Reconsider Jesus – The First Look at the Family

MichaelSpencerToday we are going to do something a little different.  Scott Lencke had suggested that for a change of pace, readers might be interested in hearing one of the original audio Bible Studies which are among the sources used for Michael Spencer’s upcoming book: Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark.  For those who would rather read the transcription, David Clark, one of 35 volunteers who helped us with process, provided the transcription you can read below. Note that this is a raw transcription. Don’t expect it to read like a book.  Expect grammatical and other errors.  However, as you are reading think about what your family’s reaction has been to your own following of Jesus. We would love to hear your stories. If you would like to be contacted when Michael Spencer’s book is available for purchase, drop us a note at

The First Look at the Family

Mark 3:20-21; 31-35

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”…31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

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The transcription picks up after the Bible reading…

We’ve been privileged to know a number of people who’ve gone to the mission field as missionaries.  I’m thinking particularly of one couple right now, who the young woman was raised in a wonderful Christian family, and I believe all her life, probably, in church and in her home missionaries were held up to her as heroes.  And I have no doubt that as she grew up many people in her church said, “She would make a wonderful missionary,” and I think she is just perfectly suited.  And probably as she got a little older folks said, “You know I believe God may be calling her to the mission field.”  But when, and then she married a man who was committed to go to the mission field, and they began to pursue actively seeking placement on the mission field, and I remember I was their pastor when they received the appointment to go to Nigeria and teach in a seminary there, and this young woman’s mother pleaded with them not to go.  Been a lifelong dream.  Almost seemed like a foregone conclusion.  But she pleaded with them not to go.  We are going to lose an OBI, one of our treasures Michelle Mouw comes over here and plays the horn for us every so often. She’s marrying a Presbyterian minister, and I think they are on the way to the mission field, I feel strongly that’s the case, and as they were kind of discussing with family about appropriate wedding gifts and she noted that she is registered in every place in Minneapolis and receiving lots of china and silver and things she doesn’t want.  She said, “One of the things I said to my mother was, well mom, you know we’re probably going to the mission field.”  And her mother said, “Shhh, don’t let your grandmother hear that.”

Every parent understands that, don’t we?  It may be our dream that our child be in the center of God’s purposes in this world.  It may be our dream that our child be useful to God and devoted to God and committed to God.  And we may expose that child in church and elsewhere to everything possible to say, “Give your life to Jesus Christ and live for him with passion and abandonment.”  But when that child says, “I’m going to go put my life in harm’s way.  I’m going to go to a place where missionaries aren’t allowed.  I’m going to go to a place where Christians are being killed, where churches are being burned, where there’s open hostility towards Christians,” any parent would be strongly tempted to say, “Don’t go, this is not right.  This is not what God has for you.”  Now we would probably be wrong in that sentiment, but we can understand it, can’t we?  So, we need to remember that as we come to Mark chapter 3 and find Mark’s surprising introduction of Jesus’ family.

Now, in the other gospels that followed Mark (and if you recall, Mark is the first gospel, Matthew written ten years after him, Luke ten years after that, and then John sometime afterward) in the gospels that followed Mark, especially Matthew and Luke, a very positive portrait painted of Jesus’ family.  And that portrait is primarily painted around the Christmas stories, that the angel announces to Mary that this is going to be a very special child, the Son of God, and she says, “I am the Lord’s handmaiden, I understand that for his purposes to be done in this world someone must bear this child.”  And in Matthew’s gospel Joseph, who is at first surprised and outraged by the events that are happening to his pregnant fiancée, Joseph when God speaks to him says, “Yes, this is a special child I’m willing to go through whatever it takes to bring this child into the world.”  And the two of them make the commitment to raise this child in the way of the Lord.  Luke’s gospel says that Jesus grew in his family in favor with God and man.  They took Jesus to the temple, they had him dedicated there.  Simeon and Anna speaking like voices from the Old Testament said, “This is God’s chosen and special child.”  Even when Jesus began to push at the boundaries as young people will always do, at age 12 staying in the temple for days while his parents look frantically for him.  When they found him he said to them no doubt something he had heard him say was appropriate, “You need to be about your Father’s business.”

