In Matthew 12, Jesus said that blaspheming the Holy Spirit was an unforgivable sin. What exactly is blaspheming the Holy Spirit and who can commit this sin? Also, Jesus says this sin will not be forgiven "in this world or in the world to come." What did He mean?
The sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit is a sin that could only be committed in the time of Jesus’ first coming. It is not a sin that a Christian can commit today. This sin has occurred only once in history, as recorded in Matthew 12:
In this scene, Jesus performed an important miracle. He healed a mute man possessed by a demon. In Jewish tradition and teaching, the Messiah was said to be recognizable on the basis of three unique miracles only He could perform. The three "Messianic miracles" were healing a leper, healing a man born blind and casting out a demon from a mute man. In Matthew 12 we see Jesus performing the third of these three Messianic miracles.
Why is casting out a demon from a mute man considered proof of the Messiah? The answer comes from an understanding of how Jewish rabbis performed exorcisms in Jesus' day.
Casting out of demons (exorcisms) were commonly performed in Israel by rabbis and priests. (We can see evidence that exorcism was practiced in the first century in the story found in Acts 19 of the seven sons of the Jewish priest, Sceva.)
The Jewish manner of casting out demons could only be accomplished through a very specific ritual handed down by tradition (and presumably originating in divine revelation). Specifically, to cast out a demon, the priest had to call the demon out by name. So, in order to cast out a demon, the priest had to learn the demon's name.
To learn the name of the demon, the priest would inquire of the demon, and the demon would answer by speaking using the voice of the human body it inhabited. Once a priest knew the demon’s name, he then could perform the exorcism by casting out the demon by name. Jesus followed this same procedure at times, as we see in another account in Luke:
Jesus asked the name of the demon horde, and they responding with the name “Legion.” Jesus then proceeded in casting out the entire group. This was the only process of exorcism known to men in Israel, and the key to the process was learning the demon’s name.
Therefore, if a possessed person was mute (i.e., unable to speak), then an exorcism was impossible. Without the ability to learn the demon’s name, a priest would be unable to perform the exorcism as prescribed. As a result of this limitation, a teaching arose among religious leaders in Israel that only the true Messiah could cast out a demon from a mute person.
We see this tradition reflected in another story of demon possession found in Mark’s Gospel:
Jesus encountered a young boy possessed by a demon. As we read, the demon had rendered the boy mute, which is the key detail in this story. The boy’s father is especially troubled, because he knows that no ordinary man could heal his son in his mute condition. Since no man can learn the name of the demon, there is no hope for an exorcism. As we see, the disciples attempted to cast out the demon, but failed because they could not obtain the demon’s name.
Consequently, the father brought his son to Jesus for healing, probably because the father knew Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore he expected that Jesus could overcome this barrier. When Jesus remarked, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you?” He was referring to His disciples, who had tried in vain to cast out the demon. If His disciples truly understood Jesus was the Messiah, they would have known to bring the boy to Him instead of tryhing perform a feat reserved only for the Messiah. Jesus was highlighting their continuing unbelief in His Messiahship.
After Jesus finished healing the boy, His disciples questioned Him as to why He was able to perform this miracle yet they could not. Jesus answered by saying this “kind” of demon possession only comes out with prayer and fasting. In other words, only God can remove a demon from a mute body, which is why this miracle is a sign of the Messiah. Therefore, the disciples’ only recourse was to appeal to God through prayer and fasting for a deliverance.
With that background, we return to our passage in Matthew to find Jesus casting out another mute demon. After Jesus heals the man, the Jewish crowd correctly realizes they just witnessed one of the Messianic miracles. Notice in Matt 12:23 the crowd exclaims, "This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” The term “son of David” is a Messianic term, so the crowd is asking themselves if it is true that Jesus is their long-awaited Messiah. By the tone of their question, we can see they doubted in their own conclusion, because Jesus did not fulfill their expectations for who would be the Messiah.
So the crowd waited for their religious leaders, the Pharisees, to rule on their question. Was Jesus truly the Messiah as the miracle indicated? Rather than acknowledging the obvious and declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the hard-hearted Pharisees concocted an alternative answer to explain away Jesus' extraordinary miracle. In v.24 they attribute His miracle to the power of Satan (Beelzebul). Their explanation was illogical and absurd, as Jesus’ rebuke points out in vs.25-30.
Nevertheless, the people in the crowd agreed with the Pharisees' assessment. Rather than accepting Jesus as their Messiah, the crowd followed the lies of their religious leaders, choosing to believe Jesus was acting with the power of Satan. Their decision to attribute Jesus' miraculous power to Satan instead of to the Holy Spirit is the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
The people of Israel witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit working to confirm Jesus as Messiah, and even though they correctly declared it to be a sign of the Messiah, they blasphemed the Holy Spirit by declaring the miracle was the work of Satan. In a sense, they were confessing that Satan was lord, rather than confessing Jesus as Lord. This is an unforgivable sin, according to Jesus.
A common (mis)interpretation of the unpardonable sin suggests that Jesus was speaking merely about the sin of unbelief (i.e., dying without accepting Christ as Lord), but the context of Jesus' words and the related scriptures leads us to reject this interpretation.
First, Jesus called this special sin "blaspheming the Holy Spirit," and He assigned it an unique penalty unlike any other sin:
Notice Jesus says that speaking against Christ is forgivable, while blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not forgivable. Rejecting the Gospel is a rejection of Christ, yet Jesus specifically says this sin can be forgiven. On the other hand, blaspheming the Holy Spirit offers no possibility of forgiveness, “...either in this age or in the age to come” Jesus says.
