Fruit and Faith

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:20-25 ESV

When Jesus departed the temple, He and the disciples returned to Bethany for the evening. The next morning, which was probably Wednesday, they made their way back to the city of Jerusalem. After His symbolic exit from the temple the day before, it is likely that Jesus chose to enter the city through the Lion’s gate rather than the Golden Gate, which led directly into the temple complex. They would have taken the same path through the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane, so eventually, they came to the spot where Jesus had cursed the fig tree the day before. And to the shock of the disciples, the fig tree was “withered away to its roots” (Mark 11:20 ESV).

Just the day before this same tree had been in perfect health, covered in green leaves and full of life. But despite its outward appearance of vitality, it had been missing one important thing: Fruit. This tree, unlike all the other fig trees in the garden, had bloomed early. Under normal conditions, the presence of leaves would have been an indication that there would be figs present. But when Jesus had approached the tree the day before, He had found it completely barren. So, He had cursed it.

Peter was the first to recognize the dramatic difference in the tree’s appearance. And he recalled the statement Jesus had made to the tree 24 hours earlier: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14 ESV). Surprised by the tree’s sudden demise, Peter felt the need to let Jesus know that His curse had worked. He called out, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:21 ESV). Overnight, the once lush tree had dropped all of its leaves and lost every ounce of life-giving sap. It had withered away, from the roots up.

There is so much going on in this scene. The tree is the obvious focal point, and Jesus is going to use the opportunity to convey two different messages to His disciples. One will have to do with fruit and the other with faith. The reason the tree was dead was that it had failed to bear fruit. It had given all the appearances of fruitfulness but, upon closer examination, it was discovered to be barren. For Jesus, the tree was an apt symbol for the fruitlessness of the nation of Israel. Keep in mind that the city of Jerusalem was literally overflowing with pilgrims who had come to celebrate Passover. They were a people who practiced all the prescribed feasts and festivals. They regularly brought their tithes and offerings to the temple. They attempted to keep the Mosaic Law and, when they failed to do so, they counted on their sacrifices to assuage the anger of God.

Three years earlier, John the Baptist had confronted a group of Pharisees who had shown up in the wilderness of Judea where he had been preaching and baptizing. When John had seen them, he responded in prophetic anger, stating, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV).

As the religious leaders of Israel, these men were thought to be icons of virtue and the symbols of moral rectitude. But John had recognized them for what they were: Withered and lifeless trees incapable of bearing good fruit. Their flowing robes and outward displays of righteousness were nothing more than “green leaves” that gave the impression of fruitfulness but without nothing to show for it.

Jesus would later pick up on this same theme, warning His disciples to be on the lookout for false prophets. And He told them exactly how to spot these dangerous charlatans.

“You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” – Matthew 7:16-20 NLT

And Jesus had also warned His disciples that only those who abide in Him can bear good fruit. And all those who refuse to abide in Him and fail to produce fruit will be dealt with severely by God.

“He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” – John 15:2 NLT

The Jewish people were to have been God’s choice vine, but they had failed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And when God had sent His Son, the people of Israel had rejected Him. So these fruitless “branches” would be cut off, completely eliminating any hope that they would ever produce good fruit.

The apostle Paul would later elaborate on this “cutting away” of the fruitless branches. In writing to the Gentile believers in Rome, he reminded them that they were branches that had been grafted into the olive tree of Israel. But at the same time, some of the natural branches had been removed.

Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. Then you will say, “The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted! They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. – Romans 11:17-20 NLT

With the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was making a statement about the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. And His foray into the temple complex the day before had revealed just how spiritually fruitless Israel had become. They were rotten to the core, down to the very roots. Their religious leaders were exactly what John the Baptist had declared them to be: A brood of vipers. And their venom had poisoned the people, leaving them just as withered and lifeless as that fig tree.

But none of this was on the minds of Peter and his companions as they stood looking at the dead tree. They were fixated on how quickly it had died after Jesus had cursed it. And Jesus knew that they were more interested in His display of power than they were in any lesson He might be trying to teach them. So, rather than expounding on the fruitlessness of Israel, Jesus took the opportunity to teach His disciples about faith.

“Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart.” – Mark 11:22-23 NLT

First, He pointed them to God. Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that God Almighty must be the focus of their faith. The reason the people of Israel had become fruitless was that they had failed to remain focused on God. Remember what Paul said: “They [Israel] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you [Gentiles] stand by faith” (Romans 11:20 NLT).

The real point behind Jesus’ lesson was the power of God. The reason we place our faith in God is that He is all-powerful. Nothing is impossible for Him. And Jesus uses an impossible scenario to describe the unfathomable power of God. If the unlikely situation arose where a mountain needed to be moved from one place to another, God could make it happen. The lesson Jesus is trying to teach has nothing to do with getting whatever we pray for. He is not suggesting to His disciples that they have a blank check from God to fulfill their heart’s desires. The focus of their faith was to be God, not the thing they wanted from Him. Having the power to curse a fig tree would end up being a curse in and of itself, if God was left out of the equation. God is not to be viewed as a source of power to accomplish our desires. He is to be the focus of our faith and the object of our affections. His power is not why we love Him, but it is always at the disposal of those who do love Him.

Fruitfulness is the byproduct of faith. As long as the disciples kept believing in God, they would experience His power flowing through their lives and resulting in the good fruit that only He can produce.

But Jesus also wanted His disciples to understand that while their access to God would place His power at their disposal, it came with conditions. The privilege of entering into God’s presence through prayer could prove dangerous. Attempting to avail oneself of God’s power for selfish reasons is always a risk. That is why James wrote, “you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:2-3 NLT).

But there is another, and even more dangerous tendency to avoid. God’s power is not to be used to seek revenge on your enemies. That’s why Jesus warned His disciples, “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25 ESV).

Jesus didn’t use the power of God to wither the fig tree because He was angry. He did it to teach His disciples a lesson. Jesus never used the power of God to seek revenge or call down divine wrath on His enemies. Yet, He knew that this would be a temptation for His disciples. In fact, just days earlier, as they were making their way to Bethany, Jesus had sent a few of His disciples into a Samaritan city to find accommodations for the night. When they returned, they announced to Jesus and the other disciples that the Samaritans wanted nothing to do with Jesus. This news infuriated James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” and they asked Jesus for permission to use divine power to destroy the entire town.

“Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” – Luke 9:54 ESV

But Jesus rebuked them for their spirit of revenge and their desire to use the power of God for self-centered purposes. This was not what He had taught them.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:44-45 ESV

Faith and fruitfulness. These two vital characteristics are inseparable. Without faith in God, it is impossible to produce fruit. And the absence of fruit is evidence of a life devoid of faith in God. But as Jesus had previously told His disciples, God was going to be glorified by their future fruitfulness. And the key would be their faith.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15:7-8 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Missing the Signs

11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” Mark 8:11-21 ESV

After dismissing the crowds who had benefited from His miraculous transformation of the bread and fish, Jesus and His disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee to Dalmanutha, in the region of Magadan (Matthew 15:39). It seems likely that the disciples had stashed in the bow of the boat the 7 baskets of leftover bread and fish they had gathered. Mark provides no insights into the conversations these men may have had as they sailed to their next destination, but it only makes sense that they would have discussed the events of that day, including the miracle Jesus had just performed.

