Read the passage here.
Our passage today is probably most well-known for the difficult saying about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. (And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.) Oftentimes, this is called “the unforgiveable sin.” This feels problematic to many of us because, firstly, we are led to believe that there is no sin so great that God can’t or won’t forgive us. And, secondly, it’s problematic because we can’t seem to get a handle on what “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” means. Which, of course, may lead us to the anxiety that we may be, or have at some point, committed the sin without knowing it (and are, following the first point, unforgiven).
I’ll confess right off the bat that I don’t have definitive answers for you about this issue. However, I’m inclined to believe that there is in fact no sin that God can’t or won’t forgive – if indeed we want forgiveness. So then, what does Jesus mean here? What is blasphemy against the Spirit?
I also want to say that there are plenty of people who have thought, written, and spoken about this passage (and its correlates – Mark 3 & Luke 12). And I’m not saying that they understand this passage and the issues wrongly. There’s lots of good information that is helpful. However, I’m simply trying to help us understand it (somewhat), and in particular to understand it in the context of Matthew.
So firstly, we remember that this passage – this narrative – is part of the larger narrative in this section of Matthew. What we’ve seen so far is a number of encounters in which the common thread seems to be people who reject Jesus and his ministry (that is, the proclamation of the kingdom of God). So when we arrive at our verses today, we see this continued.
The passage begins (12:22-24) with yet another miracle performed by Jesus – the healing of a man both blind and mute, this being attributed to demon-possession. While the gathered crowds see this as a messianic sign (i.e. Is Jesus the Son of David?), the Pharisees claim that the miracle is performed by the power of Beelzebub.
Jesus’ response (12:25-29), in short, is that this makes no sense. Why would Satan cast out Satan? The kingdom of God is inherently opposed to the kingdoms of this world. To put it in terms given to us by the text, the Son of David cannot also be the servant of Beelzebub. It’s either one or the other. Now there’s more to say about these verses, but we’ll leave it there for now.
Now these next verses are among the most harsh, in my opinion, that come from Jesus’ mouth – and they’re directed towards the Pharisees:
30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”Matthew 12:30-37
In my opinion, these are difficult sayings by Jesus because nobody is always perfectly for Jesus, for the kingdom. Nobody always and consistently produces good fruit. So to say, “whoever is not with me is against me” or, that a tree either has good fruit or bad fruit, seems to belie the fact that human beings are always kind of both.
I feel like it’s too much to say that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole or that He is setting things in absolute terms. However, I think again that the context helps us here. Jesus is responding to a particular challenge by the Pharisees. And that challenge – again, remembering what we’ve seen of the Pharisees and their interactions with Jesus in Matthew, and over the past couple of chapters in particular – that challenge, basically amounts to the Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus and His ministry. Jesus doesn’t fit their idea of the Messiah; His ministry doesn’t suit their expectations of their kingdom. Here, their dissatisfaction essentially reaches a peak in the accusation that Jesus, His ministry, His idea of the kingdom, is of the devil.
In other words, the Pharisees are basically saying something like, “we don’t like your ministry, we don’t like what you’re saying and doing, so you must not be from God.”
In essence, I think what Jesus does is turn the accusation around on the Pharisees. Jesus effectively says, “If you are the so called leaders of God’s people, why don’t you recognize when the kingdom of God is in your midst? If you claim that you are for the kingdom of God, then why don’t you do the things that the kingdom demands? Why don’t you seek the things that the kingdom is about?” When Jesus says, “every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven,” By claiming that Jesus is not from God, but from Beelzebub, I think that Jesus is judging that the Pharisees don’t recognize the kingdom of God in their midst because the kingdom of God is not what they are actually looking for. And this is a theme that by now we should be pretty familiar with. The Pharisees reject the Messiah in their midst because the Messiah is not actually what they are looking for.
As a bit of an aside (though, of course, it’s relevant), when Jesus says “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come,” this seems problematic because isn’t blasphemy against the Son of God the same (qualitatively) as blasphemy against the Spirit of God?
And I think the apparent problem comes from our looking at this interaction, which has a particular historical situation, through the eyes of 21st century people who, in particular, have a pretty particular view of the doctrine of the trinity.
(This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t know about or hold to a doctrine of the Trinity (he is, after all, the second person of the Trinity). I’m merely suggesting that Jesus isn’t making that claim here.)
In other words, Jesus might be (and seems to be, in my opinion) merely saying something along the lines of, “It’s ‘fine’ if you want to disparage me, but when you claim that the work of God is not the work of God, or that what is clearly not of God is from God, then you are unforgivably mistaken.”
All of this leads to viewing this encounter as something like the following: Jesus is doing a particular thing – that is, bringing the kingdom of God. The Pharisees reject this because they have their own ideas of the kingdom in mind – ideas which, in fact, are in many ways contrary to what Jesus is actually doing. Inasmuch as they refuse to let go of their own ideas, inasmuch as they refuse to acknowledge the kingdom of God in their midst, they cannot be forgiven. If they refuse to accept the Kingdom of God, how can they enter the Kingdom of God?
