Try your hand at this Pew Research Center quiz entitled U.S. Religious Knowledge. It should be fairly easy, but let’s see. Leave your score in the comments.
What is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Why is it unpardonable? And is it possible for you and me to be guilty of it? Let’s discuss important details of Matthew 12:22-31.
After Jesus heals a blind and mute man by driving out a demon, the Pharisees scoff that he could perform such wonders only because he himself is possessed by Satan. This is the context of the idea: the works of Jesus attributed to Satan. What is revealing is the religious leaders never deny the extraordinary things Jesus does. His signs and wonders were real; even in the Talmud Jesus is called a “sorcerer,” a charge contributing to his execution. Yet the religious establishment considered his teaching and works to be a threat to traditional Jewish practice.
Jesus states, “Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man will be forgiven” (v. 32). There was nothing blasphemous about misunderstanding Jesus, or bad-mouthing or thinking evil of him. Otherwise, the disciples were in trouble and Saul of Tarsus would have never been saved. Being the eccentric figure he was, Jesus seized the attention of everyone and forced them to make a decision about his claims. As it turned out, he convinced many but just as many proved to be loyalists to the Establishment.
The attitude of the scribes and Pharisees is what Jesus challenges. A person today can mock and deride God and not approach the blasphemy concept due to their ignorance, misconceptions, and other. Paul testifies to this in 1 Tim. 1:13: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Yet that person would be closer to the sin should their attitude be malicious and evil, which is the case with the religious leaders.
The attitude of the heart is key. Jesus says something poignant regarding this: “But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you” (v. 28). Jesus wasn’t concerned about people speaking against him; the concern was speaking against the agency by which he worked, the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew everyone wasn’t convinced about him. So he allows them the right to make up their minds, yet he implores their trust simply on the character of the works he did (John 10:37-38; 14:10-11). Based on this, there was no reason not to believe in him.
Let’s summarize this scenario. The religious leaders witnessed the miracles of Jesus up close like others did. Many of them talked with Jesus publicly and privately; they even shared meals with him. Yet the relationship was largely adversarial because Jesus threatened their political hold on Judea. Consequently, they despised him and lied on him and murderously plotted against him. And despite knowing in their hearts that Jesus did good things that were indeed from God, they reviled him and attributed his miracles to Satan.
Blasphemy against the Spirit is not possible today in the context in which Jesus spoke. We cannot attribute Jesus’s works to Satan in the firsthand way an observer of his earthly ministry did. The seriousness of the offense was that those who beheld the works of Jesus and chose to slander them discredited Jesus as Messiah; and he deemed it unforgivable. Why? Because the “Spirit of the Lord” was upon him (Luke 4:18) for that moment in time. One might reject Jesus today and die eternally but not blaspheme the Spirit the way a first-century onlooker could have.
Peter is as real as it gets in the Bible. He is the combination of a gritty human earthiness and wide-eyed love for Christ. I could write a small book on the lessons he teaches me; for now I’ll settle for a significant moment between him and Jesus.
All of You
Having just eaten their last meal with Jesus, the disciples clash about who might be the greatest among them. Jesus interposes and redefines greatness based on service. Then, he addresses Peter in a telling way that settles the matter about his spiritual eminence among the disciples.
31 Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren. (Luke 22:31-32, NKJV)
We don’t notice why these verses are more significant than how we usually read them unless we study them closely. The word “you” in verse 31 is plural and would be a second-person plural pronoun in English, as in “you (all)”; however, “you” is singular in verse 32. Reread it; the interpretational revision is striking. Some versions, like the NIV and NLT, properly reflect this.
Thus, addressing Peter, the most seasoned disciple in age and piety, Jesus explains that Satan had plans to destroy the faith of all the disciples. Then, based on his foreknowledge of Peter’s disgrace (vs. 33-34), he directly challenges Peter—“when you are restored…” He charges Peter with a responsibility for the rest of the disciples.
