“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” Luke 12:8-12
There are a couple knots in this passage that demand careful attention. First, what is the significance of being acknowledged- or not acknowledged- before the angels of God? The statements by Jesus make it seem like the angels are somehow involved in the judgment of men. Second, there is the entire constellation of questions relating to the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit: why is this sin unforgivable; how is it committed; can it be committed today; etc.
As we approach this text, two things should be noted. It is somewhat interesting the each person of the Trinity is mentioned twice, and each is mentioned in the same terms. I have found over one hundred New Testament references to the Trinity, and such a balanced, or symmetrical, presentation does not occur very often. Luke 2:25-32 is far more representative of passages where there are multiple mentions of the Persons: the Father is mentioned three times with two different terms; the Son is mentioned twice with two different terms; the Spirit is mentioned three times with two different terms. I would not necessarily say that the vocabulary usage of the Trinitarian usage in this passage is significant, but it is somewhat unique.
Secondly, the flow of Jesus’ arguments in the context is important for understanding what is going on here. The entire chapter deals with Jesus’ teaching on faithful perseverance and readiness. Even when someone in the crowd tries to change the subject, Jesus does not simply dismiss the question but does so with a parable that shows how foolish the concern is in the light of what Jesus is trying to teach (12:13-21).
Jesus begins his discourse by warning his followers to be wary of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (12:1). In 12:4 Jesus reveals just how dangerous their hypocrisy was. Jesus knew that the hypocrisy of the Pharisees had filled them with hatred toward God’s Messiah. He knew that their hatred would lead to his death. And he knew that their hatred would lead to the persecution and death of some of his followers. Hypocrisy and false teaching are not merely psychological or intellectual problems. Jesus strengthens the resolve of his disciples by reminding them of the One who is really in charge. God cares for all of his creation and judges righteously.
It is in this context of persecution by earthly authorities that Jesus warns his followers about denying him. This is made all the more clearer in verse 11: “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities…” In all of chapter 12 Jesus is constantly using earthly shadows to point to eternal realities. Jesus is constantly teaching his disciples to forsake a temporal mindset and to embrace a view of the gravity of eternity. Do not fear judgment here, fear it there (12:4-5). Do not store up treasure here, store it there (12:21). Do not worry about even the daily necessities here, seek the kingdom (12:31). Do not hoard to provide for your body, give to provide for your heart (12:34).
And so it is in 12:8-9: the verses are merely a re-emphasis of 12:4-5. When the disciples of Jesus are standing before court on earth they should keep in mind the court in heaven. Just as one stands before a judge, jury, and witness here on earth, he will one day stand before the Judge and the heavenly witnesses: the angels of God. To deny Jesus is to forfeit all right of dwelling eternally in the presence of God.
But Jesus then seems to immediately take the teeth out of his teaching with the statement in verse 10 that anyone who speaks against the Son of Man will be forgiven but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. At first, eternal life was dependent upon acknowledgment of Jesus, but now it is dependent upon not blaspheming the Spirit. Verses 11 and 12 help us reconcile this apparent contradiction.
Far from ranking the Trinity in some order of “Importance of Acceptance”, Jesus actually demonstrates the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. A careless interpreter of 12:8-9 might claim that salvation is a matter of works. “If I profess Jesus when I am persecuted I will be saved. If I deny him, I will be damned.” But Jesus is careful to teach that such strength to confess the Son of Man does not come from a person’s own strength or will. A person will only be able to confess the Son of Man when he does so in response to the teaching of the Holy Spirit (12:12).
In his weakness, Peter denied the Lord three times before men in just one evening. But after the Holy Spirit came upon him, he boldly proclaimed Jesus even in the face of persecution. Had Peter continued to live in fear and denial, it would have been proof that the Holy Spirit had never indwelt him.
Just as the Son was sent forth as the Logos, Word, of the Father; so the Spirit is sent forth as the witness of the Son (John 1:1, 15:26). A person simply cannot live in denial of the Son and claim to have any part of the Holy Spirit. To live in denial of the Son is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit because such denial is counter to everything the Spirit is trying to achieve on earth. The heightening of expression between “speaking a word” and “blasphemes against” is apparent and it is instructive. In weakness and sin men can deny the Son of Man. But persistent, willful denial is blasphemy: it is opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit.
To live in denial of the Son is to live in denial of the work of the Spirit is to die to face denial by the Father.