28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
(Mark 3:28-30 NIV)
Today we tackle the verses often labeled as “the unpardonable sin”. The context of Jesus’ remarks are the key to understanding and applying this passage.
As we have discussed previously, verses 20 – 35 provide the context. A delegation from the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem made the four-day trek to Capernaum to observe and give their opinion about Jesus’ ministry. Their decision? They think Jesus is demon-possessed and performing all His miracles, even casting out demons, by the power of Satan.
Jesus hears their conclusions, calls the delegation to Himself, and addresses their statements to their face. Jesus refuted their arguments, and now addresses their hardness of heart that would lead them to this conclusion. Jesus does not go after the delegation to destroy them, but rather, to lead them to repentance for their wrong views and hardness of heart.
I remember listening to Christian radio “ask the pastor” call-in programs many years ago and hearing people (often in tears) call in to ask if they had committed “the unpardonable sin”. These callers felt they had committed a sin so grievous that God could not forgive them, and they were headed straight to hell. The radio pastor would assure them that if they were asking the question, they had not done so. The radio pastor would then reassure them that God loved them and if they had made Jesus their Savior and Lord, then they need not worry about “the unpardonable sin” any longer.
If the caller asked for an explanation on why they had not committed the unpardonable sin, the radio pastor would typically launch into a detailed discussion of Greek language or theological terms that were obviously important, but were lost on me. I had no background to track with the discussion at that point in my life.
So what was Jesus saying in this passage?
In verse 28, Jesus says that God will forgive all sins (including blasphemy) and slander – things that people say.
Jesus prefaces His message with “Truly I tell you…”. The word “truly” is the Greek word “amen”. We normally end our prayers or sentences with “amen”; Jesus started His thought with “amen”. By starting with “amen”, Jesus allows His deity to show for just an instant. As God, Jesus is affirming what He is about to say as a human as being absolute truth. Remember that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, and as such, can mix His deity and humanity and demonstrate both that the same time.
In verse 29, Jesus offers one exception to God’s forgiveness – blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
The Jewish (Old Testament) understanding of the Holy Spirit is the key to unlocking this passage. Remember that Jesus had not yet sent the Holy Spirit to indwell in people; that came on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended to heaven.
In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit revealed God’s truth to people and helped people recognize what He had revealed. In chapter 1, Mark told us that the Holy Spirit came down and rested on Jesus. The Holy Spirit was revealing Jesus as the embodiment of truth, Truth in flesh and blood to everyone around through His miracles and demon expulsions. Even the demons that Jesus was casting out recognized Him as Messiah. But the Sanhedrin delegation would not recognize Jesus (or even His miracles) as from God. In fact, they said just the opposite – they attributed all Jesus’ miracles to the power and presence of Satan (v. 30).
When Jesus told these Sanhedrin delegates that they were in grave danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, Jesus was saying that the Holy Spirit had revealed Him as from God and had given them recognition of who Jesus is. But the Sanhedrin delegates denied the truth and said Jesus was demon-possessed and performed all His miracles by the power of Satan. In other words, they denied God’s truth and God Himself as He was standing right in front of them. As Matthew Henry and others have said, “there are none so deaf as those that will not hear, and none so blind as those that will not see.”
The Sanhedrin were the very ones who were charged with understanding God and His law and were to encourage the Jewish people in their obedience to God. For these religious leaders to deny God and attribute all His works to Satan was the sin which Jesus said has no pardon.
As we read and apply this passage, we need to remember that Jesus was specifically addressing the Sanhedrin delegates, not all those in attendance. These men had a higher authority and responsibility before God, and as such, were under a stricter judgment. Their unwillingness to repent and their continual denial of Jesus as from God, especially with all the evidence the Holy Spirit was demonstrating through Jesus, was unforgivable.
Bible teacher and author William Barclay sums up and helps us apply this passage:
“There is only one condition of forgiveness, and that is penitence. So long as a man sees loveliness in Christ, so long as he hates his sin even if he cannot leave it, even if he is in the mud and the mire, he can still be forgiven. But if a man, by repeated refusals of God’s guidance, has lost the ability to recognize goodness when he sees it, if he has got his moral values inverted until evil to him is good and good to him is evil, then, even when he is confronted by Jesus, he is conscious of no sin; he cannot repent and therefore he can never be forgiven. That is the sin against the Holy Spirit.”
(From William Barclay, “The Gospel of Mark, Revised Edition”, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, p. 81.)
The radio pastors were right – if we’re asking if we’ve committed the “unpardonable sin”, we haven’t. For those that have, this question does not even register in their minds.
May we walk humbly with our God today (Micah 6:8).