[K:JNWTS 28/1 (May 2013): 17-22]

The Eschatological Sin: The Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit in Mark 3:29

Benjamin W. Swinburnson

Few biblical passages have been the occasion for more confusion than Mark 3:29: "…but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin."  Saints with sensitive consciences are often tempted to think that somehow, at some time, they must have committed this very sin.  They are not alone in this struggle.  Even the great Christian allegorist and theologian John Bunyan (of Pilgrim’s Progress fame) struggled long and hard on this very point.  How much more do we lesser saints struggle, who feel much farther behind in our progress to the celestial city. 

It is natural to understand how this statement of Jesus has such a strong effect in the personal and experiential realm of the believer.  After all, there is nothing more precious to the believer than Christ’s gift of the forgiveness of his sins. The thought that such a gift might be lost or irrevocably surrendered should unsettle even the most complacent saint!  However, a narrow focus on the experiential realm may rob the believer of the proper understanding of the passage along with the personal comfort which flows from the assurance of Christ’s irrevocable gift of forgiveness to his elect.   The key to understanding both the nature of this sin and identifying those who have committed it lies in another realm.  Without denying the clear experiential implications of this sin, the key to its proper interpretation lies in the redemptive-historical arena of New Testament eschatology.

Our thesis is that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an unpardonable sin specifically because it is an eschatological sin.  It is committed when the reality of heaven, having miraculously and undeniably intruded upon the plane of history, is high-handedly attributed to the work of Satan.  It is committed by those who have been specially prepared to identify such activity as a sign of the kingdom, but in stubborn jealousy and pride irrationally refuse to accept it. This suggests that it is redemptive-historically unique to the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, and the immediate context of Mark 3:29. Before expounding and defending our thesis, we will first set Mark 3:29 in the broader context of the structure of Mark 1-6, and the narrower context of chapter 3:20-35.

Structure of Mark 1:16-2:15

After the prologue of Mark 1:1-15, the first subsection of the gospel runs from 1:16-2:15.  It begins with Jesus’ call of the first disciples to "follow me" (1:17), and it ends with a parallel call to Levi to "follow me" (2:14).  Without being able to fully outline the details, the material in between these two call-narratives is carefully arranged in a reverse parallelism than can be summarized as follows:

A - Call of the First Disciples to "follow me (1:16-20)

B - Jesus Demonstrates his "authority" in his Teaching and over Demons (1:21-28)

C- Jesus’ Healing Touch for One and for Many (1:29-34)

Declaration of Purpose for Jesus’ Public Ministry: Preaching (1:35-39)

C’ - Jesus’ Healing Touch for One and for Many (1:40-45)

B’ - Jesus Demonstrates his "authority" to Forgive Sins (2:1-12)

A’ - Call of Levi to "follow me" (2:13-15)

The focus of this section (as with the rest of the gospel) is the revelation of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God (1:1).  Although the theme of "conflict" is relatively absent from this section, we see it subtly introduced in the questions raised by the Jews: "Why does this man speak blasphemies, who can forgive sins but God alone? (2:7)."  This anticipates the questions posed by the Jewish leaders in the next section, and also anticipates the theme of blasphemy in 4:22-23.  The contrast of 3:29 could not be starker: though the Jews accuse him of blaspheming God, Jesus accuses the Jews of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

The next section runs from 2:16-3:12.  It consists of a chain-linked series of narratives that are characterized by a progressively heightened conflict between the Jews and Jesus.  The conflict is dramatically heightened by a series of antagonistic questions from the lips of the Jews.

  1. In 2:16, the Scribes of the Pharisees ask: "How is it that he eats with tax collectors and sinners?"

  2. In 2:18, the disciples of John and of the Pharisees ask: "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"

  3. In 2:24, the Pharisees ask: "Behold, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"

Interestingly, in the next pericope the Jews are silenced (3:4), and deliberate with the Herodians as to how they might kill Jesus (3:6).  The conflict that gradually heightened has now reached a breaking point: the Jews are going to kill Jesus!

After this series of chain-linked conflict narratives, Mark connects us to another carefully arranged subsection.   As with 1:16-2:15, this section is also delimited by a strong parallel inclusio.  It begins and ends with the disciples of Jesus.  We have the calling of the Twelve in 3:14-19, and the sending out of the same Twelve in 6:7-13.  The material in between can be analyzed in terms of the following chiastic arrangement:

A - Call of the Twelve (3:14-19)

B - Questions Related to Jesus’ Family and the Source of his Power (3:20-35)

C - Three Parables: the Sower, the Growing Seed, the Mustard Seed (4:1-34)

Center: Jesus’ Revelation of Divine Power on the Sea (4:35-41)

C’ - Three Miracles: Gerasene Demoniac, Woman with Blood, Jairus’ Daughter (5:1-43)

B’ - Questions Related to Jesus’ Family and the Source of his Power (6:1-6)

A’ - Sending out of the Twelve (6:7-13)

It is in this subsection that the narrative regarding the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is found, to which we now turn our attention.

