The Gospel of Mark: Mad, Bad, or God?

Sermon by David Strain on July 29, 2018

Mark 3:20-35

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On Sunday mornings we have been working through the gospel according to Mark, and this morning we’ve come to Mark chapter 3 beginning at the twentieth verse. If you have a Bible with you, do please go ahead and turn there. If you are using one of our church Bibles, you can find Mark chapter 3 verse 20 on page 838; 838. In verse 20, if you’ll look at it, you’ll see Jesus has gone home. So in the passage prior to this, He was on retreat with His friends, His disciples, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And then, He was up on the mountainside calling twelve to Himself whom He appointed as apostles. Now He returns home. He has a base, we might say, in the city of Capernaum, and that’s where He has gathered again. And now that He has come back, word has spread; it seems to have become a common enough occurrence at this point in His ministry, and a great crowd have gathered and are pressing in upon Him making many demands of Him.


And in verses 20 through 22, you will notice that there are two groups of people who are forced to come to make a decision about what to make of all of this as they observe the effect of Jesus’ ministry and as they listen to His words and see His works. There’s Jesus’ family, and then there are some scribes who have been sent down from Jerusalem. They make two sets of arguments, they make two arguments about Jesus. We’ll call these the arguments of unbelief; the arguments of unbelief. Then in 23 through 27, Jesus responds. He defends Himself; He defends His work. He engages in some practical apologetics, we might say. He points out the irrationality of unbelief. So the arguments of unbelief and then the irrationality of unbelief. And then finally in verses 28 through 30 Jesus not contends simply to engage in a back and forth with the scribes and with His family, Jesus turns the table on His accusers and challenges them and issues a very solemn warning, if you can see that in verses 28 through 30. So the arguments of unbelief, the irrationalities of unbelief, and then thirdly the dangers of unbelief. The arguments, irrationality, and the dangers of unbelief. That’s where we’re going as we consider the passage together. Before we dive into its message and read the passage together, let’s pause and pray. Would you pray with me?


O Lord, now as Your Word is read and proclaimed would You work by the Holy Spirit to bring everyone in this room to a point of decision, a point of reckoning, where they must resolve the question: What do I make of Jesus of Nazareth? Would You bring us to the place of clarity and of submission to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by Your Holy Word. For we ask it in His name, amen.


Mark chapter 3 at the twentieth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’


And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’ And he called them to him and said to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.


‘Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ – for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”


Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.


January 12, 2007, The Washington Post decided to conduct something of a social experiment. It was 7:51am, the middle of the DC rush hour on a Friday morning. A nondescript young man in jeans and a t-shirt with a Washington Nationals baseball cap on his head stopped beside a trashcan at the entrance to the metro station inside the shopping mall, and he opened his violin case and took out his instrument and began to play a selection of six classical pieces. Over the next forty-three minutes, 1,097 people passed him on their way to work – you know, heads down, earbuds in, places to go, people to see. One or two stopped to listen and when they did they began to notice that this music was unusually accomplished for a street performer. In fact, this unassuming young street performer was brilliant. He was a young man by the name of Joshua Bell. He may be known to you. internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso. His antique violin was a Stradivarius made by the master himself in 1713 worth $3.5 million. He’d just played three days prior to this to a packed house at Boston Symphony Hall. And here he is now, outside the metro station, playing for busy commuters and almost nobody seemed to notice. Beauty and brilliance unnoticed and overlooked.


To be sure, a few people felt something of the quality of Bell’s performance and they would surreptitiously drop a dollar or two in the violin case before rushing off to catch their train. But this man, this instrument, that talent was something more than the usual, something extraordinary. And yet, no one really paid attention long enough to notice. When it comes to Jesus Christ, I dare say that’s how it is for many of us. We may sense something out of the ordinary about Him. We may even appreciate some of the things He said and did, but we’ve never really stopped perhaps to let it register, to consider, to let the extraordinary character of His person and His words and His works begin to sink in. We bustle past Him like commuters bustling past Joshua Bell on the metro playing his Stradivarius, never really noticing this is something quite unlike anything else. And so we make assumptions about Jesus. We lump Jesus in with all the other gurus and philosophers of history and we move right along – people to see, places to go, work to be done – and we miss the truth. How easily done that is.


