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Jesus vs. Our Divisions - a study of Mark 3:23-35 (plus The Unforgivable Sin)

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 3:23-35

In this passage, Jesus gives us two pictures of unity. One proves that He stands against Satan and the forces of darkness, and the other proves that the bonds of Christian family are even stronger than blood family. Our challenge is to rise above the divisions we have in our churches to stand together for the gospel.

How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. Mark 3:23

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Power of Organization

So, obviously, our lesson is about being united. How about this as an icebreaker: can you think of a time that a less-popular idea/candidate “won” because those followers were better organized? Around here, I think we start with Jimmy Carter. I went on the tour in Plains, and I’m still amazed at the unity and commitment of that campaign staff who were clearly in way above their heads. We could say the same thing about Barack Obama defeating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008, and Donald Trump winning the whole thing in 2016. Neither candidate “should have won” those elections, but the campaigns were very strong, and the followers were utterly devoted. Unity can accomplish amazing things! But if all of your examples turn out to be positive, give them one that’s negative: Hitler’s Nazi party. He was not popular; they were not well-regarded. But their unity and organization was so strong that he took over Germany in a matter of years. Just because people are unified doesn’t mean that they are right!

You could also take this is a sports direction. The 1969 Mets winning the World Series the year after losing 100 games. The 2007 Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The 1980 Miracle on Ice. Every victorious underdog will tell you stories about unity and belief in one another—and they’ll be so convincing that you’ll come away believing you can win anything!

The Ad Hominem Attack

This is a pretty serious lesson; you may want to start with a serious icebreaker. Ask your class if they know what an ad hominem argument is. (It’s a fallacious argument which attacks the credibility of the person but not what they said.) That’s kind of what Jesus’ opponents are doing here. They have absolutely nothing they can say about the wonderful miracles, so instead they go after Jesus in a completely unprovable personal attack.

We hear things like that too often. In the courtroom (and in the election debate), if one side can’t disprove a person’s argument, they’ll simply go after that person’s credibility in hopes of making people forget about the argument. That’s terrible! But here are examples of ways we can do it in everyday life— “That person didn’t finish high school, so their idea can’t be any good.” “You’re not from Georgia, so you just don’t understand.” “This is a woman thing, so a man can’t have anything to say about it” (or vice versa). “That teacher can’t be any good because she only graduated from community college.” “You’ve never struggled financially, so your money advice is worthless.” “You’re a Democrat, so what could you possibly know about a free market economy?” “That guy has been in jail more than in church, so his thoughts on when life begins are pretty meaningless.” “I don’t trust my pediatrician because he’s never been a parent.” Do those examples make sense? Have you heard people use them? As Christians, we want to stay away from such attacks (even if we disagree with whatever argument being made!) We never attack the person—we engage the argument (“hate the sin, not the sinner” right?) Being insulting is not by itself an ad hominem attack (it’s just rude) as long as the argument is being addressed. But the religious leaders in Jesus’ day had nothing to say about His action, so they simply attacked Him as a person.

This Week's Big Idea: A House Divided Cannot Stand

There are some fun ways to get people thinking about this topic. Where we are in Georgia, it generally has something to do with college allegiance:

But as you might imagine, it gets serious quickly.

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln used Jesus’ words in this passage to make a political statement about slavery. He was campaigning against Stephan A. Douglas to be an Illinois senator. He lost, but this clearly differentiated him from Douglas (who argued for “popular sovereignty”), and it would become a rallying cry for abolitionists in the North. Essentially, Lincoln argued that the country could not continue as half-slave and half-free; eventually it would become all one or the other (that kind of division was too great to endure).

We have recently seen a debate like this in the United Methodist Church. Incumbent leadership was strongly promoting a “One Church” plan in which individual churches would decide for themselves if they would accept gay leadership and perform gay weddings. The laypeople (almost half of which were not American) rejected that idea and voted for a “Traditional” plan which simply reinforced the biblical statements in the Church’s existing documents. Those laypeople understood that the church could not be divided over an issue that significant; they would ultimately move all one way or the other. Even now, many Methodists in America are gearing up for another attempt to re-vote on the issue, and if that doesn’t work, to secede from the Church.

