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DEACON OF BENEVOLENCE: RAYMOND MOREHOUSE
“Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.
And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and 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.
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.”
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.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “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. 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.
“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”— 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Jesus' Mother and Brothers
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 2:13–3:6 ESV
Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Raymond. I’m a deacon here, and I also do outreach work as a chaplain. It is my pleasure to be able to fill in today, and talk about a pretty interesting and complicated and kind of confusing passage. So, before we get to all of that, let’s pray.
Father, we thank you that we can gather, that we can worship, that we can rehearse through our worship and our liturgy, the truths that we have been liberated, set free, that our citizenship, our allegiances have been transferred. These are profound ideas, God, that may be new to some, challenging to all. And so, God, as we study this text this morning, I pray that you would give us ears to hear from your spirit, minds to understand deep truths, God, and perhaps more than anything, the courage to have imaginations enriched, and enchanted by the truth that you reveal to us. We pray these things in your name, Jesus, amen.
So, I want to start us off with a big idea, to sort of hold in our minds as we get into the text, and that’s this:
Jesus is Israel’s long awaited Messiah, God’s anointed one. This means that he came not only take care of the individual’s sin problem, or moral problem, but also to liberate everyone from captivity to the dark powers that enslave the world. That is, the problem to which Jesus is the only solution is not just the wickedness that is found in the hearts of all of us but also the wickedness that drives the kingdoms of this world on their hell-bent course of rebellion against God.
Jesus did not just come to forgive you; he wants to set you free.
There is a lot to unpack in that summary statement. The idea that we are not just sinners apart from Christ but also slaves may be just as confusing and offensive to us now as it was to the first people to encounter Jesus two thousand years ago. We might think something like this:
Of course on reflection I am imperfect, and of course taking care of my personal issues is of concern to God. I want to be a better person, and it’s reasonable that a good God would share that desire. Fine and good. So a personal savior who forgives and affirms me is somewhat humbling but I can take that in stride. That being said, let’s not get too superstitious or dramatic. We’ve done a pretty good job - I’ve done a pretty good job - of building a society that mitigates the worst in us and gives us some truly basic and wonderful goods: we have our rights, we have our freedoms. Do not insult me by telling me that I am a slave.
This line of thinking is not too far off of how some Jewish people regarded themselves in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Imperfect? Of course. Sinners? Perhaps. Slaves? Never. As some Pharisees responded to Jesus in John’s gospel, “We have never been slaves of anyone!” (John 8.33) So when Jesus begins talking of the arrival of God’s Kingdom, as if it isn’t already present, and starts casting out demons as if they are, he immediately encounters residence. The Children of Abraham, the nation of Israel, are the chosen people of God. They are not subject to the demonic corruption and uncleanness like their pagan neighbors. Right?! But Jesus seems to indicate otherwise and it makes some people extremely, extremely angry. Angry enough to kill.
To give this some teeth, it is as if someone walked up to a proud and patriotic modern citizen and insisted their land was not, in fact, the “Land of the Free” but is actually a kingdom enslaved to the same dark powers that rule the rest of the world.
It is the tension of a claim like this that - which I won’t go in to more - that has been bubbling and boiling as Mark’s narrative unfolds.
THE GROWING CONTROVERSY
Last week we heard about the growing controversy between Jesus and the reigning social and religious norms of his day. As Mark goes on we find that the tension only increases, the friction intensifies, and the pressure rises. Now, in Mark 3, we find nearly all of the major players of this gospel gathered together:Jesus is of course central. Having declared himself capable of forgiving sins and being Lord of the Sabbath, he then comes into direct conflict with the Pharisees and the representatives of the Herodian dynasty. They are the ruling powers, they think, and they think they have been ruling well.They go from questioning Jesus to seeking his destruction, and will remain his enemies for the rest of the gospel.
Mark then describes the gathering crowds, and once again Jesus displays his authority to them by healing the sick and subduing demons. In Mark 3.13-19 we also meet the inner circle of 12 disciples. Twelve, the number here is significant: Israel had 12 tribes, though most are now lost in exile, could it be that Israel’s Messiah is reconstituting the nation? But in this reformation Jesus does not represent one of the twelve, but is rather is the authority above them that sends them out to be a blessing.
