February 28, 2016
It was a Saturday morning when I received the call. I knew it would come, eventually. I had prepared for it the best I could. I had been through school; taken all the pastoral theology, counseling, practicum classes that were supposed to prepare you. But when the call came, I remember being more than a little shaken. You see, it was to be my first funeral. And not just any funeral. I was only 25 years old, and the deceased was a guy I worked with. His name was Jimmy – he was only 18, still in high school, and he had taken his own life. He was from a Catholic family, and his mother called me in hysterics, asking if I’d do the funeral.
Now, for centuries, the Catholic Church had taught that suicide was an unforgivable sin. The great Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, had classified it as a mortal sin that could not be forgiven. It was self-murder, and since there was no way to seek forgiveness, no way to perform penance and receive absolution or pardon, the offender was without hope. For centuries, funerals of suicide victims could not even be held in the church.
The Catholic church recently loosened it’s position on that teaching, but the vestiges remain, even in Protestant churches. His mother asked me, “What about Jimmy – can he possibly be in heaven?” Had he committed the unpardonable sin? What would you say to Jimmy’s mom?
In fact, what would you say if an offending party, a sinner, came to you and said, “I’ve committed adultery, can God possibly forgive me?” Or, “I’ve committed apostasy – for years I lived away from the Lord, even though I knew what I was doing – I cursed God, I lived apart from Him, I broke His law, intentionally – can God possibly forgive me?” “I committed murder – oh, no one knows about it – but I had an abortion. I killed my baby – can God forgive me?” You see, the church, at different times, in addition to suicide, has also taught that murder, adultery and apostasy were unforgivable sins – there’s no hope for you. But is that true?
Maybe you’re here this morning and you’re like John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, who for years saw himself beyond the reach of God’s grace. For years, though he prayed and studied the Bible, he saw his fate as worse than dogs – at least when they die, that’s it for them. But not me, he thought – there is a life after death, and in the life to come, there’s no way God could forgive me – I’ve gone too far, I’ve been too evil. Or maybe you’ve had this thought – there’s no way a Christian would sin, like I’ve sinned. And now it’s too late for me. So maybe, you’re here, and you’re going through the motions. Because you’ve wondered, for a long time, is it possible for God to forgive me? Have I committed some unpardonable sin, whatever that is? Is there any hope for me? Am I beyond the reach of God’s grace?
There’s been lots of wrong teaching about this topic. We’re going to look at the unpardonable sin today – it’s in our text as we continue our study of the book of Mark. But far from being a message of gloom, I want it to be a word that encourages you by the depth and breadth of God’s amazing grace. By the deep love Jesus has, for you.
Our text today is found in Mark 3. The context is this. In the first two chapters of his gospel, Mark has been proving Jesus is the Christ – that’s very important for our understanding today. Filled by the Holy Spirit at His baptism, He entered His ministry. And His words and works were indisputable. He was the was the one the Jews were waiting for. There could be no denying the proof. He proved it by His amazing words and His miraculous works. During His life, He was fulfilling all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Expected One to come.
But, He didn’t fit the profile the Jews had created for the Messiah. While He fit the biblical qualifications, perfectly, He didn’t fit their cultural expectations. He didn’t fit their religious expectations – in fact, His words and His works had flown in the face of the religious establishment of the day – and they didn’t like it. And so they began actively opposing Him.
That’s what we’re seeing in these chapters. In the midst of rising popularity, there is also rising opposition. And it comes from people you’d never expect – the religious leaders – and next week, even His own family. You see, Mark is drawing a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders. Those who believe His words, and accept His works, and those who don’t. We’re seeing some doubt Him, criticize Him, ignore Him, resent Him, resist Him, and reject Him. A couple of weeks ago, we saw that opposition rise to the level of conspiracy. After Jesus took them to task on the Sabbath, the pinnacle of their self-righteous system, the Pharisees conspired together as to how they might destroy Him.
So this opposition is mounting, but we’re not done – it hasn’t yet reached its climax. And as we get to our text, there is a sense in which we arrive at a culmination of rejection. We arrive at the biggest no the religious could muster. And in the process, Jesus says, you just stepped over a line – you just committed the unpardonable sin. Look at the text, Mark 3:20-30.
Because of misinterpretations and misunderstandings, this text has caused more concern, more fear than just about any other passage in the Bible. When you first look at it, it almost looks like there is this sin, and if you commit it, even if you’re sorry for it later, it’s too late – you’re out. I can remember years ago, this passage used to bother me. This was my thinking: if some other Christian or group or church does something I don’t like, or I’ve never seen before – if there’s some manifestation I have trouble reconciling with Scripture, I need to be careful. There are guys out there saying, “What you see happening in such and such a church is not of God – it’s of the devil.” I can remember thinking, “Whoa, what if it is the Spirit? Have these guys blasphemed the Spirit? Have they committed the unpardonable sin? I don’t want to do that.”