The Arguments of Unbelief

But what happens when we’re forced to reckon with Jesus? What happens when Jesus’ words and works push themselves to the front of our attention and we’re brought to the brink of having to make a decision about who this man really is? In many ways, that’s what our passage is about this morning. If you’ll look first of all at verses 20 through 22, we’re going to see how two quite different people respond when they’re brought to that moment of decision, when they could no longer just sort of look the other way and pass Jesus off as another voice among many voices, like commuters passing a street performer outside the metro station. No, no, when Jesus stood out from the crowd and brought them to the brink of having to make a decision we need to see how they began to reason.


Jesus’ Family

Here are the arguments of unbelief – verses 20 through 22. The first group, of course, is Jesus' family. His mother and brothers, they’d heard about the crowds desperate to see Jesus. Word has reached them about this episode here in verse 20 in His house at Capernaum where the demands of the crowd are so great that He and His disciples have no time even to grab a quick bite to eat on the run in between ministry moments. And for them, it was the last straw. Enough is enough. Things have gotten entirely too crazy. It’s out of hand for their comfort. And so verse 21, “When his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Notice the language. It’s the same vocabulary Mark uses at the end of the gospel – Mark 14:46. They didn’t go out to persuade Him to come home and, you know, leave all this Messiah stuff. They weren’t out to reason with Him. They went out to seize Him. That’s the vocabulary, Mark 14:46, that were used of the armed guards that came out in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas betrayed his Master with a kiss. “They seized him and took him by force.” It’s a violent word. His family are here to bring Jesus home by hook or by crook because they’re convinced He has finally lost it. Something has happened to Him. He’s not in His right mind.


No doubt they had heard claims about Him, stories regarding Him, even things He Himself had said or done. In chapter 1 verse 11, a voice from heaven, God Himself remember, proclaimed Jesus His “beloved Son.” Chapter 1:24, a demon proclaimed Him, “the Holy One of God.” Chapter 2 verse 5, He Himself had claimed the right, the prerogative to forgive sin – a prerogative that belongs only to God Himself. In chapter 2 verse 19 and following, He took a title that is the title of Yahweh, the LORD, the bridegroom who has married Himself to His people by covenant. In chapter 2:27, He called Himself “the Lord of the Sabbath,” – the Lord who made the Sabbath Day and who regulates and governs it. The crowds, they all acclaimed Him; disciples followed Him. Demons fled before Him. The synagogues are perplexed by Him. The rabbis are jealous of Him.  And His family hear and see all of that, perhaps they thought His miracles only tall tales told by the deluded. Certainly, they found His message to be alarming and they are unwilling to accept it at face value.


And that left them so many options, you know. If you rejected Jesus’ claims about Himself, you only have so many choices left to you. Either His family decide that He is a religious huckster, you know, a charlatan, out to mislead people for His own gain. Or, they conclude that He’s lost His grip on reality altogether. It does happen, after all. Doesn’t it? A simple Google search revealed the following names: Moses Hlongwani of South Africa, Vissarion, also known as the Christ of Siberia, Jesus of Kitwe, Zamia, Inri of Brazil, Jesus Motoyoshi in Tokyo – just a few of the people alive today who think they are Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Almighty God. These are sad, bizarre figures who have lost their grip on reality and are convinced that they are someone they are not. Here in Mark chapter 3, Jesus’ family seem to have concluded something like that has happened to their boy. “He’s out of His mind,” they’re saying, “so we have come to bring Him home.”


