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Did Jesus Contradict Himself about Who’s on His Side?

Are they for us or against us—which way does it work?

Whoever is not against us is for us
—Mark 9:40

He who is not with me is against me
—Matthew 12:30a

Critics often cite these two statements as a contradiction, while many Christians try to harmonize them by theorizing that when it comes to Jesus, there is no middle ground. You are either for Him or against Him. I was puzzled about this myself, until I read an old Bible commentary that has only recently been translated from Greek into English.

The Bible commentary was written by a man named Theophylact, who was born on the Greek island of Euboia in about 1055. He studied in the finest schools in Constantinople, served as a deacon at the famous Hagia Sophia Church in that city, and developed a reputation as a good preacher. In 1090, he became the Orthodox archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria and served in that capacity until his death in about 1108. He’s quite an interesting fellow, because he is neither a Protestant nor a Catholic; his native language was the same language that the apostles used to write the New Testament, and he lived in a completely different political, social, and theological context than we do. Perhaps because of all that, he sees something that seems so obvious that, once he points it out, we can only wonder how we missed it.

Theophylact says that if we observe these verses in context and compare them, we see that Jesus is talking about two entirely different situations.

People who are not against us are for us

The situation in the first passage is that the disciples found someone acting in Jesus’ name without proper authorization. They tell the man to stop, then they report the incident to Jesus. I get the idea when I read this that they were expecting Jesus to congratulate them on their conscientiousness, but Jesus responded in a way that they didn’t expect:

     Teacher, said John, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.
     Do not stop him, Jesus said. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.
—Mark 9:38-41, NIV

Jesus instructed His disciples not to stop anyone from acting in His name even if they didn’t have the proper credentials. His reason is that anyone doing Christian ministry is unlikely to say anything bad about it. I don’t want you to think this makes it okay for you to declare yourself some sort of grand high muckety-muck and start your own denomination or something, because if you did that, you would be working for your own glory, and right there that wouldn’t be a valid ministry. However, it does mean that if the church finds a lay person conducting a valid ministry where there is a need and no one else to meet it, they should not stop the person just because he has no credentials, but instead find a way to include him. Whoever is not against Jesus is for Him.

This passage teaches us a very important fact: that lay people have a ministry in this world. Depending on your church background, you may think of lay people as having a role in the rites and worship of the church in reading scripture, leading prayers, distributing the Eucharist, and even teaching and baptizing converts. Or you may think that lay ministry primarily involves evangelism and being a witness to the gospel of Christ. All those ideas are right. Here are a few samples from various church groups:

This passage also teaches us that Jesus is biased in favor of people. Yes, God hates sin, but He loves people even more, so He sent His Son to get rid of the sin and save the people.

Quite often people preach the gospel as if everyone were going to hell unless they made a conscious decision for Christ. That doesn’t strike me as good news, exactly, but this passage has me wondering. Could it be (and I say this as a thought exercise for you) that because of Jesus’ love and His work on the cross, everyone is going to heaven unless they deliberately choose otherwise? I’d like to point out that it would solve the problems of infant deaths and people who never hear the gospel.

I venture this not as a doctrinal pronouncement, but just as a question to provoke your thoughts and help you develop your theological muscles.

Spirits who are not for Jesus are against Him

Theophylact noticed, but I never did, that the situation in the second passage is quite different from the one in the first passage. On this occasion, Jesus is speaking about demons, not people.

     If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
     Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.
     He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.
—Matthew 12:26-30, NIV

Now I admit that the English text I’ve quoted makes it seem that Jesus is talking about people here too, but Theophylact spoke the language of the New Testament as his native language, so I have to take his insight seriously.

If Theophylact is right, Jesus is giving us an important and simple tool for spiritual discernment—not to discern people, but to discern ideas and spirits. All we have to do is ask if the spirit or idea glorifies Jesus. If it does, it is good. If it does not, it is in rebellion against God and thus evil. This is why I said earlier that the first passage doesn’t let you make yourself into a grand high muckety-muck, because the project wouldn’t pass this test.

Since Jesus is talking about spirits, and since angels are quite popular today, let’s imagine that you sense the presence of a spirit being and you are trying to tell whether it is an angel or a demon. If we apply Jesus’ discernment criterion, it is a very easy task.

The same goes for ideas. If you have an idea to make yourself rich and famous, it might be a shrewd business plan, but it is not a valid Christian ministry. (If being rich and famous was not part of the plan but it happens anyway, then it is God’s blessing.) If you perceive a need that no one else is meeting, and you decide to serve others in love and in Jesus’ name, while trusting God for your own well-being, then the idea came from God.

People who are not against Jesus are for Him. Spirits who are not for Jesus are against Him.

I think Theophylact was on to something, don’t you?

The commentary I mentioned is Blessed Theophylact's Explanation of the New Testament. It is available from Chrysostom Press.