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‘And when he entered again into Capernaum after some days the news went round about him that (literally ‘ he was heard that --’) he was in the house, and many were gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, no, not even about the door. And he spoke the word to them.’
After a period of ministry around the towns of Galilee Jesus went back to Peter’s home for a rest. But the news was soon passed around that He had come and was in ‘the house’ which was their temporary headquarters in Galilee. The result was that the crowds gathered, and they pressed in on the house so that there was not even space around the door. The eyewitness remembers the scene clearly. It would seem that normally they would expect the crowds to leave a decent space by the door.
The door would be open, as it was daytime, and in view of what follows we can presume that Jesus was speaking to the crowds from within the house (compare how He later uses a boat in order to prevent being hemmed in by the crowds).
‘And he spoke the word to them.’ Mark (or his source) wants us to recognise that this was His purpose in coming, so that the people might hear ‘the word’ that He had brought to them from God. The sower sows the word.
The end result of all this was that when four men came bringing a paralysed man on a mattress they could not approach the door and get him to Jesus.
The Son of Man Has the Power to Forgive Sins (2:1-12).
The idea of the authority of Jesus continues. Having been revealed as the drencher in the Holy Spirit, God’s beloved and Spirit anointed Son, the proclaimer of the Kingly Rule of God, the authoritative teacher, the exorcist of evil spirits by a word of command, the healer of all diseases, and the cleanser of the skin diseased, possessing an authority that ignores uncleanness, He is now revealed as the One Who has authoritative power on earth to forgive sins. And in this incident we also have the first indication of the opposition that will finally result in His death. His authority is now coming in conflict with other who claim to speak with authority, although as we have been told, in their case it is a second hand authority (Mark 1:22).
Analysis of 2:1-12.
a And when He entered again into Capernaum after some days the news went round that He was in the house, and many were gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, no, not even about the door. And He spoke the word to them (Mark 2:1-2).
b And they come, bringing to Him a man sick of paralysis, carried by four men. And when they could not come near to Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was, and when they had broken it up they let down the mattress on which the paralysed man lay (Mark 2:3-4).
c And Jesus, seeing their faith, says to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).
d But there were certain of the scribes sitting their and reasoning in their hearts. “Why does this man speak like this? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but one, even God?” (Mark 2:6-7).
e And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, says to them, “Why do you reason these things in your hearts?” (Mark 2:8).
d “Which is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Arise take up your bed and walk’?” (Mark 2:9).
c “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” he says to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise. Take up your bed and go to your house” (Mark 2:10-11).
b And he arose, and immediately took up the mattress and went out in front of them all (Mark 2:12 a)
a With the result that they were all amazed and glorified God saying, “We have never seen anything like this” (Mark 2:12 b).
Note that in ‘a’ the crowds gather to receive the word through both preaching and healing, and in the parallel they are all amazed at what they have witnessed of both. In ‘b’ the paralytic is brought to Jesus on his mattress, and in the parallel he arises, takes up the same mattress and walks out. In ‘c’ Jesus declares that the man’s sins are forgiven, and in the parallel He specifically evidences the fact by calling on the man to rise and walk. In ‘d’ the scribes question His right to forgive sins and in the parallel Jesus questions them concerning whether it is easier to declare forgiveness or to speak the word which heals. Centrally in ‘e’ Jesus questions the genuineness of the thinking of the Scribes (teachers of the Law).
Six Incidents In The Life of Jesus Which Reveal His Unique Power and Authority and Lead to the Pharisees Plotting Against Him (1:40-3:6).
Jesus’ ministry having been established, and the presence of the Kingly Rule of God having been demonstrated by His power to cast out unclean spirits and heal, we are now presented with a series of incidents which reveal more of Who He is. Through them the glory of Jesus and Who He is, is brought out. The subsection commences with the healing of a seriously skin-diseased man. Such a man was an outcast from society and no one would go near him, or expected him to come near them. But attracted by what he had heard the man seeks out this new prophet. He no doubt remembered how another great prophet, Elisha, had helped Naaman so long ago (2 Kings 5:0), and felt that a new Elisha might be here. Jesus will later use this incident, among others, in order to demonstrate that He is the Coming One (Matthew 11:5).
This is then followed by a series of incidents in which He reveals His authority on earth as the Son of Man to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12), demonstrates that even the outcasts are welcome to come to Him for healing of soul because He is the Healer of men’s souls (Mark 2:13-17), calls on all to recognise the joy that there should be because of His coming as the Heavenly Bridegroom in order to establish something totally new (Mark 2:18-22), reveals that as the Son of Man He has authority over the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28), and publicly heals the man whose arm is withered on the Sabbath day, revealing that He has come as the Restorer (Mark 3:1-6). In all this He was challenging the norms on which Jewish society was based, which were that the ‘unclean’ had to be avoided, forgiveness was the prerogative of God alone, outcasts and sinners were best avoided and had to be ostracised, pious men were to evidence it by fasting and mourning, and the Sabbath was to be honoured according to the letter of the Scribes and Pharisees, with the needs of men taking a very subsidiary place. But Jesus brings out that He is turning everything upside down. He makes clean the unclean with a word, He forgives the unforgiven, He meets up with outcasts and sinners who have demonstrated repentance, He declares that because He is here it is not a time for fasting, and He brings compassion into the interpretation of the Sabbath Law on the grounds that the purpose of the Sabbath is to benefit man, not in order to be a sign of piety. And all this because the old is past and the new has come, and because He has come the introducer of a new age in which the needy are important.
It will be noted in passing that following the incident of the skin-diseased man we have five incidents from the life of Jesus. which all follow a literary a similar pattern, that of commencing with an incident which then leads on to a final saying. These may well have been patterned on a regular presentation of the oral tradition used in the churches which had been provided by Peter or the other Apostles.
This whole subsection may be analysed as follows:
a Jesus heals a leper with a touch and a word and sends him as a testimony to the priests in Jerusalem (Mark 1:40-45).
b The healing of a paralytic - the Scribes criticise Jesus for declaring that the man’s sins are forgiven and learn that ‘the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ (Mark 2:1-12).
c The ‘astonishing’ immediate calling of Levi, an outcast public servant, to be a disciple (Mark 2:13).
d Jesus and His disciples feast in Levi’s house along with many public servants and sinners, and the Pharisees grumble (Mark 2:14-16).
e Jesus makes clear that He has come as the Healer of those who acknowledge that they are ‘sick’, that is, not of those who claim to be righteous but of those who acknowledge themselves as sinners (Mark 2:17).
d The disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, and they grumble because Jesus’ disciples do not fast, at which Jesus points out that because He has come as the Bridegroom they should not fast because it is a time of rejoicing, for He is introducing something so totally new and incompatible with the old that fasting would be out of place (Mark 2:18-20).
c He illustrates the fact that the new ways have come to replace the old (Mark 2:21-22).
b The Pharisees criticise Jesus’ disciples for eating in the grainfields on the Sabbath and learn that ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:23-28).
a Jesus heals the man with a withered hand with a word, as a testimony to the Pharisees (Mark 3:1-6).