As soon as their boat touched the shore, they were met by another contingent of Jewish religious leaders. Matthew records that, on this occasion, the Pharisees were accompanied by a group of Sadducees.

“. . . the Sadducees were a wealthy, conservative party concentrated in Jerusalem. Their members were from aristocratic families of patrician and priestly stock. They refused adherence to the tradition of the elders and advocated a rigorous application of the law of Moses to the life of the nation. In general, they espoused a political and religious policy, including cooperation with Rome, aimed at preserving the status quo.” – Kingsbury, J. D., Conflict in Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples. Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 1989

The Pharisees and Sadducees both had representatives who sat on the 70-member Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews. But these two powerful and highly influential religious sects were not on friendly terms with one another. While they shared a common belief in God and held the Hebrew Scriptures in high regard, they held differing views on a wide range of topics, including the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected the idea of an afterlife, arguing instead that the soul simply perished at death. So, the whole concept of a resurrection and a system of rewards and punishments after death was unacceptable to them. In fact, they rejected any notion of a spiritual dimension populated by demons and angels. And all of these beliefs put them at odds with the Pharisees.

Yet, oddly enough, these two opposing parties were willing to set aside their differences in order to take on their common enemy: Jesus.

Mark indicates that these men confronted Jesus, “seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him” (Mark 8:11 ESV). They were not asking Jesus to perform a miracle. They had already been eye-witnesses to many of Jesus’ more spectacular displays of power. What they were demanding was a “sign from heaven” – some kind of celestial proof that would verify His claims once and for all time. They had refused to accept any of His many miracles as being evidence of His divine calling. Instead, they had accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Mark 3:22). As Mark states, this was all nothing more than a test, an attempt to force Jesus’ hand and expose Him as the fraud they believed Him to be.

And Jesus, exasperated by their stubborn refusal to receive Him as their Messiah, “sighed deeply in his spirit” and responded, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12 ESV).

Jesus exposes their true intentions. There was nothing He could have done that would have satisfied their demand. They were already convinced that He was a charlatan and no sign or celestial manifestation was going to change their minds. Mark indicates that Jesus simply walked away, leaving these men with neither a sign from heaven nor the definitive proof that He was a fraud. But, Matthew adds an important detail in his account of this same scene. He reports that Jesus confronted these men about their inability to recognize the obvious.

“You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times! – Matthew 16:2-3 NLT

They could predict the weather based on “the signs” in the sky, but they were unable to recognize the Messiah based on the preponderance of evidence taking place around them. According to Jesus, everything He had said and done had been more than enough proof to support His claim to be the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah. He was not going to provide them with any other “signs” other than “the sign of Jonah.”

“Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 16:4 NLT

This was not the first time Jesus had used this kind of language with the religious leaders. Matthew records an earlier encounter in which Jesus said the very same words and added, “For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40 NLT). Jesus used the well-known story of the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, in order to predict His own pending death, burial, and resurrection. The Jewish religious leaders would have been familiar with the story of Jonah but would not have understood the connection Jesus was making.

And Jesus condemned these men for their stubborn refusal to believe in Him. Jonah had been “resurrected” from the belly of the great fish and taken the message of God to the people of Ninevah. As a result, they had believed and repented. But even the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus would not be enough to make these stubborn religious leaders believe. And Jesus predicts the outcome they will face for their unbelief.

“The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.” – Matthew 12:42 NLT

The Ninevites to whom Jonah ended up preaching had been Gentile pagans. And yet, when they heard the message of God from the lips of the prophet of God, they had repented and been saved. And yet, the religious leaders of the Jewish people were refusing to hear the message of God from the lips of the very Son of God, choosing instead to remain unconvinced and unrepentant.  And Jesus, unwilling to debate with them any further, got back in the boat with His disciples and sailed away.

What happens next reveals a great deal about the men whom Jesus had chosen to be His disciples. Mark records that they got back in the boat and then adds, “they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat” (Mark 8:14 ESV). So, they had not brought along the seven baskets of leftovers after all. We’re not told what they did with all that food, but only that they brought a single loaf of bread to share among 13 hungry men. Perhaps they thought that Jesus could multiply that loaf as well, so they decided to travel light and left the rest of the food behind.

But whatever the thought process behind their decision, Jesus took advantage of the moment to teach a valuable lesson.

“Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” – Mark 8:15 ESV

The disciples, confused by Jesus’ words, immediately assumed that He was upset with them for their failure to bring enough bread. It’s likely that they began casting blame, each accusing the other for this obvious lapse in judgment. And Jesus had to remind them that the quantity of bread was not the issue. He was not talking about literal bread at all.

“Why are you arguing about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Have your hearts been hardened? Though you have eyes, don’t you see? And though you have ears, can’t you hear? Don’t you remember?” – Mark 8:18-19 NLT

Had they already forgotten what He had done? Were they so hard-hearted that they couldn’t recall how, on two separate occasions, He had miraculously fed thousands of people with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes?

Their problem was not a lack of bread, but a lack of belief. In fact, Matthew adds that Jesus confronted them for their lack of faith.

“O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? – Matthew 16:8 ESV

While they were busy arguing about their paucity of bread, Jesus was trying to warn them about the teachings of the religious leaders. These men posed a serious threat because their prominent positions allowed them to propagate dangerous doctrines that could keep others from hearing and accepting Jesus as their Messiah. And Jesus would later condemn these men for the infectious and deadly nature of their influence.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:13-16 NLT

Jesus posed a rhetorical question to His disciples: “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21 ESV). He knew the answer and was well aware that it would only be after the coming of the Holy Spirit that the disciples would be able to comprehend all that He had said to them while He had been with them. But He would continue to use His confrontations with the religious leaders as prime teaching opportunities to instruct His 12 disciples. He wanted them to continue to believe, regardless of what the Pharisees and Sadducees might say. Their greatest need was not bread, but to continue to place their hope and trust in the Bread of Life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Hardened Hearts

45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. Mark 6:45-52 ESV

Three of the four gospels include this story and all three indicate that it happened immediately after the miracle of the bread and the fish. The context is essential to understanding what takes place and helps provide much-needed insight into Mark’s rather condemning conclusion: “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.” (Mark 6:52 NLT).

Mark’s harsh-sounding critique seems to paint the disciples in an unflattering light but, when taken in context, it provides the reader with a fair and honest assessment of their ongoing spiritual transformation. They were works in process. Their comprehension of Jesus’ true identity was in a constant state of flux and it was complicated by their own personal agendas and expectations. Their concepts of the Messiah had been formed by their Hebrew roots and highly influenced by the religious indoctrination they had received as young boys at the local synagogue in their hometowns. Their unique experiences with Jesus were informative and instructive but were also confusing and contradictory to their preconceived notions about the coming Messiah.

Jesus was not operating according to their expectations. His miracles, while powerful and impressive, didn’t seem to be ushering in the Kingdom the disciples, as Jews, had long anticipated. His words, while spoken with authority and filled with interesting stories and fascinating parables, didn’t always make sense. He spoke cryptically and about subjects that seemed out of keeping with someone who had come to be King of Israel.

So, this particular story must be viewed within the immediate context of the surrounding events. Mark indicates that as soon as the disciples had finished gathering the 12 baskets of leftover loaves and fish, Jesus instructed them to head by boat to the village of Bethsaida. Jesus then dismissed the crowd and headed to a secluded spot for some alone time with God the Father. Mark provides no details concerning this divine conversation between Father and Son, but it is safe to assume that it mirrored the other prayers of Jesus recorded in the gospels. These moments of isolation and intimate communion with His Heavenly Father were important to Jesus. It was during these occasions that Jesus shared His heart and received instructions. Perhaps Jesus prayed for the disciples, sharing with God the Father His frustration with their inability to grasp the meaning of His messages and miracles. Jesus knew these men had been given to Him by God, but He also knew that they were having difficulty understanding who He truly was and the real purpose behind His incarnation.

When Jesus had completed His time in prayer, He made His way back to the shoreline, where He spotted the disciples “making headway painfully, for the wind was against them” (Mark 6:48 ESV). John indicates that “they had rowed about three or four miles” (John 6:29 ESV). 

Don’t minimize the circumstances surrounding this scene. It is somewhere around 3:00 a.m. The sky is pitch black, the wind is howling furiously, and the white-capped waves are pounding against the sides of the small fishing boat. The disciples, four of whom were professional fishermen, were struggling to keep the boat afloat and headed to their final destination. And Jesus witnessed all of this from the safety of the shoreline.

But then He did something extraordinary and unexpected. He stepped out into the sea and began to walk on the top of the water. And Mark adds a very important detail to his narrative.

Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. He intended to go past them – Mark 6:48 NLT

Jesus walked toward the disciples but was fully intending to walk right past them and on to Bethsaida. He wanted them to see Him and take hope and confidence in Him. If He could walk on the waves in the midst of the storm, they had no reason to fear. Just the sight of Jesus, walking calmly and confidently on the tops of the waves, should have instilled a sense of peace in the hearts of the disciples. But instead, they reacted in fear.

but when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. – Mark 6:49-50 NLT

They had not been looking for Jesus. And when He suddenly appeared. they didn’t recognize Him because they were not expecting Him to show up in that inhospitable context. It’s interesting to note that the disciples had shown no fear until Jesus appeared unexpectedly. There’s no indication that the disciples had feared the storm. They were simply struggling against the wind and waves, attempting to make their way to Bethsaida as Jesus had instructed them. But their demeanor quickly shifted from focused determination to abject fear when they spotted this strange figure walking toward them in the midst of the darkness and violence of the storm.

Sensing their terror, Jesus quickly identified Himself to the frightened men.

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” – Mark 6:50 ESV

They had not recognized Him because they had not expected Him. No one in the boat had been calling out to Him. In the midst of their difficulty, they had forgotten all about Jesus. They had become so consumed with the task at hand that they had neglected to think about the very one who had sent them on this storm-tossed and ill-fated excursion. Seeing Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm should have been enough to remind them of the power and authority of the one they served. They had just witnessed Him feed more than 10,000 men, women, and children; using nothing more than five small loaves and two fish. They had just recently returned from their own missionary journey where they had cast out demons and performed other miracles of healing. But in the wee hours of the morning and in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, any thoughts of miracles or the Messiah were nowhere to be found.

And in a characteristic act of mercy and grace, Jesus altered His plans and joined the disciples in midst of their struggle. Rather than walk by, He entered into. And as soon as His foot touched the deck of the boat, “the wind ceased” (Mark 6:51 ESV). His presence brought peace. And the disciples “were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They were blown away. The Greek word Mark used is existēmi and it literally means they were beside themselves. And one has to ask why this particular miracle made such an impact on them. Had they not seen Jesus do other incredible, mind-blowing miracles? What was it about this one that left them beside themselves in wonder?

And Mark provides the answer:  “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They had not connected the dots. It is likely that the bow of the boat contained the 12 baskets full of leftovers they had gathered. But they were not yet able to understand the significance of the miracle that Jesus had performed. By transforming five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed an army, Jesus had clearly demonstrated His divine power and authority over the creation. He had done the impossible. And yet, the disciples did not understand. Oh, they fully grasped the reality of the miracle because they had seen it happen. But they were blind to the message it was intended to send: Jesus was God.

And Mark notes that their hearts were calloused and hardened. In their fallen human state, they were incapable of discerning the message contained within the miracles of Jesus. They were unable to connect all the dots and complete the picture that was being revealed right before their eyes. But step by step, miracle by miracle, Jesus would continue to disclose Himself to these men. He would patiently and persistently display His power and authority so that, eventually, their beliefs about Him would line up with God’s will and not their own.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Amazed At Their Disbelief

1 He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.

And he went about among the villages teaching. Mark 6:1-6 ESV

After healing the woman with the discharge of blood and raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead, Jesus and His disciples made their way to Nazareth. But there is one last thing we need to look at before leaving these two amazing miracles behind. In recording the events associated with these miracles, Mark provides two different pieces of information that, at first glance, appear to be unimportant. First, when describing the medical condition of the woman who touched Jesus’ robe, Mark states that she “had had a discharge of blood for twelve years” (Mark 5:25 ESV). It would be logical to assume that he included this detail simply to emphasize the long-term and hopeless nature of the woman’s condition.

But then, just a few verses later, in describing the healing of Jairus’ young daughter, Mark adds another interesting detail.

And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age) – Mark 5:42 ESV

Once again, why did Mark feel the need to provide the girl’s age? Perhaps it was his way of explaining her ability to walk when commanded to do so. But why did he think it was so important to share her exact age? Even a toddler could have responded when Jesus called out “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41 ESV).

Could it be that Mark was attempting to use these two references to years as a way to connect these two miracles? Consider the fact that the very year the woman’s debilitating medical condition began would have been the very same year the young girl had been born. And while this woman spent the next 12 years visiting physicians and spending all her financial resources seeking a cure, the young daughter of Jairus would have been living a rather protected and privileged life. After all, her father was a well-respected leader in the local synagogue. For 12 years, the woman’s life would have been marked by pain and suffering, while the young girl most likely experienced a happy and carefree existence. But to the surprise of her family and friends, her young life would end suddenly and tragically in death. No one saw it coming. And while her anxious father had sought out the miracle worker named Jesus, his efforts would prove futile. It was too little, too late.

It would be natural to expect the older woman, who suffered from an incurable medical condition, to be the first to die. But she was spared because she placed her faith in Jesus. The one who knew her condition was fatal and was standing with one foot in the grave was delivered from death’s door. But the young girl, whose best years had been ahead of her, ended up dead, surrounded by mourners who grieved over her loss. But because of the faith of her father, Jesus raised the girl back to life. Upon hearing the devastating news that his daughter had died, Jairus was told by Jesus, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36 ESV). Jesus didn’t tell Jairus why or what he should believe. But the distraught father followed Jesus and, along with his wife and three of the disciples, watched as his 12-year-old daughter was miraculously restored to life.

Two women – one old and one young. One sick and the other whole. One anticipating death and the other completely surprised by it. And yet, both women were delivered from death by the same man. The one who was near death was prevented from having to experience it. The one who experienced death was brought back from it. And all through the power and authority of Jesus. This reminds us once again of the words He spoke to Martha, just before He raises her brother, Lazarus, from the dead.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11:25-26 ESV

When we read the words, “…though he die, yet shall he live,” we should think of the 12-year-old girl. When we read the words, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die,” we should think of the woman who had been sick for 12 long years. These two women provide us with living proof of Jesus’ statement. Yes, both would end up dying at some later date. But, in healing them and delivering them from death when He did, Jesus was demonstrating for His disciples that He had power over death and the grave. And, one day, He would prove it with His own death and resurrection.

