The rejection of the Jerusalem scribes. The leaders of old Israel. Mark 3:22-30

Jesus’ new community takes shape

The literary structure of Mark 3:22-30

Last week we saw how Jesus chose 12 apostles as leaders of his new community; a remnant of faithful Israel. Today we see how the leaders of old Israel decisively reject him. There’s a parting of the ways taking place here.

Next week we’ll see how Jesus’ family rejects him, although later they come to believe. So this part of Mark that talks about Jesus’ new community taking shape is also defined by rejection of Jesus by those who are not a part of this new community.

In our story today there’s a very serious exchange between Jesus and the scribes on the topic of casting out demons, the work of the Holy Spirit and what is sometimes called the unpardonable sin.

Mark 3:22-30

22And 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.”

Jesus’ casting out of demons is emphasized in the gospel of Mark. Jesus’ authority over them is quite amazing. They’re afraid of him (e.g. 1:24). And he silences them and casts them out with a mere word.

Notice that there’s no debate that Jesus can cast out demons or heal people for that matter. Everyone agrees that he can. The debate now is about how he does this.

Scribes were the educated class of ancient societies, and given that Israel’s culture was governed by the Law of Moses, they were experts in the Law. These particular scribes came from Jerusalem, and so it looks like this is an official delegation sent to investigate Jesus on behalf of the leaders in Jerusalem. (We have already seen that some of the crowd around Jesus has come from Jerusalem – 3:8.)

The scribes come out against Jesus and begin to accuse him and try to discredit him before the crowds. They claimed that the reason Jesus is so amazingly successful at casting out demons is that he’s possessed by a demon, specifically “the prince of demons” – Beelzebul, which is another name for Satan. That’s why he can do what he does. [For this charge see also John 8:48, 52; 10:20] [Beelzebul is made up of two words: “Baal” – the name of a Canaanite god, which means “lord.” And “zebul” which most likely means “dwelling” or “house.”] [In 2 Kings 1:2 ff. Baal the god of Ekron, is called Baal-zebub, which seems to be an intentional change of his name by Israelites to mean – Lord of the flies or the filth.] [Note the house metaphors in this passage and how there appears to be a word pay in Matthew 10:25 between “master of the house” and Beelzebul.]

[The scribes make one charge not two. Mark summarizes their words in v. 30 by simply saying, “he has an unclean spirit.” See also Matthew 12:24; Luke 11:15.]

There’s a lesson here in the scribes’ response: Miracles don’t always convince people. We sometimes think, you know, if God would just do something miraculous people would believe. But miracles can be doubted and they can be interpreted differently. Jesus’ miracles did get peoples’ attention, but in the end they didn’t convince many people. Most of the crowds came to reject him.

Jesus’ first response to the scribes is to point out that their charge is absurd. It’s illogical.

23And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”

(The word “called” is the same as the one used when Jesus called the 12 apostles. So this sets up a contrast between these two sets of leaders.)

He called them to him because they were spreading slander about him and he’s confronting them and warning them. (France). This is a good example to us. When someone sins against you go to the person to deal with the issue. This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:15. Don’t do what the scribes do – go and talk to everyone else. Go to the person or persons face to face.

It says that he spoke to them in parables. The word parable (Hebrew – Masal) has a broad meaning. We usually think of a story parable but it also includes things like proverbs, metaphors or riddles like we have in our passage. A parable is anything that compares two things to make a point.

That their charge is absurd is pointed out by his question: How can Satan cast our Satan The demons that Jesus defeats are Satan’s agents who are doing his will. It really would be like casting himself out! Satan wants to oppress, possess and destroy people. Why would he want to give freedom and release from himself? This doesn’t make sense.

He gives two illustrations –

24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

The comparison to a kingdom is apt because Satan is called here a “prince.” Jesus also uses the metaphor of a house, or since Satan is a prince, we could say a royal household. (This last example is likely a play on words with the name Beelzebul). And the point is, if there’s a civil war going on or if a household is fighting – these entities will fall apart.

He then applies this to Satan –

26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.

If Satan is in revolt against himself things really are falling apart. But that’s not the case. That Satan’s kingdom has not collapsed refutes their charge (Stein). This is shown by how many demons Jesus is casting out. Satan is alive and well.

Jesus gives us the correct assessment of what’s going on when he casts out demons in verse –

27But 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.

(Jesus continues with a house metaphor.) In this parable:

  • The strong man is Satan
  • The house is world. As Jesus says in John 12:31 Satan is “the ruler of this world.”
  • His goods are the people who are under his control – specifically here the demon possession.
  • To plunder is to set people free by casting out demons.
  • To bind is to overpower Satan so that he can do nothing about it. (There is no necessary reference to a one-time event when this happened. Jesus is just more powerful. And whenever he engages Satan or his representatives he wins.)