Note that in ‘a’ a sin diseased man is healed, who is a picture of the need of Israel, and in the parallel a man with a withered hand is healed who is also a picture of the need of Israel. The first contains a message to the Jerusalem priesthood, the second a message to the attendant Pharisees, that the Healer and Restorer of men is here. In ‘b’ He reveals Himself as the Son of Man Who forgives sins on earth, and in the parallel as the Son of Man Who is Lord of the Sabbath. In ‘c’ Jesus calls to be a disciple an outcast from Jewish society, and in the parallel points out that He has come to introduce a world with new attitudes. In ‘d’ Jesus and His disciples feast because the new age is here, and in the parallel the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast because they are still in the old age. Centrally Jesus has come as a Physician to make whole those who are spiritually sick.
‘And they come, bringing to him a man sick of paralysis, carried by four men. And when they could not come near to him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where he was, and when they had broken it up they let down the mattress on which the paralysed man lay.’
When the four men saw that they could not approach Jesus they were not to be defeated, for they were confident that Jesus could and would help them. So when they saw that the great crowd prevented any approach to the house they went up the stone steps on the outside of the back wall of the house which would lead up to the roof, taking the man with them. (Further reminiscence of the eyewitness). It probably took some manoeuvring for they would not want to spill the man out of the mattress, but seemingly they achieved it successfully. Then they broke open the roof of the house and lowered the man down.
This would be a typical small town house. It would probably be a one storey house and would have stone steps round the back which gave access to the roof, which would be flat. This flat roof would have a balustrade round it as required by the Law (Deuteronomy 22:8). It was a place where those who lived in the house could go for comparative quiet and privacy. The roof would be made of beams and rafters set slightly apart, and covered with either mud or tiles. In the case of a mud roof it would be covered with matting, brushwood, branches and twigs, followed by a final covering of mud which would then be trodden hard. The result was a waterproof roof, but not one able to thwart the attempts of four determined men to break it open, and as long as the beams were not harmed it would be easy and cheap to repair again. On the other hand Luke mentions ‘tiles’ so that if this is taken literally this particular house would have a tiled roof, a type certainly known by New Testament times. In that case breaking through the roof would simply involve the removal of the tiles.
‘Mattress.’ The word used by Mark indicates a poor man’s bedding.
‘And Jesus, seeing their faith, says to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven”.’
Jesus was clearly moved by the faith and persistence of these five men (including the paralytic). He ‘saw their faith’. But then He did the unexpected, He said to the man, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ This was in the perfect passive indicative and could mean ‘have been and therefore are forgiven.’. But some see it as an aoristic perfect and as thus meaning ‘are this moment forgiven’. Both interpretations are possible. Either way forgiveness was being declared, and we know from many examples that when Jesus used the passive in this way He was intending God to be seen as the subject.
But why did He speak like this when the man had come for healing? It may puzzle us but no Jew of that time would have asked such a question. They would have agreed that his condition must connect with some sin, either his or his parents (compare John 9:2), and that forgiveness of that sin could well relate to any attempt to heal. Jesus, however, did not think like that. Clearly as He looked at the man, with his eager gaze fixed on Him, possibly clouded by the fear that he was not worthy, He knew something specific about this man which led Him to say it.
It is quite possible that the paralysis had actually resulted from some deep sin. Cases are known where people have become paralysed as a result of some traumatic event in their lives. That cannot be ruled out. But it is more likely that Jesus knew of his private struggle with sin and knew that he had prayed, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’, and yet was still in doubt. But whatever the situation Jesus’ words suggest that He knew that the greatest need of this man was an assurance of forgiveness. His very words seem to suggest that He knew that this man had repented and that God had forgiven him. So He gives him that assurance.
‘Son.’ The word is strictly ‘child’. This may well mean he was a very young man which adds more poignancy to the situation.
‘But there were certain of the scribes sitting their and reasoning in their hearts. “Why does this man speak like this? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but one, even God?”.’
In the crowd gathered around the house were some Scribes (teachers and interpreters of the Law). As important people they appear to have been given a place at the front, for they heard what Jesus said to the man. These were the local Scribes, doctors and teachers of the Law (see Luke 5:17), rather than those who later came down from Jerusalem. Being local they were almost certainly Pharisees. (Some Scribes in Jerusalem were Sadducees). They were looked to by the people to interpret the Law and did so on the basis of oral tradition passed down among them, much of which was the result of scribal decisions in the past. There would appear to have been three types of such oral tradition: (a) some oral laws which were claimed as having come from Moses as given by the great lawgiver in addition to the written laws; (b) decisions of various judges which became precedents in judicial matters; and (c) interpretations of great teachers (rabbis) which came to be prized with the same reverence accorded to the Old Testament Scriptures. In order to become Scribes they had to become learned in these oral traditions. They were called ‘the tradition of the Elders’. They looked on themselves, and were generally looked on by the people, as the guardians of the Law. They had almost certainly come to sound out this new teacher so as to make a judgment on Him.
‘Reasoning in their hearts.’ They were weighing up His words and coming to their ‘considered’ judgment on them. They had not come to learn but to act as critics. Thus when they heard His words to the paralysed man their ears pricked up, and they probably whispered quietly among themselves. ‘How dare He speak like this?’ In their eyes it was pure blasphemy. For surely only God could forgive sins. Had they listened more reasonably they might have recognised that He had not quite said what they were insinuating. Like Nathan of old He had only assured the man of God’s forgiveness (2 Samuel 12:13). But they were not thinking sympathetically.
‘He is blaspheming.’ That is, He is taking over God’s prerogative and therefore acting against God. Indeed almost making Himself out to be the equal of God. Their words remind us how easy it is to be so set in our thoughts that we can only think in one way. They had not come there in order to think fairly about what Jesus was saying, or what He was doing. They had come to measure it by their yardstick. And in that light there could be only one conclusion. (And by that yardstick even a Messiah coming in terms of their own expectations would have been a blasphemer. The theory of a Messiah was fine, but the actuality was not, and never would be, acceptable to them unless He handed over all religious aspects to them. A free thinking Messiah would not have been allowable).
‘Who can forgive sins but One. Even God?’ They were, of course, correct. From the point of view of being forgiven in the sight of God (which was what Jesus had meant) it was only God Who could do it. But Jesus had actually spoken ambiguously. They could have seen it as meaning simply, ‘God has forgiven you’ as a word of comfort and assurance, but they saw it as meaning ‘I have bestowed on you God’s forgiveness’. In their view that went along with His outrageous religious attitude. It was, however, open to men either to see Him as a declarer of forgiveness (as with Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:13) or as One Who shared the prerogative of God. The Scribes, in fact, actually came to the right conclusion but because of their prejudice were not willing to yield to the truth.
‘And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, says to them, “Why do you reason these things in your hearts? Which is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Arise take up your bed and walk’?’
