When we left off last week, the Pharisees were having a pretty bad time – trying desperately to trap Jesus, to find some way to outsmart Jesus, but for some reason they never quite managed to be wittier than an omniscient God. Can't imagine where they went wrong in that plan. The Pharisees, shamed by their repeated failures to set this Jesus fellow straight (as they saw it), promptly went out and found Herod's supporters – usually the enemies of the Pharisees – and began to scheme how to bring Jesus down, how to kill him (Mark 3:6). Mark says that they did this “immediately,” perhaps meaning the very same day – remember, it's the sabbath. Jesus had already asked the Pharisees which is allowed on the sabbath, to save a soul or to execute someone, to heal or to harm. The Pharisees were silent in words when that question was asked, but here they answer in their deeds: they side with killing on the sabbath, and unlike healing and saving, that really is unlawful. The Pharisees, for all their good talk about being Law-abiding citizens, here expose their true colors: their hatred for Jesus outshines their supposed love for the Law. The Pharisees willing to twist and violate that holy Law if it helps them fight Jesus.
If the Pharisees really loved God's Law, if they acted consistently with their stated mission to bring the kingdom by teaching all Israel to keep that Law, they would never even think of planning murder, especially not on the sabbath. And they'd certainly never make common cause with the Herodians, men loyal to a king who makes a continual mockery of God's Law. The Pharisees are prepared at this point to throw away all they claim to stand for, every bit of progress they think they've made – even by their own theology, they will sell their own souls just to destroy Jesus. All that pretty talk about loving the Law is unmasked in this one verse as nothing but the self-serving thirst for power, a power Jesus threatens to take away from them.
Today as well, professed love of the law can be a pretense to pressure modern-day disciples into violating their Spirit-formed conscience. It's true in America, it was true in Galilee, it was true in Rome. During those sporadic local persecutions, Christians were often arrested. Christians were charged with disrupting the social order. Christians were put on trial as atheists – people who didn't accept or honor the gods who were vital to keeping Rome's engines humming. The Romans didn't really care if people happened to like Jesus too – even some pagan emperors had statues of Jesus alongside all their other gods – but to subvert the empire, to cling to a johnny-come-lately superstition, to blaspheme the great Roman gods, to forsake all for the sake of just one? “Unthinkable! Obscene! Down with the Christians!,” they'd cry. “Don't those Christians know their associations are against the law? And who knows what those Christians really do when they get together? No one knows – it's probably something horrible and indecent, or so goes the word on the street.” So when Christians go on trial, all these judges want is to restore order, to get some little gesture that these crazed Jesus freaks really do know how to play nicely with others – some signal that these Christians won't mess things up for everyone by making the gods turn their back on Rome. Well, it's the law, after all, don't you know? Most Christians then refused to follow that law: they just will not make a sacrifice to those pretenders of Mount Olympus.
Now, some of these judges are kind. The judges want to prove their tolerance, their willingness to accommodate the Christians' ill-informed but tender consciences: “You don't have to sacrifice to the gods of Olympus, that's fine, that's okay. We can reach the same goal if you will just sacrifice to Caesar. Well, Caesar obviously exists, you can't deny that; Caesar obviously blesses you, Caesar gives you peace. And we won't even ask you to sacrifice a chicken or a lamb or a goat to Caesar! Just do the smallest sacrifice possible – a single pinch of incense – and be on your merry way. We are not out to be unreasonable to you Christians; all we ask is that you just follow the law.” That's all they insist on – isn't that so friendly, isn't that so accommodating? The early church didn't think so. Our ancestors in the faith said no: a pinch of incense may be small, but it is still idolatry, and idolatry of any scale is totally contrary to a just and sanctified heart. Were these Christians out of their minds to refuse an escape so easy? Well, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said:
I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
That's from Dr. King's letter from his jail in Birmingham, Alabama. A demand for a pinch of incense to Caesar is an unjust law, like the traditions of the Pharisees that obstruct the way of kingdom business. But Christians aren't wrestling with Romans; Christians are not wrestling with Democrats or Republicans, Israelis or Palestinians, Iranians or North Koreans, nor with any who ask for just a pinch of incense. They're all just people – people made in the image of God, people who need to repent of their sin but who can be saved by grace through faith just the same as we've all been.
