MARK 3. THE CONTEXT
Jesus began his ministry with a bang! He healed a man with an unclean spirit (1:21-28)—and healed many people at Simon’s house (1:29-34)—and conducted a preaching tour throughout Galilee (1:35-39)—and cleansed a leper (1:40-45)—and healed a paralytic (2:1-12)—and invited a tax collector to follow him (2:13-17)—and bested the Pharisees in a controversy about fasting (2:18-22)—and bested them again in a controversy over plucking grain on the sabbath (2:23-28)—and healed a man with a withered hand (3:1-6). Perhaps most notably, when the crowds pressed around him at the side of the sea, unclean spirits “fell down before him, and cried, ‘You are the Son of God!'” (3:11).
In other words, it has been clear both to the crowds and to the unclean spirits that Jesus is working by God’s power—but, as we will see shortly, the scribes refuse to believe the evidence that establishes Jesus’ Godly credentials beyond any reasonable doubt.
Jesus has had an overwhelmingly positive response by the crowds (1:22, 28, 33, 37, 45; 2:12-13; 3:9-10), but the scribes and Pharisees have opposed him (2:6-7, 16, 24, 3:1-6). While Pharisees (anti-Herod and anti-Roman) have little in common with Herodians (pro-Herod and pro-Roman), they both oppose Jesus and conspire to destroy him (3:6).
In our Gospel lesson, we see Jesus cope not only with opposition from scribes (who are usually allied with Pharisees) but also disbelief from his own family.
While Jesus engages crowds and has a powerful teaching/healing ministry, he periodically withdraws from crowds for a quiet moment (1:35, 44-45; 3:9-13). However, he does not withdraw when attacked by scribes and Pharisees, but quickly mounts a spirited defense (2:8-12, 17, 19-22, 25-28; 3:3-5). We will see him do that in our Gospel lesson.
“He came into a house” (Greek: eis oikon) (v. 19b). By this time Jesus has begun to make his home in Capernaum (2:1; Matthew 4:13), but we are not certain whether this oikon is Jesus’ house—or Simon’s—or someone else’s.
In our Gospel lesson, Mark uses a literary device known as intercalation—a story within a story—the story of Jesus’ family and their relationship to him (3:21, 31-35) interrupted by the story of Jesus’ conflict with scribes who came from Jerusalem (3:22-30). Mark uses this device elsewhere as well. The example best known to those who use the lectionary is Mark 5:21-43—the story of Jairus’ daughter that is interrupted by the story of the woman with a hemorrhage (see also Mark 2:1-12; 6:7-32; 9:37-42; 11:12-25; 14:1-11; 14:54-72).
Mark creates dramatic tension by telling two stories together. Each story finds enhanced interest and power through its juxtaposition with the other. In the first story, Jesus’ family, responding to reports that Jesus is insane, seeks to restrain him (3:21). In the second story, the Jerusalem scribes try to discount Jesus—to undercut his authority—by saying that Jesus works by the power of Beelzebul (3:22) and that he has an unclean spirit (3:30).
MARK 3:20-22. HE HAS BEELZEBUL
20The multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. 21When his friends (Greek: hoi par autou—those with him) heard it, they went out to seize him: for they said, “He is insane.” 22The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul,” and, “By the prince of the demons he casts out the demons.”
“The multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread” (v. 20). Mark reports this kind of enthusiastic response to Jesus over and over again (1:28, 33, 37, 45; 2:13; 3:9-10).
“When his friends (hoi par autou—those with him) heard it, they went out to seize him” (v. 21a). While the Greek does not specify that the people attempting to restrain Jesus are his family, the NRSV and NIV translate it that way because of the mention of Jesus’ mother and brothers in verse 31. The KJV and WEB say “friends” instead of “family,” but “family” is probably the better choice.
“for they said, ‘He is insane'” (v. 21b). Jesus’ family has not decided on its own that Jesus has gone out of his mind, but has instead heard reports to that effect. They go to Jesus intending to restrain him, but have not yet had the opportunity to assess the situation for themselves.
While we can understand the family’s concern (what family wouldn’t be concerned about reports of a family member’s emotional breakdown), their presence testifies to their lack of belief and serves to undermine Jesus’ credibility. It is also likely that they are concerned about the family’s reputation and are eager to stifle embarrassing gossip—even if that requires restraining Jesus and taking him home by force.
Mark demonstrates that he intends us to understand the family’s presence in that way by marrying the story of the family’s concern (vv. 20-21, 31-35) with the story of the scribe’s opposition (vv. 22-30)—embedding the scribal story in the middle of the family story.
