Matthew 12:22-32, “The Unforgivable Sin”
It’s the most infamous sin of all: the unpardonable sin. Christians & non-christians alike talk about it, wonder about it, and some even try to taunt it. For all of the discussion, there’s very little understanding of what it actually is & much misunderstanding about what it is not. In 2006, an atheist group called “The Rational Response Squad” started a trend called the “Blasphemy Challenge” on YouTube getting people to try to say “My name is ___, and I deny the Holy Spirit,” in order to receive a free DVD against Christianity. To date, there have at least 1001 participants (who knows how many total?). As sad as it is (and totally immature, to be quite frank), it’s safe to say that the majority of those who engaged in the challenge did NOT blaspheme the Holy Spirit because they didn’t have a clue of (1) what the unpardonable sin is, nor (2) any idea of what they were doing. All the stunt did was garner a lot of attention & gave people an opportunity to mock their Maker, which is sin enough in itself. (Yet thankfully, it is sin that CAN be forgiven if they but turn to Christ in humble repentance & faith.)
So what IS the sin of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? That’s what Jesus teaches here – but we need to understand it comes within a context. This has been a much misunderstood & maligned doctrine of Jesus, and the reason for the majority of the misunderstanding is the lack of context. As has often been said, “A text without a context is a pretext.” Trying to interpret & apply any particular Scripture without first properly observing & interpreting the surrounding context is a recipe for disaster (and heresy), so we need to be careful. The interesting thing is that we have absolutely no excuse for ripping this verse away from its context. Obviously Jesus didn’t give us this one phrase in a vacuum (as if He appeared out of nowhere, said this one thing & disappeared again) – we’re given a whole backstory as to what was going on when Jesus taught this. It’s written in black & white (or red, depending on your Bible! J), and it’s plainly there for all the world to see. We just need to be willing to read it.
Remember what happened to lead up to this point: Jesus had angered the Pharisees by teaching (and demonstrating) that He is the Lord of the Sabbath, i.e. He is the Lord Himself. Jesus had the authority to teach the things He taught because He demonstrated that He had the power of God to back it up. Though the Pharisees raged, Jesus withdrew from them, while continuing to heal the multitudes who followed Him. Jesus showed Himself to be meek, restraining His infinite power in order to humbly submit Himself unto the plan of God. Instead of wiping the Pharisees off the map, He continued to gently serve God & call people to repentance and faith (all in fulfillment of prophecy regarding the Jesus’ 1st coming).
With all of the people Jesus healed, another one is brought to Him. (Whether this one was brought as another trap from the Pharisees, we aren’t told.) This one seems hopeless, and yet Jesus still heals. This time the Pharisees don’t respond with rage; they respond with blasphemy – charging Jesus of serving the most vile of masters: the Devil. Thus they engage in the infamous unpardonable sin.
What is this sin? Can Christians engage in it? Is it truly unforgivable? These are the things addressed here. As we look at these questions, we don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. Underlying all of what is being said here is one simple fact: this is our opportunity to trust the Spirit’s witness about Christ…don’t waste it.
Matthew 12:22–32 (NKJV)
22 Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw.
- The healing (and reason for the charge). We’ve read about so many healings by this point that it may be difficult for us to understand how great this particular healing was. It’s one thing to be blind (unable to see Jesus and come to Him) – another to be mute (unable to ask Him for help) – still another to be demon-possessed (out of one’s mind to be able to know help is needed). To have all three things going on at once is a state of utter hopelessness. This man is completely lost physically & spiritually…he probably would have been viewed as cursed from the people around him. This was a man completely overrun by the Devil’s minions and unable to receive any help whatsoever.
- Yet Jesus heals him. We’re not told how or under what circumstances. All we know is that this man who was in incredible need of help, yet totally unable to ask for it (or even know to ask for it), received healing at the intervention of Jesus. Whether by a word, by a touch, or simply by His presence, Jesus healed him. And Jesus healed him completely! The man saw, and spoke, and was presumably in his right mind (even the Pharisees acknowledged that the demon had been cast out).
- What great news to those who are lost! There is Someone who heals & saves! Those whose lives are overrun by the results of sin and Satan can find salvation in the intervention of Jesus. There is no life that is in too much turmoil for Jesus to handle. There is not one person who is too lost for Jesus to find & save. If this man could be healed by Christ Jesus, than anyone can.
