Back to series
[No audio on this one. Still getting back into the swing of things here, folks.]
Good morning, church. Please go with me, if you will, to Matthew, Chapter 12, and we’re going to start reading in v.22.
Usually to start off with, I would say something like, “we’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew,” and I would give you a summary of what we’ve talked about and all of that, but to be honest, series is a very strong word for what we’ve been doing. Phil was on point, way to go Phil, but we’ve had guest speakers taking us all over the place. What could possibly be the cause of all of this disruption you ask? This baby! To quote Anne Ridler, “Any birth makes an inconvenient demand, like all holy things.” She’s doing great—big news from this past week is that we were able to take out the ng tube, meaning she’s eating completely on her own. So I’m going to say we are re-starting our series through the book of Matthew today. In chapter twelve. Sorry.
Chapters 12 and thirteen are filled with parables and other teachings of Jesus. Jesus was and is many things, including the second person of the Trinity, but he is also a brilliant and rare teacher. Jesus usually taught with stories, which at the time was as unusual as it would be today. Most people in the classical era saw stories as old-fashioned, folksy, childish, and they would have meant all of that as an insult. They would have preferred moving rhetoric and logical syllogism—what we find in Paul’s writings. Jesus knew he was being old fashioned—he is in truth ancient. Jesus knew he was being folksy and childish, too, teaching through stories—Jesus just also thought being childish was a good thing in many ways, and he thought a lot of people needed to be reminded of many things they would have known and believed as a child, many things humanity knew in it’s own beginnings which we’ve since forgotten.
The passage for today is one I studied extensively in my school years. I took a class where we spent half the semester on a single passage, any passage we chose to translate, study, and write about. Word studies, textual variants—we went deep. For that class, I chose this passage, because, to be completely honest, I didn’t understand it one bit. Man, that feels good to say. Pastors rarely get to admit they don’t understand entire passages of the Bible. Imagine coming to church, you had to park four blocks away, and I get up here to preach and I say, “The thing about this passage is, I really don’t get it.” I sit back down. That wouldn’t work; it’s not something I usually get to do. But today, I can tell you, I did not understand it, so I spent half a semester on it.
So let’s read it, and as Meg said so beautifully two weeks ago, if Christ offends or confuses you in this as he did me, bear with the offense. Sit with the confusion a while. Don’t hide from your doubt—bring your doubt to Christ, instead, and see what beauty he makes of it. Matthew, chapter 12, starting in v.22. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
At its core, having studied it extensively, now I can tell you this passage is a passage about forgiveness and our need for it; how we always like to think we’re on the right side of things, but how in truth we are broken, sinful people who need a home. We have a choice to make this morning between being right or receiving mercy, between legalism and forgiveness.
At face value, though,—maybe even in the passage heading in your Bible, which those headings are neither inspired nor inerrant, they are an interpretation, so be careful with them—this passage appears to be teaching about an unforgivable sin, which is why I never understood it. Jesus forgives thieves, murderers, the greedy, people who abuse their power—but not people who blaspheme, very specifically, the Holy Spirit. What? Why is that his one thing?
It reminds me of a pastor, religious leader, we met when we lived in Boston who told me he believed all religions were true, and every person could forge their own route to God, but at the same time, anyone who ate meat was a murderer and deserving of hell. Real story. We met him on Craigslist, he sold us a dishwasher. But do you get what I’m saying? How does this passage make sense? Why is this one thing Jesus’ line in the sand? I just always felt like I must be missing something.
In this broader section, too, Jesus is teaching against the legalism of the Pharisees—so it baffled me why he would seemingly do the same thing they do. Legalism is making some mistakes seem so big, some sins so bad, that conveniently your mistakes don’t look so bad; focusing on one part of the law to the exclusion of the rest. Legalism is religion at its worst, religion at its most hurtful, and I’m sure many of us in the room have been hurt by it. It’s most lethal to those who engage in it, though, because if you never really touch on your own sin, you can never take hold of grace. You start to judge yourself and other people according to your law, drawing lines in the sand and demanding people get on the right side, when even you can’t always stay on the right side of all of your lines. Legalism devours lives with guilt, and creates loneliness as we become unwilling to confess and share each other’s burdens.
Hopefully you can see why I was so confused. This passage always seemed to clash with everything else I knew about Jesus. Paul says, “love forgives all things, hopes all things,” and Jesus is love. Jesus is always speaking truth the way a tree grows fruit, hoping that people will take the truth, imbibe it, and experience for themselves that the truth of God is both good and nourishing, able to satisfy our hunger, even to become part of who we are. And this passage tasted bitter to me.
Growing up, I was always taught, and I still believe—even more so now as a foster and adoptive father than ever before—once the Father adopts you into his family, he’ll never send you back, not of his own choice. My son could do or say literally anything, even if he disowns me—nothing will make me disown him. Even with the other kiddos we’ve cared for, they could and often did break every rule. There’s nothing they could have done for us to send them back. With God, no matter how far we run from him, even to the far side of the sea, even to Sheol, even there, his right hand will hold you fast.
Again, in truth, this is a passage about forgiveness, and our need for it. I hope we can learn this morning to reject legalism and accept forgiveness. You can probably tell, the more I talk about my childhood, as a child I struggled with forgiveness. When I made mistakes, when I sinned, I would beat myself up about it. And even though I would love to keep talking about this flaw in the past tense, I still do this. You’ve probably noticed, no matter how many times people tell me I’m doing well, or they say encouraging things to me, inwardly I struggle with feeling even acceptable in the things I do, much less worthy of any kind of complement. Maybe some of you are like me. You can forgive others easily enough, but it’s hard to believe you might also be forgiven, even for your sins. Even for your mistakes. What I’ve realized is, that kind of guilt is just legalism in another form.
It feels right to punish yourself, at first, but thinking you can deal with your sin like that on your own is selfish, and you can get locked in terrible cycles of guilt, leading to despair, leading to sin, leading to more guilt. Instead of self-righteous, you become self-loathing, but a legalist all the same. You’re still making some sins enormous and others not that bad—only the enormous sins are your own, and you’re minimizing the mistakes of others. That’s still not forgiveness, and you won’t help anyone by minimizing their sins. Our need is not to consider ourselves worse than others; our need is to walk together toward the grace and forgiveness of our Father. Our struggle today is to reject legalism and believe in forgiveness—which is exactly what Jesus is asking the Pharisees to do in our passage.
Our culture doesn’t help at all in this struggle to reject legalism and believe in forgiveness. In our world today, there’s almost always someone out there actively telling you that who you are and what you’ve done is unforgivable. This is ironic, because our culture is simultaneously constantly telling itself it has solved the problem of sin, mistakes, and regret. What we’ve really done is we’ve created a fake, plastic version of forgiveness called acceptance, or I’ve noticed church folks using the word like-mindedness, but it works the same way.
You find the right church or the right tribe where you won’t need to change anything about yourself or change what you’re doing. Instead of forgiveness, division; you just need to get away from those people who don’t accept you, even if those people deeply love you. Most people I’ve known who walk down the road of acceptance end up very alone by the end of it, because they get so far from forgiveness they can’t have any kind of deep, meaningful relationship at all. Seeking acceptance, they end up unable even to forgive themselves.
It’s always sad to see a person disappear like this, especially when you love them. They disappear because acceptance comes with such a high demand for conformity among the tribe willing to accept you that you can’t really sustain it without rejecting any form of true self-expression. In other words, you can be exactly who you are and express yourself in any way—so long as who you are is exactly what your community wants you to be and so long as you are expressing exactly what they want you to express. I hope we, as a church, can manage to remain unstained by the world in this. I deeply long to be a church who has learned to forgive rather than accept the people who come to us, a church both of healing and of change.
Jesus, in the passage, brings up exactly what I just brought up—the divisions in his culture. Micah did a great job of explaining last week the cultural and political landscape of the day. See if any of this sounds familiar: in Jesus’ day, there were two main parties, the sadducees were more secular and skeptical, willing to pander to align with the wealthy and powerful people who wanted to change the culture so long as they could share in the wealth and cultural elitism. The other party, the Pharisees, were more religious, but not in a good way, in like an angry, judgmental way, and they didn’t want to change anything about their culture. They resented the foreign rulers and any foreign people because they wanted their culture back to the way it was before Persia, Greece, and Rome came in the first place. Which means they wanted to go back to the way Israel was under the kings.
