Mark 3:31-35

Mark’s Gospel contains a number of examples of the literary technique referred to nowadays as “interpolation” or “sandwiching.” The author introduces a theme or the beginning of a story which is then suspended while another related theme or story is inserted, after which the original theme or story is resumed and completed. We have a particularly good example of this technique in Mark chapter 3. The family of Jesus is introduced in 3:21, come to take charge of him because they think he is out of his mind. Then we hear of a hostile delegation of scribes from Jerusalem accusing Jesus of being the pawn of Satan himself. Only then is the presence of Jesus’ family taken up again. It is a device by which, in this case, the reader is able to compare two kinds of opposition to Jesus, one, we might say, more friendly; one, more sinister. [France, 156]

Text Comment

The setting remains apparently the crowded house from v. 20. The Lord’s mother and brothers (remember, those brothers include James and Jude who would later write books of the New Testament!) are still wanting to take charge of him because they think he is deluded, as we read in v. 21. The word the NIV translates “looking for” is used 10x in Mark and always with the sense of attempting to gain some control over Jesus. [Edwards, 124] Obviously the family members thought that they had some rights over Jesus that he would be obliged to honor. But they couldn’t get to Jesus because the house was already so crowded, so their message was passed through the crowd to him.
The Lord’s question and his identification of his disciples as his true family has often troubled people. His remarks strike the reader as not as respectful or as loving as a man ought to be toward the members of his family and, especially, toward his mother. Remember, at this point, however, that his mother and his siblings would later be found among the circle of his disciples rejoicing in his resurrection from the dead and making plans for taking the good news of his salvation to the world.

And remember that this will not be the last time that Jesus will say something similar: either that his followers might very well face opposition from their families or that they must place their loyalty to him above the loyalty they owe to their natural families.

In any case, “those in a circle around him” were not the crowd in general, but his disciples, his real followers, those who already by this time believed in him. This is clear in the context and is made explicit in Matthew’s account of this same incident. Matthew has, “pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘here are my mother and my brothers.’” [12:49]

The fact that the Lord’s disciples are portrayed as his brothers is remarkable in light of the fact that Mark has already given us a number of reasons to believe that Jesus is to be identified with Yahweh, the Almighty God. Indeed, this is another such demonstration of Jesus’ deity. He equates following him with doing the will of God! It is a remarkable condescension on God’s part and a remarkable privilege for us to be granted a place in God’s family and not a place only, but an honored place, the brothers and sisters of the Son of God! You will notice that a point is made of adding “sister” to the list in v. 35 even though we have so far heard only of the Lord’s mother and brothers. In that culture, at that time, it was a significant addition and validates the equality of men and women in the kingdom of God.

The will of God that one must do includes, of course, believing that the kingdom of God has come in the presence of Jesus, repenting of one’s sins, and following Jesus. These are the only obligations that Mark has so far referred to. But it is clear and will become clearer that “doing the will of God” means generally obeying God’s commandments and serving him.

Now the general gist of this short section in its context is clear enough. The Lord is making a statement about the difference between true and false discipleship, a distinction he often drew during his ministry. People were crowding around Jesus, excited to be in his presence. He was generating great enthusiasm. But he was generating opposition at the same time. But that opposition surfaced in very different ways. The religious leadership, jealous of their position and offended by Jesus’ failure to show deference to them, opposed him in a direct and public way. They accused him of being a sorcerer, a wielder of demonic power. The crowds opposed him in a much more subtle way. They lavished praise on him, they followed him wherever he went, they respected his power and begged help from him, but they remained aloof to him as the Savior, they were uninterested in personal repentance, and did not embrace him as the Lord of their lives. For all their apparent enthusiasm, they actually were on the same side as the scribes and Pharisees as events would eventually prove. The Lord’s own family opposed him in a quite different way. They patronized him, thought they knew better what was really going on, and laid plans to take him home where, relieved of the stress of the demanding crowds, he could recover his mental equilibrium.

In all of these cases there was a failure to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and in each there was an effort to deflect Jesus from his mission and redirect him to another course of action. [Edwards, 125] And it is in this context that Jesus looked at those who were already his disciples and said that they were his true family because they were prepared to do God’s will. The distinguishing characteristic of true discipleship, of the genuine follower of Jesus – which is to say the genuine child of God – is that he or she is committed to doing God’s will.

You can be an ecclesiastical insider – like the scribes and Pharisees – and not be a part of the Lord’s family because you reject Jesus and his message. There have been a great many such people in the church through the ages: clerics and others who in fact reject Jesus. Because you reject the Son of God you obviously are not interested in doing God’s will. You can be a still more intimate insider – like the Lord’s brothers – and not be part of Christ’s family because you are not really committed to doing God’s will. You can be an enthusiast, like the crowds, but not be a part of Christ’s family because you are not ready to submit your life to the lordship of Christ and do God’s will. The fact that the Lord was willing even to seem to slight his own mother and his brothers to make this point only makes it more emphatically, as when later he will say that one cannot be his disciple who does not hate his father and mother, his sisters and brothers. There is a commitment to the will of God in the heart of a true child of God that brooks no competition, even from those loyalties we otherwise regard as most sacred and most precious.

And the Lord is hardly speaking only hypothetically. Through the ages there have been any number of parents and siblings who have thought a family member unhinged because he or she began to follow Jesus with serious intention as there have been any number of Christians who have suffered the rejection of their families in order to be and remain the loyal servants of Jesus Christ. And a good number of those had parents and siblings who would have called themselves Christians and considered themselves insiders. But, for all their religious posing, like the scribes and Pharisees they had no intention of actually doing the will of God and were offended when a son or daughter, brother or sister, actually set out to be an out and out Christian. Some of these Christians, like Jesus, eventually saw their family members become Christians themselves, others never did. But Jesus is not talking hypothetically here. He is talking about the essential characteristic of a Christian, about his true followers, his disciples, his brethren: they do the will of God.

As Jesus will say point-blank in the Sermon on the Mount, it isn’t the one who says he believes in Jesus who will enter the kingdom of God on the last day; nor is it the one who does even impressive religious works; it is the one who does the will of his Father in heaven. This is why repentance figured so largely in the preaching of Jesus: repentance is turning away from sin in order to do the will of God.

Jesus here defines the Christian, the child of God, his own brother or sister, as the one who obeys God. It is a simple, profound, all-encompassing description of the genuine disciple. And, of course, we find it not only here, not only in the teaching of the Gospels, but from the beginning of the Bible to its end. The Lord is doing nothing here in his remark about who are really his mother and his brothers but summing up a central strand of biblical teaching about true discipleship and about the distinguishing marks of those who will inherit eternal life.

I say from the very outset of biblical revelation we are taught that they are the true sons of God who do the will of God. Take Abraham, the father of the faithful. God promised that through him all nations of the world would be blessed. But later, after he proved willing to sacrifice even his son Isaac should the Lord demand it, God solemnly repeated the promise he had made to him, to bless him and to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and to bless all the nations through him, and said he would keep all those promises to Abraham

“because you have obeyed me.”

In other words, Abraham showed himself a true child of God by doing God’s will. And it is the same message we find at the very end of the Bible. “To him who…does my will to the end,” Christ says to the Christians in Thyatira in Rev. 2:26, he will give eternal life. And in one of the very last chapters of the Bible, in the beginning of the account of the Second Coming, we are told that the bride has been made ready for the wedding of the Lamb and fine linen was given her to wear and that the fine linen ”stands for the righteous acts of all the saints.” The saints, in other words, are those who do the will of God. They live in obedience to his will, his commandments, his summons. They serve the Lord. And Paul says the same thing over and over again. Three times in his letters he writes “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters” – that is whether one is an insider or an outsider as people measure religious affiliation and devotion – and in each case he says that what matters is doing God’s will. In one case he says “neither circumcision nor uncircumsion matters, but keeping the commandments of God.” In another case he says that what matters is “faith working through love.” I could multiply texts to wearying effect if I thought it necessary to prove to you how often, how emphatically, how unqualifiedly the Bible teaches that true Christians live in obedience to God.

Hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ – spoken with striking emphasis as his mother and brothers stood outside the crowded home – my brother, my sister, my mother is the one who does God’s will.

Now I know that some of you are waiting for me to say that Christians, of course, obey very imperfectly. You have heard me say that many times. You are waiting for me to say that the main thing is God’s forgiveness. You have heard me say that as well. You are waiting for me to say that we are justified, we are made right with God and we obtain entrance into heaven by faith in Christ and not by our good deeds. You have heard me say that more times than you can count. Salvation is by grace and not by works. You expect me to say that as I have so often said it, as the Bible so often says it.

No! That is another sermon for another time. It is for us to pay attention to what our Lord and Master, our Savior and Redeemer is saying to us here and now. If when considering Mark 3:34-35 the preacher talks about salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone he will have failed the Lord and failed you. He will have undercut and undermined the very point the Savior was making. And he will have blunted the sharp edge of our Savior’s warning and summons.

What is more, that preacher will have encouraged people to think all the more what they already tend far too much to think and want to think: viz. that if I believe in Jesus it doesn’t make all that much difference whether I do what he says. Faith is the important thing, the decisive thing; obedience and service are icing on the cake. So we can be tempted to think. But that is not what the Bible says and, indeed, that way of thinking Paul says in effect turns the robe of Christ’s righteousness into a cloak for sin. The person who excuses his disobedience by appealing to his faith in God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness is doing the same thing the scribes and Pharisees did: making Christ’s work into the work of the Devil, making Christ an encourager of your sin, an accomplice in your disobedience to God, a tempter who gives you reason not to do God’s will by suggesting that you’ll be forgiven anyway so you needn’t worry overmuch about breaking this commandment or that, failing to answer this summons or that, remaining indifferent to this part of God’s will or that. Have you realized that? When you let your confidence in God’s forgiveness in Christ weaken your resolve to obey him, you are as much as making him an agent of Satan, precisely what the scribes did!

You don’t, of course, come out and say this out loud; you don’t even say it to yourself. But that is the argument going on inside your heart and mind and that is the case your flesh is making to yourself. Of course you don’t deny that Christians should obey God’s will or that they should keep God’s commandments, but you become an example of what Rabbi Duncan called “effective” or “practical” antinomianism. By that he meant a conscience only very partially alive to the holiness of God, only very partially alive to the sinfulness of sin, only very partially alive to the unchanging and unchangeable demands of God’s holy will.

The church was full of such people in Jesus’ day. Religious people, interested people, enthusiastic people, but not people who were committed heart and soul to doing the will of God. The church is full of such people today. As Samuel Rutherford quaintly put it:

“Oh! How many of us would have Christ divided into two halves, that we might take the half of him only! We take his office, Jesus and salvation; but ‘Lord’ is a cumbersome word; and to obey, and work out our own salvation, and to perfect holiness, is the cumbersome and stormy northside of Christ; and that we eschew and shift.”

The fact is, true Christians, real followers of Christ, and those who eventually inherit eternal life have always been and are now those and those only who do God’s will. As often and as emphatically as this is taught in Holy Scripture there should be no doubt about this in any honest heart. As often as Jesus, his prophets and his apostles warn us not to forget this or minimize this or ignore this, no serious reader of the Bible should ever come away from a text such as ours this morning thinking anything else but that he must, she must begin anew to do the will of God.

And what makes that resolve so important and so necessary is precisely the fact that doing God’s will is often difficult, painful, wearying, unsatisfying, at least in the moment. I guarantee you that virtually everyone listening to me now finds, at this moment, parts of God’s will that you do not want to do. You don’t think you should have to do them. You aren’t sure you can do them. You certainly don’t want to do them. To do God’s will in that way would require real loss, real sacrifice on your part. To do God’s will in that way, you think, would make your life heavy, hard, and sad. You are very sorely tempted to think that it would not be fair of God to require such obedience of you.

In preparation for my Sunday School class I have been reading the Lutheran writer Marva Dawn’s book, Sexual Character. At one point in that book she deals with the now often heard complaint that it wouldn’t be fair to deny homosexuals sexual pleasure. It isn’t their fault that they are attracted to members of the same sex. The same sort of complaint is now also being made by single adults. Why should they be denied the pleasures of sex simply because they can’t find a man or woman to marry? Marva Dawn’s reply is the more effective for being so personal and it is as blunt as the Lord’s unqualified assertion that his disciples do God’s will.

“Perhaps my physical handicaps make me more aware of the true nature of the questions…. I can’t help but respond to the question of fairness by asking in turn, ‘Is it fair that I who once was extremely active and skilled in sports am denied the physical pleasure of running and playing because of a crippled leg? Is it fair that, loving music as profoundly as I do, I am denied the sensual pleasure of hearing it well because my deaf ear constantly rings? Is it fair that severe visual limitations prevent me from enjoying beauty and make me unable to do the reading that I love and must do for my work?’ To be denied sexual fulfillment (as I also was for many single years) does not seem to me to be such a great suffering. Though passionately in love with my husband, I would gladly give up sexual happiness to get my vision back. (You see, my dear reader, I am easily as guilty of making an idol of visual pleasure as others might be of the idolatry of sexual pleasure. We are all sinners in the rebellion against our Creator!)”

At the last, you see, Marva Dawn is saying that it matters not how easy or difficult any piece of obedience may be. There remains this single alternative: to submit to God’s will or to rebel against it. And that is the same thing as saying we are faced with this alternative: to be Christ’s disciple or not, to be his brother, his sister, or not.

As Augustine wisely and beautifully says in his Confessions, the Lord’s disciple does not hope to hear from God what he himself wants to hear, but to want to do whatever it is that he hears is God’s will. Augustine knew very well how difficult obedience to God’s will can sometimes be. That is why he famously said, “Command what you will, O Lord; but give what you command.” That is, whatever it is, O God, that you wish me to do I will do; but I will need your help very much to do it.

I want to say to you all directly that you must pay careful, personal, thoughtful attention to what the Lord Jesus says here. Some of you are altogether too blithely making the assumption that you can do what God forbids and fail to do what he commands and that somehow the gospel of forgiveness in Christ will make your disobedience alright. Or you are making the cavalier assumption that God would never ask you to do something really difficult; that God would never disappoint your hopes, never sadden your life, never make your way heavy in this world. But Holy Scripture is against you at every point.

The followers of Christ often must make painful sacrifices in order to maintain their loyalty to him. Honesty in a dishonest working environment has cost many Christians their livelihood. Chastity has cost many an unmarried Christian man and woman a continual struggle and many tear-filled nights. Fidelity to one’s marriage has meant the surrender of high hopes for many a Christian husband or wife. Faithful stewardship has left many Christian families without the possessions and the pleasures enjoyed by their neighbors. Serving the Lord and his gospel has meant through the centuries loneliness, ostracism, disease, early death, or a punishingly difficult life for a great many noble followers of Jesus Christ.

But what is that to them or us if, as our Savior said, his mother, his brothers, his sisters, his family are those who do the will of God. The self-willed Christian is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, much as married bachelor or truthful liar. No Christian ever says to Christ in any way, “Thanks for the forgiveness, now get out of my way.” No Christian, no true disciple of Christ ever says to him, “Look, if I wanted to do God’s will, I wouldn’t need your forgiveness, now would I?”

We live in a society, we are influenced by a society that expects to be forgiven its crimes and sins even though it cares not at all for the will of God. But Jesus said that only the one who does God’s will can be his disciple, only that one will share in his salvation.

When tempted to content himself or herself with anything less than heartfelt and full obedience to God’s will, “No!” The Christian says, “I wish to love Jesus with my life. I trust no one more to show me the right way to live. The one who has made a way to heaven for me, at such great cost to himself, has every right to demand my allegiance and my service. From all he has showed me and all he has taught me I have no doubt that when I am in heaven I will thank God for every moment that I did God’s will and I will grieve over every moment in which I did not. And if particular acts of obedience were terribly difficult for me and involved great sacrifice, all the better because nothing will matter to me then more than that even in the face of great difficulty I did God’s will and proved myself Christ’s loyal servant.”

And so every day, from morning to night, he reminds himself, she reminds herself, that he, that she has been summoned to do the will of God. And she prays that she will love to do it, no matter the difficulty, and he prays that he will not flag in his devotion to that divine will.

I worship thee, sweet Will of God!
And all thy ways adore,
And every day I live I seem
To love thee more and more.

Is it so with you? Do you doubt that it should be, must be so with you? It will be so and you will not doubt that it should be if you fully intend to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and if the privilege of belonging to his family matters to you as much as it ought to matter.