Thankfully it’s not too often that you run into someone who loves conflict. Some of us would do almost anything to avoid conflict. And yet, conflict has its advantages. Specifically, conflict often produces clarity. It’s hard to really understand someone until you’ve had a few clashes with him or her. Conflict has a tendency of sharpening views and helping us understand various positions. That’s what happens in the many conflicts recorded in the Gospels. Jesus clashes with the religious elite; they criticize him, he responds to their charges. The result is that Jesus and his mission shine through with greater brilliance.
Mark 2, and the first six verses of Mark 3, consists of four “clash” narratives that clarify, near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, what he came to do. In the process, “each of the four collisions in [these verses] reveals something radically inviting about Jesus.”1
The objections raised in each of the cases come from religious “experts,” either scribes or Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious sect whose name literally means “the separate ones.” They separated themselves from the common folk whom they saw as beneath them. They were close students of the Scriptures; however, they added to them the traditions of men—which they kept scrupulously. They were also hypocrites in that they liked to put on a show of their religiosity. The scribes were the professional students and teachers of the law. They are sometimes referred to as lawyers (Matt. 22:35) or rabbis (Matt. 23:6–8). Most of the scribes were Pharisees. Sadly, the Scribes and Pharisees had departed from the simple, spiritual faith of the Bible and had reduced religion to legal formalism.2 When religious formalists meet Jesus, conflict is inevitable.
We will look at these four clash narratives through the lens of a repeating pattern. First, we will try to paint a clear picture of the scene or context of the clash. Second, we will try to understand the objection that the religious leaders raise. Third, we will examine the response Jesus gives and the light it sheds on him and his mission.
Clash over Forgiveness of Sins (2:1–12)
Painting the Scene
Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth by preaching, discipling, and healing. The authority of his ministry became immediately obvious. Once the news of Jesus’ power began to spread, he became very popular (for a while). In fact, his popularity prevented him for a time from entering the cities (1:45).
Before long Jesus returned to a Galilean city called Capernaum. Upon his entering a house, people began to flock to him for healing. One of those who needed healing was a paralyzed man. Because he couldn’t walk he was carried to the house by his friends. But due to the crowd they couldn’t get him and his bed close enough to Jesus. So they carried the paralytic up an outdoor stairway, removed some of the earth and plant material that made up the roof (Luke. 5:19), and lowered him through. Jesus saw their faith and pronounced his sins forgiven.
Before moving to the objection, let’s not miss how much these men loved their paralyzed friend and the length to which they went to bring him to Christ. Many of us have very good intentions toward the lost. But sometimes our good intentions are not combined with equal ambition. Ask yourself, “What will I do to bring the hurting to Christ?” The friends of this paralytic answered this question with tenacity!
Objection: Why Does Jesus Claim to Forgive Sins?
As with the rest of the questions, this is not a sincere quest for clarity. His critics are accusing Jesus of blasphemy, or speaking against God. After all, “Who can forgive sins but God?” Notice how they are setting themselves up for a fall. If only God can forgive sins, then if this Jesus has been given power to forgive sins, he is God.
Answer: Jesus Is Able to Forgive Sins Because He Is God
Here is an example of Jesus healing to authenticate his message and his divinity. The sign of healing “demonstrate[s] that the Son of Man has power to forgive sins” (v. 10). The Pharisees have rightly reasoned that only God can forgive sins. In fact, that’s why Jesus says, “Which is easier?” The answer seems to be “neither.” Both are impossible for man. But with God all things are possible.
Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Are there sins in your life that you cannot overcome? Are there patterns of behavior that you hate and yet continue to do? Are there blots on your conscience that you cannot remove? Jesus alone has the power to forgive, or send away, sins. Go to him and ask for forgiveness. And listen to Jesus say to you, through his word, “Your sins are forgiven.” To forgive means “to cancel a debt.” Unbelieving legalists have a problem with Christ’s forgiveness. But to God’s children there is no greater reality.
Clash over Associating with
Painting the Scene
Some time later Jesus went out by the sea and began to teach the multitudes. Passing by he saw a tax collector named Matthew (his Greek name; Levi is his Hebrew name) and called him to be his disciple. Matthew got up to follow and in his joy invited Christ to dine with him and his friends. As the old saying goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” So it was with Matthew. Like him, his friends were tax collectors and “sinners.”