Jesus gathered what they were thinking and whispering (for Jesus’ ability to discern thoughts compare Mark 12:15; John 2:24). What a contrast there was between the thoughts of the paralysed man and these scribes. Jesus had known what the paralysed man had been thinking, his faith, and his uncertainty about his worthiness. Now He knew what these men were thinking, their lack of faith, and their total confidence in their own worthiness. And so He challenged them. They had been following Him around, they had seen some of His miracles. Well, which was easiest, to declare a man’s sins forgiven or to heal him and make him walk? Let them think about that. Why was it that they had not seen the truth about Him by what He was doing?
They were caught in the net of their own teaching. They believed that illness and disease was the consequence of sin. So for someone to be healed meant that their sin had been dealt with. The healing demonstrated forgiveness. Thus the fact that He healed should have suggested to them that He had the power to determine whether God had forgiven a man.
Besides, did they not recognise that this was to be the proof positive that the Kingship of God had come? Isaiah 53:5-6 made clear that One was coming on Whom all their iniquities would be laid, because He bore them on their behalf. Did that not mean that He would bring forgiveness? Indeed forgiveness was the basis of the salvation that Isaiah saw God as bringing (Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22; Isaiah 54:8). Jeremiah 31:34 made clear that when the Kingship of God came men’s sins would be freely forgiven. And Micah declared that in those days God would turn and have compassion on them, pardoning sin and passing by transgression, delighting in mercy (Mark 7:18-19). For then would be opened to the house of David a fountain for sin and uncleanness (Zechariah 13:1).
So if the Kingly Rule of God was drawing near they should have recognised from the Scriptures that the One Who brought it would also bring forgiveness. And as well as forgiveness He would bring healing. The eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped and the lame would leap like a hart (Isaiah 29:18; Isaiah 35:4-6; Isaiah 61:1-2). Thus when the Coming One came forgiveness and healing would go together. They had already seen the latter constantly in His ministry. Did they not see then that that meant that the Kingly Rule of God with its consequences of forgiveness had come? That the acceptable year of the Lord was now here. Yet the fact was that they would not concede the point because they were not willing to face the consequences. They did not want the hearers in the crowd to think that it meant that this man Jesus had been justified in declaring the man’s sins forgiven. So they sat there silent, but unforgiving.
“But so that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” he says to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise. Take up your bed and go to your house.” ’
This is a central verse of the passage for it contains the essential message that this account is all about. The sudden switch in subject in the middle of the verse should be noted. It has caused some to see the original account as having been interfered with in one way or the other. But it is difficult to see how Mark could have got over his point so personally and yet so succintly, without using this method. It is in fact dramatic. Jesus makes His solemn declaration to the Scribes and then instantly speaks to the man, all in one breath, closely connecting the two. The repetition of ‘He says to the paralytic,’ is not a simple repetition but Mark’s deliberate contrast of what He says in Mark 2:5 with what He says in Mark 2:10. The repetition draws attention to the contrast. The point is brought home. The purity of the Greek takes second place.
His new claim is startling. Now He has moved from ambiguity to clarity. ‘So that you may know that the Son of Man has authoritative power on earth to forgive sins.’ He is claiming that He has the special authority to forgive sins! ‘Forgive’ is in the present infinitive, ‘to go on forgiving sins’ as a personal activity. And we notice that the words are spoken directly to the Rabbis. It is they whose thoughts He is challenging.
We cannot hide from the fact here that Jesus has deliberately ‘provoked’ this incident. In it we come to a high point in His claim to authority. He has revealed His authority in the calling if His disciples. He has revealed His authority in His teaching. He has revealed His authority in casting out evil spirits. And He has even more underlined His authority it touching a man who was unclean, and healing him instead of being made unclean Himself. But now He is lifting His claim to authority to a higher plain, to the plain of divine forgiveness
But we note first the title under which He claims the right to forgive sins. He does so as ‘the Son of Man’. Some have tried to make this mean simply ‘man’ on the basis of the Aramaic, but Mark was an Aramaic speaker and yet he translated it as ‘the Son of Man’, treating it as a title and making an unambiguous connection with the ideas that lie behind that term. It is significant that in the Gospels the term is only ever used on the lips of Jesus (Mark 8:31; Luke 24:7; and John 12:34 are not really exceptions for they are referring to what Jesus actually said), and in the New Testament only ever referred to Jesus. Thus there are no good grounds for denying these words to Jesus (some have tried to suggest that they are Mark’s explanation to his readers, as though ‘you’ was addressed to the readers, but this is not the style of the Gospels).
He had begun to develop the term ‘Son of Man’ from the moment of His baptism. His first use of it was to Nathaniel at his call following Jesus’ baptism, where He spoke of angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51). He then used it to Nicodemus with clear heavenly connections, ‘No man has ascended into Heaven but He Who descended out of Heaven, even the Son of Man’ (John 3:13). Thus according to John the Son of Man is closely connected with Heaven and has His source in Heaven right from the beginning.
We may well ask, Why does Jesus portray Himself as the ‘Son of Man’?
The title Christ (Messiah) had become connected with the idea of a revolutionary leader who would rally the people against the Romans, but this was not how Jesus wanted people to see Him. That was why, once His disciples had recognised Him for what He was, as ‘the Christ’, He re-educated them into recognising what being ‘the Christ’ involved in terms of ‘the Son of Man’ (Mark 8:29-31). Once He had been crucified His Messiahship could be openly declared (Acts 2:36), but before that it was better veiled. Thus once the term ‘Christ’ could be used openly after the resurrection, the term ‘Son of Man’ fell into disuse following its final use (and its only use apart from on the lips of Jesus) by Stephen in Acts 7:56 of ‘the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’, where it again signified a triumphant figure in glory. Apart, that is, from in the Book of Revelation, where it is used of the glorious heavenly figure that John meets on ‘the Lord’s Day’ (Mark 1:10-20), and of the fearsome figure who initiates the judgment in Revelation 14:14-16. It is thus not used in any of the New Testament letters.
The phrase Son of Man could hold a variety of meanings:
'b7 In the Old Testament it regularly parallels ‘man’ as a synonym (e.g. Psalms 8:4). Thus by it Jesus was holding Himself out as being true man.
· It is used by God to Ezekiel stressing that he, Ezekiel, is but a man, indicating his humble place when faced with God.
'b7 It is used in Daniel 7:13 of Israel and its King in contrast to the nation Beasts and their kings, and of one who comes as a representative of Israel before God’s throne to receive universal power.
'b7 It is used, in apocalyptic literature, of Enoch in a heavenly ministry, spoken to as “you, son of man”.
'b7 Rabbinic literature also later identified the son of man in Daniel 7:13 with the Messiah.
The phrase, therefore, stressed both humiliation and glory, and was not open to being politically manipulated, while at the same time bringing out Jesus’ role as the representative of mankind. It was precisely because as Man He was the mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5) that He could pronounce the forgiveness of sins.
The passage in Daniel deserves special mention in this regard. There Israel as God’s people are compared with the nations round about who are described as ‘beasts’ and as behaving in beastly fashion. Israel alone (seen in its ideal form as obedient to God) is truly human ‘like a son of man’, for when true to God His people behave like moral human beings. Because of this the people of God (and by inference their ruler) are subjected to suffering under the beasts (see especially Daniel 7:25) until the end of the age. Then comes ‘one like to a son of man’ with the clouds of Heaven to the throne of God, to receive power and glory and universal rule (Mark 7:13). He is the representative of ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ (Mark 7:27). While the son of man is certainly true Israel, the very vivid portrayal in Daniel requires that they approach God in the form of a representative, their king, in the same way as the beasts represented the nations and their kings.
