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Not Coming to Jesus for Salvation Is Unforgivable -- a study of Mark 3:20-30

If you oppose Me, you are standing in the way of the kingdom of God.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 3:20-30

This passage often turns into a rabbit hole of "the unforgivable sin". Sadly, that's missing Jesus' far more important point of what God will forgive -- namely, everything else. (And that Jesus will give you a family if your own family rejects you.) Believing that Jesus is in league with Satan and not God means that you will never go to Him for salvation. Big mistake.

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. (3:24)

Lesson Flashback

We studied this passage in 2019:

Here's what you find in that post:

  • The power of organization

  • What is an ad hominem attack?

  • A "house divided" (fun example -- UGA grad marries a GA Tech grad; serious example -- what's happening in the UMC)

  • Overview of the Jewish political parties

  • A Harmony of the Gospels

If any of those topics sound interesting to you, please take a look at that post!

Getting Started: Things to Think About

When Someone Is Radically Changed by Jesus

Both my wife and I became Christian a little later in life, and we both have similar experiences. After we became Christian, our friends, co-workers, and even family members really didn't know what to do with us. We were noticeably different people than we were before. Shelly's mom thought she had joined some kind of cult. It created some strange dynamics in our lives until we more-or-less "started over" by moving to another city and starting seminary.

Likewise (sorta), Jesus' family really didn't know what to do with Him. They didn't know who He truly was. (Even if Mary believed He was the Messiah, she probably had the wrong idea of what that meant.) He was just "older brother" who was behaving very strangely. They needed to intervene to protect Him from His own irrational impulses.

Do you have any personal stories about family or friends trying to intervene in a new Christian's life because they couldn't understand that person's behavior?

One of my favorite such stories is about a friend who became a Christian and sold his car in order to give a poor person the money. His mom came very close to intervening, but she said "no, he's got to learn this lesson for himself".

How about you? What's your experience?

How the Underdog Wins the Big Game

I'm still workshopping this discussion idea, but I'm out of time, so here's a half-baked idea. In this week's passage, Jesus tells the odd parable about the strong man's house. On the surface, the subject seems to be the best way to rob someone. I'd rather not know if someone in your group had really good ideas on the best ways to rob someone, so how about taking one of these approaches:

  • Have you ever been a part of a team that was a serious underdog? What strategies did you use to try to help you win the game? Of course, that depends on the sport, but the one that comes to mind (that's applicable to this week's passage) is the double-team and triple-team -- the idea is that you do everything you can to neutralize the other team's best player. And there are comparable strategies in pretty much every sport.

  • Are you in a cutthroat business/industry? What strategies do you use to make or gain market share? From what I can tell, you try to (1) neutralize your competitor's biggest advantages, and (2) maximize your own competitive advantages. When you boil it down, that's kinda like "tying up the strong man". [If you don't think your group will need any help understanding the main point Jesus is illustrating with this parable, then don't worry about these suggestions.]

And don't worry -- that idea will make sense in context!

The Soul-Crushing "Own Goal" vs. Match-Fixing

Yesterday, England defender Harry Maguire scored an "own goal" in a match between England and Scotland (soccer/football), and it inspired people to make videos harassing him for all of the times he has done that over the years. They're all inappropriate to show in a Bible study because they inevitably include at least one vulgar fan comment. Fans seem to lose their minds (in vulgar and obscene ways) when talking about own goals.

If you are a fan of a team, what's your memory of a mistake that cost your team a victory? It's probably something utterly catastrophic, like an own goal. "Own goals" don't happen very often in American football, but they're memorable. It's a little more common in basketball, and equally memorable. When your team does something that helps the other team, it's tough to deal with.

But those things are mistakes. Errors. If they were done intentionally, they go into another category.

Point-shaving/match-fixing scandals cut to the heart of competitive athletics. Baseball fans still talk about the Black Sox scandal from 1919. Every decade or so, there was an example of players getting paid by a gambler to "fix" the outcome of a game. (It sounds like technology had made that almost impossible to do today.) Those players don't just "on a whim" decide they want to help the opposing team win. They are incentivized to do so.

