Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for all sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” ~ Mark 3:28-30 (CSB)
Toward the end of Mark 3, we find one of the most debated sections of the gospel. Jesus, when confronted by his family and the Jewish religious leaders as he cast out demons, spoke of a sin that would not be forgiven. He warned that every sin committed had the possibility of forgiveness except for one: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Many have debated and others have fretted over the meaning of Jesus’ statement.
To understand what Jesus intended, we must first remember that we can never divorce a verse or two from its context. A passage of Scripture (or any other thing written or said, for that matter) does not mean something simply because we as the reader or hearer want it to mean that thing. It has a meaning found within the intent of the author and his/her context.
In this case, though confronted by his family and leaders, Jesus did not directly rebuke his family’s statement of “He’s out of his mind,” though this also was not true. Instead, he honed in on the statement of the scribes: “He is possessed by Beelzebul” and “He drives out demons by the ruler of the demons.” (3:22)
Jesus first responded to the absurdity of the prince of demons casting out his own demons. He said, “If Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand but is finished” (3:26). In other words, Satan would be dumb to work against himself. The Bible describes Satan as crafty, cunning, and deceitful as the enemy of God’s people, but not dumb.
Then Jesus made his statement in 3:28-29 in response to the scribes’ words of “He has an unclean spirit.”
In other words, the scribes were opposing Jesus by attributing the Holy Spirit’s work to Satan. Here we have the unpardonable sin: A so thorough rejection of the Spirit’s work through Jesus, and thus a thorough rejection of Jesus, so as to call the work of the Spirit evil.
But there also seems to be another element to this. The scribes weren’t men of a different religion, or even no religion, who thought Jesus’ ways were false. No, these were men well-educated in the Old Testament, who claimed to follow the One True God, were zealous for their religion, and should have realized from the prophecies that Jesus was their Messiah.
These are men who would seem to fall into the description of Hebrews 6:4-6
For it is impossible to renew to repentance those who were once enlightened, who tasted the heavenly gift, who shared in the Holy Spirit, who tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away…
They had every reason to know better, yet they ascribed the Spirit’s work through Jesus to the forces of darkness instead of to God.
So, we should know that the unforgivable sin is real, and it should challenge us to persevere in our faith, keeping our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus. But we should not get bogged down in fear, worried that we have said a wrong word or thought a wrong thought and committed it.
This sin is a complete rejection of Christ and the Spirit’s work, not a temporary slip such as Peter experienced when he denied Jesus three times before being restored to repentance. And as C. E. B. Cranfield said, “We can say with absolute confidence to anyone who is overwhelmed by the fear that he has committed this sin, that the fact that he is so troubled is itself a sure proof that he has not committed it” (as quoted in William Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark).
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