So we may sum up by saying that the phrase ‘Son of Man’ in Daniel represents One who suffers in weakness at the hands of brutish man, followed by a triumphant entry into the presence of God to receive power and glory. Jesus Who saw Himself as the Servant of Yahweh of Isaiah used the title as summing up Israel in Himself as the Suffering Servant.
The Special Use of Son of Man in Mark
The Synoptic Gospels in general reveal Jesus as using the title in all kinds of situations. In them (apart from in Mark) there is the connection to the Son of Man as signifying primarily a true human, which is as common in them as its use of the heavenly Son of Man, but that is not so in Mark. Mark deliberately selects sayings of Jesus which bring out what to him is the essence of Jesus’ claim to be the ‘Son of Man’ and connect with his own aim to present the Son of God.
'b7 ‘The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ (Mark 2:10) (i.e. on earth as well as in Heaven).
· ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:28). He has authority to pronounce on God’s ordinances.
'b7 ‘It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer - and rise again’ (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:12; Mark 9:31: Mark 10:33; Mark 14:21) - because the son of man in Daniel suffers and then rises to the throne of God, and because only so can He give His life as a ransom for many. Notice the constant repetition of these ideas throughout. This is His destiny and is now His constant theme and the disciples must be made to understand the two sides that there are to it.
'b7 The Son of Man will give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
· The Son of Man will take His seat at the right hand of God and will come on the clouds of heaven, in the glory of the Father, with the holy angels (Mark 8:38; Mark 14:62). (This directly links Jesus with Daniel 7:13).
So to those who would see it Jesus, by this title, was declaring Himself to be here with heavenly authority, for the purpose of suffering and rising again, so that He may ransom men for Himself, with the purpose of then receiving power and authority, and finally coming in the glory of the Father.
Here in Mark 2:10 Jesus represents Himself as the Son of Man Who has authority on earth to forgive sins. This was clearly a claim to special authority and power and by implication connected Him equally with Heaven (the emphasis on ‘on earth’ indicates a contrast with Heaven), and with earth, the latter as the place to which He had come and where He now exercised His heavenly authority. It made clear that as a result of His coming forgiveness was now here to be received through Him while on earth. Yet its usage in the third person left the Rabbis and the disciples to consider who exactly He was speaking about.
‘Power (authority) on earth to forgive sins.’ This is clear and unambiguous. It is a claim that this ‘Son of Man’ can act directly in the forgiveness of sins while on earth. And as the Rabbis had so clearly indicated, this demonstrated His divine nature, which is what Mark wants to bring out. To others He would give the authority to declare sins forgiven (‘he whose sins you shall forgive, shall have been forgiven’ - John 20:23), but He alone could actually and personally, as the Judge and Redeemer in union with His Father, forgive sins.
‘So that you may know --.’ His act of healing will demonstrate that what He has said is not blasphemy. If He were a blasphemer God would not hear Him, especially in the context of His blasphemy. Thus if the man really is healed it can only demonstrate that God is pleased with what He has said, and that He is therefore His ‘beloved Son in Whom He is well pleased’ (Mark 1:11), and does have this power that He has claimed.
‘He says to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise. Take up your mattress and go to your house.” ’ Jesus then turned to the paralytic and bid him stand up, pick up his mattress and go home. And to the amazement of all he did so.
‘And he arose, and immediately took up the mattress and went out in front of them all, with the result that they were all amazed and glorified God saying, “We have never seen anything like this”.’
This was Jesus’ vindication. The man was immediately healed in front of everyone and demonstrated it by picking up his mattress and going out in full sight of all who were there. To the unprejudiced mind this could only prove that Jesus was clearly a true ‘man of God’. And that was how the crowds saw it, for they were amazed and gave glory to God. The words of Jesus had passed most of them by but the miracle was something to talk about, and to give praise about. They were not just spectacle seekers. And they had seen something beyond anything they had previously witnessed. But the Rabbis undoubtedly went out feeling very grim and unhappy. They should have been glorifying God (they could accuse others of not doing so - John 9:24) but they were too taken up with their theological aversion to what Jesus had said to do so. They just would not see the truth.
‘And he went out again by the sea side, and the whole crowd were resorting to him and he was teaching them.’
Once again Mark draws our attention to Jesus’ popularity with the ordinary people. His growing outward success is one of his themes. And he does not fail to draw our attention to the fact that Jesus preaching ministry went on, for this was why He was sent (Mark 1:38). The tenses indicate that the people were constantly coming, and that He was constantly teaching them. It was an ongoing process.
The introduction is general. There is no direct connection with the previous incident, nor the next. The verse is slipped in simply to emphasise what has been said above, that Jesus’ popularity with the common people is growing apace.
The Divine Physician Has Come to Make Men Whole (2:13-17).
The second great statement of this chapter is about the Great Physician, and is introduced by the call of Levi (Matthew). But we are not, of course, just to concentrate on the statement alone for the context is important, and indeed leads up to the statement. The call of four local fishermen to be disciples must have caused some surprise, but the call of a hated tax-collector and outcast must have been seen as staggering. It would have raised shocked horror in many Jewish hearts. And yet it exemplified fully what Jesus had come to do and be.
Analysis of 2:13-17.
a And He went out again by the sea side, and the whole crowd were resorting to Him and He was teaching them (Mark 2:13).
b And as He passed by He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the place where tolls were collected, and He says to him, “Follow me.” And he arose and followed Him (Mark 2:14).
c And it happened that He was sitting eating food in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners sat down with Jesus and His disciples (Mark 2:15 a).
d For there were many and they followed Him (Mark 2:15 b).
c And the Scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, said to His disciples, “He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:16).
b And when Jesus heard it, He says to them, “Those who are whole do not need a medical doctor, only those who are ill” (Mark 2:17 a).
a “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”. (Mark 2:17 b).
Note that in ‘a’ He was teaching the crowds, while in the parallel we have the essence of what He was teaching them. In ‘b’ we have the description of one whom He calls, and in the parallel how He sums him up. In ‘c’ we find Jesus eating food with tax collectors and sinners, and in the parallel the judgment of the Scribes on it. Centrally in ‘d’ we have the important fact that many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ followed Him.
‘And as he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the place where tolls were collected, and he says to him, “Follow me.” And he arose and followed him.’
This is a simple sentence and yet it contains a multitude of significance. Levi was a man who served the hated ruler Herod Antipas as a local official collecting tolls on his behalf from those who passed along that route, possibly the trade route from Damascus, or perhaps covering imports by sea. For Capernaum was basically a frontier town between the territory of Herod and that of Philip and near the sea shore. Such people were despised. They were considered to be betrayers of the people, for they were dishonest and lined their pockets by mean of extra ‘taxes’ at everyone’s expense. And with their constant contact with Gentiles and sinners they were seen as continually ritually unclean. Overall they were seen as rather unpleasant, and certainly irreligious, people.
