The Unforgivable Sin

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).

New posts in this series will appear most Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Focus on the Few to Reach the Many

Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, to send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. ~ Mark 3:13-15 (CSB)

Jesus dealt with large crowds with love and compassion, but his main focus wasn’t on the crowds. Jesus’ aim was to grow his kingdom people, faithful to him, and he has been doing that throughout the ages as countless millions have come to follow him. But he started this endeavor by devoting the majority of his attention to twelve men (one of which would betray him, so eleven faithful men).

Now this might seem unusual. If you want to reach the crowds, wouldn’t you focus on the crowds? That might seem like the way to go, but from what we see with Jesus, the key to reaching many is to focus most intensely on a few.

Jesus worked to train up eleven who, after three years, he would release to go into the world and make more disciples of him.

In The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman wrote:

“[Jesus’] concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow. Remarkable as it may seem, Jesus started to gather these men before he ever organized an evangelistic campaign or even preached a sermon in public…

“Jesus devoted most of his remaining life on earth to these few disciples. He literally staked his whole ministry on them.”

The principle in working with a few to reach a multitude is the principle of multiplication. If a few faithful persons spend time sharing Jesus with and training a few faithful persons who then go and spend time sharing Jesus with and training a few faithful persons, the results begin to compound.

What if one person were to invest three years in just three other people, teaching them about Jesus and his word and how to live faithful to Jesus, and then send each of these out to do the same while he/she picks up three more people to invest in?

At the start, you would have just one trained disciple-maker. At the end of year 3, you would have four. At the end of year 6, you would have sixteen; and at the end of year 9, fifty-two. These numbers don’t seem impressive, but if you keep going, after 21 years, you have 16,384; and after 27 years, 262,144; and then in 48 years that number jumps to 4.29 billion. (1)

In other words, a few devoted to reaching a few can change the world in a generation.

Paul understood this as well, which is why he told Timothy as a church leader to entrust the gospel “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

Real life rarely works according to formulas, and no person can force another to be saved. Salvation through Jesus comes only by the work of the Holy Spirit through the message of the gospel. But if we set our sights on multiplication, like Jesus and Paul, to train up a few who can train up a few who can train up a few, then we may very well see the gospel spread in massive ways.

(1) Assuming I have my numbers right…

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Discipleship 01 (Coleman)

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The “Faith” of Demons

And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” – Mark 3:11

Large crowds often followed Jesus as a result of healings that people received. Some of these healings included the release from demonic or unclean spirits. Here in his gospel, Mark records that these spirits would cry out truths about who Jesus was.

Also, in Matthew 8:29 we also see demons crying out from within possessed men: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”

It would seem, then, that at least in some respect demons and unclean spirits have good theology and faith in Jesus, but this didn’t stave off their condemnation. James spoke to this issue in his letter. He wrote, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19). This is in James’ larger teaching on the role of faith and works.

This is what we find consistently taught through the Bible: We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. As James wrote, “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).

What set the faith of the demons apart from those who have faith in Jesus that saves is the works that the faith produces. The demons believed right things about Jesus, but their works set them against the Kingdom of God. People who have a faith that saves have good works that flow from their faith which demonstrate a growing love for Jesus and his Kingdom.

Simply put, if we say that we believe in Jesus but we’re known more for a dislike of people than love, for bitterness more than a joy, for meanness more than kindness, for conflict more than peace, for a lack of control more than self-control, for impatience more than patience, etc., then we have grounds to ask: Is our faith really better than that of the demons?

True belief in Jesus manifests itself in practical love for God and others. How is the fruit of your faith?

New posts in this series will appear most Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Lord of the Sabbath

“The Sabbath was made from man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” – Jesus, Mark 2:27-28 (ESV)

Honor the Sabbath was among the ten commandments, with additional explanatory laws added later. The Sabbath was the seventh and last day of the Hebrew week. It was a day where God’s people were to take a rest from their regular routine of work.

