Open Matthew 12:43-45.
Jesus’ contemporaries called him Satan’s servant — one who pretended to release people, but actually made their oppression worse (12:24). After pointing out the flaws in their logic (12:25-29), he offered them a royal pardon for their insult. But he warned that they would have no release if they resisted God’s Holy Spirit (12:31-32).
He went on to describe how their situation would worsen if they rejected his leadership. Listen to this parable:
Matthew 12:43-45 (my translation)
43 When the unclean spirit leaves a person, it travels through arid places seeking rest and never finding it. 44 Then it says, “I’ll go back to my house, the one I left.” It arrives to find it available, clean, and attractive. 45 Then it goes and gets its companions — seven other spirits even more evil than itself — and takes up residence there. The person ends up worse off than they were at first. That’s how this evil generation will end up too.
If you think Jesus was teaching about exorcism, you missed the point. He was not warning his audience about re-infestation after deliverance. They already knew that. Exorcism was commonplace, practiced by Pharisees as well (12:27). The Pharisees would have stressed the need for a change of lifestyle to prevent reinfestation (which they thought came from what was ritually unclean).
No, Jesus wasn’t teaching on how to conduct exorcisms. He was using something his audience already knew to make another point. When Jesus said you can make a tree bad by the way you tend it, he wasn’t giving a horticulture lesson (12:33-37).
So what point was Jesus making with this parable about reinfestation? It’s in his final sentence: “That’s how this evil generation will end up too.”
This generation is the key phrase in this passage (verses 39, 41, and 42, as well as 45). Jesus was confronting the generation of God’s people who heard his words, Israel in his time. So the question is this: how does this little parable about a person ending up worse after their exorcism relate to Jesus’ generation?
The short answer is that if they did not respond to Jesus, if they refused to follow the king God had chosen for his people, they could end up in a worse condition than if he had never come. Jesus’ ministry could end up making their situation worse! How’s that for a scary thought?
What if the Hebrews had refused to follow Moses out of Egypt? Moses feared that very thing (Exodus 4:1). They did follow Moses out of Egypt, but they would not follow him into the Promised Land (Numbers 14:2-4). As a result, that generation died in the desert without finding rest (Numbers 14:35).
Jesus sees a similar possibility for his generation. If they reject the king appointed by God to deliver God’s people, they will be worse off!
That was a familiar theme in Judaism, echoing down to each generation: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah” (Psalm 95:7-8). Hebrews 3 applies it to the first Christian generation as well.
It’s still true today. When a generation refuses to follow Jesus into deliverance from evil, the infestation of evil becomes even worse.
It would be hard to find a more relevant Bible verse for our post-Christian generation!
Now, I can hear someone complaining that this interpretation makes God contingent on how people respond to him. God is bigger than our failures. Despite the evil generation refusing God’s leadership in Moses’ day, God led the next generation to the Promised Land. Despite Israel losing their land to Assyria and Babylon, God provided a deliverer in Jesus. Despite Rome decimating that generation in AD 70, God’s plans were not derailed: he’s still rescuing the world from the dominion of evil into the dominion of his Son. Despite the west’s rejection of Christendom in our generation, every knee will bow to Jesus and every tongue acknowledge him as Lord in the end. God knows how to rescue his people from evil and restore his reign over the earth through Jesus our Lord.
But in the short term, a culture can become worse if it rejects God’s appointed ruler and chooses to remain under evil. That doesn’t destroy God’s long-term trajectory, but it can make it worse for this generation. That’s Jesus’ point: evil will reinfest a generation that does not function as his household.
That’s why we cannot sell Jesus as a quick fix for personal guilt, without calling people to discipleship, to represent their king by enacting community under his kingship. God will still lead his world towards that goal, but the evil will be worse for the generation that refuses his kingship.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 369:
Were Jesus’ opponents accusing him of being in league with Satan through his exorcisms (12:24)? Jesus here returns the charge: it is they, not he, who are redemonizing their generation, for they leave the house empty in which God, the only true alternative to the devil, should reign (cf. 23:38–39).
Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 330:
If it continued on its self-opinionated way, the generation that refused the opportunity presented to it by the appearance in its midst of the very Son of God, the generation already characterized as “evil and adulterous,” faced a future that was bleak indeed.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 357:
This evil generation (cf. v 39) had experienced the powerful deeds of Jesus, which included demon exorcism, and to that extent had benefited. But there had been no repentance, no acceptance of and commitment to Jesus and his cause, and thus this generation would be as susceptible to the power of evil as ever; indeed, the judgment it would later experience would be far worse than when Jesus began his ministry.
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