Thus when Jesus approached Levi, and called him to follow Him as a disciple, eyes must have been raised. Indeed they must have wondered what Jesus thought He was doing. But Jesus clearly knew the man in one way or another, and had equally clearly been impressed with him. To Him what the man had been was unimportant. What mattered was what he was willing to become. The rich young ruler was a man admired by his contemporaries, but he was not willing to do what Levi did, leave his riches and follow Jesus. And Jesus knew His man.
We are then told simply that Levi arose and followed Him. Given the choice between the service of Herod Antipas and growing riches, and the service of Jesus and poverty, he did not hesitate. He followed the authority of the greater King, the Servant of God. Here was living proof of the presence of God’s powerful reign present in Jesus. That is Mark’s implication. And his action was total. Unlike the others there was no way he could ever go back to his job, and he knew that from the beginning. In one move he risked everything. From Matthew 9:9 we know that he was also called Matthew, possibly a name he received on following Jesus, for in Mark 3:18 Mark himself calls him Matthew. And he used his skills and became the great writer who recorded so much of the teaching of Jesus.
We need not think that this was the first time that they had met. Levi had probably been in the crowds following Jesus and may well have talked with Him and discussed his problems and his searching after truth. Thus Jesus had recognised in him one who was suitable to be an Apostle.
‘And it happened that he was sitting eating food in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners sat down with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many and they followed him.’
As a result Levi invited Jesus and his followers to his home. Among these followers were many tax collectors and sinners who had heard Jesus preaching and had in one way or another responded. ‘Sinners’ was a general term that could refer to those Jews who failed to live in accordance with the dictates of the Pharisees, but could also include those who were involved in deeper sin. Some were simply those who were not careful about avoiding ritual defilement, but others were those who were guilty of grave sins such as adultery or theft (although not necessarily present at Levi’s gathering). All were lumped together by the Pharisees. To share meals with such was looked on by the Pharisees as abhorrent. Such people did not keep themselves ritually clean. Thus Jesus would be seen as courting the possibility of defilement and as mixing with unfit people. We should note that these people were ‘followers’. Jesus was not going ‘partying’. He knew that their hearts were moved and that they were seeking Him.
It would not be true to say that the Pharisees would never welcome such a person. If they repented on their own volition and made the necessary sacrifices and began to maintain the necessary regulations, becoming ‘clean’ and submitting to the authority of the Scribes, they would finally after a considerable period of probation be accepted, but the route was a difficult one and no one took the trouble to seek such people out. The difference with Jesus was that He sought them out and welcomed them immediately. The Pharisees looked at the outward appearance, Jesus considered the sinner’s need and looked at the heart.
‘For there were many and they followed him.’ We must not miss the significance of these important words. These were not just tax collectors and sinners who had come together for a good time, and were joined in it by Jesus. These were tax collectors and sinners who had begun genuinely to ‘follow’ Jesus, that is, to look to Him and respond to His words. Their hearts had been touched and they were there to learn from Him. And there were many of them. Jesus’ influence was widespread even over such as these.
‘And the Scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners”.’
The sight of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners offended the Scribes. They were still following Him about in order to observe Him, still upset because of what He had previously said. Now they felt that they had indeed been justified in their views and criticism. He was mixing with the wrong kind of people and showing a lack of concern for ritual cleanliness. Eating with such people was against all that they believed in.
Let us first be fair to them. There was some truth in their attitude that mixing with riffraff and immoral people was not advisable. Such company could lead men into sin and worse. That is common sense. And they had made great efforts to lift themselves above the average man, and did not want to be in danger of being dragged down. But where they failed was in their self-satisfaction and in their failure to recognise the difference between general partying on the one hand, and mixing with such people when they were genuinely seeking spiritual help on the other. Their view was that such people must sort themselves out first, and then acceptance of them could be considered. But until then they must be avoided.
We note that they did not approach Him directly. Possibly they feared His forthright response. Even feared that somehow He might show them up. He seemed so good at doing that. But they could not withhold their condemnation. So they muttered to His disciples. Possibly they hoped to woo them from One Who was so clearly in the wrong.
We note also that these were ‘Scribes of the Pharisees’ (there were also Scribes of the Sadducees and more independent Scribes). And they were almost certainly comparatively local (the Jerusalem Scribes would be called in later - Mark 3:22). They were the local legal experts, well versed in the teachings of the Elders, that oral law that they so prized, which had taken the Law of Moses and added to it hundreds of regulations to ensure that it was properly kept. And they were Pharisees.
There were only about six to seven thousand Pharisees in all. They were generally ‘good living’ men, but often self-righteous, and strove to please God by keeping the hundreds of regulations laid down by their Scribes. By this response to the covenant they hoped to achieve eternal life. They not only accepted the Law of Moses as Scripture, but also the prophets. And they believed in the resurrection from the dead.
The people in general looked up to them and listened to and respected them and their teaching. They taught in the Synagogues and were regularly consulted, especially their Scribes. But as such people will, many of them had begun to feel themselves superior to everyone else. Many of them overlooked the fact that true goodness consists in the attitude of heart and instead concentrated on ‘doing the right thing’, a large part of which consisted of ritual acts such as various washings at different times of the day, careful tithing, and observance to the letter of the traditions of the Elders which were often clever ways of avoiding the force of the Law, ‘making the word of God void through their tradition’ (Mark 7:13). Thus their sense of superiority increased, and the result was that many became hypocritical. They ignored justice and mercy and the central demands of the Law and concentrated on making great demands on people in lesser matters, demands which they could not meet satisfactorily themselves. They often became ultra-critical, separatist and intolerant. And it was of this kind that the opposition to Jesus was mainly made up.
So it was such men who criticised Jesus, men who thought they were on the right track, possibly even almost ‘there’, and who were offended that He did not fully agree with them. That He did observe their general teaching comes out in that they never criticised Him personally for actually breaking their ritual requirements, but what they objected to was the extreme claims that He seemed to be making without their support, and His readiness to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to ordinary people without insisting on all the legal requirements. And now He had added this, that He mixed with and ate with recognised sinners and despised tax collectors. He was keeping bad company.
‘And when Jesus heard it, he says to them, “Those who are whole do not need a medical doctor, only those who are ill. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”.’
When Jesus heard the criticism He went right to the heart of the matter. He told them that He had come to reach sinners wherever they may be found and bring them to repentance. That He was like a doctor who seeks out the sick so as to help them. He was not saying that there actually were some who were so righteous that they did not need His teaching, only that there were some who thought that they were. But rather He was pointing out that His words were for those who had a conscious need, who were aware that they were sick. And those who acknowledged that need would come to Him and find wholeness. It was open to all, including the Pharisees once they were willing to acknowledge their basic need. But in order to fulfil this task He was ready to receive all who would come and to move among them in their sickness. Indeed for the doctor to spurn the sick would be ridiculous.
