Jesus grows his followers (Mark 4:21–34)

There are two ways in which a farmer can increase the size of the crop he is able to produce. The first way is to acquire new land and expand the area of his crop onto it. The second way is to increase the yield of the same land by introducing new methods of agriculture. In short, he can increase the quantity of his farmland or he can improve the quality of it.

Of course, an ambitious farmer will do both. Last week, we looked at the fact that Jesus rejects those who are outsiders, who aren’t truly his disciples. This week, we’ll see how ambitious Jesus really is when it comes to growing his followers and expanding his kingdom. Jesus goes for both quality of disciples and quantity.

Jesus picks up right where he left off with the parable of the four soils. He had been talking about how outsiders are ignorant when it comes to God’s kingdom—this is God’s judgment on them. Insiders, on the other hand, are characterized by “fruit-bearing,” or the marks of a disciple. In Mark’s gospel, so far, disciples are identified as people who are with Jesus and who imitate Jesus. He explains why disciples are guaranteed to grow, using two illustrations.

First, Jesus asks what the purpose of lighting a lamp is. Is it lit so that its light may be hidden, or is it lit so that its light may reveal what is hidden? Obviously, it’s the latter. In the same way, the gospel message that Jesus brings is intended to reveal the truth about God and his work in the world. While it may be hidden from the blind and deaf outsiders (verse 12), it will certainly reveal truth to attentive insiders, who have “ears to hear.” That is its purpose.

Second, Jesus shows that his disciples will be given more and more understanding. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you,” he promises. “For to the one who has, more will be given.” He will reward his followers, who are eager to know him and to understand his message. Jesus will give them exactly what they are looking for and more! He will overwhelm them with blessing. But he also warns, “From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” There will be fake disciples who have a loose grasp on who Jesus is and what he is doing. These outsiders will not be blessed with insight but will become even more spiritually dull than they were before.

Now that Jesus has established the fact that his individual followers will grow in knowledge, he launches into two parables describing how his kingdom will grow in general. The first parable tells the story of a farmer who sows seed and watches as it grows over time by itself. He does nothing to make it grow; he is mystified by how it can produce a crop. All he does is sit back and wait for the harvest. So we see that when Jesus’ gospel message is spoken and believed, it produces growth in the lives of many people. This growth comes from God; it’s not something that the speaker can produce. In other words, you and I can’t change other people’s hearts! All we can do is tell them the good news and let the Holy Spirit do his work in his timing. The kingdom grows gradually and mysteriously. With each passing day and month and year, Jesus’ disciples begin to recognize his reign over them and respond to him as their King. They produce fruit that identifies them as insiders.

The second parable describes the kingdom as a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous, tree-like mustard plant which towers over all the other garden plants. In other words, the kingdom may start small, but it gets big, like a snowball rolling down a hill. It may seem unimpressive now, but it won’t stay that way for long. Jesus may only have a few followers now, but they will grow in number, until his kingdom has expanded to fill the whole earth with the glory of the Lord. With the seed of his gospel message, Jesus will grow God’s kingdom into a powerful worldwide movement.

Let’s stop to consider the implications for you and me. What this means is that real disciples will always bear the marks of insiders. They will produce fruit, being with Jesus and imitating him. They will be growing continually. The gospel message, to them, is not a one-time decision that they leave in the past. They do not simply “pray a prayer” and move on. No! The gospel is the source of their growth, and they return to it day by day so they will not become stagnant. They grow through the power of the Holy Spirit. They grow in godliness and influence, extending Jesus’ gospel message to a world that needs to hear it.

Mark wraps up his account of Jesus’ parables by telling us that Jesus is only speaking to the crowd in parables now. He is hiding his gospel message from outsiders. He is only explaining the parables to insiders. So which group do you belong to? Are you an outsider, either consciously or unconsciously opposing Jesus? Perhaps you call yourself a Christian, but you’ve deceived yourself for many years; you’ve never understood the gospel and never been a part of God’s kingdom. Or are you an insider, slowly learning and growing as the Lord mysteriously transforms your heart? If you truly are a disciple of Jesus, you will learn and change and grow, because Jesus loves his followers, and he always makes sure that they will grow.

