October 22, 2000
In Luke 12, Jesus called on the listening crowd to live in courageous sincerity for the Lord—a message that remains relevant to the multitudes today. Specifically, He cautioned His followers to avoid hypocrisy, to trust God when persecuted, and to never commit the unforgivable sin of ascribing the Holy Spirit’s work to the devil. Alistair Begg tackles each of these warnings, demonstrating how Jesus’ instruction is vital for modern believers to understand and obey.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read this evening from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Luke 12:1:
“Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
“‘I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
“‘I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
“‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.’”
We are studying from this section this evening as we resume our studies in Luke’s Gospel, having some weeks—actually, months—ago now reached the end of Luke chapter 11.
Luke, you will notice, tells us that the crowd that had begun to follow in the wake of Jesus now numbers in the thousands. The phraseology that he uses is one that is expressive of a fairly vast company of people. We saw back in Luke 11:29 that the crowds had been increasing as he had been teaching and responding to questions, and now it would seem as though, having gone into the home of the Pharisee and dealt with some of the matters there that are recorded for us at the end of Luke 11, the crowd presumably had been swelling in the prospect of Jesus coming back out again. And you can imagine that some who had already begun to follow him had in his absence gone to their friends and neighbors and said, “You know, we’ve been listening to Jesus of Nazareth, and he’s gone into someone’s house. We know he’s going to come out again, and we thought that perhaps you would like also to come and hear what it is that he has to say.”
And so Luke tells us that the arrival of Jesus into the throng of this trampling crowd gives occasion not for him to focus on the crowd itself but rather for him to seize the opportunity, as he has begun to do now as a pattern, to, as it were, have a teaching session within the context of a larger gathering. And so it is that he gives instruction to his disciples, warning them first of all, as we shall see, against hypocrisy, and then encouraging them in the face of intimidation, and then sounding what is really a quite dreadful note regarding the sin which will not be forgiven.
One of the commentators, a man called Plummer, says that what Jesus is doing here is he is issuing a call to “Courageous Sincerity.” That’s quite appropriate on an evening when we’re sharing in baptism, because there is a sense in which to be baptized is to be involved in courageous sincerity, and that each of those from whom we will hear in a moment or two from now and whose lives we will have occasion to observe are themselves those who are courageously sincere in standing before this gathered throng in order to testify to the wonder of who Jesus is and what he has done.
But let us, before we get there, first of all notice this warning about hypocrisy. A quick glance at 11:39 will set the context for us. Jesus had spoken to these Pharisees, and he’d said to them, “You know, you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” And he has some very striking things to say to these religious phonies.
One of the reasons that some may not have been in church for some time and yet have come as a result of an invitation this evening is because you’ve been greatly concerned about the phony religion of some that you have known. And anyone who’s going to be honest says, “I perfectly understand that.” And you may be helped by recognizing that Jesus, here in Luke chapter 12, is also concerned about religious hypocrisy. Indeed, this is his warning to those who are his followers. He says, “I want you to make sure that you don’t get contaminated by the idea that provided everything looks okay on the outside, the inside doesn’t matter.” That’s what he’s really warning against: a kind of sham religious existence which seeks somehow or another to paint a picture on the outside disguising the reality of what is going on.
Now, his metaphor would have been fairly clear to his listeners. Many of them would themselves have made bread. Their wives or family members would have made bread. And therefore, they would be familiar with the properties of yeast. They would recognize that yeast, a very small amount of it, works its way systematically and has a tremendous impact on even a large lump of dough. And the picture that Jesus uses here in this warning is simply of that: a penetration that is slow, that is insidious, and that is constant. And so Jesus says, “I want you to be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, because that’s just hypocrisy.” The practice of saying one thing and doing another spreads through a life and eats at our moral fiber like a cancer. Therefore, Jesus does well to warn those who profess to follow him that the art of Pharisaical phoniness is not only wrong, but it’s actually futile. You’ll notice that’s what he’s saying. “You can’t hide behind a religious mask for very long,” he says. “Sooner or later, the mask will slip, and then your true face will be seen by everyone.”
