Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 10 January 2011; Revised 29 October 2015
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is derived from The New Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1981). The meaning of Greek words is derived from Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1957).
"Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." (Matt 12:31-32)
"Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin,” because they were saying, 'He has an unclean spirit.'" (Mark 3:28-30)
"I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." (Luke 12:8-10)
The subject of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has caused not a little confusion among believers, and pastors over the centuries have had to counsel people who were fearful they had committed the offense and even doubted they could be saved. This saying of Yeshua clearly has intriguing and paradoxical elements, so it is important to pay close attention to the text. First, Yeshua acknowledges, as illustrated in the Torah, that blasphemy can take many forms. In the Tanakh there are five Hebrew words translated in English versions as "blasphemy." By definition blasphemy may mean to revile God (2Kgs 19:6, 22; Isa 37:6, 23; Ezek 20:27), to despise or abhor, or to consciously view or treat with disdain (2Sam 12:14), to have contempt for God’s authority (Neh 9:18, 26), to curse in the sense of profanity or misusing God’s name (Lev 24:16), or to curse in the sense of using the name of God as part of a magic formula (Lev 24:11).
Finally, as Numbers 15:30 illustrates, any transgression of the Torah committed with presumption, defiance or premeditation could be considered blasphemy because intentional sinning implies rejection of God’s authority and impugns God’s ability to punish the crime. In contrast the Besekh has only one word translated as blasphemy and means slanderous or scurrilous words uttered in order to injure the reputation of someone. Under the Torah, blasphemy, regardless of its form, merited the death penalty (Lev 24:16; Num 15:30) and thus was excluded along with 35 other transgressions from divine pardon. Yeshua was convicted and sentenced to death on the charge of blasphemy (Matt. 26:65; Mark 14:64; cf. John 10:33). But, the good news of Yeshua, as he affirms in these passages, and later announced by Paul to the Gentiles (Acts 13:39) is that the exceptions have been eliminated and forgiveness may be obtained for any sin, including blasphemy.
However, confusion results because there is clearly a paradox contained in Yeshua’s teaching, in that (1) blasphemy against the Son of Man is somehow different than blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and (2) blasphemy against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. On the surface this statement is contradictory since the character of Yeshua and the Holy Spirit are the same. Both are holy, both are sinless and both are sent by the Father. Moreover, God is one and it would seem impossible to blaspheme Yeshua without also blaspheming the Holy Spirit (not to mention the Father) and vice versa since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Yeshua (Acts 16:7; Rom 8:9).
Resolving the paradox begins with distinguishing the identity of the Son of Man and the Spirit. The idiom "Son of Man" is thoroughly Hebraic and has no counterpart in Greek culture. Christian interpreters typically treat "Son of Man" in the context of Yeshua's ministry as representative of his identification with humanity, whereas "Son of God" pertains to his deity. In Hebraic thought these expressions mean just the opposite. "Son of Man" is a Messianic title that refers primarily to the eschatological supra-natural figure from heaven who establishes a kingdom on the earth (Dan 7:13-14, 27). However, Yeshua added the unexpected element of suffering in order to bring salvation from sin. For a full discussion on this important title see the note on John 1:51.
The Pharisees could be forgiven their slander against Yeshua because of ignorance, as the apostle Paul claimed for his blasphemy when he was a persecutor of followers of Yeshua (1Tim 1:13). These particular Pharisees had failed to consider the result of Yeshua’s ministry. People had been freed from the power of Satan and such victory can only be accomplished by the power of God. As Yeshua rightly pointed out, if the victory did not come from God in his casting out demons, then the Pharisees could not claim the same source of victory in their exorcisms (Matt 12:27).
Yeshua, as a man, was filled with the Holy Spirit and performed his signs and wonders in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:28; Luke 4:1). Yet, the Holy Spirit has a unique ministry, which is to convict or convince the world of sin, the righteousness of the Messiah and the coming judgment (John 16:8), as well as to empower believers for life and service (Acts 1:8). Forgiving sins is not included in the Spirit’s job description, so presumably the Spirit cannot forgive any sin committed against Him. Yeshua revealed that the Father is the one who pardons sin (Matt 6:12, 14-15; 18:35; Luke 23:34). Yeshua's own role would be to provide the ground for that forgiveness by virtue of his atoning sacrifice (Matt 26:28; Eph 1:7; 4:32).
