Please read Mark 3:7-35
In 1859 the great circus performer and tightrope walker Blondin – real name Jean Francois Gravelet – came to Niagara Falls. I don’t know how he managed this, but he set up a rope 350 metres long and three inches thick right across the top of the falls. Using a long balancing pole for assistance, he proceeded to walk across. That amazing act would have sufficed for most people, but not so for Blondin. Over the next year or so he undertook the crossing about a dozen more times under the gaze of ever vaster crowds. It is said that hundreds of thousands of people watched him as he walked across: blindfold, then pushing a wheelbarrow; and then with a stove, stopping in the middle to cook an omelette. As more and more people heard about these spectacular performances the crowds continued to come from far and wide. There is a further story about Blondin, often told; to be honest I am not convinced it is true! After one of these crossings someone called out to Blondin: ‘You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world!’ Blondin called back: ‘Do you believe I could take a man across those falls in a wheelbarrow?’ ‘Yes of course’, the man said. ‘Well then, in you get’, Blondin replied. ‘Prove your faith in me.’ Of course, when the man was called to convert his admiration into faith, he simply wouldn’t do it. However, we do know that on 19th August 1859 Blondin did carry a man across the Falls – not in a wheelbarrow, but on his back. It was his manager, Harry Colcord, who described it not surprisingly as one of the most terrifying experiences of his life – especially when one of the guy ropes broke and the tightrope itself swayed wildly from side to side fifty metres above certain death. Colcord was willing to place his life quite literally in the hands of the man he admired.
When people in Galilee heard about Jesus and his spectacular miracles, the crowds continued to grow. They came from far and wide. Many enjoyed watching, many came along for the thrill, but far fewer were willing to step out of the crowd. Even today, all sorts of people hear about Jesus and are impressed. But far fewer are willing to hear his call and place their lives in his hands.
Moving on from the five stories of mounting opposition, we now find Jesus deliberately withdrawing from the towns where the opposition has been concentrated. He cannot spend his whole time dealing with them. Mark’s geographical notes are usually significant; here he is telling us that by leaving his enemies behind, Jesus is symbolically breaking with the old established religion. He takes himself off to the familiar territory of the lake shore (v.7). The local crowd come with him: but is it really a crowd that Jesus wants? In vv.7-19 we see the difference between a crowd and a call. Once again the spotlight will shine on us, the readers: what is our response to Jesus? Are we only to be admiring onlookers; or are we going to hear the call and place our lives in his hands?
In vv.7-12 we see the crowd. News has spread fast. Although Jesus has told people not to go spreading stories about him, he has not been obeyed (1:45). As a result, Jesus is faced by huge crowds wherever he goes, many of whom are little more than sensation seekers. The places listed in v.8 cover almost every point of the compass and include Gentile areas as well as Jewish: there are Judea and its capital Jerusalem to the south, Tyre and Sidon to the north, the trans-Jordanian lands (such as the Decapolis mentioned in 7:31) to the east and Idumea, or Edom, to the south-east. Jesus will later visit most of them in person. These places are far away, at least for times when nearly everyone will have come on foot; and clearly all this doesn’t happen on a single day. These verses describe developments which probably took place over several weeks.
