by Mark Horne
(What follows is adapted from my forthcoming commentary on the Gospel of Mark)
In Mark’s Gospel we read: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons’” (3.22).
Jesus replied in part, “Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3.28, 29).
What did Jesus mean? If we say ascribe the work of the Spirit to the work of the Devil are we automatically beyond hope of forgiveness.
Looking at the background to this story in Mark’s gospel we see that John prophesied that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and at John’s baptism the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus. Jesus received his Pentecost at the Jordan so that he would be able to accomplish his mission and arrange a Pentecost in Jerusalem for his followers. Thus, we have two stages set forth for us in Mark’s Gospel: The ministry of the Son and then the ministry of the Spirit. Though the Spirit is unquestionably present in Jesus, it has not yet flowed out of Jesus to others, as it will on the day of Pentecost.
The Scribes from Jerusalem are rejecting the witness of Jesus, but that does not bring immediate judgment. Indeed, they go on rejecting Jesus during his years of ministry. What the scribes from Jerusalem reject in Galilee will be offered again in Jerusalem by disciples from Galilee (see Acts 2). The Holy Spirit will come upon the disciples and they will witness to the scribes. At that point, everything will still be forgivable. The great day of vengeance will still not fall on Israel if they repent. But if this second witness—the witness of the Spirit—is spoken against, then time will run out and the wrath of God will fall. Because Israel rejected the witness of the Spirit during the forty years of the early Church, they were eventually judged by God (c.f. Luke 19.41-45).
Luke clearly spells this out by recording Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples to bear witness for him when his time comes:
And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man shall confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men shall be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who will speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him. And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not become anxious about how or what you should speak in your defense, or what you should say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say (Luke 12:9-12).
The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit here is the rejection of the Spirit-taught witnesses who confess the Son of Man before men. Bear in mind that in the Bible, a prosecution requires no less than two witness (Deut 19.15; Matt 18.16; John 8.17; 2 Cor 13.1; 1 Tim 5.19; Heb 10.28).
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is not to be explained in terms of some difference in being or eternal status between the Son and the Holy Spirit so that curse words involving Jesus’ name are forgivable, but not expletives involving the Spirit. Rather, it refers to the historical framework of Jesus’ work in his own generation. The rejection of Jesus, as serious as that is, does not bring immediate condemnation. Forgiveness is still available. But after rejecting the second witness of the Spirit after Pentecost, time runs out for that generation of Israel. There is no forgiveness for blasphemy against the Spirit—the rejection of the second witness.
If I met someone who thought they had said something about the Spirit that damned him without hope, I would tell him to repent and believe. The general application of Jesus’ warning against blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to not reject repeated warning: “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken and there is no remedy” (Proverbs 29:1).
God sends us different witnesses and warnings via the ministry of the Church both official and unofficial, as well as through providence. He is patient and slow to anger. But if we continue in sin we will be judged.
Jesus’ warning against blasphemy against the Holy Spirit means we should to repent the first time.