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Commentary on The Gospel of Mark Chapter 3

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

The Son of Man Heals What Has Withered And Again Reveals Himself as Lord over the Sabbath (3.1-6).

In this narrative the Pharisees are seen as now deliberately out to trap Jesus. They had made their assessment and now it was a question of gathering evidence against Him. We have already seen how their opposition to Him had been growing (2.6, 9-10, 16, 24, 30), and it has now reached a climax (3.6). So they deliberately make use of a man with a paralysed and withered hand in order to test out what Jesus will do on the Sabbath day, having in fact little doubt what He would actually do, for they were now convinced that He treated the Law lightly, and especially the Sabbath, which in their eyes was a matter of huge importance. For to them strict observance of the Sabbath was one of the signs of a true Jew, and evidence of a true obedience to the covenant. Jesus, however, confuted them, not by diminishing the Sabbath, but rather, as in the previous example, by exalting it as of great benefit to mankind. Jesus was not anti-Sabbath. He was simply ‘anti’ the unnecessary restrictions put on it by the Scribes and Pharisees.

Analysis of 3.1-6.

  • a And He entered again into the Synagogue, and there was a man there who had a withered hand. And they watched Him whether He will heal him on the Sabbath day, that they might accuse Him (1-2).
  • b And He said to the man who had his hand withered, “come and stand among us” (3).
  • c And He says to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” But they held their peace (4).
  • b And when He had looked round on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart, He says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out and his hand was restored (5).
  • a And the Pharisees went out and immediately, with the officials of Herod, took counsel against Him how they might destroy Him (6).

Note that in ‘a’ the Pharisees watch Him in order to accuse Him, and in the parallel they plan how they can destroy Him. In ‘b’ Jesus calls the man with the withered hand to stand among them, and in the parallel He looks round at the Pharisees and restores the man’s arm. Centrally in ‘c’ He demonstrates the fallacy of their thinking.

3.1-2 ‘And he entered again into the Synagogue, and there was a man there who had a withered hand. And they watched him whether he will heal him on the Sabbath day, that they might accuse him.’

We are not told who brought the man, or where he came from. But that he was seen by the Pharisees as a test case was apparent. For knowing of the man and his expected presence in the Synagogue they had come to watch what Jesus would do. The Rabbis had strict rules about healing on the Sabbath. When there was an emergency case and life was threatened healing activity was allowed, but where that was not the case, and it could well await another day, healing was not allowed. Thus a woman in childbirth could be helped on the Sabbath. An affection of the throat could be treated for that was seen as possibly life threatening. But a fracture or sprain could not, for that could await another day. A cut could be bandaged (it could lead to death if uncovered) but it must then not have further treatment until after the Sabbath. These were the interpretations of the Rabbis and they were strictly enforced.

Any Rabbis and other prominent Pharisees who were in the Synagogue would sit in the ‘chief seats’ (Matthew 23.6; James 2.2-3), which were those nearest to the reading desk where the scrolls of the Scriptures were placed to be read. There was also a special seat there, either for the most distinguished present, or to contain the scrolls of the Torah, which was called ‘Moses’ Seat’ (Matthew 23.2). They thus had a good view of what was happening, while they awaited further events. It is worthy of note that the fact that they had come as they had, is testimony to the fact that they did believe that Jesus could heal the man. They had already seen what He could do and were not in any doubt about it. But they simply dismissed such healings as having no relevance because they were so prejudiced by their own ideas and had convinced themselves that some trickery or demon activity was involved. And yet what better testimony could we have to the Lord’s ability to work miracles, than that these His enemies came expecting Him to do so even though they did not want Him to be able to do so? And it gains the greater force in that it is not the main purpose of the recording of the incident.

‘And He entered again into the Synagogue.’ It was His usual habit to attend the Synagogue on the Sabbath, for He respected both the Synagogue and the Sabbath.

‘A man with a withered hand.’ This was probably caused by some kind of paralysis. He was thus unable to move it which was why it had withered. But it was not life threatening. He had had it for a long time. Yet such a withered hand contained in it much symbolism. As we have seen, the passages that we have been examining all contained references back to Old Testament ideas. What then of the withered hand?

