By Casey B. Hough
Many of us are familiar with the term “blasphemy”, mostly with its stern associations with “blaspheming the Holy Spirit—the one “unforgivable” sin in all of Scripture. But what is blasphemy? And can you commit it unknowingly?
According to Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, the biblical concept of “blasphemy” is different from the common definition today:
Today’s Concept of Blasphemy:
“Blasphemy” denotes any utterance that insults God or Christ (or Allah, or Muhammed) and gives deeply felt offense to their followers.
The Biblical Concept of Blasphemy:
There is no Hebrew word equivalent to the English “blasphemy, ” and the Greek root blasphem-, which is used fifty-five times in the New Testament, has a wide meaning.
In both Testaments the idea of blasphemy as something that offends the religious sensibilities of others is completely absent.
Translators choose “blaspheme” when, for instance, the verbs “curse” (qalal), “revile” (gadap) or “despise” (herep) are used with God as the object. No special verb is reserved for cursing or insults directed at God.
The New Testament. The Greek root blasphem- can be used of strong insults thrown at other people (Mark 15:29; Acts 13:45 ; Eph 4:31 ; 1 Peter 4:4), or even unjust accusations (Rom 3:8), but it is more usually used of insults offered to God (e.g., Rev 13:6 ; 16:9)
Jesus teaches that the blasphemy for which there is no forgiveness is that against the Holy Spirit; all other blasphemies, particularly those against “the Son of Man, ” may be forgiven.
Blasphemy in the Bible:
Blasphemy is well-attested in the Old Testament in passages like Leviticus 24:10-16, which were rooted in the fundamental command of Exodus 22:28 that states, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” Such blasphemy was subject to punishment by death. For, to revile God (or those whom he appointed) was to call into question the integrity and holiness of God himself. Such a disposition could not be tolerated in the community. Disobedience in the community threatened the very fabric of the covenant people. Like the sin of Achan (recorded in Joshua 7), sin does not occur in isolation from others in the community. When one member of the community sins, the whole corporate body suffers. The same was true of blasphemy. If one member of the community was allowed to revile God or his appointed leaders, the whole community would be put at risk. God would not allow such behavior because it threatened the purpose of the people of Israel among the nations.
Scripture speaks of multiple instances or actions that qualify as blasphemous:
Idolatry as Blasphemy
Idolatry is an action of blasphemy because it wrongly attributes worship and hope to an object that is not truly God. Only the true God deserves our worship and our hope. When we find comfort in things other than God, we are guilty of blasphemy. We have failed to rightly honor God with our worship and hope.
Arrogance as Blasphemy
Arrogance is another action that is blasphemous toward God. The apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 6:3 that when someone “thinks that they are something when they are actually nothing, they deceive themselves.” Such is the case when we live as though we do not need God in our lives. When we live without proper regard of our need for God, we deceive ourselves. According to Hebrews 1:3, all things are held together by the power of the word of Christ. Furthermore, in Acts 17:28, Paul told the Athenians that we “have our being” in God himself. To live arrogantly is to revile and show disdain for God as God, which is tantamount to blasphemy.
False Teaching as Blasphemy
False teaching and/or false depictions of God are also blasphemous because they obscure the true character of God. Admittedly, this point is closely related to the concept of idolatry, yet it is a little more nuances. Whereas with idolatry, we tend to worship and hope in a false reality, with false teachings or false depiction about God, we are attempting to change the character of God to more closely conform to our preferences.
The danger here is obvious. Whereas with idolatry we are guilty of finding something outside of God to place our hopes in (i.e., jobs, politics, healthcare, money, etc.), with false teaching we are guilty of putting God in our box to make him more palatable and acceptable.
An example of this would be when we find the wrath of God toward sin to be unnerving or uncomfortable. Instead of submitting the authority of God’s Word, we might be tempted to soften what the Bible actually teaches about the reality of sin and God’s wrath. Such deviations are blasphemous because they attempt to hide the manifest glory of God who has revealed Himself in exactly the form that he wants us to understand Him. While we might not always be comfortable with it, we have no right to change God to suit our needs. Instead, we need to bring our needs in submission to Him.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
Finally, scripture speaks of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” Mark 3:28-30 is one of the most sobering verses in all of scripture, where Jesus warns his audience about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. According to Jesus, “all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven for the sons of men, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven but is guilty of an unpardonable sin.” So, what is this “unpardonable sin?” What does it mean to commit “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?” Why is this so deadly?
Are You Guilty of Blaspheming the Holy Spirit?
