20He went into the house. A crowd gathered again, so that they couldn’t even have a meal. 21When his family heard it, they came to restrain him. ‘He’s out of his mind,’ they said. 22Experts who had come from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! He casts out demons by the prince of demons!’ 23Jesus summoned them and spoke to them in pictures. ‘How can the Accuser cast out the Accuser? 24If a kingdom splits into two factions, it can’t last; 25if a household splits into two factions, it can’t last. 26So if the Accuser revolts against himself and splits into two, he can’t last – his time is up! 27But remember: no one can get into a strong man’s house and steal his property unless first they tie up the strong man; then they can plunder his house. 28‘I’m telling you the truth: people will be forgiven all sins, and all blasphemies of whatever sort. 29But people who blaspheme the holy spirit will never find forgiveness. They will be guilty of an eternal sin.’ 30That was his response to their claim that he had an unclean spirit.Mark 3.20–35
I have long wrestled with this passage from Mark, especially growing up in a particular Tradtion that would have emphasized the blasphemy in this verse in measurable ways. When the word blasphemy is used as a means to control the truth of the Gospel, it can very quickly turn into abuse. When we read this verse and use it to distinguish between the other as the heretic and to establish ourselves as the true believer, it can very quickly become oppressive and miss the person who lies at the center of the question fueling this accusation. Which in Mark’s Gospel is the question ‘who is this man’? Is he the Christ or something other?
Not unlike verses dealing with false prophets and sheep in wolves clothing, there is a fine line that exists between distinguishing between truth and falsehood and getting wrapped up in this accusing game. In my younger years this verse arrived in the form of heavy anxiety over whether I had committed the unpardonable sin. In my later years this matured into accusations of being called that false prophet my younger self feared. I can remember literally being called “the devil” for endorsing something that Andy Stanley, of all people, once said in one of his sermons. That’s how thin and blurred this line can get. I learned very quickly that no matter how hard one tries, there will always be a reason someone can call you the devil, and the truth of this passage is that if you call someone the devil you are evoking the nature of that unpardonable sin.
The thing that struck me about encountering this passage once again, which came up in my daily reading through N.T. Wright’s Lenton for Everyone series on the Gospel of Mark, is is that the danger of presenting ourselves as the accuser is that we ultimately end up accusing ourselves in the process. We all become the devil we see in the other. And what happens when we play the role of the accuser is that we actually begin to take up “the satan’s” work, which is to divide and foster division between the family of God. Christ on the other hand cannot stand divided. Christ came to heal a divided people and to bring unity where there is division. The truth of Christ is that this unifying work can only be found in Him, lest we end up all accusing one another to death. And if the unifying work of Christ is not true in our lives, in our communities, in our Churches, then what hope do we have in this ministry of reconciliation? This is a life, a community, a Church, a home that cannot last. Thus, especially those who call themselves Christ followers, this is serious business indeed.
Something about N.T Wright’s reflection in his Lenton for Everyone series, which I am reading his Mark version of for this present season, landed for me in a new and fresh way towards this end. I’m not sure I had ever read this passage from the lens of that division/unity theme. But I thought a portion of what he wrote was worth sharing. It helped to free some of that baggage for me personally, and perhaps it could reform your own understanding of this tricky passage as well.
Week 1: Wednesday (Mark 3:20-35; focused on 3:20-30); from Lent For Everyone: Mark, Year B by N.T. Wright
For generations people reading the gospels have wondered, quite naturally, just how much they can trust the gospels. Sceptics have suggested that it was all made up later to boost the church’s picture of the Jesus it worshipped. The bridges to historical certainty have been broken and not rebuilt. Fundamentalists have said that it was all dictated by God, so the question doesn’t arise. But most ordinary Christians are somewhere in between. Where are there solid footholds on which we know we can stand, even if it feels a bit of a splash, sometimes, to get to them?
This passage is one of those solid rocks. Nobody in the early church, however inventive they were feeling, would ever have made up a story about Jesus being accused of being in league with the devil. That would simply give too much ammunition to the new movement’s opponents, of whom there were plenty. So we can be absolutely sure this story is historically solid. You can rest your whole weight on it.
But if this story is solid, it means that we are forced, whether we want to or not, to believe that Jesus really was doing and saying things that were so remarkable that the only possible explanation – unless Jesus really was acting with a new, God-given power – was that he was in league with the devil. His opponents must have been desperate; this was all they could come up with. They couldn’t deny that Jesus had been doing extraordinary things. They could only try to hit back with smear and innuendo. The solid rock at one point enables us, then, to walk through some other bits of the fast-moving historical stream with equal confidence.
So what do we find as we do so? We find a new level of a theme we already observed: that when Jesus was behaving as if he was in charge, it wasn’t just the human ‘authorities’ that were being upstaged, and likely to strike back. It was the dark powers that hovered behind them.
There is an irony here. The legal experts from Jerusalem say that Jesus is in league with ‘the Accuser’, in other words, ‘the satan’. The word ‘satan’ actually means ‘accuser’; this reflects the ancient belief that the dark force in question was God’s ‘director of public prosecutions’, whose job it was to point the finger at evildoers, and who enjoyed the role so much that he began to incite people to commit offences for which he could then charge them. But it is they, themselves, who are ‘accusing’ – accusing Jesus! This is part of a much larger theme which continues throughout Mark’s gospel, as various dif ferent people ‘accuse’ Jesus of all sorts of things until they end up crucifying him.
