In 1858 Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most important speeches of his career, his “house divided” speech.1 Quoting Jesus’ words in Mark 3, Lincoln was drawing a line in the sand. He was saying that America could not continue to be half-free and half-slave. At some point the house would no longer be divided; its loyalty would go one way or the other.
Mark has already described Jesus’ clashes with the scribes and Pharisees, those experts of an earth-bound religion. In Mark 3 the division between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man comes into sharper focus as Jesus begins to draw crowds, call kingdom officers, and identify the primary mark of those who are members of his kingdom. Mark is using these narratives to help us hear Jesus ask vital questions. On which side are you? Are you part of the crowd or are you a disciple? Is Jesus just a good man or is he your Lord?
Jesus Draws a Crowd (3:7–12)
After clashing with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus withdrew with His disciples and began attracting a great multitude (3:7). Already His promise from the previous chapter is ringing true: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (2:17). When Jesus leaves Capernaum it’s as if He is saying, “The religious people here are already righteous, in their own eyes at least. But my message will resonate with real sinners.” Before long, sinners began following Jesus in droves! Reports of Jesus’ miraculous works and message of restoration spread rapidly among the physically needy and spiritually underfed sheep of Israel.
Before long, however, the large crowd, with the energy of an agitated sea, began to take on a life of its own. Sometimes we imagine Jesus calmly and casually walking through swaying meadows, dispensing truth to disciplined students who hung on His every word. In reality this scene was chaotic! People in the unwieldy crowd bumped against Jesus, probably stepping on His feet, and interrupting His speech with their questions and requests; the noise must have been tremendous (3:9; cf. v. 20). To avoid being crushed, Jesus asked His disciples to keep a small boat just off shore as an emergency exit from the crowds.
Does this scene remind you of anyone you know, maybe YOU? Ever feel like your life is a transition from one chaotic scene to the next? Never forget: “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). As a sympathetic high priest Jesus can relate even to being pulled in a hundred directions at once. He is the Savior of the stressed-out, the beat-up, and the overworked. Jesus can rightly call the weary to Himself because he experienced intense weariness securing our redemption.
From the vortex of this swirling mass of humanity Jesus steadily ministers to one broken life after another, healing both the physically afflicted and the spiritually possessed. Mark tells us that the unclean spirits “fell down before [Jesus] and cried out, saying, ‘You are the Son of God’” (3:11). So saying, the unclean spirits pronounce one of the clearest confessions of the deity of Christ in Mark’s Gospel so far. Curiously, in response, Jesus “sternly warned them that they should not make him known” (v. 12). It’s hard for us to understand this, but Jesus is not desperate for publicity. The contemporary church is plagued with the false notion that ministry happens by publicizing Jesus—no qualifications needed. But in truth, Jesus is looking to be promoted by men and women who love him and seek to honor Him, not by demons who want to destroy Him or, as the case often is today, by crass mass marketers. Jesus is drawing a line in the sand. He’s saying, “Those who love me may and must confess me. Everyone else should keep quiet.”
It’s no surprise that after this chaotic scene, Jesus retreats to a more peaceful setting. Our Savior willingly shouldered massive burdens, but He also respected His humanity by engaging pressure with wisdom. According to Luke 6:12–16, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray. In fact, “all night he continued in prayer to God.” Jesus combatted pressure by communing with His heavenly Father. Sometimes we get so busy that we fall out of regular fellowship with God and with His people. Instead, we need to get in the habit of turning to God in prayer exactly when the pressures are mounting. When we think we’re too busy to pray, we’re too busy not to pray. We also need to be wise about our limits. Jesus experienced the temptation of busyness without sinning. But like Him we are tempted to be people-pleasers instead of God-pleasers. We are tempted to focus on output and performance rather than on the overall well-being of ourselves and our families. Too often we are energized by visions of our glory, not God’s. This same Jesus is still praying for the weary. We must take the time to seek help from our praying high priest.2
After a night of prayer, Jesus continued to build His kingdom by calling kingdom officers, also known as disciples.
Jesus Calls His Disciples (3:13–19)
The calling of the disciples needs to be understood within the motif of the kingdom. Jesus is appointing officers of that structural manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth, the church. He, therefore, appoints twelve “as a symbol of the fact that he was building the ‘new Israel’ out of the old.”3 By way of anticipation and application, church elders today—despite their many limitations—are not just board members, they are kingdom leaders. God’s officers, ancient and contemporary, are—believe it or not—the ones “he himself wanted” (3:13). Many of the disciples had serious character flaws, and one of those whom He chose was a reprobate, Judas. What a demonstration of the sovereign providence of God! He is building His kingdom in ways that are so far above ours. Christ handpicked the man who would betray Him to death. God is fully in charge of everything, even those means by which evil comes (cf. Amos 3:6). Only when we come to peace with God’s absolute sovereignty will we be able to rest in His decisions and begin to live a contented life, whether we are called to lead or to follow.