An important consideration is that "son of man" was a common Jewish idiom for referring to any man (e.g., Num 23:19; Job 25:6; 35:8: Ps 144:3; Isa 51:12; Jer 49:18; Ezek 2:1; Dan 8:17). The words are only capitalized because the translators assume Yeshua is always talking about himself. Yeshua may well be making the same contrast contained in Eli’s rebuke of his sons who blasphemed God through immoral conduct inside the precincts of the tabernacle: "If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him, but if a man sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?" (1Sam 2:25). Yeshua made it clear that kingdom living requires mutual forgiveness. Men are to forgive sins of those who trespass against them (Matt 6:12-15; Mark 11:25; Luke 17:3-4). On the occasion of the healing of the paralytic Yeshua announced that the "son of man" had authority to forgive sins (Matt 9:6). He intended this to be the responsibility of every person and not just the privilege of priests. It is clear that the crowd understood this to be Yeshua's meaning, since Matthew records their reaction: "But when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men" (Matt 9:8).
While this reasonable solution removes the distinction between sinning against Yeshua and sinning against the Spirit, it does not necessarily remove the "hardness" of the saying. The circumstances of the hard saying also need to be considered. In the accounts of Matthew and Mark the saying occurs after Yeshua casts out a demon and the Pharisees find fault by insisting that Yeshua was really using sorcery to perform the exorcism. However, attributing the source of obviously good works to Satan (calling good evil) flies in the face of common sense, since Satan would never voluntarily relinquish his control over anyone, and thus the Pharisees insulted the Holy Spirit. (Calling good evil is but a step away from calling evil good.) The warning of Yeshua in that situation was clearly directed at his enemies. In Luke’s account the saying is directed to his disciples to elaborate on His warning to "beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1). The contrast of the two types of blasphemy is stated, in typical Hebrew fashion, as a parallel to the consequences of confessing or denying Yeshua (Luke 12:8-9).
Because of the differences between the apostolic versions of Yeshua’s saying, commentators have arrived at three definitions of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: (1) willfully continuing to deny the good news of salvation when the Holy Spirit has made it clear to you that it is true, (2) attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to the chief adversary of God (Satan), or (3) denial of the faith or apostasy (which some link to the warning of Hebrews 6:4-6). The first option relies on taking "Son of Man" as any man with the resulting interpretation that an unbeliever might not comprehend the truth when spoken by another human, but when the Holy Spirit, in His role of convicting, makes the truth plain, then the unbeliever is fully accountable if he intentionally rejects the light. This approach is not truly viable since God has given spiritual light to everyone (John 1:9) and no one can claim any excuse for not believing the truth (Rom 1:20). Moreover the context of the saying is decidedly against this interpretation.
The second option is closer to the truth since Mark 3:30 defines very specifically the nature of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as arising from the charge that Yeshua was possessed by an unclean spirit. Mark’s definition confines the impact of this sin to the specific controversy Yeshua had with the Pharisees and the fact that it is not raised again after the death and resurrection of Yeshua may mean that it has no practical application for disciples of Yeshua after that time. Yes, people, even believers, can grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30), but that is not the same thing as the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. People who are fearful of having committed this dread offense only need to be asked: "Have you ever said that Yeshua was possessed by a demonic spirit?" To my knowledge, no one other than these adversaries of Yeshua has ever made this charge.
The third interpretation of apostasy arises from the Luke context. Luke often puts sayings of Yeshua in different contexts than Matthew and Mark, thus indicating that Yeshua repeated the sayings on more than one occasion and made different applications of a given spiritual principle. Some commentators believe that Mark’s definition should govern the Luke passage. Other scholars would require Luke’s version to guide interpretation of the Matthew and Mark passages. However, just as blasphemy in the Hebrew Scriptures takes a variety of forms, so blasphemy against the Spirit could take more than one form and the differences between the synoptic narratives should be respected.
