This weekend we conclude our September sermon series on the Holy Spirit.
Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Comforter’ in John’s Gospel, but what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit in Mark’s Gospel is anything but comforting.
Mark 3.20 – 4.1 contains this little stick of theological dynamite:
28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.
Needless to say, though, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well even with me.
‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’
‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’
‘I thought God forgives everything?’
I recall an adult Sunday School I taught in which we methodically made our way through Mark, and, asking them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,’ I found little variance in the responses:
‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’
‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’
‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’
All told their responses didn’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, who defines the blasphemy thusly:
‘The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’
My friend Morgan posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.
Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do- what we almost always fail to do when thinking about the unforgivable sin- is read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.
In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.
Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not in order to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but to keep his wonder-working on the down low because now he’s a marked man.
And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.
Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.
Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.
[First!] Jesus touches him.
And then, only after touching him, does Jesus cleanse him.
In both instances Jesus explicitly violates the law.
The first renders Jesus ritually impure once again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.
Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.
In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and boozing with the oclos, the unclean masses. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.
In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.
Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.
The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side.
So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.
Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.
Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.
Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s:
If I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?
Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.
Those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.
‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.
As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.
The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.
Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.
It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, in the Hebrew scripture, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.
And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.
After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.
Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.
To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.
What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?
This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.
The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.
God continues to speak and work in the present.
God can do a new thing.
And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.
God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.
If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =
So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.
And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.
Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.