What’s going on here? Is saying some set of words the unforgivable sin? Is suicide, or adultery, or cursing God, or opposing His work the unpardonable sin? Is it possible for a believer to commit this sin, whatever it is, and lose his or her salvation? Have I stepped over the line? Have I committed a sin that is beyond the reach of God’s grace? Are you just going through the motions, thinking yourself hopeless? I hope to answer those questions for you today as we examine the text. I’m going to break it up this way:
- Mark’s Sandwich (20-21, 31-35)
- The Accusation (22)
- Jesus’ Answer (23-27)
- The Unpardonable Sin (28-30)
Let’s begin briefly with what scholars call Mark’s sandwich method. This is the first of several times in his gospel where he starts a story, and then diverts to another story with a similar theme, before come back to the original story. He starts in verses 20-21 telling about Jesus’ own people hearing of His teaching and miracles, and they went out to get Him, saying, “He’s lost His mind.” Now, who are His people? Certainly, it could be in the sense of John 1, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” That is, the Jews. But most agree Mark starts this story of rejection by His own people, interrupts it to tell about rejection by another group you’d never expect – the religious – before he finishes the story. Most agree that His own people were actually His family – and He takes up the story in verse 31. You see, read verses 21 and 31 together, “When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him (the word is used of seizing or even arresting someone); for they were saying, “He has lost His senses.” Verse 31, Then His mother and his brothers arrived, and standing outside they sent word to Him and called Him.”
Here’s the point I want you to see: Mark is building this insider/outsider theme. Those on the outside, incredibly, were His family and the religious. Those on the inside, just as incredibly, were the formerly sick and demon-possessed, the sinners and outcasts of society. We’ll come back to verses 20-21 next week when we pick up the rest of the story.
But remember, Jesus had been healing people, and casting out demons – everywhere He went. People were coming from all over to be healed and delivered. There could be no denying it. In fact, in a moment, we’ll see these religious opponents don’t accuse Jesus of some slight-of-hand tricks. They don’t accuse of Him magic. There could be no denying His works. So instead, they accuse Him of something much more sinister.
Now, when Matthew and Luke record this story, they do so on the heels of a miracle – He exorcised a demon in a man who was blind and mute – but no longer so after Jesus performed the miracle. Here, there’s no specific miracle – but we know Jesus had been casting out demons for some time – in fact, the first recorded miracle in Mark was an exorcism. News spread – everyone knew Jesus was able to heal, and exorcise demons.
Which brings us to our second point – the accusation against Jesus. Some scribes – that is, teachers of the Law, had come down from Jerusalem. Jerusalem was built on a mountain – you went down from Jerusalem no matter which direction you went. So they went down, but actually traveling north to Galilee. The fact that they came from Jerusalem is significant – they were likely an official delegation, sent to confront Jesus.
And here, they accuse Jesus of two things. First, they say He Himself is possessed by Beelzebul. Beelzebul is the Greek form of the Hebrew Baal-zebul, which means Exalted Baal or Prince Baal. The Jews saw Baal as nothing less than Satan himself. In fact, they often used the word Beelzebub which means Lord of the flies or Lord of the Dung in a derogatory way. But it’s obvious when used here – the way Jesus answers them, it speaks of Satan, that is, the very ruler of the demons.
Now, again, there was no denying the miracles. In Matthew and Luke, the blind, mute guy was standing in front of them reading the eye chart, talking their ears off. So how do the Pharisees respond? Praise the Lord, this is wonderful, this Jesus must be the Christ. No. They’d already called Him a drunk, that didn’t seem to be working. They already called Him a glutton, that wasn’t working. They already called Him a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They already attacked Him from breaking their law – violating the traditions of the elders regarding the Sabbath – that wasn’t working. They’re backs are against the wall – they have one of two choices – give up, or reach for the biggest gun they can. What do they do? You can see the rage reaching a boiling point – they erupt, they explode – He’s a demon. He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons. That was the biggest no they could muster.
Now remember, all that Jesus was saying, all that He was doing, was intended to point to His deity. “Here’s proof, you can know that I am who I claim to be – it’s undeniable.” And these scribes looked at the proof – that irrefutable evidence – and turned away. They had heard everything there was to hear, they had seen everything there was to see, and they said, I don’t want it. It was full rejection in the face of full revelation. And that placed them beyond forgiveness. The reason is places you beyond forgiveness is this – there’s nothing more. If you choose to harden your heart after you’ve seen it all, heard it all, then that’s all there is.
