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The Sin That Won’t Go Away

Category Articles
Date March 18, 2004

Gospel Reading and Text: Mark 3:22-30
Epistle Reading: Hebrews 6:1-9

If you blaspheme my name, you may irritate me or may make me depressed. But you probably won’t provoke a full-fledged counterattack to defend myself.

If you slander my friend, or my relatives, or my children, you will probably get a somewhat stronger reaction from me. When I was an almost teenager of 12, a school bus driver accused my little brother of lying. When the bus stopped at our stop I stood on the ground, looking into the still open door, and said, “Lady that’s my brother, and my brother doesn’t lie.” That got me called into the principal’s office of my fundamentalist Christian school, but with my legs shaking I stood my ground in defense of my brother.

But there is one kind of blasphemy that will make me go nuclear – that is blasphemy against my wife. Merle Haggard sang during the Vietnam War, “If you’re runnin’ down my county, hoss, you’re walkin’ in the fightin’ side of me.” If you start slandering my wife, you are walking on the raging side of me. I may never forgive you for that.

Jesus spoke in such terms about a sin He calls blaspheming the Holy Spirit. You can get forgiveness for any kind of sin, even other forms of blasphemy, but blaspheming the Holy Spirit is a sin that won’t go away – ever.

I. Explanation

Jesus was still ministering in Galilee when a group of scribes came down from Jerusalem. You might wonder why they are spoken of as “coming down from Jerusalem” when, in fact, they traveled north. This was because no matter what the direction or elevation one always went up to and down from the religious and political capital. But the important thing is that a delegation came from Jerusalem to observe and investigate the ministry of Jesus. The Temple authorities in Jerusalem had received reports of Jesus miracles, teaching, and popular acclaim in Galilee, and they were concerned enough to send some experts in the Law to see what was going on.

It is clear that this was not a “fair and balanced” fact-finding commission that came from Jerusalem. These men were hostile from the beginning and their hostility determined their explanation of what was going on in Jesus’ ministry, particularly in His casting out of demons from demon-possessed persons. It is worth noting that they did not dispute the fact that He did cast out demons. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ life there has been an emphasis on Jesus authority and power over evil spirits. The first miracle Mark records is the casting out of an evil spirit in the synagogue in Capernaum. The summary statements of Jesus’ ministry tell us that He taught and preached, healed the sick and cast out demons. There was no denying that demons were exorcized. There were so many public cases of demons being cast out, some of which these Jerusalem scribes had witnessed with their own eyes that no one could reasonably deny that Jesus cast out demons.

However, they had a novel and hostile explanation of how He was able to do it. They accused Him of being Himself possessed by an evil spirit they called Beelzebul. There have been a lot of guesses about from where this name comes. One interesting suggestion is that it is related to the Hebrew Baal-zebub. This name is probably a Hebrew insult to one name of the god Baal. They corrupted Baal-of-the Heights to Baal-zebub, which means “Lord of the Flies” or “Lord of the Dung Heap. Many of us in high school or college read William Goldman’s novel, Lord of the Flies, which depicts the triumph of evil when man is left to himself. No matter what the derivation of Beelzebul, it is clear how the scribes used it. It was for them another name for Satan or the Devil. Their explanation of Jesus was that He was possessed by the head of all the demons and the source of all evil powers, the Devil. They explained His exorcisms as being accomplished not by the authority and power of God, but by the power of Satan, the prince of demons. It was the head demon Himself who possessed Jesus and enabled Him to cast out the lesser demons.

This is an interesting, if strange, explanation; “He is able to do these things by the Devil.” They saw demons cast out, and they postulated that they were cast out by the power of Satan.

This explanation reminds us that, when we observe events, what matters is not just the facts observed, but interpretation of those facts. People can agree on what happened but have diametrically opposed explanations. Nowhere is this more evident than in what people make of the Jesus who is presented to us by Mark and the other writers of the Gospels. Here is Jesus. How do we explain Him?

It is possible that we could agree on all the facts recorded by the Gospel writers and yet disagree on what they mean. One might read accounts and conclude with the writers that this Man is the Son of God who came to save sinners. Or, one might conclude that this man was in touch with all the powers of evil. Or, in today’s skeptical, yet gullible and relativistic world one might say, “Sure these things probably happened. But, who knows what to make of them? All kinds of strange, mysterious, and supernatural things happen. Who’s to say what to make of it all?” All are looking at the same facts. As a matter of fact, the facts do support the claim that Jesus is the Savior and Messiah, but apart from the enlightening and convincing work of the Holy Spirit, the dark and stubborn human mind will always look for other explanations no matter how absurd they really are.

