Atheists at the Gates of the Kingdom

Preparing my sermon for next Sunday, I noticed something interesting in the text. Though Mark 3:7-19 is sandwiched by conflict narratives (stories about people getting into conflict with Jesus over things He taught or did; thanks to the ESV Literary Study Bible for this insight into the structure), these particular verses turn the camera on His popularity. The contrast is that while some people oppose Jesus for what He teaches, others follow Him with little interest in His teaching. (c.f. v 8b, compare to Mark 1:14-15, 38) I think God is more glorified when an atheist rejects Jesus for what He actually taught than when a nominal Christian accepts Jesus regardless of what He taught.

Reasons why I think this:

  1. People who follow Jesus for what He can do for them are not Jesus’ followers (c.f., vv 7-10 – none of the great crowds are among those Jesus “desired” and “called” in v 13).
  2. People who know who Jesus really is can still be His enemies (vv 11-12).
  3. People who Jesus calls are chosen, sent to preach a message & sent with a mission (vv 13-15).

So it’s possible that an atheist who simply does not accept what Jesus taught, though He understood what Jesus was saying, is closer to salvation—to the Kingdom of God (c.f. Mark 12:34)—than two common kinds of church-goers:

  1. The kind that goes to church for all kinds of reasons other than primarily to submit themselves to the Gospel (salvation by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone);
  2. The kind that goes to church primarily because they agree with the facts of a Christian worldview.

I’m much happier to see church pews filled with atheists and agnostics who are actually at least curious to hear what the Bible actually says.

Here’s the text of the passage. Please let me know if you can show me in this passage why I’m wrong.

" 7 Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea  8 and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him.  9 And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him,  10 for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him.  11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God."  12 And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.  13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.  14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach  15 and have authority to cast out demons.  16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter);  17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder);  18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean,  19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him."  (Mar 3:7-19 ESV)