Jesus is this stronger one (Luke 11:22) who can enter Satan’s domain and set his captives free (Luke 13:16). All Satan and his demons can do is submit to Jesus. So this is what’s really going on. Jesus is assaulting Satan’s kingdom. He has come to establish the kingdom of God and he is doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28: Luke 11:20), as our next verse will make clear.

Jesus’ other response to the scribes is that their charge is unforgiveable blasphemy.

28Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter . . .

The word “truly” is literally “amen” which means “confirmed” or “verified.” This way of talking is unique to Jesus. It’s similar to the Old Testament, “thus says the Lord.” And he uses it to say something really important.

Jesus is pretty broad here – “all sins” can be forgiven, and “whatever blasphemies.” Blasphemy means to slander, defame or speak against someone, in this case God. And blasphemy against God is a capital offense (Leviticus 24:13-16). But notice what Jesus says. All sins and blasphemies can be forgiven (with one exception, as we’ll see). There’s good news in this statement. What are the worst sins you can think of? What are the worst sins you have committed? Jesus tells us these can be forgiven. This speaks to the depths of God’s mercy and grace toward us.

There’s only one exception to Jesus’ statement –

. . . 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

(See also on blasphemy of the Spirit – Luke 12:10; Matthew 12:32)

The scribes were not just slandering Jesus, which is forgivable (Matthew 12:32). They’re slandering, blaspheming or speaking against (Matthew 12:32) the Holy Spirit of God — since it’s the Spirit that empowers Jesus to do what he does. Notice the double emphasis – “never has forgiveness;” and “is guilty of an eternal sin.” The point is clear. It won’t be forgiven.

 How does one commit this sin? People sometimes fret or are afraid that they have done this or will do this. Well, Mark makes it clear –

30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

 You commit this sin if you say that what the Holy Spirit did through Jesus – casting out demons, miracles, healings – is the work of a demonic spirit.

Now the Spirit works through others, but never more powerfully and clearly than through Jesus. And I believe that Mark is showing us that this sin has to do specifically with the work of the Spirit through Jesus. As he says, they said that Jesus has an unclean spirit.

And this sin is committed by those who know better, in this case the scribes. It’s not made by someone who doesn’t really understand things. It’s not a stray thought that comes into your mind. It’s a position you that you take about the Spirit’s work through Jesus – that it’s of Satan.

To say this is to say that black is white and white is black. It’s like Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.”

We see here that the honor of the Spirit, who is gentle, quiet and pure is zealously guarded by God.

Let me end by emphasizing the main point. Jesus has complete power and authority over Satan and his demons. He is the stronger one who overpowers Satan and there is nothing Satan or his demons can do about it.

Now, you don’t have to be demon possessed to need Jesus’ deliverance. Satan is the ruler of this world and we all have been or need to be set free to one degree or another. So in whatever way you need to be saved – Jesus can do it. Even Christians can give him a foothold in our lives when we walk in sin. Look to him! He will break you out of the strongman’s house. He will set you free! And he will receive you into his kingdom, the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ authority as teacher and exorcist. Early ministry in Capernaum. Mark 1:21-28

The literary structure of Mark 1:21-28

Last week we saw how Jesus called out the first leaders for his new community – Simon, Andrew, James and John. The story of Jesus’ early ministry in Capernaum continues today with Jesus teaching and casting out a demon in their synagogue.

Let’s begin with some –

Background

Capernaum was a fishing town. As I said before there was a booming fishing industry around the sea of Galilee as this time. It had a significant North-South trade route running through it and so it had a customs office for taxes. And there was also a small Roman garrison there.

Here’s a map . . .

map of Galilee

This is a picture of the 4th century synagogue, with the floor of the first century synagogue under it, where Jesus was teaching and ministering in our story today.

Capernaum Synagogue

[bibleplaces.com]

Let’s look at our story –

Mark 1:21-28

21And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus and his new disciples come into the city and are attending the weekly worship service at the synagogue. Jesus must have taught enough that the local synagogue leader had heard of him and asked him to teach, as was the custom to do with traveling teachers.

Mark doesn’t tell us what he taught. We know it had something to do with his basic message in chapter 1:15 – “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” And it would probably depend on what the Scripture reading was in the synagogue service that day (Luke 4:17ff).

Mark’s focus isn’t on what he taught, but how he taught – “as one who had authority.” The scribes taught based on citing tradition and various teaching authorities. So and so said this and so and so said that. Their authority came from being a scholar and they simply placed their opinion alongside others in expounding on the Law.

Jesus taught based on his own authority as Messiah and Son of God. Perhaps a part of his teaching here is like what we find in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, where he says several times, “you have heard that it was said to those of old. . ., but I say to you . . .” – and then he clarified and raised the standard of Old Testament teaching.

Jesus spoke clearly and authoritatively about God’s will to the people. As he said in Matthew 7:24, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them . . .” will make it through the final judgment. His words determined one’s eternal destiny.

The result of his teaching was that they were “astonished”; it blew them away.

Well, if Jesus’ authority in comparison to the scribes stood out to his audience, certainly his authority, or as it can also be translated “power” stands out in the next episode in relation to demons.

23And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”

An unclean spirit is another way of saying “demon” (e.g. Mark 5:2; 15) Demons are spirits that are in rebellion against God and under the dominion of Satan (3:22-23). Paul, referencing Deuteronomy 32:17 (also Psalm 106:37) tells us that demons are the spirits behind the idols that pagans worship (1 Corinthians 10:20-21).

It’s unclean in that it’s contaminated by sin and evil and thus it makes the man unclean. Here the spirit has control of the man so that it speaks through him.

Now we want to avoid two extremes in talking about demons. The first is saying that demons don’t exist because in our culture we only believe what we see. The second is  thinking that demons are behind every bush; that they’re the cause of anything that’s bad.

Let me give you an example in relation to the second extreme. Scripture tells us that demons can cause physical problems – being deaf or unable to speak. But not all such physical problems are related to demons. And Jesus heals people in numerous cases, where there’s no exorcism involved. The key is that when a demon is involved, it means there’s a personal, destructive, supernatural force at work. And this force has to be dealt with for the symptoms to be resolved.

The demon asks, “What have you to do with us?” This comes from a Hebrew idiom. (Literally, “What to us and to you.” It is used several times in Scripture). It means ‘what business do we have with each other?’ Or even, ‘get out of my face.’

Notice that this demon speaks for his comrades too. “Have you come to destroy us?” It’s threatened and defensive. And it should be, because it knows who Jesus is. All the demons know who he is (1:34) since they are from the Spirit world. And though they cause people to fear, Jesus causes them to fear.

The title “holy one of God” is likely the same as saying, “the Son of God,” which is what the other demons in Mark call Jesus (3:11; 5:7).

25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.

Jesus’ authority stands out here. Others at times cast out demons (9:38). But not like this. They relied on magic, incantations and spells. Or they prayed to God who acted for them. Jesus casts out the demon with a simple command. Not even a prayer to God. And there’s really no struggle. Jesus speaks and the demon has to obey, even though it tries to resist.

Why silence the demon??? It’s not that what they say is wrong. Mark expects us as readers to take into account what they say, because demons do know who he is (1:34). It’s that Jesus wants to reveal the fullness of who he is in his own time and in his own way.

In terms of the bigger picture and in answer to the demon’s question – Jesus has come to defeat and destroy them. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God has come with his coming – and wherever it comes there is a clash with the kingdom of Satan. And so here we see, right at the beginning of his ministry (and will continue to see) that God’s kingdom will win this war.

27And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

The people recognize that this is really different. And they are amazed. What’s going on? A new teaching backed up by a demonstration of God’s power through Jesus in the casting out of a demon. Here is someone who speak with God’s authority, clearly, about God’s will. And backs it up with actions that show that God is working powerfully through him.

28And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

 Jesus becomes a celebrity. As we will see, crowds begin to swamp him.

As we will also see later, just because people are amazed by Jesus doesn’t mean that they believe in him or accept his message “to repent and believe the good news.” In fact, many of these same people will turn on him and reject him (Matthew 11:23-24).

And isn’t this true today? Many are amazed by Jesus in various ways, but never give their life to him. Jesus is popular; he’s famous, but no one does what he says or trusts in him with their very lives. Being amazed and believing in him and obeying him are quite different things.

Let me end by sharing –

Two truths

 – I want you to take with you and put into practice.

Jesus speaks clearly and authoritatively to us about God’s will for our lives. He teaches us how to live.

And as the crowd said, it’s “a new teaching.” In his teaching Jesus revealed God as God had never been revealed before. He gives us the highest and final revelation of God. It is in accord with what came before, but it goes above and beyond it.

Do you build your life based on his teaching (Matthew 7:24-27)? Or do you pick and choose what you accept? And then add in some of what this person teaches, some of what that person teaches and, of course, what you think is right?

Jesus is our teacher and authority for all of life. Build your life on his teaching. Study it. Understand it. Put it into practice.

The second truth is this – Jesus sets us free from Satan and his demons! We need not be under Satan’s power.

We see today what happens when an unclean, unholy spirit comes up against the Holy One of God – anointed with the Holy Spirit, indeed, the anointed one. Jesus wins. And he wins every time!

We can be free and we can be free of our fears of demons and all the power of evil, for Jesus not only sets us free, he protects us and cares for us. Trust in him; call out to him and he will deliver you.