The Time for Choosing Sides: Jesus and the Clash of Kingdoms

In Matthew’s narrative, this is the moment when the growing tension between Jesus and the Pharisees erupted. Ever since chapter 9, they had been watching Jesus with growing concern — his healings, his teachings, his apparent Sabbath-breaking. They voiced their opposition on more than one occasion, but this was the moment they ceased weighing all the factors they had observed and pronounced judgment.

To them, it was a clear case: This man, rumored to be the Messiah, kept company with God’s enemies (“sinners”). Even worse, he broke the law and taught others to break it.* Therefore, if he worked with supernatural power — which he undeniably did — that power could not be from God.

Jesus’s works had to be works of the devil. He cast out demons, yes. But he did it by Beelzebub, the prince of demons.

In this confrontation, they finally declared their verdict: clearly and publicly. Jesus was not the Messiah. He was an agent of Satan.

In response, Jesus made a declaration of his own: that the kingdom of God had come, a world-changing war was underway, and the Pharisees were taking the wrong side.

Bound and Blind

To me, one of the most tragic aspects of the Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus was their inability to recognize and rejoice in simple goodness. Faced with the works of Satan and the works of God, they allowed the strength of their own expectations and their desire for power and vengeance to twist their hearts against the compassion and goodness of God.

In the story as Matthew tells it, Jesus had been healing people for some time — lepers, paralytics, and the demon-possessed. In this case, the man he healed was possessed, with multiple physical afflictions resulting from that condition.

Matthew tells us the man was brought to Jesus; he was not able to come on his own. With a demon in control, he had lost his will and his autonomy — his ability to make decisions for himself or act on his own behalf.

Physically, the demon had made him blind and mute. It had stolen his will, his sight, and his voice, his ability to receive from the world around him and his ability to make himself present to it. He was cut off from humanity, from love and fellowship and anything that made life worth living.

Demon possession is an extreme phenomenon, yet cases like this one clearly illustrate what happens to human beings who go down Satan’s road. This is the enemy’s desire for all of us: that we end up powerless, enslaved, and cut off, from one another, from joy, and from God.

When Jesus encountered this man, he immediately freed him from Satan’s power. The man regained his soul, and with it, his ability to speak and to see. The multitudes, Matthew says, were amazed, and questioned whether Jesus could be “the Son of David” — shorthand for “the Messiah,” the descendant of David who would inherit the throne and deliver Israel from their enemies as the Scriptures promised.

The multitudes were right, although they did not understand how the Son of David intended to take his throne or what enemy he ultimately intended to depose.

But the Pharisees, with their chosen lenses in place, only saw the devil. They witnessed a man restored to himself, restored to life, restored to the human race. And somehow, they saw Satan behind that restoration. Such is the power of self-deception and pride.

A House Divided

Jesus, Matthew tells us, “knew their thoughts.” Undoubtedly, this ability of Jesus’s to read their minds did not endear him to the Pharisees. But he did not hesitate to call them out. Jesus put tremendous energy and effort into correcting these men and therefore calling them to himself. His approach to them wasn’t gentle or mild; he was trying to snatch burning sticks out of the fire, and he did it quickly and sharply for their sakes.

In this case, he simply pointed out the enormous flaw in their logic: a kingdom that is divided against itself can’t stand. For Satan to cast out Satan would be a ludicrous act of self-sabotage. Moreover, the Pharisees were exorcists too: they knew that Davidic kings drove out demons through the power of God. (First-century Jewish exorcists drove out demons in the names of Solomon and David, using psalms and other words attributed to them.)

If someone was successfully driving out demons, most likely he was doing it in the name of God’s kingdom. But Jesus took it a step further than that. He cast out demons in his own name, by his own authority. And:

“If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God,” he concluded, “surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

The Kingdom of God Has Come

In Jesus’s day, those who looked for a Messiah were expecting a king who would challenge the ruling powers of the world (specifically Rome) and free Israel from their control. In this short exchange, Jesus redrew the contours of that expected clash.

The kingdom, he openly stated, had come. Moreover, the war had begun. But it didn’t look like Jesus leading an armed revolt. It looked like him driving a demon out of a son of Israel, restoring him to his full humanity, healing him.

Even two thousand years later, I believe many of us struggle to understand what Jesus came to do. To some extent, we still want him to fight the battle for our salvation on political terms. We still want him to take up arms against the human powers of the world.

And as long as he has not done that, we question whether the kingdom of God has truly come.

Yet it has. The kingdom is here; it is among us. Moreover, we aren’t waiting for the conflict between good and evil to begin. It has begun. It is fully underway. The powers and principalities Jesus is attacking are spiritual ones, not human beings. Salvation is restoration. Jesus has come to give us back our agency, our sight, and our voice. As Paul put it: “He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Colossians 1:13).

Against the complex political backdrop of Israel under Roman rule, Jesus acknowledged only two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. He had come to destroy Satan’s kingdom, and that, it seems, would take care of everything else.

This surely does not mean the kingdom of God is irrelevant to the wider world. When Jesus cast the demon out of the man in Matthew 12, the man immediately spoke and saw. His world was changed in every way. And he would continue changing the world around him through the power of his voice and the power of his sight, just as we do. When Jesus transforms our inner world, we change the world around us in response. That’s why Christians, historically, invented hospitals, taught the world to care for the powerless, and drove slavery off the table of respectability nearly everywhere on the planet. But I digress.

The Time for Choosing Sides

Jesus ended his response to the Pharisees with a challenge. Logic and honesty would compel them to admit that Jesus was working on behalf of God, and by God’s power. Therefore, they should change their position and join him. If they did not, they implicitly chose the other side — and there were only two sides.

For us, the same challenge stands. On this side of the second coming, there are still only two kingdoms in the world: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. They are at war. The kingdom of God, under the victorious rulership of the Son of David — Jesus himself — is at work to deliver humanity into full freedom and restoration as children of God. The kingdom of Satan is still at work to darken, cripple, and enslave.

Paul, who understood this reality so well, warned us not to fall into the same trap the Pharisees were in, one of expecting the warfare to be carried out with swords and political machinations. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God” (2 Corinthians 10:3–4a, NKJV).

But we must choose sides. Jesus put it starkly: “Anyone who is not with Me is against Me.”

The question is: Are we with him?

*This accusation was false, based not on the law but on extrabiblical pharisaic applications of it. Nevertheless, the Pharisees were not willing to reshape their hermeneutic around Jesus and his claims, so they forced to judge him by their standards instead.

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This is Part 212 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

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Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

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