Right response to the Lord Jesus is at the heart of saving, sanctifying faith. We cannot be converted (initially saved) if we do not possess what the Bible understands to be an ordinate confession of Christ (though it will obviously be more limited and inchoate than that of a mature disciple). And we cannot be finally saved (enter heaven and experience the glories of being raised immortal onto a renewed earth) if we do not persevere in a right relationship to the Lord Jesus—one of obedience, certainly, but more basically and fundamentally a right intellectual understanding of and heart affection to Him, one that then moves the will forth, in great joy and faith, to by faith obey what He says.
As Mark writes verses 7-12 of chapter 3 of his gospel, he is summarizing for us the whole of the story thus far. He also anticipates what will come afterwards. The Lord has demonstrated Himself to be God incarnate and anointed Messianic king. He has come into the world in fulfillment of ancient promise, beginning to asset His rule and reverse the curse and destruction of sin. To manifest His authority, our Lord has demonstrated His power over disease and demons, and has begun to teach the truth of God’s program and Word as the focal point of His earthly ministry. All of this activity has greatly offended the Pharisees, who represent the hardened rebellion against the will of God characteristic of unbelieving people in general and carnal Israel in particular. (By this point in redemptive history, most of the nation of Israel had fallen away from the Lord, though there were still many who recognized their Messiah and yielded to Him in consecrated love.) Ultimately, this conflict between the way of God and the faithless way of man will culminate in our Lord’s death for sinners.
But while He is still living and ministering, with great power coming from Him to identify Him as the ruler of God’s coming kingdom, indeed as God in flesh, there will be many who respond to Him. For we all do—the question is whether this response is ordinate, or ungodly. Mark gives us a snapshot of Jesus’s ministry up to this point from the perspective of two kinds of responses to Christ that are unworthy of His character and dignity.
A. The Crowd (vv. 7-10)
Sometime after His final conflict with the Pharisees in verses 1-6, our Lord withdraws from the bustle and tension of Jerusalem to escape the destructive, murderous threats of the Jewish leadership. It is not His time to die for sinners, and God the Father uses the means of Jesus’ withdrawal to preserve His life until that appointed time. The “disciples” here are not the entire 12, simply because they have not been chosen yet. By this point, we know our Lord has chosen at least seven of them; later, He will choose the rest out of the larger crowd of His disciples (Luke 6:12-13). Because of this wider (and frankly, much more common) use of the term “disciple,” it is very likely the disciples who went with our Lord were more than the apostles, though we do not know who they were. Still, besides escaping the threat of the Pharisees our Lord doubtless wanted time for refreshment and rest, and personal instruction to His followers to understand Him and His plan.
But this is to be short-lived, for word of mouth spreads, and many crowds pour in after Him. Galilee, of course, was our Lord’s home region, filled with Jews but also home to many Gentiles who had settled after the exile. Judea is the southern part of Israel, where Jesus has already ministered for about a year (John 2-4 covers this period). Jerusalem is the goal of His ministry, both now and in the future. Idumea was a sub-region of Judea in the desert populated by descendants of Edom. “Beyond the Jordan” signifies that area east of the Jordan River, with both Jews and Gentiles ruled by Herod Antipas. Finally, Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician cities on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, and were entirely Gentile.
Why are these masses of people coming after Him? Has He not demonstrated unspeakably glorious, decisive power in the healing of every disease, even raising the dead? Doctors cannot do what this Man does. Hopeless cases are child’s play to Him. Death itself cannot stand before His words. Desperation, excitement, and the beginnings of hope tumble over themselves in the souls of these thousands of people. They come for themselves, for their spouses, their children, their friends. They want His power exercised for them.
That, of course, is where it ends for most of them.
You see, like the crowds who hastened after the Lord after His bread of life discourse in John 6, these people—though possibly more sincere—are not really interested in the Lord for Himself, much less for the message of repentance and surrender in light of the coming kingdom that He proclaims. No, they want what He can do for them. It isn’t wanting to be well that is the problem—God had demonstrated that in and through Christ part of His comprehensive will for mankind was the removal of the curse, including all of its physical effects in illness and death—it is the wanting it more than Christ, more than His most important promises of forgiveness and reconciliation and getting God Himself.
