We are all sinners and have fallen short of our calling as children of God. This is the reality of our human condition. Save Christ and His Blessed Mother, none can claim to be totally sinless. And, because Christ is totally sinless, He was able to take up our sins while on the Cross. No sin, we are taught, is too much for Him. All of our evil misdeeds can be forgiven, washed away in His blood.
Wait, some may ask, what of the most severe sins, the unforgivable “sin against the Holy Spirit” (See Matthew 12:30-32, Mark 3:28-30, Luke 12:8-10)? What about blasphemy?
Yeah! What about Blasphemy?
Not all sins are equal. Blasphemy is perhaps the worst sin one can commit. It is a direct attack against God Himself, a directly intentional separation from His love. Surely it can’t be forgiven as easily as, say, lying or stealing. To this I say yes, blasphemy is worse than other sins. And yet, at the same time, not only did Christ die on the cross for blasphemers, He directly identified with one. In other words, a famous blasphemer in the Old Testament is a type (or prefigurement) of Christ Himself.
The ancient Israelites took blasphemy very seriously, seeing it as an offense deserving death. Leviticus 24 explains how this decision came about, following an altercation between two men in the Israelite camp (the blasphemer was one born of an Israelite woman, Shelomith of the tribe of Dan, and an Egyptian father). The blasphemy involved a curse (Lv. 24:11), and so the man was arrested and held by the Israelite leaders. God’s verdict is that the man is to be executed
The LORD then said to Moses: Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and when all who heard him have laid their hands on his head, let the whole community stone him. Tell the Israelites: Anyone who blasphemes God shall bear the penalty; whoever utters the name of the LORD in a curse shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone that person; alien and native-born alike must be put to death for uttering the LORD’s name in a curse. (Lv. 24:13-16)
The people then execute the guilty man according to the Lord’s word.
It is a dramatic story, one of the few narrative stories in Leviticus. The villain in the story, it seems, is the blasphemer, who dared to use the Lord’s name to curse another man. It is a powerful warning to all of us who follow the God of Israel to speak God’s name with respect, not in anger or flippancy. In light of the coming of Christ, however, we see another dimension to this story. The villain, it seems, points forward to the incarnate God against whom he spoke.
Jesus Convicted of Blasphemy
Equally dramatic are the moments in the Gospels when Christ faces crowds of those who want to kill him. Most pertinent to our discussion here are when the crowd accuses Christ of blasphemy and seek to stone Him (John 8 and John 10), following Christ’s identification of Himself with God (John 8:58 has Christ’s famous reply, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM,” and John 10:30 records Jesus saying to the crowds that “The Father and I are one”). In the first instance, Christ hides and escapes (verse 59), and in the second he “escaped their power” when they try to arrest Him (verse 39).
Eventually, it would be the crime of blasphemy that would lead to Christ’s death.
Let’s look at the similarities between the son of Shelomith and Christ. As always with typology, the comparison is not an exact match, and more often than not Christ presents a perfect example of some imperfect aspect of an Old Testament figure. With that in mind, here are some points of contact between the two men.
- Both are born of an Israelite mother, but not an Israelite father (since God transcends nationality).
- Both do invoke God’s name (one to curse, the other to heal and bless, and in the immediate cases under examination here, to identify Himself).
- Both are arrested and hands are laid upon both of them (as seen in the beating Christ takes at the hands of the Sanhedren in the Synoptic Gospels).
- Both are executed outside of the Israelite settlement (the Israelite camp, and Jerusalem for Christ) for blasphemy.
While the human Gospel writers might not have had this particular anecdote from the Old Testament in mind when recounting the life of Christ, the primary Author of Scripture, God Himself, seems to have.
Christ & the Blasphemer
Yet Christ’s identification with the son of Shelomith goes deeper than mere typology. Go back to the passage in Leviticus. Moses and the Israelites come to God, asking what is to be the punishment for the man who blasphemes the Lord. Death, declares the Lord, but He does not stop there. The Lord continues,
Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death; whoever takes the life of an animal shall make restitution of another animal, life for a life. Anyone who inflicts a permanent injury on his or her neighbor shall receive the same in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The same injury that one gives another shall be inflicted in return. Whoever takes the life of an animal shall make restitution, but whoever takes a human life shall be put to death. You shall have but one rule, for alien and native-born alike. I, the LORD, am your God. (Leviticus 24:17-22)
To murder an innocent man deserves the same punishment under the law as blasphemy, that is, the death penalty. Why? It has to do with respect towards God and neighbor. Blasphemy is, in a sense, a spiritual attempt to murder God. We attack him with immaterial violence in what we say. We attack the pinacle of God’s creation, our fellow humans, in murder. Both murder and blasphemy attack who God is, that is, the Creator of all.
Now return to the Crucifixion.
It was for blasphemy that Christ faced death on the Cross. The verdict is clear; the high priest himself tore his garments at the words of Christ, the proper response to hearing blasphemy (see, for example, 2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-37). Christ is then led through the formalities for a first century execution: meeting with the Roman governor, obtaining a civil conviction for a capital crime, followed by an execution performed by the Romans. As they nailed Christ to the Cross He utters perhaps the most profound words He ever spoke, the entire Passion summed up in one powerful sentence: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The Sanhedrin of Israel and all of those who laid hands on Him and sent Him up to be crucified for blasphemy should have been executed for murder under the same law by which they claimed to execute Christ. There was no religious authority in Israel higher than the Sanhedrin and the High Priest. The only authority higher was God Himself, and He stood in judgement of them. If they understood that He whom they accused of blasphemy was really God, would they have gone through with their plan? Hopefully not. Christ knows this, and thus His prayer before the Father, the one offended by their plot.
It was the worst sin ever committed, the murder of God. It was the ultimate blasphemy. And yet, in that hour of darkness, the light of mercy shines through the gloom.
The Forgiveness of the Father
We have here, in the Passion of Christ, a Savior who took upon Himself all of our sins, from the smallest lie to His blasphemous murder at the hands of His own people. We all struggle in our life in Christ, all falling short (Romans 3:23). What comfort it gives that He is our advocate before the Father.
Do we think that the Father did not forgive the murderers of His Son? Can the Father ignore the Only Begotten One? We know enough to sin, but we don’t understand enough. That is why Christ came and died for us, no matter how sinful or evil. He conquered death on the Cross; our puny sins stand no chance.