And in verse 2 and into verse 3, he points out that a day of reckoning is coming. If we live in deception, then the deceit will inevitably be unearthed. If we do things, in religious terms, simply for the rewards of men, as the Pharisees were prone to do, then our motives will one day be disclosed. You remember on another occasion, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “I know that you like to pray so that people will say, ‘My, my, he’s a wonderful pray-er.’” He said, “I hope you enjoyed that, because you’ve had your reward. Nothing further will be accruing to your account. And I know you like to give in a way that people see your giving and see how much you give. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, because that is your sole reward, and nothing further will accrue to your account.” Now he takes it a step further, and he exercises this chilling warning, recognizing that God will judge men’s secrets through the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
When Paul writes his first Corinthian letter, he says in 1 Corinthians 4:5, “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.” You see, the real issue is not “Did he preach well?” The real issue is “Why did he preach?” The real issue is not “Was she helpful to her neighbor?” The real issue is “Why was she helpful to her neighbor?” And the kind of hypocrisy which is able to whisper unkindnesses about another in the secrecy and behind closed doors while all the time maintaining a thin veneer of friendship and love on the outside is nothing other than hypocrisy. And what Jesus is saying is simply this: we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that we will be able in the long run, and often even in the short run, to conceal our true identity.
“So beware of hypocrisy,” he says. “It is wicked, it is shortsighted, and it is prevalent.” The warning that he gives to his followers is not a theoretical warning. Jesus is not giving them a warning about something they need no warning about. Religious hypocrisy was prevalent and remains prevalent. And all of us understand the sting that comes by way of this exhortation.
Well, from that word of warning, he then provides a word of encouragement in the face of intimidation. Look at verse 4: “I tell you,” he says, “my friends…” “My friends.” What a wonderful encouragement is contained in that: “I tell you, my friends…” It is one thing for us to say that so-and-so is our friend. It is quite another for that person to say, “I am his friend,” or “I am her friend,” especially if the person is someone of stature and significance. “Don’t,” says Jesus, then, “be bluffed into silence or into insincerity by the threats of religious bullies.” That’s just my paraphrase. I hope it’s helpful. “Don’t be bluffed into silence or insincerity by the threats of religious bullies.” “I tell you my friends, do[n’t] be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” “Don’t allow any fear of what men might say or do to silence your voices or to conceal your allegiance to me.”
And when you take this exhortation and encouragement in light of all that we’ve read, he presumably has in mind what he refers to in verse 11 there, concerning the ecclesiastical courts of the Jews: “When you’re brought before synagogues and rulers and authorities, I don’t want you to worry in the face of those threats. When you find yourself so beset by individuals who are challenging your commitment to me, don’t allow their threats—what they might do to you—to encourage you to disown me.” That’s his emphasis in verse 8: “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will … acknowledge him …. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned.” And what he’s saying is “Don’t let any of these threats cause you to disown me. Stand up and take your stand with me. Be prepared to say, as it were, in the words of the hymn writer, ‘Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand.’” And he encourages them in this respect.
In other words, what they need to do is to learn the fear that will make them fearless in the face of the intimidation of others. As the Scottish reformer, John Knox, was being laid to his final rest, as the coffin was going into the ground there in Scotland, someone at the graveside remarked to his friend, “Here lies one who feared God so much that he never feared the face of man.”
Now, this is the significance of this little verse, 4: “I tell you, my friends, do[n’t] be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” This is Luther’s great hymn, isn’t it? “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” And he says,
[And so, let them] take our life,
Goods, [kindred], children, wife,
Yet is there [honor] small;
These things shall vanish all.
At a far more mundane and superficial level, as I read this phrase, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body,” I had a vivid recollection of, I think, the one of only two times that I went over here to Geauga Lake and to the water park. My son was probably at that point only five or six. And we went with a medical student who was a young man in the congregation at that time and serving in the air force. And in the course of going down a variety of these slides, we went up onto a high platform, myself and the young medical student. He sat on the raft, the trap door fell out from underneath him, and he went flying down to what I thought was going to be his death. And I… He turned around and looked back up and waited for me to come, and I didn’t come. And a number of other people came and went, and still he saw no sight of me. And eventually, he came back up the platform and up the ladder, and he found me at the top, holding my raft, terrorized by the circumstances. And I remember him saying to me, “What is the worst thing that can happen to you?” And I said, “I could die.” And he said, “Yes.” So he said, “If that is the worst that can happen to you, then get on the raft!”
Now, Jesus is saying something similar. He says, “Why would you be intimidated by people, and the worst they can do to you is take your life?”—as if life in its physical frame was the orb of our significance in existence, when in point of fact, as Jesus makes plain, it is simply a precursor to all that eternity will be to us. So he says, “You shouldn’t be concerned about that.” He says, “If you want to know where fearfulness should be revealing itself,” verse 5: “I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.”
Now, this is a staggering statement, and it is not unique to this passage of Scripture. The Bible makes it perfectly clear that there is a kind of fear which is continually emphasized as a necessary ingredient to instill in the believer a right living. This fear combines an awareness of how great and holy God is with an acknowledgment of how dreadfully weak and foolish and prone to sin I am. And it is this kind of fear which God wants us to have, to prevent us from presumptuous thoughts and foolish and disastrous actions. It is a fear which is preventative, insomuch as it strikes us in such a way to consider the prospect of being disowned before the angels of heaven in eternity, and it says to us, “If I disown him in a moment now, he says that he will disown me in that eternal framework then.” And that fear is provided in order that we might step away from foolish and presumptuous deeds.
Now, if you’re paying attention to this, you will notice the juxtaposition between him saying, “Do not be afraid,” and then he says, “Be afraid,” and then he says again in verse 7, “Do not be afraid.” And I found myself writing in my notes, “What are we supposed to be: afraid or not afraid? What is going on here? What is the overarching emphasis?”
Well, the overarching emphasis is one of encouragement. What Jesus is saying in this is “I want to reassure you. I want to reassure you, first of all, with the awareness of the fact that your heavenly Father cares for you.” Look at verse 6. “Sparrows are two a penny, and if you’re buying four, I’ll give you the fifth one for nothing,” said the trader. “Wanna coupl’a sparrows? ’Ere ya go! Two a penny. Four for you. Throw the fifth one in for nothin’. There ya go, mate!” That’s how it would be in London. “Two a penny, fifth one free.” Jesus says, “They’re ten a penny, these things! But your Father’s care extends to them. There isn’t a single one of them that is forgotten!”
Now, why is he saying this? Because he wants to affirm the fact that those who are his own are known intimately by their Father. He knows more about his children than the children know about themselves. His care for his children extends to even the tiniest details of life. “Even the very hairs of your head are numbered,” he says. “Do you want to know that your Father cares for you? Let me tell you the extent of it,” he says. And it ties in with what we were singing this morning:
He knows my name,
He knows my every thought,
He sees each tear that falls,
And he hears me when I [cry or] call.
It’s interesting that there is a kind of Trinitarian element in the encouragement he provides. In verse 6, he speaks of the Father’s care. In verse 8, he is speaking of the Son’s advocacy, if you like: “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God.” Whatever else this means, it means that before the throne of God above, Christ stands and says, “Yes, she’s with me, Father. Yes, she is my own.” And he bears my name before his Father, and he says, “She is included in me. And I am glad to introduce her to the heavenly throng.”
And then he says, “You may be encouraged not only by the Father’s detailed care and by the Son’s advocacy on your behalf, but you should be encouraged by the prospect of the Holy Spirit’s instruction.” Verse 12: “The Holy Spirit is involved in this. And at times of threat and intimidation, when you find yourself worried about being able to defend yourself, when you hope for something to say before the authorities and those who accuse you, then,” he says, “the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say”—not necessarily, incidentally, to secure their acquittal but in order to ensure that the gospel will be proclaimed and that the purposes of God will be set forward.
I can’t help but think that this must have run right through Peter’s mind when, after the healing at the Beautiful Gate, he was called to give an account for what was going on. And in Acts chapter 4—you needn’t turn to it, but let me just quote it for you: “Then Peter … said to them: ‘Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this.” Now, I missed out a phrase. It doesn’t say, “Then Peter said to them…” It says, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” And you can imagine him confronted by the challenge of the moment and saying, “Okay, I remember back there, outside the Pharisee’s house, when that big crowd almost trampled us to death. Jesus said, ‘I don’t want you to be intimidated on the day when you’re hauled up to give an account, because I want you to know that not only does the Father care for you, not only do I acknowledge you before the Father, but the Holy Spirit will give you the instruction necessary.’” I can almost imagine that Peter starts off his sermon, and he’s well into it, and in the back of his mind he’s saying, “Oh, it’s true. It’s all true.”
