The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once wrote, “ . . . eccentricity is the privilege of genius.”
Most of the pioneers of the world have been those who have dared to buck the status quo, and someone at some time has usually splattered their reputations during their lifetimes with charges of either insanity or maliciousness. It’s not unusual, then, to find that the same charges were directed against Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, during his early life and ministry. These charges came from people who were close to him and people who were of sterling religious reputation, during the time which he spoke the will of the Father and did the miracles of power which challenged the course of this world into sin, disease and death.
The charges which came against Jesus came as the wave of popularity began to rise after the first months of his earthly ministry. The rumblings of opposition began early, and they eventually were to culminate in the plot against him in Jerusalem from the whole religious establishment which led to his crucifixion. But Jesus did not allow any of those misguided and slanderous statements against him and his ministry to pass without serious challenges directly to those who were making them, and in this we see the astute perception of Jesus and his personal formidability in confrontation as he dealt with the statements of the opposition swiftly and decisively. In this we see more of his wisdom, resolution and moral courage of the one perfect man who has ever lived before this world, and his unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness, to echo the words of C.S. Lewis. But in this we see the same personality of the God who revealed himself in the Old Testament, but with the perfection of humanity in his tenderness and razor sharp reason. We see here in Jesus the condescension of Deity in stooping to live among us, teach us and correct us during our most severe misperceptions and most horrible errors. We see the tough love of the Son of God, who did not consider himself too high and mighty to simply ignore our sins and turn the other way, but who rebuked us in his love, the supremely tough, yet heartbreakingly tender love of the Son of God.
This, then, is the setting of one of the hard sayings of Jesus, if not the hardest, especially when guilt, neuroticism and obsessive-compulsive disorder misconstrues it. Understanding the situation, though, and why the statement was made discloses what the unforgivable sin really was and why it was unforgivable. But even more, as we go into the passage, we will also find the scriptural basis for something that many of us may never have truly realized had been based in scripture.
“And then he is coming into the house, and the crowd is coming together, so that they’re unable even to have a meal. And when his family heard about it they came out to apprehend him, because they were thinking, ‘He’s out of his mind.’ And the teachers of the law from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He has Beelzebul ,’ and that, ‘He is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons.’ And when he had called them together he started saying to them, ‘How is Satan able to cast out Satan? If his dominion is divided against itself, his dominion is not able to stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house is not able to stand. And if Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he is unable to stand but has come to an end. But no one is able to come into the house of a strong man and take his stuff unless he first handcuffs the strong man, and then he is able to ransack his house. Understand this: all things will be forgiven the sons of men, even their sins and slanders with which they blaspheme; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not ever have forgiveness in eternity, because he is guilty of an eternal sin . . .’ — because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (Mark 3:20-30, Dale’s sight translation).
Misunderstanding and opposition accompanied the ministry of Jesus. This is the setting for one of the hardest sayings of Jesus in the gospels, and it is necessary to understand this to understand what Jesus said in its larger context. It’s also very instructive to consider what is happening in this passage, since in it we’ll find something that we never thought that we would find there – something that some have even said is not even in scripture, but which formed a cornerstone of the apologetics of C.S. Lewis.
The first misunderstanding that followed the ministry of Jesus was the misdiagnosis of his mental health. This came from people who were genuinely well disposed to him – but they were sincerely wrong about him. Their misunderstanding of what was happening with him led them to attempt to rein him in and shut him down, and this may well rank as one of their biggest blunders and misconceptions.
This is what is happening when Mark describes the pandemonium of a crowd that mobbed Jesus when he was in a house and seemingly trying just to get in a meal: “And then he is coming into the house, and the crowd is coming together, so that they’re unable even to have a meal. And when his family heard about it they came out to apprehend him, because they were thinking, ‘He’s out of his mind.’” This description is part of the plain, vivid, blue collar language of Mark when he described the ministry of Jesus. The phrase which I’ve translated, “ . . . his family . . .” is an idiom which seems to mean that; it’s not the literal term for family. The phrase could also mean his friends, which would seemingly mean his neighborhood and family friends from Nazareth. But the appearance of his literal family on the edge of the crowd later, in verse 31, indicates from the later context that this would have more likely have been his family members – his mother and brothers.
