The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

What does it mean to grieve the Spirit?

In recent months, I have seen the “grieving of the Holy Spirit” to mean the denial of the spiritual gifts, or resistance to intimacy with the Holy Spirit by being “too intellectually” or “intellectually proud”. But is this the correct understanding? How does the Bible present the grieving of the Holy Spirit? To be sure, the only reference to grieving the Holy Spirit is Eph 4:30. However, there are other offences that are made against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:32 and 1 Thess 5:19). So, it’s worth considering these alongside Eph 4:30.

Ephesians 4:30

The command not to grieve the Holy Spirit comes in the context of personal conduct (4:25–5:2), which in turn comes from character – a central concern in the New Testament. Here, there are instructions to put away falsehood (v. 25), not to sin in anger (v. 26), refrain from stealing (v. 28), and not engage in corrupt talk (v. 29). To engage in such conduct is to act contrary to reconciliation in the gospel, of which the Holy Spirit is an agent. Not only are believers to put away conduct that is contrary to reconciliation, but they are to put away the conditions that that give rise to that conduct – bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and slander along with all evil (v. 31). Instead, believers are to speak the truth to one another (v. 25), work honestly (v. 28), look to build up others with their speech (v. 29), be kind, compassionate, and forgiving as they imitate God’s forgiveness (v. 32). In sum, therefore, to grieve the Holy Spirit is to adopt an ungodly character. The concern, then, is for believers to adopt a godly character.

1 Thessalonians 5:19

This verse is probably the closest to how the phrase “grieving the Holy Spirit” has been used. Here, believers are instructed not to “quench the Spirit”. For in the next verse believers are instructed not to despise prophecy (v. 20). This would very much sound like a denial of a spiritual gift. It’s understandable where spiritual gifts have been misused or abused some may seek its disuse. Such an approach to spiritual gifts is wrong. Leaving aside the nature of prophecy, however, the acceptance of prophecy is not without qualification. For believers are to test everything (v. 21). There clearly were some false prophecies doing the rounds concerning the day of the Lord (2 Thess 2:2). For this reason, they were to holdfast to the traditions they were taught by the Apostles (v. 15). This means that believers were to engage in an intellectual process comparing what they were hearing as prophecy with what they already knew from the Apostles. So, while it may “quench the Spirit” by denying spiritual gifts, in this case prophecy, it is most certainly not to grieve the Spirit to critique that prophecy. Anyone who uses the charge “grieving the Spirit” to silence criticism is to be regarded to be outside the instruction of God’s word. Neither does the presence of a spiritual gift demand its use. Instead, the benefit of the church is to be sought (1 Cor 15:26–33a).

Matthew 12:32 [//Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10]

The third verse to consider is Matthew 12:32 [//Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10]. Because the Matthew reference comes within the context which combines the teaching of Mark and Luke, the Matthew reference will be addressed last. Here, Jesus teaches that anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. So, what does it mean to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit?

In Mark’s account, the teaching comes when the Jewish scribes come down from Jerusalem to investigate Jesus’ activity. Now, Jesus had been casting out demons from people, and Mark depicts Jesus as being driven by the Spirit (1:10, 12; 2:8). Therefore, the activities of Jesus are also the activities of the Holy Spirit. Yet, instead of recognising Jesus activity in the casting out of demons to be the activity of the Holy Spirit, the Jewish scribes attribute the activity to Beelzebul, the prince of demons (3:22), which, as Jesus points out, is nonsensical (vv. 23–26). In other words, they are attributing the activity of the Holy Spirit to demons. Given that Jesus is the sole agent of salvation and forgiveness, there can be no forgiveness for those who continue to attribute the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus to demons.

In Luke’s account, the meaning of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” isn’t clear. Howard I. Marshall in his commentary surveys several possibilities before settling on the meaning of apostasy.[1] This accords with the context which refers to “acknowledging the Son of Man [Jesus] before men” (Luke 12:8), and “being brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities” (v. 11). For this to be true, for a believer to deny Jesus is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit which teaches the believer what to say at those times (v. 12). Yet, if this is correct, then on what grounds is Peter forgiven after he denies knowing Jesus (Matt. 26:69–75 [// Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:55–62; John 18:16–18, 25–27)? Notice that the verb to blaspheme (βλασφημέω) appears in the participle form, which may suggest that in view here is not one who merely blasphemes but is identified as a blasphemer and shows no remorse for their actions. This accords with the usage of simple verbs to refer to the one who speaks against the Son of Man (12:10). While Peter denied knowing Jesus, he did not have those actions as part of his identity. Instead, Peter “wept bitterly” over his actions (22:62 [// Matt 26:75).

In Matthew’s account, both perspectives from Mark and Luke are combined into the one teaching. However, the Pharisee’s opposition to Jesus’ ministry is explicit and made all the more vivid by their pre-conceived conclusion which was in contrast to the crowd’s amazement (Matt 12:23–24). In other words, the Pharisees are not even open to the possibility that Jesus’ ministry is being driven by the Holy Spirit. Instead, inasmuch the Pharisees recognise the supernatural character of Jesus’ ministry, they are simply out to oppose him, attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry to demonic forces. Ultimately, by opposing Jesus’ ministry, they are opposing the purposes of God. This, then, forms the basis for Jesus’ warning (vv. 31–32).

In conclusion, then, to grieve the Holy Spirit (and by extension, to quench and to blaspheme against) is a very serious charge indeed. It is not a charge to be wielded about lightly. The New Testament uses this charge in specific circumstances. As we have seen, the charge is made in relation to conduct and character that is contrary to godly living, in relation to the denial of prophecy (though this not to forbid testing of that prophecy), and in relation to attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demonic forces and the denial of Christ. To charge a person or group of persons with grieving the Holy Spirit because they refuse to adhere to the words of a person who believes that they are led by the Spirit is to go beyond the authority of Scripture. If such a person is led by the Spirit, and considers themselves in a position to offer encouragement, rebuking, and correction to God’s people, then let them acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit among God’s people. Let them acknowledge the authority of Scripture that the same Spirit inspired and breathed into being, and let them not deny the careful, yet humble, inquiry into it.


[1] Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC, (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978), 517–519.

July 3, 2021 - Posted by | Bible, Bible Exposition, Religious | ,

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