23 And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”
- The people were amazed, but that can be great or awful, depending on what’s going on in their hearts. There’s good amazement & bad amazement. Good amazement would be excitement & wonder, with people hoping that the Messiah (the Son of David) could actually be there among them. Amazement that would be bad would be questioning how someone like Jesus could actually be considered a possibility as the Messiah. As in, “Surely THAT can’t be the Son of David, can He?” Good amazement is based in faith; bad amazement is based in unbelief. Because of the phrasing in the Greek, many scholars tend to think this was bad amazement. This wasn’t hopeful faith on the part of the Jews, but disbelief that someone so meek and mild as Jesus could possess so much power over the demons.
- People today haven’t changed. We see much the same response to Jesus today as from the ancient Jews. People hear of the miracles, the resurrection, the promises of forgiveness from sin & the kingdom of God, and sometimes they respond with joy & faith. They’re excited at even the possibility of such good news, and understand what a privilege it would be to have a fresh & ongoing relationship with God, without the stained sinfulness of their past getting in the way. Other people hear the exact same news & scoff. They respond in unbelief, saying, “Only one way? That’s ridiculous! … Put all my trust in Jesus? Are you nuts?! I’ve got to earn this for myself! … What do you mean everyone can be forgiven?! Certain people shouldn’t even have the possibility – I’ve been better than them!” They’ve been told of Jesus & they’ve even seen Him in action, but they scoff at the possibility of Him actually being the Savior. When they scoff at Jesus, they scoff at God & they miss their only opportunity for salvation.
- Don’t miss your opportunity!
24 Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.”
- Here’s the charge against Jesus. It’s actually not a new charge – they had been circulating this around for quite some time. The first time they had used it was in a very similar situation: Matthew 9:32–34, "(32) As they went out, behold, they brought to Him a man, mute and demon-possessed. (33) And when the demon was cast out, the mute spoke. And the multitudes marveled, saying, “It was never seen like this in Israel!” (34) But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons.”"  It seems as though any time Jesus did something that was indisputable proof of His power over the devil, this was the Pharisees’ default remark. The Pharisees couldn’t actually win any real argument against Jesus & certainly couldn’t deny the miracle that had just occurred in full view of the people, so they used an ad-hominem argument (a logical fallacy attacking the person with no basis). Basically they were trying to distract the people from the very real proof that Jesus provided about His identity, and they were willing to say anything to do it, in this case linking Jesus with the devil.
- Don’t miss what’s going on here. The people were wondering if Jesus was actually the Christ (the promised Messiah – the Son of David). Some were incredulous in unbelief; others were perhaps wondering with good amazement. Either way, people were talking about the possibility that Jesus was their Messiah standing right in front of them, proving it with all of His demonstrations of power. The Pharisees saw the exact same proofs, but they were completely unwilling to entertain even the possibility of Jesus being the Christ. Thus they had to make up some reason (any reason) for Jesus’ power (which could not be denied). Instead of being the true Messiah, they claimed Jesus must be a false Messiah – a demonic impersonation who would also be capable of producing signs and wonders (Mt 24:24). To the Pharisees, all of the power Jesus demonstrated could not be the power of God; it must be the power of the devil.
- This is serious! Of anyone around, the Pharisees knew better. They studied the Scriptures fastidiously. They knew the promises & prophecies. They had attempted to stand for the word of God in the midst of a nation that was attempting to compromise their faith with the culture around them. The Pharisees knew their need for the Messiah, and were well acquainted with the power of God in the Scriptures. Yet here they were with the proofs given right before their eyes, and they repeatedly rejected it. It wasn’t that they were ignorant about what was going on; it’s that they were hardened against it. They knew and recognized the power of God; they just didn’t want it to be Jesus. Thus they made up ridiculous charges in order to both distract others from following Jesus, as well as try to convince themselves that Jesus as a lie.
25 But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?
- In Jesus’ response, He points out several logical errors the Pharisees made, even before telling them the sin they were really committing.
- Logical error #1: Divided kingdoms always fall. Satan may be devious and sinful, but he’s not stupid. If Satan already had complete control over an individual, why on earth would he free that individual from possession? What purpose would that serve? If he worked against himself, all that does is tear down his own kingdom. Satan would have been better served going after a Pharisee than freeing a mute, blind, and already possessed man.
27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges.
- Logical error #2: The Pharisees were condemning themselves. Jesus wasn’t the only person in Judea that cast out demons. Obviously we don’t know how many others were successful, but demon possession seemed to be fairly common, and others attempted to engage in exorcisms (the seven sons of Sceva, for example – Act 19:14). If Jesus who cast out demons perfectly had been empowered by the devil to do so, then what does that say about those who cast out demons imperfectly? Any success they had would have been empowered by the devil as well. Like one brother insulting his brother with a “your mother,” line, he’s only condemning & insulting himself.