In a very, very, very roundabout way, that's what Jesus is trying to explain to the Jewish leaders. "If you're going to accuse Me of using Satan's power to exorcise Satan's demon, then it's either a mistake on Satan's part (unlikely), or it's an intentional own goal. What incentive does Satan have do to that? Who's paying Satan off to throw his own match?"


Where We Are in the Gospel of Mark

In chapter 1, Mark establishes the principals -- Jesus and the first disciples (particularly Peter). He also focuses on early stories of Jesus driving out evil spirits and healing diseases. And as we studied last week, Mark also introduces Jesus' mission to preach His message to all of the towns of the region. But what is that message?

In chapter 2, Mark shares some early stories from Jesus' ministry that begin to hint at the bigger picture. He talks about the paralyzed man that Jesus healed and also forgave his sins. He talks about the calling Matthew the tax collector and Jesus spending time with sinners. And he also introduces the Sabbath controversies -- Jesus is not beholden to the Pharisees' regulations. In fact, Jesus seems to be teaching them the true purpose of God's law.

That brings us to chapter 3 where we see that large crowds are already following Jesus. (I'm telling you, Mark isn't messing around.) Jesus "officially" appoints the Twelve Disciples, and Mark uses this to clearly identify the kind of opposition Jesus faces.


This Week's "Big Idea": Jesus' Family

To me, the fact that Jesus' dealt with family drama makes Him even more relatable and understandable. Most importantly, He gives us proof that you can handle family drama without falling into sin.

Use the topic of "family" as much as you are comfortable. You probably have people in your group who have great stories about "family" that are humorous and uplifting and might be very useful to setting the tone for this lesson. Just be sensitive. "Family drama" hits different families in different ways at different times.

But that's not my point right now.

What do we know about Jesus' family?

Mark 3:31 specifically refers to "Jesus' mother and brothers". They were the ones who were coming to "take charge of Him".

  • Jesus' mother is, of course, Mary. But why is she coming to stop Jesus? How can she think He is out of His mind?! Remember that Mary wasn't perfect. The angel told her that her Son would be "great" and would save God's people. But she might have had the same misconceptions that we talked about the past two weeks -- God's people didn't understand what it meant to be God's Messiah. Mary must have spent a lot of time being conflicted about her relationship with her baby boy.

  • No mention of Jesus' father, Joseph. To be frank, this is why I believe Joseph is dead. After the episode with Jesus the 12-yr-old, we never hear about Joseph again.

  • Mark later shares some more info about Jesus' brothers: "3 Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?” We assume that Jesus had just the four (half-)brothers. We don't know how many (half-)sisters He had.

Key information -- we have no evidence of Jesus' blood relatives believing in Him during His earthly ministry. But we have these two verses:

1 Cor 15:3 For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me.

The very earliest records we have from the church fathers all say that this "James" is Jesus' half-brother James. That would explain why he is listed separate from the Twelve.

Acts 1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they arrived, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 They all were continually united in prayer, along with the women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

So, the common understanding is that after His resurrection, He appeared to His earthly family (specifically James), and that is when they came to believe in Him. Most conservative biblical scholars believe that James went on to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem (the James mentioned in Acts 15). They believe that 1 Corinthians 9:5 confirms that Jesus' half-brothers went on to become important leaders in the church. They also believe that the New Testament books known as "James" and "Jude" were written by Jesus' half-brothers James and Judas.

Nutshell: Jesus' earthly family did not believe in Him until after His resurrection. Challenge?

Bonus Big Idea: A Harmony of the Gospels

I've talked about a "Harmony of the Gospels" many times in our other Gospel studies, and I really haven't done that yet this quarter.