So sometimes with those pictures from the other gospels, we are not prepared for what we read in Mark, and as I take people through the gospel of Mark all the time, this is one of the places people have real problems.  They have a lot of questions, because Mark has not introduced us to Jesus’ family.  He has begun his gospel with the baptism of Jesus.  Everything he has had to say to us about Jesus’ background was wrapped up in the sentence: Jesus came from Nazareth.  So it takes us by surprise to read in verse 21 that as Jesus is gathered in a house with a crowd ministering, in the midst of his time of working miracles and teaching, it says in 3:21:

21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

That doesn’t fit very much in our picture of Jesus and his family.

Now many people will want to immediately take cover and say, “Well now what family is that?  That must be Jesus’ third cousins from down the road who don’t know him very well.  This is just some family, some extended family out there.”  But Mark removes all doubt about who it is in verse 31, after giving us the interlude of the conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders in which they accuse him of being the devil and Jesus gives the teaching about the unpardonable sin that we looked at last week, in verse 31 it says that:

 31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.

 So there’s no doubt who is the ones who are the ones seeking to retrieve Jesus and bring him home.

Now does this fit?  Most of us think that Mary and the family of Jesus should be outside selling tickets.  Should be saying, “You’ve gotta hear my boy!  You’ve gotta hear my brother, he’s wonderful!”  But if you have read the gospels you have probably come across the fact that Jesus’ brothers, it says explicitly in one passage, did not initially believe in him, and I can somewhat understand that.  If anybody is going to misunderstand you in life it’s often those that know you the best, and have the preconceived notions about what you’re supposed to be like.  It’s difficult for us to say, “That’s my brother and he’s the Messiah.”  It’s much easier for Jesus’ brothers, of who there are at least four named later on in Mark’s gospel, to say what the other people in Nazareth said when Jesus visited Nazareth in chapter 6, “This is just the carpenter’s son, he’s no big deal.  What is all the uproar about him, he’s just one more local yokel.”  But Mary, how can Mary who had heard the angel give this announcement, who had been there on that Christmas night and all the attending signs, Mary who Luke says remembered all those things about the birth of Jesus and treasured them in her heart, how can Mary be standing outside the door saying, “We’ve come to get our boy”?

Well, we need to begin by understanding that it was very unusual for Jesus to be doing what he was doing.  He was the oldest son in the family, and we have a lot of clues in the gospels, here and elsewhere, that Joseph has passed away.  Therefore, it is Jesus’ responsibility in his world to care for his family.  There was no more basic responsibility than to care for your mother.  In fact, in his own sermon to the religious leaders in Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the religious leaders of his day for using religious vows as an excuse to not support their aging parents, and it might have appeared to some people that was exactly what Jesus was doing.  We don’t know the ages of his brothers or his sisters.  We don’t know the condition of his family, but we do know that there was a family business and there were a lot of mouths to feed and Jesus was the oldest boy and everybody, every relative, everybody in town would have expected him to stay home and care for his mother, that’s what decent, God fearing people were supposed to do!  To leave out in the prime of life and abandon the business and abandon the family and go off preaching and live by free will offerings and casting out demons and healing people, why he’s gone crazy!  And it would have been very easy for people to say that, because it was out of the norm for Jesus to do what he was doing.

You know we have to be very careful about our judgments about what is normal.  Every family, every culture, every community has an unwritten definition of what is normal, and very often those who would most resemble Jesus Christ are going to step outside of what is normal.  Our values and our behavior can’t be determined by what everyone expects.  We can’t live out the life God has given us that says The Lord your God and Him alone is to be god in your life, you can’t live that out and let the world write for you what is normal.  Perhaps for some of us the greatest challenge that Jesus presents us with is not to go overseas or to do some incredible or outstanding thing, it’s just to do what other people wouldn’t expect us to do, to do what Jesus would do.  Beware of normal, it was normal to condemn Jesus and to crucify him.

I think there is more to it that this, however, and I think if we look closely at what has been going on in Mark’s gospel we can see, perhaps, what has happened with Jesus and his family.  I would want to remind you to go back up into the early part of chapter 3, after Jesus has had the conflicts with the religious leaders about the sabbath day, starting in 2:23 and going to 3:6, and notice the last verse, 3:6.  Right here at the beginning of chapter 3, early on in Jesus’ ministry, at the height of his popularity, when he’s drawing amazing crowds and everybody is talking about him, verse 6:

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. [NIV 1984]

“Mary, Mary have you heard?  Have you heard who is out to destroy Jesus?  Oh, I know Mary, that sounds ridiculous, with all those crowds following him he’s the most popular man in Galilee!  But somehow Mary, one way or another he’s made enemies, and Mary they’re not just any enemies, they’re not just some flake, it’s the Pharisees down in Jerusalem, they sent people up here to watch him and they don’t like what they’re hearing, he’s saying things that are dangerous. And Mary you’re not going to believe this, the Herodians, yes the supporters of king Herod, somehow they think that Jesus is trying to make himself into a king, and Mary, they want him dead too!  I’ve heard, everyone is talking about it, the Pharisees and the Herodians have already started plotting about how to kill Jesus.  Mary, Jesus has got to come home!  Some thing’s wrong, this is the wrong time. I know things are going well, but this must be the wrong time.  Jesus isn’t supposed to be hated and killed, he’s the Messiah!  Mary you’ve got to do something.”  What if they’d had phone calls in the time of Jesus?  Mary might have got something like that.

And Mary is human, and she loves her son.  And I believe what we have going on in 3:21 and 3:31 is Mary and Jesus’ family saying, “Jesus, we love you, we don’t want you do die!  We don’t want you to be killed.”  You know everybody who loved Jesus didn’t want him to die!  In Luke’s gospel when Jesus is dedicated at the temple and old Simeon says, “This is the light God has sent to the gentiles.”  Do you remember he turned and he looked at Mary and he said these chilling words, “A sword will pierce your own soul.”  What did that mean?  We know it meant the cross, but I don’t think Mary went running to embrace that.  I think Mary like any mother wanted her son to be the Messiah who brought the kingdom of light and wonder and healing and peace and ended the awful times of war and violence that afflicted their nation.  And then to hear he’s made the most powerful people in the world his enemies and they’re already out to kill him, she would have understandably said, “Let’s bring him home.”

Over in John’s gospel chapter 2 there is that story of Jesus turning the water into wine, or as some of my friends think, turning the water into Welch’s (but that’s another discussion).  If you read that story in John 2 very carefully, there is something going on, under the surface.  They’re at a wedding, early on, Jesus’ ministry has not begun.  Jesus and his mother are at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  They run out of wine, and Mary asks Jesus to solve the problem.  You remember what Jesus says?  Jesus looked at her in John 2:4, Jesus says to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.”  Now, I don’t understand everything that is going on there, but let me tell you something that may be going on there.  You know wouldn’t it be nice to have a messiah who would change water into wine at my friend’s weddings?  Now that would be so wonderful.  And Jesus says, “Mom, there is so much more to what I am here to do than that,” but Jesus does it and it becomes an important miracle in the gospel of John.  But that little discussion says something to me that Jesus and his mother may have had a different understanding of what his mission was all about, and what he was to do.  And that maybe why in Mark’s gospel chapter 3 we find Mary and all Jesus’ brothers outside saying, “Jesus, please come out, but stop this right now, and let’s go home until things are safe.”

We can often do the wrong thing for our children in the name of loving them.  To love our children as God wants us to love them is to love them as God loves them; to let them be who God has made them, to give them the freedom to make the choices God wants them to make.  It is the great temptation of every parent to want to treat a child like a car, when things go wrong to open the hood, change a few parts, and everything will be OK. To use the power we have to manipulate and to make that child make the choices we want, but deep down inside we know that only those who freely choose to follow the Lord Jesus Christ genuinely follow Him, and it’s one of the ironies that as much as we do to love our children and teach our children and surround them with the truth of the gospel, we ultimately cannot make them follow Jesus.  They must trust Christ alone and follow Him because they choose to do so.  Be careful what we do in the name of loving our children.  Don’t love them so much that we make choices for them that are wrong.  Mary almost perhaps did that.

The final thing I want to talk about is the very odd words Jesus has.  As the family is outside the door and they say, “Your family is looking for you,” therefore you’re supposed to drop everything your are doing and go out here because your family is the most important thing in the world to you.  That was normal.  Well, out of Jesus’ mouth comes the most stunning question, with his mother and his brother outside Jesus says in Mark 3:33, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  It’s going to get worse if you keep reading the gospels.  In Luke 12:51 Jesus said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on Earth?  No, I tell you not peace but division.  I’ve come to divide families right down the middle,” Jesus said.  In Luke chapter 9 Jesus is calling disciples, a man comes to him in verse 57 and said, “I’ll follow you wherever you go,” and Jesus says, “Well, I don’t have any place to even lay my head.”  Another one says, “Lord, I will follow you, but let me go and bury my father, let me wait until my father dies,” because that’s the normal, honorable thing to do.  And Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their dead, you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Another one said, Luke 9:61, “I’ll follow you Lord, but let me go and say goodbye to my family,” and Jesus said, “You can’t do that, if you put your hand to the plow and look back, you’re unfit for the kingdom of God.”

And then a verse that you won’t hear preached very often many places, Luke 14:25 it says, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus and turning to them he said, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brother and sisters, yes even his own life, he can’t be my disciple.  Anyone who does not carry his cross cannot follow me and cannot be my disciple.”  This doesn’t sound like the spokesman for family values we’ve all heard about, does it?  Who are my mother and my brothers? It had to bring tears to the eyes of Jesus’ family to hear those words.  But then Jesus looks around at those seated with him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers, whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Let me tell you how I understand these words of Jesus.  Jesus spoke into a world where the ultimate loyalty for most people was family.  They would live for family.  They would die for family.  Family determined their choices, their daily duties, and Jesus says if family takes the place of God, it is an idol meant to be discarded.  The hold that God must have on our lives must surpass any other loyalty, even that sacred loyalty of family.  The early Christians understood this as do many Christians today.  Because in many times in history and in many places in the world today to choose Jesus Christ is to choose Him over family and to know that your family is going to turn their back on you.  We see it all the time; we’ve never as far as I know had a conversion among any young people in Thailand, though we have a lot of Thai students.  We had a Christian Thai student whose parents were Christians from Thailand and the parents came to visit the young man and we set up a dinner for this Christian Thai family and their Thai son and the other Thai students we had who were Buddhist.  And these other Thai students treated that Christian family like they were Nazis, they went to another corner of the room, they would not speak to them.  Now imagine what it is like in that culture to say, “I’m choosing Jesus Christ.”  Your family is going to say, “I want nothing to do with you.”

In the first century people were choosing Christ and their family was rejecting them and so the words of the gospels are very clear to people making that kind of choice.  It can’t be family and Christ, sometimes it must be Christ over family.  It’s a complicated question, I believe in following Jesus Christ we are to be the best husbands and fathers and wives and mothers and children we possibly can be, but if family ever seeks to take the place of God, Christ must be chosen, and I have seen many, many, many times in my ministry in rural communities and small towns where family is so important that often family, not God, determined how the Bible was read.  Family, not God, determined how people would be treated.  Family, not God, determined choices, and Jesus Christ calls us to a kind of relationship with him where those who are our brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God and who are children of our Heavenly Father bear with us a deeper bond even than the bond of physical biology and  physical affection.  We would prefer that Jesus had not laid that kind of distinction down.  We would love for Jesus to say, “I’ll never make it difficult for you to follow me, I’ll never ask you to make a difficult choice, I’ll never ask you to choose me in such a way that others would look down upon you.”  Every time I have a student who has chosen Christ and I know that their family is not going to receive it, I know their family is going to be hurt, it’s a sad thing.  We’ve got a lot of attention for our relationship with Randy Halprin, I’ll never forget Randy and his brother, they came to us from Texas they were raised by a Jewish man.  When Randy made a profession of faith in Christ we called his father and said, “Well, we know you sent us a Jewish son, but he has made a profession of faith in Christ.”  And that father said, “Well, I’d rather have my son be a Christian and be a good person than a Jew and be a bad person,” he said, “it breaks my heart but whatever is best.”  Of course that story didn’t turn out very well, but most people won’t find that reaction.  Often they’re going to find their enemies are in their own household.

If you’re a Christian young person today and your family supports you in your walk with Jesus Christ, you have a great gift.  If your family ever encourages you in that walk in a way that maybe annoys you, please forgive them.  Because for those of us who raise you and love you, it is our great desire that you follow the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is my prayer that we would all be the kind of people that would say to you, turn your back on comfort, turn your back on money, turn your back on reputation, turn your back on anything that keeps you from following Christ.  Follow Him.  And even if I must point to you one day as my martyred child who has given their life for Christ and I do it with tears and a broken heart, I’ll do it rejoicing that you lived for what mattered, rather than wasted your life on what did not.  That’s what Jesus is calling us to.

Let’s pray…

8 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – The First Look at the Family

  1. I think the most thought-provoking and convincing insight I’ve heard about Jesus’ family concerns his action at the crucifixion (John 19:26). Would Jesus have commended his mother to an unrelated person’s care if she had other sons to care for her? I imagine that if Jesus had had brothers and then told John to care for Mary, he would have been dealing those brothers an intolerable insult.

    In my experience overseas, I would say that hugely more cultures called non-nuclear-family members brother and sister than don’t. Many languages need to use a specific word to modify “brother” or “sister” in order to convey that they are children of the same parents — it isn’t assumed at all. (“Same ma, same pa” in Liberian English, “of one birth” in Kyrgyz, for example.) I’m not saying that proves conclusively that Jesus had no immediate siblings, just that our Western way of insisting that the words mean nuclear family members is the odd and unusual way, not the one to take for granted.


  2. The point, Steve, is the Ancient Near East meaning of the Greek word translated “brothers” — who said anything about disciples?

    I accept that James was the brother of Jesus, my point being we don’t know whether he was an older brother (Joseph a widower scenario) or a younger brother (your scenario of “Yes, Mary and Joseph had other kids after Jesus” — to which I can only repeat what my mother used to say, “Vas you dere, Charley?”

    I also agree with your final sentence, although our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters (there’s that term again) certainly disagree. I have not written them out of the kingdom, but they may have written you and me out. Which brings me to one of my favorite little poems:

    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout —
    They made a circle that drew us out.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We made a circle that drew them in.


  3. John 7 describes Jesus’ brothers (not his disciples). They were almost mocking Jesus for not wanting to go up to the feast of the Tabernacles. But Jesus told them he would go in God’s time (not at their prodding).

    Yes. Mary and Joseph had other kids after Jesus.

    Mary didn’t have to remain a virgin for God’s great plan to be enacted.


  4. A good friend of mine had one semester left toward completing his engineering degree, and discerned the call to ministry. His parents were extremely concerned…Was he going to quit school? Would he ever be able to support his family? Was he out of his mind?

    An older lady from his church, who did not know his dilemma, called him one morning, and said that she had been reading Psalm 27, and she believed that it had something for him inside. He wept as he read, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me…” (Psalm 27:10).

    I don’t often buy into the stories of the random call with the perfect word from God, but this one I know to be true. He finished his degree, applied for engineering jobs, but couldn’t find anything. His only offer was from Seattle, and he’s a Georgia boy. At the same time, his church offered him a ministry position. He chose ministry, and today, is the pastor of a successful new church plant. Did his family struggle financially for a while? Absolutely. They still do sometimes. But they have what they need. God is faithful, even when those closest to us think we have lost our minds.


  5. A very interesting talk, and Michael said some things that need saying.

    I just have a question/comment about one part. Are we sure that Jesus was the oldest son in the family and that all his brothers and sisters were younger? If Joseph was young like Mary then that is the scenario, but if Joseph was older, a widower perhaps as some has suggested, then perhaps Jesus had older brothers and sisters from Joseph’s first marriage.

    There is also the interpretation among the “ever Virgin” crowd that the Greek doesn’t mean literal “brothers and sisters” the way we interpret it in western culture, it means cousins and extended family in the same way it still does in many cultures today. (for example, I worked with a woman from India who called her cousins her sisters) and that Jesus had NO brothers and sisters. But then that same crowd might stumble at Peter having a mother-in-law, the popes being celibate and all.

    It’s early and I’m wandering. I need my morning coffee. Thanks for listening.


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