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Commentary on The Gospel of Mark (2) (3.7-6.6)

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Section 1 continued.

The Section Concludes With A Summary Of The Continuing Ministry (3.7-35).

The first major section of Mark’s Gospel (from 1.1-3.35) now concludes with:

  • A description of the continuing ministry of Jesus.
  • The appointing of the twelve.
  • The opposition of His family and acquaintances.
  • The growing opposition of the leading Pharisees and the controversy with them over the casting out of evil spirits.
  • Jesus’ rebuking of Mary and His brothers accompanied by the assertion that His real family are those who are truly under the Kingly Rule of God and do God’s will, who are His true brothers and mother.

In this last part of the section Jesus continued attack on the forces of evil is also highlighted (compare 1.23-27, 32-34). The unclean spirits fall before Him and declare Him to be the Son of God (verse 11), the Apostles are appointed to have power over evil spirits (verse 15), and He declares to the leading Doctors of the Law His power to cast out and bind Satan (verses 24-27). Meanwhile His own family are also made to take second place to believers because they think that ‘He is beside Himself’ in consequence of His devotion to the crowds (verse 21 with verse 34-35), and have failed to recognise Who He is.

Note also in the analysis that follows the different groups who are involved: the huge crowds who come to hear Him and be healed, the evil spirits who recognise Him as ‘the Son of God’, the twelve who are the foundation of His new community, His near family and friends who think Him deranged, the Scribes from Jerusalem who see Him as demon-possessed, and the ‘crowd’ of believers whom He sees as His true family.


  • a Jesus’ ministers to the huge crowds who gather to hear Him and to be healed. They are the ‘seeking’ (7-10).
  • b The evil spirits declare Him to be the Son of God. They are the ‘fearful but discerning’ (11-12).
  • c He appoints twelve Apostles whom He sees as chosen to ‘rule’ over all Israel, that is over ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matthew 19.28), in the Kingly Rule of God. They are the ‘chosen’ (13-19).
  • c His family and friends, hearing about the great crowds who are exhausting Him with their demands, declare that He is ‘beside Himself’. They are the ‘unbelieving’ (20-21).
  • b He is attacked by the Scribes from Jerusalem as being demon-possessed, and declares that His casting out of evil spirits is rather evidence that He is stronger than Satan and is acting through the Spirit of God, with the result that Satan’s kingdom is being defeated. They are the ‘opposition’ and ‘blasphemers’ (22-30).
  • a He demonstrates the proper place of Mary and her sons in the scheme of things by declaring that His true family are ‘the crowd’ of believers who are gathered with Him and are under the Kingly Rule of God, and do the will of His Father. These are ‘the believers’ (31-35).

Note that in ‘a’ the huge crowds are gathered around Him to hear Him and to be healed, and in the parallel we find the smaller crowd of true believers who are gathered around Him and are His true brothers and sisters and mother. In ‘b’ the evil spirits testify that He is the Son of God, and in the parallel the Scribes of Jerusalem testify that He is of Satan. In ‘c’ He appoints twelve Apostles as His chosen ones who will establish His Kingly Rule and help to cast out Satan, and in the parallel are those who should have known Him but have not understood, and will therefore seek unknowingly to undermine His work.

Amazing Success Brings Fervent Opposition From His Family And Friends (3.7-21).

Jesus’ success expands as He continues to build up His forces for the proclamation of the truth and against the powers of evil, although it is at some personal cost and results in those who have known Him from the past deciding that He needs brining under control.


  • a And Jesus with His disciples withdrew to the sea, and a great crowd from Galilee followed, and from Judaea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumaea, and beyond Jordan, and about Tyre and Sidon, a great crowd, hearing what great things He did, came to Him (7-8).
  • b And He spoke to His disciples, that a little boat should wait on Him because of the crowd, lest they should throng Him, for He had healed many, insomuch that as many as had plagues pressed upon Him that they might touch Him (9-10).
  • c And the unclean spirits, whenever they beheld Him, fell down before Him, and cried, saying, “You are the Son of God.” And He strongly charged them that they should not make Him known (11-12).
  • d And He goes up into the mountain, and calls to Him whom He Himself would, and they went to Him (13).
  • c And He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him, and that He might send them forth to preach, and to have authority to cast out devils (who are then named) (14-19a).
  • b And He comes into a house, and the crowd comes together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread (19b-20).
  • a And when His family and friends heard it, they went out to lay hold on Him, for they said, “He is beside himself” (21).

Note that in ‘a’ great crowds heard the great things that He did and came to Him, and in the parallel His family and friends heard what He did and came to Him, but for a very different reason. In ‘b’ Jesus was thronged by the crowds and had to take to a boat, and in the parallel He was thronged by the crowd and could not eat. In ‘c’ the unclean spirits are forced to admit to Who Jesus is, much to His displeasure, and in the parallel He appoints His disciples and gives them authority to cast out such evil spirits. Centrally in ‘d’ He takes His disciples up into a mountain and calls those whom He has selected to come to Him.

Further Success (3.7-12).

3.7-8 ‘And Jesus with his disciples withdrew to the sea, and a huge crowd from Galilee followed. And from Judaea and from Jerusalem and from Idumaea and beyond Jordan and about Tyre and Sidon, a huge crowd, hearing what things he did, came to him.’

Jesus’ popularity and fame as a prophet was now such as to bring together people from far and wide, from all Galilee and beyond Galilee, from Judaea and Jerusalem, from further North, South and East (West was the Sea), extending from Tyre and Sidon in the North to Idumaea (the ancient Edomites who had been made forcibly to become Jews by the Maccabees) beyond Judaea in the far South, and including Across the Jordan (Transjordan). A whole nation was being stirred, and more. But we note the absence of Samaria. As ‘heretics’ they would not initially be interested in a Jewish prophet, and they would not expect Him to be interested in them. And also the absence of Decapolis. They were not at this point interested in Him.

Idumaea had been conquered by the Jews under John Hyrcanus (about 128 BC) and its inhabitants compelled to submit to circumcision. They were now considered Jewish (second class). Tyre and Sidon had close ties with Galilee and had a large Jewish population.

‘Jesus with His disciples withdrew to the sea.’ This was mainly made necessary by the huge crowds flocking to see Him, but preaching in the open was not unusual at this time and was a well recognised practise. The Rabbis did it as well. And his ceasing to major on the synagogues may also have been politic (see Matthew 12.15), for to incite further antagonism (compare 3.1-6) was not a good idea when it was not necessary.

‘A huge crowd from Galilee followed.’ There is possibly a contrast between those who ‘followed’ and those who ‘came to Him’, the former being more permanent, and remaining more permanently with Him.

‘Hearing what things He did.’ Many were seeking the spectacular as people will. But there would also be many who had a deeper, more genuine, motive and genuinely saw in His works the evidence of Who He was.

3.9-10 ‘And he requested his disciples that a small boat should await on him because of the crowd lest they press in on him, for he had healed many with the result that as many as had diseases pressed in on him that they might touch him.’

It soon became policy to make use of a small boat so that He could preach without people pressing in on Him and touching Him for healing (see 4.1-2). Here we have an important indication that for Him His preaching still takes first place. For the people had discovered that but to touch Him was a way of obtaining relief from their diseases, while He Himself knew that His message was even more important than the healing and that it was exhausting Him.

This particular reminiscence may well be by Peter (see Luke 5.1-12) who in modesty did not wish his part in the matter to be exalted. But here the purpose of it is in order to bring out the size and importunity of the crowds and their urgency in pressing on Him, because of the miracles that He was doing. Here were people being healed at a touch. The time of salvation was here (see Isaiah 35.3-6, compare Matthew 11.4-6).

3.11-12 ‘And the unclean spirits, whenever they beheld him, fell down before him and cried out saying, “You are the Son of God”. And he strongly charged them that they should not make him known.’

And as a result the ‘battle’ with Satan continued. Whenever unclean spirits saw Him they could not help but cry out in fear that He was ‘the Son of God’ and cause their host bodies to fall down before Him. But He did not want their testimony to Him. It would not produce the right reactions. So He silenced them as was His usual custom. In Mark ‘Son of God’ is an outright testimony of deity. This was not only the time of positive salvation but of the wholesale defeat of the forces of evil. Note how the discerning forces of evil know Jesus for Whom He is, in direct contrast with the experts from Jerusalem who totally misrepresent Him (verse 22). But neither of them benefit by it because they do not want to follow Him. ‘The devils also believe and tremble’ (James 2.19).

Each of these factors will shortly be illustrated by outstanding examples, the preaching in 4.1-34, the healing in 5.21-43 and the casting out of evil spirits in 3.22-30; 5.1-20, but first it was necessary to establish why He had come. The appointing of the twelve which now follows was a visible indication that the Kingly Rule of God was now present and thus required its authoritative leadership to be appointed (but as servants of all).

The Appointing of the Twelve (3.13-19a).

Having begun in 1.16-39 with the calling of the Four, followed by His teaching, His dealings with unclean spirits and those who were diseased, and the gathering of the great crowds, Mark now in 3.7-19 reverses the order. Here we have begun with the great crowds, and have moved on to the healing of the diseased, the response of the unclean spirits, and the appointment of the Twelve. (In between are the testimonies to what Jesus has come to do and declarations of His status before God in 1.40-3.6),

The appointment of the twelve is clearly intended to be seen as of great importance. This is especially brought out by the listing of their names in detail, even though most of them will receive no further mention. We cannot therefore just move on from it without asking what lay at the bottom of it. A number of suggestions can be made:

  • Firstly that it was a statement of intent. There are in the New Testament good reasons for suggesting that the twelve were to be seen as the foundation of the new Israel, thus paralleling them with the Patriarchs of the twelve tribes. This would explain the deliberate giving of their names. They are seen as the initial foundation stones of His new ‘congregation (in LXX ekklesia = church) of Israel’. For this compare Matthew 16.18; Ephesians 2.20 - where it is along with the Prophets; Revelation 21.14 - where they are closely connected with ‘the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’. The new Israel was thus being formed and His Apostles would, as it were, watch over it as its ‘rulers’, although it was to be a rulership conducted in humility and with the attitude of servants (see Matthew 19.28; 20.20-28).
  • Secondly we may see that Jesus was laying the superstructure of a group of disciples for the days ahead. From now on this core of disciples, together with those who united with them, were being prepared for the task that lay in front of them. Apart from one they will still be there when the new initiative begins (Acts 1.13). Thus we may see them as intended to be in our minds (although not necessarily exclusively) when we read about ‘the disciples’, recognising that, with all their undoubted failures, they were the foundation of the new future, being prepared for it by Jesus Himself.

And we are intended to see that from this day He would begin to prepare them for both tasks.

3.13-15 ‘And he goes up into the mountain and calls to him those whom he himself would, and they went to him. And he appointed twelve that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to cast out devils.’

The going into the mountain was probably in order to escape the crowds. The mountain was clearly well known to the source of the material. He thinks of it as ‘the mountain’. And normally when Jesus goes into a mountain it is either in order to teach those closest to Him, or in order for something special to happen. And what was to happen here was certainly very special. For Jesus then called to Him a wider group of His followers, selected by careful choice (‘whom He would’), and from among this group He appointed the Twelve. The twelve were initially chosen with a view to a preaching ministry and in order to cast out evil spirits. Note the regular twofold ‘preach and cast out devils’. This was His present purpose, to proclaim the truth and to defeat the Enemy. They were to be heralds of the Kingly Rule of God (fishers of men - 1.17) and victors over the forces of the one who had sinned from the beginning and had been sentenced in the Plain of Eden (Genesis 3.15). For to Jesus His healing ministry was merely incidental, although having its own importance because of His compassion for men. Attempts to make Him simply a healer ignore the evidence. His prime purpose in coming forth was to proclaim the Kingly Rule of God (1.15, 38-39).

‘Calls to Him those who He Himself would.’ He wanted all His close followers to be aware of the special status of the Twelve, and that He had chosen them. Luke 6.13 shows that those called here were more than just the twelve. There is a reminder here that no one comes unless drawn by Jesus and His Father (John 15.16; 6.44). His sheep hear His voice and follow Him (John 10.28).

‘He appointed twelve that they might be with Him.’ That is, involved with Him in His ministry once He had trained them, and as His companions in His journeys, and finally with Him in the consummation (John 14.1-3). They were to be His bosom friends, while at the same time recognising their position as learners. Many followed Him regularly, including some women (Luke 8.2-3), but twelve were especially chosen. There were twelve patriarchs and twelve tribes of Israel, so we are justified in seeing these men as somehow representative of the twelve tribes (confirmed in Matthew 19.28; Luke 22.30). They are to be the nucleus of the new Israel, the foundation of the new people of God, the new Temple of God (Ephesians 2.20). It is clear from this that Jesus saw ahead to the foundation of a new ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation’ of Israel (see Deuteronomy 9.10; 18.16; 23.1, 2, 3, 8; 31.30 where LXX translates as ekklesia - ‘church’), the Israel of God (Galatians 6.16), something which He confirms in Matthew 16.18, and which will shortly be indicated when He calls those who are faithful His ‘brothers’ (3.31-35).

3.16 ‘And he gave to Simon the name Peter.’

This is a typical piece of Mark’s literary roughness that later manuscripts have sought to improve on. Simon is assumed to have been appointed and in his appointment it is the description of his new name that is given, to indicate that he had become a new man. Mark was satisfied that he had already indicated that Simon was a uniquely called disciple, and that everyone knew he was one of the twelve, and now simply indicates that this Simon whom he has previously talked about is the one well known as Peter. The new name was first given to him when he met Jesus after being introduced to Him by Andrew in John 1.42. So we must read it as indicating ‘Simon, to whom He had given the new name Peter’. No one needed to be told that Peter had been appointed one of the twelve as Mark’s comment verifies.

The name given was actually Cephas (kepha) which means a rock (John 1.42), but when translated into Greek becomes petros (masculine - which means small rock) and not petra (feminine - a large foundation rock, rocky ground). This was, of course, because Simon was male. However the distinction is maintained in Matthew 16.18, where petros could have been used both times (as a translation of kepha if Jesus was there speaking in Aramaic), but where the switch is made to petra signifying that the rock there was either:

  • 1). Peter’s statement (the most probable), opted for by 44 out of 76 of the early fathers, which explains the change to petra.
  • 2). Christ (far less probable) opted for by 17 out of 76 of the early fathers, but in that case puzzling as to why there was a change to petra.

Thus 59 out of 76 of the early fathers agreed that the rock was not Peter himself, in spite of the then importance of Peter. See our discussion on Matthew 16.18. This was not Protestant bias.

Jesus chose Peter not only to be one of the twelve, but also one of the inner three of Peter, James and John (5.37; 9.2; 14.33). He clearly saw in him one who would in the end prove to be a rock, once he had conquered his impetuosity and occasional unreliability (8.32-33; 14.37, 68, 70, 71; Galatians 2.11 following). Perhaps the giving of the name was intended to make him consider his need to do exactly this. He is always named first and became the natural spokesman of the twelve (8.29; Matthew 17.24; John 21.3; Acts 1.15; 2.14; 8.14 (with John)), although we should note in Acts how there is a continual emphasis on the twelve acting together. Furthermore Peter’s position was not seen as such that he could not be challenged. See for example Acts 11.2-3 - where he had to back up his position with reason, not by claiming special personal God-given authority - and see also Galatians 2.11 where he temporarily failed and had to be rebuked.

3.17 ‘And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, and to them he gave another name, Boanerges, which is, Sons of Thunder.’

Along with Peter, James and John formed the inner three (see above). They have already been introduced to us previously, along with Peter’s brother Andrew (1.16-20). It is likely that Jesus gave new names to all His disciples but the other new names tend to be ignored here, probably because they were not so prominent later on.

‘Boanerges’, which Mark interprets as ‘sons of thunder’ is a transliteration from the Aramaic or Hebrew as evident from ‘Boan(e)’, presumably a corruption of Bene for ‘sons’, possibly to render the pronunciation of a dialect. Some have seen the ‘rges’ as ‘regesh’ meaning ‘to rage, make a noise’ (the related Arabic word is used for thunder). Another suggestion is the Aramaic ‘regaz’ which signifies children of ‘anger’. A third alternative is ‘rogez’ - ‘agitation, excitement’, but used picturesquely for thunder in Job 37.2.

But as names given usually seem to have pointed at good characteristics ‘sons of thunder’ may mean thundering against sin, and if ‘anger’ then as anger against sin (9.38; Luke 9.54). This would explain why both are given the name. However, the fact that John finished up as the Apostle of love does not prevent him from having been a bit of a firebrand in his day, thus possibly earning from Jesus the gentle, good-humoured, good-natured reference to him as a ‘son of thunder’.

3.18-19a ‘And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholemew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot who also betrayed him.’

Andrew was the brother of Peter (John 1.40). That they are not put together in the list demonstrates that this was not Mark’s method (contrast Matthew). Thus James the son of Alphaeus (is this the James the Little of 14.40?) may have been brother to Levi the son of Alphaeus (2.14), the latter being identified as Matthew by comparison with Matthew 9.9. Alternately they may both have had different fathers, both being named Alphaeus, a not uncommon name. Bartholomew may be ‘son of Ptolemy’ or ‘Talmai’ and by his association here with Philip may be Nathanael. But Nathanael may not have been one of the Twelve (although John 21.2 probably suggests that he was. It partly depends on what John meant by ‘disciple’). Luke has Judas, the son of James (‘Judas, not Iscariot’ - John 14.22), instead of Thaddaeus, (which Matthew possibly, but by no means certainly for many manuscripts have Thaddaeus, has as Lebbaeus. One may have been a new name and one a nickname).

‘The Cananaean derives from a word meaning ‘zealous’ and may be an alternative for Zealot, compare Luke 6.15 - ‘Simon the Zealous one’. Judas the Betrayer is common to all. His name ‘Iscariot’ may mean ‘man of Kerioth’, but not certainly. The anger felt against Judas comes out in that when mentioning him they all describe him as ‘the Betrayer’ or equivalent (Matthew 10.4; 26.25; 27.3; Luke 6.16; John 6.71; 12.4; 18.2, 5).

It is especially interesting that Mark, who has described the calling of Levi (2.14) almost certainly gives him another name here, probably Matthew. This suggests that his name list was so firmly set in the tradition that he did not want to alter it.

So the twelve are named and clearly intended to be written into the hearts of the hearers and readers. These are to be seen as the foundation of what is to come.

Opposition From Family And Friends From The Past (3.19b-21).

This rather enigmatic passage prepares the way for and explains the ‘rejection’ by Jesus of His mother and brothers in verses 31-35. Knowing Him too well (compare 6.3) they were upset at what they saw as His unusual behaviour. They felt that He was getting above Himself and becoming a little unbalanced, and decided that for His own good they would have to interfere. They may well have been ‘got at’ by the local Pharisees who may well have warned them of the inevitable consequences of what Jesus was doing.

3.19b-20 ‘And he comes into a house, and the great crowd comes together again so that they could not so much as eat food.’

‘He comes into a house.’ The house may be that of Peter in Capernaum, or it may be the house of a follower in some other town.

‘The great crowd comes together again so that they could not so much as eat bread.’ The ‘again’ may refer back to 3.8 or to 2.2. The idea would seem to be that they brought so many sick folk that it was taking up all the group’s time. The fact that they could not so much as eat ‘bread’ (or food) presumably means that they kept them so busy that they had no time to eat. It is a reminder that where there was need Jesus would not rest until He had met it, even though He felt it should not be the first call on His time, and it was becoming a burden.

3.21 ‘And when His family and long time friends heard it they went out to lay hold on Him, for they said, “He is beside Himself”.’

This is omitted by Matthew and Luke. They probably did not feel it suitable out of respect for the ‘family’ who were by now believers. Possibly also they felt it slightly irreverent. It was not the kind of thing they liked said about the Lord.

‘His family and long time friends.’ The phrase is literally ‘those alongside Him.’ It can mean compatriots or friends or envoys or family depending on context. Here it must mainly represent those further described in 3.31, His brothers and His mother, for they are the ones who come to lay hold on Him. Some have tried to apply the description to His disciples, but we should note firstly that they are usually rather called ‘the disciples’ or ‘the twelve’, secondly that they would not need to ‘go out’ to lay hold of Him, and thirdly that this would be a strange and rather vague description of them, coming as it does immediately after the appointment of the twelve. And besides they were themselves involved in the cause for complaint (they would not therefore ‘hear of it’). Its deliberate vagueness rather therefore suggests uncommitted family and friends who felt close to Him as a result of knowing Him from the past and were as such concerned for His welfare on a material level without really having any appreciation of what He was doing.

‘Heard it.’ The news reached them in Nazareth (or Capernaum), and, as news will, it probably arrived in distorted fashion. But what did they hear? That He was working Himself to death, with no time to eat properly? That local leaders were discussing the possibility of His being dealt with? That the Scribes, the great doctors of the Law, had come down from Jerusalem to pass judgment on Him as a blasphemer, probably at the specific request of the local Pharisees and the Herodians as part of their plot to kill Him, and had pronounced Him devil-possessed? They probably already felt quite deeply the fact that He had given up His safe career as a carpenter. They now believed that He needed their help and advice, and even more than that, drastic action in order to save Him from Himself, because His life had got out of control and He was having delusions of grandeur.

‘They went out to lay hold on Him.’ Their aim was to pressurise Him into coming home, and if necessary to bring Him home by force. But it would take a little time to reach Him, and meanwhile other events were taking place.

‘For they said, “He is beside Himself’. Or ‘He is out of His mind.’ As is often the case with brothers they were not too considered in what they said about Him, but it is clear that they were perturbed enough about the situation (which they were judging by hearsay) to want to do something pretty drastic. They felt that they knew better than He did what was good for Him (compare John 7.1-5 which is an advance from this). And as Mary came along with them we cannot fully exonerate her from involvement in their attitude. She was involved, at least to some extent, to add her weight to their arguments and to see what she saw as the right thing done. She too was worried for her son and was prepared to interfere with His ministry, and all no doubt thought (wrongly) that her authority as His mother would prove useful. But as Jesus had to make clear, she now had no more authority over Him than believers in general had, the authority of being in need of His saving mercy.

‘They said.’ This may alternately mean, ‘it was being said’ generally, ‘they’ being unspecific. But it was more likely that brothers would say this rather than people generally, for the latter were impressed by Him. Unless, of course, it means that the Pharisees and Herodians had paid men to spread false rumours about Him. But whoever said it his brothers believed it enough to want to take drastic action. They cannot be fully exonerated, however much we try. And nothing is said about Mary protesting. She was going along with them in their plans. (Had this not been so something would have been said in this context. By the time this was written she was highly respected in the company of believers).

The Scribes from Jerusalem and the Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit (3.22-30).

By now Jesus had attracted the attention not only of the local Scribes but of the great Doctors from Jerusalem. They had probably been called in because of the influence that He was having. And once they had considered His accomplishments they knew that they could only come to one of two conclusions. Either they had to admit that His casting out of evil spirits was accomplished by the power of God, meaning that they must accept Him as a prophet, or they must find something else to account for it. As it was they seized on the only possible alternative acceptable to them. He could only do it because He was in league with the Devil, for in their eyes His refusal to conform to all their ways indicated that He could not be of God.

Jesus then accused them of dishonest thinking and warned them that if they continually rejected the clear testimony of the Spirit in that way they were in danger of the unforgivable sin, ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’, that is, to so harden their hearts and reject the testimony of the Spirit that they made themselves impervious to His pleadings. Once a man is in that position he has lost hope.