28 But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.
- Here’s the catch. If it’s not Satan, but the Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus to do what He did, then it’s proof that Jesus really is God. (The Pharisees knew this, which is why they tried so hard to deny it.) If the Spirit of God is truly at work through Jesus, then everything Jesus taught about the kingdom of God must be true as well. Only the Anointed King (the Son of David, the Messiah) would be empowered with the Holy Spirit, demonstrating that the King brings the Kingdom with Him wherever He goes. This is exactly what Jesus demonstrated. Demons could not stand in His presence because they were in the presence of the true King of kings. They had to flee at His presence & obey His commands because Jesus is the rightful King of the Universe – the Son of God.
- When the kingdom of God shows up, there must be a response. Nothing in creation can witness the power of the King and not respond in some fashion. We can respond by bowing in reverence to the King, or by spurning Him in rebellion. The Pharisees had made their choice.
29 Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.
- Logical error #3: Only the stronger can conquer the strong. In their heydays, not too many people would have attempted to break into the homes of Arnold Schwartzenegger or Bruce Lee. Each one was either too strong or too good a fighter…someone just wouldn’t do that sort of thing. It’s like what they say about Chuck Norris. “Fear of spiders is called arachnophobia, fear of tight spaces is called claustrophobia, and fear of Chuck Norris is just plain logic.” J Someone has to be stronger than the strong man if the strong man is to be defeated. Jesus is infinitely stronger. Neither Satan nor his demons pose any match for Jesus because Jesus has infinitely more power than all of them combined. Men routinely fear the devil because the devil is so powerful. After all, we’re talking about a being who was in the presence of God, rebelled, and after he was cast out of heaven, leads a third of the angels (now fallen) in continued rebellion against God. He roams about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He comes to steal, kill, and destroy. He’s looking to take down men and women because he hates us. We were created in the image of God, and we’ve been shown the favor of God. Satan knows his destiny is to suffer in the lake of fire, and he is consumed with taking as many people there with him as possible. Mankind rightly fears the devil in his strength. Yet there is Someone stronger whom we can fear but also love. Men cannot cast out the devil, but Jesus can. The only times men can do so is when we are empowered by the Holy Spirit of God because of the grace of Jesus Christ. Jesus is stronger than the strongest of strong men.
30 He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.
- Warning #1: be careful not to work against God. This is exactly what the Pharisees were doing. Jesus was participating in the harvest work, and calls us to do the same (Matt 9:37-38). Those who are not working with Jesus to gather in the harvest are actually doing the work of Satan, and scattering the seed elsewhere. The Sanhedrin even acknowledged as much when they put the apostles on trial (after Jesus’ resurrection). One of their famous rabbis named Gamaliel advised the council to leave the disciples alone, lest they be found to fight against God (Acts 5:39). Whether Gamaliel advised this out of laziness is not known, but what he said was true. It is indeed possible for men to work against God.
- Actually, Jesus goes further than Gamaliel. Gamaliel seemed to argue for neutrality. Jesus teaches that neutrality isn’t possible with God. Someone is with Jesus, or he is against Jesus – there’s no in-between position. Every person must choose where they stand with Jesus, and not making a choice IS making a choice by default.
31 “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.
- Warning #2: there is a sin that is unforgivable. Technically this isn’t so much a 2nd warning, as a direct result of the 1st, that someone could work so hard against God that they end up crossing a permanent line in their rebellion. The New Testament speaks of a sin that leads unto death (1 John 5:16), but that seems to be speaking about something totally different. That seems to be an example of a Christian engaged in so much sin (something which is antithetical for someone who has actually been born of the Spirit of God) that God actually takes their life to keep them from further sin (such as with Ananias & Sapphira, Acts 5). That would be something a born-again believer could theoretically commit; this (the unpardonable sin) is something different. This is something Jesus is directly warning the Pharisees against. They have been working against God in direct opposition to the plan of God with the incarnation of Jesus Christ & His mission. Now they seemed to be crossing a line over to permanent rebellion. This is not a sin that a believer can commit; by definition it is something only a non-believer can do.