Many have wondered, “Have I committed the unpardonable sin?” Others have boasted that they have committed the unpardonable sin, and thus have no need for Christians to engage them in evangelistic dialogue. Unfortunately, much of the speculation around these verses is rooted in bad interpretative practices. There is an awful tendency to read scripture in isolation from other scriptures, and thus read things out of context. To properly understand Jesus’ comment, these verses must be understood in light of the whole context of the gospel of Mark.
What the Bible Teaches about the “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”
The author of the Gospel of Mark was concerned with two primary questions about Jesus – Who is He? and What is He doing? The answer to the first question (Who is He?) is this: Jesus is the Son of God who comes to fulfill God’s Word and bring God’s Kingdom into the world. That is the good news of Jesus’ gospel — the time is fulfilled (i.e. the things prophesied in the Old Testament are coming to pass through Jesus) and the kingdom of God is near (i.e. the authoritative and powerful reign of God in Jesus has burst on to the scene in this broken, death-infested world).
The answer to the second question (What is Jesus doing?) is inextricably tied to the first answer. Who Jesus is (His identity) dictates what Jesus does (His mission). As the king of the God’s kingdom, Jesus came to overthrow the rule of Satan in the world that His Father had created. A positive way of stating the details of this overthrow is found in Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus is said to have come to preach “good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” There is no good news to the poor, freedom to the captives or the oppressed, or recovery for the blind if the god of this age is not overthrown. Yet, this is exactly what Jesus was doing in his ministry. However, these were very activities that the scribes attributed to the work of Satan. The very works that the prophet Isaiah claimed to be the result of the Holy Spirit’s anointing, these scribes attributed to the Devil (see Luke 4:18-19 and especially Mark 1:10).
The Work of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit was at work in Jesus’ ministry bearing witness to His identity and His mission. Carried along and empowered by the Holy Spirit’s anointing, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, drove out demons, worked miracles, and preached good news to the poor, oppressed, and undeserving. The Holy Spirit bore witness (or testimony) through the words and works of Jesus that He (Jesus) truly was the Son of God who had begun the return of God’s reign in the world.
How to Commit Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit
So, what then does it mean to commit the unpardonable sin of “blaspheming the Holy Spirit?”
It is to finally reject the Holy Spirit’s testimony to Jesus’ identity and mission. It is to deny that Jesus is who the Holy Spirit has revealed Him to be. It is to behold the person and work of Christ as empowered by the Holy Spirit and reject it outright! It is to revile God himself!
And this exactly what the scribes were doing. They were looking at the Holy Spirit’s work in and through Jesus and rejecting it. They simply would not believe that Jesus was the King of God’s kingdom, coming to plunder Satan’s domain of darkness, offering forgiving and grace to all those in captivity.
The scribes and even some from Jesus’ family at the time missed the true nature of God’s kingdom as it was being revealed in Jesus through the Holy Spirit. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was about responding to its proclamation—the King is here and the King is active—and following the ideals of the kingdom. It was not about religious preeminence or familial relationship. People were not a part of Jesus’ kingdom simply because they were related to him (like his family) or familiar with him (like the scribes and Pharisees). Instead, a person became a part of the kingdom of God (and “see the kingdom”) when they responded in faith and repentance to the Holy Spirit’s work and were born again (John 3). Yet sadly, some, like those in Mark 3, resist the Holy Spirit’s testimony regarding Jesus and His kingdom. They close their eyes and cover their ears. As Stephen said in Acts 7:51 regarding the seemingly perpetual unbelief of his audience, “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit!”
Why Can’t Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit be Forgiven?
So, why is rejecting the Holy Spirit’s testimony about Jesus considered the unpardonable sin? It is the unpardonable sin because it effectively separates a person from the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. To reject the Holy Spirit’s testimony of Christ is to reject Christ and thus reject all that He is and all that He has done, which includes, offering a pardon for sin for all who would repent and believe in His gospel. Blasphemy, therefore, is deadly because it ultimately leads to separation from only person who can save sinners from their sins.
Casey Hough serves as the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Camden, Arkansas. In addition to his pastoral work, Casey also serves as an Associate Research Fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and blogs regularly at www.TheRenewedChurch.com.
Bible Verses about Blasphemy
“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. – Matthew 12:31-32
But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” – Mark 3:29
Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory. – Revelations 16:9
The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. (Now his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.) – Leviticus 24:11
“Therefore, son of man, speak to the house of Israel and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed Me by acting treacherously against Me. – Ezekiel 20:27
But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clean From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” – Acts 18:6
And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore. Then I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and on his horns were ten diadems, and on his heads were blasphemous names. – Revelations 13:1
And he opened his mouth in blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle, that is, those who dwell in heaven. – Revelations 13:6
And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns. – Revelations 17:3
By Casey B. Hough