Do you want God more than His gifts? Many of us commit a binary error here. We either overemphasize His gifts—the prosperity gospel is the most obvious, though hardly the only, iteration of this extreme—or else we are indifferent to them out of a truncated, badly-formed understanding of God’s supremacy and sufficiency. Delight in all His good gifts. Ask Him for them. But do not place them above Him. Do not make a cuckold out of God!
In His mercy, the Lord directs His disciples to take a small boat and push it somewhat out to sea, so He can avoid being crushed by the crowds who are desperately pressing on Him. This action make look cold initially, but it is only so He can have room and amplification to preach to them. Think of that: These people are, however sincerely, essentially using the Lord for His gifts, and rather than push them away, He persists in giving them what they most need: He preaches the truth to them.
The text tells us they were pressing on Him because of things He “had” (past tense) done—they knew He had this power because they had seen or heard it done for others, and now they want it for themselves.
But this response, as much as it is inspired by a real confidence in His power and willingness to bless and heal, is less than true faith. True faith has confidence in the Lord’s power, but it also has delight and satisfaction in His person. It is willing to pursue contentment in what He appoints even if it contradicts what we desire. True faith trusts the Lord’s no. True faith does not place the Lord beneath His gifts. Of course, we all struggle with these tendencies, some more than others. The point is that this is not faith, but unbelief. These dear people did not need healing, but the gospel. How kind of our Lord to give them what they most needed. Perhaps many that day received the deeper healing of the soul. May God be gracious to do the same in our day!
B. The Demons (vv. 11-12)
Of note is that the motivation for the crowds’ pursuit is not limited to their knowledge of Jesus’ ability to physically heal. They are also pressing upon Him because of the reports of His power over demons. They have heard of this too and doubtless wish to know this kind of comprehensive power for themselves. But we have already looked at the misguided view of the people. Now, we turn to another wrong response to the Lord—that of the demonic hosts themselves.
It is interesting that Mark pairs these ideas together. He vividly portrays these masses of people practically crushing our Lord in their desire for healing, and then says that part of their motivation was knowing about His power over demons. But the demons have just as bad a response to Him!
The response differs in a key way, however: The demons loudly proclaim who He is. This is not to say nobody in the crowds thought He was the Messiah—many likely did. But their understanding of messiahship was badly formed. They viewed that office primarily as an ethno-political idea, one that would exalt the Jews while physically and militarily crushing their oppressors. They did not view Messiah as the One who would renew the creation, save sinners, and restore a right relationship to God (though some of these ideas were present in Jesus’ day).
The demons, however, are not so deceived. They have been in the spiritual realm where Jesus has ruled from eternity past with Father and Spirit. They heard the same voice thunder against them and their captain, Satan, as He hurled them out of heaven many ages before. They had known His creative power, His loveliness, His right to rule, and the great plans the Triune God had which centered upon Him. They cannot deny who He is. Indeed, His very presence terrifies them, as they are painfully aware of His ownership of the whole creation and His inherent right to rule and redeem it. That spells their doom and destruction, and the cry of Legion echoes that of the terrified mind of every demon who came across our Lord: “Have You come to torment us before the time?” (Matt. 8:29)
As they are hurled out of their human slaves back into hell, the demons are compelled to confess who Jesus is—the divine, anointed, incarnate Son of the Living God. Yet Jesus forbids them from speaking. Why? Most pertinently, He does not want people thinking demons are His allies! He, the ineffably Holy One, stands at the opposite end of a great chasm between them and Him, and He will not have any confusion about His character or nature. Second, given the prevalent wrong understanding of messiahship in His day, our Lord knew if many people knew who He was, it would force a premature, ungodly, and strictly temporal coronation that would abort His saving mission and miss the whole, divinely ordained point. Better to shut the (truthful!) demons up than have them mislead precious souls.
Moreover, their response, though truth-filled and rightly fearful, was also fundamentally wrong. It was not a response of faith, consecration, affection, and devotion. It was craven, cowering terror. It did not push them toward Him, but away from Him. Like the people, they did not treasure and yield to Jesus as the Lord and Treasure of their souls. No, they knew truth, and responded utterly wrongly.
How easy it is to miss Jesus even as we look at Him! O that our hearts would be purified and refined for a truly devoted, heart-consecrating, soul-adoring, vision of the authority, preciousness, and glory of Christ! May God graciously pour out His Spirit once more on the nations, that this God-besotted response might overwhelm us before the King Himself appears!