The Scribes

Then there’s another group. You see the other group in verse 22? They’ve also been forced to take a position on Jesus. They are the scribes who have come down from Jerusalem. No matter where you are actually in the Promised Land, whether you’re heading north or south, east or west, you always go down from Jerusalem or up to Jerusalem. It’s up on the mountain. So they’ve come down to Capernaum from Jerusalem. Almost certainly they’ve been sent as an official delegation by the great Sanhedrin that met, the Jewish ruling council that met in Jerusalem. They’re there to assess whether or not Capernaum should be officially designated what was called a “seduced city.” They’re to form an opinion about Jesus and this movement that’s gathering momentum in His wake.


And in verse 22, they make their pronouncement. Look at verse 22. “He is possessed by Beelzebub and by the prince of demons he casts out demons.” So Jesus’ mother and brothers, they conclude that He’s mad, no doubt because they’re unwilling to conclude with the denominational committee sent down from headquarters to investigate that Jesus is bad! They love their boy and so the best Jesus’ family could do is consider Him to be insane. He’s had some sort of breakdown perhaps. But the scribes are constrained by no such sentiment. To them, Jesus isn’t insane, Jesus is evil. We don’t have a whole lot of information about the origin or even the meaning of the name, Beelzebub, but Jesus clearly considers it to be another name for the devil. You see what they’re saying? Jesus is possessed, and His power is demonic. He is wicked; He is the embodiment of satanic power. That’s what the scribes are arguing.


Now if you reject Jesus’ claims about Himself, we really do need to see these are the only credible options left to us. Those who were closes to Jesus – His family, the theological experts who made a firsthand study of Jesus, the scribes from Jerusalem – they all recognize there’s no way to pass Jesus off as a harmless teacher of morals or spirituality. You couldn’t really stop and listen to the violin being played on the metro that day and consider Joshua Bell just one among many street performers. There’s something extraordinary about it that will force itself upon you if you really pay attention. So with Jesus, if you pay attention, His message and ministry do not retreat back into the crowd of similar religious teachers across history. No, there’s something unusual, extraordinary about Him. Jesus will not let us relegate Him or His message to a safe and inconsequential mere moralist. No, Mark is telling us that the people who made a study of Jesus just can't make that explanation of Him stick at all; they just can't make it stick. Either He is exactly who He claimed to be – the Lord Himself comes down to rescue us – or He's a lunatic or He's a liar. Right? Those are the options. Either He is God, He is mad, or He is bad. Those are the options. Either you bow before Him as Savior, you medicate Him as insane, or you flee from Him as a monster.


You probably know that famous quote from C.S. Lewis from his book, Mere Christianity. It’s well-known; it’s worth repeating, I think. Lewis says:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Jesus. ‘I am ready to accept Jesus as a great model teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say,” says Lewis. “A man who is merely a man and said the sorts of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on the level of the man who says he is a poached egg, or else He is the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.” Lewis says, “Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend, and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was an is God.”


What do you make of Jesus? What do you make of Jesus? The polite, inclusive Jesus as moral teacher option is simply not available to us. It’s not credible. Either you dismiss Him as crazy, you denounce Him as wicked, or you bow before Him as Lord. Anyone who has spent any time examining the facts of Jesus’ life and ministry will eventually come to this moment, this point of unavoidable decision. What will you do with Jesus? What do you make of Jesus of Nazareth? The arguments of unbelief.


The Irrationality of Unbelief

Then look how Jesus replies – verses 23 through 27. Here, Jesus is highlighting, He’s unmasking the irrationality of unbelief. They make their arguments and He shows how utterly irrational those arguments are. The accusation was that He was evil and that by means of satanic power He was doing the miraculous things that He did. And so Jesus tells some very short little parables to communicate His reply. Verse 23, "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand but is coming to an end.” It’s not a complicated point Jesus is making. Even the scribes from Jerusalem, you see, had to admit Jesus was casting out demons and so they needed an explanation. But they were saying He was casting out demons by means of demonic power, by means of Satan’s power. “But if that were so, Jesus says, Satan is undermining his own kingdom, and that kingdom would implode.” But it wasn’t imploding. Was it? In fact, it was mounting a vigorous defense of itself against the ministry of Jesus Christ at every opportunity; simply not possible. It’s not reasonable to suggest Satan here is behind the work that Jesus did.


