[April 25, 2010] With this passage, we begin a new section in the Gospel according to Mark. The opening section of the gospel was composed of the first fifteen verses. It ended with the transitional passage: “After John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” That introduces us to the next section, 1:16—3:19. This section shows us Jesus doing just that. He is the Servant of the Lord, demonstrating the Gospel of the coming of the love and reign of God by His constant labors.
This section, 1:16—3:19 begins with the calling of the four fishermen in 1:16-20 and it ends, in 3:7-19 with the separating and calling and appointing of the Twelve “so that they might be with Him” as eyewitnesses of the Gospel and for training as apostles with a view to their special purpose. These two passages are each transitional and also form an inclusio or frame around the section. Jesus’ labors have an end in view: the calling of people to repent and believe the Gospel, which we see demonstrated in the calling of Levi in the middle, 2:13-17.
Now we come to another transitional passage, 3:20-35. Following on the calling of the Twelve to “be with Him,” it draws a sharp contrast between those who form a circle around Him (verse 34) and those who oppose Him. Together with the 6:1-6a, the passage about the poor reception Jesus received in His own country among His own people, it forms the first member of the inclusio that frames this section. This body of this section contrasts the different reactions to the Gospel, i.e., the coming of Jesus.
This being the case, the passage in front of us brings this right out and shows us what is at stake. Those who oppose Him run the tremendous risk of eternal alienation from God, while those who are with Him are His true family. Of course this raises intense questions for us.
The Reaction of “Those with Him” and the Scribes (Mark 3:20-22)
In the opening verses, Jesus comes into a house and “again” a crowd comes together (see 1:45—2:2 and 2:13; this will be repeated in 4:1-2; 8:1 and 10:1). This shows the scene of Jesus’ labors. In 6:31 we are also told that “there were many coming and going, and they did not even have opportunity to eat,” indicating the extent of His labors. This is a reflection of what we have so far seen in Mark, but the return indoors to a house takes us inward for a closer look at something of significance. This time what we are looking at is not the meaning of the Gospel but rather people’s reaction to it.
Verses 20-21 do not appear in Matthew or Luke. Mark (or Peter, whom Mark is transcribing) composed them here for this section, which he has drawn from Matthew 9:34, 12:24-32 and 12:46-50, and Luke 11:15-22; 12:10 and 8:19-21. In other words, Mark has drawn from His sources to create this section that it may serve his thematic purpose. Therefore, the context of this passage in Mark—which I have explained above—is important for its interpretation.
In verse 21 we are told that “those with Him” (hoi par’ autou) have come to lay hold of Him. The term is ambiguous. Who are they? The translations often say His “relatives” and we are tempted to connect them to His mother and siblings in verse 31. This has encouraged some interpreters to insist that Mark has a tendency to put down Jesus’ earthly family, in contrast say to Luke. However, they probably are not His mother and siblings because they do not arrive at the house until verse 31.
Probably (I think) the term refers to people from Jesus’ home town, whom we see on their own ground in 6:1-6a. Perhaps His mother and siblings saw that trouble was stirring and followed out of concern for Him. Or the term may simply refer to those who were observing what was happening.
In any case, these people are concerned that Jesus is “beside Himself” and want to lay hold of Him. In this context the word does not have the meaning of “amazement” but rather of something more sinister. What that more serious concern may be is related to the charges in verses 22 and 30, that He might actually have an unclean spirit, i.e., a demon.
In verse 22 the scribes from Jerusalem make the accusation that He has Beelzebul, and that it is by the ruler of the demons that He casts out demons. Matthew and Luke speak of the Pharisees rather than scribes from Jerusalem, but neither of them report this first charge, that Jesus actually has an unclean spirit (verse 30) or Satan Himself (verse 23) within Him. This is quite extreme.
While Mark 1:10 speaks of the Holy Spirit entering into Jesus, here these men confuse that Spirit with Satan. This is very serious and now characterizes the hardcore opposition to Jesus.
Verses 20-22 together with verse 30 frame the teaching in 23-29.
Jesus Is the Hero Who Binds the “Strong Man” (3:23-27)
Jesus calls them (probably His accusers) to Him and answers their accusation in parables (not the first time but probably anticipating His method of teaching in 4:1-34).
In verses 23-26 Jesus basically says that divided things do not stand. This principle, which shows the absurdity of the accusation, can also be a warning to the family of Jesus that it must not divide against itself! The “brother and sister and mother of Jesus” must stand together or else they cannot stand.
The only way to defeat Satan is to invade his household (verse 27). Jesus is the One mightier than Satan (Luke 11:22) who overpowers him and ties him up. Then He can take away armor and plunder his house. That Jesus is the kingdom of God drawn near implies that He has already overcome Satan in His own person. Of course Satan is not defeated in the world, but in Jesus he meets the One who renders him helpless. The gospels of Matthew and Luke bring out how Jesus overcame Satan in the wilderness. By renouncing His own soul in the face of every temptation and by using the Scriptures to put His trust entirely in God, thus relying on His spirit in every case, Satan found no ground in Him. Jesus was free of him. When Jesus came out of the wilderness He began commanding Satan to release his captives, those under the power of demons. Jesus speaks of Satan’s kingdom. Whenever Jesus exercised this authority against him, He brought the kingdom of God to bear on the kingdom of Satan (Luke 11:20), defeating it.
That ground—the ground of the kingdom of God—is extended to us through His death on the cross and His rising from the tomb.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit (3:28-30)
In this context the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to call the Holy Spirit Satan. It is the only sin for which there is no forgiveness. The sin itself is eternal, meaning that the guilt or liability cannot be removed. In Matthew there is no forgiveness in this age or in the age to come (meaning the age of the kingdom), but in Mark it is “into the age,” which seems to imply forever. This can be an argument against universalism.
What exactly incurs this guilt? For many people, especially the unstable, are anxious about it. Who has committed it? Have I? Could I have committed it and not known it?
Jesus is probably giving them a warning, rather than stating that they were already hopeless. Even by their accusation, they might not have yet committed the ultimate sin. They were guilty in fact of actually witnessing Jesus cast out demons by the “finger of God” and of labeling that the work of Satan, that is, the epitome of evil. It was a complete and utter rejection of Jesus and who He actually was, the incarnation of God and the presence of the kingdom of God among them, in the face of Jesus, that is, after actually having witnessed Him acting-as-such themselves. This takes a singular act of hard-heartedness.
It seems to me, and I may be wrong, the ultimate sin would be to take this sin—the hardening of the heart to this extent—what I just described, to the grave. It is to shut the door for good.
Many Christians believe that there is no hope for unbelievers when they die. In effect, they all have committed the unpardonable sin. I do not see that in the Scriptures. For example, even in the Book of the Revelation, the New Jerusalem is surrounded by nations (Gentiles) who can enter through the gates of the city and be healed. They are not—yet—the Bride of the Lamb; so who are they? They seem to be the ones given the promise in 21:6b. (Of course, they may be “survivors” of the “age to come,” but the point is that there is room for them.) Beyond them are those who are in the “Lake of Fire.”
Like the church fathers, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazanzus and Ambrose, I do not subscribe to the interpretation of the damned suffering in torment forever. The concepts of God and of eternity that this would involve are morally, theologically and logically intolerable. The fires of hell are real enough and eternal (because they are a corollary of God’s holiness) if the testimony of Scripture is to be believed, but I think the torments of people may ultimately be remedial, even if they need be exhaustive (we see this in how the image of endless flames is used in the Old Testament—Israel ultimately survives them). However, a passage such as Mark 3:29 leads me to think that some people may even be beyond remediation. In the end, they lose themselves so much that there is nothing left of them. They, their spiritless souls, are—ultimately, after much suffering—dissipated and in effect annihilated (bored out of existence). This seems to be the image C. S. Lewis portrays in the Great Divorce. I concur.
In any case, one does not have to agree with my views to recognize that here in the Gospel according to Mark, the ultimate consequence of rejecting Jesus—the reality of who He is—is complete and final alienation from God, truly being forsaken of God.
This reveals that our reaction to Jesus is absolutely critical. Every moment when we do not turn and respond fully to Him, we are in danger of hardening our hearts. And the ultimate consequence of hardening our hearts can be catastrophic. The only appropriate response to Jesus—upon hearing the Gospel—is to turn to Him fully, to open our person to His Person, to commit to Him as our Lord and give Him our allegiance, our loyalty and adherence, and to insist on growing a relationship to Him. It will mean a laying down of our soul, but it is also the only path to full personhood and freedom, the divinization of our created being in Him.
The True Family of Jesus (3:31-35)
Here our passage reaches a climax. In Matthew Jesus’ mother and siblings stand outside seeking to speak to Him. In Luke they could not reach Him because of the crowd. In Mark, they stand outside and sent to Him, calling Him.
After the severe warning that Jesus gave to those who came to lay hold of Him and accused Him of being beside Himself with a demon (or Satan himself), Jesus now makes clear what does matter. Ultimately it is not where one comes from, one’s ethnic affiliation (membership in the people of Israel, God’s chosen), one’s home town as it were, or even one’s family background, that matters. All such distinctions become irrelevant—Jesus levels the field, so to speak—in view of the only distinction that does matter.
Jesus asks, “Who [really] is My mother and My siblings?” Who really belongs to Me? In Matthew He stretches out His hands over His disciples (Matthew 12:49) who are sitting in a circle around Him and says, “Behold, My mother and My siblings!” This is a picture of the church as opposed to the crowds who are standing around needing and admiring but are still neutral and uncommitted. The church sits in a circle around Him, attentive to His teaching.
Who are they? In Matthew they are those who do the will of My Father, in Luke they are those who hear the Word of God and do it, in Mark they are those who do the will of God. To do the will of God is to hear the call of Jesus and turn to Him, to sit at His feet as His student and to learn how to be. It is not to immediately run off and to do good works according to your own understanding and good intentions. This form of self-justification is not the way to do the will of God. The way to do the will of God is to come to Jesus and be near Him and, before anything else, learn to be His family. If you are in the right place, if you pay attention to your being instead of your doing, the doing will follow naturally without the anxiety of self-justification. The doing will follow of its own, as the fruits of a new life.
Jesus calls us His brother and sister and mother. Notice that there is no patriarchal “father.” That place is reserved for the Lord. As Christians we are siblings of Jesus but we are also siblings to one another. When we call one another “brother” and “sister,” this is not a formality that implies membership nor does it imply mere friendship. A sibling is a primary relationship over which you have no choice and no control. Yet a sibling is one whom you love because of your common origin. It implies intimacy, especially when you are still in the same household, which is different than friendship. The difference is that it is unconditional. In the church we are siblings because of our common relationship to Jesus our Brother. This is different than the supposed synonyms that translations such as the New Revised Standard Version use (fellow member, neighbor, friend, etc.) in order to avoid gender distinctions. In the church we are bound to love one another not because of any qualities we find in the other but entirely because of our common relationship to Jesus, and this relationship is close. For Christians to take their relationship to one another for granted, for Christians to treat is with no regard, is an insult to Christ.
We are also called to be mothers to Christ and to one another. What can that mean? As mothers we give birth to Christ in the church through ministry (this is the real meaning of ministry) and in the world as we give birth to new sisters and brothers. As mothers we also cherish and nurture and care for one another. As siblings of one another, are we also cherishing and nurturing and caring for one another as a mother cares for her child? This is also what it means to be a Christian and a part of the church. Biblical Christianity knows nothing of the lone individual Christian who simply holds correct opinions or is a moral bastion. To be a Christian means to be a sibling to the siblings of Jesus and to be both His and their “mother.” Let it be so!