By Jesus’ day, different religious leaders had added so many regulations to the idea of Sabbath, beyond what the Law said, almost to the point that it would be hard not to break the Sabbath. Over-burdensome commands were not the point.

In Mark 2:23-28, we see Jesus and his disciples walking through the grain fields on the Sabbath. The disciples were hungry, so they plucked heads of grain along the way to eat. This irritated the Pharisees. Jesus replied by reminding them of the time that David and his companions ate bread they should not have eaten. His point: Even where law exists, there is still room for mercy, and the point of the Law was not to overburden people but to help them. So, with the Sabbath: God did not create the Sabbath and then create man to honor it, no, he created man and gave them Sabbath for their benefit.

Yes, Jesus’ disciples were to refrain from work on that day, but picking a few heads of grain to meet a need wasn’t work.

More than this, Jesus himself was Lord of the Sabbath. Not only did this mean he determined what was proper or not for the Sabbath’s purpose and regulations, it also pointed to a greater truth that Hebrews would later explain: Jesus is our Sabbath rest. We are not burdened by our failure to keep God’s Law perfectly, because Jesus gave us his perfect obedience.

So, instead of worrying and fretting about displeasing God, we are able to freely live a life that pleases him. This is not a license to sin, but the freedom to live as God-honoring as we can with his mercy and grace covering our shortcomings as we make our journey toward eternal life.

New posts in this series will appear most Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

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The Purpose of Fasting

And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” – Mark 2:19-20

Mark records a time where the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist were engaged in a fast, a short-term abstention from food, but Jesus’ disciples were not. Some people asked Jesus why this was so, and he replied with a brief illustration about wedding guests and a groom. In this illustration, Jesus is the groom and his followers are the guests. He said as long as the groom is present, there’s no reason to fast; but when the groom leaves, then there will be reason.

Throughout the Bible fasting was practiced for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, being a part of a religious ritual, sorrow over sin, and in combination with prayer in the face of difficult circumstances.

In Mark 2, Jesus says that it is also right to fast because of our present separation from him. In one sense, because Jesus is God the Son and is everywhere-present, we are never separated from him. The Holy Spirit dwelling within us, God in us, is even called the Spirit of Christ by Paul in Romans 8. So, Jesus’ promise in Matthew 28:20 is true: he is with us always.

Yet, in another sense, we do not experience Jesus physically and face-to-face like his first disciples did 2000 years ago and like we will for all of eternity to come. In this way, our present experience of Jesus is incomplete. This is why, with Jesus’ return and our eternity with him in mind, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Jesus desires that we be filled with joy, but even the deepest joys today lack in comparison to the perfect joy of eternity. So, we wait and we long for the day that the Bridegroom returns.

Here, fasting has a place. We take moments and sometimes days to abstain from food that we might deepen our dependence on God through prayer and his word. We also take these moments to remember that we’ve not yet seen the fullness of our salvation, and things are not yet the way they will be when our hope is fully realized. But that day is coming and then we will fast no more.

New posts in this series will appear most Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Mark 2_19-20

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Jesus, Friend to Sinners

Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” ~ Mark 2:17 (ESV)

While Jesus was traveling with a crowd, teaching them on the way, he came across the tax booth of a man named Levi (also known as Matthew). He called Levi to follow him, and immediately he left his work and did.

The scandal in this act was Levi’s occupation. Tax collectors in ancient Rome were known to make extra money for themselves through extortion. To be a Jew and a tax collector made you very unpopular, for you would be stealing from your fellow Jews in order to make a living and pay the foreign government occupying your land.

As if this weren’t enough, Levi had a party at his house for coworkers and friends, presumably so they could meet Jesus as well. The religious leaders scoffed and complained, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” In a self-righteous manner, they would not lower themselves to dine with such people, and here was the man claiming to be the Messiah?

Jesus’ reply was simple and to the point—he ate with them because they were the ones who needed him.