And not only did they turn away, it brought out the worst in them – it brought out slanderous accusations and murderous intent. That’s what Jesus does – He produces devoted followers or incites violent opposition.
Let me illustrate. At the inauguration of President Bush several years ago, Franklin Graham got himself into big trouble – what did he do? He prayed in Jesus’ name. The media blasted him. But I agree with Franklin’s response, “You mention the name Muhammad, and people say, ‘That’s OK.’ You mention the name Buddha, and people say, ‘That’s nice.’ You mention the name Jesus Christ, and it’s a sword that divides a room…No name polarizes a room or a setting like the name of Jesus Christ. And it just makes me believe even more that this is the Son of God.” I agree with him.
Now again, think about it – when the scribes said, Jesus is doing what He was doing by the power of Satan, they were acknowledging His works were supernatural. There was no denying His miracles – then, or now. No neutral ground – you either accept His claims or reject Him altogether as a demon. You are either an insider, or an outsider. It’s your choice.
Make a decision – who are you with? There is no neutrality with Jesus – you’re either for Him, or against Him. There’s not some middle-of-the-road position that the world or the media wants us to take. “You guys need to be more tolerant of other religions – you need to accept Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha – let’s join hands and be one big happy family.” Jesus said, no, you can’t do that. It’s all me, or nothing. The scribes understood that, and they choose door number 2 – nothing.
Which brings us to our third point, Jesus’ Response in verses 23-30. His response can be divided into two parts – which together form our third and fourth points:
- First, He says, your Accusation is Untenable, and
- Second, your Blasphemy is Unforgivable – the unpardonable sin.
He starts by saying, what you’re saying doesn’t even make sense – it’s ludicrous, it’s untenable. And He gives these parables – metaphors to explain. Any kingdom divided against itself is bound for destruction – it can’t stand. A city, a house – doesn’t matter – if there is internal strife and division, it will ultimately collapse. So too, if Satan’s empire is divided, it won’t stand. If I by Satan cast out his own followers – and I’ve been doing that all over the place, his kingdom will not stand. He’s finished. It’s self-defeating. That doesn’t even make sense.
Then He gives another parable. And we have to understand what He’s saying. This isn’t an issue of a kingdom or house divided. This is an issue if the Kingdom of God coming against and destroying the kingdom of Satan. If you’re going to enter a strong man’s house and carry off his property, you’ve got to bind the strong man of the house. Contrary to your accusation that I am casting out demons by Satan, I’m entering Satan’s territory, binding him, who is the strong man, and plundering his house. I’m bringing good news to the afflicted, I’m binding up the brokenhearted, I’m proclaiming liberty to the captives, I’m proclaiming freedom to prisoners. I’m demonstrating God’s kingdom power and authority over Satan Himself. I’m plundering his house – I’m taking those who were formally his, and bringing them into the kingdom of God. That’s what’s really happening here – your accusation is untenable.
But not only is it untenable, it is also unforgiveable/unpardonable – verses 28-30. And it’s here that Jesus speaks of a sin which will not be forgiven – either in this age, or the age to come – it’s an eternal sin, meaning, with eternal consequences.
What’s He talking about here? There are several questions we have to answer: What is the sin that never has forgiveness, the so-called unpardonable sin? And can it still be committed today? If so, can Christians commit the unpardonable sin? Let’s make it personal – can I, have I, committed the unpardonable sin, which means I’ve lost my eternal salvation and I’m on my way to hell? Let’s start with that first one – what is the unpardonable sin? The context is very important.
Let me tell you what it’s not. It is not suicide. Nothing in the text talks about suicide, or murder, or adultery, for that matter. In fact, notice Jesus says any sin shall be forgiven people. Any sin. Those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ have been justified – all their sins, past, present, and future are forgiven – removed as far as the east from the west, plunged into the deepest sea, remembered no more. They have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The believer is passed from death to live. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Does that mean believers no longer sin? Of course not. Is it possible for believers to commit egregious sins? Yes. But is there forgiveness? Yes. Now, that doesn’t mean we can live however we want. Paul asks, do we continue in sin that grace may abound? May it never be. But sometimes, Christians sin – and sometimes they sin terribly, and yet, there is always grace, there is always forgiveness for the true follower of Jesus Christ.