So, “A House Divided” can be silly, or it can be serious. And so it begs the question: at what point does our division mean the downfall of our house? For me, it’s a matter of the gospel. If our division means we no longer preach or teach the same gospel of salvation, our house cannot stand. Obviously, collegiate differences don’t impact salvation. Likewise, we can disagree on things about Calvinism vs. Arminianism, how to do baptism, what version of the Bible to read, what kind of clothes to wear and not necessarily be on different “teams” with respect to Jesus Christ. My heartbreak for the Methodists is that some of them have realized that the direction their arguments are going is absolutely affecting the gospel, and some of them haven’t, so they can’t even agree on why they’re arguing (or what they’re arguing about; that’s reflected in some of the petty and ad hominem arguments being made). We cannot let anything get in the way of our clear gospel of Jesus! But at the same time, we have to equally careful that we don’t elevate every issue to that level. We can disagree about many things—even important things—and still be a house united. That’s what Jesus wants from us.

The Context in Mark

So, after our miracle in last week’s passage, Mark reports the calling of Matthew and the party at his house, and multiple confrontations with Jewish leaders about issues like “why don’t your disciples fast?” and “why do you not follow our rules for the Sabbath?”. Those are designed to help the reader realize that Jesus dos not play by man’s rules but by God’s, making Him a hero to the common person and an enemy to those entrenched in power. Then Mark reports that Jesus casts out bunches of demons, and then He appoints the apostles. So, those events are episodic and roughly chronological. One, Mark is focused on actions and events; two, those events set up our passage in this week’s lesson: Jesus’ power to cast out demons and Jesus’ true family.

It’s worth noting that Matthew and Luke report quite a bit of additional material. The biggest chunk is the Sermon on the Mount, but Matthew and Luke follow that with additional miracles (the centurion’s servant, the widow’s son, the sinful woman) and teachings (John the Baptist, woes on unrepentant cities). Why doesn’t Mark include this generally well-known information? Not to be callous, but he doesn’t need to. Think of the editing process for a movie. They’ll have dozens—hundreds—of hours of footage that they have to cut down to two hours. A lot of good stuff gets left out in order to make the movie what that director wants it to be. Mark has his emphasis: "Jesus is the Son of God, and here’s how you can know". Those particular stories don’t necessarily add anything to that emphasis that isn’t covered elsewhere.

After this, all of the Gospels report additional parables, most famously the parable of the soils.

Reminder about Jewish Leaders/Politics

I know I’ve covered this in Matthew, but that’s been a while. Let’s do a quick recap of the various parties of Jewish leaders.

Pharisees were the ultra-orthodox Jews of the days. There weren’t many, but they were very visible in society. They were leaders in their synagogues and teachers of the law to the common people. In fact, they were likely the ones responsible for transitioning Judaism from a religion based on sacrifice to one of law. They believed that God punished Israel for breaking the law, so they added many layers of behavior to ensure that Jews didn’t break the actual laws in the Bible. They hated Jesus for telling them their approach to the law was wrong-minded.

Sadducees were the Jewish aristocrats. They were the wealthy families in charge of the temple. They were still conservative Jews, but more secularly minded (not believing in angels or the afterlife). They strongly opposed the Pharisees for going beyond the Old Testament (they wanted to enjoy life while they had it) and for being so antagonistic towards the Romans (they wanted to enjoy their positions and wealth in peace). They hated Jesus for being such a treat to their position, power, and comfort.

Herodians are mentioned in the context of our passage, but we don’t know much about them. For whatever reason, they supported Herod and his line as rulers of Palestine.

Essenes were kind of like Jewish monks. They retreated from the world into small, remote communities where they copied the Old Testament and memorized it, being even more conservative than the Pharisees.

Most Jews were not members of any party.


Part 1: Undivided House (Mark 3:23-30)

So he summoned them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand but is finished. 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. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for all sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Go ahead and start at verse 20, which sets up these events. What can the Jewish leaders say against Jesus’ great miracles? Nothing. So they resort to stupid, personal attacks (see previous page), namely that Jesus gets His power from Satan/Beelzebub (see below). Jesus responds with two critical counterarguments. You could easily spend your whole time just explaining these words, but the lesson gives you yet more to cover.

