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.

Jesus loves the wrong people (Mark 2:13–17)

One of the great joys of the Internet is the ability to access endless reams of useless information, such as an incredible list of Yogi Berra quotes. Of course, some of them are real, and some are fake, so you can’t believe everything you read. As Yogi himself put it, “I didn’t say everything I said.”

If you’re still reading this and haven’t yet fluttered off to Google in search of more Yogiisms, I really appreciate it.

One of the classic Yogi quotes is this gem: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Well, we all know that vague, unsettling feeling that somehow we’ve been here or done this before. That sense of déjà vu is what we should be getting when we read Mark 2:13–17. Here, we find Jesus passing alongside the Sea of Galilee. He sees a man hard at work and tells him, “Follow me.” The man drops what he’s doing and immediately follows Jesus.

Sound familiar? That’s how Jesus called his first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James, and John. When he did it the first time, nobody really minded. Sure, it was a little odd for a rabbi to seek out his followers and not vice versa. And it was a little odd for a rabbi to choose grown men already devoted to a particular line of work. However, nobody seemed too offended by it. Maybe the people of Capernaum were proud that this sensational teacher had hand-picked some of their own to be his followers.

As proud as they were then, they sure must be upset now. This time, Jesus has chosen a man named Levi—a tax collector. Now, in American culture, nobody is really a fan of tax collectors. In fact, a man made headlines recently for crashing a small airplane into an IRS office building in Austin, Texas. Most people, however, won’t get too mad at someone for being an IRS agent.

The difference between American tax collectors in the present day and Jewish tax collectors in the first century was the degree of corruption. Most IRS employees are just doing their job. However, tax collectors in Jesus’ time were well-known for overcharging, for skimming off the top, for essentially running a crime syndicate. Worse yet, they worked for the hated Roman oppressors; most Jews viewed them not only as thieves but as traitors. They were treated as outcasts from Jewish society; anyone who associated with them was considered to be defiled. So naturally, the only companions of a tax collector were prostitutes and other “sinners” who were fellow outcasts. Jesus’ countrymen probably would have loathed tax collectors and their ilk to the same degree that we loathe inner-city gang members.

So, of course, Jesus picks one of these scoundrels to follow him. Then he throws a party and invites all of Levi’s disgusting friends.

The religious teachers, who serve as the conscience of the community, are not happy. They already got ticked off the other day because Jesus claimed to have authority to forgive sins, which is something only God can do. Now, this man—who had seemed so much like the Messiah!—is not behaving like even a respectable Jew ought to behave. Something must be done about this rogue teacher. They corner a few of his disciples and question them, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” You can almost hear the contempt dripping from their mouths. And who can blame them? These sinners are absolutely rotten; they’ve gotten rich by cheating and stealing money from poor villagers, making a lot of people in Capernaum utterly miserable. These are sick people whom Jesus is treating like friends.

Jesus hears that the religious leaders are upset at him. Their attitude bothers him so much that he steps outside the house to confront them. He doesn’t apologize for what he’s doing; and he certainly doesn’t try to convince them that deep down inside, these tax collectors and sinners are basically good people. They aren’t. And that’s the point. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus explains. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus has come for one group of people: sinners. Broken people. Scum of the earth. If you’re not in that category, then Jesus isn’t really interested in you. If you do fit that description, then Jesus wants you to drop your old way of life, trust him, and follow him. He isn’t ashamed to be seen with you. Your sin is not holding him back from asking you to be with him; it’s the very reason why he’s calling you. Jesus is in the business of rescuing sinners. If you’re a sinner, this is really, really good news.

If you’re not a sinner, then this is really, really offensive news. It means that Jesus doesn’t want to be around you. It means that Jesus isn’t interested in calling you to follow him. It means that Jesus is going to pass you by and call people that disgust you. He will love them, he will throw a party for them, and you’ll be left outside—cynical, bitter, and fuming.

Do you want to know Jesus and understand his love? Open your eyes and see the truth: you are a sinner. You are dirty, rotten, revolting, and sick. Then you’ll see that Jesus has come for you.