When we read the four Gospels, we notice many similarities (sometimes exact duplicates of passages) and a few differences. Scholars have broken down the Gospels into all of the separate stories (i.e., things Jesus did, things Jesus taught, etc.; the technical word for a story/passage in a Gospel is a "pericopes"). Then, they "line them up" between the different Gospels -- which ones are recounting the same event, and which ones are different events. And then they "harmonize" them. Most study Bibles have a "Harmony of the Gospels" before Matthew or after John.

In the study Bible I use the most, they have a 7-page chart following the Gospel of John which lists all of the pericopes in all four Gospels and where they are found in the Gospels. It makes it easy to see which pericopes are unique to a Gospel, and it also makes it easy to see that the Gospels don't all follow the same order of events. (Note: studying those differences is an invaluable way to learn what's important to each Gospel author.)

Additionally, my study Bible has handy subheadings for each pericope, and underneath each subheading, it lists the parallel verses.

For example, with respect to this week's passage, my study Bible has this:

Jesus Accused by His Family and Teachers of the Law 3:23-27 -- Matthew 12:25-29; Luke 11:17-22

In other words, if I look up those verses in Matthew and Luke, I'll find the same story.

Matthew 12:25 Knowing their thoughts, he told them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons drive them out? For this reason they will be your judges. 28 If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. 30 Anyone who is not with me is against me, and anyone who does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.
Luke 11:17 Knowing their thoughts, he told them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and a house divided against itself falls. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say I drive out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons drive them out? For this reason they will be your judges. 20 If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his estate, his possessions are secure. 22 But when one stronger than he attacks and overpowers him, he takes from him all his weapons he trusted in, and divides up his plunder. 23 Anyone who is not with me is against me, and anyone who does not gather with me scatters.

This week, the differences are subtle. I'm really not going to say anything about that this week because Mark has given us the "simplest" version of the event.

Of course, you'll ask "why?" Sometimes we can make a good guess, and sometimes it's just a guess. As a general rule (dangerous, I know), when there are differences, Matthew tends to include details that would have been important to his Jewish readers, Mark tends to exclude details that would have bogged down his Roman audience, and Luke tends to include things that a physician would have noticed.

Some resources:

Important note: you will not find 100% agreement on how the Gospels should be harmonized. And here's an example why: we have to assume that Jesus would have had repeated encounters in which someone accused Him of "driving out demons by the power of demons", and He probably responded similarly each time. So it's possible that some of the pericopes in the Gospels that we assume are the same event are actually different events. So, approach Gospel study with humility.


Part 1: Here Come the Skeptics (Mark 3:20-22)

20 Jesus entered a house, and the crowd gathered again so that they were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard this, they set out to restrain him, because they said, “He’s out of his mind.” 22 The scribes who had come down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and, “He drives out demons by the ruler of the demons.”

There are two totally separate movements here. First, we have Jesus' family. They have heard about what's going on with Jesus, and they are afraid for His life. (They got that much right.) But they don't actually arrive until verse 31 --

31 His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside, they sent word to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him and told him, “Look, your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are outside asking for you.” 33 He replied to them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 Looking at those sitting in a circle around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This declaration was a big, big deal, and it served as key encouragement to the early church. Think about it -- many of the early Christians had been kicked out of their synagogues (if they were Jews) or out of their social circles (if they were Romans). Their fellow Christians were the closest thing to family they would have. And guess what? Jesus welcomed them as His brothers and sisters.

That's so important! And if you want to spend some group time talking about that, that's fine with me. That's just a different direction than this week's lesson is intending to go.

This week's lesson focuses on the fact that Jesus' own family was skeptical about what He was doing. Mark circles back around to this in a few chapters:

13:2 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. 13 You will be hated by everyone because of my name, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.

The opposition is going to be fierce, and it will be personal.

But this week's lesson focuses on the other opposition movement: from the Jewish leaders.

Jesus has gone from a curiosity to a problem for the Jewish leaders. In chapter 2, Mark describes several arguments about the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the figurative "sacred cow" (to the Pharisees in particular), so the fact that Jesus was willing to do good on the Sabbath (against their "laws" over what people could do) revealed their misguided priorities and their religious hypocrisy.

