The tension in today’s message is whether we are oriented to the crowd or to the cross.
Fear of the crowd is a false treasure. It may bring comfort for a time to win the stingy applause of men, but as any celebrity will tell you, the same crowd that gives a standing ovation one moment will turn its back as soon as they find some other soul even more eager to be manipulated.
No one is easier to manipulate than a hungry performer, by the way. Driven to feed our insecurities by pleasing whatever crowd we can attract, the entertainer in us will do whatever it takes, no matter how disturbing or degrading, to capture that crowd’s flitting attention. But the crowd is insatiable, never satisfied, and always hungry for more. No one can hold its attention for more than a few breaths.
The crowd merely wants to consume the flesh of its entertainers. Stars and starlets are paraded on a red carpet like a meal; dined on caviar and champagne like a yearling fattened for the kill. The two-star diner of celebrity is not kind to it’s daily specials. There is always a new the soup of the day.
Lest you mistake me for blaspheming Hollywood alone, I would like to remind you that the church is not immune from such indecent proclivities. In fact, we were refining the rules of this game centuries before the first silver screen was erected in one of our meeting halls. We pastors are constantly beset with the temptation to play to the crowd, to be clever and catchy in order to procure the favor of itching ears. Too many of us have secured the false treasure of man’s approval at the expense of heeding the Holy Spirit. We have too often turned the stone of truth into puff-pastry to please your ears’ belly. Meanwhile Christ says that “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” – even those tough words that are as hard as a rock.
Yet the false treasure of crowd-worship extends beyond the walls of the church. Each of us in our daily lives, whether at work, or school, or home, is constantly drawn to the false treasure of pleasing our peers and our loved ones in order to somehow earn their fleeting applause. I have known more than one husband, more than one wife, who has uttered these desperate words of surrender to a demanding spouse: “I give up. What do you want me to be?” These are not words of faith, but fear. Words like these may keep the peace, but that does not equate to victory. When we surrender to the whims of our own crowds we lose everything, even who we are.
So the question Jesus lays before us today is this: Will we invest our lives in the pursuit of the false treasure of human applause, or will we instead seek the lasting treasure of God’s approval? To put it another way, will we serve the crowd or the cross? The crowd is incapable of loving us, while the cross is the unshakable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s love for us, a love with no strings attached and no manipulation in play.
Let’s look at what Jesus says.
In today’s scripture, in verses 8 and 9, He says:
“Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”
In the verses just before this, Jesus is concerned with hypocrisy – particularly the hypocrisy of religious people. He takes direct aim at those who have something to prove by putting on religious airs like a costume. Hypocrisy is deception: an attempt to deceive the crowd into thinking we are more spiritually-oriented than we really are by piling on religious talk without adopting a holy walk.
But in today’s words from Jesus we see deception from another angle - denial, which is functionally the opposite of hypocrisy. If hypocrisy is pretending to be something we are not, denial is pretending not to be something we are.
Hypocrisy dresses a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while denial dresses a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The behavior is different, but both hypocrisy and denial are deception; false pretense – living a lie. Whether that deception manifests itself as hypocrisy or denial, the motive is still the same: to earn the false treasure of the crowd’s approval. The only difference is the side of the audience we play to; hypocrisy plays to win the favor of worldly decent people, while denial plays to win the favor of worldly rebellious people. In the end, of course, only One person’s favor matters – the proprietor of the house; the Holy Spirit.
Let us not be taken by the bait of false promises of false treasure of a world in love with falsehood. Let us fix our eyes on real treasure, the unstipulated love of God demonstrated in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us surrender all deceptive costumes – wool, wolf, or otherwise – at the foot of the cross.
Let’s move on to one of the most problematic sayings of Jesus in all the Bible: the unpardonable sin.
Jesus says that all sins can be forgiven, even speaking a word against the Son of Man. But one sin cannot be forgiven, and that is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The context of this teaching in Matthew, Mark and Luke, is the fact that Jesus was accused of healing people by the power of Beelzebub. This is the blasphemy our Lord speaks of here – to not only deny the work of God, but to attribute what is good to what is evil. In other words, it is blasphemy to attribute the good work of God to the power of Satan – to call God, in essence evil.
But there is more to it than that. First is the problem with the text, where Jesus says speaking a word against “the Son of Man” can be forgiven, but blaspheming the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven. The problem Christians have is this: we believe in the Trinity, God in three persons. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are, in our belief, one. So speaking a word against the Jesus is speaking a word against the Holy Spirit. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is, by nature of reason and logic, the same as speaking a word against Jesus. How can one be forgiven and the other not?
Bible commentators throughout the centuries have offered several explanations. Perhaps the most tempting one, because it is so simple and attested to by some of the earliest church fathers (see Pseudo-Clement’s notes on this verse in the ACCS), is that it might simply be that when Jesus says “son of man” here, He is not referring to Himself, but to human beings in general. There were no capital letter in Ancient Greek, so we don’t know. That approach resolves the issue cleanly, and even reinforces the main idea of this whole section, which is the tension between pleasing our fellow man and pleasing God.
