Exploring God's Word : New Testament

Many Christians live with the fear that they have or, indeed, might commit the unforgivable sin. It is undeniable that of all the words Jesus spoke, his words concerning the ‘blasphemy of the Holy Spirit’ remain a source of worry and concern. In Mark’s account we read that, ‘Teachers of the Law’ (Mark 3:22), after witnessing Jesus’ authority over evil spirits, declare ‘“He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”’ It is an insult that Jesus does not leave unaddressed. Firstly, he explains to his disciples that the notion of the devil casting out the devil is a nonsensical one, ‘“How can Satan drive out Satan?”’ (Mark 3:23). But, secondly, he gives a stern warning to those accusing him; ‘“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”’ (Mark 3:28-29). The same teaching is recorded in Luke 12:8-10 and Matthew 12:31-32. In Luke and Matthew, Jesus makes a distinction between blasphemies against ‘the Son of Man’ and blasphemies against ‘the Holy Spirit’ – making it clear that the former are forgivable, but the latter unforgivable. It is helpful, to examine the language of Luke’s account in more detail. In the Greek, Luke 12:10 reads;

καὶ πᾶς ὃς ἐρεῖ λόγον εἰς τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἀφεθήσεται αὐτῷ

(Lit. and all who will speak a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him)

τῷ δὲ εἰς τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα βλασφημήσαντι οὐκ ἀφεθήσεται

(Lit. the [one] however against the Holy Spirit having blasphemed not will be forgiven)

The verse, firstly, equates the idea of speaking a ‘word against’ with ‘having blasphemed’. The term blasphemy (βλασφημία), in all its forms, is a common one in the New Testament. Βλασ- may derive from βλάπτω, ‘to hurt’ and -φήμη carries the meaning of ‘a saying or report’. Quite literally, then, ‘to blaspheme’ is ‘to give a injurious report about someone’ – ‘to speak a word against’, is therefore largely synonymous.

With this in mind, Jesus’ use of the word seems reminiscent of the account of events found in Numbers 13. The chapter describes the sending of twelve spies into the promised land, however, ten of the twelve spies return with a discouraging report. In the following chapter the community is thrown into disarray and want to go back to Egypt. God is not pleased; ‘The Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?’ (Numbers 14:11). The event is similarly recorded by the writer of Hebrews; ‘Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience’ (Hebrews 4:6). The writer has already made it clear that this ‘disobedience’ was the result of the fact that ‘they did not share the faith of those who obeyed’ (Hebrews 4:2). In short, the failure of the Israelites to enter the promised land was the result of them believing the bad report, and not the good – which the writer of Hebrews interprets as not believing the gospel. Like the Israelites of Moses’ time, those speaking against Jesus seem to be stubbornly refusing to believe in him, despite the signs ‘performed among them’. This particular behaviour seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ warning – that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, is a deliberate refusal to believe God, despite the evidence clearly demonstrated. In this regard, blasphemy is a ‘disobedience’, or an evidence of the absence of faith – and without faith, there is no forgiveness.

The different tenses of Luke’s account of Jesus’ words also seems relevant. In the first clause Jesus uses the future tense, ‘πᾶς ὃς ἐρεῖ λόγον εἰς’ (all who will speak against), but in the second he uses the aorist ‘βλασφημήσαντι’ (having blasphemed). The tenses hint that the sin of ‘blasphemy’ will be the final, defining quality of those condemned. In fact, the immediate context of Jesus’ words in Luke 12 suggests that an end-time reckoning is in mind; ‘“I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.’ (Luke 12:8-9). Jesus is making it clear, that whilst there is forgiveness for words spoken against him, as the Son of Man, it is the ultimate rejection of him, as confirmed by his miraculous works, that results in condemnation. In short, it will be those at the final judgement, who have opposed Christ, worked against him and spoken against him who will not be forgiven.

In short, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, is one and the same thing as rejecting Christ – to refuse Christ is to refuse forgiveness. Indeed, there is almost an irony in Jesus’ words, it is as if he is saying ‘there is no forgiveness without accepting forgiveness’. As John writes, this is the unfortunate condition of those who do not believe in the Son, ‘whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.’ (John 3:8). For those worried about whether they have committed the unforgivable sin, a simple question remains, do you believe in Jesus, the Son of God? If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, you have not committed the one eternal sin, there is forgiveness, and eternal life is yours.

Roger Wyatt