So, if it’s not what we’ve maybe heard, what, then, is the unpardonable sin? Here, we see it is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean? Mark sheds a some important light on the subject for us. Jesus says, “‘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’ – then he goes on to identify this blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”
Mark says the unpardonable sin occurred because they said Jesus had an unclean spirit – meaning, the works Jesus was doing were being done by a demonic spirit. But we, readers of Mark’s gospel, remember that Jesus was filled with Holy Spirit – and His works were done in the power of the Spirit. From that, we derive this definition of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – it is attributing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit.
But even that doesn’t quite get us there. We must remember the context. These religious leaders – Scribes, Pharisees – had heard what Jesus had to say. They had seen what He could do. The very miracles He was performing were irrefutable evidence that He was the Christ, the Son of God. But despite the truth of His words, despite the power in His miracles, they closed their eyes, they stopped their ears, they clenched their teeth, and said, “NO! I refuse to believe it – what you do you do by the power of Satan.” And Jesus said, there is no hope for you.
I believe that’s what the author of Hebrews was talking about in those difficult passages in Hebrews 6 and 10. There, he speaks of those who have been enlightened, who have tasted of the heavenly gift, who have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, who have tasted of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. They’ve seen it – it’s been so close, they could taste it, partake in the benefits of eternal life – but having seen it, having even tasted it, they say, no. And they harden their hearts to the degree that they will never be redeemed, not in this life, nor in the age to come.
I want to make this very clear. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an ongoing rejection of Christ’s offer of salvation. The people in question here had seen the miraculous works of Jesus with their own eyes. Any reasonable person would conclude that God had to be working through Jesus. The evidence was unmistakable. But they rejected it. The person who commits the blasphemy against the Spirit is a person who: 1) is aware of the miraculous works of Jesus, 2) consciously rejects the logical conclusion that His works are from God, 3) believes those works are actually from the devil, and 4) tell others that Jesus’ works are from the devil.
One said it this way, “Surely what Jesus is speaking of here is not an isolated act but a settled condition of the soul – the result of a long history of repeated and willful acts of sin through hardness of heart.” It is cosmic unbelief, calculated wholehearted rejection of Jesus and His message, culminating in a vitriolic declaration that Jesus is from the devil.
Let’s quickly answer a couple final questions before we close. First, can a believer commit the unpardonable sin? The answer is unequivocally no. No Christian can commit a sin for which there will never be forgiveness. They have already been forgiven. Other Scriptures make that crystal clear. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24).
How about this question – can an unbeliever commit the sin and later desire to be saved? Again, the answer is no. Anyone committing this sin is forever hardened in unbelief. There never would be a time later in life when this person would have any interest in Christ or any desire for salvation or forgiveness. The flip side of the coin is also true: if any unbeliever wants to be saved, he or she can be – they have not committed the unpardonable sin.
And finally – how do I know if I have committed the unpardonable sin? The answer is, if you’re worried about it, you haven’t. The one who is hardened stays hardened, doesn’t seek forgiveness, and would never believe that Jesus is the Son of God. If you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God – if you have asked Him to save you from your sin – if you believe He raised from the dead, ascended to the Father, and is seated at the right hand of God – if you believe that, and have received it for yourself, then you cannot and will not ever commit this sin.
Now, let me say one more thing before we close. Many of you aren’t so much concerned about yourself. You know the Savior, you know your sins are forgiven. But what about mom? What about dad? What about a friend or loved one who has violently and vehemently denied Christ? Is it too late for them? Have they committed the sin?
I want to say this. Jesus is the only one who ever talked about the unpardonable sin – He’s the only one who ever told someone, you’ve gone too far. You see, the ultimate judgment of the soul belongs to God alone. Not you, not me. Has your friend or loved one gone too far? I don’t know – that’s not for you or me or anyone else to decide. Only God knows. So you keep praying, you keep trusting, you keep sharing – and trust their eternal salvation to the only one who can do anything about it anyway.
So as we close this morning, what can we take from this message? Much encouragement. Far from being a passage that breeds fear and concern, it should be one that brings comfort and hope. I don’t have to worry or wonder if I’ve committed the unpardonable sin. Every sin is forgivable, is within the reach of God’s grace, except this one of a total denial of who Jesus is and what He has done – a complete hardening of the heart to the gospel. If I’m confessing Jesus to be my Savior, I don’t have to worry about whether I’ve done or said something unforgivable – I haven’t. And, I don’t have to worry or wonder if some loved one has committed the unpardonable sin because they’ve committed some egregious sin that people have wrongly called unpardonable – here, Jesus says, every sin is pardonable. Because Jesus’ love is deep; His grace, amazing; His favor, unmerited; His forgiveness, unbounded.