Well, let’s go, finally, to the sin that will not be forgiven. And there is a hypocrisy that he warns against, there is an intimidation that he encourages them in the light of, and then these chilling words in verse 10: “Anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”
Now, we find this statement both in Matthew’s Gospel and also in Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 3:28, Jesus sets it up this way: “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But [he who] blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will [not] be forgiven.” And in the same way here, you know, he says, “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”
Now, it is surely not that to sin against one member of the Trinity is less grave than to sin against another. It can’t be that, for they are equally God, and it is equally offensive. It would seem that we begin to scratch something of the surface of it when we consider the fact that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, who is, of course, invisible… How do you say things against an invisible entity? It’s one thing to say things against the incarnate Son. You look at Jesus and you say, “I don’t like the way he did that,” or “I don’t like the way he said that,” or “I don’t like this or I don’t like that about him.” But for somebody to say something against the third member of the Trinity, an invisible entity—where in the world does this kind of hostility and enmity emerge from? And indeed, it reveals a hostility to something that is unmistakably divine and holy.
When you do a question-and-answer session, you get at least one of the questions which has to do with the unforgivable sin. Most of the people who ask the question about the unforgivable sin are the kind of individuals who were some of the most proper people that I ever went to school with. They were really very good kids, unlike myself. But they were the people who, when the headmaster made a visit to the classroom, always found themselves feeling within them that the headmaster had come to the classroom at that moment in time to uncover some heinous wickedness in which they were involved. They had no reason for alarm. In contrast, I had every reason for alarm, and a number of my friends. Most of the time, I remained totally unalarmed, but those who had no reason for alarm were alarmed by it. The same is virtually true in relationship to this matter of the unforgivable sin: those who are most concerned about it need to have no concern about it at all.
It is often said, and I think quite helpfully, that if we are anxious that we have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then we need not fear, because that blasphemy is always accompanied by a complete indifference to that notion. So the individual themselves is not going around saying, “Oh, I hope I haven’t done that!” The individual couldn’t give a rip whether they had done it, and they are defiant in any notion concerning any member of the Godhead at all.
So, to get to the heart of it, we need to recognize that the sin somehow or another consists in that which is conscious, deliberate, willful, intentional. It is a sin which recognizes that God has revealed himself and his grace in Christ. He has done so by the Holy Spirit. And yet the individual, seeing something of that revelation in Christ, out of hatred to it and out of hostility towards it, ascribes it to the devil and to the Evil One. So instead of saying, “Yes, I can see that Jesus is the Savior that he claimed to be,” the person is saying, “Jesus is a demon and a devil from hell.” Instead of recognizing that the Holy Spirit leads into all truth, they’re saying, “Whatever this Holy Spirit is, he comes from the abyss, and he is evil in all of his dimensions. And I have every kind of hatred for him.”
Now, the context, again, in Matthew and in Mark is that which we saw back in 11:15, where the Pharisees had come upon Jesus when he was driving out a demon that was mute. And in the amazement of the crowd, a number of them began to say, “By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” In other words, they were ascribing to Satan that which was so clearly of God.
So when an individual determines that conversion to Christ as it is explained to them and obedience to Christ as it is made plain to them—when such an individual determines it to be the ultimate folly and actually to say, “There is no validity or truth to that at all; I do not believe a single thing concerning the Holy Spirit and his making Christ real”—that individual ought to be very, very careful, because that is the very sin that Jesus is addressing in the Pharisees who are ascribing to the Evil One that which is nothing other than God at work.
