READ : Mark 3:22
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”
Mark 3:22 rsv
We’ve been noting in the Gospel according to Mark what various contemporaries thought and said about Jesus of Nazareth. Last week we saw how His family members, at an early point in His ministry, feared He was out of His mind. The charge we consider today is far worse. His enemies said He was not crazy but crafty, not deluded but demon-possessed! Listen to their words from Mark chapter 3, beginning at verse 22: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, `He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’” Let’s try to understand that accusation, how Jesus responded to it and what it all means for us today.
WHAT IS THE CHARGE?
The “scribes” we read about here were apparently legal specialists. Their arrival in Galilee from Jerusalem suggests that by this time Jesus had caught the attention of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel’s religious establishment. It’s possible that these scribes were official emissaries from the Great Sanhedrin, coming to examine Jesus’ miracles and evaluate His ministry. If the decision proved unfavorable, Capernaum might have been declared a “seduced city,” the prey of an apostate teacher. Such a verdict required, of course, a thorough investigation made on the spot by special envoys like these scribes. After a time of observation and consultation, they made a public statement about their findings. This one was decidedly unflattering to Jesus.
The first indictment was that He was “possessed by Beelzebul.” We don’t know a great deal about the origin of that strange word, but it seems to have been a colloquial expression, a name local people gave in those days to the master strategist of evil, the wicked one, the devil. This archenemy of God at times gained possession of human beings through his agents, called in the New Testament “demons.” Jesus, during the course of His ministry, encountered a number of persons who were so possessed. Sometimes this affected the victim physically and produced certain ordinary diseases. One possessed boy is described as having a “deaf and dumb spirit” and as exhibiting from time to time symptoms resembling those of epilepsy. Some have concluded from things like this that “demon possession” was simply a primitive way of accounting for physical and mental ills and their visible effects.
But this doesn’t take into account all the New Testament data about demons. At times they are heard to speak. They possess knowledge beyond that of human beings. They have a distinct individuality, not related to the one they are possessing. Jesus definitely recognized them as real, personal beings, rebuked them on occasion and cast them out.
Now the scribes are saying that Jesus Himself is demon-possessed. This charge was designed, of course, to discredit Jesus and discourage His considerable following. If the people took this accusation seriously, they would want nothing to do with Jesus. As a man thought to be driven by demonic forces, He would be seen as unclean, unreliable, even dangerous. The second part of the verdict was even more damaging. “By the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” The crowds in Galilee had been marveling at the way Jesus could deliver people who were enslaved by evil powers. He was freeing them one after another from sin, possession, disease and death. Now the scribes try to put that activity in a bad light. They give it a bizarre twist. Jesus is doing this, they claim, as the agent of the devil. In other words, a malignant power is at work in Him. In only seems to be a good thing. It actually, on the view of the scribes, is a kind of Satanic conspiracy, a sinister deception. They are branding Jesus here as a kind of magician, an agent of hell leading people astray by His tricks.
HOW DOES JESUS RESPOND?
Sometimes Jesus ignored the vicious things that were said about Him, but not this time. This was a charge too serious, too deadly to let pass. Here’s how he responded. Listen: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end” (Mark 3:23-26). Jesus wants His hearers to think through the accusation of the scribes: that He was casting out demons as the devil’s agent. “Does that really make sense?” He asks. Would Satan want to drive out his own emissaries? Would he want to defeat his plans? He may be monstrously evil, but no one has ever accused the devil of stupidity. The thought of Satan waging war against himself, opposing his own kingdom, pulling down his own house, was too ridiculous to be considered seriously. Is it likely that the enemy of God and man would want to see people whole and forgiven, healthy and free, full of praise to God?
Jesus gives now a different interpretation of what has happened. “But no one can enter a strong man’s house,” He says, “and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house” (v. 27). The “strong man” that Jesus refers to here is obviously Satan, prince of the kingdom of darkness. Jesus acknowledges both his existence and his power. Then he describes His own ministry as an entering of the strong man’s house and a plundering of his goods. That’s how Jesus spoke consistently of what He had come to do. He saw Himself as entering “enemy-occupied territory.” He had come into a world ravaged by the effects of sin. He had come to a people who by their disobedience and estrangement from God had opened themselves to alien powers. He saw the people around Him as those bound by sin and oppressed by Satan. By invading this present world system, He had come right into the “strong man’s house,” with the express purpose of taking away his possessions. He had come to set Satan’s captives free.