And in the course of His argument He brought out to them Who He was. He was the stronger than Satan. He could bind Satan with a word. None other that they knew of could do that. Other sought to do it by quasi-magical plants and secret mysteries and incantations, and by calling on the names of people like Solomon (see note on 1.21-28). But He did it by the exercise of His own authority. Let them then consider the significance of that, with the help of the Holy Spirit.


  • a And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzeboul,” and, “By the prince of the demons He casts out the demons” (22).
  • b And He called them to Him, and said to them in picture language, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (23).
  • c “And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (24-25).
  • d “And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end” (26).
  • c “But no one can enter into the house of the strong man, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house” (27).
  • b “Truly I say to you, All their sins shall be forgiven to the sons of men, and their blasphemies with which in any way they will blaspheme, but whoever will blaspheme against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (28-29).
  • a Because they said, “He has an unclean spirit” (30).

Note that in ‘a’ they said, ‘He has Beelzeboul”, and in the parallel they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’. In ‘b’ they impute His casting out of Satan to Satan, and in the parallel are thus in danger of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. In ‘c’ a house must be undivided in order to stand, and in the parallel such a house can only be despoiled by One Who is stronger than the strong man. Centrally in ‘d’ if Satan is fighting himself then he has no hope, and the end is in sight for him.

3.22 ‘And the Scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzeboul, and by the prince of the devils he casts out devils”.’

Note the immediate parallel with what Jesus’ family and friends were saying of Him. They said that He was mad. These said that He was possessed with a powerful devil. The world can never understand those who truly follow Jesus Christ.

‘The scribes who came down from Jerusalem.’ It was certainly something pretty important that drew these great teachers to wretched Galilee. As they were not talking in front of Jesus (verse 23) we can assume that they were meeting in a semi-official council, so that their decision was one to be passed on as bearing their seal of approval.

‘He has Beelzeboul.’ Their decision was that He Himself was possessed (always the best way to discredit someone), and not just by any evil spirit but by the great Beelzeboul, prince of devils, himself (compare John 7.20; 8.48, 52; 10.20). This may well have started the rumours that Jesus was mad (compare John 10.20).

‘Beel’ probably represents ‘baal’ (‘lord’). Different manuscripts and versions present the full name differently, ‘Beelzebub’ (Syriac and Vulgate versions - probably taken from the name of an oracular god in 2 Kings 1.2-3), ‘Beelzeboul’ in most manuscripts, ‘Beezeboul’ in a few, but including weighty ones. The latter may have dropped the ‘l’ because ‘lz’ was difficult to Greek speakers. The original is probably Beelzeboul. ‘Zeboul’ may represent ‘zebel’ (dung) or ‘zebul’ (dwelling). Thus the name may mean ‘lord of the house (or dwelling)’ (see Matthew 10.25b which seems to confirm this). This would explain the stress on ‘house’ in Jesus’ repudiation. Matthew 10.25b suggests that Beelzeboul is seen as master over a household of devils.

‘By the prince of devils He casts out devils.’ How could a man cast out devils? Why, by being possessed by their prince. This was their explanation of His power. (The irony of this comes out in that He has already appointed twelve Apostles, one of whose two primary tasks was to cast out devils). The only other alternative would have been to acknowledge Him as a prophet of God, and that they would not do. He was not subservient enough to them. In Mark Beelzeboul and the prince of devils might be seen as two separate representations, but Luke 11.15 tells us that ‘Beelzeboul’ did in fact represent the prince of devils. So they tried to argue that Jesus was devil possessed.

3.23-26 ‘And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.”

Jesus called them to Him, and when they came He pointed out that if what they were saying was true then Satan was engaged in civil war and would thus destroy himself. He would be constantly casting himself out, which could only be seen as quite ridiculous. Satan wanted men to be possessed. Why then should he behave otherwise? Thus would Satan, divided, be the cause of his own destruction. But, as everyone must recognise, Satan is too wise for that. Therefore they can clearly not be right.

‘He called them to Him.’ It says much for His status that they came. And by their coming they destroyed their own argument. Would they have so come for a devil-possessed maniac? They came because they knew that He was not a maniac, and that He was dangerous to their own position.

‘And said to them in parables.’ ‘Parable’ has a wide meaning based on the meaning of Hebrew ‘mashal’ (which it translates in LXX) meaning a saying, a word picture, a proverb, a riddle, an ethical maxim, a comparison, and so on. Thus ‘He spoke using illustrations, or picture stories’.

‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’ They know that Satan is subtle, deceptive, scheming and clever. That all his efforts are set on defying God and deceiving and accusing men. Thus the thought of him casting himself out is ludicrous. Did they honestly believe that? It has only to be put into words to make clear how ridiculous it is. And it is blasphemy against the One Who does cast them out, the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12.28). Notice that Jesus imputes all the work and manifestation of evil spirits to Satan. They are but tools. In the end the fight is against Satan.

‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.’ Civil wars destroy kingdoms and make them vulnerable to preying enemy. They destroy themselves from within. Did anyone seriously claim that this was what Satan, who has survived through the ages, was now seeking to do, or would do? All know that Satan’s forces are united against God and man. He does not war against himself. The Pharisees themselves admitted this when they expected Satan to be strong to the end of the age. So why should they now see him as guilty of such folly?

We should note here the contrast with what Jesus’ actual message was. It was the message of the presence of the Kingly Rule of God. He might well have asked how they could tie this up with claiming that He was involved in the kingly rule of Satan.

‘And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.’ The ‘lord of the dwelling’ (Beelzeboul), the master of the house, would never allow division in his house, for it would destroy his household. (It is only Christians who are foolish enough to let themselves be divided).

‘And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.’ Did they really believe that Satan had risen up against himself? That Satan had gone mad and was destroying himself? He who deceived Eve (Genesis 3.4-5), impoverished Job (Job 1-2), caused David to sin grievously (1 Chronicles 21.1), accused Joshua the High Priest before God (Zechariah 3.1-2)? Had he now risen up against himself, fighting with himself and bringing himself to nought, to his final end? Did they really believe this? Did they really believe that he was finished? Was he not rising stronger than ever as witness the spate of devil possession in Judaea and Galilee and the world? And even their own teaching declared that only God could defeat him, and that he had in the end to be defeated by God. Thus they were being totally inconsistent in what they were saying.

3.27 ‘But no one can enter into the house of the strong man and spoil his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then he will spoil his house.’

For it is evident that only one who is stronger than the strong man, the ‘stronger than he’ (Luke 11.22), can enter his house and bind the strong man. He alone can spoil his goods. And by casting out evil spirits this was exactly what Jesus was doing. He was proving Himself to be stronger than the ‘lord of the house’, the strong man. He had bound Satan . This may have been seen as having partially happened in the forty days in the wilderness, tested by Satan and overcoming with the Spirit’s power as the angels ministered to Him (1.13) compare Revelation 12.7-9 and 20.1-2, and partially in the casting out of evil spirits by His binding word. But it does not stop there. He is bound because of Jesus’ inherent authority. The Kingly Rule of God was here. Now He could ‘spoil his goods’ and divide the spoil with all who come under God’s Kingship for He was of superior strength. In the words of Isaiah, ‘He will divide the spoil with the strong’ (Isaiah 53.12). When we think of the power of Satan this has huge implications for how we see Jesus. Who could of Himself have such power over Satan but God?

Jesus probably also has in mind earlier words of Isaiah , ‘Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captives be delivered? But thus says the Lord, even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered, for I will contend with him who contends with you, and I will save your children’ (Isaiah 49.24-25). So here God was at work in deliverance as promised in Isaiah. How could they then deny it?

Matthew 12.28 adds, ‘If I by the Spirit of God (Luke 11.20 has ‘the finger of God’ which means God Himself active through His power) cast out devils, then is the Kingly Rule of God come upon you’. This connection with the Spirit of God, the personal power of God, is not mentioned by Mark here but is confirmed on the basis of 3.29, and is made clear in 1.10, 12, together with the emphasis on the nearness of God’s Kingly Rule (1.15). It was the Holy Spirit Who initially ‘drove’ Jesus to commence His battle with Satan. The point therefore is that Jesus operates in the power of the Spirit of God, and that to denigrate His work is to denigrate the Spirit. So these learned Doctors of the Law are by their words denying the clear and indisputable work of the Spirit of God.

His firm contention was that in His activity He was demonstrating quite clearly that His power was from God in accordance with the Scriptures and that He was God’s strong man in the defeat of Satan. And thus that for them to deny this could only be because they were deliberately closing their hearts against the testimony of God. And once they did this they should be aware that they would be in danger of being permanently hardened. They were in danger of blaspheming against what was God in action, His divine activity revealed in His personal power manifested against Satan, and thus in danger of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit Himself.

We should note here that He did not refer to the testimonies of the evils spirits in order to justify Himself. He did not point out that they cried out, and in fear declared Him to be the Son of God. For even when He was not trying to keep secret Who He was, He would not accept their testimony. He wanted none to think that there was any connection between Him and them. There is also here a reminder that Satan continues to be a strong man. He may have been ‘bound’ by Jesus but his fight continues and his strength is still apparent. In 9.14-29 the disciples discover that with all the authority given to them they are still helpless against Satan in his strongest mode. There is only One Who never fails to defeat him. And he is like a raging lion, stalking around, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5.8). His final defeat, however, is guaranteed by every evil spirit that is cast out, and by the presence of the Stronger than he.

3.28-30 “Truly I affirm to you, to the sons of men all their sins shall be forgiven, and their blasphemies in whatever way they shall blaspheme, but whoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Because they said “He has an unclean spirit”.

There is no more dread statement than this. They have seen the Holy Spirit at work in undeniable power, and because of their closed minds and their prejudice they impute it to an unholy, an unclean spirit. And yet they claimed to be teachers and responsible for the beliefs of others. Thus by their hypocrisy they were leading others astray. They must therefore beware. This put them in danger of having closed hearts and minds for ever. And should that happen there would then be no way back, there would be no way of forgiveness, the Spirit would never act in their hearts. Their sin would have eternal consequences.

All other sins could be forgiven. All blasphemies of whatever kind against God can be forgiven (what an assurance is this), but not this. To face the testimony of the Spirit of God, revealed in a revelation of His power, and to deliberately twist it so as not to have to face up to it is to put oneself in danger. To impute to Satan the clear work of the Holy Spirit, and to go on doing so against testimony of mind and conscience, and to teach others so is the greatest of follies. For at length such a mind would become hardened, such a conscience would cease to work, and such a man would then become unreachable by God - through his own ill doing.

‘Truly I affirm.’ (Amen lego). A solemn guarantee of the words that follow, sworn in His own name.

‘To the sons of men all their sins shall be forgiven, and their blasphemies in whatever way they shall blaspheme.’ Forgiveness is available to all, if, of course, they repent and believe. But what an amazing assurance this is on the honour of Jesus Himself. He is confirming that there is no sin so evil or so blasphemous that it cannot be forgiven through the blood of Christ. That no one can have sinned so badly that he cannot be forgiven. Unless, that is, he has finally hardened his heart against God to such an extent that he is unable to repent. But then he will never know of his sin until the judgment. He will walk unconscious of it because his heart is hardened and unreachable. (It is not those who fear that they have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit who have done so. Those who are in danger of it are those who laugh at the very idea). So Jesus was seeking to jolt the Scribes into reconsidering their position before it was too late.

‘An eternal sin.’ That is, one from which there is no recovery and which will result therefore in eternal punishment.

Because they said “He has an unclean spirit”. This connecting word irrevocably connects the final statements with what has gone before. (Mark is short on connecting links therefore this is the more significant here). Their crowning sin is that they call the Spirit of God Himself ‘unclean’, and say that His power over Satan is imputed to one cut off from God by uncleanness. By this they deny the holiness of Jesus and of the Spirit Who is at work through Him. If we sometimes feel the Scribes and Pharisees hard done by we need to remember what it was that they saw and rejected. They saw the holy power of God and dismissed it as of the Devil.

Note that it is the Teachers from Jerusalem who are primarily seen as being in danger of this situation. Jerusalem in its religious piety is already revealing itself as the enemy of Jesus and of the truth. We are already being prepared for what will later follow in Jerusalem, even though at present it is a distant menace.

Mary and Jesus’ Brothers Are Firmly Reminded of Their True Position. In Their Present State And Attitude They Do Not Count As Much As Genuine Believers For They Are Not Part of the Kingly Rule of God (3.31-35).

The section began with the initial manifestation of the One sent from God to drench men and women in the Holy Spirit, and to bring them under the Kingly Rule of God, Who was God’s own beloved Son. Now it ends with an initial indication of the new community that is being formed thereby. These are His new ‘brothers’.

This small but important passage comes as quite a shock to us. And this is especially so in the light of the fifth commandment to honour father and mother, which was treated very seriously by the Jews, and hopefully by us. But we must see it in its context. This was not an unfilial, unthinking act. It was an attempt to diffuse a difficult situation and to make clear how things now stood. And it is placed here because it is a further example to Mark of Jesus’ new status and authority. For by it Jesus made clear to all what the position now was. He was now no longer a carpenter and family man, He was, as God’s chosen One, the foundation and central pillar of the new people of God, the new Israel, and it was with such that His loyalties now lay. But it was brought on by the implacable attitude of His mother and His brothers.

For as a result of their decision in 3.21 Mary and her other sons had arrived in order to ‘lay hold of’ Jesus and take Him away with them. They were truly concerned and had come to save Him from Himself. They had not come to listen and to learn, but to interfere with His ministry. They ‘stood outside’, not only outside where He was, but outside His ministry and outside the will of God. And they called for Him to come out, and He had to make clear where His loyalties lay.

Had His mother come privately as a mother to see her son she would have been treated differently. He would have greeted her warmly. But when she came publicly with her sons in an overt attempt to counter His chosen course and to force at least a temporary withdrawal from it, He could not receive her. And yet His reply was not so much a rebuke as an attempt to diffuse a difficult situation. The message they receive gently emphasises that they must not interfere. He is about His father’s business and must not be troubled (compare Luke 2.49). We should note here that Mark makes no attempt to exonerate Mary, and nor does Jesus. She takes her place with His brothers as those who are at present seeking to thwart the will of God.

But it was necessary for all to recognise that having commenced His Messianic mission heavenly ties had become more important than earthly ties and He thus had to point out that those who truly believed and obeyed God, and were in full tune with His ministry, counted for more at this time than loved ones who sought to interfere with His ministry. It was the former who were His true relatives. They were His brother and sister and mother in God. The mention of mother in this description stresses that He included Mary as equally worthy of blame and as therefore at least temporarily replaced. It was because at this stage Mary was not a full believer that she had no part in Him when it came to His ministry and she could not be permitted to use her relationship to seek to interfere with it. He was responsible to a higher authority.

From 3.7 onwards Mark has been emphasising the authority of Jesus’ ministry continuing the stress begun in chapters 1 and 2. And this incident is another example of it. The One to Whom the world was seeking and Who was fulfilling the Isaianic ideal by healing and releasing captives (3.7-10), Who has established the new Israel by choosing the twelve (3.13-21), and has made known His successful and victorious confrontation with the very powers of darkness (3.22-30), is now revealed as One Who is above family ties because of Who He is, and because of His love and concern for His new community.

This is intended by Mark to powerfully bring out His special status, for it was only because of Who He is that His actions here are justified. Had He been just a healer or teacher they might not have been so (although even then He might have resisted interference with an important work). But because He was more than that, and it was their intention to interfere with His manifestation of Himself, it made it necessary for Him, while they had the attitude that they had, to repudiate them. For the alternative was to relinquish His mission, (which was in fact actually their aim). The incident, which would certainly not have been invented by the church, establishes quite clearly that He saw Himself as having a unique mission, the mission of being the Messiah Who had uniquely come to bring men to God.

That the sons are genuine sons of Mary and not half-brothers comes out in a number of ways. Firstly because Jesus was called ‘the carpenter’s son’ and ‘the carpenter’, an indication that He was prospective head of the family business, and head of the family, taking on His earthly father’s role (Matthew 13.55; Mark 6.3). Secondly because He was also the ‘firstborn son’ (Matthew 1.25; Luke 2.7) with no suggestion that He was not seen as Joseph’s firstborn. Had He not been seen in this way it would surely have been mentioned at this point, for the title of ‘firstborn’ indicated the prospective head of the family. Thirdly because it is doubtful if as a half-brother would James have been called ‘the Lord’s brother’ (Galatians 1.19). A half brother would not have been accorded such status. And fourthly, and emphatically, because had Jesus not been the firstborn of Joseph, He would not have been in direct line to the throne of David and David’s heir. Indeed there are no grounds anywhere in Scripture, or even in first or second century literature, for any other view. Tertullian accepted it without any indication that it was not the norm. It was only centuries later for doctrinal reasons that other ideas began to develop.

Indeed had Jesus not been seen as the firstborn of Joseph He would not have had the right to be called ‘the king of the Jews’ (Matthew 2.2). His elder brothers would have had that right. He would have been low in the line of descent. But His importance as ‘the son of David’ arose from an earthly point of view from the fact that He was the firstborn to the one who was first in line of descent, Joseph.

(That His grandfather was alive at the time of His birth comes out in that ‘the main room’ (‘kataluma’ - ‘guest-chamber’ (Mark 14.14; Luke 22.11) and not therefore an inn) in the family home was not available for Joseph and Mary when they travelled to Bethlehem so that they had to make do with the ground floor room among the domestic animals where, as in many such houses, there was a manger. To use this room for guests was a regular feature of life in Jewish households and was not seen as at all degrading).


  • a And there come His mother and His brothers, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling for Him (31).
  • And a crowd was sitting round Him, and they say to Him, ‘See, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you’ (32).
  • And He answers them, saying, “Who is My mother and My brothers?” (33).
  • And looking round on those who sat round Him He says, “See, My mother and My brothers” (34).
  • For whoever will do the will of God, the same is My brother and My sister and My mother” (35).

Note that in ‘a’ His mother and brothers are outside calling to Him, and in the parallel He declares who are His true brother, sister and mother. In ‘b’ the crowd of believers are sitting round and say, ‘See your mother and brother are outside looking for you’, and in the parallel Jesus looks round at the crowd of believers and says, ‘See My mother and My brothers’. Centrally in ‘c’ He asks the vital question, who is it who are truly related to Him?

3.31 ‘And there come his mother and his brothers, and standing outside they sent to him, calling for him.’

Earlier the crowds had come to Jesus (verse 8). And now His relatives had come. But what a different reason there was for their coming. Mark probably intends us to see ‘standing outside’ as significant. They were of those who were on the outside, not of those who ‘came in’. Indeed they wanted Him away from His listeners so that they could carry Him off with them (verse 21).

So they sent someone in to bring Him out to them (they dared not go in and seize Him with so many people there). No doubt Mary was the bait. Surely He would come out to His mother. But she was standing among the unbelievers as one with them and she could therefore have no say in what He did. That is why He could not respond to her. She was seeking to interfere with His mission. The fact that Jesus’ father did not come may indicate that he did not approve of this interference. Or it may signify that he was already dead.

We should not be too surprised at her attitude (unless we have unjustifiably over-exalted her). Although a good and godly woman she was still an earthly woman. She had pondered much in her heart (Luke 2.51), and had had confidence in what Jesus could do (John 2.5). But she was not fully at one with Him in His mission (John 2.4 and here) and clearly did not like it, and thus was mistakenly trying to interfere. Understandably she vacillated between the fact that He had come from God on the one hand, and her own doubts and prejudices, and especially what she had seen happen to John the Baptiser, on the other. She did not want that to happen to Him. She had been happy at the thought of being the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1.35; 2.46-55) but had had no comprehension of the suffering Servant, or any willingness for Him to be such. Only His later ministry and the resurrection would cause her to change her mind about that (Acts 1.14; note the lack of mention in Luke 8.2 and compare 8.19. And even by Luke 23.49, 55; 24.10 she was not one of the number).

Naturally she would be there at the cross, for it was the Passover and it was her custom to be in Jerusalem for that, and He was the son of her flesh. What mother would not have been there under such circumstances? And there Jesus made provision for her care (John 19.27). But note that that is precisely how John interpreted it. He did not go to her home, he took her into his. He recognised that as a result of the words of Jesus He had a responsibility to care for her as a man has responsibility to care for his own mother, because Jesus had asked him to do so, presumably because Joseph was now dead. Thus Jesus committed His mother to the care of His best friend who was also at the cross. In all this there is not even a hint of the later myths and absurdities that would grow up around Mary.

3.32 ‘And a crowd was sitting round him, and they say to him, ‘See, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you.’

The crowd were ‘sitting around Him’. Here were the ones for whom He was responsible now. They were on the inside. And they pass on the message that has come in to them, probably unaware of the intentions of the Nazareth party. Family ties were considered important. In their view He should know that His family were there.

But Jesus was aware of why they were there and considered it important to make quite clear what the position was. Mary must have it made clear to her that she had no jurisdiction over Him now, and His brothers must know that they had no right to interfere (compare John 7.3-6). He had left home and brothers and sisters and mother and father for the Gospel’s sake (Mark 10.29). His mission had begun and all earthly ties were put aside although not forgotten. It was a stand that He had to take that the lesson might be recognised once and for all.

3.33-35 ‘And he answers them, saying, “Who is my mother and my brothers?” And looking round on those who sat round him he says, “See, my mother and my brothers. For whoever will do the will of God, the same is my brother and my sister and my mother”.’

So He looks round, and declares to all, that it is those who have gathered because they want to do the will of God by following Him, and coming under the Kingly Rule of God, who are his brother and sister and mother. As a result of this His earthly family had been replaced. His whole future and activity must now be spent on those who have responded to Him and begun to do the will of God. Because of Who He is as Messiah those who have come under the Kingly Rule of God, who are seeking to do the will of God as revealed by Him, are now His primary responsibility.

Thus at present neither His mother or His brothers, who had not taken up this position and were not considering the will of God, could have any place in affecting His life. They were currently replaced, because they were seeking to interfere where they had no right to do so, and their purposes and aims were wrong. They were not seeking the will of God, and were not therefore under the Kingly Rule of God, and that was primary. They were following earthly aims. As for Him His whole concentration had to be on His mission to introduce the Kingly Rule of God to men, and as a result His responsibility had be to those who truly followed Him and were within ‘the Kingly Rule’ (i.e. were under the king). This was not a lack of filial loyalty. It was a recognition that His work transcended such loyalties. But He would still provide for His mother when she needed it most (John 19.26). She had not been replaced in His affections, only in His mission.

We need not conclude that He did not at some point meet His family at all at this time, as long as they were ready to meet Him on His terms, and He would undoubtedly have been pleased if they had opted to join His followers, But He wanted it to be clear that they must be seen as not coming first and as not being in a position to interfere with what He was doing.

So Mark’s stress here is on the new position that Jesus was now showing Himself to be in, as The One Who was uniting Himself with the family of believers, the new community under God’s Kingly Rule, and treating them as of more importance than His earthly family because they were His true Messianic family in view of their obedience to His Father. He had set aside His Apostles as leaders of the community, now He set Himself aside as its Head, and them aside as His family.

‘My brother and my sister and my mother.’ The mention of sister brings out that women were included in the crowd around Jesus. He did not say ‘father’ because ‘the family’ had only one Father, even God (Matthew 23.9). It is quite probable that part of Jesus’ aim in these words was to encourage this attitude of family fellowship among His followers. He wanted them to unite together in their common purpose to serve God, encouraging and strengthening each other. But the mention of ‘mother’ could have no other significance than that His earthly mother was replaced (however cleverly some may try to argue against it). The significance of Mary as the mother of the Messiah and the bearer of the Son of God was now history. The only place that she could now have with Him was as a believer.