Structure of Mark 3:20-35

We have noted that Mark’s gospel has thus far been tied together using two sandwiches and one chain.  The sandwiches of 1:16-2:15 are 3:14-6:13 linked together by the chain of 2:16-13:13.  Now in Mark 3:20-25, we have a little sandwich within this bigger sandwich.  Jesus’ statement regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is sandwiched between two brief narratives which deal with Jesus’ family relations.

Jesus and Family Relations (3:20-21)

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit (3:22-30)

Jesus and Family Relations (3:31-34)

This arrangement is not accidental or arbitrary.  In 3:21, Jesus’ own family members level an accusation of insanity against him.  This anticipates the accusation of being in league with Beelzebul in 3:22.  Moreover, Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish scribes of Jerusalem (3:22) could also be construed as one of (more distant) family relations.  In other words, both his immediate family and his national family accuse him of insanity and demon possession.   The gospel of John put it this way: "He came to his own, and his own did not receive him" (John 1:11). Jesus therefore redefines family relations (both immediate and national) for the Christian believer.  The disciples are thus reminded of the call to leave father, mother, sister and brother to follow Christ in the Kingdom and family of God (cf. Mark 1:20; 10:29). 

While the accusation of Jesus’ insanity by his own family members may seem bad enough, the Scribes and Pharisees take it a step further.   We note again how the "conflict" theme in the chain-linked section of 2:15-3:12 is reprised here.   Previously, the Jews’ conflict with Jesus developed by way of antagonistic questions: "Why does he eat with sinners?"; "Why don’t you fast?"; "Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"  Now the antagonism comes boldly in the form of a direct accusation and charge: "He is possessed by Beelzebul…by the prince of demons he casts out demons."   In other words, the series of antagonistic questions come to a climax in a direct statement and charge against Jesus. 

This mirrors Jesus’ response to the Jews, which began with a direct statement followed by a series of counter-questions.  Jesus showed the absurdity and irrationality of the Jews’ questions by appealing to logic, Scripture, and even their own teachings.  He first answers them with a direct statement: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."  He then answers each question from the Jews with a series of questions of his own: "Shall the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?"; "Have you never read what David did…[who] ate the bread of the presence?"; "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm?"   So also here in 3:23: "How can Satan cast out Satan?"  Each statement and counter-question draws out the absurd irrationality of the Jewish charges against Jesus.

The Eschatological Sin: Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

This irrationality is no more pointed than in Jesus’ response to the charge of possession by Beelzebul.  A house divided cannot stand.  If Satan is casting out Satan, then his kingdom is coming to an end.  With these words, Jesus points to the element of truth in their absurd charge.  The Jews are correct that Jesus’ miraculous activity is a sign that the initial eschatological terminus (end-point) of Satan’s kingdom has arrived.   All of the previous miraculous exorcisms performed by Jesus (1:21-28, 32, 39, 3:11) are evidence of this very fact. What is true of Jesus’ healing of the leper in 1:40-45 is true of all of Jesus’ miraculous activity: it is a "testimony" to the Jews that the kingdom of heaven has arrived, and that Satan’s rule is at an end.  Jesus’ prior exorcisms are thus an outworking of the narrative thread established in Jesus’ victory over Satan in the wilderness temptation of 1:12.  Because Jesus has issued a fatal blow to the strong man, he is now plundering his entire house (3:27). 

Jesus’ casting out demons is therefore a sign of the eschatological coming of the kingdom of God and the end of the kingdom of Satan.  The devil has been bound such that he can deceive the nations no longer (cf. Revelation 20:3).  Instead of the tyranny of the devil, there is the glorious freedom of the children of God.  Instead of self-mutilation and self-destruction, there is sanity and peace (the Gerasene demoniac).  Instead of the putrid filth of uncleanness, there is the cleansing purity of the Holy One of God (1:21-28).  Instead of the punishment of death and hell, there is the gift of heaven and eternal life. 

All of this has been squarely set before the eyes and ears of the Jewish leaders—the scribes and the Pharisees.  They cannot deny that Jesus performed these miraculous exorcisms. So they do what hardened men always do in such circumstances: they demonize their opponent!   If we cannot answer his plain, rational words, we will tar and feather him with lies so that the people will not leave us to follow him! Deep-seated jealousy thus motivates and controls the hearts of the Jewish leaders: we cannot lose our constituency to Jesus!  For when they leave, our power, wealth, and influence will be diminished.  Our students will leave our seminaries, and we rabbis will be left with diminished salaries!  This revelation about the heart of the Jewish leaders is nothing new in Mark’s gospel. We already know that they have determined to kill Jesus (3:6).  Jesus fulfills God’s plan to bring men life, but his own Jewish brethren plot to bring him to death! 

