Today I was listening to Christian radio after thinking about this text in Matthew regarding the “unforgivable sin” and the speaker, John McArthur, a well-known voice in Bible study said that rejection of Jesus is the unforgivable sin. That is to say, if someone rejects Christ as Savior, then his or her destiny is Hell. Now, this is representative of what his claim was, and it puzzled me and I’ll explain by having you read a passage of scripture that is JESUS’ own words in the Gospel.
Matthew 12:31 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.
This is puzzling to me because Jesus actually contradicts the notion that those who reject Christ cannot be forgiven…and seems to place more emphasis on a more abstract notion of “blasphemy” or rejection of the Holy Spirit over and above His own treatment. So, if you are scratching your head, then you are in good company because I think this goes against the Evangelical notion that those who believe in the Lord will be saved and those who “believeth not” will be condemned. And this is why context is so important…in any scripture study that we can do! You might notice that our text begins with the word, “Therefore” and so as Mike Cope used to preach, when we see therefore we should stop and ask, “What is that there for?” So, leading up Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin was this…
Matthew 12:22 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.
When the Pharisees heard it they decided that this could not be the work of the Holy Spirit but the work of the prince of demons. This is a striking judgment…one that is motivated by their need for power and control, enticed by their religious superiority, walled in from any experience of the divine that was outside their theological boundaries. The question that was raised by the people who saw the miracle was asking if Jesus was the Messiah or Son of David…and the Pharisees do not speak against Jesus, but against the power, or empowering force, that makes the miracle possible. Jesus sees into their thoughts and motivations, and provides a lecture correcting their terrible logic and even worse understanding of the spiritual world. Then comes the hammer…
Jesus essentially says, “It is one thing to question who I am and to make claims about my validity…but when you question the very working of God, that being the Holy Spirit, and judge God’s action to be something else, you make an eternal mistake.” It makes you wonder who would have that type of arrogance? Who would place themselves as judge over the actions of God? Well, the Pharisees would…that’s who and that is why Jesus speaks so harshly to them. You see, the unforgivable sin is not the one time rejection of Jesus, because as long as there is breath in our lungs, we can choose to come to Christ. Speaking against Christ was not the issue here, but the issue was making oneself the judge over the Son of God’s action, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The thing that is clear to me is that the unforgivable sin is not something that the faithless commit…because they are ignorant. I’m not suggesting they don’t sin, I’m simply suggesting that the Bible and Jesus do not argue that the lost, or those outside of Christ, act in a way that is beyond the forgiveness of God. Therefore I must also conclude that God forgives many of the sins that some of our more conservative thinkers might see as a challenge to the church's purity. So, who does? Well, whether it is this passage or the warnings in the book of Hebrews and elsewhere, it is the religious person whose righteousness is prized over the Lord God to the point that they become the judge of whether or not God is acting or working in a particular case…those are the ones most at risk of committing the unforgivable sin.
It seems that those who are empowered by the Holy Spirit and in Christ Jesus should be able to see God at work as discern it correctly. And yes, sometimes we miss it due to distraction or apathy or a myriad of other reasons. But that is not the same as a blatant condemnation of something God is doing among us that doesn’t fit our theology or our experience of religion. Let’s be cautious not to misrepresent the one who has been given as a gift to us empowering the work of God in our time, in our world.
In the writing of Zephaniah, there is a recurring theme of the “Day of the Lord.” Two points to be made about this “Day of the Lord” is, first, the prophets use it to point us to a particular moment in which the Lord’s intended order of things will replace the brokenness and corruption we know and live currently. Second, there may be several “Days of the Lord” before the grand and never changing “Day of the Lord” in which God’s justice and will correct a piece of the whole, but not the entirety of the world.
Zephaniah displays this in his oracles against nations and cities, using flood and fire language to talk about wiping them out and leaving them desolate for their arrogance and complacency. In fact, one line that stood out to me was from 1:12 which reads:
“I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem’s darkest corners
to punish those who sit complacent in their sins.