So the situation became so crazy with the crowds at some point that his own family transferred the assessment of the situation to their assessment of the mental health of Jesus himself. I’ve translated the words, “ . . . they were thinking . . .” but the words in the original are, “ . . . they were saying.” It seemed from the context that this was more the meaning – sometimes the phrase does mean this – but either way, they had thought up and were working each other up with a false assessment of Jesus himself. And there is no ambiguity in the phrase which I’ve translated, “He’s out of his mind.” Other, more colloquial translations could be, “He’s crazy!” or “He’s off his rocker!” There is no misunderstanding at all of what this phrase means in the original language. Those people who were coming out to take charge of Jesus considered him at this point to be mentally unbalanced. Since in the ancient world there were no men in white coats to bring a person in to a mental hospital, it was up to the family to do something about someone who was showing signs of being mentally disturbed, and this statement about Jesus, unique to the gospel of Mark, shows that at this point in his ministry his family was going so far as to come out to where he was preaching and teaching to bring him in.
This sentence also shows the blue collar frankness of Mark. It’s understandable that some of his family members might have, from third party reports, misconstrued what was happening in the ministry of Jesus. This report of what happened was also not at all complimentary to the members of Jesus’s family who were still alive and still prominent in leadership throughout the churches. But this little sentence is also a strong argument for the trustworthiness of the gospel of Mark, since he included things like this that might have been embarrassing to the early church, and it shows even more that the stories about Jesus preserved in the gospels are not fabrications, since they include these realistic and understandable details that simply would not be characteristic of a pious fiction.
But even more – this little sentence shows how sadly and utterly mistaken the opinions and assessments of family members may be. They may not understand what God is doing in the life of a loved one, since all they’ve seen over the years have been the ordinary circumstances of growth and development. They may misunderstand those who are entirely in the will of God, and their opinions and authority, which are nevertheless to be respected and valued, are not the final assessment and the ultimate authority. It’s necessary for us today to remember this, since if Jesus met with this kind of misunderstanding from his family during his earthly life, those of us who have taken up the cross to follow him as his disciples cannot consider ourselves above that same kind of misunderstanding.
But the misunderstanding of family members was only part of what Jesus encountered at this time in his ministry. Far more serious and far worse was what he found with the slanderous opposition from the religious leaders from Jerusalem. They were trying to spread the rumor that the ministry of Jesus came through demonic power. They saw him as serious religious competition, and they were seeking to discredit him and blacken his reputation by attributing his miracles to the power of spiritual evil.
This is what Mark wrote about what was happening: “And the teachers of the law from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He has Beelzebul ,’ and that, ‘He is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons.’” This apparently wasn’t just a small, one time, off hand, trite saying which could have been sarcasm or a joke which was misunderstood. Rather, this was something that they were spreading around behind his back; it was despicable slanderous opposition. They were in effect trying to smear Jesus with the reputation that he was in league with evil powers and pretty much a practitioner of black magic himself. This charge pretty much carried the implication that Jesus was possessed and probably insane was well – a wicked, insane man who was himself the tool of the most powerful demons. And this charge in fact continued after the ministry of Jesus and was repeated later in the Talmud. But this charge also is hostile testimony to the reality of the miracles of Jesus. Even those in the most malicious opposition to Jesus could not deny that his miracles were real and that they really happened. Their reality was such that all the opposition could do was to stoop to the charge that they were accomplished through demonic power, and through a demonic power superior to that which was showing itself in the people that they knew were already possessed.
This charge came from those who were in the positions of religious authority there – the most astute Biblical scholars there. They themselves also performed exorcisms as well – but they could not argue with the fact that Jesus always was successful whenever he cast out demons. The malicious reaction to the ministry of Jesus shows, then, the inadequacy of religious authority as such as compared with the authority and power of Jesus himself. Their reaction shows that roles, titles and careful Biblical scholarship does not necessarily add up to spiritual discernment nor proper understanding and application of the Word of God. They totally missed what the Spirit of God was doing there in the land of Palestine about 30 A.D.
