Posts Tagged ‘Pharisees’

The literary structure of Mark 3 1-6

We’re back in Mark today, finishing up the section – five stories of conflict. Here is the handout that shows how these five stories are interconnected in various ways. I’ll just mention two:

  • All five have to do with Jesus facing opposition to his displays of authority, especially from Jewish leaders.
  • And in the very middle, in the parables of the new and the old, Jesus makes the point that with his coming things change. New wine is for new wineskins.

And the fourth story and ours today, the fifth one – both have to do with the new of Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath. In both he claims the authority to define proper Sabbath observance, even if it goes against human traditions.

Our story today is quite interesting. It’s about a worship service that involves conflict, Jesus getting angry, a healing miracle and deadly scheming. Let’s work our way through this passage to see what’s going on and also to see what we can learn.

The story

1Again he entered the synagogue and a man was there with a withered hand.

It says “again” because it was a common pattern for Jesus to go to synagogues to share his message of the kingdom (1:21).

It isn’t clear what condition the man with the withered hand had. The word “withered” can also be translated deformed, shriveled or paralyzed. In any case, it was more than just a medical need. In the culture of that day, where most did manual labor, he would likely have been reduced to begging. Also there was a stigma attached, in that he would not have been allowed to worship at the temple in Jerusalem due to his deformity (Leviticus 21:18-20).

2And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.

The “they” are the Pharisees, carrying over from the previous story. In this previous story they have already argued with Jesus about proper Sabbath observance.

And surely they knew that Jesus has already cast out a demon on the Sabbath in the synagogue (1:21-28). And perhaps they knew that he healed Peter’s mother-in-law in Peter’s home on the Sabbath (1:29-31). So this must have seemed to them like a perfect trap! Here is Jesus on the Sabbath and also there’s a man with a withered hand. Of course Jesus will do something!

Now, the Pharisees’ were looking to “accuse him.”That is, to bring up official charges against Jesus. And this was a serious thing. As Exodus 31:14 – says, “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” This is in the background as the Pharisees look for evidence against him.

Can I just say here – what a crazy worship service!! First of all, can you imagine going each week and wondering what in the world Jesus might do? Or secondly, being in this service watching as the leaders try to find grounds to kill the visiting speaker! That’s what’s going on here.

Now, the Sabbath was important to all Jews, including Jesus, who observed it. >But there wasn’t universal agreement among the different Jewish groups on the details of how to observe it. Just as we saw last time – the question is: What constitutes work on the Sabbath? And Scripture says very little about this.

The Pharisees believed that Jesus’ healing was work. And although they made allowances for medical treatment if the life of a person was in danger, this wasn’t the case here. In their view, Jesus could easily wait until the next day to heal this man. Their attitude is summed up by a synagogue ruler in Luke 13:14, who said, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

3And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.”

This poor guy must have known about the tension. I’m sure you could feel it in the room. And here he’s getting drawn into it. So his response to Jesus is an act of faith. He’s getting in the middle of things, both figuratively and also literally. I say literally, because the phrase “come here” can also be translated – “stand up in the middle.” This has to do with how synagogues were typically built at this time. There were rows of seats along the outside and people on mats as well, and the middle was open. So the man is being called to stand up in the middle of the room so all can see him.

4And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.

First of all, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, not all who are present. For many there would be just common people, like the man with the withered hand.

Jesus is making a basic point: It’s lawful to do good and to save or the word can also be translated, restore life on the Sabbath. (The word “save” often means “to make whole” in a healing context – Mark 5:28, 34; 6:56; 10:52). (Jesus is disagreeing here with the oral law of the Pharisees, not Moses).

Jesus is saying we are to do good every; we are to love our neighbor every day, not just on certain days. He’s saying, it is in fact lawful, or in accord with Moses, to love your neighbor on the Sabbath. The love command is not suspended on the Sabbath. So Jesus has a different understanding of the Sabbath. It should be observed, and observed with mercy toward others.

But beyond this, for Jesus, the Sabbath is the perfect time to heal someone, since a part of what it’s all about is celebrating the goodness and wholeness of the original creation. And with Jesus, his healing on the Sabbath represents the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, or the new creation; the Sabbath rest of the eternal kingdom. This is to be a day of freedom and joy.