They think the Lord will do nothing to them,
either good or bad."
In the midst of this alarming and terrible imagery, there seems to always be a way out of the judgment that is eminent. For example, Zephaniah, shares this with the people at the beginning of chapter 2:1-3
Gather together—yes, gather together,
you shameless nation.
Gather before judgment begins,
before your time to repent is blown away like chaff.
Act now, before the fierce fury of the Lord falls
and the terrible day of the Lord’s anger begins.
Seek the Lord, all who are humble,
and follow his commands.
Seek to do what is right
and to live humbly.
Perhaps even yet the Lord will protect you--
protect you from his anger on that day of destruction.
One of the aspects that we must face in thinking about the “Day of the Lord” is the fact that God has feelings and the “Day of the Lord” is prompted by God’s pain and anger that peoples have not responded to God’s actions in their lives…God’s care and protection and victories have gone unappreciated. God speaks in Zephaniah 3:7 and listen to his words, you may even begin to sense the pain that God is feeling here:
I thought, ‘Surely they will have reverence for me now!
Surely they will listen to my warnings.
Then I won’t need to strike again,
destroying their homes.’
But no, they get up early
to continue their evil deeds.
I like the ESV that ends this verse by asserting: “But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.” So God has poured out his love, protection, and in the law a guide to help humans live a righteous life, and in return their actions have prompted this “Day of the Lord”
Yet, in the end we cannot simply see the “Day of the Lord” as purely negative, and we must flip the metaphorical coin over on the other side and see this event as a stoppage to the broken world and as a world that truly is full of God’s order. Some the verses in Zephaniah 3 speak to this order:
9 “Then I will purify the speech of all people,
so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
11 On that day you will no longer need to be ashamed,
for you will no longer be rebels against me.
I will remove all proud and arrogant people from among you.
There will be no more haughtiness on my holy mountain.
12 Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
17 For the Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”
20 On that day I will gather you together
and bring you home again.
I will give you a good name, a name of distinction,
among all the nations of the earth,
as I restore your fortunes before their very eyes.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”
Yes, the “Day of the Lord” has a positive side, it is the world we long for and one that can only happen through the purifying work of the Lord. Which brings us to the notion that there are several “Days of the Lord” before we get to the ultimate and full “Day of the Lord” Every time we are called to deeper faith, greater service, purer hearts, and truthful speech, we are experiencing a “Day of the Lord” that is preparing us for the “Day of the Lord.” If we choose to obey and not rebel, then the “Day of the Lord” is not something to be feared and dreaded, but something to be celebrated and enjoyed. Lord, help us to hear your word, obey your will, and wait for your Day to come!
Something came along my news feed the other day proclaiming that Matthew 18:20 is one of five of the most misused verses in the New Testament by ministers. Yet, I’m not sure my father misused the passage given his particular bent that if the Bible says, and I believe it, than that settles it. Also, this verse was used as an encouragement for many evening services in which a majority of the congregation would choose not to congregate. It reads this way:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them.
It is the anthem of small church gatherings everywhere. This verse out of the Gospel reminds us that the size of the gathering doesn’t matter, and that Christ is indeed with his followers regardless of the number. However, to truly read the Bible as God’s Word and strive to take it seriously, we must consider the context of Jesus’ saying here. I other words, does this verse truly apply to evening services of the church in which only a few choose to attend?
To answer this question, we must expand our quotation to the entire passage that is broken out as a paragraph for us by those who have translated and put together our bibles. Therefore, we will look at Matthew 18:15-20:
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. 19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Immediately, we should see that this instruction from Matthew really has very little to do with church events, and much more to do with church community…that is relationships among believers. It starts off…”If another believer sins against you…” and then proceeds to lay out a plan of action. We will get to the plan in a minute, but what needs to be stressed is that when a plan of action is carried out, there will be believers who will not agree with the action taken. Yet, Jesus makes a really strong statement that we must not only understand, but use it as a barometer for what is appropriate and godly for believers to engage in. Jesus says that there is a direct correlation between what is permitted and forbidden in the church, and what is permitted and forbidden in heaven. Jesus clarifies that with a serious, “I tell you the truth.” The encouragement comes to those who are trying to restore the person back to the congregation…Jesus tells them that once these steps have been taken and there has been pain, prayer, and pastoring; The end result may or may not be to the liking of the group, but Jesus is there among them.
