Sermon, September 4, 2005
College Baptist Church
Rev. Don Westblade

The Holy Spirit in the Gospel
Mark 3:16-35

This morning we take our fourth look at the Gospel of Mark. (You’ll find a white insert in your bulletin this morning with a quick sketch of the outline we’ve been following and some pieces I want to add to it today.) We began in mid-August by looking at the opening 20 verses with their introduction of Jesus by John the Baptist and Jesus call to the Gospel: Repent, believe, follow me.

That’s where we met Jesus’ first calling of his disciples, four of them: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. In between that calling and the calling of Levi in 2:14, we found three episodes of Jesus’ astonishing authority over the demons and the diseases and over our sin.

Then last week we went from Jesus’ second calling, the one to Levi up to the third time Jesus’ called his disciples, where all twelve are named, in Mark at 3:13-15. In between we saw 3 more episodes of Jesus’ authority-- this time over Judaism (I wonder then if it is just an accident that Levi is the disciple called just before these questions of Levitical authority are raised): his authority over Judaism’s means of salvation (he came to call needy sinners, not righteous heroes), his authority over Judaism’s means of discipline (he initiates a Christian fast that isn’t hungry for a feast it’s not tasted yet; it’s even hungrier yet now for a feast that in Jesus it has tasted and knows is good); and Jesus’ authority over Judaism’s means of regulating life by the Law (understanding the Sabbath not as a legalistic day of refraining from work but as a joyful and active day of coming to rest in God).

Three accounts of Jesus’ calling his disciples, and both of the first two Mark has followed up by three episodes showing Jesus’ authority. Guess what we’re going to find in today’s passage that follows this third calling of disciples and stretches up to his beginning to teach the crowds in 4:1?   Mark is becoming almost predictable!

Three episodes in a kind of sandwich structure: in 3:20-21, Jesus’ family gathered around his house where he has returned, and they’re all concerned that, with all these exorcisms and other expressions of his authority that are putting him in opposition to their religious authorities, he must have gone out of his mind. Jump down to 3:31-35, and we pick up the same story: they’re still standing there outside his house, calling him. Then sandwiched between those two scenes of Jesus and his family is a crucial but vexing exchange between Jesus and the scribes again.

Crucial, I say, because it’s about the source of Jesus’ authority to perform these acts of power over the demons and the diseases and over sin and the Jewish religion.

Vexing, I say, because his answer is that his source of authority is the Holy Spirit, and then he adds this warning that has over the ages been a deep source of consternation to many readers of the Gospel. (V.28-29) “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

Everyone who reads this text wants to ask the question: What is this eternal, unforgivable sin? And have I already committed it, so that nothing I do is ever going to keep me out of hell forever?

History is full of people who have literally committed suicide in their despair about the possibility they may have wittingly or unwittingly trespassed this irreversible sin and that they’re now beyond hope, beyond the reach of the Gospel. Could anything be more terrifying than to think you are now beyond saving and are bound for eternal torment without any chance of being rescued? This is a deeply troubling question for many people who have read the Bible.

The problem is that the Bible isn’t very explicit about what exactly this sin might be. Apparently the first readers of the Bible in the Gospel writers’ time didn’t need much more explanation of what counted as a violation of this warning. But we in our time need to work fairly carefully through these writers’ texts to get better light on what they seem to have been able to take more for granted.

So that’s what I’d like to do today. I want us to look together in Mark’s Gospel for the clues and indications he gives of what he took Jesus to be referring to in this meaty interchange with the scribes, sandwiched in between the bread of Jesus’ family gathering outside of his house.

I’ve discovered for myself this week that there really are some very intriguing clues in the way Mark arranges his text and his images in this Gospel to help get a fix on what Mark understood this unpardonable sin to be. I could hardly put this Gospel down for a couple of days of studying this week because of how things seemed to be coming into focus in a way I’d never seen before. I never cease to be amazed at what a gold mine of literary and historical and theological riches the Bible is. No matter how long you study it, there are always fresh and exciting new things to be found in this book! Let me walk you through a few very intriguing observations that some hours with the Bible and a good concordance have turned up.