And the very same thing is true of the scribes and Pharisees we meet in the Gospel of Mark. They may try their best to set themselves up as Jesus' enemies, they may force Jesus to compete publicly with them for the attention and allegiance of the crowds, but Jesus is not at war with the Pharisees. Jesus loves Phil the Pharisee, Jesus loves Sam the Scribe, Jesus loves that fox Herod Antipas, and Jesus loves the half-hearted, self-seeking crowds who come from all over (Mark 3:7-8), who risk crushing him to try to get just a touch of his power (Mark 3:9-10). Jesus has every intention of dying for them all. Jesus' fight is “not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).
The Gospel of Mark is wonderful at reminding us that the good news of the kingdom is not about beating up on the Romans. The kingdom's not about squelching secularists, the kingdom is not about vindicating our rights, the kingdom is not about dethroning Herod, and the kingdom is not even about one-upping the scribes and the Pharisees. The kingdom is about fishing. The kingdom is about growing. The kingdom's victories are not against the Pharisees; they're against demons and all of Satan's pompous schemes. Little skirmishes can happen here and there, but the kingdom is about a tide of relentless freedom, setting the captives free, casting down the dark forces that undergird the mere human expressions of wickedness. For Mark, that is the activity that shows the kingdom in action. And so in this scene, in his fight against the devil, Jesus again forces the issue: You have to make a decision, you have to make up your mind: Who is Jesus? What is he all about? The great author C. S. Lewis famously said that, confronted with Jesus' claims, there are only three conceivable options:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
He did not intend to. No, indeed – he did not intend to. In the scenes Mark gives us here, we with the crowds watch as people align themselves behind one of the three options. Jesus' own family – his brothers like James, Joseph, Judah, and Simon, his mother Mary, maybe his sisters as well – they all fear he's surely gone “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). They think that the Jesus they've watched grow up is a madman, a lunatic, that something has come unhinged in his psyche, and he's embarrassing the whole family. They want to “shut him up for a fool.” They want to deprogram him, to quarantine him 'til he gets a grip on himself and calms down, maybe goes back to carpentry and the occasional good word in Nazareth's synagogue, reverts to a normal life and normal job instead of all this “kingdom” business he won't stop talking about. That's what the family's after.
Jesus' closest followers, meanwhile, hold fast to their conviction that he is who he says he is, even if he hasn't said much outright yet, preferring to keep those cards up his sleeve. After all, it does no good to proclaim himself as “Messiah” and “Son of God” if everyone jumps to the wrong conclusions when they hear those words. He doesn't want the crowds look at him through the lens of what they expect a messiah or a divine son should be; Jesus insists that we look at the idea of a messiah and divine son through the window his life is into the heart of God (Mark 3:11-12). You can't know what it means to be God's Son until you see the crown of thorns on his head. You don't know what “Messiah” means until you spell it with a cross and nails and the shedding of blood. That's why he tells the demons to stop talking about him (Mark 3:12).
His family label him a madman, his followers creep toward seeing him as Master, but then there are the scribes, denouncing Jesus as a magician. They can't deny what Jesus does; all they can do is put their own twisted spin on what it means. Clearly, Jesus is an exorcist: he tosses demons out left and right. He claims he does it by God's Spirit. They say he does it at Satan's own behest. After all, plenty of ancient magicians would try to leverage spirits against each other, invoking a medium one to trounce a little one, calling on a big one to evict a medium one. Where Jesus says miracle, they say magic. Jesus says he works for God; the scribes say he's an agent of the Lord of the Flies, not the LORD of Hosts (Mark 3:22). And Mark didn't make up this accusation: ancient Jewish traditions actually preserve claims that Jesus used sorcery to try to seduce Israel to idolatry. That really is what the scribes tried telling people.
