I once had to put an alcoholic in the back of the car and drive him through to Aberdeen to get him dried out and weaned off the various substances he was on. Until he had gone into orbit he had been in church every Sunday and as I left him in the clinic in Aberdeen he said to me, I wracked my brains but could not think; he then told me the sermon was called ‘It is a Hard Road to Hell.’
I remembered it well; in this sermon I had outlined all that a man has to do to find himself in hell. He has to harden his heart and close his ears to the prayers of Christ Jesus ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ as the soldiers drove the nails into His flesh. He has to walk away from the Saviour who forgave Peter though Peter denied Him three times with curses. He had to say the thief crucified at Christ’s side and who sought Christ’s mercy was a fool. He has to reject the babe in the stable in Bethlehem. He has to resist the love and prayers of God’s people. It is a hard, lonely road to hell that becomes harder and lonlier with each step that is taken. But that is road the Pharisees who accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub were on.
Jesus had been exercising a very powerful ministry throughout the land and all that He was doing was making the people ask questions. Then one day something even more extraordinary than usual happened Jesus healed a a man who was demon possessed, and if that was not bad enough he was also blind and mute. So Jesus performed three miracles in this man’s life. To my knowledge I have never met anyone who was demon possessed; but I do remember James Philip saying once that when he was in the Army he was on a train in Egypt and when the train pulled into a station there on a platform was a boy that seemed more like an animal, a dog, than a human being. Unable to speak, unable to walk normally, deeply disturbed and agitated behaving in a sub human kind of way and he said he thought that that was the nearest he came to seeing someone who was demon possessed. Is that what demon possession is like? I do not know. All we can say is that this was deeply disturbed, tormented, in great anguish and behaving violently.
More than that this poor soul was blind and he could not speak; so he would stumble along not knowing where he was going making incoherent noises. This was as poor and lost a wretch as one would find anywhere, no more tortured soul has ever lived than this man.
Then Jesus healed him, the details of how Jesus healed him are not given; the fact of the matter is Jesus did and the people were astonished.
The word for astonished here is not the word for amazed or startled., the reaction to a wonder goal or some unbelievable magic trick it is a word that means awe leading to ask who can this possibly be that could do such a thing. Usually when someone does something pretty fantastic then people are awed for a moment and then the break into applause or into laughter. But the reaction of the people this time went beyond that; they were awed at what they had just seen with their own eyes this man who had barely been human moments before unable to speak, unable to see, was talking lucidly and marvelling at the colours and shapes he saw for the first time. But that moment of awe passed in an instant and they began who is this that is able to do such a thing?
The crowd, the ordinary people, at that moment made a great leap of faith; remember in the Bible faith is a response to the revelation of surpassing glory, and they thought Jesus must be the long awaited Son of David the one who would come to sit on David’s throne and bring in an age of new blessing and fulfilment for God’s people. Who else could it be? The prophets had performed odd miracles at odd times in Israel’s history but nothing as startling as this.
This is where faith begins when we are awed into silence by the wonder of who Jesus is.
The Pharisees are enraged when they hear the people talk in this way and their response is to say that it is by the power of Satan, Jesus is casting out demons.
This immediately sets before us the problem with miracles and answers to prayer; no matter how mighty and powerful the miracle no matter how dramatic the answer to prayer how do you know that God has actually done something? There is always another interpretation. Here within their culture the Pharisees put the casting out of demons down to the work of Satan; within our culture answer to prayer is usually dismissed as coincidence and there is no solution to the argument. When someone prays for something and that something occurs, the believer will see an answer to prayer; the sceptic will put it down to chance.
Here Jesus answers the Pharisees in three ways. The first is this if it is by the power of Satan Jesus is casting out these demons then in effect Satan has declared war upon himself and has begun to self-destruct! The implication is that the opposite is true since Jesus is destroying the works of Satan He must therefore be Satan’s sworn enemy.