Purpose of the Calling
Mark identifies three reasons why Jesus chose these first kingdom leaders. First, Jesus called disciples “to be with him” (v. 12), a decision that certainly casts light on His authentic humanity. In the words of an ancient hymnist, Jesus is “of th’ eternal Father true and only Son | Manhood to deliver, manhood didst put on.” Manhood flourishes in community. As a real man Jesus had a need for companionship, just as He had a need for food. Jesus, therefore, called twelve friends (John 15:15) to be with him, and He drew three of the twelve (Peter, James, and John) into His inner circle. We too need to genuinely share life with others who can encourage and energize us, people to whom we reach out and upon whom we can learn to depend.4
But, spending time with these twelve was also integral to Jesus’ plan for training His kingdom leaders. Is it possible that we sometimes miss Jesus’ simple approach to discipleship? Discipleship is less a system by which we train ourselves to be spiritual, and more about genuine fellowship with Jesus. Christ promises to always be with his people (Matt. 28:20), and there are various ways in which we experience His presence. But, all of our fellowship experiences are informed and fueled through personal, family, and especially corporate worship. The more we commune with Jesus in true worship, the more evident it will be that we have been with Him (see Acts 4:13). Going through religious motions never conformed anyone to Christ; being with Him through believing fellowship always does.
Second, Jesus called disciples to send them out to preach.5 While the twelve disciples were kingdom heralds in a unique and unrepeatable way, their preaching ministry at least hints at one of the basic reasons God still draws followers, namely, to broadcast His fame. As Jesus will make plain (6:19), housewives, factory workers, students, as well as preachers, have an unshakable calling to tell others what God has done for them in Christ. If you are a disciple of Jesus and truly know whom you have believed (2 Tim. 1:12), the purpose of your life is to point others to the singular beauty of the Savior.
Third, Jesus called disciples to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons. The disciples’ healing ministry was the sign that God had indeed bound the strong man Satan and was plundering his house (3:27), and a seal that God had anointed His disciples as His ambassadors. In this sense the apostles occupy a unique position in the history of God’s redemption. Paul speaks of “signs, wonders and mighty deeds” as “signs of the apostles” (2 Cor. 12:12). Still, apostles do model for us the important role all God’s children play as channels of His mercy. Every believer can think creatively about how to demonstrate God’s care for both body and soul. In the words of Jesus, we can all offer a cup of cold water in His name (Matt. 10:42).
Jesus couldn’t have called his disciples at a better time, because in the next passage, He is sharply attacked.
Jesus Endures Hostility (3:20–30)
The attack against Jesus comes in two waves. First, His family came to retrieve Him believing Him to be out of His mind (v. 21). In their unrepentant and unconverted state (John 7:5) they thought that He was a religious fanatic. He wasn’t eating (Mark 3:20) or sleeping well. Instead He had thrown himself into preaching and healing the multitudes. “Had he,” they wondered, “in his religious zeal thrown away his mind?”
Most people will tolerate a little religion, but as soon as your religious convictions start to be the dominant drive in your life, people get uncomfortable. This is a method Satan uses to keep Christians ineffective. He says, “Don’t allow your faith to determine how you engage mass media, or which school you will go to, or which friends you will keep, or who you will marry.” The apostle Paul had one of the sharpest minds in the ancient world, yet he admitted that from a worldly point of view he was out of his mind for the sake of God (2 Cor. 5:13 NIV). Christians must be thinkers; we don’t throw away our brains when we become believers. But we should take it as a compliment when people think we are out of our minds in our pursuit of godliness.
Second, the scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by an evil spirit. Notice here that the scribes have changed their approach. In the previous chapter each of their accusations were at least grammatically cloaked as questions. This time the cloak is removed and they directly charge Him with being a demoniac. They insist that His powers came from below, not from above.