Now, in light of that, I need to say this: when an individual comes fearful of having irrevocably rejected Jesus but with a desperate longing to be forgiven, then what we’re going to do is we’re going to quote Mark 3:28 to that individual. The person comes and says, “I fear, you know, that I have blasphemed so badly against God that I can never be forgiven and that there is no hope for me this side of eternity at all.” Well, then we’re going to take them to Mark 3:28: “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus—“[Verily,] verily I say unto you”—“all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them.” Wouldn’t that be the right kind of counsel to give, when the person comes with a sense of penitence and a desire for forgiveness? In contrast, the individual who in presumptuous defiance rejects the pointers and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to read them Mark 3:29 as the gravest of all warnings: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Now, with our time gone, in light of all that is yet to follow, I want you to listen carefully, because I can do no better for you than to give you the best that I have found on this matter of the unforgivable sin. It comes from the late Professor Bavinck, who was a significant theologian in an earlier generation. And this is what he says as he writes concerning this matter. He says that this unforgivable sin is “a sin against the Gospel in its clearest revelation,” a sin which consists
not in doubting or simply denying the truth, but in a denial which goes against the conviction of the intellect, against the enlightenment of conscience, against the dictates of the heart; in a conscious, wilful and intentional imputation to the influence and working of Satan of that which is clearly recognised as God’s work … in a wilful declaration that the Holy [Spirit] is the Spirit from the abyss, that truth is a lie, and that Christ is Satan himself. … For this reason the sin is unforgivable: although God’s grace is not too small and too powerless for it, yet in the kingdom of sin there are laws and ordinances placed there by God and maintained by Him.
This I was so glad to find, this most crucial of sentences. Because in thinking ahead, you’re saying to yourself, “Well then, how in the world can there be any sin which somehow or another is greater than God?” And Bavinck says, “Of course there is no sin that is greater than God! It is not that the sin is too great or that God’s grace is too small, that the sin is too powerful and God’s grace is too inept, but that in the kingdom of sin there are laws and ordinances placed there by God and maintained by him. and this law—in the case of this particular sin—is of such a nature that it excludes all repentance, cauterizes the conscience, obturates and hardens the sinner once for all, and in this way makes his sin unpardonable.” Thank God for Professor Bavinck and for those that he has raised up in every generation who are so profoundly in tune with the Word of God and so intellectually gifted that they can leave this to the likes of me and others like me. Do you understand that?
Well then, can’t you see the eyes of the disciples? Can’t you see their eyes as large as saucers, listening to this? He says, “Don’t you kid yourself into wearing a religious mask. It’ll slip, and everyone will find out what you’re really like. Don’t allow them to bluff you and intimidate you and make you say the wrong thing about me. You take your stand. I’ll look after you. The very hairs of your head are numbered. I will stand before my Father for you, and the Holy Spirit will instruct you what you need to know. But don’t you kid yourself that you can play around with sin.”
And surely there was one in particular staring straight ahead and wrestling with the lie that was in his soul—namely, Judas. For he is a reminder to us of how close we might be to Christ and how skillful may be our external veneer and yet how far from him our hearts may prove to be. It is virtually inconceivable that somebody hearing of this wonderful love of the Father, somebody paying attention to this warning against hypocrisy, somebody hearing of this dreadful blasphemy should have occasion, for thirty pieces of silver, to hand Christ over to be crucified.
It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as that. Some of us are unprepared to acknowledge Christ before this congregation. We remain unbaptized. Never mind before the angels in heaven! Never mind before the watching world or our friends in the office! We’re talking about before our family. Where did you get that from? How do you sleep?
Let us pray:
O God our Father, grant, then, that by your Spirit we may heed the warning, we may receive the encouragement, and we may not dance around this dreadful statement concerning that sin which will remain unforgiven. Take, then, your Word and seal it to our hearts. Take all that now remains to us of our time together and use it as a means of fulfilling that which you have purposed for this hour. For we ask it for the sake of your Son, the Lord Jesus. Amen.
 Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1913), 317.
 Luke 11:39 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 6:2, 5 (paraphrased).
 Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” (1868).
 Attributed to James Douglas in W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 290. Paraphrased.
 Martin Luther, trans. Frederick H. Hedge, “A Mighty Fortress” (1529, 1852).
 Martin Luther, trans. Thomas Carlyle, “A Safe Stronghold” (1529, 1831).
 Tommy Walker, “He Knows My Name” (1996).
 Mark 3:28 (KJV).
 Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 2nd ed., 157, quoted in Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1951), 352.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.