Satan’s maneuvers had not been limited to Judas; and noticing in Peter some proneness to fall, he demanded him of Jesus, like with Job. If Satan could get the one disciple with the most gleaming faith, he could ruin the whole band. After all, Peter was the one who dared walk on water; the one who confessed the deity of Christ; and the one who jetted from his boat and swam ashore to the resurrected Jesus.
A Charge to Keep
There are many lessons these verses offer, but I’ll select only three.
- We should see worth in people despite their failings. Jesus goes on to tell Peter in no uncertain terms that he would deny him. Yet he had just implied that Peter’s faith wouldn’t be shattered. Just because people fall into sin or commit a serious offense or crime doesn’t mean they should be written-off. They still bear tremendous value, even greatness. But it will never be realized if after carrying the weight of their misdeed, we gracelessly finish them off.
- We should pray for those with influence. We know that we should pray for officials and titled leadership. But we should also strategically pray for the salvation of those with significant influence on the minds of others—key business people, celebrities, professors, drug dealers, gang leaders, well-liked family and friends. How many have been saved because Saul became Paul? We thank God that C.S. Lewis didn’t remain an atheist. I think you get the point.
- Our failures should make us empathetic enough to help others. What we learn about God and ourselves through failing becomes our ministry to others. In other accounts of this very conversation, Jesus tells the disciples that they all would desert him; however, Peter would dissociate himself entirely from Jesus to save himself. Out of that sore experience—because it hurt Peter to his heart—he was to rebuild the faith of his brothers. The Book of Acts and legend of Peter’s death prove that he did.
I’d like to introduce you to Jordan Palser, a former college wingmate of mine who now serves as International Humanitarian Manager with Orphan’s Promise. (Photos by Jordan Palser)
Jordan, what is Orphan’s Promise and what is your role there?
Orphan’s Promise is a global orphan care ministry founded by Terry Meeuwsen and birthed out of her personal life and family. We advocate adoption awareness, foster care, family, and more. For eight years we have worked in over 60 countries; and we currently work in over 50 countries and impact more than 100,000 children annually. Our mission comes from Jesus’ promise in John 14:18: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
After serving in the humanitarian field for nine years, I joined Orphan’s Promise a year ago to help our partners in several countries. I’ve spent much time assisting with projects in Africa. In a Joseph-like situation, however, the Lord has once again required my humanitarian experience for the benefit of Orphan’s Promise’s endeavors.
What types of events or crises determine Orphan’s Promise’s mobilization?
Orphan’s Promise supports organizations, missionaries, and churches that are working to reach orphans and vulnerable children, as well as families, in their communities. We assure them that they will be able to continue their work with further provision. We believe in empowering others to do what they are already doing well.
Where in the world have you traveled?
I had only been to Latin American countries in my previous work. Since joining Orphan’s Promise I’ve visited seven countries on three other continents: Thailand, Ukraine, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Kenya, and South Africa. During those times I’ve been able to observe culture and travel within countries more than the average tourist. The things my eyes have seen have been both incredible and life-changing.
What type of risk is involved? Have you ever faced real danger?
I have been fortunate to have not faced real danger; however, there have been some travels that required caution. Last year I traveled with colleagues to Nigeria at the end of the Islamic month of Ramadan. We prayed together before leaving the States and throughout our time there. Recently, I was in rural Kenya and our partner was a pastor who had to hire an armed guard to ride with us from the airport for the two-hour drive to his town.
What is something the average Christian layperson should know about this type of mission work? What can you tell us to dispel the myth of the luxury of doing missions?
Some governments are trying to reduce or eliminate orphanages in their countries; and some organizations and ministries are striving to provide other solutions for taking care of children. Institutional care may be an option for shelter, but it’s not always the best long-term solution.
International travel always sounds glamorous because there are some beautiful places, even in third-world and developing countries. But there is much more that people don’t realize. There are physical, emotional, and spiritual issues to deal with that Americans don’t think about regularly.
