This entry is specifically looking at the unforgivable sin mentioned in the Bible, Mark 3:28-29, Matt 12:31, and Luke 12:10.
For a full exegesis on this entire passage of Mark please read this [Exegesis of Mark 3:20-35].
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables:“How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. (Mark 3:20-27)
Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29)
These verses are some of most notable of the entire New Testament. Jesus begins by his familiar amen I say (Ἀμὴν λέγω), indicating a serious admonition to the audience. These two verses also contain a number of Hebreic elements which can be easily translated backwards into Hebrew, which means the early church was careful to preserve the transmission of Jesus’ sayings. Given the severity of these verses, a careful transmission of them seems likely. This admonition is also recorded in the other two synoptic gospels, which will be reviewed below. (Matt 12:31, Luke 12:10).
He (Jesus) states a simple gospel truth, that all sins and blasphemes of man will be forgiven. But that is followed by a double warning for those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. With the scribes knowing full well that the casting out of demons is a sign of the kingdom and the working of the Spirit of God, they have blasphemed the Spirit of God by claiming the casting out of demons was by the power of Beelzebul. This particular sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit came with the ultimate judgment, eternal unforgiveness.
This stern warning about the eternal sin should be read only in context of what was currently taking place with the trained religious leaders and Marks gospel introduction, where John the Baptist announces that one is coming that will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). Jesus’ admonition was targeted specifically at the scribes who were trained legal specialists, whose task was to interpret the Law to the people. Given their specialization and responsibility Jesus’ warning of eternal sin seems well fit.
The reader of this passage should be aware that a general application of this warning by Jesus can be dangerous. Taking this passage out of its context provides many problems for the interpreter and can even seem to be in opposition to the gospel message itself!
What this passage is not saying is that if someone accidentally blasphemes Jesus in the wrong way they will be banned from heaven or will not able to obtain salvation. The best scripture verse to help explain Jesus’ words is in Hebrews 6.
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
–because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”(Mark 3:30)
This simple comment in the text assures the reader that Jesus’ harsh words were a response to the scribe’s accusations, and helps to connect their actions of accusing his work of the Holy Spirit with the stern warning given.
Those who witnessed the miracles and wonders of Jesus’ ministry yet still chose to accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the prince of demons surely will have no place in God’s plan of salvation. For they have seen and tasted the heavenly gift but rather than accepting it they blasphemed it. The core of this issue is that they rejected the work of the Spirit by calling it the power of Beelzebub. This is the real problem. It wasn’t even a rejection of just Jesus alone. It is blaspheming the Holy Spirit after seeing it with their very own eyes.
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”
24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.
30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matthew 12:22-30)
And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Matthew 12:31-32)
Matthew and Mark have the most agreement on this story. Luke deviates slightly which is somewhat normal for the Luke gospel stories. In Matthew the location is slightly different. Rather than being at someone’s home Jesus is depicted leaving the synagogue after healing someone on the Sabbath. Naturally the Pharisees were very upset about this. (But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus [12:14]) So the passage beings again with the pharisees rejecting Jesus and the Holy Spirit working through him.
The immediately preceding Jesus’ warning about blasphemy of the Spirit he casts out a demon. This is where Matthew and Luke agree on this story.
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 12:22-23 NIV)
I believe once again that the real issue here are those who rejected Jesus’ miracles by claiming the work of the Holy Spirit is actually the work of the Devil. This passage is then followed up (just like Mark) by Jesus declaring that those who do his work are his real mother and brothers (Matthew 12:48-49).
Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
8 “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. 9 But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. (Luke 12:1-9)
And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him. (Luke 12:10)
In Luke I want to highlight the fact that Jesus framed the issue with “whoever disowns me.” I think this is key to understanding the variation in Luke. Once again the main issue appear to be the rejection of the Holy Spirit through Jesus, by those who have witnessed it’s power and wonder. In addition, one who disowns someone is one who was once connected to that person. I cannot disown a person that I was never in a relationship with. I could disown my own children but never the children of others, because I have no ownership over other’s children. Thus, Jesus is referring to those spoken about in Hebrew 6:4-6, as stated previously.
It is interesting that in Luke’s gospel Jesus utters another warning against the pharisees before continuing to preach. However, in this rendition no one is accusing Jesus of casting out demon’s by the power of Beelzebub. In fact, the passage is couched in a completely different fashion. In Luke, the very next thing after the warning about blaspheming the Holy Spirit is Jesus instructing them on what to do when the authorities round them up for inquisition and persecution; a situation where one might be tempted to disown Jesus and recant their Christianity.
When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say. (Luke 12:11 NIV)
In all 3 passages it is the power of the Spirit being demonstrated before the warning comes. In two of the passages an example of this blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is even given; the Pharisees calling the work of the Spirit the work of the Devil. Thus, the warning should be no surprise.
I am convinced that the passages about the unforgivable sin are clearly stating that blasphemy of the Spirit is witnessing the power and work of the Holy Spirit, yet calling it demonic. An alternative argument can be made that just rejecting the work of the Spirit without calling it demonic would count as well. This is how the gospel of Luke framed it. I would also suggest that Luke 12:9 and Hebrews 6:4-6 strongly point out that those who disown Jesus, after “tasting the heavenly gift” and “sharing in the Spirit”, will risk eternal damnation.
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