Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 12:43-45

Return of an Unclean Spirit

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 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. 45 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.”

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Today’s verses immediately followed our Lord’s refusal to give a special sign to the Pharisees, one which they boldly requested in their unbelief.

The parallel passage for today’s reading is Luke 11:24-26, about which I wrote in 2014. I found the commentaries accompanying that passage — also from my two favourites, Matthew Henry and John MacArthur — clearer than theirs for Matthew’s verses. Therefore, if necessary, please read that post for a deeper understanding.

Another helpful resource is the commentary that accompanies a reading on the same theme — 2 Peter 2:10-22 — which I wrote about in 2011.

Jesus’s message in today’s verses was for the Pharisees and the Jewish people. However, Peter gave the same warnings to his converts. Therefore, the context is both historical and contemporary.

In verse 43, Jesus spoke of an exorcised demon — ‘the unclean spirit’ — which then sought a new host. He might have meant the incomplete exorcisms that the Jewish hierarchy performed on the Jews who were thus afflicted. Jesus, on the other hand, permanently rid people of demons and healed their bodies and souls.

The unclean spirit then goes from person to person to see if it can lodge there. That evil spirit finds ‘waterless places’ — good souls in which it cannot settle.

It decides to return to its original host, now reformed and morally clean (verse 44). It brings with it seven other spirits, even more evil (verse 45). All now infest that person, making him (or her) even more sinful and corrupt than before. Think of the saying ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’.

Jesus ended by saying that it would be the same with the ‘evil generation’ of His time.

Matthew Henry explains the historical significance, which alluded to the destruction of the temple which took place nearly four decades later in 70 AD (emphases mine):

The body of that nation is here represented, First, As an apostate people. After the captivity in Babylon, they began to reform, left their idols, and appeared with some face of religion but they soon corrupted themselves again: though they never relapsed into idolatry, they fell into all manner of impiety and profaneness, grew worse and worse, and added to all the rest of their wickedness a wilful contempt of, and opposition to, Christ and his gospel. Secondly, As a people marked for ruin. A new commission was passing the seals against that hypocritical nation, the people of God’s wrath (like that, Isaiah 10:6), and their destruction by the Romans was likely to be greater than any other, as their sins had been more flagrant: then it was that wrath came upon them to the uttermost, 1 Thessalonians 2:15,16.

Henry then cautions Christians:

Let this be a warning to all nations and churches, to take heed of leaving their first love, of letting fall a good work of reformation begun among them, and returning to that wickedness which they seemed to have forsaken for the last state of such will be worse than the first.

Being a clean-living churchgoer without believing in Christ is likely to lead to eternal condemnation on the last day.

John MacArthur says:

You say, “Why? How is it that it is worse to be moral?” Simply, I think, because the sinful person who is aware of his sinfulness has more vigilance than the moral person who has no such awareness. I think what happens is when a person becomes self-righteous and moral, he then loses the sense of fearfulness about evil, and feels himself beyond the activity of Satan so that Satan can come in en masse, without that individual ever being aware, vigilant, or prepared to deal with it.

You’ll notice in verse 45, it says, “They enter and dwell there,” and the word ‘dwell’ is katoikeo, which means ‘to settle down and be at home.’ They are comfortable there, entrenched; it is the same word used in Ephesians 3:17, when Paul prays that Christ may settle down in your hearts by faith. They come in and find their permanent, settling place in the heart of a moral person. Better the person should have been immoral and face the immorality of his life than to be living under the illusion of morality and be demon-infested.

Listen to the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:15. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte.” In other words, to convert someone to the Pharisaic morality. “And when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” Why so? Because the disciple who is discipled into self-righteous legalism is usually more committed to it than his teacher. The person who is new at it is usually more committed to it than the one who has been around a long time and seen all the loopholes. You are already sons of Hell by your morality without Christ and you are making double sons of Hell out of your proselytes. Morality makes a person a son of Hell, and the more you are subscribed to self-righteous morality, the more you intensify your hellish relationship.