The Jewish leaders are thus in a unique state in the history of redemption.  They are heirs of the revelation that was preparatory to the coming of the kingdom of God.  They had been schooled in its rudimentary principles in the revelation of the old covenant.  Among all men, they were the ones in the best position to recognize the signs of the times.  Further, they had beheld with their own eyes the miraculous activity of Jesus in healings and exorcisms.  Their contact with this revelation was not merely indirect, but direct.  This miraculous activity was a sign not only that the kingdom of heaven had arrived, but was also revelatory of its very character.  In the miraculous work of Jesus, they saw a preview of heaven—with no physical maladies, no demon possession, and no death. The power and character of heaven had intruded upon them in the ministry of Jesus, but they blatantly rejected it.  It was manifested in what we might call a sub-eschatological form, but at its core it was a revelation of what was truly eschatological.  In other words, although the form of revelation through miraculous activity would not continue after the age of the apostles, the content was nevertheless reflective of the nature of heaven.

Further, note especially what Jesus says about the specific sin committed by the Jews.  It is a blasphemy not against the Messiah, but against the Holy Spirit.  As the other gospels make clear, words against the Son of Man may be forgiven, but not the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32; Luke 12:10).  In other words, the person against whom the Jews sin is not Christ, but the Holy Spirit.  Here Jesus anticipates the rest of the Synoptic teaching about the eschatological aspect of the Holy Spirit, which will be developed more fully in the teaching of Paul.  In the Synoptics, the agency of the Spirit in Jesus’ casting out demons is a sign that the eschatological kingdom of God has intruded upon the plane of history: "If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matt. 12:28).

The eschatological aspect of the Holy Spirit is thus the key to interpreting the nature of this sin.  To refer to it as the "eschatological sin" is not simply an occasion to use impressive theological vocabulary.  It is simply the way Jesus himself refers to it in the Greek equivalent: "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit does not have forgiveness unto eternity (eis ton aiona), but is guilty of an eternal sin (aioniou amartematos)." 

The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is therefore not committed when a poor, doubting believer struggles with some past sin, no matter how heinous.  Such a Christian needs to be reminded of the clear demonstration of Jesus’ authority to forgive sin in Mark 2:12.  Jesus possesses authority as the God-man to forgive any sin committed against him.  It is Jesus’ authority—not the authority of our guilty conscience—that declares the final, ultimate word with respect to our sin.  If we have believed in him, all transgressions are taken away.  If we cry: "If you are willing, you can make me clean!"  Jesus will assuredly answer: "I am willing.  Be clean!" (Mark 1:40-42).  Jesus’ declaration about the unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit should not strike any fear into the heart of an elect saint sincerely sorry and remorseful for his sin.  This sin is of such a character that it shows no remorse.  The mere fact that one is concerned about having committed it is sufficient proof against such a claim.

If what we have argued above is correct, then it suggests that the unforgivable sin of Mark 3:22-30 is redemptive-historically unique.  It is committed by the Jewish leaders who not only had special access to the preparatory revelation of the coming kingdom of heaven, but also had witnessed its special manifestation in the miraculous work of Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  They saw indisputable evidence that could not be contradicted.  They had seen heaven intrude upon the earth before their very eyes, but preferred to remain in the pit of hell! 

But they beheld the holiness of heaven, and called it unholy hell.  They beheld the Spirit of God at work through the Prince of Life, and called him the Prince of Demons.  In a word, they saw the undisputed work of the Holy Spirit, and attributed it to the work of Satan.  This is eschatological blasphemy, indeed!   Woe was pronounced upon Israel for calling "good" "evil" and "evil" "good" (Isa. 5:20).  How much worse punishment is deserved by those who call "God" "Satan" and "Satan" "God"!?  Having rejected heaven when it intruded upon them before their eyes, they are consigned already to the irrevocable judgment of hell, where there is no forgiveness—no matter how loud the weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

But the believer who has been called to follow Jesus; who has heard his wisdom come down from heaven and believed in his name; who has been touched by his saving power; who has had his uncleanness and death taken away; who has gone forth rejoicing and proclaiming the wondrous things that God has done for him—this believer has been irrevocably freed from this eternal punishment.  He may often say, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!"  (Mark 9:24).  He may even be tempted to doubt, and fall into many grievous sins.  But his precious Lord Jesus, who died for him when he was his enemy, will most certainly bear with him now that he has made him his friend.  Though the forces of Beezelbul may muster their strength and assembly for a final battle, the shield of faith will guard him from all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 

The strong man has been bound.  Satan’s kingdom is coming to an eschatological end. 

But the kingdom that Jesus brings will endure forever.