In today’s gospel we encounter Jesus by the sea shore with large crowds approaching and a demonic presence. Up to this point in his gospel narrative, Mark has shown his skills as a storyteller. Mark does not write with the high style of Luke, with the religious insight of Matthew, or the soaring prose of John. His writing style is sparse. Yet, he has begun to reveal the human side of Jesus’ character by certain details that Matthew and Luke leave out of their accounts. For example, only Mark describes Jesus’ grief and anger during the cure of the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:5).
Mark has already achieved a mounting tension in the narrative. Chapter 1 ends with Jesus’ fame and reputation as a healer spreading and the crowds seeking out Jesus (1:45). Then come five stories of controversy (2:1-3:6) that do not end on such a positive note: “The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.” (3:6)
7 Jesus withdrew toward the sea with his disciples. A large number of people (followed) from Galilee and from Judea. 8 Hearing what he was doing, a large number of people came to him also from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon. 9 He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him. 10 He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon him to touch him. 11 And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God.” 12 He warned them sternly not to make him known.
In a way, Mark 3:7-12 is a “pause” allowing us to catch our breath and reflect on what just happened. It started out so well and now is heading “off the rails” as the religious and secular authorities begin to plot against him. But Mark provides what is almost a summary passage of what has been revealed about Jesus:
- His public ministry has captured the imagination of the people who have heard about his teaching and healings.
- His reputation is not limited to Galilee, but extends into areas to the north, east, and west.
- The crowds are so large that “crowd control” measures are put in place by having a boat at-the-ready.
- And that the demons are ever present – just as the secular/religious authorities are in opposition, so too part of the spiritual realm.
As William Lane points out (Lane, 100), following a demonstration of the saving power of God, Jesus has a pattern of withdrawing to a lonely region, whether the wilderness, the mountain or the sea. After healing a paralytic (2:13), people praise Jesus even as the authorities confront Jesus, then Jesus withdraws to the sea. Yet the seclusion to the shore proves not to be a place of peace, quiet and reflection. The crowds follow and demand Jesus to speak and heal. But there is more at play. Like the return to the wilderness, the move to the sea entails a deliberate entrance into the sphere of forces which manifest their hostility to God. Jesus returns to the place where he confronts Satan and renews his vow to perform the will of God.
The crush of the crowds (v.9) is more than a recounting that there were lots of people. There were lots of people and they all came with words of praise, demands for healing, and all the attributes of a people proclaiming him as leader. Mark’s telling of the testing/temptation in the wilderness (1:12-13) is sparse. Matthew’s telling of the story (Mt 4) is robust and includes the temptation to secular power – the same temptation Jesus is possibly facing in the Markan scene in Chapter 3.
The demonic element is explicit. The presence of evil makes itself known as the demons recognize the true identity of Jesus. The scene is a display of contrast and irony. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God (v.11); the people think only in terms of a miracle worker who can serve their needs and wants (vv.8–10).
In these few verses, Mark also reminds the readers that Jesus did not want his identity as God’s Son to be proclaimed for the wrong reasons and by other than disciples: “He warned them [demons] sternly not to make him known.” This is not the first time in Mark’s gospel that we have heard Jesus’ command to silence (1:25, 1:34, 1:44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26; 8:30; and 9:9). This is referred to as the “Messianic secret” – something only in Mark. Scholars have written extensively about the theological significance and have proposed a host of reasons for Jesus’ strong reserve about his identity.
I would suggest it is not a reservation about revealing his identity, but a problem in messaging and communications. The crowds are drawn to Jesus because of his power. The demons are afraid of Jesus because of his power. Neither of these two groups understand the nature and purpose of Jesus’ mission. And especially the crowds, have no real idea of Jesus’ true identity – only demons are clear about that.
Jesus needs a dedicated cadre of people who can be formed in the identity and mission of Jesus and become disciples of his message and ministry. And in the verses immediately following our passage,
13 He went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)
Jesus withdraws from the sea shore to form his “evangelical communication team.” The goal is so that people will accept Jesus’ true identity, on his terms, in the context of his entire life and mission. Mark’s Jesus will reveal himself as Messiah by being powerless on the cross. Rather than people passing on the story of Jesus because of his power, Jesus wants disciples to proclaim Jesus as their Messiah and Lord because of his powerlessness. Believers have to accept his way of a suffering messiah along with his miraculous works. Until then, the command is to silence.
Mark 3:8 from Jerusalem, from Idumea, from beyond the Jordan, and from the neighborhood of Tyre and Sidon. These towns were not part of Israel. They indicate that Jesus’ popularity had extended beyond the nation, although many Jews lived in these regions. The locales in Idumea and east of the Jordan make a similar point. The only areas not mentioned are Samaria and the Decapolis, which were predominantly Gentile.
Mark 3:11 And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God.” There is a thought that the demons address Jesus as the divine Son of God in a futile attempt to render him harmless. It was thought that knowledge of the precise name or quality of a person confers mastery over him and thus strips him of his power over them. In this context “Son of God” is not a messianic title, but a recognition of the true status of their adversary.
William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark part of The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)