Today we’re reading Mark 3.
In Mark 2, which we read yesterday, Jesus told the Pharisees that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Jesus’ statement could be read to imply that he believed the Pharisees were righteous. Although nobody seems to have reached that conclusion, here at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus made it clear that he did not find the Pharisees to be righteous men. The setting was Saturday (aka “the Sabbath”) at the synagogue (v. 1). A man with a useless hand was there and the Pharisees were watching (v. 2). Makes you wonder if they saved a seat for that man near Jesus just to set him up, doesn’t it?
Verse 2 told us that they were “looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.” This statement reveals that they had already rejected Jesus and his message and were now seeking to discredit him publicly. Healing on the Sabbath would give them the weapon they needed against Christ. In the days of Moses, God commanded his people to stone a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath day (Num 15:32-41). That’s a pretty strict definition of “work.” It suggests that “work” meant more than just how you make a living; it meant any kind of productive physical activity. To prevent anyone from exerting themselves, then, the rabbis defined how much physical activity a person could have. They even went so far as to restrict how many steps you could walk on the Sabbath day.
If someone were wounded on the Sabbath and needed to stop the bleeding, or put their shoulder back into the socket, it would be done without any thought that the Sabbath law had been violated. But this man had been without the use of his hand for a while, so his situation hardly qualified as an emergency. Regardless, Jesus felt that relieving his suffering would be a positive way to celebrate the Sabbath, not a violation of the commandment (v. 4). So, Christ healed the man, though it is noteworthy that the man did all the “work” by extending his hand. Jesus used divine, miraculous power to restore him, not any kind of human physical activity. But the Pharisees were incensed by Jesus’ healing, so much so that they began “to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (v. 6). Their response showed that they not truly zealous for God and his holiness. Their “obedience” to God’s law was about making themselves look righteous for their scrupulous observance. It was also about controlling others, getting everyone in the community to conform to their application of scripture.
Imagine how much better this man’s life instantly was the moment that Jesus healed him. If there was any pain in his shriveled hand, that pain was instantly relieved. If he wasn’t in pain, he certainly had to work harder than everyone else to do basic life tasks. How much longer did it take him to dress himself? How much harder was it to earn a living with one hand that was useless? What would it mean to him to be able to pick up his child for the first time since that kid was a baby? Jesus could have waited until Sunday to fix his hand but why should he? The Sabbath command was given to make people rest so that they didn’t work themselves to death out of envy or fear of starvation. Wouldn’t it be less work to have two good hands on the Sabbath day than just the one? God also commanded observance of the Sabbath to give humanity space in their lives to worship him. Do you think this man ever worshipped God more fervently than he did on the Sabbath when he was healed? By healing the man on the Sabbath, then, Jesus broke the manmade rules created by the rabbis. At the same time, he allowed the man to fulfill the intentions God had for the Sabbath law in the first place. The miracle Jesus performed in this passage accomplished many good things. It showed his deep compassion, displayed his unlimited power as God, and asserted his Lordship over the Sabbath. But it also confronted the ways in which the self-righteous Pharisees used their application of God’s laws to control others.
My church background growing up was very good. I learned God’s word, was reached by God’s good news, and discipled in the faith pretty well. But there were some pretty strong legalistic streaks in all that goodness, too. Under the guise of modesty, what we wore was strictly defined. That was especially true for the girls. There were also clear criteria for what kind of music was “worshipful” and what kind was worldly. There were colleges that were approved of, some that were tolerated, and the rest were off-limits. I could go on. Sometimes these rules were given as genuine applications of scripture. The problem was that these “applications” were then treated as if they were the commandments and principles of scripture. Too often it felt like the leaders wanted to control us more than they wanted us to draw close to God. The Pharisees were not concerned with the worship of the shriveled-hand man; they wanted to use him to neutralize Jesus and control God’s people. I’ve met Christians who do much of the same thing. They forbid anything they don’t like by labeling it as a violation of some command or other from God’s word. When people are controlled in this way, always worried about whether others will approve of their outfit or their actions or whatever, they have little mental or spiritual space left to focus on worshipping and pleasing God.
Applying God’s word is a good thing and clarifying how to apply it can be helpful. But don’t ever act as if your application of scripture is scripture itself. Instead, remember the goal is to live a life that glorifies God. If the Pharisees had been focused on that, they could have rejoiced with the man as his body was made whole again. Don’t make the same mistake.