Having chosen his twelve, Jesus resumes his ministry in Galilee, and he finds both popularity and opposition. He is so popular that people crowd him in such a way that Jesus and his disciples are not able to “eat bread,” that is, to eat anything. At the same time opposition intensifies with accusations of demon possession from Jerusalem authorities.
His popularity alarms his family and friends. This concern bookends this pericope in Mark. In Mark 3:20-21 “those who are close to him” (NIV says “his family”) heard about how the crowds were hindering his own self-care and they concluded that he was “out of his mind” or “he is beside himself” (literally, “he is not himself”). At the end of the pericope in Mark 3:31-35 Jesus’ family (“mother and brothers”) arrive. Perhaps these two groups are the same (as the NIV translation wants us to think) but they may have been two different groups or connected groups. Perhaps the first group alerted the family and the family came to help with the situation. It is difficult to know with any certainity.
However we read it, some believed that Jesus was out of control. His popularity was too much. They thought, we might presume, that they needed to extract Jesus from the situation. Perhaps Jesus’ family shows up to take him home and end the circus. They attempt an intervention–they came to “master” or “seize” him. But they can’t get to him because of the crowds.
But they misread what Jesus is doing. They fail to see the prophetic mantle Jesus assumed at his baptism to herald the kingdom of God and gather a new community in which God will reign. Jesus has just assembled his twelve and Jesus has just begun discipling them. The crowds are overwhelming but the mission is important. The family does not see the momentous moment in which Jesus is engaged.
This is the context in which we should hear Jesus’ question, “Who are my mother and brothers?” (3:33). Jesus raises questions of priorities and relationships. In answer, Jesus looks at those seated around him–perhaps the twelve, but perhaps including more as “sisters” are included in 3:35–and says, “Here are my mother and sister and brother.” Something has shifted. His baptism and mission have changed how he views life. We need not think that he here rejects his physical mother and brothers. Instead, he acknowledges that there is something more important than blood lines in the kingdom of God. The community of disciples dedicated to do the will of God is more important; it is his “new” family–mother, brothers and sisters. The kingdom of God establishes new “blood” lines for disciples; it is a new community.
Between these bookends regarding Jesus’ ministry lies another inclusio or bookend. In both Mark 3:22 and Mark 3:30, Jesus is accused of demon possession. Teachers of the law from Jerusalem make the accusaion. Jesus has attracted crowds from Judea and Jerusalem (Mark 3:8) and this has apparently raised eyebrows among the leaders in Jerusalem. It seems likely that the Sanhedrian (the ruling Jewish Council in Jerusalem) sent an investigative committee to Galilee to confront Jesus.
The accusation is radical, and it needs to be. Jesus has been exorcizing demons; he has been demonstrating authority over the demons (and he intends to give that same authority to the Twelve). Such authority announces the reign of God in the ministry of Jesus. If the Jerusalem leaders are going to oppose Jesus they must explain this ability, and they have an explanation.
They accuse Jesus of casing out demons by the power of Beelzebul who is the ruler of the demons. [Some texts read Beelzebub, meaning "lord of flith/flies," but the best texts read "Beelzebul," meaning "lord of heaven."]. Beel is a Greek from of Baal, the infamous Cannanite god in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus, then, is associated with Baal–the very idolatry that led to the exile of Israel and Judah. In the minds of the Jerusalem investigators, Jesus is praticing Satanic magic. This lived on within the Jewish community for centuries (and was part of pagan anti-Christian polemics as well). The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a [Baraitha]) states: “Yeshu of Nazareth was hanged on the day of prepartion for the Passover becaue he practiced sorcercy and led the people astray” (as quoted by William Lane in his commentary on Mark, p. 142, note 88). The accusation, then, assumes Jesus is an idolater, sorcerer, and demon-possessed. Perhaps he learned his magic while he was in Egypt, so the pagan responses to Christianity claimed. It seems likely that this story remains within the Gospel narratives as a response to such polemics.
Jesus responds in two ways. First, he answers the accusation (3:23-27). Second, he warns his accusers (3:28-29).
“How can Satan drive out Satan?,” Jesus retorts. Jesus identifies Beelzebul with Satan–humanity’s chief accuser. If Jesus works for the kingdom of Satan, then Satan’s strategy is misguided. Who divides their own kingdom? Who divides their own house? If Jesus is working for Satan, then Satan’s stragety is self-defeating.
However, the accusers are right on one count, Jesus says. The end has come upon Satan, but not for the reasons they think. If they are right, Satan defeats himself and his end has arrived. But Jesus, while agreeing that his end has come, explains the “how” differently. What is happening is that the kingdom of God is breaking into the kingdom of Satan; the reign of God is defeating the reign of Satan. Jesus has come to bind Satan so that he might despoil Satan’s house. The strong man is going down and the reign of God is taking over. Just as Jesus’ family misread his ministry, so had the Jerusalem leaders.
Jesus’ ire has been raised. He gives the leaders a warning. Jesus prefaces his warning with his own self-affirming “Amen!” This marks his language with solemnity and certainty. In other words, heed this warning: God forgives all sorts of sins and blasphemies against humanity but he does not forgive the eternal sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (that is, against God).
Before assesing the meaning of this warning, several items are notable. First, Jesus identifies his work in exorcism as the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus speaks and acts against demons by the power of the Holy Spirit. Second, “unforgiveable sin” is not a new idea within Judaism. Blaspheming the name of God was regarded as unforgiveable (cf. Lane p. 145). Jesus essentially equates the identification of his work with the work of Satan as a form of blaspheming the name of God (e.g., blaspheming the Holy Spirit).
Contextually, it seems clear that Jesus specifically identifies blasphemy with the leader’s accusation, that is, when we say that the words and works of Jesus are the words and works of Satan. This is a posture that rejects Jesus. Instead of confessing Jesus as the “Son of God” (as the Father announced and the demons confirmed within the gospel up to this point), the leaders accuse Jesus as a son of Satan. This is blasphemy.
At one level Jesus may be saying, “You leaders believe in unforgiveable sins, don’t you? You think I am doing one now myself! Let me tell you, if any sin is unforgiveable, it is the one which you have just committed!” In this sense, perhaps Jesus is not actually saying there is an unforgiveable sin as much as he is turning the tables on his accusers.
On the other hand, if Jesus actually does affirm an “unforgiveable sin” here it is one that arises out of firm and settled rejection of Jesus. It is not some inadvertant remark about the Spirit, or one’s unbelief at some point in their life, or a willful sin in their past. Rather, it is a persistent rejection of Jesus as the herald of the kingdom of God. It is to identify the work of the kingdom of God with the work of Satan. Jesus’ langauge, I think, focuses on the present act of rejection–whoever blasphemes commits an eternal sin. As long as anyone continues in that rejection, their condemnation continues.
Anyone who worries about whether they have committed this sin misses the point. If this is a worry, then it is not the kind of heart Jesus is describing here. The heart that blasphemes the Holy Spirit is the heart that does not worry about whether they have done so our not; they have rejected Jesus.
The ministry of Jesus is the ministry of the kingdom of God. Jesus gathes a new community–a new family of “brothers and sisters.” This new community is the reign of God in the world. That reign, even now, is breaking into Satan’s house to despoil it and defeat it. As the kingdom of God progresses, the kingdom of Satan comes to its end. As disciples of Jesus, we live among brothers and sisters who bear witness by our life, words and acts to the defeat of Satan’s kingdom.