In April of 2019, John T. Earnest penned these words: “To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although…Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews—remember that you are secure in Christ. Turn away from your sin. Not because it is required for your salvation—for nobody save Christ can merit heaven based on his own works—but rather out of gratitude for the gift of salvation that your God has given you. Always remember that it is God that is keeping you alive and in faith. All sin stems from the arrogant belief that one does not need God. Satan was so prideful that he actually truly believed (that he, a created being) could overthrow the Ancient of Days—the Creator of all in existence. Satan inspired this rebellion among humanity. Christ alone is the only source of life. Know that you are saved in Christ and nothing—not death, nor torture, nor sin—can steal your soul away from God.” (fn. 1)
Sounds rather edifying, right? Lots of good doctrine in there. John T. Earnest was an intelligent young man who had thought seriously about his faith, and by all appearances, had a very positive response to an encounter with Jesus Christ. Attending a very theologically conservative church (OPC)—where his father served as an elder—which gathers in one of the most conservative, Reformed seminaries in America, Westminster Seminary in Escondido, Earnest was surrounded with godly men and women who took their faith very seriously. You might be surprised, however, to learn then that Earnest wrote this last year right before he drove to a synagogue and opened fire on the congregants there. Apparently, unbeknownst to his parents, Earnest had spent years immersed in an internet forum that fostered racist, anti-Semitic views, and encouraged racially motivated violence. So Earnest walked into the lobby of Chabad Temple, and pulled out an assault rifle, and shot four people, killing a 60 year-old woman and injuring three others, including an eight-year-old girl. In his manifesto he goes on to describe how God would heartily approve of his plans to kill as many Jews as he could, since it is the Jews who were ruining the pure American-European culture and were responsible for most of the evils in the world. Friends, that is Satanic. God hates that with an absolute and holy hatred. How could someone know so much about Jesus, the Bible, and theology, but believe that what God wanted him to do most was murder people?
Of course, this is a very severe example, friends. But this is just a much more dramatic picture of what many do today. We “come” to Jesus, but never really submit to Him. We get close, we get involved, we study, we pray, we serve, we even get excited, but we never, in our heart of hearts, submit. We will go with Jesus as far as we feel comfortable, but no further. We will give Jesus some rope, but not control. We still get to decide what is ultimately best, what is true, and what we should do. Which is just another way of saying, we never actually come to Christ. Revelation tells us that Jesus spits lukewarm “Christians” out of His mouth (Rev 3:16)—that is, they are not actually Christians.
In our Scripture today we have a wide survey of various responses to Jesus. They range from excitement to outrage, from fear to suspicion. Mark gives us a veritable carousel of different reactions to Jesus’ words and work, demonstrating how diverse the responses to Jesus can be. There are those who are really excited about Jesus and those who are deeply skeptical about Jesus. But their final outcome in regards to Jesus turns out to be rather surprising. The responses can be divided into two general groups: positive and negative.
The story begins by Jesus (again) walking by the sea (cf. Mark 1:16; 2:13) with a “great crowd” from a widespread area approaching Jesus. Mark describes the crowd as a clamorous mob in danger of crushing Jesus as they press in around Him to receive healing from Him (Mark 3:9-10). Jesus is so concerned about being trampled on that He tells His disciples to get a boat ready for Him to step out onto as a floating stage to continue preaching and healing from (3:9; cf. 4:1-2). In the midst of the clamor, we are told that “whenever” unclean spirits saw Jesus, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God,” which Jesus immediately silences (3:11-12). The demons rightly recognize who Jesus is, but it is a recognition that is born out of fear and hatred, not out of submission and love. The fact that Jesus commands them to be silent and they obey demonstrates that Jesus has a superior power, a superior authority over Satanic forces—something Jesus will allude to later.