Often, we followers of Jesus might not have the same sour attitude of the Pharisees and Scribes (though some certainly do), but we can still isolate ourselves away from the people who Jesus came to save. Some people call this the “Christian bubble.” It is when our lives are so filled with time around other followers of Jesus that we never make time to build real relationships with those who are not followers of Jesus. We get so busy with church activities that we can forget we’re called to be ambassadors of light in the world.

On the one hand, we do need regular fellowship with other Christians. They are the ones who can help us avoid falling into the traps of sin (Hebrews 3:12-13) and they are the ones to whom we can confess our sins and find healing through prayer (James 5:16).

But we also need to build relationships with those who don’t know or follow Jesus.

We should not view them as projects. We should not yearn for their conversion as if it is another badge to wear. Rather we should see them as people made in the image of God, living in a world darkened by sin, and in need of the love of Jesus just as we are.

Their beliefs, way of life, and views of the world might be radically different than ours, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends. And just maybe through that friendship the day will come where we can also call them our brothers and our sisters in Christ.

New posts in this series will appear most Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

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The God Who Heals

From Mark 1:21 to 2:12, we find a quick succession of healings that came from the hands of Jesus, they include: a man with an unclean spirit, a fever in Peter’s mother-in-law, a person with a serious skin disease, and a paralytic man. This was just a small fraction of many healings summarized by Mark in 1:32-34:

That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons… (ESV)

Yet, even in the midst of this great work and his popularity among those in the city, Jesus took a moment to separate himself from the crowd and pray. When his disciples found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” To which Jesus replied, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came” (1:37-38).

In these passages, we discover these realities of the God who heals:

First, though he could and did cast out demons and heal physical ailments, Jesus’ primary concern was the deep soul healing—leading people from sin and reconciling them to the Father.

Peter would later write this truth about Jesus: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). This is the core thrust of the gospel, the good news of Jesus: We are sinners in rebellion against God, deserving his wrath, and cannot save ourselves; but God in his love and mercy gave us Jesus as a sacrifice for our sin to bring us forgiveness and make us his children.

This is the message that came from the lips of Jesus and from those who wrote about him in the rest of scripture. This is why when Jesus had returned to Capernaum and a group of friends brought a paralyzed man to him, Jesus’ first response was to say: “Your sins are forgiven” (2:5).

Physical healing might bring temporary relief, but it doesn’t bring an end to sin. We need spiritual healing. We need Jesus to say to us, “Your sins are forgiven.” And he does say this to all who trust in him for the sacrifice he made on the cross.

Second, ultimate physical healing flows from the forgiveness of our sins.

Jesus healed a countless number of people while he walked on the earth. Jesus also empowered some of his followers to continue this healing ministry. Yet, not every ailment was healed in this life and everyone who was healed, eventually still suffered physical death.

But, through the lens of knowing Jesus’ primary mission, temporary physical healing points us to something greater. The reason we get sick, our bodies break down, and we die is because we live in a world that exists between Genesis 3 and Revelation 21. Breakdown, hardship, and death are the curses of the fall.

Our salvation from the total effect of sin comes in stages. In our justification, that instantaneous and complete forgiveness we experience when we turn to Jesus in faith, we are healed from the eternal consequences of sin. In our sanctification, that life-long journey of spiritual growth from the time we turn to Jesus to the time we die in this world, we are being healed from the power of sin. In our glorification, that great perfection of our bodies along with creation that is still to come at the resurrection when Jesus returns, we will be healed from the total impact of sin.

At that time, everything described in the temporary healings becomes a permanent healing for everyone who belongs to Jesus.

Today, we still pray for and hope for physical healings from our ailments. God might grant them or he might grow our patient trust in him. But because of our spiritual healing, we can look forward to that coming day when the words of Revelation 21:4 become our daily reality: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

New posts in this series will appear most Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Mark 1_32-34

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