The Sin Against the Spirit in Mark 3

This bit of light writing was composed in response to an email from a friend. I have left it with that content and format except for a postscript added this afternoon. The question posed was the relationship between blasphemy against the Spirit and all that other business about demons and Beelzebul in Mark 3.

How amazing that your question should concern the binding of the strong man passage! That is precisely the passage we are going to cover in GD this week. Last week we did attitudes of a disciple and attitude of Jesus toward disciples. This week we’ll look at attitudes of anti-disciples and the attitude of Jesus toward anti-disciples.

(Anti-disciples should be distinguished from not-disciples. In Mark, the crowd is something of a group character with its own “personality” and theology. They are the not-disciples; people who are listening, thinking, and in some cases reacting but are neither disciples nor hostile.)

The passage is part of much longer series of stories that record the activities of Jesus and the various responses of those who were around. The whole series leads up to the discourse in chapter 4, in which Jesus will explain why the responses are so varied. Yes, it’s the parable of the sower and other paradoxes of the kingdom!

Narrative Intercalation

The passage you asked about in particular is part of a narrative intercalation, known as a Marcan sandwich “among the vulgar.” (That last is a famous bit of snobbery associated with this feature.) Some folks find a great many of these constructions; others are less impressed. There’s pretty universal agreement on eight instances and this passage is one of them.

The basic idea is an oreo cookie. One story opens and is then broken by the insertion of another story, after which the first story is resolved. The most famous sandwich is probably Jarius’ daughter and the woman with an issue of blood. The first story is Jarius’ request, in Mk 5:21-22. The second story, of the woman with the issue of blood, is vv. 23-34. The third story, the conclusion to the first, is in vv. 35-43.

The point of the construction is to compare and contrast the two stories. So here are two women. One is just entering puberty; the other on the far side. One is dead, the other might as well be so. One exercises her own faith; the other must rely on the faith of another. Jesus should have recoiled from touching either, both because they were women and because they were ritually unclean. But no, the kingdom of God is not stopped by anything. Death, chronic illness, social taboos…. All that has plagued man has no power to stop Jesus or impede his course.

The First Story

Now back to the passage you asked about. The first story is the hostile family members in vv. 20-21; the second is the hostile scribes from Jerusalem in vv. 22-30 and the third story is a return to the family members in vv. 31-35. Both are more than rejections of Jesus; both assert that there is something wrong with him. And one of them is more serious than the other…

OK, here’s the first story:

20 He came home. Again (the) crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. 21 When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

If you’re comparing the AV, the thing that will grab you is the identification of the folks who set out to seize him. The Greek is ambiguous. Technically, it means something like “his associates,” but this would logically point toward the disciples and that is totally not the case. There are, however, places in the non-literary papyri of the era where it means “his kinsmen.” In light of this [meager] evidence and the folks identified as his mother and brothers in the third part of the story, most modern translations identify those who set out as his family.

So his relatives in Nazareth have heard of the goings-on in Capernaum and they set out to retrieve him and restore the family honor. He’s mad, they say. The reader, of course, knows differently, for the reader recalls the prologue and knows that Jesus does what he does with God’s approbation and under the influence of God’s spirit.

The Second Story

Now some narrative time must pass before the family can arrive in Capernaum, so it’s time for another story. And lucky us, here come some scribes. These aren’t scribes who live in the area or who just happened by. Nope, these guys came from Jerusalem for the purpose of confrontation:

22 The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “By the prince of demons he drives out demons.”

There’re two charges there, one of which is key to the business of blasphemy against the Spirit. The first charge is demonic possession; the second is sorcery. We don’t know quite what to make of Beelzebul because although that name gets lots of press later on, it really doesn’t have much of a history in Mark’s time. The bottom line is this: Beelzebul is used by Mark as another name for Satan. This is an important Christological point because exorcisms in the Gospels are conflicts between Jesus and Satan, each of whom represents a different kingdom. Some time must pass before they become a contest between the exorcist and whatever naughty bit of ectoplasm is looking for the gatekeeper.

So now we have a pair of attitudes from folks who are anti-disciples. One group are family members, the other are strangers. Both seek Jesus out because of what they have heard. And both think there’s something wrong with him. But the business with the demons, and particularly the idea of possession, is far more serious.

Anyway. Jesus thinks the idea is stupid and since this is the Second Gospel and he doesn’t have to be pansy-Jesus, he’s quite free to say so. The reader, of course, knows from the prologue that it’s the Spirit who first put Jesus in conflict with Satan (1:12). So now Jesus responds:

23 Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables, “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; that is the end of him. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder his house.

Here the key point is the strong man. That’s Satan. And the news is that since Jesus is running around plundering away, Jesus must be stronger. It’s not that Satan is going to be bound once and for all, but that in every instance of conflict, he will come away the loser. Nothing, nothing except the hearts of men, can stand against the kingdom of God!