Jesus changes everyone (Mark 4:1–20)

As every preacher knows, there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t like a good story. Being able to tell an anecdote or a personal experience is a great way to illustrate God’s truth in a way that everyone can understand. Of course, you’ll have the occasional speaker who will get so caught up in telling a story that he becomes lost in the wilderness of his own imagination. But any preacher worth his salt will do his best to avoid that mistake; he wants his stories to reveal truth, not hinder it.

Once again, Jesus isn’t just any preacher. We typically think that he tells parables so that people will understand truth. That’s not the reason that he gives, though.

We saw a “sandwich story” the last time we looked at Mark, and now we’re seeing one again. We find Jesus beside the sea again, and this time he hops in a boat right away so the crowds don’t crush him. Then he tells them a bunch of parables, which are short fictional stories that illustrate a truth about God and his kingdom. One parable in particular stands out: a farmer sows seed on four different kinds of soil—a footpath, rocky ground, a thorn patch, and rich soil. The seed only produces grain in the rich soil, but this soil is so good that it yields an absurd amount of grain. So all of that is the upper slice of bread in the “sandwich.”

Then comes the meat between the bread. Jesus’ followers approach him, asking him to explain why he’s teaching in parables, and he gives a rather surprising reason. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” he says, “but for those outside everything is in parables.” In other words, Jesus knows something very important about the kingdom which God is going to set up, but he won’t tell it to just anyone. It’s only for his disciples to know. The reason Jesus speaks in parables isn’t to reveal the truth about the kingdom to “those outside”—it’s to hide the truth about the kingdom from them. Jesus’ disciples are the insiders, and he will explain the truth to them, but he won’t tell it to anyone else.

Why not? What reason could Jesus possibly have for keeping God’s kingdom a secret? He reaches back to the Old Testament and adapts a famous stanza from Isaiah 6:9–10. He is hiding this knowledge from outsiders so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Does that bother you? It bothers me. But I suppose I should ask a more important question: is this the Jesus you think you know? Does he have the right to say, “There is a certain group of people whom I will hide the truth from so that they won’t repent and be forgiven”? That’s the Jesus whom you and I are facing in this story. That’s what Jesus is like in real life.

So now we are left to ask, “Who are these ‘outsiders’? Why is Jesus holding back the truth that would cause them to repent?” So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus reject the religious leaders because they have hardened their hearts against him. We’ve seen him reject his own family because they refuse to be with him and imitate him, which is what his disciples do. And now, he’s going to add new groups to the ever-expanding circle of “outsiders.”

The meat of Mark’s “sandwich” has given us the clue we need to understand what comes next. And what comes next (the lower slice of bread) is Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the four soils. Jesus says to his followers, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” In other words, this is a special parable because it’s actually a parable about parables—a metaparable, if you will. The seed represents “the word”—Jesus’ good news about the coming kingdom, which he tells in the form of parables. The first soil, the hardened footpath, represents those who are hard-hearted, like the religious leaders. The word doesn’t get in at all but lies dead on the surface, where Satan plucks it away. These outsiders won’t even consider what Jesus has to say. The second soil, the rocky ground, represents those who respond to the word with joy, but have only a shallow commitment. When tough times come, these outsiders fall away, because deep down they don’t really get it. The third soil, the thorn patch, represents those who have other dreams and desires besides the kingdom. These outsiders are distracted by a love of money or possessions or entertainment or anything else the world can offer. All these desires choke out their supposed love for God because they don’t really understand Jesus’ message, either.

Finally, Jesus tells us about the good, rich soil. When the seed falls here, it produces  a ridiculous bumper crop. A hundredfold yield was unheard of in Jesus’ day; this soil is unbelievably rich. This soil represents the insiders, Jesus’ true disciples. You can tell them apart from the outsiders because they “bear fruit.” This is because they have been given “the secret of the kingdom of God.”

What we’ve just read is a sobering message with so many implications that you and I couldn’t possibly sort through them all in the space of a single blog post. We know now that many people in the church will look like insiders but are actually outsiders who don’t understand the gospel. We know now that it’s an enduring faith, not a flash-in-the-pan spiritual experience, that marks a true disciple. We know now that many professing Christians are under the judgment of God, who blinds idol worshipers who turn to something or someone other than God for ultimate security (see Psalm 115:8).

Above all, we see that Jesus’ message changes everyone, because Jesus is a polarizing figure. Some people he transforms into his disciples. Other people he hardens into his opponents. His message has already changed you. Are you an insider or an outsider?

Jesus rejects those who reject him (Mark 3:20–35)

Have you ever seen a friend or family member turn an awkward situation into a train wreck? You know, the sort of situation where you just want to get out of the room, hop in a car, and drive about 500 miles away just to escape the tension? Entire TV shows have been written around this sort of premise.

Usually, I’m the one who causes situations like that. But today, it’s Jesus. Or at least, that’s how his family feels about him.

Mark doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus’ family. In fact, this is the only passage where they are mentioned. But we do get to see their attitude toward him at this point in his ministry: “He is out of his mind.” They are so embarrassed by Jesus’ teaching and behavior that they’ve come to take him home and lock him away until they can nurse him back to reality.

Now, here’s where Mark launches into one of his “sandwich” stories. If you read his gospel carefully, you’ll see that Mark likes to begin a story, interrupt it with another story, and then return to finish his first story. So it’s kind of like a story sandwich. The inner story helps you to understand what’s going on in the outer story. In this case, the outer story (the sandwich bread) is Jesus’ response to his family; the inner story (the delicious sandwich innards) is Jesus’ response to the religious teachers from Jerusalem who have come to slander him. Mark interrupts the first story so that we can understand why Jesus responds to his family the way he does.

So let’s take a look at the interrupting story. Jesus has become so popular that religious leaders have traveled from the capital city of Jerusalem to backwater Galilee in order to see what’s going on. They see him heal people and they see him cast out demons, but they don’t like his teaching, because he’s attacking their legalism. So how do they convince people to reject Jesus? Well, they can’t deny that miracles are taking place, so they announce that “he is possessed by Beelzebul…by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And the fact is, they truly believe it. They have convinced themselves that Jesus is a demon-possessed, Satan-worshiping deceiver.

Of course, Jesus makes short work of their claims. He points out the obvious: a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and neither can a household divided against itself. So why in the world would Satan launch a civil war against his own forces? He’s a little bit too bright for that.

Not content to shoot down these accusations, Jesus offers a better interpretation of what’s going on. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods,” he says, “unless he first binds the strong man.” He likens Satan to a strong man who maintains a grip on the people of Israel through demon possession. Jesus is the stronger man who ties up Satan so that “he may plunder his house.” Jesus is setting people free from Satan’s oppression. That’s what these exorcisms are all about.

At this point, Jesus turns to these religious teachers and utters one of the most harrowing condemnations in scripture. “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” This is “the unpardonable sin”—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. These teachers have seen the Holy Spirit at work, and they have called him the devil. They have resisted the gospel to the point that they are witnessing the life-saving power of the Spirit and convincing themselves that he is utterly wicked. So Jesus tells them, “There is no hope for you. Forgiveness is available to anyone who repents of any sin, no matter how severe. But you will never repent.” Like Pharaoh, they have completely hardened their hearts against the Holy Spirit, so in an act of judgment, God will harden their hearts further so that they may never believe in Jesus Christ and be forgiven.

The awful irony is that these teachers accuse Jesus of being “possessed by Beelzebul,” yet it is they who have aligned themselves with the devil. To reject Jesus is to choose a side—you must be in league with Satan and his demonic forces. Oh, how you and I need to pray to God, “Keep our hearts soft and teachable so that we can remain faithful to our Savior!”

On this tragic note, Mark returns to his first story. Jesus’ family has arrived outside the house where he is teaching. They send word for him, but he refuses to come. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. He looks around at those who are listening to him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

If we hadn’t read the interrupting story first, we might think that Jesus is being rather harsh toward his family. But now we understand: they rejected him first. They’ve chosen a side, and it is the side of Satan. They haven’t committed the unforgivable sin—they do repent and believe in him later. For now, though, we leave them standing outside, while Jesus has chosen to be with his new, adopted family instead.

This should be a clear lesson for us. Jesus doesn’t play favorites. If you grew up in a Christian home, or in a Christian culture, that’s no guarantee that Jesus won’t reject you. You must “be with him” (v 14) and do the will of God, proving that you really have believed in him. Jesus is a polarizing figure, separating insiders from outsiders. Will you be on his side or on the devil’s side?

Jesus wants committed followers (Mark 3:7–19)

Which do you think Jesus prefers: a 15-member house church or a 5,000-member megachurch?

“Hmmm…is this a trap?” you ask, dodging my question. And of course, my answer is yes. As we’ll learn today in the gospel of Mark, it’s not numbers that Jesus is concerned about. He wants committed followers.

We’ve reached a point in Jesus’ ministry where his popularity is starting to get out of hand. Once again, he has to pull out of the town of Capernaum, and once again he can’t get away from the crowds. In fact, they’re coming not only from Galilee but from “Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon,” from great distances to the south, east, and north. Jesus has transitioned from a local hero to a regional celebrity.

Unfortunately, with celebrity status comes a celebrity circus. The crowd presses around Jesus, touching his clothes, pleading that he would heal them from their diseases. Jesus realizes that he may be crushed by the mob; the situation is so dangerous that he asks his disciples to get a boat ready in case he needs to put some distance between himself and the crowd. Worse, demon-possessed people begin to make a ruckus, falling down at his feet and announcing, “You are the Son of God!” For the second time in Mark’s account, Jesus acts to suppress the news about himself; he orders the unclean spirits not to reveal who he is. There seem to be a couple reasons for this (as we will see once we reach chapter 4), and one is purely practical: the crowds are inhibiting Jesus’ ministry. He loves them and takes care of their needs, but this isn’t the right climate to continue the mission he has come to accomplish.

So Jesus leaves the crowd behind and chooses twelve disciples to climb a nearby mountain with him. This is odd because in first-century Jewish culture, disciples would usually choose their rabbi. But that is not acceptable to Jesus; it’s important for him that he gets to decide who is close to him. So on the mountain, he appoints these disciples as the Twelve, and he gives them two charges. First, he appoints them “so that they might be with him.” Jesus doesn’t want to hold his followers at arm’s length. Sometimes I think of Jesus as an aloof, sort of spacey leader. The fact is, Jesus would rather have twelve friends than twelve thousand fans. He wants a close circle of companions who can share life with him and learn from him. That’s what Jesus wants from you, too. If you are his disciple, he has hand-picked you to be with him. It doesn’t matter that you’re not perfect; he didn’t select you because he saw something good in you. So don’t let your sinful flesh discourage you. Just be with him first of all, because he wants to be with you.

Second, Jesus appoints the Twelve so that “he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” If that sort of mission sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what Jesus has been up to in the first few chapters of Mark. Essentially, Jesus gives the Twelve a mission, and that mission turns out to be the same thing he’s been doing. Jesus wants his disciples to imitate him. When Jesus chose you, it was to give you a mission just like his. He wants you to join with other disciples in advancing the good news of his salvation. He wants you to tell the truth to the world and show by your love that you really mean it. In our postmodern culture, your authority to speak the truth will be questioned; people will be offended that you claim to know the truth. But your authority comes from Jesus, so you can imitate him by telling the truth with a gracious attitude. The authority he has given you is so tremendous that you have power over unimaginable spiritual forces arrayed against you. So don’t let the world and the devil discourage you. Just imitate him first of all, because he wants you to be like him.

At this point in the story, Mark lists the Twelve. The order of their names is important. First of all comes Jesus’ inner circle within the inner circle: Peter, James, and John (and sometimes Andrew, the annoying kid brother of Peter). Jesus is going to focus much of his attention on them, and they will be leaders among the Twelve. Leaders of the church especially need to stay as close to Jesus as possible. And last of all comes “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” You can almost hear the anger in Mark’s voice. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is the only thing people remember about him. This betrayal is so prominent in Mark’s mind that he simply must mention it, even though it spoils the story. How terrible it is for someone to spend so much time near Jesus and in the end betray him! How much hotter the fires of hell will be for churchgoers who never truly commit themselves to their professed Savior! This is a horrifying and sobering truth.

You and I need to be with Jesus. He is the only one that can keep us from falling away. We can’t hold anything back from him. We can’t live secret lives; we can’t nurture secret sins. Jesus wants all of you. He really does want to be with you, and he really does want you to be like him. Please—don’t hold back from Jesus.

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.

Jesus is the cure for legalism (Mark 2:23–28)

If you hang around evangelical Christian circles long enough, you’ll eventually hear one angry person label another as a legalist. “Uh…what the heck’s a legalist?” you wonder. Well, that depends on who you talk to. In the opinion of many Christians, a legalist is simply someone who wants you to follow a rule that you don’t like. If anyone tries to tell you that you are doing something wrong, then that person is clearly a grim legalist who has not attained your state of blissful enlightenment. I recently sat down over coffee with a man who defended his decision to live with his girlfriend and neglect being a part of a local church on the basis that he wasn’t legalistic about it. Needless to say, I wasn’t as impressed with his righteousness as he was. If I insist that a professing believer follow God’s law, that isn’t legalism; it’s exhortation—and it’s commanded by God (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5).

So what is legalism, really? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out in today’s passage. Even better, when we do find out, we’ll get to know Jesus a little more.

» Read Mark 2:23–28

Our story takes place fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. Up until recently, Jesus has been popular among the Jewish people, and he’s fit their expectations of a Messiah—the Anointed One sent by God to rescue his people and set up his kingdom on earth. However, beginning in Mark chapter 2, Jesus has started doing things that upset the religious leaders of Galilee. He’s claimed all sorts of authority for himself—authority to forgive sins, to associate with sinners, to introduce a whole new life system in place of Judaism. What takes place on this particular day is going to anger them even further.

It’s Sabbath day, which means that it’s a day on which God has commanded the Jews to rest from their work (Exodus 20:8–11). Now, a popular religious faction of Jesus’ day, known as the Pharisees, are especially zealous about obeying God’s commandment. That zeal is a good thing! But the way they go about it is a problem. They’ve created a strict set of commandments which detail what one can and cannot do on a Sabbath day. For example, the Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition) prohibited weaving two threads together, tying a knot in a cord, writing two letters, kindling a fire, or even putting out a fire (!). The Pharisees obsess over defining what work means; obeying the Sabbath law at any cost has become a singular obsession to them.

Not surprisingly, they get upset when they discover that Jesus’ disciples have been gleaning grain from a field on a Sabbath day. Presumably, his disciples got hungry and wanted a snack. The Pharisees are shocked by this egregious violation of their man-made rules; they confront Jesus, sputtering, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus responds by insisting that God’s Word be the basis for making moral decisions. He’s not interested in their opinions of what’s right and wrong; he calls them to an absolute, objective standard. “Have you never read what David did?” he asks. This must have infuriated the Pharisees, since many of them probably had the entire Old Testament memorized! Apparently, though, they hadn’t learned much while reading it. Jesus explains the case of David eating the bread of the Presence in an emergency situation when he and his men were hungry (1 Samuel 21:1–9). Only the priests were supposed to eat this bread (Leviticus 24:5–9)! How could this possibly be “lawful”?

Jesus draws a parallel between the bread of the Presence and the Sabbath. In both cases, God had laid out the rules that his people should follow. However, he didn’t want them to adhere to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. When obeying the rules would prevent a person’s physical needs from being met, it was lawful in that case to break the rules. Above all, the Lord wanted justice, kindness, and humility from his people (Micah 6:8).

Jesus insists, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is God’s way of getting his people to slow down their busy lives, to rest and remember and reconnect with him. The Sabbath was made for the benefit of his people. It’s not an ultimate thing; it’s just a means to an end. It’s a little like the speed limit on a highway; speed limits are a means to a greater end—safety on the road. If you’re fastidiously keeping under the speed limit of 55 mph, but everyone around you is exceeding 75 mph, you’re not really following the law, because you’re creating an unsafe driving environment. Similarly, the Sabbath is a law that’s meant to benefit man. Jesus is telling the Pharisees, “Keeping the Sabbath is about what’s good for you—not about overloading people with a bunch of man-made rules.”

Then, Jesus adds something of tremendous importance. Considering the fact that the Sabbath was created to serve man, he says, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus is the Son of Man, the messianic figure from Daniel 7:13–14; he has been given a kingdom so that all nations will serve him. The Sabbath was made for mankind, and mankind was made for Jesus. He is Lord of all mankind, so therefore he is Lord of the Sabbath. He gets to define how the Sabbath should be carried out. Jesus is claiming tremendous, cosmic authority for himself.