II. Refutation

The explanation given by the scribes got a clear refutation from Jesus. Jesus proceeded show them they, like the proverbial Emperor, had no clothes. Their explanation was absurd.

Jesus, as it were, “called them out” in order to expose their folly. He spoke to them in parables, which in this case means that He spoke to them using metaphors that made His point indirectly. Later in this Gospel we will learn that Jesus spoke to those who were outside the kingdom in parables, but He spoke plainly to His disciples. The use of parables with those outside the kingdom was part of God’s judgment on them for their closed minds and hard hearts. The fact that Jesus chose to answer the scribes in parables indicates where they are. Though they studied the Scriptures constantly, and interpreted and taught the Scriptures, these men, who prided themselves on being insiders, were outsiders when it came to the kingdom God. These experts were ignorant.

Jesus said first, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom will cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” We readily understand what He is saying. If a nation is at war with itself, how cannot it resist an attack from the outside? In this political season, the pundits are pointing out how divided our country is. There are the red states and the blue states. Those who practice a faith seriously and those who are thoroughly secular. That was revealed in the last election and may be underscored by the coming one. Now, if we remain a nation that has no internal common values and culture, will we always be able to fight and defeat those who might attack us from the outside? Probably not. But we don’t have to speculate about the present and future of our country to know that, when there is serious division and fighting within a nation, that nation is vulnerable to outside attack.

We make the same observation about families. If a house is divided can it long stand together? Of course not. One of the observations that is made by the social scientists is the impact a child’s serious illness can have on a home. The child’s illness creates many pressures, and for some couples the stress does not draw them together but drives them apart. Sometimes after the crisis and sometimes during it the couple splits up and the family is destroyed.

Then Jesus brings home these two metaphors: “And if Satan is has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.” If, as the scribes contend, Jesus is casting out demons by the power of the devil, then Satan has turned against himself. He has turned against his own allies – the evil spirits who share his nature and purposes. But why would Satan do such a thing? Is he suicidal? Is he out to destroy himself? Satan is neither dumb nor crazy. The explanation for what is happening – that demons or evil spirits are being driven out of those they had possessed – must be found in something other Satan’s warfare with Himself. What then is the explanation? It is that war is being made on Satan from outside. This is evidence not of civil war inside the kingdom of Satan but of another kingdom’s attacking and defeating Satan’s forces. Jesus is the Son of God who has come to establish the kingdom of God in the place of Satan’s. Satan, who has so long held the world in bondage, is under attack. People, who have been his captives, are being liberated by Jesus. The kingdom of Satan is done for, not because he has turned his destructive power on Himself, but because the power of Jesus is turned against him.

The second parable Jesus uses makes us think about what happens when a strong man’s house is robbed: “But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder the house.” So long as the strong man is free, he will fight for what is his. He will not sit and watch you take his things. If you are going to take what is in a strong man’s house, you have to bind him so thaw he is powerless to resist you. When he is bound, you can take what you want.

Jesus does not follow up this parable with a statement of its meaning, but the point is clear. The strong man is Satan. The one who has entered his “house” is Jesus. The evidence that Jesus has bound Satan is that Jesus is casting out His allies and robbing him of the lives he has possessed and disfigured. No wonder we see this storm of demonic activity in the Gospels. It is not that the Gospels uncover a reality that has before been unseen. No, something new is happening. Satan knows that the Son of God has come into the world to destroy the works of the devil and to deliver people from his oppression. And so he unleashes his hellish forces against Jesus. What happens when Jesus comes bringing the kingdom of God will be decisive. Whenever Jesus cast out a demon He was demonstrating that He was stronger than the strong man. All of this came to a climax at the cross, when Jesus there was seemingly bound by Satan who was trying to destroy Him, Jesus was in fact defeating the Devil forever. In His dying He was getting the victory over sin, and in His rising He was conquering death. No longer is the outcome of the war in doubt; no longer is there the waxing and waning of the advantage. No, Satan is bound, and now all he can do is to rage and thrash about as the day steadily advances when he and all his demons will be thrown into the lake of fire.

Christian, you do not have to fear the devil. He is too strong for you, but not for your Savior who has bound him. “His rage we can endure, for, lo, his doom is sure.” We can now sing the hymn Jesus, Priceless Treasure, look Satan in the face and say, “Satan, I defy thee.”

III. Declaration

Jesus’ followed up His refutation of the scribes explanation of His ministry with one of the most fearful declarations found anywhere in Scripture: “Truly, I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

The saying begins with “Truly,” or literally, “Amen.” This way of introducing a statement seems to be unique to Jesus. None of the rabbis spoke in this way. It adds a solemnity to what follows. Jesus speaks from His own authority, as one who does not have to appeal to anything beyond Himself to make the most serious and consequential statements. What He says in undeniably true and certain. In the Prophet Isaiah, the LORD is called “the God of truth” or “the God of the amen” (65:16). This is one of the LORD’s titles. Jesus here prefaces His statement with the amen that claims for His statement the character of God’s statements.

