Anyone who is not for me is really against me; anyone who does not help me gather is really scattering. For this reason I tell you: people can be forgiven any sin and any evil thing they say but whoever says evil things against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who says something against the Son of Man can be forgiven; but whoever says something against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven – now or ever.
[Jesus continues to lecture the Pharisees about the authority to drive out demons. See Day 116 for background.]
If you want to follow Jesus passivity not allowed. He wants commitment. He wants to be faithfully represented (See Day 94). He doesn’t want a lot of people hanging around watching. He says either help or get out of the way. He wants people who are willing to act to make the world a better place. This is still true today. I always say that following Jesus is like the Wellington Old Glory Marching Society parade in Chicago – everyone marches and no one watches. We all need to be engaged in spreading love and demanding social justice. That’s how we make things better, not by sitting back and complaining or giving up just believing it can happen without any effort on our part. When we see something wrong we need to act, not just ignore it. We each need to act on whatever God puts in front of us. That’s our mission.
Now, having dealt with gathering and scattering, we have to look at this rather difficult passage about not being forgiven. Jesus says that people can always be forgiven, even when they say something against him. But Jesus says they will not be forgiven if they say something against the Holy Spirit.
So what is the Holy Spirit? The root word for spirit in Hebrew is “ruach” which means breath, wind, or spirit. The Greek word is “pneuma” which also means wind or spirit. In both the Old and New Testaments the meaning is the same. It is defined by being undefinable. It’s mysterious, invisible, intangible, enigmatic, inscrutable. Wind and breath imply movement. Spirit is an essence that flows like the wind. Like breath it gives life. We each have a spirit. God is pure spirit, and his spirit is perfect. His spirit is holy.
The Holy Spirit as Part of the Trinity
In the tradition of the church, the Holy Spirit is part of the Holy Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This concept is not in the Bible, it’s just a metaphor that has been used by the church as a teaching tool. It has its strengths and weaknesses, but it’s important to remember that there is only one God. I guess you could say that the convention is that God the Father is up in heaven, Jesus walked on earth and revealed God to us, and the Holy Spirit is God’s spirit moving among us here on earth. But it’s all convention. There is only one God and he is spirit. God and God’s spirit are indivisible, Trinitarian confusion notwithstanding. The Holy Spirit is God. There is no separation between them.
The Person of the Holy Spirit
Sometimes in the churches you hear people say that the Holy Spirit is a “person.” Like the trinity, this is a another metaphor, another convention. It is not found in the Bible. This concept is rooted in the early Christian use of the word “prosopon” to describe the Holy Spirit. The Greek word “prosopon” means “face” or “presence.” It is also translated in English to the word “person,” but it really means the outer representation, appearance, or countenance of a person. More than the body, less than the whole “person,” we really don’t have a word for the concept of “prosopon” in English.
So while the early Christians attempted to use this word to describe the Holy Spirit as “the face of God,” or even “the presence of God,” when it got to English it devolved into “the person of God,” which people quite naturally then assume is a creature somehow separate from God – like an angel or something. But the Holy Spirit as a separate person is strictly a metaphor and a convention. The Holy Spirit is what we call it when God’s presence is manifested here on earth. But it’s a manifestation of the one and only God.
There is Only One God
There is only one God. Look at the first three commandments handed down to Moses:
Worship no god but me. Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. (Exodus 20:3-5).
Remember that the Lord your God is the only God and that he is faithful. (Deuteronomy 7:9).
People of Israel, you are my witnesses; I chose you to be my servant, so that you would know me and believe in me and understand that I am the only God. Besides me there is no other god; there never was and never will be. (Isaiah 43:10).
The Lord, who rules and protects Israel, the Lord Almighty, has this to say: “I am the first, the last, the only God; there is no other god but me.” (Isaiah 44:6).
Turn to me now and be saved, people all over the world! I am the only God there is. (Isaiah 45:22).
To the only God, who alone is all-wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever! Amen. (Romans 16:27).
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all. (Ephesians 4:5-6)
To the eternal King, immortal and invisible, the only God—to him be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17).
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments it repeatedly emphasizes that there is only one God. Some Christians like the United Pentecostals reject the concept of the trinity because they think it creates confusion. They think that it leads people to believe that there are three separate gods – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a metaphor that’s used a lot in the church. Look at the last line of the great hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” where we sing, “God in three persons, blessed trinity.” This is not a line out of the Bible. It’s a metaphor. It’s OK to sing or think about extra-Biblical images, but when we start basing on theology on songs and metaphors they may lead you away from the truth of the matter.
While there is no evidence in the Bible that the Holy Spirit is a separate person, but there is plenty of evidence in the Bible that humans would prefer to have multiple gods. Regardless of our proclivities, God doesn’t subdivide himself. He told Moses that his name is “I am.” He is what he is. God is a spirit that permeates everything. It’s a really, really, really important Biblical concept.