The first answer is in the form of a parable. As you remember, a parable is a simple story about common things that is used to express a deep spiritual truth. Jesus actually tells two separate parables to illustrate His point. The first is that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The word “divided” refers to an internal force splitting a whole into parts. Jesus’ audience would have immediately thought about their own history of civil war—namely that in the Old Testament between Israel and Judah. While they likely could not have withstood the might of Babylon or Greece or Rome under any circumstances, the fact is that they destroyed themselves from within long before those forces were mustered against them. Jesus says that the same is true of any house, meaning either a royal dynasty or any family. Many of His audience would have first-hand knowledge of that truth: when family members are divided against themselves, that family is essentially no longer a family. If Satan is casting out demons, as the Jewish leaders accuse, then Jesus rightfully says that Satan is finished (see the Focus above).

Here’s the question your class could easily talk about for a long time: which group seems more united right now: Christians, or those opposed to Christianity? In reality, the enemies of Christianity are not united at all, but their hatred of Jesus (or - Jesus' followers) has given them a common cause that they can set aside their differences for (just like in Jesus’ day! Think about it: Pharisees and Sadducees were utterly opposed to each other, but they could unite against Jesus.) Unfortunately, Christians have not yet seen our dire circumstances enough to set aside our own differences to push back the darkness in our community and country. How important are the differences we’re fighting over? In my “Big Idea”, I try to point out that there are absolutely some things worth fighting over. But for many things, we can agree to disagree.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a strong man. This is a really fascinating image, but suffice it for our purposes that Jesus is strong enough to bind Satan himself, and then Jesus can free the people who have been possessed (note the word play) by Satan’s minions. In fact, the very act of exorcism demonstrates Jesus’ authority over Satan.

But the most important thing Jesus says here is about the unpardonable sin/blasphemy against the Spirit. We talked about this in Matthew. Many sensitive Christians have read this and feared that they have committed an unforgivable sin. Because I’m short on space, I’ll make this brief. In context, the unforgivable sin is accusing Jesus of blasphemy because that means associating the Holy Spirit with the power of Satan. The Pharisees were doing it explicitly. Most people today do it implicitly. When people hear God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ, one that He “whispers” into their hearts by the Holy Spirit, and then reject it, they are saying that the Holy Spirit is not speaking the truth of God and they will search for salvation elsewhere. From God’s perspective, that’s unforgivable. God will not forgive someone who has rejected His offer of salvation. A person who has committed such an unforgivable sin wouldn’t care that he has done so.

But make sure to note Jesus’ words of forgiveness in 3:28! The Pharisees were notorious for being strict and harsh in their applications and very punitive in their judgments. Conversely, God is very generous with forgiveness (cf. the paralytic from last week). So this passage is actually about God’s grace and forgiveness!

[Aside on Beelzebub. The Hebrew baal-zebub means “lord of the flies”. The actual name of the referenced ancient Canaanite god was baal-zebul: “Lord Prince” (which is why some translations have Beelzebul), which the Hebrews mocked with their version of the name. Beelzebub became associated with the Philistines. Over time, Jews began using this name to refer to the chief demon/false god, who is elsewhere referred to as Satan (“the accuser”), the prince of demons.]


Aside: Couldn't Satan "Drive Out Satan" as a Trick?

I’d always had questions about Jesus’ statement that “Satan could not drive out Satan”. Sure he could, right? In fact, it seems like a very Satan thing to do—drive out a demon in order to trick people into thinking you’re the good guy. That’s been the basis for many stories, a character sometimes known as the “false hero”. (One of my favorite fan theories about the upcoming Spiderman: Far From Home movie is that Mysterio is actually the one who conjured the elementals to fool the people into thinking he’s a hero like Spiderman.) Ask your class if they can think of an example of someone who attempted to trick people into thinking they were a hero or a good guy.

But Jesus isn’t talking about that. Remember, Jesus can’t be fooled. Jesus always knows the true intention and outcome of an action. In other words, Jesus would know if a demon was truly driven out or if that demon was a part of a trick (or if Satan were “abusing” that demon with ulterior motives). Satan could not truly drive out Satan in the way Jesus spoke—with the intention of freeing someone from demonic slavery for their good. It is impossible for Satan to act in that way with respect to his own power and authority. Again, Jesus is getting into the intention and outcome of the action.