Notice the ‘I’ (included in the verb). Quietly and firmly He was contrasting Himself with the Pharisees and indeed with all men. And as such He had especially ‘come’. Thus for those who would see it His words went deeper than is at first apparent, for by putting Himself forward as the physician of the people He was aligning Himself with God. In Jeremiah 30:17 it was God Who says, “I will restore health to you and will heal you of your wounds, says the Lord, because they have called you an outcast, saying It is Zion whom no man seeks after.” In the same way Jesus came, seeking after those who were called outcasts, and with the same intention to restore them to health, aligned Himself directly with God in His actions. He was Himself acting as the divine Physician. For was it not God Himself Who said in Exodus 15:26, “I am the Lord Who heals you.”
God was portrayed as the Great Physician, and it was to Him that the Psalmist said, “I said, Oh Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul for I have sinned against you” (Psalms 41:4). For He is the God Who is the healer of those with a humble and contrite spirit (Isaiah 57:15-19). And that is precisely what Jesus was intending to do here, to heal the souls of those who were repentant and who sought God. He was here on earth doing God’s healing work for sinners. And He could say, “I have come (as a doctor) not to call the righteous, but sinners”, thus aligning Himself with God as the Great Physician. He saw in these people those who said, “Come and let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us and He will heal us. He has smitten and He will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1). (Notice that Hosea 6:2 may well be behind His claim that He would be raised on the third day and Hosea 6:6 is quoted by Him against the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13. This was clearly a passage that He knew well and often applied to His ministry, which may well suggest that He had it in mind here).
Notice that this passage in Mark ends on this statement. This is its great climax. Mark is not at this point interested in the response made to His words. It is the words themselves, and what they have to say to his readers, that matter.
‘And John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, and they come and say to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, and yet your disciples do not fast?”.’
The incident begins with this question about fasting. With the stricter Jews fasting was a regular practise. While the Day of Atonement was the only day on which fasting was actually compulsory (according to the general interpretation of Leviticus 16:29 in those days), they also fasted on other occasions such as at the Feasts of Dedication and Purim, and the fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months (Zechariah 8:19). And this included fasting on two days every week, (probably on Mondays and Thursdays), for the whole day until sunset (compare Luke 18:12). They felt that somehow this fasting would help them to achieve a higher standard of covenant life and give them credit with God (compare how David hoped that his fasting would move God - 2 Samuel 12:16; 2 Samuel 12:21-23). Within the idea of fasting there may well have been that of mourning over sin and of a greater determination to seek God unhindered by earthly restraints. And this could only be for the good. But sadly some of those who fasted had other ideas in mind. They made sure that it was brought to people’s attention. They whitened their faces and dishevelled their clothes, ‘that they might appear to men to fast’ (Matthew 6:16). And it thus made them self-righteous and did them great harm. But as men always will, others admired them for their self-sacrifice.
This would appear to have been a recognised fast when all pious men could be expected to fast, made even more potent for the disciples of John because of their master’s imprisonment or martyrdom. This last fact would make Jesus remarks all the more telling, as does His warning that one day His disciples will need to fast because of what will happen to Him. In the case of the Pharisees and that of John’s disciples, the fasting was clearly noted and admired by many.
Thus the failure of Jesus’ disciples to fast brought comment. Those who claimed to be extra-religious and to claim a special dedication to God were expected to fast at certain times, and to show that they were doing so. Why then did they not? Was there something lacking in their genuine dedication and mourning over sin? Jesus’ reply contains the idea that when fasting we must always consider what the purpose is. But it went further than that, for He seized the opportunity of further revelation concerning Himself.
‘The disciples of the Pharisees.’ An expression only used here but the same idea is conveyed by Matthew 22:16 and possibly also by Matthew 12:27; Luke 11:19. Perhaps they are mentioned especially because it was the learners who made the greatest efforts to make sure that people (and their own mentors) knew that they were fasting.
The Heavenly Bridegroom Has Come To Call His Bride and Provide New Truth (2:18-22).
In this passage Jesus defends His disciples right not to fast. John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, seemingly at a season when fasting was expected of pious men. His point is that fasting indicates mourning and sorrow for sin as men hope for a better future, while for His disciples that is not necessary because a better future has already come. It was not right therefore that they fast, because the One is now among them Who will fulfil all God’s promises so that they should be rejoicing. For He Himself has come as the heavenly Bridegroom promised in the Scriptures, come to be united with His bride (compare Matthew 12:49-50; Hebrews 2:11 where He is their Elder Brother). That is why what they should be doing is rejoice. He then goes on to point out that what He has brought for men replaces the old rather worn out teaching. He is referring, not to the Scriptures themselves, which did not need to be replaced, but to what men had made of those Scriptures, which did.
Analysis of 2:18-22.
a And John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, and they come and say to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, and yet your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2:18).
b And Jesus said to them, “Can the sons of the bridechamber fast while the Bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the Bridegroom with them they cannot fast” (Mark 2:19).
c “But the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:20).
b “No man sews a piece of undressed cloth on an old piece of clothing, otherwise that which should fill it up (or ‘the patch’ - to pleroma) takes away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made” (Mark 2:21).
a “And no man puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the wine will burst the skins, and the wine perishes, and the skins. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
Note that in ‘a’ the question is why Jesus’ disciples do not behave like other dedicated religious men, and in the parallel the answer is because new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. In ‘b’ Jesus says that the Bridegroom’s special friends cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with them, because by His presence a new situation has arisen and the old methods will spoil the new, and in the parallel no one tries to repair old clothing with a patch of new cloth, again because they are incompatible. Centrally in ‘c’ is what the future holds, that the Bridegroom will eventually be forcibly removed. Then indeed the disciples will fast (compare John 16:20).
‘And Jesus said to them, “Can the sons of the bridechamber fast while the Bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the Bridegroom with them they cannot fast”.’
His first point is that fasting is reserved for times of mourning and unhappiness, mourning over failure and unhappiness about sin. But those who are appointed at a wedding to be with the bridegroom to sustain him cannot fast, for they would then mar the celebrations. Rather must they eat and drink and be joyful. A Jewish wedding lasted for seven days, and they were days of feasting and merriment during which the bridegroom would be celebrating. And he would have with him his closest friends to share his joy with him. To seek to fast under such circumstances would be an insult. Indeed the Rabbis actually excluded people at a wedding feast from the need to fast. Thus a unique occasion, and only a unique occasion exempted men from fasting, and Jesus is saying that such a unique occasion was now here.
This in itself was a remarkable claim, that because He had come men need not fast. It was to claim divine prerogative, and to indicate the arrival of a new beginning. Moses could not have said it. Elijah could not have said it. John the Baptiser could not have said it. It required a greater than they.
But unquestionably Jesus was conveying a deeper message even than this, as the next verse brings out. He was pointing to Himself as the great Bridegroom whose presence meant that men need not fast, the great Bridegroom promised in the Scriptures. In Isaiah 62:5, the prophet says “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so will your God rejoice over you”. The picture is emphasised and poignant. Isaiah points out that they have been called Forsaken, and their land Desolate, but they will be renamed because God delights in them and their land will be married. He will be their Bridegroom. There God is the Bridegroom, and His restored people are the Bride. Thus Jesus, by describing Himself as the Bridegroom of God’s restored people, shows that He sees Himself as uniquely standing in the place of God in His relationship to the people.