They were looking for any way they could cast aspersions on Him.

Note that Mark specifically points out that these Jews had come from Jerusalem. They were religious elites. Mark has already referred to this group, so his audience would already have a "profile" of them in mind. Refer back to chapter 1:

21 They went into Capernaum, and right away he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and began to teach. 22 They were astonished at his teaching because he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not like the scribes.

The word Mark uses to describe them literally means that they copied the Mosaic Law, but they were much more than that. They were "experts in the law". They copied the law. They memorized the law. They taught the law. Some of these experts in the law were known as Pharisees:

16 When the scribes who were Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16)

Pharisees were for the most part teachers in synagogues. They were ultra-conservative in their social behavior. And they did not like Jewish teachers who contradicted them. In fact, Mark dropped this tidbit in chapter 3:

6 Immediately the Pharisees went out and started plotting with the Herodians against him, how they might kill him. (Mark 3:6)

Mark the author is using the early conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees to make it clear that the Pharisees are the "bad guys". (Note: the Herodians? We don't know much about them other than they supported King Herod. The Pharisees obviously thought their political connections would make it easier for the Pharisees to capture Jesus.)

That's why when the scribes/Pharisees accuse Jesus by working in the power of "Beelzebul", the reader can immediately see through their duplicity.

Beelzebul and Beelzebub are different spellings of the same name. "Baal-zebub" is Hebrew for "Lord of the Flies". There were a number of Canaanite gods with variations of this name, so there's no firm agreement who the scribes were talking about. But they define him as "the prince of demons". Jesus is going to come right out and say they are talking about Satan, but more on that in the next section.

The point: Jesus' opponents are falsely (and recklessly) accusing Him of being in league with Satan. They have no proof. They are just hoping enough people will believe it that they will turn against Jesus.

Mark's secondary purpose is to encourage his readers who are already Christian: When you follow Jesus, this is the kind of thing that can happen. Don't lose heart! In Acts 5, the disciples realized that they should rejoice when the world opposed them just as it opposed Jesus. That must mean they're on the right path!


Part 2: The Skeptics Are Fools (A House Divided) (Mark 3:23-27)

23 So he summoned them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand but is finished. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder his house.

When I have said that Mark focused on Jesus' actions/miracles, I hope I haven't given the impression that Mark wasn't interested in Jesus' teachings. Mark did not report as many teachings as Matthew or Luke (there's no parallel for the Sermon on the Mount, or some of the parables in Luke), but he did include as many teachings as he thought necessary for his readers to know "what Jesus was about". Read chapter 4 in particular.

In this case, the teaching explains the miracle that has already been reported. The Pharisees (scribes) have levied an accusation, and that accusation can be easily refuted with basic logic. But Jesus does more than that -- He illustrates that logic with a parable. Parables are double-edged in that they cannot be "brute force understood" -- they must be illumined.

[Aside: Sometimes, parables would be easier to follow than others. I have covered parables in depth in other posts, like this one:

We are skipping Mark 4 this quarter, so you may as well read that post 😊. Know that a parable is not an allegory or a fable; it is a kind of simile that explains a kingdom truth. In this week's parable, that truth is the unity of God's Kingdom.]

Jesus is explaining a universal truth; everyone all over the world would have appreciated this teaching. But Romans in particular had built their empire on the premise of unwavering devotion to Rome. They had experienced the destructiveness of infighting. In other words, this was not a "Roman audience story", but that audience would have appreciated it.

And it's pretty tough to argue, right? If Satan, "the prince of demons", helps Jesus cast out demons, that's pretty counterproductive.

[Aside: Satan. I briefly mentioned Satan in our first lesson in Mark, where Mark explains that Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. "Satan" is the Hebrew name given to the "chief devil" in the Old Testament (it's rare; see particularly Job 1 and Zechariah 3). He is the enemy of everything good in God's creation, jealous of the love God has for humanity. I mentioned specifically that Mark identified Satan as a personal being to combat the paganistic idea of "evil" vs. "good" as amorphous forces in nature.]