Thus Jesus shows that even a perfect life and ministry may meet with misunderstanding from relatives and slander from others. He shows that in a world of sin spiritual ignorance can cloud the understanding of the most well intentioned and best educated people. He shows that there is a breaking point to the opinions of other human beings to be the reliable standard of truth and righteousness when God comes into human history and starts something totally new, as he did when the Son of God came into our world and began his ministry.
This then throws the question back to each one of us. Do we have the mentality that would have agreed with the rumors back then? Are we too quick to believe what others are saying without ourselves examining the scriptures and seeking to know whether what is happening is God’s incomparable working? I fear that too many believers over the years are far too ready to believe rumor and hearsay themselves, and not to speak the truth, refrain from gossip and be discreet with what they say. But even more – it brings us back to the Word of God as well as the standard of what is true and right. Not one of those things would have been said about Jesus if they had taken the Word of God and had seen Jesus through that infallible lens.
But there’s more to the story, definitely. Jesus did not leave the charges against him unanswered. Jesus answered misunderstanding and slander with compassionate but relentless logic. With a few plain, commonsense words of unbreakable logic he drove the charges into nonsense. With his quiet, pointed rebuke he implicitly answers one charge and explicitly answers the other.
The clarity of his reaction was not the reaction of paranoia. If Jesus had truly been unbalanced, the expected reaction would have been the raving mania of an unbalanced mind clinging desperately to a deluded and depraved image of itself. Even more, his reply is remarkable in its understatement and seriousness. With singular accuracy and sanity he gives a pointed answer that shows himself not only in full possession of his reason, but far more reasonable than anyone that he addressed. His words are those of one who is full control of himself and with full discernment of the situation. It would indeed not be too much to say, in fact, that Jesus was the only truly consistently sane person in human history, with mind, will and emotions unclouded and untouched by human sin and depravity – but that’s something to be explored at another time and in more depth.
So this is what Mark tells as how Jesus answered the teachers of the Law who were charging him with demonic power: “And when he had called them together he started saying to them, ‘How is Satan able to cast out Satan? If his dominion is divided against itself, his dominion is not able to stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house is not able to stand. And if Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he is unable to stand but has come to an end. But no one is able to come into the house of a strong man and take his stuff unless he first handcuffs the strong man, and then he is able to ransack his house.’”
Mark presents Jesus as showing the utter impossibility of his miracles happening through demonic powers by the analogies of the divided house, the divided kingdom and the ransacked house of the handcuffed strong man. These analogies were apparently given in a rebuke, inside whatever house Jesus happened to have been standing at the moment. His twelve disciples were apparently there as witnesses of what was said. He delivered this rebuke and correction with tact and courtesy and did not publicly shame the teachers of the Law before the crowds. His rebuke showed his hatred for their sin of slander and his righteous stand against it, but as it has yet to be seen, this rebuke has a deadly seriousness as well.
The argument which Jesus uses in these analogies is a form of reductio ad absurdum: pushing an opponent’s point to its logical conclusion where it will be clearly understood to be ridiculous. He took their charge, that he was acting by demonic power, and drew the inevitable conclusion that he was driving out demons by demonic power there was division and anarchy in the kingdom of Satan. This was ridiculous to people who had as a matter of their lives seen the blatant work of spiritual evil in the lives of others, and it was common knowledge to them about the coordination and cooperation of the forces of spiritual evil. So the conclusion is that the exorcisms of Jesus cannot be by demonic power. QED. And the charges against him are both illogical and malicious. QED.
But Jesus goes on and, by the analogy of the strong man who is handcuffed and has his house ransacked, that there is something more powerful than the most powerful ruler of spiritual evil at work in his ministry. The One who is stronger than the most powerful and evil of the evil ones is there and exercising his power and authority. In fact, the reality of the exorcisms shows that the power of the kingdom of God – his ruling dominion – was there in the presence of the anointed King, the Son of God. Jesus was letting his actions speak for themselves in their results, as he was willing to do throughout his ministry. And his actions directed them to the proper conclusion about what was happening in his ministry. He shows them that their unbelief is illogical and in fact in spite of what they had been seeing right in front of their faces, but which they were nevertheless bending over backwards in their slander to avoid coming to the conclusion that the Messiah was there and that the Son of God had come.
It could easily be said that what Jesus was pointing out to the teachers of the Law was like the well known statement of Sherlock Holmes: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Jesus pointed out that it was impossible that he could be acting through demonic power, and, however improbable they may have considered it, that it was the truth that they were standing before King Jesus, the conqueror, the one stronger than Satan. His miracles and exorcisms were themselves the evidence that he was the one with the authority of the Son of God and accomplishing the compassionate will of God in the power of the Spirit of God. So what they were seeing was the ultimate home invasion – the ultimate kingdom takeover – and the evidence was the number of those that they had seen before their eyes who were healed and delivered through the ministry of Jesus.
The evidence was that right there before them was a reality which they had to come to grips with. His life and ministry were demonstrating the truth of the statement of I John 3:8: “This was why the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” And this was the conclusion that Athanasius, a pastor and theologian who lived after 300 A.D., came to: “From such ordinary acts as being born and taking food, he was recognized as actually being in the body; but by the extraordinary acts which he did through the body he proved himself to be the Son of God.”
So by this point let’s consider what we’ve found here in the gospel of Mark. We’ve found that there were a few who charged Jesus with being crazy – a lunatic. We’ve found that there are those who charged Jesus with being the very devil of hell, the ultimate spiritual counterfeit – a liar. And we’ve found that Jesus himself pointed to his own ministry as being the evidence of his being the promised Messiah – Lord. So here we have something striking that appears in the writings of C.S. Lewis as the trilemma: that these are the three alternatives that Jesus has given us to assess his ministry – Lord, liar or lunatic – but the conclusion that he leads us to as the ultimate conclusion is one that is demonstrated throughout the gospels – Lord. I’ve heard criticisms of the trilemma, that it is not itself scriptural, and certainly I don’t think that it should be forced into any passage of scripture, but it is remarkable that within these few verses you find all three being set forth: lunatic, by his misguided family; liar, by his malicious critics; and Lord, by his own direction to the results of his ministry.
And when the results of his ministry were considered, they were real and lasting. It was asserted that people whom Jesus healed during his earthly ministry were still walking around about A.D. 100 – it’s easily plausible they had been children who he had healed during the years of A.D. 27-30. And I think that the analogy of the ministry of Jesus as a home invasion that brought freedom to captives from evil gains more clarity when it is compared to the freeing of Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus and Michelle Knight from the clutches of Ariel Castro (Ariel Castro kidnappings). These three innocent women were taken captive for years by an evil man but freed from evil when forces stronger than the evil man came to break down the doors and rescue them. This dramatic story, with the story of their own faith and prayers for deliverance, captivated the world. And this is a very apt analogy to Jesus tying up the strong man and ransacking his house – bringing freedom to the captives of sin, disease and demonic oppression.
But there’s even more to be considered here that will do well to our souls from the Word of God. There’s more to be understood from understanding what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was. What Jesus said to the teachers of the Law on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was a warning to them to cease their slander. It’s easy to see that they were words wrung out of him by the situation with which he was faced. Of all that Jesus said, I can see these as words he would rather not have ever had to say.
So Jesus concluded what he was saying to the teachers of the law with this most serious warning: “Understand this: all things will be forgiven the sons of men, even their sins and slanders with which they blaspheme; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not ever have forgiveness in eternity, because he is guilty of an eternal sin . . .’ — because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”
I don’t think that we can see this as Jesus pronouncing a statement of final judgment on the teachers of the law. He himself said of his earthly ministry in John 8:15: “I pass judgment on no one.” Rather, this must be seen first of all as an extremely serious warning of how serious their slander was. He was warning them of the final consequence of the slander that they were directing against him was implicating the Holy Spirit. The gravity of this warning comes with his words which I’ve translated, “Understand this.” This was Jesus’s characteristic idiom which he used for emphasis; in other places it’s translated,m “I tell you the truth.” It’s been considered to be equivalent to the Old Testament expression of God, “As I live, saith the LORD.” And what Jesus is warning them against is an explicit and unretracted declaration the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus is the work of spiritual evil. Jesus does not say why it is unforgivable, but it is most likely because is means an inability to receive forgiveness and that it is a symptom of a moral disease that is incurable. It is an utter moral blindness that cannot see the light at all and cannot recognize the presence of the forgiving God among them. It means a decided preference for moral darkness and an utter obstinacy that hates, resists and slanders the genuine working of God through Jesus Christ and calls it pure evil.
As a matter of pastoral care, this sin cannot be the symptom of a diseased mind, of a messed up thinking mechanism such as in obsessive compulsive disorder, that seizes upon this thought and subjects the person to an endless series of self accusations and attacks, like a kind of mental auto-immune disease. Nor can this be a mere passing, inadvertent thought that comes across the mind of a believer. I cannot say that it’s impossible for anyone in our day and age to have committed it, since I don’t know the actual threshold of when a person passes over any kind of sin of word to where this one is committed. But I consider that Jesus delivered this as a warning and not a condemning declaration that there was hope even for those who were saying such things and that they themselves were not unforgivable. Indeed, I don’t believe that Jesus would even have taken the trouble to speak to them and warn them if he had considered them unforgivable because of what they had said. I do believe that it’s impossible for anyone who has ever put his or her faith in Jesus Christ for eternal life to have committed this, and the evidence of regeneration is more than enough to show that it has not been committed by anyone. So I think that it comes down to not being obsessed about this one saying, but this transgression will not become clear and clearly judged until eternity, and it is not for us ever to conclude that anyone has ever committed this sin, or the forgivability or unforgivability of any sin before God, or to judge others or even ourselves on whether we have committed an unforgivable sin.
Ultimately, then, all that is in this passage directs us to the proper reception of Jesus Christ for all that he truly is. He is the Stronger One who invaded the house of utter evil to set the captives free, as the rest of the gospel of Mark shows us as well. His call to us is what it was at the beginning of the gospel of Mark: “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has arrived. Repent and believe the good news!” His call is to recognize him as the anointed King of God, the Son of God who came as a Jewish man in first century Palestine, who did miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, and who dies for us on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and who rose again to provide eternal life for all who put their trust in him.
So then, the falsehoods that have already been exploded about Jesus work even more to show the truth about him! Truly the Son of God came to earth for the salvation of men and women! It happened, and it’s real. Jesus Christ does do miracles! He did miracles of salvation then, and now, in the power of his death and resurrection he continues to do them. So he now calls us to receive him as the Savior now, and the Lord of our lives, to submit to his authority, to receive the forgiveness of our sins and to experience the power of his risen life.
Jesus Christ truly does miracles of salvation from sin to eternal life. Therefore, he calls us to truth him for our salvation, whether this is the first step of faith to acknowledge him as Lord and Savior, or in the continuing trust in him for our lives. And even more, we cannot leave this reality just at the place where it touches us; this means that we also need to seek him for the miracles of salvation for our friends and relatives who have yet to come face to face with the Savior.
Jesus Christ really does do miracles of healing. There is still healing and deliverance from the power of the enemy in his name. So we can continue to seek his power for our most intractable problems of physical disease and infirmity, and for the most impossible situations of spiritual evil. Through prayer and the exercise of his delegated authority in his name he still continues to wreak havoc and ransack the house of the enemy.
The ultimate miracle of the Son of God is yet to come, though. He is coming back to take us to himself, to purify and glorify us finally and entirely beyond sin, disease and death, to be like him and with him forever. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!