In chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel, the Sacred Author tells us of four events in the early ministry of Jesus. First, Jesus heals the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Second, he retires to the countryside near the sea and preaches. Third, he takes his disciples up to a hilltop and commissions them. Fourth, the scribes ask Jesus to justify himself when he commissions the apostles to cast out demons.
It should be noted in Mark’s very terse chapter that the Sacred Author describes three aspects of apostolic ministry: healing (3:1-6), preaching (3:7-12), and casting out demons (3:13-30). Yet Mark does so in such abbreviated fashion that one can almost miss the whole point of the story.
Mark Commissions the Twelve Apostles
Mark’s Gospel is unusual in that the Sacred Author makes no mention of the calling of the apostles. In the other three Gospels, we are provided with very human accounts that describe Jesus calling the apostles. In Matthew (5:18-22) and Luke (5:1-11), Peter is called by the Sea of Galilee. In John’s Gospel (1:35-51), Jesus calls Andrew and Peter, and then Nathaniel-Bartholomew and Philip. And these stories tell us something about the character, personality and imperfections of the men Jesus calls.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Mark skips over these stories. His Gospel is the most cursory account of the four. Mark is himself not an Apostle, and he would not have first-hand knowledge of the calling of the Twelve. But as to why he and his community chose to skip the calling of the Apostles, we can only speculate.
On the other hand, in chapter 3, Mark gives us some insight into the theology of apostolic ministry. Jesus heals, and then he preaches. Then he commissions his apostles to preach and to cast out demons. This passage is so pivotal that I ought to introduce it in Greek, so that there is no doubt as to what Jesus is saying:
(14) καὶ ἐποίησεν δώδεκα οὓς καὶ ἀποστόλους ὠνόμασεν ἵνα ὦσιν μετ’ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἵνα ἀποστέλλῃ αὐτοὺς κηρύσσειν (15) καὶ ἔχειν ἔξουσιαν ἐκβάλλειν τὰ δαιμόνια· καὶ ἐποίησεν τοὺς δώδεκα,
All of the Greek translations are in agreement that the Jesus “chose” the “twelve,” “sent” them to “proclaim” or “preach,” and that they were empowered to “cast out demons.” I wish to emphasize that every early Greek translation of Mark 3 tells us that Jesus commissioned the twelve to cast out demons. A few translations also say they were also commissioned to heal the sick, but I don’t know why that insertion is not in all Greek texts.
Why is Mark’s Account Different than Luke’s or Matthew’s?
Mark’s Gospel parts company with Matthew and Luke. In those two Gospels, the commissioning is followed by an account of the apostles going about preaching. In Mark’s Gospel, the commissioning is followed by an account of the apostles casting out demons, and the scandal this caused to the family of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel mentions this four times in this chapter (verses 11, 15, 22, 23). It is not clear whether Mark tells us of a different instance in the life of Jesus or not. In other words, Jesus may have asked his closest disciples, on more than one occasion, to set about preaching, healing and casting out demons.
It would appear that Matthew, Mark and Luke conflate three general events that would appear to have occurred more than once during the course of Jesus’ ministry. First, the apostles are given authority and sent (Mk 3:13-16, Mt 10:1, Lk 9:1). Second, Jesus offers them advice as to what to take and what to do (Mt 10:5-15, Lk 9:2-6). In Mark, no advice is given to the disciples. Third, Jesus is called to account by the scribes for the practice of driving out demons (Mk 3:20-29). The response of Jesus is captured in Luke (11:15-22) and Matthew (12:24-32), but in a different context, where Jesus is required, apparently on more than one occasion, to answer for his actions to the religious authorities. In Mark, Matthew and Luke, he suggests that challenging the work and the will of God is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
When word spreads that the disciples of Jesus, and Jesus himself, cast out demons, we are told that the crowd believes Jesus “has gone out of his mind” (Mk 3:21). In response to the criticism of the scribes, Jesus defends his work as follows:
“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 his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
Jesus simply asserts that he is doing God’s work, and to suggest otherwise is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. More astonishingly, Jesus refers to this form of blasphemy as an “unforgivable sin.” But this raises an interesting question, as there is no apparent reference to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. So, what is it? A simple answer is that to blaspheme against the Spirit is to undo or undermine the work of God in the context of the economy of salvation.
Jesus insinuates that the commission he has given to the Apostles is relatively important. If we read the commissioning in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we see that the work of the apostles is to preach, to heal and to cast our demons. These are apostolic works ordained and willed by God. These actions and miracles point to the Kingdom of Heaven, and they bear testimony to the authority that Jesus has. For the scribes to insinuate that Jesus might be doing the devil’s work is a blasphemy of the highest order. It suggests that Jesus is not of God, and that these mighty works of God are fraudulent.
We should take care not to interpret the injunction not to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit too lightly. We should never testify against the will of God, nor disparage nor deny the mighty works of God, lest we be accused of the same.