Now you see what Jesus is really doing? He’s doing what Frances Shaeffer sometimes called “taking the lid off.” You expose the inner logic of other people’s arguments and help them understand that it just doesn’t really work. It’s not coherent. It doesn’t make sense of all the data. In fact, it’s a ridiculous position in the end. But that’s actually what unbelief leads us to – into irrationality. This quote is usually attributed to G.K. Chesterton. I don’t think he actually said it, but it’s attributed to him. It is right on. He said, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything.” Unbelief pushes us into irrationality, you see. We’ll go to great lengths, we’ll do all sorts of mental gymnastics simply to avoid the clear conclusions to which all the evidence actually points us. We will embrace as credible any argument, however implausible, if it only allows us to remain in rebellion against God. Unbelief is irrational. We suppress the truth in unrighteousness; we exchange the truth of God for a lie. That’s what the Pharisees, the scribes here, are doing. It’s a ridiculous position they’ve adopted. It doesn’t make any sense. And yet, unbelief would rather embrace rationality than bend the knee to King Jesus.


Alternate Explanation

And before we move on, do notice, however, having unmasked the irrationality of their unbelief, Jesus doesn't leave it there. He gives an alternate explanation for what's really going on in His ministry. Look at verse 27. Verse 27, "No one enters a strong man's house and plunders his goods unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house." In Jesus' metaphor here, Satan is the strong man, his goods are people, human beings, held under his dominion and sway, his power and influence, and Jesus plunders his goods. That is, He delivers people; He sets them free from Satanic power and bondage because Jesus is the stronger than the strong man. It's not that Satan's kingdom is imploding because it's internally divided. That's not what's going on. No, what's going on is that Jesus is prosecuting a cosmic war. He is in direct conflict with the kingdom of Satan and He is winning the victory. He is binding the strong man and setting the prisoner free. He came, didn't He, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord's favor, to announce and herald liberty of captives and to set the prisoner's free. He has come and has defeated the principalities and powers making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Unbelief makes its arguments to be sure.


Some suggest Jesus was just a good man, a final moral teacher, an excellent example for the children. But that’s just not going to work. Is it? It’s just not going to work. No, either He’s crazy or He is evil, or He is Lord. The only Savior of sinners before whom we all must come and bow who can set our hearts free. He’s neither lunatic nor liar. Is He? And here’s what we need to see. If He is Lord, and He is, then He can give you the freedom for which your heart longs. Only He can. He has come to set the captives free. Real freedom is not the path of rebellion, but the path of surrender to the lordship of Christ. And if He sets you free, you will be free indeed. Has Jesus set you free? Has He? Are you living ensnared, trapped by sin and self and no matter which way you turn, whatever you do, you can’t break the chains? Has Jesus set you free? Jesus came to set you free.


Some of us know the glory and the wonder of that experience, of Christ setting us free, and we can sing with Wesley, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart was free! I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!” Can you sing that song? Has Jesus set you free? That’s why He came. He came to bring you deliverance. The argument of unbelief. The irrationality of unbelief.


The Danger of Unbelief

Then finally, do notice the danger of unbelief. You see there’s an awful lot at stake. Look at verses 28 through 30. Jesus has a solemn warning. Before He gets to the solemn warning, there’s a marvelous promise. “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man and whatever blasphemies they utter.” We should pause there for a minute and let that land with us. Did you hear what He said? “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man and whatever blasphemies they utter.” It’s not just freedom Jesus came to bring, but forgiveness. In fact, the character and nature of the freedom He gives is freedom from sin’s condemning power. He can make your conscience clean at last. “Oh, but preacher, you don’t know what I’ve done. You don’t know the wicked festering sinkhole of sin and rebellion that is my heart! You don’t know the things I’ve said. You don’t know how I’ve lived.” That’s true. I don’t. Jesus does. And He says, “All sins will be forgiven and whatever blasphemies we utter.” Whatever life of rebellion you’ve been living thus far, there is pardon for you in Jesus Christ. There is, if you would but come to Him. Stop living your way. Bend your need to Him. Do it now. Today. Come and trust in Christ. He will set you free and He will make you clean.