- First let’s look at the good news: “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men.” Amen! Obviously this is not a statement of universalism (the rest of Jesus’ sentence plainly shows that much), but rather a statement of availability. Forgiveness is available to every person for every sin ever committed. There is not a sin (save one) that is beyond the scope of the forgiveness of God. What GREAT news! There are women who wonder if there is forgiveness after abortion – there are men who wonder if there is forgiveness after unfaithfulness – there are scores of people who wonder if their sin (whatever it was) put them out of the reach of the love of God. The clear statement from the Lord Jesus Christ is this: it hasn’t. EVERY sin & EVERY blasphemy can be forgiven, if the sinner simply humbles him/herself before Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. When Jesus died upon the cross, God the Son died for all people and every sin. The Son of God who knew no sin prior to that point became sin for you because you had committed sin, and everything you had done against God (every act of selfish rebellion, every word of hate and pride, every thought of wanton lust) found its answer in the blood of Jesus. The fullness of the wrath of God the Father was poured out upon the Son, and because God did that (and because Jesus rose from the grave), we can be sure of our own forgiveness. Just think of it chronologically (if nothing else): over 2000 years ago, Jesus died upon the cross – perfectly knowing you & all your sins, and He still did it. He even died for the sins you won’t yet commit for another 10 years (if we’re still here) because He died for ALL of your sins at one time. Therefore, EVERY sin you’ve committed will be forgiven if you are in Christ.
- The real question becomes whether or not you’re in Christ. Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but that forgiveness comes to those who have put their faith in Christ – to those who have trusted Jesus as their Savior, King, and God. Jesus’ forgiveness is available, but you MUST respond to Him.
- That was the good news. What’s the bad news? “But the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.” Out of all the sin that would be forgiven, there is one that places people beyond the scope of forgiveness: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. On one hand, that couldn’t get any clearer. There’s no parable spoken here, there’s no symbolic language – it’s clear and simple text. On the other hand, there’s much confusion simply because we may not understand how Jesus is defining things. We know that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable, but what exactly is it? “Blasphemy” is actually an English transliteration of the Greek word (βλασφημία), which in secular ancient Greek literature is a reference to “abusive speech.” Kittel defines it as “the strongest form of personal mockery and calumniation.” Basically, the word describes extreme slander – when used in the NT, it’s referring to slander against God. Jesus was Himself accused of blasphemy when He forgave the paralytic man before healing him of his disease (Mk 2:7). Actually, if Jesus had not actually been God in the flesh, the charge of blasphemy would have been accurate, because Jesus would have made Himself equal to God (through His forgiveness), which would have slandered the character of God (because a human cannot be equal to God – that drags God down infinitely lower on the scale of worth). Of course Jesus IS God, so the charge of blasphemy was wrong. But that’s what blasphemy is: extreme slander – in this case, slander against the person of the Holy Spirit.
- What was slanderous in this case? The Pharisees were attributing the work of Jesus to the empowerment of Satan. Jesus did His work by the power of God through the Holy Spirit. We just read in vs. 18 the prophecy from Isaiah how God the Father would put His “Spirit upon Him,” and Jesus already had the public testimony of the Holy Spirit coming upon Him at His baptism (Mt 3). There was much evidence in His life showing the Holy Spirit at work, and the Pharisees well knew it. After this latest healing, they denied Jesus again proclaiming that Jesus was empowered by the Devil to cast out demons, thereby equating the Holy Spirit with Satan. It’s tough to get more slanderous than to call the perfect Holy Spirit of God the Slanderer himself. Note this isn’t denying the existence of the Holy Spirit; it’s believing in the Holy Spirit, but accusing Him of being the Devil, specifically in regards to the Spirit’s witness of Jesus Christ. Keep in mind, witnessing of Jesus is a major role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would testify of Him (Jn 15:26), and that one of His major roles would be to help bring people to the point of salvation. John 16:8–11, "(8) And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (9) of sin, because they do not believe in Me; (10) of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; (11) of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged."  The Holy Spirit is the Person that brings conviction to the hearts of people, showing them their need for salvation, the Holy Spirit testifies to people of the Person of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus for His work to provide all the proof necessary that He is indeed God the Savior. Thus to slander the Holy Spirit as being Satan is truly a terrible thing. It’s to know exactly who the Spirit is, and understand what the Spirit is doing, and then to throw it back into His face & spit at Him, mocking His loving outreach to salvation.
- Please note this isn’t simply rejecting the gospel. (The gospel being the good news that Jesus is the anointed King given by God to bring salvation to men & reconciliation with God.) Many people reject the gospel at some point, and still later go on to repent and place their faith in Jesus. If the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit were simply a one-time rejection of the gospel, it’s unlikely very many Christians would be saved at all! That kind of rejection is a temporary rejection, and at least carries with it the possibility of forgiveness if the person changes their mind in repentance & later places their faith in Christ. It is a totally different thing to blaspheme/slander/reject the Holy Spirit and His testimony about Jesus. What the Pharisees did, they did with the full knowledge of what it was they were doing. When the Spirit brings His conviction and witness, and it is clearly known what the Spirit has done, and yet the Spirit’s witness is still rejected & mocked, that kind of rejection is final. That kind of hardened heart is sinning without hope of repentance.