So when times get rough and people hurt each other and it makes an impact on the church, Jesus is there is the agreement and efforts of those who have come together to help a believer in Jesus live the Christian, or heavenly Kingdom, life. Now, As far as we have come, there is a message of grace to the leaders of the church and the victims of the offense…Jesus is there with them. One of the things that must be stressed is that that dignity and harmony of the church is prioritized over the individual in sin. Jesus message is clear, persons fall into sin, but the church must be a community that confronts sin and loves these persons back to the life of righteousness. With that point made, there is a message of grace for those who would be the offender in this scenario.
If you have sinned against a fellow believer, that believer is not given license to gossip or spread information about you…that person is to come to you and tell you what has happened. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, then they gather some of your friends to talk with you regarding the sin, notice that these friends serve as witnesses and not a firing squad. They listen to both sides of the dispute and provide counsel as to how this might be resolved. If that fails, then the whole church gathers to hear the dispute and if the matter is still unresolved, then someone could get removed from the community of believers because the last thing the church wants is a sinner who is unwilling to confess and humble themselves in the guidance and protection of the church. So, the message of grace is twofold in this plan of action; first, a person who has a problem with you is never grounds for your dismissal from the church because of arbitrary drama or hasty reaction and second, at any point there is a confession of sin then the matter is resolved because that is what Jesus asks of us is to simply own our sin.
You can imagine that those who are caught up in the middle of such disputes will question there actions and even begin to wonder about there prayers…because relationships in the church are sticky at times, and even brothers and sisters can have deep seated anger and resentment. That is why Jesus reminds those in the thick of things that He is there with them and that in their agreement they will find a pathway back to the Kingdom of God…a place where every citizen belongs, and a place that deserves our best efforts to be peacefully in community with each other.
So while I do not think that this verse applied directly to the small church crowds and should not be used as a slogan for a church group who is small thinking that they are doing the right thing by hosting small numbers. Jesus is in the large numbers too… I do think that this can be an encouragement for those who are motivated to help others in their discipleship, especially within a culture that puts much more emphasis on individual fulfillment than it does community engagement. The Kingdom of God is a church community, not an idealized individual progress plan. That can be found in other religions, but not the one Christ died for…Christ died for a group, not so he would be fulfilled, but so we together might find fulfillment through him in having a true and real relationship with God. So, where a few gather in the name of Jesus, God is present!
I’m not sure if you believe in omens or signs, but you will at least get a laugh out of this one. Yesterday morning I woke up and I have been having some stiffness in my right ankle. As a result, I tend to grab both handrails and gently lower myself down the stairs each morning to make coffee and try to wake up. I managed about five steps before my left foot slipped off and I found myself laying at the bottom of our staircase with a sore little toe on my left foot.
There I was, on the floor, and all I could do is laugh at myself, get up, and wonder what in the world would happen during this week…because when you fall down the stairs on Monday morning, it can’t be a good sign! (about a half hour later I hear the thud, thud, thud, sound again and my daughter yells, “I’m OK.” on Monday, my family had a 50% chance of falling down the steps…we were 2 for 4 that morning—Not Good!
Now, that was a funny story, but the Advent reading from Isaiah 7:10-16 is in the middle of a very serious political landscape. I will not take the time to go into detail here, because if you can navigate to this page on a computer then I am sure you can look up the background of this text explained by far smarter persons than yours truly. However, one point is necessary here. Ahaz, the King of Judah (the southern portion of a divided Kingdom), has trusted other kings and given his allegiance to the Assyrian king meaning that Ahaz has not trusted God or sought God’s guidance as Judah was being threatened by Israel (the northern portion of a divided Kingdom) and Aram. Yet, God offers Ahaz a sign to help him in his distress, and well…here’s the way Isaiah tells the story…
10 Later, the LORD sent this message to King Ahaz: 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.” 12 But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the LORD like that.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Listen well, you royal family of David! Isn’t it enough to exhaust human patience? Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? 14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). 15 By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt (more like curds or butter) and honey. 16 For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted.