Tell us about a moment when you were completely broken by something you observed.
I expected poverty in Asia and Africa, and I saw it in most places. But it was a day in western Ukraine when we visited a gypsy village that caught me by surprise. I will never forget it. A single mother and her family had been kicked out of their home; the children had been left alone by an alcoholic father. The kids were dirty and only God knew how long it had been since their last meal. It was a sobering realization about children’s needs in many of these places.
How does your study of the scriptures and missions work enhance each another?
Working for a Christian organization can easily become routine. The Word and prayer are not just helpful; they are essential. Psalm 23 says, “The Lord refreshes our soul; He comforts us; and He guides our path.” It is so important in ministry and humanitarian work to not allow things to become casual. I view this path as a calling. God has called us in different ways according to how he designed us. I am passionate about missions and sharing what I do because God commanded us to help the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widow (Isaiah 1:17).
What is the most amazing thing you’ve witnessed God do or orchestrate?
The best thing I’ve witnessed is the smiles of all the children and people I have met simply in visiting them! The expressions on their faces are priceless and unforgettable. To be a vessel of God’s love, hope, and peace—that is a humbling gift (John 14:27).
How can people learn more about Orphan’s Promise and support it?
So glad you asked this question! We just updated our website: OrphansPromise.org. There is as much information as you have time for there. Also, there are social media links with updates and video stories. We would appreciate you following us!
What are two things people would be surprised to know about you?
First, it is an extraordinary privilege to serve children and people of the world. As a pastor’s son, I considered non-profit work for later in my life; and I had completely different career aspirations in college. Thankfully, God intervened. This has truly been a walk of faith for me for over ten years. I’ve learned the significance of obedience to God. His path is best.
Second, I got my first passport only a few years before my initial international experience on a church mission trip. I met missionaries growing up and wanted to visit some international cities; but I never had a compelling desire to go abroad until more recently.
What questions do you have for Jordan?
“If I had only listened…” Sometimes that’s the saddest statement to hear, especially when disease is involved. Men particularly have a tendency to avoid doctors and linger with health issues. It is crushing when I learn that so-and-so now has prostate cancer or some serious malady that probably wouldn’t be if precaution had been taken when the symptoms first surfaced.
In the final portion of the quote I’ve raised, Augustine uses bodily health to express the utility of pain:
But evils without pain are worse: for it is worse to rejoice iniquity than to bewail corruption…in a body, a wound with pain is better than painless putrescence.
My Painless Evil
“Health is wealth” is a worthy saying. I think all of us would trade riches for a well body. Yet when sickness does come, pain serves a real purpose for the body. Already we mentioned the idea of good and bad pain, bad pain stemming from a less than good or malicious source working against the good.
Augustine now suggests the notion of evil without pain, which is rich in a spiritual context but won’t be dealt with here except to advance his illustration. Doctors can quickly acknowledge the truth of this, and so can I.
I have hypertension, which I discovered in my 20’s. Interestingly, I was home from college on Christmas break and suffered a painful neck injury during horseplay. At that time of my life I was really fit and active; and although some family members dealt with hypertension, it made little sense to me that I should suffer with it. I was too young and doing the right things.
That “silent killer” was an evil without pain in my body. Yet Augustine posits that it is worse to go about dying unawares than to grieve over a bad diagnosis. After all, some people never discover their hypertension because it kills them first. I can be thankful that I learned of my condition.
The God Who Controls All
Instead, says Augustine, “a wound with pain is better” because one without it is too risky. Moreover, although the source of pain may not be good, the pain may be of immeasurable value, one reason Augustine refuses to classify it as evil. The (bad, evil) pain stemming from disease is an alert, which is a good thing; and we cannot deny that the body is designed to facilitate pain and other dangers our senses should indicate.
Certainly pain should be avoided if possible. I cannot believe that God created life with pain in his purpose for it. But although life allows for the possibility of it, pain does not exist without usefulness. Even the pain of the soul and relationships are critical indicators of complications to be healed.
