|The Sin That Canít Be Pardoned
October 24, 1999 / Mark 3:20-35
Youíve likely watched and read about the unfolding drama of Dr. Jerri Nielsen. Nielsen is the 47-year-old physician working at the South Pole who found a suspicious mass in her body in June. The only physician at the research station, Dr. Nielsen monitored her own case and supervised her own treatment. By e-mail and videoconferencing, she consulted with specialists in the United States, biopsied the lump, and sent photographs of the slide samples for analysis. The tumor was malignant.
The Air Force dropped medical supplies to the station in July, and Nielsen continued to treat herself ó and to perform her duties. She applied her own tourniquet, helped someone find a good vein, and assisted with the administering of chemotherapy. Nielsen even considered doing surgery on herself to remove the tumor. A Russian doctor had removed his own appendix at the same research station in 1961. But consulting physicians decided she would not be able to operate extensively enough to do any real good. Why not just bring her home? Thatís easier said than done in Antarcticaís forbidding sub-zero temperatures!
But a special rescue mission has now been completed by the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard. When the temperature "warmed" to 58 degrees below zero, people risked their several lives to save Nielsenís one life. Now she is back in the United States and being treated for her disease.
We human beings really do value one another ó and are even willing to risk our lives for one another! But the greatest search-and-rescue mission ever mounted was the one Jesus undertook for my salvation. He must really care about me. He must love me! But he did everything he did on that mission for you as much as for me. He did it for the person at the church down the street, for the one still too drunk from last night to get up this morning, and for the one who sold her (or his) body last night and canít imagine being here in church this morning with us.
Setting for a Question
Keeping all this in mind is part of an interpretive setting for todayís text. Taken from Mark 3, it is one that employs the Markan literary technique of sandwiching stories. Mark uses this device several times in his Gospel, and this is the first time we see it. He begins a story, interrupts it with a second narrative, and then goes back to finish his original account. Here the initial story is about Jesusí own family coming to the place where he was teaching with a plan "to take charge of him" ó likely meaning to forcibly take him and return him to their home. Even his mother and brothers didnít understand him at this point and were saying, "He is out of his mind" (3:20-21).1 The second story Mark inserts into the flow of the first is about some teachers of Torah who placed a still-harsher judgment on Jesus. They said he was "possessed by Beelzebub" and was driving out demons by the power of the prince of demons. Talk about having a bad day! Set upon not only by his sworn enemies but by his own family as well!
It reminds me of something the late C.S. Lewis wrote about Jesus. After chronicling the fantastic feats and claims of Jesus ó living among men and talking as if he was God, claiming to forgive sins, saying he will someday judge the whole world ó Lewis wrote:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising [sic] nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.1
Our all-too-cool culture wants to avoid making definitive choices of the either-or variety. We want both-and answers. We donít like absolutes. We donít like having to take sides, declare ourselves, and be at risk for vilification. Above all, we donít want to appear dogmatic and narrow. But our options about Jesus are very narrow. He makes exclusive claims for himself, and we must decide how to respond to those claims. To paraphrase Lewis: Jesus is either liar, lunatic, or Lord.
When one understands these incredibly limited options about Jesus, it is possible to understand what has been for some people a forbidding text. What did Jesus mean when he told people in this setting: "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin"? Is there really a sin that canít be pardoned? What is it? Have you been guilty of it?
Iíve actually talked with several people over the years who were convinced they had committed "the unpardonable sin." Most of them were in a terrible state of agitation and pain over it. In every single case, it was an unnecessary anguish due to misunderstanding.
An Unpardonable Sin
Because of the constant offers of pardon to sinners in Scripture, it comes as a shock to find in the words of Jesus himself a reference to a sin that "will never be forgiven." That gets my attention!
The people that Jesus accused of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and thereby committing a sin beyond pardon were standing face to face with Jesus, hearing the words that came from his very own lips, and seeing with their eyes the Spirit-given wonders that both confirmed his identity and vouchsafed his teaching. And what was their reaction? It was not to inquire further or to struggle for understanding. It was not the reaction of weak faith seeking to be strong. It was not even the reaction of skepticism or prejudice admitting to confusion. It was outright denial of the obvious. It was hard-hearted rejection of the truth. It was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and what he had revealed to them about the Son of God in their midst.
And why is such a sin "unpardonable"? People who could not receive the truth about Jesus with the evidence they had at hand would never receive it. Their hearts were petrified and unable to see, hear, or believe the truth.
Ignorance is one thing; it can be corrected with information. But willful blindness and purposeful deafness are quite different. These enemies of Jesus who had already made up their minds to kill Jesus (cf. 3:6) were inflexible in their unbelief. They could no longer seek or find the truth. They were sworn enemies of Jesus and could only twist his words and attack his motives out of blind hatred for him.