We note that this incident follows the suggestion that He belonged to a divided household (verse 25). So now He had let it to be known that He belonged to another family, a family bound by the closest of ties, a more important family, a family of those in full submission to the will of God, a family that was not divided, a family to whom He gave His affection.

That this incident is connected with 3.20 goes without saying. This method of mentioning something and taking it up later occurs elsewhere in Mark. Mark 11 is a prime example of it as we shall see.

Perhaps we might end this section by noting that Jesus did not mean that everyone in the house was a true believer. We know in fact of one who was not. That is why He put in His provisional, ‘whoever will do the will of God’. It was that that separated those ‘outside’ from those ‘inside’.


The Message of the Kingly Rule of God Will Now Be Spread Widely and Will Produce Abundant Fruit (4.1-34).

As we have already seen the Gospel began with Jesus Christ as God’s beloved Son and has gradually built up to the idea of the new community of believers who hear His words and do the will of His Father who are His brothers and sisters (3.34-35). These are the first proclaimed members of the newly established Kingly Rule of God. Now that is to be expanded on. That is why Jesus will now be revealed as proclaiming that Kingly Rule of God in parables. His words are an indication of what has already been happening to bring things to this stage, and will go on happening throughout the Gospel. They are an elucidation of what Jesus is proclaiming.

In the chiastic structure of the Gospel this passage parallels Mark 13 as being a discourse passage of Jesus (see introduction). Initially here we will see the Kingly Rule of God advancing because the King has come, and it is seen as growing through the spreading of God’s word, resulting in the gathering in of the final harvest. In Mark 13 we will be reminded further of its advance as it advances in the face of every difficulty, with the good news being proclaimed among all nations, and resulting in His coming again in glory in order to finally bring the Kingly Rule of God to its triumphant consummation by the gathering in of His elect. There is therefore a clear parallel picture. But here it is presented in terms of the promising and glowing prospects that lie before His disciples. In Matthew 13 it is clear that those prospects still continue, but they are then set in the context of suffering, persecution and tribulation, as well as of judgement on Jerusalm. The advance will still continue, but the way will not be easy.

Here, however, having established that Jesus’ kingship is not of Satan but of God through the Holy Spirit, and that a new ‘family’ has been established under the Kingly Rule of God and the ministry of Jesus, we are now introduced to Jesus’ use of ‘parables’, that is of metaphors, pictures and riddles, which are presented in order to explain how the Kingly Rule of God will be further established. We need not necessarily assume that all these parables were related at the same time. They were rather examples of His ministry, brought together to give an overall impression of the forward movement of God’s Kingly Rule. But the impression is certainly given of a continuing process in His preaching in parables (verses 33-34). The message was now being constantly proclaimed and spread by this means, and a careful differentiation is made between those who hear and understand and those who fail to hear.

The passage begins with Jesus, ‘as His custom was’ (compare 3.9), preaching to the crowds from a boat. It was to the crowds that He preached in parables. And many of them would not ‘hear’. But to His true followers He explained the parables, for they sought an explanation for them and their hearts were open to the truth. They had already partly ‘seen’ the Kingly Rule of God (John 3.3). They were willing to ‘hear’.

His method is interesting. He tells folksy stories which have a deeper meaning, so that some will simply enjoy the story and carry on as usual because they are spiritually ‘blind’ and there is no response from their hearts, others will respond more generally and be stirred within, but will eventually let what they have learned slip away, or gain some part truth from it to help them in their daily lives, while still others will ponder it more deeply and respond fully. They will seek further clarification and the whole truth will dawn in their hearts. They will come under the Kingly Rule of God. These last are how Jesus wanted all to be.

It is possible that we may see in this parabolic approach Jesus’ reaction to His past experience. He had been preaching the Kingly Rule of God openly, but all the crowds had been interested in were miracles. His words had passed over their heads, and possibly He had begun to realise how easily they could thus be hardened against His message. So we may see Him as determined that from now on He will deliberately veil His message in order to stir them into thought, while not making the truths He is proclaiming become stale in their minds. That is one view of the matter. It is, however, equally possible that He had been preaching in this way right from the beginning. (Note how even in the Sermon on the Mount which was for the inner group of disciples much of His teaching is parabolic, although not in quite the distinctive way found here. This may suggest that He preached on two levels right from the commencement of His ministry).

The major parable in this chapter is the parable of the sower, with its emphasis on different responses people make to the word, having in view the final harvest. The parables that follow that of the sower, quite possibly preached at different times, are then added to illustrate further this message. It is probable that it was Peter who vividly remembered the connection of the parable of the sower with the gathering by the seashore.

The suggestion that such parables had only one main point and did not have secondary points cannot be sustained. The parable of the sower positively demands to be seen as an ‘allegory’ (meaning by this an illustration with more than one point) in that it clearly contains a number of ideas based on Scriptural truth which the hearers could be expected to recognise. There is no good reason why Jesus should not have used allegories, and besides they were a favourite method of Rabbinical teaching, so that we should not be at all surprised at Jesus using them. And this is so even though the final main point of the allegory was indeed of the harvest that would result.

But before looking at the parable of the sower in more depth we will first consider an analysis of the whole passage which is carefully built up in chiastic form.

Analysis of 4.1-34.

  • a Jesus teaches in parables (4.1-2).
  • b The parable of the sower and the growing seeds (4.3-9).
  • c He who has ears to hear let him hear (4.9).
  • d Parables divide those who see and hear from those who do not see and hear (4.10-12).
  • e Explanation of the parable of the sower (4.13-20).
  • d The parable of the lamp illustrates those who see and who do not see (4.21-22).
  • c He who has ears to hear let him hear for men will receive accordingly (4.23-25).
  • b The twin parables of the growing grain and the growing mustard seed (4.26-32).
  • a Jesus teaches in parables (4.33-34).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus teaches in parables, and in the parallel the similar fact is emphasised. In ‘b’ we have the parable of the growing seeds, and in the parallel the parables of the growing grain and the growing mustard seed. In ‘c’ those who have ears to hear, are to hear, and the same applies in the parallel. In ‘d’ we learn that the parables separate between those who hear and those who fail to hear, and in the parallel the parable of the lamp illustrates those who see and those who do not see. Centrally in ‘e’ we have the explanation of the parable of the sower.

The Setting of the Parables (4.1-2).

We are now given an example of how Jesus taught the crowds who came together to hear Him. He did it by the use of illustrations which were then left to convey their own message. By this means He sought to stir up their thinking, while at the same time keeping the material fresh. Each could gather from it what they would, and still be left in a positive frame of mind, hopefully ready to learn more.

4.1-2 ‘And again he began to teach by the seaside. And there is gathered to him a huge crowd so that he boarded a boat and sat in the sea. And all the crowd were by the sea on the land. And he taught them many things in parables, and said to them in his teaching.’

‘And again he began to teach by the seaside.’ The ‘again’ refers back to 3.7. The seaside was a favourite venue of Jesus and the use of a boat for this purpose seems to have been a regular feature of His ministry at this time. It acted as both a speaking platform, and as a means of avoiding being hemmed in by the crowds. This was very necessary as clearly the large open space meant that larger crowds could gather.

‘Parables.’ ‘Parable’ has a wide meaning based on the meaning of Hebrew ‘mashal’ (which it translates in LXX) meaning a saying, a word picture, a proverb, a riddle, an ethical maxim, a comparison, and so on. Here it refers to the use of stories and mysterious sayings to make the people think. We are told that He used many such (4.33).

‘All the crowd were by the sea.’ Note the emphasis on the fact that Jesus is again surrounded by crowds, but this time they are by the seashore. This is mainly a crowd of interested hearers similar to that in 3.7 although no doubt including many of those in 3.32.

‘And said to them in His teaching.’ Note the inference here that He taught much more than we have a record of. These are to be seen as but examples.

The Parable of the Four Kinds of Ground (4.3-9).

Jesus now tells a story which contains within it a number of lessons, and is thus a kind of allegory. It is based on a scene well known to His hearers, that of a sower sowing seed. Those who knew their Scriptures well would remember that in Hosea 12.10 and Jeremiah 4.3 the sowing of seed was connected with the idea of a true response to God resulting from their becoming ‘good ground’. In Hosea 12.10 His people were called on to break up their fallow ground, sowing in it in righteousness and reaping in mercy. In Jeremiah 4.3 they were to break up their fallow ground so that the words of their teachers might not be sown among thorns. The same idea of needing to be fruitful ground is found in the parable.


  • a “Listen” (3a).
  • b “Behold a sower went out to sow” (3b).
  • c “And it happened that, as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and the birds came and devoured it” (4).
  • d “And other fell on rocky ground where it did not have much earth, and it sprang up immediately because it had no depth of earth. And when the sun was risen it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered” (5-6).
  • c “And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it yielded no fruit” (7).
  • b “And others fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing. And it produced thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (8).
  • a And He said, “whoever has ears to hear, let him hear” (9).

Note that in ‘a’ they are called on to listen, and in the parallel they are to be those who have ears to hear. In ‘b’ The sower sows, and in the parallel it results in a harvest. In ‘c’ the seed is devoured and in the parallel it is choked. Centrally in ‘d’ the seed is scorched in the sun because it has no depth of earth.

4.3 “Listen. Behold a sower went out to sow.”

‘Listen.’ Jesus stresses, both here at the beginning of the parable, and at the end (verse 9), that men must listen carefully. He wants them to be aware that the story has hidden meaning. This dual exhortation emphasised that He saw this parable as of special significance. It was a parable about the life transforming power of His words and of His message, and their response to it was all important for it would determine their whole future.

The use of parable and allegory was well known among Jewish teachers, for it was a powerful way to grip and illuminate the mind once the parable was understood, (although none, apart possibly from John the Baptiser, spoke to the huge crowds that Jesus did) and like John, Jesus used every day illustrations familiar to all. Both men, in the light of Isaiah’s teachings (32.15-18; 44.1-5; 55.10-11), saw the coming of the Kingly Rule of God in terms of God’s activity in nature, and of the activity of the Holy Spirit pictured in terms of rain being poured from Heaven. But Jesus wanted the people to give the illustrations deeper thought. All were familiar with the problems attendant on growing food. The hard and stony ground which their primitive tools often made little impression on, the precious seed that could so easily be wasted or lost. And all grieved over the birds who ate the seed before it could take root, the grain that grew too quickly without being deeply rooted, the weeds that choked the seed. They were an everyday experience of life and a burden for many. They were a part of their struggle to survive. But Jesus’ question was, did they realise that they were illustrative of what could hinder them receiving His all important message? They should have known it, for the use of such pictures were a continuation of the methods of the prophets (Isaiah 5.1-7; 27.4; Jeremiah 4.3; 12.13; Ezekiel 2.6).

He also wanted them to recognise that for those who did listen and absorb His message there would be spiritual fruitfulness and a wonderful harvest. To these people harvest represented their hope for the future, and they recognised that no harvest was quite as important as the final Harvest in the last day. It pointed to the glorious future that could be theirs under the blessing of God. Jesus wanted them to realise that this time of harvest was approaching, and that He wanted them to partake in it fully. Those who had listened to the preaching of John the Baptiser were aware of his stress on spiritual fruitfulness, and on barrenness, in the face of the judgment, and of the coming work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3.8-12; Luke 3.7-9). Now Jesus reinforces that message and expands on it. All that they hoped and longed for was dependent on their willingness to receive and absorb His teaching.

This parable compares those who hear the word, and in three ways fail to receive it successfully, with those who do receive the word, and produce fruit at three levels. It is another presentation of the two ways (Matthew 7.13-14). It will be noted that the emphasis is not so much on the harvest as on what is, or is not, produced. It is a brilliantly simple analysis of men’s hearts. With some there was no interest. With some there was interest but no depth of thought or understanding. With some what interest there was, was choked by other things than the word of truth, by cares, anxieties and a desire for wealth. Notice also the fate of the seed which has failed to yield fruit. Some was devoured, some withered in the sun, and some was choked. The failures thus came for a variety of reasons but the end result was the same, there was no fruitfulness. Each listener was left to think for himself what it was that might be the hindrance in his own life. And then the glorious goal was set before him that he could, if he truly responded to Jesus and His words, produce one hundredfold.

It has sometimes been argued that Jesus original intention in this parable was simply to build up to the idea of the Harvest, with that as the sole emphasis of the parable, but a moments thought will reveal that this really cannot be so unless Jesus was talking to half-wits. And He was not. He was speaking to people steeped in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition, and inevitably when they heard of the birds swooping down to seize the seed their ears would prick up and they would think in terms of powers of evil and of demons, and even of Satan himself, in the light of Jewish tradition where birds were commonly seen in that way (compare also Genesis 15.11; 40.17, 19; Isaiah 18.5-6; Jeremiah 7.33; 12.9; Ezekiel 39.4, 17 where the descent of birds is something that fills men with foreboding). We can compare here Revelation 18.2, which echoes those traditions, where devils, unclean spirits and unclean birds are seen to be operating in parallel (compare Isaiah 13.21; 34.11, 14-15).

But even more so when they heard of sowing among thorns their minds would immediately call to mind the words of Jeremiah, ‘Do not sow among thorns’ (Jeremiah 4.3), and ‘they have sown wheat and have reaped thorns’ (Jeremiah 12.13). It was inevitable. They could hardly have failed to do so. And thus alert minds would already be looking into the details of the parable and asking themselves what it meant. And it can hardly be doubted in the light of this that Jesus intended them to do so.

‘Behold a sower went out to sow.’ This was an everyday sight in season, and crucial to their existence., and they would see in their mind’s eye the sower with his bag over his shoulder, walking along distributing the seed as he went. And in view of Who was telling the story they would be reminded of the words of Proverbs 11.18, ‘he who sows righteousness has a sure reward,’ and, somewhat guiltily (because they had not done it), of Hosea 10.12, ‘Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap according to mercy, break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the LORD, until he come and rain righteousness upon you.’ They would recognise that this sower was therefore somehow connected with this call to repentance, and for them to become prepared ground so that righteousness might flourish in their hearts. That Jesus was therefore issuing such a call for repentance and a turning to righteousness, in the light of the presence in Him of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

And what would He sow? They would find their answer in Isaiah 55.10. In that passage the seed for the sower resulted from God’s rain falling on God’s earth, producing ‘seed for the sower’, a seed which would then through God’s provision of rain and sun be sent forth to fulfil His will, accomplishing what He pleased and prospering in the way in which He sent it. And there it was seen in terms of the word of God going forth to accomplish God’s will of salvation and deliverance. Jesus wanted them to know that John the Baptiser had been a sower (John 4.36-38), and that He Himself was now at that moment sowing seed among them declaring that the Kingly rule of God had drawn near (1.15). He wanted them to recognise that the fulfilling of God’s promises humanly speaking depended on their responsiveness to what He said. The discerning among them would recognise that it was so. Indeed those who had responded to the teaching of John the Baptiser would instantly be reminded of it.

While the description ‘a sower’ was general, Jesus was not philosophising. He was not just saying, ‘have you thought about this? Isn’t it interesting?’ He was too aware of the newness and uniqueness of His message that the time for response to the Kingly Rule of God was here. No. His message was that God sent sowers out to sow and now something new was being sown. And the question was, did they realise it? Would they respond? The prophets had been sowers, as had John the Baptiser (John 4.36-38). Now He wanted them to recognise that the Sower Supreme was here and that others too would sow as He did, who would be sent out by Him. And they must be ready to receive their words.

It is not accidental that this parable follows immediately on 3.35. There we have the lesson of what Jesus was calling men to do in His teaching. He was calling them to respond to and obey the will of God. It was in that way that the Kingly Rule of God would be established. And that will was especially revealed in His own teaching. The question was, therefore, were they ready to do the will of God, or was His word to be choked by events of this life? Mark certainly intends us to see that the preaching of the Kingly Rule of God is in mind (verses 11, 26, 30).

Some have sought to deny that this is to some extent allegorical and that the individual parts of the parable have a deeper meaning, but it is only necessary to notice the emphasis of the story to recognise that that suggestion is too restrictive. There can really be no doubt that one emphasis is specifically on reasons why the seed is not fruitful, as with the prophets before Him. This must therefore be a main lesson of the parable. And another equally important emphasis is on the final fruitful harvest.

4.4 “And it happened that, as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and the birds came and devoured it.”

In Palestine the fields were in narrow strips with pathways in between the strips, and these pathways would be hardened and trampled. They were rights of way (when the Apostles had walked through the cornfields in 2.23 they had used such paths). As the sower took seed from his pouch and scattered it some would inevitably fall on such ground and be wasted, for there it could not take root and the birds were ever on the watch for such seed. The sight of them pecking away at the precious seed was a familiar one to His hearers. And as we have seen above it would be a reminder, to a people steeped in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition, of the way in which birds could be seen as swooping down to seize the seed in a way that was reminiscent of the activities of the powers of evil and of demons, and even of Satan himself, especially in view of Jewish tradition where birds were commonly seen in that way (compare also Genesis 15.11; 40.17, 19; Isaiah 18.5-6; Jeremiah 7.33; 12.9; Ezekiel 39.4, 17). We can especially compare here Revelation 18.2, which echoes those traditions, where devils, unclean spirits and unclean birds are seen to be operating in parallel (compare Isaiah 13.21; 34.11, 14-15).

4.5-6 “And other fell on rocky ground where it did not have much earth, and it sprang up immediately because it had no depth of earth. And when the sun was risen it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered.”

Ancient ploughs could not plough up the ground like their modern equivalent. In comparison they but scratched the surface, and in many places there was little earth and the ground beneath was hard rock. The plough could do nothing about it. Thus there was nothing to give root to the seed. The result was that once there was a little rain it sprang up quickly, (all its energy went into quick growth), and it equally quickly died in the burning sun because it had no roots with which to draw on hidden supplies of water. This was a grief of heart to the farmer. The shoots showed so much promise and produced such little result. And the discerning ones among Jesus’ listeners would remember the words of the prophets, ‘break up your fallow ground, do not sow among thorns’ (Jeremiah 4.3), and ‘break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord until He comes to rain righteousness on you’ (Hosea 10.12), and would ensure that their hearts were not set like stone.

4.7 “And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it yielded no fruit.”

The farmer could pull up the thorns before sowing but he could not remove the roots of the thorns. Thus both seed and thorns grew together and where there was an abundance of thorn roots the good seed had no chance. As it sought to grow it would be choked. That is why the prophet had warned his listeners, ‘do not sow among thorns’ (Jeremiah 4.3). Thus Jesus’ hearers already had good grounds for recognising what was intended by His words.

4.8 “And others fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing. And it produced thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

The change to the plural ‘others’ stresses the individuality of those who respond and that there are many who would so respond. In spite of all the problems that he faced the farmer could be sure that some seed would grow and flourish because the ground was good, and when it did it would produce in abundance. So in the end the message is positive. A harvest is guaranteed. The seed will bear fruit in receptive hearers, even though not in others. Those who had heard John the Baptiser’s preaching would not fail to connect this with his words about the coming of the Holy Spirit, the wheat and the chaff, and the resulting harvest (Matthew 3.10-12; Luke 3.16-17).

‘It produced thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’ This threefoldness parallels the threefoldness of the different types of barren ground. Not all seed sown in good ground produces at the same level, but all produces abundantly. The reference is possibly to the number of grains per plant, although the figures may simply be indications of fruitfulness indicating completeness, double completeness and full completeness.

4.9 ‘And he said, “whoever has ears to hear, let him hear”.’

The need to take note is repeated, stressing the importance of the parable and its significance. Like the good ground men need to be ready recipients of the sown seed. This warning is repeated twice underlining its importance (see verse 23). It echoes Jeremiah 5.21; Ezekiel 12.2.

The Explanation of the Parable and the Mystery of God’s Rule (4.10-20).

Once the parable had been given those desirous of knowing more crowded round Jesus for an explanation. This was what distinguished the true disciples from the hangers on.


  • a And when He was alone those who were about Him with the twelve asked Him what the parables meant (10).
  • b And He said to them, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingly Rule of God, but to those who are without all things are done in parables, that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest it should happen that they turn again and it should be forgiven them” (11-12).
  • a And He says to them, “Do you not know this parable? And how shall you know all parables?” (13).

Note that in ‘a’ the twelve, along with others who were about Him asked Him about the meaning of the parables, and in the parallel Jesus is concerned because they do not know. Centrally He explains why He teaches in parables.

4.10 ‘And when he was alone those who were about him with the twelve asked him what the parables meant.’

Notice that this was not just the twelve, it was a wider number of His followers ‘who were about Him’ (compare 3.34). They recognised that there was a lesson to be learned and came to Him seeking more truth. They were not satisfied just with a story.

‘When He was alone.’ That is, when the crowds had dispersed and He was no longer in demand. This explanation need not necessarily have been given immediately. Indeed this comment suggests that it may well not have been, for verse 35 suggests connection back to verse 1 indicating a day of preaching, and some of these enquirers would not have been in the boat with Him. It awaited a suitable time and place. Mark puts it here so that the application immediately follows the giving of the parable and brings out Jesus’ purpose in the use of parables.

‘What the parables meant.’ Notice the plural for ‘parables’. This may indicate that Jesus had taught a number of parables at this juncture, to which they required explanation. However it may be that it rather indicates that they had recognised the fact that His story of the sower contained a number of ‘parables’, i.e. riddles to be explained. We may translate, ‘what the illustrations meant’. (Compare 3.23. The meaning of the word ‘parable’ is more fixed for us than it was for them). We need not assume that they were completely in the dark about its meaning, but rather that they wanted to make sure that they had the message right.

4.11-12 ‘And he said to them, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingly Rule of God, but to those who are without all things are done in parables, in order that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest it should happen that they turn again and it should be forgiven them”.’

‘To you is given.’ This is a way of saying ‘God has given you’ without using the name of God (compare His use of the passive tense in such a way in Matthew 5.3-9 and often). ‘To you is given’ compares with Jesus’ words in John 6.65, ‘no man can come to me except it were given to him of my Father’. It is saying that by nature man is blinded to spiritual truth, and that it is only as God’s undeserved love acts on a man that he comprehends and responds to the truth (compare Matthew 11.25).

‘The mystery of the Kingly Rule of God.’ In the New Testament a ‘mystery’ was something previously hidden but now revealed. It was an ‘opened secret’, and because these disciples sought, it was to be opened to them. For this idea of the secret things of God compare Deuteronomy 29.9; Amos 3.7; Psalm 25.14; Proverbs 3.32; Job 15.8. The LXX uses the word ‘musterion’ of the secret God reveals to Daniel (e.g. Daniel 2.19). Thus God’s secret was now being revealed, the secret that the Kingly Rule of God was now present and spreading. Compare Matthew 13.35.

‘To those who are outside.’ Compare 3.31. All who hear His words, but do not seek their deeper meaning, are spiritually ‘outside’, just as His mother and brothers were ‘outside’ earlier, so that they were not welcomed as His ‘brother, sister and mother’ (3.31).

Jesus is aware of how easily men could become like the hard ground on which seed could not grow. If they were told the significance of the parable before their hearts were opened they would just become hardened. They would see and not perceive, they would hear and not understand, and His fear was that they may then prematurely ‘turn again’ and receive a transient ‘forgiveness’ (see verse 16) which was not real and lasting, a spurious experience. That has been the lot of many a man. It was the lot of Judas. But Jesus wanted true seekers, not those with a mere casual interest. Thus it was necessary to preach a partly hidden message which would lead those who wanted to know the truth to seek further, while leaving the remainder untouched but unhardened.

