In this section of the Gospel of Matthew, the second devoted to the narrative of the Lord’s ministry, we have been treated to the account of various responses that people made to the Lord. We have seen the confusion of John the Baptist, the rejection of the Lord by the population of several Galilean towns, and now the opposition of the Pharisees, the Jewish sect that was to prove most adamant and relentless in their rejection of him. The first paragraph of chapter 12, which we considered two Lord’s Days back, is an account of their accusing the Lord of violating the Sabbath commandment and his response to that accusation. Now the account of the Lord’s dealings with the Pharisees continues after the brief intermission provided by the intervening paragraph, the paragraph we considered last Lord’s Day morning, in which God’s own verdict on Jesus as the Messiah is heard, his response to Jesus, if you will.
v.22 Though it is not said in so many words, the man was healed because the Lord cast out the demon that was possessing him. That becomes clear in the following verses.
v.23 “Son of David” would mean Messiah, of course, the promised descendant who would sit on David’s throne. The people are amazed at the Lord’s power and authority, but they are confused, as we said, because he does not do what they supposed the Messiah would do when he appeared.
v.24 This statement of the Pharisees is very important, by the way, in coming to understand the nature of a miracle. The supernatural power was not in question; it could not be questioned. No one ever questioned it. So the Pharisees were left with only one option: to argue that it was the Devil’s power, not God’s. So much of what is claimed to be miraculous nowadays, even by well-intentioned Christians, does not have this self-authenticating character. The miracles claimed for faith healers and televangelists do not force unbelievers to reckon with the origin of such power. Modern so-called miracles do not leave unbelievers with no option but to accept that supernatural power is at work. Unbelievers, and believers too for that matter, easily dismiss them as the work of charlatans or as the dreams of the gullible. No one was ever able to do this with the Lord’s miracles.
v.27 The charge the Pharisees brought against Jesus was not only offensive – that he was in fact the agent of Satan – but ridiculous. Satan would hardly deploy his power to attack his own interests in the world. What is more, the Jews had their own exorcists. We hear of one of them in Acts 19:13 and Josephus makes reference to them. Whether they actually ever drove a demon out of someone we have our doubts, but who can say. There are so-called Christian exorcists around today, whatever one may think of either their theology or their effectiveness. But the Lord’s simple argument is that if the Pharisees recognize the reality of exorcism and the work of exorcists, why should they criticize the Lord’s driving out of demons, all the more when it was so wonderfully effective and was bringing deliverance to so many heretofore benighted people.
v.28 But if his exorcisms are not of the Devil, then they are of the Spirit of God and, if so, then God himself has come among them in the ministry of Jesus. It may not be the Messianic rule they were expecting, but this victory of God is over Satan, not Rome. They were looking for a physical victory, Jesus had brought a spiritual one. In any case, God was at work. They should reckon with that fact.
v.29 Satan is powerless before the Spirit of God.
v.32 These are difficult verses, but taken in context and in keeping with the teaching of the rest of the Bible, Jesus seems to be saying that a failure to recognize the work of God in his own ministry – confusing, unexpected, even incognito as it was in some ways – was not so great a sin and not so final an error as a deliberate refusal to recognize God’s power and presence when it was gloriously and triumphantly displayed, a deliberate rejection of the light when it was shining brightly for all to see. The latter was the sin of the Pharisees who attributed to Satan the Lord’s wonderful and healing miracle working by the Spirit of God. Later on, in the rest of the NT, it would be the same. The sin unto death, or the unforgivable sin, or the sin from which someone would never be recovered through repentance, is the sin of apostasy, the overt rejection of the gospel of Christ by someone who knew that Gospel, had felt its power, and had, at least for a time, claimed to believe it. It is the knowing and the emphatic rejection of the light.
v.35 These verses are making the same point as those that came before them. What a person says and does depends upon and reveals what that person is. The Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus, their slander against him, showed their true nature. Their opposition to Jesus revealed these upstanding men, these public paragons of virtue and religious zeal, to be vipers in fact.
v.36 Once again, as so often in the Gospel, it is the looming reality of the Day of Judgment that changes everything. It is the knowledge of that coming day by which one’s life in the present must be evaluated and it is in the light of that coming day that a person must live now, or else he is without hope.
v.37 In Matthew 7:16-20 the metaphor of trees and their fruit were used to refer to a person’s works. Here the person’s words reveal what the person really is. Words, of course, are some of our, if not most of our, important works. That is why they are a reliable basis for judgment. The Pharisees’ words – their abuse of Jesus – showed them to be fundamentally opposed to the plan and purpose of God in the world. Their words revealed that they were anti-God, no matter their supposed zeal for God and his law. The words Jesus is talking about here are not idle or careless because they are only chit-chat about the weather or a carefree joke. He is speaking rather about those words that reveal the fundamental disposition of the heart, often without the speaker even realizing it.