It’s helpful to note first of all that Mark structures his texts in this sandwich arrangement (of 3:20-35) fairly often. Most of the commentators on Mark will point that out to you. One I looked at listed eight other places where it found Mark splitting one story in half to frame another story between its two parts. The healing of Jairus’s daughter in ch. 5 is an obvious example of that. (Jairus comes to tell Jesus his daughter is dead and on the way to restore her back to life he heals the woman who has a flow of blood.)

What’s useful about seeing that structure is to recognize that Mark always seems to be putting the three story parts in that order to force the reader to think about them together and to let one shine its light on the other.

So I went looking for light on the unforgivable sin from Jesus’ family gathering outside of the house where he was. That seemed like an unusual set of things to put back to back.

But the first thing I saw was that not just here but every one of the three times we’ve met Jesus calling his disciples in Mark’s organization of the text, the very next thing Mark tells us is that Jesus went into a house. In fact just like today’s text, I realized this week that, all three of the times he calls disciples, Mark follows that calling with three episodes of going into a house.  [see insert]

In 1:20, Jesus finishes calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and in 1:21, “immediately” (Mark says) Jesus “enters a house of prayer” (a synagogue), where he casts out an unclean spirit. Interesting. Why did Jesus start talking about blaspheming the Holy Spirit in 3:28-29? Because v.30 tells us, the scribes had been saying Jesus had “an unclean spirit.”

Jesus came into this house, bound (as it were) the strong men who led it -- the scribes, who got its first seats -- and threw out its unclean spirits.

In 1:29 “immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house (!) of Simon and Andrew. Once again he bound up the “strong man” that was oppressing their mother and cast out her fever in that house.

Then in 2:1, back in Capernaum, it is reported that Jesus was at home. Literally: “in the house.” And that’s where we saw his third act of authority, forgiving sins and raising the paralytic, telling him: rise, pick up your bed, and go to your house.

2:14, Jesus calls another disciple. 2:15, Jesus is reclining at table “in his house.” And with the authority of master of his house he is entertaining sinners instead of righteous men.

The next time we meet the word house, it’s David, in 2:26, entering “the house of God” on the Sabbath, binding (as it were) Abiathar, a bad priest it later turns out, who is banished to Anatoth for opposing David’s appointed successor, Solomon, and having bound its strong man, David shows the authority of the Lord of the Sabbath by eating the bread of the Presence.

And, third, in 3:1, “again Jesus enters the synagogue,” and its leaders, its “strong men” watch him heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and grow so threatened by his authority in that house that they begin to take counsel to kill him.

Every one of these episodes in a house, in other words, can be taken as an illustration of the parable that Jesus tells in the house that Jesus’ relatives are surrounding (physically and literarily!) in the central piece of this morning’s text, that follows the third and last calling of the twelve disciples.

Remember how I said Mark seemed to be drawing a picture of the resurrection with the physical description of lowering a paralytic into a hole for Jesus to raise back up? That’s what I’m suspecting is happening with these descriptions of Jesus entering houses: they’re illustrations in life of the parable Jesus is giving here in 3:25-27.

What are the first words Mark tells us after he lists Jesus’ 12 apostles? “Then he went into his house.” A crowd gathers, the family comes. Everyone is making accusations. He’s out of his mind! He’s casting out demons by Beelzebul! And, in the middle of it all, Jesus tells a parable.

(v.23) “How can Satan cast out Satan?” I am not working by Satan’s power! My power (v.29) comes not from an unclean spirit. It comes from the Holy Spirit!

Then the parable (v.25): “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” The parable goes on in v.27: “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.”

I am not the strong man who is running Satan’s house, Jesus says. I, by the power of the Holy Spirit, am the one who binds the strong man and plunders Satan’s house! Don’t confuse a Satanic power with a power that is Holy!