Jesus, in one phrase, brings all of this culture and history crashing into the conversation. V.25, “Every kingdom divided against itself will fall.” He’s talking to the Pharisees, the ones who wanted Israel to be like it was under the kings. But if you know anything about Israel under the kings, you know that after Solomon, the son of David, Israel was a divided kingdom, and that division essentially caused its downfall. The south refused to help the north when it came under attack because the two sides of the kingdom hated each other, so the North fell. But then, when the South came under attack, with the North already conquered, they had no one to call for help. Division literally caused the downfall of the kingdom which Jesus’s hearers idealize, and yet here they are in the present day encouraging political division again, and slandering the other side, even though the other side is also the people of God.
Jesus tells them, paraphrasing here, your sides are the wrong sides. Your sides are made up; they’re not real. This battle between Pharisees and Sadducees doesn’t matter in the least. Case in point, here we are nearly two-thousand years later, and I’m even having to explain to you what their sides were and what they wanted. We tend to lump them into one group, but in their day they were at each others throats, literally killing each other in their struggle. Jesus tells them, your sides aren’t real, but there is a real division in the world.
We’re studying Revelation on Wednesday nights right now, where seven is the most important number in the book and comes up over and over again. In the book of Matthew, the most significant number is the number two. Even though Matthew and Revelation are very different books, both books share two central themes. One of them is, the only true division in our world is between the kingdom of God on one side, and the kingdom of this world on the other side. Those are the real sides. Two kingdoms, two kings, two spirits.
The other central theme is, even though God’s reality is hidden and our own is overwhelmingly blatant, in truth our world is less real than God’s. Our world is a semblance, his is truth. He is the author of this world, and if God declares peace on earth, even as Herod declares death to all the children under his reign, the reality is, despite the way it seems, peace has come. If Jesus declares the poor are blessed, so they are. Even if a far-off emperor rules over all of the known world, in reality a crucified carpenter who loves you like a father is Lord.
This is why we always try to cast the divisions we make in terms of good and evil, why it’s never enough to say the other side is wrong—they have to be evil—why all of our movies and stories run along this theme. Because there is a story lying at the foundation of all of the narratives we weave, something we as humans know intuitively to be right and meaningful. There is a battle between good and evil, and we desperately need to know we’re on the right side.
The same truth needs to be spoken and heard in our day. Our sides are made up. There’s a reason the words we use to divide from each other in the church and in the culture keep changing meaning—words like liberal and conservative, woke and traditional, Calvinist and fundamentalist. As soon as you learn the ideology and values of the camp, everything changes, it collapses into us vs. them, and of course everything hangs on us winning. The reason the sides keep changing is, those sides aren’t real, not if you believe in the kingdom Jesus keeps talking about.
We’ve believed a lie in our day that national and church politics outweigh the people in our lives. So many are willing to fight and hurt the people in their lives to support a party or an ideology and be on the right side of history. But I’ll most likely be nowhere to be found in history a hundred years from now, and our church and national stages will be unrecognizable, as they are now from where I started even though I’m young. Jesus tells his hearers, your kids will judge those matters.
Listen: none of that will exist in eternity, but each and every person you meet will. Quoting Lewis: “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours the life of a nat.” The people in your life are all immortal, and either a part of the kingdom of God or part of this world. Those are the real sides. And if they are a part of this world, we need to do everything we can to invite them into the kingdom of God, to invite them to the right side of eternity.
The last thing about the passage we need to understand before we can understand Jesus’ comment about not forgiving blasphemy of the Spirit, is the significance of the comment the crowd makes: “Could this be the son of David?” Look at the difference between the crowd’s reaction and the reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus’ work. In one sense, son of David is a statement about Jesus’ messianic mission. He is the descendent of the line of David who has come to atone for us and to redeem us. There’s nothing more true. But the way they are saying it has some additional meaning.
The original son of David was Solomon. Solomon had a lot of lore built up around him, and if you’re looking for it, Solomon comes up a couple of times in the surrounding text. People said Solomon could heal any disease, even cast out demons. We know him as the wisest of Israel’s kings, and in that day wisdom was commonly associated with supernatural powers. There was even a religious cult in Jesus’ day called the sons of David who would go around and perform exorcisms. I also do this, as a side hustle. It’s more interesting than driving Uber.