However, that argument isn’t completely compelling, because Jesus very often referred to Himself using that Messianic title, “Son of Man”, especially here in Luke’s gospel. It seems like a bit of a stretch to conclude that He is not referring to Himself, but to humanity in general here. Moreover, there seems to be a subtle difference in “speaking a word against” and outright “blasphemy”, and perhaps it is the difference in action, and not the difference in the object, that is where the difference lies between forgivable and unforgivable.
After all, everyone comes to Jesus at first with some doubts, in effect speaking more than just a word against Him. In fact, some of the strongest proponents of Jesus started from a position of skepticism about His bold claims. One thinks of CS Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel, who all admitted that they came to deep faith in Christ after setting out to disprove Him. Surely they were forgiven for their earlier words spoken against the Son of Man.
So then, what is the difference between healthy skepticism and blasphemy? Why would Jesus say that one could be forgiven and the other not?
First, we have to keep in mind that the way of Christ is at it’s very core the way of forgiveness. God’s grace is sufficient for all of us, and for all of our sins. When Jesus died on the cross, there wasn’t any sin He did not provide the power to forgive. The fact that some sins remain unforgiven has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with us and our refusal to accept His forgiveness. CAN every sin be forgiven? Absolutely and without question. WILL every sin be forgiven? That depends on you – will you receive forgiveness or reject it? God will not force it on you. He has offered forgiveness to all, but not all can muster the humility it takes to accept such a glorious gift.
I like the way one of the commentators I read explained this unpardonable sin. George R. Bliss says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is simply “incorrigible stubbornness of unbelief.” And without belief, forgiveness remains out of reach.
Ken Heer, in his Commentary on Luke in the Wesleyan Tradition, says that, “The work of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin, convince us of truth, connect us with Christ’s atonement, and confirm our relationship with God (John 16:8–13).”
If that is the case, the blaspheming that Jesus talks about here comes into laser focus:
As long as we deny the Spirit’s conviction, we cannot be forgiven.
As long as we shut our ears to the Spirit’s convincing truth, we cannot comprehend forgiveness.
As long as we refuse the Spirit’s drawing us into connection with the atonement of Christ, we cannot know forgiveness.
And as long as we refuse to allow the Spirit to confirm our relationship with God, we can have no relationship with Him.
The unpardonable sin is to refuse pardon. The unforgivable sin is to push forgiveness away.
God has set rules of play in order, especially when it comes to our freedom to choose life or death. The Holy Spirit will not compel someone who will not be compelled. We cannot at the same time choose to lock ourselves in darkness and still enjoy the light of day.
The Holy Spirit is pro-choice, but not in the way meant by politicians. He graciously allows us to choose for ourselves whom we will will serve, either Him, or the crowd. But we cannot have two masters. We simply must not fool ourselves into thinking we can have both. We cannot at the same time fear the crowd and walk in Holy Spirit. We must choose one master. And if we crown the crowd, we have chosen our position of no pardon.
Of course, even unbelief can be forgiven, but only when we choose to believe. Let us not blaspheme the Spirit by refusing to heed His truth that convicts, convinces, connects, and confirms our forgiveness.
Finally, Jesus finishes with a word of comfort and warning to those who will face persecution as they walk in the Spirit. Each disciple present when Jesus spoke these words would learn this lesson well.
Who among us doesn’t get nervous when called to stand in front of the crowd and give a testimony? The crowd is intimidating, to be sure, and Jesus knew we would be tempted to say what the crowd wants to hear instead of the truth He whispers in our ears.
For my fellow partners in procrastination – we know who we are – I want to point out something important: Jesus doesn’t forbid preparation, but worry. Some have abused this passage, taking it to mean we don’t need to do our homework or prepare for life’s tests. That’s not what it says. It says “don’t worry”, not “don’t prepare”.
And the only preparation that truly matters is to walk in the Spirit.
In that hour, when we are called to testify to God’s Love, either before Caesar’s firing squad or over tea with a grieving neighbor, the only preparation that matters are the quiet hours we have spent listening to the Spirit, learning His voice, and walking with Him. Walk in the Spirit, and all else is settled. Jesus does not forbid preparation, but he reminds us that all the preparation in the world is for naught if we do not do the most important work of walking in the Spirit.
When we walk in the Spirit each day, our whole lives are preparation, and we are always ready to give an answer for the hope that we have.
Today, as He speaks to you - and He does speak to you! - listen to His voice. Learn to single out the Holy Spirit’s applause against the hoots of the crowd. And may our lives be lived in tune with the sound of His voice above all else. Then we will be able to test and approve His good, pleasing and perfect will. Then we will live oriented, not to the wavering of the crowd but the wonder of the cross.