There is then a scene change and Jesus is ascending a mountain, presumably alone, in order to call his twelve disciples to Himself. We are simply told, “and he called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him,” (Mark 3:13). The scene is strange to consider; Jesus atop a mountain, calling down to for the twelve to meet Him on top of the mountain. This reminds us of the story of Mount Sinai where God is atop the mountain and the twelve tribes of Israel are below at the base of the mountain (Ex 19-20). Before God gives the nation the ten commandments we read, “The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up,” Exodus 19:20. Moses then gathers the twelve tribes to the base of the Mountain, serving as an intermediary between God and the people (cf. Ex 20:18-21). Here, in Mark, Jesus acts as Yahweh on top of the mountain, but instead of calling an intermediary, He summons the twelve disciples directly to Himself (fn. 2). It is no coincidence that Jesus chooses twelve disciples while atop the mountain. At Mount Sinai, the twelve tribes were constituted into the nation of Israel. Here, Jesus is reconstituting the nation of Israel, bringing about a new people of God through His work; the twelve disciples symbolically represent the new Israel (a number so important, that after Judas kills himself, the eleven feel compelled to find a replacement so that there are still twelve apostles, Acts 1:15-26; cf. Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; Rev 21:12-14). In Mark 3:14 we are told Jesus appoints the twelve to be “apostles” for three purposes: that they might be with him, that they might preach, and that they would have authority to cast out demons. “He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him,” Mark 3:16-19.
We are then told this odd story about Jesus’ family that is interrupted by an encounter with the scribes from Jerusalem. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind,” Mark 3:20-21. Jesus’ family believes that Jesus has gone insane and are attempting to “seize him,” thinking He can’t be trusted on His own any longer. This is a shocking bit of information: Jesus’ own family thinks He is insane? But the scene quickly changes to another controversial interaction with scribes from Jerusalem who accuse Jesus of being under the influence of Satan (Mark 3:22-30).
In Mark 3:22 we are told, “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” Notice that these are not the same scribes of Capernaum that Jesus has had interactions with already (cf. 2:6-7). These are scribes from Jerusalem, the epicenter of Israel. These are important scribes! They have likely heard of the widespread reports about Jesus’ teaching and miracles and have been sent to investigate and sort out what is happening. However, they do not appear to be coming with an open mind; they are already confident that there is something sinister about Jesus. So sinister that they believe that He is an agent of Satan, himself. Jesus’ response to them is fairly straightforward, ““How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end,” Mark 3:23-26. It does not make any sense for Satan to be in a civil war with himself. Jesus is not casting out demons by the power of demons. Rather, Jesus explains how He is able to cast out demons, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house,” Mark 3:27. Since Satan’s house is not divided (v. 25), he remains as a “strong man” guarding the plunder of his home. Jesus is the “stronger” one (ὁ ἰσχυρότερός, 1:7) who can bind the strong man and plunder his house. The plunder, in light of the exorcisms, appear to be the people whom have been ensnared by Satan (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; 2 Tim 2:26). Jesus is alluding here to Isaiah 49:24-25:
Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued? For thus says the Lord: “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued, for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children.”
What is Isaiah describing here? In the verses right before this, 22-23, Isaiah is describing the return of Israel’s children from exile and God making the mighty kings who domineered over them lick the dust of the earth, an allusion to Genesis 3:15. Thus, Jesus is explaining that the plunder that He is taking from the house of Satan are the children of God who have been held captive. This release from demonic captivity is a sign of the end of exile that Isaiah looked forward to and which Jesus is bringing about. Mankind has been spiritually exiled from God, held in bondage under the power of Satan, but Jesus has come and bound Satan—He has the greater authority (cf. Mark 3:12; Rev 20:1-3). Jesus ultimately “binds” Satan through His death and resurrection. It is by Jesus’ work on the cross and His resurrection that Satan’s greatest authority—sin and death—are removed from Him. Colossians explains, “…canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him,” Col 2:14-15. Because our sins have been forgiven, Satan no longer has any authority over us.