The Warning

And then in the context of that extraordinary promise comes the warning. Do you see the warning? Verse 29 – there is a sin that puts us beyond the possibility of pardon. “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” A couple of things to understand about that warning. First, Jesus doesn’t say that the scribes have committed it yet, but He is warning them that they are teetering on the brink and He's warning us too, lest we find ourselves in the same peril and danger. Secondly, He says He doesn't mean simply saying bad things about the Holy Spirit is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That's blasphemous to be sure, and a dreadful sin, but that's not what He means by the unforgivable sin here.


Mark actually helps us understand. He gives us a clue to the real meaning of this dreadful warning if you look at verse 30. Jesus said this, Mark says, “for they were saying ‘He has an evil spirit.’” The tense there is important. “They were saying” – it was a sustained pattern with them. You see, what Jesus means when He warns about the unforgivable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is a settled disposition of the heart where we consistently ascribe to Satan the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s warning us that it is possible to become so settled and hardened in our opposition to Him, so averse to the Gospel, that we come to see evil as good and good as evil. It’s possible to become so closed off to the offers of mercy God Himself makes to us, of freedom and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, that we feel nothing but animosity toward His love held out for you in His Son. And we meet the Gospel only ever with disdain and hatred. Jesus is saying in that day we are perilously close to crossing the line into a place where our hearts are permanently hardened, where we no longer feel in the depth of our conscience, the tug and the pull of the offer of grace and mercy. Now we reject it glibly and happily and head to a lost eternity. People who’ve committed this sin go to hell uncaringly, sneering at the Gospel, hostile to Jesus Christ.


Jesus’ words here are designed to warn the scribes who were denouncing Him lest that be their fate. And they’re meant to warn us too. If you’ve been mocking Jesus, explaining Him away, minimizing His message, keeping Him at arms’ length, avoiding His claims, Jesus is warning you too lest your heart be hardened and your destiny sealed beyond all hope of recovery. They’re meant to unsettle us and drive us to the only safe refuge, the only safe refuge. There is a safe harbor for you in the Lord Jesus Christ. As you hear his warning, as the alarm sounds, He’s inviting you to come to Him for safety, for freedom, for forgiveness.


The argument of unbelief. You do see the only real options before you. Either Jesus is crazy, He’s evil, or He is who He said He is – the living God, the Savior of sinners – and if He is, He can set you free. The irrationality of unbelief. It makes no sense. It may be you’re believing all sorts of bizarre ideas, all in an attempt to keep the truth at bay. It’s time to quit, come bend the knee to Christ, because He has more than just freedom; He has forgiveness for you. Indeed, the freedom He gives is the freedom from the condemnation that your sin deserves. And the danger of unbelief. There is a solemn warning. If you persist in your rejection of Him, you may stray past the point of all recovery. Do not delay, therefore, and come, trust in Christ. Let’s pray.


How grateful we are, O Lord, that every sin and blasphemy may be forgiven. The truth is, all of us – I, we – need badly Your forgiving grace. Thank You for Jesus, the stronger than the strong man, who sets the prisoners free, who came to wash us clean, and to give us pardon. We pray for one another, for ourselves, that we would run into the only safe harbor as we hear Jesus sound the alarm and tell us of the danger of unbelief. Grant that none of us may so stray, so rebel, so become hardened in our rejection of Christ that we pass all point of recovery. Instead, today, here and now, grant that we, all of us, may come and bend the knee to Him. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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