So now we’re set for a healthy understanding of this passage. When Jesus casts out the demons who were torturing this man, literally gives him back his voice and his sight, the crowd is amazed and starts praising God for giving them a taste of what it was like to live in the time of kings and prophets. Then this tribe of religious and political leaders who literally have spent their whole lives trying to live in that exact era because they recognize God’s blessing in it, start badmouthing Jesus. That’s what the word blasphemy means, by the way, basically badmouthing.
In an honor/shame culture, like that of Jesus’ day, a person’s reputation was everything, so in publicly shaming, or blaspheming him, they’re trying to discredit him so people won’t listen to him anymore. They would have expected him to be furious over that, but Jesus tells them, I’m not so much worried about it. V.32, he says you can blaspheme me, you can give me a bad name, I forgive you. But then Jesus says, I am upset about this whole thing for a different reason, and he explains. I want you to change, in your mind, your understanding of Jesus’ tone and his whole disposition toward the pharisees here. Even though they had decided to oppose him politically, give him a bad name, that’s not his concern at all. He’s concerned that they’ve become lost to concerns of power, that they’ve traded their souls for the world, and he is lovingly trying to win them, not to the right side of history, but to the right side of eternity.
Again, just like there are two kingdoms in Matthew’s writings, there are also two spirits. You can be filled with the spirit of God or you can be filled with and guided by the spirits of this word. Just as Jesus set the mute man free from the spirits plaguing him, Jesus is trying to guide these pastors away from the spirit of their age, and I would argue the spirit of our age as well.
He’s trying to tell them, I don’t mind you shaming me, blaspheming me, but don’t go so far as to see the things I’m doing as evil. Don’t go so far as to separate yourself from the work of the Holy Spirit in the world around you. Don’t go so far as to take up the cause of the kingdom of this world. Because if you make yourself opposed to the Spirit of God in the world, the kingdom of God is against you. My Bible translates v.28 as the kingdom “is upon you,” but you could also translate it as the kingdom of God has come against you. He’s telling them, I’m not upset that you’re badmouthing me, but don’t come against the kingdom. Don’t look at a man who has received his sight and voice and say that’s an evil action just because it doesn’t help you politically.
Don’t entrench yourself against the work of God in the world, because then you can’t be a part of it. Don’t align yourself with the kingdom of this world, because Jesus can’t have any part in that. He can’t reconcile with that Spirit. Those are the real sides.
Reaching back into John’s writings, another way to phrase “blasphemy of the spirit” would be to say anti-Christ. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were positioning themselves, not just against Christ and his work in the world, but against everything God was trying to do in their time in place. They were too focused on their times, trying to bring Israel back to a day when God was moving powerfully that they couldn’t see God moving even more powerfully in their own day. Jesus is calling them to the right side of eternity.
The pharisees were so careful to follow every jot and tittle of the law, they were so painstaking in their pursuit of God that they had his word under a microscope, trying not to miss a thing. But, sadly, what they missed wasn’t something small, or distant. What they missed was so large and so close they couldn’t see it. Like how we all live and move on the earth, but rarely do we ever see it, rarely do we ever consider it in its enormity. It’s always there, always near, always upholding us, and for that reason we miss it. There’s a lot about life that’s like that. God is like that. He’s so close, and he’s so vast, that we don’t see him.
My invitation today is this: I know its easy to convince ourselves, if we’re church people, that we’re in the right about the way things should be. And here’s the thing I want you to notice: the Pharisees were right about God moving powerfully in David’s day, and that life under Roman rule was worse than that. You can be right about the way things should be and still miss the movement of God in the broken things and people around you today. You can be right about the way things should be and still wind up opposing the kingdom of God, itself.
“There are many people who will say to him, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not serve you and prophecy in your name who will not enter the kingdom of God.’” So I would invite you to be amazed, like the crowd, at the work of the Spirit of God in our midst. The people he’s saving, the unity he brings. Be amazed and recognize that we are ones who are in need of him today. Don’t be so busy being right that you forget that truth is not a position or opinion in Christianity. Truth is a person who is forgiving, people are eternal, and the Spirit of God is moving all around us.