What is Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/9/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  1 Samuel 8:4-20 & 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 & Mark 3:20-359. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I don’t usually remember my dreams, but when I do, there are a certain set of typical dreams that I will have. They tend to follow a pattern.

One of my dream patterns is a nightmare. These are anxiety dreams, dreams where I feel like I have done something wrong – I’ve made a mistake, I’ve forgotten about something, I’ve said the wrong thing – and because of this error on my part, the world is crashing down around me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

One version is the dream where I imagine that I’ve been enrolled in a class all semester but never attended. Now there’s a final exam, and I’m completely unprepared! I always wake up before it’s actually time to take the test, so the whole dream ends up being a feeling of panicked anticipation.

Have you ever had dreams like this? What does it feel like, in your body, in your breath – this feeling of being so lost, having done something so foolish, so reckless that no one can save you?

These nightmares remind me of how I felt when I first encountered Jesus’ words from Mark 3. When Jesus speaks about the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it sounded like something straight out of a nightmare.

I remember hearing this Bible story as a child, maybe as a middle schooler, and being disturbed. What was this sin of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”? Why did Jesus say it was unforgivable? And, most important of all to my 12-year-old self: had I committed this sin?

I tried to imagine what it would mean for me to do something so bad, so evil, that God would never forgive me. The adults in my life assured me that the very fact that I was asking whether I had committed the sin meant that I hadn’t – but still, I was unnerved. What if I were to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit in the future? Could someone do this accidentally? How would I know how to avoid it?

I have a pretty positive view of scripture. The Bible is very important to me, and I believe it’s vital for our life as a church. It’s the place we go to learn about who God is and what God’s intention is for us. It’s the library against which all our ideas about life, the universe, and everything are judged.

We each have our own experience of what God has done in our lives, but the Bible is the primary way in which we connect with what God has done in the life of the whole church, in the lives of our spiritual ancestors. The scriptures give us much-needed perspective, and, if we’re serious about following Jesus, we have to take them seriously.

Given my positive view of scripture, I don’t say this lightly, but I feel it must be said: This passage of Mark’s gospel is dangerous. It is one of the most abusable passages in the Bible. When we’re reading it, we have to be careful, because it’s very easy to get the wrong idea about what Mark and Jesus are communicating here.

Many people have fallen for the lie that they are unforgivable. Many have been ensnared by a misunderstanding of this passage to condemn themselves. It’s been said that, “the Devil can quote scripture” – and, well, this is one of the ones he likes to quote the most.

Because this is what the Devil wants us to believe: “You are a failure.” “No one loves you.” “You’re not enough.” “The things you have done are so terrible, nothing can make it right.” “You might as well give up; you’re irredeemable.”

Those are lies. But they’re lies that fit very well with the idea of an “unpardonable sin.” So this passage from scripture is very dangerous, because despite being the very words of our Lord Jesus, the power of evil has an easy time twisting his words here.

This is a reminder that the spiritual life is one of discernment. Just as Jesus was cautious in interpreting scripture during his temptation in the desert, we must be cautious in our interpretation of this, and all scripture. If the Bible is going to be useful in our life of faith, then, in the words of our Quaker ancestors, we have to read the scriptures in the same Spirit that gave them forth.

So let’s discern together. What’s going on here? How did we get to the point where Jesus was talking about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? What is the gospel of Mark trying to do here?

In this passage – Mark 3, verses twenty to thirty-five – we’ve got sort of a three-layer sandwich of challenges to Jesus’ ministry: Family, scribes, family. 

In the first layer, it says that Jesus’ family members were worried about Jesus, about his ministry among the crowds. They were so worried, that Mark says Jesus’ family tried to “restrain him.” His family was saying, “he is out of his mind!”

So that’s the beginning of this passage, this realization that Jesus’ family was not on board for the type of raucous, dangerous, disruptive public ministry that Jesus was engaged in. A career as an exorcist of demons and rabble-rousing public speaker was not what Jesus’ human parents had in mind!

In the next layer of the text, we see what this ministry of Jesus actually looked like. We see Jesus in the midst of the crowds, taking insults from the scribes, the religious leaders who came down from Jerusalem to see him heal and hear him preach. These scribes accuse Jesus of being an evildoer, possessed by an evil spirit. Here is Jesus, the very presence of God on earth, and some religious leaders were accusing him of being filled with evil!

In this context, Jesus explains that his healing ministry of casting out demons cannot possibly be from evil, because evil spirits don’t cast out evil spirits – only the Spirit of God can do that. And it’s here, after explaining this, that Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” And after Jesus says this, Mark notes that Jesus’ words were a response to the scribes, who were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Ok so we’re still in the sandwich. The first slice of bread was Jesus’ family being worried about Jesus, saying he’d gone crazy. The delicious avocado center was the scribes accusing Jesus of being demon-possessed, and Jesus rebuking their lies.

Now finally, we’re back into the second slice of bread – more family drama. We see Jesus’ mother and brothers standing outside where Jesus is teaching. We know from the earlier passage that they’re here to convince him to come home and stop his ministry. It’s in this context that Jesus, upon hearing that his family is present, says to the crowd, “Who are my mother and brothers? – Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

So the fight between Jesus and his scribal accusers is situated by Mark in the context of Jesus’ struggle with his own mother and brothers. Jesus’ biological family rejects Jesus from a sense of maternal concern and fear. They love Jesus, but they don’t understand who Jesus is. They believe that Jesus’ ministry is madness. The scribes who reject Jesus don’t love him like Jesus’ family does. But it’s interesting how similar their opposition to Jesus’ ministry is. For the family, it’s that they believe that Jesus has gone crazy. For the scribes, it’s that Jesus is in league with the devil.

To some degree, it amounts to the same thing.

In both cases, those who love Jesus (his family) and those who hate him (the scribes) are turning away from Jesus’ real identity, his real life, his true purpose. In both cases, the people around Jesus are rejecting his ministry, making themselves unavailable to it. They cut themselves off from the Holy Spirit through their resistance to what God is doing in Jesus. They choose to stand on the outside, looking in with concern and anger.

But for those who are on the same wavelength as Jesus, for those who are listening to his teaching, being healed of illness and demon possession, the situation is reversed. The Spirit is within and among them. Just as the world is resisting God’s presence in Jesus, it is also resisting the Holy Spirit in them. Here we are reminded of what the epistle of James tells us: Friendship with the world is enmity with God. The reverse is also true: Friendship with God puts us at odds with the world.

This is the experience that Paul talks about in his second letter to the Cornithians, when he writes that “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

The Spirit that is within Jesus is the same one that is within and among those who follow Jesus. This is the Spirit that brings life, healing, resurrection. But there are many who stand on the outside of this Holy Center, looking in. There are many who refuse to receive the love of God, refuse to receive the healing. Heaven is open to them, but they stubbornly insist on standing in hell.

As a child, my elders reassured me that I couldn’t possibly have committed the unpardonable sin, as proven by the very fact that I was worried about it. I didn’t quite believe that answer as a child, but as a 41-year-old, I am convinced that this is exactly right. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not some sort of accident that can happen. It’s not a one-time event. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, as talked about by Jesus, is unpardonable precisely because it is an ongoing decision. It’s an ongoing posture of standing outside of the circle of God’s love and refusing to enter into it.

We each may have different reasons for standing on the outside. The scribes had theological objections and political motivations. Jesus’ family was confused by what they believed was love for Jesus, but was in fact a fear of the unknown. But for all of them, their resistance to Jesus was strong enough that it separated them from what God was really doing in Jesus, from who he really was.

The good news is, we know that transformation is possible. Every passing moment is another chance to step into the circle of God’s love. There is no “unpardonable moment” – rather an unpardonable series of decisions that become a pattern and a habit. The gospel of Jesus is that, with God’s help, we can break free from these patterns.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Look at what happens next in the biblical story: We know that Jesus’ mother did later come to understand Jesus’ ministry and become a part of the early church. We know that Saul, a scribe and a notorious persecutor of the early Christians became Paul, the untimely-born apostle, who carried Christian faith to the Gentiles.

Paul and Mary were not trapped by the things they had done and the ways they had resisted the Holy Spirit in the past. If anything, their doubt and resistance was a factor in their eventual salvation. They were brought into the circle of love through God’s healing in the very wounds that held them back before.

Jesus didn’t come to save those who are well, but the sick. The Holy Spirit is here to free us when we are oppressed by darkness and falsehood. The good news is that we can be saved, redeemed, transformed – in spite of everything. Jesus died for us while we were still resisting him. Through his wounds, we are healed. Through the Holy Spirit, we are given power to see our own wounds, and to be redeemed through them.

Where are the places where you are broken? Where does it hurt? Where are the places that you pull away from God or resist him, afraid of being touched? Where is that Life, that “eternal weight of glory” reaching for you, touching you, healing you? What does it mean for you to step into the circle?