Yesterday, when Laura and I were reading Matthew 12 together, we talked about this puzzling passage:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, I will return to my house from which I came. And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation” (Matthew 12:43-45).
We talked through it and I think came up with some helpful things. These are points we came to without commentaries or looking at Greek or anything fancy. Hopefully this short explanation will illustrate both some of the meaning of this passage and that the Bible is understandable without fancy tools.
1. Always look at the immediate context for passages that seem fuzzy. Don’t assume subheadings in your Bible are the best way to read it. The ESV has a subheading for this section (vv. 43-45), which is actually unhelpful. If you take out the subheading (which says “Return of an Unclean Spirit”) it becomes instantly clearer what the point is. Jesus is speaking here, and is in the midst of a single discussion which started in 12:39 where it says, “And he answered them…” What is the immediate context? Jesus is talking about the judgment of that generation of scribes and Pharisees, who seek a sign. They will be judged by those who they would have considered to be wicked and pagan Gentiles: the people of Ninevah and the queen of the South.
2. Ask how a passage is related to that immediate context. When this passage is seen in light of Jesus pronouncing judgment on the leaders of Israel, it becomes clear that Jesus is giving an illustration. How does this illustration relate to what Jesus had just been saying? Somehow “the return of an unclean spirit” is like the way the scribes and Pharisees related to Jesus and his ministry. Though the ins and outs of this illustration may still be fuzzy, the main point begins to open up.
3. Look at the broader context. You don’t have to go too far back to find in 12:28-29 these words:
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
What is Jesus saying by way of rhetorical questions? That when he casts out demons it indicates that (1) he is doing so by the Spirit of God and that (2) the kingdom is therefore among them, and (3) the demonic forces were somehow bound during his ministry.
4. Ask how the broader context relates to the passage. In this case, the most obvious link is “demons”. In 12:28-29, Jesus has power over the demonic forces. In 12:43-45, there is an illustration about an unclean spirit leaving a person, the person not making the best use of that fact, and making room for a worse situation.
5. Put it all together. From points 1 and 2 we understand that this picture of unclean spirit illustrates the judgment upon the scribes and Pharisees. From points 3 and 4 we see that Jesus has power over demons to bind them and cast them out, and this shows that the kingdom of God had come.
Now there is enough information to come to a big picture conclusion about the meaning of our puzzling passage: Jesus has power over demons (12:28-29), and the scribes and Pharisees were living in a special time when the spiritual powers of darkness were bound by Jesus. The kingdom was there, in flesh. But, like a person who has a demon leave them but does not take advantage of that opportunity, these leaders did not take advantage of the fact that Jesus was with them. Like “the state of that person is worse than before”, after the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the state of these leaders would be worse than they were before Jesus came.
6. Recognize, again, that you can still be unclear about details of a passage (“waterless places” and the ins and outs of demonic possession, for example) but still understand the main point. And the main point here: part of the judgment of the leaders of Israel is that they rejected Jesus and his devil-binding ministry is that their judgment will be worse than it would have been before Jesus came. The kingdom was ushered forth in front of them, and they rejected them. There judgment would be great.
7. Make application. There is a sober warning to us in this puzzling passage. Here, for example, we can say that rejecting Jesus is an awful sin. Do not make lightly of the opportunities given to us. We will be held accountable. We are in the midst of the kingdom. Jesus has come, believers are given the Spirit. We are, therefore, to make use of what we have been given. This is not about spirtual warfare, primarily. It is about belief and unbelief. It is about Jesus and how we respond to him.