I don’t believe, then, that the church’s message is morality in a vacuum without Jesus Christ. I think God has called us to preach the Gospel. Jesus didn’t preach morality; He preached salvation, repentance from sin. I am not interested in making America moral without Christ; all that will do is give them a false sense of security and maybe increase their prospects for damnation. I guess, in some ways, it’s better to be immoral than moral. It is better to be irreligious than religious. I find it much easier to reach someone who is overwhelmed with their sense of sin than to reach someone who is overwhelmed with their sense of righteousness, don’t you?

MacArthur then reminds us who sent our Lord to His death. The immoral people didn’t do it. The notionally holy people who considered themselves above reproach were responsible:

The harlots, thieves, and murderers didn’t do it; the religious people did it. That’s the curse of morality – moral, religious, self-righteous people, confident they are holy in themselves, are utterly deceived into believing that Satan has nothing to do with them, and they have no vigilance or protection, and they can be swarmed by demonic hosts. In the end is in verse 45, and the last state is worse than the first.

Self-righteousness and morality is a curse that ties men up and draws them away from true conviction that can bring salvation. Listen to an illustration from II Peter 2:20. Here, we have a picture of some people who even come to Christianity and listen to Jesus Christ’s message, and they have a head knowledge.

It says, “They have escaped the pollutions of the world.” It doesn’t say they have been cleansed or truly purged, but through the knowledge of the Lord Jesus, the standards of the Lord, and the exposure to Christianity, they have escaped the world’s pollutions; they have cleaned up their act and “gotten religion.” They have started living the Christian moral code. But, “They are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.”

Why? Because you have a greater judgment if you have a greater amount of knowledge. So not only is there an intensification of demonic activity potentiated, but there is definitely an intensification of judgment on that moral person. That is essentially the message of Romans 2. Then He gives a proverb to illustrate it. “‘A dog returns to his own vomit,'” and, “‘A sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.'”

The Pharisees were blind to the evil lurking in their hearts and minds.

Legalists and moralists may be susceptible to the same.

In his commentary on Luke 11:24-26, MacArthur said:

There really is no more serious danger than the danger of morality. It’s like the leper with no sense of pain. Such a person destroys himself without knowing it. Leprosy is a nerve disease that obliterates feeling. And lepers rub off their fingers and rub off their feet and rub off their faces because they can’t feel anything. This is the deadly danger of morality.

So to attempt to clean your life up without Christ coming to dwell there is to be exposed to an even greater danger. That statement, “The last state of that man becomes worse than the first,” is very definitive. In the end, being moral is more dangerous than being immoral. There is no benefit in reformation without regeneration. And this is exactly what the Jews did, exactly what they did. And that’s why in verse 29, the next verse, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation.” Well they wouldn’t see it that way at all. They thought they were a righteous generation and that’s why they hated Jesus. They were moral but filthy. They were void of the purifying presence of God. They were damned by morality, damned by religion, damned by reformation.

For my exposition of 2 Peter 2:10-22, I used a sermon from the Revd Gil Rugh. He explained:

There is great danger in moral reformation. We don’t need reformation. We need regeneration. Keep that in mind. The church loses sight of this as it loses its hold on its responsibility to be the pillar and support of the truth. It gets caught up in all kinds of movements of moral reformation to clean up a life. But, do you realize we are making that person more a convert of hell? If I talk to a drunk, I don’t tell him he ought to clean up his life and stop drinking. It would make his relationship with his wife better, it would make his relationship with his children better. It would give him a better job. No. My goal is not to sweep clean the house. Do you realize that before, he was a drunk on his way to hell, and now he is a non-drunk on his way to hell. He is harder to reach now because he’ll go around and give testimonials about how he cleaned up his life.

There is a fine line between clean living and living in a certain way because we truly love the Lord.

May we live a Christian life through grace and faith rather than legalism and self-righteousness.

Next time: Matthew 12:46-50

 

 

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