This passage has three main parts to it. Therefore the sermon has three parts to it.
There's a band I know composed of family members: dad on guitar, mum on keyboards, son on keyboards, daughter on bass and vocals. They called themselves "Logical Bonds". Straight away you notice that they were missing an important instrument: the drums. So, like me, they got a drum machine.
They were playing an outdoor mini-festival (which we provided PA for, so that's how I know the story) and the sun was bright. So bright, in fact, that it heated up the display on the drum machine so that you couldn't read it (LCDs do that sort of thing - be warned). So they had to do their entire set by playing the drum machine, guessing what the song was, and then joining in.
Well, I've a set of songs programmed into my drum machine and I'd like you to try and guess what they are, just from the drums.
Actually, they're not the songs, but the titles, in Morse code. You all heard them fine, but you couldn't understand. That's exactly the same as Jesus' family in the reading: they saw what He was doing, they heard what He was saying, yet they couldn't understand. And, as they cared about Him, they came to take Him home, before He did Himself some harm, as they saw it.
I think it's important for us to realise that not everything we see God do makes sense at the time. The important bit is to recognise that it is God who is doing it, and listen. If you hadn't listened to the drums but put your fingers in your ears as I played them, you wouldn't have understood them whilst they played, the same as everyone else. But you wouldn't have understood them when I explained them, either. We need to listen to God, even if what He's saying doesn't seem to make sense at the time. Unless we listen, it never will.
There is no other set of verses that has caused so much anxiety amongst Christians (especially new Christians) than this. Not even "thou shalt honour your father and mother" upsets people as much. So I thought it might be a good idea to deal with them first.
Of course, everything hinges on that phrase "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit". So what exactly is it?
Well, you won't be surprised to learn that there's a difference of opinion amongst theologians. What is surprising, though, is that there is a consensus of application.
But first, the interpretation.
Www.gotquestions.org, a Christian apologetics web site, defines "blasphemy" as "defiant reverence". It therefore fits such sins as cursing God and wilfully degrading things relating to God. It is also attributing some evil to God or denying Him some good that we should attribute. The website goes on to be very specific about what this particular blasphemy was and how it was committed.
It argues that this blasphemy has to do with someone accusing
Jesus Christ (in person, on
earth) of being demon-possessed. It suggest that there are other ways to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, but this was "THE" blasphemy that was unpardonable. Following this line of argument would mean that this unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit cannot be duplicated today because Jesus Christ is not on earth but seated at the right Hand of God.
In contrast, Mark Horne, in his commentary on Mark's Gospel,
defines "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" as ascribing
the work of the Spirit to the work of the Devil. But that begs
the question: what is "the work of the Spirit"? Horne
agues like this: Jesus came to bear witness to the Father and
to the path to redemption. The work of the Spirit, he argues,
is to bear witness to Jesus. Consequently, the scribes in this
passage could reject Jesus, but if they rejected the witness of
the Holy-Spirit-filled and Holy-Spirit-taught disciples (bearing
witness, lest we forget, to Christ's death and resurrection -
the way back to the Father that Jesus spoke about), then there
was no forgiveness. In short, the "blasphemy against the
Holy Spirit", Horne argues, is not a case of whether someone
uses expletives based on Jesus' name or the Spirit's, but is
to reject the call to salvation, embodied in the cross of Christ.
Thirdly, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), describe the "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" as being attributing the Spirit's work to the Devil. In their case, they describe the Spirit's work as being the miracles by which Jesus' ministry was validated. This blasphemy, then, attributes Jesus' ministry of redemption, testimony and teaching to the wrong side. It claims, in effect, that the way to God is through evil, not good. Through demonism, not the cross. Put like that, this blasphemy's another word that begins with "B"... but I digress.
Finally, Hebraic-Foundations argues that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is only possible for the Jewish people. And then only if some very particular conditions are in place. In short, they define it as open defiance against God, from or by the leadership, who actually know (even if only in part) that what they are condemning is from God. In other words, they are saying that there is no blasphemy without understanding.
Clearly, then, there is some debate on what "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" is. But there is complete agreement on one point: the application. "Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" is not, and never has been, a sin that a believer can commit. Taking just one of the views I've decribed, this blasphemy is a denial of the redemption of Christ, bought for us by His death on the cross: how can a believer deny what has saved them? How can a believer not know God's power to forgive? How can a believer blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Answer - they can't. They can doubt - and we all do that at some time or other - but they can't commit the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It's just not possible.
In short, if you're ever worried that you've committed this sin, relax. You haven't. You're not alone in worrying but Jesus went to the cross so that we wouldn't have to worry. Can a believer blaspheme the Holy Spirit? The Cross says "no". That's good enough for me.
For the third and final part of this sermon, I'd like us to consider how the teachers of the Law reacted to what they saw Jesus doing, why this may have been so and, probably most importantly, how we might react if we were in a similar position today.
Firstly, what was Jesus doing? According to their accusation in verse 22, Jesus was driving out demons. I'd like to leave aside the question of whether or not these were demons or illnesses such as epilepsy - this sermon's long enough as it is - but I do want us to be clear on one point: Jesus was healing people using supernatural power. Whether he was driving out demons or re-wiring people's brains, He was doing what no-one else could and was doing it again and again.
Clearly, something powerful was going on and therefore someone powerful was doing it. With the benefit of 2000 years of interpretation and being on this side of the cross and resurrection, we know what was going on and who was doing it. But the teachers of the Law didn't.
So why did they react as they did? I have three possible reasons, all to do with the unknown.
Firstly, fear of the unknown. They'd never seen anything like this before, had no experience of it and couldn't easily explain it.
Secondly, a person unknown. Jesus hadn't had a formal religious education, He hadn't been brought up in a recognised religious way. He was therefore not a religious authority, yet clearly had authority over demons.
Thirdly, God the unknown and unknowable who Jesus was telling everyone could be known. And he was backing up His teaching with demonstrations of power.
Add these three up: He's not one of us, He's teaching things we're not sure about and He's doing things we're not sure can be done and it's not too hard to see how the teachers came to the conclusion they did. He's not on our side, so He must be on Beelzebul's.
Jesus' answer shows the flaws in their argument, but it's not hard to see how they reached their conclusion. The big question is, would we have reached the same or similar conclusions? If we're faced with someone unknown, someone demonstrating power, teaching things we're not sure about, whose side do we think they're on?
Think about faith healers, evangelists promising miracles, the Toronto blessing? How do we react when we hear of them? Whose side do we think they're on? Are we suspicious, or do we rejoice that God is at work in His world? Now, I'm not saying that every supernatural occurrence is of God (because I'd be wrong and I hate being wrong).
I haven't really got an easy conclusion to this sermon (although I'd really like to have had). All I've got is that question: when we see or hear of an occurrence supernatural power, whose side do we think it's on? And why?
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