But back to today’s passage. Jesus and HIs disciples made their way to Nazareth, the town where He had grown up. This is where Mary and Joseph had settled and raised their family. After the birth of Jesus, they had gone on to have additional children, and, unlike Jesus, they had all chosen to remain in Nazareth.

But on the next Sabbath, Jesus and His disciples made their way to the local synagogue where Jesus was honored as a visiting Rabbi or teacher. He was given the opportunity to address the congregation, and what He had to say that day made a huge impression on those in the room. But it seems that His words received mixed reviews.

“Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” – Mark 6:2-3 NLT

Some were blown away by Jesus’ eloquence and His ability to perform such incredible miracles. Likely, the news about His most recent demonstrations of power had already made its way to Capernaum. But there were others in the crowd that day who were unimpressed because they viewed Jesus as nothing more than a carpenter. They knew His family and were probably aware that even His own brothers thought He had lost His mind (Mark 3:21). Even His own family refused to believe Him to be the Messiah of Israel (John 7:5). It seems likely that Jesus’ siblings had shared their own opinions regarding their famous brother. And all of this negative publicity appears to have jaded the minds of those who had known Jesus since He had been a little boy. Mark reveals that the opinion of the naysayers prevailed that day.

They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. – Mark 6:3 NLT

Mark goes on to note that Jesus was amazed at the level of disbelief among those who knew Him best. It is clear that they had heard the rumors concerning His miracles. They had just heard Him speak and expressed their amazement at His wisdom. But they just couldn’t get past the fact that this was the same man whom they had seen running and playing in the streets of Nazareth as a boy. He was the son of a carpenter. How could He be the long-awaited Messiah? The old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt,” comes to mind. They knew too much, and their knowledge blinded them to the truth.

And sensing their disbelief and outright rejection of His message and ministry, Jesus commented, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family” (Mark 6:4 NLT). Even the prophets of old found it difficult to get those who knew them best to listen to their words. Their claims to spokesmen for God went unheeded, and their calls to repentance fell on deaf ears. And Jesus includes Himself among the rejected and disrespected prophets of God. He was in good company and experiencing the same bad outcome.

And the refusal of the citizens of Nazareth to accept Jesus as the Son of God prevented them from experiencing the power of God in their midst. The miracles of Jesus would continue to be nothing more than rumors. The healings they had heard about would not take place in their community. The sick would find no relief. The demon-possessed would experience no release. The blind would remain sightless and doomed to walk in darkness. And the citizens of Nazareth would allow the Light of the world to walk away, leaving them wandering in the darkness of their own sin.

Mark paints a rather pathetic and pitiable picture of the scene that took place as Jesus prepared to leave His hometown.

And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them. – Mark 6:5 NLT

There was an absence of faith in Nazareth. Despite everything they had heard and seen, they couldn’t get past the fact that this was Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary. He was just a man. He was no better than they were. So, why should they honor Him? Why should they believe Him? Sadly, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, had grown up among them, but their stubborn pride and sin would prevent them from recognizing Him. And while Jesus would mercifully heal a few, the rest would be left to die in their sins. Their refusal to believe would have dire and deadly consequences, just as Jesus would later tell Martha.

“Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” – John 11:25-26 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Faith and Family

31 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.” Mark 3:31-35 ESV

An examination of the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke reveals that Mark has taken some liberties concerning the timeline of this event. Both of the other two gospel writers indicate that Jesus had other things to say after His response to the accusation that He was demon-possessed. According to Matthew, Jesus had some very direct and condemning words for the scribes who had been so quick to dismiss His miracles as the work of Satan. Jesus used the metaphor of a tree. If a tree is good, it will produce good fruit. If it is bad, it will produce bad fruit. So, you can know the state of the tree by examining its fruit. Then, Jesus drove home His point.

“You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you.” – Matthew 12:34-37 NLT

And Matthew adds that these very same scribes, accompanied by some Pharisees, would later approach Jesus and demand, “show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority” (Matthew 12:38 NLT). These are the same men who had accused Jesus of being demon-possessed. They had flatly stated, “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22 ESV). Now, they demand that He perform a sign to validate His authority. But Jesus called them out, exposing the true nature of their hearts.

“Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign…” – Matthew 12:39 NLT

There was nothing Jesus could do that would convince these men of His God-given authority. He even alludes to the fact that He will die and resurrect three days later, but they will still refuse to believe.

“…as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” – Matthew 12:40 NLT

Even His death, burial, and resurrection would not convince these men. They would never accept His claim to be the Son of God.

“…you refuse to repent.” – Matthew 12:41 NLT

“…you refuse to listen.” – Matthew 12:42 NLT

And Matthew records that Jesus wrapped up His condemnation of the religious leaders by comparing them to someone who had been freed of a demon. With the coming of Jesus, they had been exposed to the truth and offered freedom from their captivity to sin and death. But while they had heard the truth, they had refused to accept it. So, Jesus indicates that their rejection of Him will have dire consequences. Their “demon” will return, bringing his companions with him, and leaving them in a worse state than before.

“…the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.” – Matthew 12:45 NLT

In his gospel account, Luke includes a series of parables that Jesus told to the crowds. One was the parable of the soils, in which He explained, “The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity” (Luke 8 14 NLT).

And Luke adds another insightful message from Jesus.

“So pay attention to how you hear. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.” – Luke 8:18 NLT

So, what does all this have to do with today’s passage? Everything. Because it provides context. The way Mark describes the arrival of Jesus’ family, it could leave the impression that they just showed up right after His confrontation with the scribes. But as we have seen, Jesus had a few other salient messages He had delivered before their arrival. And what He had to say is crucial to understanding HIs response to the news that His mother and brothers were wanting to see Him.

John reveals that Jesus’ own family members were having a difficult time accepting that He was the Son of God. John flatly states, “…not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5 ESV). And, according to Mark, their disbelief had prompted them to conclude that Jesus had lost His mind (Mark 3:21).

None of the gospel writers tell us why Mary and her other sons showed up. According to Matthew, Jesus was given the message: “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak to you” (Matthew 12:47 NLT). Mark indicates that they stood outside the place where Jesus was teaching and “called him.”

Had Jesus’ brothers convinced Mary that her oldest son was crazy? Had they come to take Jesus away? Even though Mary had been given divine insight into the nature of her Son’s identity and mission, it is likely that she struggled with His strange behavior. His actions would not have validated the message she had been given by the angel Gabriel more than 30 years earlier.

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” – Luke 1:31-33 NLT

Since the day He had left their home in Nazareth, Jesus had been traveling throughout Judea and Galilee, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles. Mary had been keeping up with His whereabouts and hearing the rumors about Him healing and casting out demons. But she had also heard about the episode in Jerusalem when He had thrown out the money changers and overturned the merchants’ tables in the temple. She knew that He had become a target of the religious leaders. And it is likely that she had heard all the rumors about her Son, including that He was demon-possessed. So, she had shown up with her other sons in order to talk to Jesus. As a loving and concerned mother, she wanted to see how He was doing.