In John, Jesus calls Satan "a liar and the father of lies" (8:44). That begs the question of "Can't Satan fake casting out a demon?" Well, that question would be missing the point. Everyone had observed that Jesus had truly cast out a demon. If it had been done falsely, someone would have realized it, and Jesus would have been instantly discredited. No, this was a true exorcism.]

The "strong man" comment is quite literally a "flex" on Jesus' part. Mark's audience would have understood where Jesus was going with this. "Cut off the head." Rome would remove the strongest elements of a nation/army, and then the rest of the nation would submit to Rome's rule. It had happened throughout the empire.

By labeling the source of Jesus' power as "the prince of demons", the Pharisees/scribes were trying to align Jesus with the most destructive, dangerous force on earth.


So, if Jesus had just very easily cast out one of that prince's demons, doesn't that -- by their own words -- make Jesus stronger than the prince of demons?

Yes, yes it does.

[Note: "plunder" has a negative connotation to us today. Think of it this way -- Jesus is talking about the world as "Satan's house". The people Satan's demons have possessed are (by definition) Satan's "possessions". By rescuing people from those demons, Jesus is "plundering Satan's house".

[Side lesson: if these guys had said this to me, my response would have been something like, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Yet another valuable lesson from Jesus. When you open your mouth to speak, make sure that your words are edifying.]


Part 3: Ready or Not, the Kingdom Is Coming (Mark 3:28-30)

28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for all sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

The purpose of the "plunder" imagery is to raise the stakes. These Pharisees/scribes think they are simply preserving their own power by discrediting a crackpot preacher. No, they are standing in the path of the Kingdom of God. And that kingdom will bulldoze right over them if they try to stand in its way.

I believe that the accounts in Matthew and Luke (printed above) are very helpful in explaining exactly what Jesus means. I'll let you soak on that. I want to focus on just what Mark chose to recount -- the most concise version of this encounter.

Mark connects the dots for the reader: by saying that Jesus was possessed by Satan, the Jewish leaders were "blaspheming against the Holy Spirit". When we studied Mark 1, I noted that "Holy Spirit" was a loaded term that Mark's audience wouldn't have fully understood, but they would have had a rough idea of it.

Likewise, "blasphemy" was a very common concept in the Roman empire. In fact, the word "blasphemy" is a transliteration of the Greek word they used meaning "to speak harm". In Roman society, blaspheming one's parents was "unforgivable". (Blaspheming the emperor was punishable by death -- quite literally unforgivable.)

But Jesus turns that on its head. All of those blasphemies -- all of those terrible things that society said were unforgivable -- could be forgiven by God. (Aside: today, we focus on the unforgivable sin, but then we miss what Jesus has just declared forgivable!)

There one thing that cannot be forgiven: blaspheming the Holy Spirit. And Mark, with his comment, has told us exactly what that means: saying that Jesus is working by the power of Satan. In other words, rejecting the clear and obvious work of God.

Can you see how that must be unforgivable? How can anyone come to Jesus for salvation if he/she does not believe that Jesus has brought salvation?

Note: this is all Mark has to report on the subject. He's off to other things (notably Jesus' encounter with His family). He finds this declaration very cut-and-dried and not at all controversial.

I think we should do the same.

This week's lesson highlights the growing opposition to Jesus. But if I could get you to focus on anything, it would be the message of forgiveness. Mark the author is putting it in our heads that Jesus has a lot to say about forgiveness, and that forgiveness comes from God the Father. That's something every person in every society would love to hear about.

* That terrible thing you said to your parents, that can be forgiven.

* Has your family rejected you? Don't worry -- I'll give you a new family.

* (And the subtle kicker: and if you get in my way, you will be plundered.)

What a great passage!


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