‘Done in parables.’ That is as hidden sayings, riddles (compare Psalm 49.4; 78.2; Proverbs 1.6; Ezekiel 17.2), something to entice thought without being too openly apparent.

‘In order that (hina) seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest (mepote) it should happen that they turn again and it should be forgiven them” The quotation is taken from Isaiah 6.9-10. Its being quoted in the third person instead of the second, and the use of ‘forgive’ instead of ‘heal’, is paralleled in the Targum (Jewish commentary) of Isaiah (Matthew 13.14 onwards reproduces the LXX). The New Testament writers used different sources for their quotations in Greek (just as we may quote Scripture from different versions).

At face value this appears to be declaring that God’s purpose is that they might not see or hear in case they should turn again and thus find forgiveness, that is, that God is specifically acting in them and blinding their minds and their thoughts in order to prevent them from finding forgiveness.

Taken in this way it must be seen as being an example of God being seen as the final cause of all that happens. We can compare how in 2 Samuel 24.1 ‘the Lord’ (YHWH) causes David to number Israel, whereas in 1 Chronicles 21.1 it is Satan who does so. The idea behind the first statement is that God is the great First Cause and that it is God Who is in the end sovereign over all that happens so that He is even seen as responsible for allowing Satan to do what he does. And who can deny that that is true? If this is accepted it can thus be argued that in the same way God is here taking the responsibility for what men do, even though it is not directly His doing. In other words it is then saying that if men and women close their eyes and their ears lest they be converted, then in the end it is God Who has done it, for He made man as he is.

However, other suggestions have also been made. These mainly depend on taking hina (in order that’) and mepote (‘lest’) and not accepting them at face value. For example it has been suggested that ‘mepote’ may possibly translate an Aramaic word used by Jesus (dilema) which means ‘unless’. This would then mean that turning again and being forgiven was to be seen as a possible alternative to not hearing and not perceiving. But it is not what mepote usually means.

In the Hebrew of Isaiah the word certainly means ‘lest’ and may thus be seen as signifying that in God’s purposes only the few are chosen (Matthew 22.14), and the same applies to mepote in the Greek.

An alternative is to see Jesus as speaking ironically. He may be saying that if God did not prevent it they might superficially ‘turn again and be forgiven’, but that it would be in a way that was transient and passing, and not real. That is then to be seen as the ‘turning again’ that He is trying to prevent. It is saying that He does not want superficial repentance. It would have in mind, for example, what happened with Israel at Sinai. There too there was a turning again and a receiving of a kind of forgiveness, but in many it was not genuine so that they soon turned back to their own ways and in the end perished in the wilderness. And the same happened again and again throughout their history (consider Isaiah 58.1-8). The point here then is that He did not want that to happen again. If there was to be repentance He wanted it to be genuine and true, and thus He acted to prevent them coming to a position of false repentance. This way of looking at it actually fits well with the idea of Jesus’ use of parables in order to prevent men becoming case hardened.

For the truth is that men have an infinite capacity for discovering methods by which they can be put in the right with God without the actual need of a true submission to Jesus Christ, through, for example, making gifts of money to the church, by means of a stereotyped confessional, or by signing a decision card. In Jesus’ day it may well have been through offering the appropriate sacrifices without considering the need for genuine repentance, giving money to the Temple or the observance of certain feasts (see Isaiah 1.11-15).

Another alternative is again to see it as ironic and as suggesting that the emphasis must be put on the last phrase each time, thus ‘in order that seeing they may see and not perceive’, and hearing they may hear and not understand, with the words in italics indicating the position that they deliberately take up. Then the subsequent ‘lest’ is put at their door. They have deliberately not perceived and not understood because the last thing that they want is to have to turn again and be forgiven.

4.13 ‘And he says to them, “Do you not know this parable? And how shall you know all parables?” ’

‘Do you not know this parable?’ Strictly He means ‘do you not know what this parable means, do you not understand it?’ There is a slight rebuke implied in Jesus’ words. These eager hearers have revealed their inability to grasp truth and to link it up with what they have heard before in the ministry of John the Baptiser. Yet He feels that they should have done so. John had himself clearly used ‘parabolic’ forms of expression illustrating the going forth of the word of God and its impact, in terms of agriculture and nature, and of abundant grain (Matthew 3.6-12; Luke 3.7-9, 17). Why then did they still not see?

But the descriptions in the parable had been commonplace ones and without that first clue the parable is not as clear as it would be once the clue was given. We are so used to it that it seems obvious, but we are not hearing it for the first time without an explanation. It was not so obvious to the first hearers. They only knew that it had a spiritual message to convey that they had, at least partly, missed. Had we been in the same situation we too may not have fully understood.

‘How then shall you know all the parables?’ Perhaps His words here were intended to dampen down any feeling of superiority they may have been developing because they saw themselves as His true followers. But it also warns them that they must put more effort into their interpretation. If they cannot understand this one which is so clear, how will they get on with the more problematic ones?

Such a rebuke is not likely to have been invented at a later time when the Apostles and those who had directly followed Jesus, and were eyewitnesses, had great prestige. None but Jesus could have given it. And this helps to confirm that what follows are His words as well. The idea that Jesus could not have intended a number of lessons to be contained in His parable has little foundation in fact. Mark 12.1-9, for example, is clearly intended as an allegory. And there is nothing forced about the applications, either in that parable there, or the one here.

The Explanation of the Parable.

Jesus now provides the explanation for the parable. It should be noted how smoothly it fits in without there being anything of a mechanical nature in the interpretation which would be the hallmark of later allegorical interpretation. This method of parable followed by explanation follows Old Testament precedence. See for example Ezekiel 17.1-24; Zechariah 4.2-10, 11-14. It was also a feature of the Rabbis. It was thus typically Jewish.


  • a “The sower sows the word” (14).
  • b “And these are they by the wayside, where the word is sown. And when they have heard Satan comes immediately and takes away the word which has been sown in them” (15).
  • c “And in the same way these are they who are sown on the rocky places who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with joy. Yet they have no root in themselves but endure for a while. Then when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they stumble” (16-17).
  • b “And others are those who were sown among the thorns. These are those who have heard the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things, entering in, choke the word and it becomes unfruitful” (18-19).
  • a “And those are they that were sown on the good ground, such as hear the word and firmly receive it, and bear fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (20).

Note that in ‘a’ the sower sows the word, and in the parallel it produces abundance of good grain. In ‘b’ Satan snatches the word away and in the parallel the word is choked. Centrally in ‘c’ we have the example of the false confession that does not stand the test of time, the ‘easy belief’ that does not result in any real change. Compare John 6.66.

4.14 “The sower sows the word.”

This is the clue that makes the meaning of the parable clear. What is sown is God’s word to man. This includes the message that ‘the Kingly Rule of God is at hand’, and that by faith they can repent and come under His Kingly Rule. The initiator is in the first place God. It is He Who in the Old Testament sends forth His word to bring about His purpose. But He sends out and provides seed for the sower (Isaiah 55.10). Thus the sower is the One to Whom He has given His word, and who is to follow in His steps. Here it is especially Jesus by implication, but as well includes John the Baptiser, together with Jesus’ own followers, for once He has trained them they too will be given the seed and will sow the word. Compare how the work of Jesus as the Servant of God is to be continued in His followers (Acts 13.47). But the main emphasis is certainly on the fact that it is God’s word that is being sown. It is on the fact that God’s word is now among them as never before. The message is all the more poignant in that it could already be seen as having occurred in the ministry of John, and to some extent as having failed to some degree. True there had been great response in many, but in many more the early enthusiasm resulting from his ministry had already died down.

The discerning listener would have been reminded of Isaiah 55.10. ‘For as the rain comes down, and the snow, from heaven, and does not return there, but waters the earth and makes it bring forth and bud and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth, it shall not return to me void, but it will accomplish that which I please and prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.’ In these words Isaiah depicts the whole process of the growth of grain, the rain and snow from heaven, the watering of the earth, the bringing forth of grain and fruit, the sower who receives and sows the seed in order to continue the process, and the eater who eats what is produced from it. By comparison with Isaiah 44.2-5 this could then be related to God’s activity in sending forth His Spirit to change the hearts of men. God’s word is the prime source and the prime emphasis is on the fruitfulness produced by the activity of God, and the sower sows as a result and continues the work. Then He likens it to the going forth of His word which directly accomplishes His purposes. Thus the sower is one provided with seed to assist in the carrying forward of the purposes of God.

The discerning among Jesus’ hearers were well aware that a great work of God was going on in Jesus. That is why they had come to listen to Him. And they did not need to be reminded of the need for heavenly rain to water the seed. The need for rain to produce fruitfulness was to them a constant fact of life and had been illustrated spiritually in John’s baptism. But there was also need for a sower, and Jesus is now saying that the time for the sower to go forth to continue the work of God has come, a sower taking forth the word of God.

‘The word.’ Compare Mark 2.2; 7.13. To Jesus ‘the word (logos)’ refers to the true message of God, both to His own message of the nearness of the expected Kingly Rule of God (2.2 with 1.15) and to ‘the word of God’ as found in the Scriptures (7.13). Indeed to Him they were both one word. However, the stress in the parable (as in Isaiah) is not on the sower but on the going forth of the word, and that the word that is going forth is the word of God (Isaiah 55.11). And then the stress is on the hindrances to its reception because of the condition of the ground, which represents the condition of the hearts of men, and what results for those who truly receive it. The sower, though necessary, was secondary. The going forth of the word and the condition of the ground that received it were primary.

4.15 ‘And these are they by the wayside, where the word is sown. And when they have heard Satan comes immediately and takes away the word which has been sown in them.’

Here the seed is the word, and the hearers are like the beaten down path, for they do not absorb the word so that Satan is able to take it away ‘immediately’. They are totally unmoved and go on to other things, not even aware of what they have lost. Matthew tells us that it is ‘the word of the kingly rule’ and that it is ‘the Evil one’ who snatches away ‘what has been sown in his heart’. Matthew then adds, ‘this is he that was sown by the wayside’. Thus ‘to be sown’ is an abbreviation for someone receiving the sown seed.

Note that the explanation does not specifically apply the detail of the parable as if it were fully an allegory. The interpretation is not mechanical but living. For example no attempt is made to relate the plural birds to the singular Satan. As the explanation continues the hearers might be thought to be revealed as the seed itself, but as we see from Matthew that is to apply the language too pedantically. What they are is the soil and the resultant grain that results from the action of the word on the ‘soil’. They are thus the result of the sowing of the seed combined with their response to it. Jesus is depicting the general consequences of what happens. He is not applying every detail. This supports the idea that the interpretation follows closely on the giving of the parable. A later mechanical application by the church as an allegory would have been more particular and specific.

We should notice that the idea of the activity of Satan is prominent in the surrounding context (3.11, 22-30; 5.1-20). We should not therefore be surprised to find a reference to him here. Jesus is quietly emphasising that He and Satan are not on the same side, and that Satan is in fact rather seeking to hinder His teaching.

We have already seen how the descent of birds in Scripture is regularly seen as something that should fill men with foreboding (e.g. Genesis 15.11; 40.17, 19; Isaiah 18.5-6; Jeremiah 7.33; 12.9; Ezekiel 39.4, 17) and that we can compare Jesus’ words here with Revelation 18.2, which echoes Jewish traditions where devils, unclean spirits and unclean birds were seen to be operating in parallel (compare Isaiah 13.21; 34.11, 14-15). Thus their very background should have given them an inkling of the significance of the birds.

4.16-17 ‘And in the same way these are they who are sown on the rocky places who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with joy. Yet they have no root in themselves but endure for a while. Then when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they stumble.’

Some hear the word and receive it with joy. But they are in fact in contrast with those who are described for example in 1 Thessalonians 2. 13-15 who receive the word with joy in truth, for they are like sprouting of the seed sown on the rocky places, instead of prepared ground. The seed begins to grow enthusiastically as the result of a little rain, but as no root is established they quickly wither and die. The work is superficial. No true spiritual work has taken place in their hearts. They have been swayed by the magnetism of some great preacher, or the enthusiasm of someone whom they admire. But it has not touched their hearts. There have always been many such. And persecutions and troubles soon filter them out. Tribulation and persecution in one way or another has always been the lot of the one who seeks to follow God’s word. And it separates the true from the false, the genuine from the fake. If only they had broken up their fallow ground. Then God would have come and rained righteousness upon them (Hosea 10.12).

‘They who are sown.’ That is, the word of God is sown in them. They hear the word and receive it with joy and sprout up. We should note again here that all the people spoken of in the parable are both the ground that receives the seed (which is basically at this point Israel) and the grain that results. The seed is sown and produces differing responses within the people, and in those who respond, different behaviour which results from a changed nature (Romans 6.4; 1 Corinthians 5.17). The word unites with responsive people in producing (or not producing) a new life, which is the basis of Jesus’ teaching on the new birth (‘born of water’) (John 3.1-8).

These, and those choked by thorns and thistles, are like the people spoken of in Hebrews 6 (note Hebrews 6.8). They have been enlightened and have experienced the heavenly gift (compare the temporary ‘forgiveness’ which was mentioned in 3.12 which God did not want men to receive), they have gone along with the Holy Spirit in His revealing work and tasted the good word of God, they have witnessed, and even possibly experienced, the miracles of the coming age. Judas was certainly one such. He had cast out evil spirits and done miracles in Christ’s name along with the other Apostles. But Jesus knew from the beginning his true state (John 6.64). And like him, many fall away because they have no root (and He knew who they were as well (John 6.64)). They bear thorns and thistles. They are not receptive and fruit producing ground.

Jesus, and John the Baptiser as a sower before Him, were both well aware that some who would at first seem eager would be disappointed and cease to follow because what resulted did not come within their expectations (John 2.23-25; 6.66; 12.43), and because they did not want the truth as it was revealed (John 6.60). They would appear to have accepted forgiveness but did not want it on God’s terms.

‘Endure for a while’ or ‘are temporary’. The word proskairoi occurs only here in the Gospels (and in the parallel Matthew 13.31) and twice more in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 4.18; Hebrews 11.25) indicating that which is temporary, that which only lasts for a while.

‘Tribulation or persecution arises.’ Jesus constantly warned that those who followed Him must expect tribulation and persecution (Mark 8.34, 38; 10.30; Matthew 5.10-12; 10.17, 21-23; Luke 6.22; John 15.20-21; 16.2, 33). He knew it Himself as an everyday fact of life (Luke 4.28-29; Mark 3.6).

‘They stumble.’ The verb skandalizein only occurs in Biblical Greek and literature influenced by it. The skandalon (or skandalethron) is the stick which is baited to operate a trap, thus a bait or snare, or even in LXX a stumblingblock. The verb is only used metaphorically and means ‘to ensnare into sin’ or ‘to take offence at’, also ‘to give offence to’, ‘to anger’. Thus here they are ensnared into sin, and they therefore find the word a stumblingblock.

4.18-19 ‘And others are those who were sown among the thorns. These are those who have heard the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things, entering in, choke the word and it becomes unfruitful.’

Some seed was sown among thorns. This represents those who allow other distractions to choke the effect of the word in their lives. The succint summing up of such distractions (‘the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things’), bears the stamp of the Master. They affect both poor and rich alike. The problems and difficulties that men face, the longing for greater and greater wealth, the lusts and desires of the flesh, how these sum up men’s lives. But when they prevent reception of the word they have become a curse indeed. And when the harvest comes and the sickle reaps, where are they then?

‘Those who have heard the word.’ There has been some response but it fails to attain its object. They have not sown to themselves in righteousness and broken up their fallow ground.

‘The cares (‘anxieties’) of this world (or ‘age’)’. ‘Anxieties’ (merimna) - compare its use in Luke 21.34 where it is used in parallel with surfeiting and drunkenness. But surfeiting and drunkenness often do result from the fact that men are burdened down with care, so we may see merimna here as referring to all the cares and anxieties that burden men down in this present age. ‘Of this age.’ There is possibly a contrast with the fact that the new Kingly Rule has drawn near and the new age is about to begin. And they are in danger of missing it!

‘The deceitfulness of riches’ (or possibly ‘the pleasantness of riches’). When men are wealthy they are deceived into thinking that wealth is all. Diversions are open to them, and the very pleasantness of wealth itself is a snare (1 Timothy 6.9-10). It shields men from response to God (compare 1 Corinthians 1.26), and promises what it cannot give, true heart satisfaction. It becomes a god in itself, that rules men’s lives. When men are not wealthy they see it as something greatly to be desired and for which all else can be forfeited (Proverbs 15.27). It lures them on with its false promises and destroys lives (Proverbs 1.19; 28.20). When they are wealthy their wealth takes possession of them and they become neglectful of spiritual things. We can compare here the rich young ruler (10.17-22).

‘The desires for other things.’ Here epithumia means ‘lusts’, desires that grip men’s lives, driving them on thoughtlessly without regard for God. In later terminology they are described as the lusts of the flesh (see Galatians 5.16 with 19-21) and of the mind (Ephesians 2.3). It covers all that men desire which stops them thinking about God.

So human cares and anxieties, wealth and the desire for it, and the longings of men for other things, all combine to choke the word, making them unresponsive to the Kingly Rule of God.

4.20 ‘And those are they that were sown on the good ground, such as hear the word and firmly receive it, and bear fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.’

This is the climax of the parable to which all else has been leading. There are those in whom the seed sown will bear fruit, and that in abundant measure, because they firmly receive it. The magnificence of the yield draws attention to its importance in the parable. As every farmer knew, some seed sown would produce a harvest. And that was why he went on sowing. Thus there were those who would hear the word, and would take it to their hearts so that it could give them new life and mould their lives, and there would be fruit in abundance.

We should note here again Isaiah 55.10-13, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, making it bring to birth (the Hebrew is yalad in the hiphil, almost exclusively used of the birth of living creatures) and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be -- ’. Jesus does not mention rain in the parable but it would be everywhere assumed by his hearers, and it brings to new life those who receive it. To Isaiah the life-giver was the rain of the word of God and only secondarily the seed, to the Spirit empowered Jesus it was the seed sown in the power of the Spirit that was the word of God, but both represent the word going forth to fulfil God’s purposes.

The Hidden Truth Is Meant To Be Revealed and Experienced (4.21-23).

The sayings in this next section are repeated in Matthew and Luke in different contexts. This reminds us that, as with all preachers, Jesus would in His ministry use the same illustrations again and again, even sometimes with different emphases depending on context. See for example, Matthew 5.15; 7.2; 10.26; 13.12; 25.29; Luke 6.38; 8.16-18; 12.48; 19.26. A good illustration is always worth repeating.

Note how the words here balance out those in verses 11-12. There the problem was those who heard and did not understand, here it is those who see and do not perceive. The idea is very similar to that in the parallel of the sower. The difference lies in that there the emphasis was on the condition of the receptor, here the emphasis is on what the receptor does with what he receives.


    a And He said to them, “Does the lamp come to be put under the corn measure, or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand?” (21).
  • b “For there is nothing hidden except for the purpose of it being openly revealed” (22a).
  • b “Neither was anything made secret but that it should come to light” (22b).
  • a “If any man has ears to hear, let him hear” (23).

Note that in ‘a’ the lamp is put on the stand so that men may see by it, and in the parallel the one who has ears to hear, must hear. In ‘b’ we have two comparisons which parallel each other demonstrating that God’s purpose for His secrets is that they might come out into the open and be understood.

4.21-23 ‘And he said to them, “Does the lamp come to be put under the corn measure, or under the bed, and not to be put on the stand? For there is nothing hidden except for the purpose of it being openly revealed, neither was anything made secret but that it should come to light. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.” ’

The picture is a straightforward one. It is growing dark and the small house is therefore in growing darkness, and then the master of the house takes and trims the lamp and brings it in. And what does he do with it? Hide it under the bed - dim light? Put it under the corn measure - no light? Or put it on the lampstand - light for all? He could do any of these but the real purpose is to lighten the house. (There could of course be a time when it was prudent to hide the light or make it dim).

The point of these words is that God does not want His truth to remain a secret. He want all to know and understand it. It is not due to His failure that the truth is not known, it is because of what men do with it when they receive it. Some put it under a bucket, others put it under the bed, but the wise put it where all may see it, and where they can benefit from the light. In two cases it may as well not have been there, but in the third case it is life transforming. The point therefore is that when His word comes to us we must use it wisely and not hide it away where it is ineffective.

An interesting question here is as to whether these words are spoken to those who have sought Him out to find out the significance of the parable, or to the crowds at large. The former situation makes more sense and makes clear why there is no contradiction between this statement and the fact that parables were a veiled form of teaching. The words ‘to them’ support this suggestion. Contrast verses 26 and 30. Matthew and Luke have the words in a different context (Matthew 5.15; Luke 11.33) and Luke in the same context (Luke 8.16-18).

The truth was that parables were both intended to require thought and be puzzling and yet at the same time to be illuminating to those who solved the puzzle, and the latter was finally their purpose. The lamp was intended to shine out, not to be hidden under a corn measure. The hiding may be necessary to prevent superficial response, but it was not the final purpose. Things were hidden so that at the right time they might be openly revealed. God’s secrets were intended eventually to come to light. By this Jesus was encouraging these seekers not to be deterred but to go on seeking. God did want them to know the truth in full. He wanted the light to shine.

‘Does the lamp come --?’ ‘Come’ is an unusual verb for a lamp. This suggests that Jesus wanted them to see that He had ‘come’ as a lamp (compare John 8.12) and wanted to make Himself known, but only to the discerning viewer and with great care. Like the parables He was a mystery, being made known to those who responded.

‘For there is nothing hidden except that it should be openly revealed.’ This stresses that indeed for a time the lamp is hidden, but only so that it might be openly revealed to those willing to see at the right time. This was a time of spiritual enlightenment. Here the shining of the lamp may have in mind the word of the Kingly Rule of God which was now here and was slowly being revealed to men and women as their eyes and ears were opened, or it may have in mind the truth about Jesus Himself as His self-revelation continues. Both are, of course, simply aspects of the same wonderful truth.

‘If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Compare verse 9. Again Jesus stresses the need for men to listen and consider carefully. There are those open to hear. There are sadly those who will not hear. They do not ‘have ears to hear’. The lamp is shining, but men love darkness rather than light (thus they want the lamp to be kept under a corn measure) because their deeds are evil (John 3.19).

Men Must Ensure That They Receive God’s Truth While They May, Otherwise They Might Lose It (4.24-25).

Having spoken of God’s truth as being like a lamp whose effectiveness depends on what men do with it, Jesus now stresses the need to take heed while it is still shining. And He does it in terms of an offer that is being made, which men must then decide whether they will accept or reject.


  • a And He said to them, “Be careful what you hear” (24a).
  • b “With what measure you measure it will be measured to you” (24b).
  • c “And more shall be given to you” (24c).
  • b “For to him who has, to him will be given” (25a).
  • a “And he who has not, from him will be taken away even that which he has” (25b).

Note that in ‘a’ they are to be careful what they hear, and in the parallel this is because if they do not accept what is offered they will lose even what they have. In ‘b’ they will receive the measure from God (or from other people) that they measure out to others, while in the parallel the one who has what is worthwhile will receive more. Central in ‘c’ is the thought that God gives more and more to those who are ready initially to receive.