The term “sinner” is interesting. On the one hand this was a label that the Pharisees applied to anyone who didn’t observe the law like they did. And tax collectors were hated because they worked for the Romans and tended to be cheats. On the other hand, the friends of Matthew with whom Jesus dined were real sinners. They weren’t simply those whom the Pharisees didn’t accept, but sinners in the sight of God. Most of those at the party lived corrupt lives. They were cheats, swearers, fornicators, and drunks. They were the types of people that you and I might be embarrassed to be seen with.
Objection: Why Does Jesus Associate with Sinners?
Again, this is not a sincere question but an indictment against the character of Jesus. The Pharisees disbelieve that he is the Messiah and now seek to prove their doubts by this accusation which they grammatically cloak as a question. What they are saying is, “The Messiah, the king of righteousness, would never associate with such sinners.”
Answer: This Is Why Jesus Came, to Call Sinners to Repentance
Jesus’ answer is one of the most hope-giving texts in Scripture. He associates with them because they are such sinners! Jesus came to earth as the Great Physician to heal those who were sick unto death with sin. Jesus came as the great friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19).
This raises a practical question: “Should Christians be friends with sinners?” To answer this question, we need to first assess evangelistic opportunities with both eyes open. The proverb “Evil company corrupts good habits” doesn’t forbid engagements with unbelievers, but it does sound a note of caution. When we wrestle against flesh and blood we must do so clad in the whole armor of God, “being watchful” (Eph. 6:12–18). Second, those who are serious about engaging sinners should check their intentions. There was a purpose in Jesus’ friendship. He was committed to demonstrating the gospel to sinners. He loved them. He called them to repent. We need to love the world on God’s terms, not on the world’s terms.
The Pharisees caught only half of God’s program for sinners. They liked God’s warnings not to blithely associate with the ungodly (e.g., Ps. 1:1). But they missed his expectation that his people would teach transgressors God’s ways that sinners should be converted to him (Ps. 51:13; cf. Ps. 25:8). Like the Pharisees, we run the risk of “arranging our lives so that we are with non-believers as little as possible.” But “the Christian life is not to be one of isolation nor assimilation, but mission.”3
Clash over Fasting (2:18–22)
Painting the Scene
The next clash took place over the issue of fasting. Specifically, the disciples of John the Baptist and of the Pharisees were fasting. They wondered, condescendingly it seems, why the disciples of Christ failed to fast as they did.
Objection: Why Does Jesus Not Fast?
In three of the clashes described in this narrative, the scribes and Pharisees accuse Jesus of sins of commission. When it comes to fasting the accusation is over a perceived sin of omission. The disciples of John and of the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples by pointing out their own performance: “Look at us! We’re fasting. Why aren’t you?” Mark is implicitly pointing out that the Pharisees took a wrong approach to fasting. God specifically required that one who fasted should not broadcast his or her piety (Isa. 58:5; cf. Matt. 6:16–18). The Bible does not demand that fasting be done in absolute secrecy, but it does require that one fast without a spirit of pretentiousness.
This is Jesus’ longest and probably most complex answer. He gives two distinct answers to the Pharisees’ question. First, he explains that there is no fasting while the groom is present (2:19–20).
This answer makes sense if we understand what fasting is. Fasting is an act of devotion in which one voluntarily and temporarily deprives himself of food or other pleasures or necessities. Through fasting believers “are humbled before God, and withdraw from the flesh those things with which it is cherished, to the end that it may the more willingly and easily obey the Spirit . . . Fasting is a help to the prayers of the saints and all virtues.”4 We need to be clear: Jesus is not speaking against fasting. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commends fasting as a regular component of the Christian life. Jesus is saying that you would not fast at a wedding. His coming cements a marriage between God and man. Jesus says that while fasting would not be appropriate at a wedding, it would at a funeral. When Christ died for sinners, mourning and fasting were appropriate. In the Christian life there will be alternating seasons of joy and thanksgiving and sadness and fasting.
Jesus’ second answer explains why his disciples should not fast as do the Pharisees. When he talks about old and new cloth and old and new wineskins, he insists that the new is not compatible with the old (2:21–22). When Jesus came he brought something new. In him the kingdom of God is at hand. If you miss Jesus, then you are part of an obsolete religion. That’s what became of the Jewish leaders. The Pharisees were living joyless, man-centered lives because they were outside of the kingdom. Jesus brings a fullness to life, not an emptiness. And that’s why his disciples were intentionally not fasting, to paint a contrast between their religion and that of the Pharisees.
