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.