I long ago lost count of how many Christians – or once-upon-a-time Christians – have asked me whether they had committed the unpardonable sin. How many sleepless, soul-searching , gut-wrenching nights has a misunderstanding of the following words of the Human One caused people across the centuries?
“Therefore, I tell you that people will be forgiven for every sin and insult to God. But insulting the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Human One will be forgiven. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven, not in this age or in the age that is coming.” (Matthew 12:31-32 CEB)
While the words are unquestionably hard, they’re not hard to understand if read not by themselves, but in their surrounding context (12:15-37). The Human One made this remark as a strong word of warning to the Pharisees who were attributing Jesus’ work to his being in league with Satan (12:24). Their explanation of things was prompted by their jealous reaction to the crowds who, upon seeing the person healed, began to ask themselves:
“This man couldn’t be the Son of David, could he?” (Matthew 12:23b CEB)
One of my favorite Biblical commentators is Thomas Long. His comments in his commentary on Matthew (pp.139-140) concisely and clearly put Jesus’ words in their context, and in doing so, directly addresses the fears of many today.
The fourth reply of Jesus contains one of the most troubling words in the Bible: “blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31). What sin could possibly be so evil that even God would not forgive it? What is “blasphemy against the Spirit?”
This strong statement is based upon a distinction between knowing and not knowing the truth about Jesus’ identity. The ministry of Jesus – healing, teaching, preaching, casting out demons – is the promised kingdom of heaven in action, but in the present, Jesus’ work is surrounded by ambiguity. It is not difficult to miss the significance of Jesus, for he does not look like who he is – God come in power. He is meek and merciful, and even John the Baptist was uncertain if Jesus was the promised strong one of God, the Messiah (see Matt. 11:2-6). So, there are those who see Jesus and reject him because they misunderstand him. If anyone observes the teaching and healing of Jesus and still says “no” to him, that is a sin to be sure, but one that will be forgiven: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven” (Matt. 12:32).
But, there is coming a day when the curtain will be pulled back and al will be revealed. There is coming a day in the future when God will shine the light of heaven upon the work of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will disclose the truth to everyone that the ministry of Jesus was an embodiment of the kingdom of heaven. To say “no” to Jesus in honest doubt is forgivable. But to know the full truth, to know Jesus is the expression of God’s will, to be fully aware that the Spirit of God breathed in every word he spoke and energized his every deed, to know that Jesus is the very Son of God with whom God is well pleased – to know all this and, then, to say no” is the one sin that will not be forgiven.
By this word, then, Jesus warns the Pharisees that they are perilously close to committing this unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. Jesus is implying that their accusations are not a case of mistaken identity. They know who he is, and they know in their secret hearts that his casting out of demons is by the Spirit of God. In short, they see Jesus rightly but still hurl curses at him. To see the light and yet call down the darkness runs the risk of being unforgiven.
Your forgiveness, your life with God, hinges on who you believe the Human One to be and whether you bow to him. To believe him to be God’s Son and yet, prefer to live your life without him, is to commit the ultimate inhuman as well as blasphemy. For you, a human, Christ’s own creation, were made to serve your Maker, and to not serve him is to deny God, to deny your own reason for being, and to dishonor to the rest of all creation. To live out your days this way, God considers to be totally unacceptable.
Holy Father, I want to live as far away from your lack of pardon as possible. Patiently and powerfully work with me in the demonstration of this day, to the glory of the Human One. Amen.
Question: how willing are you to accept God’s complete forgiveness of you?