Clash over Working on the Sabbath (2:23–3:6)
Painting the Scene
There are two scenes in this clash in which most of us fail to see any scandal whatsoever. This is because we can hardly relate to how even the godly Jews of Jesus’ day approached the day of rest and worship. We have an even harder time understanding the straitjacket approach which the Pharisees took to the Sabbath.
In the first narrative Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field. When they began to feel hungry, they plucked some grain and had a snack while they walked. You’ve done something like this when you stopped to pick a few blackberries on a hike in the woods.
In the second narrative, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.
Objection: Why Does Jesus Violate the Sabbath Day by Working?
The Pharisees thought that the disciples’ eating and Jesus’ healing were offensive to God. This is so because they had adopted a largely negative view of the Sabbath; the Sabbath is a day of “thou shalt nots.” From the start, we see a perverted theology. Granted, there are restrictions placed upon Sabbath activity, but this is one of only two of the Ten Commandments that is stated in the positive: “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy!”
Answer: The Lord of the Sabbath Has Done Well on the Sabbath
Jesus’ answer comes in three parts. First, Jesus did not violate the Sabbath but merely the Pharisees’ understanding of it. This is a helpful principle. We are not bound to observe the Lord’s Day the same way as everyone else simply because that’s the way they do it. Nor can we expect others to honor God’s special day exactly as we do.
Second, Jesus defends himself and his disciples by announcing his authority. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath; it’s his day. Imagine if someone visited your house and as you reached toward a bowl of fruit to grab an apple, that person cried out, “Why are you eating that apple? Who said you could have it?” You would probably say, “This is my house, my apple. I don’t need permission.” The Christian Sunday is the Lord’s Day. Christ wasn’t answerable to the Pharisees; they were answerable to him. So are we. Do we treat Sunday as our day or as the Lord’s?
Third, Jesus did what was right on the Lord’s Day. He engaged in works of necessity (eating). He engaged in works of mercy (healing). He engaged in works of worship (in the synagogue). The Lord’s Day is the right day to works that anticipate an eternity with God.
In two of the clash narratives Mark tells the reaction of at least part of the crowd. “Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him” (3:6). The Pharisees demonstrate a spirit of judgmentalism and unbelief. When the paralytic is healed, they are critical. When sinners were loved, they were smug. When the bridegroom stood before them, they exalted themselves in self-righteousness. When Christ fulfilled the Sabbath, they debated about tradition. Can you see some faint (or not so faint) reflection of yourself in them?
By contrast, after the healing of the paralytic, we read: “All were amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” (2:12). In fact, Luke adds that the former paralytic went home “glorifying God” (Luke 5:25). They saw the glory of God in Jesus Christ, and it changed their outlook on life.
Every time we hear God’s Word we have a clash with Jesus. Every glimpse at God’s glory changes our outlook. After every sermon we either see our sin either more or less sharply. After every Bible reading, we see Jesus as more or less sufficient for our needs. From Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day we either are more or less invigorated to live rightly before his face. How have you clashed with Jesus today?
Lesson 4 Notes
1. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, 2 vols., Preaching the Word (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1989), 1:75.
2. James Orr, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), s.v. “Scribes,” by Frank Hirsch.
3. Hughes, Mark, 71, 72.
4. Second Helvetic Confession 24.4, from Joel Beeke and Sinclair Ferguson, eds., Reformed Confessions Harmonized (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 174.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Can you identify someone in your life who you should prayerfully attempt to bring to Jesus (cf. Mark 2:3–4)?
2. Do we need to be more courageous in “eating with tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:16)?
3. What approach or cautions should we take in engaging sinners?
4. Is it possible that we have overlooked the importance of fasting because of its abuses, some of which we read about in the Gospels?
5. How is Jesus like new wine (Mark 2:22)?
6. In what ways might we demonstrate pharisaical attitudes toward the Lord’s Day?
7. Do we treat Sunday as our day or as the Lord’s?
8. Strictly speaking, Jesus didn’t “save life” when he healed the man with the withered hand. Still, how is this an appropriate expression of what he did and what we are called to do?
9. How have you clashed with Jesus today?
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).