Who Do You Say Jesus Is?
Speaking on national radio in 1942, and then published ten years later in 1952 in the book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis made the argument often called “Lord, Liar, Lunatic.” He said,
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
A major theme in the Gospel of Mark is the crowds (mentioned 34 times). From the beginning, Jesus has always drawn a crowd, but as C.S. Lewis said, and as Mark shows, Jesus didn’t come to draw crowds. Whether it’s the crowd in our day who see Jesus is a great moral teacher, or the crowds in Mark who were mesmerized by his healing powers but missed what was most important about him, Jesus didn’t come for the crowds.
In Mark 3:7, the crowds now are called “great” for first time, and again in verse 8. Mark says the people are coming from Galilee where Jesus is, and Judea and Jerusalem in the south, and Idumea even further south, and beyond the Jordan river to the east, even Tyre and Sidon to the west and north — in other words, basically everywhere, north, south, east, and west. This is a big crowd from all over.
And what’s drawn them? Verse 8: “the great crowd heard all that he was doing.” These healings we’ve seen him perform these last three Sundays now are catching up with him. This crowd isn’t drawn by what he’s saying, but doing. They don’t even see him as a great moral teacher. They’re just coming for the fireworks. Which, let’s admit, is understandable.
And now the crowd is getting so big, it’s dangerous. The disciples have to get “a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him” (verse 9). This is a circus. Mark is not celebrating this as a success. Jesus did not celebrate this as a success. And we too should be careful about being too wowed by a crowd.
In fact, these hordes are not advancing Jesus’s mission but beginning to get in the way. Being part of the crowd has never been what it meant to truly follow Jesus. Christianity is not about following the crowd. It may be exciting to gather a bunch of people, but in the end these masses matter very little, and as great it may seem to some, it could be little more than dangerous. In verse 20, we’ll see the crowd gathers again, so that they cannot even eat! Drawing a crowd, on its own, did not signal mission accomplished for Jesus; nor does it in the church today.
But even though this crowd sees Jesus as a healer, not the great moral teacher as Lewis warned, they are in the end very similar: they miss who Jesus really is. Was Jesus a great healer? Yes, and so much more. You’re asking far too little from him if you only want to see him heal, or even be healed. And was Jesus a great teacher? Yes, and so much more. You’re asking far too little from him if you only want his teaching. As Lewis says, “Let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
Soon enough the crowds will dissipate and divide. The middle ground will disappear, and we’ll be forced to take sides. And when that happens what has Jesus left open to us? Who do you say that he is?
Apart from the crowds, we find three other groups here in Mark 3: the scribes, Jesus’s family, and Jesus’s disciples. The scribes say, in essence, that Jesus is a liar, that he casts out demons by the power of Satan himself. His own family says he’s out of his mind, a lunatic. But his disciples do the will of his Father, and are the ones who will come to call him Lord. So, let’s look, in turn, at these three groups.
(Note: Some have observed there is another option than liar, lunatic, and Lord: legend. If the Gospels are legends, then we don’t have access to the real Jesus. But as Lewis observed, and as you can read for yourself, the Gospels do not read anything like legends. Perhaps they are lies, but they plainly intend to be history, not legend. The otherwise gratuitous place and person names in our passage support the point. And additionally, as Lewis points out elsewhere, first-century Jews were the least likely people in the history of the world to think a man could be God. Jesus’s followers “belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God — that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary, we get the impression that none of his immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.”)
1) The Scribes Call Him a Liar. (verses 22–30)
The first group is the scribes. As soon as Jesus began teaching in chapter 1, his hearers began comparing him to their teachers, called “the scribes,” part of the conservative Jewish group called the Pharisees: “they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). We saw the tension escalate in chapter 2 (Mark 2:6, 16). These scribes, who are conservative Bible teachers with added traditions, are so quickly growing in their envy and hatred for Jesus, they already have begun conspiring with their liberal rivals, the Herodians (Mark 3:6).
Now here we find the scribes again, and we expect that conflict is coming. Sure enough, in verses 22–27:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.
Turns out the scribes are the liars. And what is their lie? They say that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, another name for Satan. “By the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” First Jesus calmly refutes the lie in verses 23–26, then he turns it to make a statement about his lordship. Verse 27: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.”
In other words, Jesus not only says (defensively), in effect, get out of hear with your irrational lie about casting out demons by the prince of demons (that doesn’t even make sense!), but then he adds (offensively) what this shows about his authority: Jesus is plundering “the strong man” because he is stronger than Satan. We’ve already seen in Mark 1:27 that Jesus “commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Jesus is not duking it out on equal terms with Satan, only to barely win in the end. It’s no contest. Jesus binds the strong man whenever he wants, and plunders his house whenever he desires.
Blasphemy Against the Spirit?
Then Jesus warns these liars called scribes of the danger they’re in. Verses 28–30:
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
It’s one thing to say that Jesus is out of his mind (as his family does in verse 21), but it’s another thing to attribute the work of God’s Holy Spirit to the devil (verse 22) — to look at the work of the Spirit, be haunted by it in your rebellious heart, and turn and attribute the Spirit’s work to Satan. This evidences such a callousness and hardness of heart that the scribes should fear they are on the brink of eternal ruin, if it’s not already too late. Jesus is not necessarily declaring the scribes are already condemned, but he is warning them gravely.
Sometimes people wonder whether blasphemy against the Spirit, or the unforgiveable sin, is some horrible word they’ve uttered against God or particularly shameful sin committed in a weak moment. I don’t believe that Jesus is talking about a specific moment of sin here, but a kind of hardness of heart that would see Jesus, casting out demons by the power of God, and lie about the Spirit of God, calling him Satan — and have no wherewithal to seek forgiveness. Blasphemy against the Spirit is a kind of hardness of hard incapable of repenting. It’s not forgiveness isn’t granted, but that it’s not asked for.