Gratefully, God being sovereign has a design for all evil and pain and that only demonstrates his profound wisdom and glory.
It should give us great comfort that our personal pain is seen and felt by the Lord. It is never wasted of purpose. We cannot always perceive God’s purpose, but we can be sure that all our involvements hold purpose in his hands. This is also why he tells us to do good despite evil individuals and mistreatment. It’s because he backs the good; and as the landowner in Matthew 20:7 says, so declares the Lord—“Whatever is right, I will pay.”
The New Testament is correct in explaining that perseverance is born of faith. When we possess an assurance that God has a purpose and design with our most hateful experiences, we will endure them better.
“Rest becomes my only chore—and strangely what a chore it can be but to trust that God’s sovereignty and goodness work for my good.” (From I Have Ownership)
Previously we gathered from Augustine the idea that pain generally intrudes where conditions are prime. In his next words he delves deeper into the nature of pain:
But when a being is compelled to something better, the pain is useful, when to something worse, it is useless. Therefore in the case of the mind, the will resisting a greater power causes pain; in the case of the body, sensation resisting a more powerful body causes pain.
Augustine’s acumen here is to distance pain from being classed as something entirely evil. Instead, he implies that it takes on the character of its source. But before I deal with that, some perspective is in order.
Do All Things Bear Purpose?
We’ve already had it explained that nature and being is good because its Creator is good. But what is evil and sin? The biblical definition is plethora involving several words and concepts. Augustine offers the idea of a diminution or privation of goodness and the corruption of what is good (Ch. 4).
Since all things were created good—and evil is not a created thing—then less goodness, a lack of it, or its corruption are verily evil. Evil is always a potential with the existence of good the way darkness depends on the actuality of light.
A takeaway is the question of purpose. Years ago I watched a talk show and the question came up concerning autism—“Is there a purpose for everything, including disease?” Everyone nodded in agreement that there must be some purpose for it.
I couldn’t believe that based on what I knew of the scriptures. Disease (a natural evil as opposed to a moral one) holds no goodness, nor does it bear essential value. Regarding this in a post entitled “Help My Unbelief”, I wrote:
“I am not sure all things have purpose and moral value, and some things, like disease, may exist in a state of failed purpose…to assert that all things do indeed have purpose, from my Christian standpoint, may be leading to the justification of evil and sin’s existence in the world…although some things are mysterious and without apparent purpose, and perhaps consequently evil and used (by Satan) with evil intent, they can be used purposefully, but only if one possesses the power to cause it.”
Good Pain and Bad Pain
That last line lands us here, squarely in Augustine’s logic. If God doesn’t create evil, he certainly doesn’t create pain. That is not to equate the two, nor is it to say good things may not result from pain, like courage or charitableness.
“But when a being is compelled to something better, the pain is useful, when to something worse, it is useless.” Rather than calling pain evil, Augustine suggests a “symptomatic” approach whereby pain is the result of an opposition between good and less good entities. Pain can be good pain or bad pain.
A body festering with disease and racked with pain is bad pain. Killer germs seek to take control of a healthy body. The agony of running a marathon or weightlifting is good pain. Although the vigorous exercise causes the lungs and muscles to burn, it enhances the body’s overall health. The examples continue and nicely apply to spiritual things.
God, the Great Weaver
Now if we ended here, we’d have evil on the loose, a loophole with purpose, and many tough questions. But preceding all created good and ensuing evil is God, who is the Guarantor of all experiences, good and bad, for those who believe.
“Only God has the power to use all things in purpose,” I conclude—all sorrow, disappointment, disease, and loss, in a plan well beyond our comprehension. Augustine agrees (Ch. 37):
“If anyone should wish to misuse these good things, not even thus does he vanquish the will of God, who knows how to order righteously even the unrighteous…he through the righteousness of his power may use their evil deeds rightly.”