In the midst of this, in verse 21, we meet Jesus’ biological family, “his people.” They think he is nuts and make a plan to take him home, by force if necessary. While this plan is unfolding we also finally meet representatives of the Jerusalem elite, the religious scribes that have come down from the holy mountain to see what the fuss is all about.
We should not underestimate the importance of Jerusalem in the political and spiritual world of first century Judea. Politically, it was the center of what remained of Israel’s power; spiritually, with its Temple to Yahweh, ancient Jews called it the “navel of the world,” the point at which heaven and earth came together. They have divine mandate to think this way: Jerusalem had been the place where the Holy Spirit of God - and that will be critically important as the text unfolds - dwelt in the midst of his people, though at the time of Jesus this presence has been conspicuously absent for a long, long time, and it had never been witnessed in the temple that had been built by Herod the Great.
So, with all these players in mind, now gathered together in Mark 3, we also find again the powers operating under the surface, the dark powers whom Jesus has already been systematically conquering. Thus far Mark has made a point of highlighting Jesus’ authority over these powers, identified as either “unclean spirits” or “demons.” For modern readers like ourselves these beings come across as rather abstract concepts. But in this chapter we find that the Jerusalem scribes get very specific. They do not suggest that Jesus is not actually accomplishing the alleged miracles. Rather, they accuse him of being possessed by “Beelzebul.” He has derived his authority from “The Ruler of Demons.”
With this accusation the pressure-cooker of Mark’s gospel has come to a boil. But to understand what exactly is happening here, and what exactly Jesus means by his warning about “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” we need to be aware of some important biblical and historical context. That is, we need to know what is going on up to this point in the big story of what God is doing in the world, and how people during this time would have written and thought about what Jesus was doing among them.
There are a number of places to start or themes to focus on but I think the most important is not the geo-political surface but rather the emerging conflict between the “Holy Spirit” and the demonic forces of Beelzebul. Understanding this conflict in light of Israel’s prophetic scriptures is critical for understanding the central warning of this text: “Whatever you do,” Jesus seems to say, “do not blaspheme the Holy Spirit!”
THE HOLY SPIRIT IN PROPHETIC CONTEXT
So beginning there, this is not the first reference to the Holy Spirit in Mark. From the first verse of the gospel Mark has carefully shaped his narrative around Israel’s prophecies of the coming Messiah, particularly using the Old Testament book of Isaiah who spoke of the day that God’s Messiah would arrive and with the Him the presence of God would once again be found in the midst of his people.
Isaiah had to look forward to this day because in his present, centuries before Jesus would be born, the people of Israel had turned against their God and turned to idols and falsehoods. They had become enslaved to their own passions, their own depravities, enslaved to the wicked and hostile world around them, the world of malicious intelligences greater than themselves. They have become enslaved to their own self-destruction.
Isaiah prophetically describes this fall from grace,
The Lord’s Mercy Remembered
7 I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lordhas granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
that he has granted them according to his compassion,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8 For he said, “Surely they are my people,
childrenwho will not deal falsely.”
And he became their Savior.
9 In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
10 But they rebelled
and grieved his Holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
and himself fought against them.
—Isaiah 63:7-10 ESV
So the great tragedy of Israel was that when they were God’s covenant family they chose instead to rebel, grieve, insult, and fight against God’s Holy Spirit which was in their midst. They polluted their own land and the Jerusalem Temple itself with idols, physical representations of the dark powers that ruled the pagan nations around them. The result of this self-determined slavery is that God himself, the enemy of any that would destroy his good creation, becomes their enemy as well.
But God did not determine to fight against his rebellious people forever. As Isaiah’s prophecy continues,
11 Then he remembered the days of old,
of Moses and his people.
Where is he who brought them up out of the sea
with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them
his Holy Spirit,
12 who caused his glorious arm
to go at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
to make for himself an everlasting name,
13 who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert,
they did not stumble.
14 Like livestock that go down into the valley,
the Spirit of the Lordgave them rest.
So you led your people,
to make for yourself a glorious name.