Down by the lake shore they find Jesus healing (v.10); the picture is of a dense scrum as people struggle to get close enough to touch him so that they will be healed. They find him driving out demons (v.11). Sceptics think that all this talk of demons is just some primitive description of mental illness: these simple first century types didn’t understand about schizophrenia or epilepsy and they put it all down to demons. But we read here that the demons speak articulate words as Jesus drives them out. And these are not just any words – no, it is only the demons at this point who have an accurate view of Jesus’ identity (see on 1:34). Jesus refuses to accept their testimony, not because it is inaccurate, but because the only confession he wants is from the mouth of someone who understands, and submits to his authority with delight, not terror. So Jesus is healing and driving out demons; but above all he wants to speak. We know from ch 1 that this is his top priority; and we know it here because of v.9. Why does Jesus need to have a boat on standby? Clearly, not so that he can heal; he usually heals through touch. Not so that he can drive out demons, either; he does that from close up. The only reason he could need a boat is to speak without constant interruption. From a boat a few yards out on the lake he can probably get better acoustics and he can certainly pull back from the scrum. Jesus’ priority is to teach people about the Kingdom of God. He drives out demons to prove that the Kingdom is here; but nothing will make sense to people unless they can hear and understand what it’s all about. We are not told that on this occasion he actually uses the boat; but when we get to ch 4 and the parable of the sower we will see that he does. So much for the crowd. They have come from far and near, converging on the figure standing at the lakeside. The crowd are drawn by the headline-grabbing healings and exorcisms and sadly, their testimony about Jesus is not much more helpful than the demons’. The crowds in Galilee always like Jesus, but for most of them it never goes much beyond that. They remain outsiders.
Now for the call: look at v.13. Mark tells us that Jesus calls the ones he wants to come up to him. In the Greek there is a very strong emphasis on the word ‘he’. The crowd may want Jesus for all sorts of reasons, but overwhelmingly they want him for what they can get. But Jesus calls for the people he wants. He chooses twelve. Why twelve? He has just broken with the leaders of the old religion, which is based on the nation of Israel. Israel had twelve founding fathers; and now Jesus begins to create his new people, ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16), also with twelve founding fathers. This is the beginning of the Church. On that Galilean mountainside the Church of Christ appears in embryo; and this is its very first meeting. Vv.14-15 explain why they are called. First they are to be with him – they are to spend time with Jesus, getting to know him for himself, learning all that he has to teach them, seeing how he lives right up close. They will know him as those crowds never will. Second, they will be sent out to preach about him, to announce that the Kingdom of God has come. Their job will be to cover the ground in a way which no single individual, no matter how powerful and persuasive, can ever do. They will multiply the presence of Jesus twelve-fold and in their turn bring others to know him too. Third, they will take his authority to drive out demons.
This is the beginning of the Church. When Jesus calls people today, he calls them into the same mission. People sometimes ask if he has given us the same authority, even over demons, that he gave the disciples. Demons figure prominently in Jesus’ ministry because it was his unique mission to confront Satan and defeat him; Jesus’ appearance on earth seems to have drawn out demonic opposition on a massive scale that has never been seen before or since. But demons still exist today. We don’t expect to meet them very often, but we should not be shocked when we do. If we belong to this new people, the Church, then we too have the authority of Jesus over the spiritual powers – including Satan himself when he tempts us or tells us we are useless. Although the first disciples’ position was unique, there is a sense in which every Christian is part of the Twelve.
Now let’s take a closer look at the twelve Jesus calls at first: see vv.16-19. Even Judas has his part to play in God’s purposes. Some of them have extra names, nicknames; and they are very significant. This is not a gallery of heroes – not yet, at least. Simon is called Peter, meaning the rock. Jesus calls him that because he is going to be the strong foundation of the new people, the Church – one day! For now, though, the name ‘rock’ is, shall we say, ironic – Peter is one of the most unstable people you will meet. The brothers James and John are nicknamed ‘sons of thunder’ – explosive hotheads who can create a violent argument out of thin air. The other Simon is a Zealot : the ‘zealots’ later become an organised extremist group, who in forty years’ time will lead the revolt against the Romans, a sort of first century Hezbollah whose tactics include mingling with the crowds, sidling up to suspected collaborators and sticking daggers in their backs. That organised violence still lies in the future; but it shows where Simon’s sympathies lie. Simon now finds himself in the same group as Matthew or Levi, the former tax-collector and collaborator. To put it mildly, the Twelve are a motley crew – unqualified, untravelled, untrained – yet called by Jesus to be the founding fathers of the Church. And with them he will turn the world upside down.
Today, many who admire Jesus are content to remain in the crowd. They never do hear the call and climb the mountainside. The crowd is a comfortable place to be. You don’t have to commit yourself to anything in the crowd. You can turn up in Galilee to watch Jesus do his thing; and then you can walk away. We need to show people that it is not enough to be part of the crowd. We have to come on his terms, in his way when we hear him call. Unlike the man watching Blondin at Niagara Falls, we have to turn our admiration into faith. If we have heard the call and responded to it, vv.13-18 remind us what we are called to: to be ‘with him’ – not as nodding acquaintances, but to know him. And we are called to ministry – just like the Twelve.
Perhaps, like me, you have squirmed your way through watching the film comedy ‘Meet the Parents’. It tells the story of Greg, a young man in love who goes to stay with his girlfriend’s parents so that he can ask her father for permission to marry her. From the moment he arrives, however, everything begins to go wrong. As Greg struggles to ingratiate himself with his prospective father-in-law, Jack, the plot lurches from one disaster to another. As he desperately tries to get inside this family’s strange traditions and relate to their way of thinking, so he can break into what Jack calls the ‘circle of trust’, he only succeeds in getting himself deeper and deeper into trouble. If you are engaged or even thinking about it, this is definitely not a film you should see! The reason the film works so well is because anyone who’s ever had trouble with their in-laws, in fact everyone who’s had any kind of family problems, has at least a little flash of recognition. The message is: families are trouble. Of course, it’s all very well to laugh about family troubles. There are plenty of family problems that no-one would want to laugh at. There are all too many families where the problem is bigger than dad’s eccentricities or mum’s obsession with the pets! Maybe when you think of your family – past or present – you don’t smile at all.
In the final part of Mark 3 (vv.20-35) we are introduced directly to the family of Jesus – the new family that he came to establish, that we become part of when we follow him. Having called the Twelve to him, Jesus now returns to town (v.20). Probably he is back in his Capernaum base; and maybe this is once more the house we have been in before, back in ch 1 and again in ch 2. Not surprisingly, he will have to face his opponents again as well as the crowds. The fact that opposition now comes from his own human family as well must have hurt. It’s against this background of false accusations, of blindness and hostility towards Jesus, that he shows us his true family.
The story focuses around two ideas about Jesus – the first from Jesus’ physical family, who think he’s mad, and the second from the religious authorities, who think he is possessed by evil. Jesus and his team are so busy that they don’t have time for a lunch break (v.20). It is quite possible to read the report in v.21: ‘People were saying, “he’s out of his mind”’. In other words, a rumour is doing the rounds that Jesus is mad. Alternatively, it could mean (as the NIV translators have assumed) that the family themselves have come to that conclusion. Either way, it’s the family who feel they have no choice but to come and take him away. Yes, Jesus is a thirty year old man who is living an independent life; but in a culture where the honour of the family is so vital, they simply have to follow up on stories like this. It is a question of honour or shame, just as it is in the Middle East even today. Presumably it’s what Jesus has been saying, the claims he has been making, that have led people to say that he’s mad. After all, he has been claiming to forgive people’s sins in his own name (2:5)! He has been announcing that now he’s arrived, God is in action again, doing new things – in fact, God’s longed for Kingdom is here.
Interestingly, it seems the final straw is the report that Jesus isn’t getting regular meals. Like many mothers, Mary is probably most concerned that her oldest son should be eating properly! So the family set off; and they’ll appear again shortly
Yes, the accusation is absurd. But worse than that, it is unforgivable (vv.28-30). Jesus is not bandying abstract ideas here, you see. What the religious experts have done is to label the work of God in Jesus Christ as demonic, as coming straight from the pit. They have decided that the spiritual power behind all of Jesus’ works is not God’s Holy Spirit, but Satan. This is not some idle, throw-away remark, it is their careful and settled conclusion. Jesus responds, If you say that, you are placing yourself right outside the scope of God’s forgiveness. That’s what the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is – a settled attitude of deliberate hostility against the work of God. Occasionally today you will meet Christians who are worried that they have committed this sin – either unintentionally, by making some rash remark, or deliberately before they knew Christ – and that therefore God can never forgive them. We can reassure anyone who thinks that: if you are worried about it, you haven’t done it. This is a warning against setting yourself deliberately to reject Christ when you have all the evidence before your eyes that he is real and true.
