April 22, 2012 - Third Sunday of Easter
My aunt has a hard
time understanding what my cousin is up to. For years he taught chemistry at a
top-ranked engineering school in Indiana. He and his family have a good life
there and he is well-regarded. Now he’s leaving that solid, stable position to
move his family to California where he will take a job at a little Christian
university with a mediocre reputation. He’s supposed to start a whole new
chemical department. Reading between the lines, my aunt thinks her son is nuts,
though she keeps saying, to convince herself, that the Lord is leading him.
Jesus’ family wasn’t
even that charitable about His mental state. Mark gives us the dark side of
Jesus’ relationship to His relatives. Matthew and Luke give us positive
glimpses of Mary and Joseph at Jesus’ birth. John lets us see Mary there at the
beginning of Jesus’ ministry and at the Cross. But Mark only gives us the
negative, here and at the beginning of chapter 6. Though Mary’s faith is a
model for us all, though Jesus’ brother James later became a leader of the
church, early on in Jesus’ ministry they had their doubts.
The scene in verse 20
takes us back to chapter two. Jesus is once again at home in Capernaum,
probably back at Peter’s house. There’s another crowd around the place. This
time it’s so large and pushy that it’s not only keeping people from getting in,
it’s keeping Jesus and His followers from getting out to find food. The demand
for Jesus’ teaching and healing is so great that they don’t have any
opportunity to eat.
You can see how a
mother would think it nuts. Her son was working himself to death. He wasn’t
eating, probably not sleeping. People were saying all kinds of things about
Him, especially as Mark tells us, that He was “out of His mind.” Why wouldn’t
she take His brothers along and go, as we’re told in verse 21, to “restrain” or
“take hold” of Him and bring Him home to rest and restore His senses?
When I was in college,
one of my mother’s friends was frantic because her son’s Christian faith
connected him with a fanatical cult. All she wanted to do was go get him and
bring him home to come to his senses. I think you or I might want to do the
same if we felt one of our children had become a wild fanatic. That’s how Mary
For now, that’s all
Mark tells us. Next week in verse 31 we will look at the scene when Mary and
Jesus’ brothers arrive and how He responds. But for the moment Mark leads us in
a different direction, as another group of people show up. Word about Jesus got
around. So there was a delegation of scribes, religious leaders, who came down
from Jerusalem to see what the Jesus thing was all about.
Verse 22 gives us
their conclusion. Jesus is not only out of his mind, but the cause of His
insanity is demon possession. And He’s not just possessed by an ordinary demon.
It’s Beelzebul, “the prince of demons,” who has taken hold of Him. That’s their
explanation for why Jesus is able to exorcise demons. He has the power of the
ruler of demons.
There are really two
accusations here. First, that Jesus is out of His mind because He is demon
possessed, and second, that He is using demonic power in order to do His
miracles. In other words, He is a sorcerer. Later Jewish writers who rejected
Jesus continued that same charge. They couldn’t deny the miracles, with so many
eye-witnesses. So they claimed they weren’t miracles from God, but black magic
coming from the devil.
The name of the prince
of demons here is a conundrum. There’s no place outside this incident in the
New Testament where any spiritual power is named “Beelzebul.” The NIV changes
the name to “Beelzebub,” to identify it with the Philistine God mentioned in II Kings 1, “Baalzebub,” which may mean “lord of the flies.” But it’s really just Beelzeboul,
and we don’t know where the name came from.
In verse 23, though,
Jesus clearly understands Beelzebul to be just another name for Satan. The
prince of demons is the devil himself. And they are accusing Jesus of being in
the possession of Satan, to be working His miracles by the power of Satan.
Jesus’ reply to the
scribes first appeals to their logic. This is a great text for those who might
think that faith is illogical. Jesus appealed to what logicians call the
“principle of non-contradiction.” A statement and its contradiction can’t both
be true. It can’t be that it’s both raining and not raining, in the same place
at the same time. Here and now, it’s either raining or it’s not.
The scribes can’t have
it both ways. “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus asks them. Either Satan is
in charge, or he’s not. If he is in charge, then he would leave his demons
alone. If he’s not, then something else is going on, something more powerful
As Mark says, verses
24 and 25 are two little parables, first about a kingdom, then about a house.