—Isaiah 63:11-14 ESV
Isaiah prophesied that a new Exodus would someday be led directly by God’s Spirit itself. The beginning of the New Exodus is exactly what the “Good News,” the “Gospel” is all about: God returning again to dwell with his people. Most importantly for our passage in Mark, the Spirit would be present in the Messiah would do all of this by the power of God. Isaiah describes it this way,
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spiritof the Lordshall rest upon him,
theSpiritof wisdom and understanding,
theSpiritof counsel and might,
theSpiritof knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
—Isaiah 11:1-14 ESV
This Messiah would forgive the sins of the people, free them from demonic bondage. Isaiah’s prophecy contains echoes of Psalm 2,
2 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lordand against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
TheLordsaid to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lordwith fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
—Psalm 2 ESV
Returning back to Isaiah, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ speaks again,
61 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lordhas anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
—Isaiah 61:1-2 ESV.
Mark does not record Jesus quoting this scripture, but Luke does
THE HOLY SPIRIT IN MARK, JESUS THE ANOINTED ONE, AND THE DARK POWERS
Nevertheless, it is no accident that Mark introduces Jesus as the Christ, the anointed, who announces the good news. It is not accidental that John the Baptist knows that he is the one preparing the way for this, and that the Anointed Messiah would be the one who would baptize God’s wayward people with his Holy Spirit, once again sealing them as his covenant family. In Mark, it is the Holy Spirit that descends upon Jesus and marks him out as God’s beloved Son, just as we read from Psalm 2. It is God’s Holy Spirit who then sends Jesus out into the wilderness to overcome the temptations of the Devil, thus prepared to return to God’s enemies in order to set them free from their slavery.
Jesus forgives sins and casts out demons, and because all of the people have fallen from the Glory of God even the worst of sinners can be called to follow Him forward in hope, to live in grace and freedom. Jesus does not call tax collectors and sinners to show that there is nothing wrong with them, much less to show the snooty, judgmental Pharisees that collaboration with Pagan slave masters is perfectly acceptable to God. It is not, and this is the point: Jesus calls the worst and vilest enemies of God to follow him because if God’s restorative grace is not for sinners like these then it is for no one.
What the religious elites, the Pharisees and scribes and Herodians have missed, is that it is not just the paganized rebels and outlaws who must submit to the authority of the Messiah: God will install his king on Zion, and he will rule the Holy Mountain of Jerusalem. The one anointed with the Spirit of God walks with Yahweh’s authority, the authority to smash and cast down allrivals. So when Mark tells us that elites have come down from Jerusalem to face off with Jesus the Christ this is a confrontation of cosmic proportions.
The scribes of Jerusalem, seeing the building evidence of Jesus’ authority make a calculated accusation: his authority comes from Beelzebul. This term is a title as much as a name that can be translated either “Lord of the Flies” or “Lord of the House.” In ancient thought, both of these titles are related to the practices of pagan worship. Zeus the King of the gods, was sometimes titled the “lord of flies” because it was thought that he protected pagan animal sacrifices from the polluting influence of swarms of flies.Alternatively, “Lord of the House” may be a reference to the many temples, houses of the gods, found everywhere in the ancient world.
According to some 1stcentury Jews, Beelzebul is the ruler and protector of all demonic power. This is what the scribes claim to be true of Jesus. In the Testament of Solomon, a Jewish text not found in the Bible, but which likely dates from the first century, Beelzebul is questioned by King Solomon,
“Beelzeboul, what is thy employment?” And he answered me:
“I destroy kings. I ally myself with foreign tyrants. And my own demons I set on to men, in order that they may believe in them and be lost.
And the chosen servants of God, priests and faithful men, I excite unto desires for wicked sins, and evil heresies, and lawless deeds; and they obey me, and I bear them on to destruction.
And I inspire men with envy, and desire for murder, and for wars and sodomy, and other evil things. And I will destroy the world.”
So when the scribes of Jerusalem make their accusation we should not be confused about the terrible gravity of their claim. Jesus is not Yahweh’s anointed, he is the ruler of demons.