4.24-25 ‘And he said to them, “Be careful what you hear. With what measure you measure it will be measured to you, and more shall be given to you. For to him who has, to him will be given, and he who has not, from him will be taken away even that which he has.” ’

‘Be careful what you hear.’ Luke 8.18 has ‘be careful how you hear’. But the meaning is much the same. What Jesus is saying in Mark is that they must be discerning, they must ensure that they listen and respond only to the truth, that they must be careful what they hear, and to do this they will have to be careful how they hear.

‘With what measure you measure it will be measured to you, and more shall be given to you.’ If they measure the words of Jesus genuinely and sincerely, receiving them, understanding them, appreciating them and fully responding to them, God will respond equally genuinely and sincerely. Indeed they will receive more than full measure. God will respond abundantly. To him who has will more be given. But if they do not receive and understand and fully respond they will lose even what they have, for it will be taken away from them. God is not satisfied with half measures and half response.

Two Parables Emphasising New Birth and Growth (4.26-32).

Jesus follow up the parable of the sower with two parables about new birth and growth. In these the seed of the word is sown, and it produces new life and steady growth as God’s rain falls on it (Isaiah 55.10 where it is literally ‘bring to birth and sprout/grow’). The first parable emphasises the secrecy but certainty of the result because it is God Who is at work, and the second parable the rapidly expanding nature of the outstanding result that will be achieved.

The Seed Growing Secretly Until the Harvest (4.26-29).

Jesus now illustrates the certainty of the harvest which will come about through God’s secret work in the world. Man casts the seed on the earth, but it is God Who causes it to grow, and then, even when men are least expecting it, and it is beyond their understanding, God produces His harvest, which He has been secretly developing all the time. For it is all a part of His purpose. And once the harvest is ripe, the sickle is put in and it is reaped.


  • And He said, “So is the Kingly Rule of God, as if a man should cast seed on the earth” (26).
  • “And should sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he does not know how” (27).
  • “The earth bears fruit of herself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear” (28).
  • “But when the fruit is ripe (literally, ‘when the fruit allows’), he puts forth the sickle because the harvest is come” (29).

Note that in ‘a’ he sows the seed and in the parallel he reaps the harvest. In ‘b’ he does not understand the process of growth, and in the parallel that growth takes place regardless.

4.26-29 ‘And he said, “So is the Kingly Rule of God, as if a man should cast seed on the earth, and should sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he does not know how. The earth bears fruit of herself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is ripe (literally, ‘when the fruit allows’), he puts forth the sickle because the harvest is come.” ’

Here the parable is said to specifically apply to the Kingly Rule of God. Here He is saying that the effect of the Kingly Rule of God over men will occur, not in some cataclysmic way, but secretly over time, (secretly in the sense that although we see the consequence we do not understand or observe the process), brought about by God once man has sown the seed. The time may not be too long, for the period between sowing and reaping is not long, but it will be sufficient for God to do His work quietly and secretly. The point is that what is now happening is very much of God. The seed is sown by ‘a man’, who responds to the time of opportunity, but then the rest remains in the hands of God. The man carries on with his life in the normal manner (‘night and day’ reflects the Jewish day as beginning in the evening) leaving the seed to be established, and then the seed springs up and grows, and the man does not know how. It grows little by little, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. And then finally the corn is fully grown ready for harvest and the man takes the sickle and harvests the grain.

The parable brings out man’s limited responsibility, which is to sow the seed, and God’s major responsibility, which is to do the rest. As with seeding, once the man has planted the word of God his task is over. It is God Who will cause the gradual growth until the grain is ready for harvest. And because it is God Who ensures the growth the harvest is guaranteed. By their fruits they will be known.

As with many of Jesus’ parables this is midway between simple parable and allegory. It brings out that man is responsible to sow the seed, that God in His own ways causes slow and gradual growth, and that there will be a reaping of a great harvest. The description of the harvest must surely have in mind Joel 3.13, ‘Put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe.’ The sickle is to be put in because the time of harvest has come. Thus salvation is seen to be the sovereign work of the sovereign God ending in this case in fullness of blessing.

But there is another important thought here, and that is that the Rule of God is not to be brought about by force. Man is to proclaim the word but God will work in His own time and in His own way to make it effective. Thus the Kingly Rule of God is not to be established by force of arms. It is not something that happens abruptly. ‘He who believes will not be in a hurry’ (Isaiah 28.16). The struggle is to be God’s not man’s. Our part in it is to trust Him.

It is, however, possible that Jesus has in mind in this parable Himself as the representative man (which is part of the significance of Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’). Then it is He Who is to be seen as initially sowing the word of God and the truth that the Kingly Rule of God is drawing near. The consequence of this is that He will sleep, in death, and rise again. Darkness will be followed by light, night by day ( for this concept of night see John 9.4; 13.30). Compare Isaiah 53.11 (as found in LXX of Isaiah supported by Hebrew texts 1QIsa and 1QIsb at Qumran) which says, ‘From the travail of his soul he shall see light and shall be satisfied’ . Then when the harvest is ready, He will, as the Great Reaper, reap the harvest. This may be so because Jesus has a tendency to drop these hints about His future which are not clear at the time but become clear later (compare 2.20). The one thing that tells against this is the suggestion ‘he knows not how’. This could not really be said about Jesus in the spiritual realm. But it may be that that there is intended to be a combined meaning and that we are to see in the ‘man’ both Jesus and His followers.

The Grain of Mustard Seed (4.30-32).

The grain of mustard seed was a favourite illustration of Jesus (Matthew 13.31; 17.20; Luke 13.19; 17.6). It was a tiny seed and yet it would quickly grow into a large bush, often well over two metres high, in which birds could take shelter. Indeed they were very fond of its small black seeds, and birds would have been a common sight around a mustard bush.


  • a And He said, “How shall we liken the Kingly Rule of God, or in what picture (parabolos) shall we set it forth? It is like a grain of mustard seed which,
  • b When it is sown on the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth,
  • b Yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes greater than all the herbs,
  • a And puts out sizeable branches so that the birds of the air can shelter under their shadow

Note that in ‘a’ the Kingly Rule of God is like a grain of mustard seed, and in the parallel this results in sizeable branches in which the birds can shelter. In ‘b’ it commences as the smallest of all the seeds used by Palestinian farmers, and in the parallel its resultant bush becomes greater than all the herbs.

4.30-32 ‘And he said, “How shall we liken the Kingly Rule of God, or in what picture (parabolos) shall we set it forth? It is like a grain of mustard seed which, when it is sown on the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out sizeable branches so that the birds of the air can shelter under their shadow.” ’

The contrast here is one of size. The commencement seems very small but the growth is rapid so that it quickly becomes a place of shelter and even a nesting place (birds have incredible abilities to nest in what may seem to us unlikely places). And that is what will happen to the Kingly Rule of God. From small beginnings it will grow to a huge size and become a shelter to the nations. The emphasis is not on the process of growing but on the great contrast between the tiny seed and the large bush. There may well be in mind here, in the fully grown bush, the idea of the parousia, the final coming of Christ to receive His own, when all the elect will be gathered from the four winds, from the uttermost part of earth to the uttermost part of Heaven (13.27) and the Kingly Rule of God in its final phase will be established.

The picture of birds in a tree is familiar from the Old Testament. See for example, Ezekiel 17.22-24; 31.1-14; Daniel 4.10, 21. There the tree illustrates a great empire in which the nations (the birds) find shelter. So this may be declaring that the Kingly Rule of God will become the equivalent of a great empire sheltering many peoples within it, and they will all be one people as the Old Testament prophets had themselves declared (Isaiah 27.12-13). It is this fact above all that points us to our seeing it as finally speaking of the end of the ages when the Rule of God is consummated.

‘Less than all the seeds that are on the earth.’ It would seem that the mustard seed was proverbially so in Palestine. This was not intended as a scientific statement. The point was that it was the smallest as compared with the others with which they were familiar. It is deliberate exaggeration. And indeed while it was not necessarily so in size, it was in significance. It seemed tiny and unimportant. But what a contrast with the huge bush which was a favourite of the birds of the air.

‘Sown on the earth --- the birds of the air.’ An alternative possibility is that there is a hint here that what was earthly was coming in contact with the heavenly and coming under heavenly protection in the same way as with the birds that fed Elijah. But the fact that the birds take shelter under the branches is against this.

We should note that these parables are often seen as pictures of the growth of the church. But this is not strictly their idea if we mean by the church a human organisation. The idea is rather of the word of God which produces life within many peoples in many individual hearts, bringing them under His shelter and making them one together, resulting in the final gathering of His own at the coming of Christ. It is the living church, the true Israel, that it pictures.

Concluding Words (4.33-34).

Mark concludes this section by pointing out that these parables that he has described were just examples of many parable that Jesus gave, and in fact that to the crowds He did not speak without a parable. However, to His own He explained everything.


  • a And with many such parables He spoke the word to them.
  • b As they were able to hear it.
  • b And He did not speak to them without a parable.
  • a But privately to His own disciples He expounded all things.

Note that in ‘a’ He spoke to the crowds in parables, while in the parallel to His disciples He expounded all things. In ‘b’ He spoke as the crowds were able to hear it, and in the parallel this was therefore not in plain speech but in parables.

4.33-34 ‘And with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. And he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he expounded all things.’

It is clear from these words that Jesus taught many parables of which we have no record. These were but a selection. And it seems from what Mark says here that they were used by Jesus to stir men’s interest without intending to enlighten them overmuch unless they responded. He wanted to stir their thoughts and He wanted them to think more deeply and then to come to learn more. In accordance with His own parables He was willing to sow the seed and allow God to work secretly on it. But He did not want to teach too plainly to the crowds for He was deeply aware that such teaching could produce a false reaction and response which would then fade away, and could result in the hardening of hearts.

There is a great deal of difference between an illustration which is accompanied by an explanation, and parables as Jesus used them To the crowds Jesus gave no explanations. They could view His parables as generally indicating the success of God’s activities or could select an interpretation that fitted in with their own ideas or could dismiss them without any thought at all. But it was only when hunger was aroused in their hearts that He was ready to speak plainly. To us with our wide background and teaching from childhood their meaning may seem obvious, but they were not so to many in the crowds. And because of our familiarity we have almost lost their impact. So Jesus deliberately went so far and no further. His teaching was deliberately veiled. But He was hoping that as some thought about the significance of His parables they would come to Him, and would ask Him their meaning at a time when their hearts were responsive.

‘As they were able to hear it.’ He knew that the majority in the crowds were steeped in the teaching of the Pharisees and in such a state would reinterpret His own teaching in that light. People, even educated people, have an amazing capacity to interpret what they hear in the light of their own background and ideas. Most are lazy thinkers. Many a preacher today is regularly misrepresented by those who hear him. And Jesus knew this. Thus He gave them only such as would stir their appetites and be easily remembered and could only be misrepresented with difficulty. And He gave them no more. He did not want them saying, ‘His teaching is such and such’, and by their description giving a totally false impression. What He had brought was incredibly new and He did not want it to be misrepresented and misunderstood. Thus until He felt that men were actually ready for it He restricted Himself to parables.

The only ones to whom He actually spoke plainly were the ones who showed their deeper interest and concern for the truth by following Him. To them He revealed the truth in clear words. ‘To His own disciples He privately explained all things’. And sometimes this meant that some left Him (John 6.66), but at least it meant that they had been given a full opportunity to understand.

‘To His own disciples.’ In the light of 4.10 this must mean more than the twelve. Sometimes in Mark ‘the twelve’ and ‘the disciples’ may be synonymous, but this blurring of the distinction occurs in all the Gospels. We are in fact probably to see a distinction between ‘the twelve’, ‘the disciples’ (which includes all who follow Him regularly) and ‘the crowd’ of believers (3.32-35).

‘He did not speak to them without a parable.’ That does not mean that He only told stories, it means that His message was always veiled. Always He spoke enigmatically. He spoke in mysteries in order to stir the heart and awaken the mind

Exegetical note. It should perhaps be pointed out here that to relate Jesus’ words at this stage directly to the church as we think of it is misleading (that is if we think of the church as being something that was over against Israel). Jesus saw Himself as come ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10.6; 15.24), that is to those of Israel whose hearts were longing for truth and were thus open to it. At this stage it was establishing the Kingly Rule of God over those of His own people who would respond that was primarily His aim, and this is what He has been speaking of in the parables, although He did know from the Old Testament that this must finally result in its being extended to the whole world (e.g. Isaiah 42.6; 49.6). Gentile converts would always be welcomed, but at this stage it would be on the right basis, a turning to the true ‘Law of Moses’ as revealed in His teaching (e.g. Matthew 5-7), not by their coming as Gentiles as such. He did reach out to the men of Samaria as an exception (John 4), but we must remember that they too followed the Law of Moses. It was only later that He seems to have acknowledged that the intransigence of Israel meant a turning to the Gentiles earlier than He had expected, a change of mind possibly connected with His encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30) which in Matthew especially is a clear turning point. For from then on He preached more in territory that was more closely connected with the Gentiles. Consider the feeding of the five thousand before that incident (five is the number of the covenant), which was on Jewish territory (6.34-44), and the feeding of the four thousand after that incident (four is the number of the nations, the four ‘corners’ of the earth), which appears to have been on Gentile territory (8.1-10), although we must recognise that large numbers of Jews would also have been there. But even there He was taking of the children’s bread and giving it to ‘the dogs’ (7.27-29).

In the same way in Matthew 16.18-19 the ekklesia is the new ‘congregation’ of Israel rather than the church as later revealed, although the one melts into the other. And in fact when the Gentiles are welcomed, it is in order to be engrafted into the olive tree (Romans 11.24-32, so that they may become true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3.29) and the new Israel (Galatians 6.15-16; Ephesians 2.11-22). Salvation was thus seen to be for the Israel of God, even if it was a new enlarged Israel. Thus the true church is not to be seen as something over against Israel. In Jesus’ eyes it is rather the true Israel, as He makes clear in John 15.1-6.

SECTION 3. Jesus’ Ministry Throughout Galilee and In The Surrounding Regions (4.35-9.32).

After the initial opening up of the story of Jesus with its continual emphasis on His unique authority, Who He was and what He had come to do (1-3), and the series of parables which have indicated how the Kingly Rule of God was to expand (4.1-34), Mark now indicates how this expansion continued to occur through the ministry of Jesus in Galilee and the surrounding regions. At the same time he continues to expand on the glory and authority of Jesus Christ Himself as revealed in His activities. This last which lead up to the disciples’ recognition that He is the Messiah (8.29-30), in His subsequently being revealed in glory on a mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John (9.2-8), and in Jesus reinterpretation of His Messiahship in terms of the suffering Son of Man (8.31; 9.9, 12, 30-32).

The emphasis on the suffering Son of Man will be the final emphasis of this section (9.30-32), and must therefore be seen as one of its primary aims. In view of the power and authority that He constantly revealed, it must have seemed totally contradictory. But Mark makes quite clear that it was so. In the midst of His powerful activity Jesus constantly made clear that He had come to die.

Meanwhile Mark totally ignores any ministry of Jesus in Judaea, together with His regular visits to Jerusalem for the feasts (as described by John). These would undoubtedly have taken place. No pious Galilean Jew would have failed over a period of time to make regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the different feasts. But Mark rather wants the concentration on His ministry to be seen as taking place in Galilee, with Jerusalem seen as the place which will reject and crucify Him. He is thus concerned to present a full picture of the glory of Christ, while facing his readers and hearers up to the fact that it will finally result in suffering and death, although always as leading on to His resurrection.

Analysis of 4.35-9.32.

  • Jesus leaves the regions around Capernaum (4.35).

    a Sailing across the sea of Galilee alone with His disciples Jesus stills a mighty storm with His powerful word, while His disciples reveal their unbelief and ask, ‘Who is this?’ (4.35-41).

  • b He reveals His power over unclean spirits by healing a demoniac and commands the healed man to ‘go and tell’ (5.1-20).
  • c He reveals His power over uncleanness by healing a woman who is constantly losing life sustaining blood, thus making her ritually ‘unclean’, but above all over death by raising Jairus’ daughter. It is a manifestation of His glory to the three who have come apart with Him to witness His glory and there are also two other witnesses to His glory (the child’s father and mother) (5.21-43).
  • d His own townsfolk do not know Who He is. He reveals His powerful words and mighty works so that His own townsfolk reveal their unbelief and ask ‘Where did this man get all this?’ (6.1-6a).
  • e He sends out His disciples to teach and with authority over unclean spirits, and they reveal their faith and are successful (6.6b-13).
  • f Herod executes John the Baptist, and offers his head on a dish, revealing the ways and the type of ‘food’ of the kingly rule of man on earth, while fearing his resurrection (6.14-29).
  • g The disciples return from their mission telling Him of the signs that they have accomplished and are called aside to be alone with Jesus. They are fulfilling the ministry that should have been the Pharisees had they but believed (6.30-32).
  • h Jesus feeds five thousand with five loaves and two fish, revealing the provision of heavenly food in the Kingly Rule of God on earth (6.33-44).
  • i Jesus walks to His disciples on the water, and they cry out in their unbelief and reveal their failure to hear and speak clearly because their hearts are hardened and they do not understand. They are spiritually deaf (6.45-52).
  • j The people gather to Him and He heals all who come to Him (6.53-56).
  • k Jesus challenges the Pharisees and Scribes with the fact that they pay more heed to tradition than to the word of God, and points out to the crowds that it is not outward things that defile a man but what is within the inner man (7.1-22).
  • j The Syro-phoenician woman comes to Him and He heals her stricken son (7.24-30).
  • i He heals the deaf and speech impaired man, a picture of the need of the disciples, and of Israel (7.31-37).
  • h He feeds the four thousand in Gentile territory and gives them bread from God’s table (8.1-10).
  • g The Pharisees reveal what is within them by seeking a sign, upsetting Jesus deeply and He declares that no sign will be given, which reveals why their ministry is barren so that they can have no part in His work (8.11-13).
  • f Jesus tells His disciples to beware of the leavened bread (the teaching) of the Pharisees and of Herod (or of the Herodians), and to hear and understand (8.14-21).
  • e The blind man’s eyes are gradually opened (8.22-26).
  • d The disciples do recognise Who Jesus is and learn that He must suffer. (They have learned from where He had ‘got all this’) (8.27-9.1).
  • c Jesus is transfigured in such a way that His glory is revealed before the chosen three. The three come apart with Jesus and two other witnesses (Moses and Elijah) bear witness to His glory (9.2- 13).
  • b The demon possessed boy is remarkably healed (9.14-29).
  • a The disciples are alone with Jesus and learn that spiritual storms lay ahead for Him and for themselves, receiving the fuller revelation of Who He is (9.30-32).
  • Jesus returns to Capernaum (9.33a).

Note firstly how this whole section is sandwiched within visits to Capernaum, which had become a kind of headquarters for Jesus and His disciples. All therefore that takes place in this section radiates out from Capernaum. The section begins in ‘a’ with Jesus’ power revealed over nature in the stilling of the storm, while in the parallel Jesus tells His disciples of the ‘storm’ that yet awaits Him in the future to which He must submit. Nature He can control, but man must be allowed to perform his evil will to the utmost if mankind are to be saved. In ‘b’ He heals the demoniac, and in the parallel He heals the demon possessed boy. Both are extreme cases of possession. In ‘c’ He takes Peter, James and John apart and, in the presence of two witnesses (the girl’s father and mother), raises a young girl from the dead, revealing that He is the Lord of life, and in the parallel He takes Peter, James and John apart and is transfigured before them in the presence of two witnesses, Moses and Elijah, revealing that He is the Lord of glory. In both cases what has been seen is not to be spread abroad. In ‘d’ Jesus’ own townsfolk fail to recognise Him and ask ‘Where did this man get all this?’. while in the parallel His disciples do recognise Him and recognise where His power does come from, it is of God. In ‘e’ He sends out His disciples to teach and to have authority over unclean spirits, and they reveal their faith and their growing awareness, and are successful, and in the parallel we have the picture of the blind man whose eyes are gradually opened, a picture of what is happening to the disciples (it comes before the incident where the eyes of the disciples are known to have been opened when they confess His Messiahship). In ‘f’ Herod executes John the Baptist, and offers his head on a dish, revealing the ways and the type of ‘food’ offered under the kingly rule of man on earth, while in the parallel Jesus warns His disciples to beware of the leaven of Herod. In ‘g’ the disciples return from their mission telling Jesus of the signs that they have accomplished and are called aside to be alone with Jesus, while in the parallel the Pharisees are vainly looking for signs and He leaves them. In ‘h’ Jesus feeds five thousand Jewish believers with five loaves and two fish, revealing the provision of heavenly food in the Kingly Rule of God on earth, and in the parallel He feeds four thousand Jewish and Gentile believers with seven loaves and some fish, revealing the same. In ‘i’ Jesus walks to His disciples on the water, and in their unbelief they cry out and reveal their failure to hear and speak clearly, a result of the fact that their hearts are hardened so that they do not understand. They are spiritually deaf. And in the parallel a man who is deaf and stammering in his speech is healed. In ‘j’ the people gather to Him and He heals all who come to Him, and in the parallel the Syro-phoenician, typical of the Gentiles, comes to Him and He heals her daughter. Centrally in ‘k’ Jesus challenges the Pharisees and Scribes with the fact that they pay more heed to tradition than to the word of God, and points out to the crowds that it is not outward things that defile a man. It is what is within the inner man.

This larger section is divided up into smaller subsections of which the first is 4.35-6.6a.

Jesus’ Divine Power and Glory Is Revealed While His Own Townsfolk Are Blinded To The Truth About Him (4.35-6.6a).

In the first part of this new section Jesus power and glory will now be revealed in four ways:

  • As the One Who can tame the sea with a word - power over nature (4.35-41).
  • As the One with supreme power over even a multitude of evil spirits - power over the other world (5.1-20).
  • As the One from Whom power could flow out to cleanse the unclean - power over all uncleanness (5.24-35).
  • And as the One with power to raise of the dead - power over death itself (5.21-41).

Each incident revealed something of Who He was, and revealed His power over nature, over the spirit world, over uncleanness and over life itself. And the three main examples of His power are seen as brought about by His word. He is such that His word controls nature, is authoritative over the spirit world and defeats death itself (note the growth in concept, moving from nature, through the ‘other world’, to life and death itself). He ‘upholds all things by His powerful word’ (Hebrews 1.3). He is seen as the Lord of Creation, both of Heaven and earth. And all this is then followed by an indication that, even so, many would not believe in Him because of their prejudice.

Analysis of 4.35-6.6a.

In this subsection Jesus passes over the Sea of Galilee to the other side, and then finally returns and comes back to ‘His own region’. It can be analysed as follows:

  • a Sailing across the sea of Galilee Jesus stills a mighty storm with His powerful word, while His disciples reveal their unbelief and ask, ‘Who is this?’ (4.35-41).
  • b He reveals His power over unclean spirits by healing a demoniac and commands the healed man to ‘go and tell’ (5.1-20).
  • c He reveals His power over uncleanness by healing a woman who is constantly losing life sustaining blood, thus making her ritually ‘unclean’ (5.25-34).
  • b He reveals His power over death by raising Jairus’ daughter (5.21-43).
  • a He reveals His powerful words and mighty works, while His own townsfolk reveal their unbelief and ask ‘Where did this man get all this?’ (6.1-6a).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus reveals His mighty word of power, and the disciples reveal their unbelief and ask ‘Who is He?’, while in the parallel His own townsfolk wonder at His mighty words and, revealing their unbelief, ask ‘from whence has He these things?’ In ‘b’ Jesus reveals His power over supernatural spirits, and in the parallel He reveals His power over death. Centrally in ‘c’ He heals an unclean woman who represents the uncleanness of Israel.