“The Jews”—meaning the Jewish leaders—will later say, “He has a demon and insane. Why do you listen to him?” (John 10:20). But the questioning of Jesus’ competence by his own family is, in some ways, more troubling than the opposition by those outside the family.
“The scribes who came down from Jerusalem” (v. 22a). “Came down from Jerusalem” introduces an ominous tone. Jerusalem is the home of the religious authorities who oppose Jesus and will one day pressure the Romans to crucify him.
Capernaum is north of Jerusalem, so we would expect to see that the scribes came up to Capernaum. However, Jerusalem is on a mountain, and Capernaum is at sea level (the Sea of Galilee), so the scribes would come down from Jerusalem in a topological sense. More important, Jerusalem is the religious center of the Jewish universe, so any movement from Jerusalem to a provincial town would involve stepping down in that sense too.
“He has Beelzebul,” and, “By the prince of the demons he casts out the demons” (v. 22b). Beelzebul may be a variant of Baal-zebub (2 Kings 1:2-3) or may mean “lord of the flies” or “lord of heaven” (Myers, 133). In any event, the scribes are accusing Jesus of accomplishing his healing miracles by the power of “the ruler of the demons” (v. 22). They are seeking to discredit him in the eyes of the people by planting the idea that Jesus is working by Satan’s power instead of God’s power.
We should not lose sight of the fact that the Pharisees, with whom the scribes are closely allied, have recently decided to destroy Jesus (3:6). This is their first attempt to do so.
If the scribes can succeed in making their charge stick that Jesus is working by demonic power, they can bring legal action against him (Perkins, 563).
MARK 3:23-27. HOW CAN SATAN CAST OUT SATAN?
23 He summoned them, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 If Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he can’t stand, but has an end. 27 But no one can enter into the house of the span man to plunder, unless he first binds the span man; and then he will plunder his house.“
“He summoned them, and spoke to them in parables” (Greek: parabolais) (v. 23a). The word,parabolais (parables), used in the New Testament, is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word, mashal(proverbs), which means “be like” or “compare.” Both involve a saying that requires a good deal of thought if the hearer is to capture its full meaning.
“How can Satan cast out Satan?” (v. 23b). Like most lies, the scribes’ charge that Jesus is working by demonic power sounds plausible. Most people, hearing such a charge, would begin to wonder. How can Jesus defend himself against such a charge? No evidence has been presented, so there is no evidence to refute. Such a charge would stop most of us in our tracks. What could we say in our defense?
But Jesus quickly exposes the logical fallacy at the bottom of the charge. “How can Satan cast out Satan?” he asks (v. 23b). For Satan to oppose himself would be self-destructive and would be the beginning of his end (v. 26). Jesus’ images of a house divided against itself (v. 25) and Satan risen up against himself (v. 26) further illustrate the suddenly-obvious fallacy.
There is a lesson here for us. “How can we accomplish good ends by evil means? The world has often given a ready answer, ‘Easy!’ But the whole course of history has supported Jesus’ affirmation that it cannot be done…. Evil will always produce evil” (Luccock, 691). Ends do not justify means.
“But no one can enter into the house of the strong man to plunder, unless he first binds the strong man; and then he will plunder his house” (v. 27). Jesus drives his argument home by this last image—that of a strong man (Satan) defending his property. How can anyone plunder a strong man’s property? To do so, one must first overcome the strong man. How could Jesus cleanse a man of his unclean spirit, as he did in Capernaum (1:21-28)? He could do so only by first overpowering Satan—the ruler of demons.
MARK 3:28-30. WHOEVER MAY BLASPHEME AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT
28“Most certainly I tell you, all sins of the descendants of man will be forgiven, including their blasphemies with which they may blaspheme; 29but whoever may blaspheme against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” 30—because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
“Most certainly I tell you” (v. 28a). These words signal the listener that Jesus is ready make an important pronouncement. They say, “Listen carefully!” Jesus uses this phrase frequently (31 times in Matthew; 13 in Mark; 9 in Luke; 25 in John).
“all sins of the descendants of man will be forgiven, including their blasphemies with which they may blaspheme” (v. 28b). Jesus is about to pronounce a heavy judgment, but he first affirms the possibility of grace. We can be forgiven, not only for sins against other people, but even for blasphemy, a sin against God. It is blasphemous to use God’s name wrongfully in violation of the commandment (Exodus 20:7). It is blasphemous to show contempt for God or to curse God (Leviticus 24:15).
• The Torah says, “One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16).
• But Jesus says: “all sins of the descendants of man will be forgiven, including their blasphemies with which they may blaspheme” (v. 28). His “Most certainly I tell you” (v. 28) makes it emphatic. Jesus does not promise that all blasphemers will be forgiven, but instead keeps the door open to the possibility of forgiveness for penitent blasphemers.
“BUT” (v. 29). A wise man once told me that, when someone says “but,” start listening. The part prior to the “but” is the setup. The part after the “but” is what the person really came to say. Jesus says, “BUT!” so LISTEN!!!
“BUT whoever may blaspheme against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (v. 29). In a parallel passage in Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus says,
“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy
will be forgiven men,
but the blasphemy against the Spirit
will not be forgiven men.
Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man,
it will be forgiven him;
but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit,
it will not be forgiven him,
neither in this age, nor in that which is to come.”
In Luke 12:10, Jesus says,
“Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man
will be forgiven,
but those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit
will not be forgiven.”
The Greek word blasphemeo means “To blaspheme, revile. To hurt the reputation or smite with reports or words, speak evil of, slander, rail…. To speak with impious irreverence concerning God Himself or what stands in some particular relation to Him…. Reviling against the Holy Spirit…means to resist the convicting power of the Holy Spirit unto repentance” (Zodhiates, 340). It means “‘to speak or regard with contempt,’ and thus it means ‘to blaspheme’ when the object of contempt or rebellion is God” (Renn, 116). According to Torah law, blasphemy was a capital offense (Leviticus 24:16).
This verse strikes fear in our hearts. Many Bible verses promise forgiveness, but this one warns that is a place where we dare not venture—a place beyond redemption—a place from which we can never return—a place where forgiveness is no longer possible. We cannot help but worry whether we might wake up on Judgment Day to learn that we are guilty of this unforgivable sin. Given the anxiety that people have about this verse, it behooves us to explain it clearly.
What prompted Jesus to issue this warning? It was the scribes’ statement: “He has Beelzebul,” and “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (v. 22). The scribes declared Jesus’ work evil. They should have known better. They were, after all, trained Biblical scholars, responsible for helping people to understand God’s law. They were surely aware of the miracles that Jesus has worked (1:21-28, 29-34, 40-45; 2:1-12; 3:1-6).
While it was apparent to most people that Jesus was doing good works by the power of God, these scribes not only refused to see that—they also subverted the truth by saying that Jesus did his work by demonic power. They rejected the one who could have brought them forgiveness. They not only failed to see the light, but also called the light darkness.
“Why this sin is unforgivable can easily be seen. It is the sin of refusing forgiveness” (Bromiley, 524). Having done so, these scribes have shown that they no longer recognize what is good—no longer value it—no longer strive for it. Having decided that Christ is satanic, they are not open to receiving his help and are therefore not candidates for the salvation that he offers.
Some people have hated good and celebrated evil so passionately that any kind of repentance is beyond them. To such people, Yahweh said,
“Woe to those who join house to house,
who lay field to field,
until there is no room,
and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land!
….Woe to those who rise up early in the morning,
that they may follow strong drink….
Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood,
and wickedness as with a cart rope….
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
who put darkness for light, and light for darkness….
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and prudent in their own sight!
…Woe to those…who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
but deny justice for the innocent!”
(Isaiah 5:8, 11, 18, 20-21, 23).
Yahweh then pronounced this judgment:
“Therefore as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
and as the dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root shall be as rottenness,
and their blossom shall go up as dust;
because they have rejected
the law of Yahweh of Armies,
and despised the word of the Holy one of Israel”
(Isaiah 5:24, emphasis added).
I have tried to imagine people who might be candidates for this kind of judgment. Anything I say in this regard must, of necessity, be tentative, because every category might include someone who is steeped in guilt, but who might yet repent. Also keep in mind that this is a list of “possibles” or “probables.” The final judgment belongs to God.
• Let’s start with cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh—those who made themselves like God and whose leadership proved disastrous for their followers.
• Some clergy would qualify. Keep in mind that, for the most part, those who opposed Jesus were fully certified, highly-respected religious leaders. Clergy candidates today might include those who knowingly teach and preach that which is not true—and those who use the trust engendered by their clerical garb to engage in sexual or financial predation—and those who knowingly protect such predators—and “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in (Jesus) to stumble” (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:1).
• G. Lloyd Rediger coined the phrase, “Clergy Killers,” to speak of laity who conduct pathological assaults on their pastors—who use intimidation and/or abuse and/or lies to control a pastor or to destroy his/her effectiveness.
