Friday, February 20, 2009

Crossing the Line

Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:22-32 ESV)

A number of years ago I was privileged to be the regular teacher at a midweek service in my home church. It was our custom to offer prayer and counseling after the service, and one night a woman came forward who wanted very much to believe but felt she wasn’t able to because she had “committed the unforgivable sin.” As we talked over the next half-hour or so it became clear that somewhere along the line a preacher had told her that anyone involved in witchcraft was beyond the redemption offered by God. That was his interpretation of this portion of Matthew’s gospel. She had once been involved in a Lucifer worship cult and was, as a result, firmly convinced that she was beyond even God’s help. No amount of counsel to the contrary would allay her fears. She left in the same hopeless frame of mind as when she arrived.

It was this event that began my personal examination of the passage above. It is a hard thing to reconcile a gospel of God’s limitless love with the notion that there is a line that one must not cross, that it is possible to step outside of His seemingly boundless willingness to forgive.

It is for this reason that a great many preachers today will tell you that what Jesus is talking about here is dying as a non-believer. We are told that the only way to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to reject God’s offer of salvation, because while the offer is made by God the Father, and the price for it was paid by the Son, it is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that the offer is fulfilled. And so the only unforgivable sin is to die without having accepted the offer of salvation and arriving in the next world without the righteousness of the Lamb to speak for you.

It is a reasonable and comfortable interpretation. But at the risk of being branded a heretic, I think it is an interpretation that may also be in error. This is an important issue so I ask your indulgence as I explain. I think this interpretation may be in error because of the last statement made by Christ in this passage: “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

There are two things to notice here: 1) “whoever speaks” is not about failing to make a decision, it is about making a statement, a proclamation, 2) “in this age” clearly indicates that the offense can be committed this side of the next world, while we are still of “this age.” These then are the characteristics of the “blasphemy” that has been committed against the Holy Spirit. The key to understanding this passage must reside in the meaning of this word.

It should be noted that blasphemy is not a translation of the Greek, it is a transliteration. The word was adopted from the Greek with only a change in pronunciation. According to Strong’s the word is “blasphemeo blas-fay-meh'-o ; to vilify; specially, to speak impiously:--(speak) blaspheme(-er, -mously, -my), defame, rail on, revile, speak evil.” So then, even the definition of the word used by Christ would indicate that he is referring to the things being said by the Pharisees. This calls to mind his words in Mark 7:15-16, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

But there seems to be more to it than simply speaking ill of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ discourse to the Pharisees points out the flaws in the logic of their argument. He makes it clear that the notion that Beelzebul (Satan) would seek to deceive the people by casting out his own demons is ridiculous. Think about it a moment. What profit would there be for Satan in this? If he were to cast out demons, would people praise him and abandon God? Of course they wouldn’t; rather they would give God the glory for the event and Satan’s kingdom would fall even further.

It would also appear that Jesus knows the Pharisees know this (“Knowing their thoughts, he said to them”), which is what adds the incredible weight to their sin. If they know in their hearts that such healing could only come from God, by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that moved upon the face of the waters at the moment of creation, then why would they suggest that Satan is the one who is at work? The answer is two fold: pride and envy.

At this point the Pharisees are beginning to show their desperation. Jesus has beaten their arguments at every turn. Even those totally unversed in the scriptures can see that there is something remarkable going on, that God is doing a new thing. Indignant at the popularity of this Galilean upstart, fearing that their position of power among the people is threatened, and even facing the possibility that everything they thought they knew about the messiah is about to be proven wrong, they make a desperate ploy to preserve the status quo – they attack the very God they claim to serve.

This is the depth of the sin involved here. They know that such healing can only come from God. They know that Jesus’ interpretation of scripture is entirely valid. They know that God is at work in His ministry and something new and remarkable is about to happen. But they no longer care about what it is God wants to do! Such is their desperation, they attempt to derail God’s plan; they are willing to condemn the acts of God Almighty as works of evil rather than risk losing their position of authority or alter their own world view!

How much envy has to live in one’s heart to come to such a place? How much pride does it take to believe that your world view is more important than God’s plan for Israel? In speaking this way the Pharisees engage in the sin of Lucifer. They set themselves above God and His will, and seek to impose their own will on the universe.

But I think the true weight of their error lies in it's consequence for the innocents. Consider Jesus' words in Matthew 18: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." Matthew 18:5-6 ESV The Pharisees denial of God's Messiah held the potential to put the salvation of others at risk. By deliberately declaring that the work being done by the Holy Spirit was being done by Beelzubul, they were running the risk of leading others astray, and Jesus' words concerning their fate are quite sobering.

So this then, I believe, is the sin that God will tolerate only so long. To simply reject His plan of salvation is one thing; to openly revile it and seek to impose your own world view when you know the truth is quite another. To continue down this path will put the salvation of others at risk and will eventually take one to a place where your heart is hardened beyond repentance. And if you have crossed the line to a place where you are no longer capable of repentance, then how can God forgive?

Understand that I am not talking about simply bad mouthing someone’s ministry here, or even being simply mistaken about what is God's plan. I’m talking about something far more sinister; something akin to setting yourself up as the arbitrator of salvation. This is about someone who knows the truth, acknowledges the reality of God’s plan, but seeks to discredit it in the eyes of others to forward their own agenda. As I said, this is a sin that rivals the sin of Lucifer. For this reason, I am convinced very few people will ever be this far away from God’s saving grace!

In fact, I doubt more than a handful of people down through the centuries could possibly be guilty of such a sin. Not that I am qualified to judge. But that said, I do not think even this group of Pharisees had crossed that line. Jesus’ words hold the flavour of a dire warning rather than a final judgment. He is letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that He knows exactly what is going on in their hearts. He is letting them know that they will not succeed, and that if they press the issue too far, the ramifications will be far greater than they might have imagined.

I think also this is why we are commanded not to judge others but only the condition of our own hearts. Because it is the passing of judgment on the works of others, especially when our opinions are more our own than founded in God's word, that will start us on such a path.

Until next time... Shalom

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