This was not a new category of sin that was possible only after Jesus came. The Torah knew this evil and says the following about it: "But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORDís word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him" (Num. 15:30-31).
To sin "defiantly" ó literally "with a high hand" ó is anything but an unintentional sin or a sin arising from human weakness. It is not even something done with the knowledge at the time that it was against the will of God. It is a sin of arrogant defiance. It is a sin of deliberate challenge to Godís authority. It is the sin of a heart so hardened against God that it could never be sorry for what it had done.
In the context of Numbers 15, a story immediately follows this warning about a man who defied the Decalogueís prohibition against work on the sabbath. God commanded that he be stoned to death by the community. Why? Because picking up firewood is an evil thing? No, but because his sin was high-handed and defiant. Because the man was ignorant and sinned unknowingly? No, but because he knew his obligations as a member of the nation of Israel and set about to defy the authority of Yahweh.
The same sin is referred to in the story of Samuel. He was the last judge of the nation of Israel, and God raised him up to replace Eli. Eliís sin had been in refusing to restrain his wicked sons. Eli was not only a judge to the nation but a priest. And the two sons in his family ó Hophni and Phineas ó treated the holy sacrifices of the Temple with contempt (1 Sam. 2:17) and committed fornication with women designated to serve at the Temple (1 Sam. 2:22). Eli told the boys to stop their wicked behaviors but never took them out of their positions of authority or influence. Because of the deliberate and high-handed nature of their unrestrained wickedness, God told Samuel, "The guilt of Eliís house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering" (1 Sam. 3:14). What had earlier been a knowing breach of Temple protocol turned into an arrogant and defiant disobedience ó an unpardonable sin.
Yes, the New Testament knows this sin from other texts than this quotation from Jesus. The unnamed author of Hebrews wrote: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God" (Heb. 10:26; cf. 6:4-6).
Here is the rule of thumb I offer to anyone wondering if he or she has committed a sin that cannot be pardoned: The fact that you are even concerned about it proves you havenít done it. The only sin that is unpardonable is the one that no longer causes concern, sorrow, and repentance. Any sin acknowledged and confessed to the Lord will be forgiven (1 John 1:9). Any sin that is committed with such arrogance and hardness of heart that its perpetrator cannot and will not confess it is beyond pardon ó not because of the action itself but on account of the sinnerís insolence.
We have very narrow options with Jesus. He is Lewisí liar, lunatic, or Lord. He is either the Son of God or a false prophet. You may either believe on him or reject him, but you cannot be neutral! That is the one option forever closed off to us because of the bold nature of his claims.
We have equally narrow options with our own human sinfulness. We are either penitents seeking pardon or self-willed sinners who deny Godís right to make the demands of holiness on us. We are sensitive to our weaknesses and open to Godís help or we are gradually hardening ourselves against him. You cannot be cavalier about your lust or greed or selfishness. You either surrender them to God and take up your cross to follow Jesus, or you indulge yourself and let Jesus pass by without following him. The choice is that clear.
When the weather broke enough for a Hercules LC-130 plane equipped with skis for landing on ice and snow got to Antarctica on its rescue mission, visibility was not as good as the pilot would have liked. But he landed. And he kept the planeís engines running in order to keep it from cooling and having its fuel, oil, and hydraulic lines crippled by the minus 58 Fahrenheit temperature. The team knew it had approximately twenty minutes to get in, get Dr. Nielsen, and get out.
Dr. Nielsen didnít have time to pack after the plane arrived. She couldnít take her leisurely good time saying goodbyes all around. This was an urgent rescue under less-than-optimum conditions. Everyone had to move quickly and decisively. The plane would be on the ground for only a few minutes.
Our text today says that we are in the same situation with Jesus. We either turn lose of the world, pick up our crosses, and follow him ó or he has to go on without us. Maybe thatís why this teaching about an unpardonable sin is sandwiched into the story of Jesusí comments about his true family. More than devotion to this world, its pleasures, or even oneís own blood family, becoming a member of the family of God is the most important decision of all. But life is short. We have only a few fleeting days in which to make the choice. Death will come. Sin will harden our hearts. So thereís no time to lose!
At whatever cost to yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. "Whoever does Godís will is my brother and sister and mother," he said. Not thatís a relationship you donít want to miss. It would be ó quite literally ó an unpardonable offense against Godís grace.
1The non-mention of Joseph ó only Jesusí "mother and brothers" (3:32) ó in this setting may imply that Maryís husband and Jesusí step-father was dead. This is not unlikely, since men would typically be fifteen to thirty years older than their brides in Jewish culture of the time.
2C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960), p. 55.
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