There is a great divide in this world, a separation of the entire human race into two and only two communities. The Bible is emphatic and insistent on this point. It is the emphasis here as it is in many places. In v. 35 the word “good” is used 3 times and the word “bad” is used three times to underscore the contrast. It is absolute. There are good people and there are evil. That is all. Human beings are always protesting this absoluteness. They would make many more divisions or have none at all. The modern relativist sentiments of our culture, inclusive, tolerant, accepting of all views and ways of life as it wishes to be, wants there to be but one humanity of which we are all a part, however different our views may be. Or, at the same time, it wants us to acknowledge that there are a great many different categories of human beings, though all equal and all to be approved.
Now the Bible recognizes that there is a sense in which there is but one humanity. All human beings are created by God in his image, all have descended from Adam and all are sinners and in need of salvation. In that sense we are all one. But only in that sense. The salvation of God creates a separation, a division and a division into two and only two kinds of human beings.
In the Bible a person is either good or evil, he is either righteous or unrighteous, he is either a believer or an unbeliever, he is either a child of God or a child of the Devil, he is either saved or lost. Always this single alternative; always only the two possibilities; always either the one or the other. And here the Lord assumes and teaches the same reality that is taught everywhere else in Holy Scripture. There are good trees and bad trees, good men and evil, those who will be condemned and those who will be acquitted on the Day of Judgement.
Men naturally would prefer what they think would be a more nuanced evaluation of the human race. There are the supremely good people, the very good people, the really good people, the better than average people, the slightly better than average, the average, the slightly below average and so on. What is more, they would like to take many more factors into account. Some people got a good start and some a poor one. Some have lived in poverty and some in wealth. Some have received a great education and some have received none. Some have suffered grave injustice and some have lived in peace and harmony. Surely all of that must be taken into account. And, to be sure, in the Last Judgement, God will take all of this perfectly into account. But, important as these things are in some ways, they do not bear on the fundamental division of mankind into two groups. It is not so in the Bible that there are many different categories of human beings. It is never so in the Bible or in the judgment of God. Saved or lost, good or evil.
But the Bible also recognizes that this single division of the entire race into the good and the evil is not immediately obvious to our sight. There may be some unbelievers among us this morning and perhaps they are thinking, “The gall of these Christians to think themselves ‘good’ and everyone else ‘evil.’” That is, of course, precisely what many people think about historic Christianity in our day. That it is an arrogant viewpoint for claiming that it is truth and all other religions and philosophies of life are falsehood. People say, “I know some Christians and they don’t seem to be so much better or to live so much better than some of the non-Christians I know.” What arrogance, what nerve to call yourselves good and everyone else evil. I certainly don’t see it. Much of the world doesn’t see it either.
That is exactly the way the Pharisees thought. They were deeply religious men. They were famous in their day for their concern to live according to the law of God. They were noteworthy for their zeal for obedience. They have a bad press because of the Lord’s searching condemnation of both their viewpoint and their motives but, in their own day, they were actually highly thought of by many Jewish people. But here Jesus calls them evil, and not only evil, but vipers, snakes whose poisonous bite kills people. And, on the other hand, the people who followed Jesus were often people with a shady past, people with dubious employment (tax-collectors and the like), and, by and large no accounts. Nothing about their lives – we are talking about fishermen like Peter and John and some of the women who followed the Lord Jesus – nothing about their lives marked them out as better people than anyone else. Peter was as likely to lose his temper as the next man and, if the crowds had difficulty understanding what Jesus taught, so did his disciples. Where is the great difference then? But, like it or not, Jesus makes this single division between good and evil people and lumps many people among the evil whom we might have been inclined to suppose were good and some among the good we might well have thought were among the evil.