Jesus Tames The Roaring Waves (4.35-41).

One supreme importance of incidents like this one was that in them the disciples themselves directly benefited from Jesus unique power. It was one thing to see others delivered, it was quite another when it happened to them. They had become somewhat anaesthetised against the miracles that happened to others, but in this instance their awareness what at its height. It made their eventual recognition of His Messiahship more personal. He was their deliverer too.

The account of this incident gives vivid indications of the recollections of an eyewitness - they take Him ‘even as He was’; ‘other boats were with Him’; ‘insomuch that the boat was now filling’; ‘asleep on the cushion’; and ‘do you not care?’ (the last words not likely to be invented by later Christians). And while Mark’s aim is to bring out Jesus’ power over the sea he is faithful to his source. He does not over-exaggerate. Yet he does want his readers to recognise that Jesus is the One Who ‘rules the power of the sea. When its waves rise you still them’ (Psalm 89.9), words previously spoken of God Himself. In other words that He has divine power and authority, even over nature itself.


  • a And on that day, when evening was come, He says to them, “Let us go over to the other side” (35).
  • b And leaving the crowd they take Him with them, even as He was, in the boat. And other boats were with Him, and there arises a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling (36-37).
  • c And He Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion, and they awake Him, and say to Him, “Master, do you not care that we perish?” (38).
  • d And He awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still.” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm (39).
  • c And He said to them, “Why are you fearful? Do you not yet have faith?”
  • b And they were greatly afraid, and said one to another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (40).
  • a And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes (41).

Note that in ‘a’ they set off for the other side, and in the parallel they arrive at the other side. In ‘b’ they are subjected to the fury of the wind and the sea, and in the parallel they wonder at the fact that the wind and the sea obey Him. In ‘c’ the disciples are fearful, while Jesus, full of faith, slepps in the stern and in the parallel He asks them why they are fearful and do not have faith. Centrally in ‘d’ He reveals His authority an power over nature in its fury.

4.35 ‘And on that day when evening was come he says to them, “Let us go over to the other side.” ’

‘And on that day when evening was come.’ This connects back with 4.1 giving the impression that we are dealing with one day in the life of Jesus. And in a sense we are. But we have already noticed that it is his method to deliberately bring together incidents of a similar kind, or which go together, to present a full picture. (1.1-45; 2.1-3.6; 3.7-3.35 and so on). And it is quite clear that Mark does not see Him as having been sitting in the boat while all that is described in chapter 4 has been happening. For example verse 10 indicates a period when He was alone with His followers. The introductions in verses 21, 26, 30 also suggest stories told at different times deliberately introduced here (Mark clearly does not present it as a continuous sermon in contrast with Matthew 5-7), and verses 33-34 summarise a practise over a period. So the connection between the sayings are loose ones. It seems therefore that he brings into the incident described in 4.1-9, taken with 4.35-36, other matters which can be connected with the events of that day in order to give them a readable context. (He is not writing a chronological biography but a Gospel biography).

‘When evening was come.’ Night was falling which would make what follows even more dramatic.

‘Let us go over to the other side.’ It is probable that this was because He was exhausted and needed to escape from the crowds to an area where nothing was expected of Him. He in fact did no preaching on the other side which was the area of the Ten Towns (Decapolis), although that may have been because of what happened. This was a mainly Gentile area which ruled itself under Rome, although there were many Jews living there.

4.36 ‘And leaving the great crowd they take him with them, even as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him.’

The simple detail emphasises that we have here the words of an eyewitness. It would seem that the crowds were so great and pressed so close to the shore line to hear His words that landing would be difficult and uncomfortable, and Jesus was exhausted. So the disciples immediately set off across the lake without landing, taking Him ‘just as He was’ after the long day, enabling Him for His part to be able to sleep. (This takes up from 4.1 when He entered the boat, the material included meanwhile (e.g. 4.10) being ignored).

The fact that ‘other boats were with Him’ stresses the eagerness of His closest followers to stay near Him. His boat could only take so many and thus those of His followers who had not been invited into the boat because of shortage of space, had boarded other boats so as to be able to listen and follow Him wherever He went. It was thus quite an armada that set off across the lake. They too would be caught in the storm. That is possibly another reason why He stills it.

4.37-38a ‘And there arises a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat insomuch that the boat was now filling. And He Himself was on the cushion in the stern, sleeping.’

The sudden arousal of strong winds to lash the lake up into a fury without warning was a common feature of the Lake of Galilee, surrounded as it was by mountains, and defiles through which the winds could be caught and compressed and then let loose on the lake. Whoever is describing this knew the lake well. But this was a storm of unusual ferocity even for this lake, for it terrified even these experienced sailors, and they were too familiar with the lake to be frightened by any normal storm.

The wind lashed around them in the darkness, the huge waves pounded into the small boat, and the more they tried to bale it out the more they saw that the boat was filling with water. They realised that the end was near. They knew that their boat could not last long and must soon go under. If this went on nothing could save it. They had seen exactly the same thing happen before to other boats (and the other boats of disciples were no doubt in a similar state). If this was a similar type of fishing boat to that discovered and housed at Ginosar in 1968 it would be roughly eight metres by two and a half metres (twenty five foot by eight foot) and have low sides, making it vulnerable to high waves.

This may well be seen as an attempt by Satan to end Jesus’ mission when it had only just begun, hoping to destroy the whole band at one go. Compare Job 1.19. The same agent was probably seen as at work. But it is not portrayed as the work of demons.

‘And He Himself was on the cushion in the stern, sleeping.’ What a sublime picture is presented here. He was totally unconcerned. Not because He did not care but because He knew that they were safe in the Father’s hands. In a boat such as this there would be a special seat at the stern which was the place of honour for any distinguished person aboard, where there would be a cushion and possibly a carpet. This was the place occupied by the exhausted Jesus.

4.38b ‘And they awake Him and say to Him, “Master, do you not care that we are about to die?”

The wind was howling, and the huge waves were continuing endlessly to batter and overwhelm the boat, and the boat was flooded, and, clinging on to whatever they could hold on to, the drenched and frightened disciples gave up their efforts and waded their way through the swirling water in the boat, fighting their way through the wind and spray past the grim helmsman struggling to control the helm, and finally reaching the stern where they desperately shook Jesus to wake Him. They had tried all they knew but it was useless. They knew that any second now they would go under. And so, at the end of their tether, they had come to the One on Whom their lives had up until now depended. And He was their last resort, for the fact that they went to Him at all suggests that they did feel that He might be able to do something. (Why else should experienced sailors wake a novice?). But they seemingly could not understand why Jesus seemed so unconcerned.

‘Master, do you not care that we are about to die?’ There is possibly a rebuke in the words, although their aim might simply have been to shock Him into doing something. This was their last resort. The words bear the mark of the fear of brave men who have done all they could against the relentless wind and sea and are facing a certain end. Surely the Master (didaskalos - the authoritative master teacher) should know the situation, even if He was asleep? He instinctively knew so much. So why did He sleep on? Why did He not do something? It seemed that He did not mind whether they all died or not. And they did mind! Everything they now had to live for was in that boat. For we must recognise that their ‘we’ included Jesus. They were not just thinking of themselves. With them was perishing the hope of Israel. When the storms of life arise how easy it is for us to assume that God does not care and is not in control.

4.39 ‘And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still.” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.’

The picture is one of total control. Here was One Who could control Himself and could control the elements. He had no fear of the wind or the sea, batter as they would, for He knew that they would obey His will. This is not just a miracle, this is a portrayal of the One Who is Lord of all. Of One Who rules the power of the sea (Psalm 89.9). And we may surmise that Mark deliberately used ‘sea’ rather than ‘lake’ to make this connection.

‘He rebuked the wind and said to the sea.’ Compare Psalm 106.9, ‘He rebuked the Red Sea also and it was dried up’; Isaiah 50.2, ‘Behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea’; Nahum 1.4, ‘The Lord has His way in the whirlwind and the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry ---.’ Here in each case is the voice of the Creator speaking to His creation as in Genesis 1, rebuking it and bringing about His will. In none of these cases is there the suggestion of a demonic element. Even inanimate nature responded to His voice (compare Genesis 1.6-7). Now here in this boat is the Son of God, and the same thing occurs. The sea obeys His word.

On the whole, however, while we cannot justifiably introduce a demonic element, the story may certainly be seen as reflecting the defeat of another attempt by Satan to destroy his enemy.

‘Peace, be still (‘calm down and be quiet’).’ The verb rendered ‘be still’ meant literally ‘be muzzled’ and had been extended to mean ‘be silent’. He is telling the elements to come under control. To stop what they are doing. To cease their clamour and disturbance and be at peace. They have made their effort and now it is time to finish. To those who try to suggest that He saw Himself as talking to animate spirits we can only ask, what other verbs could Jesus have used to a raging sea when He wanted His disciples to know what He was doing?

‘Peace.’ He brought peace amid tumult. And He knew that this was what the world was also seeking both individually and as a whole. And if it would but listen to His voice it would be theirs.

‘And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.’ As Jesus spoke the wind ceased and the sea settled instantly. The creation obeyed His will. And the calm was so noticeable that it was seen as worthy of comment. One can almost hear Peter saying to his listeners afterwards with awe ‘and there was a great calm’. These were men who knew the Sea of Galilee and its ways, its essential placidity and the sudden storms that could develop, and their equally sudden cessation. But they had seen nothing like this. There can be no question that the disciples, some of them experienced sailors who, as we say, knew the Sea of Galilee well, saw this as a remarkable miracle (verse 41).

4.40 ‘And he said to them, “Why are you fearful? Do you not have faith?” ’

There was a gentle counter-rebuke in His words. He had a right to expect them not to be afraid. They knew to some extent Who He was and they should have realised that His ways were in the hands of God and that He had chosen them to work for Him and with Him. How then could they all perish? Did they not have faith in God and His promise that the Kingly Rule of God was here in Him? Did they not realise that He was immortal until His task was done?

4.41 ‘And they were filled with great awe and said one to another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” ’

But this topped all they had ever seen. They had seen His miracles of healing on all who came to Him. They had seen His power over evil spirits. But to control the wind and the sea, both recognised as uncontrollable, before which men had to always to bend while doing their best to fight against them, this filled them with awe (Although it was not in fact a greater miracle, only more spectacular).

We should note that in a sense their whole experience had been recorded long before in the vivid description of men in a storm in Psalm 107.23-30, except that here it had been heightened. We cannot doubt that the fishermen among them had often meditated on this Psalm which so expressed something which was probably to them a fairly regular experience, and gave the welcome impression of God’s care for fishermen and other seamen;

‘Those who go down to the sea in ships,
Who do business in great waters,
These see the works of the LORD,
And His wonders in the deep.
For He commands, and raises the stormy wind,
Which lifts up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths,
Their soul melts away because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,
And are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry to the LORD in their trouble,
And He brings them out of their distresses.
He makes the storm a calm,
So that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad because they are quiet,
So He brings them to the haven where they would be.’

The point, however, here was that this storm went beyond anything that that has in mind. They had no doubt already cried to God, but things had got so bad that it left them nowhere to go but Jesus as their last hope.

It is probable that we are to see that Jesus acted in time to save, not only those in His own boat, but His followers in the other boats as well. For this would be included in Jesus’ word of faith.

In concluding the passage we should consider the fact that it is extremely unlikely that Mark failed to recognise the overwhelming message of the passage, that with Christ present all is right with His people, however extreme the storms. He is Lord of Wind and Wave and Storm, whether physical or spiritual. But the thought that would also have been carried away by them all was undoubtedly that Jesus was Lord of Creation, just as He was Lord of the Sabbath.

It should be noted that in the section chiasmus this parallels Jesus’ words concerning His suffering as the Son of Man, which will finally result in resurrection. That describes another Satanic storm through which He will have to go, from His point of view far worse than this one, and from which also He will emerge triumphant (9.30-32).

Jesus Demonstrates His Power and Authority over a Regiment of Evil Spirits (5.1-20).

The incident we are now about to examine raises the question as to the existence of evil spirits. But this is something never doubted anywhere in the Bible. It is not constantly stressed, but there is the clear indication of evil power at work behind the scenes from Genesis 3 onwards, right through to Revelation. And that Jesus Himself believed in Satan the Adversary (the Devil, the Accuser) there can be no doubt (Matthew 4.10; 12.26; 13.39; 25.41; Mark 3.23, 26; 4.15; Luke 10.18; 13.16; 22.31; John 8.44). Indeed it was to destroy the works of the Devil that Jesus came (1 John 3.8). And He constantly overcame him. And if Satan exists then we can be sure that other evil spirits exist also.

The growth of monotheism hindered the ability of these evil spirits to affect mankind for when men ceased seeking to worship them through the worship of the gods, or to seek to influence them or to contact them through the occult, their effectiveness was largely nullified. But their readiness, when given the opportunity, to enter and control men is evidenced throughout history. The twentieth century saw a rise of spirit possession in Western countries precisely because men had once more opened themselves to such evil influences through the occult, and the twenty first century may well see further growth as people indulge in the occult more and more in various ways, but in Africa and the East such possession has always been well known. There they do not scoff at the idea of evil spirits.

The idea must not be over-exaggerated. The Gospels distinguish sickness and lunacy from spirit possession (Matthew 4.23-24; 8.16; 10.8; Mark 6.13; Luke 4.40; 7.21, 22), and Jesus only casts out evil spirits in clear cut cases. He did not believe that they affected every man, or even most men, by entry and possession, nor did He see them as the prime cause of disease, although we know that Christians do ‘wrestle’ with evil powers in heavenly places, often without knowing it because they triumph through Christ (Ephesians 6.12) There did appear to be a rise in spirit possession in the days of Jesus, but this may well be because His presence drew them out and brought them to the fore. At other times they could carry on undisturbed, preferring not to be brought to notice. It is noteworthy that Jesus did not lay hands on spirit possessed men. He dealt with them by a word of command. (A lesson to be well learned by any who deal in such things).

Men possessed by evil spirits may behave in strange, extreme ways and the spirits can to some extent control their actions and even speak through them in different voices. But not all who behave in strange ways do so because they are demon possessed. Mental problems can produce what appear to be similar reactions (a distinction was in fact made between the ‘lunatic’ and ‘the spirit-possessed’ (Matthew 4.24). Nor do all demon possessed people obviously behave in strange ways.

The fact that such evil spirits were personal comes out in that they recognised Jesus for Whom He was, showed fear, were aware of God’s purpose for them, and spoke and cried out. They can probably, however, only enter people when they in some way open themselves to them. This can especially occur when people dabble in fortune telling, astrological influences, seeking the spirit world, witchcraft, idol worship, blanking the mind, attending gatherings where spirits are to be engaged and so on. These things are constantly condemned in the Bible. See for example Exodus 22.18; Leviticus 19.26, 31; 20.27; Deuteronomy 18.10-12; Isaiah 8.19. While large numbers who indulge in such things do not become possessed, it is an ever present danger for those who do. Medical science cannot deal with such cases, which require exorcism through the power of Christ.

Having this in view we now move on to look at an extreme case of spirit possession of huge significance which was dealt with by Jesus and revealed His total mastery over the spirit world gathered in force, and revealed Him as ‘the Son of the Most High God’, a description which certainly pointed beyond simple Messiahship.


  • a And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.
  • b And when He was come out of the boat, straightway there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling in the tombs
  • c And no man could any more bind him, no, not with a chain, because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been rent asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces, and no man had strength to tame him, and always, night and day, in the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out, and cutting himself with stones.
  • d And when he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and paid Him homage, and crying out with a loud voice, he says, “What have we in common, Jesus, you Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me”.
  • e For He said to him, “Come forth, you unclean spirit, out of the man”.
  • f And He asked him, What is your name? And he says to Him, “My name is Legion; for we are many”.
  • g And he begged Him fervently that He would not send them away out of the country.
  • h Now there was there on the mountain side a great herd of swine feeding, and they begged him, saying, “Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them”.
  • i And He gave them permission.
  • h And the unclean spirits came out, and entered into the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep into the sea, in number about two thousand; and they were choked in the sea.
  • g And those who fed them fled, and told it in the city, and in the country. And they came to see what it was that had come about.
  • f And they come to Jesus, and see him who was possessed with devils sitting, clothed and in his right mind, even him who had had the legion, and they were afraid.
  • e And those who saw it declared to them how it befell him who was possessed with devils, and concerning the swine.
  • d And they began to beseech Him to depart from their borders.
  • c And as He was entering into the boat, he who had been possessed with devils besought him that he might be with Him. And He would not allow him, but says to him, “Go to your house to your friends, and tell them how great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you”.
  • b And he went his way, and began to publish in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him, and all men marvelled
  • a And when Jesus had crossed over again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd was gathered to Him, and He was by the sea.

Note that in ‘a’ they come to the other side of the sea, and in the parallel they take the reverse journey. In ‘b’ we have described the demoniac who lived among the tombs, and in the parallel the same man roaming the country and speaking out about his deliverance. In ‘c’ we have a picture of the terrible condition of the demoniac, shrieking and crying out, a witness to his terrible condition, and in the parallel a picture of his sanity as he seeks to follow Jesus but is rather sent out as a witness to how he has been delivered. In ‘d’ the possessed man wants nothing to do with Jesus, although he cannot help himself, and in the parallel the people want nothing to do with Jesus. In their own way their minds are as dark as the demoniacs. In ‘e’ Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man, and in the parallel those who saw it bear witness of the final result. In ‘f’ he reveals himself as ‘legion’ because he is possessed by many spirits and is afraid, and in the parallel those who arrive see ‘him who had the legion’ no longer possessed, but clothed and in his right mind. In ‘g’ the spirits do not want to go out of the country, and in the parallel the pigherds flee to the city and the country. In ‘h’ the evil spirits ask that they may enter the swine, and in the parallel they enter the swine. Centrally in ‘i’ it is Jesus alone Who can give them permission.

5.1 ‘And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.’

‘The country of the Gerasenes.’ Differing manuscripts and versions have different names for the area in mind, probably mainly because of the later difficulty of identification - Gerasenes, Gergesenes, Gadarenes, Gergustenes. Gerasa was a well known city thirty miles inland, (and must thus be ruled out, although its inhabitants may have owned land by the sea) and Gadara was six miles inland, although the land between Gadara and the sea was known as ‘the country of the Gadarenes’. Both Gerasa and Gadara were included among ‘The Ten Towns’ (Decapolis), and Matthew actually identifies the place as ‘the country of the Gadarenes’ because that was relatively well known and the incident took place in the area around Gadara. Mark however was more precise and may well have had in mind the small coastal town now known as Kersa or Koursi which is in that area (thus ‘the land of the Kerasenes’ pronounced with a guttural). Near that town is a fairly steep slope within forty metres of the shore, and the cave tombs can still be seen there.

The whole region was known as the Ten Towns (Decapolis) because it was originally a place where ten major towns formed an alliance for mutual protection. It was semi-independent and ruled itself, although loosely connected to the Province of Syria. It was predominantly Gentile but had been at one time conquered by the Macabbees and thus now also contained a (relatively small) Jewish population. It may have been Jesus’ intention to proclaim the coming Kingly Rule of God to the Jews in the area, although in the event He did not do so, but it is more likely that His intention was mainly to take a respite from the huge crowds that He could not avoid on Jewish territory.

5.2-5 ‘And when he was come out of the boat immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs, and no man could any more bind him, no, not with a chain. For he had often been bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him, and the fetters broken in pieces. And no man had strength to tame him. And always night and day in the tombs and in the mountains he was crying out and cutting himself with stones.’

Jesus had come over for a rest and now He faced something the like of which He and His disciples had never seen before. This was not just a possessed man, but a man terribly possessed, living a life of misery and torment. Firstly we should note that he lived among the graves. The belief of the time was that graveyards were places where evil spirits lived, which may have been one thing that prompted his distorted mind to take up his dwelling there, but it was also likely that he did so because many tombs were caves which could provide adequate, if unpleasant, shelter (compare Job 30.6), and were generally avoided by men. It was somewhere where he could avoid the human beings who tormented him.

Secondly he had superhuman strength. All attempts to restrain him had failed. Fetters and chains were torn apart like string. And no one was willing, even as part of a group, to try to restrain him. He was a terror to all. (Such uncanny strength has often been noted of people in a similar state).

And thirdly he wandered among the tombs and went up into the mountains, crying out and cutting himself with stones. He was often no doubt seen from afar, a wild and desolate figure, and he would undoubtedly have been a person of wide renown. The cutting of himself with stones may simply have represented self-hatred, a not uncommon feature of such possessed people, or it may have been connected with demon rites (1 Kings 18.28; Leviticus 19.28; Deuteronomy 14.1). The fact that he is later described as ‘clothed’ may suggest that he ran around naked. Nakedness is often a feature and consequence of severe clinical depression.

‘A man with an unclean spirit.’ The spirit was ‘unclean’ in contrast with the ‘cleanness’ or purity of the Spirit of God. It was a spirit that hated God and all things to do with God, and shrank from His presence, and wanted nothing to do with Him. And it rendered the man ‘unclean’ in Jewish eyes by his dwelling among the tombs. The man is specifically identified as demon possessed. It is probable that he was a Gentile (Consider 5.20 and his close proximity to pig farms, abhorrent to orthodox Jews).

‘Immediately.’ This does not necessarily mean on landing, but signifies that it was before He had time to do much else. It is a typical Marcan hurrying along of the narrative. On the other hand it was probably still dark on landing, so the man may have been engaged on his nightly wanderings, unwittingly drawn there by God.

5.6 ‘And when he saw Jesus from afar he ran and fell on his knees before Him.’

This amplifies ‘met Him’ in verse 2 (after the diversion in verses 3-5). Compare on this 3.11. It may be that his original intention was to attack the party, but that when they did not turn and flee as other men did, he suddenly recognised with Whom he was dealing. Alternately we may gain the impression that the man was drawn by an irresistible impulse, possibly because the man himself was reacting against the evil spirits within him. Another alternative is that we may see in this that the evil spirits within him recognised the Master of the Universe and in desperation sought to stave Him off, because they feared what He would do. It is clear that they were in panic.

But whichever way it was, even this distressed, powerful and unrestrainable man had to fall before Jesus, because something within him recognised with Whom He was dealing. We can imagine the feelings of the disciples as they saw this terrible figure running towards Him. Peter clearly remembered it well. But Jesus, unmoved, awaited his submission. What the Doctors of the Law would not do these evil spirits felt compelled to do. Fall down before Jesus. For they were wiser and more discerning than the Doctors of the Law.

Matthew lets us know that the man had a companion, also spirit possessed, and that together they were so fierce that no one dared to pass by when they were there. Even such people seek companionship, so that there is nothing unlikely in this. They may well have been a couple. But Mark is selective. He wanted to focus on this man because of what followed, for this man’s condition accentuates the supreme power and authority of Jesus. So he concentrates on the one man.

5.7-8 ‘And crying out with a loud voice, he says, “What have I to do with you, Jesus, you Son of the Most High God. I adjure you by God do not torment me”, for he was saying to him, “come forth, you unclean spirit out of the man”.’

The order of the words illustrates Mark’s emphasis. This man had almost certainly never had any contact with Jesus, and there was no way by which he could know Him, and yet he recognised Him for what He was. This was not just a deeply disturbed, mentally ill man. There was that within him which recognised, and acknowledged with fear, ‘Jesus, the Son of the Most High God’. The words, however, were forced out of him by Jesus’ constant demand (imperfect) saying repeatedly, ‘come forth you unclean spirit’.

