Open Matthew 12:30-32.
Hang on. Can this be the same Jesus who “wouldn’t hurt a bruised reed” (12: 20)?
Children of vipers! How can you say anything good when you’re evil? (Matthew 12:34)
What happened to, “Judge not” (7:1)?
Jesus was confronting. The world (and Israel too) was under the wrong rulers. As heaven’s anointed king (Christ), Jesus’ commission was to restore heaven’s reign over the earth (the kingdom of heaven).
The battle for the earth stems from the rebellion against God’s rule. The serpent deceived humanity into grasping divine power (Genesis 3:5). Hostility rather than harmony: that’s our daily experience. Our war with the serpent rages on, generation after generation (Genesis 3:15). Evil lurks, inciting brother to kill brother (Genesis 4:7).
That was the Jewish experience in Jesus’ day too. Crushed by empire after empire, they realized the serpent was their spiritual adversary (a satan), thwarting the restoration of divine rule. That’s why it was such good news to see Jesus releasing people from the serpent’s power. They wondered if this could be the son of David, the one appointed to restore God’s reign (12:22-23).
But the Pharisees saw only evil. They accused Jesus of receiving power from the serpent’s forces (12:24).
Pharisees see the world through the lens of evil. They look to find evil. They’re the snake in the grass when Jesus’ followers walk through the fields (12:2). When Jesus brings restoration and healing, these poisonous snakes conspire to destroy him (12:14).
Whatever’s going on inside someone, that’s what they talk about. The Pharisees’ preoccupation with evil reveals the orientation of their life. As a compass seeks north, they seek evil.
The Pharisees saw their mandate as chopping evil from God’s nation. They held the secateurs to God’s tree, and they clipped off anything they saw as evil. Since everything they saw was evil (even Jesus), they severely damaged God’s tree, preventing it from being fruitful.
And since the restoration of God’s kingship over all nations was to come through the Abrahamic family, these sin-seeking cutters were blocking the restoration of God’s reign. Specifically, they were seeking to cut off the very branch that would bring restoration — Jesus himself.
That made them serpent servants. You could tell because that’s what they talked about:
Matthew 12:34–37 (my translation)
34 Children of vipers! How can you say anything good when you’re evil? What’s in a person’s heart comes gushing out when they open their mouth.
35 The good person unpacks good from the good stored within. The evil person unpacks evil from the evil stored within.
36 I tell you, on judgement day people will be called to account for every worthless word they speak. 37 From your words, you will be vindicated, and from your words you will be condemned.
Do Jesus’ words regarding first century Pharisees also describe us today? Has the church been preoccupied by sin for 2000 years?
Has pointing out sin been given priority in our preaching and theology? Are we labelling people as sinners in ways Jesus did not? Has the church taken the role of the accuser?
Preoccupation with sin derails us from our commission (proclaiming good news). Our condemning words condemn us too.
We need fresh ways to describe “the gospel of the kingdom,” the good news of the restoration of God’s reign through Jesus the Lord. Perhaps Jesus’ parables of the kingdom (Matthew 13) can help us find our voice.
What others are saying
Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014):
We should be asking ourselves, Why do so many people view Christians as bearers of bad news rather than good news that might help the world with these tough issues?
David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, and George Barna, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007):
Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others. They say we are not honest about our attitudes and perspectives about other people. They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.
Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 167–168:
Matthew expands the role of the Pharisees as opponents of Jesus, in comparison with Mark. The Pharisees are the most constant opposition to Jesus in Galilee and are concerned with the same agenda as Mark’s Pharisees, sabbath observance, food rules and purity. … The Pharisees are not only part of the local leadership whose influence over the people and power over social norms are being challenged and diminished by Jesus; they are also in direct contact with the more powerful forces of the Jerusalem leadership. … Jesus and the Pharisees are in conflict over the community boundaries and the criteria for acceptance.
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