The Unforgivable Sin

22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 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. – Matthew 12:22-32 ESV

This entire section of Matthew’s gospel centers around the authority of Jesus, given to Him by His Heavenly Father, and accompanied by the power of the Spirit of God. Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah of the Jews, and the Savior of the world. At His incarnation, He had taken on human flesh. At His baptism, He had been anointed by the Spirit of God. And He operated under the divine auspices and with the full approval of God the Father.

But as Matthew has already shown, Jesus faced growing opposition to His mission and increasing resistance to His claim to be the Messiah. And the religious leaders of the day formed the nexus of the swelling antagonism against Him. The more His popularity grew, the more they hated Him. They followed Him everywhere, searching for any evidence they could use against Him. They examined every word that came out of His mouth, endeavoring to expose Him as a fraud and a threat to their way of life. In their minds, Jesus posed a serious problem that required immediate action.

But the Pharisees and their religious compatriots faced another problem: The rapidly expanding number of so-called disciples who showed up everywhere Jesus went. There is little doubt that this group of people was comprised of curiosity seekers, the diseased and disabled in search of healing, and a small group who held out hope that Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah. And with every miracle Jesus performed, the Pharisees knew that there was a strong likelihood that the curious could become the committed.

So, when Matthew records, rather matter-of-factly, an occasion where Jesus exorcised a demon from a man, he juxtaposes the reaction of the crowd with that of the Pharisees. This sets the stage for yet another battle between the Pharisees and Jesus.  After having watched Jesus cast out the demon, resulting in the restoration of the man’s faculties of sight and speech, the crowds were forced to consider the implications of what they had just seen. Someone put into words what everyone was thinking:

“Can this be the Son of David?” – Matthew 12:23 ESV

The actual tone of their question was actually a bit more suspicious and doubtful. A more accurate translation would read, “He can’t be the Son of David, can He?” You can sense the reticence in their words and how they were struggling to reconcile their expectations of the Messiah with the words and works of Jesus. The very fact that they refer to the Messiah as “the Son of David” reflects their understanding that He would come as a warrior-king. They were looking for a mighty deliverer who would rescue the nation of Israel from its subjugation to Rome and restore it to power and prominence.

And while there was no doubt that Jesus displayed power, it was not exactly what the Jews had been expecting. His miracles, while awe-inspiring, were doing little to free them from Roman rule. His little band of ragtag disciples wasn’t exactly the kind of army a conquering king would require. And yet, they couldn’t ignore what they had seen. Jesus was different. His power was undeniable. He spoke with such authority. He displayed an aura of quiet confidence, accompanied by powerful signs and wonders.  But His identity was still up for grabs. They weren’t quite sure what to make of Jesus. And this is where the Pharisees decided to sow seeds of doubt among the people.

They immediately attributed the work of Jesus to Satan.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

Fearing that the crowds just might decide that Jesus was the Messiah, the Pharisees provide them with another option: Jesus was operating under the influence of Beelzebul or Satan. His miracles weren’t divine but merely demonic in nature. Sure, Jesus displayed power, but it was from the pit of hell, not from heaven.

The Pharisees hadn’t thought this one through. And Jesus quickly exposes the absurdity behind their logic. Why in the world would Satan cast out one of his own demons? What possible good could come from the enemy releasing one of his own captives? It made no sense.

“…if Satan is casting out Satan, he is divided and fighting against himself. His own kingdom will not survive.” – Matthew 12:26 NLT

Their assertion was ridiculous. And, on top of that, it meant that anyone else who cast out demons was guilty of operating under the influence of Satan as well. That included their own “sons” or fellow Jews who practiced exorcism. If what Jesus did was demonic, then it had to be true for all.

Having exposed the shoddy logic behind their accusation, Jesus offers another, more plausible, explanation.

“But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” – Matthew 12:28 NLT

With one statement, Jesus answers the question asked by the crowd: “Can this be the Son of David?” And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” The very fact that He had the power to cast out demons was a sign of His authority as the Son of God. He was the Messiah, and His arrival in their midst was proof that the Kingdom of God had come. 

Jesus’ authority over demons was given to Him by God and made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus makes it clear that His battle was not going to be with the Romans, but with “evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). He came to do war with “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2 ESV). And Jesus informs the Pharisees that they have a choice to make. They can either join Him or continue to align themselves against Him.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” – Matthew 12:30 ESV

But the one thing they do not want to do is to attribute His work to the enemy. That was a dangerous and deadly mistake to make. Jesus lets them know that, by attributing His works to Satan, they were rejecting the power of the Spirit and the testimony of God. They were guilty of blaspheming the Spirit. By blasphemy, Jesus meant that they were guilty of slandering or vilifying the testimony of the Spirit of God. The Spirit’s power, as revealed in the miracles of Jesus, was meant to give evidence of who Jesus was. His casting out of the demon, done by the power of the Spirit of God, was a testimony to His identity. So, Jesus informs the Pharisees that they were guilty of the unforgivable sin: The rejection of Jesus as Messiah.

For this sin there is no forgiveness, “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32 ESV). The Pharisees would be forgiven their verbal abuse of Jesus, if they eventually accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. But if they continued to deny the testimony of God and the visible proof of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, they would not be forgiven.

The interesting aspect of this whole encounter was that the Pharisees were blind to the reality of Jesus’ claim because they denied the proof of the Spirit of God. They were devoid of the Spirit themselves. The apostle Paul would later write:

So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:3 NLT

And John would also provide further insight into the Spirit’s illuminating role in man’s ability to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh.

This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. – 1 John 4:2 NLT 

But the Pharisees, lacking the presence of the Spirit of God, were incapable of recognizing the Son of God. And Jesus declared them to be aligned against Him, operating in direct opposition to His divine mission.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” – Matthew 12:30 ESV

The battle lines were drawn. The King had come. The Son of God had taken on human flesh and was in the process of fulfilling the divine will of His Heavenly Father. But the Pharisees represented the forces of this world, aligned against the redemptive plan of God. And their hatred of Jesus was going to end up destroying them. While they would eventually succeed in putting Jesus to death, they would fail in their efforts to put an end to His rule and reign. They could deny His claim to be the Messiah, but they could not deny His right to rule as King of kings and Lord of lords.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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