Note the attempt to bind Jesus by an oath while at the same time recognising His complete mastery. They are using desperate measures, for they recognise that His holiness is contrary to all that they are. The tormenting seemingly consists in His demand that they leave the man. They are only too well aware of what the consequences for them might be if they are left with no body to possess. They may be ‘tormented before the time’ (Matthew 8.29). They were therefore desperate to retain control of some kind of physical body.

There was no immediate release, for Jesus had yet to learn how greatly the man was possessed. His initial seeming ‘failure’ arose from the fact that He was not yet aware of how many spirits possessed the man (some were no doubt deliberately keeping quiet and trying to evade recognition) and was therefore not addressing the whole group of evil spirits. They were thus able to evade His words for a while, not being themselves addressed, and the result was that there had to be a continuing exorcising. (Similar situations, although not quite as serious, have been testified to by genuine exorcisers in these present days).

The title ‘the Most High God’ appears to be a Gentile designation for the God of the Jews. Compare Daniel 3.26; 4.2. It was also used in Jewish-Hellenistic syncretistic religion. This tends to confirm that the man was a Gentile. We can contrast here 1.24 where a similar admission was made of Jesus, but as ‘the Holy One of God’ (a typically Jewish description), and a similar fear of a destructive end was expressed, although there described as ‘are you come to destroy us’. But there the unclean spirit left at once, for it appears that there was only one.

Matthew 8.29 might appear at first sight to expand ‘do not torment me’ to ‘have you come here to torment us before the time?’ while Luke 8.28 is similar to Mark, although later adding their plea not to be sent into the abyss (verse 31). But this is probably because Matthew is actually recording a further statement made in a more protracted interview, an interview which Mark mentions (Mark 5.10), while Mark has briefly summarised, for we should note that what Matthew records is spoken in the plural. Until they were forced to reveal themselves the man spoke in the singular, but once they were exposed they argued in the plural. This attempt to conceal that they were there is typical of multiple exorcisms, as is the indulging in declaration and argument. When the godly minister and experienced exorciser who exorcised the twentieth century witch Doreen Irvine pleaded the power of the cross against the spirits possessing her, a terrible voice cried out, “Do not speak to me about Calvary. I was there!” And another claimed to have known Mary Magdalene. But in the end they had to yield to the power of the Name of Jesus Christ. (I heard this on a tape from his own lips, and he was no fanatic). However, her release from multiple evil spirits took some time, for some kept themselves hidden and were not immediately apparent.

But the idea of the comment is the same. They were aware of the torment and anguish that awaited them if they left this human body in which they had felt so safely ensconced, and they wanted to avoid it for as long as possible. They knew that their final judgment was approaching and were afraid of the Abyss, the abode of departed spirits, where one ‘section’ comprised their prison.

Jesus descent into the Abyss is mentioned in Romans 10.7, but there it simply refers to the world of the departed, while in Revelation the Abyss is that part of the world of the departed which is the prison of evil spirits (compare 2 Peter 2.4; Jude 1.6). ‘Abyss’ is also related to Sumerian apsu, the sea. This is confirmed by the fact that the Septuagint (LXX) translated ‘the deep’ (tehom) of Genesis 1.2; 7.11; 8.2 as the ‘Abyss’, paralleling the two (compare also Job 38.16; Psalm 33.7; 42.7; 77.16; Isaiah 51.10; Ezekiel 26.19; Jonah 2.5). Ironically therefore it may be that we are to see that the final end of these particular evil spirits was the Abyss after all, for they were later swallowed up by the sea.

‘He was saying.’ The response of the unclean spirit was not immediate and He was therefore repeating His demand.

5.9a ‘And he asked him, “What is your name?” ’

By now Jesus had recognised that He was dealing with an unusual situation of a plurality of evil spirits and His request was therefore in order to discover exactly with whom or what He was dealing. He directed His question to the man but it was essentially to the evil spirits.

It is not likely that Jesus was using a technique for obtaining power over them. He already had that power. For the question ‘what is your name?’ compare Genesis 32.27-29; Judges 13.17-18. It can hardly be true that God needed Jacob’s name in order to get power over him and certain that Jacob did not ask God’s name for that reason. And Manoah’s request was in order to honour his visitor. The asking of the name in the latter two cases was in order to find out who or what they were dealing with. The whole point about Jesus was that He did not need to use the usual exorcising techniques (1.27). What He did want to know, however, was whom He was dealing with.

5.9b ‘And he says to him, “My name is legion, for we are many”.

Knowing, in the face of His authority, that they were forced to speak, they replied evasively and probably with the aim of intimidating Jesus into leaving them alone. They were aware that His exertions of power were exhausting to His human frame (5.30; Luke 6.19), and they wanted Him to realise that this particular exorcism would require much power. Godly men who have engaged in exorcism have testified to the fact that it was very exhausting, and they had never had to face anything like this. But the spirits were underestimating Jesus.

‘My name is legion.’ Was the man giving Legion as a name because he was in a state of confusion, aware of the forces possessing him, or was he simply indicating the multiplicity of names of the evil spirits (verse 15), hinting that they could not give them all for they were so many, and at the same time indicating how long it would take to deal with them. For we must recognise that the evil spirits were not omniscient, and probably thought that they could somehow forestall Jesus. Possibly they could see He was still exhausted. The word ‘legion’ was the name given to a Roman regiment of between four thousand and six thousand men. Strictly it indicated six thousand, but it was unusual for a legion to have its full complement. Thus the indication here is of possession by a great number of evil spirits.

5.10 ‘And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.’

Once they had admitted that there were many of them they recognised that Jesus did not require their names in order to cast them out. He could command them all at a word. So the man, still controlled by the evil spirits, now pleaded that they might be allowed to enter some other physical bodies and not be sent out of the country to their terrible end, for they felt their need of a body and were aware that Gentile Decapolis presented their greatest hope. Surely the God of the Jews would not mind that? They possibly felt that Jesus would not mind them possessing Gentiles, and besides, comparatively few Jews were open to possession because of their beliefs. The evil spirits were still evasive and desperate. The words were the words of the man but the ideas were the ideas of the evil spirits.

‘Besought Him much’ suggests that a rare verbal battle was now ensuing. It is probably here that the words expressed in Matthew in the plural are spoken. Each would want to be represented, and they were fighting for their very existence on earth. Note the order. First ‘what have we in common?’, then their evasive declaration of their joint power, ‘my name is legion’, then their plea not to be tormented before their time, then their plea to be allowed to stay in Decapolis, and finally their reluctant willingness to enter the pigs. Even now they had to recognise that they had failed in their attempts to intimidate Him.

5.11-13a ‘Now there was there on the mountainside a great herd of pigs feeding, and they begged him, saying, “Send us into the pigs that we may enter them.” And he gave them permission.’

This was their last desperate throw. Surely He would not mind them entering into the pigs? After all the God of the Jews had declared pigs to be unclean. Even now their subtle minds were busily at work. Possibly they hoped that once He had gone they would be able to make the leap up higher and find some suitable humans to dwell in. (The fact that pigs were being kept there emphasises the Gentile nature of the territory).

‘He gave them permission.’ Did He smile to Himself as He did so, aware that they were sealing their own doom? It was a good idea. Their entry into the pigs would convince the man that he was free at last, an important visible confirmation that he would need, and He almost certainly knew what the pigs would do. While God valued pigs as He values all His creation, their value was little compared with the health of this man and his assurance of freedom. The incident demonstrates the order of priority in the eyes of God. If Jesus was willing to sacrifice the pigs for the man’s sake, and for the sake of those who might later have been possessed by the same spirits, who will deny Him, as the Creator, the right?

There may partly have been the idea behind the possession of the pigs that it would prove that the multitude of spirits had left the man. Actually seeing the pigs flee would be seen as adequate proof. It would give certainty to both the man and to the watchers. We can compare how an exorcist called Eliezer ‘placed a cup or foot-basin full of water a little way off and commanded the evil spirit as it went out of the man to overturn it, and make known to the spectators that he had left the man.’ (Josephus Antiquities 8.48)

5.13b ‘And the unclean spirits came out and entered into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the slope into the sea, in number about two thousand. And they were choked in the sea.’

The number of pigs confirmed the multiplicity of the evil spirits, and their behaviour confirmed to the watchers, including the man, (and how important psychologically that was), that the evil spirits had really gone. Now he could begin his life again. And the evil spirits were no longer there to trouble man nor beast. They had disappeared into the sea, into ‘the deeps’. We are possibly to see by this that they had gone to the Abyss. Alternately they might have seen the deeps as their home.

On the other hand it is possible that Mark 9.22 is suggesting that the evil spirits could have themselves been responsible for the demise of the pigs, possibly in order to be free to menace others. We can compare here Luke 11.24. However, their departure into the sea might suggest otherwise. It would be foolish to dogmatise.

The question may finally be asked, why did Jesus pander to them at all? While again it would be foolish to dogmatise it is probable that He wanted the man to recognise that he was getting a complete deliverance, while at the same time wanting His followers to recognise His supreme authority, even over thousands of evil spirits at one time, and that Satan was truly bound. And, to accomplish that, all that happened was necessary.

5.14-17 ‘And they that fed them fled and told it in the city and in the country, and they came to see what it was that had happened. And they come to Jesus and see the one who was possessed with devils sitting, clothed and in his right mind, even he who had the legion, and they were afraid. And those who saw it declared to them how it befell him who was possessed with devils and concerning the pigs. And they began to beg him to depart from their borders.’

We can compare this with John 4 when the Samaritans were in a similar position. Someone arrived telling them strange things about this man. But what a contrast in response. They too went out to see for themselves. But the Samaritans had welcomed Him with open arms. They had pleaded with Him to stay.

But when these heard the strange story, and came to find what had happened, they saw the infamous madman, of whom they were probably in some awe, sitting there wholly well and in his right mind and they were afraid. Who was this Jewish prophet who could do such things? Possibly they actually believed what the Doctors of the Law had pretended to believe, that He must be satanically possessed (for they had no Scriptures to show them otherwise). For clearly He had strange unearthly powers, and He might well use them to their harm. They knew that Jews had no love for the Gentiles, especially Jewish religious teachers.

Then they learned what had happened, and how the pigs had been destroyed. This was surely proof that He meant them no good. So they pleaded with Him to leave them alone and go. They wanted no Jewish exorcists here, especially those who used their gifts to destroy their livelihood. It was a mixture of suspicion and fear, tinged with anger and upset at what they had lost.

We commentators can easily write off the loss for it was not ours. But for the man or community who lost the pigs it was a grave loss, and an expensive one. In theory one man might be said to be worth a few thousand pigs, (although in those days that might have been questionable), but practise was a different matter. Yet they did not dare do anything for they were not sure what else Jesus could do. That is why, in the end, they wanted Him to go. They could not risk the consequences of Him staying. But nor dare they use violence against Him. Thus they pleaded with Him instead. And so for the sake of a herd of pigs they lost their chance of the word of life.

The large number of pigs suggests either that their owner was very wealthy or that the herd was a joint one having a number of different owners. It may even have been one being maintained so as to provision the Roman soldiers in the area. We may presume that Jesus knew that its loss would not devastate lives.

‘Clothed and in his right mind.’ This may mean ‘decently clothed’ rather than in dirty rags, or it may even mean he had gone about almost naked (compare Luke 8.27, and see above).

5.18 ‘And as he was entering the boat he who had been possessed with devils begged him that he might be with him. But he did not allow him, but says to him, “Go to your house, to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you.”

The healed man wished to go with Jesus. But Jesus would not allow him. For what reason we can never know. Perhaps because he was a Gentile. Perhaps because he was not seen as having the background which would enable him to be a teacher. The preparation by Jesus of His disciples demanded a certain amount of pre-knowledge gained from Jewish teaching. And besides the man had had a few blank years in his life. It would take time for him to make them up. Perhaps also he could do better work for God at home. And perhaps Jesus had in mind preparation of Decapolis for when the Gospel came to them. We do not know the answer but we can be sure that Jesus had a good reason for His decision.

But He did give him a ministry. He was to go back to his home in Decapolis and tell men about ‘the Lord’, and what He had done for him and how He had had compassion on him. To this man ‘the Lord’ would in general be a neutral word speaking of his Lord and God (compare the designation of the Emperor), or alternately he may have known that it was the Greek Old Testament term for the God of Israel. Either way his message would be that this Lord had come from the Jews and was merciful and all-powerful. He was Lord over all the Powers of Evil. So when Jewish preachers later arrived with the message of the Gospel they would no doubt find a welcome from this man and his hearers, and ready ground prepared for their message. (Unlike the other Gospel writers, Mark does not elsewhere use ‘Lord’ of Jesus).

He could allow this man to speak freely because there was no danger here in his spreading the message, for no Messiah was looked for here who could be wrongly interpreted. Nor would he draw crowds around Jesus seeking the spectacular, for Jesus was moving on.

Later, before the siege of Jerusalem, the Christians in Jerusalem would flee to Pella. This was one of the Ten Towns (Decapolis). And perhaps they too would find a more welcome reception because of this man’s words.

Jesus Demonstrates His Power and Authority Over Life and Death (5.21-43).

Having demonstrated His power over nature, and then over the world of evil spirits, Jesus will now demonstrate His power over life and death by the raising of Jairus’ daughter. That she was truly dead is quite clear, and she was said to be twelve years old. In conjunction with the fact that the woman with permanent bleeding had suffered it for twelve years the number is probably significant. Twelve is the number of the tribes of Israel. They were both therefore pictures of Israel in its need.

Quite apart from the certainty of all the people involved, including the family, all of whom knew that she was dead, if Jesus had known that she was still alive He would not have taken His three favoured disciples in with Him in secret, for He only called on them in this way when something very special was involved (e.g. His transfiguration and His prayer in Gethesemane). The fact that He said that she was only sleeping is not significant, for Jesus used the same expression of Lazarus before bluntly stating that he was dead (compare John 11.11-14). But although she was dead, when He left her she was no longer dead. She was gloriously alive.

However, the account does not stand on its own but is interwoven with another occurrence, the healing of the unclean woman. She too was dying, and she had been dying for twelve years. Indeed we could have headed this section Two Desperate People At The End of Twelve Years. Both were connected with the number twelve, the number of Israel. The daughter had lived from conception for twelve years and was now dying. The woman had had a blood flow for twelve years and she was cut off from the Temple and the people by uncleanness. Both were in their own way representative of the people of God, dying in sin and unclean before God.

But in order to confirm the lesson lying behind this we need to go to a passage in Ezekiel 16. There Jerusalem was likened to a baby, cast out at birth covered in the blood flow of its mother, whom God had commanded ‘in her blood’ to live (verse 6). He then betrothed her to Himself, but she remained naked (it is not a natural picture). And when she came to an age for love (i.e. about twelve years of age) He wiped the blood from her (verse 9). So either the idea is that for twelve years she had been covered in vaginal blood, or it is that she was once again covered in blood because of her menstruation, seen as connecting back to her first condition. And now she was His to be restored to full glory. It would seem that this is the lesson behind both the child whom God will make to live, and the woman with a flow of blood for twelve years who will be made clean. The two together, alongside Ezekiel 16, reveal that Jesus (the Bridegroom - 2.19) has come to make clean and give life to His people so as to betroth them to Himself.

The fact that the two stories are intertwined in all the Synoptics demonstrates that it was so from the beginning because the two incidents did happen together, but Mark concentrates first on one and then on the other. This comes out in the analysis.

Analysis of 5.21-34.

  • And when Jesus had crossed over again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd was gathered to Him, and He was by the sea, and there comes one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing Him he falls at His feet, and pleads with Him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. I beg you that you will come and lay your hands on her that she may be made whole and live” (21-23).
  • b And He went with him, and a great crowd followed Him, and they pressed in on Him (24).
  • c And a woman who had had emissions of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things under many doctors, and had spent all that she had, and was not any better but rather grew worse, having heard things about Jesus, came in the crowd behind and touched His clothing, for she said, “If I touch but His clothing I will be made whole” (25-28).
  • d And immediately the gushing of blood dried up and she felt in her body that she was healed of her curse (29).
  • c And Jesus, immediately perceiving in Himself that power had left Him, turned Himself about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” ’
  • b And His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you. Do you ask, ‘who touched me?’ ” (31).
  • a And He looked around to see her who had done this thing. And the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had been done to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him all the truth, and He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole. Go in peace and be whole from your curse” (32-34).

Note that in ‘a’ Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet, pleads on behalf of his daughter so that she might be made whole, and in the parallel the woman falls at His feet, is called ‘daughter’, and is made whole. In ‘b’ the crowds press in on Him and in the parallel it is pointed out to Him that the crowds press in on Him. In ‘c’ the woman touches Him, and in the parallel He asks, ‘Who touched me?’ Centrally in ‘d’ she is fully restored.

5.21-23 ‘And when Jesus had crossed over again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd was gathered to him, and he was by the sea, and there comes one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him he falls at his feet, and pleads with him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. I beg you that you will come and lay your hands on her that she may be made whole and live.” ’

Again the source of this information remembers where they were when Jairus came with his request. Having crossed the lake they had landed and found themselves quickly surrounded by a great crowd on the seashore.

Jairus was ‘one of the rulers of the synagogue’. Strictly ‘ruler of the synagogue’ would refer to the single ‘ruler’ who controlled the administration and especially the organisation of the service at the synagogue, but there were others who helped in the general administration and running of the synagogue, a council of elders, and these were also called rulers, men of standing in the community. Jairus was probably one of these, ‘one of the rulers’. The emphasis on it would seem to infer that Jairus was an important man in the community. For ‘ruler of the synagogue’ see Luke 8.49; 13.14; Acts 13.15; 18.8, 17. See also Matthew 9.18, 23; Luke 8.41; 18.18.

‘Named Jairus’. Omitted in a few manuscripts but probably by accident. It has huge support. The name Jair occurs in the Old Testament (Numbers 32.41; Judges 10.3), and in LXX of Esther 2.5 we have Jair translated as a similar form to here, ‘Jairus’. The mention of the name confirms the authenticity of the account, for names are rarely given in Mark.

‘There comes.’ What was Jairus doing leaving his sick child? Why did he not send someone else? The answer can only be that things were so bad that he was desperate and was determined to act himself as a last resort. He wanted to exercise his personal authority and make a personal appeal. We can almost see him turning to to his wife and saying, ‘No. I will go myself’. He had watched by that bedside in tears. But hope had now gone. He had not thought of going to Jesus earlier, and perhaps someone had mentioned helpfully that ‘the prophet’ was back. So in desperation this outwardly important man submerged his pride as a synagogue elder and sought the help of Jesus. He had enough faith in what He was able to do to seek Him out. Had he not done so his daughter would have died and gone to her grave unhelped. (Jesus would have been able to do no healing because of his unbelief). The lesson was clear. If the Synagogue would submit to Jesus then life would be made available to its offspring.

It is no accident that this story comes just before Mark’s comment that Jesus ‘could do no mighty work’ in ‘His own country’, with a few exceptions (6.5). There few were willing to do what Jairus did, few sought Him out, for there He was seen as just a local boy and not as a mighty prophet.

‘He falls at His feet.’ This important man was in such distress and despair that he forgot his dignity and came as a suppliant. He wanted Jesus to realise how concerned he was and how strongly he felt. Now any prejudices against Jesus had been thrown aside. Behind his action Mark probably saw the need for all Jewish rulers to fall at the feet of Jesus.

‘My little daughter is at the point of death.’ The situation was very serious. The young girl was close to death. It was only that that had moved him to his present action. The emphasis on ‘little daughter’ adds to the pathos. We learn later that she was twelve years old (verse 42), almost at the point of womanhood. But she was his pet.

‘I beg you that you will come and lay your hands on her.’ ‘I beg you’ is read in, although the Greek assumes some such thing. Literally it is ‘in order that having come you would lay hands on her’, signifying ‘please, having come, lay your hands on her’ (the imperative use of ‘ina). Jairus had clearly seen Jesus in action and knew His healing method (see 6.5; 7.32; 8.23, 25).

‘That she may be made whole (‘be saved’ - regularly used of healing) and she shall live.’ Her life was in the balance. All depended on Jesus restoring her before it was too late, and he had faith enough to believe that He could.

5.24 ‘And he went with him, and a great crowd followed him, and they pressed in on him.’

Jesus responded to his request, and the crowd naturally followed in order to see another miracle. Indeed He was surrounded by them as they moved along with Him, and they were pressing in close on Him not wanting to miss anything. Jairus was probably considerably upset, for the crowd were slowing down their progress. He was soon to become even more upset.

5.25-28 ‘And a woman who had had emissions of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things under many doctors, and had spent all that she had, and was not any better but rather grew worse, having heard things about Jesus, came in the crowd behind and touched his clothing, for she said, “If I touch but his clothing I will be made whole.” ’

This long complicated sentence is unusual in Mark, but was necessary in order to present the position succintly. It sums up the sad medical situation of the woman. Strictly she should not have been in the crowd. Her continual emissions of blood rendered her ritually ‘unclean’ (Leviticus 15.25-27). She would not have been welcomed in the synagogue nor among her friends. She could not touch people or have relations with her husband. She was supposed to keep apart until she was whole.

Her history was equally sad. She had been under many doctors. God alone knew what humiliations she must have suffered, for there was a huge variety of doctors and many practised outlandish ‘cures’. When much of medicine was trial and error, with genuine cures mixed with old wives’ tales, it was inevitable. They had so few effective medicines. A passage in the Mishnah says, when discussing men’s occupations, ‘the best among doctors is destined for Hell’, (the writer had no doubt suffered under them), although not all were as pessimistic as that. And their ministrations had all been to no avail, for it had only made her worse. And it had made her financial security worse too for she had spent all that she had on the attempts to find a cure. ‘All that she had’. She had probably been a wealthy woman. (We note that Doctor Luke softens down this criticism of doctors - Luke 8.43).

And now she had heard about this prophet Jesus, Who could do wonderful things, and how people had been healed of scourges by touching Him (3.10). And how unclean lepers had been cleansed (1.40-45).

But as a haemorrhaging woman, as one who was ritually unclean, she knew she dared not approach Him openly, and seemingly there was no one to act on her behalf. Penniless she was friendless. So she devised a plan. She would approach Him secretly in the crowds and touch His clothing. From what she had heard about Him and His power there was a good chance that that might be enough.

So this woman had faith in Jesus. It was a strange faith, almost a superstitious faith, but it drew her to Him. And that would prove enough. For joining the bustling crowd and forcing her way through them by the fierce strength of her desperation she reached out tentatively and touched the tassels of Jesus’ robe (Matthew 9.20; Luke 8.44). There were many jostling Jesus in that crowd. But only she ‘touched’ Him. This tassel was one of the tassels or ‘fringes’ required by Law (Number 15.38-39). They were required as a reminder to God’s people of the commandments by which they were bound. Now two desperate people were depending on Him at the same time.

5.29 ‘And immediately the gushing of blood dried up and she felt in her body that she was healed of her curse.’

The unbelievable happened. After all those long years she was healed. She knew it instantly. Who better than her? And she knew that the long years of torment were over. She was whole. She was a new woman. She was cleansed. She would equally now have crept away, grateful though she was, but it could not be. No one ever called in faith on Jesus and was ignored.

5.30 ‘And Jesus, immediately perceiving in himself that power had left him, turned himself about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” ’

Jesus knew instantly what had happened. Someone had come to Him in their need and had touched Him for healing. And He could not leave it at that. We learn here two things. Firstly that healing was a costly process for Him. Power left Him. It drew on His strength. And secondly that He was intimately concerned about people. He could not ignore a plea for His help, even in the present urgent situation. He turned round and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” The woman, one moment delirious with joy must have frozen where she stood. He knew! What was He going to do?