But upon hearing that His mother and brothers were outside, Jesus responded, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33 ESV).

At first blush, this statement comes across as surprisingly harsh and uncaring. But we have to consider the context. Jesus has been speaking about hearing and believing. He has emphasized the tendency to reject His ministry and message. Luke records that Jesus quoted from Isaiah 6:9.

“When they look, they won’t really see.
    When they hear, they won’t understand. – Luke 8:10 NLT

John reports that Jesus “came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:11 NLT).

Jesus had been teaching, preaching, and healing. He had been calling the people of Israel to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4;17 ESV). And yet, there were still those who refused to believe, including His own brothers. So, when Jesus asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers,” He was indicating that there was another kind of relationship that was far more critical than that of mother to son or brother to brother. Being born into the same family as Jesus had not helped His brothers believe. Having a sibling relationship with Jesus was not enough to secure a faith relationship with Him. Even Mary and her sons were going to have to believe in who Jesus claimed to be.

This brings to mind a statement made by John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come to the Judean wilderness to watch him baptize. When John had seen them, he had called them a “brood of snakes”  (Matthew 3:7 NLT). Then he exposed the fallacy behind their assumption that, because they were blood descendants of Abraham, they were guaranteed a right relationship with God.

“Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:9-10 NLT

Notice his emphasis on the bad tree that produces bad fruit. And don’t miss that he tells these men that being a blood-born relative of Abraham was no guarantee of acceptance by God. John demanded that they repent and turn to God.

That was the very same message Jesus preached, and it applied to all, including His mother and brothers. They too would have to hear, receive, and believe. And Jesus turned and motioned to His disciples, saying, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35 NLT).

According to John’s gospel, Jesus gave the only “work” or requirement that God has placed on mankind.

“This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.” – John 6:29 NLT

Everyone, regardless of their social status, religious affiliation, economic standing, educational achievements, or whether they were a relative of Jesus, was required to believe in Him as the one sent from God. The disciples were struggling, but continuing to express their belief in Jesus. It’s likely that Mary and her sons were wrestling over the disconnect between Jesus’ behavior and their expectations. He wasn’t acting like a king. He wasn’t behaving like a Messiah. And the religious leaders were just flatly denying that Jesus was who He claimed to be.

But Jesus made it clear. For anyone to have a relationship with Him, they would be required to believe in Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Risky Business

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.

28 “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.” Mark 3:13-30 ESV

“He’s an amazing miracle worker.”

“He’s crazy!”

“He’s demon-possessed.”

The opinions about Jesus were all over the proverbial map. Some people loved Him, while others, like the Pharisees, harbored an intense and intensifying hatred for Him. But regardless of the diversity of opinions about Him, everyone would have agreed that this man from Nazareth was impossible to ignore. They couldn’t explain Him but neither could they dismiss Him.

And Mark indicates that a group of scribes had traveled all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee just to investigate this rural Rabbi was causing such a stir. It is likely that these men had been sent by the high priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and given the responsibility to find legal evidence to use against Jesus. As experts in the Mosaic law, as well as the oral and traditional regulations of the Jews, these men would have been well-qualified for their task.

Yet, despite their knowledge of the law, their initial assessment of Jesus was that He was possessed by a demon and under the control of Satan.

“He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” – Mark 3:22 ESV

They couldn’t deny the fact that Jesus did supernatural wonders and signs. It was obvious that He had powers and abilities that were not of this world. But rather than admit that Jesus was the Son of God, they accused Him of being in league with Satan.

By declaring that Jesus was “possessed by Beelzebul,” they were hoping to link Jesus to the demonic realm. The Greek name “Beelzebul” means “lord of the house or dwelling,” and it was used to refer to Satan, who was lord over the dwelling place of evil spirits. This accusation would have been well-understood by all those who heard it, and it would have shocked and surprised them.

Matthew and Luke provide additional context for this scene. The pronouncement by the scribes didn’t come out of the blue but was based on their assessment of a miracle Jesus had just performed.

Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” – Matthew 12:22-23 ESV

The people were so impressed by what Jesus had done that they questioned whether Jesus might be the Messiah, the long-awaited descendant of David, and the heir to his throne. But Matthew records the quick and calculated rebuttal of the religious leaders.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

They were hoping to dispel any thoughts that this man, Jesus, had been sent by God. By linking His activities to Satan, they were attempting to tarnish His reputation and turn the people against Him.

Rather than wasting their time gathering forensic evidence providing that Jesus had violated their written and oral laws, they simply accused Him of being under the influence of Satan. In doing so, they put their argument against Jesus in terms the common people could understand. The scribes and Pharisees had little respect for the average Jew because they viewed them as being ignorant of the law. John records a very blunt assessment made by these very same religious leaders of their own people.

“…this rabble who do not know the law are accursed!” – John 7:49 NLT

But if there was one thing these uneducated and superstitious people could understand, it was the difference between good and evil. By associating Jesus with Satan, the scribes explained His power and, at the same time, maligned His character.

Yet rather than responding in anger, Jesus simply answered their accusation with a parable. He provided a well-reasoned response to their assertion that quickly exposed its absurdity and their own lack of judgment.

“How can Satan cast out Satan?” he asked. “A kingdom divided by civil war will collapse. Similarly, a family splintered by feuding will fall apart. And if Satan is divided and fights against himself, how can he stand? He would never survive.”  – Mark 3:23-26 NLT

Through the use of simple reasoning, Jesus dismantled the very foundation of their argument. And He did so in terms the people could understand. You can almost see them looking at one another as Jesus spoke, nodding their heads in approval. The things He was saying made sense to them.

But Jesus was not done. He continued to point out the flawed logic behind their accusation.

“Who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger—someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house.” – Mark 3:27 NLT

Why would Satan cast out one of his own demons? That would be counter-productive. And how could anyone cast out a demon unless he possessed a power greater than that of the demon?

Whether the religious leaders realized it or not, Jesus was taking them to school. He was providing them with a lesson on divine power and authority. Jesus had subtly moved the point of emphasis from casting out demons to the plundering of the home of “a strong man.”  It would seem that Jesus has shifted His focus to the religious leaders and the powerful hold they had over the nation of Israel. It explains what happened when Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and saw how the priests of God had transformed His Father’s house into a carnival-like atmosphere.

He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” – John 2:14-16 NLT

Jesus had come to do the will of His Father, and He was operating under the power of the Holy Spirit. He had God-given authority and Spirit-enabled power to do what He did. But when these pride-filled men accused Jesus of operating under the influence and power of Satan, they had crossed the line. And Jesus clearly warned them that they were walking on thin ice.

“I tell you the truth, all sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. This is a sin with eternal consequences.” – Mark 3:28-29 NLT

Their flippant and poorly-reasoned accusation against Jesus had been a dangerous mistake. Whether they realized it or not, He was the Son of God, and they had just accused Him of fraternizing with the enemy. They had also attributed the work of the Spirit of God to the prince of this world. And in doing so, they had refused to accept the will of God. In essence, they had offended all three members of the Holy Trinity. And Jesus calls it exactly what it is: blasphemy.

And while blasphemy was normally a forgivable sin, in this case, Jesus was describing a condition in which men willingly and repeatedly reject the will of God, the claims of His Son, and the power of His Spirit. These men had been given ample evidence of who Jesus was. In a sense, the entire Godhead had provided testimony that Jesus was who He claimed to be: The Son of God. But these men had refused to believe. And it would be their stubborn disbelief that would prove to be the unpardonable sin.

