The Pharisees charge Jesus with being demon-possessed, a tool of Satan (Mk 3:22). Mark doesn’t tell us what prompted this confrontation. The Lord left that up to Matthew, who tells us Jesus had just conducted an exorcism on a demoniac, who was blind and could not speak.
And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” (Mt 12:22)
Why did Mark not give us this background? Each writer has his own reasons for omitting or including certain excerpts. Mark isn’t interested in providing full context. His emphasis is on Jesus’ increasing isolation as the opposition against Him grows at a rapid-fire pace.
- At first, scribes were simply taken aback at His claims, and wondered in their hearts how Jesus could presume to forgive sins (Mk 2:6-7).
- Then, they were astonished that Jesus associated with “worldly” Jews, and did not restrict His teaching to the “righteous” in Israel (Mk 2:15-17).
- To make matters worse, Jesus did not require His disciples to observe extra-biblical, ritual fasts (Mk 2:18).
- But, perhaps the final straw was when Jesus simply dismissed the rabbinic tradition about the Sabbath. Never one for subtlety, He proclaimed, “the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath!” (Mk 2:28).
- Now that the battle-lines had been drawn, the Pharisees hatched a plan. They either deliberately planted or “providentially” discovered a crippled man in the Capernaum synagogue, and waited for Jesus to violate another Sabbath tradition. Jesus doubled down on this wickedness, invited the crippled man to the center of the synagogue, and healed him in the most public way possible. “The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mk 3:6).
- Jesus then withdraws, beating a tactical retreat to a more secluded region around the Sea of Galilee. However, He is followed and hounded by crowds of pilgrims, both Jew and Gentile, from all over. The crowd doesn’t care about His preaching or teaching; they simply want physical healing. Only the demons give Christ the glory, and He immediately silences them (Mk 3:7-12).
- He retreats into the hills, and appoints His twelve apostles. They will be with Him, learn from Him, and go forth to preach the Good News of the Kingdom, and to cast out demons (Mk 3:13-19).
This is the sad chronology Mark gives us. It’s sad because we see Jesus, harried, misunderstood and persecuted. It will only get worse. Our passage here opens with His own family1 believing He’d become unhinged. Indeed, it is difficult to see how things could get worse for Christ. They did.
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mk 3:22).
We don’t know exactly why these scribes come down from Jerusalem. Most likely, they are on an official fact-finding mission.2 The time for polite inquiry, for the cat playing with the mouse, has passed.3 They respond quickly when they see Jesus heal the demoniac, cast the demon from him, and restore to him the ability to speak and see. It was miraculous, they admitted. Of course it was! But, this Nazarene is casting out demons by the power of Satan, not God!
This is not a one-time event. They are spreading this rumor abroad, in the streets, marketplaces and probably in the synagogue. They’re repeating it over and over.4 They are motivated by jealousy.5 This was a popular slander against Christ (cf. Jn 7:20; 8:48; 8:52; 10:20), and these men will likely spread the rumor in Jerusalem when they return. Word reaches Jesus’ ears quickly. He must respond.
Jesus Binds the Strong Man
And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house.” (Mk 3:23-27)
Jesus of Nazareth, not Abraham Lincoln, coined this famous phrase. His logic is ironclad, and makes these proud scribes look like fools:
- He begins with a simple principle — no kingdom can fight against itself and survive. Therefore, how on earth can Satan be casting out Satan!?
- By their own logic, Satan is destroying himself, and is at an end!
Now, comes the heart of the matter:
- Nobody can enter a strong man’s house to steal his property, unless he first overpowers and binds the strong man up.
- Then, he can plunder the house and carry off anything he pleases.
The implications are clear.
- Jesus is not one of Satan’s creatures; He does His Father’s will.
- Jesus is more powerful than Satan.