5.31 ‘And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you. Do you ask, ‘who touched me?’ ”

The disciples wondered what He was talking about. The crowds were constantly touching them, and pressing in on them. He had been touched a hundred times and more. The whole world was touching Him. What on earth was He getting at? Instead of waiting expectantly to see what He meant they dismissed His words casually. They themselves were not sensitive and they had not yet realised His sensitivity towards a cry for help. In the other Gospels this comment is softened or omitted as a sign of respect for the Apostles, but Peter is not too proud to be honest.

5.32-33 ‘And he looked around to see her who had done this thing. And the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had been done to her, came and fell down before him and told him all the truth.’

Jesus ignored their facile comment and continued to look searchingly, and the woman knew that she had no choice but to admit the truth. But it was with much fear and trembling. She knew she should not have touched a holy prophet, for she had been unclean. (Not time enough to work out that if He had the power to remove her uncleanness He might see things differently). She must have wondered what He would do. Would He chastise her? Would He restore the curse to her? She fell at his feet and poured out her life story, hoping for mercy. We must not hide from ourselves the fact that she had done wrong, and knew it. She knew only too well that she was seen as an ‘unclean’ woman, and should not have touched Him.

5.34 ‘And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole. Go in peace and be whole from your curse”.’

But Jesus was not angry. He wanted to help her. He did not want to leave her with some superstitious beliefs about His clothing. He wanted her to know that she had been healed, not just because of power leaving Him but because her faith had reached out to God through Him. Many would touch Him and it would make no difference. What made the difference was the heart reaching out in faith to God and to Him. And He wanted her to know it. It is important that we realise when God is at work.

He also wanted the world to know openly that she was now clean. That they need avoid her no more.

‘Daughter.’ A sign that He was not angry. She would recognise the tenderness in the word.

‘Go in peace.’ A recognised way of giving assurance (e.g. Exodus 4.18; 1 Samuel 1.17; 29.7; 2 Samuel 15.9; Luke 7.50; Acts 16.36).

‘Your faith has made you whole.’ As she had reached out to God through Him in faith she had been made whole. He wanted her to know that He was not just like some relic that was seen as containing special superstitious powers. God had reached out to her personally through Him because her faith had reached out to Him. That is indeed how all men can be made whole. Then He assured her that her curse had been removed once for all. Once again Jesus has demonstrated that He has power to cleanse the ‘unclean’ without Himself being rendered unclean (compare on 1.42). He is the Holy One of God.

So in this woman we have a picture of God’s people, rendered unclean because of their sins (‘we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy (menstrual) rags’ - Isaiah 64.6), but now in a position to be made clean if they will reach out to Jesus. Like the woman in Ezekiel 16 cleansing and restoration is available for all if like the woman with the flow of blood they will only reach out to Him.

Analysis of 5.35-43.

  • a While He yet spoke they come from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying, “Your daughter is dead. Why do you trouble the Master any further?” (35).
  • b But Jesus, overhearing the word spoken, says to the ruler of the synagogue, “Don’t be afraid. Just go on believing’ (36).
  • c And He allowed no one to follow with Him except Peter, and James and John, the brother of James (37).
  • d And they come to the house of the ruler of the synagogue and He sees a tumult, and great weeping and wailing (38).
  • e And when He was entered in He says to them (39a).
  • d “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping.” And they laughed Him to scorn (39b-40a).
  • c But He, having put them all out, takes the father of the child, and her mother, and those who were with Him, and goes in where the child was (40b).
  • b And taking the child by the hand He says to her “Talitha cumi”, which is being interpreted, ‘Young woman, I say to you, arise’. And immediately the young woman rose up and walked, for she was twelve years old, and they were immediately filled with great amazement (or ‘were amazed with a great amazement’) (41-42).
  • a And He gave them strict instructions (charged them much) that no man should know this, and He commanded that something should be given her to eat (43).

Note that in ‘a’ they are assured that the girl is dead, and in the parallel Jesus commands that she be given something to eat. In ‘b’ Jesus encourages the ruler to believe, and in the parallel his faith is rewarded. In ‘c’ only the favoured three are allowed in, and in the parallel the same applies along with the father and mother of the child. In ‘d’ there is great tumult, and weeping and wailing, and in the parallel Jesus asks why the tumult and why they are weeping. Centrally in ‘e’ the difference is that Jesus has entered in.

5.35 ‘While he yet spoke they come from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying, “Your daughter is dead. Why do you trouble the Master any further?” ’

Jairus’ feelings at the delay were probably indescribable. He knew how vital every second was. But now, impatiently restraining himself, what he feared would happen did happen. Messengers arrived to tell him that it was too late. His daughter was dead. She was beyond help. There was nothing that even the Master could do. He need not be troubled any further. His heart must have sunk within him. He was too late to save his beloved daughter. All he could do was just thank Jesus and return home. We do not know how far Jairus was from the house by this time. It may have been some considerable distance.

‘Trouble.’ A very strong word meaning originally to ‘flay’ or ‘mangle’ but by this time toned down. Yet it evidences that they expected Him to have been very concerned.

5.36 ‘But Jesus, overhearing the word spoken, says to the ruler of the synagogue, “Don’t be afraid. Just go on believing.’

Jesus overhears what is said. The verb parakousas means ‘to hear beside’ and so could mean overhear or hear carelessly (and thus to disregard). The former is more likely here, although He does of course not ‘regard’ what was said. He simply turns to the important man and tells him not to be afraid. He has already shown some faith, he must ‘continue to believe’ (present tense).

This is not an indication that Jesus knew that the messengers were wrong. He accepted that the daughter was dead. But He was not disquieted by the way events had turned out. He was quietly confident. Death presented no problem to Him for He is the Lord of Life.

5.37 ‘And he allowed no one to follow with him except Peter, and James and John, the brother of James.’

The crowds were dismissed, and no doubt departed willingly. They recognised the respect due to the dead and it was now clear that there would be no miracle. But Jesus also left most of His disciples behind. Possibly so that they could ensure that no one disobeyed His requirement for privacy.

‘Except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.’ These three are regularly singled out to attend Him at His most sacred moments, both as helpers and as witnesses (9.2; 14.33), and He did not want to further distress the household by crowding the house out. But the fact that He took them demonstrates that while it was to be kept quiet for the present, He wanted witnesses for the future. He wanted them to learn. It is probably significant that these three were also called to be witnesses to His transfiguration (9.2-8). He would not have done this just for an ordinary healing. There what had happened was not to be revealed until after His resurrection. Perhaps it was also so here.

This is a Marcan note slightly in advance describing the instructions that He gave. Once they arrived at the house only the three must go in with Him.

5.38 ‘And they come to the house of the ruler of the synagogue and he sees a tumult, and great weeping and wailing.’

The funeral preparations had already begun, and that required loud and public mourning. This would include the presence of paid professional mourners to ensure that the dead were mourned adequately. Their purpose was in order to demonstrate the deep concern of the family about the death, wailing and demonstrating loudly and enabling the family to mourn more quietly. That there had been time to call in professional mourners indicated that the death had been expected and preparations had already been made. Jairus’ steward would have arranged for them. It is possible that Jairus had left not saying where he was going, and besides his attempt would probably only seen as a desperate chance. Most were probably resigned to the death.

‘A tumult and great weeping and wailing.’ More than just private grief. This is not just the numbed grief of those close to the girl as they await the father’s return. This readiness for the girl’s death indicates how desperate had been her father’s last vain effort, a last desperate hope when all hope was really gone.

5.39-40a ‘And when he was entered in he says to them, “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping.” And they laughed him to scorn.’

‘When He was entered in.’ He said nothing to those who wept outside. They were just doing their job. But He wanted to give assurance to the family and servants. There was no need to arrange all this show of mourning, for the child would once more arise.

‘The child is not dead, but sleeping.’ It is strange how some who argue that Jesus did not really raise a dead girl are quite ready to say that He could diagnose the situation at a distance without seeing the girl. Everyone was saying that the child was dead. Why should He think otherwise? And He does not usually give a diagnosis. No, His point was that although the child was dead He was about to raise her. This description of ‘sleep’ as softening the idea of death when He intended to do something about it also occurs in John 11.11-15 where there can be no doubt that His words indicated that death was involved from the start (compare also 1 Corinthians 11.30; 15.6, 18, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-15; 5.10; 2 Peter 3.4). The general idea is also found in Pharisaic teaching. ‘You will sleep, but you will not die’ (Genesis Rabba on Genesis 47.30). They believed in the resurrection from the dead. The word used for ‘sleeping’ is katheudo which often means ‘sleep’ but means death in Psalm 87.6 LXX (88.5 in MT); 1 Thessalonians 5.10. Thus here ‘not dead but in a temporary sleep of death’. There is a play on the two meanings of the word.

It is also possible that He wanted to sow the idea in their minds so that when He had raised the daughter they would remember what He had said and doubts would arise in their minds so that they would not immediately tell everyone what had happened (compare verse 43). He did not want all to know that He was about to raise the dead.

‘They laughed Him to scorn.’ In their grief they showed their amazement at His insensitivity and foolishness. Did He think that they did not know the difference between sleep and death? It had been coming for a long time and she had ceased breathing and was growing cold. He was talking nonsense. They all knew that she was dead.

5.40b-42a ‘But he, having put them all out, takes the father of the child, and her mother, and those who were with him, and goes in where the child was. And taking the child by the hand he says to her “Talitha cumi”, which is being interpreted, ‘Young woman, I say to you, arise’. And immediately the young woman rose up and walked, for she was twelve years old.’

Jesus knew that He was about to perform what would seem to others as the miracle of miracles. He did not want witnesses who would spread the news like wildfire. So He only allowed into the bedroom the parents and His three disciples.

Then He took the child by the hand and called on her to arise. And she arose and walked. So easily under His hand do the dead come to life again. The description is very similar to the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1.31). Healing the sick and raising the dead were all one to Him. But there can be no question how Mark sees this, and indeed also Peter who was there. Jesus has revealed Himself as the Lord of life. The dead had risen!

Furthermore we should recognise that this was not an isolated incident He also raised the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7.11-17) and both Matthew 11.4-6 and Luke 7.22-23 mention Him as raising the dead generally, to say nothing of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). But the taking apart of the favoured three emphasises that in the case of Jairus’ daughter a lesson was meant to be learned, perhaps as a preparation for them to believe in His own resurrection.

‘Talitha coumi’. The manuscripts differ slightly (some have ‘coum’) but the meaning is clear. Mark regularly cites Aramaic words (3.17; 7.11, 34; 11.9 following; 14.36; 15.22, 34) and only on one other occasion is it connected with a miracle (7.34). Clearly the source liked to remember Jesus’ exact words so as to emphasise the vividness of the scene, and was there in the room.

5.42b-43a ‘And they were immediately filled with great amazement (amazed with a great amazement), and He gave them strict instructions (charged them much) that no man should know this.’

This counters all arguments that Jesus knew that the girl had not really been dead. Jesus did not try to explain to them that really she had not been dead at all. He told them very firmly that no one must be told that He had raised her from the dead. There is not even a hint that He tried to explain otherwise, and Peter was there, so he knew. Jesus did not want the news spreading because he knew what the effects would be. He could not go around restoring everyone who was dead. Had the girl only been healed there would not have been so much cause for their remaining quiet. All knew that He performed healings.

The extreme amazement was to be expected, evidence that they certainly thought the girl was dead. The remainder not so expected, although it fits in with Jesus general attitude elsewhere. He did not want to excite the easily excitable populace.

5.43b ‘And he commanded that something should be given her to eat.’

Almost an anticlimax. Ever thoughtful and compassionate Jesus suggested that she might be hungry and needed food. She had been ill for some time. This was a practical detail which stuck in the mind of an eyewitness. It adds nothing to the story except to illustrate Jesus’ thoughtfulness. But perhaps to the writer there was also the thought that when men were raised from spiritual death they needed to be fed continually on the bread of life (John 6.35).

Jesus Is Rejected In His Own Neighbourhood (6.1-6).

Having preached continually in the area by the Sea of Galilee and around Capernaum, and having revealed His glory through His activities, Jesus now returned to His own neighbourhood, that is, around the Nazareth area, no doubt in order to visit His family, but also in order that He might proclaim His message there. But here He was soon to be ‘put in His place’, for He discovered that the people there had little interest in Him because they knew Him too well, or at least, they thought that they did. We should note the deliberate stark contrast. He has revealed His power over nature by stilling the storm, He has revealed His authority over the spirit world by healing the demoniac, He has revealed His power over death by healing Jairus’ daughter, but to these people He is only ‘the son of Joseph’. Reality could not destroy prejudice.

It is possibly significant that neither Mark nor Matthew mention Nazareth. They speak rather of ‘His own country’. It may therefore be that He did not at this time visit Nazareth, and that what is described here took place in a neighbouring town where His married sisters had gone to live.

On the other hand it could be that Luke 4.16-30 reflects this time. But the differences rather suggest that in fact that incident was behind Him and that here He was trying again in His own neighbourhood now that He was more established. On the other hand, while Luke does appear at first sight to put the incident he describes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry it is not strictly so, for Luke 4.15 and 23 demonstrate that even His visit then took place after some considerable ministry, especially at Capernaum. So the positioning in Luke may simply be because it fitted in with, and accentuated, his portrayal of the continuing new activity of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.15, 35, 41, 67; 2.25-27; 3.16, 22; 4.1, 14), firstly because it demonstrated that Jesus’ whole ministry was in the same power, and secondly because it laid from the beginning the foundation that if the Jews would not listen to Him He would go to the Gentiles.

But it is noteworthy that there Luke makes no mention of the disciples, although that is not decisive as Luke pointedly and deliberately (if he had Mark in front of him) ignores the disciples until chapter 5, even though he describes the healing of Simon’s wife’s mother. If it is the same incident though, it is surprising that neither Mark nor Matthew mention the attempt on Jesus’ life and His significant escape.

The truth is that it is quite possible that the incidents actually occurred in different synagogues. This in Mark (and in Matthew) is not actually said to be in Nazareth, only in ‘His own country’, thus in the district containing Nazareth. It could have been at Cana where Jesus and His family were clearly well known (John 2.1-11). If He had previously been dragged out of the Nazareth synagogue we can understand why He might have avoided going back there even when He visited His own neighbourhood, for He never sought to be unnecessarily provocative. Perhaps it was because Mark wanted his readers to recognise that it was in the area where Jesus was brought up, even though not in Nazareth itself, that he did not specifically mention names. Indeed we might ask, if it was actually in Nazareth why did Mark not say so? He has mentioned Nazareth earlier (1.9, 24).

Alternately, if it was in Nazareth (verse 3 might be seen as suggesting so, but Cana might equally apply if the family were regular visitors there) it could be that their anger, so quickly aroused in the incident in Luke, had as quickly died down, and that having since heard about His great success and powerful activity they had reconsidered what had so badly upset them the first time and were prepared to give Him, although somewhat grudgingly, a second chance. After all, they may have thought, He had then only been an enthusiastic beginner. But if so their displeasure would soon be roused again. The question is, however, merely academic. It affects not a jot the significance of the passage.

Analysis of 6.1-6.

  • a And He went out from there and He comes to His own country, and His disciples follow Him, and when the Sabbath was come He began to teach in the synagogue (1).
  • b And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “From where has this man learned these things?” and “What is the wisdom that is given to this man and what mean such mighty works (‘powers’) wrought by His hands?” (2).
  • c Is this not the carpenter (or ‘craftsman’), the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are His sisters not here with us? ” (3a).
  • d And they took offence at Him (3b).
  • c And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country (patris ’autou as in 6.1) and among his own kin and in his own house” (4).
  • b And He could there do no mighty work (‘power’) except that He laid His hands on a few sick folk and healed them, and He marvelled because of their unbelief (5-6a).
  • a And He went round about the villages teaching (6b).

Note that in ‘a’ He behaves in His own country as He does elsewhere, but in the parallel it is with a paucity of results. In ‘b’ they react to His teaching and manifestations of power, and in the parallel His mighty power is limited by their unbelief. In ‘c’ they stress that He is but one of them, and in the parallel Jesus points out that no prophet is accepted in such circumstances. Central in ‘d’ is the fact that they took offence at Him.

6.1 ‘And he went out from there and he comes to his own country, and his disciples follow him. And when the Sabbath was come he began to teach in the synagogue.’

Jesus returned home to ‘His own country’, the place where He had been brought up, and presumably visited His family if they were still living there. He had not forgotten them and He may well have thought of giving His disciples a rest. Not so much had happened in that area, and it was among the hills, so there were no crowds. But when the Sabbath came He went to the synagogue and was asked to speak there and His words were such that the people attending were amazed.

In Mark this is the last time that Jesus will be said to speak in a synagogue. Perhaps then Mark intends us to see this rejection as a picture of all who rejected Him in Israel, and as a reminder that while His divine power is being revealed to His disciples, the spiritually blind continue to be spiritually blind.

6.2-4 ‘And many hearing him were astonished, saying, “From where has this man learned these things?” and “What is the wisdom that is given to this man and what mean such mighty works (‘powers’) wrought by his hands? Is this not the carpenter (or ‘craftsman’), the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are his sisters not here with us? ” And they took offence at him.’

To begin with many were amazed at the things that He seemed to have learned. Others at the wise things that He said. And others at His miraculous powers and the mighty works He did (Mark is here bringing out that, few though His mighty works were here, they were still impressive). Thus it is apparent that to begin with things were going smoothly, although even here there is possibly the hint of dissatisfaction. Nevertheless His preaching was being listened to, they knew about His mighty works and some healings did occur. On the other hand in their eyes it did not sit well with the person that they knew Him to be. They could not reconcile it with what they knew about Him. And when He spoke on and began to speak of introducing the Kingly Rule of God, it was something that they could not accept of one they knew so well. Their question was, Who did He think He was?

Behind their amazement lay their unwillingness to accept that this local boy could be anything special. They remembered that He was after all only a village carpenter, an artisan, that they knew all His family well, and that He was but a local lad. How could He then be so special? Was this because His words had begun to stir their consciences, and they did not like it, especially from One Whom they had known all their lives? Was it because His demands were too great and He seemed to be above Himself? So quickly, through prejudice and disparagement, can a powerful ministry be halted. How wary we should be when we openly disparage a preacher.

Then they finally took offence because, having pulled themselves up sharply and dismissed His claims, they felt as though He had somehow deceived them. Their early interest had turned sour and they began to feel ashamed of it. And as men will in such circumstances they blamed Him for it. But underlying their whole attitude was their sin. In the end it is sin treasured and held on to that makes men avoid the truth.

What a contrast with what has gone before. The Lord of the elements, Lord over evil spirits and Lord of life and death, but now rejected because He was too well known.

‘To His own country.’ Possibly stated in this way to give effect to the saying in verse 4. This was the prelude to what would be His later rejection by His own people (John 1.11). But it may also indicate that while he visited His own neighbourhood He cut Nazareth out of His itinerary because of what had happened there before.

‘Many hearing Him.’ Many is ‘hoi polloi’ or just ‘polloi’. Omission of the article is strongly supported. It might thus mean all the people, many of the people or just some of the people.

‘From where ---- what is the wisdom ---- what mean such mighty works ---- is this not ---.’ There were differing views and questions among the people, but underlying all was the fact that He was but a local carpenter. Perhaps then they were beginning to suspect some doubtful source for His powers, for they no doubt knew what the Doctors of Law from Jerusalem had said (3.22). We can compare here the questionings of the disciples in 4.41, who also having little faith, asked, ‘Who then is this that even the winds and the sea obey Him?’ The difference was that they would come to a positive conclusion. These came to a negative one.

Mark wants his readers to ask the same questions, and answer them correctly, for as we know he is now seeking to emphasise Jesus’ wisdom and His power.

‘Is this not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?’ The textual authorities vary considerably here. Many have ‘the son of the carpenter and of Mary’ (but then why not mention Joseph by name?). The former is more probably correct. It is in all the major manuscripts (but not papyrus 45) and we can see why it might be changed later. Calling Jesus an artisan may later have been seen as degrading Him (Origen argued with Celsus that Jesus was never called ‘the carpenter’ demonstrating how deeply the issue was felt). And ‘son of Mary’ may have been a slur as it was not normal among the Jews to describe a man as the son of his mother, even when his father was dead, unless he was of doubtful birth (compare Judges 11.1). And the people were trying to be disparaging. Perhaps then they wanted to see Him as an artisan and of doubtful birth (an indirect testimony to the virgin birth) and not as a scholar. On the other hand ‘son of Mary’ may simply indicate that Joseph was dead.

‘Brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon.’ See 1 Corinthians 9.5. They were all familiar in the district. There is no reason for doubting that they were his blood brothers (see on 3.31-35).

‘And are not his sisters here with us?’ This change of expression may naturally suggest that this was not Nazareth, but a nearby town, and that Jesus’ sisters had married and taken up residence in this place. However this inference is not necessarily required.

‘And they took offence at Him.’ Literally, ‘they were caused to stumble’. He had become a stumblingblock to them (compare 1 Peter 2.8). Their attitude to Him caused them to stumble in their obedience to God.

6.4 ‘And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country (patris ’autou as in 6.1) and among his own kin and in his own house.”

This may be a general saying rather than a specific claim to be a prophet, although others unquestionably saw Him as one, and it does indicate that Jesus would not shy from the title. But the gist of the saying is clearly that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. A comparative saying is found in the later, non Biblical, Oxyrhynchus papyrus, ‘A prophet is not accepted in his own country, nor does a physician work cures on those who know him.’

‘Among His own kin and in His own house.’ This may well have been Jesus’ addition to the saying, emphasising that as yet His own family did not believe in Him.

6.5 ‘And he could there do no mighty work (‘power’) except that he laid his hands on a few sick folk and healed them.’

The reason that He could not perform miracles was because they did not have the faith to come to Him. Those who did show such faith and came He healed. It was not He Who was inadequate, but they. There was a general lack of interest in Him because they dismissed Him as simply being a local. To come to Him for healing was thus probably thought to be undignified. There were no crowds here. (It is a reminder that when God is at work we should not look at the vehicle but at Him, otherwise we might miss out on what is happening). And yet this negative situation contains a positive message. If a preacher today were to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them in a way which could not be doubted, he would be lauded to the skies. It indicates what great expectancy of Jesus Mark had.

6.6a ‘And he marvelled because of their unbelief.’

Jesus was filled with wonder at the total lack of faith in Him among His neighbours. His own relationship with His Father was such that He found it quite incredible that they should be so unbelieving in the face of all that they must have heard about Him, and the witness that He had given them through His early years. But such is the power of prejudice. It was a salutary lesson. (We remember Jesus’ similar astonishment that His father and mother had not known where to find Him when He was listening to the teachers in the Temple - Luke 2.49).

This reference to the negative side of things because of unbelief parallels 3.31-35. In the midst of the enthusiasm and the exaltation of Jesus Mark constantly brings us back to man’s unbelief. With success comes also suffering and derision. The Gospel is no easy ride. Later the Transfiguration will also be followed by an emphasis on His coming suffering, and then His final ministry will be followed by the greatest suffering of all. The pattern is clear. But from it all will come triumph.

6.6b ‘And he went round about the villages teaching.’

But their unbelief did not cause Jesus to slacken off. Instead He patiently went on with the work for which He had come. He continued to proclaim the Kingly Rule of God in all the villages round about. ‘For that was why He was sent’ (Luke 4.43).

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