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Mark 3

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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To Defy the Righteous (2:18-3:6)

Each of these stories indicates a cleavage between Jesus and "the scribes of the Pharisees" (Mark 2:16). Slowly but steadily this conflict sharpened. Whatever Jesus did upset conventional patterns of behavior, defied the current codes of duty, and placed God in the position of condoning sin by forgiving the sinner. The "scribes" were those ministers of the synagogue who were charged by vows to defend the Scriptures, to teach the people to obey the Law, and to protest against willful defiance of Israel’s Covenant with God. They looked forward to the coming of God’s Kingdom, but they knew that when that time came God would decisively punish all sinners and reward all the righteous. Accordingly, anyone who condoned sin must be attacked, all the more if he did this in God’s name. When Jesus persisted in ignoring the Law, they were duty-bound to defend the Law against such treason.

The Pharisees illustrated their devotion to God by fasting. John’s disciples also believed that to prepare for God’s Judgment Day sinners must mourn for their guilt. Jesus’ disciples, by contrast, celebrated the approach of the new order by feasting and drinking in the most dubious company. Why? "Ours is a wedding feast," was the reply. "We are guests of the bridegroom himself. Here he is with us. Who can mourn at such a time?" When this debate (vss. 18-20) is seen as the sequel of the previous banquet (vss. 16-17), it becomes clear that to Mark the wedding feast was recognized as a symbol of the joys to be shared in God’s Kingdom. As the bridegroom, the Messiah includes his Church in those joys. This Church is made up of sinners whom he has accepted and who can do nothing less than rejoice over their forgiveness. To attempt to confine their joy within the restrictions required for mourning would be as foolish as to pour new wine into old wineskins. For those who believed, the news of God’s forgiveness had changed everything (Mark 1:14-15). Like the paralytic and the tax collector they entered into a new friendship, where they lived in the exuberance of a new hope. For them only the happiest of celebrations was appropriate. To act with the old gloom and fear, to carry out the old practices, even to obey the Law designed for the earlier day — all this would have denied the truth and would actually have destroyed the "old wineskins." But of course the Pharisees had no inkling that this rejoicing could be justified. For them there should be no wedding feast until the great transformation was visible to all. They were, in fact, the guardians of what Jesus called the "old wineskins." And among the most cherished of these wineskins was God’s command to keep the Sabbath Day holy. They were therefore bound to challenge this teacher with regard to his defiance of God’s rules for the Sabbath. The Christians in Rome, to whom Mark was writing, were at odds among themselves over whether or not they must hallow the Sabbath. Some disciples treated all days alike, while others insisted that the seventh day of the week (the Sabbath, our Saturday) was holier than other days (Romans 14:1-7). The dispute produced keen animosities. The Sabbatarians condemned the others and were in turn despised by them. As a result, the two factions found it virtually impossible to worship together, for they could not agree on the time for meeting. In such a situation this story about Jesus (vss. 23-28) was cherished by the "liberal" group, and Mark was one of their spokesmen. The story made clear that Jesus not only "broke" the Sabbath in the synagogue itself, but also broke it by walking farther than the law of the Sabbath permitted and by encouraging his disciples to do forbidden work. It was forbidden to work by harvesting grain and husking it for food. When the defenders of the Sabbath protested, which was nothing less than their duty, Jesus did not deny the infraction. He appealed to the precedent of David, of whom the Messiah was Son (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6). More important, he appealed to the principle of creation. Who made the Sabbath? God. If so, then God’s Son should be superior to the Sabbath, for he is its Lord. (This again was outright blasphemy.) For whom was the Sabbath made? Man. Then the conditions of God’s New Creation (the Son of Man with his people) justified a new understanding of the Sabbath. The Son of David and his friends should be as free as David and the priests had been. The dawning of the New Age had produced a revolution. Jesus was showing how this revolution affected the institutions designed for the Old Age, including even God’s Law. Since the Pharisees could not accept the revolution, they were bound to defend the old. Their conflict with Jesus measured the incompatibility of the new and the old. Here began the later enmity between the Church and the synagogue.

Now the Pharisees must watch Jesus for other infractions, for every infraction would increase the damage to law and order. They must be ready to challenge this rebel at every opportunity. And virtually every episode provoked such an opportunity, because Jesus with his disciples acted with what must have seemed to be reckless freedom. If a man needed healing, they did not wait until the next day, when it would be entirely legal to heal. They provided the help at once. To postpone the healing would, in their eyes, make the Sabbath an instrument for doing harm, even of killing (Mark 3:4). The Messiah came not to observe holy days but to save life. Each act of mercy was a demonstration of the truth that salvation makes all days holy, because every day presents its opportunity to heal and to free. Only the hardness of men’s hearts can blind them to this true holiness.

Yet as guardians of the holy, the Pharisees saw no other course than to destroy the cause of such blasphemy, such defiance of God’s Word. Because they needed the help of political authorities, they held a committee meeting with the supporters of Herod, seeking the surest ways. As ambassador of the new "law and order," Jesus had no other option but anger at the Pharisees, combined with grief over their blindness. For the issue was not merely whether to break or to obey the Sabbath law, but whether to reject or to believe the message that God’s power had been released for man’s healing.