But would a strong man, a formidable enemy like Satan, let that happen? Surely, he wouldn’t give up his captives willingly. No, it was only when someone stronger than he had come upon the scene. It was only when Satan was bound, his power neutralized, that these deliverances could occur.
That’s how Jesus saw Himself, as the “Stronger than the strong.” His mission was to contest the dominion of evil powers at every point, to subdue the devil and destroy his works. And the aim behind it all was that human beings, precious to God but preyed upon by Satan, might be released.
On this view, Jesus was not the agent of Satan but his adversary. Instead of serving the kingdom of darkness, He was overthrowing it. So far was He from being Satan’s minion, that He had mastered Him altogether.
Now Jesus exposes the full seriousness of what the scribes have said. Listen: “`Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ – for they had said, `He has an unclean spirit’” (vv. 28-30).
I hope you will pay careful attention to what I am going to say now because this is a passage of Scripture that has often been misunderstood, and the misunderstanding has brought upon conscientious, struggling people much pain and distress. Jesus speaks here about what has been called “the unpardonable sin”: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It’s crucially important that we understand what that is and what it is not. Always remember the setting in which these words were spoken and why they were spoken. It was, as Jesus said, because of the accusation which the scribes had just made.
In a profound sense, their charge was not being made against Jesus Himself. If the scribes or others had misjudged Jesus, if they had failed to see His glory, they could surely be forgiven for that. Think of how many people have ignored Jesus, rejected Him, even cursed Him, but who have later repented and received forgiveness.
The deeper issue here is: what is the source of Jesus’ power over the demons? Does it come from heaven or from hell? Whose power is working in Him? Is it God’s power or the devil’s? Obviously, some kind of spiritual dynamic is at work here. Is it an unclean spirit of evil, or is it the Holy Spirit of God?
Now it’s clear what the scribes had been saying, and Jesus called that “blasphemy.” They were looking upon the same wonderful works of deliverance that the rest of the crowd had seen, but making the considered judgment that the source of them all was diabolical. Jesus saw that as the most perilous attitude a human being can ever adopt. When in the presence of overwhelming evidence, we insist on calling light darkness and good evil, we are in serious trouble.
WHAT DOES THE INTERCHANGE MEAN FOR US?
What can we learn from this interchange? For one thing, whatever view we take of it, there can be no doubt that Jesus did marvelous things for afflicted and enslaved people, that He freed them from all kinds of miseries and evils. Even His worst enemies never denied that this was so. They disputed about His motives and about the source of His power, but they could never dismiss the reality of what He was doing.
Also, it’s interesting that they focus on the Spirit or power which was in work in Jesus. That tells something about the way in which He approached His ministry. Jesus always claimed to be the agent of Another. He insisted that everything He taught had been given Him by His Father in heaven, and that all of His works were the Father’s works. He carried out His whole ministry by the leading and power of God’s Spirit. He never claimed to do anything by his personal virtue, power or charisma. He presented Himself always as God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, as a man filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
That brings into focus the great question confronting everyone who learns about Jesus. The question is: How do we account for His life and ministry? The fact of what He did and continues to do for people is undeniable. He brings them forgiveness. He releases them from enslaving evils. He makes God real to them. He fills their hearts with joy. He gives them hope. They find in Jesus a new power to love and serve.
What is this strange dynamic at work in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth? How do we explain Him? What shall we say about Him? According to Jesus, everything depends on the answer we give to that question.
The scribes that we read about today insisted that the source was evil, that Jesus could not have come from God, that the power at work in Him was wicked, that the Spirit inspiring Him had to be unclean. Jesus gave them a solemn warning. Note – it was a warning, not a threat. He didn’t say to them that they had already crossed the line. But He did say that if they continued in their stubborn rejection of the Light, if they kept on calling good evil, and God’s Spirit a demon from hell, there could be no hope for them.
He spoke the warning, I believe, with a breaking, yearning heart. He didn’t want to see people shutting their ears to the truth, turning their backs on God, dooming themselves. He wanted them, He wants you, to consider carefully His works and listen to His Words. He wants us to realize that the One guiding and energizing Him is none other than the Maker of the heavens and the earth, the holy Lord, the righteous Father, God Himself. He wants us to affirm today, each of us personally for ourselves, that He, Jesus, is God’s Son, moved by God’s Spirit, our only Savior. What about you? What do you say about Jesus? That’s the great question. Is He for you the devil’s mouthpiece or is He God’s own Messiah?
PRAYER: O God, so move upon our hearts by Your Spirit that all of us will be able to give a good answer to that question. In Jesus’ name. Amen.