We should note firstly that the hand was the means by which men exercised their power. We can compare with this how God’s activity was often described as being done by ‘the hand (or arm) of the Lord’. It was by the use of their hands that men accomplished their daily tasks. This man, in contrast, had lost his ability to do things because his hand was withered. And in that he was like Israel. In the Old Testament there were two prominent references to what was withered. The first concerned vegetation and fruit trees, which were often seen as a picture of Israel. This term ‘withered’ (or dried up) was regularly applied in LXX to vegetation and fruit trees when seen as a picture of Israel (Hosea 9.16; Isaiah 27.11; 40.24; Jeremiah 23.10; Lamentations 4.8; Ezekiel 17.9-10, 24; Joel 1.12, 17, 20; Amos 1.2; 4.7; Nahum 1.4; Zechariah 10.2; compare 11.20-21; John 15.6). The second well known application was to the dry (withered) bones in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37.2, 4). These too represented Israel. And in both cases it was God’s promise that one day these things that were dried up would be restored. So the withered hand of this man could be seen, and probably was by Mark, as like the withered hand of Israel which was dead and unable to bear fruit.

3.3 ‘And he said to the man who had his hand withered, “come and stand among us”.’

Jesus was fully aware of the whole situation, and of the tension in the synagogue. We can imagine the long hall, and the Pharisees sitting there in the chief seats, and the pointed silence when Jesus came in, with eyes turning to look at the paralysed man. Jesus was left in no doubt as to what the situation was. And He could in fact have told the man to come and see Him after sunset, when the Sabbath was over. But that would then have been to concede that the Rabbis were right, and He was not prepared to do that, for in His eyes they had gone too far. He was not in any doubt about the situation. He knew that they were directly challenging His authority. So He called the man to come and stand where everyone could see.

‘Come and stand among us.’ This is literally, ‘Rise into the midst’.

3.4 ‘And he says to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” But they held their peace.’

Then Jesus directed His attention to the Pharisees, and He could see the workings of their hearts. He knew exactly what they were thinking. And He knew that even as they sat there they had it in their minds to have Him killed. So while to the ordinary people these words were about the man and his condition, and Jesus was asking whether he should heal (do good) or refrain from healing (do harm and fail to help the man in his distress), the Pharisees knew that He knew their hearts and was speaking of them. They knew that it was they who were there with the intention of doing harm to Jesus, and were even aiming to kill Him, and they knew that they were using the Sabbath day in order to attain their end.

So His words contrasted what He was about to do, with what they were about to do. He was going to do good, they were aiming to do harm, He was going to help a man live again, they were planning to have Him put to death. But even at this stage He pleaded with them to consider and to ask themselves who was really in the right. (He was not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance).

‘Is it lawful.’ The Pharisees were very keen on describing something as ‘lawful’ or ‘unlawful’. Jesus therefore wanted them to consider whether they thought that what they were planning to do was lawful. As a technical phrase which they used when giving a final warning concerning behaviour, they should have taken especial note of its significance. They too were receiving a final warning.

‘On the Sabbath day.’ That day which God had set aside as life-giving and blessed.

‘To do good or to do harm.’ This was the crux. What should the right thinking person do when these alternatives were offered? We can be in little doubt that He had the crowds with Him. They instinctively knew the answer and may well not have realised what a fix the Rabbis were in.

‘To save life or to kill.’ There was no question of the man with his withered arm being in danger of death, so He must have had the Pharisees in mind here, otherwise He could have stopped after ‘to do harm’. The crowds simply saw it as an added example to justify doing good on the Sabbath, but the guilty men present could hardly have avoided seeing the further implication.

‘But they held their peace.’ They did not want to look bad in front of the people, and they knew how good Jesus was at turning things in His favour. So at His words they said nothing. This in itself revealed their guilt. But they were not willing to admit that they might be wrong. Instead they sat there, simmering with a growing anger, the kind of anger that comes when people are behaving in the wrong way, and underneath are aware in their subconscious that what they are doing is not quite right. It was an awareness that they had to stifle in order to be able to justify themselves.

3.5 ‘And when he had looked round on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart, he says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out and his hand was restored.’

‘He -- looked round on them with anger.’ Jesus was angry because these men, who considered themselves to be especially devout, were deliberately and arrogantly closing their minds to what, within themselves, they knew to be true. It is one of the specific marks of the depths of man’s sinfulness that he can consider himself devout and yet act wrongly for his own ends, while at the same time convincing himself that what he is doing is justified. For the truth is that man learns to control and quench the niggling of the conscience. We are all good at doing it. And that was what these men were doing. We must beware lest we become like these Pharisees.

But He was also grieved. The word means ‘to mourn with’. There was an element in it of both compassion and grief, and of an awareness of their dreadful condition. He knew that their hearts ‘were hardened’, (or many consider it means ‘were blinded’). And He must have thought, ‘if only these men could allow the barriers they had built around themselves to break down’. But He was beginning to recognise that they were basically unteachable, because the wall that they had built around the Law had been built around their hearts too. And they could no longer be moved. So Jesus was both angry and grieved. Indeed He had a whole mixture of emotions at the situation. He grieved at them and He grieved for them.

‘He says to the man, “Stretch out your hand”.’ Jesus knew exactly what He was doing. He knew what the reaction would be. But He knew that He had to do it, for they were specifically challenging His authority to act as He was doing. They were seeking to make Him bend to the will of the Rabbis and admit that His claims at the previous incident had been excessive. But this He could not do, for He did have God’s authority to question the interpretations of the Rabbis, and He wanted all to know it. (Had He been a fellow Rabbi they might have accepted this argument once he had established a great reputation. But to them He was just an outsider making great and dangerous claims so that His argument was considered not to be worth examining. So He was challenging their authority just as they were challenging His).

‘And his hand was restored.’ Before their very eyes they saw that weakened, withered, pitiful arm become whole. This was a picture of what Jesus could also do for men’s whole being (compare 2.17) and of what He could do for Israel (John 15.1-6). Here was the One who had come to restore withered Israel. How then could they still maintain their stubbornness? But they had come knowing that Jesus could heal, and so its message did not get home. In a sense they did not see it. They were concentrating too much on what they were defending to consider the implications of what He had done. They were fighting for their very existence. And so unbelievably they dismissed the clinching argument, and did not even realise it.

3.6 ‘And the Pharisees went out and immediately, with the officials of Herod, took counsel against him how they might destroy him.’

We have observed the slow growth of their opposition. First they had come to observe and act as critics, judging whether this man deserved their support (2.6), and their criticism had been silent. Then they had been worsted in argument in front of the crowds and had become resentful (2.9-10). Then they had sought to attack Him more openly through His disciples and by shaming Him (2.16). Then they had challenged Him directly about the Sabbath Law and He had cited a greater authority, the Scriptures and Himself (2.24, 30). Now He had once again shamed them and made them look small and vindictive, and had confirmed before the people His own authority as an interpreter of the Law. So to the Pharisees He was clearly a threat to the whole structure of their religion. And this was what possessed their minds, so much so that they could not give Him a fair hearing. They could only rather come to one conclusion, and that was that He must be got rid of.

But they did not want to upset the civic authorities, whose help indeed they would need, so they went to the officials at Herod’s court, those enemies of the Pharisees whom they saw as ritually unclean and looked on with contempt because of their contacts with Gentiles, and whom they despised for their extravagant living, and put their case to them. And the Herodians, aware of the damage that John the Baptiser had done to them and Herod, agreed to help. They did not want another John. So together they began to plan how to put Him to death without it causing trouble with the people.

They knew that it would not be easy. The crowds were unquestionably behind Jesus and they knew that they could not afford another mistake like Herod’s with John the Baptiser, which had produced great resentment. So they bided their time and plotted. But one problem with Him was that He kept disappearing from their territory, and another was His continual popularity. For they were afraid of popular feeling.

We need not assume by this that all of them without exception had His death in mind as a constantly fixed and determined purpose. They had all probably agreed at first, but once their resentment had had chance to die down some may well have had second thoughts and wanted to delay things. For there are always those who are more cautious and more reasonable and who may even suggest thinking again. And the Herodians also knew that they had to be careful, so that no doubt subsequent warning voices had added to their caution. Thus the initial enmity is understandable, given their position, while their delay in acting is then also understandable. That is why they appear to have sent for the great Doctors of the Law who arrived from Jerusalem (3.22). They were beginning to feel that they needed reinforcements, and had come to feel that this was a matter best dealt with by them. They were probably sure that He would not get the better of those great men of the Law! And in view of the volatile situation in Palestine at that time they knew that they had to get it right.

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.

Analysis.

  • 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.

Analysis.

  • 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.

Analysis.

  • 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).

Analysis.

  • 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’.

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