Dispossessed, Possessed, or In Charge


Mark 3:20–35

The Markan Context – Jesus had established himself as the only true teacher in the synagogue, the Lord over disease, the Lord and true giver of the Law, the Lord over the demonic, the Lord of the future. Neither the crowd, the religious leaders, nor the family could absorb all this into their perspective. Perceiving the significance of such actions of absolute authority in a mere man were startlingly difficult to integrate in their current worldview and religious climate, so they drew a conclusion consistent with their inability to question themselves. They questioned Jesus and his human and spiritual authenticity.

I. Was Jesus not in full possession of his own rational faculties? (Verses 20–22)

A. His family set out on a journey to rescue him from the spectacle created by the mounting opposition of religious leaders and the fervency of his popular appeal.

Was he dispossessed of mental balance? Perhaps they thought he was on the verge of becoming a revolutionary, gathering a following of the outcast and political zealots and had been overtaken by delusions of grandeur. They sought him for his own safety, and theirs.

B. The Scribes saw the phenomenon and believed the answer was his collegiality with the prince of devils.

    1. They did not doubt the supernatural origin of his obvious powers. The Scribes could see that Jesus’ uncanny manifestation of authority in many realms demanded something beyond the powers of an ordinary human being, someone with at least parallel power to those things that he engaged. If Satan can made people sick, then perhaps also he can heal. If Satan possesses people, then he can release them from bondage.
    2. The ease, therefore, with which he seems to handle disease and the demonic must be explained by his personal involvement with Beelzebul. Like a lieutenant under the command of a general, Jesus issued orders of retreat so that the progress of satanic work would be voluntarily arrested for a season, or his occupied territory would be evacuated.


II. Or did Jesus show a superior rationality, and thus a superior spiritual status, to his accusers? (Verses 23–37)

A. Jesus proposed a clear question that challenged the scribal conclusion.

“How can Satan cast out Satan?” The question does not suppose that Satan would be unable to cease his operations and thus leave certain people which he has come to possess. The question concerns the destructive purpose of Satan, that he has “come to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). For him to relinquish property that he has gained by his deceit, to abandon voluntarily the grip that he has on the fallen world or by command of an inferior power would be for him to change his purpose. To suppose that he surrenders ground he has gained and abandon his purpose underestimates the depth of evil in his being. His hatred of God is absolute. He has no intention of surrendering any ground he has gained in opposing God’s purpose and any evidence of freedom, joy, and human flourishing.


B. Jesus gives two brief parables, an answer to his question, and a more likely explanation also in the form of a brief parable.

    1. He posed the picture of a kingdom divided against itself. If a kingdom has found stability and riches, and grandeur how would it turn on itself and lose the very things which constitute its purpose? A revolution might arise within it contrary to its purposes, but it would be a contradiction of its nature as a kingdom to begin to oppose itself. The conclusion: when a kingdom begins to crumble, some opposing force of greater power and more enduring energy has begun to overturn it.
    2. He posed the picture of a house divided against itself. Here we find the same logic. A house—a family gathered together in love, unity of mind and heart, and full harmony in purpose—will not begin to introduce ideas that oppose its agreed-upon strategy and goals. Another force, alien to the joy of the house, is the only explanation for the falling of the house. Even so, when the domicile of the devil begins to totter and the foundations of his house waver, one must conclude that a factor alien to its standards and more powerful and resolute than its combined forces has begun its attack on the house.
    3. He gave an immediate application that answered his own question. In the same way, Satan would not divide himself. He would not alter his purpose of opposing God. That motivation of Satan will never change. If it did, and he rose up against himself, then he would fall of his own accord, a supposition contrary to his purpose ever since his rebellion in heaven led to his expulsion.
    4. He proposed a more rational answer by another short parable. Satan against Satan, house against itself, kingdom against itself—this has not happened. No, a stronger with alien purpose has entered the strong man’s house in order to disrupt and overthrow his kingdom. The stronger man had come and already was disrupting the plan and dominance of the strong man. Already Satan felt his kingdom crumbling. In the atoning work and resurrection of Christ, the Father “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). All the redeemed are protected by the Son of God and “the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). Soon, “the God of peace will crush Satan under our feet” (Romans 16:20). Finally, he will be cast into the bottomless pit. The crucifixion and resurrection and the preaching of the gospel already has greatly diminished satanic power in the world, has put a much shorter leash on him, and will finally result in the perfect abolition of his presence and power.


III. Jesus explained the dangerous severity of the Scribe’s viewpoint. (verses 28–30)

A. First, Jesus gave assurance of the scope of forgiveness.

This would draw to mind the authority that Jesus already had claimed and demonstrated of his immediate authority in relation to sin (2:5, 10). Paul held himself forth as the supreme example of God’s patience and his willingness to forgive sins, that all who would believe might receive encouragement (1 Timothy 1:15, 16). This willingness and even the lengths to which God went to effect forgiveness shows the severity of the sin Jesus warned against in the next verse.

B. He explained how the answer given by the scribes would close out the possibility of salvation. In Matthew, Jesus indicated that this sin could be brought to consummation in “this age” (Matthew 12:32).

It would be outside the sphere of forgiveness now and certainly, therefore, remain so in the age to come. Mark used the phrase that could be translated “caught in the grips of a sin that will remain with him forever.” To say “Jesus has an unclean spirit” is such a sin.

    1. This sin could feasibly be committed in any age from the time of Christ until he comes again in glory. Persons were most susceptible to it, however, during his life time for his actions clearly were those of a person whose entire being was an expression of the power and holiness of the Spirit of God. Bear in mind that in the previous chapter Jesus gave palpable and empirical evidence of his divinity by healing a paralytic with his mere words. That sort of undeniable immediate evidence would be available only during his lifetime and in his presence. Jesus operated out of the infinite resources of his own intrinsic power as Son of God but also worked as the incarnate Son of Man under the abiding presence and filling of the Holy Spirit. The relation of the Son and the Spirit in eternity does not cease in time so the Spirit always is proceeding from the Son and always is fittingly involved in those aspects of the Son’s person that distinguish him from Father and Spirit. In the incarnation, not only does the Father proclaim, “Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my Beloved with whom my soul is well pleased,” but promised “I will put my Spirit upon him” (Matthew 12:18). To attribute the work of Jesus to demonic power would be to have no sense at all of the unalloyed holiness of his life and the reality of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. This would denominate one as a person, not only of no personal holy desires or perceptions but would bring about a judicial withdrawing of even common graces from such a person.
    2. This sin is described in detail in Hebrews 2 and 6 of one to which persons might be susceptible in the apostolic age. It would be the supreme manifestation of the absolute enmity of the human heart to the holiness of God in preferring personal advantage to the transforming work of divine grace. The conditions that led to it in the post-ascension apostolic age would be continued exposure to the obvious manifestations of spiritual power that often accompanied gospel preaching and life within the churches.
      • Hebrews 2:3 poses the question, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” This was first declared by the Lord and was “attested to us by those who heard,” that is, the apostles. God himself bore witness to their attestation “by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (2:4). Though Jesus was not personally present to exhibit his immediate authority with undeniable observable evidence, the acts of the apostles and the works of particularly gifted people in the churches still showed that the testimony to Jesus preached in the gospel was of God.
      • Hebrews 6:4–6 gives a scenario in which renewal by repentance will become impossible. Such a condition may be reached by those “who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come,” and yet have fallen away, that is, excluded themselves from the visible communion of the saints and from its teaching. This elevated status of knowledge and observed experience would have been attained by the Scribes and Pharisees that hounded Jesus with the motive of destroying him and by Judas Iscariot. Following the ascension, many were made partakers of apostolic Christianity in the midst of the extraordinary workings of the Spirit in their ministries as well as in the churches during this time of the expansion and eventual completion of divine revelation and new covenant solidification. In Acts 8:19–24, Peter indicated that repentance might be impossible for Simon the magician. Others in the churches might live in the presence of wonders of different sorts and have strong impressions made on the mind by the spiritual power of the message and the evidence of its transforming significance but still be short of true faith. Their desire to preserve their lives rather than suffer for the gospel would mark their turn of mind to devote themselves to this life and despise the life that is eternal (Luke 16:13).
      • Though the personal presence of Jesus in his words and wonderful works given in the power of the Spirit is not with us, and the extraordinary workings of the Spirit in healings, miracles, prophesyings, tongues, words of knowledge that permeated the immediate apostolic age have accomplished their purpose, we have no less powerful works of the Spirit today. These are not external operations of power, manifestly visible to the senses, but are nevertheless demonstrations of the divinity of the whole of Christian truth and its transforming power. The preaching of the word, the fellowship and growth in love of a church community, the effectual operations of the Spirit in bring sinners to faith in Christ, and the moral revolution in the life of a person so converted—these can be observed and should serve as evidence of the truth of the gospel. Also, common internal operations of the Spirit may work with natural conscience in convincing a person of his sin, his need for a righteousness outside of his own failures, and his danger of standing in judgment (John 16:8–11). So great may be these convictions, so real may appear the truth of one’s personal sin and the truth of the gospel, that rejection of it may constitute the same kind of falling away possible under apostolic ministry, though not in light of the same visible manifestation of the Spirit.