Jesus then turns to the scribes and speaks this solemn warning, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit,” Mark 3:28-30. Never has forgiveness? Eternal sin? What does Jesus mean? I have spent enough time serving in ministry in the church to know that some people with guilty or sensitive consciences live in a paralyzing fear of committing this sin. The typical pastoral insight, “If you are worried about committing the unpardonable sin, you won’t,” is pretty spot on. A look at the immediate context will make it very clear what Jesus means: the scribes of Jerusalem are looking at the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ exorcisms and are convinced that this is not the power of heaven, but the power of Hell. The fact that Mark reemphasizes the scribes’ accusation in v. 30, “for they were sayings, “He has an unclean spirit,” makes it even clearer this is what Jesus is specifically referring to (fn. 3). If you are tempted to look at the profound displays of Jesus’ work by the power of the Holy Spirit and attribute it to the work of Satan, then you are in danger of committing the unforgivable sin; if not, then you need not worry. While Jesus is stating a timeless truism: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit…” His words likely reveal more about the state of the scribes’ spiritual allegiances than they do about particular temptations to sin we face today. The irony is that just earlier it was actually the demons who rightly see that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 3:11); the scribes, the religious “insiders”, are so blind that think Jesus is empowered by demons. The scribes’ look more like demons than the demons do by their accusation that Jesus is empowered by demons!
The story here of Jesus’ family, sandwiched around the encounter with the scribes, invites us to compare the scribes and Jesus’ mother and brothers. It appears that Jesus’ family aligns more with the scribes than with His disciples. Jesus is sitting in a home with a crowd around him when His mother and brothers show up, trying to see Him (presumably to “seize him,” Mark 3:21), “And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother,” Mark 3:31-35. Jesus’ family is literally left “outside” (v. 33, cf. Mark 4:11) while Jesus looks to those who are in His circle (v. 34) and proclaims that they—not His blood relatives—are His family, because they do the will of God. Jesus had more disciples than the twelve (see 4:10), but in the narrative here He is likely referring primarily to the twelve. Jesus says that His family is defined by those who do “God’s will” (θέλημα) and in 3:13 we are told that Jesus called those whom He “desired” (ἤθελεν). These two words share the same etymological root: “desire” is the verb, “will” is the noun. If a king “desires” that you bring him an offering, and you do, then you have obeyed the “will” of the king. What does it look like to do the will of God? You answer Jesus’ call on your life. You submit to Him as your Lord. If you do so, then you are adopted into Jesus’ family.
Not Every Positive Response is Good
You can look like you have submitted to Jesus, but resist Him in your heart. Mark frankly describes Judas as the one “who betrayed him” Mark 3:19. Judas was one of the twelve! He walked up that mountain like the other eleven. Yet, the longer and longer he was near Jesus, the harder and harder his heart became towards Jesus, till he joined arms with those trying to destroy Him. Outward actions alone will not save us.
You can say the right things about God, but not love God. The demons make a correct theological confession: Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 3:11). But it makes no difference; they know the correct things and hate God. James, warning us of a dead faith devoid of good works, remarks, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” James 2:19. Knowledge alone will not save us.
You can be excited about Jesus, but never have an authentic encounter with Him. The crowds are really excited about Jesus, and this is true throughout most of the gospel. But, I think Mark’s details about the crowds nearly crushing Jesus to receive a healing is an authorial nod towards the real goal of the crowds. They don’t really care about Jesus as much as they care about what Jesus can give them. In the gospel of John, Jesus makes this clear in the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. Jesus looks at the crowds and says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” John 6:26. The “crowds” in Mark are always excited about Jesus’ healing, miracles, and exorcisms, but are less receptive to His message of taking up their cross and following after Him (Mark 8:34). The crowds, who throughout the gospels remain so excited about Jesus, wind up being the very ones who shout out for Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:8, 11, 15; cf. 14:43 where a “crowd” apprehends Jesus in the Gethsemane). Emotional experience alone will not save us.
