I recently read Gerald Borchert’s Jesus of Nazareth: Background, Witnesses, and Significance, and I said in my post here that the book led me to take a second look at the concept of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12.
A lot of times, Christians try to explain the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in light of its context in Matthew 12:22-32. There, Jesus casts a demon out of a man, and the Pharisees attribute Jesus’ successful exorcism to Beelzebub. Jesus warns that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. Many Christians say that the Pharisees were close to doing that when they were attributing what was obviously the power of God to the devil.
But the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit occurs in a different context in Luke 12. Or at least that seems to me to be the case. In Luke 12:8-12, we read (in the KJV):
8 Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God:
9 But he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.
10 And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.
11 And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say:
12 For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.
In Luke 12, the concept of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit occurs within the context of a discussion about Christians appearing before authorities. They are to affirm Jesus before these authorities, not deny him. In preceding verses, Jesus seeks to reassure the disciples that God cares about them, and he warns them to fear the one who can destroy body and soul in hell, not those who can kill them here on earth.
I am reluctant to say that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with the Pharisees in Luke 12. Jesus in Luke 12:1-3 warns his disciples to beware of the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees. And, in the chapter right before, in Luke 11:14-26, we read the story of the Pharisees accusing Jesus of casting out devils through the power of Beelzebub, the chief of the devils. Unlike Matthew 12:22-32, Luke 11 does not end that story with Jesus commenting on the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But could that story in Luke 11:14-26 still be relevant to the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12? Could blasphemy of the Holy Spirit be part of the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees against which Jesus warns his disciples in Luke 12?
I can envision the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit functioning in one of two ways in Luke 12. One possibility is that Jesus is warning his disciples not to commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Yes, they will be put in situations in which they will be on trial for their faith, and they will feel pressured to deny Jesus in public. God can forgive them for denying Jesus in public, but God will not forgive them if they blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. They should take heed, amidst the pressure, not to turn away from God completely, not to deny or walk away from what they know to be true.
Another possibility is that the blasphemers against the Holy Spirit are the people persecuting the disciples. In this scenario, Jesus’ warning about the hypocritical leaven of the Pharisees in Luke 12:1-3 could be telling the disciples that hypocrites will be out to persecute them, and reassuring them that, even if the hypocrites put on a pretense of godliness, there will come a time when the hypocrites will be exposed for who they really are. When Jesus in Luke 12:10 says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, he could be saying that the persecutors of the Christians, who deny what is obviously a work of God, will not receive forgiveness. Matthew Henry appears to go this route.
This would probably be a good place to end the post, but I want to ramble a little more. I was watching an excellent sermon yesterday by Rob Bell on the Book of Revelation, and Bell was talking about the brutality of Emperor Domitian of Rome, who supposedly demanded worship, but whom the Christians refused to worship. According to Bell, Christians took this stance at great cost to themselves, since they could not engage in commerce without worshiping Domitian. Bell was saying that John was encouraging these Christians that God was on the throne in heaven. Bell also said that John was speaking against the view some Christians held that one could go through the motions of emperor worship to get along and go along and that God would not care, for God looked at the heart, anyway.
I was also reading Joel Kraemer’s biography of Maimonides, the renowned twelfth century Jewish thinker. During the time of Maimonides, people were pressured to convert, sometimes with the threat of execution. Muslims and Jews were pressured to convert to Christianity in Christian countries. Jews were pressured to convert to Islam in certain Islamic areas. Muslims and Jews (in the latter case, at least Maimonides), according to Kraemer, often permitted their adherents to convert to other religions if they were threatened with death, or at least to pretend that they were converting to the other religions. But these Muslims and Jews still encouraged their adherents to continue their own piety in private, and even to leave the area so that they could practice their own religion. That reminds me of that first possible interpretation I mentioned of Luke 12:8-12: you can be forgiven for denying Jesus, but make sure you don’t leave Christ behind completely.
I can understand both approaches. On the one hand, many of us go along and get along with less than perfect systems because we feel that we have to do so in order to survive. On the other hand, I can sympathize with how Rob Bell was characterizing John the Revelator’s approach: Domitian does not deserve the worship that God alone deserves. Domitian is a thug, whereas God is a beneficent, loving being who is worthy of worship. Therefore, we will not worship Domitian, and we are willing to die for this stance.
I’ll leave the comments open, but please comment only to explain the significance of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Luke 12. Don’t ask me if you’ve committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or regurgitate the usual Christian spiel of looking at Matthew 12:22-32. Focus on Luke 12, please.