But Jesus, in response, makes his strongest claim yet about what is going on through his work. What he is doing indicates clearly that the ‘Accuser’s’ kingdom – the usurped rule, in the whole world, of the power of evil – is being broken. Jesus has already made a decisive impact on it, ‘binding the strong man’ so that he can now ‘plunder his house’ (verse 27). This is the only explanation, Jesus is suggesting, that fits the facts. If Jesus had been in league with the satan, things would have got worse, not better.
The sharp, and worrying, warnings of verses 28–30 have often been taken out of context, as though there was a special ‘unforgiveable sin’ but Jesus wasn’t telling us what it was. Within the passage, though, the meaning is clear. Jesus is doing what he is doing by the power of the holy spirit. But if people look at the spirit’s work and declare that it’s the work of the devil, they are erecting a high steel wall between them and the powerful, rescuing love of God. That is a warning to all of us, whenever we are tempted to sneer at some new or different ‘Christian’ movement.
The main lesson for us, though, as we continue our journey through Lent, may well be this. If we are serious about following Jesus, people will misunderstand us, too, and may accuse us of bad motives, or prejudice, or ‘extremism’. The answer is simply to look back to Jesus, and to his victory over all the powers of evil. They can still make a lot of noise, and cause a lot of nuisance, but the ‘strong man’ has been tied up, and those who work for God’s kingdom can indeed, in the power of the spirit, set about plundering his house.
A brief word on the history of the Hebrew word translated “the satan”, or “the accuser” from an article for Biblical Archaeology authored by John Gregory Drummond
The Hebrew word śāṭān, meaning “accuser” or “adversary,” occurs several times throughout the Hebrew Bible and refers to enemies both human and celestial alike. When referring to the celestial adversary, the word is typically accompanied by the definite article. He is ha-satan—the Accuser—and it is a job description rather than a proper name. From the Accuser’s appearances in the Books of Job and Zechariah, it seems that the job entails calling attention to the unworthiness of mankind. The Accuser is essentially the prosecuting attorney of the divine court of YHWH, and part of his job includes collecting evidence to prove his cases. With this bit of knowledge in mind, it isn’t difficult to envision the various “outcries against sin,” such as that against Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20–21), as the voice of the Accuser.
It is difficult to determine at which point in Israel’s history the Accuser began to take on a much more sinister role in the Israelite/Jewish belief structure, or how heaven’s great prosecutor became the prince of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). It is certainly easy to make the connection between Israel’s time in exile and the likely influence of the cosmic dualism of Persian religion.1 However, even within books written well after the return from foreign lands, the Accuser is still a self-righteous lawyer. Though if 1 Chronicles 21:1 is any indication,2 they began to believe the Accuser wasn’t above getting his hands dirty.
It is perfectly clear, however, that by the first century C.E., Judaism developed a belief in the divine forces of darkness doing battle against the forces of light. This can be seen within the New Testament and other extra-Biblical writings such as those found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are likely several factors that inspired these developments, including the influence of Persian, as well as Hellenistic, religions.
If there was an army of evil spiritual forces making war on the righteous, they had to have a commander. It is at this time that the impersonal and lofty Accuser began to acquire the various names and titles that have filled the writings of western civilization for 2,000 years. The Greek word diabolos (from which “devil” is derived), meaning “slanderer,” comes from a verb that means “to hurl” (i.e., accusations).
Diabolos was typically used as the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew śāṭān (in the Septuagint version of Job, for example), though it was not uncommon to simply transliterate the word into the Greek satanas (1 Kings 11:14). Other names used for the leader of the forces of evil at this time include Maśṭēmāh, which means “hatred” (1QM 13:4, 11; Jubilees 10:8), and Belial, a popular name among the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which means “worthless” or “corrupt.” “Children of Belial” (Hebrew: bene-belial) was a typical phrase used to describe evil people in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:13; 1 Samuel 1:16; 2 Chronicles 13:7, etc.). If someone were searching for a name that personified evil in the Hebrew Bible, it would be Belial, not Satan. Interesting enough, the name only occurs once in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 6:15), as Paul’s stark contrast to Christ.
It is also in this period that we begin to see the development of the tradition of equating the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden with Satan (Life of Adam and Eve xi–xvii).
Satan’s role in the New Testament, though highly expanded, has much more in common with the Accuser of the Hebrew Bible than the commander of the armies of darkness that is typically portrayed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even though he is given such lofty titles as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), “father of lies” (John 8:44), “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “ruler of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and Beelzebul, “ruler of the demons” (Matthew 10:25; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15), Satan is essentially treated as nothing more than a glorified prison warden who has been corrupted by his own power. Throughout the Gospels, Satan’s “kingdom” is never considered to be a burning underworld full of the tormented dead, but, rather, is equated with the bondage of sin and the curses brought upon humanity for acts of unrighteousness. According to Jesus (Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21–22), a “strong man” (Satan) must be bound in order to plunder his house for treasures (humans), and it is clear he viewed his ministry and that of his disciples within this context. All other references to Satan in the New Testament, including those in Revelation, reflect this struggle for spiritual freedom.
Over the course of several centuries of influence from many different cultures, the defeated Accuser of the Christians would go on to appropriate aspects of various divine enemies (Typhon, Hades, Ahriman, Hela, to name but a few) to become the complex mythological monster that was thrown out of heaven at the beginning of time to rule the fiery underworld and torment the souls of the damned. Such a character makes for great movies and Halloween costumes, but would have been virtually unknown to anyone in Biblical times.