Here is a profound statement with a disturbing truth. There is one sin that is dealt with as no other sin. All sorts of sins may be forgiven, even the ones we call the big ones. Murder may be forgiven. Adultery may be forgiven. Sins we call unspeakable sins may be forgiven. All sorts of blasphemies may be forgiven. A person can blaspheme his parents, evil as that is, and be forgiven. A person can blaspheme God or His Son Jesus Christ and be forgiven. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones told of an man who did not become a believer until his old age, and who when he was first converted had great joy. But one Monday morning he appeared at the door of the manse in great distress. He had remembered that years before he had been in a bar drinking and said, “Jesus Christ is a bastard.” When he remembered that, his joy dried up. How could he have said such a thing? May such a sin be forgiven? It is a horrible thing to say. Yes, even such a sin may be forgiven. When we think of all these sins, we can say with confidence not only that they may be forgiven but that they have been forgiven.

But there is a sin that is treated differently from all other sins. This sin can never be forgiven. Its guilt never goes away. It is a sin that has eternal consequences. We can entertain hope regarding all other sins, but there is no hope for this one.

And what is this sin? It is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Does that mean saying a curse using the name of the Holy Spirit? For instance, might one say, “God damn,” and be forgiven, but if he says, “Holy Spirit damn,” he may not get forgiveness? Is it saying something demeaning the Holy Spirit? If the old man had said that the Spirit was a bastard rather than Christ, would he have not have been forgiven? What is this sin against the Spirit that will never be forgiven?

Mark gives us the key with the explanatory word that He adds after recording the words of Jesus: “for they has said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” This is a statement they made about Jesus. So how is it an explanation of what Jesus just said about blaspheming the Holy Spirit? It is this. Jesus began His ministry by being baptized by John the Baptist. On that occasion the Spirit descended on Him from heaven like a dove. Jesus was filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit for His whole ministry. The Spirit remained with Him permanently and continuously. Nothing that the Spirit bestows was withheld from Him. He was as full of the Spirit as it is possible to be. He did not have an evil spirit, for He was full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. There was no room in His life for an evil spirit. It was in the power of the Spirit that He went into the wilderness, submitted to the temptations of the Evil One, and prevailed. And, it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that He cast out the evil spirits.

The scribes were experts in the Law. They spent their lives reading, studying, interpreting and teaching the Old Testament that was written by men who were inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. And now they had observed Jesus – His teaching, His miracles, His exorcisms of evil spirits. The evidence was there, and they saw it. They were not ignorant. Yet they, against better knowledge, wickedly attributed the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus to the Devil. They asserted that He was possessed by Beelzebul, not filled with the Holy Spirit. They attributed the power to drive out demons, not to the Holy Spirit of God, but to the prince of demons. This sin of, in spite of the enlightenment of the Spirit, attributing the works of Jesus to the devil, is beyond forgiveness.

We get further insight into the nature of this sin when Jesus is no longer on earth casting out demons from the writer of Hebrews: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, and shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6). This sin involves being enlightened to the truth about Jesus, coming into the life of the church, and then turning away from Christ in contempt. This is not the case of the person who has been exposed to the message about Christ and has never known its truth or power. This is not the Christian who has backslidden. It is the enlightened person who comes to despise and reject Christ.

Now who are those who may commit this sin? Well, people who have my calling. Preachers who know the Gospel’s truth and power and then reject the very truth they have preached. Then, too, elders and deacons who are chosen, in the case of the deacons, because of their grasp of the truth, and, in the case of the elders, because they can use the teaching to refute error and to build up believers in the truth. Then, too, covenant children, who have been baptized into Christ, brought up in believing homes, been nurtured in the faith by the church, and perhaps had the many benefits of the Christian school who willfully turn away from Christ and renounce the faith. In a word any person who has been enlightened by the Spirit to the truth about Christ and to see the mighty works of the Spirit through Him, who then goes away from Christ, rejects the Gospel, and now lives as the enemy of Christ.

But brothers and sisters, if you are concerned about this sin and anxious about it, you have not yet committed it. And, in fact, no true Christian can commit this sin for you are indwelt and kept for eternal salvation by the Spirit Christ gives. The text requires me “to speak in this way; yet in your case, beloved, (I) feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation” (Hebrews 6:9).

WILLIAM SMITH
WESTMINSTER PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA

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