Jesus responds to this accusation in three ways. He first says that a house divided cannot stand (vv. 23-26). In a sense, Jesus is mocking the logic of the scribes. He’s saying, “If I’m casting out demons by a demon then I am self-destructing.” Jesus’ power clearly did not come from the devil. Second, Jesus says that the only way He could cast out demons is if He had bound the prince of demons, the devil. The Bible teaches that Jesus came to bind the devil. Satan does not have free reign in this world. We shouldn’t ascribe too much power to him. Third, He warns them against committing the unpardonable sin. They were calling the Spirit of Jesus evil; sinning against the Spirit. There are several opinions about what the unpardonable sin is, but it is safe to say that the unpardonable sin is a continuous resistance of the Holy Spirit’s ministry.
Jesus is drawing a line in the sand: “In which kingdom are you: the kingdom of the bound strong man or the kingdom of the one who bound him? Will you resist the Holy Spirit or submit to him?”
Jesus’ True Family (3:31–35)
In this last narrative Jesus continues drawing a line between those who are for Him and those who are against Him. He uses an event involving His own biological family to illustrate this amazing truth: In building a kingdom, God is also growing a family. Christ’s brothers, sisters, and mothers are those who pledge allegiance to the God of Scripture. They “love the Lord, [have a] heartfelt desire to serve Him according to His Word, to forsake the world, to mortify [their] old nature, and to lead a godly life.”6
Don’t overlook the fact that Jesus begins His teaching on the nature of the family of God by asking a question: “Who is my mother, or my brothers?” (v. 34). Questions are meant to challenge assumptions and promote thoughtful evaluation. The Reformed confessions list marks of Christians which help to identify true Christians. We are to use these marks to examine and test ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5), but to do so in light of the grace of God as He comforts us in our weaknesses. The mark of obedience “is not to be understood as if there did not remain in [Christians] great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in him.”7 When Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom He did not say, “The kingdom of God is at hand, therefore keep all God’s laws perfectly, and you will be a member of this kingdom.” Instead, he said, “Repent and believe.” Christ is the believer’s only hope, in seasons of success and in seasons that call for repentance.
Jesus’ promotion of a new family of God also has implications for our fellowship. Those in Christ form a new family, complete with both blessings and responsibilities.8 In the church believers treat older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters (1 Tim. 5:1–2). Believers have no lasting ties to anyone who isn’t united to Christ by a living faith. At the same time, Jesus doesn’t undermine the importance of the nuclear family, regardless of the faith commitments of its members. Mark is not suggesting that Jesus ignored his family or disowned them. Cults teach that your church is your only family. Jesus is more balanced. Paul goes so far as to say that one who does not provide for his household “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
In this chapter Mark highlights three opinions of Jesus. Some thought He was out of His mind. Others said he was demon possessed. Ironically, the unclean spirits got it right: “You are the Son of God!” C. S. Lewis has masterfully and famously explained that these are the only three options regarding who Jesus is. People want to say that Jesus was simply a good moral teacher. But He didn’t claim to be only a good moral teacher. He claimed to bring a kingdom that required repentance and faith. He believed that His life and ministry would change the world. If He was not really God, then He was out of his mind. The fact that Jesus claimed to be God means—if He really wasn’t—that Jesus was no good moral teacher but a liar and a demon.9
Do not waver between two opinions. Jesus is Lord. Submit to his lordship today and cross that line from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his light.
Chapter 5 1. June 16, 1858. 2. See Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 116. 3. Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 41. 4. See Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 57–67. 5. The preaching and healing ministry of the disciples will be considered in greater depth in connection with Mark 6 (vv. 12–13) and 9 (vv. 28–29). 6. Answer to question three of the Form for the Public Profession of Faith, Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, 1959), 88. 7. Belgic Confession, Article 29. 8. See William Boekestein, “Christian Community: Seeking Contentment without Complacency,” Evangelical Times, June 2013, 13. 9. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Collins, 1952), 54–56.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Jesus is far more than our moral example. But is there any way in which we must emulate Christ’s withdrawing from the crowds (Mark 3:7; cf. 1 Cor. 11:1)? 2. How do Christ’s actions in Mark 3:9–10 warrant your worship? 3. What comfort can be derived from the fact that, regarding the disciples, Jesus “called to Him those He Himself wanted” (Mark 3:13)? 4. How are you comforted by Jesus’ power over sickness and demons (Mark 3:15)? 5. The disciples were sent out to preach (Mark 3:14). What might that fact mean for those who are called to listen? 6. What does Jesus’ concern for the physical welfare of those to whom His disciples preached mean for us today? 7. How should Jesus’ claim to have bound Satan (Mark 3:27) affect our outlook on life? 8. In what ways could you and your group, as members of Christ’s church, function more like a family? 9. Are there ways in which a church should not resemble a family?