If you fear whether you’ve committed the unforgiveable sin, my answer is: If you worry that you have, then you probably haven’t. Not yet. Folks who have don’t worry about it. But the fact that you’re worrying about it, if it relates to a pattern of sin, may be the Spirit in you working to keep you from continuing to harden your heart beyond his softening. So don’t despair, and don’t treat it lightly. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart (Psalm 95:7; Hebrews 3:7).
But the main reality underneath this episode isn’t what “blasphemy against the Spirit” is and is not, but the role and power of the Spirit, and what a danger it is to grieve, dishonor, or mistreat him. How does Jesus perform his miracles? Not in his own human power, but by the power of the Spirit. And so when Jesus hears the scribes say, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons,” he hears a horrific insult. Verse 30 explains: “for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” It’s one thing to attack Jesus (the Spirit can overcome that fight), but it’s another thing to attack the Spirit. Who is left to help you if you’re fighting against the Spirit? If you insult and grieve and make enemies with the Holy Spirit, who is there to bring you back? (As Jesus says in Matthew 12:32, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”)
And on the flip side, what an encouragement to us that the same Spirit who empowered Jesus is available to us today. Jesus in his humanity did his work by the Spirit. Do we underappreciate what power is possible today for us, and through us, in the Spirit?
So, first, the scribes said he was a liar.
2) His Family Fears He Might Be Crazy. (verses 20–21, 31–35)
Now, his own family. And what they say isn’t so devious, but they are his family, and so perhaps it hurts even more. Verse 31–35:
And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
Remember verse 21: his family was saying, “He is out of his mind.” Which hits closer to home than hostile leaders. This must be the harder opposition to take emotionally than the scribes.
From what we know of Jesus’s family later on, he does win them in time (they won’t always say this), but at this point, they are jarred as the carpenter boy from Nazareth they’re grown up with begins to draw dangerously large crowds. And yet Jesus presses on. He doesn’t let his family’s unease deter him from his Father’s calling. He is remaking the world around himself and that will include family. Without dishonoring his mother, or being unloving to his brothers, he says, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
It’s okay for this to feel surprising. How quick might we be today to say, “C’mon, Jesus, focus on the family.” Well, a time will come to woo his brothers and to make provision for his mother’s care as he hangs on the cross, but now is a time to graciously, firmly resist his own family’s worldly desires for him. God’s call on him can’t be held back by their ability to understand him at this stage.
Jesus is not downplaying the gift of our physical families, but he is showing that the spiritual family he will form is even more important, and more enduring. Which is no license to relax our natural obligations and duties in our homes and extended families (note that Jesus is not neglecting a wife and kids, but resisting unholy pressure from brothers and sisters). But it is a call and invitation to how seriously God means for us to take the church. We are prone to take so lightly the grace that fellow believers are to us. To look down on others in the church, and miss the amazing gift it is that we are not alone in our faith, even when we may feel alone sometimes in our families.
Following Jesus does often create tensions with our natural families. Perhaps you’re living this right now. Mark 13:12–13: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” But when it does, Jesus promises in Mark 10:29–30: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
So, the scribes say he’s a liar, and his family says he’s a lunatic.
3) His Disciples Embrace Him as Lord. (verses 13–19)
Now, finally, the disciples. He breaks away from the crowd and calls to himself twelve, who in a sense form the beginning of his new family. Twelve is a significant number in the story of God’s people. Abraham’s grandson Jacob, whom God gave the new name Israel, had twelve sons, after whom were named the twelve tribes of Israel. In choosing twelve, Jesus is forming a new people of God. This is radical — starting a new family, not simply modifying the old.
And these twelve are not merely disciples, but they have a special name and role: apostles. These will be the men whom Jesus leaves in charge of his church, to serve as his voice and represent him in the early church (and throughout church history with their writings) after Jesus ascends to his Father in heaven. Which is how we have our New Testament today.
Verse 14 says he appointed the apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” The Son of God himself discipled — he didn’t just bless the masses but invested in the few. His main ministry wasn’t in the spotlight but on the road and in homes. Jesus brought others along with him into the down moments, the private moments, the times when he would most want to let his guard down and just relax — and there with him are his men, his most important work until the cross.
He called them to himself that he might “be” with them. Availability to simply “be” with others, especially in our fast-paced and overscheduled society, goes a long way. It’s not everything by itself, but showing up, and being together, are no small thing. That’s the space in which Jesus changes the world with just twelve men. Disciplemaking is not efficient. Like parenting. Like family.
And Jesus appointed twelve that, in due time, “he might send them out to preach” (which we’ll see in Mark 6:7). They are disciples, learners. They are with him to learn to do what he does: teach and share in his same authority.
And so today, being Jesus’s disciple, and having him as our Lord, includes both “being” and “going.” It begins with being with him. Resting in him. Trusting him. Discipleship begins with being. Then, over time, he grows us. He pours into us. He gets us ready. And eventually he sends us out as his representatives.
All Sins Forgiven
So, liar, lunatic, or Lord? Who do you say Jesus is? C.S. Lewis knew.
Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.
God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus. And if he is Lord and God, we can take him at his word when he says in verse 28, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter.” All sins. Whatever blasphemies uttered. Through faith in Jesus. This is where the whole Gospel of Mark is going: to the cross. He is God himself and Lord of the universe. And he became one of us and as man died for our sins, for all who embrace him as Lord.