I’m sure I’m not the only church leader to have had this experience. It’s a very particular kind of sinking feeling that occurs when someone approaches you and says: ‘I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin.’
That person has a terrible burden of guilt, perhaps from something they’ve done in the past, or perhaps a symptom of depression. And very often, no amount of reassurance of God’s forgiveness will remove it. They may add that Hebrews 6:4-6 says it is now impossible for them to be brought to repentance. It makes no difference if you assure them that their distress indicates that they are at the point of repentance. Their overwhelming feeling of guilt continues to convince them that they’ve committed the unforgivable sin.
HEARING IT PROPERLY
Some of Jesus’ teachings have been forgotten (though not lost) because we no longer hear them properly. What he said about the unforgivable sin is one example. We think he was teaching about blasphemy, but his hearers already knew about that.
The rabbis discussed this sin at length. You committed it when you used God’s name in a derogatory way. Jews knew this because it says so in the Ten Commandments. The second commandment ends with a terrible warning which is found connected only to this one sin: ‘the lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Exodus 20:7).
It wasn’t sinful just to speak God’s name – you had to use it in a derisory or scornful way. The verb blaspheme means ‘to revile’ and can be used of humans as well as God – such as when Paul was reviled in Acts 13:45 and 18:6.
Jesus said (paraphrasing Mark 3:28-29): ‘You can revile anyone and it will be forgiven, but you’ll not be forgiven if you revile…’ At this point his Jewish audience expected him to say ‘…God’s name’. But he didn’t. What he did say shocked them completely: ‘You’ll not be forgiven if you revile the Holy Spirit.’
When Jesus said it was unforgivable to revile the Holy Spirit, he was declaring that the Holy Spirit is God. Only God is so great that reviling him cannot be forgiven. So if the same is true about the Holy Spirit, then he too must be God. But that sounds like nonsense to a Jew – or to others who believe in one God. It is hard enough for Christians, who have had a couple of thousand years to try to understand the Trinity.
The Jews had suffered greatly at the hands of the Babylonians, Romans and others for refusing to acknowledge any other gods than the one God. So you can understand their reluctance to hear that their one God was a little more complex than they had thought. It is like children who have been taught that an atom is the smallest possible object, and are subsequently told about neutrons, protons and electrons. One teacher must be wrong!
It wasn’t that Jews didn’t know who the Holy Spirit was. He is mentioned twice in the Old Testament. They knew that God put the Holy Spirit inside them and that he could be grieved by sin (Isaiah 63:10-11; Psalm 51:11). According to Hillel, a rabbi who lived a few decades before Jesus, the Holy Spirit guided ordinary Jews when they weren’t sure what to do (Tosephta Pischa 4:14). They knew that the Holy Spirit was from God. What no one knew until Jesus revealed it was that the Holy Spirit was God. So if they reviled the Holy Spirit, they were breaking the second commandment.
The Pharisees had been accusing Jesus of casting out demons through the power of the devil instead of the Holy Spirit. And because they had done that, Jesus told them that they’d committed the unforgivable sin. What happens to people who commit this sin? Jews believed that those who broke the second commandment did not receive
forgiveness on the Day of Atonement like they did for other sins. No one committing this sin of blasphemy could be ‘guiltless’, and so they remained unforgiven. However, death itself was a punishment of all sin, so their guilt ended when they died.
WHEN JESUS SAID IT WAS UNFORGIVABLE, HE WAS DECLARING THAT THE HOLY SPIRIT IS GOD
For Christians things are both much worse – and much better. We believe that in God’s eyes all sins are equally heinous – because every sin demonstrates our rejection of him. And we regard all sins as unforgivable, because all sins deserve and result in death. But Jesus makes all things better, because he offered to die in our place, so that we can be guiltless in this life. This explains why rejecting Jesus is also unforgivable because, as it says in Hebrews 10:26-29, if you reject the only source of salvation, then there isn’t any way left for you to be saved. Consequently, ‘unforgivable’ does not mean ‘irreversible’. When you stop rejecting Jesus, then God’s forgiveness in Jesus is again available to you.
Until we accept Jesus, we are all in the same boat as those who commit the unforgivable sin. We are all born rejecting God and due for the same punishment – death. In this way all sins are like the unforgivable sin; they can’t go unpunished, but Jesus offers to die for those sins in our place.
I’m curious as to why Jesus didn’t include himself when he talked about the unforgivable sin. He said that those who reviled him were not breaking the second commandment (Matthew 12:32). My guess is that he didn’t expect them to recognise his divinity until after the resurrection. At that point it became plain even to Thomas who declared: ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28).
The Trinity is often regarded as something the Church invented to explain the greatness of Jesus. Sometimes the addition of the Holy Spirit is seen as an afterthought, when people had got used to the idea that God’s unity was more complex than they’d thought. However, when we understand Jesus’ teaching through first-century Jewish eyes, we can see that this doctrine started with Jesus. He is the one who first pointed out that the Holy Spirit is God, before his
own divinity was fully revealed.
I have a great sympathy for those Jews who simply couldn’t understand how God could be three and one at the same time. As much as I hate to admit it, I still don’t fully understand it myself…But, come to think of it, I don’t fully understand the atom yet either.