Jesus is the enemy of legalists (Mark 3:1–6)
One of the challenges of creating a sequel to a good movie is that you have to preserve the feel of the first installment while upping the ante somehow. Sometimes, this is accomplished by exploring the personalities and relationships among the characters (such as The Empire Strikes Back). Sometimes, the stakes of the conflict are raised (Rocky II). And often, the director tries to wow the audience with stunts and special effects that top whatever the first movie contained (every Michael Bay sequel). In today’s passage, we’re going to find a bit of a sequel that does all three of these things.
Last week, as we continued our journey through Mark’s story, we saw the Pharisees getting upset at Jesus because his disciples were violating the Sabbath. Or at least, they were violating the rules the Pharisees had made up about the Sabbath. By turning to the authority of scripture, Jesus pointed out that God’s law was not meant to be an end in itself; rather, it was meant to be a means to help us obey our Lord. That Lord is Jesus himself. The Pharisees had made the mistake of putting law above Lawgiver.
Today, we once again find Jesus clashing with the Pharisees over how the Sabbath day should be observed. It’s the same premise as last week’s conflict. This time, though, we’re going to get a closer look into the mindset of Jesus and the mindset of his opponents. The confrontation will be public. And now Jesus is going to back up his claims with a miracle.
The last time Mark records Jesus speaking in a synagogue, he portrays Jesus as captivating his audience. Both his teaching and the exorcism which followed demonstrated an authority that the people had never seen before. At the time, everyone seems to have approved of Jesus, and he quickly gained celebrity status in the backwater region of Galilee. This time, however, not all of Jesus’ audience is receptive to what he has to say. Through all of chapter 2, Jesus has been questioned by the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders who are increasingly troubled by the God-like authority this man is claiming for himself. Now, the conflict reaches its first climax—a tense confrontation in a local synagogue.
When Jesus enters the synagogue, he sees a man there with a withered hand. It seems a little convenient that this man is showing up when all the Pharisees are there to watch Jesus. It’s possible that this man is a plant, placed by the Pharisees “to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” Regardless, Jesus is faced with a dilemma. Either he heals the man, doing “work” on the Sabbath and condemning himself before the religious leaders, or he ignores the man and does nothing to help him.
Jesus knows a trap when he sees one. He says to the man, “Come here.” The man stands up in the middle of the synagogue. Then, Jesus poses a question which pierces to the heart of the matter: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” With this rhetorical question, Jesus demonstrates the hypocrisy of his enemies. They have turned the Sabbath into a burden, weighing people down with rules that they have to keep if they’re going to be good Jews. Their rules would prevent this man from being healed! The Sabbath should not be a day of moral drudgery but a day of rest, healing, and reconnection with the Lord. God’s law liberates his people; man-made laws only enslave them.
Of course, the Pharisees can’t say anything in response. Then, Mark records, “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” Jesus responds with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he is furious at the Pharisees because they have perverted God’s law and are using their own laws to prevent a man from getting the healing he needs. Jesus is deeply offended by this self-righteous legalism. On the other hand, he is heartbroken that these religious leaders are so resistant to the good news that would free them from their bondage. He feels sorry for them as they wallow in their miserable condition.
“Stretch out your hand,” Jesus commands the man. He obeys, and the hand is restored to health. Jesus hasn’t done this just for the sake of the man; Mark makes it clear that he’s done it for the sake of the Pharisees. They need to see that the way of life promised by Jesus is superior to their own legalistic habits. They need to see the supremacy of Jesus. Following Jesus is not about inventing a bunch of rules to make you feel more righteous. It’s not about inventing ways to look good before God. It’s about following the God-given law of the Bible with a sincere, teachable heart. You must lay down your old way of living and follow Jesus, your new Lord. Your old wineskins can never hold his new wine without bursting apart.
Sadly, the Pharisees don’t get it. Mark tells us that “they went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians wanted the Jews to conform to the pagan Roman culture; they stood for everything the Pharisees opposed. Yet the Pharisees joined forces with them to get rid of Jesus. And that’s the thing about legalism—eventually, it will lead you to align yourself with the enemies of Jesus and his gospel. You will inevitably find yourself opposed to his kingdom. This is the only path available to a self-righteous person who insists on inventing rules rather than following Jesus Christ.