You are a young man in first century Israel (though what I am about to say would have been true of men almost anywhere in the first century). You got married on Sunday. Your family, your bride’s family, your friends, and pretty much the entire village showed up. The celebration went on for a long time.
Now you have a wife. You have your own home, which is physically connected to your old home, where your parents and siblings live. Of course, the most important person in your world now is your wife. She is the apple of your eye. She has first place, top priority in your life.
Except … that is not how things worked in and around the Mediterranean in the first century – or the tenth. It was not how things have worked in most of the world. Even after a man was married, his highest priority relationships were with his brothers, not his wife. If a man had to choose between his brother and his wife, of course he would choose his brother. Everyone knew that.
Herod the Great was well-known, and perhaps even ridiculed, for being head-over-heels in love with his wife Mariamne. But after Herod had a falling out with Marc Antony that involved her brother Aristobulus, he had Mariamne executed. Herod understood that, when push came to shove, his wife’s loyalty to her brother would outweigh her loyalty to him. Loyalty to siblings came first.
This is hard for us to grasp. The idealization – even idolization – of Romantic Love is part of our culture. It was not part of theirs, or of any culture until medieval times, more than a millennium after Christ. We take it for granted that our spouse is (or at least should be) the most important person in our lives. Children grow up and move out. Friends retire and go to Florida. Our spouse comes first.
We assume that it was always this way, so when we read Scripture, we tend to miss the extraordinary nature of early Christian relationships. They called each other, and thought of each other, as brothers and sisters. That means they placed each other at the top of their relationship priority list.
We cannot imagine how topsy-turvy that must have seemed to onlookers. Everyone knew that a person’s family of origin, especially siblings, especially brothers, held the top spots on the priority list. It was scandalous to suggest otherwise. Yet here were followers of Jesus elevating outsiders to the status of family, of brothers and sisters. They would have thought a man absurd or henpecked who elevated his wife to that level, but to raise outsiders to that level was shocking.
Where did the Jesus-followers get this crazy notion that people outside their bloodline could be inside their family? They got it from Jesus. And this crazy notion turned the Roman empire upside down. People wanted to be part of a family that accepted them, loved them, and shared life with them. Much of the gospel’s appeal in the ancient world was sourced in how the church treated its members like family.
Mark 3 details a very busy time in Jesus’s ministry. His popularity was soaring. He was working long, jam-packed days. The crowds that gathered around him were so large that they nearly swallowed him up. As soon as people found out where Jesus was staying, they came to him in droves. In verse 20 we learn that there were days when he and his disciples didn’t even get a chance to eat.
Now look at verse 21. “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Mark interrupts this story with a second narrative but comes back to it in verse 31. This is a technique he often employs. You can find the same kind of thing in chapters 5, 6, and 11. He starts a story, interrupts it, then returns to it. When he does that, you can be sure that the story on the inside is connected to the stories that sandwich it. We’ll come back and see what that connection is before we’re finished.
This first story is fascinating all by itself. Jesus’s family went to take charge of him. The Greek word for “take charge of” can mean “to seize” or “to arrest.” Do you know what is happening here? This is an intervention. Jesus’s family thinks that he “is out of his mind,” or, more literally, “is beside himself.”
This strange story supports the early biblical interpreters who claimed that Jesus had older stepsiblings. In this society, it would be unthinkable for younger brothers to attempt an “intervention” on their oldest brother – especially an older brother who enjoyed the social standing of Jesus. Those old interpreters held that Joseph had been married previously, that his first wife died, and that he brought older children into his marriage with Mary.
So, Jesus’s family thinks that he is out of his mind. They do not understand him. We see this misunderstanding replayed in John 7, where his brothers taunt, “You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” (John 7:4 NLT) They didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t understand him at all.
Mark resumes the story down in verse 31: Jesus’s mother and brothers have arrived. I suspect it was the brothers, not his mother, who were behind the idea of an intervention. They want Jesus but cannot get into the house because of the crowd. One of the brothers, probably the oldest, is asking the crowd to tell Jesus that his family wants him, and the word is passed from person to person and finally to Jesus.
His surprising response is significant. He asks, verse 33, “Who are my mother and brothers?” I wonder what flashed through people’s minds at that moment. “His brothers are James, Joseph, Simon and Judas…” But Jesus pauses, perhaps gesturing to take in the crowd around him, and said: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
What a remarkable thing to say! Who has top priority in the relationship hierarchy? Brothers in the family of origin. But Jesus looks past them to his new family. This would have sounded to James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas like it would sound to you if your brother was telling people that his family is the Heaven’s Gate cult or the Order of the Solar Temple.
Now take note of who Jesus’s family is. They are not those who attend church or those who read the Bible. They are not those who believe a particular doctrine regarding Christ’s atonement. They are those who do God’s will. They are the Brothers and Sisters of the Obedience of Faith.
Jesus’s followers were listening. They took him at his word when he told them, “You are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8), and they treated each other that way. The intimacy and commitment among the early church was well-known.
In the highly stratified society of the first century Mediterranean, the church was radically countercultural. Nowhere in the Roman Empire could a freedman call a patrician, “Brother”– except in the church. Slaves called their masters, “Brother,” and, more surprising still, masters called their slaves “Brother.” The church was startlingly different.
James, one of the family members who came to take charge of Jesus, eventually joined the brotherhood of faith. When he wrote to his fellow Christ-followers, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food,” he knew that his readers would understand he was talking about the brotherhood and sisterhood of Jesus.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote Pastor Timothy (from 1 Tim. 5:1-2): “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as a father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” The church is a family.
Of course, in every family there are problems, and the church is no exception. The biblical writers were not naïve about this. They knew the “kids” would sometimes behave badly – and so would the “adults.” When that happened, a reprimand might be needed or even a time out. That is what 2 Thessalonians 3:15 is about: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.” But even this is done in the context of family, so Paul hastens to add: “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
We see the family dynamic again in Romans 14. This time, the family is having an argument. Some in the family are eating – and think that everyone should eat – meat butchered in a pagan temple, ritually offered to its god, and then sold at a reduced price at the market. Their argument goes like this: “The ‘god’ of that temple is a fiction – Apollo is a myth. It is all a sham. So why not eat it – especially when you can get the meat on sale!”
Other family members – ones who until recently worshiped in the Temple of Apollo – are horrified: “Everyone knows that eating the meat of a sacrifice joins a person to the god to whom the sacrifice was made. I just came out of that life. I don’t want my friends to think I’ve gone back. Is getting a good price on meat so important to you that you are willing to destroy your testimony?”
Paul conceded that each side has a point. It is a “disputable matter,” he says, and insists there is room for disagreement. But, more importantly, it is a family matter. What they need to do is look out for each other and love each other. He tells them not “to put any stumbling block in [their] brother’s way” (Romans 14:13) and reminds them that everyone in the family answers to Father: “…why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:10).
There are many other examples. I’ll mention one more from 1 Corinthians 7. While answering questions about marriage, Paul addresses the husband who has become a Christian but whose wife has not. This is verse 12: “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.”
Notice that the husband is a brother – he’s part of the family – but the wife is not yet a sister. She may be valued and much loved, but she is not part of the family since she does not share the family’s spiritual DNA. She does not have the Spirit of Jesus. She may go to church gatherings with her husband, but she will not be in the church until the Spirit of Christ is in her. She may critique the church, enjoy the church, have valued friends in the church, but she will not become a sister until she entrusts herself to God through faith in Jesus.
I’ve already mentioned how countercultural the family nature of the church was in the first century. It still is. But it is not only countercultural; it is also appealing. In different eras, various benefits of Christ’s atoning death have had special appeal. In Martin Luther’s time, the possibility of justification and forgiveness was powerful among people who were profoundly aware of their sins. In John Wesley’s time, the possibility of being redeemed from sin’s slavery – freed from its addictive power – was a great draw.
In contemporary society, the hope of reconciliation catches our attention. The idea that relationships can be restored – to God and to others – has immense appeal. We are living through the disintegration of embodied relationships on a massive scale. The growth of digital technology has hastened the breakdown of intimacy, even in families. 55 percent of married people in a recent survey said that their spouse spends too much time on their phone. 60 percent of parents believe that technology has interfered – it is called technoference – in their relationship with their kids.
According to the medical doctor and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin, the United States has seen a hundredfold increase in the number of professional caregivers since 1950. The U.S. has 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches—not to mention hundreds of thousands of nonclinical social workers and substance abuse counselors. Dworkin writes that “under our very noses a revolution has occurred in the personal dimension of life, such that millions of Americans must now pay professionals to listen to their everyday life problems.” That role used to be filled by family.
People – people we know – are primed for satisfying relationships. When the church is living as a family, as Jesus intended, they can find them here. We can be the portal through which people pass into relationships with God and his family.
But how? By intentionally nurturing our relationships in the church. By spending time with the family – certainly on Sunday mornings but at other times as well. There is no substitute for spending time together. This is a rule of thumb: people who have the most satisfying church experience are the ones who spend the most time with their church family. The person who attends a worship service once a month does not have a very satisfying church experience. The one who attends weekly will be more satisfied. The one who sees brother and sister Christians during the week, who does life with them, will be most satisfied.
That is not to say that their life is sourced in the church, or that they have to be on campus three times a week, or anything like that. Their life is in God, but they share that life with their church family. They go out to eat together. Play games together. Start businesses together. They help each other with projects, both at home and at church. They go to concerts and plays. They fish together. They waste time together.
If you are a Christian – you have come over to God by entrusting your life to Jesus – but you are not satisfied with church and you don’t have the kinds of relationships I have been describing, then the ball is in your court. Jesus wants us to live as family. Take steps to make it so. Invite someone out for lunch today. Come and celebrate the baptism. Join a project at church with a few others. Start a church golf league or bowling league. Have a game night at your house. Become part of the care ministry team. Invite people over to watch the college final four games. Join a D-Group. Do life together with Jesus’s family.
Now, back to Mark 3. Remember that Jesus’s family came to take charge of him, to stage an intervention. His family thought he was “out of his mind,” was “beside himself.” They didn’t understand Jesus at all.
In verses 22-30, Mark pivots from what Jesus’s family thought about him to what the teachers of the law were thinking. His family said he was out of his mind. The teachers of the law said that he was possessed by a demon. They did not understand Jesus at all.
In verse 31, Mark pivots back to Jesus’s family, and in verse 34 we hear these words: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” They were the ones who “got” Jesus. You’ll never get Jesus just by attending church services. You’ll not get him by reading books. You’ll get him when you intend to obey God.
In St. Paul, we read (more than once) of the obedience that comes from faith. From Jesus we learn of the perception that comes from obedience. He said, “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (John 7:17). The people who have resolved to do the will of God are the one who grow in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus. They get him. Will you be one of those people?
 Quoted by Ross Douthat in Bad Religion (Free Press, 2012), pp. 240-241