The Sin Against the Holy Spirit

And now for the good part! This is a first example of Jesus’ attitude toward anti-disciples:

8 Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.” 30 For they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

The issue in view here is not general sin, but blasphemy. Under the rabbis (post 70 AD), blasphemy was a capital offense and defined as uttering the divine name. This passage apparently distinguishes among blasphemies and does not look at the issue as the rabbis did. In 2:7, blasphemy seems to be appropriating the prerogatives of God to oneself. That also does not seem to be the case here. So apparently blasphemy had some interesting facets that have since been lost.

Since the prologue the reader has known that Jesus enjoys God’s Spirit and his highest approbation. The point, then, is that to say that Jesus works by demon possession is to repudiate the Spirit as the source of his mission and power. So the accusation against Jesus of demonic possession is what makes the unforgivable sin in Mark. This makes rather excellent sense because if Jesus is the person by whom God’s salvation definitively comes and you decide that it’s not God working in Jesus through his Spirit, you’ve really jumped the shark.

OK…all that business of eternal punishment and not forgivable and all that. It’s been stirring people up for years. The tender-hearted decide that it’s them when they do some small, naughty, thing and the theologians go nuts trying to figure out if the punishment is annihilation or conscious suffering forever, or what.

This sin is not a minor, incidental thing. It’s blasphemy. It’s an active, hostile rejection of Jesus as God’s agent of salvation. It ascribes his work to Satan, thereby getting things about as wrong as they can be gotten. Cussing, forgetting to pray, going through a phase in which you don’t go to church, or whatever is not what we’re talking about at all. For all that, however, it is the sternest of warnings. It is clear that you can, indeed, go too far.

Is this sin really irreconcilable in Mark? The last two phrases probably say the same thing, the first in a negative way, the second in a positive expression: “he will never be forgiven” over against “he will always carry his guilt.” R.T. France, who’s pretty good when it comes to Mark, thinks that the whole thing means something like “guilty of a sin with eternal consequences” or “liable to eternal punishment” (France, Mark, 176). The text does not really invite the potential for reconciliation, but it does not rule it out, either (for a contrast, see Heb 6:4-6; 10: 26-27).

My take, and I am in the minority, is that it should be read as reconcilable. The warning, therefore, is that if one persists in putting oneself outside the means by which God redeems people, one cannot expect redemption. If one undergoes the appropriate change of heart, then reconciliation is possible. And of course, there’s no fooling God about one’s sincerity, either.

There’s also no indication of what the punishment might be should that form of blasphemy prove to be irreconcilable, or should you unfortunately persist in your estimate of the source of the power behind’s God agent of salvation. Outer darkness is a [poorly understood] figure of speech in the NT. But for all that, the LDS take on the unforgivable sin does have similarities.

Back to the Third Story

Getting back to the third story, the family who think Jesus is mad. These guys also get Jesus wrong and are anti-disciples, but not so grotesquely, I guess. As it turns out, they also put themselves beyond the group of those enjoying God’s salvation, but since they don’t involve Satan in the experience, their warning is not as stern

31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 32 And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? 34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 35 For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

This is a rather strangely told story, since there’s no real story. We have no idea what his family really thought or what they did other than show up, but we must assume that they were unsuccessful. The attention totally remains on Jesus and he has a few things to say.

What leaps to the reader’s mind is the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Those who are inside are “with him,” which is what disciples are supposed to be (3:14), and are sitting around listening (v. 32, 34). His family is standing outside in more ways than one. They are also beyond the pale in their own way. (This whole INSIDE/OUTSIDE thing get a lot more attention in 4:10-11.)

(Another very unusual thing: the explicit inclusion of sisters among those in Jesus’ real family!)

Now about that business of the “will of God.” That’s a pretty broad criterion. In context, it must be related to what Jesus has been doing. Info on that can be found in the summaries that precede each section. He’s been preaching, healing, and exorcising demons (3:7-12) and in 1:14-15, he’s preaching the kingdom, saying

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

The word translated “gospel” is really “good news.” What’s the good news that must be believed? That the time is fulfilled and the kingdom is at hand! So doing the will of God must mean something like responding appropriately to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. It is this, then, that gets you a place in his family. And if you do not respond appropriately, no other status matters.

And that’s some pretty strong stuff. This is no model for family relationships. The Gospels were written to teach Jesus and how to respond to him, not family relationships. If the ideals of these interactions can be gleaned, that’s great. But this is a place where to take Jesus as an example of how modern folks are supposed to treat their family is an egregious error in reading.


Some time ago Jacob pointed out that I do not explicitly indicate certain important and foundational theological points when I post. Let me do so now.

The three points I have in mind are the love of God, the wrath of God, and the uprightness of God. The love of God is his inherent favorable predisposition toward us. His wrath is the notice that he has limits. His uprightness is his gracious pre-disposition to vindicate us.

Although the term “uprightness” as I have used it is borrowed from Paul, it is implicit in this story. God sent Jesus as the definitive means of salvation. The initiative in God’s action is one sign of the love of God.

Another indication of God’s love is actually wrapped within his wrath. God’s wrath is seen in the limits here prescribed. You can, in fact, go too far. But his love is more apparent, for the ways and means by which one can do so are very limited and clearly described. Here is what Paul had to say on the love of God (Rom 8:39):

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Only we can separate ourselves from the love God and the salvation thereby proffered!

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