The word age refers to our present time on earth, while the "age to come" refers to the eternal age. Jesus says that once the unforgivable sins occurs, there can be no forgiveness in this age. In other words, once this sin occurs, a person is precluded from forgiveness even while they still live in the present age.
Based on this penalty, we know Jesus cannot be speaking about rejecting Christ. If someone rejects Christ today, that person can still receive forgiveness at a later point in this age should the person accept the Gospel on a future day. A person who rejects Christ a million times is still eligible for forgiveness “in this age” until they die. This fact explains why Jesus says speaking "against the Son" is forgivable in this age. Rejecting Christ can be forgiven in this age, so long as the person repents before the age is over (i.e., before death).
On the other hand, blaspheming the Holy Spirit offers no such second chance. Jesus says that when the unforgivable sin is committed, it shall not be forgiven in this age. When this sin is committed, it eliminates all future opportunity for forgiveness even while a person is still alive. There is no second chance for those who commit this particular sin. This unique penalty means Jesus was speaking about something very different than merely rejecting the Gospel.
Jesus was speaking about the unique circumstances Israel encountered when they rejected Christ face-to-face. Israel committed the unpardonable sin, and therefore that entire generation of Israel received a special judgment - a judgment that only that generation could experience. Their penalty was disqualification from receiving the Kingdom. Instead of receiving the Kingdom, that generation was excluded forever from God's forgiveness, leaving only a remnant of Israel to know Christ and receive the Kingdom. The rest of Israel was hardened, according to Paul:
A few verses later in Matt 12, Jesus revealed this judgment upon this generation of Israel because they committed the unforgivable sin:
That generation of Israel was condemned for the remainder of their earthly lives and into eternity, Jesus declares. No second chances. No reprieve. Not in this age nor the next. And notice the reason Jesus gives for why this generation's unbelief was unforgivable when past generations of Israel were permitted to repent and did receive forgiveness for their unbelief: because this time “something greater is here.”
In other words, Jesus says that because this generation of Israel saw the Messiah in person, they could not be forgiven for rejecting Him. A person can be forgiven through repentance and faith for rejecting lessor messengers who declare the Gospel (i.e., the apostles, evangelists, prophets, etc.), but there is no second chance for a person who rejects Jesus to His face. By blaspheming the Holy Spirit in the physical presence of the Messiah, Israel committed a unique sin that could not be forgiven that generation.
We can see even more confirmation of this unique and pivotal moment in Israel’s history by noticing how Jesus’ teaching changed immediately after Israel committed the unpardonable sin. Prior to the unpardonable sin (in Matt 1-12), Jesus never taught a single parable. Everything He taught was in the open for all to hear and understand.
But after Israel committed the unpardonable sin in Matt 12, Jesus changed His teaching style dramatically. From Matthew 13 until His death on the cross, Jesus only taught in parables. After the unpardonable sin, Jesus begins hiding the truth from Israel, because Israel is no longer permitted to understand it, because they cannot be forgiven.
Even the disciples noticed Jesus' abrupt change in style, so they ask Jesus in Matthew 13 why He has suddenly begun to teach in parables. Look at what Jesus says in response:
Jesus says that only a few in Israel (the remnant) would be permitted from this point forward to know the truth. Just as the OT prophets foretold, Israel would not be permitted to understand the truth of the Messiah as a judgment against them. Notice in Matt 13:15, Isaiah declared that God has closed Israel's eyes and ears so that they could not hear or understand. In other words, their sin would not be forgiven in this age.
Finally, we see even more confirmation that Israel’s sin was unforgivable in another passage:
Here Jesus pronounce Israel's final judgment for unbelief. Notice Jesus says Israel’s “house” is left to them desolate (from that point forward). This moment occurred only shortly after the events in Matt 12, so Jesus made this declaration long before He was crucified and long before the Romans destroyed the city. He pronounced Israel's judgment here in Luke 13 while there was yet still time for the nation to receive Him as Messiah.
Why did Jesus declare judgment upon Israel for unbelief at such an early point in His earthly ministry? Because Israel's die was cast once they committed the unforgivable sin. There could be no forgiveness "in this age" (as Jesus said) for the unforgivable sin, so from this point onward, this generation of Israel was under judgment.
Notice also Jesus declares that Israel will not see their Messiah and the Kingdom “until" a future generation of Israel reverses the sin of this generation by declaring Jesus to be Lord. A future generation of Israel must reverse the sin of this generation by confessing that Jesus is Messiah, and when the nation follows suit, then (and only then) Jesus will return to set up the promised Kingdom. In other words, the Lord’s Second Coming hinges on the entire nation of Israel declaring “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord" (i.e., declaring that Jesus is Messiah).
Israel will finally meet these terms on the last day of Tribulation (according to Zech 12-14), resulting in the return of Christ:
When the Lord pours out His Spirit on Israel at the end of Tribulation, the nation will respond with a mass confession of faith in Christ. Once all Israel has made this declaration, then Christ will return to defeat the antichrist and set up the Kingdom for Israel (as He promised in Luke 13).
So the unpardonable sin is closely related to the Second Coming of Christ. It’s no “ordinary” rejection of the Gospel. It is the very reason Jesus left the earth the first time!