Apart from His works of healing, Jesus’ ministry consisted of two things: teaching and preaching. Teaching and preaching are not the same thing. Teaching is instruction; it has to do with content, and it is primary. Preaching contains instruction and is based on it, but it is more than mere instruction. It is also a passionate declaration of what the hearers need to do with the truth they have been given, and it calls for that response. True preaching is the point at which sound teaching becomes personal.
We find both in Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 12.31-35. They had accused Him of casting out demons by satanic power. Jesus had answered their attack with arguments, showing the absurdity of their position. That was His teaching. But now He also preaches to them, insisting that what He has taught demands changes in how they think and function. In our text, He shows how important it is for them to properly assess Him and what He is doing, and how fatal it is to judge wrongly.
You cannot remain neutral about Jesus. If the kingdom has come in Jesus and the demands of the kingdom are that people submit to Jesus’ rule as king, then neutrality is impossible. You may think you do not care about Jesus one way or another, but if you are not for Him, you are actually opposing Him. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” The reason for this is that Jesus always demands a decision. He requires a deliberate submission to His rule. He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. If we do not submit to Jesus’ rule, we are not “for” Jesus. We are resisting Him.
Secondly, your refusal to believe is dangerous. One sin leads to another, and rejection sometimes leads even to an unforgivable rejection. Such was the case with the Pharisees, for Jesus accused them of having done what was unforgivable. “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
These are frightening words. They are intended to be. But they have also been unnecessarily alarming for some people. Most ministers have had people come to them wondering if they have committed the unforgivable sin when they have done nothing of the sort. In fact, the fear that they might have sinned unforgivably is the best possible proof that they have not.
Still, we dare not take the warning of these words lightly. How do we keep a proper balance? Obviously by being careful to understand what these verses actually mean. This is not overly difficult since the context makes clear what the unforgivable sin is. It is what the Pharisees had done. They had called good, evil, and evil, good. Or to put it another way, they had called the good work of God in delivering the demon-possessed man demonic. This is called a sin against the Holy Spirit because the deliverance was by the power of the Holy Spirit and because they were identifying him with Satan. It is unforgivable because it is a case of distorting reality so thoroughly that repentance is impossible, and without repentance there can be no forgiveness.
This is a difficult saying, but it is a reliable one since it is “the sober verdict of the only person who has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Of all teachers, Jesus must have known what he was talking about.
The distinction between blasphemy against the Son of Man and blasphemy against the Spirit is not that the Son of Man is less important than the Spirit. This is a close parallel to what Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans, where he traces the downward path of sin. The root problem is rejection of the truth about God, Paul says. But this soon leads to a downhill path of perversion ending with what he calls a “depraved mind.” A depraved mind is the confirmed mental state of those who not only practice the vices listed in the final paragraph of Romans 1 but also “approve of those who practice them.” Those who approve of evil are saying that those evil practices are right and that the contrary good acts must be evil.
This is what the Pharisees were doing. Therefore, if they were actually convinced (or merely wanted to convince themselves) that the good works of Jesus were evil, as they seemed to have been doing, there was no possibility of their repenting and embracing Christ since from their debased perspective repentance would be an irrational and therefore an impossible act. Those who have declined to that level are beyond hope, and lest we dismiss this too readily, we must keep in mind that this is exactly what Paul says of a declining secular society such as our own.
Ultimately the problem is in us. According to Jesus’ preaching, we must not consider this an external problem. It is in the very nature of those who refuse to believe on Jesus. This describes us, and it describes the Pharisees, since for all their religious pretensions, they were fundamentally evil – a “brood of vipers.” We know this is what they were because of their words. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” It is always the case that the words we speak reveal our heart’s condition.