The negative part of Jesus’ question is directed at the Pharisees. He’s saying it’s not lawful to seek to harm and kill on the Sabbath. He knew what they were thinking (Luke 6:8), trying to accuse him of a capital crime. So Jesus draws out the contrast. He is doing good and restoring life on the Sabbath. They are scheming to harm and kill him on the Sabbath. He makes known their intentions. And this is why they’re silent.

Throughout this episode, Jesus is attempting to get them to listen to God and see what God is doing, even being provocative to do this. This is the only place in Mark where Jesus initiates a healing without being asked or approached. Jesus is attempting to get them to listen to God. But they spurn him. They remain in a position of hostility toward him and what he represents.

5And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart . . .

Jesus was angry. We see Jesus angry at various points in the gospels, usually at the religious leaders. But this is the only time that Jesus is said to be angry. (And interestingly, Matthew and Luke do not include this remark.) Jesus was also deeply grieved.

Why the emotions? Their hardness of heart. This language recalls Pharaoh who wouldn’t listen to God (Exodus 7-8), and also Israel who spurned the message of the prophets (Jeremiah 7:24).  Jesus was upset because they wouldn’t listen to God.

. . . and (he) said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The man once more shows faith in Jesus. He does what Jesus says. He stretches out his hand, and he is healed.

6The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Again, the Pharisees are seeking to harm and kill Jesus – on the Sabbath. They “went out and immediately held counsel . . ..”

They speak with the Herodians, apparently a political group that supported Herod Antipas in Galilee, the one who arrested John the Baptist and later killed him. These two groups were very different, but they had a common enemy – Jesus.

In the last phrase of our story, we find the first mention of Jesus being killed in the gospel. It’s been alluded to (they charged him with a capital offense in 2:7 and Jesus speaks of when he will be “taken away” from the disciples), but this is the first explicit reference to what’s to come.

Let’s end with –

Some questions

– that come out of this story that challenge us.

1. Are you living according to the new wine that Jesus teaches? In this case he’s teaching about the Sabbath. And he’s saying, the Sabbath is the perfect day to do good to those in need.

 As we saw in the story just before this, Sabbath practices should take into account caring for human need. And Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath has the authority to change whatever traditions get in the way of this. This certainly gives guidance to Jesus’ Jewish followers, and should be applied by any Gentile followers of Jesus who keep the Sabbath or Sunday as a holy day. This is a part of the new wine for new wineskins (Mark 2:22) that Jesus teaches.

2. Are you ever hardhearted? In this story it’s the Pharisees who won’t listen to what God is saying through Jesus. But in other stories it’s the disciples who are called hard-hearted (Mark 6:52; 8:17). They don’t receive what Jesus is trying to say to them.

So this is a danger for us as disciples as well. We can be hard hearted. Jesus always challenges our views on things – our deeply held beliefs, values and traditions. When he does do we stop listening because we don’t like what he’s saying? Or like the Pharisees do we get stubborn or even hostile? When there’s a conflict between Jesus and our views, will we go with Jesus or our cherished ideas?

I ask you this morning – where is God speaking to you? What issue is he dealing with in your life? I think we all know where God is pushing us to grow in our Christian lives. Are you listening?

3. Are you here with a need? Are you like the man with the withered hand? Maybe you have a withered soul; you are broken within.

Perhaps Jesus is calling to you to act in faith. The man stood up in the middle of everyone and then stretched out his hand. What might Jesus be calling you to do to act in faith?

Jesus is here with us in this worship service today, to do good and to save.  You know that right? And he can minister to your need. Come to him this morning. Do what he tells you, and see what will happen in your life. See what good thing he will do. See what salvation he will bring.

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Our message is entitled “On washing dishes. Transformation begins within and works its way out.” Out text comes from Matthew 23:25-26, if you would like to turn in your bibles. I want to share on this today and also next week, because Jesus is making two overlapping points, simultaneously. So we will look at the first today and the second, next week, Lord willing.

The whole of Matthew 23 is a scathing rebuke of the Scribes and Pharisees. It’s very intense! In this section of the chapter Jesus is pronouncing seven woes against them, and this is the fifth one, and it starts with a focus ritual purity. Now ritual purity is not a topic that non-Jews like us understand very well. Mark, however, helps us out a bit in 7:3-4 of his Gospel. He says, parenthetically, For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches. – Mark 7:3-4

This is not about good hygiene, or physical cleanliness, it’s about ritual or ceremonial purity before God. God is pure and if you want to be acceptable to God you need to be pure. And so you don’t want to be defiled by unclean things. The Old Testament has a number of instructions about this (e.g. Leviticus 11:32-38) and the Pharisees added many more such regulations, called here “the tradition of the elders.” With this background in mind, let’s look at our verses –

25Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Our passage has to do with washing dishe or at least that’s where it begins. But as usual with issues of ritual purity and impurity, Jesus turns the discussion into one about moral purity and impurity (as in Matthew 15).