A similar vivid picture is also brought out in Jeremiah 2:2 where the Lord says of His people, “I remember concerning you the kindness of your youth, the love of your espousals, how you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” Here we have the Lord as the Bridegroom in waiting (compare Jeremiah 2:32. Compare also Ezekiel 16:8-14). It is thus very doubtful whether a discerning listener would fail to catch at least something of this implication.
That Jesus emphatically saw Himself as the Bridegroom comes out elsewhere in the Gospels. Consider the marriage feast for the son (Matthew 22:2-14) and the Bridegroom at the wedding where the foolish virgins were excluded (Matthew 25:1-13), both clear pictures of Jesus. And John the Baptiser described Him in the same way (John 3:29). Thus Jesus was declaring in another way that the ‘the Kingly Rule of God has drawn near’, and that He was a unique figure come from God, the heavenly Bridegroom, with the aim of receiving the loving response of God’s people..
“But the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”
These words confirm that we are to see in the picture of the Bridegroom something significant concerning Jesus. For the Bridegroom Who was now here, would one day be snatched away (the verb is forceful - compare Isaiah 53:8) and then they will have good cause to fast. Jesus knew already from the voice at His baptism that He was called on to fulfil the ministry of the suffering Servant, and this was confirmed by John’s words, “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Thus we have here the first indication of His awareness of the brutal end that awaited Him. He knew that He must face suffering on behalf of His people. And then indeed His disciples would fast.
Interestingly the words do not encourage regular fasting. The disciples would indeed sorrow but their sorrow would be turned into joy (John 16:20). Thus the need for fasting would quickly pass and would be no more. There is no real encouragement to fasting here.
‘No man sews a piece of undressed cloth on an old piece of clothing, otherwise that which should fill it up (or ‘the patch’ - to pleroma) takes away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.’
Jesus then emphasises the changed state of affairs by two illustrations. In context He is arguing against fasting. He is saying that we should not take old ideas, in context the ideas about fasting, and apply them to a new situation. Otherwise both will be spoiled. This suggests that He saw fasting as being mainly for the old dispensation, but not for the new. The old world fasted because they waited in penitence for God to act. But now God was acting and fasting was therefore a thing of the past. Now was the time for rejoicing.
The words contain within them the general idea that what Jesus has come to bring is new, that is that ‘the Kingly Rule of God has drawn near’. So His point is that now, because of that, the present is a time of rejoicing and everything must be looked at in its light. The old has passed, and the new has come (compare 2 Corinthians 5:17). The extraordinary significance of this statement must not be overlooked. Jesus was clearly declaring that in His coming as the Bridegroom a whole new way of thinking and living had been introduced. He was the introducer of a new age. It was the acceptable year of the Lord. Repentance and forgiveness in the new age into which they were now entering would lead to lives of joy, first with the earthly and then with the heavenly (risen) Bridegroom. Thus fasting will be unnecessary except in exceptional circumstances, in the brief period before final victory. Everything is different and old ways must be forgotten.
‘A piece of undressed cloth.’ That is, one that has not been washed and shrunk, thus making it unsuitable for repairing old clothing, for once the clothing was washed the patch would shrink and tear the clothing.
While not being the direct significance here where it is simply an illustration of incompatibility, this reference to clothing gains new meaning in the light of Jesus’ idea elsewhere, which He Himself may have had in mind, for the man who seeks to enter the heavenly wedding without having a proper wedding garment on will be cast out (Matthew 22:11-12 compare Revelation 19:8; Revelation 3:5; Revelation 3:18). Those who would enter His presence must be clothed in His imputed and imparted righteousness alone. No partially patched up dress will do for them.
‘And no man puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the wine will burst the skins, and the wine perishes, and the skins. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins.’
The double illustration enforces the lesson. Old wineskins (for containing wine) have become dried out and frail as a result of the action of the wine. They have ceased to be pliable. They are thus unable to contain the action of the new wine. So if new wine is put into them they will burst and both the wine and the wineskins will be lost.
Once more the emphasis is on the fact that in this new age which was beginning, the old outward things must be done away. Many religious ideas and practises had grown up through the centuries, and as will happen to such ideas they had become old and dried up. One such idea was regular fasting. But now that the new age has come, a new look must be taken at everything. This was the time for drinking new wine, the time for rejoicing. To put that new wine into the old wineskins would destroy it and people would then be bereft of both the old and the new. They would have lost everything.
Paul had the same thought from a different perspective when he said, “if any man is in Christ he is a new creature, the old things are passed away. Behold they are become new.” For when we come to Christ we are taken out of the past and brought into a new future. Everything becomes new. And we do well not to go back to the old, and indeed must be careful not to.
‘And it happened that he was going on the Sabbath day through the cornfields, and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.’
What the disciples were doing in plucking the corn would have been seen as within their rights on any other day of the week, as long as they did not use a sickle (Deuteronomy 23:25), and it is not for that that they would be criticised. The problem lay in the fact that they did it on the Sabbath day and that what they were doing was seen as reaping and threshing corn, both forbidden on the Sabbath (Exodus 34:21). The Rabbis had at various times laid down a considerable number of regulations about the Sabbath in order to prevent it being violated and this was included among them. And it was not just a matter of being awkward. They genuinely believed that such activity could have awful consequences.
The Son of Man Is Lord of the Sabbath (2:23-28).
In this incident we are provided with an example of how the Pharisees sought to cling to the old, while Jesus was introducing the new. The Pharisees believed that there were certain things that epitomised Israel’s covenant with God, and that it would be by observing these fully that they would help to issue in God’s Kingly Rule. These included washing rituals which kept them ‘clean’ from defilement by an outer world which did not observe God’s requirement to be ritually ‘clean’; strictly tithing all their possessions; avoiding being involved with all who did not subscribe to their ideas, and strictly observing the Sabbath. These things had become the be all and end all of their lives. Thus when they saw the disciples of the new prophet flouting the Sabbath rules as laid down by the Scribes, they were both horrified and furious. It went against all in which they believed. This prophet was, in their eyes, actually delaying the time when God’s Kingly Rule would come, so mechanical were they in their views. And when Jesus brought out that as the new David He took a different view of the Sabbath, and supported it by citing the Scriptures, it was beyond what they could take. It was one thing for David to behave like this (no one had ever criticised David for it), it was quite another for this upstart ‘prophet’ to do it. And this was especially so when He claimed as the Son of Man to be Lord of the Sabbath (although they might not have been sure at this stage whether He was referring to Himself or someone else).
a And it happened that he was going on the Sabbath day through the cornfields, and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn (Mark 2:23).
b And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why do they on the Sabbath day what is not lawful?” (Mark 2:24).
c And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he had need and was hungry, he and those who were with him? How, in the passage headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’, he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread which it is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26).
b And he said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
a “So that the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28).”
