt be condemned”?

As so often happens, those who are in difficulty here have made perplexity for themselves by ignoring the context. Let these words be read again against the back-cloth of the blasphemous interpretation just put on the miracles of Jesus by these cynical scribes, and the problem evaporates.

Jesus was speaking of attitudes towards himself. Every idle word that men shall speak about Christ they shall give account of in the last day. It is by words spoken about him that a man will be justified or condemned.

And Jesus solemnly pressed home the full force of this inescapable principle, as it concerned these Pharisee adversaries, by switching from rhema, the spoken word, to logos, involving the reasoning and motive behind what they said about him. And so it is, to this day!

It needs little reflection to see that this is not only right but fundamental. Before God a man stands or falls by his attitude to Jesus Christ. It was not for nothing that the apostle John propounded as the most simple and yet the most searching test of a man’s value as a teacher: What does he say about Christ and the nature of Christ: “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (that is, fully and truly sharing human nature with all its inherited weaknesses and propensities) is of God. And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist...” (1 Jn. 4:2.3). And alas, the sorry truth appears to be that by this test all Christendom is found wanting. Anti-Christ! The sin is not as blatant as that of the scribes blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, but it is bad enough.

Notes: Mt. 12:22-37

Mt.9:32-34 is a remarkably similar but much briefer section. Was it also included there as part of Matthew’s compilation of typical miracles, and again here because even more relevant to the Pharisees’ anti-Jesus campaign?
Dumb. Gk: kophos also means deaf. Some very old MSS have two words: “deaf and dumb”
Baalzebub. It was a long time before this smear campaign was let go: Mt. 10:25; Jn. 7:20; 8:48, 52; 10:20. The Isaiah prophecy just quoted (12:17-21) answers this calumny in its next verse 42:8.
Thoughts. Gk: enthumesis, scheming.
Your sons. These even came to use the name of Jesus, but only in the utterly unscrupulous way characteristic of such mountebanks (Acts 19:13)
Make. Cp. the usage in Jn. 5:18; 8:53; 10:33: 1 Jn. 1:10.
Note in Jn. 8:48, 44, 39 the same association of ideas as here: 1. “Thou hast a devil”; 2. Seed of the serpent; 3. Character shown by works.

Mk. 3:19b-30

Went into an house. Modern versions interpret the idiom: Cometh home, i.e. to Peter’s house.
RSV: to seize him.
The sons of men; i.e. men in their weakness setting themselves against the Son of Man, the Messiah (Mt. 12:32).

Lk. 11:14-23

This paragraph is a clear example, of which there are several (see Study 1), of chronological dislocation in Luke.
Seek a sign. s.w. 2 Kgs. 1:2, 3, 6 LXX. Cp. also Lk. 23:8 RVm, also “evil and adulterous”. These two hostilities (v. 15, 16) were carefully answered in v. 17-23 and v. 29-31.

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