C. After this discourse, Jesus was informed of the ill-conceived attempt at rescue from his family.

Though not making the accusation that he was in league with Satan, they felt that he had gone beyond what was sane and balanced for a carpenter from Nazareth. Mary must have felt some resonance with this as she pondered the 12 year old Jesus in the temple, but his siblings were less impressed, more embarrassed, and perhaps drew her into this little rescue attempt.


IV. Jesus lived in the context of newness—

His appearance brought the new cloth that could not be used to patch an old garment; his was the new wine that would burst the old wine skin (2:21, 22). His disciples would be pressed beyond the cold traditions of the elders who had substituted their constricted understanding for the expansiveness of God’s dynamic, ever-living, sharply piercing truth. The genetic family, while still honored, must give way to an eternally connected spiritual family. The old covenant of pure standards without transforming power, of a covenant of works that promises no mercy or forgiveness, must find its glory darkened in light of a new covenant that grants mercy and forgiveness without contradicting the absolute standard of righteousness.

A. Jesus pointed to those who sat around him wanting to hear him teach.

Jesus’ teaching transcended the rules of ritual observance, often the mere exposition of man-made rules, given by the teachers of the law. He gave the deep substance of God’s revealed purpose and opened up the power of transforming truth. His parables riveted themselves in their minds, and if they did not understand them immediately (which was often the case and even the intent [Mark 4:11, 12]), the images created gave a pathway to an eventual understanding of some mystery of the kingdom of God, “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11). Even today, we work hard to reach a clear grasp of what Jesus was communicating. He was putting in earthly terms and images those things of which he was immediately aware from his eternal participation in the counsel of heaven. Though Jesus knew that they did not understand, still he was immediately conscious of his superior status as a teacher saying, “The Queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). He knew that the entire purpose of redemption and revelation culminated in his ministry: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16, 17).

B. Jesus gave a new standard for what it meant to know God and be in his kingdom.

Earthly dominance in the context of perfect justice would come later; those who gained kingdom traits now would “inherit the earth” later. Presently those who possess the kingdom know their own spiritual poverty and long for spiritual healing. They will mourn for sin. They will not be self-assured in knowledge but will be always teachable by divine truth. They will come to understand an absolute standard of righteousness and long for its perfect lineaments to define their lives. They will embrace mercy as their only hope for acceptance and extend mercy to others. Beyond that, they will long for purity of heart in the presence of God and will be willing to suffer earthly loss for the sake of heavenly gain.

C. Jesus was living in light of what he announced to the woman in Samaria, “But the time is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

The “s” should be a capital “S” for he was talking about the work of the Spirit in inaugurating the terms of the “New Covenant.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Ezekiel 36:24–37) This is the same reality to which he refers when he announced the discontinuity with family and ethnic connections and affirmed the familial relation with those who “do the will of God” (Mark 3:34, 35).


To heal a withered hand that the body might be whole,
To make a lame man walk, and to cleanse from sin his soul—
These are works that Jesus did as prophets had foretold.

Where is the man so brash to claim this prerogative,
To cast our demons, shut their mouths, and our sins forgive?
No demon’s friend, no madman, can see death and say, “Live!”

The Spirit drove Jesus to the desert for a test,
Vindicated him so that he earned full righteousness,
Taught and cast out devils by the pow’r of holiness.

Sinful and irrational that sin’s by Satan bound;
By reason and by righteousness, the verdict unsound.
Such hardened souls to sure condemnation redound.

We enter Jesus’ family by the Spirit’s pow’r,
Adopted through atonement, when Jesus seized his hour.
Receive his dying grace; in fear no longer cower.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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