In Luke’s account the saying is directed to Yeshua’s disciples, so blasphemy can occur after one accepts Yeshua as Savior. After all, the commandments and penalties relating to blasphemy were given to Israel as part of their covenant with God. It also needs to be remembered that denying Yeshua in the sense of apostasy, just like confessing him, is done with words as well as actions. Merely reverting to sinful practices (backsliding) does not necessarily constitute apostasy. The difference of degrees may be seen in Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Of the two only Peter was restored as Yeshua predicted (Luke 22:31-32). The case of Ananias and Sapphira who were "filled with Satan" (not the Holy Spirit) and "lied to the Holy Spirit" (Acts 5:3) also serves as a warning of the consequences of conspiring to sin, which may be a key element in the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt 12:14).
While the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit refers to a very specific offense, the contrast Yeshua offered does illustrate the principle that there is a limit to divine patience. Noah warned his generation that the Spirit would not always strive with them and, in fact, gave them 120 years to repent (Gen 6:3). When that time expired without repentance so did their lives. In the account of the Exodus, Moses records that Pharaoh hardened his heart or refused to obey God after each of the first five plagues. However, beginning with the sixth plague the Scripture says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 9:12), indicating that the opportunity for mercy had expired. It should also be considered that God’s judgment on blasphemy was not just a standard under the Old Covenant, but was still applicable under the New Covenant, as the disciples learned through its experience with Ananias and Sapphira, Herod, who failed to reject idolatrous adoration (Acts 12:22-23), and certain Corinthian congregation members, who failed to treat the Lord’s Supper with holy respect (1Cor 11:29-30). The warning of the Psalmist needs to be heeded by this generation, "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts" (Ps 95:7; cf. Heb. 3:7f).
An intriguing element to the hard saying is that each of the passages gives a slightly different emphasis to the time and duration of unforgiveness. In Luke 12:10 Yeshua uses a simple future tense for not forgiving, probably meaning at the last judgment. In Mark 3:29 Yeshua calls blasphemy against God an eternal sin, meaning that it has been a sin from the beginning and will continue through all eternity, which contrasts with the fact that some sins did not exist until the commandments given to Noah for the world and still others not until the commandments given to Moses for Israel. Conversely, many transgressions relating to the ritual requirements of the sanctuary were ended by the atonement of Yeshua. Matthew 12:32 distinguishes between unforgiveness in the present age and the age to come, i.e., the millennial reign of the Messiah followed by the eternal age. The distinction in the Matthew passage may point to the two judgments, first at the Second Coming (Matt 25:31-32) and then at the end of the Millennium (Rev 20:11). The irony of history is that sin began with blasphemy by the Serpent and it will end the same way.
Finally, it is very important to remember that the reference to unforgiveness must be conditioned by all the promises of salvation upon repentance contained in Scripture. Also, there are many examples in Scripture of absolute statements and yet other passages contain exceptions to those statements (e.g., "you shall not murder"). As a matter of discussion it would be unconscionable to suggest that if a person genuinely committed the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (no matter how it is defined) and later likewise genuinely repented God would nevertheless refuse to forgive.
Yeshua would not command his disciples to love their enemies (Matt 5:44), and then act the opposite. The issue is not the nature of man (i.e., whether someone who commits such blasphemy will ever likely repent), but the nature of God. What is His record in Scripture? God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:32; 33:11). God loves all (John 3:16), Yeshua died for all (1Tim. 4:10) and desires all to come to repentance (2Pet 3:9). There simply are no exceptions to the promises of Romans 10:13 and 1 John 1:9.
In the total context of Scripture one denial or even one blasphemy does not automatically result in irretrievable loss, but intentional and persistent sinning insults the Spirit and risks damnation (Heb 10:26-31). Yet, confession and repentance will always be greeted with divine mercy just as Peter and Paul experienced, and God requires that the call to repentance be offered to everyone, especially the worst of sinners (Luke 24:47; Acts 17:30; 1Tim 1:15; 4:10). Those who fear they have committed blasphemy against the Spirit should be counseled that the fact of being so troubled is itself sure proof that either the true nature of this sin has been misunderstood and has not actually been committed or that the Spirit is providing grace for repentance and restoration with the Father. Unlike Eli’s dilemma we now have a mediator who has borne all our sins and will intercede with the Father on our behalf (1Tim 2:15; Heb. 9:15). So, while there is yet life, there is still hope of salvation for all.
Copyright © 2011-2015 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.