The Pharisees are obsessed with the law, but they’ve forgotten who the law was written for. They’ve placed law above Lawgiver. And that’s the essence of legalism. We aren’t supposed to follow God’s law out of a grim sense of moral responsibility; we’re supposed to follow it because we love and worship a Person. Don’t obsess over the law. Obsess over a Person—Jesus of Nazareth, Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus will not be the cherry on top (Mark 2:18–22)

Back in high school, I used to work the drive thru at a local Steak n Shake restaurant. True to the name, Steak n Shake has two specialties—steakburgers, which are basically glorified hamburgers, and milkshakes. I definitely developed a taste for Steak n Shake food after working there for a year and a half. I tried out all the shakes and made up my mind which was the best (side-by-side strawberry and orange). To this day, a milkshake just doesn’t seem complete to me unless it’s topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.

I know not everyone likes those cherries, but I love ’em. They’re just the thing to complete a milkshake or a sundae or just about any dairy dessert. They’re a perfect complement to all those death-inducing sugar-and-fat concoctions. The cherry really doesn’t change the dessert all that much. You simply toss it on top to make it a little bit better than it was before.

The temptation for us is to treat Jesus like that cherry on top. Sometimes, we are willingly deceived into believing that Jesus doesn’t demand all of our lives. We think we can go on living how we’ve always lived, while tacking on Jesus as sort of a bonus that makes us feel all warm and spiritual inside. For example, I may go to church on Sunday and call myself a Christian, but in my heart I may find my identity in my career; I’m willing to sacrifice any relationship in order to advance in my field, my performance review is more important to me than God’s evaluation of me, and my mood depends almost entirely on how my day at work went.

That doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? Let’s take a different approach, then. Perhaps I think that pleasing God is all about doing all the good Christian things that good Christians do. I give exactly 10% of my money to the church, take notes from the sermon, listen to Christian radio, vote Republican, and look down my nose at everyone who doesn’t line up with my self-invented religious ideals.

» Read Mark 2:18–22

The really dedicated Jews of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees—would have fit this description pretty well. One of the things a good Pharisee did was fast twice a week. In the Old Testament, the only time fasting was commanded was on the annual Day of Atonement, when the sins of the nation of Israel were atoned for by animal sacrifice. Any other fasting was voluntary. However, there’s a funny thing about voluntary good deeds—they end up being reshaped into moral standards by people who want to look better than others. So naturally, fasting twice a week became the sort of thing that any respectable Jew would do.

Jesus, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in perpetuating a man-made system of righteousness. He had authority over men, so he would not submit himself to their arbitrary rules. His fellow Jews became concerned about this, and they asked him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Like any good rabbi, Jesus responded to their question with a question of his own: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Jesus leaves no doubt that he is the bridegroom in this analogy. Weddings were a big deal in that culture; they were a time of feasting and celebration and joy. No one—not even the most austere rabbi—would ever fast during a wedding feast! So Jesus can answer his own question, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”

That’s why Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to fast. The practice of fasting is not a custom expressing celebration; it’s a custom expressing need. It communicates a longing for something, whether a longing for forgiveness or divine help or favor with God. Jesus says that those who truly follow him will direct their fasting toward him; they fast because they long for him to be among them and to act on their behalf. And in fact, he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” For the first time, Jesus predicts that he will be killed, and then his disciples will mourn their loss of him. Once again, they will fast. But for now, he is with them, and there is no need to fast.

Then Jesus introduces an unexpected twist. He compares the Judaism of the Pharisees to an old garment or an old wineskin. When a new patch is sewn on an old garment, it shrinks and tears the garment. When new wine is put in an old, brittle wineskin, the new wine ferments, expands, and bursts the skin. In the same way, Jesus is explaining, “You can’t just add me to your religion. I will burst it apart. You can’t keep fasting unless your fasts are directed toward me as an expression of longing for me to be with you. You have to abandon your old way of trying to please God and start following me instead.”

Jesus will not be the cherry on top of your old way of doing things. If you try to fit him into your good, moral lifestyle, he will burst it apart. He will tear your life to pieces. He doesn’t fit. Jesus insists that you identify yourself with him, that you long for him more than anything or anyone else. If you try to follow his commandments, to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, you will quickly find yourself a broken failure. Turn to him for help, submit to his authority, cry out for the Holy Spirit to empower you, and you will find the joy of being with the Bridegroom.