Responses to the Power (3:7-6:6)

We have now arrived in the story at a point where the conflict has taken the sharp outlines of black versus white. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians are so obsessed by Jesus’ threat to the Law that they must seek to destroy him. He and his disciples withdraw to the lakeside, followed by crowds with a different obsession. The enmity is clear-cut. But Mark was too sensitive to the intermediate shadings in human responses to be content with the sharp cleavage of men into two camps. So he gives us a collection of episodes which suggest the more complex patterns of action and reaction.

The alert reader will discover at this point also a change in the form of the episodes. From 1:21 through 3:6 we have a cycle of stories which probably circulated orally as a collection before Mark incorporated them into his document. Sometimes these anecdotes are called "pronouncement stories" because each story is told for the sake of the climactic pronouncement of Jesus. The story in Mark 2:15-16, for example, makes clear the meaning of the saying in 2:17. Sometimes these are called "paradigms," because they set forth patterns of behavior which the Apostles wanted their hearers to imitate. Sometimes they are called "controversies" because they recount debates between Jesus and the scribes and thus illustrate the superiority of the Christian arguments against the synagogue.

From 3:7 through 6:6, however, these forms of tradition are absent. Rather we find a collection of parables (Mark 4:1-34), and then a collection of miraculous signs, including the quieting of the squall and several amazing cures. These stories are told with great detail, and with less concern for the sayings of Jesus. At the outset of these two collections we find four rather heterogeneous summaries (Mark 3:7-35): a summary of popular excitement; of the names of the Twelve; of the reasons for scribal rejection; and of the character of his followers. In these paragraphs Mark distinguishes four quite different reactions to Jesus’ deeds.

Verses 7-35

Reactions to Jesus’ Deeds (3:7-35)

First there is the anonymous multitude, drawn by gossip, fascinated by the excitement, coming from all directions and with various motives. They want to get as close as possible to this worker of marvels. They want souvenirs of these unusual happenings. Some of them, harassed by illness, are pathetically eager to touch this migrant healer before he leaves their vicinity. Strangely disturbed by his words, bewildered by his power, they guess only dimly the scope of what is happening.

Then there were the unclean spirits, active in the excitement, permeating the sick minds and divided hearts. Their confession was wrung from them unwillingly, "You are the Son of God." Unfortunately for these unclean spirits, the confession was a true one. Satan believes in God and trembles; so, too, his soldiers believe in God’s Son and tremble (James 2:19). They know that his power can muzzle them, and even expel them from their lodgings in human souls. Nevertheless, even though in this case they knew that they had been bested, they kept up their battle for those lodgings. In all this there was an uncanny contrast between the demons’ response and men’s. The demons understood what was happening; they had no illusions on that score, but they feared it. The crowds did not understand; they had numerous illusions, and yet they welcomed what was happening. The demons, having closer contact with the invisible aspect of reality, could discern the truth. Men, having greater dependence on the visible were confused by it. Even so, the Messiah ordered the demons not to share their knowledge with men. Men must find out the truth for themselves; they could not profit from faith unless it were their own. At this point the faith of the demons was more intelligent than that of the crowds of followers.

From this larger company of followers, Jesus had chosen twelve. At this point Mark gives us the roster of names (Mark 3:13-19). The place of the disciples’ commissioning was significant — a mountain. In ancient oriental thought heaven and earth came nearest to each other on a mountaintop. The mountain was the place most appropriate for especially sacred revelations (Mark 9:2; Mark 13:3), for significant appointments, for bestowals of grace and power. This was no casual or routine rendezvous. The Messiah had created a unique group for special duties. He had taken the initiative in selecting them, not because of their desires or capacities, but because of his plans for them.

"He appointed twelve." The number was intentional. Jesus wanted new representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel. In a sense these men were to become the patriarchs of a new Israel, This appointment anticipated the later promise that they would sit on thrones, ruling the tribes (Matthew 19:28). The thrones were set around his throne, symbol of a shared authority. But this authority stemmed from his gift and training. For the time being they were to be "with him," learning the mysteries of God’s new order. Then they would be "sent out" as Jesus’ own delegates to the world, exercising his power to preach and to heal. He gave them new names, surnames, to signify this new role. Appointment, however, did not guarantee faithfulness. Even in this small number there was one "who betrayed him,"

There is much that escapes us if we read this naming of the Twelve without considering the Scriptures on which Mark and his readers had fed their minds. For example, Isaiah 43 should be carefully studied in this connection. In both passages, the Lord is creating Jacob and forming Israel, calling them by name because they belong to him (Isaiah 43:1). He promises to be with them when they pass through the waters (vs. 14; compare Isaiah 43:2 and Mark 4:35-41). He promises to gather sons and daughters from the end of the earth (Isaiah 43:6), for they are to be his witnesses, his servants (Isaiah 43:10). Yet in the time of Jesus, as of the prophet, the salvation of God was rejected by the people "who are blind, yet have eyes" (Isaiah 43:8).

In Mark, this blindness is bluntly described (Mark 3:20-23). Yes, Jesus had been able to release men from demonic obsessions. But his friends took this as a sign of mental disease on Jesus’ part. And the scribes explained it by saying that he was himself under the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Privates in the demon army were bound to obey the commands of their chief, even when the chief had shared his authority with a man like Jesus. To put it in military terms : Beelzebul was the commander-in-chief of this army, and Jesus had been made his general.

Jesus gave a twofold answer. While admitting that Satan can order his soldiers to do various nefarious tasks, it is incredible that Satan should cast out his own soldiers from his own realm. He would not thus be a party to weakening his own kingdom. That in itself would be suicide for the Prince of Evil, and suicide is not to be expected of Beelzebul. This was the negative reply. On the positive side, the Pharisaic charge could not be correct if as a result of Jesus’ authority men were actually being released from slavery to evil spirits. The Pharisees did not deny that certain men had been so released.

The second and positive answer is hidden in the parable of the Strong Man (vs. 27). The "strong man" represents Satan. "His house" stands for a man or a society which is demon-possessed. "His goods" refers to Satan’s right and delight in ownership. Anyone who would contest Satan’s ownership, who would take from him or from the men or the society under his control, must first bind Satan himself. And that, by implication, is just what Jesus had done. He had wrestled with this strong man and had overcome him (Mark 1:12-13). This alone explained why he had been able to "plunder his house." It was because God had first bested Satan that Jesus had been able to exorcize demons and to endow his Apostles with the same power (Mark 3:15). This power, far from being demonic, was actual proof that God was at last evicting Satan from his home within men and their society.

Because this truth was so basic, Jesus supported it with a most stem declaration: sins and blasphemies of all kinds may be forgiven, but it is unforgivable to call the Holy Spirit an "unclean spirit." Centuries of exegesis have not established the precise meaning of this warning. We may not be far wrong if we say that to call the Holy Spirit "unclean" is to deny that the Holy Spirit has power to overcome the Devil. It is a flat denial that God can forgive sins. It is an absolute form of despair, for a person thereby rejects in advance the possibility that men can ever be freed from bondage to evil powers. In this despair, a person actually gives to Satan the status of Almighty Father. Such despair cannot be forgiven, because it bolts the only door by which forgiveness may enter. This, in fact, was Satan’s objective — so to blind men that they would think of the works of the Holy Spirit as unclean. They would then reject Jesus and later reject the Apostles (Mark 13:9-13), for it was Jesus’ intention in naming the Apostles to give men through the Apostles freedom from Satan (Mark 3:15).

During these early weeks of Jesus’ ministry, people had been compelled to ask, "Who is this man?" Now he asked them, "Who is my family?" The two questions were linked together. Furthermore, just as the first question could be answered in two different ways — a tool of God or a tool of Satan — so also the second question. Was not Jesus’ family obviously made up of his mother, brothers, sisters? And were they not unsympathetic with his work? Here they came calling him, trying to draw him back home to more normal life. (Verse 31 may continue the thought of verse 21.) Jesus’ reply appeared to repudiate them entirely. "Here are my mother and my brothers!" Here men were rejoicing over the news of the Kingdom, men who had accepted forgiveness and healing. Quite naturally and spontaneously they were feasting together. By accepting God’s invitation and obeying it they had become more closely bound to Jesus than his own kin. In fact, they had become his very own family.

There is much more to this incident than the casual reader will notice. Behind the incident lay a revolution. In Jewish circles, much more than elsewhere, a man’s primary obligation was to his family "according to the flesh." To reject one’s duties to his parents was to flout God’s commandment. Why, then, did Jesus do as he did? Because the dawning of God’s Kingdom had produced a new kind of kinship. Those who welcomed this gift became his brothers, and he became their brother. The sign of this new community was common obedience to God’s will, common joy over God’s forgiveness, common freedom from the Devil, a common task in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

As Mark understood this episode, he saw here a clear picture of the Church. He even saw in this story a picture of the early house-churches of Rome, a group of disciples gathered in a house, sitting with Jesus in their presence, listening for him to reveal the will of God, and ready to obey it, regardless of opposition from families, friends, and Pharisees. As Mark saw it, Jesus had promised to every disciple a new family, and through the Church he had fulfilled that promise (see Mark 10:28-30). The Messiah was not a distant king, ruling the world from a distant throne. He had chosen to dwell among simple folk in their home, sharing with them his authority and his love. The only requirement for entering his family was obedience to the God whose work he was doing. God — his Kingdom — his Messiah — the Twelve — the Messiah’s family — such was the line of progression by which the revolution was taking hold of things.

These various snapshots thus give a composite picture of the varying reactions to the dawning of the Kingdom: bitter and deadly hostility by the religious leaders, grudging and fearful respect by the demons, amazed and confused wonder by the crowds, baffled and mistaken concern by brothers and friends, partial acceptance of authority by the Twelve, humble receptiveness and joy by his new family. This same range of reactions is reflected in Mark’s selection of a cycle of parables as an interlude in his drama.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 3". "Layman's Bible Commentary".