But Jesus pokes a lot of holes in their case, you see. The very idea of magicians pitting spirits against each other has credence only if you think it's a tactic, a feint, a strategic retreat. But you cannot explain Jesus away that way. Unlike all the other Jewish exorcists, he's doing major damage to Satan's work; he's setting entire villages and cities free from every unclean spirit found in them. Jesus is taking hell by storm! That's no devilish ploy; that's serious kingdom business. Either there's mutiny in the demon ranks, or Jesus really is the victory of God. If Satan's kingdom is broken apart, if his reign is in tatters, celebrate! That means the kingdom's on its way, because Satan's end has come (Mark 3:24-26)! Jesus is ahead of schedule in binding Satan, tying him up, to plunder his house and carry captives like you and me free (Mark 3:27). And that's exactly what God would do, as the prophet Isaiah said: “Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued? But thus saith the LORD: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children” (Isaiah 49:24-25).
What the scribes dismiss and reduce to just another run-of-the-mill exorcist is actually God bringing his salvation to earth! God himself pledged to fight those who fight against his people – not the Romans, not the scribes and Pharisees, but against all the might of “the Prince of Darkness grim.” King Jesus is launching God's head-on assault against Satan's empire, knocking the “strong man” flat on his back, and rescuing the devil's captives. He doesn't get his authority from Satan, like the scribes say. He has authority over Satan, the one dark spirit no magician would ever dare think to conquer. In Jesus, there is liberty of soul. Don't let the “strong man” trick you into thinking you're still his! Jesus has plundered his house.
This is a serious issue. It's so serious that Jesus chooses this moment to unveil one of the most perplexing things he ever said: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). Harsh... Harsh! Or that's how it seems to us. The church has often debated what exactly it means to blaspheme – to slander – the Holy Spirit. Some might fear that any doubt a Christian has could be blaspheming the Spirit. Some might worry that anyone who falls away from the faith, or even backslides, has committed this sin. Some cultists might say that anyone who doesn't recognize such-and-such a modern prophet or teacher is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. A few years ago, an ill-informed atheist group sponsored what they called the Blasphemy Challenge: they got angry and immature people to tape themselves denouncing the Holy Spirit and then posting the videos online – to no particular end other than parading their ignorance, and annoying the faithful, and claiming that there's no point in anyone sharing the gospel with them now, they're too far gone, so just leave them alone. Ridiculous. These verses have caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people.
Luke does something different with the idea of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but for Mark, it's important to see this sin is not something a Christian does. It's what the scribes and Pharisees do when they look at Jesus and call him demon-possessed, when they say that Jesus has an unclean spirit he's working by (Mark 3:30). It's a specific kind of rejection of the gospel. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to see the Spirit's kingdom-bringing work and then to resort to any means necessary to deny that the kingdom's come. It means standing firm against Jesus all the way to the end, even while staring the power of God right in the face. It means seeing the open door and choosing to stay in the cage, convincing yourself it's all a trick because you want it to be a trick. The Pharisees taught that the Spirit left when the Old Testament prophets finished their work, and the Spirit wouldn't be back 'til the kingdom came. Since the Pharisees “know” the kingdom just can't be here, and they “know” Jesus can't be powered by God's Spirit – well, they smell something rotten in Galilee. Not because it's there, but because that's what they want to perceive.
Even knowing that, it's still tempting to think of this as a scary passage. But we have to read it against its background in the Jewish culture of the time. See, most Jewish groups had lists of sins that couldn't be forgiven. Many said that it was very hard, if not totally impossible, to be forgiven any intentional sin done in defiance of God's Law. Others said that it could be forgiven, with atonement and repentance; but if you left the Jewish community, that would cut you off from the nation, and so the sacrifices couldn't reach you to make your repentance work, leaving you permanently in the lurch.