The Holy Spirit Before Pentecost
Christians sometimes teach that the Holy Spirit is something other than God himself and that it manifested itself on earth for the first time at Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection to empower the early Christians to spread the Gospel. Not true. The Holy Spirit has always been around, starting at creation:
In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness, and the Spirit of God was moving over the water (Genesis 1:1-2).
The Holy Spirit was mentioned in the Psalms:
Create a pure heart in me, O God, and put a new and loyal spirit in me. Do not banish me from your presence; do not take your holy spirit away from me. Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. (Psalm 51:10-12)
Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit several times. For example:
When they bring you to trial, do not worry about what you are going to say or how you will say it; when the time comes, you will be given what you will say. For the words you will speak will not be yours; they will come from the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:19-20).
I look at spiritual growth as the journey of teaching my spirit to yield to God’s spirit. My spirit is strengthened when it merges and mingles with God’s spirit. If I shut out the Holy Spirit, then my own spiritual health quickly deteriorates. When I reject the Holy Spirit, I reject God and my own spirit shrinks back. I am then be trapped in the material world until I open up again. If I turn against the Holy Spirit there is no salvation, no forgiveness, no hope, no guidance, no joy, no love, no courage. None of the good stuff.
Back to the scripture. Usually no one wants to touch this one with a 10 foot pole. Jesus says that if we say something against the Holy Spirit we can never be forgiven? I saw this one years ago and have been reflecting on it ever since. Here’s where I’m at as of today.
It’s terrifying to think that God might hold it against us if we say something bad about him or the manifestations of his Holy Spirit. I think all of us have questioned God now and then. When bad things happen it’s hard not to question what he seems to be doing, or allowing to happen. The concept of an unforgivable sin certainly isn’t consistent with Jewish thought – especially disagreeing with God. Jews in the Bible are always questioning God – important Jews like Abraham and David and Elijah. Jesus even questions God on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46).
I think Jesus is warning people to tread lightly when it comes to making judgments about things they don’t understand. He knows that they lack discernment. After all, they’ve just accused him of working for the devil even though he has been healing people and delivering them from demons. He’s warning them that when they criticize what they think might be the work of the devil, they may actually be criticizing a work of God. He warns them against shooting off their mouths and saying things they may well regret later. As in Judgment Day.
The one thing I notice is that Jesus doesn’t specifically say you one can’t be forgiven even if you repent. I think that repentance is always an option. I just don’t believe that God can’t take a little criticism…it doesn’t make sense that the God who tells us over and over that we must forgive others he would hold a grudge against us for eternity. But if you want to be prideful and rigid and believe in a mechanical, legalistic God who always does things the way you want them done, you may find yourself separated from God. If you condemn the work of his Holy Spirit here on earth you condemn him. Until you wake up and repent.
We experienced that in our church when we had a move of God or visitation of the Holy Spirit or whatever you want to call it. There were a lot of things going on that seemed weird and out of order, and some people took offense and left. I worried about them within the context of this scripture. They made incorrect judgments about what God was doing, and said quite a few unkind things. I hope they eventually came around and admitted they were wrong. We must always remember that there’s so much we don’t know when it comes to God and spiritual matters.
So I think that Jesus is saying that it’s OK to disagree with him and anyone else, but we must never confuse God with the devil like these Pharisees did. If we purport to be religious authorities and then start confusing good with evil, we are in deep trouble because we lead people into sin (separation from God). Remember he said we need to know him (See Day 62). You have to be able to recognize him. And whenever we make a mistake our only hope is to repent and return to him so that our spirits can reconnect and we can continue with the Kingdom building work that’s ahead of us. After all, you wouldn’t be happy in God’s Kingdom anyway if you think he’s doing everything wrong.
So, with that in mind, I have learned that it’s a good idea to train my mind and my tongue to give God the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things I don’t understand. Especially when it comes to matters of the Holy Spirit, because God moves in strange and mysterious ways. But I do know that healing is good, love is good, kindness is good, and deliverance from demons is never anything but good. I try to filter everything through those basic truths.
The Pharisees were stupid to accuse Jesus of working for the devil. I believe God loves us all, he’s never wrong, and he always forgives us when we are admit we are wrong and do the right thing. God demands that we forgive everyone, so I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t do the same for us. I know that he has forgiven me for all the bad things I said and thought about him before I woke up and saw the light.
I’m going to end by quoting this scripture as it is interpreted in The Message, a contemporary language Bible that is sometimes helpful. They don’t buy the “unforgivable sin” thing either:
“There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven. But if you deliberately persist in your slanders against God’s Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives. If you reject the Son of Man out of some misunderstanding, the Holy Spirit can forgive you, but when you reject the Holy Spirit, you’re sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives (Matthew 12:31-32).
Very hard scripture. Very unsettling. So I’ll just continue to reflect on it for another 20 years or so. When you’ve got one scripture that seems really inconsistent with all the rest, common sense says that you shouldn’t give it too much importance. Maybe I’ll eventually make peace with it, or maybe something got lost in translation somewhere down the line. It’s a mystery, no doubt about it.
What does this scripture say to you?