This world is Satan’s home. Jesus has entered this world, overpowered Satan and bound him up. Satan’s goods are his slaves; sinners who are kept in chains, in the darkness of sin and damnation. Jesus is plundering Satan’s goods, and rescuing sinners from themselves.6
What force, except a truly divine and heavenly force, can combat the “prince of the power of the air” and defeat him so completely, so definitively, and so decisively? It is the power of God, wrought by the Spirit of God, through the Son of God. Once again, Matthew provides the key insight for us; “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt 12:28).
Satan has met his match, and that match is his own creator, Jesus, the Son of God. No wonder Jesus rejoices in the Spirit when the 70 return, and give their triumphant report. He exclaimed, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven!” (Lk 10:17). Satan has been bound, he has been defeated — and what does all this mean? It means the Kingdom of God is here, and Jesus is proclaiming it. God has broken into this dark world, and the Gospel light is shining forth to all who have ears to hear.
These Pharisees do not have ears to hear.
The Unpardonable Sin
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mk 3:28-30)
The Pharisees have deliberately impugned the holiness and goodness of the Holy Spirit. Jesus healed the demoniac by the power of the Spirit, who anointed Him for service at His baptism. These Pharisees know the Tanakh, yet they stubbornly lead the people astray by spreading rumors that the Spirit is, in fact, Satan. They will never have forgiveness because they know the truth, yet reject it with prejudice. The “unpardonable sin” is, in fact,7
- knowing the truth about Jesus and the Kingdom He offered,
- deliberately rejecting this truth about Jesus and the Kingdom,
- and publicly lying by attributing the Spirit’s work through Jesus to Satan,
- therefore committing deliberate blasphemy, with intent to lead people astray
This is not a teaching passage about the Trinity. Yet, by briefly tracing these events, we can draw some implicit conclusions:
- Jesus is fully divine; He has complete power and mastery over Satan. He has bound him, and is plundering his goods even now.
- Jesus is distinct from the Father in heaven. The Father has not bound Satan; the Son has.
- Jesus is distinct from the Spirit. Jesus doesn’t have an “unclean spirit.” He has the Holy Spirit.
- The Spirit is a Personal being; He can be lied to and blasphemed against. He acts in conjunction with the Son, and they are both distinct from the Father.
In light of these facts, it is truly astounding that the eternal Son of God, the creator of heaven and earth, is not ashamed to call His children “brethren” (Heb 2:11). This is the Lord and Savior, who said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mk 3:34-35).
We nevertheless believe and teach that the same infinite, one, and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: so, as the Father has begotten the Son from eternity, the Son is begotten in an unspeakable manner; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both, and that from eternity, and is to be worshiped with them both. So that there are not three Gods, but three persons, consubstantial, coeternal, and coequal; distinct, as touching their persons; and, in order, one going before another, yet without any inequality. For, as touching their nature or essence, they are so joined together that they are but one God; and the divine essence is common to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.8
1 There is a scholarly discussion about who these people are. Traditionally, it has been understood to be Jesus’ friends or family. The Greek reads “those from/beside Him” (οἱ παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ). The idea of “family” seems to be the best understanding. See C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: CUP, 1959), 53. However, it really doesn’t matter for my purposes here.
2 See especially William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 141.
3 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 121.
4 The verb is imperfect (ἔλεγον), and the context strongly suggests an iterative flavor.
5 William Hendriksen remarked, “The scribes are not going to allow the people to remain thoroughly amazed, even to the point of entertaining messianic notions with respect to Jesus,” (The Gospel of Mark, in NTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 134-135).
6 It is always dangerous to look for complete correspondence in Jesus parables. As one author wrote, “the concern is in the analogy, not the correspondences,” (Klyne Snodgrass, “Preaching Jesus’ Parables,” in Preaching the New Testament, ed. Ian Paul & David Wenham [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013], 52). However, I feel comfortable enough going out on a limb and identifying the obvious correspondences in this account!
7 See especially Lane (Mark, 144-146) and Hendriksen (Mark, 138-140). I am convinced this truth behind the “unpardonable sin” is really not difficult, if you read the text. It has become difficult, through the varied interpretations of some commentators. It really isn’t difficult.
8 From The Second Helvetic Confession, Article 3.