Jesus wants us to know that it doesn't work like that. There is not some big list of sins that can cut us off from God's grace. Any sin, any blasphemy, can and will be forgiven. The worst thing you've ever done – that can be completely and totally forgiven. The worst thing ever done against you – that can be completely and totally forgiven. All the deeds of Jeffrey Dahmer, all the deeds of Hitler, yes, all the deeds of Bin Laden, would be potentially forgivable. And so, praise God, all the deeds of Jonathan Brown, and all the deeds of all of you – no matter how deliberate they were, no matter how many their number, no matter how repetitious, all can be forgiven. No matter how many times we backslide, no matter how many times we try to break away from the church, no matter how many times we fall away – Mark suggests that there's always hope. Just like Eden's freedom, there's only one red line; and that's to see the kingdom burst forth in the Spirit's power and then mock it as demonic. That is a hard point to reach. Reach that point, and what's left to convince you to change your tune? But if you don't let your heart get that hard, there is always, always, always hope! Even plenty of Pharisees followed Jesus in the end (Acts 15:5).
Now, on the heels of his challenge to the scribes, we meet Jesus' family again, standing outside the door (Mark 3:31). It's no social visit – it's obvious from the text, they're here to drag Jesus back to Nazareth. They don't think he's evil, just unbalanced and in need of a psych hold. They aren't guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, just the Son – and Jesus says he'll forgive that gladly (Luke 12:10). But these brothers, mother, sisters – they think he's out of his mind, and they want to set him straight. Contrast this with the disciples gathered around him! Jesus doesn't define his family by bloodline or hometown; Jesus defines his real family by a shared conviction, a common commitment to “the will of God” (Mark 3:33-35) – for Mark, that means following the footsteps of Jesus all the way to the cross. That's open for anyone willing to do the will of God – yes, even us – but Mark has a special focus now on the Twelve.
So why did Jesus choose the Twelve? Twelve apostles point back to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is giving his people a new start, creating them all over again. He's refounding Israel through them, which is why the twelve apostles will judge the twelve tribes (Matthew 19:28). He calls them to a mountain (Mark 3:13). And note that Jesus is not one of the Twelve; he stands on the mountain, he stands outside and above them, in the role of Israel's LORD God. He calls them to be apostles – messengers, ambassadors of the kingdom, ambassadors of this new Israel he's making. And their first and foremost purpose is... what? “To be with him” (Mark 3:14) – just to “abide in him always,” just to spend time in his presence. So often in life, we think that our main purpose is to do – do this, do that, do big things, be active, make the most of every moment. We define ourselves by our jobs, by how hard-working we are, how much time we volunteer, how many meals we serve. But before all that doing comes just being with him, learning from him, growing spiritually just because we know and behold him with the eye of faith. Spend time in his presence daily! It was a good enough prescription for the apostles; I think we can benefit from it, too.
Second, Jesus called the apostles to do what their name suggests: “to be sent out to proclaim the message” (Mark 3:14). Because they'd been with him, because they'd spent time with him, they could go out and do what he does: preach the good news of the kingdom. He equips his church “to spread the light.” We spend time with Jesus here, hopefully we spend time with Jesus at home, but do we really define ourselves as sent-people? Are we conscious of ourselves as a church on a mission? Ask yourself: how, in the last month, have we proclaimed the good news of the kingdom? Are we living as sent proclaimers?
And third, Jesus called the apostles “to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:15). That part might catch us by surprise, but the whole chapter is saturated in this theme. If the apostles are going to share in what Jesus preaches, they're going to strap on the armor of God and go on the offense against the darkness (Ephesians 6:11-13). Now, we may not be called to go hunt demons in every nook and cranny, but we are called to be on our guard, ready to do the deeds of the light and not the deeds of darkness, seeing and resisting and overcome evil in Jesus' name. When we start talking like that, society's first reaction may be, “You're out of your minds!” Even our family members might call us crazy (or worse) for seriously following Jesus like that. But I'll tell you, if he was not out of his mind, then we are not out of our minds either. Our first family is not the one we were born into; it's not one we created by marriage; it's not one we birthed or raised. Our first family is those who do the will of God, those who hear and believe and obey the good news, those devoted to God's kingdom, even – especially – when our king hangs from nails under a dark and dreary sky and invites us to take our place at his right or his left. Is that being out of our minds? Or is Jesus really the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)? Who is this Jesus – is he crazy, or is God's kingdom breaking through? You decide who and what you will say he is, you choose how to react to him, you decide whether you think any other so-called god merits a pinch of incense – but I will tell you this: “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).