Slide 13: Daemons
The Greek word “daemon” is taken over by Jewish writers from Greco-Roman thought. Daemons in this rival worldview are not the Halloween caricatures that we are used to. They are the gods of pagan pantheism. When Hebrew writers worked to translate their scriptures into Greek they used this word to represent a whole host of biblical figures. Biblical scholar Dale Martin observes,
“Ancient Jews thus used [“daemon”] to translate five or six different Hebrew words. In the original Near Eastern context, those words referred to different kinds of beings: goat-man gods; superhuman beings that either are or cause diseases; abstract qualities or goods that may also be seen as gods, such as Fortune or Fate. What they have in common, nonetheless, is that they all were thought of as gods – in fact, as the gods other people falsely worship: the gods of the nations.”
The most straight-forward biblical example of this is the Greek translation of Psalm 96.5 (95.5 LXX), “All the gods of the nations are demons.”
Far from being the malicious, hateful, frightening beings we are used to seeing in art and fantasy, daemons were for the ancient Greeks much more complicated. There were evil spirits, the cacodaemons, but more important for worship and service were those beings that were overwhelmingly beneficial. “Fortune,” “Peace,” “Happiness” or “Wealth” could be represented as daemons.
Slide 14: Daemon at Herculaneum Fresco
Here is a depiction of a daemon from Herculaneum, the town destroyed with Pompeii in 79 AD, not long after Mark would have been written.
Slide 15: Euphrosyne and Acratus
In this slide we see Euphrosyne, Good Cheer, and Acratus, Ease, depicted as daemons.
Slide 16: Erotes
And here are depictions of the daemons Erotes who were thought to insight lovers to erotic delights. We should pay careful attention to the fact that these frescos and mosaics were not just found in hidden, secretive, and sacred contexts. They were on full display in the entry ways and living areas of people’s homes. Their appeal is obvious. Further, those devoted to these figures were not what we normally think of as “demon possessed.” Of course we have in scripture descriptions of the demoniac lunatic confined to the outskirts of society. But what would an individual devoted to Good Cheer, Fortune, or Fury look like in society? The jovial socialite, the prosperous businesswoman, or the accomplished soldier? We are so used to thinking about demons in terms of horror movie tropes that we can remain ignorant that in the crucial historical context of the Bible demonic devotion paid rich dividends.
In Roman texts, the Latin term for “daemon” was “genius” and worship of the geni-i of rich, powerful, benevolent figures was common.
Slide 17: Genius of Augustus
The genius of Caesar Augustus, here depicted in marble, was widely venerated. We should remember that while statues like these would have stood in temples and been worshipped, what was really being worshipped and served was the power and benevolence of the Roman state. Such devotion might seem completely foreign to us, but once we have the eyes to see what the biblical texts actually describes we should realize that even a privileged, modern society can host such idols.
Slide 18: The Magnanimous Powers
But as beneficial as these daemons were thought to be they were not to be trifled with. In one of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues, Socrates warns an impertinent student who reasons that if he can’t see demons why should he bother with them. Somewhat sarcastically he says “Really Socrates I don’t despise daemons, but I believe they too magnanimous to need my service.” Socrates replies, ominously, “The greater the power that benefits you, the greater the service it will demand from you.”
But remembering the lens that Isaiah has given us to view Israel’s current state, it is these gods represented by idols, these daemons, that the Israelites chose over the one true God. It is these gods that stand behind the human slave-masters of Israel.
As another biblical text, Deuteronomy 32:15-18 reads,
15 “But Israel grew fat, and kicked;
you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
16 They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
with abominations they provoked him to anger.
17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
whom your fathers had never feared.
18 You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
and you forgot the God who gave you birth.
—Deuteronomy 32:15-18 ESV
When the false gods of wealth, power, happiness, and the state are venerated the cost and consequences are slavery. It is precisely these false gods, these demons, that would be overcome by the coming Anointed one, just as Moses, by the power of God, overcame the gods of the Egyptians during the Exodus. It is for this reason that the many exorcisms described in the Gospels are not just proofs or magic tricks. The people of Israel are seeing their deliverance enacted before their very eyes.
And the elites of Jerusalem reject it.
In Mark 3.23, Jesus begins his rebuttal. Rather than merely a flat denial, Jesus leans into their logic and turns it against them. They are correct: there are indeed two rival Kingdoms. He drops name Beelzebul in favor of another, Satan. This too is a title and can simply mean “the adversary.” Satan can be a single identity, or the Satan may stand for the seething mass of enemies that lie inside of his power and authority.
If Satan casts itself out of the people he rules, Jesus reasons, then one Kingdom has turned on itself. This is not just civil war, but certain destruction. Likewise, a “house,” perhaps an allusion to Beelzebul as the “Lord of the House,” which turns on itself will also fall. The dynasty of the devil would fall to pieces. The assumption underlying this logic is that the Satan has already gained control of the house of Israel. The prophetic indictment is true: long ago Israel turned from the one, true God and is now in bondage. If this is the case then why would the enemy which has already been victorious turn upon itself and undo its victory? Obviously, this would be absurd.
What is in fact happening, as Jesus goes on to explain, is that the house of the strong man is being plundered. His possessions will become the spoils of another. “The Ruler of the House” is being bound. By using this illustration Jesus once again alludes to the prophecies of Isaiah.
The emancipation of Israel is described in Isaiah 49.24-26 in graphic terms,
24 Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
25 But 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.
26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
that I am the Lordyour Savior,
and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
—Isaiah 49: 24-26 ESV
God himself will contend with the mighty tyrant, the strong man, and plunder his house of all that he has taken. The tyrant will so completely overcome that “all flesh,” that is, “all humankind” will know that God is the Savior and Redeemer of Israel. He, rather than the Satan, is the “Mighty One.”
The many exorcisms are not just morality plays about individual deliverance: these mighty works are evidence of cosmic upheaval. Once again Jesus has identified himself using the language of Isaiah’s prophecies, this time casting himself in the role of Mighty One, the breaker and binder and despoiler of tyrants, God himself. With each confrontation Jesus demonstrates that the Dark Kingdom behind the kingdoms of this world is being overthrown and its tyrant is being cast down and plundered. Liberation from the self-inflicted wounds of idolatry and spiritual adultery is at hand and is unfolding before the watching crowds. That is to say, as Jesus has already declared, the Kingdom of God has come into their midst.
BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT
It is at this point and flowing out of this rich, manifold context of Israel’s prophetic scriptures and Mark’s descriptions of the messianic revolution that we find the famous warning in Mark 3:28-29 … 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 … What does Jesus mean?
Pulling all of the pieces together, just this: By leveling their horrible insult the Jerusalem scribes have attributed the saving work, power, and mission of God’s chosen Messiah to the one who seeks to “destroy the world.” Jesus is not, according to them, the one foretold by Isaiah as the one anointed with God’s Holy Spirit. He is not the Mighty One plundering the house of their demonic overseers. He is not the one announcing the good news of liberation and forgiveness. By making this claim they are not just speaking against Jesus, but are actually blaspheming the very Spirit of God.
By rejecting the liberation and forgiveness that Jesus offers they are throwing away liberation itself and forgiveness itself, and it is for this reason that such blasphemy cannot be forgiven. Such rejection must resonate into eternity: it will last forever. Those that persistently assert that whatever Kingdom Jesus represents will never be one that they will join must permanently live outside of its bounds. Refusing to submit to the will of God they will, like their forefathers, remain forever enslaved. Rejecting the Kingdom of God, they will forever take up residence in the Kingdom of another.
All this talk of exorcisms and demonic beings might have made us uncomfortable, but are we so certain that we privileged moderns have discovered how, without God’s help, to resist the enticements of luck, fortune, wealth, national identity, and power. Even if we shrug off the suggestion that there are actual malevolent intelligences behind these temptations it would be hard to argue that they do not come to dominate our lives.
There is one more Greek word for us to consider, not found in this passage, but one which is of profound importance: apocalypsis, unveiling revelation. When the people of God were beset by their enemies it took a prophetic voice crying out that their eyes would be opened for them to see that they were walking in an enchanted creation. What they saw was horrifying and beautiful, a world haunted by devils but also infused with the presence of God.
The Satan, the seething, many-headed, many-formed adversary would love nothing more than to convince us that none of this revelation is true. He would love nothing more than to convince us that we are truly alone, or at least that God remains in his distant heaven and devils only exist in the fantasies of lunatics or superstitious fools. We must allow the Spirit of God to once again capture our imaginations so that we, with unveiled eyes, might see the horror and beauty of the world-that-truly-is. We must not forget the world that we actually live in.
If your time, talent, and treasure are devoted to these things can you be so sure that you are not in fact possessed by these things? If you are not only willing to live for them but also die and even kill for them what does that tell you? An ancient observer may well be forgiven the judgment that our noble pluralism is just as pagan a system as their own. They might even warn us with Socrates’ words to his skeptical student, “The greater the power that benefits you, the greater the service it will demand from you.”
How then are we to escape?
This challenge resonates into our present. It is a call that has come to all of us. We, like the crowds, the sinners, the tax-collectors, the disciples, and the scribes are faced with a decision: what will we do with Jesus? In a passage like Mark 3, He leaves us with few options.
C.S. Lewis famously describes these options as a trilemma,
“[There is a] the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. 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.”
We see two of these approaches in Mark 3. The Jerusalem scribes regarded Jesus as the devil of hell. They are turned away with a terrifying rebuke. In passage we also meet the biological family of Jesus. They, at this point in the narrative, regard him as the lunatic and attempt to take him in hand. They too are rejected.
But why can’t Jesus just be a great moral teacher? For those that are self-conscious enough to recognize their own sin, and this is nearly everyone, this is an attractive option. It does not take much humility to admit to imperfection and to look for moral instruction from great teachers. The gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild who forgives sins and teaches us to love each other is therefore basically attractive to basically everyone. What this caricature ignores is what Lewis points towards: the absolute and exclusive loyalty to God that Jesus demands of his followers. Those that follow him must submit themselves to the authority of God, that is, they must repent, and they must join themselves to His Kingdom.
Nevertheless, it is remarkably common to claim that Jesus, like all good moral teachers, simply taught that the “Golden Rule” is sufficient. But this allegedly “golden rule” is then presented as the command to love others as we love ourselves. It does not seem to occur to those who make this claim that this is not at all what Jesus actually said. He is clear, the first and foremost commandment is to love the LORD your God will all that you have. This is the “great commandment.”
But this commandment goes far beyond a do-gooding approach to moral life which followed the alleged “golden rule.” Jesus primary call and command is about absolute allegiances.
Who is your God?
Who will Lord over your life and whose Kingdom will you build?
To put it another way, whose house will you live in and who will be your Father?
We must now go back to the idea we started with: Of course Jesus came to forgive our sins, this is fundamental, but Jesus did not come to merely dismiss our minor imperfections or show us a better, more moral way of life. He came to liberate us from spiritual slavery. As the Apostle Paul write’s, God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness into the Kingdom of his beloved son (Col. 1).
The disciples, in the closing verses of Mark 3, are gathered around their Lord. After dismissing the pleas of his biological mother and brothers who wish to arrest a lunatic Jesus makes an amazing claim. Gesturing to those gathered with him he declares, “Behold my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Just as the ancient prophecies foretold, God’s Messiah would recreate the covenant family. The Children of God are not, as popular civic religion would have it, everyone. It is only those who submit to God’s rule, who join themselves to him in covenant loyalty, who submit to his will, only these are born anew, adopted, into His divine family. They have left the house of the strong tyrant because they have followed the Mighty One into his victory. They were once slaves, now they have now been fellow heirs of a dynasty that will last forever.
With this we return to the big idea we started out with:
Jesus came not only take care of our individual sin problem but also to liberate us from captivity to the dark powers that enslave us and the whole world. That is, the problem to which Jesus is our only solution is not just the wickedness that is found in each of our hearts but also the wickedness that drives the kingdoms of this world on their hell-bent course of rebellion against God.
Jesus did not just come to forgive you; he wants to set you free.
We thank you for your word, we thank you for the way you challenge us. Thank you for liberating us, for setting us free. Father, I do pray, again, for a conversion of the imagination, for eyes to see an unveiling revelation of the world as it truly is. Lord, I pray that you would make us a church where that is true, where we live out the reality that we belong to you, are citizens of your kingdom, and have been set free to build and to grow and to thrive, and to bless. We pray these things in your name, amen.
Pausanias 5.14.2; 8.26.7.
Test. Sol. 6
Dale Martin JBL 129, no 4. 2010. Pg 662.
Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.4.10.