At this point, it should be obvious that there’s not too much different going on here than what we’ve seen in the previous passages – indeed, we’ve seen much of this in the gospel as a whole. Matthew is concerned with showing that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, contrary to what some folks, like the Pharisees, believed. Contrary to what the Pharisees expected or wanted. This should be familiar, and it should also cause us to examine ourselves – what it is we expect or want from Jesus; from the kingdom of God. So, with that in mind, I want to draw your attention to Jesus’ words in verse 30.
30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.Matthew 12:30
Here Jesus says essentially, you’re either for the kingdom or you’re not. But the second saying, “whoever does not gather with me scatters,” deserves a little attention, I think. Because it feels to me like Jesus is saying something about the nature of the kingdom, the character of the kingdom.
In short, this short phrase reminds me of what we see back in Genesis 12 when God calls Abram.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,Genesis 12:2-3
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
In Genesis, and through the Old Testament, what we see is that God’s purpose, the reason for His calling Abraham and Israel into covenant, is not merely to bless and save the nation, the people of Israel. Rather, God’s purpose is that through Israel, God would effect the redemption of all creation. We’ve talked about this a lot, so we’re not going to review or unpack this here.
In the context of Matthew, and in particular, in what we’ve seen through the interactions of Jesus and the Pharisees (and the other so-called religious elite), is that one of the characteristics of the religious leaders is the desire to delineate precisely those who do not belong, those who are not good enough.
This makes sense if you’re part of the elite. Because once you start making efforts to include everyone, you are no longer the elite.
But it is the nature of the kingdom, the character of God, that desires not to create boundaries between people, not to determine which people don’t belong and which people are good enough, but to redeem all peoples and all creation. Jesus Christ died so that all who call upon the name of God will be saved.
Now I’m not suggesting a kind of universalism here. I’m not suggesting that all religions are the same, or that all that matters is that you’re a good person, or anything like that. Scripture is clear that it is only through Jesus Christ that anyone is saved. In fact, what we see precisely in this passage is that there are those who don’t want, who won’t respond to, what God is doing.
What I’m talking about is the purpose and work of God in contrast to the purpose and work of people like the Pharisees in Matthew.
Now what this should say to those of us trying to figure out and live out how to be the people of God in the 21st century is a couple of things (actually, it’s probably any number of things, but I’m only going to mention a couple).
Firstly, as we’ve said before, it’s one thing seek to be religious, and it is (might be) another thing entirely to seek first the kingdom of God. (And here I’m using the term ‘religious’ in a negative way, but I want to acknowledge and affirm that it doesn’t have to be used that way). Put another way, it’s one thing to do and build a church (i.e. as an institution), and it’s an entirely different thing to seek to be people of God. As I’ve said before, there are plenty of people (not most) who do church, Christianity, and spirituality in a way that has little to do with Jesus. In fact, I would argue that all of us do this in some ways, at some times. We are all prone (at some times) to seek first our own kingdoms rather than the kingdom of God. So the question we have to ask ourselves (constantly and consistently) is, “whose kingdom are we seeking?”
Secondly, and related to this, is that if we are to pay attention to, and align ourselves with, what God is doing, a primary consideration seems to be how we are bringing people together. Now I grant that this is possibly a minor part of today’s passage, but I believe that it is a theme throughout Matthew regarding what the Kingdom of God looks like. Unlike the Pharisees, who seem to be mostly concerned about maintaining their own kingdom, deciding who’s worthy, who’s in or out, Jesus seems to be interested in making sure that anyone who genuinely wants to can receive God’s forgiveness and acceptance. Once again, I’m not in any way meaning to suggest a kind of universalism (everybody gets saved), nor am I meaning to suggest that holiness doesn’t matter (for example). What I am saying is that the character of the kingdom seems to have a lot more to do with peace, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation than it does with drawing lines or making accusations.
So it seems to me, that what this means, practically speaking, is that firstly, we need to be committed to hearing and knowing the word of God – we need to be committed to scripture. And we need to be committed to not simply assuming that we know what God says and what God thinks and what God is doing (this is what the religious leaders did, isn’t it?). Which doesn’t mean that we can’t have confidence – it doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. What it means is that we as the people of God need to live a life of humility before the Word and before the Holy Spirit, allowing God to do what God is doing, and not necessarily what we think He should be doing. We need, therefore, to live a life of repentance before God.
I think a lot about what it means to be church and what it means to do church. I think a lot about what kingdom we are actually seeking. People from all walks of life were drawn to Jesus. (Not the Pharisees, obviously – and we’ve talked about the reasons why that might be). People were drawn to Jesus, his ministry, and his proclamation of the kingdom. There are all kinds of techniques and methodologies that are used to draw people to church. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I hope people would be drawn to us because we reflect the character of the kingdom. I hope that the way we live, the way we talk, work, and worship, and the way we love one another and this world would reflect Jesus. That we would reflect Jesus and live faithfully into the kingdom to which we have been called and for which we have been saved.