Unbelievers may be surprised to learn that Christians have no difficulty understanding their confusion on this point, even their doubt. Listen, probably every Christian here would be quite ready to admit that there are some unbelievers we know who are much easier to like than some Christians we know. As someone has tartly put it, “Christians are an acquired taste.” But there is more. Fact is, the better sort of Christian, the more serious Christian is somewhat embarrassed by this characterization of himself or herself as “good” in comparison to others who are “evil.” We Christians know all too well how much evil there remains in us: pettiness, selfishness, greed, lust, envy, jealousy, cruelty. It is all there and far too much there. We don’t see ourselves as “better” than unbelievers. Often we see ourselves as worse precisely because, knowing the Lord as we do, knowing his law, living under the obligation to love him as he has loved us, having the Holy Spirit to help us, we have no excuse whatsoever for our sins.
But, you see, that is the point here in the Lord’s remarks. The difference between men is not so superficial that it is easily recognized at the surface. True, there is a direction to the life of believers that is fundamentally different from that of the life of unbelievers. There are different commitments, different aspirations, different loyalties, different loves and hatreds. These will lend to different lives, to be sure. But at the surface, at the level of words and deeds there is not so great a difference that anyone and everyone notices it. And sometimes we can be deceived, as the Bible candidly acknowledges.
We know very well, everyone does, of people we thought were upright, conscientious, moral people, but who are discovered to have done terrible things. And we know people who have done terrible things, who have hurt other human beings terribly, who now, nevertheless, strike us as good people. We know there is more than simply outward behavior, than simply certain acts of someone’s life that tells the tale of that life.
I remember so clearly that terrible night, many years ago, when a young woman of this congregation (she has since moved elsewhere), who had for several hours that evening babysat our children, was kidnapped just a few blocks from our home. A Ft. Lewis soldier forced his way into the driver’s seat of her car as she stopped at an intersection on her way home. He kept her through the night and sexually assaulted her. I will always remember my first sight of her in the wee hours of that morning at the old Madigan Hospital. Later I was present at the military trial at which the young man was convicted and sentenced to many years in the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. I couldn’t help but look at that young man as the trial proceeded. I listened to him tell the court how sorry he was for what he had done. What he had done was pure evil. But I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. The consequences of his evil were heavy to bear indeed for that poor young woman and for her loved ones. I don’t know what has become of that young man. He is not so young any more. I imagine he is still in prison. In the military one is much more likely to do the time. Surely, we think, such a man must be numbered among the evil human beings Jesus spoke of. And if he has not found new life in Christ, no doubt he is. But I just got a letter the other day from a man who is also doing time at the penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth for a similar kind of crime, an egregious evil. But he is a Christian man. I have no reason to doubt that he is. He is and has been for some years an avid student of the Bible. He is a man who confesses his sins, who trusts in Christ for his salvation, who gathers with other believers to study the faith, who wants to grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord. Fact is, thieves, prostitutes, adulterers, even murderers are numbered among the good and not the evil in Holy Scripture. A simple evaluation of conduct is not enough to identify or explain the difference.
Rather, Jesus says, the difference lies beneath, in the heart, in the inner life, in the spiritual nature of a person. What is significant about words and deeds, and especially words, is what they often reveal about what lies beneath. There, deep within, is the great difference and there it is so great a difference that it separates the world very clearly into two camps and only two.
The Lord uses on several occasions a homely metaphor to make this point. There are various trees in the orchard. Some are good and some are bad. You can’t tell the difference by looking at the trunk or its bark, by looking at the shape of the tree. You can’t tell the difference by looking at the foliage as it blossoms in the spring. You can’t tell it either after the fruit has been harvested and before the leaves fall. Only the fruit, only what the tree eventually bears will tell which is a good tree and which a bad. But it is the tree that is good or bad, however indistinguishable the trees may be some of the time.