Secondly Jesus asks by what power do the Pharisees seek to drive out demons? They cannot answer by the power of Beelzebub because would make them agents of evil, but if they drive out demons by the authority of Yahweh should they not come to the conclusion that Jesus is acting by the same authority. At this point Jesus speaks of His driving out demons by the Spirit of God.
Now this is fascinating. The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at His baptism and the Holy Spirit does this wonderful work throughout the ministry of Jesus of making Jesus ministry effective. When Peter testifies at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus observes, ‘Flesh and blood have not taught you these things but my Father in heaven.’ In other words it is the Spirit who has opened Peter’s eyes to the glory of Jesus. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of people being born again of the Spirit so when we see Jesus in the home of Zaccheus and Zaccheus turning away from a life of accumulation and exploitation and becoming large hearted and generous; we see the Holy Spirit at work. When Jesus teaches on the mountainside and the people hear exposition of a kind they have never heard before it is the Holy Spirit who is opening their minds to truth in all its beauty and wonder.
There is a wonderful verse in the book of Job that describes the Holy Spirit as the one who makes the skies beautiful. This is His role in our lives to bring beauty. So when Peter makes his beautiful confession it is the Holy Spirit’s making beautiful in Peter’s soul the words of Jesus. When Zaccheus opens His home to Jesus and his purse to the needy it is the Holy Spirit who is making Jesus teaching beautiful in his life. When a subhuman, demon-possessed, blind dumb man in full command of his sense sees the beauty of the hills and the skies for the first time it is the Holy Spirit bringing to a beautiful fulfilment the liberating health giving words of Jesus.
This is how we must understand the miracles, on their own they are meaningless but in the context of the whole ministry of Christ, in the context of the depth of His teaching and the amazing nature of His love and His prayers the miracles begin to make sense.
Jesus then having affirmed that He is the sworn enemy of evil and darkness placing the healing of the demon possessed man within the context of His whole ministry Jesus then challenges the Pharisees in no uncertain manner, if He is evil’s enemy and His whole ministry is bringing order and healing and wholeness and beauty where evil had brought degradation, defilement, despair and ugliness then He must be mightier than the all the powers of evil and darkness.
That is a great and wonderful discovery to make that darkness, evil and death do not have the final word, Jesus is mightier.
Then Jesus speaks of this one unforgivable sin. What can this be? First of all we can what it is not; Jesus says firstly you can sin against Him and be still be forgiven. That means you can ignore Jesus teaching, you can dismiss the Sermon on the Mount as religious idealism, you can laugh at the miracles, you can with Peter deny Jesus and curse Him, you can with the crowds mock Him and spit upon Him, you can be like the Pharisees and lie about Him, you can be like the soldiers and drive nails into His flesh like Pilate you can wash your hands of Him and still He will forgive you. You can extend that offer of forgiveness to all that is taught in the Bible and to the great God of the Old and New Testaments.
These verses sometimes terrify people, they fear they have committed this unforgivable sin but look at what Jesus says there is no sin against God or man that cannot be forgiven. Take your darkest deed your most foul, corrupt thought committed in the face of the most wonderful love. It can be forgiven.
What is the sin that cannot be forgiven? It is the sin of the Pharisees it is this fearful hardening of their hearts against the beauty and wonder Jesus restoring the health and dignity of this demon possessed man and saying contemptuously ‘It is by Beelzebub this fellow, this charlatan casts out demons.’ It is the sin of Judas who saw the beauty of Peter’s confession, who saw Zaccheus life transformed from selfishness into charity, who heard the Sermon on the Mount and hardened heart against it all thinking it was all not worth any more than thirty pieces of silver.
I often think of the burglar who broke into our home and stole my wife’s engagement ring. What hardness of heart to steal something so precious to another human being, to see an engagement ring as just a band of gold three diamonds and to see it as worth a few pounds at the Barrows or wherever. But that can be forgiven. But to look at the works of Jesus, the beautiful wonders that the Holy Spirit did through Him and dismiss forgiveness itself as being worthless means a man passes sentence upon himself.
It is a hard road that leads to hell and the Pharisees were walking down it.