When I was bothered by Jesus’ claim, it’s because I was only looking at the event itself. Obviously, I can’t see into the motives, or peer into the future about what happens in a few weeks or months. But Jesus can. He knows the what and why of His exorcism. He knows the difference between “Satan driving out Satan” and “Satan pretending to drive out Satan”.


Part 2: Misunderstood by Family (Mark 3:31-32)

His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside, they sent word to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him and told him, “Look, your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are outside asking for you.”

Remind your class that Jesus’ earthly family has become concerned about Him. He is constantly surrounded by people, doing amazing/weird things, and being accused by the respected leaders of being possessed. So they’ve come to take Him home where they can take care of Him. If one of your family members were in this situation, wouldn't you be concerned? (Yes, I think that Mary should have had a better idea than this, but she is still the mom. And the fact that Joseph is not mentioned leads many to believe that he has since died.) Mary and Joseph had multiple children after Jesus—four named boys (James, Joses, Judas, Simon) and at least two girls. Technically, they’re half-siblings. But you try explaining that one.

Frankly, this section doesn’t make much sense without the next, so I would treat the two of them together. The point here is that sometimes our earthly family isn’t on the same page as God. Sometimes (and those of us who live far away from our earthly family) our church family becomes our true family. And the point has been well made that we have much more in common with our Christian brethren (whom we will spend eternity with) than our non-Christian relatives.


Part 3: United by Purpose (Mark 3:33-35)

He replied to them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking at those sitting in a circle around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

And that’s exactly Jesus’ point here. At first blush, this seems a bit rude to Jesus’ family, doesn’t it? Well, we shouldn’t take it that way. It seems that after Jesus said this and finished His teaching, He then did spend time with His family members answering questions. They had to be enough aware of His ministry to believe in Him after He died and rose again (remember that James went on to be the leader of the church in Jerusalem). But this was a teaching moment for Jesus. Think about the people who were likely with Jesus at that moment: Matthew the tax collector, some of Matthew’s sinner friends, people who had been paralyzed and demon-possessed, the poor and disenfranchised from whatever small town Jesus was in (probably Capernaum). Jesus wanted them to know that they were just as important to Him as His “flesh and blood”. Jesus was creating a new family. He would later tell the disciples that anyone who left family for His sake would receive back many-fold what they had left (Mark 10:29-30), and that was literal truth. How would you feel if Jesus pointed at you and said that you were His brother/sister? That would be thrilling! (Note: Jesus is not suggesting a works-based salvation. In John, He puts it this way: “Jesus replied, "This is the work of God--that you believe in the one he has sent." John 6:29.)

So you might take your class on a thought exercise. (1) Have you ever done something that made your family think you were crazy? What happened as a result and how did it impact your relationship? (2) Why do you think Jesus’ family thought He was crazy, and what do you think they were trying to accomplish by coming to Him? (3) If you have ever been “caught” between family and friends/ministry, what was the hardest for you to handle? What do you think would have been hardest for Jesus? (4) If you were one of Jesus’ brothers, how would you have felt after hearing Jesus’ response? (5) How do you describe your relationship with your family? Your church family? Which set of relationships is stronger and why?

And then the whole point of that set of questions would be to get to these two: what do you need to do to build stronger relationships with your Christian/church family? And then the follow-up, what does your church need to do to be more united in facing the powers of darkness in our community and world? We have lots of petty squabbles and personal bickering in our lives, none of which help us accomplish the only goal that matters, together serving the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what God wants us to do. That’s who Jesus wants us to be—His family, and those who are willing to follow Him even to death for the purpose of sharing the gospel with the world.

No pressure, right? I hope this is an encouraging lesson for your class. I specifically hope it will help them redouble their efforts to be family one to another this week.


Harmony of the Gospels

This passage is interesting when looking at Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, it is paralleled in 12:22-37, 46-50. In Luke, it is paralleled in 11:17-22 and 8:19-21 (!). Jesus endured multiple accusations of blasphemy, and the authors don’t report them all.

Here’s part of the passage in Matthew: 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.” (note that the later verses are near-identical)

So...similar but different. Now, it could be as in the case of the Luke passage that this is a different accusation, and that’s why the encounter is different. I think it more likely that Matthew simple includes more of the teaching details—things that his Jewish audience would have read and quickly realized “Jesus is right; the leaders are wrong”. Plus, the extra details focus on “kingdom of God” and “Son of Man”, two big themes for Matthew.


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