Blasphemy is nothing more than speaking of God in terms that are disrespectful and derogatory. It is to dismiss the word of God and to reject the will of God. In denying Jesus as the Son of God, the religious leaders were snubbing their noses at God Almighty. They were rejecting the truth as found in His Word. And by attributing the power of the Spirit of God to Satan, they were robbing God of glory.

Blasphemy is a sin, and all sin is forgivable by God. But the one who repeatedly rejects the testimony of God regarding His Son runs the risk of committing the unpardonable and unforgivable sin. The apostle John put it in rather stark but understandable terms:

There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son.
 – John 3:18 NLT

The religious leaders stood condemned because they refused to believe the testimony of God concerning His Son. Not only that, they had dismissed the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power displayed through the life of the Son, falsely attributing it to the enemy.

They had accused Jesus of being possessed of a demon. But there are those who accuse Jesus of being nothing more than a man. Others claim He was a moral teacher who had the ability to perform miracles. But they deny that He was the Son of God. Some deny that He ever existed at all. And over the centuries, there have been those who have denied His virgin birth, His sinless life, His death and resurrection, and His atoning work on behalf of man. And in doing so, they have committed blasphemy. And all those who persist in rejecting the Son of God as the Savior sent by God, will be “guilty of an eternal sin.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Lunatic Fringe

13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” 

22 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.”  Mark 3:13-22 ESV

Jesus had a lot of followers. You might even call them fans. Mark stresses that they came from “Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon” (Mark 3:7-8 ESV). In other words, they came from all over the place and they followed Jesus wherever He went. To the point where Jesus had to institute His own form of crowd control.

he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him. – Mark 3:9 ESV

But it would be wrong to assume that all these people were dedicated followers of Jesus. The crowds would have contained a mix of the curious and the semi-committed. There were always those in search of healing. There were likely some who were simply bored and in search of entertainment. And there is little doubt that some were legitimately intrigued by this Rabbi from Nazareth.

But Mark indicates that a time came when Jesus decided to narrow the field of His followers. Mark doesn’t provide any insight into how Jesus carried out this winnowing process but simply says that Jesus “called for those he wanted, and they came to him” (Mark 3:13 NET). Did He walk through the crowd pointing out those He wanted to accompany Him? Did He call them by name? We don’t know. How many did He call – 50, 100, or more? The text doesn’t tell us. All we know is that Jesus made a conscious decision to choose some and not others. We have no idea what criteria He had for making His selection. But we do know that from among all those He called, He set apart 12, and Mark provides us with their names.

Luke provides another important detail to the story. It seems that this entire selection process had been proceeded by a night-long prayer vigil.

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles… – Luke 6:12-13 ESV

Before Jesus began this recruiting process, He had sought the will of His Father. And this essential detail sheds light on another prayer Jesus prayed to His Heavenly Father more than three years later.

“I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world. They were always yours. You gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” – John 17:6 NLT

“My prayer is not for the world, but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. All who are mine belong to you, and you have given them to me, so they bring me glory. – John 17:9-10 NLT

Jesus had sought to know the will of His Father and, in response, He had been given the identities of those He was to choose, including the 12. And Mark provides us with their names.

Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. – Mark 3:16-19 ESV

Mark states that Jesus “appointed” (poieō) these men. The Greek word means “to make a thing out of something.” Jesus took these 12 men and ordained or set them apart for a special assignment.

…that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. – Mark 3:14-15 ESV

These ordinary men had been handpicked by Jesus and given an incredible opportunity to serve as His apostellōs or “sent ones.” They had been divinely chosen by God, called by Jesus, and set apart for a special two-part assignment. First, they were called to “be with him.” Jesus was inviting them to experience a personal and intimate relationship with Him. For the next three years, they would be given the unique opportunity to spend all their time with Jesus, and this intensive, full-time exposure to the Son of God would prove to be life-transformative.

But as the term “apostle” implies, there would be more to their relationship with Jesus than companionship. They would be expected to preach and be given the authority and power to cast out demons. These blue-collar nobodies from the backwoods of Galilee were going to become the hand-picked spokesmen for the Son of God. And to validate the message Jesus would give them, they would be equipped with divine power to perform miracles. But this would not be a permanent or full-time capability. Luke lets us know that Jesus would be the one to dictate the time and the place for their God-ordained powers to be exposed.

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases,  and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. – Luke 9:12 ESV

Matthew adds another level of detail, outlining the instructions Jesus gave to the 12 before sending them out on their own.

“Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep. Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!

“Don’t take any money in your money belts—no gold, silver, or even copper coins. Don’t carry a traveler’s bag with a change of clothes and sandals or even a walking stick. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve to be fed.” – Matthew 10:5-10 NLT

The thought of possessing the power to heal or to cast out demons would have been heady stuff to these men. But Jesus wanted them to know that there would be more to their work than performing miracles. Their ministry would be restricted to their own people – the Jews. And they would be required to use the supernatural powers placed at their disposal to validate the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. And their efforts were marked by humility and complete dependency upon God. They were to go empty-handed and wholly reliant upon the provision of God.

Over the next three years, these 12 men were going to learn some invaluable lessons. They would be tested. There would be plenty of times when they found themselves confused and conflicted by their relationship with Jesus. They would experience moments filled with awe and wonder as they took in all that Jesus said and did. But there would be just as many times when they would be left shaking their heads in disbelief as they tried to comprehend Jesus’ puzzling parables and His perplexing behavior.

In spite of their close relationship with Jesus, even the 12 disciples would find Him to be an enigma at times. And Mark indicates that this confusion over Jesus was commonplace. Even the family of Jesus found His behavior difficult to defend.

When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him away. “He’s out of his mind,” they said. – Mark 3:21 NLT

We know that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Technically, they would have been his half-brothers and half-sisters because Joseph was not the father of Jesus. But these siblings were confused by their brother’s actions. So much so, that they assumed He must be crazy. Keep in mind, they had witnessed an extreme change in the pattern of Jesus’ behavior. At some point, He had walked away from their home in Nazareth and made His way to the Judean wilderness, where He was baptized by John. Then He had disappeared for more than 40 days and nights, only to reappear again, preaching a message of repentance and declaring that the kingdom of heaven was near. This was not the Jesus they had grown up with. His sudden and strange change in behavior left them perplexed and concerned that He might be mentally unstable.

And Mark adds that there were others who found Jesus’ actions less-than-normal.

But the teachers of religious law who had arrived from Jerusalem said, “He’s possessed by Satan, the prince of demons. That’s where he gets the power to cast out demons.” – Mark 3:22 NLT

His family thought He was crazy. The religious leaders thought He was demon-possessed. And everyone else would wrestle with their own opinions as to who He was and how to explain the amazing things He said and did. And the 12 men He had just chosen would find themselves at the center of all the controversy, wrestling with their own expectations and apprehensions regarding His identity and the nature of their relationship to Him. There’s little doubt that they had moments when they questioned their own sanity. Had they lost their minds? Were they crazy for following this strange Rabbi from Nazareth? Having left everything else behind, had they sacrificed it all just to become part of the lunatic fringe? Time would tell.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Hour of Decision

36 When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,

40 “He has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
    and understand with their heart, and turn,
    and I would heal them.”