For Ahaz, this is a bittersweet sign from God. We connect to the first part in that the birth of Immanuel means that God will continue to be with the people and God has not forsaken them even in the midst of Ahaz poor decisions. This child is the hope of the future of the Kingdom (Judah) for sure. However, Isaiah also indicates here and later in chapter 8:1-4 that Assyria will be violent with Ahaz and Judah, and this happening is God’s judgment against them.
Immanuel, God with us, such a reassuring image in that the virgin will conceive and bear a son who bears that name. This passage is a Messianic prophecy, that is it points us toward Jesus and is picked up in Mathew 1:22-23 because there is a connection between this image and the image of Mary as virgin conceiving and bearing Immanuel. It is a beautiful image, but we must not forget the continuing image of Messiah through the book of Revelation in which Jesus is portrayed as the king whose return we long for, coming in full apocalyptic glory, as both judge and savior. At this time, we are invited to hope, pray, and long for this revelation—but also to evaluate our faithfulness and allegiances and make sure that we are ready for such an event.
In the book of Esther, I can’t help but take notice of Haman’s wholehearted narcissism I mean, the guy really does love himself, his accomplishments, and as a reader…we just know that something terrible is going to happen to this guy. Let me give you two instances in which we see Haman enjoying…well…himself. After coming home from the banquet with Esther, Haman gathers his family and friends together to share his experience with them:
5:10b Then Haman gathered together his friends and Zeresh, his wife, 11 and boasted to them about his great wealth and his many children. He bragged about the honors the king had given him and how he had been promoted over all the other nobles and officials.12 Then Haman added, “And that’s not all! Queen Esther invited only me and the king himself to the banquet she prepared for us. And she has invited me to dine with her and the king again tomorrow!”
Of course, his experience is not as happy and as self-aggrandizing as it could have been because Haman saw Mordecai on the way home and his presence was enough to stir up hatred in Haman. Yet, Haman has another opportunity when the king asks him how to honor a person who deserves the king’s acknowledgment. Haman’s response is self focused.
6:6b Haman thought to himself, “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?” 7 So he replied, “If the king wishes to honor someone, 8 he should bring out one of the king’s own royal robes, as well as a horse that the king himself has ridden—one with a royal emblem on its head. 9 Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials. And let him see that the man whom the king wishes to honor is dressed in the king’s robes and led through the city square on the king’s horse. Have the official shout as they go, ‘This is what the king does for someone he wishes to honor!’”
The person to be honored was Mordecai, and the person to carry out the honor was Haman. This was not the way Haman wanted to spend his time, to say the least! Hamas will meet his demise at the end of chapter 7, but what I noticed is that there is not much sympathy for Haman, both in the text of scripture and in my reaction to the story.
As I hear the story unfold, and Haman’s death by the very devise he set up to kill Mordecai, I hear scriptures that warn about “unrighteous gain” and “scheming” and “not being boastful” and the list goes on and on. While Mordecai is crying out to God and doing the right things quietly, without honor (until the King can’t sleep that one night), Haman is loud, boastful, and conniving. So, justice comes…and we the readers of the book are relived to some extent because we agree with the king that Mordecai deserves honor and Haman deserves punishment.
Esther calls Haman, “wicked Haman” as she names him as an adversary and enemy. The story leaves little doubt that Haman really did love himself to death. Sometimes it isn’t as blatant as in this story, but the Bible warns us against this type of self-focus, self-love, and self-aggrandizement. I long for the day that all Hamans are brought to justice and all the Mordecais are honored…but first let me make sure I have put to death he Haman-like attitudes in my life!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.