The text turns on a fundamental difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in terms of the relationship between the inside and the outside and  where one should focus between the two to be pleasing to God. From the point of view of –

The Pharisees

The problem is an outer one, defilement from external sources. It could be things – like touching a dead body, or people – close contact with sinners, tax collectors and Gentiles.The solution is to regulate outward behavior to ensure separation from defilement. You need to be clear about what can be touched or not. And if there is contamination, which water rituals are needed to get rid of the impurity. The goal is to be clean and acceptable to God by being externally pure in these ways.

If you ask the Pharisees, this is the key to renewal among the people of God. And it includes how you wash your dishes to maintain ritual purity.


– for his part, rejected the traditions of the elders that the Pharisees added to Mosaic teaching, but he is not saying that Jews should not follow Moses. He is rather trying to get them to see that they have a wrong focus. They are fixated on lesser things.

The real problem is an inner one – an evil heart. In Matthew 15:11 he says, “it is not what goes into the mouth (from the outside) that defiles a person (morally), but what comes out of the mouth (from the inside); this defiles a person.” He goes on in Matthew 15:18-19 to say, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Human hearts are full of sin and are thus morally impure. And so Jesus’ focus in v. 26 in our passage is on “the inside.”

The solution is a clean heart. Cleaning the outside by being ritually pure does not reach into the heart to deal with the moral impurity that is there, for instance, greed and self-indulgence, which Jesus highlights regarding the Pharisees.

The heart has to be changed. Jesus said in Matthew 12:33-35. Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.

He is saying, make the tree good and it’s fruit will be good. If you have a good treasure in your heart, what comes out, your words will be good. As the heart goes, so goes our words and deeds. Make the inside right and the outside will become right.

So that’s why Jesus says in v. 26 of our passage, “First, clean the inside . . . that (in order that) the outside also may be clean.” First, begin within and if you begin within, the outside will follow.

The goal is to be clean and acceptable to God, not by a rigorous focus on outward ritual purity, but by having a  new heart that brings forth right behavior. Jesus is specifically talking about his core message, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:17. We repent by turning away from our moral evil. And then we receive the blessings of the kingdom – salvation – forgiveness for our sins and the Holy Spirit, who comes within and gives us a new heart. (As promised by Ezekiel 36:25-27)

If you ask Jesus, this is what will bring renewal and salvation to the people of God, the coming of the kingdom that he brings.

Jesus’ point to the Pharisees

As I said, this passage can be read in two ways. Today our focus is on how the dishes represent the Pharisees. The parallel to our verses in Luke 11:39 confirms this reading when it says, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” He’s not talking just about dishes here anymore.

Jesus is saying, You look great on the outside. You are ritually pure beyond what even Moses taught and you look morally pure too (although what is in the heart always slips out here and there – Matthew 6:2-4, etc.). But inside your hearts are full of moral evil – here he talks about greed and self-indulgence. And your focus on the outside will never fix this. First, clean your hearts from these evils, and then right behavior will follow; a new heart will fix it. And you will be truly clean and acceptable to God.

The message for us

As people, we struggle with things like “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” as Jesus talks about in Matthew 15, and more, because our hearts are evil too. And this evil defiles us before God so that we can’t be in relationship with God, who is pure.

The message for us is don’t be like the Pharisees and focus on what is external, thinking that this will bring internal change. Because we are just dealing with the symptom of the problem, not the root of the problem – our evil hearts. The answer is a new heart within, which we find through repentance and the reception of a new heart by the Spirit of God working within us. This happens when we first become believers, bu it is also a life-long journey of dying to those parts of us that lead us to sin and finding new life and the Spirit makes us new more and more.

Real change begins within and then moves outward to transform our behavior. Deal with the root and the fruit will follow. [Now, none of this means that outward discipline is not needed in our struggle against sin and in our desire to live godly lives. As long as this is coming from a changed heart and not trying to create a changed heart it is normal and good.]

Next week we will look at how our dishes and closets and houses and cars and whatever else we own – can be clean and acceptable before God.

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