41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. John 12:36-43 ESV

Jesus has just informed the crowd that the hour has come. The time of His death was drawing closer. And when He was “lifted up” on the cross to die for the sins of mankind, it would accomplish a God-glorifying victory in the supernatural realm.

“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” – John 12:31 ESV

When His death eventually took place, the Jewish leadership would take it as victory. They had judged Jesus to be a blasphemer and He had gotten what He deserved. But they would not be alone in their rejoicing. Their father, the devil (John 8:44) would also celebrate the death of the Messiah. But only because he was ignorant of what Jesus death really meant. From a spiritual perspective, it would appear that Satan had won the day.

Yet Jesus informs His disciples and all those within His hearing that Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out. Jesus projects onto Satan his ultimate defeat which will take place at the end times. But He also suggests that His death will destroy Satan’s power once and for all. The enemy’s vice-like grip on mankind will be broken by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. The payment for mankind’s sin debt will be made in full. God’s just and righteous requirement of a blood sacrifice will have been satisfied by the offering of His own Son’s sinless life.

But Jesus informs His audience that His death will bring judgment upon the world. At first glance, this seems to contradict an earlier statement made by Jesus. In his nighttime encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus told assured him that “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17 NLT). Now He is declaring that His death will be accompanied by judgment. To better understand what Jesus means, we have to consider all that He said to Nicodemus on the matter.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

“There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” – John 3:16-19 NLT

Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that God had sent Him into the world to bring salvation to mankind. In a sense, the judgment of mankind has already taken place. All humanity stands before God as guilty and condemned, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). And because of their guilty state, all men face the same fate because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). 

But the good news Jesus tried to convey to Nicodemus was that He had come to offer an alternative. His death was going to provide a way for condemned sinners to escape the inevitable and unavoidable judgment of God. Paul explains it this way:

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:23-25 ESV

The only way to escape judgment will be through faith or belief in Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus meant when He told Nicodemus, “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him” (John 3:18 NLT). Through belief in Jesus, the sinner moves from condemnation to justification. He or she is made right with God because they have placed their faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus. As John wrote in one of his later letters, “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7 ESV).

The death of Jesus would bring judgment upon the world because it would force sinful men and women to make a decision The only way they could escape judgment would be through faith or belief in Jesus. But John reveals that “despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him” (John 12:37 NLT). Even after witnessing Jesus raise a dead man back to life, some would still refuse to believe He was the Messiah. And John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sees this failure to believe as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:1.

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? – Isaiah 53:1 ESV

As John wrote in the opening chapter of his gospel, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Jesus had come, speaking His Father’s words and displaying His Father’s power. But they refused to believe. The light had appeared in their midst, but they refused to acknowledge Him. It was just as Jesus had told Nicodemus.

“…the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. – John 3:19-20 NLT

Again, John reaches back into the writings of the prophet Isaiah to show that the rejection of Jesus by the people of Israel was inevitable. It was part of the will of God. Paraphrasing the words of Isaiah, John announces that the stubborn refusal of the people of Israel was the handiwork of God.

“He has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
    and understand with their heart, and turn,
    and I would heal them.” – John 12:40 ESV

Their disbelief, pre-ordained by God, was essential to His redemptive plan. It was essential that Jesus be rejected and, ultimately, crucified. His death was absolutely necessary if mankind was to have any hope of escaping future judgment.

But many of the Jews continued to stubbornly cling to their own way of doing things. They could not bring themselves to believe that Jesus was offering them a means of being made right with God that did not require their strict adherence to the law. And the apostle Paul would later describe that their continued belief in law-keeping as the means for achieving a right-standing with God was preventing them from believing in Jesus.

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. – Romans 10:1-4 NLT

Belief and disbelief. That is the crux of the matter. Belief brings salvation and a right standing with God. Disbelief brings the judgment of God because it rejects the gracious gift of the Son of God.

But John indicates that there were those among the Jews who believed in Jesus. But he adds that they kept their belief to themselves, out of fear.

Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. For they loved human praise more than the praise of God. – John 12:42-43 NLT

Belief and disbelief. Light and darkness. The closer Jesus gets to the cross, the more intense the contrasts become. The day of reckoning is quickly approaching. When the time comes for Jesus to hang on the cross, it will be a watershed moment in history. Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV). All eyes will be fixed on Him. And, from that moment forward, His death will force every man and woman to make a decision, a choice to believe or disbelieve. To embrace the light or to continue to dwell in the darkness of sin, to face judgment or accept the free gift of a right standing with God through faith in His Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Case of Contrasts

22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. John 10:22-31 ESV

Sometime after His lesson on the Good Shepherd, during the annual celebration of the Feast of Dedication, Jesus returned to the temple complex. But this time He made His way to Solomon’s Colonnade, an area located on the east side of the Court of the Gentiles. This roofed, but open-sided “porch” was reserved for the Gentiles, who were prohibited from entering the temple proper.

Jesus’ decision to mingle with the Gentiles is significant. Earlier, when He had described Himself to the Jews as the Good Shepherd, He had told them, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16 ESV). Jesus was informing them that His offer of eternal life was not reserved for the Jews alone. There were those outside the flock of Israel who would hear His voice and willingly received the gift of salvation He had come to make available. This was the same message He had conveyed to the Samaritan woman.

“the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” – John 4:21-23 ESV

The Samaritan woman, a non-Jew, but a believer in Yahweh, had raised the issue of whether the Samaritans or the Jews worshiped God in the right place. The Samaritans worshiped Him at Mount Gerizim, while the Jews viewed the temple in Jerusalem as the proper place of worship. But Jesus informed her that this argument was about to become irrelevant. With His coming, the means and the method of worship would change. It would have little to do with the right place, and everything to do with worshiping God in the right way. And He was that way.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 ESV

Whether you were a Jew or a Samaritan, the only way you could truly worship God would be through faith in His Son. And Jesus’ offer of salvation would be available to all, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

So, in Solomon’s Colonnade, surrounded by Gentiles, Jesus finds Himself accosted by the Jewish leaders once again. They somewhat sarcastically ask Him: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24 ESV). They want to hear Jesus openly declare Himself to be the Messiah. But they chose an interesting place to have Him do it. They are standing within the Court of the Gentiles and it has not escaped them that Jesus has chosen to associate Himself with non-Jews. Perhaps they were goading Him to announce Himself as the Jewish Messiah in this particular setting because it would make Him look like a fool.

It’s impossible for us to know the motivation behind their actions, but it seems clear that Jesus was fully aware of what they were up to. He responds to their question by returning to His discussion of the sheep and the shepherd.

“I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” – John 10:25-26 ESV

Jesus had not hidden anything from them. He had repeatedly declared Himself to be the Son of God, sent from heaven to offer the gift of eternal life to all who would believe in Him. But these men had refused to believe. Why? Because they were not among His sheep. They were Jews but they were not included in His flock. When He spoke, they did not recognize His voice.

