The Pharisees saw Jesus heal a demon-possessed man and declared, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24). The familiar quote “a house divided cannot stand” is taken from Christ’s response to the Pharisees’ heresy.
The popular saying indicates that division within any organization, family, or religious group, etc. will hurt or divide that group, yet we need context for the true and full meaning to hit home. Jesus was saying so much more.
What Does 'A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand' Mean in Matthew 12:25?
“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste,” Jesus begins, before warning that “no city or house divided against itself will stand” (ESV). Other words for “laid waste” have included “brought to desolation” (KJV), “ruined” (NIV), and “headed for destruction” (CSB).
Separating the first part of Matthew 12:25 from the second part suggests that there are two degrees of consequences: desolation and division. Jesus connects the two.
Allen Ross believes that “in many ways this portion of Matthew provides the turning point for the emphasis of the Book of Matthew. It is one thing to oppose Jesus’ apparent violations of the current rules made by religious leaders, but to say that He is empowered by Satan is another matter altogether.”
The Pharisees could not believe that Jesus was the Messiah; it was easier for the Pharisees to imagine he was a demon. Jesus’ power threatened their power; his influence undermined their influence.
Where was the Lord’s influence in the lives of these religious leaders? How could they see God’s own Son but not recognize him? The religious rulers were blinded by their division from the Lord. But the Messiah wanted the Pharisees to understand that by opposing him, they were opposing God.
The Pharisees had already made a break with God by giving their sacrifices without worship, and by treating God’s own people with contempt by heaping more laws and rules on their heads. But it was not too late to be reunited with their Holy Father.
The Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus was a demon appears even worse by contrast with the themes evoked immediately prior. The passage before Matthew 12:25 describes “the peacefulness and tranquility of Jesus the suffering servant” as prophesied in Isaiah, characteristics, which Jesus embodied.
No wonder the “malicious hatred of the Pharisees in this passage” stands out so sharply (Ibid.). But Jesus’ logic also contrasts with their bitter and senseless prejudice. His unassailable logic alone should have signaled these men to think twice about rejecting Jesus of Nazareth.
Why Did Jesus Say 'A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand'?
“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (12:25). When there is major division in any body, such as in a kingdom where leaders form opposing sides of significant strength and influence, that kingdom will be destroyed from the inside. Jesus was telling his listeners several things with this statement:
1. The Pharisees were not being logical. How could they accuse Jesus of being a demon if he cast out one of his own? Surely, if he were a demon, he would be pleased to witness the emotional agony of demon possession?
Moreover, as Jesus pointed out, “If I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?” (v.27). If Jesus was Beelzebub, surely the healers from their own ranks were also demons according to the Pharisees’ argument.
2. The most powerful division came from within Israel. The “house” was Israel, divided and oppressed by the religious leaders appointed to uphold God’s Word and his will.
Their hatred of Jesus and their heartless religiosity blinded them (or some of them at least) to the truth, causing more harm than anything Rome could do. In other words, Rome was not the enemy Christ came to defeat.
3. He was alluding to the personal corruption of sin. This corruption divides the person between flesh and spirit. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).
The infection, which threatens to destroy our relationship with God and our efficacy on mission comes from our own flesh, and it rots our fruit.
Although the circumstances of Rome’s governance and the Pharisees’ religious hypocrisy were both forms of oppression, the individual has to decide whether to face external sin with a sinful response or with devotion to and faith in the Lord.
Layered Meaning and Sharp Reasoning
So what is the deeper meaning of the phrase 'a house divided against itself cannot stand'?
Jesus’ meaning is richly layered. Firstly, the Pharisees could not evict the demon from this poor man themselves. Jesus’ power alone was adequate, and the religious men might have remembered that there was never a need beyond Jesus’ power to heal.
Perhaps a faithful Pharisee could have exorcised the demon by faith on this occasion, but there was another point Jesus made: the religious leaders would not do it. At the start of this passage, they cry foul as Jesus and his disciples pluck and eat grains.
Jesus indicates the place where knowledge and understanding divide. God did not intend for the law to be more important than the people. Sabbath was not meant to become another form of oppression, another brick on the backs of Israel.
His intention was that his people would rest and worship him. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
The Pharisees could not handle a Messiah who seemed to break the rules by healing where they would have permitted their people to suffer in the name of the law. Legalism divided the Pharisees from God and also from the sheep whom they were assigned to shepherd.
Those who do not love the Lord, however, will pay eternal consequences. Jesus put it this way: “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you” (Mark 4:24).
Untold and Telling Thoughts
“Knowing their thoughts, he said to them […]” (v.25). Jesus could hear what the Pharisees were saying, even what they merely thought or whispered between each other.
Consider the scene as it would have looked and sounded: there would have been a crowd, many voices speaking and murmuring. Yet, Jesus heard everything they said. Nothing was secret from him.
While the Pharisees muttered in secret, Jesus broke the rules and performed his miracles on the Sabbath in the open. He declared; they plotted. Division frequently begins in secret.
Consider the plot between Rebecca and Jacob to steal his brother’s birthright, an act of familial division. Judas arranged in secret to betray Jesus. By his actions, and his choice not to seek mercy from Jesus, he was separated from the Lord forever.
“Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:24).
Denial of sin, self-deception, also causes division. The inner thought, which says, “I’m not as bad as that person,” or “it’s only a little lie, nothing God would care about,” is still an act of rebellion by which the individual turns away from God. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Why Do United Houses Matter to God?
What is the Christian to do with Matthew 12:25? Is there a positive action one can take in order to satisfy the Lord and avoid ruin? “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).
Live by the two rules from which all others are derived: Love God, love your neighbor. Do what you can to be unified with others in Christ and through Christ, according to his instructions, his example, and with the help of the Spirit.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.