Who we understand Jesus to be has profound and inexorable consequences for both this life and eternity. In this life, whether we understand the Lord Jesus to be a mere man, the prophet before Muhammad, the virgin-born Messiah who is not God incarnate, or the one true God of the Old Testament manifest in flesh to die for sinners and rise to rule God’s earthly kingdom will shape not only what outward religion we associate with, but by extension our understanding of the Bible, morality, life’s priorities, the definitions of sin and righteousness, God’s authority and right to command us, and more. For eternity, arguably the chief ramification of our understanding of Christ is where we will spend it! While only God knows the heart, someone with a faulty understanding of Christ can have no confidence their home in heaven is secure.
Throughout the ages, the question has always been, “What shall I do with Jesus?” For we must all do something; not one of us is exempt from that. This is how important Jesus is: “Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Hollywood bigshots, those who run the highest echelons of journalism and the news media, politicians, housewives, the elderly, nameless high schoolers in middle America—all of them are confronted by the claims of the Lord Jesus, whose Word will judge them and all people on the final day (Jn. 12:44-48).
Mark’s gospel gives us a striking and sobering account of what one group of Jewish leaders did in response to Jesus—and the eternally damning consequences of doing so.
A. His Family’s Unfortunate Misjudgment (vv. 20-21)
It is worth noting that Mark, as is his wont, gives us one of the most summarized narratives in all four gospels. Much has taken place between verses 19 and 20—including the whole Sermon on the Mount! This will become important later, as the historical context of these events helps shed light on just what the Pharisees did and why it is so evil.
Jesus is returning home to Capernaum from yet another busy season of ministry. The crowd (given the context, likely some of the same crowd who gathered for the Sermon, though including others), that nameless, faceless mass of people who are often interested in Jesus for all the wrong reasons, has found Him yet again, and yet again the Lord cannot even rest or eat dinner.
The word about Jesus has spread thoroughly throughout the land, and apparently word of His preaching and miraculous ministry has reached the ears of His mother and half-siblings. More specifically, word of His expending Himself in full-time ministry to the point that He isn’t eating, drawing entire towns after Him, and antagonizing he Jewish leadership. Even faithful, pious Mary would have been understandably troubled by this state of affairs! Her motivation was doubtless sincere, if misinformed; we have no reason to believe the assessment coming from His half-brothers was anywhere near charitable. The entire immediate family comes to Capernaum, concerned and eager to remove Him.
Why? For a variety of reasons, their impression of Jesus is that He has simply lost His mind. Sane people do not up and leave their families and their late stepfather’s carpentry business to do itinerant ministry (when they aren’t a trained, recognized, ordained rabbi). Sane people don’t claim to be the Messiah and God incarnate. Sane people don’t claim to be the fulfillment of the Law and the One of whom Moses and the prophets spoke. Sane people don’t claim Abraham saw their day and was glad, and that they existed eternally before him. And sane people certainly don’t go around attacking the Jewish leadership, defying their ceremonial traditions, and calling them hypocrites who undermine the very Word of God!
It just wasn’t done.
“Take custody” in verse 21 is regularly used in Mark for arrest and seizure—and it isn’t a kind word. It’s a hard, even violet term that denotes removal against the will. Obviously, Mary and her children thought they were doing what was best for Jesus. Crazy people can’t make rational decisions, right?
But they were wrong. Jesus’ half-brothers were motivated by a hard-hearted unbelief, one that would not be conquered until a few years later when the risen Lord appeared to each of them and elicited a response of surrender and faith. And while I am convinced dear Mary was saved from a young age and knew who her Son was, that doesn’t mean she fully understood the implications and ramifications of His identity yet. Doubtless, her motherly concern for her firstborn Son colored much of her activity in this passage.
To the unsaved, the spiritually immature, and the otherwise unaware, full and radical commitment to the Lord’s cause will look insane (though it should be said that what qualifies as full and radical” looks different for each of us!). Have we not experienced some of this from unbelieving family members? We have shared the gospel in its fullness—with its devastating judgment on human pride and sin, its call for full surrender to the lordship of Christ and repentance from sin, its complete disavowal of any human merit to stand before God. Ad we have been ridiculed and thought crazy. We have stood upon some rejected aspect of biblical morality or practice—sexual purity, wifely submission, exclusivity of salvation in Christ, direct creation by God, inerrancy of Scripture, etc.—and we have been called bigoted, ignorant, foolish, or worse.
Misunderstanding and seeking to interfere with those advancing the Lord’s program is not new. It began with the Lord Himself. And even He was not spared it from His closest relatives.
B. The Pharisees’ Unbelieving Malice (vv. 22-30)
Mark pauses this part of the narrative to introduce a related, but distinct, story: how the Jewish leaders respond to Jesus. His family is responding with misunderstanding, while the Pharisees respond with malice and demonic rejection.
Mark does not give us the miracle that prompts this reaction; a comparison with Matthew 12:22-37 and Luke 11:14-23 is helpful for the whole story. Jesus has healed a blind and mute man whose illness was evidently caused by demonic influence. Rather than marvel at this display of sovereign and merciful authority (one that, by the way, is hardly unusual for Jesus by this point), the Pharisees have reached their climax of rejection. Recall that Mark’s gospel has given us multiple, and increasing, episodes of conflict between the leadership and Jesus by this point. This story shows them sealing their rejection in a shocking and ugly way.
One of the most difficult passages in the Bible falls in this section: that of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It has troubled many sensitive believers over the years with its frightening and sobering declaration that anyone who commits it cannot be forgiven. Realizing the historical context of the passage can be helpful in understanding what it was and why it is so heinous.
The Pharisees have had many encounters with Jesus. They have heard His preaching, seen His miracles, heard His declarations of His identity (and likely they have heard the Sermon on the Mount). They have had exposure to Him like few other people have or will. Moreover, these were not men unfamiliar with or rejecting of the Old Testament. They had much of it memorized. They were the religious conservatives over against the Sadducees, given that they embraced fervently the supernatural and miraculous. They believed firmly in the coming Messiah. They had knowledge like no one else in their day.
With that background historically and theologically, they see Jesus show the Creator-Messiah’s mercy to an image-bearer…and they say He is exercising the power of Satan himself. I cannot begin to understand such an ugly, cold, blind, godless heart.
Rather than react in anger, Jesus demonstrates the flawless logic of His sinless mind. He reasons with them: How can Satan cast out Satan? In other words, if Jesus is motivated by demonic power, why on earth would He set people free from demonic control? Why would He set Himself in such opposition to them and their agenda that He would not let them speak of who He was even when it was true? Why would the demons themselves react in abject terror before Him, knowing His right to rule and judge them? Satan is evil, but he isn’t stupid (indeed, his enterprise is likely better organized than most churches). He isn’t going to threaten the influence and operations of his own agenda and kingdom. Satan is not going to do something that will “finish” his evil influence in the world (v. 26).
The Lord goes on to say that though Satan will not end himself, One is here who is stronger than him and will end him (v. 27). Just as one cannot plunder the strong man until he is first bound and rendered incapacitated, so Jesus is binding the strong man (Satan), and plundering his house (this fallen world).
Having set Himself as the absolute contrast to Satan, the Lord applies His teaching: Given who He is and what He is doing—recalling that as a man Jesus is not technically operating as God but as a sinless man who ahs the Spirit without measure—to attribute His work to Satan is to risk blaspheming the very One who testifies of Christ (Jn. 15:26), convicts of sin (Jn. 16:8), and works the miracle of regeneration (Jn. 3:3-8). It is not that the Holy Spirit is somehow more holy, or more sensitive, than Jesus or the Father; it isn’t even technically the act of attributing the Spirit’s work to Satan that is the blasphemy (though it is a horrifically wicked sin).
The point is rather that the Pharisees had reached such a point of hard-hearted rejection, particularly in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the attribution was the final nail in the coffin. They could not be forgiven because there was no possibility of repentance. Their hearts were too hard.
The blasphemy of the Spirit is not some careless word against Him, nor even denying His existence, personhood, or work. Rather, it is to be the beneficiary of His gracious, testifying, convicting, and declarative ministries and to completely, firmly reject them with finality. The attributing was just the particular heinous expression of that.
Can this sin be committed today? Godly and competent commentators do not agree. I personally think this sin is too similar to the warning passages in Hebrews to be limited to the first century. However, saying the sin can be committed today is not the same thing as knowing when someone has committed it. Only God knows the heart. We ought to proclaim the whole counsel of God, including the fearful impossibility of repentance for those who have so sharply rejected Christ, while being very careful to not write people off. We are to use the warnings, including this one, for their intended purpose: Spurring people towards the mercy and forgiveness of God instead of sliding away into permanent unbelief.
While true Christians cannot commit this sin, because God graciously and sovereignly keeps them, let the warning stand: What will you do with Jesus? Will you trust Him? Will you love Him? Will you acknowledge who He is? Or will you cast Him out in rejection and unbelief for a thousand damning lunacies that spit in His face? Trust Him today, while there is yet time.