Many people will do anything to avoid giving God the credit! It’s just human nature. I remember a miraculous healing at the prison twenty years ago, when an inmate’s blood pressure plummeted overnight – he went from permanent tinnitus to the BP of a fit young man in his 20s (he was an ex-smoker in his 50s) in a matter of hours. The GP who saw him that morning put it down to his medication starting to work – the same medication he’d been taking daily for ten years!
Today’s passage is rather more sinister. Having fired questions at Jesus for some time, trying to work out who he is and what he’s about – the section of the gospel from 2:1-3:6 – a group of them have now moved from curiosity to suspicion to outright opposition. They will do anything to find an explanation for Jesus’ spiritual power – a way out, if you like, from confronting the implications of acknowledging that this power must be from God.
And so they hit on (what they consider to be) a plausible conclusion – Jesus must be harnessing evil spiritual power. He must have sold his soul to the devil. Jesus immediately points out the obvious flaw in this argument: (v23) ‘how can Satan drive out Satan?’ It makes no sense! Instead, he points out the alternative answer: the ‘strong man’ (the devil) who runs the house (this world) has been tied up, so Jesus can ‘steal’ people out from under his nose (v27).
It’s a very candid, but a brilliant, analogy. And it recognises the sobering reality that there is a spiritual battle for our world. The devil wants to keep as many as possible from finding their way back to God. Indeed, we can see his strategy even in the way that the Pharisees – supposedly the religious leaders – try to discredit Jesus, in order to keep people from coming to him. The devil’s work is rarely dramatic – far better to undermine, distract, discredit…
Verse 29 is one of the most discussed in scripture; but the key lies in the text itself. The only unforgivable sin is to ascribe the work of God to the work of the devil – in other words to reject Jesus completely, and thereby cut yourself off from the perfect love, grace and goodness of God. That is what it means to ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit’.
The good news for us today is that the strong man is bound by Jesus. As followers of Christ, we come under that covering. It’s not a charm, or a guarantee of an easy life. But we can trust in the power of the one who decisively defeated the devil on the cross, and continues to plunder his house whenever he wishes, for the sake of his people, even now. Amen!