Note that in ‘a’ we have described what happened on the Sabbath, and in the parallel it could not be criticised because the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath. In ‘b’ the Pharisees charge the disciples with doing what was not lawful on the Sabbath, and in the parallel Jesus points out that man was not made in order to establish and preserve the Sabbath, but that God’s purpose for the Sabbath was that it might benefit man. Centrally in ‘c’ He demonstrates that as the new David He has the authority to shape God’s Law.
‘And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why do they on the Sabbath day what is not lawful?”
They were probably quite genuinely upset. There is no one more vulnerable than the sincere person who has established a set of regulations as being right and then sees them being flouted. They just could not understand how Jesus, Who seemed willing to live within their requirements (which they saw as God’s requirements), could allow such a thing to be done. They considered that the disciples were behaving unlawfully with great abandon. They were defiling God’s day of rest.
But the statement may be a little more sinister than that. The punishment for Sabbath breaking was stoning, and certainly later it was laid down that a warning must first be given before the stoning could take place. Men must be given one chance. Thus ‘what is not lawful’ may have been an official warning. They may have been saying, ‘we are giving them a last chance. If they do it again they will be punished by the synagogue.’
‘And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he had need and was hungry, he and those who were with him? How, in the passage headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’, he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread which it is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him?”
At first this answer seems to have little to do with the question, for there is no suggestion that David did it on the Sabbath (although it is true that that is at a later time suggested by a leading Rabbi). But Jesus’ point is looking higher than that. He is talking about authority. In the passage in question (1 Samuel 21:1-6) David and his men, pretending to be on the king’s business, required food, and the priest told them that that the only food available was the shewbread which had been on the table in the house of God (Exodus 25:23-30). This was intended only for the priests for it was ‘holy’, that is, set apart as God’s. But, no doubt in some fear of this powerful man with his armed warriors (see Mark 2:1), he allowed him to have the shewbread for his men as long as they had kept themselves from women and were not therefore ‘unclean’. He basically yielded to David’s authority. (It may be that the regulations were not being so strictly enforced at that time, as often happens with ritual. But it may simply be that the priest was prepared to allow sacrilege to save his life).
The point of the story could be seen as indicating two things. Firstly that when men were hungry and in need cultic regulations could be set aside for people in a suitable condition, and secondly that this was on the authority of and by the action of the future King David. Yet the Pharisees had never been heard to condemn David for his behaviour, because David was held in such high regard. Rather they saw it as his right because of who he was, the chosen and ‘anointed’ of God. And it was clear also that the Scriptures had not condemned it. But the question must be asked, why not? And the answer could only be that they accepted that the regulations could be set aside in cases of need when one with sufficient authority from God was there to set them aside.
The fact is that Jesus did not argue that they were simply accusing the disciples on a technicality. He appears to have accepted that they could be seen as ‘breaking’ the Sabbath Law as interpreted by the Rabbis. (What he says later, that the Sabbath was made for man, seems to confirm this. That only comes in as an argument if this was seen as the breaking of the strict Sabbath rule as interpreted by the Rabbis). Nor would either Jesus or the Pharisees have agreed that God’s Law could be set aside for man’s convenience. (And the disciples were neither starving nor hungry soldiers on the run). Nor would either Jesus or the Pharisees have allowed the specific and forceful ordinances of the Law in the Pentateuch, with their blessings and cursings, to be easily set aside. The Law was seen as rigid in both their eyes. Jesus would not have maintained otherwise, and certainly the Pharisees would not have accepted it. And both knew that the Law was especially rigid about the Sabbath. A man had been stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32).
Thus the point could only be that the regulations could be set aside in cases of need when one with sufficient authority from God was there to set them aside. And Jesus certainly puts the onus on David. “Did you never read what David did? --- he entered in -- ate the shewbread -- gave also to those who were with him.” And that is the point. It was because it was David that the action remained uncriticised.
The implication must therefore be that the disciples could also therefore be allowed to gather food and feed themselves on the Sabbath when they were hungry (not a little peckish) because the equivalent in authority to David was permitting it. The Sabbath Law could be set aside in this case because the Son of Man had determined it, and ‘the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’. This is the only explanation that fits all the facts.
It would always have been open to Jesus to argue that what the disciples had done was not really ‘working’ and should not therefore be treated as a breach of the Sabbath (they had probably done it unconsciously not for a moment thinking of it as work, possibly unaware of the Pharisees’ detailed regulations). But He was well aware that His opponents would be able to produce Rabbinic teaching that asserted that it was. What He was asserting therefore was that it was allowable in this case because an authority greater than that of the Rabbis was present.
Jesus’ point was that the Kingly Rule of God was here and that its authority was being exercised by Him. Thus He had the right to make new regulations about the Sabbath, as David had before Him about the shewbread, in his case also when his new kingdom was about to come in. This also ties in with his illustrations of the patching of the old clothes and the filling of the old wine skins with new wine. The old had passed, the new had come. In a very real sense it was a Messianic claim, but it was discreetly put. It was a claim to a unique authority from God as had been illustrated by His teaching, the casting out of evil spirits and His power over disease, and was now claimed over the interpretation of the Law. It was the equivalent of, ‘but I say to you’ (found regularly in Matthew 5:0).
‘In the passage headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’. For the purpose of the readings in the Synagogue the Law was split into sections each given a heading. This would then be one of the headings, the heading of the passage containing the incident of the shewbread. It is then not saying that it happened in the days of Abiathar as High Priest, only that it is described in Scripture in that passage which was headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’ (e.g. 1 Samuel 21-22). Another such passage was headed ‘The Bush’ (Luke 20:37). (This incident actually led to Abiathar being made High Priest).
Others see the mention of Abiathar as taking a famous and unmistakable name in order to date the incident (thus ‘in the days of Abiathar who subsequently became the High Priest’, or ‘during the lifetime of Abiathar, who later became High Priest’). It should be noted that no one appears to have objected to this description, neither the Pharisees nor the Gospel writers. And yet they knew the Scriptures better than most of us do, and were as well aware as Jesus was that it was Ahimelech who was actually High Priest at the time. They were clearly satisfied with the accuracy of the description.
‘The house of God.’ For an example of this description being applied to the Tabernacle see Judges 18:31.
‘And he said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.’
Jesus was not saying by this that because the Sabbath was made for man he could do whatever he liked on it. What He was pointing out was that the Sabbath with its strict rules had been intended for man’s benefit. For slaves and bondservants and suchlike it had always been a huge blessing, for it guaranteed them a day of complete rest. And therefore what Jesus was saying was that to castigate men because they had simply and innocently taken a few grains of corn and rubbed them between their hands was taking the Sabbath rules too far. But in view of the fact that those rules had been expanded and pronounced on by the Rabbis, it was necessary for Jesus to make His claim to have the right to change the Law of the Sabbath.
‘So that the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’
That is, has the right to shape and mould the Sabbath Law just as the Rabbis had, and as David had cultic Law, and had the right to, as it were, go above the Rabbis’ heads because of His position of extreme authority. This was an essential part of Jesus’ argument. It was the factor that justified His argument.
Mark therefore intends his readers to recognise in this argument and statement one more reason why they can recognise Jesus as the Son of God. It is because as the glorious Son of Man He is Lord over the Sabbath.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Mark 2". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent