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Will Your Heart Be Hardened Or Humbled by this king?

In Matthew 12 we get another stunning picture of King Jesus. Many people in the first century who saw Jesus in the flesh, including most of the religious people, were hardened by their encounter with Him. Due to the fact that our hearts are naturally sinful, this is how all of us would respond to Jesus apart from the grace of God. In reality, when anyone sees Christ for who He is, there are really only two options: (1) we will humble ourselves before Him, or (2) we will harden our hearts toward Him. After reading chapter 12, we should have a fuller and more glorious picture of Jesus than we previously had. And by God's grace, we will be humbled and overwhelmed at what we see.

First, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Son is forgivable, and the avenue to forgiveness is repentance. Jesus will graciously pardon those who deny and mock Him, for we see this all over the New Testament. For example, Peter denied Christ three times and he was forgiven (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72). Paul tells us that he was "formerly a blasphemer," yet "the grace of our Lord overflowed" (1 Tim 1:13-14). There's a sense in which all of us are guilty of blasphemy: we deny Christ by our silence or cowardice, or we defame Him by questioning His goodness toward us. Gratefully, all of these sins are forgivable by God's grace. He will forgive blasphemy against the Son for those who repent of their sins.

Second, blasphemy against the Spirit of God is unforgivable, because the avenue to forgiveness is rejected. Jesus is speaking to people who He knows were in serious danger, if not already guilty, of hardening their hearts completely against Him. In attributing the work of the Spirit to the person of Satan, they were setting themselves in total opposition to the Spirit of God, the only Spirit who can draw them to salvation through repentance. They were rejecting even the thought of repentance. Such sin involves willful unbelief, persistent rebellion, and final denial. It's worth considering each of these aspects of sin further.164

The Pharisees had seen Jesus heal every kind of disease, cast out every kind of demon, forgive every kind of sin, yet they chose to charge Him with deceit and demonism. Theirs was willful unbelief. In the face of the undeniable evidence of Jesus' deity and messiahship, they rejected Him. They did not reject the Spirit's work in Jesus' life and ministry for lack of evidence, but rather for lack of humility. The Pharisees were also guilty of an ongoing pattern of sin, and not merely a spur-of-the-moment reaction. This was persistent rebellion that proudly refused to submit, regardless of what Jesus said or did.

In the end, the Pharisees' willful unbelief and persistent rebellion led to final denial. Theirs was a permanent refutation of the work of the Spirit in the Son of Man, and permanent refutation leads to permanent condemnation. Of such sin, Jesus says, "it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come" (v. 32). One commentator described the Pharisees like this:

In the end, no one can be saved if they pridefully and permanently reject the Spirit of God. This is the Spirit who draws us to salvation, who alone leads us to repentance and applies God's forgiveness. We dare not reject His testimony to the Son. Even as we consider the danger of blaspheming the Son and the Spirit, we must be careful not to completely disconnect the two from one another, for ultimately to reject the Spirit is finally to reject the Son. As 1 Corinthians 12:3 says, "No one speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus is cursed,' and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit."165

These sobering verses leave us with two unforgettable reminders. First, we must avoid labeling anyone as guilty of the unforgivable sin. The reality is that in all of our hearts, there was a time when we spurned the work of the Spirit. All of us were at one time opposed to Christ and His Spirit in some sense; yet God patiently pursued us. Jesus knew the thoughts of these Pharisees (v. 25) in a way that we do not, so we should be slow to make pronouncements on someone's spiritual condition. We trust that God alone knows a person's heart. Who are we to say that a person has committed willful unbelief, persistent rebellion, and final denial of the Spirit's invitation to repent? Because God has not enabled us to see perfectly into a person's heart, and because His mercy is so lavish, we work and we pray with a constant hope that God will soften even the hardest of hearts, that He will save even the most prideful of sinners.

Sometimes Christians wonder if they have committed the unforgivable sin. Based on all we've seen in this passage, it's pretty safe to conclude that if you're worried about having committed this sin, you are showing by your concern that you have not fully and finally rejected the Spirit's testimony. Some people have labeled suicide or other particular sins as ultimately unforgivable, but this passage definitively does not teach that. Blasphemy against the Spirit of God is unforgivable because the avenue to forgiveness—repentance—has been thoroughly rejected.

The second unforgettable reminder in this passage is in verses 33-37: We must realize that the unforgivable sin is primarily a sin of the heart, not the lips.

Based on verse 32 in the previous paragraph, blasphemy involves speaking against the Spirit of God. This causes people to wonder, "Have I ever said something against the Spirit of God?" In verses 33-37 Jesus spoke of a principle that we see all over Scripture: Our words reveal our hearts. The unforgivable sin, therefore, is not ultimately about what is spoken, but rather about what lies underneath what is spoken. A heart that rejects humble repentance speaks like the Pharisees and reveals a dangerous condition.

It's a sobering reality to think that what we say, and what we don't say, is a reflection of what is in our hearts. Jesus says in verse 33 that a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit. The fruit that pours from our lips is evidence of what lies within our hearts. To put it another way, faith results in good works, which includes good words. This truth goes back to the reality that Jesus is the Power of God. He166 changes us so that what we believe actually makes a difference in terms of the words that we speak. It makes sense, then, for Paul to describe salvation as he does in Romans 10:9-10:

Matthew 12:38-41

Matthew gives us three more portraits of Jesus in the rest of Matthew 12. In the fourth portrait of Jesus we see that He is the Greater Prophet. The scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, as if they hadn't seen enough already. Jesus had shown them many signs, but they wanted something else, something more sensational. Jesus called them out in their wickedness, knowing that even His own resurrection from the dead would not convince their hardened hearts. He points back to the prophet Jonah.

Consider the parallel: Jonah was alive after three days in a fish; Jesus would be alive after three days in a grave. There's some debate about Jesus' reference to three days and nights, because technically He died and was buried on a Friday and then He rose on a Sunday. That timeframe doesn't allow for three full nights (or three full days, for that matter). However, it was very common at that time to count any part of a day as a complete day. Three days and three nights could easily refer to parts of three days and parts of three nights (Carson, Matthew, 296). The point is that just as a fish swallowed up Jonah, a prophet who was shortly thereafter delivered from death, so the grave will swallow up Jesus, and He will be delivered from death too. But there's also a contrast here: Upon Jonah's deliverance, the Ninevites responded with repentance; the Israelites in Jesus' day were responding with rejection. Even in the face of the resurrection, Jesus' contemporaries refused to believe in Him.

Matthew 12:42

Fifth, Jesus continues His response to the scribes and Pharisees. Not only is He the Greater Prophet, He is the Wiser King. Jesus points out167 that a pagan queen from of old would condemn these Pharisees, for when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, seeing His wealth and wisdom, she marveled that God had given such wisdom to man (1 Kgs 10). Yet the Pharisees had the very wisdom of God standing in front of them, and they rejected everything He said.

Matthew 12:43-50

The sixth portrait of Jesus in Matthew 12 may be the most amazing. In light of Jesus' greatness, it is simply stunning to consider that He is our Elder Brother. As we hear the term elder brother, we need to guard against a misunderstanding related to certain cultic teachings in our day. Mormons, for instance, do not believe the Bible's teaching on Christ's divinity, though they do claim that certain people will actually attain unto godhood after the final resurrection based on certain religious requirements.26 However, Scripture clearly presents Jesus Christ as God the Son, fully divine (Col 2:9), and although believers will one day receive a glorious resurrected body, we will never become gods. Our part will be to serve and worship the one true God (Rev 7:9-10). Referring to Jesus as our Elder Brother reminds us that, as God, He took on human flesh (John 1:14), and because He is both fully God and fully man, His death and resurrection make it possible for sinful human beings to be a part of His family. We see similar language in places like Romans 8:29, where Jesus is called the "firstborn among many brothers," or in Hebrews 2:11, where it says of believers that Jesus is "not ashamed to call them brothers."

After responding to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus then tells a story about an unclean spirit and applies it to the present evil generation. At first glance, the point of Jesus' story in verses 43-45 is not altogether obvious. Jesus is telling us here what we don't need: an empty religion consumed with outer reformation. All kinds of fanciful explanations have been offered regarding what this passage teaches, including how to deliver demons out of people and what must be done to ensure demons don't come back. However, this kind of speculation about tactics in spiritual warfare misses the entire point of the passage. Jesus was168 still addressing these Pharisees who had hardened their hearts toward Him and who were leading the Jewish people away from Him. He describes them as people who had sought to get their house in order, likely a reference to their attempt to follow God's laws and a variety of other rules and regulations. The Pharisees had tried to sweep evil out of their lives and put things in order in their own strength. But their religious devotion had ultimately left their hearts empty. They were so focused on outer reformation when their greatest need was a new heart. And as a result, they were even more susceptible to the advance of the Evil One than they had been before.

The Pharisees were classic moralists, thinking they could reform their own lives. This kind of self-righteous moralism is empty; it only drives you further away from God, making you worse off than you were previously. Ultimately, this kind of approach to God damns you. Legalism gets progressively worse in our lives from year to year and from generation to generation. The more we convince ourselves that we can reform our lives, the more we find ourselves working harder and harder; yet we come up empty every time. That is a recipe for hopeless living and eventual condemnation. Make no mistake about it: legalism is demonic.

Rather than legalism, in verses 46-50 Jesus points in another direction for the answer to our great need. So if we don't need empty religion consumed with outer reformation, then what do we need? What we do need is an intimate relationship compelled by inner transformation. Jesus says that those who do God's will are part of His family, a family united around the gospel.

We come to God the Father through God the Son, knowing that Christ Jesus is our Brother. In His humanity, Jesus is like us in every way, only He is without sin (Heb 4:15). He alone is righteous. He alone is able to obey the law that we cannot obey. He alone is stronger than Satan, which enabled Christ to overcome sin in His life and in His death. And finally, only Jesus was able to rise from the grave. On that basis, Jesus invites us into His family. He makes it possible for us to be called sons and daughters of God. When we turn aside from sin and self and trust in Jesus, we are brought into God's family by the power of His Spirit. This is the kind of relationship that brings about inner transformation.

Hear the humbling invitations given throughout this chapter in Matthew. For all who have worked hard to try to be righteous, rest in the Lord of the Sabbath who is righteous for you. To all who are bruised and broken, whose light is struggling to find life, humble yourself before169 the One who brings hope to the hurting and ask Him to heal you. To all who are struggling under the weight of sin, come to the One who is the Power of God—to the One who is stronger than your enemy. To all who fear death, come to the greater Prophet who conquers death. To all who seek wisdom, come to the only wise King. And to all who long to be loved, come to your Elder Brother, who brings you into the family where God is Father.

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