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” – John 10:27-28 ESV

Again, don’t miss the context. Jesus has willingly placed Himself in the company of Gentiles, on the one day of the year when the Jews celebrated the Feast of Dedication or what is now known as Hanukkah. This was a feast that was begun in the intertestamental period in order to celebrate the Maccabean revolt that drove the Syrians (the Gentiles) out of Israel. The temple had to be cleansed and rededicated because Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian King, had desecrated it by sacrificing swine on the temple altar as a tribute to the god Zeus. This pagan king further humiliated the Jews by forcing them to offer sacrifices to the Syrian gods and to eat the flesh of pigs. It was a spiritual low point for the people of Israel, and the Jewish historian Josephus describes the joy the people experienced by celebrating their release from Syrian oppression.

And from that time to the present we observe this festival, which we call the festival of Lights, giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it. – Josephus, Jewish Antiquities

At the festival of Lights, the light of the world stood among the Gentiles and declared Himself to be the Jewish Messiah. What an amazing moment, filled with seeming contradictions and contrasts. On the day when the Jews celebrated their deliverance from pagan oppression, Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, stood among the Gentiles and offered the gift of eternal life – freedom from the condemnation of sin and death. He stood among the unclean, offering Himself as a way for all men, both Jew and Gentile, to be made pure before God. And Jesus described this gift of eternal life as irrevocable.

“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” – John 10:29-30 ESV

Those who placed their faith in Him would never experience a loss of their salvation. Their gift of freedom from sin could never be revoked. Their promise of life eternal could never be lost. But for the Jews, their temple would be desecrated and destroyed yet again. In 70 A.D., the Romans would lay siege to Jerusalem and completely demolish the temple, burning it to the ground.

Jesus would later foretell of this coming day.

As Jesus was leaving the Temple grounds, his disciples pointed out to him the various Temple buildings. But he responded, “Do you see all these buildings? I tell you the truth, they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” – Matthew 24:1-2 NLT

The Jews put a high priority on the temple. It was there that they offered sacrifices to God. It was in the Holy of Holies that the glory of God was said to dwell above the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant. The temple was their key to their continued access to God. It was through the sacrificial system, which was relegated to the temple grounds, that they could receive atonement for their sins. But the day was coming when the temple would be destroyed and, with it, the means of offering sacrifices for sin and receiving atonement from God.

And yet, here was the Messiah, the Son of God, offering Himself as the sole source of salvation from sin and death. It was as He had told Nicodemus.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – John 3:18 ESV

And the reaction of the Jewish leaders speaks volumes. John says they “picked up stones again to stone him” (John 10:31 ESV). He was not their Christ or Messiah. They refused to believe His claim to be the Son of God. He was the Good Shepherd, but they were not His sheep. And they stood condemned. The Light of the world had come, but they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV). During the celebration of the Festival of Lights, these men remained trapped in the darkness of their own sin.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Are We Also Blind?

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. John 9:24-41 ESV

The Pharisees were beside themselves in frustration and anger. Standing before them was a common street beggar, claiming to have had his congenital blindness miraculously healed by Jesus, their arch-nemesis. They had already threatened to excommunicate from the synagogue anyone who claimed Jesus to be the Messiah. And while this man had only proclaimed Jesus to be a prophet, they essentially accused him of blasphemy for having given glory to Jesus rather than God. They seriously doubted the veracity of this man’s story, but they still found him guilty of attributing to Jesus what only God could have done.

The formerly blind man was perplexed by their reasoning and their declaration that Jesus was nothing more than a sinner. Their logic made no sense to him. But in his simple way of thinking, it didn’t even matter. He responded, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25 ESV).  All he knew for certain was that he used to blind, but now he could see. And it was all because of this man named Jesus.

Unable to coerce a confession out of the man, they resorted to further questioning, hoping to expose a hole in his story. But the man responded with a hint of exasperation mixed with sarcasm, “Look!…I told you once. Didn’t you listen? Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” (John 9:27 NLT). The content of his statement and the tone with which he said it produced an immediate and intense reaction from the Pharisees.

Then they cursed him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t even know where this man comes from.” – John 9:28-29 NLT

Their response revealed their complete disdain for Jesus and His followers. In their estimation, Jesus was a rogue Rabbi whose teachings contradicted those of Moses. In their minds, Jesus was nothing more than a Sabbath-breaker who associated with sinners. His miracles were the work of Satan, not Yahweh. And all His talk of being the Son of God was nothing less than blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.

But once again, this passage juxtaposes the light with the darkness. It contrasts those who are blind with those who have eyes to see. The Pharisees, so proud of their discipleship to Moses, had failed to understand that Moses wrote of Jesus’ coming. The great emancipator and law-giver had received a promise directly from God.

“I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT

And Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. But the Pharisees were too blind to see. They “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV). But the lowly beggar, who had received his sight from Jesus, saw the absurdity of their position.

“Why, that’s very strange!” the man replied. “He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.” – John 9:30-33 NLT

It was as clear as day to him. There was no way that Jesus was a sinner. And it was idiotic to think that Jesus was able to do what He did without the full support and authority of God. You didn’t have to be a religious scholar to know that the giving of sight was an act of God. And because this man could now see, he knew that Jesus had the ear of God. But sadly, his message fell on the dear ears and sin-darkened hearts of the Pharisees, who angrily responded, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34 ESV). Who was he to lecture them? He was nothing more than a man who had been cursed to blindness because of sin. And with that, they banned him from the synagogue.

This was to become a common occurrence among those Jews who aligned themselves with Jesus. In fact, Jesus would later warn His disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you” (John 16:2-4 ESV). The Jews, in their religious zeal, would end up persecuting all those who became followers of Jesus. The Book of Acts reveals that the apostle Paul, prior to his conversion, had been a Pharisee whose job it was to hunt down Christians. 

Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains. – Acts 9:1-2 NLT

It was going to become increasingly more dangerous to be a follower of Jesus. And His death and resurrection would not make it any easier. But this lowly beggar was about to have a second “chance” encounter with Jesus. The one who had healed him sought him out and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35 ESV).

From the overall context of the passage, it seems that this was the first time the man had actually seen Jesus with his own, newly restored, eyes. So, when Jesus spoke to him, he had no way of knowing that this was the same man who had healed him. He also had no idea that Jesus was referring to Himself as the Son of Man. Which is what led him to ask, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Even with his restored sight, he was still spiritually blind to the reality of who Jesus was. He most likely understood that this stranger was referring to the man who had healed him, and he desired to know more about him. “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”

And John states that, with this revelation from Jesus, the man expressed his belief and worshiped Him. It is at this point that Jesus reintroduces the metaphor of darkness and light.

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” – John 9:39 ESV

As the light of the world, Jesus judged the world by His very presence. He illuminated the darkness, but there were those who chose to remain in the darkness. They rejected the light and, in doing so, they judged themselves. They already stood condemned for their sins, and God had graciously sent His Son to provide them with atonement. But because they refused to “see” Jesus as the Son of God, they remained in their darkness. But those who “saw” and believed received forgiveness and freedom from condemnation.

The Pharisees, overhearing Jesus’ words, were offended by what He said, and objected to His inference that they were blind. But Jesus said their real problem was their belief that they had spiritual insight. They believed themselves to be enlightened and informed. But Jesus informed them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt” (John 9:41 ESV). In other words, if they would only see and confess their blindness, they would receive sight. Jesus would later accuse these very same men of viewing themselves as in need of nothing He had to offer. They did not believe they were sinners, so they had no need for a Savior.

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” – Matthew 9:12 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson