“If anyone speaks a word against the son of man, it will be forgiven. But if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it won’t be forgiven, either in the present age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).
Every once in a while when my son expresses his dissatisfaction with the Dover Management by throwing a full-blown temper tantrum, my husband gives him a stern and rather menacing warning: that while my son might get some clemency for hitting and throwing things at his father, he will get no such thing in the case that he hits and throws things at his mother.
And there is a sense in which at least on the surface Jesus is doing something similar here. Like one parent looking out for the other, He is issuing a foreboding warning to wayward, misbehaving children. It is as if he is saying, “You can mess with me- you may even crucify me- but if you mess with my partner, you’re in for it.”
But if this kind of parental defense line-up were the only dynamic at play here, then this statement would not be so cryptic or foreboding. Because Jesus is also equating “speaking against the Holy Spirit” as the one, unforgivable thing. The one thing that will land you in a very hopeless “time out,” not just in the here and now but forever. The question, then, is really this: what does it mean to speak against the Holy Spirit, and how does this differ from speaking against the son of man (Jesus)?
To answer this question we need to return to the context in which this weird saying appears. Only verses earlier, Jesus’ interlocutors, the Pharisees, have been murmuring about Jesus’ ability to exorcise demons, attributing it to the devil. Only someone in league with “Beelzebul” (a jokey slang term for Satan) could drive out demons the way Jesus does. Or so goes their whining.
To which Jesus gives a long, sensible retort that puts an end to their convoluted reasoning. Why would Beelzebub undermine himself by driving himself out of people? And, for that matter, what power was at play behind the Pharisee’s own successful efforts to exorcise demons? Beelzebub, or God’s Spirit?
In this context, “to speak against the Holy Spirit” is to deny the power by which God is at work in the world turning around lives and restoring wholeness and shalom. Sure, one can say mean things about Jesus, but to attribute the new, abundant life that Jesus brings to the devil will leave you out in the dark, gnashing your teeth at reality.
N.T. Wright puts it well: ”Jesus is warning against looking at the work of the spirit and declaring that it must be the devil’s doing. If you do that, it’s not just that you won’t be forgiven; you can’t be, because you have just cut off the very channel along which forgiveness could come. Once you declare that the only remaining bottle of water is poisoned, you condemn yourself to dying of thirst” (Matthew for Everyone).
Chances are that if you have read this verse and wondered a bit worriedly whether you’ve been guilty of doing this sort of thing, then you haven’t done what Jesus is talking about here. Because what Jesus is talking about here signifies a pretty dramatic affront to God’s Person. The same Spirit of God that empowers Jesus to cast out demons and points the way in the direction of God’s “promised land,” a place of rescue, hope, restoration and abundant life, is at work in the world all around us…
Whenever peace comes to war-torn hearts. Or, forgiveness to broken relationships. Or, healing to sick bodies and souls. When this kind of thing happens, we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we attribute this miraculous new life to the devil- or, to our own best efforts alone. And when we do this, we cut off our access to that life-giving source of power.
The scenario reminds me of the old joke about the guy who, when the floods come, keeps all potential rescue parties at bay by exclaiming that God will save him. The only problem is that he hasn’t recognized that God has been trying to save him all along in the form of the row boat, speed boat and helicopter. Until finally it’s too late and the man drowns.
Here Jesus puts an end to this stupidity. If you like what you see about a God who does unexplainably beautiful, life-giving things in people’s lives, don’t cut yourself off from being part of the redemptive drama underway and in league with the goodness. Let God do as God does and be open to what God might do in your life. The best place to start is by being at least open to the idea that the One sending the lifeboats- the same One who sent Jesus- is really God Himself and nobody else.