What does this teach us? You can be really excited about Jesus, parrot correct theology, and go through the motions of coming to Jesus but never have an authentic relationship with Him (fn. 4). You can be attracted to Jesus, but never submit to Him, never put your faith in Him. What does it look like to submit to Him? What is the right response? We submit to His call. I think the calling of the twelve here is a great illustration to what happens whenever we come to faith in Christ. We are “called” by God and those who are called respond in faith and obedience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his wonderful classic, The Cost of Discipleship, explains, “The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus… Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” What is Bonhoeffer saying? That obedience and faith are two sides of the same coin. If we do not respond to Jesus’ call obediently, our faith is a fraud. And, on the other side, of our obedience to God is void of genuine faith in the gospel, then it is false obedience. When Jesus calls, His sheep listen to his voice (John 10:16); if we do not heed Jesus’ call, it is probably because we are not one of His sheep.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus teaches, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matt 7:21-23.
Not Every Negative Response is Permanent
Jesus’ family here are clearly not exercising faith and obedience. They are compared with the scribes who believe that Jesus is demonic because they think that Jesus is out of his mind. However, we know that later on Jesus’ family repents and becomes disciples of Jesus (Acts 1:14). Though they are compared with the scribes, they are not guilty of the same sin—the eternal sin—that the scribes are guilty of. This is encouraging for us who have friends and family who right now may be demonstrating a very negative response to Jesus. Don’t lose heart. No one is too far beyond God’s reach.
Anyone Can Get in on This
Note that Jesus explains that “whoever does the will of God” can become a member of Jesus’ family. The crowds that are attracted to Jesus are drawn from a wide variety of cities that are very diverse culturally and religiously (Mark 3:7-8). The very makeup of Jesus’ disciples is illustrative of this: the fact that Jesus’ twelve has a tax collector next to a “Zealot” is stunning. Zealots were borderline fanatics; they were staunchly conservative religiously and politically; their patriotism was extreme. It is the “zealots” who in time will lead the charge to try and use violence to throw off Roman oppression, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. And here is a zealot, standing shoulder to shoulder with a natural enemy, one who has helped support Rome, a tax collector. Jesus isn’t here to attract one kind of person from one kind of culture. John 3:16 so helpfully reminds us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” The offer of grace is given freely to all people without distinction—this is not a program available only to Jews. Jesus’ offer is available to any and all ethnicities and cultures; it is not just for white, conservative Americans. This is one reason why we want to emphasize the importance and responsibility of church membership. Church membership is a covenant that you enter into with all of the other members and elders of the church to love and care for one another. Church membership has many purposes, but one of them is to help push us towards loving all of the other members, regardless of how similar we are, what shared interests we have, whether or not we are of the same generation.
(2) Under the Old Covenant, Moses, Aaron, and the priesthood that followed after them served as intermediaries between God and man. One did not commune with God directly, but did so through the conduit of the priest. Under the New Covenant, however, this has all changed. Jesus, truly God and truly man, has now become our mediator, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” 1 Tim 2:5. We now have access directly to God through our union with Christ and indwelling of the Spirit who both intercede on our behalf (Rom 8:26; 34).
(3) In Matthew’s account of this, afterwards Jesus explains, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil,” Matthew 12:33-35. The words of the scribes (“by the prince of demons he casts out demons”) reveals their hardened hearts; the fruit reveals the root. The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that they have just uttered is simply the fruit of a heart that is rebellious and resistant to God. The only way our sins can be forgiven is if we come to Jesus for forgiveness; if I am convinced that Jesus is empowered by Satan, then I will never come to Him and thus never be forgiven.
(4) In fact, throughout the gospels, it is when Jesus pulls individuals out from the “crowd” that they then have a faith encounter with Jesus (Mark 3:13; 5:21-34; 9:14-29; 10:46-52)—we must have an individual encounter with Jesus where we place our trust in Him; we do not slip into Jesus’ family in a huddled mass, riding “emotional highs,” or guarding ourselves with theological armor, without individually coming to Jesus and submitting our whole life to Him.