Matthew 12:31-33


Matt. 12:31-33

“That is why I tell you that every sin and every blasphemy win be forgiven to men; but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. If anyone speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but if anyone speaks a word against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this world or in the world to come. Either assume that the tree is good and the fruit is good, or assume that the tree is rotten and the fruit is rotten. For the tree is known by its fruits.”

It is startling to find words about an unforgivable sin on the lips of Jesus the Saviour of men. So startling is this that some wish to take away the sharp definiteness of the meaning. They argue that this is only another example of that vivid Eastern way of saying things, as, for example, when Jesus said that a man must hate father and mother truly to be his disciple, and that it is not to be understood in all its awful literalness, but simply means that the sin against the Holy Spirit is supremely terrible.

In support certain Old Testament passages are quoted. “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken his commandment, that person shall be entirely cut off” (Num.15:30-31). “Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever” (1Sam.3:14). “The Lord of hosts has revealed himself in my ears. `Surely this iniquity will not be forgiven you till you die,’ says the Lord God of hosts” (Isa.22:14).

It is claimed that these texts say much the same as Jesus said, and that they are only insisting on the grave nature of the sin in question. We can only say that these Old Testament texts do not have the same air nor do they produce the same impression. There is something very much more alarming in hearing words about a sin which has no forgiveness from the lips of him who was the incarnate love of God.

There is one section in this saying which is undoubtedly puzzling. In the Revised Standard Version Jesus is made to say that a sin against the Son of man is forgivable, whereas a sin against the Holy Spirit is not forgivable. If that is to be taken as it stands, it is indeed a hard saying. Matthew has already said that Jesus is the touchstone of all truth (Matt. 10:32-33); and it is difficult to see what the difference between the two sins is.

But it may well be that at the back of this there is a misunderstanding of what Jesus said. We have already seen (compare notes on Matt. 12:1-8) that the Hebrew phrase a son of man means simply a man, and that the Jews used this phrase when they desired to speak of any man. When we would say, “There was a man. . .,” the Jewish Rabbi would say, “There was a son of man….” It may well be that what Jesus said was this: “If any man speaks a word against a man, it will be forgiven; but if any man speaks a word against the Holy Spirit it will not be forgiven.”

It is quite possible that we may misunderstand a merely human messenger from God; but we cannot misunderstand–except deliberately–when God speaks to us through his own Holy Spirit. A human messenger is always open to misconstruction; but the divine messenger speaks so plainly that he can only be wilfully misunderstood. It certainly makes this passage easier to understand, if we regard the difference between the two sins as a sin against God’s human messenger, which is serious, but not unforgivable, and a sin against God’s divine messenger, which is completely wilful, and which, as we shall see, can end by becoming unforgivable.


Matt. 12:31-33 (continued)

Let us then try to understand what Jesus meant by the sin against the Holy Spirit. One thing is necessary. We must grasp the fact that Jesus was not speaking about the Holy Spirit in the full Christian sense of the term. He could not have been, for Pentecost had to come before the Holy Spirit came upon men in afl his power and light and fulness. This must be interpreted in light of the Jewish conception of the Holy Spirit.

According to Jewish teaching the Holy Spirit had two supreme functions. First, the Holy Spirit brought God’s truth to men; second, the Holy Spirit enabled men to recognize and to understand that truth when they saw it. So then a man, as the Jews saw it, needed the Holy Spirit, both to receive and to recognise God’s truth. We may express this in another way. There is in man a Spirit-given faculty which enables him to recognize goodness and truth when he sees them.

Now we must take the next step in our attempt to understand what Jesus meant. A man can lose any faculty if he refuses to use it. This is true in any sphere of life. It is true physically; if a man ceases to use certain muscles, they will atrophy. It is true mentally; many a man at school or in his youth has acquired some slight knowledge of, for example, French or Latin or music; but that knowledge is long since gone because he did not exercise it. It is true of all kinds of perception. A man may lose all appreciation of good music, if he listens to nothing but cheap music; he may lose the ability to read a great book, if he reads nothing but ephemeral productions; he may lose the faculty of enjoying clean and healthy pleasure, if he for long enough finds his pleasure in things which are degraded and soiled.

Therefore a man can lose the ability to recognize goodness and truth when he sees them. If he for long enough shuts his eyes and ears to God’s way, if he for long enough turns his back upon the messages which God is sending him, if he for long enough prefers his own ideas to the ideas which God is seeking to put into his mind, in the end he comes to a stage when he cannot recognize God’s truth and God’s beauty and God’s goodness when he sees them. He comes to a stage when his own evil seems to him good, and when God’s good seems to him evil.

That is the stage to which these Scribes and Pharisees had come. They had so long been blind and deaf to the guidance of God’s hand and the promptings of God’s Spirit, they had insisted on their own way so long, that they had come to a stage when they could not recognize God’s truth and goodness when they saw them. They were able to look on incarnate goodness and call it incarnate evil; they were able to look on the Son of God and call him the ally of the devil. The sin against the Holy Spirit is the sin of so often and so consistently refusing God’s will that in the end it cannot be recognized when it comes even full-displayed.

Why should that sin be unforgivable? What differentiates it so terribly from all other sins? The answer is simple. When a man reaches that stage, repentance is impossible. If a man cannot recognize the good when he sees it, he cannot desire it. If a man does not recognize evil as evil, he cannot be sorry for it, and wish to depart from it. And if he cannot, in spite of failures, love the good and hate the evil, then he cannot repent; and if he cannot repent, he cannot be forgiven, for repentance is the only condition of forgiveness. It would save much heartbreak if people would realize that the one man who cannot have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit is the man who fears he has, for the sin against the Holy Spirit can be truly described as the loss of all sense of sin.

It was to that stage the Scribes and Pharisees had come. They had so long been deliberately blind and deliberately deaf to God that they had lost the faculty of recognizing him when they were confronted with him. It was not God who had banished them beyond the pale of forgiveness; they had shut themselves out. Years of resistance to God had made them what they were.

There is a dreadful warning here. We must so heed God all our days that our sensitivity is never blunted, our awareness is never dimmed, our spiritual hearing never becomes spiritual deafness. It is a law of life that we will hear only what we are listening for and only what we have fitted ourselves to hear.

There is a story of a country man who was in the office of a city friend, with the roar of the traffic coming through the windows. Suddenly he said, “Listen!” “What is it?” asked the city man. “A grasshopper,” said the country man. Years of listening to the country sounds had attuned his ears to the country sounds, sounds that a city man’s ear could not hear at all. On the other hand, let a silver coin drop, and the chink of the silver would have immediately reached the ears of the money-maker, while the country man might never have heard it at all. Only the expert, the man who has made himself able to hear it, will pick out the note of each individual bird in the chorus of the birds. Only the expert, the man who has made himself able to hear it, will distinguish the different instruments in the orchestra and catch a lonely wrong note from the second violins.

It is the law of life that we hear what we have trained ourselves to hear; day by day we must listen to God, so that day by day God’s voice may become, not fainter and fainter until we cannot hear it at all, but clearer and clearer until it becomes the one sound to which above an our ears are attuned.

So Jesus finishes with the challenge: “If I have done a good deed, you must admit that I am a good man; if I have done a bad deed, then you may think me a bad man. You can only tell a tree’s quality by its fruits, and a man’s character by his deeds.” But what if a man has become so blind to God that he cannot recognize goodness when he sees it?

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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