What is more, whether we are talking about trees, as in v. 33 or human hearts, as in vv. 34-35, it is clear enough in the teaching of Holy Scripture from beginning to end, that it is God’s work to remake and renew a heart, God’s work alone that can make a tree good. No human being can take credit for being found among the good and not the evil, for that is God’s work and God’s gift. Whether we describe it as a new birth, or a new heart, or a new creation, or a new man – all ways the Bible has to describe the change in a person, the change down deep, the transformation of his sinful nature into a holy nature – every description of this change is intended to teach us how impossible it is for men to effect this change within themselves by themselves. You cannot make yourself a good tree. Only God can do it. Whether speaking of the works of someone’s life or the words of his mouth, we are not talking about a person being good because he has made himself good, or because he has done enough good. We are ever only talking about people who are good because God in Christ has made them good.
So we have a great difference between people down at the bottom of their selves. A difference in spiritual nature. That difference expresses itself to some degree in what is done and said. It does not express itself perfectly and always with unmistakable clarity, but it does express itself. And that is why the Lord speaks here as he does concerning the Pharisees and their words.
Every now and then our words make terribly clear what lies beneath, what sort of nature we have, what sort of people we are, and still more, what sort of people we will become as that nature more and more expresses itself and, finally, becomes perfectly itself at the end of our sojourn in this world. At the end of the day, and this must be remembered always when we are thinking about a human life, the person’s outward life will be as the true nature of his heart. It is not so now. Evil people behave much better than they truly are and good people behave much worse than they truly are. But at the end of the day, people with unrenewed hearts, people who are, at bottom, still rebels against God, will express that rebellion, with all its sour bitterness, all the way out to their fingertips. And, on the other hand, people who have a new heart from God, will become finally altogether and wonderfully good in every way: in heart, in speech, and in behavior. As has often been said, you would scarcely recognize the people you know now, if you could see them as they will someday be. The evil heart of the unbeliever fully come into its own and expressing itself in every word and deed and, contrarily, the heart of the believer, which now has only a spot down deep in the center that is pure as pure can be, but then so pure, so full of love that the entire life becomes perfect goodness. C. S. Lewis says that if you could see the unbeliever now as he will someday be you would recoil from him in horror and if you could see the believer as she will someday be you would be tempted to bow down in worship. Satan’s followers will become just like him and Christ’s followers just like him.
But now we cannot see this great, this impossibly great difference. Only now and again do the words that people speak reveal either the darkness or the light that lies within.
Here are the Pharisees calling the Son of God a servant of the Devil. And they do that, they say that monstrous thing, right after watching him drive a demon out of a miserable man and restore sight and voice, life and happiness to that poor man. They call Jesus a servant of Satan after all that they had seen him do for the sick and the miserable among them. They had heard from his own mouth the pure truth of God. They had no excuse. Their words revealed, in a way much of the Pharisees’ daily behavior did not, the deep, abiding, bitter rebellion against God that lay in their hearts, the terrible, overweening pride that kept them and would continue to keep them from being willing to acknowledge Jesus as the Savior of the world.
A lot of stupid things came out of the disciples’ mouths during the three years of the Lord’s ministry. We admit it. The Lord had to rebuke them repeatedly for the stupid things they said. After a particularly bad remark came out of Peter’s mouth, the Lord once said to him, “Get behind me Satan!” And so it has continued. A lot of stupid things have come out of my mouth and of your mouths, no matter now long you have been Christians. How often have your words made you cringe because they were so unbecoming a follower of Jesus Christ. But then, when Peter witnessed one of the Lord’s miracles, out of his heart, out of the overflow of his heart, came these words, as he knelt before the Lord, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Those words revealed the inner life of that man. The Pharisees who encountered the Lord here, saw his miracles, but they never said, they never thought to say, and would have been deeply offended if one of their number had said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Neither the believer nor the unbeliever can help it. The overflow of the heart makes its way to the mouth. It is a fixed law. Sooner or later, more often than we realize, our words tell the tale and reveal what lies within us, the state of our hearts.
Sometimes it is just a single word. I don’t know how many times I have had people admit their sin to me and then, in the same breath, say “But…” And I tell them that that little conjunction just nullified their confession. A man who says, “Yes I yelled at my wife, but…” is not yet reckoning with his sin, he is still interested in defending himself, in parceling out the blame. What Jesus calls a “careless word” has given him away.
So it was with the Pharisees, who found it natural to accuse the Son of God of being a minister of Satan. And so it was with Peter who hardly realized what he was saying when, by the lake, he fell to his knees, and said to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” By your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned, because your words reveal the heart out of which they come.