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Testing the Lord of the Sabbath

Mark 3:1-12.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on April 28, 2019.

Today we resume our teaching through the Gospel of Mark.  By way of reminder, the end of chapter 2 tells of the Pharisees complaining of the disciples of Jesus breaking heads of grain off their stalks in order to eat them while they are on their way to the Synagogue.  They complain that it is the Sabbath and what they are doing is work.  True to form in that passage, Jesus stood up for them.

The Bible did not originally have chapter divisions, so we should understand that today’s story is thematically tied to the end of chapter 2.  Both of these stories are about the Sabbath day, and in both of them, Jesus pushes the issue and clarifies what God the Father really had in mind when He instituted the Sabbath and its prohibitions in the Law of Moses.

The Lord of the Sabbath heals on the Sabbath

Let’s recall the teaching of Jesus regarding the Sabbath from the earlier story in chapter 2.  Jesus asserted that he was the Lord of the Sabbath, and as Lord, he declared that their actions were not breaking the prohibition against working on the Sabbath.  Another crucial point is that Israel had not been created in order to honor the Sabbath and its rules.  Rather, the Sabbath had been created as a blessing for God’s people.  God was giving them the gift of rest.  Our passage today will add to this teaching on the Sabbath because Jesus will clearly demonstrate that healing is not a breach of the Sabbath laws either.

Our setting is inside a synagogue.  It is not clear how many sick or infirmed people went to synagogues during these days.  However, we are told that a man with a withered hand was in attendance.  We do not have a scientific description of what is wrong with his hand.  However, the end effect is that it is shrunken (most likely from atrophied muscles) and lacks strength.  He is disabled with a hand that is practically useless to him.  We are given no back story.  Does he always come to this synagogue?  Was he asked to come by others, perhaps the Pharisees who wish to test Jesus?  We cannot know these things.

We are told, however, that the people at the synagogue were watching to see if Jesus would heal the man even though the religious authorities had made it clear that they believed doing so would break the Sabbath commands. 

Like any group the “they” here is a mixed group.  Some of them are on the side of Jesus and hope that he will heal the man.  In fact, the man with the withered hand would most definitely be in this group.  Yet, there are Pharisees in the group, and others with them, who are watching for evil purposes.  They are hoping to find grounds for accusing Jesus.  The word translated as accuse could be used for both private settings or placing a formal accusation before a court.  They want evidence that they can then use to bring Jesus before the religious court of the land, the Sanhedrin.  Thus, you could say that everybody wants Jesus to heal the man, but for very different reasons, some that are good and some that are bad.

Jesus clearly understands the trap that is set for him.  However, He also knows that the religious authorities are very mistaken in their decrees.  He is not breaking the law as they would so charge.  The Sabbath was made for God’s people.  It was intended to be a blessing and not a curse.  People typically worked 7 days a week.  Yet, God tells His people to take one day off to rest and worship Him.  If they do this then He will bless them even more than if they had worked that day.  Jesus poses two parallel questions to highlight a proper analysis of what he is doing.

The first is this.  Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath?  Though no discussion ensues, we could clearly cross off doing evil.  There was no day, Sabbath or otherwise, upon which it was deemed acceptable or lawful to do evil, period.  Thus, we should always be doing good.  Next, we look at the first half of the question.  Is it lawful to do good?  Now, the Pharisees could have responded that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath, but certain things which would normally be good (aka, working), were prohibited and thus unlawful only on that day.  The problem here is that Jesus has turned the trap back on them.  Of the two parties, Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus is clearly doing good; he is healing someone.  However, the Pharisees seem to be trying to trap him on the Sabbath, which is not such a good thing to do to someone.  They sit in judgment of Jesus for healing a man’s withered hand, all the while, they are seeking to destroy Jesus.  They are blind to the irony of their own actions.

Now back to the issue of whether this particular good thing was prohibited by the law.  There is no place in the Law of Moses where they are instructed not to heal on the Sabbath.  They are simply told not to work.  This is not a scientific term that is defined by a maximum number of joules per day.  It is social term that would generally refer to the way that most people made a living.  This was to be a day of rest, but the people did plenty of things that technically required work.  They got out of bed, they went to synagogue, the priests would teach, etc.  Just how much “work” is Jesus expending to heal this guy?  The problem with defining healing as work is that it is just too convoluted and raises too many questions about what God really intended with the law in the first place.  The silence of the Pharisees is proof that they have no answer.  They only want the evidence.

It is easy to take Scripture, or the words of Jesus, and twist them to your own benefit.  Thus, a person could go out and harvest their crop the next Sabbath and say, “Isn’t it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”  Yet, harvesting is explicitly prohibited on the Sabbath, healing isn’t.  Jesus clearly is not justifying something that is explicitly prohibited.

The second question basically asks the same thing.  Is it lawful to save life or heal on the Sabbath?  This takes the point to a finer state.  They are seeking to kill him because he is seeking to help people.  Who is wrong in such a case, and especially on the Sabbath?