- The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not when someone in his/her arrogance & immaturity records him/herself on YouTube smugly denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. That atheist was never convinced of the existence of the Holy Spirit in the first place. He didn’t believe in God, thus he couldn’t truly blaspheme/slander God in the way in which Jesus referred. It’s the person who knows that God the Holy Spirit is at work through Jesus, and knows that Jesus is God in the flesh, yet then turns away to blaspheme and slander that has committed the unforgiveable sin. This is a knowing and final rejection of the gospel. They saw God for who He is & said, “No, I don’t want any part of You.” God simply agrees with them & allows them their choice.
- Question: “What if I’ve done this?” If you’re asking the question, you likely haven’t. The person who is concerned about their eternal salvation doesn’t have a heart hardened to a point of final rejection. That said, the last thing you want to do is to wait until you see God in the face before you find out. Humble yourself before Jesus today. If you’re being convicted of your sin today, know that it is the Holy Spirit bringing that conviction. Don’t spurn Him – don’t reject Him – respond to His prompting by believing upon Jesus Christ as your God & Savior.
32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.
- Reiteration of the warning. “Unforgivable” means forever unforgivable. This one sin affects someone’s eternity. To be sure, this is serious. People tend to be extremely short-sighted. We do what benefits us now, with little regard to the later results. (Very frequently illustrated at all-you-can-eat buffets!) What we do now often has effects far down the line. Financial advisors tell us that if a 20 year old puts away a little money every month in the right interest-bearing accounts, then they can easily be a millionaire by the time they wish to retire. Yet few people do it. Why? Because 40 years until retirement (or whatever) is such a long way off. Yet what is 40 years in light of eternity? Those who harden their heart in final rejection and slander of the Spirit don’t merely miss out on forgiveness for a decade, or even a lifetime, but for an eternity of lifetimes. They will stay in that state forever. To slander the Holy Spirit in a total and final rejection of Jesus is to reject all hope of salvation.
- Keep in mind all we have is this one life to respond to the grace of God. The Bible is clear that it is appointed to every man once to die, and then face the judgment (Heb 9:27). There are no “do-overs” in eternity – once we’re there, we’re there. People wonder where their 2nd chance might be, after all, isn’t God a God of forgiveness? Absolutely He is! There’s no doubt that God is a gracious, forgiving God who gives an abundance of 2nd chances. Every day we wake up is another one. Each day is a “2nd” chance – it’s another opportunity to joyfully receive the grace of God. If someone is asking about 2nd chances in eternity, what they don’t understand is this: today IS your 2nd chance! If we spend a lifetime rejecting God now, why would God do any different in eternity? This is our opportunity to respond to the grace of God – we dare not waste it.
After a clear demonstration of the power of God, the Pharisees termed it the power of Satan. They saw the kingdom of God at work, and knew it was the Spirit of God in action – there was simply no other possibility. Yet they purposefully closed their eyes, turned away from the testimony of the Spirit and slandered His testimony about Christ Jesus. In so doing, some or all of them had committed the one sin than can never be forgiven. They hardened their heart to God & spit in His face, forever turning away. God forbid that anyone here would do the same.
There are some who have repeatedly heard the gospel, and repeatedly refused to respond to the grace of God offered through Jesus Christ. Every time they refuse, it becomes easier and easier to refuse as their heart becomes more and more hardened. Beware that you do not go to the point of no return! Beware that you do not become so calloused to the Spirit that you attribute His witness to the work of the devil. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart as you have in times of past rebellion. Today is the opportunity God has given you to respond – another one of thousands of “2nd chances,” – take this opportunity today to respond to the grace of God.
As a Christian – as someone who has already responded to the gospel of grace through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, what do you do with this? (1) Thank God for the salvation you have received! You’ve received total forgiveness – every sin done away with in Christ, forever given the promise of eternity in the presence of God, and life with Him today. (2) Participate in the harvest work, bringing those who are spiritually blind, mute, and demon-possessed to Jesus. They cannot bring themselves, but you have been entrusted with the gospel of grace. You be the one to take the gospel to them. You be the one to bring them to the feet of Jesus. (3) Intercede for others. There are many who have hardened hearts. Have they passed the point of no return? We can never know that for someone else – but we can continue to pray for them that their hearts would remain open. Eternity is at stake. If you’re not praying for them, who will?