Unity is essential if any force or movement is to succeed. A power that goes to
war with itself will collapse. That’s what the Republican primary is all about.
If a political party stays divided, some supporting one contender and others
another, it has no chance to win an election. Eventually Republicans need to
get together behind one candidate, with everyone endorsing and supporting that
single person. And Democrats can’t suddenly nominate another candidate instead
of Obama. They have to stick together. Anything else is political suicide.
The same thing is true
in the spiritual realm, says Jesus in verse 26. If Satan’s party is divided, if
Satan has “risen up against himself” and is casting out his own demons, then
“he cannot stand, but his end has come.”
When Matthew and Luke
tell this story, Jesus draws the conclusion that the end of Satan’s kingdom
really has arrived. Mark leaves it more subtle, just one more parable in verse
27, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without
first tying up the strong man…” What Jesus means is that, if in fact as
everyone can see, demons are being cast out, then someone has tied up
the strong man, tied up Satan. What they ought to be seeing in Jesus is not the
power of the kingdom of Satan, but as Jesus says explicitly in Matthew and
Luke, the power of the kingdom of God putting down Satan.
As far as I’m
concerned, this text and others like it are a Christian’s answer to any fear we
might have of the spiritual forces of evil. Movies like “The Exorcist” or more
recently, “The Devil Inside” should not cause those who believe in Jesus Christ
even a moment of genuine anxiety. Satan is still plenty strong, as anyone can
tell from reading the headlines or by coming to our conference on human
trafficking, but his power to take over human bodies and souls is absolutely
defeated wherever the name of Jesus is known. Some of our missionary friends
will tell you how they’ve seen that defeat happen before their eyes.
What we might be more
afraid of is the spiritual evil that motivated the scribes, the deadly sin of
jealousy. It’s a powerful force. I’ve been reading a story about a boy who taught
himself performance magic, card tricks and other illusions. He became the star
entertainment for his high school prom, amazing his fellow students with
disappearing milk poured into a paper cone and cutting up a teacher’s necktie
only to “magically” put it back together.
But one of the
students, a bully, hates the performance. He can’t stand the attention that the
nerdy magician is getting. He interrupts the show to try and show how a trick
was done, only to be laughed off the stage. So after the performance, he beats
up and nearly chokes to death the performer, all because the magician had a
skill and popularity which the bully could never hope for.
Something like that
dark envy ate at the scribes as they witnessed the rising popularity of Jesus
and His success in doing what they could not. He cast out demons that drove
people insane and healed them of their diseases. His spiritual power and
popularity far exceeded theirs. Eventually they will get their chance to
physically beat up on Jesus, but for now, in our text, they expressed their
jealousy and frustration in verbal abuse, saying, as we’ve seen, that Jesus was
a real magician, a dark sorcerer possessed by satanic power.
What Jesus says in
verses 28 to 30 points to the real spiritual darkness that is at issue here,
the darkness which is possessing those scribes. They have either fallen to or
on the brink of what we’ve come to call “the unforgivable sin.” That is, their
attitude toward Jesus was dangerously close to putting them outside the
possibility of salvation.
In verse 29, Jesus
tells us that one who “blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have
forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Unfortunately this verse gets
lifted out of its context here and leads to all sorts of speculation about what
is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”
I can remember hearing
about this unforgivable sin for the first time as young boy. In Ephesians 4, Paul warns against “grieving” the Holy Spirit. Is that the same thing? Is some
idle thought or curse that names the Holy Spirit in an irreverent way
blasphemy? Is a joke about the Holy Spirit blasphemy? What if I’ve done it and
don’t know it? Thinking about this can really mess with your head.
And worrying about the
unforgivable sin can be part of a truly messed up head. Sadly I’ve had the
experience of talking a time or two with a mentally ill person who feared he or
she had committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Part of the torment of
their illness was spiritual anxiety that salvation was forever lost.
So we need to look at
the context and especially at Mark’s explanation in verse 30. The reason Jesus warned the scribes about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was because,
“they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” The blasphemy was just this: they
were calling the Spirit inside Jesus, the Spirit by which He was healing and
casting out demons, the Holy Spirit of God—they called that Spirit Beelzebul,
the prince of demons, Satan.