• Some who write books or make movies or produce television shows or record music hate that which is good, despise God, and have firmly committed themselves to that which is evil. They express those values in their work.
• Hitler and his henchmen hated God, persecuted and tried to subvert the church, followed an evil program unswervingly, caused untold suffering, and died without repentance. There has never been a shortage of such tyrants. Every generation produces its own crop.
• Anyone who hates God and has hardened his/her heart to God is a candidate for this list. Such people aren’t likely to find forgiveness, because they aren’t likely to seek it.
• BUT keep in mind that the New Testament tells of no one repenting and seeking forgiveness unsuccessfully. To join the ranks of the unforgiveable would appear to require a hardness of heart that would never ask forgiveness.
The people whom I have mentioned are quite different from the person who recognizes evil—abhors evil—and yet finds him/herself doing what is evil. Paul talked about that problem in Romans 7, confessing, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). He talked about the spiritual warfare that raged inside himself (Romans 7:22-23) and concluded that his only hope was Jesus Christ (Romans 7:24-25).
Sin is a common problem—if it afflicted the Apostle Paul, surely it must afflict the rank and file Christian—so we need to reassure Christians that their ordinary sins do not constitute the sin against the Holy Spirit.
It has further been noted that people who worry about sinning against the Holy Spirit are not likely to be guilty. The fact that they are concerned reflects the work of an active conscience that is likely to keep them safe. It is unlikely ever to occur to the truly guilty person to worry about being guilty.
MARK 3:31-35. WHOEVER DOES THE WILL OF GOD
31His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside, they sent to him, calling him. 32A multitude was sitting around him, and they told him, “Behold, your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are outside looking for you.” 33He answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34Looking around at those who sat around him, he said, “Behold, my mother and my brothers! 35For whoever does the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”
“His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside, they sent to him, calling him” (v. 31). It is significant that Jesus’ mother and brothers are standing outside—alongside Jesus’ opponents. In the next chapter, Jesus will explain his use of parables by telling his disciples, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables, that ‘seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest perhaps they should turn again, and their sins should be forgiven them'” (4:11-12; see also 5:40).
The fact that Joseph is not mentioned here probably means that he has died. We know nothing about Joseph after he and Mary took their twelve-year-old son to the temple (Luke 2:41-52).
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” (v. 33). This sounds disrespectful, as if Jesus has disowned his mother and brothers, but that is not the case. Jesus does not ask this question to exclude his mother and brothers, but rather to set the stage for expanding the concept of family to include all those who do the will of God.
Jesus acknowledges elsewhere, however, that faith requires disciples to put God above family and sometimes results in families divided over the issue of faith (Matthew 10:37; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 12:52-53). Faithfulness to families is important, but faithfulness to God is even more important.
“Behold, my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (vv. 34-35). The word “whoever,” should encourage us. It makes no difference what the color of our skin is—or our socio-economic status—or our nationality—or our gender. Jesus doesn’t even exclude drunks or prisoners or other ne’er-do-well’s. All who do the will of God are automatically enrolled in Jesus’ family circle.
This verse has been of great comfort to Christians who have found themselves separated from their birth families by faith. The faith community becomes their new family.
This verse is also a source of comfort to many of us who have not been disowned by our families. I have lived in many places and have traveled unto the ends of the earth. Wherever I lived, I have been a part of a church family. Wherever I traveled, I sought out a church where I could worship. Even when I could not understand the language, I was strengthened by being among my extended family. Being able to connect with Christian brothers and sisters relieved my loneliness when far from home.
While Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Jesus during his lifetime (John 7:5), his brother, James, became an important personage in the early church (Acts 12:17; 15:3; 21:17-26; Galatians 1:19—2:14). He was a leader in the Jerusalem church, and possibly the first bishop of Jerusalem.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brooks, James A, The New American Commentary: Mark (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Cousar, Charles B., in Brueggemann, Walter, Cousar, Charles B., Gaventa, Beverly R., and Newsome, James D., Texts for Teaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Craddock, Fred B., in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
Levison, John R., “Holy Spirit,” in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007)
Morro, W.C. and Harrison, Roland K., “Forgiveness,” in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Two: E-J – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Perkins, Pheme, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Rottman, John M., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Tappeiner, D.A., “Holy Spirit,” in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Two: E-J – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982)
Zodhiates, Spiros (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga, Tennessee: AMG Publishers, 1992)
Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan