See also: Bare Minimum and Why Do People Walk Away?
Recently, I was re-visiting a study of the Greek word “rhema” in the New Testament. Most of the time “word” or “words” come from the Greek, ‘logos’, but there are also many instances where ‘rhema’ occurs. The spiritual significance of rhema is that many Christians identify it as the word of God, usually some particular part, enlivened by the Spirit of God as a specific revelation to a particular person or for a particular season. When I first encountered this idea, it had quite an impact. That was the reason for re-visiting the study, which I still intend to cover at length, coming at it four years later with some fresh perspective.
That’s the story with this post; it’s a tangent to that larger study.
Going down the study list, I landed on Matthew 12:36. This is part of the story from which tradition has gleaned ‘the unforgivable sin’: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and it’s at this point I desire to address the nuances of this story and of Bible study in general.
When I was taking a class specifically focused on the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), I remember taking a quiz, and one of the questions had to do with ‘the unforgivable sin.’ My honest first thought was, “What is that? All sins are forgivable.” And it’s the verse that says “…blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:32, and re-stated in 12:33). The word says, “will not be forgiven”, so somebody in some tradition somewhere labeled it ‘the unforgivable sin’. That’s what a law-mindset will do; create theologies and doctrines from scriptural fragments.
What do I mean by ‘law mindset’?
Have you ever heard Christians ask the question, “What does the Bible say about (insert whatever issue)?” It’s a critical question, but it employs flawed language because the Bible is a book. It’s a book, it doesn’t say things, instead, it is a vehicle through which the Author says things. Allow me to clarify that I’m not about to dismiss the Bible. My point is that I believe the trinity to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not ‘Father, Son, and Holy Bible’. Ask many Christians about their theology, and they’ll tell you the former. Ask them to discuss their actual spiritual walk and their words will reveal the latter. That’s not idle finger pointing. I know because I’ve been there. Someone new comes to the Bible study and the bulk of your witness has to do with what you’ve been studying. Real experience man, and you think “wow, this is why nobody outside this cloister gives a crap about what I believe.”
It is irony upon irony, because the Father-Son-Holy Bible paradigm really makes the doctrine of the the-Bible-as-The-Text seem like one of the least defensible tenants of my faith. See, I can talk a whole lot about what God has done for me, because that’s all subjective and personal. All a person can do then is call me crazy. Ironically, I think that readiness to accept the Bible as the Word of God would be more widespread if there weren’t so many Christians elevating the Bible to a place where the Holy Spirit belongs. Add to this another paradox. It would seem that if I accept the Bible as the Word of God, I am relying upon an extra-Biblical revelation by the Holy Spirit. Believing the Bible composition we have now, I must believe that the canonization of these books was divinely guided. The irony is that the canonization of the Word would have to have been an extra-Biblical revelation by the Spirit. I’m not trying to undermine the authority of the Word (and how could affirming the authority of the Holy Spirit do anything but build up the Bible?), I am only asking gut-honest questions about the logic of certain Christian doctrines, for our own good. Honestly, are you feeling this struggle?
Another problem with approaching with the Word as a law-book is that doing so gives credence to a skeptic’s argument that the Bible is full of contradictions. The trouble is that when you go to it looking for a list of laws, you can probably find those contradictions. Another thought I’ve had in this regard, is that if the Old Testament were to be written about us, in our time, and people from another time and place were to read it, they might be perplexed, too. Just as today’s skeptics and doubters look at things in the OT like slavery and the treatment of women as property and wonder how the Word could accept or allegedly condone that behavior, I suspect that if the roles were flipped, people from another time and place could raise questions about the incongruities in our story.
The problem of contradictions in the Bible is a not a problem with the text but a problem with the approach. Whether you’re approaching it with doubts and accusations, or with religious legalism, the result will be confusion. Instead, look at it as a living letter. When you look at it as God speaking to and working with people in their particular contexts, then it comes to life. Then it makes sense. From the context comes the authority, because in the context you discover what God was doing in those people’s lives. Learn from that, instead of trying to look for proofs or denials of what what you think it says. Again, that’s the a subtle fallacy of the common question, “what does the Bible say about (insert whatever here)?”
Therefore, coming back to this passage in Matthew 12, when I look at this passage, I don’t see Jesus establishing a black-and-white theological doctrine, but instead, making a point to the people who were accusing Him of evil. Jesus, cast out the demon, and the Pharisees there accused Him of casting out the demon by the power of the ruler of demons (12:24). If there is a point about blasphemy that reaches beyond that context, I would paraphrase it like this; if the condition of your soul is such that you would make such an accusation, then you’re probably screwed as far as your spiritual condition is concerned. Now, I am compelled to be fair with the text and note that in verse 32, Jesus says, “it will not be forgiven him, neither in this age, or in the one to come.” Therefore, I do not want to frame this as an emphasis on eternity vs. an emphasis on today. However, I am going to emphasize the here-and-now aspects of this issue. This is fitting because the Pharisees’ mindset was limited by their ‘here and now’. The telling thing here is not simply that they blasphemed, but how they blasphemed; by slandering the good work that Jesus had done. This is a bit like badmouthing everything good that another denomination does because they aren’t in your theological camp. (For an example akin to this, see Mark 9:38-41).
Emphasizing what this means in the present, I will say this: the person who denies the Father or the Son denies their salvation theologically; but the person who denies the Spirit rejects their salvation practically. The presence of the Spirit in your life is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. The Holy Spirit is kind of a big deal. This hit hard looking at John 16 recently. What could be better than the disciples’ situation, walking with Jesus in the flesh? What could make revelation and direction more obvious? What could build your faith more? And yet Jesus told his disciples this:
“Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away, the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7)
The Holy Spirit is what’s next. To block Him off is to block off repentance and renewal. The person who denies the Spirit denies their salvation practically. These words yield their own judgement:
“For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:37)
There is a sort of reciprocity here, because it’s not just the “overflow of the heart” (12:34) going out in the form of these words, but these words falling back on the speaker and defining him. Both times here “words” is “logos”. The modern word “logic” can trace it’s roots back to “logos”, and while it might not be quite proper to impose the word “logic” back onto this verse, such an interpretation is revealing and frankly sounds even more damning than the original:
“For by your logic you will be acquitted, and by your logic you will be condemned.”
Stay with me now. In a similarly confrontational dialogue recorded in John 5, Jesus said,
“Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope.” (5:45)
Speaking of being being accused by the law you place your trust in, how about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-48?
“You have heard that it was said by our ancestors, ‘Do not murder’, and whoever murders is subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…” (5:21-22)
My point in saying all this, is that the Bible is more than a list of concise theological one-liners. There is more revelation to be had when you embrace the story, and specific stories, of God’s interaction with humankind.