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Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

Overt, verbal, and conscious repudiation of the fact that God is at work in Jesus Christ accomplishing his designs through the power of the Holy Spirit. Exactly what is being described by this expression, found in Mark 3:29 (par. Matt 12:32 ; Luke 12:10 ), has vexed both scholars and ordinary Christians for centuries.

Several observations are in order. First, the object of this "blasphemy" is the Holy Spirit, who is clearly distinguished in the context from Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who may be blasphemed by someone who yet is forgiven ( Matt 12:32 ). While the Spirit is the object, however, it is the Spirit's work in Jesus Christ that is the focus of the passage. Second, the result of this blasphemy is that the blasphemer cannot be forgiven by God. Third, the consequence of this blasphemy is eternal unforgivability. Mark calls this the "eternal sin, " a term found in modern translations; the KJV has "eternal judgment." Finally, the circumstances of Jesus' pronouncement include the attribution of his powers to demonic sources ( Mark 3:22 ).

What is this sin? Both Mark and Luke use the term "blaspheme" while Matthew has the more ordinary "speaks against, " showing that all three have in mind some kind of verbal repudiation or denunciation of the Spirit of God in the ministry of Jesus. Ancients believed in the power of words and uttering imprecations, curses, and blasphemies were taken seriously. The verb "blaspheme" means to speak abusively or insultingly of someone or something ( Acts 18:6 ; Rom 14:16 ). In the Old Testament the term was used specially for derisive language and attitudes toward the God of the covenant with Israel ( 2 Kings 19:4 ; 6,22 Isa 66:3 ; Ezek 35:12-13 ). The fundamental notion inherited by New Testament authors, and Jesus in particular, is expressed in Leviticus 24:15-16: "Whoever curses (qalal [l;l'q]; katareo [katavra]) his God shall bear his sin. He who blasphemes (naqab [b;q"n]; onomazo [ojnomavzw]) the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes (naqab [b;q"n]; onomazo [ojnomavzw]) the Name, shall be put to death" (RSV cf. Lev 24:10-23 ; for the blasphemer ).

Furthermore, the Spirit is the sign of the new age and the reception of the Spirit is the focus of hope in some Old Testament visions. Thus, Isaiah 63:7-64:11 speaks of God's covenantal faithfulness to his people, led by Moses, even when they grieved the Holy Spirit ( 63:10 ). The prayer is that God would rend his heavens and come down to his people and make his name great among the nations ( 64:1-2 ). One suspects that the advent of the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus fulfills this Old Testament hope, and yet Israel remains hardened and grieves the Spirit once again (cf. 63:10 ; Mark 3:29 ). What we find then is double accountability: Old Testament disobedience, followed by God's promised restoration in sending the Spirit, and now once again the same rejection.

Consequently, when we come to the text of the Synoptic Gospels there is a history of interpretation and applications that prohibit anyone ( Lev 24:15-16 ; includes the sojourner ) from denouncing the God of Israel, repudiating his claims, and insulting his honor. What Jesus claims is that a similar type of sin is being committed whenever one speaks against the Holy Spirit as revealed powerfully in his ministry. What caused stoning in the Old Testament, now incurs eternal condemnation; such a sin is unforgivable.

What are the specific symptoms of this sin? There have been many suggestions in the history of interpretation, including breaking the third commandment ( Exod 20:7 ; taking the Lord's name in vain ) or the seventh commandment ( Exod 20:14 ; adultery cf. 1 Cor 6:18 ), postbaptismal sins (Origen), post-Pentecost rejection of the Spirit, and the attempt to achieve meritorious righteousness before God. Others have given up on finding the meaning. While the various proposals may have some merit, it is best to examine "blasphemy against the Spirit" in the Gospels themselves to see what light they shed on what is being addressed.

The contexts of the Gospels provide the important clues. In Mark and Matthew, the context is Jesus' exorcisms by the power of God's Spirit ( Matt 12:22-24 ; cf. Mark 3:22 ). While Jesus contends that one might miss the revelation of God in his lowly person ( Matt 12:32 a), no one can miss the power of God at work in his ability to exorcize demons ( Matt 12:32 b; Mark 3:29 ). Thus, the unforgivable sin is repudiation of the work of God, seen in Jesus' powerful Acts of exorcism.

Luke puts this same saying in a slightly different context: the public acknowledgment of Jesus Christ. Jesus says it is one thing to deny him publicly; it is quite another thing to repudiate the power of the Holy Spirit ( Luke 12:8-10 ). Thus, the unforgivable sin here seems to be public repudiation of the power of the Spirit in the ministry of the apostles of Jesus. What we see here is probably an application: inasmuch as it is blasphemous to reject the Spirit in the ministry of Jesus, so it is also blasphemous to reject the Spirit in the ministry of the Twelve (since they are personal agents of Jesus). After all, the Spirit purifies and enables holiness ( Psalm 51:11-13 ; Ezek 36:25-27 ). In summary, we may confidently conclude that "blasphemy against the Spirit" is overt, even verbal, repudiation of the presence of God's Spirit in the ministry of Jesus and those whom he has sent.

After the earthly ministry and death of Christ, the emphasis on the Spirit as the object of the blasphemous words and attitudes will give way to an emphasis on Jesus Christ (cf. James 2:7 ). Hence, we find Paul's preaching of Christ crucified being repudiated; this would appear to be "blasphemy against the Spirit" as well ( Acts 13:8 Acts 13:45 ; 14:2 ; 18:6 ; 19:13-16 ).

Blasphemy against the Spirit and apostasy are related. Apostasy, whether defined in the Calvinistic or Arminian sense, is committed by those who have had some relationship to God through Christ. Thus, apostasy is acceptance followed by repudiation of Jesus Christ ( Heb 6:4-6 ; 10:29-39 ; 1 John 5:16-17 ); blasphemy against the Spirit is not preceded by acceptance. It describes overt repudiation before any kind of commitment is made. While we may distinguish these two sins in this manner, it also needs to be observed that the two sins amount to largely the same stance. For both involve an overt repudiation of God's work in Christ.

Scot McKnight

See also Holy Spirit; Sin Unto Death

Bibliography. C. K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition; G. C. Berkouwer, Sin; H. W. Beyer, TDNT, 1:621-25; O. Hofius, EDNT, 1:219-21; W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Jr., The Gospel according to Saint Matthew; A. Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament; N. Turner, Christian Words; G. H. Twelftree, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 75-77; H. Wä risch, W. Mundle, and C. Brown, NIDNTT, 3.340-47.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.