Is it just a coincidence that six times before this, nicely punctuated by three callings of disciples, Mark has used the entering of a house to illustrate the authority that someone Holy has over the strong men who try to dominate that house? I’m coming to the conclusion Mark is trying to say something here.

It doesn’t end here either. I got out my concordance and looked for Mark using the verbs for entering and the nouns for house. (We can fit these into the rest of Mark’s structure later on.) In 5:38, Jesus saw a commotion when he entered into the house of the “ruler” (is that a strong man?) of the synagogue. What does he do there? He exercises the power of the Holy Spirit to raise a little girl back to life. Talitha, cumi! Little girl, get up! And she did. Not by the power of the strong man of that house. By the power of the Holy Spirit!

In 6:1-4, he came into his homeland and Mark says that “in his homeland” and “in his house” he could do no mighty work. Why not? His mother and brother and sisters--the same list of people who are standing “outside the house” in 3:21 and 31!--are in this house and homeland. When someone in the house still thinks Jesus is out of his mind, even if it is the holy family themselves, the strong man isn’t bound, and Jesus won’t be in a position to do his holy work. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and his own house.” Why? Because they only think of him as the everyday kid next door. Not as the arm of the Holy Spirit.

In 7:24 Jesus enters the house of the Syrophoenician woman and binds even the power of the Gentiles, raising her demon-possessed young son (who, Mark tells us, is like a corpse) back to life and health again. How does he do it when the disciples couldn’t? This kind comes out only by prayer. Whose power is Jesus calling on in his prayer? The power of the Holy Spirit!

I’ve skipped over two occurrences of entering a house in 6:10 and 7:17, and there’s one more in 13:35. All three of these are especially illuminating of what I think Mark is understanding Jesus to mean by his parable about the Holy Spirit’s power to enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, and then in turn of what Mark thinks Jesus means by the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

In 7:17, Jesus leaves the crowds and enters into his house with his disciples. As we see in 3:34 in today’s text and in other places, the house where Jesus has bound his strong rivals and now has authority is a place where Jesus can safely explain his parables to his disciples. Here he explains, once they are “inside,” that it is not those things that come in from outside that defile a person. It’s those things that already rule like a strong man “inside” the heart that defile and make a person “unclean.”

Then he lists these unclean spirits that run our hearts like strong men: “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

What binds this strong man and casts him out of our heart? It’s not the strong man within us! He is nothing but unclean. He is sin. He is Satan. Nothing can bind that strong man except a stronger power that comes into the house from outside it. And that power is the Holy Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit’s coming into our heart to bind these strong powers, we live as ones who love the strong man of deceit, and of slander and of pride and of sexual immorality, and of foolishness. Our actions make it unmistakably clear that we think those things are going to make our lives happier than the Holy Spirit can.

But until the Holy Spirit begins to come in from outside our heart and life and will and begins to bind that strong man of pride and lust that runs our life from within, we will never welcome Jesus Christ and his shed blood as our liberator. We will resist him as an enemy.

So notice carefully why Jesus is singling out the Holy Spirit here for particular attention when he speaks about the prospect of cutting ourselves off from pardon. The Holy Spirit is the power that comes into our heart that prompts us to repentance and to welcome Christ’s offer of rescue instead of treating it like our enemy.

It’s one thing to blaspheme the Father or the Son. We ought never to call unclean what is holy. That would be deep and profound sin. But that sin... all of us have committed. We have let the strong man rule. And Jesus says to that in 3:28, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter.” All sins. Whatever blasphemies. ... If we repent and believe in the Good News of Christ.  John the Baptist began the Gospel preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.

But worse than blaspheming the Father or the Son -- because this would cut us off from the very possibility of pardon -- don’t call unclean the very power, the holy power, that God holds out as the means of being forgiven from that deep and profound sin of blaspheming God. Don’t reject the work of the Holy Spirit who comes to us as the power to move us to repentance! Don’t call Satanic the very power, the very lifeline, the very desire to repent, that can rescue you into holiness.

The second “house” passage I’m coming back to makes this distinction even plainer. In 6:7, Mark tells us that Jesus gave his disciples authority over the unclean spirits. He gave them, in other words, the power of the Holy Spirit. And now he says to them (in 6:10) whenever you “enter a house,” stay there until you depart to a new city. But if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, leave.”

Do you hear the parallel there between Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about entering houses and his own entering hearts to bind our strong men? There’s a condition. If they receive you, if they listen to you, stay, to the end. But if they don’t receive you (if they won’t let you “into their house;” if they won’t let their strong man be bound), listen now to this parallel to the unforgivable sin! “Leave” is not his last word. Leave, ...and shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” There’s a finality about that. Because here is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Here is an echo in the disciple’s outward experience of a rejection not just of God but of the very power and opportunity to ask God for forgiveness.

They have said to the humility that would even admit its own need: No. Stay out. You are the enemy of my strong man of pride. He is good. Your Holy Spirit is evil. That is a choice that makes it impossible to repent. And without repentance there is no pardon. There can be no forgiveness.

As every one of us comes into this world, there is a strong man in each one of our houses. The persistent refusal to let the Holy Spirit come into our house and bind that strong man will finally result in Jesus’ shaking off the dust of his feet against us and abandoning us to our strong man.

But here’s good news again: This same understanding of the Holy Spirit as God’s motivating power means that there is reassurance here for anyone who may be worried that they’ve committed the unforgivable sin. If you’re worried about it, that’s an indication that the Holy Spirit hasn’t left you! Your very anxiety is the prodding of the Holy Spirit to open the door and lay down the weapons of your pride’s opposition to Christ’s loving care in your life.

On the other hand, watch out. If the Holy Spirit starts to open you up, he doesn’t just put you on automatic pilot. Even after the Holy Spirit has begun his work, there is need to keep on letting him do his binding work over the strong man that wants to dominate us. Look at that last verse I mentioned in Mk 13:35. This is where Jesus tells his last parable about coming into a house.

“Be on guard,” he says. “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come [back to the house!], in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

The question that still troubles us, of course, is whether there comes some point--before or after the Holy Spirit begins to bind our strong man--at which our resistance to the Holy Spirit can become irreversible and the possibility of repenting would slip out of our reach. Is it ever too late for forgiveness?

The good news is that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Think of Peter in ch. 8: Jesus says Peter is still thinking like Satan 8 chapters after he first followed Jesus. Peter even denies Christ later in Mark 14. But Jesus was longsuffering with him. And Jesus’ resurrection finally opened the door to the binding of Peter’s strong man. After that Peter is willing even to die a gruesome death for his faith in Christ.

So there are some who would answer that death must be what brings that last opportunity, and our resistance to the Holy Spirit doesn’t become unforgivable until that last physical moment in life slips away.

That surely was the case with the thief on the cross who turned over his strong man of theft and pride to Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, with his last dying breath and found full forgiveness and an open door to paradise.

But I’d counsel that we are making a date with disaster if we take that thief on the cross’s case as an invitation to conclude that everyone can count on waiting to the last moment of life to repent. When Matthew records these same words of Jesus in Mk 3, he says, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or the age to come.” If the possibility of forgiveness were taken away only after death then Jesus would not have said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable in this age as well as the one to come.

Likewise look at 1Jn 5:16. That verse says that there is a sin unto death that there is no point to pray for. It puts a person beyond forgiveness even in this life.

Centuries before Jesus, Isaiah counseled those who would return to the Lord and forsake their old ways to “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.” The implication of that counsel is that choices we make can cause us to slide, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, so far away from God that we lose the motive to call on him again at all. In other words we can commit the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit while years of  life still remain to us.

There is a resistance to the Holy Spirit that is so persistent or that belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that the Holy Spirit may withdraw from us forever with his convicting power, long before we die, so that we are never able even in this life to repent and be forgiven.

We can be like the frog in the pot where the water gets so progressively hotter that eventually we can’t jump out any more, and we boil.

We can be like the buzzard feasting on a carcass floating down the river on an ice floe, but enjoying our momentary pleasure so long that suddenly we realize our talons are frozen onto the ice, and we can’t fly away any more... before the waterfall comes.

Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon him while he is near.

The Holy Spirit puts in 3 appearances in the Gospel of Mark’s narrative leading up to the events of Jesus’ passion. [see insert] One is here in 3:29. The other two are the bookends at the very beginning and the very end of the unit (that leads up to Jerusalem) from chapter 1 to 12.

In the opening verses of the book, John the Baptist understood and announced that Jesus came to immerse his followers in the Holy Spirit.

And now it’s fitting to close where Mark does, with a look at the last appearance of the Holy Spirit at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In 12:36, David, it says, by the Holy Spirit, disagrees with the scribes who say the Messiah is nothing but a descendant of David. Instead, the Holy Spirit empowers David to understand that the Messiah is David’s Lord. Look, as we close, at the quotation Jesus takes from David’s Psalm (110). “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until (when?)... until I put your enemies under your feet. The Holy Spirit empowers David to understand that the Messiah comes to subdue every enemy, to bind every strong man, under his feet.

The Holy Spirit is Jesus power to bind the strong man in your house. Let’s prepare ourselves for the Lord’s table by singing the prayer of Hymn 147 as the prayer of our heart to seek him while he is near.

[# 147 (vv.1-3) Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart]

CBC Sermon Notes (Sept 4, 2005)


The Power of the Holy Spirit to

Enter Houses and Bind Strong Men in Mark


John promises Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:8)


Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John (1:16-20)

         1:21    Jesus enters the synagogue and casts out unclean spirit

         1:29    Jesus enters Simon’s house and casts out a fever

         2:1      Jesus is in his house and raises a paralytic, forgives sin


Jesus calls Levi (2:14)

         2:15    Jesus is at his house eating with sinners

         2:26    David enters the house of God and eats Sabbath bread

         3:1      Jesus enters the synagogue and heals on the Sabbath


Jesus calls the Twelve (3:7-19)

         3:20    Jesus enters his house, his family his outside

         3:27    A parable about entering, binding, and plundering

                    and blaspheming the Holy Spirit

         3:31    Jesus inside, family outside: who belongs to his house?


Jesus begins to teach (4:1)

         5:38    Jesus enters synagogue ruler’s house, raises daughter

         6:1-4  Jesus can do no mighty work in his own house

         6:10    When disciples enter a house, either stay or shake dust

         7:17    Jesus enters a house to explain parable: inside, outside

         7:24    Jesus enters Syrophoenician woman’s house, raises son

         9:28    Jesus enters a house, exorcises and raises a young boy

         9:33    In his house, Jesus teaches about receiving as servants


David, by the Holy Spirit, declares Jesus Lord and enemy binder

(12:36 // Psalm 110:1)

In Mk 3:20, when Jesus entered his house and the crowd gathered, Mark says so many gathered that they couldn’t eat. Actually it says more literally in Greek that they couldn’t “eat bread.” But in the previous chapter when David, anticipating his Son and Lord, Jesus, entered the house of God, and subdued the strong man who was dominating the house with the letter of the Sabbath law instead of its spirit, Jesus pointed out that he ate the bread of the Presence.

When the Messiah comes into your house and by the power of the Holy Spirit subdues the strong man of pride and sin that rules your heart, he eats bread with you. That’s why we’re gathering around this table this morning. This table is the Holy Spirit’s invitation to everyone who won’t resist him to come, eat bread, receive the promise of Jesus’ death and resurrection for your own life. By his death he bound the strong man of self-righteousness. And by the blood of his new covenant he clothes us with the gift of his own perfect righteousness. Come and feed on him by faith.