Next, we are told that the hardness of their hearts angers Jesus.  No one answers Jesus because they are no match intellectually and spiritually.  However, that is not what angers Jesus.  They have no answer and yet they cling to their purpose of working against him.  It is that they would harden their hearts and double down on wickedness that angers him.  Not everyone in that room had hard hearts.  However, one minister put it this way.  It is as if a man could fly (yes, like superman), but they can only focus on whether or not he has a pilot’s license to do so.  He is healing a man’s withered hand, for David’s sake!  The signs that Jesus was the Messiah, or the anointed savior from God, were unmistakable.  The powerful way in which he could touch a person or speak a word and they would be healed would floor modern man.  Jesus was not whipping out a secret elixir that he had people drink. He was not operating as some kind of Renaissance Man among the ignorant, a scientist among the superstitious.  Yet, neither was it some kind of magic.  In fact, the word for miracle in the Bible does not mean, a breach of the laws of physics.  It simply means a powerful work as opposed to those things we normally see and do.  What kind of power can speak a command and a person is healed?  The same power that the Creator used when He spoke the universe into existence.  No, they knew that these were not tricks set up by an illusionist.  This was the power that only the God of the Universe could wield, and yet they were refusing to believe. 

Jesus was rarely angry, but this is one of those few times where it says that he was.  God had bent over backwards to do in their day what every generation before them had been desiring and begging God to do.  They were being inundated with God’s grace and instead they hardened their hearts, nit-picked his actions, and sought to destroy him.  It was as if you were in the middle of helping someone, who desperately needed help, and they began condemning you for the way you are doing it.  Our natural impulse would be to walk away and leave them to their own devices, but Jesus is not a coward.  He sees a man who wants to be free in the midst of a bunch of jackals who could care less what his experience would be after this meeting was over. 

Jesus could have diffused the situation by telling the guy to meet him after the service behind the synagogue, where no one would be looking, or he could have told him to come by the next morning.  Yet again, Jesus is not a coward.  Everyone there needed to understand the truth and not be intimidated by the sophistication that comes from people who have intelligent minds, but wicked hearts.  So, Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand.

Though this is a powerful work, it requires no exertion on the part of Jesus.  He is not sweating or going through some long ritual.  In the time it took him to lift up his arm and show his hand, it was healed.  I know that this creates a problem for some.  If it is so easy for God to heal disease then why doesn’t He do so for the countless millions who are suffering physical problems today?  If He is really good then mustn’t He have to heal us?  Doesn’t the fact that He doesn’t mean that He really isn’t good?  These are real questions and I do not want to ridicule them.  However, the Bible posits that our physical problems are merely a result of a larger problem that couldn’t be “healed” in such a way.  Our sin, and rebellion against God, is the greater problem.  If God were to heal all disease instantly then it would be equivalent to mitigating every law of physics when a person might be hurt by it.  A man jumps off a cliff, but God must intervene to keep him from hitting the ground and dying.  A person shoots up with heroine, but God must intervene and keep them from any negative consequences.  This is the logical result of such a world.  That is not the kind of “good” that the Father is.  He wants us to become like Him, and therefore, He allows us to see the results of our choices so that we may see that His way is best for ourselves.

The Pharisees were unimpressed, or refused to allow themselves to be impressed.  It states that they went out to plot with the Herodians to destroy Jesus.  The point of this statement is that it is an unnatural alliance.  The Herodians are a political party who support Herod as the King of Israel.  The Pharisees, and others like them, rejected this position because Herod was not from the line of David and wasn’t even an Israelite; he was an Edomite.  It would be like a number of cattle ranchers going out to plot with PETA in order to destroy a common enemy.  Let’s read the next scene, starting at verse 7.

Multitudes come to see Jesus

Jesus goes out from the Synagogue to the Sea of Galilee.  It appears that this section is a general statement and is not saying that all of this happened on the same day.  The point is that the Synagogue had become a hostile place and so Jesus moved out to the Sea of Galilee and ministers to the multitudes of people who would come to see him.  The synagogue saw one miracle that day and then Jesus left.  The experience outside the Synagogue was far greater.  Their hostility was bottling up something that couldn’t be bottled up and so they missed out on much that Jesus did.  We are told that multitudes came from all over the area.  The list of places is basically: everywhere within Israel, Idumea (the Greek term for the land of Edom south of the Dead Sea, and Tyre and Sidon (places outside of Israel in the North).  The multitudes become so large that a boat is kept nearby so that Jesus would not be crushed.  In other gospels it mentions that Jesus would also stand in the boat further out in the water, so that more people could hear.  That’s what we call a good problem.

The small work within the Synagogue is offset by the amazing things happening on the shores of the Galilee.  We must always watch our hearts and our spirits because our hard hearts can push the grace of God away and send it elsewhere.  Even then, God is gracious to keep working on our hard hearts in order to bring us back to repentance and softness towards him. 

Mark mentions that the evil spirits were crying out, “You are the Son of God.”  Yet, Jesus shut them down very quickly.  He would not let demons be his evangelists, nor was it time to press the issue of His true identity.  God had a particular timing for the crucifixion of Jesus and the evangelization of the nations to the Son of God.

As we close this morning, it may be easy to think that this is just a story to get people motivated to serve God.  The problem with this is that it is not a mythical story about beings long ago that no one had ever seen.  It was witnessed and contemporaneously written down by people who were there.  The evidence of Jesus and what he did is powerful, but often discounted because it came from His followers.  Yet, the rejection of Jesus and his execution is also witnessed by his detractors.  When we say that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, we are saying that he is the Lord of the Rest and the Peace that God has for whosoever will follow Him.  Why would we fight against God and the good thing/s that He wants to give us?  Why not accept the Lord Jesus and rejoice in the favor that we have been given from the Creator?

I pray that today we will be a people who are not hard-hearted, and stiffened against the work that Jesus is doing.  Instead let us whole-heartedly embrace God’s work of calling all men everywhere to repent and to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior!

Testing the Lord audio

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