“Were the Pharisees able to cast out demons? Matthew 12:27 seems to indicate that they could.”
The answer to the question is “no.” The Pharisees were not able to cast out demons. Before we look at this passage in particular, several important points must be noted.
The Purpose of Exorcism
The purpose of supernatural spiritual gifts was to confirm the validity of the message of the person performing the sign. Jesus promised that certain of his disciples would possess “signs” accompanying their ministry; among these was the power to “cast out demons” (Mk. 16:17; cf. Mt. 10:8). Subsequently, in the same context, the Savior provided an explanation for the design for those miraculous demonstrations.
“And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed” (Mk. 16:20; cf. Heb. 2:3-4).
The original word rendered “confirming” is a form of the Greek term bebaioo, which signifies establishing something as true; putting it beyond doubt (see Danker 2000, p. 173). J. H. Thayer commented that the term, as used in Mark 16:20, indicated that the signs established the truth and divine nature of the message (1958, p. 99).
An Ad Hominem Argument
If it were the case that the Pharisees actually could cast out demons, one would be forced to conclude that this Jewish sect taught the true will of God. But that is far from correct. Jesus once said to his disciples: “Beware of the leaven [i.e., teaching] of the Pharisees?” (Mk. 8:15). Christ declared that the Pharisees were “blind guides,” and that their converts were children “of hell” (Mt. 23:15-16). There is no biblical indication that the Pharisees were orthodox in their doctrine; certainly the segment that was hostile to Christ was quite estranged from the truth.(For further study, see my book, Background Bible Study pp. 102-103).
What, then, did Christ mean when, contesting with these hypocrites, he said: “If I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out?” (Mt. 12:27; cf. Lk. 11:19)? One needs to look carefully at the larger context in which the statement was made.
A man possessed of a demon — who was both blind and mute as a result — had been brought to Christ. Jesus cast the evil spirit out of the man, and immediately the gentleman was able to both speak and see. The crowd was amazed and began to conclude that this man just might be the promised “son of David,” i.e., the Messiah.
But the wicked Pharisees were incensed, hence, charged (likely grumbling among themselves) that the Lord’s power had been derived from Satan. But Christ, reading their thoughts like an open book, exposed their foolish argument. If he was casting out demons (the servants of Satan) by the power of Satan, then the arch-enemy of mankind was divided against himself, hence, his kingdom would fall. The implication is that even Satan was not that stupid — to undermine his own work! It was then that Jesus asked the question: “If I cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub [as you claim], then by whom do your sons [your disciples] cast them out?”
Christ is not acknowledging that the students of the Pharisees could actually expel demons; rather, he employed a form of the argument known as ad hominem, which literally means “to the man.” This is not the sort of argument that one uses to establish positive truth; rather, it is employed in refutation — especially when one is dealing with a dishonest opponent who really has little interest in truth. This type of reasoning underscores the inconsistency of the opposition by showing that “whatever proves too much, proves nothing.” [Note: Jesus frequently employed this form of logic in dealing with stubborn opponents; see Luke 13:15; 14:5.]
And so, Christ was saying this to the Pharisees. If, as you allege, casting out demons is a sign of satanic activity, why don’t you similarly charge your own disciples — for they profess to do the same thing? Take care of your own business before you approach me!
Finally, remember this: Jesus declared that in the day of Judgment some would claim: “Did we not prophesy by your name, and by your name cast out demons?” And yet he said, “I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you who work iniquity” (Mt. 7:22). Those “sons” of the Pharisees, alluded to in Matthew 12:27 and Luke 11:19, will be in that rejected group!