So the family think Jesus is mad; the delegation think he is inspired by evil; and there aren’t many other options left – not for people who really know about him. Jesus himself tells us what he is all about right here in v.27. It’s another little parable. The strong man is Satan; the one breaking in is Jesus himself. This is precisely his mission: to break into Satan’s territory, to tie Satan down and to steal his possessions. He’s not mad, he’s not evil; and this is no civil war, this is an invasion of enemy territory. Satan’s possessions are the people of this world who are in his grip, even though they don’t know it. Jesus came to set those people free. Most people don’t want to be told they are helplessly held by Satan; but it is true even so, and the Bible confirms it in other places – you are a member of the Kingdom of God, or else of the domain of Satan. But the message of Mark’s gospel, indeed of the whole of Scripture, is that Jesus Christ is more powerful than Satan – driving out the demons proves that – and here he is on his way to the great battle, the battle of the cross. Satan’s power over us, his claim on us, is that we are sinners, offenders against God. But when Jesus Christ went to the cross he dealt with our sin and reconciled us to God. The sins are forgiven, the broken relationship is restored and Satan’s claim on us is gone. So Jesus’ death on the cross defeats Satan, the strong man; and Jesus comes in and rescues from Satan’s house everyone who will follow him out of the prison. And so – v.28 – all our sins will be forgiven.
Now it is time to meet the family – v.31. They have been on their way and now they turn up: Mary and her other sons. Presumably they know where to find him because this is his regular base. They wrongly assume that if they send a messenger into the house, then Jesus will immediately drop whatever he is doing and emerge. That’s what the culture assumes. Inside, the house is crowded as usual, the message is passed along until it reaches him and soon everyone knows that the family is waiting outside (v.32). Jesus responds with a distinctly odd question (v.33). Then he looks around. Now the house is crowded, but of course this is not the heaving crowd of thousands we see with Jesus by the lakeside. This is a house in a fishing village; at most a few dozen people are within earshot and these are not the sensation seekers. These are people who want to sit and listen to his words: a group that consists of his core team of twelve with a wider group of others. In vv.34-35 Jesus gives his verdict. He looks at the group gathered round him on the floor. Then he looks at the messenger at the door and speaks through him to the family gathered outside; and he says, You say they’re outside looking for me? No: my true family have already found me. My true family are here, on the inside. It’s not so much that he is rejecting his human family – though we should note there is no special place given to Mary his mother here. But this is one more way that Jesus is overturning people’s assumptions, redrawing the boundaries. He’s speaking to a nation who believe that family is everything. These people live and die by genealogies. They think God will accept them simply because two thousand years ago they had an ancestor called Abraham.
But, says Jesus, my true people (and therefore God’s true people) are these: the ones who know me, who listen to me, who do the will of God – the God who is creating a new people that doesn’t depend on physical family ties, or on the nation you were born into, but only on belonging to Jesus. It’s a family that will extend right round the world, into every country and across every boundary. It doesn’t divide people by their background, or their colour or race. In every local church we have a small fragment of that big family. It’s not perfect, because it’s full of people who still get things wrong. Sometimes bad things happen in this family. But the good news is that the head of this family is perfect. The day will finally come when we are too: we will see Jesus face to face and he will look at us and say: yes, you are my brother, my sister. In this family, we are united by ties much stronger, far deeper, than even the closest human family. These ties are stronger than genetics, stronger than marriage, stronger than human love. They are ties based on blood, but not ours. The life of this family begins with the blood of Jesus.
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