In other words, the
scribes witnessed the very best thing about Jesus, the fact that He was filled
with the Holy Spirit, and they called it the worst. They saw the good power
which was bringing people salvation from illness and the grip of Satan, and
called it an evil power. They were in the presence of the highest good and out
of jealousy and spite they pretended it was the highest evil.
Now they could have been
honestly mistaken. Perhaps some of them changed their minds about Jesus later.
That’s why I said earlier that maybe they were only on the brink of the
unforgivable sin. But if they kept thinking this way, if they came to seriously
believe and maintain and hold onto the conviction that it was evil instead of good
inside Jesus, look where their thinking lands them. Jesus is the way to
salvation. It’s the Holy Spirit who led Him to the Cross to die for our sins so
we could be forgiven. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus who raised Him
from the dead and made Him the way to salvation. If a person denies that power,
how can that person be forgiven, how can that person be saved?
You’ve heard the news
stories about parents convicted for manslaughter here in Oregon when they’ve
let their children die without medical care for infections or other treatable conditions
because they trusted in faith healing. They believed that somehow the good
blessings of medical care and antibiotics were wrong, evil. So their child or
infant was left without the very things which could have saved them.
Blasphemy against the
Holy Spirit is a failure to accept spiritual medicine, the healing of the soul
that the Holy Spirit brings through Jesus Christ. If you won’t accept it, if
you call it evil, then you leave yourself without the very thing that can save
If you’re drowning and
someone throws you a life ring, but you keep saying and believing that it’s
some kind of evil trick, then you will be lost. If you’ve got treatable cancer,
but you believe that all doctors are frauds and only out for your money, then
you will suffer and die. And if you are a sinner lost in your sins, but you
believe that the Spirit of Jesus is some evil demon, then you will be lost
forever in eternal sin.
The unforgivable sin
is not just an isolated, one-time failure. It’s a persistent attitude of
rejecting the very source of salvation. The tense of the verb “to say” in verse
30 is not the perfect “they had said,” but the imperfect “they were saying.”
The problem for the scribes is that they persisted in this identification of
Jesus’ Spirit as a demon. They kept on saying it. And if they kept it
up, and kept believing it, there would never be any possibility of forgiving
them. They were rejecting the very means of forgiveness.
Which means some good
news for us is that it’s pretty hard to commit the unforgivable sin. The old
saying that if you are worried about it you haven’t done it, is absolutely
true. The only way to fall into the pit of blaspheming the Holy Spirit is to
stubbornly, constantly, over the whole course of life reject Jesus as an agent
of evil rather than accepting Him as God’s good gift of salvation.
This unforgivable sin
is not the same as having doubts about Jesus. It’s not the same as sins like
failing to love others, which grieve the Holy Spirit. It’s not about a person
who is struggling to find faith. It’s about the person who deliberately,
intentionally, constantly regards as evil the Spirit who lives in Jesus and in
every believer. It’s only that person who puts himself or herself outside God’s
grace who is unforgivable. Everyone else who trusts in Jesus can and will be
That’s why we ought not
miss the incredible good news hidden in the midst of Jesus’ dire warning to the
scribes. Yes, there’s an unforgivable sin, an unforgivable blasphemy, but by
the grace of God in Jesus Christ, verse 28 tells that every other sin or
blasphemy can be forgiven. The operative Greek word here means “all,” “all
their sins and all the blasphemies they utter,” will be forgiven.
Let’s end our worship
today with a celebration of that incredibly wide forgiveness. I invite you
first to do the hard thing of remembering your sins. Lay them out across the
table of your mind. Maybe pick them up and examine them. Feel how slimy they
are. Imagine how truly disgusting they smell. Try to recall the worst, the
darkest, the sins you’ve never told anyone, the things which bring you shame
years later, the failures which make you feel like you are a failure.
Bring to mind the horrible things you’ve said, maybe to someone you love, maybe
to God. Remember all that, then remember what Jesus said, “Truly I tell you,
people will be forgiven all their sins and all the blasphemies they utter.”
Then let the grace of
Jesus Christ sweep across that ugly table and wipe it clean. Accept and rejoice
in the wideness of His mercy, in the height and depth and width of His complete
forgiveness. And go out today at peace, a child of God, forgivable and
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2012 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj